Ghost Story

From around 2005 to 2010, my theatre company, Mildred’s Umbrella Theater, used a performance space called MIDTOWN ARTS CENTER. This is not the Midtown Arts Center that is called MATCH, which is new, clean and not cheap. I don’t think it has enough of a track record yet to be haunted.

If you google Midtown Art Center, that’s the one you’ll see. It’s the only one many people know about.

No, The Midtown Arts Center we used to use was a different one. I know it’s been there a really long time, and it has been declared a historical building. It’s so historical that it’s still standing and being used for theatre, even though it is falling down in places and certain areas of it might even not be safe to be in. This Midtown Art Center definitely has character. Its also haunted as hell.

Midtown Art Center a 3414 LaBranch.

Never mind the holes in the walls that the water would get in when it rained, or the mice and other ‘pets’ that we’d see here and there. That kind of thing is easily gotten past for a needy group of young artists, and it barely phased us. However, this was the site of the two most supernatural events that ever happened to me.

Some photos from shows I directed there: DARK MATTER (2007) and A MURDER OF CROWS (2008)

So, the stage in the space had no work lights, and it had really dim house lights, so basically, if you were working in there to build or rehearse, you had to turn on the stage lights to see anything. Whoever opened up the space for the day (usually me) had to walk from the front door, all the way down a long, dark hallway, to the backstage area to turn on the breakers and the AC. Then, you had to walk all the way back to the front of the space with only the lobby lights to guide you, up a ladder and into the tech booth in the dark to turn on the stage lights. I did this every time on arrival, and I was usually alone, and it always felt like someone was watching me, but that is easily dismissed as paranoia when you’re alone in an old building.

So, this one time, I was walking from the front to the breakers, alone as usual, and once I passed a certain spot in the hallway, it was suddenly cold. Then, I heard whispering that seemed to be getting closer to me until it was right in my ear! It was like… “Sskpskgt… SEE ME!” It sounded like a child’s voice, and I felt the air in my ear like it was someone’s breath. I nearly wet myself! I ran back outside and waited for one of my actors to arrive, and then we went back in together. There was nobody in that building and no way to get out or in besides the front door, which I was guarding until the actor arrived.

Later that same month, when that show was open, another thing happened. Our set had a white cyc curtain across the back with space for actors to walk between it and the wall that was behind it. I had just turned off the AC, and everyone had left, but I could hear a couple of the actors talking outside as I was locking up. No air was moving in the space and nobody but me was in there. I went up to the booth to turn the stage lights off, and as I was about to pull down the lever, I saw the unmistakable shape of a hand run itself along that back curtain, like someone was walking through there with their hand out. I screamed and the actors came running back in and we looked all over that space and nobody was there.

I was never in there alone again, but we did perform there for a few more years after that. We’d probably have gone back there again if the people who run it would ever get back to us. However, I’m very wary of being alone in any theatre, although we’ve had 4 other regular spaces since then, and I’ve never had an experience like that anywhere else.

THE FLU SEASON, by Will Eno (directed by Matt Huff) 2010


Bon Voyage, Goddess

My blog gets ignored for a while when I’m busy, but I felt the need to post after the passing of one of my favorite celebrities of all time, Olivia Newton-John.   Everyone who knows me knows that Xanadu is my favorite movie ever. I shout to the sky on a regular basis that I love it, and it’s my go-to comfort movie. When Olivia passed, I got numerous messages of condolence from people who know me, as if she were a friend of mine. There is no way I can not blog a tribute to her right now. 

Throughout my childhood I had heard songs by Olivia Newton-John on the radio, and I’d seen her photo on an album cover that my mother had, but I had never seen her alive in 3-D. We didn’t have music videos or youtube or streaming yet, so unless you happened to catch a TV show someone was on right at the time it aired, or you went to a concert, you might never see your favorite musical acts in anything but a still photo. That all changed when I was 8 years old, and  I saw Grease at the movies. 

I loved Grease for many reasons, but mostly because of Olivia. Recently, I’ve been told that schools don’t do it anymore because the message is bad due to Sandy changing to a bad girl to please a man. Also, the world has changed, and people would probably call CPS on you if you let kids watch that movie with some of the content. However, when the film came out, people were a little more chill about that kind of thing, and we all saw it. I was 8, and my brother was 6, and we went with a group of similarly aged kids and a couple of moms from our neighborhood to see it on the big screen. Everyone at my elementary school was talking about it, so I know we weren’t the only kids who saw it.

That’s when I fell in love with Olivia. She was the prettiest person I’d ever seen, and  you could just tell she was also nice. Lots of people in movies are beautiful, but something about her transcended mortal beauty.  She was like some kind of fairy princess to me.  She had an aura of goodness that made her glow in a way I’d never seen anyone glow. 

A couple of years later, Xanadu came out, and again, a group of us went to see it. I was mesmerized by it. It had everything I loved:  roller skating, music by ELO, colorful costumes, a fairy tale plot, and especially Olivia Newton-John, who was finally appropriately cast as the goddess she already was. I was 10 years old, and I’d found my favorite movie of all time. It imprinted on me like no other film I’d ever seen or have seen since. Later, I watched it again on cable when that finally happened, and I have owned it on VHS, DVD and now streaming. I watch it at least 3 times a year. I make sure to share on social media that I’m watching it, and I try to get others to give it a try so they can also bask in the glory that is Xanadu. I consider it my responsibility. It is a public service.

Now, I know all the shitty things that critics have said about that film, and I don’t care. They often miss the point of art, in my opinion. Also, I heard that Michael Beck, who plays her love interest in the movie, has said that the film ‘ruined his career’.  I believe he overestimates himself a bit with that statement. He  was flavor of the month right then because he was popular in some other film right before it, but he was the least fabulous thing about Xanadu. In fact, any decent looking guy  with a talent for wearing jeans and speaking English could have been cast in that role, and it wouldn’t have made any difference to the film.  He barely matters and didn’t even sing in it. Cliff Richard sang the songs we’re supposed to think are him.  His acting is mediocre, and his career would have probably tanked anyway once that started being obvious. How anyone could be bitter when they got to be part of the best film ever and actually touch Olivia Newton John AND Gene Kelly is beyond me. I thought he was cute when I was 10, but he was dead to me after he said that nonsense. He needs to sit down.

But back to Olivia… In addition to her fairy princess looks, her angelic voice, and her obvious inner beauty, she  was also an activist for animal rights and the founder of a cancer treatment center in Australia. She has used her fame to raise money for both causes for most of her life.  I wasn’t surprised about either of those things. I could tell from the first moment I saw her that she loved animals, and her long battle with cancer made her want to help others who were suffering from it. 

Olivia has been ridiculed as too soft or mainstream in the past. Someone even said she is what would happen if “white bread could sing”. But her reply was, “well, white bread is very popular, so I’m going to take that as a compliment.” She always saw the positive in things, and I agree. She wasn’t edgy or weird. She was popular. She didn’t write her own music or lyrics, but her voice was one of the best voices of our time. She was lovely and charming and perfect.

Olivia, you made the world better by simply existing., and you will always be in my heart. 

 Bon voyage, goddess!  

What’s in a photo?

The cast of TOMORROW MORNING, by Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Co. 2004

Sometimes a photo pops up on social media, and at first glance, it’s just a random photo of random people. To anyone who wasn’t there, that’s all it is; completely unremarkable. It’s a fairly boring photo of some attractive people sitting passively  and fairly expressionless, posing for a group photo. It almost looks like one of those school class photos from elementary school in the way it is laid out. 

However, if you were there, you might be transported to the moment of the photo. There are humans involved, and if you were there,  and in the photo, you know exactly what was going on with at least one of them.  

This photo was an early play done by my theatre company, Mildred’s Umbrella Theater. It was  an original play called TOMORROW MORNING. It was written by our playwright at the time, John Harvey (top left), with input by myself (in the jean jacket) and Greg Dean (down right). We had just had our first successful show a few months before, and we excitedly cranked out another one in a very tight window of time when we had the space again. 

The play was about a train taking a group of people to the Auschwitz museum, but they eat some drugged food and a wormhole opens in time , and they find that they are really going to a concentration camp.  Two of the actors were waiters who turned into Nazis at the end, and one was a singing angel on a separate platform that watched in horror as the events unfolded, and reacted in song.  The idea was really ambitious, and we didn’t have enough time or resources to fully realize the project, and it was kind of a mess when it opened. It had some really good moments, but we needed more time to make it what it deserved to be.  We learned a lot from that show. Here are some photos from the show. they aren’t the best. We were just learning to be digital at that point, but you can tell that the show was far more interesting than the cast photo.

If you just look at that cast photo with us in our street clothes, it looks like a passive cast photo, but there is so much going on when I look at it.   There are so many stories here. 

  1. I think I was coerced into sitting for this photo, and was really about to lose my mind trying to get the show up and not kill anyone. I was pissed off at everyone by about this time  (you can see the tension if you look closely). Not that it was anyone’s fault. I just was acting in the play, and producing the whole thing on a shoestring. Back then, I always ended up dealing with the set, and picking up slack in every area of the show, so I was super stressed out every time we opened anything. 
  1. A few  people in this picture don’t speak to each other anymore. There are 2 friendships and one romantic relationship here that ended  very tragically. 
  1.  There is one person in the photo that none of us talk to anymore. Several of us have that person blocked from our lives in every way.  
  1. Two of these people are now married to each other and living in Europe. I keep in touch with them. 
  1. One of these people now lives in New York, and another lives in Austin. I still talk to them online. 
  1. Of the ones who still live in Houston, I am still very close to two of them. I run into two of the others once in a while, and we say hello and remember each other fondly. 

When we are all gone, this photo will go back to being unremarkable. A photo like this means nothing if you weren’t there.  

You’ll survive, sad girl.

I came across a picture of you online. You are the me of I2 years ago. You are standing in an art gallery, next to a carved, wooden horse, wearing your favorite blue dress with the seahorse embroidered on the skirt. You are there because you directed and produced a play in that art gallery. You are smiling, but you are miserable. You aren’t even really sure you will survive. I’m here to tell you that you will. Eventually. 

You started a theatre a few years before with nothing but dreams and fairy dust. It consumes you, but it never makes you full. You are the only constant, but nobody seems to see you. They only see the people you are putting in the light. You don’t want to kill it, so it’s killing you. You try to walk away, and people say,  ‘No! We need you’. You’re afraid that if you leave, you’ll have to leave behind your self-worth, which is tied to that theatre like a battered hostage. The money you work hard to raise pays everyone else, but there’s nothing left for you, so you also have to work in other places for money so you can live. Twice, you worked 48 hours straight with no sleep so a show could open on time. You once went seven years in a row with no vacation. 

Three months before this picture was taken, your marriage fell apart. One week before the photo was taken, a rebound relationship that you fell into in a panic crashed and burned, leaving you feeling like trash. You have friends, but you’ve been away from them so much working that they often forget to invite you anymore. You turn to unstable types that make a point to be where you are to get a piece of what you’ve created. They wear the faces of friends, and your head is such a mess, you can’t tell the difference. It’s just nice to have someone to talk to sometimes. When this photo was taken, a person you thought was a friend had just turned on you. She had sucked all the blood she could from you and found you not to be useful anymore. While you stand here smiling, she is tweeting about what garbage you are. You think she might be right. 

You are ashamed that you are falling apart, that you are spending all your time working or drinking wine alone That you lash out at people in messages That you cry almost every day. That you have wondered more than once if anyone would care if you just weren’t there anymore. You stay on that lonely island that you created because it seems like all you have, and if you leave it,  it will die. Or maybe you will die. Everyone else will go wherever they all go when they don’t need what you have to offer them there, and you will be stuck where you are, holding an empty bag. 

You need rest. You need help. You need therapy. There is no time for any of that. You are a wreck. 

I am here to tell you that it will get better. Not right away. You still have a few more pretend friends to deal with and a couple more shitty relationships, because all you really want is love and security, and you keep missing the mark. The universe will finally lead you to someone worthy, and you will marry him. Your real friends will forgive you for all the years you were crazy. They will welcome you back with open arms. Others will shut you out and never forgive you, but you don’t need those people. They think they are nicer than they actually are. 

You will never find a fairy godmother. You will never be fully appreciated for your sacrifice. But you will find a way to find your worth in other ways. You will find ways to make it not matter so much. 

I look at you, pretty, blue-dress girl, and I give you a hug in my mind. You are in the last days of your youth, and you can’t even enjoy it.  You have done something great, whether you or anyone else can see that you have.  I’d never want to be you again. You are a sad, lonely wreck. But you’ll be ok eventually. 

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