On Getting There and Finnair

Planes, ferries, buses, shuttles, and my own two feet got me first to Helsinki, and then to various locations on the Greek island of Crete during the past sixteen days. It was a hella good trip. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share the highlights of Chania, Heraklion, Rethymno, Sfakia Chora, and Loutro with you, along with some insights and tips. Of course you get to see photos too. It’s hard to take a bad picture in any of those places, and may I say, Android phones rock the photo scene.

In Dallas, we have two major airports. Love Field used to be a tiny regional airport. It’s famous for being the place where JFK landed on what would be one of his final days on this earth. It’s close to the center of the city, and has grown considerably over the past thirty years I’ve been flying in and out of it. Southwest Airlines has its hub there.

Pro Tip: If it’s raining monsoon-style as it can here in Texas, don’t park on the lower levels of the garage at Love. They are notorious for flooding. I picked up my husband during a recent downpour, and sure enough, the drains were merrily belching water up over a foot high, as if they were realizing their secret aspirations of becoming glorious fountains.

DFW is the other big airport, and it’s massive. Every time we go there, I marvel at the clever design of the place. Swooping curved exits take you to one of five terminals, or to the two major exits, north and south. While it can be intimidating the first few times you go to pick someone up or be dropped off, there’s lots of signage to get you back where you need to go. Okay, yes, you may go around a few times, but I stand firm in my opinion that the design is fantastic.

My husband and I are old pros at this airport now, thanks to the travelling ways of our kids and friends. Terminal D holds the international flights, and that’s where we headed for the first leg of my journey, an 11-hour overnight long haul via Finnair to Helsinki. As I like to do (my family teases me about this), I got there three hours early. I enjoy airports, sitting and watching all the people coming and going, and hate feeling rushed. I can tell you exactly where this predilection for arriving early came from too; my father’s love of being the last person to board, having the doors of an aircraft held for him. I have a vivid sense memory of running over those grey squares of airline carpeting to keep up with his long stride, my suitcase bumping my knees as we moved past dawdlers (this was before the genius person who put wheels on suitcases**), and the knot that formed in my gut as I contemplated being left behind, of being TOO LATE. Ugh. No, thank you. Here I am, enjoying the airport!

I am not getting paid to shill for Finnair, but can wholeheartedly recommend it for any long haul you want to take. I’d now pick it over any other airlines I’ve travelled as an economy-class traveler. My best long-distance trip ever remains the first-class journey to and from Buenos Aires that our oldest son scored for us when he worked for Delta, but as flying economy class goes, Finnair beats anything else by a mile. Or a kilometer.*

“Why?” you ask. Oh, please let me tell you. First, the flight attendants are all ruthlessly efficient with their taller-than-you stature, and stylish blue uniforms and gloves, yet remain charming. “Hei!” they cry in welcome, or “Moy moy!” I felt taken care of instantly.

My seat was broad enough for my behind, with room to spare, and there was enough leg room for me to easily cross my legs or stretch them out completely under the seat in front of me. A lovely pillow and blanket were placed on each seat, and every seat has a built-in screen where you can see flight details or watch movies. They also provided good earbuds and a bottle of water. The jet I flew on was a 3-3-3 seat configuration. While I was lucky enough to have a vacant middle seat both coming and going, I wouldn’t have felt cramped if it had been filled. My second legs on Finnair from Helsinki to Chania were completely full, four-hour regional flights in a slightly older plane, but there was still plenty of seat and leg room. Being a planner, I really liked the moving timeline that showed exactly when we were going to be fed, and when we could expect to land that appeared on the screens.

I ordered special lactose-free meals, and got two excellent hot ones in flight, along with my choice of water or blueberry juice, coffee, or tea. The blueberry juice was great. All of my Finnair flights were on time or early to their destinations, even with a gate change on the first leg.

As we descended, I noticed that the fall had begun in Finland. Plenty of golds and reds were sprinkled in the thick forests we flew over. Helsinki airport is exactly how you’d imagine it to be. Lots of blonde wood, clean lines, and chrome. Think Ikea with planes, and you have it exactly. We deplaned and walked a good distance to the passport check. I was surprised that we were going through it here, and not Greece. The men at passport control were pretty thorough with the questioning, but polite about it. I got to thinking that Helsinki is only about two hundred and fifty miles away from St. Petersburg as I waited for my next plane and was surprised there were no obvious armed guards anywhere. It’s a great airport, which I would be very glad of on my return journey when I spent 12 hours there. I enjoyed wandering around on my current 3-hour layover. Trying to read Finnish is a treat. I had an excellent baguette with salmon and a coffee before my next flight. It was fun paying for them in Euros. I did my first exchange to get small bills in exchange for bigger ones, which was to become a theme for the next two weeks.

PRO TIP: No one in Greece likes big bills like 100s and 50s. They even sigh a bit over a 20. The good news for you, Dear Traveller, is that’s because nothing costs much in Greece. So when you get your money changed, get as many Euros in 5s and 10s as the bank will put up with getting for you.

The second flight loaded promptly and efficiently, and I had very nice seat-mates who’d brought along sandwiches made with dark rye bread and pickles. They changed seats with me so I could sit at the window. After a beautiful long-ish flight over lots of mountains and green countryside, we hit the coastline of Greece just as the sun set, turning the sea to molten gold.

Landing in Chania, we deplaned down the old-fashioned stairs on both ends of the plane, and then got on a bus that drove us the short distance to the terminal. And then I just… walked out of the airport with my carryon bags. No checks of anything, and sadly, no Greek stamp for my passport. Look up the Schengen Agreement as to why this is so. It’s a pretty cool policy of the EU.

The airport isn’t very big. I asked where the bus station was in Greek and received the first of many frowns, and a correction of my pronunciation before being given directions. This was consistent throughout my stay. Either I am rotten at actually speaking Greek, or Crete has their own dialect of it that doesn’t match Duolingo. Nonetheless, I found the little kiosk, paid the man the 2.30 in euros for the bus ride to Chania town, about a 25-minute trip. The sun had set completely, and I felt utter peace as I breathed in the night air and saw a different version of stars in the velvet black sky. It was warm, but not uncomfortably so, and the sea breeze eddied around the dozen or so people waiting.

A big, white motorcoach with tinted windows came, and we loaded bags underneath and then climbed aboard. As I was to learn, they have got the bus and ferry thing down to a science on Crete, and we left exactly on time. The buses are very comfortable to ride, and many have Greek music playing over the loudspeaker.

I will say this: I am glad I am not a bus driver on Crete. The roads become increasingly narrow as one gets to the center of the town, and it would appear that motorcycles don’t need to stop for anyone or anything. Pedestrians also tend to have an outrageous amount of trust that the bus will stop for them.

My only concern about the entire trip to Crete was finding my hotel after reaching the bus station in the middle of Chania town. This is even though I had picked it for its near proximity, and had stared at city maps before going. I was getting there alone at night, after travelling for nearly 20 hours straight.

I needn’t have worried. My swim friends, Barbara, Phyllis, and Dianne were there to greet me. How lovely of them. Turns out I picked well, the walk was less than a football field to the hotel, my wheeled suitcase** trundling along on the rough sidewalks made of stone and cobbles to the front entrance of the Alena hotel, our home for the next two nights in beautiful, ancient, surprising Chania.

*mathing the conversion of mile to kilometer while travelling in Europe was a bit tricky for me. I was just grateful that the Euro was almost exactly equal to a dollar when I did this trip.

**did the person who invented these get a medal? They should have.

On Visits Back and Good Friends

This past week I got to go back to a place that holds a special place in my heart. Johnson City, Tennessee. It’s where my husband and I lived for ten years, raised our kids, and found our rescue dog, who later rescued us.

It’s where we made great friends. The kind that you can pick up conversations with even though a long interim—over five years — has passed, it doesn’t seem to matter a bit.

A wonderful theatre company is producing my latest play there in September. JCCT is the longest-running theatre in Tennessee, and I am part of their 137th production year. My play was sponsored by Bravissima! It’s a group of philanthropic women who make a yearly commitment to support the arts in that community. I got to be in on the auditions, and workshop “Death By Design,” my funny, snarky murder-mystery send-up of Agatha Christie set in a modern-day Appalachian B&B. It’s got lightning, thunder, a variety of surprise deaths, twists and turns, and a real ghost. I think you’ll enjoy it.

We have a great cast and crew, and it’s helmed by a friend of mine, Melanie Yodkins. We had a lot of fun this past week, so I didn’t mind the work or the long hours. I got to teach three acting classes, meet new actor friends, and work with some extremely talented people. The play goes up next month, y’all should go see it if you’re in the JC neighborhood.

Going back to Johnson City was emotion-filled. Our family was very happy there, and there are so many memories. It’s a small town, but a growing one, so my memories of places didn’t exactly match up to current reality. I didn’t get lost as I drove around in my rental Prius (loved it! 57 miles to the gallon!), but there were times when I was slightly confused, old buildings replaced by new constructs. I was struck by what I’d forgotten. The hilliness. The green that is so vibrant it makes your eyes hurt. I made sure to get out and walk or hike daily. I didn’t get to swim in Lake Watauga or do the Laurel Falls hike that intersects with the Appalachian trail or swim with my old master’s swim group this visit. Maybe that was for the best, as this trip wore me out. And did I mention it is very hilly there? Like I think they added extra hills or something.

While the theatre kept me busy, I had time to visit too. Mom friends, Swim friends, dear friends. I had lunches and dinners and walks with as many as I could. In serendipitous timing, I even got to attend a fiftieth wedding anniversary party. Talking with old friends is so easy. You not only revisit memories but get to find out what is new, whose kids are married or have babies. You can talk for hours with ease. It made me misty and very grateful.

Friends put me up for most of my visit, too. I had cats for companions for my first five nights. Here is a picture of one of them, Doom.

I visited old haunts, walked the streets of Jonesborough, and drove out to Mountain View foods for a tasty handmade sandwich and whoopie pie. The overlay between my memories of those places, and their current reality wasn’t jarring, but it was there. A new park, a whole new development of houses, a tree missing.

What hadn’t changed was the love and friendship of the people I left behind. It was so good to reconnect, and to realize they are never really gone, and that new memories are just waiting to be made. #luckygal, indeed.

On What Goes On Before, During, and After a Community Theatre Play

Two days ago, my play “Like Kissing Moonlight” closed. Over 600 new people got to see this delightful production about a family navigating a crisis point. The actors did such a wonderful job. The audiences laughed, a few cried, all enjoyed their two hours in air-conditioning as temps spiked over 100 degrees here in Texas.

A few posts ago, I covered the odd verbiage that surrounds the theatre, and what Tech Week is like.* This post is about the activity an audience member doesn’t see before then, a pulling back of the curtain, if you will. What I can say with all certainty that all of us crew and performers want is to do a good show and that you have a good time.

I just thought a few folks might find this interesting.

There were nine actors onstage for my show. There were a lot more crew people and artisans that worked behind the scenes who brought the show to life. Here is a timeline of what goes on in the life of a little community theatre play. Please keep in mind that most of this is a labor of love. The pay is minimal if you get paid at all. The theatres themselves are mostly non-profit, too.

First, of course, the writer writes the play, then starts the often-arduous process of finding a theatre to produce it. This can literally take years. A dramaturg reads it, thinks it might be right for the theatre, and brings it to the decision makers. Seasons for Community Theatres are usually set 1-2 years ahead, as the rights to obtain popular shows are based on geographics. The companies such as Samuel French that own the rights to distribute plays will not allow you to do a newer show if someone nearby is also doing it. The theatre will then approach directors, who are usually booked a year or two in advance to see if they’d like to direct the show. The director will submit a proposed budget for the show, and what their vision is for the piece.

Once the play is locked in for the season, the director’s budget is approved, and the rights obtained (generally $100 per show) a producer is chosen, who will work on publicity and help staff the show, and who will be working what is called ‘the front of the house,’ the ushers, the box office folks, etc. They find a graphic artist designs the program and posters, as well as help assemble the design team for the show. They order the scripts or have them made. They handle the money and reimbursements, collecting receipts along the way, making sure the show stays in budget.

The Props, Costumes, Set, Lighting, and Sound designers are found and then sent a script so they can start planning alongside the director for the look and feel of the play. The designers also find running crew if appropriate, or sometimes the stage manager will take this on. A running crew are the folks who change sets, move props, and help actors change costumes during the actual run of the play. They become like family and cannot be flakey. The director finds a Stage Manager and perhaps an Assistant Director as well to help everything run smoothly. The bigger the cast, the more need there is for a strong AD. If it’s a musical, a Musical Director is brought in, and they find a rehearsal pianist, and make arrangements for any orchestra or band. Renting scores is incredibly expensive, so they watch who has those music sheets like hawks. If it’s a musical, you’ll need a choreographer too, and need to make time for them to do their work in the schedule. The director is in charge of all of these things happening in a timely manner, and replacing people if issues come up. It’s a volunteer army for the most part, so there is inevitably someone who thought they could do the show that ends up needing to be replaced. I have replaced nearly an entire cast. I don’t recommend it.

The director sets a rehearsal schedule and a point of contact, such as a FB page for easy communication. The producer makes sure the space for rehearsals and the show itself is available and posts announcements for actors to come audition. The set designer brings in a model or drawing of the set, and it is discussed before the go-ahead is given to purchase the materials needed to create it. This all happens 2-3 months out from auditions.

The director blocks (how the actors move around on the set so that they can be seen and heard at the right time and that they are making pretty pictures on the set as well, and can make entrances and exits) the entire show based on the set design, and meets with light and sound folks to be sure what they are seeing in their heads all match and that the physical equipment at the theatre can execute that.

The director then decides how they want auditions to run–readings from the script (called cold readings), prepared scenes or monologues, and if there will be call-backs or not. If it is a musical, the Musical Director is in on this too, and the choreographer. The stage manager and the AD and sometimes the Producer help make sure the auditions run smoothly and on time.

Actors come, bring a picture and resume, fill in audition forms, read for parts.

The Director, and anyone else who needs to have input, cast the show. The director contacts the people who are cast. This is a happy job.

First read-through involves the costumer who is taking measurements and sometimes the production photographer who gets headshots for the program. Schedules are handed out.

Rehearsals begin. This is usually a 4–6-week process, between 15 to 30 of them, depending on the show’s complexity. While the director is blocking the show and the actors memorize their lines and movement, the design team is hard at work building the set, gathering props and costumes, hanging and focusing lights, and designing the sound–doorbells, incidental music, whatever will enhance the production at hand. Sometimes the actors help build, other spaces have a crew of people who help build and decorate the set. If there are fight sequences or intimate scenes, a specialty person is brought in. We love our fight coordinators and intimacy coordinators because everyone gets to be and feel safe night after night.

The producer lines up reviewers, publicity opportunities, and makes sure the programs get designed and printed. The director approves and participates in publicity, as does the cast when asked. I love doing radio and television spots, other directors hate it.

Tech week comes… see my post about that. A production photographer comes in to get the shots needed for the reviewers and publicity. Tech week is for sure a full week of non-stop work for everyone. The running crew figures out what needs to go where, who has that fast costume change, that this piece of furniture needs to be placed in exactly that spot. The actors figure out where personal props (ones they carry on and off the stage) need to be, and the mayhem starts to settle.

Then, if you are lucky, you get a preview night, where friends and family or invited members of the community come to see the show. This is especially helpful if you are doing a comedy, as laughter (while dearly appreciated) needs to be gotten used to.

Opening night is always exciting! Call time for every show is usually an hour to an hour and a half before the house opens for the audience to sit down. Fight sequences are run through in slow motion, and vocal warmups soar from backstage. Gifts from director to the actors are given, the control of the show passes to the stage manager who calls all the cues of the show, and coordinates front and back of the house.

The curtain goes up… and hopefully… magic happens.

After the last performance of the show, everyone joins together to return props and furniture and borrowed costumes to their rightful owners. The set is taken down bit by bit; the flats stored for the next use. Sometimes you paint the floor back to black.

Then you go out for drinks and dinner and laugh so that the bittersweet pang that settles in doesn’t hurt quite as much. Yes, it’s true, that particular show with those particular people will never be together again.

But while we were together, all of us, front and back of house, on stage and off… we created something special.

That’s show business. Here’s some of the wonderful cast and crew. “It’s the people you miss.”

*On Tech Week and Theatre as an Alternate Language

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