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LA Stage Times

Todd Robbins’ Invitation to Play Dead

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | November 19, 2013
Todd Robbins in "Play Dead." Photo by Michael Lamont.

Todd Robbins in “Play Dead.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

Outside the walls of the Founders Room at the Geffen Playhouse, high-screeched whirring from an electric circular saw cuts through the air. “Don’t worry,” shouts magician Todd Robbins, wearing a blue pin-striped suit, sans the chameleon silk handkerchief often used in magic. “We’re testing out a new act on one of our actors.” A wicked sense of humor exudes from the performer/co-creator of Play Dead, which opens Wednesday at the Geffen’s smaller space, Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater.

Drawn to character and the con

A hoarse cough emits from the illusionist. He gestures apologetically and pops a mint into his mouth. “I’ve been swallowing swords all week at the Magic Castle.” Like magic, the cough disappears.

“It’s good to be home,” remarks Robbins. “I’m a California native. I grew up in a suburban area of Long Beach — new, clean, safe, quiet, peaceful. It was everything my parents wanted. They had grown up during the Depression and went through World War II. There was a lot of uncertainty in the world, so when you come out of that, you get the 1950s. ‘We want vanilla. We want everything nice.’”

Teller and Todd Robbins

Teller and Todd Robbins

“As a child, for me, it was all about expansion, discovering new things. I was always kind of a watcher, a pull-back kid, processing things, thinking quite a bit. I loved coming to downtown Long Beach and seeing the old buildings and architecture, wondering where these things came from.”

With a warm smile of recollection, Robbins describes his fascination with all things with “character.”

“There was The Pike; an old amusement park from around the turn of the century. By the time I was old enough to go (in the 1960s), it was, ‘You do not go down there! Good people don’t go to The Pike!’ It’s true. It was a seedy place.”

“And of course I went to The Pike,” he chortles. “It was great. It was glorious. It had character!”

In the neighborhood of his youth, a magic shop opened in a nearby, rundown strip mall. All of 10 years old, Robbins curiously walked through its door — a decision that affected his life to this very day in unimaginable ways. With bated breath, he describes the experience.

“The shelves were filled with apparatus specifically designed to deceive the senses and create the illusion of an alternative reality. On Saturday afternoons, I took magic lessons. Afterwards, I’d hang out and talk with the magicians who would use it kind of like a clubhouse.”

“They would sit in the front room chain-smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes, doing card tricks with each other and swapping lies. I’d ask them about their stories and the history of magic. These were guys who had worked vaudeville and were crusty. Like old war horses, every scar they had, they earned. It was exciting!”

Todd Robbins

Todd Robbins

Taken with his new-found friends and the world of magic, a few years later Robbins became the first Junior Member of the famous Magic Castle.

At 16, the full-of-beans youngster then decided to create spooky mayhem in the lives of his high school friends. On Friday nights under a full moon and with flashlight in hand, Robbins would lead the teenagers to the Long Beach Municipal Cemetery.

“I found out the main gate at the cemetery was never locked. Cemetery plots and mausoleums with famous families went back over 100 years. One tomb was sort of built into the hillside with a perfect little stage. I’d set the tone telling stories about the people buried there and the strange things that had happened. My friends would grab each other, terrified, getting wigged out, with screams followed by laughter. Then other sounds.”

With a wry grin and mischievous twinkle in his eye, Robbins leans in. “As we say in the show [Play Dead], ‘You’re never so alive as when you’re scared to death. There’s nothing more arousing than an unholy resurrection.’”

Trial by magic

After graduating from college with a theater degree — “a great, useful degree,” avows Robbins with raised eyebrow — he journeyed north to study at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

“I needed more training. Early on we were assigned scene partners; mine was a lovely young lady. We hit it off and became very good friends. Her name is Annette Bening. And she’ll be coming here in a few months [at the Geffen in Ruth Draper's Monologues].”

After graduating from ACT, Robbins moved to New York City. “I knew New York was the center of live entertainment, even though it wasn’t what it once was. I got there and made the rounds.”

Robbins grimaces as he reflects on a rocky start. “I was auditioning for people I didn’t like who had pretensions of high art that was no better than bad community theater. I found it all very dubious. I did a few readings, a couple of small shows in basement spaces, which was all kind of fun but it wasn’t paying the rent.”

“At that time the comedy boom began, and it was a seller’s market. An emcee would do comedy along with a headliner, and oft times the middle act at 20-25 minutes was a juggler, variety artist, or…,” pointing to himself with flair, “a magician.”

Todd Robbins

Todd Robbins

“It helped kick off a new vaudeville movement and establish performers like Bill Irwin and Penn & Teller. There was also the college market which was great. I went out with a comedy/magic act, made a decent living, and couldn’t take time off to do these little off-off-off-off-Broadway shows. I actually became a better performer using my training as an actor.”

Then another creative opportunity arose to further incorporate his magical talents. In 1992, Robbins joined up with the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. “I took all of the wonderful skills I had learned as a kid, and put them in their natural habitat of an amusement park sideshow that had all but vanished: swallowing swords, eating fire, hammering nails in my nose, doing all those great, classic acts from old-timers of character.”

Shortly, he became involved with the award-winning, not-for-profit Big Apple Circus, utilizing traditional magic tricks to bring joy to hospitalized children. “Not eating glass or hammering nails,” stresses Robbins. In addition to being a ringmaster at corporate events, the born showman participated in a touring show for two years. It was on that leg of his life’s journey when he realized, “I needed to get back in the theater.”

Re-entering the theater

With the know-how of the circus and carnival sideshows, Robbins mounted Carnival Knowledge for its Off-Broadway premiere at the Soho Playhouse in 2003. Critical reviews were mixed; however, audiences were entertained. The show ran for two years and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award.

After the success of Carnival Knowledge, Robbins was drawn to create a séance show. “I knew the history of the field, with all the tricks of the trade built upon fraud and illusion.” In 2005 at the New York International Fringe Festival, Dark Deceptions was presented. Robbins decided to fine-tune the show, re-titling it The Charlatan’s Séance, which was performed in 2007 at the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, New Jersey.

Todd Robbins

Todd Robbins

He still wasn’t satisfied. “It was fun but it was a little narrow in scope.” Then came along producer Alan Schuster, best known for the invigorating Stomp. He optioned Robbins’ show, but he also told the performer that he needed a director.

The magician agreed. He had done everything himself up to this point. The search for a director began, which was extremely trying, says Robbins.

“We got a lot of snobbery thrown our way. A lot of snobbery along the lines of ‘You’re doing a magic show. I do thea-tah. When I do a play, it cures cancer.’ That kind of pretension.” The received response didn’t deter Schuster. “It didn’t bother him one bit. But he couldn’t find anyone who understood the material. Alan then asked me, ‘Is there anyone you’re interested in?’”

Robbins had an ace up his sleeve, for he had known the illusionist Teller for many years. The non-speaking half of the duo Penn & Teller saw the show, agreed with Robbins’ assessment and stated his interest to direct. Robbins recalls further conversation with Schuster.

“We have a director ready to sign.” “Who is it?” “Teller.” “Teller? Does he talk?” “Yes, he talks, and when he does, we listen.” “Great!”

In Las Vegas, Robbins and Teller started with a blank slate. “Teller told me, ‘Let’s put everything you’ve done and everything Penn and I have done off to the side. Let’s think about what we’d like to put on the stage.’” All ideas were open for discussion but without the prerequisite of known tricks.

“The thing of a trick that exists and figuring out a presentation is very much like buying a suit off the rack and having it tailored. Instead, go to the tailor who knows what they’re doing and have something truly custom-fit.”

With that philosophy, veteran magician Johnny Thompson was brought into the mix. “It’s kind of a hackneyed thing to call him ‘the Yoda of Magic,’ but Johnny is. He’s the go-to-guy, having done magic for over 50 years. So we came up with all these things we wanted to see on the stage, and then threw them to Johnny. We brain-trusted the whole thing between the three of us, along with the wonderful Thom Rubino [illusions engineer]. The end result was we could do anything we wanted.”

What doesn’t kill you…

Todd Robbins

Todd Robbins

In September 2010, Play Dead had two weeks of workshop performances in Las Vegas. Two months later it opened Off-Broadway at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village. Death was invited to come out and play, which it did for a 10-month run. Another Drama Desk nomination followed for “Unique Theatrical Experience.”

Within the framework of a suspenseful, entertaining show, Robbins and Teller chose to create an interactive 3-D production: with the 3 D’s as Death, Darkness and Deception. Upon entering the theater, the thematic impact resonates. File boxes rest on the stage, but not just any file boxes. “These boxes each have a name on them, and in each of them are items from people’s lives; people who had their lives defined by their relationship with death.”

“This includes Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy; Ed Gein, one of the most horrific serial killers ever and the inspiration for Norman Bates, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs; William Castle, the delightfully cheesy horror filmmaker of the 1950s with Shock-a-Vision and The Tingler; to Dorothy Bembridge, a friend of mine who was the most devoutly religious woman I had ever met, who knew every word of the King James Bible by heart and spent her near 90 years in a relationship with God understanding what was coming after she left this realm.”

Robbins mentions the conjuring up of disreputable spirits during the show. Among those materialized are Mina “Margery” Crandon, the Boston socialite who held orgiastic séances raising more than the dead, as well as cannibalistic serial killer Albert Fish, the “Brooklyn Vampire.” Robbins cleverly adds depth to the meaning of a “dark” show with a throwback to the Spook Shows from the 1930s to 1970s.

“These magicians back in the day, after the main feature [film] was over, would do an hour of spooky magic onstage. They would finish off with ‘It’s the Witching Hour! It’s amazing what’s going to happen. Ghosts and ghouls will reach out and grab you.’ As he’s saying this, the Frankenstein monster would come towards him. The magician would yell, ‘No! Not me! Them!’ The monster would turn toward the audience and walk up to the footlights where flash pots would shoot off. Then absolute darkness. All hell would break loose.”

When asked if the Play Dead audience will be plunged into darkness, the charismatic Robbins replies with devilish relish. “Yesssssss.” His Long Beach graveyard antics from almost four decades ago are back.

Todd Robbins

Todd Robbins

Audience participation is a key element. Robbins emphatically states, “There are no audience ‘plants.’ Everyone who comes onstage is because I’ve looked at them a split second before saying, ‘Come with me.’ It’s amazing what people will do when you ask them nicely. …Even when killing them. It’s a show about death. You’ve got to kill at least one person.”

Like a sideshow carnival barker, Robbins offers a final pitch as to why audiences should flock to see Play Dead. “If people will come out of their tech-haven homes, we guarantee them an experience that will be the best way they can spend 75 minutes of their life. They will walk out of the Geffen Playhouse alive because they spent 75 minutes playing with Death.”

“It’s akin to the roller coaster ride where you scream and then you laugh. That’s what we’re going for — in equal measures. You will be terrified and love it!”

Play Dead, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood 90024. Opens Wednesday. Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Also Mon Nov 25, 8 pm. Dark on Thanksgiving Day. Through December 22. Tickets: $57-$87. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.

**All Play Dead production photos by Michael Lamont.

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LA Stage Times

Steve Julian Asks, What Kind of God?

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | September 13, 2013
Robert Keasler and Brett Donaldson in "What Kind of God." Photo by Ted Augustyn.

Robert Keasler and Brett Donaldson in “What Kind of God?” Photo by Ted Augustyn.

On a rather toasty summer Saturday before the load-in begins for the premiere of Steve Julian‘s What Kind of God?, the refreshing cool air inside Elephant Stages’ Lillian Theatre beckons. Director Aaron Lyons crushes the butt of his unfinished cigarette on the “could fry an egg” sizzling sidewalk and ambles into the warehouse-like space to sit onstage between Julian and actor/producer Robert Keasler. The exposed brick walls behind the creative trio lend an artistic touch to what Julian and his team wish to also expose — the price of silence.

Altarcations at the Fringe Leads to God

Since 2010, art without barriers has been celebrated in the non-curated Hollywood Fringe Festival – where artists generally self-produce their staged work. Julian (an award-winning radio host of “Morning Edition” on NPR affiliate 89.3 KPCC and a frequent contributor to LA STAGE Times) took an entrepreneurial risk in 2012 when he helped raise $4,000 to produce his play, Altarcations.

Developed through Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA playwrights group, Altarcations was Julian’s first full-length play. “I’ve done a ton of one-acts through Drama West Productions, although I’ve written many other full-length plays that haven’t seen the light of day. That’s normal; part of the warm-up. Right?” A relaxed Julian chuckles to himself, almost all-knowing from his years of persistent writing.

Steve Julian and Aaron Lyons

Steve Julian and Aaron Lyons

Addressing the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, Altarcations ran for six sold-out performances. Only after it opened did Julian, who also directed the piece, see flaws in his work. Although he didn’t want to completely walk from it, Julian confesses, “I had to step away, emotionally — to cleanse myself after that run. There were things I was embarrassed by: some of the dialogue, some of the sets, the number of scenes.” But as time passed after its last performance, Julian felt the story fervently tug at his heart and soul.

Keasler, who portrayed Father Bart in the short run at the Fringe Festival and will reprise his role, remembers audience members were genuinely moved. Recalling his own response when he first read the script, “it terrified me in a way that made me pay attention,” he says.

A smile of appreciation radiates from Julian, who remarks, “I would see reactions, hear reactions during performances, so I knew people were connecting with the characters, with the story, with certain lines being said.”

Shortly thereafter, when the dust settled from the Fringe Festival, Keasler approached Julian about the possibility of a fully-realized production. “I really wanted to do it again. It resonated with me in a really personal way, on a number of levels.” Their conversation elicited ideas to strengthen the work along with an important self-realization for Julian.

“I went to EST and said, ‘Okay I want to look at this play again’” — but with a clear creative separation between director and writer. Julian says he knew, “I was not going to direct again. No way. No way. No way. I will never direct my own writing again. …At least this time.” The playwright emits a broad laugh that echoes in the theater. But while Julian won’t direct this time, he will don a second creative hat in the production — portraying Bishop Michael.

The clean-cut Keasler points out that the rewrite, which incorporates dark humor, “got deeper. The characters are richer and more nuanced.”

Steve Julian and Robert Keasler

Steve Julian and Brett Donaldson

To which the tousled-haired Hollywood Fringe veteran Lyons responds, “It’s a challenging piece — a piece that requires dialogue. What Kind of God? scared me because of the conversations involved, the assumptions involved, the sheer scale of it.”

“Everyone knows these five people [in the play], whether they know it or not,” declares Keasler. “That’s the beauty and tragedy of this story. It is so human and all too common. These five characters represent tens of thousands who have not or cannot tell their stories.”

Stories of the faithful who have been silenced.

Reverse Trajectory

A reverse trajectory of connection over a span of nearly five decades inspired Julian to write his play.

On February 21, 2011, the New York Times published “Los Angeles Archdiocese to Dismiss Priest Over Admission of Molesting Girl,” by Jennifer Medina. While similar situations have been all too common, when Julian was made aware of Medina’s article, it had gut-wrenching significance for him. The dismissed Roman Catholic priest, Father Martin P. O’Loghlen, was his high school principal.

Julian harks back to his religious and educational upbringing when he was a self-described “born-again Christian.”

“I grew up in parochial school — K through 8 at two Lutheran schools and then an all-boys Catholic high school. My mom took me to church every single Sunday until I was old enough to drive. Among my ‘saved’ peers in high school, there were just a few of us who were non-Catholic. We would talk religion and Christianity and the ways of the world. It was a heady, tough time. A sorting out of feelings, trying to understand what was meant by what can be.”

Emily Faris and Brett Donaldson

Emily Faris and Brett Donaldson

In 1976 at Damien High in La Verne, Julian was the editor of his school’s paper, The Laconian. When an op-ed piece crossed Julian’s desk, he cleverly titled it “Mass-O-Chist” since it was a protest of all students having to attend mandatory weekly mass during school hours, regardless of one’s religious point of view. O’Loghlen wasn’t amused by what he described as the “blasphemous article and its title,” according to Julian.

The furious principal quickly removed Julian from the editor’s position, and his high school graduation was put in jeopardy. “He silenced me,” says the playwright, grimacing. “My integrity had been attacked.”

Medina’s investigative story revealed O’Loghlen had his own issues of integrity — 10 years before Julian’s near-expulsion. In the mid-1960s, while a principal at another school, O’Loghlen had “a long-term sexual relationship” with one of his students, a teenage girl.

The ongoing sexual relationship came to light in the mid-1990s when O’Loghlen tried to contact his former female student, who was then in her 40s. Wanting nothing to do with the priest, she filed a complaint with the church and later filed a lawsuit against the priest and his religious order.  Although his duties were briefly restricted, O’Loghlen was not removed from the archdiocese. In fact, the priest later served on a sexual abuse advisory board.

Only after the Times article appeared in 2011 was the priest removed from his parish, then in San Dimas.

“That is what set my play into motion,” Julian says.

A Balancing Act with Consequences

As often happens with teenagers after high school graduation, Julian drifted away from the church. “I still consider myself spiritual. I am still religious. I would typically go [to church] based on who I was dating…or married to.”

Julian’s humorous timing triggers a hearty chortle from Lyons. With a grin like a Cheshire cat, the personable playwright continues. “Honestly I still feel this connection to God. I don’t disbelieve. How much, though, I do believe — I’m not sure.”

Yet the God of Julian’s youth still has an impassioned hold on him. “I think I’ve always been trying to figure out, to strike this balance between the childlike, almighty God who lives in the heavens where it’s purple and alabaster, with the fire-and-brimstone God I was taught as a child, with the God who let my wife die in 1992.”

Emily Faris and Brett Donaldson

Emily Faris and Brett Donaldson

The pain of remembrance with the balancing act of “what kind of God” is evident as it crosses Julian’s face. “It’s a daily struggle. I think about it. I’ve worked some of my own questions and doubts into the script.”

Director Lyons adds his own testimony. “Until I read [the play], I had forgotten about my interests in becoming a priest. The church had been a huge part of my life. Grade school through high school was the first time I felt I belonged somewhere, the first time I had structure, the first time I had a weekly family. I was an only child with a single, divorced mom who worked several jobs.”

“The first time I felt a sense of belonging and purpose was being an altar boy, which led to Eucharistic minister, to reader, to youth camp. In high school, though, I began to believe in theater more. I found a lot of my love of Mass was that theatricality and how much it meant to the people, but not how much it meant to me. I started to doubt the teachings of the church.”

Julian’s play deals with more than just doubts. He shares concern about the consequences of what happens when power and trust are in the hands of the wrong people. “We put people in power without a) understanding what they are capable of, or b) embracing what they are capable of.”

In relation to the sex abuse crisis? “Countless victims are manipulated, abused. They’re told it’s their problem, not the problem of their abusers. Those in power who do nothing are then silencing those who have been harmed.” The repercussions of this silence ripple, with a heavy price to be paid. What kind of God allows this to happen?

In a recent blog postThis Play Is Not Pretty,” Julian wrote, “What kind of God lets one person silence another? Physical harm aside, it is a heinous, endemic act. I believe the answer lies not in the God above, but in the godly assignation we give to certain pastors and teachers, coaches and scout leaders, and so many others who stand on pedestals.” Between belief and trust lies a deep chasm.

Steve Julian and Robert Keasler

Steve Julian and Robert Keasler

While delving into the consequences of victims being silenced, Julian’s play also explores teen sexual identity and sexual orientation. And forgiveness, Julian adds — “I was very curious about the levels at which people forgive, or don’t. How much do we permit before we become judgmental?”

“I think it’s natural for an audience to see things develop and unfold, and assume they know how guilty somebody is — whether it’s the priest, the bishop, the boy, the girl, the boy’s aunt.”

“There are so many turns in this play,” stresses Lyons. “I had this one color when reading the script and it slowly started to shift to gray. I was totally wrong, and I love when I’m wrong.”

Keasler adds, “The audience is going to make assumptions and judgments and find out they were completely wrong. If we’re doing our job, they’re going to be complicit. That will hopefully move the dialogue forward and spur people into action — outside the theater.”

The price of silence by those in power is the thread Julian plans to follow in his planned trilogy of plays, presented under the new social awareness campaign Silence No One. His second piece will focus on the cost of silencing sexual abuse against women and men in the US military.

Julian places meaningful outreach above personal rewards. He has decided to waive all royalties through 2014 for any theater company in the world that wishes to produce What Kind of God?.

“I don’t want this to be about the money,” he says. “The point is to drive social awareness.” And give voice to those who have been silenced.

What Kind of God?, Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood 90038. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Through October 20. Tickets: $23; Thursday shows “tithe-what-you-can.” www.whatkindofgodtheplay.com. 323-960-7787.

**All What Kind of God? production photos by Ted Augustyn.

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LA Stage Times

Going the Distance with Ron Eldard

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | April 9, 2013
Bill Smitrovich and Ron Eldard and in "American Buffalo." Photo by Michael Lamont.

Bill Smitrovich and Ron Eldard and in “American Buffalo.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

Wearing workout clothes and dripping sweat, an apologetic Ron Eldard begs off to catch his breath after an arduous American Buffalo rehearsal with co-stars Freddy Rodriguez and Bill Smitrovich and director Randall Arney. He graciously offers an unopened bottle of water, quenches his thirst soon after, then settles into a couch in the Marcia Israel-Curley Founders Room at the Geffen Playhouse. Hugging a sofa pillow, the former Golden Gloves boxer does his own version of “covering up” in anticipation for whatever punches may come. As the interview goes on, however, some of his defenses drop.

Roll With the Punches

Ron Eldard Headshot

Ron Eldard

Eldard grew up as an instinctive, observant fighter who willed himself to win.

Living in New York as the second youngest of seven children and Irish stock, he suffered a horrific sucker punch at three years of age. His mother died. His family was scattered among various relatives (he avoids any discussion of his father). Eldard landed in arid, mountainous Utah. But 10 years later, he returned to New York to live with his married sister Lana in Queens.

“I don’t talk too much about this stuff,” states Eldard, “mostly because it’s best for me, for acting, to keep certain things”"¦He pauses. “Moving around with a lot of relatives, different family members, my brothers and sisters was a difficult childhood. Moving from Utah back to New York was hard as a kid.” However, “in the bigger picture for what I do, and as a person, the experience was helpful.”

How so? “I learned how to be polite in Utah, very polite, which is a good thing. There’s a certain kind of behavior there — more country, with manners. Then with New York…” Eldard smiles with a shrug of the shoulders. He indicates the dichotomy of opposite worlds, beyond the 2000-plus miles between them.

Explaining further, “I’m very comfortable in cities; I’m very comfortable on a farm. They inform me as a human and certainly in what I do”¦ Really tasting the gamut of both, I think it was good.”

“Good” is relative yet can be widely interpreted. How “good” is it at 13 years old to work 30 hours a week while attending school? The punches landed solidly on his young body, but Eldard kept working.

Bill Smitrovich, Freddy Rodriguez and Ron Elward.

Bill Smitrovich, Freddy Rodriguez and Ron Eldard.

“We didn’t know how poor we were — us kids. Well, I knew we were poor; I just didn’t know we were that poor. All my family, we worked. We started early — paper routes, whatever. I worked a lot of hours at a chicken restaurant near the house. I could lift things, move things; I could do work, real job work. I was even a street magician to make money.”

The Upstart Enters the Ring

Eldard’s grip on the sofa pillow begins to relax. He reveals more of his toughness along with a depth of gratitude.

“As a boy, I was into sports: martial arts, judo, contact sports. Still am. I also got into boxing then, went to professional gyms. And I would get into fistfights all the time.” He moved a lot, and “you have to find your way. In Queens — the last place I lived was Ridgewood (a neighborhood) — it was rough.”

“The cool guys and the jocks had to respect me because I was strong” — he bench-pressed more than 300 pounds. But “even though I was good at sports, they didn’t like me. I hung around with who you might call the geeks, the weirdos. A cool guy — a bully — would pick on one of the geeks, and I’d then beat the hell out of the bully. I’d think, “˜Someone’s gotta do it.’ That would happen pretty much every year. I became a bully of the bullies.”

“Understand that’s not very healthy. It leaks out in other places. If you’ve got that in you — picking fights, picking battles, picking causes — at a certain point it’s an endless road. You gotta take care of yourself. If you have addictions of any kind, issues of behavior…go get well.”

Randall Arney

One path presented to Eldard led to a life’s work. “I always loved movies, putting on plays and shows, writing with my brothers and sisters, but it never occurred to me to be an actor. It was Queens! I was either going to Stuyvesant (High School) to figure out what I’d do, or pursue sports in a serious way.”

“I had some wonderful teachers — school teachers — at different times in different ways, who let me know there were other things out there. There was this English teacher, in junior high school, who recommended acting to me. I was like “˜Really?!?’ Now I look back and think, “˜How could that not have occurred to me?’”

While continuing long work hours, Eldard attended New York’s High School of Performing Arts. Agents noticed the youngster’s talent, but he staved them off. He loved schooling and classes.

“I studied two years of conservatory at SUNY, then at a bunch of schools with private teachers in Manhattan — HB Studio, Actors Playhouse, a class on Theatre Row, a clown school. I wasn’t in a rush to act professionally.”

The Towel Won’t Be Thrown

Good fortune soon came his way. Broadway! In 1986, the opening bell for his career had rung. Hired as an understudy for Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues, he felt the world was his oyster. But after the emotional high came a dire low.

“There was a mass firing of a huge amount of that cast. Neil saw something and didn’t like it. My very first job.”

Eldard hit the canvas, and a standing eight was being counted. The now unemployed actor wanted to quit. “My agent told me stories how rough it was for Katharine Hepburn — with four Academy Awards and one of the greatest actors ever.”

Ron Eldard in "Justified" on FX.

Ron Eldard in “Justified” on FX.

“It’s a brutal, rough business. You either have it or you don’t. You can either take that beating” or else “let it go and move on, best you can.”

Eldard bounced back. Pouring his emotions and energy into the gym and into the theater, highlights occurred in both arenas in the late ’80s. Representing Gleason’s Gym in the light heavyweight division of the Golden Gloves Competition at Madison Square Garden in 1988, Eldard advanced to the finals but eventually lost.

Once a fighter, always a fighter. “It was the only fight I lost. I screwed that up by cutting too much weight; dropped nine pounds in a day and a half when I only needed to drop three. That dusted me. [His opponent] won two rounds to one and deserved to win, but he wouldn’t have gotten me a second time.” The shaggy, blond Eldard ruefully grins, then heartily laughs.

The other highlight came in the form of a wedding — Tony n’ Tina’s Weddingwith Eldard appearing as a replacement in the role of the groom Anthony Angelo Nunzio. Stage and screen work opened up: Servy-n-Bernice 4Ever at Provincetown Playhouse, Aven’U Boys at the John Houseman Theater, The Years at Manhattan Theatre Club, his own one-man show Standing Eight Count at Naked Angels, along with impressive film roles including Sleepers and Bastard Out of Carolina as well as NBC’s ER as Ray “Shep” Shepard. There was also On the Waterfronta return to Broadway.

The Counterpunch

In 1995, Eldard geared up for the part of Terry Malloy, the once promising boxer who “coulda’ been a contender.” This production became a Main Event, but some would later consider it doomed from the outset.

Ron Eldard, Calista Flockhart and Paul Rudd in “Bash.”

Vincent Canby, theater critic for the NY Times, wrote, “It can’t be easy for Mr. Eldard, acting in the shadow of the greatest of all Brando performances. To the extent that the text and the production allow him, he creates his own character, shy, quick-witted at unexpected moments and very moving in the scene that’s the highlight of the play as it is of the film.”

Sixteen previews, eight performances, and Eldard’s experience on Broadway was over, yet again. His grip on the sofa pillow loosens even more, as Eldard’s face lights up.

“That was a legendary, le-gen-dary, troubled production. And one of the great experiences of my life! It was an insane production. In-sane! I have stories I’m actually writing into something. You would not believe what happened, happened. Who would think this with actors like David Morse, James Gandolfini and others, with Budd Schulberg who adapted his Oscar-winning screenplay? Unfortunately it was never really a play, the proper play it should’ve been. It was insane, great, awful — all of them. It had beautiful possibilities but was headed toward an iceberg. I still have my journals from that time. Some”¦ great”¦ stories! And valuable lessons.”

The lessons continued to enrich Eldard’s stage choices. In 1999, he starred in the Off-Broadway production of Neil LaBute’s Bash: Latter-Day Plays, with Calista Flockhart and Paul Rudd, which later transferred to the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. In one of the three dark plays, Eldard portrayed a dishonest, pleasant mid-level manager revealing his secrets to an unseen hooker in a hotel room.

That year was a barnburner for Eldard as he went toe-to-toe with Brian Dennehy in the award-winning Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s 1949 play Death of a Salesman that also starred Elizabeth Franz. Eldard, known for changing his look as he interprets a character, was like a physical yo-yo as he played Biff.

Ron Eldard, Brian Dennehy and Ted Koch in a 2000 Showtime broadcast of "Death of a Salesman" following the show's 1999 Broadway run. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Ron Eldard, Brian Dennehy and Ted Koch in a 2000 Showtime broadcast of “Death of a Salesman” following the show’s 1999 Broadway run. Photo by Joan Marcus.

“I went from Bash into that production. It was cra-zy! I dropped tons of weight going from a business guy to Biff.” When asked about his fluctuating weight, Eldard presents an example. “Think period piece. A plumber steps out of the shower. Now the actor playing this guy has a professional trainer, spends 50 hours a week at the gym. I look at the actor playing the plumber and go, ‘He couldn’t possibly look like that.’ That’s when I kind of check out. I don’t want to confuse that with the human being.”

When reflecting on his Death of a Salesman experience, which played as well in LA at the Ahmanson in late 2000, the husky, rugged Eldard sets the sofa pillow aside.

“It was magical. Bob Falls directed the hell out of that. Brian Dennehy, who is a lovely mensch of a big ol’ barking bear, was a beast.”  Performing what he calls “one of the top three or four American plays in the last 60 years” was “a joy to play, a joy to listen to. Elizabeth Franz, who played the mother, did great work too. What a beautiful production!” In 2006 Eldard was back on Broadway in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, working again with Jena Malone, with whom he had appeared a decade earlier in Bastard Out of Carolina.

Pound-for-Pound

In his corner, Eldard waits with anticipation for the ring of the bell. His next event starts at the Geffen Playhouse in David Mamet’s American Buffalo.

Ron Eldard and Jena Malone in the 2006 Broadway production of "Doubt." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Ron Eldard and Jena Malone in the 2006 Broadway production of “Doubt.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Randall Arney, the Geffen artistic director who’s directing the play, explains the reason for a revival of Mamet’s work (which premiered in 1975 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago). “When researching, I couldn’t find record of a LA production in a space the size of the Geffen. I believe the play is an American classic, and with David now a local playwright, a Geffen production seemed a natural fit.”

“The play’s continuing relevance lies in the fact that the hopes, the tenacity, the craving for love and security, and the disappointments of these characters resonate deeply with us. Like any great work, it reveals what connects us all — despite our vocations or standings. Friendship and loyalty and how they are tested in the ruthlessness of American capitalism continue to be relevant in our current political climate as the less fortunate among us struggle.”

Eldard had just wrapped his work on FX’s Justified, as former military police officer Colton “Colt” Rhodes, when he received a call from Arney. It was four days before the first rehearsal.

“Someone else was doing the part; for some reason it didn’t work out. I wasn’t really ready to do this, having put on all this weight for Justified. But it was a no-brainer once I spoke with Randy. This is one of the roles I’ve wanted to check off, but it’s way harder that I thought.” He laughs. “They’re always harder than you think.”

A statement from Arney mirrors what Eldard says. “The range of skills — intellectual, verbal, physical and emotional — required for the role of Teach is daunting. Ron has the talent and the skills, is a wonderful, fearless collaborator, and is incapable of being uninteresting.”

“Teach is one of the great roles written in American theater,” mentions Eldard. “There’s a reason why guys want to play this role — Duvall, Pacino, Hoffman, Macy, Giammati.

“Characters who are more lost than found, that’s what most humans are — in the gray. To play these guys, you have to make them human. Give them a flash that is honest. That’s where everyone lives — Teach, everyone.”

Ron Eldard, Freddy Rodriguez and Bill Smitrovich.

Ron Eldard, Freddy Rodriguez and Bill Smitrovich.

“No one is in the clear,” he continues. “People will forgive. People do that with humans all the time. Hold on to some kindness, something real, whether it actually happened or is perceived. That to me is the most interesting place to play. It’s harder and it’s more fun.”

The bell has rung, and Eldard is at the ready. Just know he plans to go the distance.

American Buffalo, Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood 90024. Opens April 10. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Through May 12. Tickets: $47-$77. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.

**All American Buffalo production photos by Michael Lamont.

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LA Stage Times

Married Couple Tackles Two Wars in Year of the Rabbit

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | September 13, 2012

Keliher Walsh and Peter Mackenzie in "Year of the Rabbit"

A husband/wife theatrical team. It’s not so unusual that both are actors and have performed in productions together. It might not be so unusual that one would direct another. But how often do you find one directing the other, who wrote the full-length play? Such is the current situation for Keliher Walsh and James Eckhouse. They have jumped in head first in preparation for the premiere of Year of the Rabbit, a play that examines wartime experiences from Vietnam and Afghanistan, at Ensemble Studio Theater-LA.

All It Takes is a Spark

The duo met 30 years ago at the Guthrie Theater, with Eckhouse as a reader and Walsh auditioning for Our Town. It was love at first sight, they recall. She landed the role of Emily under the direction of Alan Schneider, and shortly thereafter he was cast in a play directed by Garland Wright.

Eckhouse smiles broadly when he announces, “We’ve been married 30 years.”

Keliher Walsh

Walsh quickly quips, “And we should get medals.”

“It was the coldest winter on record,” Eckhouse says.

“It was 80 below,” Walsh maintains. “We had to get married. It was the only way we could stay warm.” Hearty laughter bounces off the walls in the EST-LA office foyer.

Before this kismet moment occurred, their lives were very different. Walsh was a Navy brat whose father was an admiral, “and we lived anywhere and everywhere there was water.” Her finger zig-zags every direction. Living in Italy at an early age, she spoke the native language before learning English.

She grew up during the Vietnam War. “I knew so many friends who served during the war, and my brothers almost went. My father didn’t agree with what was happening over there [in Vietnam], which was controversial with his position in the military. My mother was a total wreck — seeing how her boys could go overseas with guns in their hands.” The same would be true for Walsh herself years later, when she was a mother faced with another war.

For Eckhouse, raised in Chicago, “I loved acting, taking classes at Second City with John Belushi and Bill Murray, doing plays in high school. But in my family it was kind of anathema to think of being a professional actor. One didn’t do that — dirty people, these actors.” Off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he planned to become a physicist. At the same exact time, “Keliher was across the river at Boston University earning her BFA.”

What shifted his study train from physicist to acting? “Pete [A.R.] Gurney [the playwright] took me aside after directing me in a couple of plays. He asked what I was doing there. ‘I’m going to be a physicist.’ He replied, ‘No, you’re not. You’re an actor.’ And I realized he was right. I dropped out, returned to Chicago, worked at some theater companies, then went to Juilliard in New York to get training and my BFA.”

James Eckhouse

After the paths of Walsh and Eckhouse crossed at the Guthrie, they moved to New York to become founding members of an innovative, experimental theater company called Dear Knows, focusing on narrative texts with a core of friends from Yale and Juilliard. Walsh expounds.

“We began with James Joyce’s Dubliners (short stories) and then did other works, but we didn’t change the text. The James Joyce estate wouldn’t let us. We took on these wonderful pieces, and performed at the West Bank with Lewis Black opening the show. We had some wild, woolly, fun times.”

Eckhouse adds, “We were all over the place, performing at the Lincoln Center, for Olympia Dukakis who had us at the Whole Theater Company, toured up in Maine”¦To be part of Dear Knows was huge, and we learned a lot.”

The New York experience for both of them was fruitful with roles on Broadway and Off-Broadway. Among their credits: Eckhouse in The Actor’s Nightmare/Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You at Playwrights Horizons, Emily at Manhattan Theater Club and The Ballad of Soapy Smith at the Public, and Walsh in Coastal Disturbances at Circle in the Square Theatre, Gardenia and The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs with Glenn Close at Manhattan Theater Club, Breaking the Prairie Wolf Code at American Place Theatre and Living Quarters at the Vineyard Theatre.

And then”¦

The Birth of a New Creation

Meshach Taylor and Elyse Dinh

A move to LA in 1988 eventually brought a plethora of work for Eckhouse, who loves being a character actor. It has been his bread and butter, allowing him to work on over 50 TV series. His best-known role was on the original Beverly Hills, 90210 – in which he portrayed the father of twins who were played by Jason Priestley and Shannon Doherty.

For Walsh, the move brought a major change in her life. Pregnant with her second son, she admits, “I gave up acting — completely.” In its place came painting, in a serious way. She describes her work as “figurative abstract — the combination of the two, based on a little cut-out girl going through a journey.”  It garnered attention and was shown around town.

While painting, Walsh began to write but not for theater. The writing was for herself. Then, as the children grew older, she decided to step out beyond her self-imposed creative circle. She approached acting coach Gordon Hunt with a proposition.

“I said to this fabulous man, ‘Here’s the thing. I’m not interested in acting; I’m interested in writing. Can I take your class and do a lot of writing?’ He said ‘Absolutely.’ All of a sudden, literally within two weeks, I stopped painting and wrote while in the class. And it just took off for me. I wrote while acting.”

The first incarnation of Year of the Rabbit began in Hunt’s class. Its development continued over the years in readings and workshops. As a member of EST in New York and LA, she nurtured her work before submitting it to the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. Walsh’s first play was named the inaugural winner of the biennial Kentucky Writers Conference Prize for Women Playwrights by a panel of judges that included Obie award-winning playwright and Kentucky native Naomi Wallace of One Flea Spare fame.

Meshach Taylor

As stated by Wallace at the KWWC, “Year of the Rabbit makes evident, with a fresh theatricality and original imagination, the historical and emotional connectedness we often wish to deny between what one might call Big History and the most intimate experiences of our lives. The play brings together the disparate worlds of love and war, and the collision is both disturbing and at times, deeply moving.”

High praise, indeed, coming from a 2012 recipient of the Horton Foote Prize.

“Fresh theatricality and original imagination.” How so? Walsh ponders the question, then makes a comparison.

“When I think about painting, when I think about writing, I love to go into that world of just blowing out the walls. Let’s mash time up, let’s throw some stars across the sky, let’s mow up the rug. I like to see things get mixed up, to juxtapose images. But then you need to have it make sense at the same time. That’s where the fun comes in.”

Was it easier to write the script with Walsh’s military background — writing what she knew?

“I believe in writing what you want to know. Of course, you can’t help writing what you know — that’s how it is. But part of the experience of writing is to experience what you want to know, what you need to know, what you’re trying to find out. It’s a journey for the writer, too.”

What about the collision of contrasting worlds — the war in Vietnam and the war in Afghanistan — in her play? What inspired her?

Keliher Walsh and Meshach Taylor

“When America went to war in Iraq, everyone kept saying, ‘It’s just like Vietnam.’ I had two boys coming of age with Afghanistan starting. If there had been a draft, I would’ve been the first person chained to the White House gates. People said these wars were not the same. All wars are the same”¦ in this big way, this cosmic way. Obviously, all wars aren’t the same in the details. But when it comes to a mother sending her 18-year-old to war”¦ it’s the same. I wanted to explore a mother’s view of how it affected her, how it affects a mother who is in war, how women are collateral damage even though they’re not in the middle of the war.”

Eckhouse adds to the discussion palette. “What fascinates me about the play is”¦ as a painter would put a splash of reddish-brown here, green over there, a little blue over here”¦ how is it coming together? Lo and behold it does. This play does that with time. By putting a scene in one part of time and another scene with another color and sense to it, it sort of spirals. By the time the play is over you start to make the connections, the pastiche of all the different colors. It weaves this very dense moving fabric of humanity’s impact on war — cross-generation, cross-ethnicity.”

The creative tag-team shifts back to Walsh, who emphasizes, “War is a massive event. It impacts on human lives and their relationships, particularly motherhood, and on parents and children, and love. It’s multitudinous in terms in what it’s looking at — the weight of it, the way it weighs down on individual lives. Can there be love in the face of war? Is there even a possibility of love in the milieu of war? In the middle of Vietnam, in the middle of Afghanistan — with wondrous and drastic consequences?

The interview momentarily stops with reflective silence.

Wearing a Multitude of Hats

Will McFadden and Ashanti Brown

All of that time nurturing the script paid off, and the bonus was when Gates McFadden — EST-LA artistic director — gave the green light for Year of the Rabbit to be given its first production. Since the KWWC, Walsh has trimmed and reworked the material. And included her husband into the mix, as the director.

Eckhouse, while best known as an actor, is no novice at directing. While co-artistic director of EST-LA in 1997-1999, he produced and directed over 20 new plays. Among the local venues where he has shared this particular creative skill are the Falcon, the Matrix, Inside the Ford, the Groundlings, the Lost Studio, the Electric Lodge and the Blank.

But to direct your own wife’s play? “‘Dear Knows’ was a forge for us,” Eckhouse recalls, “forming and being in these pieces together. That was a real test for us and forged our working relationship. We’ve been down this road before — not that it’s easy, it can be tempestuous, but that leads to a lot of creativity.”

Walsh’s head nods in agreement. She adds, “I always knew James was the person to direct this. Face it, we want to work with people who know us well. You want your team together. James is my team.”

Yet Walsh has also taken on the role of actress in the production along with Ashanti Brown, Elyse Dinh, Peter MacKenzie, Will McFadden and Meshach Taylor. First production, writing and acting –  why would she do this to herself?

“Some people ride roller coasters and I do theater.” She bursts out with laughter.

Elyse Dinh

“My hat’s off to this woman who’s acting in this play in a very intense role,” states Eckhouse, “but luckily she has developed it over the years.”

Walsh adds, “It’s a lot — acting is a lot of effort but”¦when I do, it always revives me.”

Eckhouse continues, “As a playwright, Keliher has been able to pull back from acting, be at my side for me to say ‘Textually, we need to do this, this and that’ and then do it. Yes, it’s a huge challenge for both of us. But we went into it eyes wide open.”

“Isn’t that what theater is,” interjects Walsh, “wearing a multitude of hats? It’s fun. We love doing what we do.”

Year of the Rabbit, Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA , Atwater Village Theatre complex, 3269 Casitas Avenue, LA 90039. Opens Saturday, 8 pm. Then plays Sun Sept 16 at 2 pm and 7 pm, Fri Sept 21 at 8 pm, Sat Sept 22 at 5 pm and 8 pm, Sun Sept 23 at 2 pm, Mon October 1 at 8 pm, after which it enters repertory with The Belle of Belfast. Check October dates on the website. Closes October 28. Tickets: $25. www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org. 323-644-1929.

***All Year of the Rabbit production photos by Betsy Newman

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LA Stage Times

Pielmeier — Possessed by The Exorcist a la 2012

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | July 6, 2012

Richard Chamberlain, Emily Yetter and Brooke Shields in “The Exorcist”

The Exorcist scared millions in the early ’70s, first as a best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty and then as the popular movie written by Blatty and directed by William Friedkin.

Now, four decades later, The Exorcist returns — this time at the Geffen Playhouse in the premiere of a stage adaptation by Agnes of God playwright John Pielmeier.

Creative Crossroads

He stood at the edge of the lonely subway platform, listening for the rumble of a train that would still the ache that was always with him — from Blatty’s novel The Exorcist

After a long day’s rehearsal, the compactly-built Pielmeier sips from his bottled water, lets out a deep breath and sinks into a comfortable sofa in the Marsha Israel-Curley Founders Room at the Geffen. He speaks cautiously, with precision and forethought, yet his demeanor exudes friendliness.

John Pielmeier; Photo by Justin Matter

Pielmeier reminisces about how his past has influenced his present. As he grew up in a Catholic household in Altoona, Pa., “I wrote short stories, so I guess I’ve been writing all my life. In the second grade I wrote something called Johnny Christmas — a total rip-off of Peter Pan,” with the performance limited to his living room.

“I didn’t think I was good enough. There are probably still a lot of people around now who would agree with that statement.”

That didn’t stop him creatively, as he made his way as an actor through the speech and drama program at Catholic University and was eventually chosen for the MFA playwriting program at Penn State.

He chuckles self-effacingly. “The only reason I was accepted was because there was no one in it.”

Pielmeier then relays the best experience of his Penn State student career. “There was something called Five O’Clock Theatre — a group of one-act plays written, directed and acted by students. At the end of my first year, I adapted a book of letters written by George Jackson who had been an inmate at Soledad Prison. Since it was only a class exercise, I wrote the piece without permission by the author. The play was very political, very galvanizing. At the end of the show when the actor [also a quarterback at Penn State] playing George Jackson raised his fist in a black power salute, the SRO audience screamed, stood up and rushed the stage. It was the most exciting, scary thing; it was extraordinary.”

Emily Yetter and Harry Groener

Writing, though, took a sidetrack, as Pielmeier pursued acting. After gigs with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Guthrie Theater, he moved to New York. After finding out about the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Center in Connecticut, an inspired Pielmeier incorporated a newspaper headline –  “Nun Kills Baby!” — and wrote Agnes of God.

“The day I received the telegram inviting me to bring the play to the O’Neill, I knew my life had changed forever.”

Doubting John

In the world there was evil. And much of the evil resulted from doubt; from an honest confusion among men of good will. Would a reasonable God refuse to end it? Not reveal himself? Not speak? — excerpt from Blatty’s novel The Exorcist

Agnes of God opened on Broadway in March 1982, starring Amanda Plummer, Elizabeth Ashley and Geraldine Page. Cards on the table, Pielmeier notes, “Most people don’t realize Agnes of God was not a critical success. It got very mixed reviews, but was a success with audiences.” The show ran for 599 performances (17 months). Plummer won a Tony Award as Agnes.

Amanda Plummer as Agnes in the 1982 Broadway production of “Agnes of God”

Later, Pielmeier wrote the film version of Agnes of God and received a Writers Guild nomination for screen adaptation.

Yet the mere mention of success has Pielmeier ruefully shaking his head. While he has had four plays on Broadway, the pain of disappointment and rejection exudes through his being, as he looks forlornly toward the carpeted floor.

“Pretty much off the bat, I was not embraced by the theater community. Apart from Agnes of God, I’ve had to look at theater as a hobby — for my own sanity. The theater has never been an easy road for me,  even though it has been a mistress I’ve been very much in love with.”

Success can be fickle, especially through the eyes of a creator. Still, among his plays, Voices In The Dark won the 1999 Edgar Award for Best Play and Willi — a one-man show based on the speeches of mountaineer Willi Unsoeld (a member of the first American expedition to reach the summit of Mount Everest) was a hit at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle.

How has the TV industry treated him as a writer? Pielmeier’s face brightens. “Being embraced by the Hollywood community, I’ve made my living as a writer for television.”

Choices of the Heart received the Christopher Award, the Humanitas Award, a WGA nomination for its teleplay.  Sins of the Father was nominated for Humanitas and WGA Awards and broke FX viewer records when it first aired. Gifted Hands won an Image Award and MovieGuide Award, and the eight-hour miniseries Pillars of the Earth “was a dream come true for me as a writer.”

Yet the knockdowns from the theater haven’t prevented Pielmeier from returning to the stage. Like Father Damien Karras facing his own doubts, his own demons, Pielmeier has boldly taken on the juggernaut — The Exorcist. Devil be damned.

New Life in a Classic Story

 

David Wilson Barnes and Brooke Shields

“Oh, well ““ as I said, it’s a very outside chance, and since you’re opposed to your daughter being hospitalized, I’ll –” “Name it, for God’s sake! What is it?!” “Have you ever heard of exorcism, Mrs. MacNeil?” — excerpt from Blatty’s novel The Exorcist

In 2008, what started out as someone else’s idea eventually turned into Pielmeier’s own.  Approached by producers to write a stage adaptation of The Exorcist, the playwright was scheduled to meet with Blatty and make a pitch. “Blatty had approval of who was going to do this.”

Two days before the interview, the producers threw up their hands and walked — not securing the rights for an adaptation. Everything fell apart.  Seemingly. “Blatty called, asked me to meet with him anyway and give my pitch. We had a lovely afternoon together.” Then what happened? “He was generous enough to grant me the rights.”

So how do you adapt a best-selling, page-turning, supernatural novel and one of the greatest horror films of all time? By jumping in head first and shaking it up, Pielmeier admits.

“From the beginning I had no intention to try and duplicate the film, which is great. But you can’t replicate it on stage.”

The play went through a workshop in London last fall in a church basement with several actors and Tony-winning director John Doyle (best known for his pared-down musical revival productions of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Company). Pielmeier says, “Working with John — who is the most brilliant man I’ve ever worked with — we’ve stripped the play down.”

Manoel Felciano, Brooke Shields, Harry Groener and Emily Yetter

Did he discover anything through the workshop? “My initial impulse was for one actor to play the demon. Right now we have four actors playing the demon. It’s a very presentational piece, with a nine-member cast.” Pielmeier then expresses excitement about the cast, which includes Brooke Shields, Richard Chamberlain, David Wilson Barnes, Harry Groener and Emily Yetter.

Unlike the book and movie, the play implements the season of Lent. The playwright explains, “Lent encompasses the equivalent of the 40 days Christ spent in the wilderness tempted by the Devil — pure parallel there. It starts with a dark day in which we’re reminded of our mortality — Ash Wednesday — and ends on the night of Holy Thursday into Good Friday morning, which is obvious symbolism. We don’t go into Easter but that’s implied. It seemed to be the obvious spiritual metaphor with this journey we’re on.”

What about some of the significant changes made — placing the story in 2012, cutting beloved characters such as Kinderman, Sharon, Karl and Willie, adding new layers to Burke Dennings and Chris MacNeil?

“There’s nothing I feel necessitates this piece to be set in the 1970s. The feminist aspect seemed very dated. And our audiences are so familiar with the story that there’s no mystery, certainly not a murder mystery. That informed my decision to remove the detective (Kinderman) from our telling.”

“While I didn’t have Willie in the play, I did initially have Karl, but I thought the Nazi jokes which Burke does in the book and movie dated the piece. I wanted to find a character — a victim who experienced a similar set of atrocities. So I created Carla who has had first-hand experiences in Rwanda.”

Harry Groener

“There are lines in the novel which mentioned Burke Dennings was a seminarian; another line or two mentioned this child that Chris had before Regan. I leaped on those and went running with it — simply expanding on a theme Blatty introduced. What a great world for the Burke character to explore! Here was a guy who started out in the world of the priesthood and for whatever reasons left it — perhaps missing it, longing for it.”

What informed his decision to make Burke gay or to make Chris an actress who specializes in romantic comedy films?

“Burke was not gay in the book and not necessarily in the film. But I felt when reading about him in the book, in a contemporary time, I imagined him as a gay man. Perhaps”…  Pielmeier ponders momentarily. “There was a director I worked with who wasn’t an alcoholic but had a lot of Burke Dennings in him. Subconsciously I think I based a lot of what I was writing on him. He was certainly a gay man — an extremely unhappy man who missed his youth.”

As for Chris MacNeil? “Blatty told me in one of our early meetings that he had always wanted to make Chris a comedy actress. To be faced with the exact opposite of a rom-com situation in her life — I liked the idea.”

Simplicity is the Key

Into icy air, thin mists of vapor wafted from the vomit like a reeking offering. Karras felt uneasy. Then the hair on his arms began prickling up. With nightmare slowness, a fraction at a time, Regan’s head was turning, swiveling like a manikin, creaking with the sound of some rusted mechanism, until the dread and glaring whites of those ghastly eyes were fixed on his — excerpt from Blatty’s novel The Exorcist

Richard Chamberlain and Brooke Shields

From the outset of this journey, Pielmeier wanted special effects to have a limited role in the production. He didn’t want audience members to re-acquaint themselves with their dinners.

“I didn’t want them to step outside the play itself and ask, ‘How did they do that?’ Special effects with spinning heads, projectile vomiting — some voice coming out of the little girl’s mouth. You’d be limited in the kinds of scenes you could play.”

The decision to cast an adult actress in the role of the young daughter, Regan? “You don’t want an audience to be thinking, ‘How could a parent allow their child to say these words, to do these things,’ which would lift you out of the experience. Working with an adult actress — ‘Let’s pretend’, which is what the theater is about.”

Yet special effects, lights, sound effects and music will be integral to the production. Much has been made of the award-winning design team, which includes spiritual composer Sir John Tavener (received an Ivor Novello Award) and Teller (part of the illusionist team of Penn & Teller) who has been hired as a creative consultant.

Isn’t it ironic that a known atheist/debunker/skeptic is working on a show with religious content, especially one with an exorcism? “You’ll be amazed by what Teller has done with the cast, for the production. He influenced my thoughts about the play in an amazing way.”

As for Tavener, “He’s creating a lot of underscoring that adds wonderful elements to the piece as well.”

“Visually, it’s a fabulous design — the whole experience. And with all of this, we’re still exploring everything. I don’t want to give anything away. It’s really cool.”

Pulling Us In

 

Roslyn Ruff, David Wilson Barnes and Brooke Shields

He pulled back his head and saw the eyes filled with peace; and with something else: something mysteriously like joy at the end of heart’s longing — excerpt from Blatty’s novel The Exorcist

The assistant of production knocks on the door. It’s time for Pielmeier to join Doyle for dinner and review the day’s work. Before the playwright leaves, he offers a few final words.

“I wrote this stage adaptation of The Exorcist with the non-believer in mind — essentially, the doubter in mind, myself. This story is the classic debate between the Devil and Daniel Webster, the chess game in Seventh Seal, the argument between good and evil. The irony? The irony of the whole piece is the demon is ultimately working on God’s side. He succeeds in this play in only driving people closer to God — whether they want it or not. I find it deliciously ironic.”

And out of the Geffen Playhouse walks the risk-taker Pielmeier — “my life has been filled with doubt” — who can easily relate to the doubting Father Karras. He has been deeply drawn to The Exorcist and prays that his adaptation has as much impact on audiences today as it did 40 years ago.

The Exorcist, Gil Cates Theater, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood, LA.  Opens July 11. Tue-Fri 8 pm; Sat 3 pm, 8 pm; Sun 2 pm, 7 pm. Through August 12. Tickets: $67-$87.  www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.

***All The Exorcist production photos by Michael Lamont

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LA Stage Times

Not Clowning Around With The Road’s That Good Night

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | June 1, 2012

Elizabeth Sampson, Chet Grissom and John Cragen in "That Good Night"

How often are masks worn””literally or figuratively? The hidden hurts; the poker faces; the invisible, impenetrable layers that seemingly can’t be removed? Or the “putting on” of one’s face with makeup to cover flesh or whatever else is to be hidden? In the hands of playwright Andrew Dolan, who uses equal doses of theatricality and normalcy in his plays, the multitude of masks worn in That Good Night, presented by The Road Theatre Company, forces one family’s members to lower their guards while audiences see the costs of doing so.

Andrew Dolan

It’s not often a playwright enjoys the fruits of his labor by having premieres mounted within weeks of each other. Such is the case with Dolan, whose powder-keg The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King opened March 17 at Ensemble Studio Theatre””LA and whose first written stage play That Good Night opens tonight.

Dolan shared much of his life story in a previous LA STAGE Times article, “Dolan and EST/LA’s Many Mistresses Tackle Race.” Apparently there is more to learn about this hungry creative, who feels he’s on top of the world with the good fortune of being double-produced yet wary enough to realize two plays don’t make a career or satisfy his own desires.

Connections of Another Kind

Dolan is speaking with LA STAGE Times via speakerphone in New York. Joining the interview in Los Angeles is multicreative taskmaster Scott Alan Smith, a member of The Road’s Artistic Board, who directs That Good Night. The lithe, relaxed-for-the-moment Smith leans back on a worn sofa in The Road’s back offices. It’s as if he relishes the break from long hours and preparation for opening, now able to banter with his good friend and fellow alum of American Conservatory Theater.

Dolan reminisces briefly about his Mistresses experience. “I was extremely proud with the production,” he says. “I came to LA to see the show a month into the run and had read most of what were really fabulous reviews.” Smith nods in agreement and gives a thumb’s up to Rod Menzies’ work as director at EST­””LA.

“It was the first time I sat in a theater, watching a play I wrote that was given a full production,” Dolan continues. “I had only seen readings up to that point of Mistresses. It was a virgin experience for me, and I’m grateful to EST for taking that leap to produce the play.”

Scott Alan Smith

That Good Night earned him Marin Theatre Company’s David Calicchio Award for best emerging playwright. But if EST””LA had his first play in its hands, doing a reading of it, how did the play’s premiere production slip through the company’s fingers? Smith’s face beams, a smile gleefully crosses his face and he says, “The ACT connection.”

Dolan shares, “A couple of years ago, ACT had an alumni weekend. They asked graduates who had written plays to send them in, and they’d do a reading of the best. I submitted That Good Night. Scott submitted King of the Moon, which is a wonderful play.”

Smith bursts out with laughter. “Yeah, so wonderful you beat us! It made me want to immediately read his play.”

Dolan’s voice turns frank. “There’s a common language there [with ACT alums], and it really counts for a lot. I strongly suspected Scott and I would be on the same wavelength with the play. Here we are.”

Smith grins. “And here we are. We did a staged reading in October 2010 and decided to put it into our 21st season.”

Why That Good Night

What in the world was twirling around in Dolan’s head, making it so important to put fingers to the keyboard for the very first time as a writer? “Honestly I don’t know why, but I followed my instinct to write a comedy about death,” he says. “And it’s not autobiographical.”

Bernie Zilinskas and Melissa Kite

Revealing more, “I liked the idea of adult siblings who have gone off and lived their own lives, being forced into a pressure cooker situation to come home. If I’m going to do death, let’s have them come home for an euthanization. To put dad to rest. The characters started speaking to me. It was as if I wasn’t writing them myself, and that’s the way it rolled forth. I started with the protagonist, who was a clown””only because I’ve always been fascinated by clowns, and I like the circumstance. Then I just started playing.

“Like with Mistresses, I want my theater to have a little theater in it,” he continues. “But I still love a story being told with characters who the audience can relate to. It was important to tell a straightforward story while throwing a few theatrical curve balls. I hope it’s funny but more than just funny. I hope people are entertained.”

Smith taps the coffee table with emphasis. “What we look for [at The Road] are plays that live in the language. That’s Andrew’s play. He has written eight wonderful roles for actors, and it goes along with our season’s theme which is “˜the dysfunctional family’””following The Water’s Edge and Finding Fossils, families struggling with long-held truths and secrets about each other.”

What makes That Good Night tick? “It’s the dynamic between the characters, the relationships between them, what’s said and isn’t said,” says Smith. “It’s very palpable in watching it. Andrew has absorbed this in a way that reminds me of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, with elements of Chekhov and Williams and Shepard. There are other elements like the magic of realism. The audience makes an assumption about what they’re going to see, sits back and then they’re suddenly surprised. They lean forward and have no idea what this is, what’s going to happen next.”

Judith Scarpone and Bernie Zilinskas

How can they not with a clown? Smith concurs, “Our worst fear is the party clown who is a heroin addict. We have Matt Morgan [with Troubadour Theater Company] and our clown consultant. He’s been great in coaching Bernie Zilinskas in the creation of the clown and with movement.” Smith reports he has lost eight pounds directing this show but Zilinskas has lost almost 20. “That’s how committed he is to the role,” says the director.

Dolan apologetically bows out of the conversation. He has work to be done on his next play, as well as fleshing out on a musical””a political farce, which he’s very excited about.

There Are No Small Men

In the room with Smith, one quickly realizes within his slim frame beats the heart of a lion. He admits acting pays his bills, along with his ongoing position since 2008 as adjunct professor of theater at Pepperdine University. His screen roles include the upcoming The Newsroom (Aaron Sorkin’s new series on HBO premiering June 24), in addition to many more. He has appeared onstage regionally and in New York, but his Los Angeles stage work has included

The Dinosaur Within (Theatre @ Boston Court), Apollo, Richard III, King of the Moon, Kindertransport andThe Memorandum.

Smith is no slouch director. His résumé includes the West Coast premiere of New York Mets by TJ Edwards, which was nominated for an ADA award; Bus Stop at Spokane’s Interplayers Theater, where it won a 2006 people’s choice award; the 2007 production of The Adding Machine for Circus Theatricals (now known as The New American Theatre); and The Road’s West Coast premiere of Lady, by Craig Wright, which received four Ovation nominations and five LA Weekly Award nominations (including one for Smith), with two wins.

Bernie Zilinskas and Melissa Kite

Most recently, Smith directed The Petoskey Stones by Elizabeth Sampson, also known for her talents as an actress and additional role as Smith’s wife. “I met her on stage in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton,” says Smith. “We both attended ACT, which set our course together; she’s directed me [in his co-authored play King of the Moon, which ran off-Off-Broadway], she’s assisted directed for me with Lady; and now I’m directing her in That Good Night. We’ve been together for 23 years and married for 21 years. That says something.”

Smith, newly named associate artistic director of The Road, happily mentions there will be no rest for the weary once That Good Night opens. He’ll be helping to put together The Road’s Third Annual Summer Playwright’s Festival, a fundraiser for the company, Aug. 5 through 12. The festival will consist of staged readings of scripts entirely new to LA, bringing in new and established playwrights, according to Smith.

As the clock nears time for rehearsal, Smith confesses a life mantra: “When you find something good, you run with it. Time is too short.” Drop the mask along with all that other “stuff” and make it happen. Theater reflecting life.

That Good Night, presented by The Road Theatre Company. Opens June 1. Plays Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through July 21. Tickets: $25. Economic-stimulus tickets are $10 on June 10 and 17. Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (866) 811-4111. www.RoadTheatre.org.

***All That Good Night production photos by Deverill Weekes

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LA Stage Times

Rose’s Bedfellows Rises, Stehlin Staging

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | April 17, 2012

Marc Jablon, Thomas Vincent Kelly and Robert Cicchini in "Bedfellows"

The public often tends to see political issues and leaders in primary colors. But color schemes in politics tend to favor shades of gray. So it is with playwright Chuck Rose’s new play Bedfellows, opening this week at the McCadden Place.  The prolific Jack Stehlin, artistic director of the New American Theatre (formerly Circus Theatricals), is producing and directing it — managing Rose’s campaign, you might say.

In a conversation with Rose and Stehlin, their comfort level with each other seems solid.  In 2008, Stehlin and company produced Rose’s Safe — another play that raises political questions.

A rose in bloom

Rose, a Boston University business graduate, had taken a college elective in theater and connected with the arts. Initially he chose to pursue the path of Wall Street. Yet he couldn’t stay away from the New York stage. By day, he was a Wall Street executive; by night, he was an actor.

Playwright Chuck Rose and Producer/Director Jack Stehlin on the set of "Bedfellows"

He recalls reaching a point when he looked at the faces of bedraggled executives and thought, “I don’t want to look back 30 years, be like these guys, and regret not following my passion.”Â  So he made a change.

“Everything was exciting ““ the challenges, even the setbacks. I was paying my dues, working in Boston, in Maine, touring, doing children’s theater. Circle in the Square Theatre School was my boot camp, where I studied.”

A move across the country landed him in a membership company, LA’s Theatre Geo, where he learned about persistence ““ through another creative means.

“I wrote a play, Weekend in Goshen, really to just write a part for myself. I figured that was a way to do some work. After two submissions and thumbs down, I convinced Geo Hartley to have a reading of my play, which turned out to be a huge hit for the theater [when it was produced in 1996]. It taught me a very valuable lesson ““ if you believe in something, be a pain in the ass. Bug people about it. In the long run, you’re doing them a favor.”

Stehlin laughs and agrees with his compadre. “That’s the way you make it in this town.”

Rose continues. “It was the first thing I’d ever written, and suddenly there are people from the studios coming. I got an agent out of the experience.”

Cameron Meyer and Robert Cicchini

What was next? “One-acts. That’s what I started doing because I wasn’t writing for a vocation. It was something to complement my acting. But one thing led to another, and I started writing screenplays. You know what, though? Writing one-act plays was a way to learn about character and material, to jump in, work those muscles out, to keep me working. If I had known at the time how much I didn’t know, I probably wouldn’t have written at all. Thank God I didn’t.”

Was there a shift in what he was writing and why? “Absolutely. After 9/11, the events of the world were encroaching on our lives. People were so polarized.” Then it clicked. “If this is what I’m going to do with my life, then I have an obligation to write about the important things going on in the world.”

In Safe, a group of wealthy would-be househunters are touring a secure subterranean apartment building when they are informed that they must remain underground because a terrible war has broken out above them. “It was powerful,” states Stehlin. “A year later, we read Bedfellows and fell in love with it, did some workshops and tried to find the right time to put it on the stage. It just took longer than I’d hoped.”

Stehlin describes Rose as a writer. “This guy is incredibly generous and extremely open-minded in the process; a great collaborator. In both plays, Safe and Bedfellows, there is a real social consciousness in the work, a purpose behind the work, a purpose in nourishing those who watch and receive the work.”

Rose blushes a shade of red and thanks his friend. He adds, “When I write stories dealing with issues that make me angry ““ with injustice, stupidity, intolerance ““ I still try to find the goodness in people.” He tries to show “the dangers inherent in the human condition but also the greatness that can be accomplished if we have courage. As bad as things can be, we need to acknowledge ““ even [despite] our own darker nature ““ we have the power to change, to turn things around.”

A California would-be governor with a secret

Robert Cicchini and Jade Sealey

Politicians are frequently recognized as being “golden” or rising stars — while also having secrets that can crumble the foundation of sand beneath their feet, thereby ruining lives and careers. Does Bedfellows bring something more to the plate ““ beyond its focus on Sanford Mitchell on the eve of the election for governor of California?

Rose’s eyes brighten. “Politics creates a heightened stage for ambition. It draws ambitious people to it, requires a certain ruthlessness to succeed. But so do many other endeavors in life. You’re looking at people who are fighting for a very powerful prize. They can claim they are altruistic all they want. If you’re really altruistic, would you be in this fight?”

Can integrity and ambition co-exist? “We’ve had our hearts broken so many times over the last few years ““ not just by politicians but by clergy, leaders in our schools and civic organizations”¦What is going on?  What’s happening with people? We look at this man [Sanford Mitchell] who seems to be very pure, idealistic, well-intentioned — and what happens when you’re confronted with that dilemma. What kind of price does it take on everybody?”

“I want people to ask, “˜What would I do if I were in that situation? Did I ever do something bad in my life that could bite me in the ass? What would I do if I could sell my soul and get ahead?’ By looking at him, we can look at our own choices, our own actions.”

Stehlin chimes in. “We’re constantly being challenged by the outside when people are judging us as to what the truth is. In this moment in time, politics is a great place for this story to be told. It’s an interesting place for this argument, because in some sense, everyone is being honest; everyone is being truthful. They’re doing what they believe.”

The Stehlin saga

Jordan Lund and Jade Sealey

Originally from Allentown, PA, Stehlin admits his dad solidly pegged him with “You just need to be where it’s most difficult.” Not one to back down from life’s challenges, he has made his choices thoughtfully while suffering a few hard knocks along the way.

He once believed he would be a baseball star. But as he approached the end of his first year at the University of South Carolina, Stehlin’s path was crossed by stars of another kind — a company of actors from Juilliard who performed King Lear. It was a moment to remember, especially since his baseball hopes were being squashed. In a new field of dreams, acting was the thing.

Stehlin, through his own naiveté, lucked into an audition at Juilliard and was accepted a year later. Stehlin beams upon reflection, proud of graduating from this well-respected school and of what happened soon thereafter.

“After being on the road with the [Juilliard-based] Acting Company for a year, it was the middle of 1983. I’m a week out of work. What am I doing? So I called a couple of friends — Kevin Spacey, Tom Hewitt, Lili Flanders, Richard Ziman”¦ to do something.” With the support of Juilliard, Stehlin produced Uncle Vanya in a little black box theater on 54th Street. But the group needed a name.

“What were we going to call ourselves? I didn’t even think about what it would mean — branding and the like. My family was in the circus [Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey] for three generations. How about “˜Circus Theatricals’?”

What started out as “fun” and without a visualized future eventually became something to hang his hat on. “Every year, with a few weeks to spare, we’d do something again. We went through the classics. My friend, John Bunzel, wrote Delirious for us, which was a big hit.” And they worked their way to the Scottish play.

Thomas Vincent Kelly and Marie-Francoise Theodore

In 1995, after working 12 years in NY, Stehlin reached his breaking point. “We had just done the Scottish play at CSC [Classic Stage Company]. I was absolutely finished with theater. I was ill, I lost all my money, my girlfriend broke up with me.  I had hit bottom and was beyond exhaustion.”

Stehlin packed his bags and traveled to LA in pursuit of a career in television and movies. He laughs and shakes his head. “I had no idea, zero, what I was getting into.”

Freshly arrived in LA, he was invited to the reading of a play by his friend, John Bunzel, at the Hudson Theatre that Gary Blumsack was hosting. Stehlin thought there was no harm in showing his support. Isn’t that what friends do?

“There’s a critique afterwards. I say a few words ““ what I thought. Blumsack invites John and me to dinner. Fifteen minutes into dinner, Blumsack looks at me and says, “˜How’d you like to be the artistic director of my theater company [the Hudson Guild]?’ “¦And I said “˜Yes.’ I had just sworn off theater! I’m in a little black box for one night and they pulled me back in!”

But another surprise awaited Stehlin the next day. Blumsack introduced him to the producing director. “I walked into that little theater, and there’s this gorgeous woman ““ knock your socks off. It was Jeannine [Wisnosky].” Two years later, they were married and remain happily so.

Thomas Vincent Kelly

Yet six months into the Hudson Guild gig, Stehlin knew a change needed to happen. With Blumsack’s blessing, he transformed the membership troupe into Circus Theatricals. In 1999, the company shifted to the Odyssey Theatre, where it stayed for seven years. In 2006, it moved into Blumsack’s new complex, the Hayworth on Wilshire. Recently it has been ensconced at McCadden Place Theatre in Hollywood, where Bedfellows is being produced.

Stehlin rattles off a few critical darlings during the 28 years with Circus Theatricals ““ The Job (LA Drama Critics Circle’s Ted Schmitt Award for best new play in 1998), Richard III with Alfred Molina, Tartuffe (LA Weekly Award for best comedy ensemble), The Cherry Orchard, The Circle, More Lies About Jerzy. But the name of the theater company was confusing.

“Jeannine, as managing director, and I would get resumes from professionals who had trapeze acts. People thinking we’re a circus act ““ even after producing plays since 1983.” In 2011 after focusing on “the life-blood and recognition of our energy ““ the teaching of acting,” the group took on a new name — the New American Theatre.

Is there a permanent home in the company’s future? Stehlin replies, “It’s complicated, and I hope things will resolve themselves so we can produce at the Hayworth. But you know what? Things are good at the McCadden. I just want to be part of a community that holds each other up and looks for ways to gain strength.”

Bedfellows, produced by the New American Theatre, opens April 21. Fri-Sat 8 pm (plus a matinee on Sunday, April 22 at 3 pm). Closes June 2. Tickets: $34.50. McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. 310-701-0788. www.newamericantheatre.com.

***All photos by Daniel G. Lam

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LA Stage Times

Dolan and EST/LA’s Many Mistresses Tackle Race

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | March 14, 2012

Tracey A. Leigh and Philip Casnoff in Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA's "The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King"

When you mix together:

“¦a successful film/stage actor diving headfirst into play writing,
“¦the premieres of the playwright’s first two full-length plays occurring in LA within months of each other,
“¦a respected LA theater company founded 20 years ago as an offshoot of a renowned New York company,
“¦the theater company now in relatively new digs developing and producing new work by emerging playwrights during a time of economic uncertainty,
“¦a white writer whose play focuses on race issues because he wants “to get under people’s skin”Â  defiantly stating that “I’ve never seen a race play in America that didn’t pander to the wealthy, liberal non-profit theatergoing audience,”
…what do you have?

The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King, produced by Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA.

Rod Menzies

East to west

In 1992, several members of New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre who resided in LA decided to meet as a group and mount a few projects, eventually becoming EST/LA.  According to former associate artistic director Rod Menzies, “For quite a number of years in those early days it was a loosely formed thing, gradually gaining membership and became more formalized; we continued as an itinerant — no permanent home, no fixed calendar of production commitments.”

A fortuitous moment occurred a couple of years ago when artistic director Gates McFadden made a connection with a developer. Says Menzies, “The street (Casitas Avenue in Atwater) was being envisioned as a kind of arts precinct with residential housing on one side and various kinds of spaces for creative artists to do their work on the other.”

Under McFadden’s leadership, EST/LA initiated the development of an umbrella organization called Atwater Village Theatre. Where a pillow factory was once located, a multi-stage performance space was built. Two theater companies, EST/LA and Circle X, now call the space “home.”

However, as Menzies points out, “The minute we got the space, we went from zero to 60; we had to produce.” EST/LA’s residency began last year with three mainstage plays and one late-night offering.

The Canadian

Menzies, who has been a member of EST/LA for five years, is the director of The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King. A Canadian citizen who has been in the United States for 18 years, Menzies celebrates his 40th year in professional theater as a director, actor, playwright and coach.

Trained at the Bristol Old Vic, Menzies went on to earn a MFA from York University, Toronto. Currently, he is the repertory director and producing director of the NY Theatre Intensives/EST Summer Conservatory. While known for his acting work in TV, film and theater — last seen on stage as Bowen Varro in EST/LA’s House of the Rising Son by the prolific Tom Jacobson — Menzies has directed more than 50 theater productions. In 2009 he helmed Pericles at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy of Classical Acting, an MFA program that the Washington D.C. company sponsors.

Menzies relished the opportunity to direct one of Shakespeare’s more challenging plays. “I had a great cast with an amazing team of coaches for movement and combat, fantastic costumes and lighting,”¦. The whole production had a magical quality to it which was extraordinary, ensemble-based and collaboratively built. I gravitate toward that kind of theater.” Seeking another “magical” project with a collaborative spirit, Menzies was drawn to the work of a new playwright.

Tracey A Leigh, Theo Perkins and Philip Casnoff

The Massachusetts Yankee

For more than 20 years, Andrew Dolan (a Massachusetts native, now a New Yorker) has sustained a career as an actor. After graduating in 1989 from the MFA program at the American Conservatory Theater, he hit the ground running. Aside from his many TV and film roles, Dolan has performed on Broadway and Off-Broadway, at the National Theatre in London, and in many regional theaters (including five seasons as an ACT company member).

Roughly 10 years ago, Dolan moved to London for stage work. With time on his hands, he decided to expand his creative horizons and write screenplays. When asked if there was a shift in thinking — from actor to writer — Dolan responds, “I just figured I could do it. I consider myself relatively literate and I love telling stories. I’m actually surprised I didn’t start 10 years before that.” Since that time, he has sold two of his screenplays and is presently developing a TV project with Apostle — Denis Leary’s company.

Then there was another shift, from screenwriter to playwright, which has brought Dolan even more notice. He expounds, “My acting informs the writing. But maybe I’m better at it (writing). At this point in my life, I feel like a skier getting off the lift, starting down the hill; I’m getting my legs under me, the slope is steeper and I’m grooving it.”

Last March, his short baseball play o4: A Muse of Fire premiered at Mile Square Theatre’s 7th Inning Stretch Festival fund-raiser in Hoboken, N.J. MST commissions playwrights to write 10-minute plays about America’s favorite pastime, which fit into Dolan’s wheelhouse, as he is a major fan of the Boston Red Sox.

Meanwhile, Dolan’s first full-length play That Good Night was already in development. In 2010, through a common friend in NY, McFadden had handed That Good Night to Menzies, who forged ahead with a workshop reading of the play at EST/LA. Dolan continued to hone the black comedy — in which the adult children of a family convene to euthanize their father and all hell ensues — at other theaters. Last September, That Good Night earned Dolan the annual David Calicchio Award for best emerging playwright by the Marin Theatre Company.  Next June 1,  the Road Theatre in North Hollywood will produce its premiere.

Judith Moreland and Carlos Carrasco

That Good Night had slipped out of Menzies’ hands, but he kept in touch with Dolan. Menzies recalls a telephone conversation. “Andrew told me that he had finished something else. “˜I’m pretty sure you won’t like it. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea.’ I immediately said, “˜Send it to me!’ And lucky for us, he did.” Into Menzies’ lap fell The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King.

According to EST/LA’s mission statement, “the greatest value of the theatre artist is the
ability to work through the material to reflect and affect the world around him.” Menzies
adds, “Our palate and aesthetic values in our work are very distinctive. We want plays that are edgy, that make people think. In Andrew’s second full-length play he’s written, he treads very bravely into extremely risky thematic material. We couldn’t pass this one up.”

But it’s not about MLK

The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King has been billed as “a darkly humorous play as provocative as its title.” Questioning Dolan about that line, he remarks, “I thought I’d throw my first punch with the title, since the play isn’t about Martin Luther King. It’s a bit of a decoy.” What’s the play about? Dolan throws a second punch — “an honest exploration of race in America in all of its ugly resonance.”

The focal point of the play is a mixed race couple — a white sociology professor, Simon (played by Broadway actor Philip Casnoff) and his younger African-American graduate student, Lashawna (Tracey A. Leigh, the current associate artistic director at EST/LA).

Andrew Dolan

What pushed Dolan to write a script about race issues? “I’ve been just about universally
disappointed in the plays I’ve seen that address race in America as a theme. There’s a lot of, excuse the cliché, “˜preaching to the converted,’ and there’s been a surprising lack of grit to embrace what is troubling, uncomfortable and sad about the issue. Ironically, people seem to think they are addressing the issue full-on — aggressively, exposing that which is ugly — but for my money, they never do. So I thought, “˜Why not write my version of a play that actually does?’”

Dolan continues. “I wanted to write this play without apology. And I wanted it to get under people’s skin.”

Menzies turns the focus to the ideas of Dolan’s play. “There’s a liberal tradition of views about America’s racial history, and a conservative value system about the same thing. These two sides are juxtaposed against each other in a sense of irreconcilable conflict.” He uses affirmative action as one example, then says, “You can’t put these two value systems [liberal and conservative] in the same sentence without feeling the oppositional force of them. The action of this play is to deeply examine those irreconcilable conflicts.”

Using the character, Simon, to make another point, Menzies adds, “While Simon doesn’t care whether people agree with him or not, he passionately believes in the things he says. Indeed, there are many black conservatives — Clarence Thomas, Shelby Steele, Larry Elder — who would espouse exactly what Simon espouses.”

While Dolan may not be completely versed in all things racial, he explains that he has a job in which he has spent hundreds of hours in a professional capacity with a team of very diverse actors conducting workshops on issues of diversity (“race” being one of the primary issues). The team addressed and interacted with a variety of audiences including companies on Wall Street, blue-collar plants in small-town America, and business schools. He declined to name the employer.

But, he says, “This conversation”¦ I’ve been engaged with professionally for the past five years. I’ve spent more time dealing head-on with issues of race than most people have ““ black, white or any other color ““ just by virtue of this job I have.”

If someone were to question what gives Dolan the right to write about race, especially when almost all of the characters in his play are African-American? “Who is anyone to tell anyone what not to write? There’s not quite enough emphasis put on the imagination of the American artist and a little too much emphasis put on”¦ a kind of Balkanism. It doesn’t interest me.”

Dolan tags his response with, “I only write about things I’m genuinely curious about and
engage with in any manner possible. I wanted to challenge people. And I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could do it.”

“He does,” responds Menzies. “There’s a level in which this play is like something written
by George Bernard Shaw. It’s a play of ideas and debate, yet it’s very naturalistic.”

“And hopefully entertaining,” emphasizes Dolan.

Menzies nods, as he says, “Andrew has a wicked sense of humor; he likes to contrast irony and darkness together. He’s a serious playwright, but his plays are very entertaining, which is a lovely combination.”

Tracey A. Leigh and Theo Perkins

And onward

We live in a time of economic uncertainty. We continue to witness the repercussions in LA theater circles. Nevertheless Menzies still firmly believes in risk. “At EST/LA, we’re not interested in doing hits, not interested in preaching to the converted or doing sort of a complacent kind of theater. We know theater is a tough sell and we hope, therefore, there’s an audience of LA theatergoers who want that kind of theater and identify us as a place to go. That’s one of the reasons we’re doing Andrew’s play.”

Menzies smiles. “Andrew is an excellent playwright. The pressure, though, is on him now to write more, especially since he’ll have two productions running almost simultaneously.” Dolan knowingly laughs, then exclaims, “I’m working on the third play!”

When asked what he wants from this experience besides successful productions and
challenging/entertaining audiences at EST/LA and the Road Theatre, Dolan replies, “As a writer”¦ I hope people who see That Good Night and The Many Mistresses of Martin
Luther King
“¦ I hope they’re surprised it’s the same person who wrote those plays.

“That’s what I want.”

The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King, presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA.  Opens March 17. Plays Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Through April 29 (dark April 7 and no 2 pm performance on April 8). Tickets: $15. Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, LA 90039.  Call 323-644-1929 or visit www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org.

** All production photos by Tom Burruss

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LA Stage Times

Tracy Middendorf Looks Back on her LA Fountain Years

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | January 31, 2012

(R)Tracy Middendorf and Morgan Higgins in the Fountain Theatre's 2002 production of "After the Fall"; Photo by Ed Krieger (L)Tommy Schrider and Tracy Middendorf in "Battle of Black and Dogs"; Photo by Joan Marcus

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of occasional articles revisiting subjects from the LA STAGE magazine archives. Ovation and LADCC award winner Tracy Middendorf was the subject of Karen Kondazian’s March 2002 cover story, focusing on her star turn in the Fountain Theatre’s acclaimed production of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. But lately she has been missing from the LA theater scene. A decade after that cover story,  we find out where she is and why.

Tracy Middendorf was hailed for her “delicious mixture of beauty and raw emotional vulnerability that makes you care deeply about her” by director Stephen Sachs in the March 2002 cover article of LA STAGE magazine. She had already become an LA stage star in 1999, when, at age 29, she received the Ovation Award for leading actress in a play ““ against powerhouse nominees Annette Bening, Ruby Dee, Phyllis Frelich and Linda Lavin. She earned a LA Drama Critics Circle Award for the same performance, in Summer and Smoke.

A little background

In 1992, straight out of SUNY Purchase, Middendorf was tested in NY for the successful daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives. “I was quite surprised they couldn’t find a young blonde actress in LA,” she says with a light, ironic laugh. “Surprise, surprise,” as she was promptly hired and moved over 2,400 miles — but only on Middendorf’s terms, which demonstrated her mettle.

“I was worried about taking the part; doing a soap opera wasn’t my first choice. They asked me to sign a five-year contract and I told them, “˜No.’ You can imagine the reaction of my agent. How many actresses get an opportunity to be a regular on a soap? But I had high ideals right out of college. They brought the contract down (in years) to what I wanted.” And she thoroughly enjoyed the Days of Our Lives experience ““ without compromise.

Tracy Middendorf and Lawrence Poindexter in the Fountain Theatre's 1995 production of "Tender is the Night"; Photo by Ed Krieger

During the next decade, following her soap stint as Carrie Brady, Middendorf was cast on a variety of TV shows including Beverly Hills 90210, Murder She Wrote, Touched by an Angel, Ally McBeal, Six Feet Under and The Practice.

But she also was able to incorporate her first love ““ theater ““ by performing at the small yet mighty Fountain Theatre. The relationship between actress and theater was mutually rewarding. Middendorf wowed critics in her first LA stage outing in Simon Levy’s 1995 multi-award-winning adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and followed up a year later with an Ovation-nominated feature actress performance in Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending.

The East Coast beckoned Middendorf to return, which she did briefly in 1998, performing in Tony winner Daniel Sullivan’s Ah! Wilderness at NY’s Lincoln Center and Joanne Woodward’s The Big Knife at the Williamstown Theatre in Massachusetts. Then in 1999, Middendorf struck gold with Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke at the Fountain, under the direction of Levy. The actress and the production both received Ovation Awards. Life was good for Middendorf, but it was going to get better.

No fluke

Tracy Middendorf

It is early 2002. Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, directed by artistic director Sachs, has opened at the Fountain Theatre, and Middendorf is featured in LA STAGE. She almost had to pinch herself with everything happening ““ creatively and personally. “It was a really exciting yet exhausting time. Calvin (her son) was two, and I was a single mom. Juggling this amazing show and great part along with bills and everything life was throwing at me, it was”¦ challenging and hard. But going through that, I was proud of myself. It’s important to always do what you love, no matter how difficult life may be. It’s something I’ll always remember.”

Sachs shares more. “Playing Maggie required Tracy to dig deep down into some very dark and scary corners of her own psyche where her own demons hide. Her performance was shattering, fragile, heartbreaking. Unforgettable.”

The recognitions Middendorf received in 1999 were no fluke. After the Fall received four Ovation awards, including best production and one of three lead actress awards that year. Middendorf also added a second LA Drama Critics Circle award for her performance. For a play that hadn’t been seen in LA for 24 years, the Fountain and Middendorf reaped the benefits of Miller’s work.

Chuma Gault and Tracy Middendorf in the Fountain Theatre's 2007 production of "Miss Julie'; Photo by Ed Krieger

Five years passed before Middendorf returned to the LA stage. During this passage of time, she married Franz Wisner, author of the well-received book Honeymoon with My Brother, and had another child, Oscar. TV roles were plentiful, including Alias, Cold Case, House M.D., Without a Trace and Lost, as well as acting in the movie Mission: Impossible III with Tom Cruise.

However, while she was at the Fountain in Miss Julie, adapted and directed by Sachs, based on the original play by August Strindberg, a canceled audition for a play flicked a switch. She felt it was time for another 2,400-mile move.

Going back

During the run of Miss Julie, Middendorf was scheduled to audition for Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque, which was set to open in London, starring Maggie Smith under the direction of Anthony Page (Tony winner for A Doll’s House). But the production team canceled its trip to LA, leaving Middendorf in the lurch. Here’s where the rubber met the road.

“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to audition for Mr. Page or the play or Mr. Albee, so I flew to NY with my two kids. Yes, it was crazy but this was important.” After booking a hotel room and auditioning, “They paid my flight fee so I could stay a few more days and attend the callbacks.” But the coastal reality hit hard. Two Ovations and LADCC Awards didn’t ultimately sway Page to cast Middendorf. “He didn’t know any of my stage work, never had seen me in anything.” That moment was critical for her. “I wanted to expand my horizons which meant moving back to the East Coast. I didn’t want to be limited.”

Michael Milligan and Tracy Middendorf in the 2008 Westport County Playhousee production of "The Pavillion"; Photo by Richard Termine

Soon an acting gig on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit followed, along with another opportunity to work with Joanne Woodward, who was artistic director at the Westport Country Playhouse. “I had such a wonderful time with Joanne when I performed in The Big Knife. It was a chance to get reacquainted with this fascinating woman. So I was able to do Craig Wright’s The Pavilion (2005-2006 Drama Desk Award nominee for outstanding play).”

Westport, CT, became home for one year with its quaint community, slower pace, dinners on the beach,”¦ but Middendorf and her family realized they wanted to live in the city. To Brooklyn they moved, and they’re still there.

East/West ““ the active life

Since settling in Brooklyn, Middendorf’s professional resume includes two theater productions. In 2010, she performed at Yale Repertory Theatre in the haunting thriller Battle of Black and Dogs, by the late French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltes. Middendorf reflects on her time there. “It was incredible. I adored working with Robert Woodruff (the director) who has this amazing cult following. And it gave me a chance to work with Andrew Robinson (whom she had performed with in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) now at USC (professor of theatre practice and director of MFA acting).”

Holly Twyford and Tracy Middendorf in Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2011 production of "Old Times"; Photo by Scott Suchman

A year later came Harold Pinter’s Old Times at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC. Middendorf wryly says, “It was the shortest commute I’ve ever had. They put me in an apartment three steps from the entrance door.” Expounding on her experience, “This Pinter three-character play is not hugely appealing to everyone. Audiences can be frustrated. Yet the show received good reviews. The director Michael Kahn (also artistic director at the Shakespeare Theatre) was magnificent. We had four weeks of rehearsal to focus on this dense material.” Sophie Gilbert, theater critic with the Washingtonian, wrote, “Middendorf, as Kate, does a remarkable job in expressing the character’s sexuality and the power it gives her over others.”

During this three-year span, Middendorf’s TV credits have included CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Bones, The Mentalist, NCIS, Criminal Minds and she’s especially grateful for Boardwalk Empire. “I play Babbette (the owner of the series’ central nightclub). The pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese. Watching him direct was thrilling.”

Tracy Middendorf in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire"

When it came time for the wardrobe fitting, the initial decision was to put Middendorf in a beautiful dress. She thought otherwise. “When I auditioned for the part, it came across as very masculine. So I told them I saw Babbette in a suit.” Giving the design team pause, Middendorf was told she would be called back. “When I returned later, John Dunn, the extraordinary costume designer, had me meet with a tailor to make a tuxedo. And that’s when they gave me a platinum wig.”

Looking through a different lens

As she reflects  on years past and where she is today, realizations are not far behind. “The ability to do those great parts at the Fountain”¦. I love that theater, Simon, Stephen”¦. After working on Old Times, which was in a huge space, I realized I prefer the smaller stage and a smaller audience. The intimacy of it feels comfortable to me. I miss having a place where I can do that type of work. I really appreciate and love the vitality of LA theater which is focused on the work and on the play.”

Looking at the arts with a different lens, Middendorf states, “I’ve begun to change my focus toward directing. I’m more interested in the vision for an entire piece rather than just one role in a piece. That seems like a natural step for me.”

Brian Patrick Murphy and John Finn in "Break"; Photo by Maryann Kathryn Buchanan

In August 2011, Middendorf directed Louise Rozett’s Break for the FringeNYC. The material dealt with the unexpected effects of the Ground Zero recovery effort on NYC’s firemen and policemen, and their families. How she came to helm this play was happenstance. “I was in the laundry room of our building. There was a woman (Rozett) there and we started talking. She had a Young Adult book coming out. I asked if she had written any plays, as I was looking to direct something. She said she did, and gave me her plays, which were wonderful.”

Not letting a moment such as this one go to waste, Middendorf gathered together some actors and directed a reading that had great response. “We submitted it to the Fringe Festival and it got accepted. Within a month of putting it out there, I wanted to direct a play, and that’s what I was doing. We raised money through Kickstarter to mount the production. It turned out wonderful.  Now Louise is giving me another play to consider directing.”

Giving back

This past summer Middendorf read Three Cups of Tea, Stones into Schools and Half the Sky (the Skirball Cultural Center is currently hosting an exhibit entitled “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” inspired by the Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tome.) These books dealing with the plight of girls around the world touched Moddendorf and made her consider ways she could make a difference in the lives of those “who don’t get an education and suffer a dismal fate.”

Tracy Middendorf; Photo by John Shearer

Middendorf rattles off a few startling facts: “Of the 104 million children aged 6-11 not in school each year, 60 million are girls; in South Asia, more than 40 percent of girls aged 15-19 from poor households never completed first grade; providing girls one extra year of education beyond the average boosts wages by 10-20 percent; educated girls are less likely to contract HIV; education can foster democracy and women’s political participation.”

“I wanted to help. My friend Laurel Holloman (an actress on The L Word), who is an abstract painter, donated one of her paintings for a charity auction. It made me think. With the digital age, what if I created a website with a gallery of photographs taken by actors, writers, musicians and directors? The limited number of photographs would be signed and sold with the money donated to charities focused on educating girls around the world.”

Her dream is near reality. The launch date for the website ““ www.shuttertothink.org ““ is scheduled for March 1, 2012, and its small collection of photography grows weekly.

Parting words

It’s fitting to close this article about the seasoned actress Middendorf with meaningful high praise from Sachs and Levy, who know her well.

“Tracy has this remarkable ability to blend both a ferocious work ethic with the ability to stay utterly alive in the moment,” states Sachs. “She possesses this other-worldly combination of skilled craft and gossamer magic. To work with her again would be a blessing I would cherish.”

Levy adds, “She’s translucent and a true artist. Absolutely one of the most gifted actors I’ve ever worked with. Her emotional well is so deep and so varied, and her moment-to-moment connection so riveting, that it’s impossible, for audiences and actors and as a director, not to be drawn into the world of her truth. Stunning. Truly stunning. She’s rare and a gift to theater.”

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LA Stage Times

Cromer’s Corners:
Our Town Director Brings the Wilder West

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | January 18, 2012

David LM McIntyre and Helen Hunt in "Our Town"

On an early winter evening, in the green room of the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica, sits one of the busiest American directors, David Cromer. Up since 5:30 am, after a long day’s rehearsal for Our Town with a production meeting soon to follow, Cromer hungrily tears open a package of Twizzler sticks. “Want one?”

After the offer, he takes a piece of the licorice and enjoys its strawberry sweetness. Cromer is slight in build and dressed like a college student with a faded red sweatshirt, blue jeans and black tennis shoes — although he has 47 winters under his belt. He seems to relish this moment in time, taking to heart Emily’s words at the end of Thornton Wilder’s classic play ““ that life should be valued “every, every minute.” The career whirlwind that Cromer appreciates is not lost on him.

A Moment Of Clarity

As the third of Richard and Louise Cromer’s four sons raised in Skokie, Illinois, Cromer’s youth was tumultuous at times. His parents divorced when he was 12; he dropped out of high school in his junior year (eventually earning a GED) with little interest in studies. Nonetheless the arts caught his interest and Cromer enrolled at Columbia College Chicago.  After the passing of a few years, Cromer admits, “At 22, I hadn’t graduated, was kind of done with school, but working as an actor.” A key moment occurred at a book shop, changing his career path.

David Cromer

“I was at Scenes Coffee House and Drama Bookstore at the corner of Clark and Belmont ““ the first place where I paid more than a dollar for a cup of coffee. I’d go in there to look for monologues and read new plays. I was reading Family Voices (from Harold Pinter’s published volume of plays Open Places). Loving it, I read it over and over again.” But something was different. For the first time, the thought of doing a show without any interest in acting crossed Cromer’s mind.

Not having completed undergraduate school, Cromer went to Sheldon Patinkin, who was the chair of the theater department of Columbia College, and asked, “What would I need to do to start directing?” Told to join the directing program, he replied, “I don’t have any money.”

“Well, then just come and audit.” With heartfelt gratitude, Cromer reveals, “I went to school for two more years. For free. Honestly, I owe everything to him.”

Cromer chews on another Twizzler stick. “Looking back”¦. everything I had ever done seems like it pointed toward that moment. Anything I did in theater in any way, any kind of dabbling in design, the way I approached acting, the way I interacted with other actors and directors”¦ I had mistaken my artistic impulses for wanting to be an actor when in fact I wanted to be a director.” Irony of ironies, Cromer has taught acting and directing at Columbia College despite not graduating.

The Man About Towns

Lee Roy Rogers, Ian Westerfer and Jeff Still in the Barrow Street Theatre's production of "Orson's Shadow"; Photo by Colin D. Young

While numerous accolades and three Joseph Jefferson Awards for direction in Chicago productions came Cromer’s way prior to 2005, that particular year elevated his game. Cromer made his Off-Broadway directing debut with Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow at the Barrow Street Theatre, in a production that had originated at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

In 2008 came the next major shift ““ first his staging of the musical Adding Machine, based on Elmer Rice’s 1923 play The Adding Machine. The Off-Broadway production won raves at the Minetta Lane Theater and scored two Outer Critics Circle Awards, four Lucille Lortel Awards (including Outstanding Director), four Obie Awards (including Direction) and 10 nominations from the Drama Desk Awards and Drama League Awards.

During the same year, Cromer directed and acted in Our Town, which opened at the Hypocrites in Chicago. “We were getting some great notices about the show. The chief theater critic at the Chicago Tribune, Chris Jones, another person to whom I’m profoundly grateful, mentioned the production two or three times a week in other articles, on his website and blog. You couldn’t get a ticket with a gun. We couldn’t extend the show after the initial run, so we remounted it in the fall.”

Annabel Armour, Hillary Clemens, Hannah Dworkin, Robert Fagin, Samantha Gleisten, Marc Grapey, Alyson Green, Boyd Harris, Natasha Lowe, Bridgette Pechman and Bubba Weiler in the Chicago production of "Picnic"

Simultaneously, Cromer directed a production of Picnic in which the critic Jones wrote passionately. “As with his caustic 2006 production of Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, his devastating Picnic goes directly for the jugular, albeit by way of a certain throbbing sensuality that deftly acknowledges the other side of Inge. If Cromer’s Inge revivals had been done at flashier theaters””or on film or HBO””I swear they’d be the talk of the nation.”

At the behest of Jones, Charles Isherwood with The New York Times soon followed up with an article about Cromer.

Then producer Scott Morfee, described by Cromer as “really brave, bold and talented,” saw the remount of Our Town. “We never thought in a million years Scott would ever move the show to New York. It was a freaking production of Our Town!”

On February 26, 2009, Our Town opened at the Barrow Street Theatre. Closing in September 2010, it was the longest running production in the play’s 72-year history with 644 performances. For the second year in a row, Cromer received the Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding director and the Obie Award for direction. Also Cromer performed as the Stage Manager, as well as six other actors during the Off Broadway run, including Michael Shannon, Michael McKean and Helen Hunt.

Wild About Wilder

David Cromer as the Stage Manager for the Barrow Street Theater's production of "Our Town"

What has struck a chord about Grover’s Corners with audiences? Cromer ponders. “I think people were under the impression they knew the show.” Making a comparison to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “People love this album; however, I can only intellectually love the music if I think about it. But if I listen to it, really listen to it, it’s a different experience. We were smart enough to get out of the way of Our Town, one of the greatest English-language plays ever written ““ the great American play if such a things exists, to speak it very clearly, to grown-up, sophisticated city people who thought they liked Beatles music, then listened to it again. They went “˜Wow’ and it just happened to catch on. They forgot how good it was. All of that beautiful language of the play lands on you.”

“Also, it was an effort to make surprising again Wilder’s intent ““ for example, no scenery.  It was a big deal back then on Broadway. We’re used to those conventions now that were surprising in 1938. From Sean Graney, the founding artistic director at the Hypocrites who is kind of a wild, improvisatory creator, I got I was trying to obey the spirit of Wilder, if not the letter of Wilder. We haven’t changed a word, added anything. We’ve been allowed to add a few lines from another version by Wilder of the play, but haven’t changed any language.”

Jeff Still and Lori Myers in "Our Town" at The Broad Stage

“If you focus on what the writer wrote, it opens all of this other stuff. I used to catch myself when I was young, having a bunch of ideas and attaching it to a play. I now look at a play and let it give me a bunch of ideas. Ideally, for me, you can get it in the DNA of the writing and not out of an idea you have separately.”

And actors wearing regular clothes, speaking with no accents (other than their own), with house lights up,”¦?  “If Wilder wanted to strip the play of artifice, and the way he stripped it of artifice in 1938 was to say “˜no scenery,’ we needed to go further with the stripping of the artifice to make it feel new again. You can’t get more bare bones than the first line of the play, “˜This play is called Our Town, written by Thornton Wilder, produced by the Broad Stage.’  The play begins with someone saying this is a play, these are actors, this is all fake. You can’t get more stripped down than that. We (the designers and me) tried to follow that.”

When asked about the performance of Helen Hunt (Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe-winner) as the Stage Manager in the upcoming production, Cromer smiles. “When the show ran at the Barrow Street Theatre, Helen came to see the show because one of our producers is good friends with her. Afterwards, she stood in the lobby, grabbed my wrists and we talked about the play for 45 minutes. Two months later, she called me on the phone and wanted to talk about the play some more. A year after that, we were able to get her to come into the NY show there as the Stage Manager. She then made this happen after talking with Dale Franzen (founding director of Broad Stage).”

Helen Hunt as the Stage Manager in "Our Town"

“It’s interesting Helen doing the show here, living in Santa Monica. The Stage Manager says they want to take you through this process. Helen is saying to her town, Santa Monica, “˜I would like to show this to you.’ It’s the idea the Stage Manager has a separate authority, a separate relationship with the audience than the cast does. I was instigating the evening (when performing in the role) because I was directing the show; Helen is instigating the evening because she instigated the West Coast version of the production.”

The Lows And Highs

Broadway hasn’t necessarily been kind to Cromer. In October 2009, while reviews were mostly positive for the revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, the show closed after nine performances, and the revival of Broadway Bound never opened. In 2011, the Broadway revival of The House of Blue Leaves had a limited run. And the mention of the on-again/ off-again Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth brings only anguish to Cromer’s face.

What brings out another Twizzler stick for Cromer’s enjoyment as well as a big grin is the mention of what wonderful things happened in 2010 and what’s to come in 2012.

Mary-Arrchie Theatre's 2010 production of "Cherrywood"

In 2010, Cromer received rave reviews for two productions ““ A Streetcar Named Desire at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe (Chicago) and and Cherrywood at the Mary-Arrchie Theatre. While the Tennessee Williams revival was in Cromer’s wheel house, Cherrywood was a much riskier proposition. Written by Kirk Lynn with the Austin theater troupe the Rude Mechanicals, it’s a party gone off the rails with dialogue that doesn’t indicate who says what. Not to mention the fact Cromer decided to cast 49 actors!

Cherrywood isn’t a play stating to cast 49 actors; I just decided to cast 49 actors of the 52 who auditioned.” With a gleam in his eye, Cromer continues. “If it’s a party, then there have to be more than five people at it, right? So we chose for there to be 49.” He laughs heartily. “It was freeing and terrifying and it was really hard and really exciting. It allowed me to riff more on ideas. We were true to the text, but the only DNA you had was the nature of the exchange and you had to extrapolate it from there.” And the size of the theater? Cromer laughs again. “We had as many in the cast as there were seats in the space. It was an experiment not for everybody, but if you live in fear, you can’t do anything.”

James McMenamin, Jennifer Grase and Ronete Levenson in "Our Town"

Then came the MacArthur Fellowship ““ Cromer was named one of 23 recipients of the $500,000 “genius awards” by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Cromer is quick to state, “The street name ““ “˜genius’ ““ that word doesn’t really apply. It’s an incredible compliment and has afforded me a financial cushion I never thought I’d ever have.” He pauses and with the timing of a comedian says, “You can do a lot of plays with 49 people onstage.”

Did the award bring about more job offers? “I don’t think I got any more calls for jobs afterwards than I did before. You get to be on a shortlist for a while, but that’ll change. Honestly, it scared me. It probably puts an expectation on my work I’m not comfortable with. But if it’s a choice in giving the money back or dealing with an unreasonable expectation of my work,”¦ I’ll take the unreasonable expectation of my work.”

What’s To Come

After the opening of Our Town at the Broad, Cromer leaves for New York to begin rehearsals for Tribes, Nina Raine’s family drama. The 2010 Oliver Award-nominated play makes its North American premiere at the Barrow Street Theatre on March 6.

Lori Myers and Jeff Still in "Our Town"

Then there is Yank. The original musical set in World War II continues a march toward Broadway with hopes for a “landing” in 2012. Cromer has been working with the development of the musical which sheds light on a lesser known aspect of military life ““ the participation of gay and lesbian troops during WWII. “It’s gorgeous, and it’s rare something this good falls in your lap. You just have to hold on to it. I feel about Yank what I feel about Casablanca and Gone With The Wind. We’re close to finding the people who are brave enough to do it.”

Cromer observes life as it is, acknowledges and values everything that has led to this precise moment, while forging ahead on new adventures — “genius” or not.

Our Town, presented by Broad Stage. Opens Jan. 18. Plays Tues.-Fri., 7:30 pm; Sat. 2 pm and 7:30 pm; Sun. 2 pm. Through Feb. 12. Tickets: $50 – $135. Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica. 310-434-3200.  http://thebroadstage.com.

***All Our Town production photos by Iris Schneider

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LA Stage Times

David Dean Bottrell — The Power Of “Yes”

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | November 10, 2011

Thomas James O’Leary and Larry Cedar in "Travels With My Aunt"

On a late Saturday afternoon fast-breaking toward dusk, David Dean Bottrell sips strong, dark brew after a long rehearsal at the Colony Theatre. He confabulates with his assistant director, comparing notes from the day’s work on Travels With My Aunt and strategizing about the next day’s rehearsal.

After their quick discussion, the tired yet resolute Bottrell looks at his cup of joe as if he wishes it were endless. Nevertheless, if anyone were ever to wish for less activity, it wouldn’t be Bottrell ““ at least not at this juncture of his life. Juggling like a veteran circus performer, Bottrell has a lot on his plate besides his directorial stage debut. His one-man show David Dean Bottrell Makes Love soon returns, plus a few other exciting opportunities are on the horizon. For Bottrell, being uber-busy is a blessing without the curse.

The Road Traveled Leads To Acting

One’s background often reveals deep insight into the mind and heart of an artist. Originally from Kentucky, Bottrell’s very religious family moved from small town to small town, and into parts of southern Ohio. Extremely reserved and shy as a child, his primary interest was painting and drawing, which received accolades but teetered on a slippery slope –  it was not considered Christ-like behavior to draw attention to one’s self.

“Certainly one of the favorite quoted scriptures in my family’s household was “˜Pride goeth before a fall.’ One did not want to be a show-off.” For Bottrell, a chance to escape was important. “I loved any imaginary world I could enter — comic books, sci-fi on television”¦. As much as I loved (and love) my family, our existence was a little grim.”

David Dean Bottrell

Then came love ““ which led to another form of escape. Bottrell’s face beams at the memory. “I fell in love with a girl, Valryn Warren — one of the most beautiful names I’d ever heard in all my 15 years of life.” After learning she was active in the high school drama club, “the only way I could figure out to get anywhere near her was to audition for a play.” He auditioned with trepidation. Bottrell didn’t end up with the girl but instead ended up with the drama club.

With his new-found interest, “What I discovered, by pretending to be somebody else, was I could stand up in front of people and make them laugh. It was this wonderfully safe place. You could hide behind a character; you could be somebody other than yourself. It was magical, and I loved it.”

Cut to”¦at the end of his freshman year at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, Bottrell was hired for a local summer stock show. “At the end of that summer, the director was directing another show somewhere else. I boldly said, “˜If you cast me, wherever it is, I’ll be there.’ He hired me and I dropped out of college.” With a grin, he adds, “Plus college and I didn’t really take to each other in the first place.” Later Bottrell moved to New York, where he found an acting coach, William Esper, “who was brilliant. I actually conned him into letting me into his class. Two years later, I was a working actor.”

How supportive was Bottrell’s family about his decision to become an actor? “They had never heard of such a thing before. It seemed like an awfully risky proposition. Plus their impression of show business was sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Looking back, I can certainly understand why they were concerned.”

But acting? Bottrell divulges, “It was the only thing I was good at. I wasn’t a particularly good waiter or good at any job I’d held in my life. I never felt present in any of those jobs. The only time I felt I was really myself was when I was doing something inherently creative — involved in imagining something first and then bringing it into existence.”

NYC To LA

Larry Cedar, Mark Capri, Thomas James O’Leary, and Sybyl Walker in "Travels With My Aunt"

After a decade of working in NYC as an actor, Bottrell decided to try his hand at writing plays. Beginner’s luck struck as his first play Dearly Departed (co-written with Jessie Jones) was performed at the Long Wharf,  then went to the Second Stage. Bottrell sheepishly admits, “Although the play wasn’t hugely successful, I started getting calls from LA”¦ to write.”

A creative career move was to be made. “I decided to not be an actor any longer. I moved to LA and for the next 14 years, I worked exclusively as a screenwriter.” Bottrell wrote screenplays for MTV Films, Paramount Pictures and Disney Feature Animation and co-wrote Kingdom Come, a hit for Fox Searchlight. Life was good as a writer, but as the years were passing by, it wasn’t necessarily satisfying.

Bottrell downs the remainder of his coffee, then shares another major “great life moment” that happened five years ago ““ one that has yet again shifted him in ways unimaginable ““ and it was as simple as a phone call. “The phone rang. A casting director had remembered me from a play I had done Off-Broadway. “˜Hey, would you come in and audition for this role?’ I explained I had been out of acting for quite a while”¦. God bless her –  she was persistent. I went in and read for her. It was a one-scene role on Boston Legal which then morphed into something bigger. My acting career was handed back to me on a silver platter. To this day, I’m astounded by that piece of luck.” And that luck in being cast in the role of the creepy Lincoln Meyer is where “yes” began to roll trippingly off Bottrell’s tongue.

“Yes”

David Dean Bottrell in "Better Angels"

The expressive Bottrell leans forward in his folding chair. “I think the biggest lesson of the last five years has been to say “˜yes.’ I had a very specific career as a screenwriter. The phone ringing changed my life. It began with the fantastic role on Boston Legal, then a short movie I wrote and directed (the award-winning Available Men), then standing in the gym when Roy Cruz walked up to me and said, “˜I have an idea for a comedy show called Streep Tease. Want to do it?’ All these doors opened at once.” Then a letter penned by Bottrell led to another opportunity.

Colony artistic director Barbara Beckley recalls, “David sent a delightful letter to us, wanting to get back on stage. It arrived the week we were setting up auditions for Wayne Liebman’s play Better Angels.” Trent Steelman, Colony’s executive director, adds, “The letter was really wonderful, and we called him in.” Bottrell’s letter-perfect timing led to the role of John Hay in the play about Abraham Lincoln.

David Dean Bottrell and Bryan Donovan in "Out of Africa" at the Public Theatre in New York

Then Beckley and Steelman saw Bottrell in the long-running cult hit Streep Tease ““ an evening of Meryl Streep monologues (from movies) all performed by men. Bottrell’s film choice was Out of Africa but he soon realized that “there’s no monologue in it. I had a real dilemma on my hands. Roy had informed all of the performers there was a strict six-minute time limit (per monologue). Then it hit me. Since Isak Dinesen was a story-teller, I decided to see if I could tell the entire story of Out of Africa in six minutes.”

Beckley states, with Steelman nodding in agreement, “It was one of the most hysterically funny, touching, beautiful moments of the show. It was exquisite.” And Bottrell’s performance reminded them of the tone and style of Travels With My Aunt. Later, when mulling over the names of possible directors for the  Giles Havergal adaptation of the Graham Greene comic novel, “Trent suggested David. I looked at him and said, “˜You are a genius.’”

Taking Risks

Mark Capri, Sybyl Walker and Thomas James O’Leary in "Travels With My Aunt"

How does it feel to hand the reins over to a first-time director on a full-length play at the Colony? “It was scary to realize we’re hiring someone who has never directed a play before,” Steelman admits. Yet with a hearty chuckle, he adds, “But it wasn’t like we were handing razors to a child either. This was David Dean Bottrell.” Beckley mentions, “Watching David at work with the design team, the actors”¦He knows what he’s doing. We’re in good hands.”

Bottrell states, “It’s right up my alley. I love the fact you can take four actors and a couple of folding chairs and suddenly create a car or a boat or an airplane”¦. With a couple of sound effects and clever lighting, you can be anywhere. I love that about the theater and it attracted me to this material, plus I love the story ““ about whether or not you can correct the course of your life late in the game.” Retired bank manager and mild-mannered Henry Pulling has never left his own orbit. When his vigorous and eccentric Aunt Augusta suddenly appears with mysterious information about his past, Henry is drawn into an exotic international adventure.

Bottrell’s eyes flicker with enthusiasm. “Originally the play was written for four men to play 25 roles. We’ve been given permission to do it with three men and one woman. All of our actors play both male and female, every conceivable nationality, every age, and in one case, an actor plays a dog. I felt Giles’ original concept was confusing with three of the four actors playing the leading role of Henry at various times — also dressed identically. Really loving the character of Henry, I wanted to make sure we had an actor who the audience could identify with and follow through the course of the show. Thomas James O’Leary is terrific as Henry, and the other three actors — Mark Capri, Larry Cedar and Sybyl Walker — are remarkable and incredibly funny as well.”

Director David Dean Bottrell, during rehearsal with the cast of "Travels With My Aunt"; Photo by Rick Bernstein

What prepared Bottrell for this new experience ““ staging a play? His last few years as an acting teacher are vital, he replies. “You can’t have a boilerplate response to performers. Each actor is an individual artist, each works in their own way, has their own vocabulary. Part of my job as a teacher is to use my best instincts to nudge that person toward their best work. I have to meet everybody where they live. Not the other way around. And that’s what I’m doing here.”

As for being on the “other side,” Bottrell smiles broadly. “Actually, I like it on this side of the table. My job is very clear. I have to make everything work.” His rollicking laugh fills the rehearsal hall. “In all seriousness, I’m responsible for the story being told, to the way the stage looks, to the playwright, to the producing team of the theater, to the audience”¦. Ultimately, it’s my responsibility. All of it.”

And Then There’s Making Love

Meanwhile, David Dean Bottrell Makes Love has a return engagement at the Rogue Machine from November 16 through December 15. He reflects on how his one-man show — an oddball, edgy collection of true stories about “what we do for love” — came to fruition.

“I did a piece at a Spoken Word evening that really went over like gangbusters. As I was driving home, I thought, “˜Maybe there’s more to this material; maybe it can be expanded.’ I started writing more, but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a series of jokes. I’m not a stand-up comedian. I’m a storyteller. My goal is to tell the truth, hopefully in a way that’s funny.”

David Dean Bottrell in "David Dean Bottrell Makes Love: A One Man Show"

What has struck a chord with the audiences regarding a 68-minute show of love stories? “I wanted to create a show about love. Granted if you come to the show, you’re going to find out way more about me than you probably ever wanted to know, but I’ve been touched by how many people stay afterward to talk to me. All kinds of people ““ men, women, straight, gay, all races, all ages”¦ have stayed to tell me how they related to one story or the other. Some stories are about dating, about falling in love with the wrong person, about first love, about my relationship with my father”¦. I’ve done everything in my power to create as many on-ramps as possible for every conceivable person to come to the show, to enjoy, to laugh and to come away with something.”

At The End Of The Day

Bottrell readily admits, “All of these wonderful, amazing things didn’t just magically happen for me, although there was definitely some luck involved. They were a result of 30 years I’ve been in show business. And I remind myself, if I want to have a career in the industry, my job is to contribute to that industry, not to bang on the door and demand things from it, but to come to the door offering something.”

“So far it’s been an incredible adventure. I’m very appreciative and grateful. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as excited as I do these days. Pretty much every morning I get up and think “˜Who knows what’s going to happen today, but I’ll bet it’ll be fun!’”

The power of “yes” thrives in the ever-evolving, irreverent, creative world of David Dean Bottrell.

Travels With My Aunt, presented by the Colony Theatre. Opens Nov. 12. Plays Thur. ““ Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 3 pm and 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm. Through December 18. (Dark the weekend of November 24-27). Tickets: $20-42. The Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third Street, Burbank. 818-558-7000 ext 15. www.colonytheatre.org.

***All Travels With My Aunt and Better Angels production photos by Michael Lamont

David Dean Bottrell Makes Love, produced by Andrew Carlberg. Opens Nov. 16. Plays Wed. ““ Thur. 8 pm. Through Dec. 16. Tickets: $20. Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 W. Pico Blvd, LA. 323-930-0747. www.roguemachinetheatre.com.

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LA Stage Times

Dancing With the Devil in Odyssey’s Way to Heaven

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | October 31, 2011

Norbert Weisser and Bruce Katzman in "Way to Heaven"

Manipulation. To skillfully influence to suit one’s purpose. Deception. To mislead by false appearance and statement. Extermination. To eliminate the Jews.

Such is the makeup of Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga’s Way To Heaven (Himmelweg) currently performing through December 18 in its West Coast premiere at the Odyssey Theatre.

Inspired by the true story of the elaborate deception that took place at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1944 Germany, Mayorga’s non-linear, impressionistic play-within-a-play begins with an angst-ridden monologue by a Red Cross inspector, succeeded by a series of disconcerting tableaux in which a select group of imprisoned Jews play-act in order to create a “model village” for the inspector’s visit, thereby covering up the reality of the Holocaust.

Yet it is the 10 scenes that follow that give harrowing insight into the collaboration required in order to create this perverse faux-utopia for propaganda’s sake. The bulk of Mayorga’s play focuses on the camp commandant and a prisoner, Gershom Gottfried (the “Mayor”) ““ performed respectively by Norbert Weisser and Bruce Katzman ““ revealing that when one dances with the devil, complicity plays out in unnerving ways.

Different Directions, Same Destination

Bruce Katzman and Norbert Weisser

One year after the conclusion of WWII, Norbert Weisser was born in Neu-Isenburg, Germany. Raised in the confines of an oppressive and authoritative environment, Weisser had big dreams of leaving for greener pastures. Reflecting on his frustrations and on the re-integration of ex-Nazis into West German society, Weisser states, “My instructors were all teachers in the Third Reich. They may have changed their spots but only a little bit.”

As a 20-year-old, his dream came to fruition when he left for America. What did America offer? “All the symbols that meant freedom ““ cars, rock and roll, bobby socks, hula-a-hoops, jazz, Satchmo, movies, James Dean”¦” And because most of these phenomena were exemplified by sunny LA, that’s where he headed, initially on a tourist visa.

He had studied mechanical engineering at his father’s suggestion. It probably helped him get one of his first jobs in LA,  as an industrial designer for an aerospace company. But he slid into acting after being coaxed into a workshop led by James Whitmore and Ricardo Montalban.

Even back then, Ron Sossi, artistic director of the Odyssey and director of Way to Heaven, had an impact on Weisser’s life as an actor. “In 1969, Ron offered me the role of Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera and it was a hit, running a year. I realized this was fun and I was good at it.” Absorbing the LA experimental theater scene of the ’60s and ’70s, Weisser became a founding member of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, ProVisional Theatre and Padua Hills Playwrights Festival. Then came Midnight Express, with more movies to follow.

Norbert Weisser and Talyan Wright

Way to Heaven is hardly the first production that has employed Weisser in an examination of the Nazi era.  Earlier this year, he received an LADCC nomination for his role as the beleaguered householder in the Odyssey’s 2010 production of Max Frisch’s The Arsonists, a play that’s often viewed as an allegory about the rise of the Third Reich.  In 2003 he received an Ovation Award [for Lead Actor in a Play] for playing a wartime German actor married to a Jew in John O’Keefe’s  Times Like These at the Odyssey [Laurie O’Brien also won for Lead Actress]. It ” was a career highlight,” he says. In 1996, he performed on Broadway with Ed Harris and Daniel Massey in Ron Harwood’s Taking Sides, which analyzed the behavior of German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler during the Nazi era.

With some pride he states, “For the last 40 years, I’ve made a living as an actor. I try to do theater at least once a year. It’s important.”

The self-effacing Bruce Katzman caught the acting bug at a much earlier age than Weisser. “I got bit when I was five and a half at summer camp. I was in a skit with my brother. It was funny, the audience looked at me and laughed, and I was hooked.” Katzman makes a point to express his gratitude for his family’s support throughout his life ““ “doing apprenticeships at theaters, studying acting at college,”¦” In 1988, he earned his MFA from the Yale School of Drama. For the past 12 years he has been a working actor in Los Angeles.

When asked what draws him to the stage, especially when 99-seat theater doesn’t pay the bills, Katzman replies, “Is the part going to be a challenge for me? Is this going to be exciting? It’s either got to be a role I can’t say “˜no’ to or be a play/production/director/theater that will feed my life in a special way.”

Weisser concurs. After he read his role of the Commandant, he concluded “‘I can’t turn that down.’ There are things in his speeches, primarily in the bookend speeches, I’ve never been able to say and express in any other play about the Holocaust. There is such density of things I’ve carried as a human being all my life. I was born right after the war, gifted with this ton of bricks of what my people, my parents, uncles, aunts, had participated in ““ directly or indirectly.”  Although his father was too old to serve in the military, an uncle was considered a war hero for his actions in fighting against the French. “In this role, there’s a way for me to lay that out, to express it.”

Why This “Way”?

David Valdes and Bruce Katzman

What is so special about Way To Heaven? Katzman shakes his head. “How Mayorga even thought to do this play in the first place is mystifying. The format is so unusual.” Weisser slides in with, “And courageous. Intriguing. The writer has drawn things from the Holocaust and put it together without the constraint to stay here realistically. It’s poetic.”

But another play or film about the Holocaust? Weisser leans forward. “The play goes beyond Theresienstadt and the Holocaust. It’s about all of us collectively agreeing to a scenario that goes on constantly. None of us wants to see the writing on the wall. We would rather not see it. If we see it, we would rather not talk about it or we suppress it. It gets into that ability we have as human beings to not see what is really in front of our eyes ““ the theater being played for us.”

Both Weisser and Katzman are quick to point out that the history of the circumstances surrounding this particular situation heighten the existing horror. The Third Reich goes to great lengths to pull the wool over the eyes of the Red Cross inspector by creating a façade ““ a Potemkin village built that includes a school, synagogue, town square, shops, a soccer playing field ““ then forcing the Jewish prisoners to persuade the observer, through various rehearsed scenes posing as slices of life, that the Jews are being held in humane conditions. In essence, everyone “acts” to cover up what is the actual truth.

The Cost Of This Dance

What about the relationship and moments on stage Weisser and Katzman have together? Katzman shares, “It’s yet another interesting aspect of this play; as actors, as characters, we both have such completely different points of view about the events happening. In order for us to come from the truth of our own characters, there is a place we cannot meet. The couple of points where I think there is a friendship or bond, he cuts me off at the knees.”

Weisser replies, “The Commandant just happens to have the power. He is a bully. Our relationship is between a bully and someone being bullied. There is a dance, an interplay, with manipulation and tension. It’s tricky.”

Bruce Katzman and Norbert Weisser

“And unsettling,” adds Katzman. Commenting on the charming, cultured, terrifying overseer o the camp, who fancies himself as a director and playwright, he continues, “The Commandant is a Nazi but he’s not a stereotype; he’s one-of-a-kind. Through his intellectual and artistic sensibilities, he’s able to justify everything his people are doing. He articulates very clearly and insidiously the arrogance, the self-appointed righteousness of the mindset of the people at that time, that government, regime, political entity, the Nazi Empire. This play is a well-written expression of the things those participants, those believers at that time, felt, thought, justified, how they saw it.”

Katzman remarks about the end of the play when Gottfried fine-tunes the performances of the prisoners with their assigned parts. “I actually repeat things the Commandant has taught me in prior meetings in his office. It’s sort of spooky how I’ve become his little puppet.” Under the Commandant’s thumb, the powerless Gottfried must make sure the Jewish actors do their part, follow the collaborated script laid out before them, giving the performance of their lives”¦ and for their lives.

Katzman emphasizes that “the European problem with the Jews had existed for centuries. Centuries. What the Commandant says with such pride,”¦ it was a matter of transportation. They figured it out.” Silence fills the back office of the Odyssey Theatre where the interview is being conducted.

Weisser’s voice carries sadness as he states, “That aspect of the Holocaust, to me, is the most daunting and troubling. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around it ““ the industrial scale, the ability to look at it in terms of numbers and trains and movement, and completely dehumanizing the slaughter of human beings.”

Despite the evidence already in hand from other reliable sources, the Red Cross issued a 15-page report on the Theresienstadt concentration camp giving its approval that all was well between the Jews and Nazis.

The Audience Reacts

Talyan Wright

At the conclusion of each performance, the audience is invited to stay for a Q&A with the cast and director. “The audience members have this very intense experience,” says Katzman. “Sometimes they talk about what’s happened to them ““ whether they’re Christians or Gentiles who’ve had no history or idea of these events occurring, witnessing something for the very first time, to people who have been survivors themselves coming out of the concentration camps as young folks or relating stories about their parents or relatives who were there. It has been remarkable and rewarding.” Weisser affirms, “There is a need to tell their story, an urgency. And the complexities…Some people are just stunned.”

Katzman nods and relates how a friend, a prominent lawyer, couldn’t speak until 20 minutes after a performance. “His face was kind of a fog.”

Weisser relays a story regarding a personal friend. “She walked out after the break (intermission). She couldn’t take it, wasn’t ready for it. Luckily, for another friend of mine who was with her, I was able to drive him home after the show.”

Sometimes hostility makes its way into the post-show discussion. “There are audience members who can’t look at me,” says Weisser, “having such anger because I have humanized the Commandant. “˜How dare you do that?!?’ “˜He’s evil!’ Well of course he is, but he’s still human. You can’t separate it. Accept him as a human being who has his own torture, confusions, guilt and sadness.”

Weisser speaks on a broader scale. “If I show a human aspect to this character, all of a sudden the evil that’s done in this world is in all of us. Every possibility, everything, is in all of us. As long as we pretend that’s not the case, we’ll look at other people as “˜the other.’ That’s too easy. “˜It’s the Arabs, it’s the Jews, it’s the Palestinians, it’s the Germans, it’s the Mexicans, it’s them, it’s them, it’s them,”¦’ You have to say essentially, “˜No, it’s within me.’ It’s complicated.”

At The End Of The Day

A long day draws to an end ““ with a performance and Q&A already under the belt of Katzman and Weisser. Before rising from their seats, both actors profusely compliment Sossi for his direction and guidance, as well as the design team and other cast members, and for the opportunity to be in Way To Heaven.

Bruce Katzman and Norbert Weisser

Before the two performers exit the room and return to their lives outside the theater, they extend hands to one another and shake. Weisser says, “It’s such a pleasure.” Katzman smiles and agrees. “It’s a wonderful collaboration.”

Interesting. Could that brief exchange have been said almost 70 years ago in Theresienstadt between two men ““ a commandant and a prisoner ““ at the conclusion of their own performance for the Red Cross?  The repetition with a different meaning, hauntingly so? It’s unsettling to consider, yet in Mayorga’s world of puzzling pieces, it’s all the more gut-wrenching and possible.

Way To Heaven (Himmelweg), produced by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. Wed.-Sat. 8 pm; Sun. at 2 pm (except December 4 at 7 pm only). Wednesday performances on November 2 and 9 only; Thursday performances on November 17 and December 1, 8 and 15 only. Through December 18. Tickets: Wed.-Fri.: $25; Sat.-Sun.: $30. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. 310-477-2055 or www.odysseytheatre.com.

***All Way To Heaven production photos by Enci

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LA Stage Times

What’s Right With Michael Matthews

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | September 20, 2011

Daniel Taylor and Miles Heymann in "What's Wrong with Angry?"

On a late Saturday afternoon, the wooden doors into the Celebration Theatre swing open, and the intense smell of fresh paint wafts throughout the contained playing area. Tall, youthful director Michael Matthews makes his way to an audience chair and plops down. A long day for Matthews will become even longer with an invited dress rehearsal for What’s Wrong With Angry?, which begins in fewer than four hours.

Yet calm washes over a genial Matthews, who stretches out his paint-splotched legs and exudes sincere Southern warmth and charm. He is in his element. The former artistic director of the Celebration has recent double wins for direction at the NAACP Awards ceremony, and he will soon learn that he has been nominated for an Ovation Award for his recent staging of Take Me Out at the Celebration. But Matthews prefers to celebrate what others have done with him ““ to enable his good fortune and creative endeavors. Celebrations can be short-lived, and Matthews firmly believes he has much more to accomplish.

From The Ashes

Michael Matthews

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Matthews seemingly embodies Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote as he describes his childhood. Born and raised in Darlington, South Carolina until 10 years of age, Matthews survived a “living hell” at a Chattanooga, Tennessee, Christian preparatory school through the 10th grade.

Although Matthews knew he was different from other children by the third or fourth grade, “knowing” he was gay didn’t make it any easier. “I fought it and fought it and fought it and fought it…all the way through junior high, all the way through high school.” Church was no help. “We would go to worship on Wednesday nights, Sunday mornings, Sunday nights. At a young age, I remember praying to take this feeling away. I didn’t know what to do with it and it didn’t go away.” An excruciating internalized hurt was further exacerbated by constant physical and verbal abuse from bullies. “I was repeatedly called every name in the book and had more than my fair share of bloody noses, day in and day out. It was relentless.” Matthews eventually struck back. “Those who were hurting me and terrifying me, I would try to give back as much as I could…It was an awful, awful, awful time.”

But Matthews found a saving diversion “in this mess of a time” and one that would eventually give him direction. During his junior and senior years, he attended an inner city performing arts high school. He found a new love — theater — and worked as an actor at local venues whenever possible. Enthusiasm to grow creatively led him to attend Columbia College Chicago, a private arts and media college. He found a creative and collaborative environment. with accomplished faculty having extensive professional expertise and networks. All this helped Matthews realize his potential as a director.

Daniel Taylor and Miles Heymann

His face brightens upon reflection. “School (at Columbia College Chicago) was one of the best experiences of my life. I didn’t want to leave. I lapped it up.” For example, “My very first directing class, we were given 50 dollars. We had to do a one-act play, stripping everything down, making it about the work. It was an amazing time, and I was able to do some fantastic projects. And it was how I learned to communicate with my actors and learned to collaborate with my designers.”

Upon earning a B.A. in directing, Matthews hit the ground running in the Windy City. Success and recognition followed him ““ at Journeymen Theater, Trap Door Theatre, Serendipity Theatre Collective, Victory Gardens Theater, Circle Theatre. Yet a feeling of discouragement began to arise as he tried to break through what he calls a glass ceiling. “I felt like I couldn’t move to the next level ““ to LORT theaters. It’s an old boy’s network and they kept using their own people.”

Fate took over. Almost simultaneously, life, desire and plans collided. Matthews was presented with a prime opportunity to attend graduate school at Northwestern; however, a seemingly sure thing fell apart during the application process. When Matthews’ significant other needed to move to Los Angeles for business reasons, he states, “It was the perfect storm and I knew it was time for a change.” Off to LA he went.

Hello, LA

"The Bacchae"; photo by David Elzer

It’s August 2004. At age 28 and having no sense of the LA theater scene, Matthews decided to see what the lay of the land was. “I thought theaters only existed on Santa Monica Boulevard, so I walked down the street. I’m looking at these banners on poles and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, boy, this is interesting.’ I kept walking and ended up at the Celebration Theatre.”

Matthews immediately realized some of the shows he had done in Chicago had their premieres at the Celebration. “I knocked on the door and someone was here. It was crazy”¦. I love history, seeing places talked about. Just walking into the space, just knowing some of the shows, knowing some of the playwrights I’ve loved and adored who had their works here”¦ it was one of those experiences where I wanted to work in this space, especially where the mission is incredibly important.”

According to the mission statement, “Celebration Theatre is a community of artists dedicated to presenting innovative, provocative and relevant work that examines the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer experience. We endeavor to challenge society’s perception of this community and give a vibrant voice to its evolving identity.”

Vision became reality. Matthews discovered the Celebration was seeking an artistic director, and he applied for the open position. After several weeks of interviews, he was hired in February 2005 and began a new journey ““ a graduate school of a different nature.

Graduate School ““ Celebration Style

To describe his tenure at the Celebration from February 2005 to August 2008, Matthews quotes from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities ““ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” When he began work, “It was me, a set of keys and the space. There was no company, no season, no subscribers.” The theater produced shows but not in seasons, which precluded the possibility of subscribers.

Scene from "Take Me Out"; Photo by Michael Calas

“Coming from Chicago I was used to every theater having a company and a season. So I formed a company not just of actors but people who were passionate about telling great stories and telling them really well. We formed a season of four shows, one of which was a musical called Play it Cool which I championed (and which was Ovation-nominated for world premiere musical). And it just [recently] opened Off-Broadway, which I’m excited about.”

Matthews was nominated for a 2007 Ovation Award for direction — and not just for one play at the Celebration in the directing category but two ““ The Bacchae and Beautiful Thing. Both plays were also nominated for Best Play Production (Intimate Theater).

While reinvigorating the Celebration, Matthews’ energy as artistic director waned after three years. “There came a point when I found myself in the building from nine in the morning to midnight, six days a week”¦ easily. You’re doing all these shows, opening one and auditioning another, in rehearsals for the next one, balancing out the space”¦. I was trying to get an engine going, to get the wheels spinning, to make all of the inside work. I couldn’t get out to promote the theater. It came to a point where I couldn’t stay inside anymore.”

Focused On Directing

Michael A. Shepperd took over the reins as artistic director in September 2008 but Shepperd made certain to keep Matthews as the Celebration’s resident director. Shepperd emphasized the importance of Matthews’ impact on the theater as well as on himself. “He was the sole reason I was gifted with the Celebration Theatre for three years, and because of his initial vision, I was able to bring the Celebration as far as I did.” Shepperd added about Matthews, “He is one of those true artists who have increasingly become a dying breed. He cares about people and especially the craft.”

The Company of "Women of Brewster Place, The Musical"

Matthews responds likewise about Shepperd and personally thanks him for the gift of The Women of Brewster Place, the Musical which Matthews directed in the spring of 2010. “Michael Shepperd was given the musical by Tim Acito (book, music, lyrics) and Shep asked me to direct the show. It was my first musical. I was in love with Gloria Naylor and her books when I was a kid. Tim wanted to revamp the script (produced before at Arena and the Alliance) so we worked on it together. Being able to bring that to life, to work with Ameenah Kaplan, the choreographer, and the designers”¦. There was nothing better. It was so much fun.”

In the past year, Matthews has enjoyed an impressive ride as a director. In addition to his just-announced  Ovation nomination for Take Me Out (click here for more on Matthews and Take Me Out) and his two NAACP honors for Take Me Out and The Women of Brewster Place, the latter received last year’s Ovation Award for best production of a musical (intimate theater) along with a best director nomination for Matthews. His staging of Haram! Iran! was nominated by GLAAD for best production of a play. And The Bacchae performed at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival.

Now and Upcoming

At the ripe age of 35, Matthews is ready to take it to the next level. Celebration’s first production in its 29th season, Patrick Wilde’s What’s Wrong With Angry?, opened September 9 and is Ovation-recommended. Matthews first directed it in a return visit to Chicago in 2005, at the Circle Theatre. Asked what drew him to it again, he says that media accounts of bullied and sometimes suicidal teenagers “had an emotional impact on me and took a long time to process. I wanted to do something. What can you do? People were making videos which was amazing. We’re a theater. What can we do? We can do a play.

Daniel Taylor and Kelly Schumann "What's Wrong with Angry?"

WWWA takes place in 1993. There’s this 16-year-old boy, Stephen, who loves life and is full of joy; knows who he is and is constantly beaten. At a point in the play, a teacher, Simon, wipes blood off Stephen’s face and says, ‘It gets better.’ Just the fact he said that, and with the ‘It Gets Better’ Campaign, it stirred something up in me and I wanted to do the show. I want it to be a way for me and the theater to give back to the community in light of the recent attacks and in light of the things going on in this world. This is our video; this is our way of saying, ‘It does get better’.”

While the bullying story-line certainly strikes a familiar chord with Matthews, another significant part also personally connects with him ““ when you’re told your love isn’t acceptable. For 13 years, he has been with his partner and proudly states they are now married. And Matthews firmly believes the play’s message is as relevant now as it was in the early 1990s. “It’s a story that has to be told.”

In March 2012, Matthews will embrace another musical at the Celebration, The Color Purple. “It fits the mission of the Celebration, it’s never been done in a theater with less than 1,000 seats, it’s a fantastic challenge and raises the game to a whole other level.”

What’s Wrong With Angry? presented by the Celebration Theatre. Performances Thurs.-Sat. 8 pm; Sun. 3 pm. Tickets: $30. Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 323-957-1884. www.celebrationtheatre.com.

***All What’s Wrong With Angry production photos by Miguel Montalvo

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LA Stage Times

New Leadership at the Celebration Theatre

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | August 26, 2011

John Michael Beck

On the far west side of Theater Row at 7051B Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood sits a rather nondescript, somewhat bland building. But inside this particular structure resides a theater company that’s anything but, with a rich and colorful history only eclipsed by its diligent commitment to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer experience. As the Celebration Theatre celebrates its 29th Season, artistic director John Michael Beck fully embraces the motto ““ “Honor our past, distinguish our present, create our future.” With executive director Michael C. Kricfalusi, these two newly appointed leaders join forces to elevate the Celebration as well as their own artistic careers.

The Personal Journey

At Jersey Mike’s, a stone’s throw from the Celebration Theatre, a famished Beck ravishes a late lunch after attending an Ovation recommended production in Pasadena and before providing artistic oversight to Celebration’s first show of the season, What’s Wrong With Angry? Sidling into the booth, a beaming Kricfalusi effuses about a sizable donation just secured from an afternoon meeting. The enthusiastic energy exuding from both men fills the eatery.

Patrick Gomez and Christopher Maikish in "The Next Fairy Tale"Â

Native Texan and Lamar University graduate, Beck flip-book describes his artistic background and shares exciting stories of a life being fully lived. Beck moved to LA in 2005 after his steady involvement in the theater communities of Dallas and San Francisco. In 2008 the multi-talented artist made his Celebration debut and shortly thereafter became associate artistic director while serving as producer on Women Behind Bars and the world premiere musical The Next Fairy Tale. During this time, Beck also created the workshop series CT Tuesdays which has since garnered a GLAAD nomination for the series’ first entrant, revolver.

New Yorker Kricfalusi built a successful career in the investment and banking worlds before he caught “the bug.” In 2003 he delved into theater while in turn using his financial acumen to obtain a distribution deal for a film. Upon the advice of his acting coach ““ “You need to go to LA and build your IMBD page with TV and film credits so you can return to NY and get roles on stage” ““ Kricfalusi left the Big Apple for Tinseltown. On his journey he found the world of theater in LA too inviting to pass up. “I saw an amazing production of Stupid Kids at the Celebration in February 2008. Impressed, I needed a home like this one. Four months after being brought into this welcoming company, I became managing director. I lost the bug to go out and get roles in TV and film, and I love being here.”

Ryan Spahn, Michael Grant Terry, Tessa Thompson and Kelly Schumann in "Stupid Kids"

Now these two lives have been intertwined into a creative Celebration marriage of sorts. “To succeed we have to work as one,” states Kricfalusi. Beck adds, “I’m an artistic director with operations background and I understand where Kric is coming from. The theater’s board has charged us (and the company) to raise money for each show before they go up so pre-run expenses need to be covered. We’re moving forward cost-effectively with productions and we have to be creative ““ together.”

Honor the Past

Beck stresses the importance of the Celebration Theatre’s past to link to its future to which Kricfalusi nods in agreement. “Celebration has been the voice of the LGBT community for the past 29 years and to be a company member is to know the company’s past. I’m a huge history fan. We’ve been diving into archives and been awestruck by the stories and history left to us by our past artistic directors and other talented artists who’ve passed through our doors.”

In 1982, the Celebration Theatre was founded by gay rights pioneer Charles Rowland, who leased a storefront in the Silver Lake area. Rowland’s goal was to start a company dedicated to producing gay-themed material. In 1993, Robert Schrock took over as artistic director and moved the company to its present location.

The world premiere of the musical Naked Boys Singing in 1998 brought the Celebration much recognition while also marking nudity as the theater’s main selling point, whether it was an accurate description or not. “No matter what anyone may say about Naked Boys Singing, which the Celebration was definitely known for,” remarks Beck, “it saved the theater. Literally. Celebration wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for that show.”

Since 1999, Schrock has been succeeded by well-known creative artists Richard Israel, Derek Charles Livingston, Michael Matthews and Michael A. Shepperd.

The Company of "Women of Brewster Place, the Musical"

Beck continues, “There’s this image the Celebration projects making people think we’re bigger than we really are.” He’s quick to point out, “If we were to rely though on the laurels of Naked Boys Singing, 13 years later, we would’ve done ourselves an ill service. Every one of our AD’s raised the bar higher. Under the watch of my predecessor (Shepperd), numerous productions received critical acclaim including Bash’d which just closed. Women of Brewster Place, the Musical was awarded the 2010 Ovation Award for Best Production of a Musical, Intimate Theater as well as Best Acting Ensemble. And Michael Matthews and Ameenah Kaplan were nominated as director and choreographer, respectively. There are big shoes to fill.”

Distinguish the Present

Describing the challenges of producing theater and gathering audiences, Beck bemoans the fact he’s shocked by the number of people in West Hollywood who don’t even know the Celebration Theatre exists. “I lived in San Francisco for 10 years. Everyone there, and nationally, knows about Theatre Rhinoceros and the New Conservatory. Sure Celebration is known in certain LA theater circles but to your average LGBT patron, they don’t know about it.”

Michael Kricfalusi

Kricfalusi emphasizes, “We’re the longest, continuously producing gay theater company in the country.” Somewhat buffering Beck’s comment, “We draw people from beyond our backyard of West Hollywood ““ from Orange County, Ventura County, Riverside, West Covina, Long Beach, Sherman Oaks, North Hollywood, Simi Valley,”¦. We encompass a number of counties and cities looking at us as their theater.”

But Kricfalusi fully concurs when Beck adds, “Celebration’s challenge is how we can be more socially relevant to the times we’re in today. While we may not have the same issues they had in the 1980s (although AIDS remains relevant), there are still important issues relating to the LGBT community ““ marriage, equality, full rights,”¦. If we don’t tap into the LGBT youth coming up, we’ll be doing the same plays for the same 50 to 100 people every year.”

Is there still a need for a gay theater in LA? With a raised eyebrow, Beck emphatically states, “You can give us equal rights and marriage equality; you can give us as many rights as you want but there will still be people who are against you and think it’s wrong. We can get the rights on Monday, on Tuesday there will be a group rallied against you, and on Wednesday your rights will be taken away.”

“We can never rest,” says Kricfalusi. “There will always be something. We can bring the stories of gay people in South America or Southeast Asia to our audiences so they can gain a better understanding of what being gay is like in other locations ““ where you have even less rights than you have in California.”

To further prove his point, Kricfalusi draws a comparison. “Have you noticed other theaters putting on gay and lesbian themed plays? Caught at the Zephyr, Interlopers at Bootleg, The Temperamentals at the Blank. Is there a need for a theater like Celebration focusing strictly on LGBT material? Absolutely. These other theaters are doing shows but notice they’re doing one show. We’ve been around for 29 years and we need to continue to be the voice for the LGBT community for years to come.”

At the same time, Beck and Kricfalusi maintain that the Celebration needs to be a theater for everyone. “˜We can take care of our own,’ mentions Beck, “˜but there’s an extra layer to who we are as a theater. LGBTQQIA. The “A” is for “Allied” ““ our allies to this community. If we shut ourselves off to our straight friends, we’re missing an important segment wanting to support us.’

Season 29

Leslie Jordan

Celebration’s 29th Season includes What’s Wrong With Angry? by Patrick Wilde (September/October 2011), Design for Living by Noel Coward (November/December 2011), Stories I Can’t Tell Mama written and performed by Leslie Jordan (January/February 2012) and The Color Purple (LA premiere, non-touring company) (March through June 2012). Beck discusses each production.

What’s Wrong With Angry? is relevant for us now even though it focuses on British legislation from 1988 that prohibited schools and local authorities from depicting homosexual relationships as an acceptable view of family life. The age of consent for homosexuals was five years older than heterosexuals at 16.  You can’t love who you love. While it’s not the same law as in California, similarities will resonate. We have an opportunity to bring in a younger generation from the LGBT community and partner with the Trevor Project, NOH8 Campaign, PFLAG chapters and Gay-Straight alliances.”

Click here to watch What’s Wrong With Angry indie campaign video.

Design for Living, by one of the gay godfathers of theater, is a guilty pleasure. You can’t get much better writing in the classic form, or with dialogue and rhythm. And its focus is on an under-represented segment, bisexuals.”

“With Stories I Can’t Tell Mama, I wanted to make a big splash with Leslie Jordan, who is a wonderful actor and an amazing human being. Four or five years ago, I mentored an 18-year-old Armenian youth who had issues with his family (being gay). Del Shores arranged for us to meet Leslie before a performance in Sordid Lives, and he gave of his time and shared so much with this youth. I want to work with people who are great on stage as well as off stage and Leslie fits the bill.”

“We close strong with The Color Purple thanks to Michael A. Shepperd who secured the rights and to Michael Matthews who will direct the musical. It’ll be the biggest production we’ve ever done in Celebration’s history. There’ll be people attending who would never think of stepping into a LGBT theater. If we put on a great show, our hope is they’ll say the theater did fantastic work and it just happens to be a LGBT company. That’s what we want. Then they’ll come back for more.”

The Future is Now

The Celebration Theatre continues to evolve as its mission states. Kricfalusi changed the ticketing system from subscriptions to memberships to empower patrons.  Memberships range from $100 for 5 tickets to be used any way you choose throughout the next 12 months from the date of purchase, to $200 for 10 tickets, to $300 for 15 tickets and additional perks. “I felt subscriptions put hard dates in front of people. Memberships instead give flexibility to the patron to do what they want with their tickets.”

Miles Cooper and Daniel Marks in "Elysian Fields"

Beck explains further. “If someone isn’t a Leslie Jordan fan, and I don’t know who wouldn’t be, or maybe they don’t like one-man shows, the patron can use their tickets elsewhere (to another show). We have CT Tuesday Workshops and CT After Dark where memberships can be applied. CT Tuesday Workshops are minimalist productions of original scripts. Our most recent production, Elysian Fields, just moved to the New York International Fringe Festival. CT After Dark will begin in September and its focus is on improvisation, sketch comedy and more risqué material.”

The late lunch meeting draws to an end. Beck returns to the theater to provide support for the 29th Season’s opening show while Kricfalusi focuses on finances. As they walk along busy Santa Monica Boulevard, there’s an enthusiastic bounce to the steps of both theater leaders, who respectfully honor those who came before them, also rolling up their sleeves to address the present as well as planning for a bright future in the next phase of the Celebration Theatre’s life.

** “The Next Fairy Tale” photo by Ronn Jones

***”Women of Brewster Place, the Musical” photo by David Elzer

** “Elysian Fields” photo by Nathan Hatch

What’s Wrong With Angry? presented by the Celebration Theatre. Opens September 9. Previews September 6-8. Thurs.-Sat. 8 pm; Sun. 3 pm. Tickets: $30. The Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., LA.  323-957-1884 www.celebrationtheatre.com.

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LA Stage Times

Gay? Rap? Opera? Shepperd Bows Out With Bash’d!

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | June 29, 2011

Editor’s note: The italicized verse passages in this article are excerpts from the script of Bash’d!, by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow.

During his three-year tenure as artistic director of Celebration Theatre, AKA “the naked gay theater,” Michael A. Shepperd has tried to change the perception of Celebration’s fare, from “works with great bodies” to “bodies of great works.”

In choosing Bash’d! A Gay Rap Opera as his final hurrah before he steps down from the leadership, Shepperd expressed a “devil be damned” determination to not run away from challenging material — even though for many theatergoers, the more apt title might be Bash’d! A Gay What What?

Yo! I’m told that hip-hop can be hard to hear / So we’re gonna make this real loud and
clear / Yo! It’s not so hard, you got nothing to fear / It’s like Shakespeare, you gotta
tune your ear!

WTF!?

Michael Shepperd

Three years ago, Shepperd knowingly walked into the task of running a theater dedicated to presenting innovative, provocative and relevant work that examines the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer experience. Celebration endeavors to challenge society’s perception of these communities and to give a vibrant voice to their evolving identities.

What Shepperd didn’t anticipate was the type of reception he would receive as an African-American running a gay theater. Some of the messages he received through the theater’s email were anything but welcoming.

Reader be warned — offensive language follows. “Why would you let a nigger come in there and change everything?” “We don’t want straight people to come to our theater!” “He’s just going to bring in a bunch of dyke stories and black fag stories!” “There’ll be black people at the theater. I don’t want to be around that many niggers.”

The hold-back-no-punches artistic director states, “It was hateful, some of the stuff. I was stunned. Then I made a decision it was time for a change. I’m going to take this journey, and if you don’t want to come on it, fine, I’ll find other people to ride the Celebration train.” His goal was for the theater to be a touchstone for the whole of the community, which meant encouraging “a true, strong diversity in the house — including lesbians, Asians, African-Americans, senior citizens and youth.” Under Shepperd’s watch, Celebration Theatre has won Ovation Awards, LA Weekly Awards, NAACP Awards, the prestigious Charlie Award from the Hollywood Arts Council for excellence in theater, and the Polly Warfield Award for “Best Season” by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.

Going out with a bash.

Ryan Bergmann and Ameenah Kaplan

Two years ago, an agent from ICM submitted Bash’d! to Shepperd with a message — “Because no one else would be stupid enough to do this show.” After listening to the score, Shepperd actually admits to being intimidated. “This type of material was far too incendiary for a small queer theater in WeHo to be doing, and I promptly shelved it.”

All you real faggots pump your wrists in the air / It’s okay to be gay, freely out and
aware / We don’t like faggot when it’s said by them / But when we say it, it’s like a word
that starts with N!

Then a year later, after a Kismet-style moment in which a copy of Bash’d! fell from the shelf above to Shepperd’s desk, “I realized Bash’d! is exactly what the Celebration should be doing. It’s what all theaters should be doing,” Shepperd says. Based loosely on the real-life spike in hate crimes in Alberta, Canada, during the 2005 national debate on equal marriage for gays and lesbians, Bash’d! explores the effect of homophobic violence and the emotions associated with any marginalized population. Two irreverent rapping troubadours tell the tale of young star-crossed Romeos as they skewer stereotypes with swaggering comedic flair against a pulsing hip-hop beat.

The West Coast premiere of the fast-paced, high-energy show, written by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow and awarded Outstanding Musical of the 2007 New York International Fringe Festival, was set into motion. Shepperd enlisted the directorial and choreography skills of Ameenah Kaplan (recipient in 2007 of the Richard E. Sherwood Award from Center Theatre Group) along with trusted producer Ryan Bergmann. All three creatives, however, wanted to make bold changes to the production from its original NY presentation. They wanted an event in the Celebration house.

“Gay rap opera”?

What’s up with that tag-line? What were the originators of this show thinking?

Yeah, you may have before thought that all rap was crap / Homophobic bullshit since
they broke the back / That shit is wack, cuz rap ain’t just for straights / So we rhyming
up stories on our tour dates!

Sheppard thrusts his hands in the air. “It scares people — a gay rap opera. What the fuck is that? Sometimes, I don’t even know what that means. The tag-line betrays the piece a little. It confuses people. Some get the gay part, but the rap has always been sort of lumped in with homophobia, and they don’t want anything to do with that.”

Bergmann concurs. “It scares off younger people because of opera, it scares off the older people because of rap, and it scares off the straight people because of gay. You’re battling yourself with a tag-line like that.”

Ameenah Kaplan

Any concerns about the triple-tag didn’t deter them. As Kaplan says, “Hip-hop, long known for its irreverent attitude towards the establishment, is the perfect companion for the LGBT struggle. Even though the rap landscape can be dominated by less than gay-friendly icons, those artists represent a small portion of the hip-hop movement. By merging the music of our generation with the civil rights movement of our generation, we send a message to those who hate that those who love are a united front.”

If you hear the word faggot, and that shit is absurd / From now on you can relax, cuz we’re reclaiming the word.

And the result after audiences venture to see the show at the Celebration? Says Shepperd, “it doesn’t matter what age they are, ethnicity, gender preference — by the end of show, everyone is drawn into the story of the piece. They’ve let go of whatever their preconceived notions are of gay rap opera. They leave loving it.”

Bergmann adds, “We made something that speaks to everyone, with a piece that a lot of people would think would speak to no one.”

The talent search

When Kaplan envisioned a racially mixed cast of two male actors, she sought versatile, likable, energetic, committed, honest and emotional hybrid performers who were half-rappers, half-poets. “I wanted them to adopt a style and not a score, finding freedom in the beats, bringing nuance to the roles.” In stepped a dream cast, Sean Bradford and Chris Ferro, who both found out about the show through an audition notice in Actors Access (a casting website).

Questioned as to what drew them to the musical, the enthusiastic Ferro says, “I’m a big hip-hop fan. I’d never seen anything like it and it sounded like fun.”

Bradford also was drawn by powerful material as well as the ability to play multiple characters. “We as artists look for great stories, how you’re telling it, why you’re telling it, how is it different. I thought it would be an interesting challenge.”

Ferro’s face brightens even more when hip-hop enters the discussion. What has been the trajectory of this rhythmic music so associated with gangsta life, drugs and violence? “The early Grandmaster Flash and KRS-One, their rhymes were about things going on in their community (the hardships of life). Then it transformed into the flashy video ho’s, champagne and all that stuff. Now you see hip-hop artists dress in skinny jeans and wear nice cardigan sweaters. They’re unafraid to rap about things mainstream. It’s changed, it’s cool, and marriage equality is mainstream.”

Chris Ferro and Sean Bradford

A resolute Bradford uses iTunes to solidify Ferro’s point. “If you check out this week’s chart, the majority of songs are either rap or have a rap artist collaborating with another artist. The genre of music has gone that way. It’s having an all-encompassing presence that is undeniable. Articulate, political, pressing issues are being told through rap.” He then turns it back to Bash’d!. “What’s brilliant about this piece is it doesn’t tell you what to feel or believe, what’s right or wrong, it just shows you a canvas of this world, these ideas and all the love.”

Ferro adds, “It’s a love story. It works and it’s fun!”

Like a puzzle that’s missing a piece / Like a coiled tension in need of release / The peace
they feel in each other’s arms / The perfect silence, the protection from harm.

March to the beatz of a different drummer

A simple “ask” by Shepperd for a DJ to play at the opening night performance led to an integral reason for the success of the Celebration’s production. Kaplan took his request to a whole other level, thinking outside the box of what existed in the previous incarnation of Bash’d!, adding another member to the troupe, a third performer — DJ Jedi.

The Emmy-winning, elite turntablist provides the musical direction, the additional beatz. Whereas most theaters would consider a DJ to be a luxury, Kaplan shared her concept with Shepperd. “Michael told me to run with it. Jedi knows this script from start to finish, knows the pace, plays with the actors even with phrasing, knows the score and makes choices in what’s important to hear. He real-time controls the show and sets the tone before anyone comes in. Jedi vibes off of the crowd. The man is beyond amazing.”

Kaplan continued to explore and experiment with other elements of Bash’d!, with Shepperd’s artistic blessing and Bergmann’s solid support. “There was an opportunity for me to add dance, music, stepping, drumming, video projection.” Having two years under her belt in film school, Kaplan felt strongly in the integration between film and theater for this piece. “That’s one of the ways theater will survive other than being that place where you can experience sweat. Unlike film, theater will survive where technology is a partner as opposed to being an accompaniment.” The entire creative production team ran with her vision and “got to have fun and play. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Timing is everything

Chris Ferro and Sean Bradford

To reach an audience and actively engage them, theatrical productions must be relevant. This 70-minute musical voices perspectives from unwavering homophobia to radical activism. In the midst of the theatrical riches of the Hollywood Fringe Festival and Radar L.A. Festival, intertwined with the pulsating, festive LA Pride celebration in West Hollywood, and coinciding with the legalization of same-sex marriage by the NY Legislature, an inspirational production of Bash’d! couldn’t be more timely in the City of Angels.

Shepperd nods in agreement. “Intolerance and bashing are still prevalent, but there is a shift happening, and that’s what this show is about. This is a new generation talking out with this show.”

A new generation speaks. Ferro firmly states, “Equality is the starting point.”

Yeah we gotta stand up before it happens again / We need to recognize, then organize,
first empathize and then exercise our rights / And it starts tonight, we didn’t spit all
these rhymes just to delight / Your ears, or to pimp your cheers / But to think about out
there while you’re in here.

Bash’d! — A Gay Rap Opera. Thur-Sat, 8 pm, through July 22. Tickets: $30. Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 323-957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com.

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LA Stage Times

Nick Salamone’s Sonneteer Sings of Soul

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | February 18, 2011

On a gorgeous winter day in California, flames from a gas fireplace provide warmth and a relaxing ambience inside the renovated Craftsman-style bungalow of playwright/actor Nick Salamone, in the neighborhood of the Melrose Hill Historic Preservation Overlay Zone. The charming and quick-witted Salamone shares the beautifully designed home with his partner of 13 years, Clay Storseth, an actor also known for his design work as The Christmas Decorator.

Although great comfort is found in this inviting 1913 structure, “comfort” is not an apt description of Salamone’s creative nature.  He searches for greater meaning and truth.

IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS “LIFE””¦ AND DEATH

Nick Salamone

Salamone’s The Sonneteer marks his tenth produced play since he first put pen to paper in 1984. Salamone’s creative journey began unknowingly when he saved a copy of LIFE magazine from 1981.

A gripping article – centering on a woman seriously debilitated by multiple sclerosis — had caught the self-described hoarder’s attention. Says Salamone, “This disease ended this woman’s marriage. As the articles in LIFE are mostly pictures with some narrative, it was about her boyfriend who became her husband who became her ex-husband.” While Salamone didn’t know anyone who had MS at the time, his inner voice told him that one day the magazine might be useful.

In 1984, Salamone was sent a life-changing curve as his mother was diagnosed with cancer. As a working actor in New York, his career trajectory came to an immediate halt. His focus shifted to his family.

“To help my sister care for my mother, I would commute from New York to Philadelphia and back every weekend,” he says. This important familial sacrifice meant Salamone couldn’t accept theater work. In order to keep creatively active, he started writing on the train. “While I had graduated from college with two majors ““ English (early American literature) and Drama (acting and directing), I had never received any formal training as a playwright. I was an actor and a reader of plays and literature (narrative and fiction).”

Over a period of 18 months, Salamone wrote his first play, Another House on Mercy Street, based on the resonating LIFE magazine article he had saved three years earlier. Seven years later, the play was produced at the Off Ramp Theatre in Los Angeles. It was optioned and made into an award-winning independent film, Mercy Street.

A CHANGE OF SCENERY AND LIFE DIRECTION

A gradual tailspin began for Salamone after his mother’s death in 1985, and a new horror soon came to the forefront ““ the AIDS epidemic. He grew seriously depressed. “Once that started, it subsumed me,” he says. “I needed a change and I didn’t know what else to do.”

A change of scenery to Los Angeles proved advantageous. “I consider where I grew up was New York but I had to leave. I took a sublet for a couple of months and began to feel more like I wasn’t in a bell jar.” Staying on a friend’s sofa for a year and embracing the California lifestyle, Salamone’s vibrant spirit re-emerged. But the AIDS epidemic affected Salamone as much as his mother’s death, as his lover died from this ravaging disease.

“AIDS was raging and I really couldn’t think of anything else, couldn’t write about anything else, so my next batch of plays came out of the epidemic, though not necessarily about AIDS.” All Souls’ Day, produced at the Heliotrope Theatre in 1991, led the charge.

In the early 1990s, Salamone found his way into the restaurant business as a waiter. Another broad-stroke life-shift occurred through a series of circumstances in which Salamone became the eventual owner of the popular Hollywood eatery, Off Vine. As he readily admits, “Owning Off Vine was onerous. While I was proud of the restaurant, and still am, I can’t help wondering what my artistic life would’ve been like if I hadn’t taken that 16-year detour.” Yet that detour didn’t completely hinder his acting and writing. In 2000, he was honored with a Maddy Award for excellence in playwriting.

WRITING AND COLLABORATION ““ FORMULA FOR SUCCESS

The Sonneteer Lucius Livvy

Not one to be deterred by a challenge, Salamone jumped head-first into the musical arena.  First produced in 1998 by Playwrights’ Arena, Moscow struck a chord in the theater community, recognized for its absurdist, existential tone ““ book and lyrics by Salamone, composed by Maury R. McIntyre.

While many playwrights call it a day when a play has been produced, Salamone continued to tweak and pare down the musical, even though he had already been awarded by Backstage West for his work. Three years later, Moscow received a Fringe First award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

“This musical was in 36 different snippets and was the most non-sequential thing I had ever written,” Salamone says. “It took years of development to finally get where people could comprehend it.”

Jon Lawrence Rivera, founding artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena, and Salamone developed a symbiotic relationship. The Sonneteer marks the fifth collaboration between the playwright and director.

Salamone speaks highly of Rivera, who is also one of his closest friends. “Jon is very astute, very direct; brutal about cuts, economy and streamlining. He keeps me honest about my writing and has a great gift for narrative strength ““ telling the story cleanly and in as simple a way possible. We both like things surprising, challenging, not quite so formal. There’s no pabulum, nothing cloying or programmatic or run-of-the-mill about Jon’s work. Working with him is always adventurous.”

In 2008, Salamone had two premieres in Los Angeles ““ the musical Gulls at Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena and Sea Change at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center in Hollywood. Salamone was on a high after receiving numerous honors for these works which included Backstage West Garland Awards, LA Weekly Awards, another Maddy Award as well as an Ovation nomination for Best Book and Lyrics. Rivera was recognized as well by the LA Weekly as Best Director for Sea Change. Salamone is quick to add, “Don’t forget McIntyre, who is a genius and composed the score for Gulls.” Likewise McIntyre walked away with numerous award recognitions.

SONNETS BEYOND THE PAGE

Ed Martin and Ray Oriel

Now, The Sonneteer comes to life onstage.  Salamone describes how the play rose from familial roots.

“I’ve been working on The Sonneteer for years and years. I’ve never written about my family before as composite characters, and this isn’t my family per se. It’s probably my family about as much as Tom and Laura were Tennessee Williams’ in The Glass Menagerie.

“My mother died 25 years ago and a large part of the play is about a son (a young professor) trying to discover who his mother really was.” The discovery is found through a lockbox full of sonnets she wrote, revealing a new side to old perceptions. “The sonnets tell a story of how his father died before he was born, the real details how it happened, how it affected the whole family and ultimately affected the relationship with his mother.”

Asked how closely the father’s death hits home, as well as the relationship between mother and son, Salamone replies, “My biological father died before I was born. My mother and I were all each other had after he died, when she was pregnant with me. It was a very close, very complicated relationship. This story is about the death of someone like my father. I only knew what I read in a simple 1950s obituary, but then after my mother’s death, my aunt told me in a sentence or two how a cousin was actually involved in my dad’s demise.”

Taking true life to form, Salamone constructed the play from that sentence and his dad’s obituary.

“Art can be tremendously healing,” says Salamone. “The son discovers who his mother was through her works of art, a woman who wrote herself out of a post-partum depression, to keep a hold on whom she is and what she’s feeling. The mother heals the best way possible by writing the sonnets; by the son reading them, she communicates to him and to the world in a way her life didn’t.

“He would’ve never known his mother without the art. Art is two-fold ““ what it does for the artist and what it does for the recipient.”Â  Through the sonnets, the son and mother experience growth ““ as art has done for Salamone.

ON THE HORIZON

Cynthia Gravinese, Victoria Hoffman and Sandra Purpuro

What’s next for Salamone after The Sonneteer opens? “I split six-month periods of time between LA and New York. After 9-11, I felt the pull of the other coast and I wanted to have roots there again. After I sold Off Vine, it enabled Clay and me to put a foothold in New York.” For the past several years, Salamone and Storseth have performed Shakespeare at the NY Classical Theatre, and live at a modest place on 181st Street.

In the coming months, Salamone’s play Billy Boy will receive a reading at the Lark Play Development Center in New York. Salamone chuckles about how he wrote the piece. “Last year, I was doing three Shakespeare plays, performing way downtown with big commutes on the subway of 40 minutes each way. While I usually write on the computer, I reverted back to my old legal pad days.”

Making the most of his time with numerous rehearsals and performances, Salamone wrote on the subway. “You bounce around on the subway; it’s not private, you free-associate because that’s what a subway ride is.” And from the subway, Billy Boy was born.

As for the future of the small-cast Billy Boy beyond the reading in New York, Salamone expresses a desire to return to Scotland. “Sea Change and Gulls have been more large-scale ““ not the festival fare. The shows I’ve brought there have been with four characters, tops.” What is the draw of Edinburgh? “It’s like a distillation of a season in New York and the whole town is about theater. It’s a tradition but it’s also inseparably woven into the fabric of their society. That’s like coming home!”

LAST BUT NOT LEAST”¦

“My plays are about the human condition,” says Salamone, “and about what it’s like to be alive. Shakespeare says it best when you hold the mirror to life, but that mirror is really a prism, and what you’re looking for through the prism is meaning and reasons to live. I ask myself why do we move forward; what’s the purpose? That’s why I write, why I act. I have to do that every day. Who we are is a question that never gets settled. Writing”¦ it’s just something I have to do.”

The Sonneteer, presented by The LA Gay & Lesbian Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center, opens Feb. 18; plays Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 7 pm; through March 13. Dark Sun., Feb. 27. Tickets: $20. The Davidson/Valentini Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Los Angeles; 323.860.7300 or lagaycenter.org/boxoffice.

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LA Stage Times

Exploring Chicago Theatre – Part II

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | October 19, 2010
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Saturday morning in cool (weather-wise) Chicago. Time to figure out what to do with my free time before and after my business meeting and work project.

Before I left MCA Chicago the previous evening after the Redmoon experience, I spoke with various patrons about their theatre recommendations. Consensus ran high for one production but I was leery with the pick. Chicago – home of the Goodman, Lookingglass, Steppenwolf, Red Orchid, City Lit, the Hypocrites… and the majority say go elsewhere.

Rolling the dice on the locals, I went to the internet site for Hot Tix and figured, “Hey, if I can get a decent seat at half-price for Saturday evening, why not?” And I scored – in the back center section of the orchestra – for Billy Elliot the Musical – winner of ten 2009 Tony Awards – and performing at the historic Oriental Theatre.

What I wanted to enjoy on this Chicago theatre adventure were shows in small, mid-size and large venues. I was on track. While on Hot Tix, I decided to complete the trifecta – a smaller house production – but I wanted to travel away from the Loop (downtown area). While intrigued by Frost/Nixon at the TimeLine Theatre, which received an outstanding review by the Wall Street Journal, my eyes were drawn to Suicide, Incorporated at the Gift Theatre, which was getting raves. However both shows were sold-out. So, I threw caution to the wind for my Sunday evening theatre jaunt.

Saturday goes by with this and that. I enjoyed a fantastic northern Italian meal at Vivere (yum), chatted with some of the fascinating diners there as well and then continued my walk along the vibrant downtown area.

The Oriental Theatre reminds me of Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre – rich history with amazing architecture. It was one of Chicago’s first motion picture palaces, opening in 1926. Eventually, as what happens with many older buildings, it fell into disrepair. The theatre was closed in 1981 but reopened in 1998 after much restoration – renamed the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. It lives on well.

To be blunt regarding this production, I loved the movie version of Billy Elliot so I went into the theatre expecting little from the adaptation. Fortunately, I left rather impressed by a musical about a coal miner’s gifted child from Northern England who wants to dance. When I saw there were four actors who were trading turns in the role of Billy, that gave me pause; nevertheless, young Marcus Pei nailed it.

Not really a kid’s show, there is plenty of grit involved – language and otherwise. Adults with children though get a clear message – support the dreams of your young loved ones. Billy wants to use the arts as his escape from a world with no prospects. Even as the world crumbles around the boy, his family and the community, the humanity and heart of these people rises above it all.

The director and choreographer made fantastic use of the stage and the superb cast worked their tails off. Everyone had their moments. The lyrics had potency and power and the music was memorable. Billy Elliot may not be the best musical of the decade; yet, I look forward to its time in LA where I will definitely see it again. Dance on, boys!

Two productions in the book, one to go. So what did I choose and why? Given the parameters that I laid out in seeing shows, I wanted to explore past the Loop. The concierge at the Hotel Blake found out what part of town I was going and gave me a thumb’s up. She even asked me to share my experience with her afterwards since she lives in that area.

Wicker Park. Where growth is occurring. Where the arts community is thriving. Where hip, young adults are being drawn to live and shop. Where there’s some wonderful food to be had… and more.

Sunday morning and early afternoon, I handled the business portion of my trip then squeezed in a stroll through the amazing Arts Institute. I could’ve spent hours upon hours in there but theatre called.

Traveling the “L” the time zipped by as I reached my train stop destination-Division and Milwaukee. I walked across the street to the Chopin Theatre (interesting venue with a bar and multiple theatre spaces) where The House Theatre Company currently resides to see the newly adapted Thieves Like Us based on the 1937 novel by Edward Anderson.

Quick tidbits about The House. The company was founded in 2001 by a group of friends wanting to explore ideas of community and storytelling in order to create a unique theatre experience. After more than a dozen world premiere productions, a breakout success happened for them in 2007 with The Sparrow.

That same year, The House was the first recipient of Broadway in Chicago’s Emerging Theatre Award. It’s a small company and a small staff but unafraid to jump into the creative fray. For more, check out www.thehousetheatre.com.

The mission of The House is to unite Chicago in the spirit of community through amazing feats of storytelling. “Amazing” though was not in the story of Thieves Like Us. While I thought the director had some primo creative touches in a large, open, wall-to-wall space along with a fine cast performing their hearts out without melodrama, the story seemed uninspiring like a retread of the movie The Untouchables. The end of the first act was flat and I knew where we were headed with zero surprises along the way. Energy was also sliced by a playwright’s unfortunate conventional device (this time, a singer between scenes) which zapped energy and emotional connection to the key characters.

If time had permitted, I really wish I could’ve asked why this talented company of players chose this play. But… here’s something I mentioned in a previous LASA feature article with Tim Wright from Circle X that ties into The House.

Collaboration. These folks understand the wave of the future and are incorporating it into the life of their company. Thieves Like Us was developed in collaboration with The Theatre School at DePaul University. Also there was connection to the play’s development with the Lookingglass Theatre Company.

While I wasn’t thrilled by the script, the production was good enough to gain my respect and want to see more of this company’s work. When I returned to the Hotel Blake, I told the concierge to indeed make her way to this small venue which holds much promise.

Two things before I close. Does Chicago have better theatre than Los Angeles?

In some respects, given the stature of some of the companies, the answer is “yes.” It’s a healthy environment which supports the arts; the community and high-level sponsors embrace theatre. Also they pay their actors – small, mid or large houses, and while not necessarily a living wage, it’s still better than gas money. I wish the same for LA with support on all levels. Yet I’m still pleased with what we put together on our stages in LA. While we are inundated with 99-seat theatres, we have quite a few strong companies that match the vibrancy and product of Chicago’s work and our creative artists rock.

The other aspect of this trip allowed me to see what’s beyond my own backyard-albeit a vast yard of LA County and more. That was extremely valuable. Sure, it’s wonderful to see shows in NYC; however, to experience and explore what’s happening elsewhere gives me a sense of the pulse of the cities between the coasts. It’s inspiring. Maybe we should consider connecting with more with our theatres and share worthy material and ideas.

Here’s to more adventures and explorations!

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LA Stage Times

Exploring Chicago Theatre, Part 1

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson | October 12, 2010

Friday early morning. Up in the air and on my way to Chicago. A business trip intermingled with pleasure. During my four-day stay, I plan on attending theatre at three different venues – Friday evening, The Astronaut’s Birthday – a Redmoon production – the other two shows to be determined. My personal goal is to see what Chicago has to offer (small, medium, large) versus what I already know exists as the Los Angeles theatre landscape.

I remember my first jaunt to the Windy City in March, 1980. It was as cold as the interior of a frigid meat-locker with one of those propeller wind fans blowing on its highest gear. “Fun” wasn’t a descriptive word that I would’ve used nor “thriving metropolis.” Heck, it was downright grungy and I couldn’t wait to leave and never return.

In July, 2007, I attended a conference in Chicago. While the majority of my time was filled top-to-bottom with workshops and business meetings, I found a few moments to enjoy what I discovered to be a completely revamped environment beyond the walls of the hotel – friendly, booming, vibrant, exciting; however, there was no time to check out the theatre scene.

So, here I am for my third venture to Chi-town, and I can’t wait. I’ve leaned on the expertise of Chicago’s creative arts offerings from various LA friends, including Emilie Beck and Simon Levy. Plus, I go on-line to read what some area critics have to say about current productions. One thing for sure, my bucks are limited so Hot-Tix, the half-price option in Chicago, will be one of my fav’s.

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My flight on American Airlines has landed mid-afternoon at O’Hare. Boy ‘o boy, it’s fantastic autumn weather. Taking the “L” train, I find my way to the Hotel Blake. BTW – I LOVE Priceline! That’s an aside having reaped the benefits of some excellent deals. After settling into my room, I take the advice provided by the nice folks from Redmoon Theater. “General admission (first come, first serve) seating. The Plaza will be open for seating at 6:30 pm. Seating will be a combination of bleacher and lawn (and by lawn, we mean concrete.)” Say, what?!? I knew the production was at the Museum of Contemporary Art, but performed outside? I decide to not risk my butt on concrete, so off I go.

Once I arrive one hour before the show is slated to begin, I find loads of people already in line, ready for entry. Wait a minute! It’s 6:30 pm. Folks don’t arrive for anything in LA an hour in advance. Well, for this particular theatre party, the Chicagoans do. It seems to be the norm for anything related to Redmoon – wherever they may be. Lucky me, I find a nice place in the bleachers and plop my bony tail down. Approximately one hour to go before showtime.

Here’s the brief on Redmoon. Their events (and this is how they bill themselves) are unique and surprising. They’ve been in Chicago for 20 years, committed to igniting the human imagination and spreading reckless wonder. They galvanize and celebrate community by engineering spectacle, engineering transformation and engineering unexpected theatre in unexpected places. Redmoon reaches tens of thousands of audience members each year. Tonight’s particular experiment culminates in a massive shadow play rendered as a four-story-high graphic novel on the façade of MCA Chicago.

While waiting, I chat up a few patrons as to why they have attended a Redmoon production. “I’m a subscriber and love them.” “Hit or miss, it’s worth being here.” “They involve the community in what they do.” “It’s beyond creative. It’s what theatre should be.” “Just wait and see who shows up. It’s a wonderful cross-section of kids, students, young and older adults, gay and straight, single and married, all ethnicity.”

As the night sky pushes away the last glimpse of daylight, the outside of the front entrance to MCA Chicago is packed. 800 people are crammed on bleachers and concrete. And the last description from the patron(s) is absolutely on the nose. It’s like a big family outing with everyone in the world you can imagine. The air is electric and these folks are having a grand time before the show begins. I actually enjoy feeling like a sardine.

At 7:30 pm, note they said it would start on time, a representative from Redmoon says a few words, and the performance begins.

What has been promised is delivered in one-hour’s time. By the time 8:40 pm rolls around, a comic book journey into outer space has kindled heartfelt nostalgia and sense of wonder for the great beyond. It is a collision of science fiction, comic book, spectacle performance, wild shadow, silhouette performers and intense/weird music. Between the creative crew, composer, writer, storyboard artists, illustrators, designers, collaborators, character voices, production and stage managers, puppet mechanists, performance captains, shadow performers, interns, apprentices, participants and operators, the number exceeds over 100 people who have a hand in this performance piece. It has been incredible. And well-worth my time and money spent.

Consider me a fan of Redmoon.

So…questions bounce about in my noggin. Why isn’t something like this happening in LA? People here are foaming at the mouth to attend performance art, and those people include children and adults. Why Chicago and not LA? What seems daunting and impossible by LA standards has been achieved boldly and courageously by Redmoon. While I could pinpoint the generous support of NEA, arts councils, grants, funds, foundations and the like for Redmoon, shouldn’t LA have this type of excellent and creative theatre experience? Certainly it’s a massive undertaking; however, where are our visionaries and collaborators to celebrate the human imagination? While it might take 20 years to achieve what Redmoon has done, that’s okay by me. But it’s who will have the capacity to see past 99-seat theatre, equity union rules and the confines of what theatre is “supposed to be.” I know the impossible is possible. I’ve witnessed it first-hand.

More to come.

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