In 1979, Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man earned top New York theater honors including Drama Desk, NY Drama Critics’ Circle and Tony awards for best new play. Based on the true story of Englishman Joseph Merrick (aka John Merrick), who was born with severe physical deformities, the play covers the latter part of Merrick’s brief life, spent as both a side-show spectacle and medical wonder.
A fresh production of The Elephant Man presented by the Grimy Corp comes to Los Angeles this week at Theatre 68 with plenty of seasoned talent on stage and off, including a director who’s new to LA theater, Reid Scott.
In the Beginning
“It’s obviously hard to act or direct by yourself,” Scott states. “And you need a strong community because it can take 20 years to get where you want to be.”
After graduating from Syracuse University as its first recipient of a dual theater/film directing degree, Scott cut his teeth in those first years working with friends on small stages in New York, mounting such projects as Inherit the Wind, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Miss Julie, to name just a few. Sometimes he acted instead of directed, so his fellow directors also gained experience.
During one of these “acting gigs for a friend” in a small New York theater, Scott was first spotted by a casting director and called in to audition. And””take note, aspiring actors””it led to a career.
“Acting was never the goal,” he reflects. “But then I auditioned for this one casting director and I’m pretty sure they thought, “˜He doesn’t care so much, we just gotta have him!’”
Since then, Scott has spent more than 10 steady years working as an actor, moving between coasts and seen on small- and big-screen productions. He has a regular role on the upcoming HBO series Veep, and his other TV series include Showtime’s The Big C, TBS’s My Boys and ABC’s It’s All Relative. His last appearance on stage was with Mad Men’s Jon Hamm in last year’s production of Three Sisters at LA Theatre Works.
But he never lost his passion for directing.
A friend and colleague, Babar Peerzada, had been developing scenes from Elephant Man with an acting coach in Los Angeles. As Peerzada covered more and more scenes from the play, it seemed the natural evolution to finally produce it with Peerzada as the lead. He asked Scott to direct. Scott says it was a perfect script for his return to directing.
“It’s written as a series of vignettes; in fact, they each have a title like their own little story,” he explains. “For someone who works primarily in TV and film, that already speaks to me.”
Philip Anglim originated the Merrick stage role, but on Broadway he was followed by — among others — two huge stars who were known more for their work outside theater, David Bowie and Mark Hamill.Â The actor playing the deformed Merrick is particularly instructed in the play’s text to not use prosthetics or special effects of any kind, creating physical acting challenges for any production and engaging the imaginations of audiences.
The play’s drama resonates with universal issues of acceptance and adversity, artistry and inner beauty. It has been produced on stages large and small around the world for more than 30 years. It’s no surprise adaptations have appeared in critically acclaimed film and television versions, as well as a Broadway revival in 2002 featuring Billy Crudup in the title role. In LA,Â Actors Co-op and Andak Stage produced it in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and the Mechanicals Theatre Group is scheduled to open another production next month at Pico Playhouse.
Scott’s staging marks the first official production by the Grimy Corp, named after an old apartment and creative hang-out once shared by artistic friends Patrick J. Adams, Peerzada, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Scott. Scott agreed to direct upon the condition that this production not be the only one. Scott suggested a collective to continue producing passion projects in the theater as many of his friends now have careers in film and television. The Grimy provides a much needed place to retreat, recharge, and build theater projects.
The Elephant Man team came together purely for “the joy and passion of it.” Landing the space at Theatre 68 as a rental facility and putting together a top-notch design team became the first steps that transformed a small acting project into a full-blown production, with Lulu Brud and Peerzada as producers. But the grass-roots spirit was never lost.
“As this thing came together we didn’t even have a rehearsal space,” Scott describes. “We started with a series of readings at my home.”
With Peerzada’s scene work refined and the cast rounded out with Jeny Batten, Ron Bottitta, Nick Caballero, Kimberly Condict, Chris Payne Gilbert, Jamie Harris and Paulie Rojas, the play has been pieced together in a “Frankenstein style,” which Scott finds a fitting reflection of one of the play’s themes.
As with most small productions in LA, the journey has produced ample challenges but the team has consistently pulled together to tackle them.
“Everyone has been picking up responsibilities,” Scott emphasizes. “Everyone is pulling double duty because it’s as much for us as it is for our audience.”
Chris Payne Gilbert
Scott hopes to see even more LA theater talent transition into career paths.
“Theater was always the way in,” Scott states. “With this town full of people trying to break into the business, LA theater deserves more attention.”
Scott describes 99-seat theater in terms of baseball with its minor leagues””the small theater scene can serve as a training ground for young, up-and-coming talent. But he also expresses how film, television and even larger theaters need to pay attention for it to work. Scott would like to stay involved in LA theater specifically for that reason, to bring more attention to the little theaters and expose more unknown talent.
“There’s so much [talent] in LA that feels undiscovered,” Scott says. “You need to nurture your minor leagues so you can have better options for the future.”
West Coast Settled
After being primarily bicoastal over the years, Scott is now a homeowner in Los Angeles and plans to stay for a while. He hopes his future will include more directing and definitely more theater. His current artistic family with Elephant Man has provided a strong foundation to start”¦something. But only time will tell how that “something” evolves.
“I don’t want this to be the only one. I want this particular collective of people, this like-mindedness to keep moving forward,” Scott declares. “I will definitely continue to direct theater in Los Angeles. I’m excited to go to work every day.”
The Elephant Man, produced by Lulu Brud and Babar Peerzada for the Grimy Corp. Opens March 31. Plays Thur”“Sat 8 pm; Sun 7 pm. Through May 6. Tickets $30/door; $25/online. Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood 323-960-7735. www.plays411.com/elephantman or http://www.thegrimycorp.com/.
I’ve always been intrigued by personal branding companies that help people build their professional careers. When I hear the words “build your brand,” I try not to audibly laugh despite immediately envisioning my own “brand.” Initially, these services seemed unnatural, but the more I think about it, perhaps they are simply helping us be more efficient.
We all have those brutally honest, “tell it like it is” friends. I like those types of people. Â They can be incredibly helpful. I am forever grateful to my college suitemates who introduced me to the magical world of contact lenses and clothes that actually fit me. What if there had been a company that did this for me?
My fascination with this world was a jump-off point. I was less excited by the concept of branding for the sake of your career and more excited about a company that would brand your day-to-day life. This is where Feedback was born. In it, the fictional company Perceptions isn’t a “makeover” company per se; it actually seeks to re-brand the core of your being. I thought about the idea of a company that helps you present yourself in your personal relationships so that they become more satisfying.
The first draft of Feedback came quickly to me and I loved writing it. I think that’s because I saw a lot of myself in Holly, the protagonist. I’m the girl who asks her best friends, “What do you think I’d be good at?” or “What adjectives would you use to describe me?” as if their insight can re-orient my self-perception. Yes, perhaps that line of questioning is a bit weak, but I think we can become blind to ourselves. Holly lays her heart out on the table more than I do. She’s incredibly honest and vulnerable. I find myself attracted to these people in real life — people who open up quickly and share themselves.
As I was writing the play, I thought a lot about why it’s even important to be a brand. Why are we shocked when people deviate from how we perceive them? The premise of the play also got me thinking about our interpersonal relationships and how we often become a brand to our friends — the “goofy” one, or the “girl who’s always dating someone new.”
Dorrie Braun and April Grace Lowe
Another question that kept popping up for me when writing this play was — if we are constantly adjusting ourselves to others’ perceptions, when do we stop being ourselves?
I believe the most essential work one can do in his or her life is honest self-examination. It’s the bedrock of being able to love and help others. Feedback was exciting to me because Holly attempts to offer up this task to a company. What an interesting choice for a person to make. She is a young woman coping with grief and thinks she’s found the perfect solution.
I think there are lots of reasons why someone would choose to hire a personal branding company, but I’m fascinated by Holly’s choice in particular. She’s grieving from the death of her mother and she’s unhinged. Here’s a company she feels can set her back on track. Or, can they?
There’s a saying that I love, “The only way out is through.” I kept repeating that to myself when writing this play. Common wisdom says there are no quick fixes for grief or fast alternatives to self-reflection. However, in a world speeding up with every new innovation, is it possible a company could help us “through”?
Feedback, presented by the Lyric Theatre and directed by Craig Jessen. Opens March 30. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun April 15 and 22, 2 pm. Through April 28. Tickets $20. The Lyric Theatre, 520 N. La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles 90036. VisitÂ www.plays411.com/feedback or call 323-960-1055.Â For more information on Feedback, the Lyric Theatre or its 2012 season, visit www.LyricTheatreLA.com.
***All Feedback production photos by Richard M. Johnson
Jane Miller is a playwright and screenwriter whose work has been produced by Aporia Theatre, Looking Glass Theatre, the Wellesley Project, Squeaky Bicycle Productions, and the Network.
NEWS”¦ When LA City Council made its Jan 17 pronouncement that it was evicting Latino Theater Company (LTC) and Latino Museum of Art, History and Culture from LA City-owned LA Theatre Center (LATC), the Council cited the ongoing “contentious relationship” between LTC and Latino Museum as a primary cause for the eviction ruling. Now, according to LTC, the contention has been resolved. The official legalese states: “The lawsuit between The Latino Museum of Art, History and Culture (the “˜Museum’) and The Latino Theater Company (the “˜Theater’) has been resolved to theÂ mutual satisfaction of all parties involved. The Museum has made the decision to voluntarily vacate the LATC in order to pursue other partnership opportunities with, among others, certain institutions of higher learning, which will allow the Latino Museum to bring its extensive and exciting collections of Latino arts and artists to a much wider audience thereby better serving the Latino community, and the community of Los Angeles as a whole. The Latino Theater is making separate arrangements with the City of Los Angeles and will continue to fulfill its role as a provider of multicultural programming that reflects the rich diversity of Los Angeles. All the parties wish each other well with their future endeavors.” So there!“¦Topanga Canyon-based Theatricum Botanicum is hosting a memorial event celebrating the life and career of director/teacher/actor Heidi Helen Davis on Apr 29 at noon.Â Davis, who died of cancer in Dec 2011, helmed more than 20 plays at Theatricum’s outdoor stage.Â To get information and to RSVP go to firstname.lastname@example.org“¦Scripter Rex Pickert is premiering the play Sideways, adapted from his novel (the basis of the 2004 film), produced by Ruskin Group Theater, helmed by Amelia Mulkey, opening May 18. Wine will be served…And Long Beach Playhouse continues its organizational re-alignment with the appointment of Madison Mooney as business and operations manager.Â For the last three years she has performed as stage manager, actor and production manager with the company.Â Mooney is a 2010 graduate of Cal State Long Beach”¦
HOLLYWOOD PREMIERES”¦Greenway Arts Alliance is hosting the premiere of The Bewildered Herd, “the serio-comic tale of Charlie “˜Bingo’ Bingham, a man who has made a living spinning products and political candidates,” who now must manufacture happiness and truth for himself, scripted by Ovation and LA Weekly award nominee Cody Henderson, helmedby Laurie Woolery, debuting Apr 14″¦Open Fist Theatre Company continues its 2012 season with the West Coast premiere of politics-based Early and Often, avowing “power corrupts, but absolute power is good for the neighborhood,” wrought by TV scribes Barbara Wallace & Thomas R. Wolfe (co-creators of Welcome to New York), helmed by Ron West, opening Apr 7″¦And Theatre of NOTE continues itsÂ season of premieresÂ with Copy, “a darkly absurd office comedy (with music!) that explores memory, loss, obsession, daguerreotypes, deceitful lemurs and the undissectable sound of love,” scripted by Padraic Duffy, helmed by DavidLM McIntyre, opening May 4″¦
AROUND TOWN“¦ As the final production of its 2011-12 season, Colony Theatre in Burbank is reviving the 1966 off-off-Broadway (and later Off-Broadway) tuner Dames at Sea, which made its debut at Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village, launching the career of Bernadette Peters.Â Wrought by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller (book and lyrics) and Jim Wise (music), helmed by Todd Nielsen, it opens Apr 14″¦Mime artists Keith Berger and Sharon Diskin (AKA The Chameleons) will perform and conduct an interactive workshop, Mar 31 at Orange County Great Park Palm Court Arts Complex (a facility within former El Toro Marine Corps Base)”¦In Long Beach, Musical Theatre West is offering the satirical tuner fest Forbidden Broadway: Greatest Hits, Volume 2, created by Gerard Alessandrini, helmed by William Selby, opening Apr 14″¦The Second City in Hollywood is hosting The Movie Guys Live, “the ultimate live comedy show all about the movies,” featuring Chicago Second City alums Paul Preston and Karen Volpe, as well as Adam Witt (Schadenfreude comedy troupe) and standup comic Lee Kias, opening Apr 5″¦Arlene Hutton’s 1999 two-hander, Last Train to Nibroc, helmed by Kerr Seth Lordygan, featuring Frank Krueger and Rebecca Lane, opens Apr 13 at The Eclectic Theatre Company in Valley Village”¦
THE RUBICON”¦ Up in Ventura, Rubicon Theatre Company has issued an intriguing six-show 2012-13 season lineup but has omitted the performance dates.Â The bill o’ fare includes the seemingly contradictory “premiere revival” (is that possible?) of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s 1940 tuner, Pal Joey, based on the short stories of John O’Hara who scripted the book. Rubicon’s version has been re-conceived (adding a lot more R&H tunes) by Patrick Pacheco and Tony-winner Peter Schneider, who also directs. The rest of the season includes:Â a premiere staged concert rendering of Little Miss Scrooge, music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, book by John Caird, Sam Caird and Gordon, a modern retelling of A Christmas Carol with characters and plot situations from other Dickens fare added to the mix; the American premiere ofÂ a two-hander satire, eXtras, scripted byOscar-winning Mexican dramatist Sabina Berman, “the story of a quiet Mexican community invaded by the cast and crew of a Hollywood film,” freely adapted from Ireland-based Stones in His Pockets by Marie Jones (performed in Spanish and English); a revival of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer and Tony winning Our Town, featuring Rubicon artistic director James O’Neil as the Stage Manager, helmed by Jenny Sullivan;Â the encore of Lonesome Traveler: A Journey through the Rivers and Streams of Folk Music, conceived and written by James O’Neil, musical arrangements and direction byDan Wheetman, produced in association with Laguna Playhouse; and the 1990 Tony-winning Lily Tomlin solo vehicle, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, scripted by Jane Wagner, featuring Rubicon co-founder Karyl Lynn Burns, helmed by James O’Neill.Â Dates and times for all 2012-13 season productions are TBA.
INTERACTIVITY”¦Interact Theatre Company, which currently is without a home performance space, is presenting Interactivity 2012, its annual festival of staged play readings, at Richie’s Alley Theatre within the Avery Schreiber Theatre complex, spotlighting 22 plays, mostly developed within Interact’s monthly Play Lab.Â Festival opens with a themed evening of performance shorts, Strangetown: A Cabinet of Curiosities, helmed by Guy Picot(Apr 13).Â Schedule lineup:Â Apr 14 – Silent Witnesses, scripted and performed by Stephanie Satie, helmed by Anita Khanzadian; Ruth Draper’s American Tourist, performed by Amanda Carlin; I’m Not Here Anymore, scripted by Ovation nominee W. Colin McKay, helmed by Fred Sanders; Jimmy The G Returns, scripted and performed by James Gleason, helmed by Khanzadian;Â Apr 15 – The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen, scripted by Emily Schwartz, helmed by Kelly Lohman;Â Incunabula, scripted and helmed by Anna Nicholas; Leash on Life, scripted and performed by Vince McKewin; Turning Tables, scripted and helmed by Anna Nicholas; Apr 21 -The Annie Abbott Project, written and performed by Annie Abbott; I Was the Princess of the Disabled Posse, scripted and performed by Chava Abbott, helmed by Gleason; Benched, scripted by Richard Broadhurst, helmed by Khanzadian; Apr 22 – The Bells of West 87th, scripted by Elin Hampton, helmed by Richard Pierce; and Doubt, scripted by John Patrick Shanley, helmed by Michael Murray; and Frozen Stiff, scripted and helmed by Lou Felder”¦
Tim Piper as John Lennon
THE THING IS”¦ “Music has been the driving force in my life since I was a child. I do have another side apart from the John Lennon show. I have played in a lot of bands in a lot of clubs all over this town, growing up in LA.Â I am also a professional recording studio engineer. In fact, I have taught recording engineering at the Los Angeles Recording Workshop. Working for Track Record, I recorded people like Adam Ant and Jackie DeShannon. Looking the way I do, singing and being to play the same instruments as Lennon, it almost seems inevitable that I would gravitate to covering him at some point in my life.Â Of course, I wouldn’t have predicted that I would eventually have a career doing it. It also helps that acting comes pretty naturally to me.Â My brother Greg and I grew up in an acting family.Â My parents had an acting company. So, I was prepared when I was chosen to play Lennon in the CBS movie The Linda McCartney Story and E Television’s The Last Days of John Lennon, and asked to do John’s singing voice for In His Life: The John Lennon Story for NBC. Of course, I have studied and listened to everything I could find on Lennon. And I’ll keep doing that. In fact, after we finish our current engagement, we have been invited to perform in Reykjavik, Iceland at the end of May. We’re finally making the connection to Europe.Â That’s a good thing. — Tim Piper stars as John Lennon in the bio musical, Just Imagine, currently extended at The Hayworth Theatre through Apr 24″¦
Curtain Call Theater
INSIDE LA STAGE HISTORY”¦ In 1868, Columbus Tustin, a Northern California carriage maker, and his partner Nelson Stafford, purchase 1300 acres of what has been Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana for the price of $1.50 per acre. Tustin subdivides the land, creating Tustin City.Â By the early 1870s he is giving free lots to anyone who will build a home. The town’s population does not exactly swell during the ensuing 80 years;Â but with the 1950s arrival of the Santa Ana Freeway, Tustin and the surrounding area sprout in earnest. Encouraged by the rapidly increasing population, Saul Mahler opens a movie house, Tustin Theater, in the small strip mall at the corner of D (El Camino Real) and Sixth streets.Â Unfortunately, Mahler’s small independent cinema,Â failing to compete with nearby Santa Ana’s first run movie chains, closes in 1980. Coincidentally, a Midwestern live theater proprietor, Elizabeth Howard, relocates to Orange County, determined to open a dinner theater, which is a totally foreign concept to the local citizenry. Taking over Tustin Theater with her brother John Ferola as artistic director, she dubs it Elizabeth Howard’s Curtain Call Theater, opening Oct 6, 1980 with Hello Dolly, complemented by a dinner menu offering prime rib or chicken, as well as wines and popular cocktails. Dessert and coffee are served during intermission. Price for dinner and show is a flat $35.Â Much to the surprise of local officials, Howard’s theatrical/dining enterprise, which sticks to hit Broadway musicals and stage comedies performed by a mix of professional and amateur talent, is a huge hit. By the end of the decade, Curtain Call is getting competition from copycats Grand Dinner Theatre in Anaheim and Harlequin Dinner Playhouse in Santa Ana.Â By the mid ’90s, audiences begin to drift away and so do Howard’s competition. Curtain Call continues with Howard at the helm until 2005 when she retires. The enterprise is taken over by the Main Place Christian Fellowship, which continues to operate it as a dinner theater (sans alcohol). This does not sell well. Determined to restore Curtain Call to its former glory, Melissa Cook, who had acted at Curtain Call as a child, and Jeff Chamberlain replace the Fellowship as owners in 2009. Unable to establish an adequate audience base, they close in late 2010 near the end of the run of Oklahoma. “Poor Jud is Dead” is heard no more in Tustin”¦
The Julio Martinez-hosted ARTS IN REVIEW, broadcast Thursdays (2 to 2:30 pm) on KPFK (90.7FM), is on hiatus until June”¦
Two Davids met as freshmen at St. Gregory’s, which was then a community college in Shawnee, Oklahoma. After two years, they moved onÂ — David McClendon to the University of Oklahoma and David Hunt Stafford to CalArts. But both of them went on to become successful actors and directors, and they remain best friends.
Now, Stafford and McClendon are working together again, bringing Vera Caspary’s classic noir mystery Laura to the stage of Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills.
David Hunt Stafford
Stafford joined Theatre 40 as an actor in 1989 and is currently its artistic and managing director, producing seven plays each year for the company.Â (He is also responsible for introducing McClendon to the girl who became his wife, a fellow cheerleader with Stafford in high school.)
McClendon, who was artistic director at Theatre Aspen, was also affiliated with San Diego’s Old Globe for a decade. He was associate director/casting director when he left in 1988; he directed nine productions there and taught in the Professional Actor Training Program.Â He currently divides his time between homes in Los Angeles and Colorado Springs.
“I’d like to do more here in California,” he says.Â “I’m back in the swing of life on the freeway, and besides, in Colorado the winters get awfully cold at 8,000 feet.
“My goal has always been to make my living in the theater,” McClendon continues.Â “It seemed an unlikely goal, but it’s all I’ve ever done, and I’m blessed.Â It’s an extraordinary way to spend my life, with actors and technicians and specialists—people who can do things that I can only dream of.”
He speaks with some regret of his three years at Aspen, which ended in 2007.Â Brought in to beef up this successful summer theater, he nearly doubled its operating budget, secured Broadway artists to play there, and elevated its status and reputation.
There were plans afoot to build a $50 million year-round art center with two theaters and facilities for multiple groups and projects, but with a change of leadership on the theater’s board, funding for and interest in the new complex disappeared from the agenda, as did McClendon and John Redmond, who had come with him as managing director.
The theater still operates for two months in the summer “and they’re still in a tent,” McClendon says.Â “It’s a lovely tent, but it can’t keep out the cold.Â It can get awfully cold in Aspen—even in the summer.”
Moving on, McClendon turns to his newest collaboration with Stafford and describes the history of Laura.
Vera Caspary’s novel was published in 1943.Â “A year later, Otto Preminger turned it into a movie that starred Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews,” McClendon says.Â (It also included megastars Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, and Judith Anderson.)
“But Caspary was unhappy with the changes Preminger made in the screenplay,” McClendon continues, “and also with the money she made on the movie [she was paid $30,000 for two books about her heroine]. She estimated that she was short-changed by about a million dollars.”
Julie Lancaster, GrinnellÂ Morris, Robert MacKenzie and Blake Boyd
Preminger’s film was nominated for five Academy Awards but lost in three categories to Going My Way and in another category to Gaslight.Â The only Oscar Laura won was for best black and white cinematography by Joseph LaShelle.Â David Raksin, who wrote the haunting theme for the film, wasn’t even nominated.
The film’s place in movie history was redeemed, however, when the American Film Institute named it #4 in its list of the Top Ten Mystery Films,Â #73 in its list of 100 Thrills, and #7 in its list of 25 Top Film Scores.
Also nominated for AFI’s list of memorable Movie Quotes was this line from the film: “In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. Â I have never discovered any other subject so worthy of my attention.”
Caspary, who had written the story as a play before she developed it into a novel, later collaborated with George Sklar in re-adapting it as a play, and it is this version that is being presented at Theatre 40.
“We’re trying to honor the original noir,” McClendon explains.
“It’s difficult, because the actors have to play it each time as if it were the first time. They have to be in the moment, as if they don’t know what’s coming.Â They can’t tip their hand to the audience, so you don’t know who the killer is until the very end.”
Grinnell Morris and Julie Lancaster
In directing, “casting is 90% of the work,” he says.Â “The choices you make are so important.Â There is such a pool of fine actors in LA and Theatre 40 is such an extraordinary company.Â But you have to be patient with the process; you shouldn’t “˜make do’.”
To play Laura, McClendon and Stafford cast Julie Lancaster, who is starring with her real-life husband Grinnell Morris.Â “This is the fifth show they have done together at Theatre 40,” Stafford says.Â “They are the Lunt and Fontanne of our company.
“The first play they did together was J.B. Priestley’s Dangerous Corner, but they weren’t in love yet,” he continues.Â “It wasn’t until Dinner with Friends that they figured out that they were in love.”
“I’m eager to get David back here,” Stafford adds.Â “He’s a national figure and he raises the bar for what we’re doing.Â And he’s my oldest friend in the world.”
For the time being, McClendon and his wife Pat are happily ensconced in L.A. while he pursues the filming of his project El Camino and she serves as chief nursing officer at Palmdale Regional Medical Center.
“She deals with the real world and I delve in make-believe,” McClendon says with a grin.
Julie Lancaster, director David McClendon, and producer David Hunt Stafford; Photo by Cynthia Citron
El Camino, however, is not make-believe.Â It’s a true story about a Mexican woman who had lived in this country illegally for many years and returned to Baja to visit her dying father.Â When she tried to return to San Diego, she was denied re-entry into the United States.Â Â Her 10-year-old son, who was born in America, was forced to go on without her, and the mother then turned to a “coyote” to help her and her younger sister get across the border.Â They didn’t make it home, and the story of what happened to them makes for a striking drama.
“We’re scouting locations now,” McClendon says, “and we plan to start shooting this fall.”
Meanwhile, Stafford is excited about Theatre 40’s lineup for next season.Â “One of the plays we’ll be doing is Seven Stories by Morris Panych.Â I’m really jazzed about that one,” he says.
He’s also excited about the return of The Manor, the production he conceived and initiated with Kathrine Bates and Beverly Olevin for Theatre 40 and the City of Beverly Hills.Â The play takes place in the beautiful Greystone mansion and tells the story of the sinister things that occurred when the Doheny family lived there.Â It is scheduled to run in July and August.
Looks like a busy year for the two Davids.
Laura, presented by Theatre 40 and David Hunt Stafford. Opens March 29. Plays Thurs-Sat at 8 pm, Sun at 2 pm. Through April 29. Tickets: $23 and $25. Theatre 40, Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills, on the campus of Beverly Hills High School.Â 310-364-0535. www.theatre40.org.
Individual artists and small-budget organizations can benefit from free expert advice and information on various aspects of arts management on Saturday, April 28 from 10 am to 1 pm at an “Arts Tune-Up” at the Santa Clarita Rooms Activities Center, in Santa Clarita. Even though the event is free, it is recommended that participants register via SurveyMonkey at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/ATU_SantaClarita.
The fast -paced “arts tune-up” format works like this: There will be several tables set up, with an arts expert/consultant addressing a specific subject located at each table. Participants choose a topic they want to learn more about. After 25 minutes, participants rotate to another table with a topic of interest as the sessions repeat. There will be a total of five round-robin sessions of 25 minutes each.Â Participants are welcome to come by for an hour or stay for the entire morning.
Topics for individual artists include: Arts Education In-SchoolÂ Resources and Working in Arts Education (K-12), Best Foot Forward: Creating Compelling Presentations, Fundraising for Individual Artists, Getting Your Sh*t Together, Intro to PublicÂ Art, Marketing for Individual Artists, PR for Artists and Organizations, Understanding Health Insurance and Healthcare Reform.
Topics for small budget arts organizations include: Arts Education In-School Resources and Working in Arts Education (K-12), Best Foot Forward: Creating Compelling Presentations, Board Leadership for Challenging Times, Cultural and Community Outreach, FundraisingÂ forÂ Organizations, MarketingÂ for Arts Organizations, PR for Artists and Organizations and Understanding Health Insurance and Healthcare Reform.
The Arts Tune-Up is sponsored by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and the City of Santa Clarita.
Santa Clarita Rooms, Activities Center is at 20880 Centre Pointe Parkway, Santa Clarita., CA. Parking is available at no charge.
Hershey Felder in “Lincoln – An American Story for Actor and Symphony Orchestra”
Hershey Felder stands downstage center. His voice carries across the seats, easily reaching the back of the house. It is this acoustic perfection, as well as its historic beauty, that make the Pasadena Playhouse Felder’s favorite place to perform in California. “It’s the real thing. It’s old, it’s natural, it’s perfect.” He raises his voice only slightly to fill the space, “and you hear everything and you don’t have to do anything, and you can play piano and it’s beautiful, and-and-and-and!” Felder laughs.
Felder is rehearsing for the premiere of his play Lincoln — An American Story. He mentions a woman who said to him, “I didn’t know Lincoln played pi-a-no.” His voice pitches up and into his nose, the final word drawn out. In a departure from the plays of his Composers Sonata (George Gershwin Alone, Monsieur Chopin, Beethoven As I Knew Him, and Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein), Felder does not play the piano — or any other instrument — in Lincoln. But he is joined onstage by a 45-piece symphony orchestra playing a score that Felder himself composed (with the help of some American folk songs) and arranged.
“It’s so liberating,” Felder almost moans, and then paraphrases pianist Arthur Rubinstein. “How do you think it feels to be dressed like an undertaker, sitting in front of a nine-foot coffin every night?” he laughs. “From a physical standpoint as an actor, I can’t do anything because the piano is there, and I have to keep going back to it. This frees me up to be an entirely physical person.” At the moment, however, a piano still dominates the stage, lingering after two weeks performing Chopin and Bernstein.
Along with Felder and the piano, on the stage are a couple of nondescript, 1970s office armchairs; a replica of Abraham Lincoln’s theater seat — a red brocade-upholstered rocking chair; an 1864 replica rifle; and Trevor Hay, Lincoln production manager and scenic co-designer. “I’ve been liking getting Trevor’s perspective lately because I’m too much on the inside,” says Felder, by way of an explanation.
Felder’s interest in Lincoln was sparked by a visit to the president’s birthplace and childhood home. But his academic curiosity did not turn to the theatrical until he came across the speech “Lincoln’s Last Hours,” given by Dr. Charles Augustus Leale on Lincoln’s 100th birthday in 1909. Leale was a young army surgeon and the first doctor on the scene at Ford’s Theatre the night of the assassination. He stayed with the president until his death the following morning. In Dr. Leale, Felder found his storyteller, and it is Leale — not Lincoln — whom Felder portrays in the play.
Like all Felder’s subjects, Leale is carefully researched — only the context for the performance is invented. In addition to the centenary address, Felder found family papers and public records in Yonkers, New York, where Leale was from. And to further assist him in getting into character, Felder’s costumes are scrupulously period-accurate. The Leale costume was built by tailors who specialize in clothes for historical re-enactors. Every detail is authentic, from the fabric down to the epaulettes. Similarly, his Chopin shirt has huge billowy sleeves crammed into the velvet coat, even though the audience will never see them. The entire costume was made for him in Paris.
The most challenging part of playing the composers was learning to transition from acting to music. Felder finds acting, no matter how small or private the moment, an extroverted activity; while playing music is inherently introverted — the audience sees an outpouring of emotion and experience, but the musician is ideally inside himself, completely relaxed and quiet. And Felder’s playing changes with each character. “I don’t know why it happens, but it does. It’s influenced by what I feel, by the approach of the character,” he explains. “Bernstein is an extroverted, more pushy player. Chopin is a more internal, delicate choir player. Gershwin is more bangy.”
Hershey Felder in “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein” (left) and “Monsieur Chopin”; Photos by John Zich
Felder finds Bernstein particularly difficult to portray. “When you do a play you have to invest 100 percent every night, twice on Saturday, twice on Sunday, and it eventually takes its toll,” Felder confides. “I don’t relate to Bernstein in almost any way, other than we both grew up in Jewish households. My father was much kinder than Bernstein’s. He didn’t want me to be a musician, but he was very generous once I was. There wasn’t that meanness that Bernstein’s father exhibited throughout his life.” In Felder’s play, Bernstein is disappointed at being better known as a conductor than as a composer. When asked if there is anything else he would like to do and perhaps be known for, Felder immediately says, “Cooking is at the top of the list.”
“He’s quite good,” chimes in Hay, attesting to Felder’s prowess in the kitchen.
But back to the play. “All of Hershey’s work is story-driven,” Hay continues. “He has the ability to tap into the parts of stories that reach us all. And he’s a genius musically, so when you add music into the story it completes the picture. He creates them in a way that is unique.”
“Even the music is story-driven,” Felder agrees. “I draw on Americana and American feelings, processed through my own sense of color and emotion and sound. It goes with the story, enhances the story, and it uses the craft of real symphonic writing.” Hay describes the score as epic, sweeping and American. “It’s as much a part of the story as Dr. Leale, and it gives a whole other color — red, white and blue. It’s about where we came from, what we’re about.”
Felder is nodding. “The driving force is the connection between people, and the human connection revealed allows the story to be told and connect with the audience.”
Lincoln — An American Story for Actor and Symphony Orchestra presented by Pasadena Playhouse and produced by Eighty-Eight Entertainment and Samantha F. Voxakis. Opens tonight. Plays Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 4 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm.Through April 7. Tickets: $54-100. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena. 626-356-7529. www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.
***All Lincoln – An American Story for Actor and Symphony Orchestra production photos by Craig Schwartz
(On stage)Terence McFarland, Alan Brown and Clayton Lord
LA STAGE Alliance held the first of its LA STAGE Talks series yesterday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, “What Is the Intrinsic Impact of Live Theatre?”
For theater artists, one of the more challenging things to measure is how much impact their work has on an audience. With a new study, and a new book, the ability to measure what was once thought to be immeasurable has arrived. Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art was a study commissioned by Theatre Bay Area, a theater service organization based in San Francisco to assess the impact theater productions have on their audiences. With the research firm WolfBrown, 18 diverse theaters from around the country, doing 58 productions, were involved for two years, with almost 19,000 responses from theater patrons.
The program at the Kirk Douglas Theatre unpacked the information within the study, with a focus on the LA area participants. Terence McFarland, CEO of LA STAGE Alliance, moderated the session, which was led by Clayton Lord, director of communications and audience development at Theatre Bay Area, and researcher Alan Brown, of WolfBrown.
Where the wild data is
For Clayton Lord, it began with a lead role in a preschool production of Where the Wild Things Are, where he played Max. It was the first time he had experienced theater in a way he could remember. He didn’t understand what was going on. “It was more of a group exercise for our teacher. So she made sure that everyone understood that the trees were important, and shrubs were important.” And because of that, he didn’t tell his mother he was the lead of the show, which made her very upset when she didn’t bring her camera. But for Lord, it was a turning point. “It was about the whole artistic impact of that on my life.” From then on, he became passionate about art, and his belief that art can change lives.
This love led him eventually led him to Theatre Bay Area, which has as a mission statement: Theatre Bay Area’s mission is to unite, strengthen, promote and advance the theatre community in the San Francisco Bay Area, working on behalf of our conviction that the performing arts are an essential public good, critical to a healthy and truly democratic society, and invaluable as a source of personal enrichment and growth. What connected for him were the phrases “essential public good,” “democratic society,” and “personal enrichment and growth.” These are ideals he wanted to promote. “And then we started to do that, and we realized it was really hard.” It was a problem of language and communicating the intangible to the people they wanted to reach (government, foundations, boards) who might not have come from a life in the theater, and who don’t have a story about playing Max when they were four.
“We started asking questions of our audience, our patrons, our companies.” Turning to the audience, Lord asked the same questions, “What does the best art do? When you see a really great production, or piece of visual art, or piece of music, what does it do to you?” The audience in the Kirk Douglas quickly responded: makes you feel emotional, makes you think, makes you see something in a different way. He nods in agreement.
Lord brought up an interview with what he called a Super Patron, someone who sees 100 or more shows a year. This patron had tried to describe a final moment in a play that still brought emotions to the surface, even three years later — “You would just walk out of there, like wow, like bam, you got hit with that.” Lord pointed to that inarticulate moment of the audience member as the problem to struggle with. How do you know how effective your art is if you can’t articulate it? How do you know if your art is doing that to an audience?
He asked the directors and artistic directors in the audience why do they sit in the audience with patrons? Why do they go to the lobby? Replies floated up: to know how the work was playing, to get an authentic experience, to connect with the audience. Lord agreed that if you have spent a life in the theater, you know how an audience is responding.
He brought up another Super Patron, who said, “The way I can tell it’s a moving production is if it makes a tingle run through my entire body.” He went on to say that it doesn’t always happen, — but it happens enough, that I know it’s going to happen again.” Theater artists want an audience to feel as much as possible, Lord says, so they will keep coming back for more.
“So how do you convey that to other people?” he asked. He contends that artists and arts administrators have turned into bean counters because they have to talk to people who count beans (funders, board members, government officials), which created the idea of the study. Was there a way to still talk in numbers? To talk about the “unmeasurable [sic] parts of the art that we made in a way that was maybe measurable.”
While at a conference, Lord’s boss Brad Erickson heard Alan Brown, the researcher, speak. Brown said, “If you can describe something, you can measure it.” This spawned the study. From that sentence, Lord remembered, emerged the idea of intrinsic impact. “Measuring the things we couldn’t measure. The intellectual, social, emotional and empathetic impact of a piece of art on an individual using a standard metric and a common vocabulary.” With that, Lord turned the stage over to Brown.
For Brown, the primary objective of the study was to help the 18 theaters understand the impact of their productions. That said, he wanted to discuss the aggregate analysis of the data. “It’s an enormous, enormous data set. Which as a researcher makes me very, very happy, because I never get 19,000 cases of anything to look at.” Because the sample size is so big, there are almost no error margins. The response rate of the surveys was about 45%, which is quite high, revealing that theater patrons are willing and desirous to share their opinions about the work. They fill out surveys because they want to help the theater company.
Each company created a survey from a template which had categories of questions and some mandatory questions, in order to generate similar data across theaters. Audience members received the survey at the theater, after the show. They were asked to take the survey home, fill it out, and mail it back to Brown.
Brown went on to describe the limitations and bias that is contained within the study, something that is also important to recognize before starting a study. “There is loyalty bias in the data. Subscribers always respond at twice the rate than single ticket buyers.” He also brought up that the data isn’t comparable across sites. “It doesn’t really make sense to compare a production of, say, Cats at a musical theater venue in one city with a production of an experimental drama in another city.” He warned that the data shouldn’t be turned into a contest for a high score. “A given work of art is not intended to have every impact.” Context is key.
Almost every theater asked about motivations for attending. The audience members filling out the survey could choose from 11 different motivations, but each of them could pick as many as three. From the results, Brown was able to generate a graph of the seven main motivations, plotted along age groups. For most, a primary motivation was to relax or escape, which goes up significantly with age, and then tapers off. Second in popularity was the desire to be emotionally moved or inspired, which also went up with age, before leveling off. The third motivation was to spend time with family members, which rises during the child rearing years, and then, “plunges” later. One motivation that Brown found particularly interesting was the motivation to re-visit a familiar work of art, which continued to go up with age. “In the theater, we tend to put a premium on aesthetic growth, stretching people, exposing them to something new, but aesthetic validation, going back to the same art over and over again, is also a legitimate part of the value system. It’s not easy to embrace. Nutcracker, Christmas Carol, ritualized gathering is a huge part of the arts system.”
The fourth motivation was being invited by someone else, which was more common among younger audiences and then tapered off. Brown said, “An invitation from a friend explains half of all art participation.” Many members of audiences are invited to attend but weren’t part of the decision-making process about what to see. For Brown, this speaks to the social dimensions of theater.
Brown moved on to anticipation, defined here as “how much are you looking forward to the show?”, which can be an indicator of impact. He recognized a correlation between anticipation and percentage of seats sold. At productions with higher percentage of seats sold, there was a higher sense of anticipation for the production. For Brown, this suggests the importance of choosing an appropriately sized venue for a particular production, so it can be full. “When the venue is full, people’s anticipation goes up” — similar to the experience of going into a full restaurant, versus an empty one.
One of the other questions asked on the survey: “did you do anything to prepare?” Brown revealed that about 25% of audiences said yes, they did something to prepare. Some theaters asked a follow-up, open-ended question: “what did you do to prepare?” For some it was reading reviews, while others read about the play on Wikipedia. For Brown one of the interesting statistics was the generational shift in who is reading reviews versus reading comments from friends — an older audience for the former, a younger one for the later. “There’s a segment of theatergoers who won’t go unless they read something telling them they can’t miss that.”
“Post-performance engagement by age” — Brown turned to another graph, noting that post-performance engagement declines with age. “Older folks are less likely to report emailing or speaking to friends, reflecting privately, searching for information online.” However, for older audiences there was an uptick in reading the program after the play. And, perhaps not surprisingly, younger audiences tend to email and comment online.
Turning to the subject of making meaning, “the dominant mode of making meaning after a live performance is talking about it on the way home.” While some venues do have post-show discussions, Brown suggested looking for ways to elicit conversation outside the venues, to continue the meaning-making process. For example, the program could be used to help prepare an audience, and after the show it could be used to help make meaning. “I encourage you to think about what content you might put in program books that would help people talk about their experiences.”
Audiences often leave a performance with unanswered questions. In fact, on average, according to the study, 35% of an audience leaves with unanswered questions. “Is it good or bad that people are leaving with questions?” Brown asked. The audience replied, good and bad — in other words, it depended on the type of unanswered questions. Brown replied, “The whole point is if you don’t have a forum for asking your questions, it’s a missed opportunity.” Brown felt unanswered questions speak to intellectual stimulation.
The audience at the first LA STAGE Talks
“This data generated a mountain of qualitative data in the form of questions. Because we asked everyone what were some of your questions.” Ninety-eight per cent of those people responded with their questions. He found this data very rich because reading their questions reveals a great deal about their understanding of the play, what’s important to them, and their insights. Some of the questions reported from the study were: “Why did you do this play? Why is this play entitled what it is? What’s special, what’s interesting about the work?” Brown called it a search for “curatorial insight.”
“You can transmit curatorial insight in many ways. Sometimes in your program books you have a note from the director, on your websites you might have a video interview, or you might actually do a curtain speech.” All of these things could provide insight into the program for the audience. “Audiences are hungry for curatorial insight.”
The study judged impact on an audience using radius charts. Brown displayed a chart used for three productions at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington. The spokes of the wheel began with “captivation,” a leading indicator of impact, followed by “gripping, emotional response,” “empathy/connection,” “left theater resolved to make a change in your life” (which fits in with Wooly Mammoth’s mission of being a change agent), “gained in learning or insight”, “thought about the structure of the play”, “exposed to something new” (an indicator of aesthetic growth), “social bonding” (feeling closer to one’s own community or group), and “social bridging” (feeling closer to members of other communities or groups). Woolly Mammoth could get an idea of what kind of impact each show got in relation to the others, in all these categories. As Brown described it, “an impact footprint.”
He then showed a graph overlaying musicals and plays. “I can’t say this is a definitive data on all musicals and all plays. Our sample was not designed to be representative of all plays and musicals.” He noted that by and large musicals had higher captivation and empathy scores than plays, which scored higher on intellectual stimulation.
The artistic impact of a show was greater on the audience members who decided to purchase the tickets. However, Brown reminded, they don’t make up the whole audience, and, in fact they could skew the data, as they are more loyal, more tuned-in audience members. Artistic directors should seek out the non-ticket-buying audience members to get a full picture of the impact of a show.
“What’s really provocative, probably the biggest headline in this whole analysis — single ticket buyers reported categorically higher impacts than subscribers.” Brown feels this is because not only are they acting as decision makers, but also because they do not attend as often. Each performance becomes more special, creating more anticipation and more incentive to become informed about the production. Brown proposed the question, “If infrequent attenders are having more impactful experiences, why aren’t they coming back more often?”
Brown turned it back to subscribers and their engagement. “If you think about it, subscribers buy a basket of risk.” Subscribers have lower anticipation because often they have disengaged with the show until it’s their day to see it. Brown wonders if more could be done with subscribers, because those with higher anticipation report higher impacts.
Lord responded to a question from the audience about talkbacks. “Talkback rate is actually pretty low and specific to a certain group of people.” Most people want to engage in a different way, and “the dominant way actually happens outside the theater.” One idea Lord suggests is a list of questions in the program that the audience could take home, ponder and discuss.
Brown wrapped up by saying that audience engagement, which leads to higher impact, begins with familiarity, preparation and feeling welcome. “Especially familiarity with the story.” He stressed, “That was the highest predictor of anticipation” — twice as high as familiarity with the cast or playwright. This suggested that marketing must be strategically written, as often it is the only thing an audience reads before coming to a performance. “People with a higher level of anticipation are more likely to be captivated.” And captivation leads to more impact of the art on the audience members.
Reflections from the front lines
For part two, Brown and Lord were joined on stage by Theatre @ Boston Court co-artistic director Jessica Kubzansky, Musical Theatre West marketing director Michael Betts, and South Coast Repertory director of marketing Bil Schroeder. Each of these companies participated in the study, and the trio was there to talk about what they learned in respect to specific shows.
Theatre @ Boston Court has been around for almost 10 years, doing some interpretations of classics but more often focusing on new work, with an eye toward challenging its audiences. Kubzansky talked about the three productions that were studied: Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found by Fin Kennedy and Heavier than”¦ by Steve Yockey. How To Disappear scored higher captivation than Camino Real, which didn’t surprise Kubzansky as she felt How to Disappear had a more relatable story and a strong central performance. Also, Camino Real might have suffered because audiences expected something different from a play by Williams. Brown pointed out that in the entire study, Boston Court’s production of Camino Real scored the highest in unanswered questions. This evoked good-natured cheers from Kubzansky and others.
Bill Schroeder, Michael Betts, Jessica Kubzansky, Terence McFarland, Alan Brown and Clayton Lord
In light of the study, Kubzansky, who directed Camino Real, feels she they would have done things differently. “I think we didn’t do enough to help audiences sort, clarify, contextualize all those things. That’s something I learned.” She liked the idea of proposing questions in the program, and if an audience wanted to know how the director would answer them, to take them to the website. “So you don’t have to give them the answer while they’re asking the question, but actually, later, if they are interested in knowing what the artistic impulse was, they can get that too. That’s a really exciting thing.”
Musical Theatre West, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, produces four to five musicals a year in a 1000-seat theater in Long Beach. The three shows the study looked at were Cats, Summer of Love by Roger Bean, and The Wedding Singer, based on the Adam Sandler movie set in the 1980s. One of the impact charts for The Wedding Singer compared the audience response to the staff’s prediction of that response. The staff had anticipated a much higher response and excitement than had occurred. Betts discussed how most staff members were children of the ’80s, and Wedding Singer seemed like a show that might engage a younger audience. “We really thought it was going to catch fire.” But it didn’t. Afterwards three focus groups, each with women in their 60s, discussed why. “The women reminded us” — they were having kids in the ’80s, so they didn’t really plug into ’80s culture.” Betts said they looked at this data as they were planning the next season, using the information to help shape which shows might more strongly connect with their audience. “We do very well with shows that bring people back to the memories that they had when they first saw the shows.”
Besides helping shape the season, the study helped shape the institution’s method of preparing its subscriber base for a show, Betts explained. Now, before a production, a study guide and a reminder are emailed and pre-show discussions provide insight and context.
Bil Schroeder represented South Coast Rep, which produces premieres and a smaller number of classics and other revivals. The study examined SCR’s productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Completeness by Itamar Moses, and Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain. One of the charts revealed the audience responses to the question: “To what extent did anything about the performance offend you or make you uncomfortable?” The chart also reported the level of staff anticipation of the answers to that question. The staff had anticipated a higher rate of offense than actually occurred, specifically for Completeness.
Bill Schroeder, Michael Betts, Jessica Kubzansky, Terence McFarland, Alan Brown and Clayton Lord
Schroeder talked briefly about this. “In Completeness there was nudity, male and female frontal nudity. We don’t have a great track record with that.” In the past when there had been nudity, the staff received complaints and so expected it again. But in the end, in the focus groups, Schroeder discovered there was no resistance to the nudity because the audience felt it was justified. In another group, Schroeder was surprised by the reaction of one audience member, who had been invited by a friend. She said, “I don’t understand why the man wasn’t erect. He would have been erect in that situation.”
“The staff thought we were going to rock their world,” Schroeder said, “and we didn’t quite rock their world.” He warned about overselling impact to audience through marketing, about making a promise that can’t be delivered. “What they really want is plot. They don’t really want you to tell them about the significance and the standing of the playwright. They really want to understand what plot they are getting into.”
All three agreed that both the qualitative and quantitative information was useful in making decisions and in speaking to those who focus on “numbers.”
The pander problem
Might this information warp the artistic decision-making process, so that it aims only at fulfilling what an audience wants? An audience member at the Douglas wanted to know how artistic directors avoid crossing the line into pandering. Brown responded, “That is precisely the core issue underneath all of this — what is the role of audience data in an artistically driven organization? I hope that you all will go from here thinking about where that line is for you and your organization.”
Kubzansky said the information informed her about the audience, but it won’t take her away from the vision of her company. However, she also noted, “I have a 99-seat house.” So her economic realities are different from those of, say, Musical Theatre West.
Brown spoke up again, “For me this is about accountability. Opting for a higher level of accountability for artistic outcome. Wanting to understand how your artistic choices are received.”
Bill Schroeder, Michael Betts, Jessica Kubzansky, Terence McFarland, Clayton Lord and Alan Brown
Brown wrapped up by talking about the audience engagement cycle — beginning with marketing, the decision to attend, and then the moment to help contextualize the piece. Audience members might not tune in until the last few hours or even minutes before a performance. “There’s this moment right before an event starts where you’ve got an opportunity to give them a little information. And the question you have to ask yourself, and your colleagues, as a matter of institutional philosophy, how much context do you insist people have or not?”
Lord listed the practical applications of doing a survey like this for a theater company. The first was being able to check the impact against goals. It allows a staff to know whether it is succeeding at maningfully reaching the audience. It also allows the staff to react immediately if the impact seems stifled. With a better understanding of how an audience is receiving a show, one can shape the marketing and engagement. Conducting an impact study will also help shape pre- and post-performance engagement, as well as the board’s and funders’ understanding of success.
In the end, for Lord, impact is important because it creates a strong memory that drives audience members to return to the place where they had that experience, in search of another. Artistic impact can be measured, he maintained. Theater companies should take advantage of these tools in order to learn and to grow.
For more information about the survey or to become a part of it visit:
Larry Pontius received his MFA in Playwrights from the University of Texas at Austin. His produced work includes an Off-Broadway production of Umbrella by Alchemy Theatre Company of Manhattan; The Lunar Adventures of Dar and Matey by Stolen Chair Theater, On The Night of Anthony’s 30th Birthday Party, Again at the Manhattan Theatre Source. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America and the Playwrights Union. For more information, please go to www.LPontius.com
There it is. The adrenaline rush. The sudden spike of energy jolting up from my stomach, then sounding off the following urgent message to my brain — OK babe, you have 72 hours to compose a new conceptual musical piece for the theater! Do it. Don’t think. Just do it. It’s due Thursday.
Ah, welcome to the Vault Ensemble and its signature three-day theatrical creation process. What with my back up against a wall of 72 hours, I have only my instincts to rely upon. No time to intellectualize. I have my muscle memory and my theatrical/musical toolbox from which, with a deadline like that, I must pull all the stops. Do it. Compose.
The result is that, when the curtain goes up three days later, the amalgamated musical characters I perform onstage are suffused by the particularly raw and visceral energy that brought them to life during this creation process in the first place.
“WHAT?!” I hear the audience rumors following the show. “She did all the music? The scary actor wearing the leather and chains and wielding a whip?” “Her? The opera singer who was playing with food onstage?” “But I thought she was a hip-hop artist from Paris — she was the one rapping, too?” “I thought she was a performance artist, she was billed at the Hammer Museum, wielding a shotgun.” “But I heard also she’s a Ninja in a big punk band?” “Isn’t she a percussionist? The one dressed up like a panda onstage at the TED Conference.” “She plays the theremin, too.” “She’s the tap dancer.”
“Well, she’s the musical director of the Vault.”
Why three days, Ms. Jasmine Orpilla? Are you OK? Certainly you need more time? Especially when it comes to music that informs an entire environment onstage?
Yes. But this process is actually a tradition two years in the making in the Vault Ensemble. In its inception, I was pushed to present new work to audiences on a grueling weekly basis, in order to eliminate any of the intellectual over-analysis that can accompany the theatrical research done while collaboratively writing an original script. We’d agree upon one concept, just one theme for the week, i.e. “The Story of Greed.” Then I’d just go for it and write my new score. The body of musical work I amassed in the end would serve as a jump-off point for the next season’s full run.
The cast of "The Vault: Bankrupt"
In terms of the music I compose, I always have my voice. My piano. My splintered pair of 7A Vic Firths. My copy of Bertolt Brecht’s Uber Lyrik (for good measure). Oh, and my trusty metronome (gotta have a metronome). Absolutely no programming, no recording sessions until the score is written on paper, by the way. Because I’m old school.
In an adrenaline rush, I envision the characters onstage. I experience how they would feel to me if they suddenly rolled up beside me in the climax of their story and looked me in the eye to say “˜Hi, Jasmine. Whassup.” How would I capture the tone of their voices, their characters’ intentions, in a sound? And then, how would any specific character’s sound — once it exploded into a relationship with other characters — dictate rhythm within the arc of the story, until the whole created a world of its own? Then, what would the sound of that full world feel like, in your gut? Now, go. Compose it.
This latest creation at the LATC is entitled The Vault: Bankrupt. Pulling from a research-base of real-life stories in downtown Los Angeles, the show is a satirical observation of today’s banking systems, the fluctuating value of currency vs. counterfeiting, and the human relationship we choose to entrust with money.
For Bankrupt, along with a fresh arrangement of my original Vaultscore, I also wrote music updating the American Depression era, whose standards I harmonically dismantled, then subliminally tucked away in musically thematic layers throughout the story. To show the protagonist’s awkward evolution, I was inspired by the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Ginger Rogers in Gold Diggers of 1933, Cabaret, Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M”, Skrillex and Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat major, D. 929, to name a few.
I was inspired by the Vault Ensemble’s physical theater improvisations around the SevenÂ Deadly Sins as mentored by producer Jose Luis Valenzuela during the creation process. I was inspired by the absurdity of pop culture’s insidious prevalence in art, and how I, as a performer, am not necessarily immune to its result-oriented pressure. Don’t think, just do it. But that pressure inspires me, because of my knee-jerk reaction to it. I kick back because I am alive. As theater is alive. My adrenaline during the countdown to lights and curtain is absolutely honest and unapologetic. And so my music, as a result, hits you back, deep in the gut, long after the rush has subsided.
The Vault: Bankrupt, presented by Latino Theater Company. Opens March 29. Plays Thurs.- Sat. 9 pm. Through April 21. Tickets: $20. Â Los Angeles Theatre Center, Â 514 S. Spring Street, LA. 866-811-4111. www.thelatc.org or www.thevaultdtla.com.
***All The Vault: Bankrupt production photos courtesy of The Vault Ensemble
Brian Foyster, Cynthia Gravinese and Burt Grinstead in “Deathtrap”; Photo by Ken Sawyer
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series of occasional articles revisiting subjects from the LA STAGE magazine archives. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center’s Lily Tomlin Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center was newly christened at the Village at Ed Gould Plaza when Deborah Behrens wrote a feature article for the March 2002 issue. Artistic director Jon Imparato discusses the last 10 years and the center’s upcoming revival of Deathtrap.
“The Village” at Ed Gould Plaza
The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center was founded in 1971 to promote health care and political rights for its community — a full decade before AIDS exploded as the community’s major issue for years. Now the center encompasses five Los Angeles buildings and serves more than a quarter of a million clients with its services and untold thousands of visitors to its cultural offerings.
In 2002, the cultural aspect of the organization was underscored when it was adopted by two great lesbian activist artists and renamed the Lily Tomlin Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center. Housed in the beautiful Hollywood oasis called “The Village” at Ed Gould Plaza, the cultural arts center has thrived over the last 10 years, producing an array of theater productions and visual arts exhibits.
Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner; Photo by Harry Benson
From its beginning in early 2000, before Tomlin and Wagner came aboard, the cultural arts department was handed to eager young producer-director Jon Imparato with the mission to develop an artistic vision. Imparato has worked nonstop, and center productions have received GLAAD, Ovation and LA Weekly awards. Though he had successful acting, directing and producing careers in New York and Los Angeles, nothing has been more important to his artistic life than his ongoing creation of arts at the Village.
As he gives a brief tour of the Village and its performing spaces — the 200 seat Renberg Theatre and black box Davidson/Valentini Theatre — noting their continually improving technical prowess, Imparato expresses his gratitude to the administrators of the center for their understanding of the place cultural arts holds in building a community. Even through the deep recession, he received support to keep growing the arts organization.
He explains why. “The cool thing is…they believe that what I do is prevention — cultural arts as part of prevention. By that I mean it’s a way for our community to come have a social outing that is not about alcohol and sex. It’s them seeing their lives on stage in a real concrete way, not as secondary characters.” But there is more than just an isolated theater experience here. The alfresco atmosphere of the Village’s courtyard is structured to create social opportunities. On performance nights, audience members generally come early, creating a community get-together, accompanied by bar service.
Imparato is particularly proud of the experiences the center provides to gay and lesbian seniors. “We have a huge senior program. The other day a woman said to me, ‘I used to go all the time with my gay friends to the clubs and dance. But I am too old for that. I don’t go out and party any more, but I come to the Village. I come to see your shows with my gay friends’.”
Jon Imparato; Photo by Crystal Munson
Though community building is central to the mission of the cultural center, the productions are far from non-professional community theater. Imparato’s success comes from a strong artistic sensibility, insistence on professionalism and an array of high-profile entertainers who are happy to take his call. He would like to be able to devise a full season of productions, but he finds it impossible to plan in advance with precision when dealing with big-name personalities. “Our big theater, the Renberg, is more celebrity-driven because it requires large audiences and varied Equity contracts. Kathy Griffin will say, ‘I want to do a show.’ That’s great! Then she’ll call and say she has a Law and Order and needs to change the date. When celebrities do me a big favor, they often have to reschedule. They always swing back and deliver, but to actually put together an actual season is impossible.”
When Tomlin and Wagner blessed the cultural arts center, it received enormous attention. Imparato tactically maneuvered that attention to artistic action as he boldly, and successfully, reached out to icons of gay entertainment. Kathy Griffin and Margaret Cho immediately became part of his circle, which led to more big names. “Kathy kept telling people this was the best place to work in LA. I saw Megan Mullally do a play at the Evidence Room and asked her to come do a show. I got Carol Channing to do her show Razzle Dazzle as a benefit.”
The entrances to the Davidson/Valentini Theatre (left) and the Renberg Theatre
For a 25th anniversary reading of the hugely successful Vanities, he was able to coax original cast member Kathy Bates to return to the show. “Kathy said, ‘In Act I we’re 18, I ain’t doin’ that, Act II we’re 21 — ain’t doin’ that, but Act III we’re older — okay!'”
Imparato also has a remarkable ability to spot emerging talent. “I just fall in love with talent,” he gushes. Long before Glee made Jane Lynch famous, she starred in the center’s original play The Breakup Notebook. Her experience with the play and with Imparato encouraged her to become a board member of the center.
But it is not only high-profile actresses with gay followings who have kept the center’s momentum going. Imparato has also been able to partner with and help shape the careers of such performers as Miss Coco Peru, the female alter-ego of Clinton Leupp, whose internationally renowned monologue performances have become a big part of Imparato’s line-up. He has worked closely with Coco Peru for 10 years as her dramaturg and cheerleader. This work has led to a philosophy about gay and lesbian performance art that has helped shape the content of the center’s offerings. “Coco is very smart in that she does not perform in LA a lot. When she is here, she sells out like crazy. We always have this huge wait list. Lily Tomlin is a freak for Coco, because the writing is just so strong.”
Miss Coco Peru; Photo by Peter Palladino
The high quality of the writing and performing is absolutely vital to Imparato’s vision. This perfectionism is the reason he has never allowed the center’s stages to become rental houses. “It’s all about quality control. If you see a bad show at a theater twice, you don’t go back.”
He is extremely meticulous in his choice of artists. “People submit pieces to me and think because it’s gay we should do it. My joke is, all I get is plays from gay men saying they wanted to wear their mothers’ dresses and couldn’t catch a baseball and lesbians saying they wanted to play baseball but were forced to wear a dress.” In his work with new talent, he tries to help them tell their stories in new and different ways.
Because of his hectic schedule, which includes overseeing non-theater events and all room rentals, Imparato rarely has a chance to direct, but occasionally he does find a piece that he can’t resist. He discovered one such project when he met with baseball great Mickey Mantle’s gender-bending nephew Kelly Mantle. “She came to me with a show about her gender identity. I liked her — I mean him — and gave him notes. At one point I said, I have to direct this. I am in way too deep. So it became this play The Confusion of My Illusion. I’d been looking for a good piece about gender. It is hard to find one that is interesting and fun and moving.” That was two years ago, and it was Imparato’s last major directing job.
The cast of “Body of Faith”; Photo by Craig Schwartz
While Imparato is thrilled with the infusion of celebrities as well as original gay and lesbian-themed performance art, he does not neglect his original love of plays. His 2004 revival of the classic lesbian play Last Summer at Bluefish Cove ran for nine months. He collaborated with Cornerstone Theater to produce Luis Alfaro’s Body of Faith, garnering a PEN Center’s USA Literary Award. At the Hudson Backstage not far from the center, he shepherded a 2005 musical version of the center’s 2001 award-winning hit The Break-Up Notebook. It won an Ovation award for best musical Ovation and an LADCC award for best score.
Brian Foyster and Chris Rydell in “The Lost Plays of Tennessee Williams”; Photo by Allison Moon
Imparato was ecstatic about hosting the West Coast premiere of The Lost Plays of Tennessee Williams. He exclaims, “This was our coup de grace. They were found in a suitcase in his estate about eight years ago. We ran it here for five months, then moved to the Coast Playhouse. It was a runaway hit.”
However, Imparato certainly has no expectations of finding more lost plays and is eager to develop local talent. His main concerns are quality and uniqueness. He found them in playwright Nick Salamone, whom he believes is LA’s finest playwright. He produced both Salamone’s highly regarded Sea Change and The Sonneteer. Imparato explains, “Nick writes plays that I think just speak to our community in ways that nobody else does in terms of LGBT experience. I commissioned Sonneteer…It included 23 original sonnets which are really sophisticated. You’d think they’d been published for years.”
While the center strives to produce important literary work, it also thrives on absolute fluff, like the increasingly popular MisMatch Game, a goofy spoof of the old TV game show. Imparato describes it as “our cult hit, which Out magazine called one of the 10 best theater events in America. It’s just filth, filthy, filthy.” He books the drag performer Varla Jean Merman and produces a variety act called Village Variety Pack. “I get all the great Groundlings people here. Amazing!”
Sandra Purpuro, Paul Haitkin, Cynthia Gravinese, Ed Martin, Ray Oriel and Victoria Hoffman in “The Sonneteer”; Photo by Katie Pomerantz
This week the theater is opening a revival of Ira Levin’s huge hit Deathtrap. The thriller has captivated audiences since 1978 with shocking, unexpected twists. Imparato is excited. “I have never done a thriller. This is a really scary thriller and I thought we could put a really good stamp on it. It’s not your mama’s Deathtrap. It’s a hot sexy Deathtrap.” Although he prefers to cultivate new plays by local playwrights, Imparato occasionally bows to economic realities. He figured that the popularity of Deathtrap would bring in audiences.
Imparato says he cannot judge a play by looking at the script, so he has to hear it aloud. Before he committed to Deathtrap, he gathered a group of artists to do a reading. “We were all shocked at how well written it is — a really good play with cool twists and turns and great dialogue. I thought this could really sell with the right cast.” He is thrilled with the cast and even more so with his director Ken Sawyer, who has made a name in LA in the thriller genre with Woman in Black and Dracula. Imparato laughs, “Ken could direct traffic for me. He is known for the genre and does it really well.”
Sawyer is a bit cagey about the production. “We’re being a little more bold than the play is usually done. I wouldn’t call it groundbreaking, but it certainly is the most perfect little play I have ever read. Levin really thought it out. I am a little nervous, because people are going to wonder why we’re doing a classic Broadway thriller at the Gay and Lesbian Center — it’s one of the secrets of the play.”
Throughout the last decade of increasing visibility and critical success, Imparato never forgets why he’s doing what he does. “This happened because our board went on a retreat, and the person facilitating said, ‘Go off, take two hours and dream. Forget about cost. Just dream of whatever you want.’ They came back and said everything we do for our community right now is for people in need. We’re doing everything for their illness, nothing for wellness in our community. Thus this happened.
“I am a firm believer that the Jewish community after the Holocaust understood clearly that one of the ways they were going to heal was through the arts. Community centers cropped up all over America and there was all this money and influence. My feeling is that after the AIDS epidemic, once the protease inhibitors were working and people were not dying, we all took a breath and went, ‘Oh my God. Part of what we’re doing here is creating a place for our community to come here and heal. That it was not about living through an incredible plague, but about wellness and celebrating our lives.”
Deathtrap, presented by the Lily Tomlin Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center. Opens March 30. Plays Fri-Sat 8 pm.; Sun 7 p.m. through May 6. Tickets $20-$25. The Davidson/Valentini Theatre, Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., Hollywood.Â Â http://laglcculturalarts.eventbrite.com/
LA theater companies that produce anything that might be called “non-fiction” should now consider the case of Mike Daisey and act accordingly.
I refer, of course, to the oft-celebrated stage artist, who’s now more famous than ever because of a storm of criticism for having fabricated or lied about details in his monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which he attempts to expose the abuse of Chinese workers in Apple factories.
Mike Daisey in the New York Public Theater production of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”
Daisey’s embellishments were discovered by a China-based reporter for public radio’s Marketplace, but they became the fodder for a national discussion on public radio’s This American Life, which had previously broadcast parts of Daisey’s monologue. On March 16, This American Life host Ira Glass confronted Daisey on the air.
Before I get to my thoughts on whether or when LA producers should vet their material when presenting “non-fiction,” let’s look at a couple developments in the Daisey story from this past weekend.
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who had hosted Daisey on his show Up w/Chris Hayes when the storyteller was promoting his Jobs production, delivered a reprimand Saturday. But Hayes did more than simply take Daisey to task; he broadcast a much earlier statement by Daisey, from a Seattle radio and podcast interview by Luke Burbank, in which Daisey had offered a very articulate argument against the kind of manipulation he used in the Jobs story.
Daisey had issued a somewhat limited apology on his blog early last week. But after he was reminded by Hayes of his words from last May in the Burbank interview, he wrote a much more thorough mea culpa on his blog yesterday.
It’s worth quoting Daisey’s words from the Burbank interview:
Mike Daisey in the New York Public Theater production of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”
“The facts are your friends, like if there’s ever a case where I’m telling the story and I find the facts are inconvenient nine times out of 10 it means I haven’t thought about the story deeply enough. I really believe in this because the world is more complex and more interesting than my imagination…You have so many tools on stage as a storyteller. Like, any time you want something to happen, you don’t have to pretend it happened and lie, you can use a flight of fancy, you can say, ‘I imagine what this must look like.’ You can say anything and you can go in whatever direction you need to go, but be clear with the audience…that at one moment you’re reporting the truth as literally it happened, and another case you’re using hyperbole, and you just have to be really clear about when you’re using each tool.”
In his latest blog post from yesterday, after thanking Hayes for dredging up his own previous words, Daisey acknowledged that he hadn’t lived up to his own standard.
Let’s also examine the responses from the East Coast theaters where Daisey had presented his Jobs show. Early last week, after the story broke, New York Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis said this:
“We do not and cannot fact check our artists; we’re a theater, not a news organization. The vast majority of what occurs on our stages is fiction. If we didn’t believe fiction could reveal truth, we would have to give up our profession. With that said, it obviously matters a great deal to me that our audience understands what they are seeing.”
Then Eustis posted a somewhat tougher statement on the Public Theater website. And in response to questions at a forum last Thursday on the subject, Eustis indicated “that the Public had checked the veracity of other pieces of documentary-based theater during his tenure, but did not in the case of Mr. Daisey’s show, a decision he said he regretted,” according to the New York Times.
At Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, where Daisey presented an earlier version of the show in 2010 that had been specifically labeled in the program as “non-fiction,” the company’s leaders also issued a not-so-stern response at first but later toughened their response considerably. Judging from the public comments that appeared on the theater’s blog, many of its customers still weren’t satisfied, but the theater is hosting a free public forum on the subject Tuesday evening.
The controversy is red-hot at Woolly Mammoth because the theater had committed to presenting the Jobs show again in July and is maintaining that commitment. However, the show presumably will be quite altered from the version seen in New York (and in fact, it was altered at the final performance of the New York run, which took place at the Public just after the story broke on This American Life).
The only time that Daisey has appeared publicly in LA, as far as I recall, was when he performed his How Theater Failed America and The Last Cargo Cult under Center Theatre Group auspices at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, in March 2009.
Mike Daisey in the 2009 Kirk Douglas Theatre production of “How Theater Failed America” Photo by Craig Schwartz
But this doesn’t mean that the Daisey story is of little relevance to LA producers who sometimes present “non-fiction” material. I’ve seen many a show in LA that ostensibly dealt with real people, who were mentioned by name, or material that was “based on a true story” with some real names used. In many of these cases, after I leave the theater, I wonder just how accurate these scripts are, and whether the real-life people who are mentioned in these stories would have told very different stories. Perhaps these shows had been thoroughly vetted, but there was no way for the audience to know.
Often these shows are solos. By the very nature of solos, it’s harder to present many different viewpoints on the same material. There are exceptions — solo artist Anna Deavere Smith presents many viewpoints and goes out of her way to let the public know that her characters are based on actual recorded interviews that are edited, of course, but more or less otherwise verbatim. But many a solo artist seems to feel that the power of his or her personality should overwhelm any concerns we might feel about the alternative ways in which their stories might have been told.
I’m not going to name names here. Precisely because I haven’t personally fact-checked or seen any reliable vetting of these artists’ work, I don’t want to cast aspersions on artists who may have stuck to the facts, even though they didn’t provide any public assurances about it. The point at which questions should be asked and facts should be checked is before — not after — the performance takes place.
So how should producers know whether and when to ask those questions?
Well, classics companies probably don’t have to worry about it. Nor do producers of shows that are very obviously fantastical or otherwise fictional.
Of course there is such a thing as “historical fiction” in the theater as well as in novels. These narratives sometimes mention real people and events from the past. Most of us have seen solo shows about historical figures in which the premise of the show is fictional — the Great Person is reminiscing about his or her life at an event that probably didn’t take place. But we’re supposed to believe everything that the person says about himself or herself.
Producers — and perhaps dramaturges — should probably do at least a little of their own independent research before they agree to present a script like this, just to make sure that the history isn’t being mangled (and that the words aren’t being plagiarized from real historians or biographers — a phenomenon that I discovered in one show that I reviewed for the LA Times, a long time ago).
But as the material gets closer to undiluted non-fiction, to the present day, to controversial issues and to living people, producers should invest even more time and resources in vetting the script. I’ve always assumed that major companies such as New York Public Theater and Center Theatre Group do this to a certain extent, that they even run checks with libel lawyers as well as with less glorified fact-checkers if the material is particularly inflammatory. But all of that is harder to do for lower-level producers and companies — and of course, even the Public Theater’s exalted status didn’t prevent it from getting egg on its face in the Daisey case.
A scene from the 2004 Colony Theatre production of “The Laramie Project”; Photo by Michael Lamont
Some observers have complained that too much is being made of the Daisey case, that the theater is essentially about fiction, that theater is subjective while journalism is objective, blah blah blah. This argument does both journalism and the theater a disservice.
It’s obvious that journalism is more subjective than ever these days — but that doesn’t mean that subjective journalists should disregard the facts. It’s also obvious that theaters can use journalistic, ostensibly more “objective” techniques to tell their stories, sometimes to great polemical effect — The Laramie Project, the Civilians, LA’s own Cornerstone Theater. But it’s incumbent on these theater artists, more than the artists who work only with “fiction,” to be very precise about the facts. If either subjective journalists or subjective theater artists aren’t careful about the facts, they can weaken the arguments they’re making. Just ask Daisey.
Melody Butiu and Gregory Itzin in the 2007 SCR premiere of “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment”
I first heard about the Daisey controversy while listening to This American Life on my way to see a revival of Donald Margulies’ Sight Unseen at South Coast Repertory. The last Margulies premiere I had seen at South Coast was Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself). As those who saw it at South Coast or, a year later, at the Geffen may recall, Shipwrecked! is about a storyteller who became famous for his thrilling adventures abroad, before his stories were eventually exposed as a hoax.
Daisey is no de Rougemont, at least not in terms of their apparent goals. Daisey wanted to expose workers’ conditions in China that clearly need additional exposure, even if his twisting of the facts might have harmed that effort. De Rougemont was in it mostly for the glory and the remuneration.
However, the road from Daisey to de Rougemont could easily descend on a slippery slope, and anyone who tries to tell true stories in the theater should take heed not to slip.
TROUSER ROLES, JUKEBOX MUSICALS: Don’t ask me to go into all the details about the two new musicals I saw over the weekend. The plots are, uh, complicated. But both of them involve the familiar Shakespearean convention of young heroines dressed as young men — at least in part to achieve greater proximity to the real young men they’re pursuing.
Matt Walker, Christine Lakin, Monica Schneider and Rob Nagle in “Two Gentlemen of Chicago”
They’re also jukebox musicals of a sort, in that they use other people’s familiar tunes. But the music is from very different eras, and rights and royalties aren’t involved in either show, for different reasons.
Troubadour Theater’s The Two Gentlemen of Chicago uses the music of, duh, Chicago (the group, as opposed to the city), mostly from 1969 and the ’70s. The Troubies don’t have to pay royalties because they’re satirists who do parodies, which are allowed according to the experts at the University of Troubie Law School.
Hello! My Baby, at the Rubicon in Ventura, is set about a century ago, give or take a few years, and uses music from that pre-jukebox era — in other words, songs that are now in the public domain.
In Hello! My Baby, the protagonists are song pluggers, who hit the streets of New York performing the latest ditties, trying to sell the sheet music in order to create a wave of popular appeal. I was reminded of fledgling artists today who make a video, slap it on YouTube and do what they can to make it go viral.
The cast of “Hello! My Baby”; Photo by Daniel P. Lam
Cheri Steinkellner has devised an ingenious plot — much of it tongue in cheek — around the songs, adding new lyrics to help point some of them in the direction of her characters. The whole thing “steams like a locomotive” — which, she says in a program note, was part of her goal. It’s a very lively, albeit very retro entertainment.
I hope it goes far, in part because it marks Rubicon’s return to a much bigger show — with 22 actors (including George Wendt, one of the stars of Steinkellner’s old series Cheers) and a four-piece band — after a period of smaller productions, dictated by the necessity to pay off debts during the economic crisis. Director Brian McDonald keeps the production at Rubicon’s usual high standards.
Troubie standards are always up there, too, and they remain so in Matt Walker’s staging of this mash-up of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona with Chicago hits. Chicago is known for its brassy sound, and the Troubies band, led by Eric Heinly is up to the challenge, supplemented by trombone blasts from actor Morgan Rusler, playing the father of one of the two gentlemen.
Beth Kennedy, Roosevelt the Pug and Matthew Morgan in “Two Gentlemen of Chicago”
What I’ll remember the most from this Troubie production is the participation of Rob Nagle, who doubles as one of the artistic directors of the Antaeus classical company. Not only is it fun to see the classical guy treating Shakespeare with such inspired irreverence, but it’s even more fun to see him in the evening’s most ridiculous costume, designed by Sharon McGunigle. And, if you read the bios in the program, you’ll see that Nagle and his wife provided the services of Roosevelt the Pug, playing Crab the Dog. I hope I’m not forgetting some inspired four-legged performance in another Troubie show, but Roosevelt’s performance makes any other animal actors in Troubie shows easy to forget.
Hello! My Baby, Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. Wed 2 and 7 pm, Thur-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes April 15. www.rubicontheatre.org. 805-667-2900.
Two Gentlemen of Chicago, Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Wed-Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm. Closes April 22. www.FalconTheatre.com. 818-955-8101.
***All Two Gentlemen of Chicago production photos by Chelsea Sutton
The first public presentation of Los Angeles County Arts Commission’s Cultivate/Create Initiative is about to be unveiled.
Cultivate/Create, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts with a matching grant from the Los Angeles County Productivity Investment Fund, enables arts organizations to increase funds from external sources to commission new works of art. In April 2011, the initiative granted nine arts organizations $10,000, all of which were matched dollar-for-dollar by contributions from new individual donors.
The first of these is I Can: Requiem for I Can’t, an art installation and performance engaging the community in ending violence against women created by artists Barbara T. Smith and Nina Jun. The event is being presented by A Window Between Worlds (AWBW) at Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), 685 Venice Blvd., Venice.
The artists in collaboration with AWBW have designed a participatory project that creates a communal space for healing and transformation from domestic violence and sexual assault. Designed to mobilize survivors statewide, the public component of this artwork launches with an installation and performance building upon AWBW’s 20 years of pioneering experience in using art against abuse.
Events surrounding the installation-performance include an opening ceremony (March 31), an evening reception (April 19 coinciding with the Venice Art Crawl) and a conversation with the artists (April 22). All events are free. For more information, go toÂ www.awbw.org.
Other new works of art commissioned through Cultivate/Create include an “outer-disciplinary” music event at Highways Performance Space, a workshop presentation of performance artist Casey Smith’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Circle X Theatre Company and artists Miwa Matreyek and Steve Ellison’s (Flying Lotus) film/music collaboration, The Mapping of Countries Yet to Come, at Center for the Arts Eagle Rock. More details of about these and other Cultivate/Create works will be released at a later date.
Robert Patrick apologizes for his casual attire as he settles into a patio chair in the outdoor seating area of House of Pies in the Los Feliz district. “I just finished my daily 60-block morning walk, and I didn’t have time to go home and change.” At age 74, Patrick exudes a buoyant sociability and is only too happy to discuss his creatively overflowing life and times, including his status as one of the founders of the 1960s New York theater movement at Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village that became known as off-off-Broadway and his position as a pioneer of gay theater in America.
Robert Patrick, Don Parker, Shirley Knight, Michael Sacks, and Tennessee Williams at Sardi's, opening night of "Kennedy's Children", 1975
In 1972, Samuel French declared Patrick “New York’s most-produced playwright” of that era.Â In fact, he is the author of more than 300 produced works and 60 published plays, including Kennedy’s Children (1975), which garnered a featured actress Tony for Shirley Knight. On Tuesday, March 27, he is to be honored by the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights, who have made him ALAP’s first honorary member.
“I haven’t written a play in a long time, not since I left New York and the world of theater in 1990,” he confides.Â “But Dan Berkowitz and John Dorf who run ALAP thought the world should know more about me, so they’re having this Evening With RobertPatrick next Tuesday.”
Born Robert Patrick O’Connor in Kilgore, Texas in 1937, Patrick’s migrant worker family moved so frequently he never enjoyed a full year of schooling in any location until his final year of high school in Roswell, New Mexico. He certainly had no aspirations to have a life in the theater. He attended Eastern New Mexico University for a time but dropped out. He recalls, “I had two ambitions at the time.Â I wanted to be a cartoonist or a nightclub singer.Â I had no talent for either.”
He joined the Air Force but was kicked out when it was discovered he had sent a love poem to another airman.Â Feeling there was something decidedly wrong with him, he had himself committed to a New Mexico state mental institution. After an obligatory two weeks, he was released. “They told me there was nothing wrong with me, and I should just move to a bigger city.”
Robert Patrick and William M. Hoffman onstage at Caffe Cino in Patrick's first play "The Haunted Host", NYC, 1964
Instead he moved to Kennebunkport, Maine, in the summer of 1961, an even smaller town than Roswell. He got a job at Kennebunkport Playhouse washing dishes during summer stock season and discovered he had a passion for live theater.Â On his planned return to Roswell, he stopped in New York for the afternoon because he wanted to see Greenwich Village.Â Patrick recalls following a young man into a café, which turned out to be Caffe Cino, owned by Joe Cino, who offered his space to any playwright with the guts to perform with no sets, no lights and no money. Patrick had found his home.
“It was absolutely the most wonderful place in the world for me,” he affirms.Â “After three years of temple slaving, doing any and every odd job that needed doing, I got an idea for a play. In 1964, I wrote The Haunted Host and gave it to Joe.Â He threw it in the garbage.Â He told me, “˜You don’t want to be a playwright.Â Playwrights are terrible people.’ Lanford Wilson was there and he said, “˜Joe, Bob works hard and you should do his play.Â If you won’t do it, then I won’t do any more plays here.”Â Joe took it out of the garbage, wiped off the coffee grounds and produced it.”
Gay playwrights Harvey Fierstein, Robert Patrick, and Doric Wilson under their posters in Phebe's Bar, NYC, 1980
Along with Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, Doric Wilson and others, Patrick became a pioneer instigator of a theater revolution at Caffe Cino and Café LaMaMa (founded by Ellen Stewart and Paul Foster in 1961). “Off-off-Broadway was something entirely new in the history of world theater.Â Plays were done in coffee houses, churches, bars, art galleries and bookstores, places which made their money from business not from theater.Â Therefore, the plays did not have to please an audience or critics.Â For the first time in history, theater was an independent expressive art form. We didn’t have to please anybody but it turned out we pleased a lot of people.
“We impressed a change in theater that would find its way to Off-Broadway and Broadway, too.Â We were doing gay plays at the Cino five years before Boys in The Band.Â We were doing plays about drugs and dropping out eight years before Hair opened. It was the most exciting time in the history of theater. Off-off-Broadway theater, as I knew it, basically ended when the Cino closed after the death of Joe Cino (1968).Â But I kept writing plays and getting them produced.”
In 1969, Patrick was accorded the Show Business Award for his plays, Joyce Dynel, Salvation Army and Fog.Camera Obscura was produced on PBS, starring Marge Champion.Â In 1973, he lived for a time in LA, helping co-found LaMaMa Hollywood,Â but he discovered Hollywood people had a different frame of mind from those he knew in New York.Â “I freaked out and had to leave,” he recalls. “An actress named Jacque Lynn Colton kept it going for a while, but I had to get out of there.”
Sally Kirkland, Shelley Winters, and Anne Wedgewood in "Kennedy's Children", 1976
The only problem Patrick had was that he was broke and facing eviction from his apartment. “Then I got a call from my agent in New York who told me a theater in London was doing a play of mine, Kennedy’s Children. They were willing to fly me to London but only from New York.Â Then I remembered there was a theater in Chicago called At The Drama Shelter that was doing a lot of my plays. I called them to see if I could push them to give me some money.Â They told me they had been trying to get a hold of me because they had thousands of dollars of royalty money for me. I got back to New York and then to London.Â The next year, Kennedy’s Children opened on Broadway and was a huge hit.
Though delighted to have Broadway success, Patrick had no desire to be a part ofÂ Broadway’s Great White Way. “I led a completely insulated life living and working in the Village. In 30 years living in New York I’d seen maybe 20 Broadway shows.Â I didn’t get uptown that often. I didn’t want to. There used to be a bar in the Village named Phoebe’s.Â I could walk in there on any given night and find at least a hundred people I knew. I would walk through Phoebe’s and before I reached the other side of the room I’d be offered a production, a publication, a job writing an article, an interview and sex. And sometimes I was only walking through the bar to see if I could borrow 50 cents to buy a can of cat food.
“One time I was entertaining this hustler in my house and I remembered I was supposed to have my picture taken at Phoebe’s with Doric Wilson and Harvey Fierstein for an article on gay playwrights.Â I told my companion of the afternoon that I had to go have a picture taken and he asked, “˜Can I take the picture? So, I have a picture of me, Harvey and Doric, taken by a hustler, in between two bouts of sex between him and me.”
Robert Patrick at Peculiar Elementary School on behalf of the International Thespians Society; Photo by Michael W. Beahm
After the success of Kennedy’s Children, Patrick spent 10 years traveling to high schools all over the country on behalf of the International Thespian Society, the high school drama fraternity. He visited over 1000 schools and drama festivals during that time. One school once offered to fly him in, but he told them to buy him a month-long bus pass instead so he could stop at 10 more schools that couldn’t afford to bring him to them. Between those years, 1975 and 1985, he spent his time either producing his plays in New York or traveling to schools around the nation. He hit every state except Hawaii. He loved working with the students, but he was finding the task of producing theater in New York more problematic.
“I made a very bad business decision in 1980. That year, my agent started going crazy. She was embedded with all my plays that Samuel French handled. And the only way I could get out of my relationship with her was to sell those plays to Samuel French.Â They didn’t want to buy them, but I insisted. I gave up rights to all my popular plays on the assumption that my new plays would do well and at least I’d make me a comfortable living.Â They didn’t. I was very wrong and became very poor. It was a struggle for me after that.Â I had no money and for a time, no home. I was living in light booths. In fact, I was picking which theaters to do shows in, based on how big their light booths were.”
During this time, Patrick did an LA theater sidebar, spending nearly a year working with the colorful coffee house purveyor Smitty, who was producing his own off-off-Broadway at DejaVu Coffee House in Hollywood. “Smitty had very successfully produced one of my plays, T Shirts, with Michael Kearns. Smitty asked me to help him set up the space next door, which became the Fifth Estate.Â I did it mainly because I wanted to establish a gay theater here in LA.Â I did my work and returned to New York.Â By the way, for all who are interested, Smitty is still alive, living and working happily in New Orleans. I, on the other hand, was not doing too well by the end of the ’80s.
“The decision to quit doing theater came to me one day in 1990 when I was carrying a sofa on my back down 2nd Avenue in New York as a set piece for a play. It started raining and the sofa got heavier and heavier.Â Nobody on the street offered to help me, and I realized ever since 1961, for 30 years, people had been watching me walk the streets with sofas on my back. I realized I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I left New York, because why be in New York if I wasn’t doing theater?”
Robert Patrick; Photo by Dylan Kenin
Patrick moved to California to stay with relatives for two years. During that time he realized he had been so insulated that he had been totally out of touch with what had happened to America in the 30 years he had been in theater. He found himself appalled and terrified.
“When I left New Mexico for New York, or as I put it, when I left America for theater, the horrible thing about this country was ignorance and indifference.Â When I returned from theater to America in 1990, the horrible thing was fear and distrust.Â What the ’60s did to average Americans was to make them afraid of everything. My family was afraid of the food they ate, the cars they drove, the medicines they took, their neighbors, strangers, foreigners, their own politicians. They were afraid of everything. I wrote a play about it called Heterosexuals, which has not yet been produced. It is about my family and what I came back to.
“Eventually I got a job doing public relations in LA.Â The boss died, and I moved on to do some television ghostwriting for a few years.Â Then the people I was writing for learned how to do it themselves and they dropped me.Â Â So, I took a job reviewing gay porn movies, which is what I do now.”
When I ask Patrick why he hasn’t gotten involved in theater in LA, he shrugs. “They don’t want me. I’ve sent out scripts to theaters, and I don’t even get the courtesy of a rejection slip. Maybe it’s the age thing. Actually, I got one from the Blank Theatre this week, rejecting my submission. I’ve never had an overture from Celebration Theatre.Â Until lately, I didn’t even know who runs the place.”
Patrick admits to being flattered and delighted to be recognized by ALAP but he is frustrated to be always living in a state of near poverty despite being one of the most prolific playwrights in US history. Social Security pays his rent. Everything else is a struggle.Â But every once in a while there is a glimmer of hope.
“A producer called me today to ask me if I would be willing to write a 2012 version of a play I wrote in 1976, My Cup Ranneth Over. The play has an interesting history.Â Marlo Thomas hired me to come out to LA from New York and write it for her and Lily Tomlin.Â She was very happy with it, but then Marlo and her producers had a fight. It was never produced. So, I offered to buy it back from her and she just gave it to me.Â It became my most produced play.Â I used to send Marlo a Valentine every year, saying,’Your play was done 2000 times last year.Â Marlo, Happy Valentines Day’.”
I can’t help asking Patrick what his wish list would be for the future. “If I had a theater to work in now, I’d write a play a day for the rest of my life.”
The Los Angeles musical theater community has had a rough stretch lately. With the Funny Girl revival canceled and the new Sleepless in Seattle at least postponed, with Reprise forced to suspend its major productions due to financial hardship, and with the shock waves left by the sudden passing of beloved leading man John Bisom this past weekend, we could all use a cheerful tune.
In a genre that has become all but synonymous with large houses, opulent production values and astronomical budgets, DOMA Theatre Company has managed to emerge as a dedicated 99-Seat Plan musical theater production company in Los Angeles. It’s ready to kick off the 2012 season tonight with The Who’s Tommy, the first chapter in a five-show season that continues with Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll & Hyde, pop culture icon Xanadu, and Ahrens’ and Flaherty’s Once on this Island.
Launched by co-artistic directors Marco Gomez and Dolf Ramos in 2002, DOMA was founded with the purpose of allowing novice and up-and-coming talent to perform and have the opportunity to learn alongside seasoned professionals. It is a principle that Gomez and Ramos remain dedicated to instilling in every aspect of their productions, both onstage and behind the scenes.
“We got together because we saw that there was always an acute division between amateur theater and professional theater,” explains Gomez.Â “There was no middle ground for people to come in and then transition to the bigger stages. We came up with a model plan where we would bring professional actors from different mediums””television, theater, film””and have them work with amateur actors and first-timers, or people who had all of the academic, but perhaps not the actual life experience on the stage. In that environment, they are able to learn from each other. The seasoned actors can learn new techniques that are being taught in the schools and the kids can receive hands-on training from the more practiced actors.”
Even their moniker is collaborative. “DOMA” is a fusion of the names “Dolf” and “Marco”””it has nothing to do with the Defense of Marriage Act, as Ramos is quick to point out. According to Ramos, the company started off as a vehicle for himself and Gomez to showcase their own original material, but it quickly evolved into a production company for already-established musicals. “We actually started with a show we had written ourselves called Lover’s Mayhem, and we went into this thinking to ourselves that we could just write and produce our own shows one right after the other. Well”¦that first show burnt us out. So we started pulling from shows that we did in high school or that we really love or ones that were referred to us.”
From its origins of rehearsing in Dolf Ramos’ garage, DOMA began to take shape and grow, eventually partnering with the Hope & Union Foundation, an arts organization dedicated to assisting at-risk youth, who helped the fledgling company take root and expand from maybe one or two productions a year to a full year-round season. Almost a decade later, that core principle of combining amateur and professional remains at the forefront of their endeavors.
Hallie Barran, who began working with DOMA last year when she directed its spring production Pippin and is currently helming Tommy, has nothing but praise for the company’s collaborative method. “I think the concept that DOMA not only wants to be a working professional theater in the Los Angeles, but also a training ground as well is amazing. There are very few apprenticeships anywhere, in any career. How are these newer people who have the drive, but perhaps fewer credits, going to get those credits and that experience if nobody is going to give them that opportunity? Dolf and Marco are very generous men for opening their company to this concept because theater, especially in Los Angeles, is a very tricky business.”
Tricky business is right. With financial hardships hitting their fellow musical theater counterparts every which way, Gomez and Ramos remain vigilant and empathetic to these economic circumstances . Even though the cost of a DOMA ticket is a mere fraction of what it costs to see a professional musical here in town, Gomez is adamant that his audiences get their money’s worth. “Our philosophy is that if you’re going to pay $30 to see a show under these economic circumstances, you should be getting your $30 worth in the experience.”
Nik Roybal, Timothy Hearl, Steven Nielsen, Donovan Baise, Matt O'Neill, Chris Kerrigan and Angela Todaro
For DOMA, it’s about focusing that attention and bringing out the quality in the details. For example, at each performance every member of the audience is given a piece of chocolate as they enter the theater. “We want the experience to be a sweet one,” explains Gomez. “We want to make sure that our audiences feel welcome and have a good time so they keep going to see live theater in general.”
A cheaper ticket price, novice actors, and a smaller house do not mean, however, that audiences should expect a watered-down production or that these guys have any interest in playing it safe in their artistic choices. When asked about the choice to do a production of Tommy so close on the heels of the highly-lauded Chance Theater’s rendition in 2010 or even the 2008 production with Tony winner Alice Ripley at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre, Dolf Ramos is confident that the DOMA production will more than stand on its own.
According to Ramos and director Barran, this is a brand-new Tommy that speaks to contemporary audiences. “I truly believe that with each script there is a certain amount of freedom to re-interpret and to take risks, which is what we try to do with each of our shows,” says Ramos. “One of the things I brought to Hallie was that I would like to see some kind of futuristic update to Tommy that relates to gamers today. The idea of being absorbed in technology is pretty much universal nowadays. Everyone sort of has this tunnel vision with their iPhones or iPads, etc. Anyone who has like five minutes to spare will immediately pull out their phones and start playing a game.”
Donovan Baise and Jess Ford
For Barran, the title character’s “deaf, dumb, and blind” qualities take on more of a self-imposed meaning. “Today we’re living in a world where people sort of make themselves deaf, dumb, and blind to the rest of the world through virtual reality. So we try to touch on that as well and make social commentary about that world. Our Tommy wears a hoodie, yellow gamer glasses and earphones.”
Updating Tommy wasn’t so much of a challenge or radical departure for Barren and her creative team, but rather a choice that was inherent in the source material.Â “I think we find ourselves now in a place where the timelessness of the piece will still stand, but I think we’re also at a point now where we can break from the traditional Tommy that everybody knows. As I read through the script, I found that I didn’t really need to have Tommy live in the distinct eras that the script dictates it’s set in. I thought that we could break away from that a little bit and even take it a little bit into the future. I don’t feel like this piece has a static feel to it at all.”
While creating a completely futuristic version of an iconic period musical with a company whose level of professional experience runs the gamut seems a daunting task, Barran sounds confident that the DOMA method works. “As a director, it certainly keeps you on your toes, but if everybody is living up to their expectations, there is no problem in training people. It’s one thing to have your seasoned professionals who know what they’re doing and who you can look up to, respect, and learn from; but if you have those driven people who want to learn and can follow in those footsteps and gain the training and the confidence to become their own person, it really drives that theater experience, which I think is fantastic.”
Chris Raymond, Nik Roybal, Jess Ford, Matt O'Neill, Timothy Hearl, Chris Kerrigan and Bradley Sattler
For the Ramos and the rest of the DOMA team, the combination of grounding and enthusiasm to be working ultimately accounts for the quality of their productions, which is essential to survival in musical theater. “I definitely believe that the talent has to be there, as well as the serious desire to do theater. I like to think that we have the talent and the quality that’s comparable to some of the bigger houses, but doing it on a smaller stage gives you a more intimate and personal experience.”
Gomez even goes a step further to say that the overabundance of distracting theatrical tricks would be more of a hindrance than a help to the survival of his company’s productions. “I look at a lot of the new technology that is being used in musical theater and all of the work that is being done with televisions and projections, and while we understand and appreciate it, we feel like it sort of takes away from what theater really is.”
Perhaps a return to basics and the fundamental principles is what the doctor ordered as the musical theater community continues navigating rather uncertain times. Gomez sums up what’s important to DOMA. “In a time where we see the arts being cut back everywhere you look””in the schools, state budgets, etc.””we really feel that musical theater is something that has to survive. There is no way we can let it die.”
The Who’s Tommy, presented by DOMA Theatre Company. Opens tonight. Plays Fri.-Sat. 8 pm; Sun. 3 pm. Through April 15. Tickets: $30. The MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles. 323-465-0693. www.domatheatre.com
***All The Who’s Tommy production photos by Michael Lamont
Pat Scott, Kenneth Peterson and Rod Keller in "1969: A Fantastical Odyssey Through The American Mindscape"
“JFK, Nixon, hippies, drugs, music, moon landing, religion, and””most importantly””the rise of mass media, especially television…If I really want to be an American,” says playwright Damon Chua. “I gotta know more about the ’60s.”
Hailed in recent years as one of the most produced playwrights in his native Singapore, Chua lived and worked in Los Angeles for nine year before moving to New York in 2011.Part of his time in LA included winning an Ovation Award (for best world premiere play) for his first American production””the full-length noir mystery, Film Chinois. He also served as the literary manager for Company of Angels and the playwright-in-residence for Brimmer Street Theatre Company.
It was during this time in LA, and after years of experiencing American politics firsthand, that he was inspired to write 1969.
“I became eligible for American citizenship in 2009 and decided to figure out what being an American was all about,” Chua elaborates. “I felt that our current socio-political situation was shaped to a great extent by the ’60s, which was the beginning of what became the new conservative movement.”
Chua embraced this idea by participating in Brimmer Street’s play development program, the Blueprint Series. Working closely with the Brimmer Street actors, Chua investigated the events that transpired in the summer leading up to 1969’s moon landing, an event watched live by more people than any other in history.
Brimmer Street actors were instrumental in this early process, bringing in research and questions based on assignments from the playwright. Chua sculpted his story from what they discovered about “the chaos” that ended that decade””particularly in religion and American politics.
“I wanted to capture that moment where the tide began to change in the so-called “˜liberal ’60s’,” he explains.
When a first draft was completed at Brimmer Street, Chua began shaping the story and developing the theatrical tools to tell it.
Chua’s focus on investigating real events rather than themes resulted in a different kind of play compared to his previous work.
“The focus on time rather than theme was very liberating,” Chua says. “This play has almost 50 characters. It’s kinda crazy but it’s meant to be chaotic and capture that psychedelic, unsettling feeling toward the end of the ’60s.”
He hopes the invention of scenes between historical people””not intended to be documentary in nature””will offer interpretations of the larger meaning of significant events and how those events can be better understood in hindsight.
“I always knew there would be certain strands to the story,” Chua elaborates. “Going to the moon, the Chappaquiddick incident, America’s most infamous atheist, America’s Christian sweetheart, and, of course, the Kennedys.”
Through the re-write process, he found those seemingly unrelated pieces of story had connections to each other. His revelations about American culture caught the attention of colleague and former artistic director of Company of Angels, Tony Gatto. Gatto remembers the first reading of 1969 at Brimmer Street in 2009.
“I was perplexed, moved and confused but incredibly overjoyed at the same time,” Gatto recalls. “It seemed so huge and epic in scope. I left there wondering what theater company could take it on.”
But as the play continued to evolve, with more public readings and with Chua constantly refining the text, it gained momentum toward a production.
Creation of a Production Company
“I never at that time thought I’d produce it myself,” Gatto reflects. “It really scared me.”
Part of that fear came from Gatto’s vision of how the play would best be produced. He wanted more than a simplified “black box” version of the story, but to do so meant intricate period costumes, detailed sets and video design. The budget alone seemed impossible for a small theater. But he also doubted a small theater company in Los Angeles would have a large enough space to manage the staging.
A final reading took place at the Elephant Theatre in 2010. Gatto and Chua decided to join forces and mount the production as co-executive producers, with Gatto directing. After another year of shopping for theater companies or appropriate venues, an amenable deal was struck with Jeff Murray and his space at Theatre/Theater. GatChu productions was born, and fundraising began to create the production Gatto originally envisioned.
“The whole world celebrated in this event of landing on the moon and there was such euphoria around that,” Gatto says. “It’s how we react to the challenges of this country that defines who we are.”
When Chua was hired in 2011 to become the new executive director for Keen Company in New York City, production work continued with the writer and director working long distance. Gatto brought in Fayna Sanchez, who had been part of the final reading in 2010, to assist in producing responsibilities.
“This play especially slaps you in the face with its energy,” Sanchez comments.“It’s the first play I’ve read that was like that.”
Long Distance Process
Rebecca Avery, Pat Scott, David Pavao, Chloe Peterson and Annie McCain Engman
Now engaged in the busy life of running an Off-Broadway theater company, Chua is excited to return to Los Angeles for the production and to see the work done mostly by artists, particularly in the large ensemble cast, he hasn’t met in person.
“I think it’s good that I keep a distance,” Chua says. “I’ve really done all that I could, and now is the time to let the actors and director play with it.”
As a seasoned playwright, Chua admits he has grown over the years through his production experiences. Being outside the rehearsal process wasn’t always easy.
“I was a control freak. But I learned my lesson,” he laughs. “I’m very open now”¦as long as there is truth and honesty, I’m not too worried if it’s not within what I intended or imagined.”
This Los Angeles production of 1969 is an easier long-distance pill to swallow because of Chua’s previous working relationship with Gatto through their time at Company of Angels.
“Tony and I know each other really well. He’s sometimes too concerned about being too faithful. I told him to go and have fun,” Chua comments. “You do want to have a faithful rendition of your work, but I’ve learned other input can elevate it. I have learned to trust the process.”
Politics, History and Artistic License
Gatto has a mutual respect for Chua’s work and vision as an artist — particularly, how his observations about America feel perceptive even though they are coming from someone not raised in this country. In some ways, Gatto believes that distance has served Chua’s ability to see connections others might take for granted. “‘I think I came to the conclusion recently that America is such a young country,” Gatto notes. “And it’s going to take us a long time to learn from our mistakes.”
Sanchez and Gatto also feel Chua combines historical characters placed in realistic but not historically accurate situations as a way to show all sides to an argument. This “fantastical” element has created some of the biggest challenges as well as the most excitement in creating the visual possibilities for the production.
“But you don’t feel hammered by one side or the other,” Sanchez emphasizes. “You get to leave with your opinion fully in you. I really respond to that. I want more of that.”
As he moves toward becoming a citizen of this country, Chua believes the writing of this particular play has brought him closer to his personal American experience.
“It was a journey of discovery for me,” Chua says. “And it is still ongoing.”
1969: A Fantastical Odyssey Through The American Mindscape, presented by Gatchu Productions. Opens tonight. Plays Fri.-Sat. 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through April 29. Tickets $25. Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles. Opens March 23. 323-930-0747 and 323.960.7770. www.plays411.com/1969 or www.1969theplay.com.
***All 1969: A Fantastical Odyssey Through The American Mindscape production photos by Brett Mayfield
IN MEMORIAM: A memorial service for musical theater star John Bisom, who died last weekend in an apparent suicide, will be held on Monday at 7:30 pm, in Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach — home stage of Musical Theatre West, where Bisom performed often in major roles. “It is with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to one of Musical Theatre West’s favorite sons, actor John Bisom,” said Steven Glaudini, MTW’s artistic director, in a statement earlier today. “John first joined the MTW family in 1995 when he played Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar and went on to play several memorable roles including his Ovation-nominated performance as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, Jerry Lukowski in The Full Monty, Sebastian in The Thing About Men, Georg in She Loves Me and his final Southland stage appearance as Thomas Jefferson in 1776. Musical Theatre West has set up a memorial fund in John’s name. It will defray Johnny’s outstanding medical expenses and settle his final affairs. All remaining money will be used to create a John Bisom Scholarship Fund, and each year a high school student in Johnny’s hometown, Long Beach, will be awarded funds for studies in the fine arts. He will be sorely missed.” Bisom also appeared in Anyone Can Whistle at the Matrix and The Will Rogers Follies at South Bay CLO, among others. For more images of Bisom, go here…
PREMIERES: Mamet and Quaid are joining forces. Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica is presenting the premieres of Paris, scripted by Clara Mamet (daughter of David Mamet), and The Solvit Kids, co-scripted by Clara Mamet and Jack Quaid (son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid) — two one-act plays helmed by Tony-winning thesp PaulSand (Story Theatre), opening Apr 13. The productions feature Mamet and Quaid, along with thesp John Pirruccello…Blank Theatre’s 21st season will include the premiere of Michael JohnLaChiusa’s Sukie & Sue: Their Story, a macabre comedy that is “likely to send audiences home checking under their beds for demons with hair made of red yarn,” helmed by Kirsten Sanderson, opening Apr 28 at 2nd Stage Theatre in Hollywood. Featuring Mackenzie Phillips, Lindsey Broad, Rae Foster and Lenny Jacobson, this is the first non-musical by LaChiusa, whose musicals often have been produced by Blank…Two-time Oscar-nominated scripter Arnold Schulman, who adapted the landmark book, And the Band Played On for HBO (1993) and the tuner A Chorus Line (1985) for the big screen, is premiering his stagework Sleeping Ugly, “an adult fairytale about love and lust, longing and belonging, sex and sensibility, parents and pediatrics, and the passion and pain of living with a werewolf,” opening May 6 at Santa Monica Playhouse, helmed by co-artistic director Chris DeCarlo…Back to Hollywood, New American Theatre (formerly Circus Theatricals) is premiering Bedfellows, focusing on a charismatic politician who might have his career sabotaged by a past indiscretion, scripted by screenwriter/playwright Chuck Rose, helmed by artistic director Jack Stehlin, opening Apr 21 at McCadden Place Theatre in Hollywood. Rose and Stehlin previously collaborated on the critically lauded suspense drama Safe (2008)…And Alan Aymie’s premiere one-hander, A Child Left Behind, helmed by Paul Stein, debuts Apr 21 at Beverly Hills Playhouse, also a benefit performance for Jenny McCarthy’s autism charity, Generation Rescue. Having developed the piece within Katselas Theatre Company’s INKubator Series, LAUSD teacher/scripter Aymie chronicles “a compelling and powerful portrait of the daily challenges that teachers face in LA’s (public) schools.”
MORE SEASONS: Building on last year’s record-breaking summer season in Griffith Park, Independent Shakespeare Company (ISC) will offer more than 40 nights of free programming when it returns for its 2012 season. The three-Bard lineup includes: The Winters Tale, helmed by Sanford Robbins (June 30); A Midsummer Night’s Dream (July 5) and A Comedy ofErrors (Aug 2), both helmed by ISC artistic director Melissa Chalsma (who is also Titania in Midsummer). All the action takes place in the Old Zoo area of Griffith Park. In addition to the main stage productions, ISC is offering Players in the Park/Jugamos en el Parque, a bilingual pre-show workshop series for families, funded by the James Irvine Foundation…Producer/thesp Ronnie Marmo (a regular on General Hospital)reveals 68 Cent Crew Theatre Company’s 2012 spring/summer season at Hollywood-based Theatre 68. The lineup includes: Our Lady Of 121st Street, scripted by Stephen Adly Guirgis, helmed by Joe Palese (May 10-June 10); the LA premiere of The Late Henry Moss by Sam Shepard, helmed by Elephant Theatre Company artistic director David Fofi, starring Marmo (June 22-July 29); the premiere of And Where You Are Going (working title), scripted by Emmy nominated Sam Henry Kass (Seinfeld), helmed by Marmo (Aug 3-Sep 2); and the LA premiere of A Brooklyn Love Story, scripted by and starringChiaraMontalto, helmed by Marmo (Sep 7-30)…Sierra Madre Playhouse‘s 2012 season, following a previously announced run of Paul Osborn’s 1939 Broadway hit, Morning’s at Seven that opens Mar 30, continues with Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind, helmed by Christian Lebano (May 25- July 7); Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, helmed by Barbara Schofield (July 20- Sep 8); Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera Ruddigore, helmed by Eugene Hutchins (Sep 21-Nov 10); and A Christmas Carol, adapted and staged by Christina Harris (Nov 23-Dec 23)…
AROUND TOWN: North Hollywood-based Group Rep’s staging of Lee Blessing’s baseball bio drama, Cobb, helmed by Gregg T. Daniel, garnered a rave review from Chris Erskine in the LA Times sports section and is now extended through Apr 21…Two youthful local sopranos will be gracing local stages in major productions. San Diego-born, Cal State Fullerton grad Jacqueline Nguyen stars as Kim as La Mirada Theatre produces Miss Saigon, helmed by Brian Kite, opening Apr 14…And Janai Brugger, a member of LA Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program and a Mar 18 winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, is appearing as Musetta in LA Opera’s La Boheme, May 12…Two Moliere comedies are launching Apr 7 on disparate local stages, both translated by Richard Wilbur. Long Beach Playhouse offers its take on a devious religious hypocrite, Tartuffe, scripted in 1664, helmed by Phyllis Gitlin…In Pasadena, A Noise Within presents The Bungler, “a careening cavalcade of wily servants, dim-witted young lovers and avaricious old men,” scripted in 1665, helmed by ANW producing artistic director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, underscored with an original music/sound design by multi award-winning composer David O…Finally, faux lounge lizard duo Mack & Poppy (the creation of Tod Macofsky and Christopher Michael Graham, respectively) return to Hollywood’s M Bar for one night only, Apr 14″…
THE THING IS: “I had been doing the poetry thing for years, extended narrative pieces, along the way working with people like John Fleck, Scott Kelman and Rachel Rosenthal. Then I got an offer to be an actor in a television series from a big producer, David Milch. He had been a classmate of mine in college, but I didn’t really know him that well. Well, the show didn’t happen; but I suddenly realized that maybe I could do that, be an actor. So, I asked a longtime friend of mine, actor Joe Culp, to direct me and help me develop some of my pieces. This was four years go. Over the next couple of years I did three of these pieces at the Electric Lodge in Venice. They were kind of satirical. Then about two years ago, I did two of my 15-minute pieces at Highways. I met Debra Ehrhardt who was doing an autobiographical one-person show called Jamaica Farewell, which has been bought by Tom Hanks. She liked my work and I asked if we could do something together, which we did at Santa Monica Playhouse. This encouraged me to ask Eric Trules, who teaches performance at USC, to help me develop my work. I started writing with Eric in this class, and he told me one of my short stories, which was autobiographical, had real potential and I should expand on that. I did and that resulted in my one-person show, which became a great success at last year’s Hollywood Fringe. The show focuses on my relationship with a woman back in the ’80s and the crises we faced in our relationship. It was Eric who helped me filter that scenario through my early life, growing up in Florida, and my relationship with my father who was an abusive, alcoholic redneck circuit judge. I am going to be performing it this weekend and again in June. Later this year, I am aiming at a regular run. – Doug Knott, whose one-man Last of the Knotts, helmed by EricTrules, selected “Best of the Hollywood Fringe 2011,” is performing Sunday, Mar 25 (3 pm) at Theatre Asylum & Lab in Hollywood”¦
INSIDE LA STAGE HISTORY: By January 1943, US citizenry come to the sobering realization that WWII is not going well for the Allies, and the war is not ending in the foreseeable near future. During this time, an onslaught of entertainment folk, both domestic and foreign, flock to LA to contribute to the war effort by way of films and radio. A number of them find their way onto a vast array of local stages. When Edwin Lester decides to create LA Civic Light Opera’s first original work, The Song of Norway, based on the life and work of composer Edvard Grieg, Lester is delighted to discover he has the services of legendary Russian dancer/choreographer George Balanchine and dance company-in-exile Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at his disposal. With classically trained thesps from New York and England invading tinseltown, American film actor John Carradine fulfills his dream of creating his own Shakespeare Company, performing title roles in Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet in rep, all hosted by Pasadena Playhouse. Another classically adroit American thesp/amateur magician, Orson Welles, decides to go lowbrow to entertain the troops by creating a tent arena magic show near the Hollywood Canteen, billed as The Mercury Wonder Show for Service Men, enhanced by a slew of celeb assistants, including Rita Hayworth, Joseph Cotten and Marlene Dietrich. Also desiring to extend their performance profiles to live theater in order to provide entertainment for the plethora of Angelenos involved in the war effort, a number of film stars mount productions at now-defunct Musart Theater at 1320 S. Figueroa, including: Jane Eyre, starring Sylvia Sidney and Luther Adler; Blithe Spirit, featuring Clifton Webb, Peggy Wood, Haila Stoddard and Mildred Natwick; and Night Must Fall, featuring Lillian Fontaine, mother of Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland. Following the D-Day invasion of Europe in June 1944, there is a decided mood switch in the US as the tide of battle shifts in the Allies favor. A fitting symbol of Hollywood’s optimism is Moss Hart’s gigantic stage show, Winged Victory, with a cast of 300 servicemen, mostly professional actors, including a number of current and soon-to-be stars, performing at El Capitan Theatre in July 1944, prior to its filming, under the direction of George Cukor…
The Julio Martinez-hosted ARTS IN REVIEW, broadcast Thursdays (2 to 2:30 pm) on KPFK (90.7FM), is on hiatus until June.
Terry Tocantins and Michael Holmes in "Magic Bullet Theory"
As its name suggests, Sacred Fools Theater specializes in irreverence. For its late- night series Serial Killers, every Saturday night, audience members see five short plays and kill off two. The three surviving plays return the next week with new episodes. Last year’s critically acclaimed Watson started off in Serial Killers, as did the company’s newest play The Magic Bullet Theory,co-written by Terry Tocantins and Alex Zola and directed by J.J. Mayes.
The Magic Bullet Theory, however, does not just treat murder as a metaphor for what happens to the “killed off” plays in Serial Killers. It takes off on perhaps the most dissected murder in American history — the assassination of President Kennedy.
Director JJ Mayes; Photo by Amani/Wood
During an hour-long conversation before a weekday evening rehearsal, director Mayes and co-writers Tocantins and Zola discuss their collaborations on The Magic Bullet Theory — collaborations that they describe as integral to the play’s development and final form.Â As the three talk about the play and sip coffee in the theater’s dressing room, their gestures and sentences overlap.
Serial Killers host Tocantinsand its co-producer Mayesemphasize that the success of the series depends upon actors’ and directors’ willingness to repeatedly fail in front of and seek inspiration from one another.Â This willingness allowed them to transform The Magic Bullet Theory from a blog post to a full-length play. They argue that the surreal dark comedy that resulted from this collaboration more respectfully represents the assassination than more linear narratives, such as Oliver Stone’s JFK.
From Blog to Stage
Playful experimentation has characterized Zola’s and Tocantins’ collaborations since they met more than 20 years ago. As NYU students, they played together in a band called White Noise. “Which pretty much described the sound we made,” explains Zola, who started his writing career as a music critic for Spin. “We didn’t have a drummer. We had a guy who played garbage cans.” Although their latest collaboration does not have a garbage can percussionist, The Magic Bullet Theory does include equally surprising elements, such as President Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy crawling out of a television set to torture Kennedy’s accidental assassin Charlie, played by Tocantins.
Writer Alex Zola; Photo by Amani/Wood
The play’s evolution has depended upon collaboration at every stage of its development. It started off as installments for a novella that Zola posted on his blog, The Zola System. When Tocantins read the posts, he thought they would make great Serial Killers episodes. Neither of them had written a play, but they pooled their talents as creative writer and actor to create two episodes for Serial Killers, both of which Mayes directed. Although the audience killed The Magic Bullet Theory after its second episode, several company members encouraged the triad to turn it into a full-length play.
The first draft emerged from a two-day writing jam session between Tocantins and Zola in Zola’s Phoenix apartment. Following advice from LA playwright Erik Patterson, they pushed one another toÂ “write about the thing that scares the hell out of you.” Because they know each other well and enjoy challenging one another, they could write quickly without censoring themselves.
The two also knew that their director would find and stage the play’s arc by actively collaborating with them and with the cast and crew. Tocantins, from his previous experience with Mayes, repeatedly remarks how he enjoys handing the director challenges: “The fun thing about working with J.J. is that we can write something surreal and kind of schizophrenic, and once we give it to him, when he throws the actors on stage, he can turn that schizophrenic thing into something that has its own loopy arc to it.”Â Tocantins and Mayes take turns recalling a favorite moment from rehearsal when Mayes asked Marz Richards, who plays Jack Ruby, to provide 30 more seconds of material:
Writer, Actor Terry Tocantins; Photo by Amani/Wood
Tocantins starts the story, “J.J. goes ““ dude, I need you to do something for 30 seconds between the chick exiting and then Charlie entering”“”
Mayes interjects, “and it needs to demonstrate Jack Ruby’s temperament.”
Tocantins finishes the story, “And Marz Richards, this wonderful actor that we have, boom, improvises four different scenes, in four different styles, four different gags, all of them are brilliant, and it’s just about him yelling at the bartender for slicing the limes the incorrect width. It’s something we would never have come up with in the writer room.”
Mayes also hands puzzles like these to the crew. When faced with the problem of how to stage a play with multiple settings and a character coming out of a television screen, he gave set designer David Knutson a single word to guide him –Â “gears.” Knutson returned four days later with seven different designs.
This collaboration has yielded a surreal dark comedy that explores the chaos wrought by the Kennedy assassination as well as the accidental nature of life. Zola points to Terry Southern’s Dr. Strangelove as their model: “I would like to think that we did to the Kennedy assassination what Terry Southern did to nuclear war with Dr. Strangelove.” Mayes emphasizes that the play’s surreal spectacles, such as its dream ballet, all serve a purpose. The closing musical number, for instance, illustrates the internal confusion experienced by Charlie before he shoots a judge:
Terry Tocantins and Michael Holmes
“It’s a giant spectacle, but it’s not that we just needed a song and dance — how do we demonstrate how much crazy stuff is going on in his head? How do you do that on a stage and make it interesting and not make it us telling you that? You take every character in the play and you blow out a giant musical number that uses every inch of the theater, and then you shrink it all back and fire a shot. So the spectacle is what allows us to move the narrative.”
The play’s surrealism not only represents the killer’s internal confusion but also the chaos that engulfed the nation after the assassination. Mayes recounts the responses to the play from two company members, who were alive during and remember Kennedy’s assassination, in order to illustrate the experience that he thinks the play provides:
“When we did one of our first readings, Ruth Silveira and Leon Russom, who remember the assassination, they were like — ‘what’s really wonderful is that this isn’t telling the story of the assassination so much as it’s describing how it felt to live through it. This is what happens to the American public. This is what it felt like — this kind of chaos and confusion, not knowing where to look or who to look to, not knowing how to tell the story or not knowing how you feel, the chaos that you felt within but couldn’t describe.That’s why the show works’.”
Terry Tocantins and CJ Merriman
For Tocantins, the transformation that the assassination wrought requires this surreal approach: “It was a vortex and any kind of vortex is going to be out-of-this-world surreal. We did go through a looking glass; we’re trying to earn the surrealism with some sort of moral center, because there was an act of violence and the consequences were never fairly doled out.” In The Magic Bullet Theory, this vortex results from a series of accidents rather than an organized plot to kill President Kennedy.
For this director-writer team, imagining that a series of accidents led to President Kennedy’s assassination points to the source of life’s real tragedies. Tocantins explains that although people love stories about premeditated and well-orchestrated plots to kill the president, these stories hide the real tragedy: “Life is accidental and chaotic. People fall out of love with you and they leave and they leave you alone and you take drugs and then you’re supposed to do a prank and you end up killing a man — that’s the tragedy. This particular character killed a president because his love life was upside down.”
Mayes argues that the play illustrates how small accidents can build into disasters — a process that he believes audience members will recognize from their own lives.
Terry Tocantins and Marz Richards
The three men’s goal for the play parallels how Mayes describesÂ Sacred Fools Theater’s ethos. They hope the play strips away audience members’ existing stories about the assassination and allows them to feel the human tragedy of Kennedy’s murder. The company similarly expects its members to leave their egos outside the theater so they can interact openly with one another and with the dramatic material.
To illustrate this, Mayes tells a story about an experienced company member’s response to a new member’s bragging. He took the newcomer out to the sidewalk and said, “Out here you can talk about anything you’ve done. In there, you’re just another fool. That’s the mentality that exists here. There’s nobody above doing anything. Amazing things get created here that I don’t think can exist other places.”
The Magic Bullet Theory presented by Sacred Fools Theater. Opens March 23. Plays Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun. April 15 7 pm and 22 2 pm. Through April 28. Tickets: $20. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., LA. www.sacredfools.org. 310-281-8337.
***All The Magic Bullet Theory production photos by Andrew Amani
Alison M. Hills, Ph.D. is a playwright, essayist, and dramaturge. Her plays have been produced at Stanford University and UCLA, where they won playwriting competitions. She wrote and performed a piece for an LA production of Expressing Motherhood.Â She co-produces A.L.A.P’s (Alliance of L.A. Playwrights) New Works Lab with local L.A. theaters.
At first sight, Waiting for Godot looks simple. It’s the story of two men, Vladimir and Estragon, on a country road by a small tree, waiting for a man.Â They don’t know for certain if he will come.Â They don’t even know what he looks like, or what he does.Â They know they will wait for him to arrive.Â But in fact Godot is one of the most challenging classics of the 20th century.Â It tackles themes of memory, existence, friendship, and asks, what exactly are we waiting for?
Premiering in France in 1953, Godot (pronounced GOD-oh) bent and twisted the rules of drama and provided more questions than answers.Â Los Angeles theatergoers will again be able to ask those questions along with Vladimir and Estragon, as Samuel Beckett’s most famous play arrives at the Mark Taper Forum tonight.Â The production stars Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern as Estragon and Vladimir, with Academy Award nominee James Cromwell as the cruel Pozzo, Hugo Armstrong as the unlucky Lucky and LJ Benet as the Boy, directed by Michael Arabian.
Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern in "Waiting for Godot"
A bare stage is made to look like a beaten dirt road, with a single tree, a rock to sit on, and a projection of the horizon. Other than that, it’s all about the sharpest tools a playwright can have — actors delivering amazing text.
Although Beckett was born and raised in Ireland, he lived most of his adult life in France.Â An early disciple of James Joyce, he first began as a novelist.Â Realizing he would never be able to eclipse his mentor, Beckett turned to writing plays.Â Godot was the first to be produced, and it was written in French (Beckett would often write in French and do his own English translations).Â He continued to push the rules of drama, stripping his work to, well, almost nothing at times.
Over a dinner break, just before previews begin, two of the actors, Mandell and Armstrong, along with director Arabian, sit down to discuss their experiences as they explore the complex themes in this funny and heartbreaking play.
Stand Up Until I Embrace You
Alan Mandell as Nagg in the 1991 San Quentin Drama Workshop's production of "Endgame"
Of the three, Mandell (Estragon) has the longest association with the play and with Beckett himself.Â He toured Europe in productions of Godot and Endgame, directed by Beckett, continuing to work with him for several decades.Â A fixture on both Los Angeles and New York stages, Mandell has been seen here in many plays — among them, The Cherry Orchard at the Taper, Twelve Angry Men, Trying and No Man’s Land, winning Ovation Awards for the latter two. At 84 years old, he’s still sharp, with piercing blue eyes, a cunning sense of humor, and a voice of a master actor.
His first encounter with Godot might not be what you would expect from this Beckett scholar.Â “I hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was about,” he recalls. This was in 1957.Â Mandell was working at the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop as general manager, actor, and director. “Whatever title you named, that’s the title I was,” he says slyly.Â Herb Blau, who was a producing artistic director with Jules Irving, sent a package home from Europe.
Mandell opened it up and inside along with the play was a note, saying, “”¦. this is a play we’re going to do, this is really special.”Â Mandell and the secretary of the company began to read it. Â “I laughed a little.Â She laughed a little.Â We kept reading.”Â He shrugs as he tells the story.Â “It made no sense to me, reading it.”Â At the time, he decided it would be best to wait for Blau to return.Â Unlike Godot, Blau showed up. The company did a reading of the play.Â “As it began to happen, it suddenly began to get more and more exciting, revealed.”
Alan Mandell and Hugo Armstrong
Hugo Armstrong (Lucky) is a familiar face in the Los Angeles theater scene, having appeared in plays at the Geffen Playhouse and Sacred Fools.Â He received an Ovation Award and an LA Drama Critics Circle Award for Land of the Tigers with Burglars of Hamm.Â With his bald head, thick bead, and great height, he cuts an imposing figure.Â But his easy smile dispels that quickly.Â He chuckles when he thinks about his first time with Waiting for Godot.Â It was in high school.Â It was not an experience he treasured.Â “Having to read it in high school was like making a prisoner read about prison while he was in prison.”
While perhaps not the best of experiences, Armstrong did recognize something in the play that was different.Â The turning point came years later, when he had an opportunity to see the play.Â “Barry (McGovern) was actually in the show.”Â And while not initially interested, Armstrong was glad he went.Â “I thought it was amazing.Â Seeing people really do it.”Â He quickly fell for the theatrical poetry of the script.
Michael Arabian returns to the Taper, having directed Albee’s The Sandbox, Pinter’s A Slight Ache, and Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape there in the 50/60 Vision festival in 1990.Â This is his first time taking on Godot.Â His first contact with the play came in the form of a production he saw while he was in college.Â After a diet of mostly musicals and Shakespeare, for Arabian, what he saw was a revelation. How the play combined the visual with the text showed him another way to do theater.Â “That the visual aspect of it was a major part of the storytelling.Â That was very exciting to me.”Â And the writing?Â “That there was still all the aspect of the human condition being revealed through this unique poetic level of writing was startling.”
So There You Are Again
Alan Mandell, Barry McGovern, Hugo Armstrong and James Cromwell
For decades, Mandell played Lucky, Pozzo’s slave, in some of the play’s most famous productions, including two for San Quentin prisoners.Â Now, he has finally been promoted to the role of Estragon.Â But even for this experienced actor, it has proven to be quite a challenge.Â He shakes his head, “It’s the repetition.Â It’s just maddening.Â Because of that, you need an enormous amount of time in rehearsal, just to keep going over and over.”Â The language of the play is circular, and the main characters often find themselves right where they started.Â Mandell, thinking about the work he will do later, puts his head in his hands.Â “I keep working on it, I can’t think of anything else.Â These lines.”
Armstrong agrees.Â “It’s almost like you travel all the way around the entire earth to stand in exactly the same spot you stood in originally.Â And you’re looking at the same thing, but you have a totally new understanding of it.”
He recalls a time when he found himself playing out Godot in real life.Â While he was having the oil in his car changed, he sat, waiting.Â He wasn’t watching the TV or reading the magazines.Â And another man was waiting.Â “We just happened to sorta glance at each other.Â And almost simultaneously”¦”Â They both shrug together, unprompted.Â “And that’s it.Â That’s two human beings.”
Hugo Armstrong and James Cromwell
Arabian picks up this thread, and talks about what he focused on while directing –Â “revealing human condition through real character and behavior.”Â He wanted to understand the fears, and the goals of the characters, and understand how they cope with being where they are.Â But this isn’t a gloomy play — far from it, Arabian assures.Â “All these major themes the play is exploring and revealing, it’s done through a tremendous amount of humor.”Â There’s a streak of vaudeville in the play that he says the actors have fun doing.
When asked about Beckett’s work being Irish, Mandell simply responds, “Yes.”Â Following a perfectly timed pause, he leans forward, “You’re supposed to say, expand.”Â And there’s laughter around the table.Â Mandell quotes a line from the play, “’Don’t let’s do anything,’ it’s almost hard not to do it with an Irish accent.Â When I hear Barry, it’s like music.”Â Arabian nods, “We’re all trying to get a sense of the music.”Â All of them agree, there’s something about the rhythm and pace of the Irish dialect.Â One can hear it in the production, how strands of dialogue bounce and weave into patter.
As Mandell describes Beckett’s voice, with its cadence and lyrical quality, Arabian chimes in, “You do a great version of Beckett.”Â And so he does. He slips into a memory, and with a slight Irish lilt, he speaks as Beckett , “Well, Alan, how are you?Â Things are well, are they?”
The conversation circles around, back to the lines.Â Armstrong says about them, “They kind of make you nutty.”Â Mandell offers some consolation to Armstrong regarding the role of Lucky.Â “The one thing is, if you’ve learned that speech, you’ll never forget it.Â And two, anything else you have to learn will be easy.Â As long as you do it before you’re 80.Â After 80 it gets harder.”
But Armstrong has a plan. “I’m going to start a recovery group for people who’ve played Lucky, if you want to join.”
Mr. Godot Told Me To Tell You He Won’t Come This Evening, But Surely Tomorrow
The question that always lingers, the one that everyone always wants answered: who is Godot?Â Who are they waiting for?Â A murmur in the room.Â Mandell is the first to chime in with an answer:Â “You want to tell me what you’re waiting for?”Â Some chuckling around the table.Â Not only does the play ask questions, but so do the actors. Mandell doesn’t want to answer the question.Â Instead, he tells the story of returning home, after working with Beckett.Â A professor asked him what he had worked on.Â Mandell said, Waiting for Godot (God-oh).Â The professor asked, not recognizing the pronunciation, why do you call it that?Â Mandell told him, that is how Beckett pronounced the play.Â Mandell, taking on the role of the professor, a “eureka!” look passing over his face: “He calls it, God-oh?Â I’ve got it.”Â And the professor ran off.
Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern
As far as where the name came from, and its particular pronunciation, Mandell, putting on his Beckett scholar hat, brings up the director of the very first production, Roger Blin, who suggested the name Godot came from the French word godillot, slang for boot.Â Of course, when he had the chance, Mandell asked the man himself.Â With a twinkle in his eye, Mandell slips into his imitation of Beckett, complete with hands and gesture, “Well, in the South of France, it’s not an uncommon name.Â People spelled it differently.”
For Armstrong, he’s not sure if there is an answer for who or what they are waiting for.Â And he’s not sure if it matters.Â “In the best sense.Â In the most freeing and most giving and kindest sense.”
It’s the themes of the play that capture Arabian’s attention.Â The play is one of hope and survival.Â Even though Vladimir and Estragon keep suffering, “They keep persevering, they don’t give up.”Â Compared to the history of the earth, humanity’s time has been brief.Â “Existence doesn’t really matter, except for us now.”Â Because tomorrow we might be forgotten.
Barry McGovern, Alan Mandell, Hugo Armstrong and James Cromwell
Armstrong weighs in, “Yes, time is relative, but also memory is relative.Â And they walk hand in hand.”Â Arabian points out his belief that the Boy who visits Vladimir and Estragon just might be a memory.Â In production, the boy wears all white and calls out to the waiting men.
Mandell seems ready to answer.Â “Do you know Endgame?” Beckett’s other great classic.Â He pauses.Â The room becomes quiet.Â He quotes, “Something is taking its course.”Â Silence.Â “That is as much as I believe.”Â And with that, they go.
Waiting for Godot, presented by Center Theatre Group. Opens March 21. Â Plays Tues.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 2:30 pm and 8 pm; Sun. 1:00 and 6:30 pm. Through April 22. Tickets: $30-65. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90012.Â Visit www.centertheatregroup.org, the Taper box office or call 213-628-2772.
***All Waiting for Godot production photos by Craig Schwartz
Larry Pontius is a playwright and screenwriter, whose theater work includes multiple New York productions, produced plays in Chicago and throughout the Midwest.Â As a television writer, Pontius’s work has been mostly seen in Pakistan, as the writer of Qaatil, Pakistan’s first TV thriller, and international drama seriesÂ Neeyat, a drama set in New York City.Â For more information, please go to www.LPontius.com