Tony Season

I have a confession to make. As a theatre artist in NYC, who’s been involved in theatre for most of my life, it’s rather shameful.

I have not intentionally watched the Tony Awards since 2012. I have not even been tempted.

In all honesty, when the Tony’s come around, I feel a mild sense of burn out and guilt that I’m not more excited.

Not to say that I am not over the moon for the familiar faces and names. I scour the nomination list in the NY Times, and I look up the winners the next day. I squeal to see colleagues, friends, mentors, even the kid I babysat have their names up in lights.

A Juilliard grad I worked with won a few years back. I caught that clip when the bar I was in changed the channel on the screen. I screamed to see him accept the award and laugh myself to tears remembering how I had creatively threatened him into being on time for rehearsals (with only moderate success).

But I have no interest in watching the awards show. I avoid social media the day of and after because the hype around it always annoys me, it gets under my skin in a way that I have never been able to name.

It’s not jealousy, I know envy and how it tightens my shoulders and sends a lead weight straight to my intestines.

This is itchy. It’s an irritant, like a wool sweater that doesn’t fit.

This year, the kid I babysat, (who is now 19 and no longer a kid), was part of the cast that won Best Play. His posts and photos show a glowing face and the awe of someone who is young and achieving their dreams. He’s in shock. Another winner worked at my company when he became Equity. I filled out the paperwork and contracts to make him a union actor. Now he’s a Tony winner in a show that he tells us changed his life and helped him celebrate his identity. His smile might break his face in two.

And suddenly I realized why it is I have such a physical and visceral reaction to the Tony’s.

This isn’t my dream. It never has been.

As a theatre artist, a stage manager, and a producer, this is supposed to be the goal. The award and party you are always working towards in everything that you do. And I’ve discovered that I genuinely do not care if I never get to see a Tony Award up close. It is not my dream. I would not have the same glow as those people I care about and celebrate.

So what does that look like? Is this the post where I publicly denounce my undergrad degree and walk away from the industry that I’ve been connected to my entire life?

Of course not.

But as I’ve come to terms with my life patterns shifting, I do know one thing. I have gotten involved in theatre and the arts, not for awards or glory, but for the people. The best people I have known are people I have met through art and theatre. The people who inspire me, who taught me to hustle, who give me such amazing stories to tell, are artists, are people who have dedicated their craft to the theatre in all its forms, including the Tony’s.

But it is time to change direction. If Broadway has never held much appeal to me, why I am so dedicated to living in New York? If I don’t care about the Tony’s, what do I care about?

I care about people. I care about making people smile, changing lives, changing perspectives, I care about taking care of people, about learning new things, about being challenged, about problem-solving, and about having fun in my work.

I care far less about a statue and national recognition than I do about the about the ice cream cake, bad jokes, and homecooked meal my company put together for my birthday this year. There are photos of me nearly in tears surrounded by these once-strangers from all over the world who went out of their way to spoil me (before once again driving me crazy about 10 minutes later).

And I’m sorry, but pretending to my south Indian crew that Tres Leches is an American cake (they were so proud of themselves for finding an American sweet for my birthday!) will always rank high on my happiest and proudest moments.

So while I love New York, and recognize it will always be home, I don’t think I love New York theatre. And that’s okay.

So one step at a time, to a new path, a new adjustment, and another global experience. Or at least defining what that looks like.

In the meantime, to all the Tony winners, nominees, and dreamers; Congratulations on achieving and being one step closer to your dreams. I am always so proud to share a city with you dreamers.

 

Xx

Changes

Life changes quite rapidly, have you noticed?

When I last posted, I had made decisions about the next six months of my life. I everything planned out and had a future in mind. The only variables were the boy I had just met and grad school looming in the future. It was going to be a wonderful and structured summer. I knew where my life was going and what was happening.

Then on a whim I rented a car and drove up to Pittsfield, Massachusetts to see a new musical I had been involved in years ago. I told none of my friends or former colleagues I was coming. It was just a spur of the moment trip. I also thought it would be fun to surprise them if things looked quiet in the office.

I stop to pick up flowers as I cross into town and finally check my phone that had been on silent the last three hours. Something close to 16 missed messages. 5 from my former boss/mentor and the rest from my good friend, and his current assistant. They had seen my name on the house report, was I really coming to see the show? Where was I? Was I here yet?

Then the two that would change everything.

“Do you want my job?” (This is an old joke as her former intern. I laughed to myself and didn’t respond)

“No, I’m serious this time. I just gave notice…”

I walk into the office and am promptly picked up and deposited in her chair. “See ?”she says, “I fixed the problem!” After more chaos and hellos from old friends and colleagues, I sit down with my mentor. I ask if he’s serious about this all. And while he’s still wrapping his mind around her departure, he’s serious. If I want the job, it’s mine. He’ll be putting out a search in the coming weeks, I should expect a call.

“Weeks” becomes one, we have an informal chat about what this would mean and the actual duties of the job. He’s interviewing two others, I’m still first choice if I want it. I won’t hear from him for about a week or so.

It’s less than 24 hours when he calls back with an offer. What’s my decision?

I remember being in my office in New York, between Madison and 5th avenues. I’m doing well, by all definitions I’m successful. But this job isn’t the one I want. It’s barely in the field I want to be in. I look around at my framed pictures and bulletin boards and folders of materials for the incoming students and suddenly feel trapped and stifled. The chains of academia suddenly are a crushing weight on my aspirations.

So before I barely think the words. Yes. Yes, I’ll take it. Send me a contract and we’ll begin negotiations for my arrival in Massachusetts.

My boss arrives several hours later. I give notice at the end of the day. I have done many scary and crazy things. Giving notice at Syracuse University still may be one of the scariest things I’ve done so far.

And somehow, I float on my way to dinner with an old friend. Who nearly drops his laptop in his shock at the sudden turnabout.

The weight was gone. And I had two weeks to pack up my life and try starting a new one.

So here we are in the Berkshires, helping run a theater company. My mentor/boss and I share looks and laughter over our desks of how utterly insane we are to be here and the utter insanity we deal with on a regular basis. But every night, the show goes on, the beautiful moments happen, and we make some art and make some difference.

And it makes all the difference.

 

First Impressions

For anyone who has ever done Summer Stock Theatre, the terms “company manager” and “change over weekend” come accompanied by a wince and gratitude towards the crazy men and women who willingly elect to become the temporary parents for hundreds of actors/interns/staff/etc. and steer the ship through the chaos of 24 hour work calls. Or shudders of horror in recollecting those who were not up to the task.

If you haven’t done Summer Stock Theatre, take pride in your sanity. Imagine a small town in the middle of nowhere with just a theater as the major attraction, maybe there’s a lake or mountain if you’re lucky. You hire and drive/fly/train/bus 300-500 theatre professionals for three to five months, stick them in rental houses with roommates and shared rental cars and hope for the best. There are anywhere from 10 to 30 events that happen in this small time span, plus parties to celebrate all of them, all of which are under the watchful eyes of rich donors, patrons, and members of the board of directors for the theater.

Imagine everything that could possibly happen in those three months, never mind go wrong, and you have a rough estimate of Summer Stock and only an inkling of what it means to be a company manager for these crazy circuses.

Unsurprisingly to anyone, I spent two years on a company management team. The two women heading the team are the best company managers I have ever met, and even they had a fifth of whisky in their shared desk by July.

It was the end of July and in the span of 36 hours we had 56 people departing the theater for their real lives and 26 arriving for the final show of the summer. People had to be driven to airports, train stations, bus stations, with massive amount of luggage in tow. The open rooms had to be flipped (cleaned) to return rental houses to owners or prepare for their new tenants arriving. The tech crew was working in overnight shifts to take down one set and put in another, we had to coordinated 4 meals for them and keep caffeine and water flowing.

We made a plan. We practiced the plan. If we kept to the plan, it was all easy. We even had 6 hours each to sleep! We all had copies of the plan in our back pocket. We started at midnight on Saturday. By 8am Sunday, I was picking up a group headed to bus station when I heard a noise downstairs. The boiler in our biggest house looked as though it had been stabbed and there was a foot of boiling water in the basement.

And there goes the plan!

I am calling everyone on my team while tossing luggage into my car. I get the first group on their bus and turn around to take the second group to the train station. An actress felt bad about the mess she left behind and decided to run the dishwasher to help us. I arrive in time to watch mountains of suds ooze across the linoleum. I’m covered in suds and shoving laundry to catch the water when my boss arrives with our handy man in tow. I grab the actors leaving with me and drive the hour to the train with soap still in my hair while my boss tries to salvage the plan.

I have a lovely breath of silence on my ride back. I return with refills of supplies and to the team being mostly back on track. It’s only a few hours of work later when the company phone rings.

The AC unit in a lead actor’s apartment unit is missing. His contract requires one. We have one window unit left in storage. I am handed the unit and off again to the next town over where he’s staying.

He is a charming, older actor who has been working at this theatre company almost since its inception. He’s a favorite among the staff so I’ve heard plenty about him though this is our first time meeting. He offers to lend me a hand as I work to install the unit in his room, which I readily accept. We’ve got it settled in the windowsill when I reach up to close the window to secure it. And watch him let go of the unit. As our last AC unit tumbles out of the window towards the asphalt below, I am struck with the horror of how this is going to end. The unit will smash, I will have to interrupt the plan once more to track down the petty cash to buy a new one, assuming we can find any left in stores this late in the summer, and there will be an additional layer of chaos tossed into our already maddening stretch. I don’t remember making any decision or choosing to act, I just remembering thinking “No!” before diving out the window to catch the unit by the electrical cord.

The world stopped, stunned for a second at the sight of a tiny 22 year old girl dangling out of a second story window clinging to the cord of an AC unit suspended maybe a foot above the pavement below.

Not knowing how to break the stillness I uttered the obvious. “I caught it.” The laughter that roared out of my companion was enough to shake the house.

He went outside to the ground level to help pass it back up so I could haul it back into the window. We successfully secured the unit in the window, and made sure it worked before both of us collapsed again into laughter.

We made it through the rest of the changeover weekend. The end of the 36 hours stretch was created with whisky toasts and an immediate collapse into our beds.

The summer continued as normal. The story of the crazy intern and the AC Unit spread through the company. I was given a helmet in case I felt like diving through any more windows.

The summer ends and we all go back to our regular lives in cities across the country. We all stay in touch and laugh over our misadventures this summer. We see that our old favorite actor will be performing over the winter. Of course we have to go see him.

We meet him backstage and he is overjoyed to see us. He introduces my friend and I as the best company management team he has ever seen. He winks at me before continuing, “And I have a great story to prove it…”

First impressions die hard, but they often leave behind great stories.

Kevin Bacon Challenge

There’s a running joke among my friends. I can beat Kevin Bacon, with me it’s not Six Degrees of Separation, it’s two. Maybe.

It gets rather ridiculous. With the existence of social media, it’s worse than ever before.

The final straw for a friend of mine happened at a random fundraising event we were invited to attend. The event director was an actor who I’d missed by mere weeks when we were both seasonal employees at a theatre company. After his departure, his headshot was pasted in every dressing room as a joke. I recognized him instantly. We’re now friends on Facebook and run into each other everywhere.

So a challenge was laid forth. I had to top the ridiculous instances of connection with mere strangers. I had to find a story of two degrees of separation that involved a dog, only the dog.

She was rather displeased to find I already had one.

My final year of school, I interned at a costume shop as an assistant to the head costumer. I spent weeks in a basement surrounded by clothing from any time period you could imagine, sorting, cleaning, cataloging, and preparing paperwork for designers. My favorite moments were when designers would come in to discuss the pieces that had to be built from scratch. Hours would be spent poring over watercolor sketches trying to match fabrics and discuss silhouettes. Bolts upon bolts of fabric would be brought out, it was always exciting, colorful, and the heart of the creative process, taking the idea and figuring out how to bring it to life. Many of these designers had small dogs that they would bring along. You could always tell when the dog had been around the costume shop before. There was one who came in several times, a snooty french bulldog named Paul. He would walk into each dressing room and sneeze before sticking up his nose and walking out. Twice I was sorting costumes when he made his rounds. I had never felt so judged by a dog before. When his owner began comparing fabric, he would roll his eyes and stomp over to his traveling crate until she finished. His precise judgement, eye rolls, and general behaviors were hysterical to watch. His owner was close friends with my boss (as well as incredibly talented and working on a large show that season), because of this, I got to watch Paul roll his eyes at our staff every week while I was working there.

Fast forward over two and a half years later. I’m working at a different regional theatre in a different state, nearly two hundred miles away. I’m now in the management office, I’m the apprentice to the Managing Director. Instead of costumes and watercolor sketches, my day-to-day now involves contracts and tax forms. I’m working in my shared office in an ancient house turned office building when I hear the soft click of nails on hard wood. There’s a familiar looking french bulldog that has somehow wandered into our office. He raises a judgmental eyebrow at the artistic office across the hall. In surprise, “Paul?”, slips out of my mouth before I have put it all together. The dog is as surprised as I am, clicks his way over to my desk before rolling his eyes and extending his head (and permission) to be pet. As I reach down to pet him, I hear the thud of footsteps from the other end of the hall. “Paul, what on earth are you doing here?” I ask of the dog as I check his tag to make sure, and indeed somehow this snooty dog and I have found each other again. An out of breath actor I’ve met only once hears me and runs into the room. He looks curiously at me and I look back at him just as puzzled.

“This is Jess Ford’s dog.” I say. He stares at me rather confused.

“I’m Jess Ford’s husband” is his response.

Of course. The man I heard her talking about to my old boss, about how Paul wasn’t sure if he accepted the new beau in her life. Two years ago in a costume shop miles away. Turns out he’d been in the audience for both shows I’d worked with her on, we chatted at the company parties about her designs and the shows. She came up for the opening weekend of his show and laughed hysterically when she realized that the common connection was discovered through Paul and his familiar attitude.

Two degrees of separation. It’s a thing.

The world is a tiny place.