Wednesday, March 04, 2009

This is a very busy week for me with the production going into final technical and dress rehearsals, complicated by yet another very significant snow event that hit in the wee smalls of Monday morning. Living in New England is a constant meteorological adventure.

Fortunately, I’d managed to load almost everything into the performance space before the official load-in day, Sunday. Yea me--that meant we “merely” had to assemble the set’s components and put up the lighting trees rather than begin the day strong-arming it all up the flight of steps in front of the building. And it was a big advantage when we got all the instruments hung, everything hooked up and focused early, because nothing worked.

One of the lovely things my former colleagues at MIT have done for me is to give me the privilege of taking anything I need from stock any time I’m doing a production without charge even though I’m not still a member of the department. So, first thing Monday, I called very calmly and explained that we had a problem. After some head scratching on the other end, the lighting designer remembered some tiny slider switches that had to be set to a particular code for the dimmers to work at all. She got out the manual, gave me the sequence of switches that had to be up and switches that needed to be down and all was well.

First dress rehearsal went very well last night, with the thing sounding gorgeous and beginning to actually look like something. However one thing it didn’t look like was bright enough so I went off to a lighting rental shop today to pick up four more instruments and a sheet of gel to warm up some of the colors on stage.

Asked what color I would like, I said a very pale, slightly rosy amber and we agreed on the famous old theater gel color, bastard amber. The origin of the name is somewhat legendary but apparently involved the accidental mixing of two dye colors during manufacturing, producing totally by accident one of the best gel colors ever for flattering skin color.

When the invoice came out of the printer, I had a good laugh, because the gel color was listed as “fatherless amber.” I thought immediately of a story from the earliest days of my career. I had taken a job running the theater and designing at Middlebury College in Vermont. Trudy, who did the books and the ordering, was married to the local Baptist minister. I came into her office one day, gave her a couple of lists and went into the set shop to work. A couple of minutes later, rather upset, she followed me into the shop and said, “I can’t order these things.”

I asked why, and without a further word, she gave me back my lists on which she had circled both tines the word bastard appeared as in bastard amber and flat bastard file. “You need to find something else to call them,” she said. A little voice in the back of my head told me that making a sarcastic comment, telling her to grow up, or simply laughing derisively was not the way to handle this one. “I can’t write that word,” she said by way of further explanation.

I said that these were the commonly accepted names for these items, known industry-wide, and I even opened the Sears catalog, that upright icon of consumerist Americana, to a small section devoted to flat bastard files, so called right there in print on the page, where unguarded small children and repressed adult Christians could find it and be seduced into a frenzy of depraved immorality by the dangerous power of that one word.

Trudy, standing fast against the evil I’d introduced into her world, looked to me for the solution. I asked if she could bring herself to write B.A.—the nickname for bastard amber among theater technicians--in the list of gels I wanted, and she said she could. I then suggested F.B. File but to make sure she put the item number prominently onto the order form so I'd get the right thing.

Visibly relieved, she returned to her work and to her hugely sheltered life.


By coincidence, a second incident brought back memories from way back this morning. Mike who writes the blog guttermorality, told a story on himself about a call to his library. and this story, which I left as a comment, came roaring out of the mists of my freshman year in college:

I have always had good experiences with libraries, that is once I was past college and the old library culture began to change and become considerably more user-friendly.

I came to Boston to study, just barely 17 years old, a Boston that had only two tall buildings, neither over 25 stories. The Old Guard was very much in evidence--think Bette Davis against conventional Boston Society in dark Victory. I went to the Boston Public Library to get out a reading assignment--Lysistrata by Aristophanes.

Most of the stacks were out of bounds to the public then--you wrote your catalog number(s) on a card and as much as half an hour later your requested book (or a "not available" note) was delivered to your numbered seat in the
great reading room.

An ancient--1850s or 60s--copy of Aristophanes' play was eventually given to me. The translation was by an early-Victorian Englishman and defined the once-common term "fustian." More to the point, virtually every punch line in the bawdy, erection-filled play was either missing or rendered essentially meaningless, each instance followed by the stock notice "it was felt prudent to omit or alter this line in translation in the interests of public decency."

A play that’s supposed to burst with sexual energy and “uppity women” taking over had been castrated beyond recognition. Fortunately, very shortly thereafter, the Boston public Library modernized, reorganized—and finally bought some NEW BOOKS! About the same time, Boston also finally eliminated the official office of Censor, but that's a different story, albeit one that's also connected to a play.


More signs of hard times: The two gigantic murals by the late Russian-French artist Marc Chagall that flank the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, have been put up as collateral against loans for operating funds. The two 30’ x 36’ murals were painted by Chagall personally as part of a package that included his designing a complete production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute that delighted critics and audiences in 1966, the premiere season of the new Metropolitan Opera House. Although painted by others from Chagall’s sketches and only touched up here and there b y the famed artist, the MET was recently able to sell backdrops from the production for $1 million.

With the endowment fund decimated and donations down, the MET is cutting all salaries by 10%, and canceling some expensive (many scene changes, lots of chorus to be rehearsed) revivals of existing productions in favor of operas less expensive to present.

Chagall's "Triumph of Music" photo By Carol E. Goodman, published at

the Met news is sad news indeed
We are getting similar bad news here in Santa Fe, Phoenix - everywhere!
I love those murals. Every time I go to the Met, they (and standing on the balcony, if it's not to cold) help me survive the Met's seemingly endless intermissions.
Ted, I HATE those endless intermissions (occasionally they even reach 40 minutes). At least the MET is working to reduce the number of intermissions, combining acts and often doing mainline Italian and French repertory with only one.

Also, here's so little to do at the MET during the intermissions. There's a very small exhibit space replacing the big gallery downstairs, and the shop has been vastly reduced in size, the majority of it given over to luxury or hostess items (Traviata cough drops, Trovatore barbeque skewers).
Chagall, censorship, sexual energy AND your skillful diplomacy all in one blog post?! That's why I keep coming back!
Thank you, Michelle--I'm delighted you're here, and I hope you'll feel free to comment more in future.
hey, thanks for the shout-out, and for the library story.

reminds me of being at the rose bowl flea market a few years ago and trying to explain to a young friend who had come across this "cool" chest of little, tiny drawers what a card catalog was, and how people used to find books in the library. he looked at me like i was nuts, said something like, "you're shitting me, dude--nobody'd go through all that trouble for a goddam book," and stalked off, leaving me feeling like the dinosaur i am.
That makes me sad about the MET. I love Marc Chagall!
Illegitimacy runs rampant in many fields. From the world of botany: Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata).
I worked for ASCAP in the 70s & my cubicle faced the Met & I could see the Murals (I worked at night).
I hope they don't loose them.
I used to sneak over the the Met on my break & watch ABT in rehearsal when they had they house.
Wow, hard times all over, where will and when will this end.
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