My first director, Michael Litfin, passed away yesterday.
He had stomach cancer. He was a chain smoker, so I always imagined he’d die from lung cancer, but there you go. I have no idea how old Michael was. In the 1980s he must have been in his 40s, but every year he claimed he had just turned 26.
Michael was the Assistant Director of the Palo Alto Children’s Theater. He directed a pretty large percentage of the plays there, performed entirely by kids under 18. He also did “Outreach” theater, where an elementary school would put on a play. That was my first exposure to the theater.
Michael was great with kids and he taught us some life lessons that were tough to learn and tough to teach. One of them: you have to be at every single rehearsal, and cannot be late. It doesn’t matter if you have homework, if you are sick, even if a relative died. You do not have the option of stopping the show because your life got in the way. I still believe in that.
Michael was cranky as hell. In the mid 1980s Michael got braces and he would blame his crankiness on “my braces just got tightened.” He had some awesome phrases. He would shout “I BREATHE louder than that!!” if you were mumbling your lines. If your acting was unconvincing, he’d shout “I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!!!!” All these phrases would come out of the darkness, and because the stage lights were in your face you couldn’t see him sitting in the house, shouting at you. Sometimes when the scene was dragging he’d start clapping loudly, like a metronome. I guess to understate it, he wasn’t afraid to comment during your performance.
As an adult, I’ve wondered if Michael was gay; it never occurred to me when I was young, but it really would have fit. Oblivious of me, I know. Sort of like how I suddenly realized John Waters was gay years after seeing all his movies in high school. It doesn’t really matter I suppose.
Michael was our authority figure. We trusted his judgment implicitly. And he inspired camaraderie– Before shows he’d have a short pre-show meeting, like a coach before a play. We’d all chant together “It’s gonna be a good. Show. Good. Show.” etc etc, accelerating and clapping.
So he wasn’t always cranky. But the cranky episodes are certainly a lot funnier. One time I remember we were really sucking; our performance was completely terrible even at the last dress rehearsal. He muttered to us “well if tradition holds, we may have a smash hit on our hands,” referring to the tradition that a bad dress rehearsal implies a good opening.
Some of his directing techniques I still use. I could never come even close to how burned-out he always seemed, but the seriousness and slightly bitter air he brought to his every direction helped overcome the shyness we had as inexperienced performers. He’d explain the emotions we were meant to be evoking, but with a patience and a slight emotional fatigue, which removed any overloading we might have gotten from the actor-director emotional dynamic. We would be entirely unburdened by ourselves and could get straight to the action in the scene.
Example: Michael would sort of sneer: “Romeo and Juliet look at each other… they smile because THEY LIKE EACH OTHER.” His mania was bewildering but it prevented us from feeling any more self-conscious about the performance.
Something kind of odd: yesterday afternoon, I randomly started surfing about the Children’s Theater. I have no idea why. I found out there was some accounting scandal, probably related to the city’s sticker shock on the overtime pay of the employees (plays take many many hours to produce…). So I sent the news articles I found to my friend Lesley, who is a comedienne in Los Angeles. She forwarded me an email about Michael’s illness… only a few hours before he passed away. And she caught me up about his death just now. Eerie.
On a more constructive note, Lesley isn’t the only Children’s Theater alumna/alumnus to continue performing. I was in a few plays with Assaf Cohen, who is a character actor who plays, somewhat ironically, Muslim characters (he’s Israeli I think?). Debbie Lurie was there at the same time, and she works on big-budget soundtracks now.