Steven Sabel's Twist on the Trade: To have seen what I have seen…

Last month I briefly mentioned some of the outlandish experiences I have had as a producer/director and actor. As I consistently hold true, I never say I have seen it all, because that is the best way to have the theatre Fates send you something new and beyond belief. However, my column last month left readers asking for some specific awkward events of craziness, ridiculous bouts of ego, stunning unprofessional behavior, and unheard of incidents hard to believe, but nonetheless true.

I hesitate to refer to the following tales as “my favorites,' for some of them still make me shudder to retell. Some have become nothing more than humorous anecdotes – as time has a way of turning dramatic incidents into comedic episodes, especially in our industry. I will start by stating that all names have been redacted, and some details left out in order to protect the guilty.

My tales begin with triplets. Many moons ago, I was directing a production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” The actress cast as the lead, Beatrice, told us she was shooting a commercial in a European country for the first week of the 8-week rehearsal process. We worked around her until she returned. Three weeks before opening, she came to ask that all of her blocking be changed and her costumes altered to adjust for her pregnancy with triplets. It turned out that she hadn't actually been shooting a commercial, but was instead at a fertility clinic the week she was gone. She told us she accepted the role knowing she was going to be inseminated that week. In case the pregnancy didn't take, she said, she would have the role of Beatrice to work on to ease her disappointment. Despite the very high-risk nature of her now revealed triple pregnancy, and doctor's orders to stick to strict bed rest to insure the success of all three children, this actress insisted she wanted to continue in the role. Huge risk. Giant liability. Complete insanity. I replaced her.

“Postmortem,” by Ken Ludwig, is a favorite play of mine. I have done the show several times, but the first time was decades ago when I was playing the role of Bobby. Throughout the rehearsal process, we had some troubles with our leading man. Nobody was quite sure what was going on with him – hot and cold from night to night with regards to lines and blocking. On the final Friday performance of a four weekend run, I arrived to the theatre to be taken aside by the director who informed me that she thought the leading man “might have been drinking.”

He was plastered! He could barely speak coherently. He was staggering around backstage, and hugging everyone. A call to the president of the theatre organization resulted in a “show must go on” response. The stage manager brewed some strong coffee, and somebody had a box of See's Candy that they started force-feeding him to get his blood sugar up. It was a disaster. He missed his first entrance, leaving us stuck on stage to adlib. When his lines did come out, they were barely understandable. A special intermission had to be called after the first scene. He started getting angry. He accused us all of sabotaging his performance, before we realized that in his drunken mind, he was doing and saying everything perfectly…. I laugh about it now, but it was a nightmare when it happened.

Alcohol has been a culprit in a few instances in my book of tales. Once I had two actresses leave the theatre in the middle of the performance to go to the bar next door to tie one on together. They came back tipsy and sloppy, and then caused another actor to miss his entrance due to their distracting antics back stage. It is never a good idea to leave the theater in the middle of a performance, even if your scenes are all completed or your character is dead. “I'll come back in time for curtain call” can be famous last words. I once had an actor find himself locked out of the building. He had to wave through the door to catch the attention of actors on the stage to send someone around to unlock the door for him.

Then there was that time an actress actually left mid-performance to finish a phone call that had made her nearly an hour late to call time in the first place. Apparently a guy who knew a guy who worked with a guy who knew a guy who once saw Steven Spielberg in a crowded room wanted to introduce her to the guy who knew this guy. She directly told her fellow actors they would have to take over her lines in the further scenes of the play, and out the door she went to take advantage of this “tremendous opportunity.” No word on her upcoming roles in any Spielberg films….

Another locked door in a nontraditional venue once caused one of my actors to have to run around the entire building to the other side to make his entrance. He came on anxious and out of breath, and it was beautiful to see how realistic the response was from the other actors when he arrived in this condition from the wrong side of the stage. It reminds me of that episode of “Slings and Arrows.”

I once had an actor wear a baseball cap onto the stage during the final dress rehearsal of a classical production at an outdoor venue, because he “was cold” and couldn't find the actual hat he had been given to wear by the costume team. Another time, an actor misplaced his boots, and wore his tennis shoes on stage for an actual performance.

I've seen costume failures galore. Falling dresses and skirts, flying wigs, blown out boot heels, split trousers (it's happened twice to me on stage), uncooperative coats, capes, and cloaks – the list is long. Yet my favorite costume fail of all time is from a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” when the two leads found their costumes literally linked together after the final kiss of the balcony scene. Parting was no sweet sorrow. They couldn't part at all - completely unable to pull themselves apart when his doublet clasp hooked on the laces of her bodice, it seemed to take forever for them to get unhinged. We all came unhinged watching it unfold before us! Hysterical.

From costumes to props. This leads to another classic Sabelism: Props Hate People!

I've worked with some props: A full size guillotine for a production of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” real cars and motorcycles driven onto the stage for various productions, swords and weapons of a wide variety, food of many types, and a giant life-sized trolley for “Meet Me In St. Louis.” Rubber tires were a bad idea. They became a terrible idea when one burst on the stage directly in front of a floor mic, that was a giant boom, and then trolley had to be dragged off the stage by the cast and crew.

I've had blood effects spray the crowd when we didn't want them to. I've had black powder flash pots smoke and smolder, and clear the entire audience in coughing fits. I've had guns that wouldn't fire, and swords broken at the hilt. There have been doors that refused to open, doors that wouldn't stay shut, pictures that have fallen off of walls, and walls that have fallen down. Once I had two actors get so into a combat sequence, one of them literally put a hole in the back wall of the theater with his rump.

Through 128 productions and more than 25 years as a producer/director, I have worked with more than 2,000 actors – technically a small sampling, when you consider you can throw a baseball in this town and easily hit 2,000 actors in one shot. This is why I know I have yet to see it all, but I sure have seen a lot. This is just a scratch on the surface of the tales of what I have seen. Stay tuned for next month's column: “To See What I have Seen: The Auditions.” I think I'll lead with the guy with the banana…..


Sherman Wayne, at 83, Shows No Signs of Slowing Down

Article written by Julie Feinstein Adams

Sherman Wayne is a lifelong participant in nearly every aspect of the production and performance of live theater, from stage management, to directing, set building, and teaching. Most famously, he was the stage manager of The Fantastiks on Broadway for five years. Wayne is 83 years old and he shows no signs of slowing down.

Currently, he is all-hands-in-all-pots at Theatre Palisades production of CLYBOURNE PARK, having built the set, wrangled volunteers to help change it at intermission (five people are needed to transform the entire set from the 1950s to the 2000s at intermission for each performance), co-producing the show (with Martha Hunter), AND stepping in as director when Tony Torrisi fell ill with pneumonia and was hospitalized, also while two actors had to be replaced — just two weeks before opening night!

“The other day I came here at 10 o'clock in the morning because my lighting man is here and I want to talk to him about lighting." he says as he describes a typical day during rehearsals. "And I left here at 11 o'clock at night after rehearsal, which means I got stuff out of the refrigerator, cooked up something in the microwave.”

“I'm very lucky. Knock on wood!" he adds. "I've had my problems (with my health), but I've been able to overcome them. I moved from Torrance to the Palisades, so I didn't have to take the 405. I live about a half a block down the street from the theater now. I walk here which makes it much easier. I'm the kind of guy that says if you do it, you do it. I said I would build the set. And I told Tony I would cover for him. So that's what I did.”

When asked about the challenge of the set change in the script, Wayne says: “The way the play is written, the set is a very nice house in the Chicago suburbs in 1959. It gets abandoned, and 50 years later, a couple is trying to buy it, but it's gone to heck! And so, during the intermission, we have to change a nice set to one that's been basically destroyed by squatters or graffiti or whatever. And it's a big job because the author really wants a major change — so both houses are characters in the show!”

When Wayne came to Theatre Palisades, he was looking to direct, but when he was not chosen for that particular play, he offered to build sets instead. Over time, he has built nearly all of the sets, roughly 45 sets in 15 years, and has directed many shows.

“You don't just don't direct, you are a shrink." he adds when asked about directing. "You have to handle the people and help them and encourage them. You need to be a people person!”

Wayne will also direct the next production at Theatre Palisades, LEND ME A TENOR.

Wayne came to Theatre Palisades after a long career that started in high school, where he directed a drama production and he also put on variety shows at his local church. Wayne attended college at San Jose State University, where he majored in Drama and worked as a stage manager during his four years. He also acquired a teaching certificate to ensure he “would always be able to pay the bills.”

“When I got to San Jose State, I auditioned for a show." he recalls. "I did not get it, but the director who was very pragmatic — he just was marvelous — and he wanted to know if I wanted to be a stage manager. I thought, ‘What the heck is that?' But, I did. And from then on, I became the major stage manager at San Jose State University for my four years at college. After graduation, a local director and I then opened a theatre in Sausalito where we presented musicals and plays. Unfortunately San Jose State did not have a management class in theatre, so I didn't know anything. I knew nothing! So, we failed. And then I was broke, living on the Sausalito side of San Francisco. One day, I was in a park and there was a newspaper on a bench, and in there was a help wanted ad for a drama teacher in San Francisco.”

Wayne spent a year teaching drama, but then decided to move to New York, to “see if he could compete with the ‘big boys,'” stopping along the way in Fitchburg, Massachusetts to take stage director jobs in summer stock productions, and where he also began work in set design. Once in New York, Wayne worked in several off Broadway productions and soon, nearly by luck, he was hired as stage manager for The Fantasticks, a dream gig that lasted five years.

“When I moved to New York, I worked very hard and got several jobs as a stage manager Off-Broadway. Another student and I formed a company to supply Off-Broadway producers with technical help. We would supply everything they needed, from directors through lighting people and all that stuff! So I was running around doing stage managing and running this company. Then I was in my attorney's office one day, and the attorney was being told that the general manager of The Fantasticks was being fired. And fortunately the attorney said, ‘hey, I've got a great guy, he's sitting in the lobby.' So I interviewed and got the job.”

Wayne also stage-managed several other shows on and off Broadway. Eventually he decided to move to the West Coast, where he then worked in several “round houses” such as in Anaheim, where the 3,000-seat venues usually had an audience for musicals. Next, he got a job teaching high school, a role he enjoyed for the next 25 years.

When Wayne retired from teaching, he still wanted to keep his hand in theater, which led him to Theatre Palisades.

And so, with Wayne's considerable contributions, Pulitzer-Prize-winning play CLYBOURNE PARK opened at Theatre Palisades on Friday April 5th for a five week run, every Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through May 5th. (Box Office: 310-454-1970)

The play features a complete scene change between acts, as the script tells the story of a neighborhood undergoing demographic change twice, first in the early 50's and then again 50 years later. Like a character aging in the play, the complete set change demonstrates the effects of the decades that lead to the deterioration of the home.

Set building is hard, physical, and demanding work. However, Wayne notes, “Fortunately, we never hammer and nail anymore. We just put screws in, so that the wood won't split. One of my things here is, of course I reuse stuff. I've got a whole storage area which is packed full. I get a lot of static about storing all of that stuff, but I can save hundreds of dollars per show by pulling out or planning with something that I have. For this show, I'm using the same staircase that I used in the last show. We don't tear sets apart, we just try and store them because I can use them again!”

In 1963, Theatre Palisades was founded by three television writers; Ken Rosen, Sheldon Stark, and Jacquie Chester. By 1967, Theatre Palisades had become a community theatre. From 1967 through 1975, the theatre produced shows in various venues including Palisades Park and Rustic Canyon Park as well as a few touring productions around Southern California.

In 1975, Kate Ahrens of the Pacific Palisades Historical Society brought an offer from Lelah and J. Townley Pierson to Theatre Palisades to donate land to build a theatre. Lelah, along with her husband, Townley, donated the property on which the theatre now stands. In November, 1988, just in time for the 25th anniversary of the group, Theatre Palisades opened the new 125 seat theatre, which was named Pierson Playhouse, in honor of Lelah and J. Townley Pierson who had not only generously donated the property but also contributed extensively to the Building Fund. The current busy schedule of Theatre Palisades includes five major productions per year, with a run of 18 performances per production. TPYouth produces two shows a year by children for a total of 13 performances a year. The theater also offers chamber music concerts, special shows and membership meetings. Theatre Palisades hosts many Palisades Historical Society presentations throughout the year.


'Pasadena Playhouse' Announces New Director of Development

Photo by Jackie Ortiz
NANCY GRIFFITH BAXTER

The Pasadena Playhouse has announced that Nancy Griffith Baxter is their new Director of Development, bringing with her more than 30 years of fundraising and wealth management experience.

Previously as Director of Gift Planning at LA Opera, legacy gift contribution revenue increased nine-fold during Baxter's time at the organization. Prior to the LA Opera, she was also recruited by her alma mater, Colorado College, to serve as Director of Gift Planning, pulling the program out of dormancy and growing its Legacy Society significantly towards raising over $15 million during the 2015-2016 fiscal year in new future gifts.

With a master's in Finance from Claremont Graduate University and a bachelor's in Political Science - International Relations at Colorado College, she's also an award-winning one-time Senior V.P. and Senior Philanthropic Investment Manager at Wells Fargo where she oversaw the investment team that brought and influenced $18 billion in charitable assets. With it, Baxter is looking forward to working with her new team at Pasadena's landmark and official State Theater of California.

“It's an honor to work with a dynamic leadership team at an institution with the amazing history and impact that [the] Pasadena Playhouse has had on both the local and national entertainment industry, including theater, film, and television,” said Baxter in a statement. “I look forward to working with the community to ensure the longevity of this amazing theater for another 100 years.”

In addition to coaching and building wealth teams around the US to attract and expand philanthropic business opportunities and clients, recruiting and managing investment management, and developing investment strategies for endowments, deferred gift programs, and private foundations, “a lover of the arts” Baxter also brings with her extensive and continued volunteerism in the performing arts. She has served as a board member with the Colburn School, as well as with LA Opera, Shakespeare Festival/LA (now Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles), Young & Healthy, the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Institute, and Woman's Educational Society of Colorado College.

In 1937, the Pasadena Playhouse was “officially recognized as the State Theater of California for its contribution and commitment to the dramatic arts”. Pasadena Playhouse recently hosted the LA Drama Critics Circle Awards where it recognized excellence in Los Angeles theatre and it continues its own tradition of excellence under Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman.

"I am thrilled to welcome Nancy to the leadership team as we continue to take the Playhouse in a new and exciting direction,” said Feldman. “I know her wealth of energy and experience will be invaluable to us in garnering support from the Pasadena community and beyond.”

Featured Photo by Freed14, used via Creative Commons permissions, Wikipedia. The Pasadena Playhouse - State Theatre of California.