On 43, 9/11, and Northpark Mall

My dear friend was in town this weekend to see my play. It was a quick but delightful trip, eating and talking and exploring a little bit of Dallas.

The normal places I like to take first-time visitors—White Rock Lake, the spot where JFK was assassinated, Clyde Warren Park, and Bishop’s Art District—were all off the table this time. It was just too hot outside for walking.

Instead, we visited the Bush Library and had lunch at Café 43 on the grounds of the SMU campus. I highly recommend the café, and you don’t have to go into the library to eat there. The service is lovely, the space elegant but welcoming, and the food was mighty tasty.*

My friend and I did opt to tour the museum/library. It’s extremely well laid-out, with a special exhibit on humor in the White House that was quite funny. I enjoyed talking to the docents in the replica of the oval office, and revisiting some of the history I remember from President Bush’s two terms in office.

That time includes, of course, 9/11.

It was not pleasant per se to revisit that morning when the towers fell. The memory is still crystal clear. I’d been at home with my boys, the oldest of whom was five at the time. My husband called me on his way to work and told me to turn on the television. I did so right as the second plane flew into the south tower. My little boy turned to me, his brown eyes so wide and earnest. He said, “That’s not special effects.” You should know that I worked in the film industry, so my son’s comment was based in solid knowledge. I sent him to go play with his brother and sat glued to the television, the images we were seeing seemingly impossible.

The Bush Library has created a respectful, solemn memorial to that day and the days that followed. The featured image on this blog is chilling to see in person, that twisted metal looking almost like modern art, but so terribly, horribly real. I realized I’d not “forgotten” any of it, that the memories of that time in our history is etched deep. I knew a couple of folks who died in the towers that day, and while the anniversary of the date always makes me think of them, this was an impressive, immersive, resonant section of the museum that gave a bigger picture.

Can you be glad you saw something, yet saddened by it too? Evidently.

We had a few hours before my friend needed to catch her plane, so I suggested we stay in air conditioning and took her over to the always visually interesting Northpark Mall. I used my turn signal aggressively in the interior covered parking lot to get one of the hotly contested spaces.

The mall itself is a big 2-level square surrounding a large inner courtyard. Inside are some 250+ mostly upscale shops and restaurants, along with a food court and movie theatre. What makes it unique is that it houses a fantastic collection of Modern Art that has been bequeathed to the place by Nasher family.

It also has beautiful planters inside and out that boast different flowers seasonally. The mall and its art are run by Nancy Nasher, the daughter of Ray Nasher, who refused to put the collection in a museum. Instead, he put it here, scattered throughout the mall. His reasoning? “Maybe 90 percent of people will never go to a museum, but maybe they’ll be inspired to learn more about art and study art, just by coming here.” I like that and hope he’s right.

After wandering the mall and browsing in my favorite store, Sundance, we stopped at Eataly for a beverage. It’s also a fun place to people watch and goggle over all the food choices there. Both the museum and the mall got high marks from my friend, so if you’re looking for something to do while its nine million degrees here in Dallas, you might give them a try.

*You should make reservations, and you have to pay for parking in the lot across from the Cafe. It’s $5 for the first hour and $2 every hour after that. Or maybe just cruise around and find street parking, if you’re not worried about melting before you get inside.

On Stargazer and Making Pots

Meet Stargazer.

She’s at best estimate around 5,000 years old, and from the area we currently know as Turkey. Thirty of them have been found over the years, artifacts from the Chalcolithic period, or Copper Age.

I saw her at the Cleveland Museum of Art several years ago and fell in love. It’s the way she’s looking upwards, see? Up at the stars, up at the gods. Just looking up. It’s hope and wonder all swirled together in a hand-sized figurine carved into translucent marble by someone 5,000 years ago. That I feel connected to this figure, to that artist ignites wonder and hope in me, too.

Like, maybe everything will turn out okay.

Now meet my Stargazer.

My wonderful husband knows how much this figurine resonates with me and commissioned this Stargazer from our friend Ruth, who is a potter. Ruth and I met several years ago open-water swimming across one of the most beautiful lakes in the USA. Lake Watauga is situated in the upper reaches of the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the TVA plan to prevent flooding downriver. It’s a deep, clean lake with very large fish in it. And the old town of Butler at the bottom of it.

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She and I and some other intrepid women would swim a few miles across the lake and back once or twice a month when the water was warm enough to get in without a wetsuit. It’s a wild, untrammeled area. One time we had to tread water for fifteen minutes at the end of our swim waiting for the bear that was sitting on the little jetty where we’d left our towels to amble away. While there’s not much talking while swimming, you do chat before and after. At the time we met, Ruth was working in a health food store, and had set up a tiny potting area in her apartment.

That was what she wanted to do, you see. Shape clay into beautiful and useful things. Be an artist full-time. It seemed out of reach, but she opted to trust me, joined me doing Arbonne for a while and got enough financial flexibility to move to an artist colony up in Burnsville, NC. She met her husband, also a potter. Now she does what she loves. She’s happy, and those who are the beneficiaries of her work are also happy.

I love that story. It fills me with wonder and hope, all swirled together.

You can find Ruth’s beautiful pottery at: https://www.thevillagepotters.com or at https://www.RutkowskyPottery.com

On Directing Community Theatre

In the film “Shakespeare in Love,” there’s a wonderful moment when a theatre owner (Henslowe) and a ruthless moneylender (Fennyman), to whom he owes a great deal of dosh, tiptoe down a London street awash with all manner of foul things, as the sewage systems aren’t up to snuff in this part of town. The play they are trying to put on has experienced one disaster after another. The divine Geoffrey Rush plays Henslowe, while the always sincere Tom Wilkinson is Fennyman. Script is by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, both of whom know a thing or two about plays.

Phillip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Hugh Fennyman: So, what are we to do?

Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Hugh Fennyman: How?

Philip Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

A fictional exchange, yet oh-so-true in all theatre, really. I just know more about the community theatre level. I think of this quote every time I reach what we know as “tech week” in the theatre, a moment when (hopefully) all the moving pieces come together, and you start to see what the show is going to look like.

Being a director is delightful. Theatre is already the ultimate collective of artists working toward a singular goal: to delight an audience, transport them elsewhere for a few hours, and have fun doing it. Being the director for this collaboration means that you get to shape it, and be in a constant state of delight as you see little black words on pieces of paper bloom to life as your cast embodies them.

It also means you’re the one to blame if it doesn’t.

Ah, art!

There are always, always problems to be solved. They change with every show. If the set is ready ahead of time on one show, the paint will still be wet on opening night for another.

If props are easy for one show, they are a nightmare collection of weird things to find on the next. (I’m looking at you, full-on working printing press for “You Can’t Take It With You.) Sound effects can be daunting to unearth even in this day and age when you think you’d be able to find anything. Sometimes the lighting board Just. Doesn’t. Work…. And the poor person operating it has to scramble to work what can be up to several hundred cues manually. On time, and in sync with the actors who just have to hope that the light turns on when they put their hand on the fake switch on the wall. They do it though. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Heaven forbid you have fire or fireworks on your set—you need to get the fire marshal to sign off on it. Sometimes they just… don’t. Then you need to find a way around it.

I will say, there is always a way around it. You just may spend a few sleepless nights coming up with it as the director.

You can count on actors forgetting lines, always. My job is to prep everyone for that certainty. Knees bent, stay in character, know the point of the scene and navigate it. Nothing is certain, except that everyone is working towards the same end, a great show. For me, I also want to add value to the actors themselves. Show them a new way into a character that they can take with them to the next project. Show them their greatness, how talented they really are. It’s a wonderful feeling to see the ‘ah-ha’ bloom.

I’m also extremely partial to sitting in the back of the house and watching the audience laugh, cry, or jump at what we’ve all created together. It’s kind of like sitting with someone who’s never seen Game of Thrones, and the Red Wedding is coming. The anticipation of their reaction is just as rewarding as the actual moment on stage.

For me, there are two moments in every show that I’ve had the privilege of directing that make all the worry and work worth it. The first is the hush just before the lights go up. Then, boom… we are in a new place, and a bunch of strangers in the dark suspend their disbelief and go on the journey.

The second moment is the second hush, as the end tableau settles, just before the applause. The moment of letting go of the ephemeral experience that existed only for those people, in that theatre at that time. Not recorded, never to exist again in precisely that form, ever.

There is always a collective inhale from the audience, that happens just as the actors exhale. A final shared breath.

It’s beautiful.

It’s why I direct.

If you’re in the Dallas area, come see “Wait Until Dark” at Garland Civic for a fab thriller. We open April 29th – May 15th on the weekends. Tickets and info can be found at www.garlandcivic.org

Or, if you’d prefer a funny, touching, original work, I’m directing my own play “Like Kissing Moonlight” in its Regional Premiere at Mesquite Arts Theatre June 10-26th. Tickets and info at www.mesquiteartstheatre.org/tickets

Wait Until Dark production photos credit: Steven A. Bracey

On Hour-Long Drama Series and a Short Rant

Well, the world really doesn’t stop being crazy, does it? I just saw someone post that they thought that we all have PTSD from two years plus of pandemic upheaval and now, war raging. Finding our way back to normal may take a while.

I am actively finding ways to destress. How about you?

Besides walks, swims, and reading, a good television multi-season, hour-long television production that takes me to a whole new other world is a wonderful way to unplug. Two to three episodes of a well-done hour-long show shuts my brain up. No comments from the peanut gallery about how easily that might be accomplished, please.

I’m spoiled rotten by streaming. It’s a modern invention I adore, even more than the advent of the remote and no more fighting about whose turn it is to get up from the couch and change the channel. Who else out there had to do these things: Dash to the television at a specific time on a specific night to catch your show, dash to the kitchen or bathroom during the commercials, or stick a tape in the VCR and program it to record?

Let’s get rid of the rant first. Its subject is the show that should have been at the very top of this list, but was utterly ruined by its last season. So horribly ruined that other shows like Lost and Twin Peaks have gotten a measure of respect back in comparison. The show that I hummed the theme song to all the time, the show that had mothers naming their girls after a certain princess who had some hot little pets, the show whose steampunk opening credits brought me joy every time I watched them. The show that brought you classic lines such as “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” And that made us weep when we found out how Hodor got his name.

Game of Thrones. Or, as we know it now, the Show-that-shall-not-be-named.

In the early going, I forgave the showrunners a lot (Looking at you, Catelyn Stark, who should have turned into Lady Stoneheart. And at you Strong Belwas, Victarion Greyjoy for being ignored.) Even when they burned that little girl, I forgave them. Then came the utterly dreadful, rushed, nonsensical, poorly lit last season that made a mockery out of all of us for giving this show all those hours of our life. They got their heads turned by the idea of doing some Star Wars movies (which subsequently got taken away from them, because of their utter dumpster fire of the last season) and didn’t do their job. Big Head and Little Head both need to take the walk of shame.

Ok. That’s done.

Just saying, it would have been first on what turned out to be a long list of excellent television viewing, and now it’s not on the list anywhere.

Okay, really done. I was team Gendry, btw.

This list is not comprehensive. I know that Oz, Law and Order, The Wire, and Dr. Who should be on here, but I never watched them. *Ducks the projectiles* I was busy. Give me a break. Probably won’t watch them. Just like I won’t watch the dumb prequel to the Show-that-shall-not-be-named either. I’m also not including limited-episode series, but will say I loved the Queen’s Gambit. John Adams and True Detective fall into this category as well.

I’d love to hear your list of top hour-long TV shows. Mine are on here because they either a. changed the course of television viewing, or b. were just great storytelling. I’ll also list three that I really wanted to like, but didn’t, and thus earn the least popular opinion award. I am well aware that I am exposing my inner geek by sharing this with you. Some of these go back a way. Have you seen them?

TOP FIVE: West Wing, Black Sails, Peaky Blinders, Justified, and Star Trek Next Gen (plus one more: Rome)

Why?

West Wing—great dialogue, the long walk and talks, fab cast. I love a smart show. West Wing might be overtly glib at times, (okay, glib in every episode) but never was it dumb.

Black Sails—don’t judge me, I like good pirate tales. Just get past the first 1-2 episodes which are clunky and gratuitous, and you’ll be hooked too. The actors are committed, the scenery and action sequences lush. Fun Fact: the lead actor on this show is Maggie Smith’s son. He’s on Lost in Space (the new one) as well. That show got an honorable mention.

Peaky effing Blinders—Helen McCrory (RIP), Cillian Murphy, and the cinematography/ costume designers own this show. Supporting cast is superb. Like anti-hero stories? This series is one long ode to the antihero. Compelling story lines that will make you wholeheartedly root for thugs and criminals. PTSD from WWI weaves throughout this series, as well as exploring classist tropes, humanizing the leads. (I sound so fancy there!) My boys had “Peaky Blinders” haircuts for several years.

Justified—Timothy Olyphant was fantastic in Deadwood, and I’ll watch anything he is in. Walton Goggins is perfection in this and loads of fantastic actors in the smaller roles. I’m looking at you, Margo Martindale. I think there is a limited series with Oliphant’s character coming to television, eventually.

Star Trek, Next Gen—I would probably have loved anything that gave me more Star Trek on a regular basis, but this reboot with an excellent cast and thoughtful stories led by fab actor Patrick Stewart had me waiting impatiently for every episode to air. Its success spawned a lot more Star Trek, which was also good. I got to work on one, to my long-lasting gratitude and delight.

Rome: This show had some of my favorite actors in it of all time, the ones who I’ll watch in anything they do: James Purefoy, Ray Stephenson (who is also Blackbeard in Black Sails and was always my vote to play Reacher, but the new guy they cast is perfection), Kevin McKidd, Tobias Menzies (whose turn in Outlander is phenomenal), Lindsay Duncan, Polly Walker, and Cirian Hinds. The relationships between the characters, the way they brought this historical time to life…there was nothing like it before this show. Was there ever a better odd friendship than Pullo and Lucius Vorenus? This was the show they took off the air prematurely to bring us The-show-that-shall-not-be-named. Shame! Shame!

NEXT FIVE: The Crown, British Baking Show, Sherlock, Deadwood, Northern Exposure

FINAL FIVE: The Expanse, 24, The Fall, Outlander, Broadchurch (adding one more here, as it’s totally got me in its grip right now; The Last Kingdom. Uhtred son of Uhtred is, indeed, your name.)

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Poldark, Shetland (my #1 I-must-watch-this-with-the-closed-captions-on show), Nowhere Man, Manhunter (this would have been high on the list too, but they stopped production prematurely and pissed me off), Downton Abby, Hill Street Blues, X-Files, Lost in Space, Black Mirror, the show that started my love of television, Star Trek the Original series (yes, I am that old), and the rotating hour-long mysteries that came on after Disney on Sunday nights; McMillan and Wife, Colombo, and McCloud. Kolchak the Night Stalker should have been in that rotation but was on a different channel.

THREE I WISH I LIKED BUT DIDN’T: Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Good Omens, and Westworld. To be fair, I did like the first season of Maisel a lot; they lost me after that. Same with Westworld, although I think I made it two seasons in before giving up with a baffled sigh. Good Omens… great cast, love the book, didn’t work for me.

I’m sure I missed some, or that you have differing opinions. Let’s hear them! I love talking about TV hour longs!