The next day, July 1st we are scheduled a Tech Rehearsal at Tenth Avenue Theatre at 8pm -10.30pm. Bryant calculates if we can get all the lighting and sound cues sorted in the first hour we have time for a full run through afterwards.
We are called to meet again upstairs at 6.30pm in the rehearsal space just outside the office and Bryant is delivering the settee, side tables and props so we can have a dress run through with set before the tech.
Earlier in the day I email Ryan to see if he wouldn’t mind giving me a lift in to town later as he lives out near to me. “Oh, sure, of course, no that’s like, totally fine.”
In fact, knowing it will be a late night at the theatre I suggest he might like to join me for a late lunch at the local Italian place on the corner of Adams Ave, which calls itself Antique Café. He says he’d be delighted and in fact it’s a nice opportunity to get to know him a little better as there is little time to chat in rehearsals. He never hangs out in this area he tells me and assumed, like me, that Antique Café was, in fact, an antique store!
I have one of their specials; a wonderful stir-fry chicken dish on rice while he orders a burger in a bap when he arrives. We sit outside on the corner boardwalk in the welcome shade of trees, enjoying a perfect Californian afternoon relaxing in the lull before driving into town for a full evening of rehearsals and Tech run.
Since relocating from San Francisco, Ryan appears to have done extremely well establishing himself in professional stage management in theatres in California at the tender age of twenty-three. He was recent stage manager on The Mother Fucker With a Hat at Cygnet Theatre and got his big break work training at the Old Globe Theatre after pestering the Artistic Director with daily emails and phone calls till he finally caved in. Persistence pays off being the moral of this particular tale! He then worked at another San Diego theatre and has news of just getting another show after mine so he is certainly on the right track!
Tenth Avenue Arts Center exterior is painted a curious dung colour, and seems to be similarly rendered the texture of an old cigar. Art Deco in style, it is reminiscent of cinema architecture. It’s symmetrical sleek lines and large multi-pane windows, set between four tapering squared columns running the full height of the building are redolent of a Mondrian painting.
I believe it’s an old 1920’s chapel that was converted into a theatre some years ago. The building next door was originally The First Baptist Church where the faithful worshipped since the 1800’s. I’m going to quote directly from the website since it tells the curious history most succinctly.
“In the mid-1920’s, a generous member of the congregation donated money so that the church could build a chapel. The benefactor’s intent was to provide a 24-hour place of worship for the military personnel of San Diego arriving home from a long stint at sea. The thought was that if sailors arrived in port at three in the morning, they should be able to come to a house of worship for comfort, prayer and motivation.”
It also cites the story of the ghosts that are said to haunt the building and again I shall let the website regail the stories.
“Ghost 1- The British Lieutenant
During World War II, a Navy doctor had a special tradition upon returning to the United States, he would go to a nearby church and pray for the men he treated, but could not save. One particular soldier had suffered a gruesome chest wound. The doctor desperately worked to save the man’s life to no avail. The doctor was cupping the soldier’s heart when he felt the heart give its final beat. The doctor simultaneously felt some odd sensation throughout his body.
When the doctor returned to port in San Diego he set out to fulfil his solemn tradition of praying for the souls of his fallen comrades. He did this at the chapel of the First Baptist church. He reported that he entered the sanctuary and sat down in a pew at the back row. He knelt to pray and was suddenly rocked backwards against the pew. As he gazed to the ceiling with his eyes and mouth wide open, he felt that same odd sensation that he experienced back at the field hospital on Okinawa. A church official found him slumped to the floor and unconscious where he had been kneeling. It seems as though the spirit of the British Lieutenant had entered the doctor’s body back in that hospital and was now free and had taken up residence at 930 Tenth Avenue.
Following this doctor’s visit to the chapel, the eerie echo of a British officer’s voice has been heard throughout the building. At times, it sounds like the officer is barking out orders as if in battle. Other times, the voice seems to be keeping soldiers marching in unison with a staccato march cadence. He has even been heard singing pub songs as if celebrating the victory in the Pacific over Japan.”
Ghost 2- Missy
When the building was occupied by the First Baptist Church the rooftop was used for a variety of outdoor activities. The church youth took advantage of the great downtown playground for such games as basketball, badminton, volleyball, and shuffleboard. On one particularly hot day in October, a girl named Missy had had enough fun on the roof and wanted to go back downstairs to get out of the heat. The pastor supervising the handful of kids on the rooftop reassured Missy that right after the current basketball game ended the group would be going down to the social hall on the second floor for refreshments but impatient, she bolted for the staircase.
The pastor excused himself from his referee duties and ran after Missy. In the stairwell, Missy had made it down the first flight of stairs. When she heard the pastor calling her name, she turned the episode into a game and yelled out to “Catch me if you can!” The pastor quickened his pace down the stairs and as he rounded the landing between the third and second floor, he heard the last words of Missy’s young life. All she was able to shout was “Catch me…” before the pastor heard a small shriek, then a series of dull thumps.
Missy’s body was found at the bottom of the stairs on the second floor, her head split open and leaking blood. The horror-stuck pastor scrambled down the stairs to the twisted body of the dead girl. He would never be the same.
Missy has been known to only roam the stairwell. The thought is that she is playing in that vertical playground for eternity. While travelling the building’s stairwell, a person might have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the little girl peering around the corner of a landing. She’s easy to recognize. She had mid-length dark hair with straight bangs across her forehead. She also sports a white headband. She’s wearing a green and white striped dress and will draw attention with her whimsical smile.
Ghost 3- The Baptist Pastor
The pastor who ran after Missy never recovered from the idea that he had caused Missy’s death. After the tragic accident, “Catch me…” echoed in the pastor’s brain, just as it had echoed off the smooth, plaster stairwell walls. Eventually the pain and guilt reached a level that was intolerable for the pastor.
On the morning of Monday, November 25, 1963, the church secretary unlocked the front door to the church and proceeded up the stairs to her mezzanine floor office. She was still thinking about the inspirational sermon the pastor had given the day before. He spoke beautifully about the need to be strong after the horrible assassination of President John F. Kennedy that had occurred on Friday.
The secretary knocked on the pastor’s door. There was no response. She walked back down to the first floor and entered the sanctuary and called out for the pastor. She noticed a dim light glowing from a cloakroom on the side of the altar. Thinking that the pastor was organizing the choir robes from the day before, the secretary walked down the side aisle of the large chapel and called out to him. She entered the small room and uttered the pastor’s name again. Suddenly she recoiled in horror as she stared up at the dead body of the pastor hanging from a storage loft access ladder.”
As we arrive we decide to ascend the fourth floor in the small period 1930’s wooden lift, the type one first has to slide open the panelled door of, then the metal safety grill, and close again after you before it can ascend. It’s like a leap of faith and a prayer and not something I would wish to be stuck in for any length of time!
When we reach the fourth floor, Loie and Rhianna are changing into costume in the office and Ryan gets a message that Bryant has arrived downstairs. I offer to go down with him and help with the props.
He has a small settee on the back of his open truck, an impressive American affair he has borrowed from his father to transport the furniture. The settee is a small two-seater lightweight metal frame of a summerhouse style with lift off padded seating that is the perfect solution for transporting around. And by sheer luck or design it just fits within an inch or two into the tiny lift to take it upstairs. While we are negotiating it through the sliding door and concertinaed metal trellis Bryant suddenly regails us with ghost stories about the theatre. He has seen something more than once on the stairs; the figure of a little girl and whenever he arrives or leaves the building he greets them! He has worked here several times on his own accord and had to lock up last thing at night.
He has customised the settee with an attractive embroidered patchwork throw that we are instructed to tie on properly by Loie after she gets her cane caught up in one corner and nearly goes flying when her foot does likewise. A trick of fate is the two random golden damask cushions I picked up in the thrift store on a whim match perfectly with the cover!
Not only that but Bryant has very kindly lent his very own mahogany ‘Campaign style’ occasional table from home to lend a touch of class to the set design. He has also mustered a cut glass vase complete with fake flowers.
“The one thing with me is I have this almost obsessional attention to detail” he confides. It looks as though everything is coming together like a dream. What could possibly go wrong now?
I hear the scenes run for the first time since Saturday and the marked development that has taken place since I was absent all day on Sunday and I am thrilled to get a glimpse of the magic that might finally be achieved. I am sat upstairs with Ryan who is deputising whilst Bryant decamps downstairs to start setting up the tech sound and lighting cues. I tell Bryant I can see the way its come on while I was away and saw a glimpse upstairs of something special, by way of encouragement. It seemed we were finally on target for a coming of age for this show.
When finally we get onto the main stage at Tenth Avenue it is a huge cavernous space with the recognisable proportions of a church and one in which my actors are clearly going to have to play “bigger” and throw their voices far. They appear slightly overwhelmed on first impression by the available space after that of our rehearsals.
Tech runs can be extremely dull but I enjoy being involved in all the processes of a show to understand how directors work with lighting and sound to weave magic around a script.
So for the first time I get to hear the sound effects that Bryant envisages for my piece. I have been slightly alarmed by his verbal imitation of clocks ticking in rehearsals as Sitwell waits impatiently for Monroe to arrive at the top of the play. But I like the fact he is bringing something different to the mix and I understand that it is there to represent the passing of time, while Sitwell waits for longer than any real time we can afford on stage. I also like the Hollywood score he has found to open the show, it strikes the right flavour and period for the piece.
Seeing the different lighting moods is an eye opener. We choose a very sexy half lit pre- set when the audience come in where the set is just illuminated. Bryant selects an unusual backlit dark transition zone between scenes, that don’t go to blackout as I had stipulated in the script but an intriguing semi-darkness. He then works out a dumb play drama between scenes where there is an element of silent film acting as Cukor serves the two ladies champagne after scene one then collects glasses from them after scene two but Marilyn refuses to part with hers until Cukor seizes it, which then gives her motive to storm off set ready for her locking herself in the ladies before scene three. It works beautifully and I love this element that is added. It seems to happen so naturally and organically. The music matches and underpins these inter-scenes with great aplomb.
Everything was coming together to make a sophisticated show and I was really looking forward to see how it would play on this wide, generous stage.
Then came time for the run through. It was as though a different cast had been asked to learn a new script that night. It was like watching a slow motion car crash as they lumbered through, forgetting lines and cues so slow it was like a different piece. It creaked, it limped, it apologised for what it might have been. Loie was particularly thrown by the novelty of the large stage, nervous and forgot lines. Rhianna’s words were lost when she turned to face Loie and Randy still fished for the correct sequence of his lines. It was dreadful and we all knew it.
I wasn’t hopelessly worried. I knew there was always a bad dress run before the opening night by law of averages and nerves. It was good to get the bad one out of the way to scare the actors a little into giving a storming performance at the first night in two days time.
What was to be done? Luckily there is one more rehearsal tomorrow night before first night the day after. Do you trust the moment and the actors to do their work on their own until it reaches the arc of perfection.
Bryant, a little shell shocked and distracted like me seems inclined to leave the production to fate trusting that the hard work had been done and now it is just a matter of polishing the fine surface of their toil. It’s late at night and the cast are all tired and anxious after a very disappointing run through and the toll of a full week of daily rehearsals.
Rhianna, usually self contained and smiling, is clearly upset and dashes away in tears explaining that she is so tired and just needs to get home to bed and get some rest before tomorrow. Whether it was sheer frustration at her own or others performance or a dawning realisation that she really isn’t quite sure what she has let herself in for and is now too far committed to extricate herself, I’ll never know. But it is a lot to ask of anyone to perfect such a complicated role in a week.
Loie, quiet and crestfallen surprises me most of all when I offer to walk her to her car. As we reach it, she turns round and asks me, matter of factly, “Could I have a hug, please”? Of course I oblige and I suddenly feel humbled as I realise for the first time behind the formidable façade here is an insecure, isolated human being, just like Sitwell or Monroe herself, wanting to do good and just like all of us, made aware of our own shortcomings and vulnerability, alone in our struggle to resonate with power and ambition in our chosen environment.
I return to the Theatre. They are storing away the settee and side table behind the seating area. We are the last one’s left in the building. As we walk back out to the hallway we turn out the lights and are plunged into darkness, an eerie silence befalls the place. “Goodnight” Bryant calls out to no one as he closes the large double doors, locking them behind him. “Thank you for having us”. “Oh, I always talk to the ghosts” he tells us. “They’re friendly. But you have to respect them.” He laughs at the novelty of his actions, as only someone who has been left to lock up a haunted building on his own in the dead of night knows.
I suppose in a way we are all of us ghosts too, passing through this brief dimension, leaving footprints, sounds and echoes behind us, some of us more strongly than others. I’m evoking the ghosts of Sitwell, Monroe and Cukor in my play. There is perhaps something strange in bringing the dead back to life on stage and making them interact with each other for a certain dramatic effect. But I hope, in so doing, I have managed to remain faithful to their personalities and to have captured their true spirit.
When Bryant first offered his personal stories of ghosts at the theatre, knowing I was to be working here for the next week and a half, I said tell me later. I never did hear them from him so I asked him if he wouldn’t mind writing down his experiences and so I give him the last word.
“In March, while in rehearsal for Tricks, we were rehearsing up on the 4th floor. Present in the room was the director, Sandra Ruiz, Devon Hollingsworth, her assistant director, Gail Phillips the stage manager, Jacob Cruz, an actor and myself. Right at the entrance (which are double doors with faded windows,) I noticed a shadow constantly peeking through the window. I walked over there and opened the door and nobody was present. It was as if a curious child wanted to know what was happening. I knew that was the little girl who died in that building. That wasn’t the only time we would see the little shadow girl peek through the window.
Downstairs while putting up the panels, the stage manager’s son, Jimmy Phillips saw a man standing near the entrance to the stage. He mentioned that he was a tall man that disappeared.
That same day, we noticed a shadow figure pacing up in the technical booth of the theatre. There was a blue light that would be covered every time he would pace near there.
During our tech/dress rehearsal, as Jacob and I were running Act I, in a moment of an emotional scene, just up stage left of us we heard a sound and all of a sudden, a cable of a stage light just came dangling down almost like the shape of a noose.”