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TBA Online: News & Features: May 2013

One-Eyed, One-Armed Directing

Monday, June 3, 2013   (0 Comments)
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By Michaela Goldhaber   

In June 2008, at the age of 36, I had a stroke that paralyzed the left side of my body and destroyed the vision in my right eye. I could not bend or lift my left arm, open my left hand or take a step with my left leg. I spent most of my day in a wheelchair. I was sure that my career as an emerging theatre director and producer had been destroyed as well.

Playwright Ellen K. Anderson and director Michaela Goldhaber working on Bedtime in Detroit. Photo: Mark D'Angelo

When my stroke hit, I had been in New York for almost 10 years. I had my own theatre company, Flying Fig Theatre, which I cofounded with Heather Ondersma. I had directed or produced eight plays for Flying Fig, and my production of Shiloh Rules by Doris Baizley had received a favorable review in the New York Times. For my day job, I did fundraising at New York Theatre Workshop, which allowed me to meet many of the most creative people in the business and watch them developing their work.

After four months in Manhattan rehab facilities, I left that all behind. The insurance company decided I was mobile enough that it could kick me out of rehab with a clean conscience, and my partner and I moved across the country to live with my parents in Berkeley. Besides the love and support of my family, both Berkeley’s weather and urban design are much friendlier to disabilities.

And so I came back to the house that I grew up in. There was much drama, but no theatre. My health was far from the norm. My daily routine was an ever-changing schedule of neurologists, hematologists, nephrologists and therapists (physical, occupational and psychological). Between all the needles, drugs, orthotic braces, EEGs, MRIs and exercise regimes, the theatre world seemed much more distant than the 3,000 miles from New York to California.

But the more those treatments helped get me back on my feet, the more I wanted that world back. It was time to write that play that I never could find the time to write in New York. So I signed up for playwriting class with Gary Graves at Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and started a new a new life as a playwright. I learned to type pretty fast with one hand and continued doing various forms of outpatient rehab four to six days a week. Writing broke up the monotony of rehab and gave me a creative outlet. Through a series of classes and groups, I began to reconnect with the Bay Area theatre scene, which had grown exponentially during the time that I had been in New York. So many thriving small companies! All of this made me hunger to direct again, and I began to seek out opportunities.

I went back to directing in the summer of 2011, three years after my stroke, thanks to Nick A. Olivero and Peter Matthews of Boxcar Theatre. I took inspiration from one of my favorite directors, Max Stafford-Clark, who was directing again a year after his stroke. Boxcar Theatre’s Directing Lab Performance Series accepted my proposal to direct Bedtime in Detroit, by one of Flying Fig's frequent collaborators, Ellen K. Anderson. The play takes place on Devil’s Night, when citizen armies, enraged and demoralized by the decay of their once thriving Motor City, roam the streets of Detroit, setting fire to abandoned buildings. In a long-abandoned firehouse on the banks of the Detroit River, four accidental conspirators who still love their city are planning to save it. Peter Matthews (at that time co-artistic director of Boxcar) kindly offered to help me with the producing side, and I plunged in.

By this time I was walking, with only a brace on my leg for stability and a splint on my arm, but I didn’t know how I would direct. My body seemed like a completely new place. In daily life, that was scary enough, but directing a play is a rigorous physical process. Before the stroke, I rarely sat behind a table in rehearsals. I was up on my feet, working out blocking with the actors and watching from different vantage points. When I did sit, I would perch on a rehearsal block, ready to jump up again. How could I direct when it was such a frustrating process to get washed and dressed in the morning? I posed that question to my wise Feldenkrais practitioner, Sonja H. Sutherland. She said, "Plenty of people don’t have any trouble getting dressed in the morning, but they can’t direct a play." I would remind myself of that many times along the way.

In addition to my physical limitations, the stroke had destroyed almost half my vision; I doubted my ability to even look at a stage properly. Before I submitted my proposal I had talked about my fears to Tony Taccone of Berkeley Rep (I assisted him back in 2001 and had kept in touch). His response was typically blunt: he looked squarely at me and covered one eye with his hand. "That's bullshit," he said. "I could direct just fine like this. Get out there and do it."

A much greater obstacle was stamina. When I was in New York, I worked 40-plus hours a week at my day job and directed four hours a day, six days a week during my productions. Sometimes now, it takes several hours for me to feel fully awake in the morning, and then I only have a few hours of productive time before the evening exhaustion rolls in. I planned for it by taking a leave of absence from my part-time job and cutting back on my rehab schedule. The auditions themselves felt like a triumph; working with actors again felt so right and natural, like coming home. My head was completely clear, and I went to bed happy. But I didn't get up again for more than a day. I was terrified: if one day of auditions did this to me, how would I face weeks of rehearsal?

The second day of casting was much like the first: working with actors put me in high spirits, followed by exhaustion. My solution was to build a few more days off into the rehearsal schedule to allow myself to be exhausted. With the cast in place, I was beginning to find my stride. We did a few sessions of reading and discussion of the play, and I was clear-headed throughout.

Boxcar Theatre Studios is a 40-seat black box. A talented design team (set by Jacqui Martinez, lights by Mark D’Angelo, costumes by Stacy Stagnaro and sound by Brian Cuellar) and I were turning it into Detroit on Devil’s Night. With design sketches and groundplans in hand I was walking the actors through the bare space, explaining the layout of the set, when I became terribly, embarrassingly confused. It took me by surprise, since previously I had almost no cognitive problems from my stroke (aside from a morning fuzzy-headedness that I call "porridge head"). But early in my rehab I had had problems locating my left arm, even when I was staring right at it. As I learned how to walk again, I would get confused about where my left leg was in space. In that moment of confusion, I feared that the same phenomenon (loss of proprioception) had taken away my director's sense of spatial relations. I was ready to send the actors home. But my extraordinary stage manager, Kathleen Gabriel, gently stepped in and guided us through the groundplan. I made it through the rest of the rehearsal, but left in a funk, convinced that I was in over my head.

That night I had a long talk with my former theatre partner Heather Ondersma, and my head cleared. She helped me to realize that a shift in attitude was called for—I didn’t have to figure it all out myself. Rather than trying to squeeze my new body into old patterns, I must find new ways to do everything—to interact physically with actors, to understand the dimensions of the stage, to delegate to others. I’ve always played well with designers, but now I needed to ask for more help. Jacqui, Kathleen and I spent the next afternoon taping out the dimensions of the set—standard procedure for any production that has a dedicated rehearsal space. It was a luxury we were rarely able to indulge in my days in New York, as we skipped around from rehearsal space to rehearsal space, sharing with dozens of other companies. With the set clearly taped out on the floor, it made perfect sense to me, and I was able to guide the actors through it. It wasn’t a spatial relations distortion; I just needed things spelled out more clearly.

To begin blocking, Kathleen set me up with a chair and table for my script, and everything I needed laid out for easy grabbing. We began work on a challenging scene in which Hank (Dorian Lockett) and Lilly (Cristina Anselmo) kiss for the first time. The actors jumped right in, and with creative juices flowing I didn’t hesitate to get up to interact with them. I was on my way to try another approach to Lilly sitting on Hank’s lap when my body failed me. I couldn't make it onto his lap. I felt stuck in my own body, and retreated to my seat. The actors continued to play with the scene, and found an even better way for her to sit on his lap. I didn’t need to physically help them find it.

One page into Bedtime in Detroit, the script says of Axel (Durand Garcia) and Susan (Candace K. Brown) that "they make love everywhere but on the bed." Figuring out how to stage this scene when I wasn’t comfortable in my own body—and was having my own issues with post-stroke sexuality—was a daunting proposition. The old Michaela would’ve jumped right up there and helped them to find positions and relationships as a dance. As I prepped for rehearsal, I fought back frustration that I couldn’t do that and came up with a different approach: a story line progression for the sex and a location for each escalation of desire. When I met with the actors at the theatre to work on this for the first time on their feet, I began by sketching out this story line and the locations that I wanted them to hit on stage. As happens so often in rehearsal, the actors had a better idea of how to start things than I did, and together we found something fun and sexy.
I’ve always thought my main job as director is to ask questions about the play. Before my stroke, I would physically jump in to help the actors answer the questions. Now that my movement is restricted, I ask the questions and watch the actors find the answers. The actors enjoy the freedom and make strong creative choices. I’ve always considered myself a very collaborative director. I don’t need or even want to have the best idea in the room. My decreased mobility pushed me to release even more control, and the result was satisfying for all concerned.

I was sometimes frustrated by my inability to participate fully in the day-to-day work of production. It had always been my habit to get to rehearsal early and help the stage manager set up. With one working arm and questionable balance, there’s only so much moving things around that I could do, and I made it very clear from the beginning that I would need help with these things. Everyone was understanding and kind about it, but there definitely were some moments when I felt like I just had to get off my ass and help. I learned to ask the stage manager to give me small tasks that I could accomplish. And I figured out how to climb up into the back row of the theatre with minimal assistance.

Thanks to stage manager Alison Ostendorf, who stepped in at the last minute when Kathleen was injured in a bike/car accident, Bedtime in Detroit opened on August 11, 2011, to a full house and ran for eight performances. Tony Taccone was right. By the time I directed Bedtime in Detroit, my brain had adjusted to seeing out of one eye to the degree that it really wasn't an issue. I had even become a one-eyed, one-armed licensed California driver (you can sing it to the tune of "Purple People Eater") and bought a snappy red Nissan Versa.

I continue to balance rehab, writing and directing. I’ve written three plays since my stroke. I walk slowly, need a lot of rest, can’t climb a ladder up to the booth or shift the set by myself, but I can communicate my vision of a play to actors, designers and stage managers and lead them through a collaborative process to bring that play to an audience. I directed two staged readings for Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco’s "Repro Rights" benefit for Planned Parenthood in October and one for the SF Olympians Festival in December. As a finalist for the Titan Award for Directors (the culmination of Theatre Bay Area’s ATLAS program), I’m being mentored in 2013 by Crowded Fire artistic director Marissa Wolf.

Theatre Bay Area’s ATLAS program has entered my life at an ideal time. Directing "Bedtime in Detroit" gave me back my confidence and proved to me that I can be a one-eyed, one-armed director, and now ATLAS is giving me the tools and the kick in the butt to plan a course for relaunching my interrupted directing career.

Michaela Goldhaber will have her historical comedy, The Lady Scribblers, featured in the New Works Series at Butterfield 8 Theatre Company in Concord, June 28-30. Find out more at