30 January 2017

Stage Managers

[As I recounted in my two-part article “Actors’ Equity at 100” (19 and 22 June 2013), the Actors’ Equity Association, the union that represents professional stage actors and stage managers, was established in 1913.  Many people who follow theater know that AEA represents actors who work on the live stage (SAG-AFTRA represents those who perform in the big and small screens), but I wonder how many outside the profession are aware that the same union also represents stage managers, the theater pros who keep the productions running smoothly from back stage.  (I published an article from an earlier issue of Equity News, “Stage Managers Wear Many Different Hats” by Michael Sommers, that addresses the question of what a stage manager does.  It’s part of a post called “Stage Hands” [14 January 2014].)  AEA used to represent directors, too, until 1959 (when they split off and formed what is now the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, known as  SDC), but why didn’t the SM’s follow them or form their own guild?  Surely, what SM’s do is more akin to what directors do than it is to actors, right?  Indeed, it’s the responsibility of the stage manager to keep the show stage-worthy in the absence of the director, say after opening, and to rehearse understudies and replacements. 

[First, many SM’s are also actors—as you’ll read below—and continue to work in both capacities.  Second,  unlike directors, whose jobs are essentially done when the play opens, stage managers are often called upon to play small roles, especially in touring productions and at small rep companies where cast size is a serious consideration.  This puts them squarely in Equity’s wheelhouse, and so they remain part of the same union as their performing brothers and sisters.  The Winter 2017 issue of Equity News is devoted to paying tribute to he union’s stage manager members, and so I’ve collected the six articles from the union’s house magazine for republishing on ROT.  I hope readers find them edifying.  ~Rick]

From The Executive Director
by Mary McColl

Every performer loves stage managers. Stage managers are the artists who maintain the production. They keep time, keep the schedule, keep everyone on stage and on their mark. If you follow us [i.e., Actors’ Equity Association] on social media, you know that we have spent the past couple of months celebrating and highlighting Equity’s stage managers with #LoveMySMs. We asked members to submit photos of themselves, or stage mangers they have worked work with, for us to celebrate. The result has been inspiring. We have heard from and showcased many of our stage managers who work across the country. We encourage you to continue sending us photos (send to jaustin@actorsequity.org) so that we can keep #LoveMySMs going.

While working at Actors’ Equity I’ve had the opportunity to interact with many of the stage managers featured in this month’s magazine. One conversation that stands out for me was with a stage manager who works Off-Broadway. She spoke about how stage managers are artists who “conduct” each performance. She said that every call she makes brings the show to life. That conversation helped give me a new perspective on how stage managers work and further solidified why they are so important to this industry.

Performers in a company depend in so many ways on their stage manager. Not only are they a wealth of information when it comes to your contract, rules and breaks, but he or she helps ensure your safety. Your stage manager is often the first line of defense in your workplace. (Make sure you talk to your Deputy as well if you encounter any issues. He or she is there to help and will make sure we know what is going on.) The fact that we represent stage managers as well as actors is good for the production and good for the industry.

This issue brings us stories of stage managers across the country. We hear from two stage managers who have disabilities, stage managers who have the added pressure of awards season, a stage manager who works full-time as a resident stage manager and another who is often working at various houses.

2016 was a big year for Equity. Not only did we implement the new format of Equity News, we introduced the Equity News Center and ECC [Equity Chorus Call] and EPA [Equity Principal Audition] online sign-ups in the Member Portal, we negotiated strong contracts across the country. We also strengthened our commitment to diversity and inclusion within our industry (look for more news and statistics in my next column).

As 2017 begins, we stand with our brothers and sisters in the labor community. Together, we will face challenges. As a union, we will work to protect your rights.

Now, more than ever, we need to stand together because we are stronger together.

*  *  *  *
by Ira Mont

A stage manager is a vital role that I view as the central hub of both the production and the company. We are responsible for facilitation, communication, collation, collaboration and administration. We are the protector, the sounding board and disciplinarian of the company. The stage manager is the eyes, ears and, I believe, the heart and mind of the producer and director when they aren’t in the room.

I thought I was going to be an actor. I joined the union in the spring of 1987. I scored my first contract at the Theater Factory St. Louis, an SPT [Small Professional Theatre] company. Having done some stage management work, I was hired for the company’s summer season to not only perform in several shows, but to also stage manage several others.

Stage managing came naturally to me; one, because I like to know everything that’s going on and two, in addition to being organized, I like to make things work. When I was a student at Circle in the Square, I spent a lot of time watching Present Laughter [1982-83] from the booth with PSM [Production Stage Manager] Michael Ritchie. I became the friend who could help light a cabaret or assist in stage managing a showcase. Between ’87 and ’88, I started getting calls and job offers for stage management. Without looking for it or realizing it, I transitioned from actor to stage manager. It was and is a perfect fit.

Getting to be on both sides of the curtain has helped shape my union tenure. I currently serve as the 3rd Vice President of Equity. I believe that many of the qualities that make me a good stage manager make me a good union leader. I thoroughly enjoy all of the intricacies of how our union works. I joined my first committee (Developing Theatre) the minute I returned home from St. Louis in 1987. Since then I have served on and chaired several committees, represented our members at organizations like the AFL-CIO, among others, and have continued to advocate and fight for members on contract negotiations. My role with the union is not much different than my role in the theater.

Having been a performer, I believe stage managers and actors serve each other well as members of the same union. If you view the life of a show as first rehearsal to closing night, only two groups are there in the room every day from beginning to end—actors and stage managers. We bring out the best in each other.

I am proud to have made a career as a stage manager. I’m even more proud to serve all of you, my fellow brothers and sisters. I’m thrilled to celebrate our stage managers and to acknowledge their tireless work and dedication to the production. I love my fellow SMs!

[Ira Mont is 3rd Vice President of Actors’ Equity. He’s currently PSM on Broadway’s Cats, before which he stage-managed 18 Broadway shows, including all three of the Norman Conquest trilogy revivals (2011), the stage première of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (2013-15), The Producers (2001-07), Smokey Joe’s Café (1995-2000), and Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995). Mont’s also worked Off-Broadway on Full Gallop (1996-97), I Do! I Do! (1996), and Manhattan Class Company’s Class 1 Acts: '91-'92 (1992).]

*  *  *  *
by Josh Austin

Members Philip B. Richard and Elizabeth Salisch share what it’s like working with a disability in this industry

When Philip B. Richard II had his worst epileptic seizure to date, he was at work. He fell, landing hard on his chin. He broke both sides of his jaw and lost two teeth. After visiting the hospital and leaving with a wired-shut mouth, he returned to work that day.

“I was told I couldn’t do my job with my mouth wired shut, and I couldn’t get workers’ comp since my epilepsy was pre-existing,” he said. “But just like with everything else, I told them I could do my job and I was back to work that same day—blending my food and eating from a turkey baster.”

That was prior to becoming an Equity member. Richard has been a union stage manager for just under one year—and is flourishing. He was born with epilepsy, a neurological disability that affects over 3 million Americans, and causes unpredictable seizures. For Richard, his longest span without an episode has been 12 years. But, like anyone with a disability, and in particular working as a stage manager, there have been a lot of “figure it out for yourself” moments.

“The theatre has always been a place that I felt that I fit in and belong,” he said. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else.” That’s meant, for Richard, figuring out bus rides or walking routes (he’s not allowed to drive a car; though, he noted, Equity doesn’t allow that to affect the hiring of a stage manager) and working effectively with strobe lighting (which can trigger a seizure). “I always make sure that my disability never stops me from doing what I want.”

Elizabeth Salisch was born orthopedically impaired. Between the ages of one to six years old, she went through 15 surgeries to make her hands functional.

And though Salisch said that she is unable to operate a drill gun, “I am highly adaptable to finding ways to do what I need to do, whether it’s finding another way or by knowing how to find the right person to help me. This is very useful as a stage manager.”

Salisch saw her first Broadway show when she was just five years old. Immediately, she knew she wanted in. Attending the University of Pittsburgh as a Theatre Arts major, she found stage management from asking how she could be involved. “I fell in love with stage management because it not only fits my personality, but is one of the few positions that sees the journey of the production from the very beginning to the very end.”

Though both Salisch and Richard admit that Equity has made their lives easier (for Salisch, it’s saving for a pension and health benefits; Richard is grateful that the union has taken major strides to protect those with disabilities and to ensure they are not discriminated against), Richard acknowledged that those in the industry might have preconceived notions about workers with disabilities. Perhaps, he said, people believe those with a disability can’t handle the stress of the job. “Stage managers have so much that we do on a daily basis and a lot of that is last-minute along with being fast-paced,” he said. “That is the normal level—for those with disabilities, it adds another layer, but it’s not impossible.”

Salisch has stage managed many young audience productions. She noted that the students most often ask her what happened to her hands. “My response to them, and to anyone who perceived people with a physical disability as being different, is that we are the same and I can do the same things as you, but I look different just like some people have brown hair and some may have blonde.”

Richard also pointed out that those with a disability tend to have a preconceived notion about themselves: They assume they can’t do something when all they have to do is find another path.

And for those with disabilities thinking of entering the world of stage management, both Salisch and Richard would say “follow your dreams.”

“For someone with a disability, it can be harder, but don’t let it stop you,” Richard said. “Never, never let your disability stop you. Work with it. Think outside the box. I’ve never let anything stop me.”

I would tell someone else who may have a disability if they want to stage manage, or do anything else in the theater, they should go for it.  —Elizabeth Salisch

*  *  *  *

“To be an SM is to run an adult daycare at times. Colleen Nielsen knows that a balanced amount of respect while maintaining an organized and safe environment to explore the human condition is its own art. You are so essential to the success of our storytelling. Thank you!”  —Iris Elton

Jill Gold is always a class act. She’s a family woman with kids my age, so I can relate. She always has a smile on her face and kind words for everyone, and she seems to truly love actors. My last Equity job was Empire with McCoy Rigby [Entertainment; La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, La Mirada, California; 2016] and I was very excited to hear she was helping steer the ship.”  —Richard A. Bulda

“There is no better SM around than long time stage manager Pat Adams at the Wilma Theater—and I think she has been there almost 20 years. Another wonderful Philadelphia SM who is now at Delaware Theater Company is Marguerite Price. These are two exceptional women, devoted union SMs and the backbone of theatre in the Philadelphia area.”  —Nancy Boykin

“Before the last show of the week, Stephen Milosevich (production stage manager for Hir [by Taylor Mac, Playwrights Horizons; 2015]) would play disco over the monitor at our places call. He is the most organized, most professional goofball I’ve ever met.”  —Tom Phelan

Bryan Rodney Bauer is one of the most inspiring young stage managers I have met. While juggling a main stage production at Playwrights Horizons, he facilitated an organized, warm room for us to create Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop [by Michael R. Jackson; Feinstein's/54 Below; 2016]; I cannot wait to work with him again!”  —Larry Owens

“I have to give a shout out to the amazing Kate Bartels. Kate is always professional, always smiling and she always gets the job done! There’s nothing better as an actor than knowing that the stage manager is on top of everything, and with Kate, there’s never a question!”  —Amy Alvarez

Craig Horness is the PSM at Ford’s Theater [Washington, D.C.], and I was lucky to do five seasons of A Christmas Carol with him. He keeps the show in shape and keeps the company in great spirits, and is a fantastic human.”  —Vishal Vaidya

*  *  *  *
by Stephanie Masucci

Two stage managers talk about starting their careers and mentoring those who are up-and-coming in the industry

Cheryl G. Mintz, the current Resident Production Stage Manager for McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., knew in high school that she wanted to be a stage manager. “In 11th grade I had the opportunity to stage manage The Crucible, and that opened up my theatrical world and changed my direction. I had very positive undergraduate theatre experiences at SUNY [State University of New York] Stony Brook and University of Loughborough in England, all of which led me to the Directing & Stage Management MFA at the Yale School of Drama.”

Yale proved to be a definitive experience for Mintz. Over the course of three years, she worked with over 300 passionate students and was able to network (a very different [sic] in the 1980s, she noted). After graduation she began her professional career with the National Theatre’s production of Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C. [1987], and then returned to New York City with a new production of the play [Promenade Theatre, 1988], in her first Equity Production Contract as a PSM.

On the flipside, becoming a stage manager was a career member Hope Villanueva accidentally fell into. “It was under one of the first directors that I worked for in Los Angeles that I realized this job appeals to both my desire to be around and create art, as well as my organizational sensibilities,” she said. “Becoming an Equity member wasn’t easy, though. “Since I started as a PSM and fell into job after job, I couldn't get into an EMC [Equity Membership Candidate] program when I wanted to join the union because I was ‘overqualified.’ Thankfully, a production manager in D.C. was willing to take a chance on me and offer me my first Equity contract as a PSM. I’ve been doing the D.C. thing ever since and even get to pick up an NYC project once a year or so.”

In 1984, Mintz first observed Susie Cordon backstage when she was the production stage manager for Noises Off on Broadway. Fast forward to 1991, when Cordon brought her in to be the rehearsal stage manager for Artistic Director Emily Mann’s production of The Three Sisters [McCarter Theater, Princeton, New Jersey]. “She remembered me, and seven years later that networking paid off. A perfect example of ‘you never know where you might get a job from.’ The McCarter was having a challenging time mounting its then-new production of A Christmas Carol, and Susie had to focus her energies upstairs, thus bringing me in for the next production that was in rehearsal. I was 29 years old, and Susie was an impeccable role model. There were few first-class female production stage managers in the ’80s and early ’90s, and Susie was one of them.” Mintz has since built a deep collaborative relationship with Mann, having done 31 productions together at McCarter and the Kennedy Center and on Broadway.

While Villanueva also believes networking is a key tool for success in this business, when it comes to job searching, she uses Equity’s Casting Call and other resources, even when she has a job. “I’m grateful that in the last year or so, I’m starting to get directors or companies to ask for me.” She also offers advice to those who may be just starting on this path: “Be flexible and be nice. Anyone can learn to be organized or do the paperwork or call a show with enough practice. The hardest thing will be being gracious and efficient, even when you’re being treated badly. You help set the tone for the whole production, and if you can keep a lightness and kindness to you, I believe the show ends up being a healthier place for everyone.”

The success of her staff is something Mintz takes great pride in, “and the 40 interns that have passed through the McCarter Stage Management Internship inspire me to no end. Last year, during my 25th season, I decided to step back and evaluate what my interns don’t learn while at McCarter. I contacted two dozen past interns asking that question. Out of that feedback I have created some master classes, which I conduct with the current interns, such as Opera Stage Management Boot Camp, and the Business of the Business. I definitely have my systems for doing things, but the interns shake things up, and keep me fresh and constantly re-evaluating things.”

For Villanueva, the “post show glow” is her favorite part of being a stage manager. “When everyone knows it came off great and the audience loved it or were moved, it feels like a job well done. I also enjoy tech more than most, I think. Unless there’s a crazy hurdle, I feel like it’s the time when I actually learn to do my job on the show instead of just supporting the learning of everyone else.”

*  *  *  *

The road to the Tony Awards as told by stage managers

Councillor and stage manager Marjorie Horne sat down with three Equity stage managers—Peter Hanson, Bess Marie and Michael Passaro—to talk about getting their casts and productions ready for the Tony Awards.

Marjorie Horne: What are your experiences from the time nominations are announced to getting into the theater for that week?

Peter Hanson: It’s complicated if your show opens late in the season. You barely get a chance to catch your breath— you’re trying to think about understudy rehearsal, bringing the swings up to speed—and you’re immediately having to figure out your number for the Tony Awards, rehearse it, show it to the Tony producers, and all those things that happen in the run-up.

Bess Marie: What’s unfortunate is the performers are running on empty, especially those who are nominated. It’s also difficult when you have stars in your show who are not nominated, or when your show doesn’t get any nominations and you’re asked to perform.

Michael Passaro: When we did How to Succeed [in Business Without Really Trying; 2011 Best Revival of a Musical nominee] and Dan [Radcliffe] wasn’t nominated for Best Actor in a Musical, everyone was tiptoeing around this. To his credit, he pulled the company together and said, “Listen, I’m so proud of the show and what we’ve all done here. We should celebrate the fact that John Laroquette [Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical winner] and Tammy Blanchard [Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical nominee] and the show and all these things are nominated. Don’t worry about me. I know the people are coming to see this show because of the movies I’ve been in, and if I can have one person develop a lifetime of theatregoing because they came to see us in this show, then my job is done.” That was the greatest thing to turn that whole situation around because it can be so fraught with pressure and jealousy.

Horne: What’s your relationship to the creatives in building the number for the awards show?

Passaro: With Bright Star [2016 Best Musical nominee], once the producers decided to do the opening number, we had to determine how many of the cast we’d bring; would we include the swings, were we bringing all the musicians or just the ones that were visible in the house? Were they going to bring the scenic unit from the theater, were they going to build a separate one or bring a modified one?

Hanson: To take an eight-minute-long number and reduce it to three and a half minutes means work for the creatives, the musical team and the choreographer before we even show it to the actors. You have a number in your bones that you’ve been doing for a couple months, and now we’re asking you to do a surgical snip here in musical time and then go to this 15 bars and then go to this, and it gets complicated. When the producers of the Tonys are out in the house with their video cameras, you want them to look good.

Marie: There’s nothing like it.

Passaro: Particularly at the dress rehearsal, you get to see a lot of people you haven’t seen in a while. It’s a small industry, but we all have our shows and we all have our lives—we don’t ever see each other that much. It’s a wacky day, and many of my most cherished memories of doing Tony Awards are the morning rehearsals.

Hanson: One of my great memories from Evita [2012 Best Revival of a Musical nominee] was that we were coming on stage, and as we headed up with Elena Roger in front, coming off stage was Patti LuPone, who originated the role of Evita. Those two women jumped into each other’s arms and had this incredible introduction to each other. [NB: There seems to be some error here: Michael Passaro stage-managed the 2012 revival of Evita. ~Rick]

Marie: It’s fun, too, when they do the backstage stuff. During Once [2012 Best Musical winner], they wanted to do outtakes when going to commercial break, so they were showing some of my cast members warming up, and I just happened to be there because Cristin Milioti [2012 Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical nominee] needed her spray for her throat. I was there giving Ricola out, and next thing I know my phone is blowing up in the middle of the night with, “Oh my God, oh my God, you were just on TV!”

Passaro: I became interested in theatre because of the Tony Awards, in the days when the only Broadway we got to see in upstate New York was the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tony Awards. My mother was watching television one Sunday night the year that A Chorus Line [1976 Best Musical winner; 2007 Best Revival of a Musical nominee] opened the awards with that incredible number, and I said, “I want to do that.” To be able to participate at this level is such a thrill and an honor, I can’t even describe it.

25 January 2017


[As readers of ROT will know by now, one of my overriding interests in good writing,  I’m a recovering writing teacher, having attempted to inculcate the notion that good writing is an asset to everyone, no matter in what field you endeavor.  I’ve taught writing, composition, or English at both the high school level and college, I’ve included an emphasis on clear, simple prose in classes such as theater appreciation and even acting, and I’ve tutored and coached writers and acted as an editor even beyond this blog.  Pursuant to that goal, I’m republishing two columns from the New York Times here on a phenomenon that’s become all too visible in recent years.  Read what writer Henry Hutchins has said about turning verbs and adjectives into nouns on the Times’ blog, “Opinionator.” The first column appeared on 30 March 2013 at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com.]

by Henry Hitchings

“Do you have a solve for this problem?” “Let’s all focus on the build.” “That’s the take-away from today’s seminar.” Or, to quote a song that was recently a No. 1 hit in Britain, “Would you let me see beneath your beautiful?”

If you find these sentences annoying, you are not alone. Each contains an example of nominalization: a word we are used to encountering as a verb or adjective that has been transmuted into a noun. Many of us dislike reading or hearing clusters of such nouns, and associate them with legalese, bureaucracy, corporate jive, advertising or the more hollow kinds of academic prose. Writing packed with nominalizations is commonly regarded as slovenly, obfuscatory, pretentious or merely ugly.

There are two types of nominalization. Type A involves a morphological change, namely suffixation: the verb “to investigate” produces the noun “investigation,” and “to nominalize” yields “nominalization.”

Type B is known as “zero derivation”—or, more straightforwardly, “conversion.” This is what has taken place in my opening illustrations: a word has been switched from verb into noun (or, in the last two cases, from adjective into noun), without the addition of a suffix.

Plenty of teachers discourage heavy use of the first type of nominalization. Students are urged to turn nouns of this kind back into verbs, as if undoing a conjurer’s temporary hoax. On this principle, “The violence was Ted’s retaliation for years of abuse” is better rendered as “Ted retaliated violently after years of abuse.”

The argument for doing this is that the first version is weaker: dynamic writing makes use of “stronger” verbs. Yet in practice there are times when we may want to phrase a matter in a way that is not so dynamic. Perhaps we feel the need to be tactful or cautious, to avoid emotiveness or the most naked kind of assertion. Type A nominalization can afford us flexibility as we try to structure what we say. It can also help us accentuate the main point we want to get across. Sure, it can be clunky, but sometimes it can be trenchant.

On the whole, it is Type B nominalization that really grates. “How can anybody use ‘sequester’ as a noun?” asks a friend. “The word is ‘sequestration,’ and if you say anything else you should be defenestrated.”

“I’ll look forward to the defenestrate,” I say, and he calls me something I’d sooner not repeat.

Even in the face of such opprobrium, people continue to redeploy verbs as nouns. I am less interested in demonizing this than in thinking about the psychology behind what they are doing.

Why say “solve” rather than “solution”? One answer is that it gives an impression of freshness, by avoiding an everyday word. To some, “I have a solve” will sound jauntier and more pragmatic than “I have a solution.” It’s also more concise and less obviously Latinate (though the root of “solve” is the Latin solvere).

These aren’t necessarily virtues, but they can be. If I speak of “the magician’s reveal” rather than of “the magician’s moment of revelation,” I am evoking the thrill of this sudden unveiling or disclosure. The more traditional version is less immediate.

Using a Type B nominalization may also seem humorous and vivid. Thus, compare “that was an epic fail” (Type B nominalization), “that was an epic failure” (Type A nominalization) and “they failed to an epic degree” (neither).

There are other reasons for favoring nominalizations. They can have a distancing effect. “What is the ask?” is less personal than “What are they asking?” This form of words may improve our chances of eliciting a more objective response. It can also turn something amorphous into a discrete conceptual unit, of a kind that is easier to grasp or sounds more specific. Whatever I think of “what is the ask?” it focuses me on what’s at stake.

Some regard unwieldy nominalizations as alarming evidence of the depraved zeitgeist. But the phenomenon itself is hardly new. For instance, “solve” as a noun is found in the 18th century, and the noun “fail” is older than “failure” (which effectively supplanted it).

“Reveal” has been used as a noun since the 16th century. Even in its narrow broadcasting context, as a term for the final revelation at the end of a show, it has been around since the 1950s.

“Ask” has been used as a noun for a thousand years—though the way we most often encounter it today, with a modifier (“a big ask”), is a 1980s development.

It is easy to decry nominalization. I don’t feel that a writer is doing me any favors when he expresses himself thus: “The successful implementation of the scheme was a validation of the exertions involved in its conception.” There are crisper ways to say this. And yes, while we’re about it, I don’t actually care for “Do you have a solve?”

Still, it is simplistic to have a blanket policy of avoiding and condemning nominalizations. Even when critics couch their antipathy in a language of clinical reasonableness, they are expressing an aesthetic judgment.

Aesthetics will always play a part in the decisions we make about how to express ourselves—and in our assessment of other people’s expression—but sometimes we need to do things that are aesthetically unpleasant in order to achieve other effects, be they polemical or diplomatic.

[A version of this article appeared in print on Sunday, 31 March 2013, in the “Sunday Review” section of the New York Times.

[By the way, for those who didn’t really catch it, defenestration, an odd word in any case, means simply “the act of throwing someone or something out a window,” as in the historical Defenestration of Prague which launched the Thirty Years’ War in 1618.]

*  *  *  *
by Henry Hitchings

[In his follow-up column on “Opinionator,” on Friday, 5 April 2013, Hitchings continues his discussion of nominalization.]

In my previous essay, I wrote about nominalization—the deployment as nouns of words we mostly expect to encounter as verbs or adjectives. Aware of many people’s tendency to vilify this kind of usage, I speculated about the psychology behind it. I was interested in thinking about why someone might prefer “Do you have a solve for this problem?” to “Can you solve this problem?”

Like many of the readers who commented, I find that some nominalizations are useful and others are jarring. I can accept that language changes (and has to change) without necessarily cherishing all manifestations of that change. I don’t shudder when I see or hear “This year’s spend is excessive” and “Her book was a good read,” even though I can think of other, perhaps more elegant ways of saying these things. On the other hand, “There is no undo for that” strikes me as infelicitous, and I am still not completely comfortable with the use of the noun “disconnect” as a synonym for “disparity” or “discrepancy”—although it has been around since the 1980s.

In some cases a nominalization is the specialist vocabulary of a particular profession or community: it has connotations of expertise and—less often—of an insider’s self-regard. For instance, people who work in software talk about the “build,” and I recently heard a real estate agent speak of creating a “seduce” for property. When these terms of art gain wider currency, it is largely because nonspecialists are eager to seem conversant with the ins and outs of an esoteric subject. Sometimes we adopt such terms in a jocular or satirical spirit—but end up using them without a whiff of irony.

In the last couple of decades, many condensed forms of expression have achieved currency thanks to the spread of electronic communication: when we bash out e-mails and text messages, we feel the need for speed. Several readers made this point. Nominalizations allow us to pack the information in our sentences more densely. This urgency comes in other guises: nouns get verbed as often as verbs get nouned. (I had to go and lie down after writing that.)

What I didn’t discuss in my first post was the dark side of nominalization. It’s not just that nominalization can sap the vitality of one’s speech or prose; it can also eliminate context and mask any sense of agency. Furthermore, it can make something that is nebulous or fuzzy seem stable, mechanical and precisely defined. That may sound like a virtue, but it’s really a way of repudiating ambiguity and complexity.

Nominalizations give priority to actions rather than to the people responsible for them. Sometimes this is apt, perhaps because we don’t know who is responsible or because responsibility isn’t relevant. But often they conceal power relationships and reduce our sense of what’s truly involved in a transaction. As such, they are an instrument of manipulation, in politics and in business. They emphasize products and results, rather than the processes by which products and results are achieved.

I touched previously on “What is the ask?” As an alternative to “What are they asking?” or “What are we being asked to do?” this can seem crisp. It takes an aerial view of an issue. But it calculatedly omits reference to the people doing the asking, as a way of keeping their authority and power out of the question.

At the same time, by turning the act of asking into something narrow and impersonal, “What is the ask?” repositions a question as a command. It leaves little or no room for the “ask” to be refused. As a noun, “ask” is pretty much a synonym for “order.” Even when we retain details of agency—as in “What is their ask of us?” – the noun ossifies what could and should be a more dynamic process.

Compared with “What is the ask?” the question “What’s the take-away from today’s lecture?” may look harmless. Yet it minimizes audience members’ sense of their responsibility to absorb the lecture’s lessons. “What should I take away from today’s lecture?” is a question that betrays a cramped and probably exam-focused understanding of what it means to learn. But “What’s the take-away?” seems to represent education as a product rather than a practice. It invites an answer that’s a sound bite, a Styrofoam-sheathed portion of spice, a handy little package to be slavishly reproduced.

Such phrasing also curtails the lecturer’s role, making him or her not so much a source of ideas and a repository of intellectual trust as a purveyor of data packets. This may be an unhappy accident, or it may be strategic – perhaps a disavowal of the very notion that education is personal.

Nominalizations aren’t intrinsically either good or bad. Yet, used profusely, they strip the humanity out of what we write and say. They can also be furtively political. Their boosters see them as marvels of concision, but one person’s idea of streamlining is another’s idea of a specious and ethically doubtful simplicity.

[Henry Hitchings is a British author, reviewer, and critic with a particular focus on language and cultural history.  He’s the theatre critic for the London Evening Standard, and has also written for the Financial Times, the New Statesman, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal and the Times Literary Supplement.  The author of five books exploring language and culture, his most recent is Sorry! The English and their Manners (2013).  Hitchings’s second book, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, won the 2008 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.]

20 January 2017

Berlin Memoir, Part 3

[As I promised in my closing note to “Berlin Memoir, Part 2” (see 31 December 2016), this installment will detail the most significant investigation in which I was engaged during the 2½ years I was stationed in Berlin.  It’s probably no surprise to ROTters who’ve been following this reminiscence that the case involved exfiltration, that peculiar phenomenon in which I’d become the Station expert.  (For an explanation of what exfiltration is and how I got involved in its investigation, I recommend going back and reading parts 1 and 2 of this memoir before embarking on the latest chapter.  That’s also where readers’ll find definitions of the intel terms and army jargon I bandy about.  “Berlin Memoir, Part 1” was posted on 16 December 2016.)]

As I said, most exfiltration cases were minor incidents, especially from the counterintel perspective.  The case involving the Deputy Provost Matchall of Berlin Brigade was an exception.  One other time, however, I hooked a really big one.  The events of this episode, which only took a few hours, were actually set in motion months earlier.  Some time in mid-1971, an ex-GI named “Red” Kappel (I think his actual given name was Martin, but everyone called him Red anyway), now working in Berlin at the PX warehouse, got caught on the Autobahn between Berlin and West Germany driving a car with five would-be refugees concealed in it.  To complicate matters, he was driving his boss’s Caddy, a favorite of the exfiltrators because of its big trunk, implicating this high-ranking Civil Servant—he was a GS-12 or something, the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel—in the tangle.  The East German Vopos turned Kappel over to the Soviets and after they took Kappel to Potsdam for a few days, the Soviets returned him to East German custody and he ended up in jail in East Berlin. 

Military Intelligence interest began in this case because when Kappel had been a GI he had had a security clearance, and when he first came to Berlin after he got out of the army, he delivered pizza for a local restaurant and one of his regular delivery stops was Field Station Berlin, the super-secret, mountain-top ASA SIGINT and ELINT facility—our version of what I described at Helmstedt earlier—and no one knew what he might be able to tell someone about that place.  FSB, located on the highest point in Berlin, Teufelsberg, a little mountain in Wilmersdorf created from the rubble of the city’s wartime destruction (which you see being shoveled into wheelbarrows in The Big Lift), bristled with antennas, domes, spheres, and silos—it looked like a set from the space opera Star Trek—and was a major target of Soviet espionage both because of its extreme sensitivity and because it was aimed at them.

We eventually determined that Kappel didn’t really have any info that the Soviets wouldn’t already possess, though at the beginning we didn’t know that.  Security questions set aside, the case became part of the muddle of diplomatic-military-political issues that made up the Cold War.  An American had committed a crime on Soviet-controlled soil, and the Soviets were going to make as big a deal out of it as they could.  My job was to find out who else was involved and how far the participation of any official Americans, GI and civilian, went.  The people running exfiltrations were the same ones who controlled the worst of Berlin’s crime; as I’ll describe later, they were about as nasty as anyone could be and the generals didn’t want any of their people in bed with them.  And smuggling people across the East-West border by someone associated with the U.S. Forces was clearly a provocation to the Soviets at a time when that was a dangerous button to push. 

We already knew about the warehouse manager, but as the investigation developed and other U.S. Forces personnel were identified, I also ended up coordinating with the OSI, the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, which combines the responsibilities of both MI and CID.  I even did a good cop-bad cop interrogation of one AF NCO who turned out to be the lynchpin for exposing the whole team involved in the Kappel operation—he copped out under pressure and named names.  (I was the bad cop.  As we’ll see, I’m very good as playing a hard-ass.  There was also one exercise at Holabird that sort of stunned everyone.  But that’s another story.)  To find out if anyone else was involved we monitored the mail at Kappel’s home and had his phone tapped.  (The rules for this were a lot easier in Germany than in the U.S., and within the military community—and in occupied Berlin, that included civilian employees like Kappel anyway—it was at the discretion of the USCOB.  In Berlin, the three Western generals had supreme authority, though the USCOB seldom exercised it over Germans or Americans with no official connection.) 

Now, Kappel, like many GI’s, had married a German woman.  Beside the fact that she wasn’t a U.S. citizen, a circumstance always considered a potential security risk, nearly every West German had family in East Germany.  Family in the East was a pressure point the East Germans and Soviets were never reluctant to exploit.  Helene Kappel was very vulnerable now, with no income and her connection to the American community and its safety net severed; there was no telling what she might do.  In addition, before her marriage to Red, Helene had been a prostitute.  I can tell you, I learned some interesting German from her mail and the phone tap because when she ran out of money, she went back to her old profession.  She also made contact with the people who had hired her husband to drive the refugees to West Germany (actually they contacted her) and she began to recruit more drivers and car-owners for the organization.   

While all this was going on, though, Kappel was just sitting in an East Berlin jail.  I was on 24-hour call and couldn’t leave my BOQ without telling the Duty Agent where to reach me and calling in every hour or so.  (The Duty Agent, or DA—usually an EM, though for a period when we were understaffed junior officers pulled this duty, too—stayed in the Station all night to answer the phones and respond to an alert by calling the section SAIC’s—Special Agents in Charge.)  My parents came to Berlin for a visit during this time, and they were very impressed at how important I seemed to be because while we were out wandering around the city, I kept ducking into Stuben and bars to use the phone.  Of course, I couldn’t tell them exactly what was going on, but they were very impressed nevertheless. 

All this time, of course, I was writing reports on everything we were learning about the exfiltrators and their operations, as well as the contacts Helene was making and everything else related even remotely to the investigation.  I attended high-level briefings with colonels and generals and ministers—sometimes in that secure room—where I was generally the only junior officer present.  I’d have been impressed myself, if I hadn’t been so afraid of making a mistake.  (I can tell you, I was replaying that previous run-in with the DCSI over the incident concerning the DPM.  The DCSI didn’t like me, and we both knew it.)  I learned at these briefings that my reports were going to the State Department and being read by Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State at the time.  I even had intimations that some of my stuff was going to the White House.  This was a really big deal, and I was the point man.  (Somewhere, in some State Department or DOD archive is a big file with all my reports on this case, plus whatever other people were sending.  That staff study’s probably moldering somewhere, too.) 

Obviously, at one point there ceased to be much more we could do.  Kappel had been caught red-handed (pardon the expression), so there was no denying his guilt.  Except for trying to roll up the exfiltration operations, which we eventually pretty much did, there wasn’t anything left to investigate.  Getting Kappel released became a diplomatic function, so the case went cold except for monitoring sources for word of his whereabouts and potential release.  Everything pretty much went back to normal (which at Berlin Station was frequently hectic and crazy anyway, as you may have learned).  I went back to my regular duties and was no longer on 24-hour call except when I was my section’s duty officer in the regular rotation.  And that’s when it happened.

I was on call for the Counterespionage Section one evening, and I was just hanging out at my BOQ.  (One agent from each section was on call every night and on the weekends.  We had to be available and contactable at all times.  Remember, there were no cell phones, or even beepers, in those days.)  Sometime around 7 in the evening, the DA phoned me at home to come in and take a call.  A guy thought that a recent photo of a wanted Baader-Meinhof member in the newspaper looked like his wife’s brother-in-law (or something).  I talked the guy down, thanked him, and got rid of him.  But as I was preparing to go back home, the phone rang again and the duty agent passed it on to me.  The man on the other end said he was Red Kappel, that he had been released in West Berlin, and he wanted to meet someone. 

Well, this didn’t sound kosher.  Our latest information was that Kappel was still in the East Berlin lock-up, and while it was possible that the East Germans might release him suddenly and without notice, it was highly unlikely.  They were all making too much hay out of holding him.  (Kappel’s eventual release was almost certainly a direct result of Nixon’s trip to Moscow in May 1972.  If they were working at that level, letting him go unannounced, with no bargaining or propaganda, would be pretty silly on their part.  The Soviets could be petty, but they were seldom silly.)  And even if he had been released that way, why would he call Military Intelligence?  Not his wife, not his boss, not the guys who hired him (and probably hadn’t paid him yet), not some friends.  Still, I couldn’t just ignore the call.  I arranged to meet “Kappel” at the PX snack bar across Clayallee.  It was about 8 p.m. now, and the place closed at 9, so it would be neutral, safe, but somewhat private.  We made a date for a short time later.

Now, because this case fell between all the floorboards of military investigations—it wasn’t a security matter, it wasn’t a military crime, and since none of the people involved were GI’s, it wasn’t even a breach of military regs—we shared the case with the military detectives, the CID (Criminal Investigation Division of the MP’s).  I had a CID counterpart, a German-born, naturalized-American warrant officer who didn’t want to be on this case any more than I did.  Karl-Heinz Wiedermeyer also shared with his CID and MP colleagues a tendency to overreact whenever something got a little spooky.  One whiff of spy stuff, and military cops sometimes went off half-cocked.  Not that I was so cool, with my vast experience in counterespionage.  (I once got into some trouble with my CO because I lost my cool when I got stuck with an malfunctioning radio when I was doing security for General Westmoreland at an Armed Forces Day parade.  I started cursing over what I thought was a dead radio, but it was only broken at my end.  They could hear me perfectly well back at base, and cursing on the air is a major RTO—Radio-Telephone Operator—no-no.  So much for cool under pressure.)  I was, however, at least trained for this stuff.  Karl-Heinz wasn’t.  He was a cop, not a spook.  Anyway, I called Karl-Heinz and, because his office was at Andrews Barracks in Lichtenfelde and the ’X and I were in Zehlendorf, we decided that I’d go meet “Kappel” and he’d join us later.  So I went on across the street to the PX complex, and went into the snack bar.

The PX snack bar is a cafeteria.  This one was nearly all glass, with windows all around the two exterior walls, and the entrance in a completely glass wall.  (The fourth side was the food counter and the kitchen.)  At 8 o’clock in the evening, an hour before closing, there was virtually no one there except the workers closing up.  As I entered, I saw one lone guy sitting at the opposite end of the room.  He was at a table, with his broad-brimmed hat pulled down sort of ’40s style, and he was buried in the brigade Daily Bulletin.  Every military post puts this out, with all the announcements, official and unofficial, and it’s a couple of pages long, printed—mimeographed in those days—on legal-sized paper.  A guy in a slouch hat, poring over the DB looks pretty silly, believe me.  The only other people in the snack bar were the cooks and servers cleaning up behind the counter and one teenager turning the chairs up onto the tables in the main part of the room.  Obviously, the guy with the DB was my guy—but he wasn’t Red Kappel.  I’d seen enough pictures of him over the months of investigation to know what he looked like, and this guy was ten years too old, ten pounds too heavy, and a good six inches too sort.  And even with the hat, I could see that his hair was not red (Kappel didn’t get his nickname for nothing).  I had to talk to the guy in any case.  Even with all the deception, he might actually know something we should know.  I doubted that, but I had to make a report anyway, so I had to find out what he wanted. 

I crossed the room and went up to the guy’s table.  I stood across from him, but he didn’t look up from the DBChrist, I thought, the guy’s gonna play Sam Spade or something

“Are you looking to talk to someone?” I said.

“You CIA?”


“You got ID?”  He still hadn’t looked up.

“No.  Do you want to talk, or not?”

“OK.”  I sat across from him.

You got any ID?” I asked.  He handed me his DOD ID card (though I’ve forgotten now what his name really was).

“I hear the Reds got one of our guys,” he said a little heatedly.

Oh, God.  He’s a John Bircher or something.  Where’s this gonna go?  “Where’d you hear that?”

“Around.  I work in the EES beverage shop.  The words out.” 

“OK.  Why’d you want to see us?”

“I got a brother-in-law—well, my wife’s brother-in-law—in the East.  He’s a party member, but he don’t like it there.  I can go over and get him to find out where they’re holding Red.”

“Ah, no, that wouldn’t be a good idea.  We really know where Red is, anyway.  But thanks for offering.”  Somewhere about here, I saw Karl-Heinz look in through the glass doors across the room.  It was near closing now, and all the activity in the snack bar had pretty much ceased.  There was only our James Bond wannabe and me in the room, and that teen mopping the floor.  But Karl-Heinz looked around, didn’t come in, and left.  What the hell, I figured, this isn’t important and I’ll just fill him in later, after I talk this guy down and send him home.  I was a little afraid, considering how ditzy the guy was, that he might be armed and if I signaled Karl-Heinz across the room, “Kappel” might lose it or something.  It wasn’t worth the chance under the circumstances.  I let Karl-Heinz go without making a move or saying anything.

“Well, what if I go over and get my wife’s brother-in-law to help me break Red out?  We could go over and get him before anybody knew.  My wife’s brother-in-law”—he never used the man’s name, it was always “my wife’s brother-in-law”—”has access.  He knows stuff, and he can find out things.”

“Fine.  But don’t do anything until we get back to you.  I have to report to my superiors, you know, and they’ll let you know.  Promise me you’ll wait until you hear from me.”

“Sure.  But I want to help.  We can’t just let them get one of our guys like that.”

Jesus, this guy’s gonna do something dumb, I know it.  He’s seen too many spy flicks.  “Of course not.  We’re doing things right now, don’t you worry.  Believe me, we’re not just sitting on our hands here.  Just don’t do anything without hearing from us.  You might get in the way of another operation, you know.  Don’t even talk to your wife’s brother-in-law yet.  Just wait.”

“Sure.  I understand.  But you’ll get back to me.  I’m ready to do something.  I know I can trust my wife’s brother-in-law.”

I stood up then, and pointed out that the snack bar was closing up.  I walked him out and across Clayallee.  We stopped in front of the entrance gate to the compound.  “Now, remember, you promised not to do anything until you hear from us.  Right?  Don’t even go to the East until then.”

“Right.  I gotcha.  I’ll wait to hear from you.”  We shook hands and he walked away toward Saargemünderstrasse, around the corner of which was the small compound where the EES beverage store was, and where I imagined his car was parked.  I watched him go until he turned the corner, then went into the headquarters compound and into the Station.  When I entered the Station, there were three people in the DA’s little office and the phones—there were ten or a dozen lines—were all ringing.  The DA was there, Karl-Heinz, and another agent from the Station who, it turned out, just happened along and got shanghaied. 

“Karl-Heinz, where the hell did you go?  Why didn’t you come into the snack-bar?  I saw you look in, but you left right away.”

“I, uhh . . . .  What the hell are you doing here?”

“I work here!  What are you doing here?  What’s going on?”

“Where were you?” asked the DA.

“Right where I said I was going to be.  What’s this all about?”

“Wait a minute, let me call off the dogs,” said Karl-Heinz.  Most of this dialogue is recreated from my memory—though it’s very close to what we all said.  But this particular line was precisely what Karl-Heinz said.  That phrase is etched in my brain. 

After a second’s hesitation, the three started dialing and talking again, very nervously. 

“What do you mean, ‘Call off the dogs’?”

“I didn’t see you in the snack-bar.  I thought you got grabbed.  We’ve called your CO, my CO”—that’s the PM—“the USCOB, the Brigade Commander, and the DCSI.  We’ve put out APB’s on you, Kappel, your car, and the Caddy Kappel was driving.  They’re shutting the whole city down.”

“Jesus, Karl-Heinz, did you overreact!  I was right where I said I’d be.  The only thing was, when I got there, I found out it wasn’t Kappel at all, of course.  It was just some nut from the EES.  He heard through the grapevine that Kappel got picked up in East Germany, and he wanted to go over and bust him out.  He was a little hinky, so when I saw you peek in, I didn’t want to signal.  Since it wasn’t Kappel or anyone important to the case, I figured I’d tell you later.”

“Well, I wasn’t looking for you, actually; I was looking for Kappel.  When I didn’t see him, I just naturally assumed . . . .”

At this moment, Colonel Collins arrived.  He was already on his way when the DA called to head him off.  Besides, with the DCSI and two generals informed that I’d been kidnapped, he figured he’d better be in the Station to settle the flap.  Unfortunately for me, the DCSI was also on his way in.  The generals, at least, had been caught in time. 

Colonel Collins picked up a phone and made several calls.  I was still watching this whole scene in amusement and disbelief.  After all, I hadn’t done anything.  Was it my fault that Karl-Heinz had jumped to conclusions and overreacted? 

“Well, the shit’s gonna hit,” said my CO.  “The DCSI wants to see us in his office at USCOB.  The PM’s closed the checkpoints and stopped the military train.  The military part of Tempelhof’s been closed, too.  They got the French and the Brits to lock down their sectors also, and the PM’s been on to the German agencies to shut down the civilian crossing points and exits as well.  It took about half an hour to shut the city down.  It’ll take hours to open it all up again.  The DCSI’s gonna be pissed.”

“But why at me, sir?  I was right where I said I’d be, doing just what I was supposed to do.”  I knew the DCSI was just looking for a reason to chew my tail again.  Would Colonel Collins back me again, as he had done before? 

Well, the DCSI did light into me.  At least he started to.  And Colonel Collins pointed out right away that the flap had not been caused by anything I had done.  The DCSI backed off, but he was clearly not happy about that. 

As we left the DCSI’s office, Colonel Collins told me, “When I heard that you were kidnapped, my first fear was that you had your creds with you.  Then I wondered if you had a weapon.”  I looked at him a moment.  He was really more worried about my boxtops and my .38 than about my safety.  How comforting.

As far as I know, the city untangled itself and was back to normal by morning.  I doubt anyone outside the Station, the PMO, and USCOB really knew what had happened.  Probably some travelers were inconvenienced—mostly military ones, since the civilian stuff probably never got closed before the all-clear came down—but they probably never learned why.  Anyway, I’m the only person I know who had a city shut down for him.  Kinda makes me proud to be an American.  This case had gone on for months—over a year I think.  Then, suddenly, the case was over.  Kappel was released.  The scuttlebutt was that his release had been negotiated during Nixon’s trip to Moscow a few weeks earlier.  (I was never able to confirm that, of course, but that’s what everyone assumed.)

The most this case did was ID some more exfiltration personalities, and drive up the fees they paid for cars and drivers.  Because of the more detailed info my study provided, the Allied forces were able to clamp down pretty tightly on the operations and essentially deny the leaders access to Allied personnel as drivers—they could get through checkpoints with less scrutiny than Germans or other nationals—and cars with Allied plates, especially big American cars in which whole families could hide.  The more difficult it got to get these assets, the higher the payment they offered.  The PX warehouse manager had gotten $500 for the use of his Caddy (which he ended up losing, along with his job with the EES; we figured some Soviet general was tooling around Moscow in the Caddy); as a result of our operation, we pulled the lid so tight the exfiltration organizers were offering several thousand for cars, drivers were getting $10,000 and more, and Helene herself was promised a Mercedes for just recruiting people.  For the rest of the time I was in Berlin, GI’s were out of the exfiltration biz—it was too risky, even for that kind of money.  (As the costs went up, so, of course, did the price paid by the refugees.  It was a cash deal, and I imagine fewer and fewer would-be escapees could afford it anymore.)

[So, how many people do you know who’ve had a city closed on their account?  Not many, I’ll wager.  (My Dad was actually thrown out of a city by the mayor . . . but that’s a different story.)  If this episode whets your appetite for more reminiscences about Cold War Berlin, please come back in a couple of weeks for part 4 of “Berlin Memoir.”  Since I’m posting the installments somewhat haphazardly, I can’t say exactly when the next chapter—which covers some of the other intel activities in which I was involved (just the highlights, of course!)—will appear, but they’ve been coming about once every two to three weeks.]