In this blog post, Executive Director Leah Abrams discusses doing her job from 3,000 miles away, team sports, and CMTC winning SFBATCC awards.
As I write this, the last show of our subscription season is right about at intermission of a preview performance, and I am 3,000 miles away, feeling like I’m drawing to the end of my first year away from home, away from “my baby.” There is no doubt – having a theatre company is quite a lot like having a child. There is a sense of irony to this having been my first season living on the opposite side of the country, trying to fulfill this bizarre dream of a bi-coastal Custom Made. OK, it may not actually be ironic, but it’s closer than any example in that Alanis Morisette song (and I say that as one of her long-standing, biggest fans).
The irony – or something like irony – is that my first season as a long-distance Custom Made parent was our most successful. After years of multiple nominations, we finally won a Bay Area Theatre Critics’ Circle Award… and not just one, but five, including best overall production and best ensemble… for an Albee play. I mean, really, of all things to win for, you have to understand how good that feels – it’s Albee (and a more absurd Albee, at that), and it was Brian directing Albee which is pretty much just freakin’ beautiful and hilarious. I was reduced to watching a recording; this meant I experienced all the nude scenes as, essentially, a radio play. It didn’t matter in the least. I was beaming with the kind of pride I’m certain is what my parent friends describe of their kids’ accomplishments.
I was talking recently with Nancy Manocherian, the Founding Artistic Director at The Cell, who had just returned to New York from a few months away. The Cell is the theatre that has taken us under her wing in New York. Nancy and I were noting that there’s something about the distance from one’s own work that boosts the pride, that re-ignites that flame from days of old when you first started and had all these dreams of the work you’d create and the people you’d create with. Since moving away, I find I seek out opportunities to talk about Custom Made, and now I feel somehow freed to talk in a way that feels a little like bragging, to be honest.
Being at a distance from something that means everything to you – that is, in large part, your identity – lets you see it more like a third party, a little removed and, therefore, less judgmental. I first realized this when I’d spent a month in New York leading up to tech. week of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” the Guirgis play that opened our 2010/11 season. The show was enormous. Brian and Sarah and Shay had undertaken a project the scope of which I still cannot quite fathom. They were completely mired in, exhausted. When you’re in that place, there is no seeing the forest for the trees. But I had been away, and what I saw upon my return blew me away.
That experience was after a short break from San Francisco. This time, I went five months without being in the Bay Area. I missed last season’s “Merchant of Venice,” the first Shakespeare play I ever really loved (don’t ask – it goes back to a “Dead Poets’ Society” like English class). And I missed the first two plays of this season. I finally braved the flight again for “Torture” which felt sort of apropos because the first play I ever directed was a Durang, with a friend who then acted in Custom Made’s first show in Boston. That and Brian and I have a 20-year history with Durang – a story for another time.
If I thought I was gushing upon my return in 2010, I didn’t fully comprehend what that meant. There have been so many new faces at Custom Made this season, both on stage and backstage, and I hadn’t met any of them. As a result, the cast of “Torture” was a bit inundated by my pent-up enthusiasm for all I’d missed out on. They deserved it – I was so thoroughly entertained, and I found myself thinking, as I had with “Judas,” what a gift it is to work with such talent.
The truth is I’m a terrible critic. I hate a lot of the theatre I see. It makes me that much more fervent about the theatre I do like – just ask anyone who’s ever talked to me about the Raul Esparza-in-Pinter experience. My point is that I’m picky and I often go into plays expecting to be disappointed, thereby making it even harder to please me. And pleased is a mild description of how I felt about the Durang.
I headed back to New York feeling invigorated, anxious to get back again in just a couple of months for “Eurydice,” a production that faced a different kind of pressure to please – my expectations for it were extremely high, knowing the creative team and cast behind it, and I was also still terribly skeptical about pulling off one of my favorite Berkeley Rep play experiences of the last decade.
“Eurydice” marked my last trip to the Bay for the foreseeable future. What a trip it was. In 2004, when the lights came up on Berkeley Rep’s “Eurydice,” it was just a few years after my dad had unexpectedly passed away. The play seemed almost instantly to me to be what Eurydice herself says in Ruhl’s poetry about a wedding, “for a father and a daughter.” That production had enveloped me, the rest of the audience disappearing for me. Here I was, nearly ten years later, no less moved to tears, to a level of emotion I don’t often allow myself to experience.
For me, theatre is a lot like baseball – a great team sport. “Eurydice” was my dream team of creators – Brian’s global vision, Daunielle’s completely organic choreography, Liz’s seamlessly interwoven music, Katja’s emotional honesty in direction, Sarah’s and Maxx’s magical design, and an ensemble accomplishing feats I’m not sure they knew they had in them. Together, they were like watching the other great event of 2004 – the Red Sox World Series win. In case you’re confused, the 2004 World Series was the happiest moment of my life. A comparison to that team, in any manner, means you’ve thoroughly impressed me and touched a sense of deep emotional spirit somewhere under my cynical façade.
I came back to the east coast, overjoyed at everything Custom Made has accomplished this last year, more eager than ever to share our story. It was the night before my birthday – the birthday to represent the last year of my 30’s – that I got the texts and Facebook posts about the BATCC Awards. I admit it – I cried a little – those tears of joyful pride that I’ve seen from my mother and my grandmother when I’ve accomplished far less myself.
It matters not where I live, Custom Made is my home – my family, my baby. As we head into Craig Lucas’ “Prelude to a Kiss,” I can’t help but think how right it feels to close out such a stellar season with this play that welcomes back Stuart, a director I’ve come to think of as an essential member of our San Francisco family, and a cast of return favorites and yet more wonderful newcomers, to tell a story that embodies the kind of magic I’ve watched Custom Made artists weave for 14 life-changing seasons. What parent wouldn’t be proud?
Executive Director, Custom Made Theatre Co,