It’s Sunday, August 10th 2008 and I’m in the Green Room with Annette Bening, talking about how Norman Lear’s original copy of The Declaration of Independence got stuck at the airport. And of course I remember being hyperaware that I was in the green room with Annette Bening talking about how Norman Lear’s original copy of The Declaration of Independence got stuck at the airport. How did I get here? Back up a month.
It’s Sunday, July 13th 2008. THE Sunday before the two weeks I get every summer when my kids stay with their dad. I am divorced – four years now and have come to look forward to those two weeks. When kids are involved, there are very few perks to being divorced. I can only think of two – closet space, and the two weeks every summer. So I‘m thinking about all my plans for the next two weeks – with getting a job top on the list. And the phone rang. It was Mitch, my good friend Marci’s husband. “I might have an opportunity for you. Can you come to The Broad Stage Theater in Santa Monica tomorrow at 11AM? The assistant director needs some administrative help. We’re opening in a few weeks.” OHMYGOD. I couldn’t believe it. I knew all about The Broad, which is spelled like Brawd B.R.O.A.D named after Eli Broad, the philanthropist, because I am a theater junkie, and I am in the theater business – have been my whole – my nickname in NY was Amy Get A Gig Simon – my show “Cheerios In My Underwear” is the longest running solo show in Los Angeles –I am all about theater – and I read in the paper that Dustin Hoffman was The Artistic Chair. And now the possibility of a real theater job. The theater is my favorite place. The theater is my temple. I actually am Jewish and have a temple – but the theater is my home. I love theater people. They are my people. You are my people.
I so needed a job. I had been looking so hard and so fruitlessly for the past two years. Here I am – a 51-year-old divorced mother out of the paid work force for 14 years, with my last “real job” back in the early nineties doing radio promotion for Virgin Records in the now defunct record business. Yeah, I hung out with rock stars but now I needed a job and I couldn’t for the life of me get one. I had hit that “maternal wall” I’d read about researching motherhood for “Cheerios” so I started building a brand new career writing about motherhood and family life and stumbled on my real passion – women’s history, and my work has just started getting published but in the meantime I need a job! The Broad Stage is the brainchild of Dale Franzen, former opera star, arts educator and visionary, and Director of the Broad, ten years in the making, and she made it happen. Tenacious, indomitable, awesome woman. I know all about tenacious indomitable awesome women – since I write about them. I am all about trailblazing, history making women – like Dale – like Victoria Woodhull – the first woman to run for president – like Anne Hutchinson the mother of the first amendment – like Elizabeth Cady Stanton – the original architect of the Women’s Movement and especially Abigail Adams whose ”Remember The Ladies” speech I wrote about for Women’s History Month and was the first women’s history piece I got published and paid for. I love Abigail Adams. Why do we know more about Paris Hilton than about Abigail Adams? So wrong! So Monday morning, I show up and meet my boss Denise. She looks at me as if I am Ed McMahon. I am basically hired on the spot. I fill out my 1099 (no benefits) and sign on for three months as a part time “administrative consultant” and spend the rest of the day falling in love with Denise who is awesome and brilliant and overloaded. I start answering her phone – getting her coffee – seeing about her lunch – much to her surprise – she is not used to being taken care of. I am by nature very solicitous – my boyfriend’s love me – I’m a Jewish mother – very very comfortable taking care of people. So. There is a lot to do. We are launching a theater. It was like jumping on a speeding train. Everything is being done by everyone at breakneck speed the whole time, preparing for the first show
Sunday August 10th – a “soft opening” of an original piece called American Voices about the creation of our government – the first of three free shows to thank the members and donors, introduce the space to the community and test out the theater. Starring Dustin Hoffman, reading The Federalist Papers with Kent Nagano – a famous conductor with a 17-piece orchestra playing Charles Ives music. How cool.
The end of my second week, Dale informs me that Stephanie Solomon, the main writer of American Voices, needed an assistant and I should call her. We hit it off immediately on the phone. She tells me how she needs someone to help her with the script and be an administrative liaison between her and Dustin and the theater. I can hardly breathe. “Why don’t you come to the first table read on Monday at Dustin’s production office?” I am dying. Just three weeks ago I was at Apple One Temp Service, struggling through a skills set test and now this. Monday comes and I go. The offices are nice and there is a big lunch spread. I meet Stephanie and we hug. We go in to the conference room, and only some of the actors are there. I don’t know anyone but recognize Richard Schiff. A very sweet young black actor offers to throw away my empty sandwich plate. He is very handsome and I will inadvertently get to see him in his underwear. I meet the director, get a script and before I get a chance to look at it – Dustin comes in. With a plate of cookies, that he tries to pawn off on everyone. He is adorable and handsome, short, sweet and utterly charming. The atmosphere is immediately charged with electricity. He proceeds to put everyone at ease. I immediately fall in love with him. We go around the table introducing ourselves – it’s a mixture of lucky students, and professional actors – Ben is an actor AND the asst. stage manager. I say I work at the Broad Stage and I am also an actor. Who isn’t? I get a laugh.
The table read begins. I finally look at the script. “American Voices: Spirit of the Revolution, A work For Chamber Orchestra and Thirteen Actors”. Dustin is the narrator and the cast of characters – which is genderless playing multiple roles – includes James Cromwell playing James Madison, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Richard Schiff as James Otis, John Adams and Thomas Paine, Nate Parker – the handsome young black actor as Patrick Henry (turns out he was in The Debaters and a protégé of Denzel Washington) –
Rosario Dawson as Hoboi-Hili-Miko ofThe Creek Nation and Annette Bening as Thomas Paine and and and ABIGAIL ADAMS. Oh my god. I cannot believe what I am hearing. The play is brilliant, a sort of Our Town historically re-enacting the formation of our government – the revolutionary war, the colonists, the constitution – right up my historical alley and OHMYGOD – there it is – Abigail Adams’ Remember The Ladies speech. I’m dying I’m dead I’m a corpse.
When we break I tell Stephanie about my love for her script, and obsession with Abigail Adams – all of it. She seems impressed with my knowledge and passion. After, Dustin tells a story about working with Schiff on a movie – turns out it was Last Chance Harvey. Dustin LOVES telling stories and he is a master at it. Everyone hangs on his every word. He decides suddenly to take the cast and on a field trip to The Broad as no one knew where it was. I am the only one there from the theater so I stand up tell him “well I am Jewish and have no sense of direction but I will get everyone there” and the next thing I know I am walking down the hallway with Dustin and he is asking me “so Amy what do you think of the script”. I go off on one of my women’s history rants, which he seems to appreciate. As we go down in the elevator he tells another story about Abdoulai – the actor walking with us. As Dustin told the story – he had just moved out to LA, was getting divorced and living in a hotel in Santa Monica – was already a big star and every day he would walk past Abdoulai who was a doorman and Abdoulai would start to recite Shakespeare “Tis the summer of my discontent”. That was twenty years ago.
The rest of the week I remain high from the reading and continue working with Denise and Stephanie – so much going on – the theater was still being finished. I so love answering the phone “The Broad Stage Theater this is Amy how can I help you?” And on the end of the line – theater people – my people. I am so happy I literally cry all the way home every day that first week.
The next week we have the first rehearsal at the theater with all thirteen actors. There’s Dustin, there’s James Cromwell. I introduce myself and point out the food. I am a vegan he says with a big smile. Oh! The farmer from babe is a vegan. Funny. I immediately offer to go get him sushi. He could not be nicer. Annette Bening comes in. She is gorgeous without a drop of makeup. Everyone is there except the director. Something happened and now Dustin is the director. All the actors are milling around and I mention to one that I have some books in my car with letters from the period including letters from Abigail Adams and would you like to see them? “Oh”, she says – “yes and I bet Annette would too”. So I get my “American Woman Activists Writings” books and I offer them to Annette and say “here, theses are my books if you would like to take a look”. “Oh” she says, did you write them?” I pause for a brief second thinking – Hmmmm. But instead I say “no but I bought them and I read them.” She laughs. The rehearsal begins and everyone participates in the interpretation and discussion of the script – what it means to their character, to them personally, as Americans, as patriots, everyone’s opinion is welcome and respected with Dustin setting the tone. He creates and nurtures an atmosphere, which is artistic and creative and open. When Cromwell reads Thomas Jefferson (and he looks so Jeffersonian) “We hold these truths to be self evident” you can hear a pin drop. The same for Nate Parker who is brilliant reading Patrick Henry’s speech. “I know not what course others may take; but for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Everyone in the room is hyperaware of the meaning and relevance. It’s August 2008 – Obama is the Democratic nominee – we all are talking about politics and the country and the theater and this play. It’s just like I thought it would be when I was a theater major in college! I am having one Oprah Aha like moment after another! We take a break and one of the actresses who plays a soldier named James Collins has to leave. “Oh”, says Dustin. “Amy will take her place”. So I take a seat between Cromwell and Rosario and when it’s my turn I read as I think about Iraq and Afghanistan. “The dead and wounded lay scattered in every direction over the field; numbers lay cold and lifeless; some were yet struggling in the agonies of death, while here and there lay others; faint with the loss of blood, almost famished for water, and begging for assistance. I could not reconcile to my feelings”.
And I could not reconcile to MY feelings.
Dustin calls rehearsals for every day, complains that he has no assistant or stage manager so I volunteer and for the next four days I am by his side – his buddy, his sidekick, his sounding board, his navigator because the theater is big and mazelike and he is a Jew with no sense of direction and literally cannot find the bathroom – even though they named one after him – really. I am stage managing thirteen actors, and carry around a big beige canvass bag that I brought from home – my traveling desk containing my notebook – the ever changing script, rehearsal schedules, water bottles, and the all important contact sheets plus office supplies for the cast – three hole punch, and red pens and yellow highlighters which Dustin requires. It is heavy and I lug it everywhere and I don’t care because I am happier than I have been in years. There’s me and Dustin and Stephanie on the Broad Stage figuring out the blocking. He is so happy to be in the theater. He loves the theater – just like his character Michael Dorsey in Tootsie. He tells another story – “I remember when Anne Bancroft was working on that play – her first – what was that play”? And I say “oh the William Gibson play Two For The Seesaw – I worked on that in my acting class.” I have cred. He loves me. He loves everyone. He makes friends with a worker pounding nails. He invites a techie to be in the show – playing a techie as he had scripted an opening about how we were testing out the theater and wanted the techie to just cross the stage. Dustin is very in the moment. And he tells stories all along the way. “When I was working with Olivier” and “when I was working with DeNiro” and not showing off – just so happy and humbled to share his lucky life with us and from this point on, everything just morphs and escalates with the opening approaching. I am everywhere doing everything – scrambling and working my ass off – like everyone else. I love being part of the Broad Stage team. Everyone is talented, professional, dedicated. No one has seen their families, done their laundry, slept. And no one works harder than Dustin. “Amy – call these actors and see if they can come in early I want to work with them separately before rehearsal”. He and I just clicked. I know what to do, I know my way around the theater, I know and understand the material, how to work with actors and I am not intimidated by his celebrity and am comfortable telling him where to go and how to get there and he likes that – he likes me taking charge of him and I do respectfully. There’s Dustin out on the patio working with Ben on his lines and I am walking by and Dustin calls me over. “Ben – read it for Amy”. And Ben reads, “The accused shall enjoy the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense”. “Amy, what does that mean”? And we discuss it. There’s me and Dustin and Stephanie, outside the campus grounds discussing the script. It is hours after Dustin was supposed to have left but he stayed and stayed and I am bringing him food because he is hungry and I know what he likes and when he needs to eat. We are arguing over a passage in the script about “the people” who debated and Dustin is asking what people and Stephanie who is so smart is saying “the men and the women in the town meetings and taverns” and I pipe in – ‘oh no, the women DID NOT participate in the town hall meetings – they did NOT have say in the government” and we are arguing and I get my books out of my car and make my case and just like that I have script input and they change it. They recognize my contribution and the next day send out an email acknowledging my contribution as the “feminist historical monitor.” The script is constantly being changed – sometimes hourly and I am the one to get the actors the changes and we have all grown so close now as you do when you are working on a play. We have marathon rehearsals scheduled and oh it’s Dustin’s birthday so I come in with homemade cupcakes. “Amy” says Annette from across the room – “did you make these?” “Yes I did”. “You are so sweet”. Big hug. Of course, I never ever would have been able to dedicate myself like this if I had my children to take care of. Thank God my husband left me four years ago! Ha! Never thought I would actually mean that. The little “soft opening” has so morphed into a big deal with everyone and their mother calling for tickets. I answer the phone and it’s Denzel Washington’s manager asking for tickets for Denzel and I hand the phone to Denise saying, “I’m wearing my red dress”. The show day itself is ambitiously planned with a 1PM dress rehearsal with an invited audience, a 4PM show for the educators and Santa Monica College, there is a 6PM cocktail reception and art unveiling, the big 7:30 final show which KUSC radio is taping – can it get any more complicated? Yes. Norman Lear’s private original copy of the Declaration of Independence printed the night of July 4th 1776 – one of two hundred – is being flown in to be displayed in the lobby. And there’s a big party after with all sorts of celebrities and LA royalty coming but all anyone can talk about is Warren Beatty. And they are still pounding nails.
Finally, Kent Nagano and the 17-piece orchestra arrive with out first rehearsal on the stage with EVERYONE – actors and musicians slated for the afternoon. We spend the morning blocking – everyone is getting more comfortable with their lines and characters. Annette Bening is experimenting and playing around with her lines and speeches –heavy stuff – including also a great scene with Schiff playing John Adams to her Abigail where they argue brilliantly. Her voice is the most gorgeous instrument. I am busy as a bee finding toilet paper and taking care of the actors, getting Dustin his water and making sure he doesn’t lose his glasses or cell phone and even standing in for him while he directs and generally stage managing and then we break until the actual run through for the first time with Kent Nagano and the orchestra – and Annette reminds Dustin that she can’t be there so he says “OK, Amy will go in for you”. Yeah. So there I am with the cast and they are all so happy for me and tell me how I deserve to be up there and Rosario Dawson is so great and remembers all the blocking and cues me when I forget and Dale and all sorts of people I work with are in the audience and I do it. I read Thomas Paine’s gorgeous words. I AM Abigail Adams arguing with Richard Schiff’s John Adams “If a form of government is to be established here, what one will be assumed? Will it be left to our assemblies to choose one? And will not many men have many minds? And shall we not run into dissentions among ourselves? I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature,” …I love that speech and I feel like I am on acid – it is surreal – and then and I read the speech – “In the new code of laws I would desire you would Remember The Ladies and be more favourable and generous to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited powers into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Afterwards, Stephanie says “you did great” and Dustin says “Amy, I didn’t know you could act so good.”
I cannot reconcile to my feelings. But they felt pretty good.
We all stay late blocking and discussing costumes and Dustin tells me I am the cast understudy – come prepared. I cannot help thinking that a few months ago I was in absolute hell, working as a prop girl on the set of a Baby Einstein video, fetching toys that I couldn’t find or put together for well paid hand models that I envied. Life is so unexpected.
Sunday – show day – arrives. I fly down the 10 Freeway and there is another revised script. “No, I tell the writers – we are NOT making new copies. The actors have all been making notes on their scripts – I will just tell whomever is affected the changes and they can write them in”. They obey me. Me. It is show time and I am right there taking care of my Dustin. I have two favorite moments from show day. One – all week Dustin needs his bananas and gave me a long lecture about the properties and benefits of potassium so I made sure there were always bananas on the hospitality table and it’s 3:45 – places – and I am backstage with my red pens and highlighters and labeled water bottles when one of Dustin’s two assistants comes panting up to me in a panic “Dustin wants a banana and there aren’t any. Calmly, I tell her. Go downstairs to Dressing Room A and in my beige canvass bag you will find a banana. She does and I am a hero. Great moment. We get through the first two shows and I am in the wings on the floor with my book taking notes and now we have one more show to go and my Dustin is exhausted. I see it in his eyes. There are people everywhere and I take his hand and say come. I know where you can take a nap. Upstairs in the brand-new green room there is the one and only couch. Up we go and there is Annette – asleep on the couch. Nate and Ben on the floor. Dustin will not disturb them. I take him downstairs, determined, and on the stage it is quiet and empty. I see the piano with its big cover and like Scarlett in Gone With The Wind, I dramatically sweep it off the piano, lay it on the floor and make him a bed. Go to sleep I tell him. He obediently does and I pull up the piano bench, sit and guard. He is out like a light. He is seventy-one years old. People walk by and I shush them and point. They are impressed and obediently quiet.
The whole glorious day and night are a big success. Everyone does great, the party is fabulous. And let me tell you, when Warren Beatty looks at you – and he looked right at me – everything just fades away like in the movies. What a night. I drive home delirious. I cannot help thinking about the last two years and how my divorce and job search have left me feeling – humiliated and degraded, disgusted, demoralized and so depressed with my questioning every life choice I had made. Here I am, a not young female stage character actress in a youth obsessed TV and movie town who writes – not screenplays – not pilots – but womens’ history and I end up on stage with Dustin Hoffman playing Abigail Adams. Yes the stars had aligned to offer me some fantastic karmic payback. There was some kind of intense harmonious convergence that happened where every life skill and past experience I had came to serve me so perfectly.
I’m not very religious but I will say, if God were a woman she’d be a Broad.