KJ Speaks

MUSE ME – A Play About Artistic Inspiration

12 May 2015

Katherine James:


My sister, Laura Ellen James, lived and died on February 5, 1955.

She would have been 60 years old this year.

For a year I thought to myself, “I would love to honor her birthday in some way in 2015 – give her some kind of birthday bash. After all, I would have given her a big party if she and I had spent those 60 years together.”

Of course I told no one.

There was really no one to tell. My mother, who is 89 years young, was in a coma that sad day in 1955. She and Laura Ellen were both victims of pre-eclampsia. She survived. My father, who was the only person other than me (I was turning 3 in April) conscious of the events of that terrible time had died in 2013. The day she was born and died he had named her “Laura Ellen” after the character “Laura Ellen James” in Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe . The “James” he had already given her by virtue of being her father.

Not only was I conscious, I remember so many of the events of that life-changing time for all of us. My mother claims I have the best and longest memory of any human being she has every known. So does my husband. My children. One of my granddaughters has managed to inherit it. It is a gift and a curse, the inability to forget.

For six decades I thought of her, spoke to her, dreamt of her and visited her grave in the baby section of Fairview Cemetary.

Then there came a period of time when I thought that she was my artistic inspiration.

Artistic inspiration. That instinct that tells you what words to write on the page as a playwright when you are stuck. Or what the character you are playing might do in that moment when you are acting. Or how to help the actors help you discover what the play you are directing is really all about.

It got really dicey for that period of time.

I thought I couldn’t do anything without her input.

At this point I happened to be doing some bodywork with someone who was also a very sensitive psychic. She told me, “Someone keeps trying to interfere with how you are expressing yourself as an artist. Tell her you are sorry she isn’t alive, but that you are and you have a right to express what you are meant to express.” “But it’s my sister,” I said. “So what?” she replied. “The world needs to know what you have to say. It’s sad and frustrating to be dead with so much left unsaid…but… that’s what happened to her. Not you.”

Gently I removed myself from Laura Ellen as anything but my dear sister who I would miss forever. I stopped confusing her as a source of artistic inspiration. And, of course, my work soared.

But I kept that relationship – the dead sister as muse relationship – in the back of my mind. I felt that somehow, some day, that relationship would be called on as the subject of a play.

When Tiffany announced the subject of the 2015 Little Black Ink National Female Playwrights Festival was “Outside The Lines” I knew that time had come. I tweaked the truth just enough – making The Artist a painter, and The Muse a twin sister rather than a younger sister. The first draft of MUSE ME flowed from my heart and my fingers. At the same time, a director from my home town asked if he could direct my play, THE OLD SALT (a finalist in 2014’s Little Black Dress Ink National Female Playwrights Festival), for a 10 minute play festival in the theater where I grew up. When was it? The festival would coincide with Laura Ellen’s 60th birthday.

I booked airline tickets for my mother and me immediately. I knew I was being given the gift for which I had asked.

February 5, 6, 7 and 8 of 2015 were amazing days for me. The glorious production of THE OLD SALT attended by so many from my past. Visiting friends and relatives. Going to see my sister and my father in the cemetery. Best of all was a special luncheon with a small number of women who were close to my mother and me, three of whom were associated with my home theater. I asked those theater friends to read MUSE ME at the luncheon. One read the stage directions, one read The Artist, and the third The Muse. The actress who read “The Muse” I chose especially not only because of her ability, but because she is the one who my mother trusts to take care of my sister’s and father’s graves. “But I feel like I know her!” she said before the reading. “I talk to her all the time!” “I know,” I said. “And that is why you get to play her.”

The reading was glorious and sacred. We all understood that we were there for Laura Ellen’s final birthday gift of the weekend. It is a moment I will keep in my heart until the day I die.

I look forward with joy and anticipation to sharing MUSE ME with the other semi-finalists this year on May 16th. This is a special one for me, and it is only right that it was inspired by one of the most extraordinary of theatre artists in my life – Tiffany Antone. Thank you, Tiffany, for choosing a festival theme that allowed me to find expression in this play which is so important to me as an artist and as a sister.

What’s The Difference Between A Great One-Person Show and Trying A Case? – The Act Of Communication Point Of View

16 December 2014

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin



This week I had the sheer pleasure of experiencing Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin at The Geffen Playhouse. My companion that evening was a wonderful director and producer I’ve known for over 30 years. I turned her onto Seth Rudetsky and she turned me onto Hershey Felder whose extensive bio begins but doesn’t end in the cast notes. He has created these amazing musical biographies of such stars as Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt and Bernstein. He has performed his one-person shows over 4,500 times. His Irving Berlin show is almost 2 hours long and he plays it without an intermission – 8 shows a week. I was completely blown away by his brilliance. How he got us to sing along with the numbers. How he got us to understand the story of Berlin’s life through music and anecdote and we were never bored once. Not one time. I mean none of us in the sell-out crowd.

And then I thought…

Why am I so impressed? Isn’t that exactly what every lawyer I know does every time he or she tries a case? A one person show – with costume and lights and scenery and the best “help” in all the world…but…when the lights come up there is the lawyer. And every new trial the lawyer had a new group of people (jurors) who need to be wooed and won and to be charmed into singing along with the tunes.

I’m getting ready to write a one-person show. I’ve been asked to submit one to Green Light Productions. I’ve done two in my lifetime – many decades ago. Full evenings. Just me. The thought of doing one for even a single act I find quite challenging.

So…hats off to each and every one of you who tries cases. Check out Hershey when he comes to a theater near you – which he is bound to – for some inspiration to take you through the rehearsal for that next trial!

TIP: What are you doing that makes them sing along with you?

Problem Play vs Crowd Pleaser: ALLS WELL and MUCH ADO – The Act Of Communication Point Of View

31 July 2014


Why are some plays of Shakespeare’s crowd-pleasing favorites? Why are others rarely performed and considered to be “problem plays” by scholars and audiences? And what can lawyers learn from this fact?

This summer at Theatricum Botanicum is the opportunity to have the pleasure of seeing two such plays side by side – each one a critically acclaimed and brilliantly delightful production. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING has been one of Shakespeare’s crowd pleasers for centuries. If I told you right now that you could see a show about two people who start out loudly and vehemently declaring that they hate love and one another and end up falling in love with one another…well…don’t you want to see that right now?

The other is ALLS WELL THAT ENDS WELL  one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. If I told you right now that you could see the pure vision and journey of a young woman to get the man of her dreams…and there is a lot of “stuff” around it that’s somewhat bewildering occasionally but she is a great character and you’ll walk away saying “Crazy about that Helena!”…well…don’t you see how this play is challenging?

The wonderful actress playing Helena in ALLS WELL, Willow Geer, also was the assistant director for MUCH ADO. I have gotten to speak with her this season about both experiences throughout the rehearsal and performance of both and it has really been eye opening for us both.

When I spoke to her while she was getting ready to play Helena, she said to me, “Gawd, Kathy, the language is so confusing! Getting this one into my head is so hard!” I said, “Honey, you are by yourself up there.” As brilliantly as director Ellen Geer has solved the problems and made the plots as clear as anyone I’ve seen, nothing can take away the fact that there is only one character in this play with a single bright line of journey. Playing Helena, you find yourself alone up there – even surrounded by other people talking at you and to you. That makes it awfully hard to get the lines inside your head!

When she came to assistant directing MUCH ADO Willow said to me, “So easy! So much fun! I am so jealous that I have to sit in the audience and not do this one – it is like a breeze after ALLS WELL.” Yes, it is. All the characters have bright lines and goals and the plot just points in that direction. There is nothing confusing. It is funny and satisfying and a “no brainer” since you know exactly what should happen – the lovers (who we are crazy about!) should fall in love and all should be right with the world. ALLS WELL is filled with muddled plot lines, gigantic question marks and a potentially unsatisfying love relationship. Why unsatisfying? If Helena didn’t love him so purely there wouldn’t be anything to the relationship. Bertram is basically a jerk for most of the show. More than a bit like Orsino in TWELFTH NIGHT. I always want to say to Viola (except when I played her, because the following thought is too dangerous for an actor), “Really? Of all the guys on the planet you want this whiny and depressive immature puppy? Maybe you need to consider your co-dependence issues.”

And then there are the muddled plot lines and gigantic question marks. Ellen said to me, “I don’t know why people call this a ‘problem play’ — I didn’t find it problematic.” Yeah, well…that’s because she is a genius at making sense of muddled plot lines and gigantic question marks.

One of these gigantic question marks is the character LaVatch, played by Alan Blumenfeld. Alan, like Willow, complained to me early in the rehearsal process – and since I live with him and not Willow, I got to hear it a lot more about what a bizarre character LaVatch is than about the Helena challenges. About how none of his lines made a lot of sense. About how they were basically just an unrelated series of topical jokes from the late 16th century. You know how sometimes you have to explain to someone why we thought something was funny, like the word “Bippy” from Laugh In? Okay. That was only about 40-45 years ago. Add a few centuries to that and you’ll see the problem. I didn’t remember LaVatch in the production we did in Ashland in 1975 – that’s because director Jon Jory cut the character out completely. Jory isn’t alone – this is a common thing to do when directing ALLS WELL as the character is easily simply lifted out of the plot without disturbing anything or anyone. As Alan read everything he could about the character and inquired of the scholarly theater folks we trust for answers to questions about Shakespeare – including our pal David Hammond – the “why” of the character came clear.

In Shakespeare’s company there was an actor named Will Kempe. He played a lot of the early clowns, and then was fired. Why? Because instead of sticking to the script, he would just start doing a song and dance (literally), and then crack a few jokes from his “act” (think Elizabethan Stand Up Comedian Vegas Show). He, of course, felt his public wanted to see his shtick, Shakespeare and company wanted the show to go on without interruption. Reminds me of a story I heard about how Ray Bolger – aka The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Apparently he used to spontaneously burst into “Once In Love With Amy” from his big hit “Where’s Charley?”  in every curtain call in every play he ever did after that. Even after management threatened to fire him.

So Shakespeare wanted to make it up to Will Kempe and wrote the character of LaVatch especially for him. The lines are filled with bawdy and delicious 16th century humor – and — could be traded at a moment’s notice for a joke Will might come up with in his spontaneous way – without being a problem for the rest of the actors or the plot. Alan is playing him as a tribute to all the great borscht belt comedians he grew up on as a kid – and, of course, Will Kempe. He’s plays with the audience during the show, won’t “keep going” with the play until he gets someone laughing (the only time he strays from Shakespeare’s language is when he says to an audience member “Really????” – this could change though – we are early in the run), spends the intermission walking around and talking to the audience. There is a moment when Alan, in character, takes off his hat and with it his wig and there he is with his short gray hair. Alan’s fans in the audience all gasp and giggle and you can hear them say, “Oh, look! It’s Alan!” Alan, with Ellen’s guidance, has really has taken an “impossible” role and made it an unforgettable gem and audience experience.

Now…what can lawyers learn from this experience?

How often have I seen an attorney make a case a clear “no brainer” like MUCH ADO? Many times. This is the goal – make your case a “no brainer”. The “plot” must be as simple and clean as you can make it – two people who hate love and one another end up falling in love with one another. That’s MUCH ADO. How about your case?

How often have I seen a younger attorney shine in the middle of a mess of a case when she or he puts on a witness with purity of purpose and heart? Much like Helena in ALLS WELL. If you are a younger member of a trial team and you get such a chance – you and your witness can offer a beacon of light to the way of a great result.

How often have I seen a sideshow that took away from the case? A song and dance that really was distracting and took away from what needed to be put in front of the jury to make the whole case a “no brainer”? I remember a lawyer insisting once that the most important fact in a sexual harassment case was that the outrageous behavior happened in the produce section of a grocery store. Not the behavior itself, but the fact that it was near open containers of fruit and vegetables. Really? Clearly a battle I lost. That LaVatch stayed in. Dang.

TIP: How do you eliminate the extraneous in this case? 

Susan Angelo and Robertson Dean

Willow Geer and Max Lawrence

Why should lawyers read what Nancy has to say in her blog post “Breathing In Summer”?

10 July 2014
When I met the brilliant Nancy Houfek she was a student in my acting class in the summer congress at A.C.T. in 1976. Ever brilliant, ever talented, ever far thinking, Just as I found a way to connect theater and the law, Nancy has found her own way of combining what she knows as a theater artist and the “outside” world. She helps leaders become better at what they do through what she knows. A member of the esteemed faculty at Harvard for a number of years, she has recently moved to Oregon and is working as a consultant with leaders nationally and internationally.

Why should lawyers read what Nancy has to say in her blog post “Breathing In Summer”?

Because lawyers are leaders. You know that you spend a limited amount of time in a courtroom or a deposition room. You spend most of your time running your business, running your life, running around sometimes like a lunatic. Or maybe that’s just me.

I hope you find her words as inspiring as I do.

Breathing In Summer

By Nancy Houfek

Stop. Right now. Drop your shoulders. Drop them again — they will let go even more.  Lengthen the back of your neck. Let your jaw release and your mouth hang open. Uncross your legs. Let your belly release.  Let your body sink into your chair. Let your lungs fill with air.  What do you feel? What do you hear? What do you sense?

Even on my most relaxed summer days, I find it easy to stay braced against the world.  My mind is whirling with things to do, ideas to examine, words, words, words.  Do I stop to breathe the world in?  Can I see and hear and smell and taste and touch the beauty of each day?  Can I experience my non-words self? Can I fully experience others?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the essence of theater training and how to incorporate it into helping people exercise leadership. Theater training for leadership usually centers around creating charismatic speakers. It’s a mistake, however, to imagine that charisma can provide the depth and facility that true leadership demands.

A good actor hopes to listen with all senses open. This isn’t a simple task. The multiple times an actor says the same words and responds to the same lines can cause her brain to go on automatic pilot. Interchanges become mechanical repetitions, neither person hearing the other’s words. If the actor is unsure of her lines, her only concern may be calling up the words, cutting off any ability to hear what’s coming in.  The actor’s mind may be also distracted by questions, concerns, fears, mistakes, self-judgments, or irrelevant observations so that it cannot stay focused on anything else. What do actors do to bring listening back to a lively and present state?

Stop.  Drop your shoulders.  Release your belly.  Let your jaw go.  Allow a big breath to expand your ribcage.

In life, we are often too busy judging the content of what someone is saying, or framing a fantastic response, to really hear what’s being said. We might even be holding our breath to better focus on our own thinking, which keeps the body defended against really hearing.

A full breath expands our sensory awareness.  Listening the actor’s way gives us a chance to hear “the song beneath the words,” allowing the sub-text (the intent or emotion behind the words) to be perceived. We can learn to listen more fully by learning to breathe more fully. We are literally breathing each other in by taking in the air around us.

But then a problem arises. Actors are taught to respond spontaneously with their instinctual selves. If an actor pauses to reflect, she may be told, “Don’t decide how to say the line, just say the line.” This unfiltered response may be a liability in exercising leadership.

A full breath can access a trustworthy physical response. We must learn to recognize that impulsive reaction, mentally investigate the loyalties that prompted it, negotiate with those loyalties, and then choose the most appropriate words and tone.  Most of us err on the side of the actor, causing us to speak words that we might later regret.

How do we train to be both present with others and available to ourselves?  How do we learn to listen fully, investigate our reactions, and then choose the text and manner of delivery that will move our leadership work forward? Breathing is the first step. Taking at least one deep breath between reaction and action gives us that essential moment of contemplation.

Again, drop your shoulders.  Let your hands be soft.  Let go of your belly.  Soften your lips and your brow.  Soften your eyes.  Let your jaw drop and allow the air to fill your back.  What do you sense behind you?

Performing in a play is like a long moving meditation, where the mind is focused on the immediate present. Worrying about what’s next or lingering on what just happened is a distraction. Actors bring their performance energy to this one task:  existing moment-to-moment within the confines of their role. This mindful presence is a wonderful skill and breathing is at its center.

Unlike a performer, however, in the exercise of leadership one must try to see as much of the picture as possible. If an actor thinks in this way, she may be accused of having a director’s mind. The successful stage director quickly, easily and frequently traverses the gap between action and observation, moving from intimate conversation with each actor to seeing a broad view of the production.

Leadership action needs to combine both actors’ and directors’ skills: to be focused and present, yet able to see behind the scenes.  She can then perceive what factions are in play, what’s at stake for each faction, and who is allied with whom. Director Robert Woodruff calls this kind of mindfulness “having soft eyes.”  Breathing in the world around us is the core.

Do it now.  Breathe.  Feel the back of your neck open.  Feel your feet on the floor. Breathe.  Can  you feel your awareness expand as your body expands?

Revealing oneself in public night after night is a high-risk activity. Every actor has a personal ritual of transformation prior to performance to manage this risk.  Some do a physical or vocal warm-up. Others may listen to music or review the text as they slowly change into costume.  Some do a set of push-ups or joke around with the crew.  A small sacred space separates the concerns of daily life from the events to come onstage.

In leadership, this bulwark is often missing. We run from one meeting to another, prepare a talk on the fly, react to events without thinking, letting the stress of leading take a toll on both body and mind. This is where the nitty-gritty of actor training can really assist in act of leading: the body can be prepared, the mind cleared, and the focus reset on the tasks to come.  And it all comes down to taking time to breathe.

I don’t need to be in the hurly-burly of my professional life to do this.  I don’t need to be teaching or leading or performing.  I can practice this daily.  It’s not hard.

I can stop.  Notice my tensions.  Let them go. Watch my mind’s distractions disappear as I come back to the present.  See the world around me. Breathe it in.  Experience me.  Experience the sky and the wind and my husband.

Be in the garden.



Murder In The First – The Act Of Communication Point Of View

23 June 2014


Television shows that involve courtrooms have intrigued me long before I became interested in applying theater to the law. I vividly remember The Defenders and Perry Mason from my childhood. When I grew up and acted on the small screen I appeared in L.A. Law – a popular show back in the day. The tight writing was by none other than Steven Bochco, well-known and respected television writer and producer. Some of his shows have been wildly popular, others not so much, but I have consistently enjoyed whatever has intrigued him, especially when it comes to the courtroom.

His latest offering, Murder In The First, had me at “hello”. Brilliant casting, tight writing, interesting premise – follow one murder case from beginning to end in a handful of episodes. This isn’t the first time that Mr. Bochco has tried this concept – one case in a season. He also did it with Murder One. But that was a whole season per murder – twenty-two episodes to tell one story. And that didn’t go nearly as well as Murder In The First is going. How can that be?

Here’s where lawyers need to pay attention. Just as the landscape of television has changed – fewer episodes, many channels – so has the practice of trying a case. Today, you are expected to try a case in a shorter period of time. You no longer have the luxury of weeks and even months. “Try it in three days!” the judge barks. There seem to be a lot more “channels” competing for the attention of the whole system – and which one are you going to get on? Is being on the “cable channel” of courtrooms in your jurisdiction really worse that being on “network channel”? Doesn’t it really depend on the judge? And the audience has changed for you, just as it has for Mr. Bochco. How do you find a show and follow it for six weeks when you don’t even know where it is? How do you grab a group of jurors and get them focused on your case when the world is bombarding them with so many messages?

Just as Steven Bochco is discovering, telling a story in fewer rather than more episodes can be better. Putting on a case in less rather than more time can be better. Why? You are forced to hone in on the essence of the story that you need to tell. The result of honing in on the essential story means that your jurors can find you. They tune into you in the courtroom rather than spacing out into the myriad of other messages floating through their brains.

And for the Alan Blumenfeld fans – you can see him play a judge in episode four. Although it plays on Monday nights, the beauty of cable vs. network is you have several opportunities to catch the episodes during the week. Some day I may find a correlation between television and trying a case for multiple showings and On Demand. Stay tuned.

TIP: How much time do you really need to tell the story?


Another Opening, Another Show – The Act Of Communication Point Of View

12 June 2014


Opening of shows are magical times. Especially Shakespeare done by the wonderful company at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. To get to experience two openings (Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) in less than twenty-four hours is enough to make me think that maybe I died and went to heaven. And then I came home and got to see the Tony Awards – and to revel in the glorious acceptance speech of Mark Rylance as he accepted for his role as The Countess Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Alan and I had seen him perform this role as well as the title role in Richard III this season in New York. Breathtaking.

Here is a question I am left hanging with this fine day…

How come it is accepted, wonderful, okay, imaginative and something to celebrate when a man plays the role of a woman in Shakespeare…but when a woman plays the role of a man the whole world is turned upside down?

Theatricum, long known for “non-traditional” casting has really taken a huge risk with role reversals this year. Ellen Geer and her sister Melora Marshall not only play Lear and The Fool respectively, but co-direct as well. Ellen came up with the concept of having a “Queen” Lear with three sons and an Earl of Gloucester (played by Alan Blumenfeld) with two daughters. The result is extraordinary.

In Shakespeare’s play, King Lear has three daughters and The Earl of Gloucester has two sons. When you see a “regular” production of King Lear – and I’ve seen a ton of them – you know what to expect. The tragedy can be moving – but it is contained. It doesn’t get into your mind and heart and really turn things upside down. You know from the top what “ride” you are on.

But here, because of the women taking on the roles of men, it is like the ride is brand new. A no holds barred roller coaster of emotion – a real catharsis. And yet…many male playgoers were quite disturbed by the production. Just couldn’t get past how it “just isn’t the same”.

Katherine Griffith as Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is brilliant. I will venture to say that she is one of the best Nick Bottoms that I have ever seen. I laughed until I cried and cried until I laughed. What a performance! And yet, again, there were some “boys” who just “don’t get it”.

My credentials as far as seeing many productions over my lifetime of both these shows are as follows. I think the first production I saw of this play was the one my father directed when I was about three years old. Outdoors on the island in the lagoon at N.I.U. I played Hermia opposite Dan Castellaneta’s Lysander. I’ve seen it LOTS. My first of King Lear was when I was twelve years old at The Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. Again, I’ve seen it many, many, many times.

The men who were complaining have also had experiences playing in and seeing these classic pieces. They also think that Rylance is brilliant as Olivia. But so many just can’t get past “it”. Of course, Alan Blumenfeld is not one of them, which may be one of the reasons why we have this 40 year relationship.

What’s in this for lawyers? Other than to grab your picnic basket, get to Theatricum as fast as you can and judge for yourselves?

For me, it goes way past women in the courtroom as lawyers and judges. When a woman plays a role in the story of a case or does something “non traditional” for a living I can see the wheels turning on the trial team:

“How are we going to explain that our client was a stay-at-home dad and we are claiming lost wages for him?”

“The jurors aren’t going to like it that she’s the CEO of a big company. Especially the women on the jury. How are we going to reframe that?”

“Who is going to believe a woman came up with that idea for a patent? It’s not like it’s a stroller or a new kind of cooking pot.”

I recently commented on a really disturbing article in The Jury Expert about women expert witnesses that implied that women should only be used as experts in “soft” areas. Like testifying about clothing manufacturing but staying away from “masculine” areas like accounting. Scared the daylights out of me.

What if this idea of role reversal shook your case to the foundation so that the jurors saw it in a whole new light? Supposing opposing counsel was so taken aback by experiencing the story of your case in a new way, that settlement became a heck of a lot easier? What if instead of problematic, this “gender reversal” actually excited you so much that you saw the case in a whole new simpler and more winnable way?

TIP: What if you turned your case upside down? What might it get you?


Alan Blumenfeld as Gloucester, Abby Craden as Igraine in Theatricum Botanicum’s Lear.


Katherine Griffith as Bottom the Weaver A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Photos by Ian Flanders.

Our Santa Barbara Reading

14 April 2014


Saturday night – April 12, 2014 – Santa Barbara.

I feel like I had waited forever for this glorious and magical evening.

When my play, The Old Salt, was chosen as a semi-finalist I put the date on my calendar with a wish and a prayer.

Would I be able to put myself first in my own life just for that day?

So much had gotten in the way of that principle I try to center my life around.

I clung to it through the roller coaster ride that has been my life lately.

At one point, when the surgeon who performed my baby granddaughter’s open heart surgery on my 62nd birthday a mere 10 days ago announced, “There are two things that have to right themselves in her heart. If they don’t, she’ll need more surgery and be in the hospital for longer than a week.”

I knew were the baby still in the hospital I just couldn’t.



She came home 4 days earlier than expected.

Strong – feisty – caring.

To be in the presence of someone who cares so much about living every moment of life fully and gloriously makes everything else fall away.


Of course I was going. And my husband, Alan was going with me!

He found the most amazing “last room available” spot for us at the Hotel Oceana in Santa Barbara – overlooking the sea – and off we went on Saturday morning.

What a way to come back to life.


The act of going to the wonderful festival at Left Coast Books would have been enough to affirm that.

Of course, waiting for me was so much more.

The extraordinary Kate Bergstrom – brilliant actor, wonderful director, sensitive writer who was producing this part of the four-city festival.

Emma Fassler – such a talented actor! I had been a fan for years through Theatricum Botanicum.

In addition to Kate and Emma, there was a wonderful ensemble of actors: Phil Levien, Nick Sheley, Jenny Marco, Carol Metcalf, Simon Taylor and Bill Egan.

I was one of four playwrights who were there. Kate Bergstrom (of course), Anne V. Grob, Christina Pages and me. The three other playwrights, Sharon Goldner, Inbal Kashtan, and Jessica Abrams were missed – but we had their wonderful work that we got to celebrate.

And celebrate we did.

There is nothing more sacred than being in the sacred space that is created when a group of theater artists assemble and make art.

We all soared as the pieces soared.

We laughed.

We cried.

We learned something new about ourselves.

We chatted and praised and accepted praise.

I left feeling whole.

Feeling like the next steps in my life were unfolding beautifully before me.

I emerged healed once more.

I thought about Tiffany Antone –

How generous, brilliant, ceaselessly amazing, compassionate and endlessly creative.

How lucky I was to have met her through Theatricum Botanicum’s Seedlings New Plays Program.

How fortunate I have been to both act in her work and to direct her work and to be a part of a circle of artists who get to say their artistic lives have been touched by hers.

I felt us all connected – in all the four sacred spaces where theater is being made by amazing women because Tiffany made it so.

I inhaled, I exhaled.

I won’t physically be in Waco, Ithaca or Sedona – but I will be there in spirit.


Onward and upward!



What I Learned From You At Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum 40th Anniversary Bash

17 May 2013


“Need the two of you to do a scene from Tone Clusters for May 4th. What do you want to do? Needs to be 5-7 minutes. Ellen.” It seemed like a simple enough email to figure out. The play is basically a two-hander (two character play). Alan and I are the two hands performing it – Joyce Carol Oates’ amazing play Tone Clusters – this season at Theatricum Botanicum. May 4th was to be a fabulous celebration of the 40th year that the theatre had been in operation officially as a theatre. Each of the plays of the season – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming Of The Shrew, The Royal Family, Merlin and Tone Clusters would have scenes performed for the approximately 300 folks who would be there to celebrate with us that day. I found a great piece of one of the nine scenes that make up the play for the event. Great “sneak preview.” Funny, provocative and with that little touch of “holy smokes!” that would make people want to come back and see us in it. It was easily three weeks away. Plenty of time for Alan and me to rehearse and get it ready to share with the crowd.

So why was I as terrified as I was thrilled?

The lines. Oh, yes. When I was a kid I used to think it was funny when people would say, “How did you memorize all those lines?” It came to me as easily as breathing. And then after I was 26 and had Jordan it was still easy, but more like as easily as a dolphin breathes. You know – it was a conscious voluntary thing rather than an involuntary instinct. And then it was less like breathing and more like huffing and puffing. Proving that it was age and not motherhood that was screwing with my ability to get the words in my head. And then it gradually became a little like watching the flat line in the monitor in the hospital on an hour long medical drama. Apply the paddles a few times and – oh, yes – there they are! The Words! Right in my head!

Now, you have to understand that when I say “the lines,” I mean “all the lines that everyone says in all the scenes I am in.” Many actors just memorize their own lines and their cues (the half line that some other actor says just before they themselves have a line). I’ve never been like that. I have to know ALL OF IT. I have to have all the lines in my head, in the back of my skull. Otherwise I am not free just to “act.” I feel like I am like a slave to “what’s next…?” I can’t bear that. It means being earthbound instead of flying. It means not operating on all cylinders, taking in whatever comes – be it a move by another actor that needs to be “played with” or an audience response that needs to be leaned into or the sheer delight of getting a brand new idea of how to say the line in this moment because it is coming to me as if I am thinking of it for the first time.

And then as I was torturing myself with Joyce Carol Oates’ evasive haunting lines with “come on, you can do it! For heaven’s sake you have been doing this for 56 of your 61 years!” I thought of…drum roll…all the trial lawyers I have the privilege of working with.

I watch the same process when someone is getting ready to try a case. What lawyer worth his or her salt doesn’t want to “have the case” perfectly in head and hand so that he or she can just “play it” as it comes out? You know – what one of my old acting teachers, Alan Fletcher, used to call “pre-planned spontaneity.”

And once again I remembered what lawyers and actors will forever have in common. And once again I was humbled by how lawyers have so much pressure on them to be perfect since at least one other person’s future is sitting squarely on their shoulders as they get the case in their heads. And all I have to do is not screw up too badly in front of 300 people. And suddenly the words were in my head. All the words.

May 4th I flew. I soared. I played. I reacted. I was operating on all cylinders.  I leaned into the audience as they gasped and laughed and were taken by surprise. And I did the acting dance of partnership with he who is my perfect scene partner on stage and in life. I was having the time of my life as I only can onstage and in my element.

If you are a trial lawyer and you are reading this and you have shown me your soft vulnerable underbelly in a workshop or a case or a conversation or even a tweet – thanks. I needed that.

Opening Night – Beaux’ Stratagem

15 April 2013



Is there anything more glorious than to be in the theatre on an opening night?

Not in my experience. Is the show going to be amazing? If so, there is nothing more glorious than the feeling in the whole theatre of the rush of energy – the communal feeling that you are in the presence of a hit.

Is it going to suck? Our great mentor, Bill Ball, founder of The American Conservatory Theater, taught us to always say something positive. My favorite is, “If you could only have been where I was and saw what I saw this evening!”

The fantastic production of George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem at A Noise Within was one of those amazing nights in the theatre. Not only was it my mother’s birthday, it was a very special landmark for us as a family that we had promised ourselves to attend. Since my father, who died eight weeks ago, was a big Farquhar scholar, one of our “touchstone” dates was this night. And so we were ALL there – my mother, Alan’s father, my sister and her husband and children, our children and their wives, Alan onstage and me next to my mother. The family remarked about the wonderful full page tribute to Daddy in the program. “Is that really Aunt Kathy?” said nine year old Harry looking back and forth between the photo of twelve year old Aunt Kathy and sixty-one year old Aunt Kathy. He recognized his grandfather, my father, from the photo montage from the funeral.

The house doors were closing – the show would be starting soon – please, God, let it be good. We are all counting on this one being good much too much. My mother whispers to me, “Oh – look how beautiful the set is! Daddy would have been so pleased!” And then the houselights dimmed and there it was before us – the glorious world that Daddy loved so much. The still hysterically funny English Restoration. Filled with witty language and extraordinary daring and courage and fun, fun, fun! A brilliant production – the audience was seized with it. The critics were delighted. And I was bathed in it. Curtain Call already? “No!” the audience wanted to say. None of us were ready to leave this glorious world, this amazing place, this great production and go back to our ordinary lives. Another mark of a great show in my experience – you never want to leave.

Was Daddy there with us? Not in body – not even in spirit – but in passion, love, the thrill of the promise of the opening – all the reasons he loved that most magical of art forms, the living theatre.

We have experienced it, we will experience it, and my grandchild’s child will experience it. We may come and go…but THAT is forever.



The Beaux' Stratagem performance at A Noise Within

In Memoriam

18 March 2013



Every little girl has the right to believe that her daddy is the most brilliant mentor she’ll ever have.

For the lucky little girls, this is true.

I am one of the lucky ones.

My daddy was the greatest influence I had in my life, in my career, in the theater.

My daddy, Dr. Eugene Nelson James, was recognized internationally as THE authority on George Farquhar, the great English restoration playwright. When the Royal Shakespeare Company did one of G.F.’s plays, they used my father’s theories and scholarly work. So did many other theater companies and universities (not everyone produced “The Beaux Stratagem” by the way). His knowledge of the scholarly world of western theater, from the Greeks to Shakespeare to Stoppard, was not matched. From the time I could toddle, he taught me about the greats who came before us – who they were, why they wrote the way they wrote – what it all meant. My love and reverence for the theater is all Daddy.

My daddy E. Nelson James wrote plays. He was produced in theaters from The Goodman to universities to his own favorite playhouse, The Stagecoach Players of DeKalb, Illinois. He taught me that there was always time to write, that if you write roles for the people you love that they will work hard to fulfill them (what amazing roles he wrote for me!). He would say to me, “Look at your first page! How do you do that? You are amazing – you have them spring to life right away!” My belief in myself and my ability to find time to write my plays is all Daddy.

My daddy Nelson James was a nurturing director. He directed lots and lots and lots of plays – from the classics to modern light plays to his own plays. He was my first director – when I was five years old – and I worked in shows he directed until I left for California after college. Anytime I was directing a show and ran into a problem, I could call on him. Daddy always had my back.

My daddy Nelson James loved to act. Before I acted (so since I started when I was five years old we are going back) I remember how astonishingly brilliant it was to see him change at rehearsal. First he would be Daddy – talking with the other actors and the director, laughing and having a grand time…and then he was magically Reverend James Mavor Morell – George Bernard Shaw’s uptight husband of Candida in the play of the same name – and not my daddy at all. And then the scene was over, or they stopped to discuss the moment during a work-through rehearsal, and he was Daddy again. It took my breath away, that transformation. Daddy first brought me into that world of art where artist uses self – literally – as the interpretive medium. Acting.

My daddy was the best audience member you could ever want to have. Ever. I loved sitting next to him in the theater as he experienced every moment of the play as if he was a part of the action himself. I thrilled when he watched my performances with the same intent – I could always feel him there. Daddy taught me how to be alive in the theater, even from a seat in the house.

I miss him. I miss him every day. I don’t imagine there will ever come a time when I don’t want to turn to him and ask him what he thinks so I can soak it in. But he is inside me. He helped shape and mold me as an artist. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

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