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Auburn’s Proof is in The Columnist

by Steve Julian | November 14, 2013
David Auburn

David Auburn

One thing playwright David Auburn got when he won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award more than a decade ago was a joyous sense of freedom. “Oh, it freed me to write exactly the kind of thing I wanted to write and have the luxury of knowing it would get a hearing. I feel very fortunate about that, and I don’t know how long it’ll last, but it’s a hell of a blessing.”

His first full-length play, Skyscraper, ran Off-Broadway in 1997. His second play produced in New York (yes, second) was Proof, the 2001 Tony- and Pulitzer-winning four-character story about three mathematicians (one of them dead) and a Type-A sister. It launched Auburn’s career when he was 31.

Auburn’s The Columnist, which the Manhattan Theatre Club opened on Broadway in April, 2012, ran for two months. It starred John Lithgow; Daniel Sullivan directed. This week LA Theatre Works presents a new production of it in the form of five audio-recorded performances in front of audiences at UCLA.

John Lithgow in the 2012 Manhatten Theatre Club production of "The Columnist." Photo by Joan Marcus.

John Lithgow in the 2012 Manhattan Theatre Club production of “The Columnist.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

The early acclaim for Auburn meant that he could write a play about a dead journalist, Joseph Alsop, and it would get a hearing. “I also knew it would probably get produced with wonderful actors who would take it seriously,” he says.

The play features David Krumholtz (Numb3rs; he stepped out of CTG’s 2013 production of The Sunshine Boys early in rehearsals), Wilson Bethel (Hart of Dixie, The Young and the Restless), JoBeth Williams (Other Desert Cities at CTG in 2012) and John Vickery (Star Trek, Babylon 5, etc.) as Joseph Alsop.

A KGB set-up

The play opens in a Moscow hotel room in the late 1950s. Alsop, a closeted homosexual who marries a woman, has been set up by the KGB for a tryst with a Russian man. The play follows the next 10 years of Alsop’s life.

Auburn is directing this production. As he nurses an India pale ale in a Westwood hotel after his first rehearsal, he says The Columnist uses Alsop’s life ”as a way to look at American involvement in Vietnam, the changing role of the press through that period, especially compared with today. It’s also about how the private life of a very controversial figure impacted his public statements and the work he did. And that, in turn, had an impact on national and international policy.”

Auburn was coming out of his celebratory period over Proof when he realized how little he knew of the Vietnam era.

“I started reading to try to educate myself. The name Alsop kept popping up in the press, in memoirs. I’d never heard of him. I learned he was not exactly a household name these days, but a very well known and influential journalist of the time.”

Joseph Alsop

Joseph Alsop

The play came out of wondering how that happened — how do you go from being at the center of power and influence and shaping world affairs to becoming first, a joke, and then, a forgotten figure?

At his prime, Alsop wore dark-framed, round glasses, his hair combed straight back. Although he was a registered Republican, ”he had President Kennedy coming to his house on inauguration night for drinks, to relax. He was someone who felt perfectly comfortable calling up Lyndon Johnson, telling him what to do, how to set up the Warren Commission. Johnson tried to get a word in edgewise; Alsop was happy to interrupt and talk over him.”

How did Alsop fade from America’s consciousness? “I think the short answer is Vietnam. He was a very strident, pro-war voice, very hawkish. As more and more people came to see the war as a terrible mistake, he clung even more tenaciously to his perspective. That turned him into a joke.”

But as a syndicated newspaper columnist born in 1910, Alsop wielded a nation-shaping voice for decades. Think Walter Winchell. “Another factor just has to do with the way newspapers changed. In the ’50s and ’60s and into the ’70s, there really were just three or four or five journalists who could shape national opinion with everything they wrote,” Auburn says. “That changed. It’s certainly not true anymore.”

What is true, however, is the surge of pundits and bloggers through online media. “Was it better then? Or worse? Alsop considered himself a reporter. His columns weren’t just opinion; they were carefully crafted and reported.”

Shifting time

Proof opens in the present day and twice in its two acts goes back a few years. The Columnist, by contrast, is told in a straightforward, linear fashion. “The first scene with Joe and the man in the Moscow hotel room shadows his whole career. I put that in different places when I first started writing drafts, but I realized it needed to be the first thing we see. We need to live with the knowledge of it, just as Joe tries to push it away or pretend it never happened…The play speculates that the pressure was part of what radicalized him and what caused him to have such an extreme and inflexible political perspective.”

Some pieces of the play came quickly and some took a lot longer, he says. “The biggest thing I struggled with was how big the play should be and how much I should take in. At first I thought maybe it should be very tightly focused on one dinner party — something he liked to give — or, maybe one or two instances. But there were so many interesting episodes in his life over so many years.”

 Joseph Alsop and brother Stewart, New York 1947. Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Joseph Alsop and brother Stewart, New York 1947. Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Auburn found those episodes revealed so many sides of Alsop that he wanted to cast the net wider and have something more panoramic. Now the play covers a decade, from the late 1950s to the late ’60s. Alsop ages and changes over the course of it.

“Yeah, it’s a history play,” Auburn says. “It goes into areas that aren’t in the historical record like the private sides of their lives. But I wanted it to be very historically grounded and where the facts are known, this play lines up with the facts. It takes a couple of liberties. Things like Stewart [Alsop, Joseph's brother and fellow columnist], who’s Joe’s foil in the play and, I think, in real life. He dies earlier in the play than he did in real life. I wanted his death to coincide with the greatest turmoil in the ’60s in Joe’s life, for dramatic reasons.”

Also, Alsop’s wife, Susan Mary, played by Williams. “He married her in 1960 and she had children from a previous marriage” (she was also related to Theodore Roosevelt). “I refer to Joe’s stepdaughter, called Abigail in the play. She’s a composite character made up of Joe’s real life stepchildren.”

Auburn was childless when he wrote Proof. He now has two daughters, 7 and 11. The father-daughter tie (or in The Columnist, the father-stepdaughter tie) keeps cropping up in his work.

“When I see productions of Proof now, that’s the thing I find the most compelling, that theme of parents and children, those bonds.”

From idea to stage to screen

The Tony and Pulitzer aside, a playwright still has to come up with fresh ideas, fill his or her head with whatever background knowledge applies, develop characters and write the story before it ever sees the light of day. Does he write now with the glitz visible in the rear view mirror? “Having a hit is fantastic. Everyone likes to have hits. I would be disingenuous if I said I was only striving for artistic satisfaction.”

Auburn grew up in Arkansas and Ohio. He received his undergrad degree at the University of Chicago in 1991, in a city where he and his friends figured the Steppenwolf model made sense. “You formed a little theater company and did your plays. We did this for a while there and in New York”  – where Auburn followed some friends and accidentally learned one day that Juilliard was starting a new program for playwrights. He got in at the age of 25 and became one of four resident playwrights who studied under Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang.

Mary-Louise Parker and Patrick Tovatt in the 2000 Broadway production of "Proof."

Mary-Louise Parker and Patrick Tovatt in the 2000 Broadway production of “Proof.”

Asked whether there is a downside to winning pinnacle awards, particularly just a few years out of Juilliard, Auburn says, “To the extent that it sets up certain expectations that are going to be impossible to meet, yeah. But the upside is so great, it would be foolish to complain about any downside.”

Auburn followed the stage production of Proof with a screenplay of it. But a good play does not necessarily make for a good film. “I think this material lives most comfortably on stage and it’s a little awkward fit in the movies. I like the performances in the movie and am glad there’s a record of Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins performing those scenes, along with those with Hope Davis and Gwyneth.”

His screenplay, in fact, was less like the play than the final film became. “When they were shooting the movie, I think [director] John Madden took sections from the play and filmed them more directly than what my screenplay had called for. I haven’t seen it since it came out in 2004 or 5, so I don’t remember it all that well.”

With each new play he writes, Auburn relies on his brain trust. “My wife puts up with a lot of ranting during early drafts. Mostly I try to hold off until I have a draft where at least I know why I’ve made the choices I’ve made, even if they’re not the right choices.”

He relies on friends, directors and colleagues. “People I can read to or who can read things and tell me if I’m on the right track or not. I love that process. You finish and you go through a period thinking it’s shit and then you have a reading and think maybe it’s not so bad and you go back and forth.”

His wife is not in show business. “And every Friday morning I have breakfast with a group of guys. One is in show business and the others aren’t, whatever that says. I just feel lucky that I get to follow my impulses and write what I want to write and get a hearing for it. If it clicks with people, then great, and if it doesn’t, I’ll get on to the next thing.”

The next thing for him is his first two-character play, Lost Lake. “I started it in January and had a workshop at the Eugene O’Neill Center over the summer. We’ll do another in Illinois and then we’ll do it in New York after that. It doesn’t have a cast yet.”

That his wife and daughters are on the opposite coast this week is bittersweet for Auburn. He misses them, of course, but he also gets more work done. It is one way his writing style has evolved over the past decade.

Gwenyth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins in the 2005 film "Proof."

Gwenyth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins in the 2005 film “Proof.”

“Since I’ve had kids — and I wish it weren’t true — but I work less consistently on a day-to-day basis. More of my work gets done in chunks when I’m away from home.”

Also coming up, he hopes to seize more opportunities to direct. In 2007 he helmed his own screenplay for the film The Girl in the Park.

Auburn remains philosophical. “I don’t expect to have another play that’s as commercially successful as Proof, certainly. And I assume it’ll be the first line in my obituary. That’s fine; I like the play. I had a lot of fun writing it. That’s show business.”

The Columnist, James Bridges Theater on the UCLA campus in Melnitz Hall, 235 Charles E. Young Drive, LA 90095. Opens tonight. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 4 pm. Nov. 14-17. Tickets: $50. http://www.latw.org/. 310-827-0889.

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Gidion’s Furious Knot, Back Home at the Hamilton

by Steve Julian | November 1, 2013
Paula Cale Lisby and Vonessa Martin in "Gidion's Knot." Photo by

Paula Cale Lisby and Vonessa Martin in “Gidion’s Knot.” Photo by Anthony Masters Photography.

Blow a dandelion into the wind and the seed head is cast hither and thither. Capture it on film, watch the process in reverse as the seeds return to their stem, and you understand the start of Furious Theatre Company‘s ninth season. It is back after a hiatus, and about to open with Johnna Adams‘ two-actor Gidion’s Knot, with Vonessa Martin and Paula Cale, directed by Darin Anthony. Once again, the group is on the Pasadena Playhouse property.

From the start Furious sought to embody bold, dynamic storytelling. It has performed in an array of venues, including a warehouse, Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts, and its longest-lasting home — the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse. When the Playhouse fell into bankruptcy protection in May 2010, Furious was driven from the property and went dark for a year in 2011. But it re-emerged in 2012 with one production at [Inside] the Ford and a co-production with Boston Court, also in Pasadena.

Still, four of its six co-founders have left Los Angeles.  Eric Pargac now lives in New York City. Sara Hennessy and Dámaso Rodriguez relocated to Portland, Oregon where Rodriguez is the artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre (ART) and Hennessy is an actor. Brad Price moved to Austin, Texas after last appearing with Martin in The Pain and the Itch in 2009, an earlier Furious co-production with Boston Court.

Vonessa Martin and Paula Cale Lisby. Photo by Nick Cernoch.

Vonessa Martin and Paula Cale Lisby. Photo by Nick Cernoch.

That leaves only two Furious founders who live in greater LA:  Martin (who was part of the Furious ensemble that won an LADCC award for Hunter Gatherers) and Shawn Lee, who are married.

Yet, like a tight knot, the group remains entwined. “When we started,” says Martin, “none of us had children. Shawn and I had just married. We have one kid now and were besties with Sarah’s and Dámaso’s kids until they sadly moved to Portland.” Lee is currently in ART’s Foxfinder with Hennessy, which Rodriguez helmed, but it will move from Oregon to Pasadena to become the second production of the Furious season in January. The company is now overseen by three artistic directors: Lee, actor and longtime Furioius member Nick Cernoch and playwright Matt Pelfrey.

Resident director

This year Furious named Darin Anthony its resident director. “I’ve been a friend or follower of Furious since its inception, when they were at the Armory,” he says. “My wife was creating a documentary about them. I always wanted to be involved, but they were very much a closed house. I think it was something Shawn was apologetic about, saying it’s something they’d wanted to do before, it was always their intention.”

Martin jumps in. “We’d been dating so long that we wanted to propose, but we just didn’t!”

Anthony’s LA theater history includes stints as the artistic director for the Living Room Series at the Blank Theatre Company, resident director for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and, most recently, resident director and literary manager for the now-dormant Syzygy Theatre Group. He has earned multiple awards and nominations from the LA Drama Critics Circle and LA Weekly. He is a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.

Martin, seated on a couch in the quasi-rehearsal space behind the Carrie Hamilton stage, said she and her Furious colleagues had been following Anthony’s work. “We saw a majority of his shows, even out-of-town ones.” Anthony calls it a mutual admiration society.

Darin Anthony and Vonessa Martin

Darin Anthony and Vonessa Martin

“Five years ago,” he says, “Dámaso asked me to direct (the West Coast premiere of) US Drag by Obie winner Gina Gionfriddo [known for Becky Shaw, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize nominee, and the recent Rapture, Blister, Burn]. I’d be the first outside director Furious had hired. He and Sara came to our house for dinner one night, and Dámaso told me that at some point they’d want me to join the company and that I’d have to quit Syzygy, ‘because ‘we don’t like to share!’”

“Sure,” Martin says. “We felt you had our aesthetic and you got it.”

When officially asked early this year to become Furious’ resident director, he agreed immediately.

“I had gone to DePaul [University in Chicago] with Johnna Adams. I had a play of hers that I’d sent to Shawn two years ago that I thought would be perfect for Vonessa.”

“Much to Shawn’s embarrassment,” Martin says, “he didn’t read it when Darin sent it to him. [Resident playwright and co-artistic director] Matt Pelfrey had read it in American Theatre magazine last December and brought it to Shawn. And then Shawn was talking to Darin…”

Anthony finishes the thought. “And I said, yeah, I sent this to you. He read it and decided, yes, we should do it.”

They laugh. It would have been awkward but for their friendship.

Anthony says playwright Adams sent it to him because he had once directed a reading of her Tumblewings. “I loved Gidion’s Knot and also sent it to Kelly Miller at South Coast and Jessica Hanna [another fellow DePaul alum] at the Bootleg. I told Johnna that the ladies at Bootleg wanted to do it but she hesitated.” Adams, he says, had just learned that she was up for a Princess Grace Award and her management suddenly asked her to hold off on allowing productions. (Her play, Sans Merci, was a PGA award finalist in 2006. It won the 2008-2009 Reva Shiner Award and received a reading, featuring Judith Ivey, in 2009 at The New Group.)

Anthony thought he would have to let it go. “Johnna said they’d have to see if any big fish bit. Next thing I knew they were doing a reading of it with Frances McDormand at her apartment in New York. Eventually it had its premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia. And we got the rights to it pretty quickly.”

Martin as mom and teacher

Vonessa Martin had a quick and visceral reaction when she first read the script. She immediately identified with the mother, a university poetry professor, and not with the classroom teacher, played by Paula Cale (TV’s Providence, Buddies, Murphy Brown), another of Anthony’s fellow DePaul alums.

Paula Cale Lisby and Vonessa Martin. Photo by Anthony Masters Photography.

Paula Cale Lisby and Vonessa Martin. Photo by Anthony Masters Photography.

“There’s a part where [the character] thinks, I’m not a good mother. It’s so identifiable to me in my own moments of insecurity: Am I doing something that’s going to resonate and hurt my kid in the future? Or you think about your own parents and think, oh, if they’d only done this, I’d have been more successful or smarter. I read it and I understood her.”

Her character’s son is 11 years old and, in her mind, he’s the target of bullying. Having her own five-year-old in kindergarten adds to the empathy she feels for her character, Corrine.

“Another kid in my son’s class was calling him names and making him cry. They’re so inundated in schools now about putting the kibosh on bullying right from the beginning. They have a whole process: Did you tell the kid who hurt your feelings that he made you feel bad? Then you walk away, you talk to the teacher and the teacher will ask if you talked it out, etc. But my son felt bad, and it seemed he was the victim of this other kid calling him ‘stupid’. I was thinking, maybe the boy has problems at home, maybe a single mom, older siblings — why is this kid picking on my kid? I was completely wrong. His mom’s a teacher. He was just acting out.”

Directing a friend’s work

“I think it helps knowing Johnna,” says Anthony with a laugh. “It sure helped us get the rights. But I try to meet with every playwright I work with, so I can be a good director for the piece. If I did not have a pre-established relationship, I would create one. I would know Johnna by this point if we had not been friends previously.”

It is a blessing and a curse to not have her on site, he says. “It does cut both ways. I think this particular play is in really good shape. We haven’t bumped up against anything that doesn’t make sense. It’s been more us being the dumb guys in the room, like we’re missing something. And then we find it.”

Or there are times when the actors come up with something the playwright hasn’t quite figured out yet. That happened, he says, early this year when he worked on Jami Brandli‘s world premiere of S.O.E. Questions arose in the script and he was able to talk directly with the playwright to resolve them.

In Gidion’s Knot Anthony did pause over a writer’s choice. “Johnna references the god Shiva and decided to spell it Siva. In looking it up, I thought maybe she made a mistake. I asked what she was working towards in having it Siva versus Shiva and she said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I thought that was the more pretentious pronunciation of it and I thought Corrine would choose that.’”

Martin jumps in. “She said pretentious, but I prefer to think of her as educated.”

Paula Cale Lisby and Vonessa Martin

Paula Cale Lisby and Vonessa Martin. Photo by Anthony Masters Photography.

Anthony has also gone to Adams for information on what is not written in the script. “There’s a fair amount of things that happen off stage. You make choices for X, Y or Z happening and we wanted to make sure the character was doing the right bits. That way she’d come back on with proper information, otherwise you suffer a domino effect. I also had some questions about her intentions with the ending.”

He is glad he asked. “Her response was that she might need to include a parenthetical on this line so that her intent is clear. She realized over the readings that it might be too up for grabs.”

The larger challenge for Anthony is keeping the tension rolling for 85 minutes. “There’s no helicopter landing, no intermission, no big lighting effects or special effects. Just the characters and the drama. It all takes place in a classroom, so there’s no room for sword fights or gymnastics. We really get to focus on the words and the characters.” Martin jokes about her character having a half-exit.

Gidion‘s an issue play in the guise of a character play,” Anthony says. “You’re buying into these people. There’s no moment where there’s a soapbox — there’s none of that. Adams talks about art. She talks about good parenting, the role of education, our responsibilities to one another as people. She talks about the bureaucracy of schools and education. She talks about what is poetry, what is free speech and hate. She deals with cyber-bullying head-on. All of it is feathered through this play, so you get all these spots that resonate. Nobody’s right. Nobody’s wrong. It’s very human. There’s pride and hubris without it being a soapbox. That, to me, is great drama.”

Gidion’s Knot, Carrie Hamilton Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino, Pasadena 91106. Opens Saturday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm.  Through Nov. 24. Tickets $20. www.furioustheatre.org. 626-356-7529.

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The Art of Design: John Iacovelli Makes the Scene

by Steve Julian | June 5, 2013
The set of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by John Iacovelli.

The set of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by John Iacovelli.

No theatrical scenic designer is likely to attract a bigger crowd in greater Los Angeles this week than John Iacovelli.

His Joe Turner’s Come and Gone closes June 9 at the Mark Taper Forum. His Sleepless in Seattle runs through June 23 at the Pasadena Playhouse. Iacovelli’s designs can also be seen in The Boomerang Effect at the Zephyr Theatre and in We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 at Joe Stern’s Matrix Theatre Company, two blocks from the Zephyr. Both open on Saturday.

And be mindful: it is not set design, but scenic design, a term that Iacovelli helped solidify as an Ovations Award category a couple of years ago.

John Iocavelli

John Iacovelli

“It’s been a magical two years,” Iacovelli says, leaning forward in an ample leather chair at the Pasadena Playhouse, a theater he knows well. Among other shows there, Iacovelli designed The Heiress for artistic director Sheldon Epps in the spring of 2012 followed by Lynn Nottage‘s Intimate Apparel in the fall.

Iacovelli also managed to fit in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Mark Taper Forum in March last year. ”Godot and The Heiress were basically at the same time,” he says, but the designs could not have been more different.

“I’d done some Beckett with Alan Mandell [who was co-starring in the Taper's Godot revival with Barry McGovern]. I hadn’t done any work on the design yet, so [director] Michael Arabian, Alan and I went to the Taper. I had this big piece of brown paper, which I still have, and I just drew a circle, the Taper stage.”

“I knew just what to do,” Iacovelli says. “I had done a production in the late ’80s that the director set in Bryce Canyon [Utah], so we had a lot of the Hoodoo architecture. I knew I needed a tree. I needed a rock. But I also needed a mound.”

Iacovelli referred to Eoin O’Brien’s book, The Beckett Country: Samuel Beckett’s Ireland, for inspiration. “It was full of wonderful landscape photos of where [Beckett] grew up in Ireland and I saw this mound of rocks and I thought, that’s it, that’s all I need.” The result was a sparse, yet poetic set.

Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s The Heiress, based on the Henry James novel Washington Square and directed by Dámaso Rodriguez, took audiences inside a large, late 19th-century Greek Revivalist home, with walls in Wedgwood or Paynes Grey colors and a gracefully raked floor leading to a grand staircase upstage.

A Tisch graduate at New York University with Broadway experience on Jonathan Tolins’ The Twilight of the Golds, Iacovelli knew these houses well. “I used to walk past them along Washington Square near NYU so many times and looked inside those windows. A couple months before working on it, I called up and they let me in one of those houses. It’s now a dean’s house, and I took a tape measure. They were very patient. Everything in it was still original.”

That style, Iacovelli says, was a reaction against the Louis Comfort Tiffany “too much is not enough” scheme. As for the color, “I knew it couldn’t be a red interior like they did on Broadway. It had to be cool and comfortable.” The Heiress was ”my shot at doing the perfect box set,” he says.

The set of "Sleepless in Seattle." Photo by Imaneul Treeson.

The set of “Sleepless in Seattle” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by Imaneul Treeson.

Yet in the end, it was not perfect, Iacovelli felt. “I told Dámaso recently that I know I didn’t give him the set for The Heiress that he wanted. He said, well, you gave us the set that we needed.”

The pair collaborated again on the current remount of Matthew Leavitt’s The Boomerang Effect at the Zephyr Theatre, after getting their feet wet with the play last year at the Odyssey Theatre.

Iacovelli was nominated for Ovation Awards for both Godot and Heiress, but did not win. He remains unperturbed, primarily because he has the full faith of his colleagues. Alan Mandell remembers working with Iacovelli first in 1986. He writes via email, “I usually make it a condition of any play I do that John does the set. I trust his talent, intelligence and artistry.”

Pasadena Playhouse’s Epps says in an email that Iacovelli can work skillfully in many styles, touching “all of the bases with incredible knowledge, good taste, and imagination. His great passion for the art of the theater and for the work that we do is always evident. It is never just another gig for John, even though he always has so many; he really cares about each and every project.”

Director Phylicia Rashad, whose many collaborations with Iacovelli include August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Taper, agrees. Her younger sister, Debbie Allen, first hired Iacovelli in 2001 for PBS’ The Old Settler, an adaptation of the play by John Henry Redwood. The real-life sisters portrayed siblings in the Harlem Renaissance.

“He’s a gem,” Rashad says by telephone. And fittingly, she had asked that Iacovelli be hired in 2007 when she debuted as a director at Seattle Repertory with August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. ”John was approved immediately,” she says. (Two years prior, Rashad had been a Tony nominee for her role as Aunt Esther in the Broadway run of the play.)

“Last summer,” Rashad adds, “when I went to the Goodman [in Chicago] to direct Immediate Family in the eleventh hour, the previous design was not to my liking, and John came in and we had that set in six weeks. It helped the playwright [Paul Oakley Stovall] organize the play and bring more clarity to his work.”

Looking back on his design for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Iacovelli feels that his collaboration with Rashad was almost immeasurable. “I knew that by the time we were done, Phylicia owned every piece of molding on that set.” The two will pair up again this fall when they tackle August Wilson’s Fences at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

John Iacovelli’s Scenic Design Work


 

Out of this world

From 1994 through 1998, Iacovelli was the production designer for the TV series Babylon 5. “We created over 350 sets,” he says, “and never left the studio.”

Television, he says, informs his theatrical work. “The best example I can give is Peter Pan with Cathy Rigby [at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts]. I was doing the sci-fi show and we had these artisans. I told them that in Peter Pan I needed a cover for a nightlight that would look like a glass shade for a sconce. And as Cathy flies around the set as Peter it can’t crack or hurt her if she flies into it. I needed something solid but made of rubber. So, like alchemists, they came up with this mold and a piece that’s still with the set today.” Iacovelli also won an Emmy Award for Peter Pan Starring Cathy Rigby on A&E.

Babylon 5 was on a limited budget, so the innovative scenic designer called upon his theatrical painting techniques. “I went to rich hues, or what we called ‘spicy brights,’ which the Star Trek shows were not using. I applied for a job at Disney Imagineering once and the guy laughed when he looked at my portfolio. I asked him why he was laughing. He said, ‘when we redesigned Tomorrowland, I told them to look at Babylon 5 because it was the only TV show with color in it’! That made me happy.”

Iacovelli is often asked to explain the difference between an artist and a designer. “My father was a fine artist in sculpture and jewelry and every manner of painting. An artist is more on a personal journey. I used to think Mondrian was a boring artist and then I went to a retrospective at the Museum for Modern Art in New York. I saw that he started painting trees that over time became geometric forms [and] that became his style. I saw his arc over forty years. Many artists have one problem they’re working on and they keep at it, over and over. You could say the sunflowers were that for Van Gogh. An artist is on such a singular journey.”

One of Iacovelli's "Babylon 5" sets.

One of Iacovelli’s “Babylon 5″ sets.

But a designer, he maintains, can design only with other people.

Television, Iacovelli says, teaches one to make a decision quickly and to know that it’s the right decision. “I remember working on a show at South Coast Rep with Brian Gale [lighting designer and frequent collaborator, including Sleepless in Seattle and Waiting for Godot]. It was a very simple set in their old second stage space. A desk and chair and carpet on a turntable, but we kept tinkering with it. I was laughing because that was the same day I’d done a dozen sets on Babylon 5.”

Iacovelli recalls turning to Gale and saying, “It’s funny how we spend so much time dealing with one set here, while in television, I make a dozen a day. Then we talked about the fact that doing our work in theater allows us to make quick decisions in television. We’ve already thought through the options and know what’ll work.” (By the way, one sci-fi axiom, Iacovelli notes, is that doors hinge only on Earth.)

Getting unreal

The Heiress and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone aside, Iacovelli often aims to get away from the constraints of realism. He and Gale collaborated on the Matrix Theatre Company’s award-winning 2011 production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. “It’s such a small space, so I abstracted the set, which I never thought I would do, but the trees became metal and we used the brick back wall as a sort of industrial sky. We had grass, brick, the back porch. But the theater gives me permission to do what I don’t do in film and television, which is to not be realistic. The trees looked dangerous, a sinister quality, not like willow trees.”

Iacovelli returns to the Matrix this week for Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, which has its West Coast premiere the same Saturday night as the Zephyr’s Boomerang opening down the street.

Even in Sleepless, Iacovelli attempted to disguise the literal. “When Sheldon suggested we have a bridge with a couple of spiral staircases, I thought, is this too much set to be in more than one place? Then, by painting everything blue and using a color treatment that he thought of, the spiral staircase at the bridge also becomes the one in the boat, and it becomes a staircase in a night club and in an airport, and I think it works. I kept all the lines very square with many boxes of projection screens around the proscenium, which allows the stage to be more of a blank page.”

"Peter Pan"

The set of “Peter Pan” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

In that sense, Iacovelli says, the theater becomes a psychological space to support the actors.

“I just did On the Spectrum [by Ken LaZebnik] at the Fountain Theatre and we had four or five massive projectors. I worried it would overpower the story, but it really helped the dramaturgy.”

He says a producer recently described a space to him as an actors’ theater. “I thought, well, if you can show me where the designers’ theaters are, I’ll sign up. All theaters are actors’ theaters.” But, Iacovelli adds, “the reason we’re here is for the performers and performance, not just because we want to do a beautiful set.”

Getting real

Iacovelli, who has received the LA Drama Critics Circle award for lifetime achievement in scenic design, calls himself a visualizer, not a daydreamer. “Gosh that’s a hard word. What is daydreaming? I do go in and out of consciousness, I notice. I know that in my head, I have to see the set first before I can draw it. It sounds a little California and a little goofy, but I sometimes imagine the set coming to life on the stage. What does this wall look like, in my head, and then I draw it on paper. My life is pretty much a daydream, being in the theater.”

That life takes Iacovelli to the University of California Davis where he is on the design faculty in the department of theater and dance. He is also a visiting professor at the Shanghai Drama Academy.

Epps appreciates Iacovelli’s support in all of their work together. “He is certainly one of my most valued collaborators, and a very special gift to my own theater and to the entire LA theater community.”

“I feel like the job of the designer is to help the director and the whole team to create an environment,” Iacovelli says. “Part of that job is to show them what you’re going to give them. It can’t be a surprise on opening night, so here’s a model, a stage design, a rendering. This is what I’m promising you and this is what I’ll deliver. Of course, there has to be collaboration with costumes, lighting and sound, but I feel that journey is the fun part.”

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, Matrix Theatre Company, 7657 Melrose Ave, LA 90046. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through August 11. Tickets: $30. 323-852-1445 www.matrixtheatre.com

The Boomerang Effect, Village Green productions at Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., LA 90046. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm. Tickets: $20-25. Through July 27. 800-595-4849.  www.tix.com

Sleepless in Seattle, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena 91101. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 4 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Through June 23. Tickets: $64-$145. 626-356-7529. www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA 90012. Wed-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Through June 9. Tickets: $20-$75. 213-628-2772. www.centertheatregroup.org

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LA Stage Times

For The Crucible, Antaeus’ Doubling Extends to the Director’s Chair(s)

by Steve Julian | May 15, 2013
Alexandra Goodman and Bo Foxworth of the "Putnum" cast in "The Crucible." Photo by FacetPhotography.com.

Alexandra Goodman and Bo Foxworth of the “Putnum” cast in “The Crucible.” Photo by FacetPhotography.com.

Actors, more than directors, are sometimes recognized on the street. But in this case, two of those actors are directing.

Armin Shimerman is known as the Ferengi bartender Quark on the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series (along with two others). And Geoffrey Wade pops up regularly on television series, including The Bold and the Beautiful and Law & Order. They have now happily stepped off stage to co-helm The Crucible for the Antaeus Company in North Hollywood (and to co-star in an Antaeus promotional video in which they mock their own co-directing — see the link at the end of the article).

“Every theater company should have a signature style,” says Shimerman, sitting across from Wade in the theater’s well-stacked library, walled on two sides by shelves stuffed with play scripts and research material to support every text there. “And in our case we are doing Crucible as presentational theater.”

Armin Shimerman and Geoffrey Wade

Armin Shimerman and Geoffrey Wade

Company members commonly suggest plays to study, read and perform at Antaeus. In this case, Arthur Miller’s 1953 story of the 1692 Salem witch trials, which he wrote as a metaphor for the witch hunts in the search for Communists in Hollywood, first appeared in last year’s Antaeus ClassicsFest in July. The artistic team asked Shimerman, who had helmed readings but not full productions yet, to direct the reading.

“Sadly one of my friends died,” Shimerman says. “She lived in New York. I felt compelled to attend her memorial service, but that was going to conflict with the last days of rehearsal for the reading and the first couple days of performance. I looked around the room very quickly and saw Geoff. I approached him and said I had to go and I’d like to make him the co-director.”

Wade, who had recently directed productions of Harold Pinter’s 40-minute Celebration by Antaeus’ A2 Ensemble and Joe Orton’s Ruffian on the Stair at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center around the corner, agreed. Shimerman took his leave and says he was gob-smacked upon his return. “The reading was in a much better place than I had envisioned it. He brought such wonderful characterizations and theatrics and an understanding of the play.”

Later, when the artistic directors told Shimerman they’d like him to direct a full production, he recalls that he told them, “‘Look, what you saw was a combination of what I did and what Geoff did. So if you’re going to hire me, you need to hire us both.’ Geoff readily agreed; well, maybe not readily, but he agreed.” They laugh.

Wade says, “It was an interesting bit of serendipity. Armin had the original concept and did the blocking, and he very generously said to feel free to work on it. I didn’t change any structure or anything like that. We were able to do some detail work and everyone seemed to be happy with it.”

Devon Sorvari and Christopher Guilmet (top) and Kimiko Gelman and Bo Foxworth (bottom) as Elizabeth and John Proctor. Photos by Geoffrey Wade.

Devon Sorvari and Christopher Guilmet (top) and Kimiko Gelman and Bo Foxworth (bottom) as Elizabeth and John Proctor. Photos by Geoffrey Wade.

He remembers that in a Cincinnati production of Stepping Out he was in, the director had to leave for a couple days toward the end of the rehearsal process. “His wife was having a baby. So the artistic director came in and completely re-directed it. He literally flipped all the staging 180 degrees and did all kinds of stuff — I felt so sorry for that guy! I certainly didn’t do that, but I made some contributions.” And he improved some of the blocking, says Shimerman.

Shimerman adds, “If we have two casts and two stage managers for every show [as Antaeus does], why not have two directors? Geoff and I think as one. Early on we said to the cast there will be no differences of opinion. If Geoff says this is so, then Armin says this is so. And so far that’s 99% true.”

What about the one percent?

Wade says, “Just the other day I told Armin I thought he should do X and he said ‘No! I’ve always seen it as Y!’”

“And he was very nice about it,” Shimerman says. “We’re reasonable men and we listen to each other’s point of view.”

Presenting The Crucible

“One of the things the artistic directors said when they saw the reading last year,” Shimerman notes, “was that they wanted that presentational style in the production as well. We have tried to maintain that. When you go to Public Theater in New York, there’s a type of theater you expect to see. If you go to the Mime Troupe in San Francisco, there’s a style you expect to see. I’m not trying to create an Antaeus style; I’m just trying to incorporate this style into our readings.”

The result, he says, is seeing The Crucible through a different facet of the prism.

As Wade puts it, “You may see this presentational style in readings in particular when you have the performers facing straight forward instead of facing each other. It’s as if you’re talking to someone in a mirror. I think whenever we do this, someone says, oh, that’s Frank Dwyer‘s style, one of the original founders of this company. The actor tends not to get lost in the script or in each other.”

It’s a little easier in a reading, he admits, because the actors stand and hold scripts, much as they would in radio theater, standing before a mic. “When you translate it to actual scene work, it’s a little different, but the audience reaction to the reading we did was,’ oh, I never got the story so clearly before’.”

Ann Noble and Saundra McClain of the "Putnam" cast.

Ann Noble and Saundra McClain of the “Putnam” cast.

Shimerman chimes in, “There’s also something classical theater-oriented in this style. It is not unusual for a Shakespearean actor to stand on stage with a group of actors around him and present a speech as though it’s a monologue or soliloquy. In that you talk to the audience, but in this case you’re talking to another character through the audience. In a sense, we are a classical theater and we are using this classical approach, but this time, for Miller.”

“It actually involves the audience even more,” says Wade. “That’s the reaction we got to the Classicsfest audience in July. In a more traditional presentation, it’s like you’re watching the scene like a fly on the wall, the invisible fourth wall. But there’s no denying that to connect with another character an actor has to send his energy and emotions and intentions out through the audience, and it comes back around like a boomerang.”

Explaining The Crucible

The directors agree The Crucible is a wonderfully enduring play. Its themes are many and varied. Wade says, “It’s not just about the historical incident of the witchcraft trials in Salem in 1692. It’s not just about a reaction to the Communist witch hunts of 1953; he’s acknowledged he wrote this in reaction to them. But as often happens as art, it became larger than its inspiration.”

It’s among Miller’s most produced plays — Theatre Banshee produced it two years ago in Burbank, just two miles east of the current Antaeus rendition. Shimerman performed it in high school. But Wade admits he is probably the only actor in America who has never been in it. “It deals with broadly human, but particularly American, themes,” Wade says. “They never go away. They’re as much a part of the fiber that makes us up as anything else. It’s why you can read [19th century philosopher and historian] de Tocqueville and find things that still apply to our society.”

Shimerman nods. “The mix of church of state, the debate all of us in this country are debating every day, is a part of The Crucible, and the play echoes those debates even though it was written half a century ago.”

John Prosky, Steve Hofvendahl and Aaron Lyons of the "Proctor" cast.

John Prosky, Steve Hofvendahl and Aaron Lyons of the “Proctor” cast.

Miller wrote it in a manner unlike that of his other significant works. “It is not the Arthur Miller we are used to hearing in Death of a Salesman or All My Sons. There is a sense of historical language in the play. But it is amazing, because we have such good actors, and we are being true to Mr. Miller, there is less of that [old language sound] every day; it becomes more modern. I seem to remember that he did, indeed, depend on someone who was doing research in the King James Bible.

That style gives the work an iambic pentameter. Wade recently was listening to an actor and hearing the ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum speech pattern. “It’s the rhythm of the King James Bible and Shakespeare and Lincoln. It was a wonderful flow to it.”

And the characters so earnestly reflect the times. “The scenes between Proctor and Elizabeth or Proctor and Abigail are wonderful in outlining what a litigious, contentious society this was. Americans, even when they were colonists, loved to sue each other, bickering over property lines and whose cow was this — that’s who we come from. Many of those scenes have the same kind of passion and human nuance that Miller is so good at.”

He shows us people dealing with difficult, knotty problems. “None of these people is perfect. They all have feet of clay at some point. John Proctor is a moral failure in his own eyes. Elizabeth Proctor is a good, upright woman, but maybe she’s too rigid and cold. Miller’s characters are appealing to us because their nuances and quirks make them so human to us.”

“That’s what we’re going for,” adds Shimerman, “the humanity in our characters. We have no desire to have heroes on the stage. We have a desire to show humanity as it is and one man in particular being put through a crucible, a trial by fire, and coming through the other side.”

While Wade has never acted in the play, he did see one and a half performances of it. He caught a friend’s performance in drama school in England and the last half of one at a well-respected American theater that he declines to identify. “I was unimpressed with it. They did it with pilgrim hats and buckle shoes and we are not doing pilgrim hats and buckle shoes.”

William C. Mitchell and Philip Proctor of the "Putnam" cast.

William C. Mitchell and Philip Proctor of the “Putnam” cast.

This version takes place in modern times, allowing the directing duo to change the gender of some of the characters and place them in clothing that simply reflects people suppressed or restricted by their religion.

Says Shimerman, “We take elements from the Mennonites or Amish or Hasids, communities where God is present in every moment of their lives. One of the reasons we are not [using 17th century dress] is we believe the arguments in The Crucible are today’s arguments, not merely something that happened in 1692. By putting it in modern times, we are definitely saying, no, these issues are just as current as anything in the news today.”

Directing The Crucible

Antaeus has usually hired outside directors. But it used one of its own actors, Gigi Bermingham, to direct You Can’t Take It With You in 2012. “Who better?” asks Shimerman. “We know the strengths our actors can bring.”

“Directors often come out of a literary tradition,” Wade says. “They sometimes don’t quite understand the actors’ problems. An example — I was in a production of Much Ado About Nothing in a regional theater and I was Dogberry. It’s a very good theater and the director had written a lot of books and was the head of theater department at a big Midwestern university and knew his stuff. He could tell you wonderful stories about what the characters would’ve done once they left the stage: they’d go to an inn and eaten this and sung these songs, but it was completely useless in terms of figuring out what to do in a scene. He was fascinating and erudite and completely useless as a director.”

The pair has managed to endure, with each of the directors complementing the other’s talents.  It doesn’t hurt, says Wade, that it’s a “cracking good story.”

 


The Crucible, Antaeus Theatre Company, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601. Opens May 16 and 17.  Through July 7. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. Through July 7. Tickets $30-34.  www.antaeus.org. 818-506-1983.

**All “Proctor” cast photos by Karianne Flaathen, all “Putnam” cast photos by FacetPhotography.com

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LA Stage Times

What Women Want for LA Theater

by Steve Julian | March 8, 2013

For more than a century, International Women’s Day has sought to draw attention to the needs and desires of women around the world. It is marked by over 200 formal events today in the United States — even more in the United Kingdom.

In Los Angeles, we asked women who play various roles in theater this question — what do you want to see for the coming year?

Here is a sampling of the responses.

Amy Levinson

Amy Levinson, artistic associate/literary director, Geffen Playhouse

“Truth be told, my gut reaction is to wish that this question were no longer relevant, but answering in the realm of reality, I am looking forward to a season of plays with great female characters.  I have been bowled over by the complex, exciting women who populate the crop of plays I’ve read this year.  The female protagonists are multifaceted, exciting, “˜take life by the horns’ kinds of women, some of whom grapple with the very idea of womanhood in a post-feminist age. And it’s no coincidence that many of these plays were written by women.”

Evelina Fernandez

Evelina Fernandez, Actor/Playwright – Latino Theater Company, LATC

“Obviously, I’d like to see more plays by and about women, but especially women of color. I was raised by strong, passionate, intelligent. funny sexual women, and I want to see those women on LA stages. LA is a majority minority metropolis, and I would like LA theater to reflect that more consistently. It’s a matter of survival, really. We’re all headed in the same direction toward a multinational identity of mixed ethnicities, cultural and geographical origins, and LA is in the forefront of that path. I would love for LA theater to be the most courageous, the most innovative, to be the vanguard of the future of the American theater and its audiences. In regard to Latinas/os in LA theater, I would love for LA theater to stop the ongoing notion that we are new, foreign, unusual and unfamiliar. Latinas/os come from all walks of life. We are not just kind-hearted nannies or housekeepers, or humble Latino gardeners or day laborers, or misunderstood gang members. We are as diverse as the city itself.”

Emelie Beck

Emilie Beck, director and c0-literary manager, Boston Court

“It is not enough to wish for institutions to add more female artists to their rosters. The wishing will not make it so, and it would not address the root of the issue. What is needed is a complete paradigm shift in the way we approach women as theater artists from all sides: practitioners, gatekeepers, tastemakers, and audiences. This is a difficult task, not just looking up at the icons of Miller and Williams, among many other men, but also from where we work in the shadow of Hollywood, which offers us lessons in formula and box-office success.

“From the time of Aristotle, the definition of story has been set out and adhered to with a masculine hand. And women have fit themselves into this standard in the same way we have entered most male-dominated professions: by taking their suits and cutting off the legs to make skirts. The truth is, women often have different ways of telling a story, less linear and myopic, more lyrical and layered. Though, of course, the less generalized truth is that we each have our own distinctive style. And by opening up the overriding ideas of what’s acceptable, we open ourselves up to stories told in unique voices from both men and women.

“What I hope is for all artists to be empowered to create work that is not defined by the ‘should’ or ‘supposed to’ ideas that have guided recent decades of work. What I hope is that both women and men push past the unofficial pro-forma guidelines that have produced only more of what we already know. What I hope is that we can expand theater to be the art form of depth and investigation that comes from each of us sharing our own unique voice. And what I hope for women in particular, is that we can free ourselves of trying to look and sound like men in our evolution as artists, and instead, to look and sound like ourselves, whatever those individual definitions may be.”

Murry Hepner

Mireya (Murry) Hepner, producer, MainStreet Theatre

“When I think about women in LA theater, I think about how many amazing women there are who are actively working in this community, especially on the creative end.

“For example, on my upcoming production of The Phantom Tollbooth, we have a woman director (Jessica Kubzansky), choreographer (Sarah Gorman), musical director (Janice Rodgers Wainwright), lighting designer (Jaymi Lee Smith), costume designer  (Tina Haatainen-Jones) and stage manager (Julie Haber).  I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, or if this is the case at other theaters, but when I look back at the creative people that have worked on our shows, a large proportion of them over the past seven years have been women.

“On the Ovation rules committee, where I serve, women represent about half of the group (Phyllis Schuringa, Dolores Chavez, Jeanie Hackett, Toni Sawyer), which seems about right.  They are all dynamic, smart, and deeply committed to raising the bar and honoring excellence in Los Angeles theater.

“So… I think what I’d like to see most of all is an acknowledgment of the many talented, creative, smart women who are so vital to the creative output of LA theater.  We should use International Women’s Day to celebrate!”

Lisa Wolpe in "Hamlet." Photo by Michael Lamont.

Lisa Wolpe, artistic director, Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company

“As a female theater artist who has seen significant growth in the world theater culture in my lifetime, I am happy to see so many more wonderfully intelligent female directors and actresses working on the stage now than there were when I was younger. I am hoping that the trend toward more diversity in casting will strengthen, and that the percentages of women of color working as directors and actors will steadily grow. I see many American theater organizations committing to positive change in this area, and I am seeing lots of smart women emerge ready and capable of making tremendous contributions to the fascinating stories coming out onstage.

“I just began my stint as Distinguished Artist at the Center for Collaborative Art at Whittier College with a lecture that considers the question: “Might a woman have written the Shakespeare plays?” I’ll be presenting material on Mary Sidney, from Robin P. Williams’ book Sweet Swan of Avon. Mary Sidney was one of the most influential writers and patrons of the arts in Elizabethan times, to whose sons the Shakespeare plays and sonnets are dedicated. It’s possible that she had a big hand in writing the plays, and the evidence that is coming out about her influence is fascinating.

“It’s wonderful to read about the marvelous female writers, politicians, artists, and leaders who came out of the English Renaissance. For me, it’s powerful to consider the great female cross-gender work done in theaters stretching across time and space from artists like Charlotte Cushman and Sarah Bernhardt to Japanese Takarazuka. Whether I am watching “Makers” on PBS or studying the uppity women of 500 years ago, I will always remember that my life in art would have been impossible if the feminists and humanists who came before us had not fought for the rights of women to be allowed to free their voices onstage and in the world.”

Barbara Beckley

Barbara Beckley, artistic director, Colony Theatre Company

“I don’t have a few paragraphs on this one — just two sentences.  In LA we have an abundance of brilliant actresses of a certain age, and it was my honor to work with three of them in the past year — Anne Gee Byrd, Bonnie Bailey Reed, and Mariette Hartley.  Younger actors can learn a lot by sharing the stage with experienced professional artists like these women, and I hope to see many more of them on LA stages in the coming year.”

caryn desai

caryn desai, artistic director/producer, International City Theatre

“What do I want to see in the coming year for theater?  I can’t say that what I want to see has as much to do with being a woman as an artist.  There are many women leading theater companies, and there are great women directors, writers and actors.  What we need is incentives to keep good artists working, maturing and thriving in their craft.  Artists need to be paid.  We all need to do a better job communicating with the people who can make a difference in supporting theater.  We must communicate with our subscribers and our audiences about the important role subscribers play in the development and future of this most human art form.  Without subscribers, theaters (and I am talking about theaters who are paying artists) cannot afford to take risks or venture into new unproven work.

“If every play had to be sold individually, non-profit theaters would be out of business or be forced to offer safer choices.  Subscribers provide a base of support for a season — not just one play.  And this makes it possible to include newer, lesser known and riskier choices.  If good playwrights are to be encouraged, their work needs to be produced.  Subscribers are instrumental in sustaining theater.  There should be a campaign to educate the public — at least the public who cares about the future of theater.”

Sabra Williams

Sabra Williams, director of outreach and The Prison Project at Actors’ Gang

“I would like to see arts in education become recognized as being as a crucial part of the development of children’s lives and success in the future, as math or English. I’d like to see the state start to support the transformative potential of arts in rehabilitation and re-entry — for the sake of the incarcerated and the society they are coming back to. For me, as an actress, I want to help create a world where what happens on stage is regarded as invaluable as a conduit for social change and is supported financially in order to become sustainable.”

Dale Franzen

Dale Franzen, director of Broad Stage

“I think women want to see relevant stories that move and illuminate. They can be from any culture, any time, as long as they tell a story that claims the heart and soul. We go to theater to be elevated, to laugh, to share and cry.”

 
 
 
 
 
 

Mary Chalon

Mary Chalon, actress, co-founder of Parsons Nose Productions, associate director and producer

“We now live in a time and place in this country where women can be heard, seen, appreciated, respected, and valued, not merely for their individual attractiveness and appeal to men, but also for their intelligence, wit, capabilities, hard work, and senses of humor. Our stories of growing up, finding passions, seeking careers, falling in love, winning, losing, marrying, mothering, aging, leading, deserve to be told by both talented female and male writers, in serious ways, humorous ways, and with wit, style, and substance.

“Our young girls in this country need to grow up listening to the voices and seeing the stories of real women, who lived before them, come alive in the theater. It’s our history, and time can fly by all too quickly. I remember seeing what a struggle the women’s liberation movement was in the 1960s and ’70s, and its results are now so taken for granted. We can so easily forget about past times that shape who we are, unless we are reminded. The theater can do that for us so beautifully. Moments in the early 21st century will be behind us soon too. Let’s tell these stories. To help that to happen let’s see more funding given to developing new and young playwrights who write for and about women.

“Think of Lorraine Hansberry and what she did for young African American men and women with A Raisin In The Sun, or William Shakespeare’s character, Rosalind in As You Like It, and of 20th century playwrights such as Beth Henley and Wendy Wasserstein. Let’s nurture our young writing talents consciously and tenderly, and give our newer female writers places to try out their work, as well as honor fine writing for women from long ago.”

Amy Ellenberger in FLASH Festival Play. Photo courtesy of Chalk Rep.

Amy Ellenberger, founding member, Chalk Repertory Theatre

“As a performer and founding member of a female-run theater company, I simply want to see women represented in proportion to our society.  That means more women in leadership positions, more female directors, more female playwrights being produced, and casts that feature a balance of men and women.  I would also like to see women valued economically for their work.  There are some fantastic female leaders and artists operating in small to mid-sized theater companies with small budgets and little to no compensation.  It would be great if some of the larger theater companies would invest in these women to help lead the theater community into the future. P.S. If you want to see some women in action, check out the show we just opened, Mommune.”

Janet Miller

Janet Miller, independent director and choreographer

“In theater, I always hope for more opportunity for women”¦Period. More women artistic directors, writers, directors, designers, stage managers, choreographers, actors. And especially for women in that “˜over 50’ category. We have much to offer, so just ask us to join the party. Actually, in many cases, we bring the party, and lots more besides.”


 
 

Jean Bruce Scott

Jean Bruce Scott, producing artistic director and co-creator of Native Voices at the Autry

“We need more stories with leading female roles about important timely topics, more women writers writing those stories, and more women producers and directors willing to tackle them. Theater, which gives audiences the opportunity to see more of the tougher issues on our stages, can start discussions which may just lead to change.”

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LA Stage Times

Freed’s Tomorrow Unites York, Rogue, Katselas

by Steve Julian | March 6, 2013

John Flynn, Damian Cruden, and Gary Grossman.

Two countries. Three companies. One play.

When Donald Freed‘s Tomorrow opens on March 16 at the Skylight Theatre, it will epitomize Gary Grossman‘s model for successful storytelling on stage. It won’t be long, he argues, before most companies must embrace collaborating with others — or fail.

As the artistic director of Katselas Theatre Company, with two cheek-to-cheek stages at the Skylight on Vermont Avenue plus two at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, Grossman knew of John Perrin Flynn, his counterpart at Rogue Machine Theatre, but they had not met until after Grossman saw Rogue Machine’s 2011 production of Small Engine Repair. “Glad you liked it,” Flynn told Grossman, “but we close tomorrow.”

Geoffrey Forward and Salome Jens in "Tomorrow." Photo by John Flynn.

“No, you don’t,” said Grossman.

Katselas had an empty stage at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, and Grossman — sold on the production’s quality — suggested that the two companies should move it a few miles to the northwest. They did, and the show continued its run. More recently, Rogue Machine’s production of Dirty Filthy Love Story moved to the Skylight for an extended run, now scheduled through March 24.

“We’re from the old school,” says Grossman, “so we gathered [Fountain Theatre producing director]  Simon Levy and began playing this artistic poker where we would meet every month with a bunch of artistic and producing directors and swap ideas and play cards. Simon and John and I agreed we had to do a production together, maybe [the trilogy] The Norman Conquests, with a show at the Fountain, another at Rogue and one here.”

Although that production of Alan Ayckbourn’s tripartite comedy hasn’t materialized, an opportunity came to Flynn. “John was presented with [LA playwright Donald Freed's] Tomorrow, ” Grossman says, “but he couldn’t do it at his theater. It was going to be done with Damian Cruden directing, and Damian had only a small window where he could come to LA from England, so John asked and I said that I had a spot. We’ve been wanting to do this, I said, so let’s do it.”

Donald Freed

Flynn and Grossman agreed to bring Tomorrow to Katselas, co-produce it, and bring Cruden across the pond. “So here we are,” adds Grossman, “teaming up with Damian and his York Theatre Royal and Donald, who has been a writer in residence there.”

No National Theater

The four men sit in a tight circle on a bare Katselas stage. Cruden is still wrapping his head around the time it takes to drive just a few miles in Los Angeles. “In York everyone can get to our theater. They can walk, they can drive. They can park easily.” (More of Cruden’s thoughts about his first weeks in LA are available on a blog).

York lies northeast of Manchester and Liverpool, about a four-hour journey north of London. Leeds University is nearby. “I got a lovely email one day from Donald’s wife, Patty, telling me her husband was on a two-year sabbatical at Leeds and would I like to come to dinner?”

Cruden, now entering his sixteenth year as artistic director at York Theatre Royal, thought the invitation was phenomenally charming, but “I thought it was rude that we were not inviting him to dinner! Donald was writing Patient #1 at the time and we did the premiere.” It imagined a heavily sedated George W. Bush in an elite psychiatric clinic in Florida.

Freed turns 80 this year. He playfully notes that he presumes, with his home in Los Angeles and since Ray Bradbury’s death last June, that he is now the oldest playwright west of the Mississippi.

York Theatre Royal

Of the many plays he has written, perhaps the best-known in LA is his solo play about Nixon, Secret Honor (co-written with Arnold Stone) — it was turned into a film by Robert Altman. His Devil’s Advocate, about Panama’s Manuel Noriega, won a PEN Center USA 2006 Literary Award and received its US premiere in 2011 at LATC, which had also produced his 1951-2006 in 2010. Others include Inquest, Circe and Bravo, Veterans Day, Is He Still Dead? and Sokrates Must Die. He has held three Rockefeller Foundation awards and two Louis B. Mayer awards.

His new work at Katselas, Tomorrow, begins on December 13, 2000 — the day the election between Bush and Al Gore had just been “officially and legally stolen by way of the Supreme Court of the United States of America,” notes Freed.

It is a play within a play. A great and young American actress petitions a 100-year old doyen, Abigail Booth, to coach her for a major production in which she would play Lady Macbeth. Freed’s play is a three-hander, and a life-changing secret at the end alters the actress’ priorities.

“In this play,” says Freed, “the dialectic of politics and theater, the major term is theater, the minor term is politics, but the dialectic to me seems to be the thrust of certain kinds of storytelling.”

Two characters share a hope of a national American theater, a concept that crawls under Cruden’s skin.

“We have issues in the UK about our National Theatre…It produces great work at times and terrible work at other times. But to describe it as a national theater is stretching the term quite considerably. To say it reflects or delivers art to the nation would be wrong because it doesn’t actually do that.”

Geoffrey Forward and Jenn Robbins.

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), he believes, is in a similar place. “It’s stuck in Stratford — it doesn’t come to the Barbican [an arts venue in London] much anymore. As part of its circuit, Newcastle has mostly dried up and disappeared as well. So our two big national companies are really not national companies.” He was interested, then, when he picked up a play with two characters who had pinned their hopes on the creation of a national theater, “and hope they become a metaphor for what could have been, as opposed to what has actually happened.”

By contrast, Cruden says, the National Theatre of Scotland has no building. “It moves about the community. It’s all about collaboration, as is the Welsh national theater. As models, they’re not buildings within a community. They are spirits.”

Tomorrow, he says, challenges one to think that, yes, the notion of a national theater is a great idea, but it’s a notion that belongs to an era. “In the UK the arts are slowly having the rug pulled from beneath them by the big national companies. The big ones are direct DCMS (Department of Culture, Media & Sport) funded, everybody else is Arts Council funded. DCMS has all the money and they give the Arts Council some and a lot goes to the National, the RSC and the opera companies. The big money is controlled directly by government and the Arts Council gets hardly anything.”

He bristles. “The National and the RSC have gotten wealthier and wealthier with the exploitation of what they have to sell — War Horse is making the National millions and millions of pounds; One Man, Two Guvnors will do the exact same thing. Money is the magnet to money. This means there is no redistribution of wealth among arts organizations.”

Cruden would like to see the National “give up 15 of its 18 million pounds because it doesn’t need it, redistribute it to the nation and they’ll bring it back by their work and such. Our circulatory system in the arts is slowly being strangled to the point that it becomes more and more complex to keep it alive.”

Not National, but Los Angeles

Jenn Robbins and Salome Jens.

Three years ago John Perrin Flynn wrote in LA STAGE Times his opinion that LA theater is in crisis. He opined, “Today the major theaters and many of the smaller ones in Los Angeles seem to be locked in the consumerist model…. ‘The play’s the thing’ no longer holds; butts in seats is the thing.”

He reiterates a question he raised in the opinion piece, making reference to Center Theatre Group‘s then-$40 million budget and asking why CTG could not share its largesse with the greater theater community. “What is the purpose of that money? And how do we encourage new plays? Both Gary and I are very committed to encouraging new plays and supporting playwrights like Donald but we do it with minuscule budgets. To do Donald’s play I’m literally out begging people.”

Companies such as Center Theatre Group want to change and be supportive, Flynn believes. “I’ve heard people there speak specifically about supporting smaller theaters, but they have to start hiring us and stop hiring people from New York. They have to start producing Donald Freed’s plays or John Pollono’s plays [Small Engine Repair]. There has to be a way for CTG to give back to their community and grow the culture. There is no reason why Los Angeles cannot become the theater capital of the United States. All it needs is leadership. And money.”

From what he wrote three years ago until today, Flynn thinks something good nonetheless is going on in Los Angeles. “There is a re-invigoration of theater, particularly among the people who support and work within intimate theater. I also believe we’re penetrating the larger L.A. community. I believe more theaters in Los Angeles are interested in speaking to the community and not just providing a place for artists to work out. There’s a large contingency of powerful people nationally who believe that the arts aren’t important and theater is part of that. So how do we affect that?”

Salome Jens and Geoffrey Forward.

It starts with kids, says Cruden. “School kids on their way home come by for hot chocolate. Maybe they’re going to youth theater that night — our youth theater is 350 strong. Everyday there is a primary school in our building doing something. So when kids talk at home, oh, I was at Theatre Royal today, well, we don’t have to charge them. We’re creating seven-year-old adverts who take it right into the house. It doesn’t mean mom’s going to rush out and buy a ticket, but it does mean that next time something’s in the air, mom might think, oh, I’ll go. It’s our theater.”

Cruden’s aim when he started at the Royal in 1997, two days after Tony Blair came to power, was to get kids into the building because, from there, “everything falls like dominoes. Now we sell 28,000 tickets a year to young people. We don’t charge them a lot, less than five quid, or less than $7. What’s most important is that they’re there to engage. We have a thing called TakeOver where, for three weeks during the year, young people run the theater. It tells them theater is important. They program for their moms and their dads. They’re not selfish but they’re autonomous. They have a budget and a target. And it’s not unusual for me to see something they do and say, oh, I’m going to steal that idea.”

Theaters have to ask how to market themselves by good will, says Cruden. “When I arrived we were supporting our catering. Now it is a net contributor to us, about 150,000 pounds a year. That pays for three studio shows or our free youth theater. We earn 76% of our income and receive 24% in grants. It’s not because we charge high prices. It’s not because we put on populist work. It’s because people like us, they trust, and have a sense of ownership.”

OK, LA theaters, maybe it’s time to start providing free hot chocolate to kids at your concession counters.

Tomorrow, Skylight Theatre, 1816 N. Vermont, Los Angeles 90027. Opens March 16  Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Previews March 8-10 and 15. Through April 21. Tickets $30-34. www.katselastheatre.com. 702-582-8587.

**All Tomorrow production photos by John Flynn.

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LA Stage Times

Michetti Tastes The Grapes of Wrath Vintage

by Steve Julian | February 21, 2013

Deborah Strang, Nicholas Neve and Andrew Hellenthal in "Grapes of Wrath." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

As he sits in the lobby at A Noise Within in Pasadena, director Michael Michetti — lean and with an easy air — admits emotion motivated this production of Frank Galati‘s 1988 adaptation of John Steinbeck‘s novel.

“I think we live our lives in such an insular way, protecting ourselves and our personal needs. The kind of generosity in understanding there is something bigger to dedicate ourselves to is a message so beautiful and important. I need to be reminded of it continually.” That message pours through the story and, he admits, is why he asked ANW producing artistic directors and founders Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott to program it on their year-old thrust stage.

Michael Michetti; Photo by Cheryl Rizzo

Steinbeck’s Depression-era saga of the Joad family packing the fewest of their most precious possessions into their truck and inching their way toward high hopes in California is so commonly read, Michetti muses, that he is willing to give away one plot point after another. But for those who do not remember it, or who did not see the 1940 film with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad — here played by Steve Coombs (ANW’s Romeo, The Heiress at Pasadena Playhouse, Dorian Gray at Boston Court, Ensemble Studio Theatre’s House of the Rising Son) — admitting plot points is outweighed by the humanity they contain.

“Most works of narrative art tend to fall into the category of cautionary tales or redemptive tales. I think this one does both quite beautifully. It is very easy to see on the surface the cautionary tale: the greed and corruption and a tremendous amount of loss in their lives. But throughout the journey are big dramatic moments, along with seemingly small and insignificant ones, where someone who has undergone so much loss and pain finds someone who is worse off than they are and does something for them.”

Case in point is a moment that Michetti stages in the background. The family has just arrived in Hooverville, California. “It’s filled with families who are sick and searching for work and they don’t find it and they have virtually no food and no prospects. Ma (Deborah Strang — ANW resident artist, The Beaux’ Strategem, The Doctor’s Dilemma) is cooking at their camp and a little boy comes up and stares at her. With the little food they have left, Ma shares a piece with him.”

In another example, when they first arrive from Oklahoma, Tom’s father (Lindsey Ginter in his ANW debut) suggests they play a trick on Ma. “Pa yells into the house that a couple of guys just came here, can we invite them to dinner? Ma says, sure, just tell them to wash their hands. Without even blinking, her first reaction is, while we don’t have much, if there’s someone who needs something, let’s give it to him.”

The cast of "The Grapes of Wrath."

Of course, the ultimate sacrifice comes at the end of the novel and the play. Rose of Sharon (Lili Fuller) has delivered a stillborn baby. “They seek shelter in a barn and find a starving man. He has a young child who is scared that his father is dying. Rose of Sharon chooses to give nourishment from her own breast to this man who is worse off than this young woman who lost this child. Stunningly beautiful moments of people giving generously of themselves when it would be very easy to justify a pity party.”

God and politics

Jim Casy (Matt Gottlieb) is a former preacher who has spent time in the wilderness to “think”. “He came to broader understandings of spirituality that differ from what Christians in general, and certainly Christians of the Bible Belt in that era, would adopt,” Michetti says. “A lot of his philosophies are based on Emersonian ideas. He got to wondering why we have to ‘hang it all on God and Jesus. Maybe there’s one big spirit, the human spirit, and maybe we’re all part of it.’” It was heresy.

Casy talks about the holiness of people who come together with a goal, who all share one spirit, “as if we’re all rays coming from the same light source.” Michetti, with two Ovation and four LADCC awards, adds, “I think you could make great arguments that it does not contradict the teachings of Christianity. It’s first a spiritual idea, then political, because by the end of the novel Jim Casy comes to realize that same harnessing of the human spirit is needed in order to politically gain the kind of wages they deserve. It’s still about everyone coming together to do good.”

Deborah Strang and Steve Coombs.

Casy’s notions and biblical re-inventions affect the Joad family. When Casy first encounters Tom, he explains himself and admits these thoughts are why he can’t be a preacher any more. “In fact,” says Michetti, “Tom says to him, ‘you can’t hold no church with idears like that.’ Yet Tom does not reject Casy.”

They invite him to dinner and to say grace. At the end of a prayer that sounds new and oddly spiritual, “Everyone says amen, not ‘what the heck was that?’ Casy asks if he can join them on their journey and they allow him, even though they really don’t have the means for it. Soon, Grandpa (Gary Ballard in his ANW debut, Fountain’s Orpheus Descending and Summer and Smoke) dies and they ask Jim to say a prayer over the grave. Casy does, but repeatedly says he’s still trying to figure it all out.”

Some time passes, Casy spends a stint in jail, and coincidentally re-unites with the Joads at Hooper Ranch where the family has arrived to pick peaches at a nickel per bushel. They pull up as people are loudly protesting out front.

“Tom goes to investigate. He sees a tent and finds Casy, who’s really the one leading the strike. Casy realized that if people can come together and demand what they want, they can get it. He tells Tom to go back to tell his family to come out, because if there’s nobody to pick the fruit, the growers will cave in and pay them what they’re worth.”

Tom resists because his family finally has a little food. And, in one of his plot give-aways, Michetti emotionally explains someone kills Casy and Tom kills the man who murdered him. “Then Tom says goodbye to Ma in that famous scene. He tells Ma that he can remember every word that Casy ever said.”

Michetti’s voice cracks. His eyes well up and he pauses.

Josh Clark and Matt Gottlieb.

“Suddenly it has all come to Tom. He learned that we are all part of one spirit and he needs to go and apply these principles for all people, even if that means leaving his family. Ma asks how she’ll know that he’s okay. He begins the beautiful speech  that we’re all part of one spirit and ‘wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop that beats up someone who doesn’t deserve it, I’ll be there. And wherever there are people able to live in the house they built and eat the food they grew, I’ll be there.’”

Asked why the moment so stirred his emotions, Michetti draws a breath. “I am not a pushover emotionally. I rarely cry simply at sadness. Somebody who has a loss doesn’t so much move me. Somebody who does something heroic moves me. Somebody who tries to make the world a better place for someone else, where their own needs are sublimated for a greater good, moves me.”

He says he teared up in their first rehearsal. “It’s important for me not to be apologetic, because I think we too often push our emotions away. But it’s a balance trying to be the leader in something while also being emotionally vulnerable.”

Futzing with a classic

Frank Galati discusses his adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's Civil War novel, "The March," for Steppenwolf Theatre on "Chicago Tonight" in April 2012.

Frank Galati’s 1988 adaptation premiered under his own direction at Steppenwolf in Chicago. (He is a member there and an associate director at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre). The play traveled to La Jolla Playhouse, where Michetti remembers seeing its vivid use of space and sets. The piece went on to warm reviews in London and New York where it earned Galati the 1990 Tony for direction, along with six more nominations, including acting nods for Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and Lois Smith.

At A Noise Within, however, Michetti is not only undaunted, but rather spirited, by the challenges. “Steppenwolf had a real truck on stage. It had rivers and rain. We have the ability for none of those things here, so we needed to find creative solutions. I think, like with any piece of great literature and I think this is, you go back to the text to see what it tells you.”

The first words of the play, he says, are Steinbeck’s. “It’s a piece of narration that comes from the novel. There are narrators throughout, storytellers, who are one step removed from being inside the story.” Those words reminded him of the story’s simple nature.

Gary Sinise and Terry Kinney in Galati's 1988 Steffenwolf production of "The Grapes of Wrath." Photo courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre.Â

Michetti is also using the music that Michael Smith created for the Steppenwolf production. “A live band is able to help carry some of the narrative passages and serve as a storytelling device. They go to start up the truck, for example, and the music creates the sound of the sputtering engine before it kicks in.”

The text, he says, offers such poignant possibilities for the theater. Rather than construct an actual truck, as the original production did, “our truck is literally assembled from the cast-offs of their lives: chairs and benches, pieces of fence and headboards and milk cans and kegs; lanterns become headlights. It’s really an extension that’s well expressed in the novel about how precious these things are to them.”

There will be no rest for Michetti. Just as Grapes of Wrath gets under way, he begins rehearsals for Dan Dietz’ American Misfit at the Theatre @ Boston Court, where he and Jessica Kubzansky are the artistic directors. And because of ANW’s repertory calendar, the two shows close on the same weekend.

The Grapes of Wrath, A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena 91107. Opens February 23. In repertory; various dates and times. Through May 11. Tickets $46-50. www.anoisewithin.org/. 626-356-3100.

***All The Grapes of Wrath production photos by Craig Schwartz.

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Annie Matthews, Tro Shaw, Kitty Swink, Kaylee Bouwens, and Liza de Weerd in "Ladyhouse Blues" at Andak Stage Company. Photo by Dakin Matthews

LA Stage Times

Swink’s Got the Blues as Andak’s Last Stand Begins

by Steve Julian | February 14, 2013

This is likely the final season for Andak Stage Company, founded in North Hollywood in 2004 by Dakin Matthews and Anne McNaughton. Matthews says his steady work in New York has prompted the couple to become physically and financially bi-coastal, so he hopes to find someone to take over the 35-seat space.

“I’m still here for the next six or seven months,” Matthews says. “I’ve got a couple of plays that I’ve agreed to do [as an actor, including The Nether at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in March and April], but I would like to find someone to sell my equipment to. I’m sure the landlord would like that as well.”

Andak (a combined form of Anne and Dakin) has not opened a play since two years ago, when the company produced Matthews’ translation of Lope de Vega’s The Capulets and the Montagues. But the hiatus is about to end. Kevin O’Morrison‘s Ladyhouse Blues opens Saturday, with Matthews producing and McNaughton directing.

Kitty Swink

Tall, lanky, red-headed Kitty Swink remembers running into her old friends Matthews and McNaughton outside Costco some months back. “Anne asked if I was busy. I told her I wasn’t really and she told me she had a play that she’d directed once [in the '80s] at ACT [American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, in a student workshop] and really wanted to do. She asked if I would read it.”

Swink is a longtime member of Antaeus, where Matthews and McNaughton were founding members.  She located what was likely the couple’s old copy of Ladyhouse Blues inside the Antaeus library. “I read it and called them. Dakin emailed me the next day and said he was putting together a cast and thought we should do this play. Simple as that.”

What convinced her to do it was fear. ”It scared me.” Her character,  Liz, “is so not anything like me in so many ways. Of course, going through rehearsals, I have found many things about her that are like me.”

She compares Liz to King Lear. “For a woman, it’s the same type of role. There are enormous issues about loss and philosophy and trying to grasp onto things that are slipping through your fingers and, like with King Lear, there is lots of funny stuff in it.”

The period

O’Morrison set the play near the time he was born, 1919, and in his home town of St. Louis, Missouri. Ladyhouses were the tenements, occupied by children and women, while their men were at war. The play was developed in 1976 at the O’Neill Center, opened in New York later that year and again in 1979. American Playwrights Theater introduced it to LA in 1977 at Theatre 40, and South Coast Repertory produced it in 1980.

Swink explains, “Liz lives with her four daughters, three of them permanently. One is home from New York. World War I is ending and the boys, including my one son, are coming home. It’s one of those plays where nothing happens and everything happens.”

Like a Seinfeld episode? “More like Chekhov. We’re from the Ozarks. My husband died when I was 26. I had six kids that I was trying to raise by myself. One of my daughters passed away when she was a small child. I have a 24-year-old daughter who’s got consumption,” and for effect, she slips into the Ozark accent she has taken on, as if the word has more than one U, each its own syllable, leaving a fine line between a true accent and something the audience can understand.

“Because of her tuberculosis, she can’t live with her small child. My two youngest daughters are in high school and work as waitresses, and I need everybody to keep the house going. My daughter Dot is the second oldest. She’s a New York model who married a wealthy man she met at the White House, where she got to go because she had sold so many war bonds.”

The back story is all in the text, she says. “It’s vast. They really talk. And talk. And talk. Which makes it sound like the play’s talky, which it’s not. They talk about their lives a great deal because their lives are so important to them.”

The family in the play moved to St. Louis from Arkansas, where the dialect is strikingly different. Swink relied on a dialect CD, but also on her friend, actress Tess Harper, who was nominated for an Oscar for Crimes of the Heart. “Tess is from Mammoth Spring, Arkansas. Many of these people are familiar to me through Tess’ family. These people are Irish, their last name is Madden, and they’re tough people who got pushed off their land by the railroads and the banks. Tess’ father and uncle went to Detroit at the beginning of World War II because there were no jobs at home, and then moved back to the land.”

After nearly a century since the time when the play takes place, Swink believes that Ladyhouse Blue resonates because people still have strong inconsistencies and can be at counterpoints with their own cultures. “Among my friends, those who tend to do well, are those who tend to vote against their own best pocketbook interests because they think it’s what’s best for the country. And many people who live in the southern part of the United States tend to vote against their own best interests because of cultural issues, so a lot of that is talked about in an oblique way. Feminism is talked about in a very oblique way in this play, but it’s a present part of these women’s lives, because the men make the decisions.”

Immigration, too. “The immigrant culture revitalizes our own culture and some of the people in this play are scared about immigrants. They talk in code. They’re very funny people, even with the big issues at hand.”

20th Century Works

This has been Swink’s period for immersing herself in new eras of the past century. She explored the 1940s in Antaeus’ Autumn Garden in 2010. Last fall she was at Merrimack Rep in Lowell, Massachusetts — Jack Kerouac’s home town –  doing five performances of a staged reading of Beat Generation, “a Kerouac play that had been lost for decades. More of a beat poem, really, than a play,” she clarifies. “Now I’m in 1919. These are two eras in the century that I wasn’t that familiar with.”

Her first recollection of being touched by a play was at the age of nine. “I remember being in the audience as a little kid and seeing [the 1961 musical by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse] Stop the World — I Want to Get Off at Portland City Theatre [Oregon], which was a very sophisticated play. I remember feeling all of us in the audience sort of rise up from our seats and have a communal experience. I remember how thrilled I was and thinking that I want to do that.”

The first time she felt she successfully conjured the same response was during a play in high school with witchcraft and revival meetings. “I was always with the artsy-fartsy crowd, but there was a girl who’d never spoken to me before who came up and expressed to me her reaction to what I had done or said. It moved her.”

Stephen Tobolowsky and Kitty Swink in the film "Boxboarders"

She reminisces over a “little teen movie [Boxboarders] where Stephen Tobolowsky and I played husband and wife. He’s one of those actors in whose presence you’re immediately transported because he’s so present that I didn’t have to act. I did a sweet little movie with Garrett Brown a couple of years ago about people in their 50s or 60s dating and falling in love. We would be having dinner at a restaurant for a scene and really eating and not getting up in between takes unless they really needed us. We would just sit and talk as if we were on our first date. We were transported. ”

By 1977 Swink had moved to New York City. When she wasn’t acting, she tended bar rather than go on unemployment insurance. “It paid better,” she says. She became friends with an older Broadway actor, George Hearn. “We flirted a bit, but never dated.”

But it was through Hearn, with two Tony Awards (La Cage aux Folles and Sunset Boulevard) and an Emmy (Sweeney Todd) among his collection, that she met her husband, actor Armin Shimerman, in 1979.

“My best friend, Julie, asked me one night what I was doing after a show and I said I was going down to Barrymore’s. Every Monday night I met George there for a drink. My old boyfriend, Mark, was visiting from Portland. I told Mark to go into Barrymore’s and there would be a guy sitting at the bar, about 20 years older than us, named George and he’s got red hair.

Kitty Swink and Armin Shimerman

“When Julie and I walked into the bar, Armin and Mark and George and [actor] Harris Yulin were talking about long-distance relationships. Armin and George were dressing roommates in I Remember Mama, and Armin was talking about his old girlfriend who was living in California, and Mark was talking about me. George was talking about Dixie Carter [to whom he was married from 1977 to 1979].

“Julie met Mark that night, and I met Armin and we fell in love. When we got married in Portland, I asked Mark to pick up Julie at the airport and bring her to a party at my aunt and uncle’s house. I didn’t know he didn’t have a car. I didn’t know he’d spent about $65 to buy a car that could only turn right, so it took them a long time to get to my aunt and uncle’s house, and on the way they pulled over, frustrated, and decided to make out. Their oldest daughter is my goddaughter. It was a good night for romance.”

It was also Hearn who convinced Swink to propose to Shimerman a year after they met. “Armin was at the Guthrie [Theater in Minneapolis]and I called and proposed to him. And then he said, yeah, I’ll think about that, and then he proposed to me in Indianapolis.”

The community

Part of Swink’s fondness for Antaeus, and theater in general, is the family it provides. “Armin was lucky enough to have had seven years on a TV series [as Quark on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine]. For me it’s nice to get a TV or film role with people I know, so I don’t feel like the new kid on the block.” She appeared twice on Deep Space Nine, but did not share a scene with her husband.

Kitty Swink on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine"

Swink jokes about guest-starring on many TV shows that quickly get canceled (Grown, The Riches, Outlaw, for example) and almost always playing a lawyer or judge, yet working with wonderful actors. “I worked once with the incomparable Eddie Izzard while he was passing a kidney stone, in hideous pain, yet remained unflaggingly generous and kind and so brilliant.”

Paths often cross. A 2009 episode of Leverage put Swink together with Star Trek alums Shimerman and Brent Spiner (Data) with Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker) directing. And younger actors, particularly at Antaeus, inspire her. “I Am I, written, directed and starring Jocelyn Towne or The Selling, written, directed and produced by Gabe Diani and Etta Devine are two. I don’t have much to do in either one, but they were wonderful experiences. I am knocked out by what they do.”

She also appreciates the language of theater. “In film and TV everybody’s needs are more important than mine because they’ve got to make sure the sound works and the lights work and it’s fun and wonderful, but the play’s the thing for me. I love words. I love to read. I love the sound of the spoken word. The kind of theater that draws me is probably why I’ve been with Antaeus for so long and with Dakin and Anne and this play: — I love the texture of language. Classical language, new language, but language. And that’s what plays give you. I love that. I love that.”

Ladyhouse Blues, Andak Stage Company (New Place), 10950 Peach Grove St., North Hollywood 90601. Opens Saturday.  Fri-Sat 8 pm and Sat-Sun 2 pm. Through March 24. www.andak.org. 818-506-8462.

***All Ladyhouse Blues production photos by Dakin Matthews

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LA Stage Times

My Kingdom for a Hearse

by Steve Julian | February 6, 2013

Steve Weingartner in the 2009 production of "Richard III" at A Noise Within. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Richard III is back — and we’re not talking about the hunchback he now appears to have shed.

Yes, the English king from June 1483 until his demise in August 1485 is dominating the Shakespearean news these days, ever since scientists have confirmed that the skeletal remains that were found under a parking lot in Leicester, England appear to be his.

Shakespeare, of course, used Richard III as the centerpiece of the play named after him, but many scholars have long suggested that the Bard’s interpretation inaccurately dragged Richard’s reputation through the mud — perhaps because Shakespeare wrote the play during the waning days of the Tudor dynasty that had overthrown Richard in 1485.

Richard was defeated by the army of Henry Tudor, whom history knows as King Henry VII, predecessor to the guy who got the really cool playground song and an ancestor of the same Queen Elizabeth who reigned when Shakespeare wrote the play in the early 1590s.

A "reconstruction" of the head of Richard III

Might the discovery of Richard’s remains change the way directors and actors portray him in Shakespeare’s plays?

Contrary to most depictions of Richard in Shakespeare productions, scientists now believe that Richard did not suffer from a humped back, but from scoliosis. Imagine looking in the mirror and your spine becomes the letter C, or worse, S, sort of a carnival illusion. On top of that, both arms apparently were healthy — as opposed to the one withered arm so frequently seen on stage Richards. He would have stood 5’8″ if fully straightened, with slender hips. An artist’s rendering based on the unearthed skull puts a handsome face under the crown.

The bones show a series of horrific injuries, including two to the back of the head, either one of which would have instantly killed him, along with others likely inflicted through hatred or adrenalin or both. In any case, they were meant to humiliate the naked torso as it made its way through town across the back of a horse, the story goes.

We asked some of the leading practitioners of Shakespeare in the LA theater world for their reactions to the news.

Lisa Wolpe as Richard III and Katrinka Wolfson as Lady Anne in The Southern California Shakespeare Festival presentation of "Richard III" at Cal Poly Pomona, August 14, 2011.

Gender Aside

Lisa Wolpe, producing artistic director of the L.A. Women’s Shakespeare Company, has played Richard twice and directed on other production featuring him. “I have a great love for this play,” she says. “The brutality of the head wounds is fascinating. I think the way he was wounded with his hands tied shows the viciousness of the times — even more vicious than the man himself. I appreciate the slender build. And the physical beauty of his face is compelling.”

Given the opportunity to enter Richard’s mind and body again Wolpe concludes, “I’m certain it would change the way I play him. I could trust that the attractiveness would be enough to woo a Lady like Anne Neville. I don’t know why I always think of him as an older man. He was only 32. And it’s nice to see he didn’t have a hunch back.”

She would alter her physicality. “I would look for less of the vigor that I usually play him with. I have found the strength in my legs and power in my body, but now I don’t think it requires that ferocity.”

Furthermore, the discovery has emotionally changed her. “The way they tied him and mutilated his body is so humiliating and to throw him in a shallow grave? That will affect me for the rest of my life.”

Ben Donenberg

On the other hand, Ben Donenberg, founder and artistic director of the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles (SCLA), doesn’t expect any major revisions of stage portrayals of Richard. “I’m inclined to believe the science. I just don’t think it’s really going to change anything except bring more enthusiasm and attention to the play.

“The issue is really more about how the actor wants to internalize the deformities and how they affect his self esteem. Whether Richard walked one way or another isn’t really the point. It’s about how it made him feel about himself and treat others and how that played out in relationships.” Donenberg himself took on the role at Juilliard in Henry IV, Part 1.

British actor David Melville is the managing director of the Independent Shakespeare Company. Richard is one of the last chewy roles on his bucket list, next to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and King Lear.

He points out that many of the articles about the discoveries quote members of Richard III Society and that “they have an interest in recuperating his image as they feel he had been maligned.”

Melville’s image of King Richard nonetheless has shifted. Upon seeing the artist’s rendering of the man’s face, Melville says, “The reconstruction looks very similar to the portrait which was painted after his death. This is not the face of a killer or evil person, although he looks like he could do some damage. I’d like to see a reconstruction of what his body would look like with that deformed spine.”

David Melville

Yet actors still must portray him as Shakespeare intended. Melville says, “Shakespeare’s portrayal is an exaggeration. It’s more expedient to play him with a big hump because it’s more striking on stage. And in terms of your own physical well being, it’s better to put on a big padded hump than turn up at the chiropractor.”

Melville previously has been in Richard III and Henry VI plays in London, though not as the king. “The actor playing Richard in the Henry VI wanted to play him with a straight back, as a normal person. That left us with some conflict with the director. It doesn’t help the text if you make that choice. You have to be quite perverse to find any other reading of it.”

If all goes well, Independent Shakespeare Co.’s 2014 season now will include Richard III and open on a new permanent stage in Griffith Park.

Frank Dwyer, who directed Armin Shimerman and J.D. Cullum in Richard III at last year’s ClassicsFest at Antaeus, is surprised. Not so much that Richard’s remains have been found, but that the face, graphically rendered, is like the best portrait of him that survives.

“That face,” Dwyer says, “inspired a novel by Josephine Tey.”

Daughter of Time was published in 1951 and tells the story of Alan Grant, a Scotland Yard inspector, laid up in the hospital with a broken leg, and fascinated by appearances. Dwyer says, “He can’t stand not having a mystery to solve and he’s very bored. He claims he can tell a person’s personality by their face and comes across the official portrait of Richard the Third. He concludes that the face is not the face of a monster and that Shakespeare’s depiction is based on Tudor propaganda.”

Frank Dwyer

The skeletal discovery in Leicester, he adds, “will stimulate enormous re-evaluations of Richard because that’s what actors and directors like to do. Will it lead to greater truth in Shakespeare’s play? Not particularly. The first remount we see will be set in a parking lot.”

Dwyer, who portrayed Falstaff in an award-winning 1995 combined production of Henry IV, Parts One and Two at the Odyssey Theatre, finds Richard III dazzling in its messy, extremely accomplished ways. Although it’s usually categorized as a historical play and sometimes as a tragedy, Dwyer says it falls easily under comedy. “The first question you ask when you direct or produce it is what to cut. The other is why this is so funny…Even ghoulish scenes are handled in a funny way. Seduction scenes, too. Richard is funny all along, and he builds a rapport with the audience by scoring points in ways beyond merely being king.”

The brutal discovery under the parking lot doesn’t change the fact that the play is a comedy, says Dwyer. Shakespeare had no choice. “He cannot say anything overtly against the monarchy. Shakespeare is advancing the possibility of having a better world and he can’t say anything about it except cunningly.” So the Bard wrote in code.

Bare Bones

For Donenberg, the discovery proves Richard the Third was a “lean, mean fighting machine.”

Skeleton of Richard III, reassembled

Wolpe meanwhile searches for the relationship between Richard’s bones and his soul. “I don’t think he’s as evil as the way Shakespeare wrote, so his punishment might have been undeserved. He seems vulnerable and small and then, with 10 men attacking him, it’s not an elegant kill. In fact, they didn’t just kill him; they destroyed his vessel. He must have been inexorable because now he’s being lifted up like Hamlet.”

She, by the way, will play Hamlet at the Odyssey Theater starting in August in an all-female Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company production. Charlayne Woodard is Gertrude and Wolpe has placed the project on Kickstarter.

It will not be an issue in Hamlet, but she believes the discoveries of Richard the Third’s remains will change not only actors and directors. “Maybe fight choreographers will have less leeway now that we know how he died.”

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LA Stage Times

The Snake Can Opens in Steven Robman’s Lap

by Steve Julian | January 18, 2013

Diane Cary, Sharon Sharth and Jane Kaczmarek in “The Snake Can”

Young readers, take heart. By the time you become middle-aged, relationships are fulfilling, lively and easy. Just ask any of the three middle-aged women in Kathryn Graf’s The Snake Can, opening this week at the Odyssey Theatre.

Older readers, take heart as well. You know how much the previous statement is intentionally misleading. Like snake oil.

Steven Robman

“I think the rules of middle age have changed,” says director Steven Robman, who makes his 99-seat directorial debut. “When I was growing up, my parents were friends with exactly one couple who got divorced. And now, as we all know, those numbers are sky high and kids go to school from families that are busted apart.”

Compared to 50 years ago, our lives — and our relationships — are more volatile, says Robman, “so getting your feet under you in middle age, especially when you’re by yourself, is what the playwright decided to investigate.”

Graf’s last foray into Los Angeles, in 2011, was the critically acclaimed Hermetically Sealed, which grew out of Katselas Theatre Company’s Inkubator series for a run at the Skylight Theatre.

Her first play was the one-woman, autobiographical Surviving David, a piece she wrote after the 2001 death of her husband. Hermetically Sealed (think egg) focused on a middle-aged woman who lives alone with her teenaged son.  Now she moves her eye toward three women (Jane Kaczmarek, Sharon Sharth and Diane Cary) whose love interests are played by Gregory Harrison, James Lancaster and Joel Polis (who directed Hermetically Sealed).

Robman, who has directed a slew of television shows and helmed works at the Long Wharf Theatre, Guthrie Theater, Yale Rep and Playwrights Horizons, among others, says, “The women are 40, 45, 50 who suddenly have become single. One lost her husband prematurely. Another is recently separated and one has been married twice and never been able to keep something going. They are examining what it’s like to be alone at that age. It is a difficult path to navigate.”

 

It is trial and error at that age, despite years of practice, and rarely do people claim mastery. Middle age is a time when we often find turbulence in life and uncertainty in love. But at least, for theater’s sake, we have tricks to tell these stories.

Tricks

“One trick that we’re incorporating,” Robman says, “is projections. We’ve tried to be not so on-the-nose as projections often are [as when] showing a restaurant image because the scene takes place in a restaurant. Instead we’ve tried to be more metaphorical, to give the feel of what’s about to come.”

James Lancaster, Sharon Sharth, Diane Cary and Jane Kaczmarek

In some cases, he says, information arrives via projections.  “In one moment there’s a series of text messages that are frantically sent. So we are showing the messages coming out one letter at a time. In another case, a character has a romantic fantasy about someone she’s met on an online dating service, and the fantasy builds in her mind so that he suddenly becomes Antonio Banderas or some other highly fantasizable romantic figure, and we use the projections to help that go along. It augments the tone of the story more than anything else.” Robman hired Hana Kim to design the projections after seeing her work on The Belle of Belfast last year at Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA.

By 1973, when Robman graduated from the Yale School of Drama, plays had become much more episodic, theorizes the director. “The playwrights of that generation are the ones who grew up with television for the first time. Writing in short scenes in many locations became a knee-jerk response, and those are a little harder to produce on stage. I wonder if projections are a response to that.”

While every moment in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County takes place in or just outside the family home, for example, his Man from Nebraska is a different story. Robman saw its West Coast premiere in 2006 at South Coast Repertory. “That’s a play with eight or 10 locations in it. And somehow you have to respond to that when you’re designing the play. Most of the work of the iconic legends of American theater like Miller, Williams, O’Neill is not like that. Occasionally there’s a scene within a scene. We have to give Miller credit for doing that in Salesman. They are often metaphoric devices to get you from, say, the hotel room to Willy Loman’s house, but you could almost mark that [1949] as the beginning of plays being written not at one place and one time.”

James Lancaster and Jane Kaczmarek

He also argues against Mike Nichols’ homage to designer Jo Mielziner, whose original set was used last year in the Broadway return of Death of a Salesman with Philip Seymour Hoffman. “Mike made a big point of it. [Robman leans into the microphone.] Forgive me, Mike, because you’re an icon in the American theater, but I was horrified to hear that. We were always taught that [after] they’ve done something, it’s time to find another approach to give the audience a fresh perspective.”

Speaking in his red dining room in his South Pasadena home, Robman leans back his bearded face. “Who knows? Maybe he didn’t want to solve the scenic problems any other way. Look at the difference between that and the production Bob Falls did with Brian Dennehy [it played the Ahmanson Theatre in 2000], which couldn’t have been more different than the original but had a wonderful scenic energy. That’s proof positive you don’t have to go back to the original design.”

The Irish

Speaking of Dennehy, the 74-year-old actor has been a longtime friend of Robman, and he is about to play the central role in Robman’s biggest LA project of the year. They met in the late 1970s when Robman directed Says I, Says He by Ron Hutchinson, a Belfast Irishman, at the Phoenix Theatre in New York (Robman also served there as artistic director for three seasons in the early 1980s).

Gregory Harrison and Diane Cary

He needed a big guy for a role, so he called upon his Yale School of Drama roommate, actor and two-term president of the Screen Actors Guild, Richard Masur. “Richard was shy of thinking about himself for it, but said that he had been in a movie about football players called Semi-Tough with this guy named Brian Dennehy. We called him up, he auditioned and did a wonderful job. The associate artistic director at the Taper, Ken Brecher, saw the show in New York and recommended it to [then artistic director] Gordon Davidson and we ended up doing it at the Taper [in 1980].”

Robman later directed Dennehy in another Hutchinson work, Rat in the Skull. “I had become friends with Bob Falls who runs the Goodman Theatre [in Chicago] but at the time was running Wisdom Bridge Theatre. I was quite pleased and it’s become, if I may be allowed to toot my horn just a tiny bit, one of the shows people talk about in Chicago theater, I think because it’s the show that brought Brian Dennehy to Chicago.”

The Irish trail continues as Robman also cast James Lancaster in Rat in the Skull. “He was in New York at the time wondering if he could make a career out of being an American actor, even though he was an Irishman. He was the young terrorist who was interrogated by Brian who played the policeman, so Brian played the Ulster Protestant cop even though he is an Irish Catholic and James played the Irish Catholic terrorist even though he is an Irish Protestant, and then James met Brian’s daughter and married her, so James is now Brian’s son-in-law. Just to bring this full circle, James is in The Snake Can.”

Amanda McBroom, Richard M. Sudhalter, Putter Smith, David Frishberg, Harry Groener, Philip Baker Hall, Bruce French, Neva Small, Bob Reitmeier and Larry Cedar in “Hoagy, Bix & Wolfgang Beethoven Bunkhaus” at Mark Taper Forum (1981).

Robman will direct Dennehy in The Steward of Christendom, a play by Ireland’s Sebastian Barry, at the Mark Taper Forum, opening Dec 8. Dennehy will play Thomas, a Roman Catholic former police officer in Dublin still loyal to the crown. Says Robman, “The play is a very, very big load for the leading man. Almost Lear-like in its intensity and demands. It is written for a man in his early 70s. Donal McCann played it in his mid-50s [during the mid-'90s]. This may be the first time it’s been done by an actor who’s the actual age of the character, and we’ll see if Brian’s stamina holds out.” The two plan a summer pilgrimage to Ireland to meet with the playwright.

This will be Robman’s fifth foray at the Mark Taper Forum. Previous shows include Says I, Says He; Hoagy, Bix & Wolfgang Beethoven Bunkhaus in 1981; Alvin Boretz’s Made in America in 1984 and Babbitt: a Marriage in 1987. For Robman, who grew up in Los Angeles, it’s the return of the prodigal son. “When I did my first play there, my mother bought 80 tickets for opening night because for her it was like another bar mitzvah.”

An Oddity at the Odyssey

Robman is married to actress Kathy Baker, whose four seasons in the 1990s on television’s Picket Fences earned her three Emmys out of four nominations. The two met on an episode of the short-lived TNT series, Bull, in which Baker had been cast and which Robman had been brought in to direct. “She was wonderful and had recently become available, so I stepped in to fill the void, as it were.” They married in 2003.

Sharon Sharth and Gregory Harrison in “The Snake Can”

In 1983 Baker won acclaim in the lead role of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love which moved to New York. She and co-star Ed Harris won Obie Awards.

While Gordon Davidson has many framed posters of shows he has produced or directed in his home, Robman says he and Baker have one each. His is for the original production of Wendy Wasserstein’s 1977 Uncommon Women and Others. Baker’s is of the original production of Fool for Love.

The oddity is that The Snake Can‘s Sharon Sharth, who originated 14 roles in New York City with Circle Rep, MTC and others, got her Equity card, Robman remembers, understudying Amanda McBroom in his Taper production of Hoagy, Bix & Wolfgang Beethoven Bunkhaus. “And in an unusual coincidence, she also understudied my wife in the original Fool for Love in NYC.”

They also live just a couple of miles apart.

The Snake Can, an Indie Chi Production. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles 90025. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Feb. 24. Tickets $30. www.odysseytheatre.com. 310-477-2055 ext. 2.

***All The Snake Can production photos by Ed Krieger.

 

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LA Stage Times

Whether ‘Tis A Whore We Pity

by Steve Julian | January 9, 2013

Gina Bramhill and Orlando James

Spoiler alert: John Ford‘s 17th Century tragedy Tis Pity She’s A Whore ends with this rhyming couplet spoken by the Cardinal:

Of one so young, so rich in nature’s store,

Who could not say, ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore?

Those lines have been excised from the London-based Cheek by Jowl production opening this week at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. The decision by artistic director and company co-founder Declan Donnellan leads us to walk away and interpret the title freshly and without commitment to the judgment (or empathy) implied therein.

Cheek by Jowl associate director Owen Horsley is in Los Angeles to helm this violent production about incest between a brother and sister, presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA. He associate-directed four-time Olivier Award winner Donnellan’s updated version in 2011 and has taken it out of the United Kingdom to France and Greece. He is also the artistic director of Eyestrings Theatre in London (Edward II and In Bed with Messalina).

Owen Horsley

As for Ford’s title, Horsley says, “I think it’s provocative on purpose. We decided that the last line spoken by the Cardinal gives the end of the play a smooth, gentle ending. But, for us, when the brother has ripped out the heart of the sister, we didn’t want to do that. We cut the line and leave the question open about whether the audience agrees with it.”

Horsley, who has assisted Donnellan at Cheek by Jowl since 2006 on various touring productions (The Changeling, Cymbeline, Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth) and has been most closely tied to this one, believes Ford wrote the play in a world where theater was under impending ruin. “Because of this threat by Puritans, he wrote quite a shocking tale of incest in order to make theater vital. Since then some things have changed, but it’s remarkable what has remained the same.”

Incest

Among the similarities, he finds, is that incest unsurprisingly remains taboo. Audiences always find the subject at least controversial, if not terribly uncomfortable. He does, however, recall a fellow in Greece asking Donnellan during a talkback a few months ago, “What’s wrong with it?”

“What’s remarkable about this play,” Horsley says by phone, “is how it doesn’t judge the incest as evil or sinful. It asks us to respond to it as we would respond to the love between Romeo and Juliet.”

Gina Bramhill and Orlando James

Shakespeare’s work was published three decades prior to Ford’s. The equivalent teenage characters are Giovanni and Annabella. “There’s a very good argument made that the love between the brother and sister is not an act of rebellion, but more to do with an innocence and a reactionary response to a corrupt world with horrible pressures on both women and young people. The incest,” Horsley notes, “is almost a conservative act to maintain a purity.”

In other words, sister picks brother and brother picks sister. They were afraid to be parted.

“One of the specific things we’ve done is to look around the world that surrounds their incest and see how many parallels there are. A world which had no boundaries, no mothers, no fathers, and no one willing to take on that role. The older people would rather have been friends of, or actually mated with, the young people. That the boundaries surrounding incest have been so blurred is more shocking to us as a company than the incest itself.”

Horsley believes Ford wrote of young people whose attitudes toward sex were quite laissez-faire. “Annabella’s maid, for example, says ‘father or brother is one to me’, meaning she would have sex with anyone, it’s all the same to her. You needed people in the world to say no.”

Gina Bramhill, Nicola Sanderson, Hedydd Dylan and Laurence Spellman

Yet there are those who judge now and who judged then. And it is a violent story. Beatings and attacks stem from the anger of those who learn incest has been committed; in fact, in the end, the violence extends to Giovanni who rips out Annabella’s heart. This is not a metaphor.

“Everyone in the play is obsessed with her and in love with her or jealous or envious of this teenage girl,” says the co-director. Reason is lost.

“The violence occurs off stage, often in her en suite bathroom,” Horsley says, “but audience members comment afterward on how much violence they witnessed. It’s the same with the nudity. There is a bit on stage, but most of the nudity and the blood are implied, yet people are left with images created in their vivid imaginations.”

All of the action takes place in Annabella’s bedroom. “We have given her posters of True Blood and Vampire Diaries. She has a CD player and a bean bag and a wardrobe.”  That some of the action takes place in other locations requires more suggestion and imagination as the bedroom set never disappears. Cheek by Jowl productions are often far more sparse.

“But we haven’t changed anything in the script,” Horsley adds, referring to the lines that remain in the adaptation. “We were informed by the play rather than it be something we created in our production.”

Modern Anger

Gina Bramhill

What we see and hear today in our newscasts — a young woman gang-raped in India, a young girl shot in Afghanistan, boys and girls molested by ministers, coaches and scout leaders in the U.S. — gives rise to a level of outrage. But are we as quick to it when the subject is incest between teenagers?

“Once a taboo has been crossed, it’s never going to end well, so it’s not for us to say whether it’s good or bad,” Horsley says. “We don’t want to judge because then it makes it too easy an experience for the actors and audience. We want them to think about it more as a concept than as a living experience, just as we ask the actors to empathize with the situation.”

That allowance affords the actors a wider range to experiment or to feel. Some directors and companies, Horsley believes, try to create a sensational response to this play. “When we were looking at it, we wanted to find the beating heart of it. We wanted to give the actors a true fear of losing something rather than just have a violent, aggressive production.”

To give it an extra nudge, and to get actors to “engage their bodies,” Cheek by Jowl includes several ensemble dance numbers, including one to a pop song, another to a tarantella, and one to a Brazilian carnival-like wedding dance.

Back: David Collings, Hedydd Dylan, Jimmy Fairhurst and Gyuri Sarossy, Middle: Ryan Ellsworth, Orlando James, Nicola Sanderson, Gina Bramhill, Peter Moreton and Jonathan Livingstone, Front: Philip Cairns and Laurence Spellman

While this production offers only five performances over four days at UCLA, Horsley says the plan is to bring it back in 2014. And it may be different. “This adaptation came together very collaboratively in the rehearsal room. A lot of editing goes on during rehearsals and it changes during tours and productions. We keep it fluid so that Declan has something alive.”

The Freud Playhouse engagement is the end of this international tour. Donnellan currently is working on a French production of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in Paris. Horsley, for his part, will return to England and let this run sit on his mind for a while. “This play really does grow and change, just as societies do. I think it has found more relevance today than it ever has.”

‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, Freud Playhouse, near the northeast corner of the UCLA campus, Sunset Blvd and Hilgard, Westwood 90095. Tonight-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm. Tickets: $40-65 ($20 UCLA students). cap.ucla.edu. 310-825-2101.

***All ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore production photos by Manuel Harlan

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LA Stage Times

Theaters’ Wish Lists Make Christmas Easy for Santa

by Steve Julian | December 21, 2012

You can’t blame artistic, managing and producing directors for being nervous right now. As several have mounted not-so-traditional and politically incorrect Christmas shows this month, it’s only natural that they’re worried that they’ve ticked off the sleigh guy with soup in his beard.

Not to mention his army of elves, the minions who do all the grunt work — much like a theater company’s members.

Nonetheless, when asked, a few theater directors stepped forward to plead their cases with Santa, putting their wish lists on his virtual lap.

ANTAEUS COMPANY

Company member and former interim co-artistic director Kitty Swink cozied up to a fire in North Hollywood, not far from the bustle of Lankershim Boulevard, and penned this letter in a pretty cursive.

Dear Santa,

We have been so blessed this year at Antaeus, but we have a few things we would put on our wish list.

Stocking Stuffers:

Cases of Toilet Paper would be great.  We do huge-cast shows, have hundreds of readings and workshops every year and have an Academy full of wonderful students, but that all adds up to, well”¦..you understand.

Reams of paper and ink cartridges:  Because we do so many readings and workshops and classes and everything else, we go through vast amounts of paper and ink.  We always print on both sides, we recycle the best we can, but we went through A LOT of paper this year.

The three wise men of Antaeus waiting for Santa

Under the Tree:

We sure would love a season sponsor.  We are lucky to have so many generous donors.  We appreciate every gift, large and small.  And our audience is part of the family.  So this year, Santa, if one of our “great aunts or uncles” would like to step forward to sponsor the season it would be oh so good.

Finally, under the category of Hail Mary Pass:

We would love a 10,000 sq. ft. new home.  We know it is a tall order, Santa, but you never know until you ask.

P.S. There are milk and cookies under the tree and some carrots for the reindeer. And in case the chimney is too tight, you can click here – www.antaeus.org/video

xo,

Antaeus

BOSTON COURT (THEATRE@)

Theater in Pasadena is booming. A Noise Within is firmly ensconced in its 283-seat space next to the 210 Freeway. Pasadena Playhouse snagged Elizabeth Doran from Actors’ Gang to join Sheldon Epps in its leadership team. Parson’s Nose Productions continues to perform Lance Davis’ adaptations of classical works in Old Town Pasadena. Boston Court executive director Michael Seel writes:

Sonny Valicenti and Paige Lindsey White in the 2012 Theatre @ Boston Court production of "The Children." Photo by Ed Krieger.

I have always believed in Santa Claus (and refuse to admit he doesn’t exist). I also believe you need to go big or go home””even as a kid, when I’d ask for big, top-of-the-line presents from the jolly old elf. (I may or may not have been influenced by Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby.”) With that being said, my wish list for Boston Court is for $50,000 seed money for a new program we hope to kick off in late 2013: The Theatre @ Boston Court New Works Development Program. It’s ambitious and exciting. We’ll be announcing plans for it in early 2013. With it, Boston Court will continue to expand its commitment to developing AND producing new works for the American theater.

Santa, it’s nothing really. Just write a five dollar check and add four zeroes left of the period. Easy-schmeazy.

CELEBRATION THEATRE

Celebration Theatre exists solely to present innovative, provocative and relevant work that examines the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer experience. Artistic director John Michael Beck leads the theater in its 30th anniversary season. He trusts that Santa understands that “Celebration Theatre can’t survive on ticket sales alone.  Financial and in-kind donations keep us going and are completely tax-deductible.” Also, writes Beck:

Please bring Celebration Theatre the following, if you would be so kind. We’ve even bolded the items we need most. Love ya!

Computers, printers, paper, A/C and HVAC techs willing to donate services, a refrigerator, light bulbs, a security gate for a stage door area because we have people using the doorway as a bathroom which can make the walkway inaccessible, theater seats, and a marquee.

Carrie St. Louis, Ciaran McCarthy, Tyler Ledon, Adam Huss, Terrance Spencer and Grant Jordan in the 2012 Celebration Theatre production of "Justin Love." Photo by Michael Lamont.

And, Santa, as of December 1 we are now paying an extra $1,700 a month in rent…plus we are now paying for utilities that had been graciously covered by former neighbors (LA Gay & Lesbian Center’s Youth Center) until they moved out in November. Utilities are going to add about another $1000 a month. Just saying.

Knowing that your elves can build absolutely anything, here are just a few more stocking stuffers: (Lighting) A new light board, new dimmers, more Source4 Profiles and PARS, LED Wash Lamps/Controller, Theatrical grade fogger/hazer. (Sound) Mixing board with effects, new sound computer, MOTU I/O interface for sound computer, wireless microphones, speakers and a subwoofer. (Scenic) Soft goods like black masking and scrims, power tools, chop saw, painting supplies. (Costumes and Props) Sewing machine, steamer, off-site storage, laundry facilities or cleaners willing to donate services.

Thanks for all you do, Santa,

John Michael

CHANCE THEATER

Laura M. Hathaway, Valerie Sloan, Tasha Tormey and Erika C. Miller in the 2012 Chance Theater production of "Little Women The Musical." Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio.

Managing director Casey Long worries that he might be on Santa’s “naughty” list. It’s possible that some of the company’s previous holiday productions offended the Clauses — Mrs. Claus is known to have the memory of an elephant. A Chance member since 1999, Long directed I Am Santa Claus and has appeared for the past seven years as Dasher and/or Hollywood in Jeff Goode’s The Eight: Reindeer Monologues — the notorious script that rips the lid off Santa’s darkest secrets. Even though it took the OC Weekly’s ensemble prize in 2005 and was a nominee for best production, Long isn’t sure how far the Claus family’s sense of humor goes.

Still, Long is taking a chance that Santa doesn’t hold grudges and asks, in no particular order, for:

LED lighting, solar panels, an actual advertising budget, a more affordable Equity contract for intimate theaters outside Los Angeles County, a larger space, leap hours (for every four hours, you gain one hour).

“As we go into our 15th Season here at the Chance, I’d have to say our main goal is sustainability.  How do we do maintain the quality of our work?  How can we be more efficient and eco-friendly?  How do we get the word out to more audience members and supporters?”

Show some love, Santa! Let bygones be bygones while you still have all eight reindeer!

ENSEMBLE STUDIO THEATRE/LA

Will McFadden and Heather Robinson in the 2012 Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA production of "Doesn't Anyone Know What A Pancreas Is?" Photo by Betsy Newman.

Once upon a time, in a land called Atwater Village, a princess named Gates entered into a business relationship with a prince named Tim and built side-by-side 99-seat theater spaces. Princess McFadden and Prince Wright hope that Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA and Circle X can co-exist peacefully, sustainably and in the pink for many years to come.

McFadden writes, “I wish for a bigger dumpster with a smaller bill, elves and reindeer who love bookkeeping, front of house and tech work, and Snow White to sing to us as we tidy up the restrooms and concessions.”

That sounds easy enough, doesn’t it, Santa? Come on, be a sport! There are a lot of great altos and sopranos in this town! And who says Snow White can’t be a baritone??

KATSELAS THEATRE COMPANY

Artistic director Gary Grossman is succinct. He wants:

Carolyn Zeller, Alissa Ford, Brian Hamill, Celia Finkle, Darcy Shean and Jen Drohan in the 2012 Katselas Theatre Company Lab Works production of "Focus Group Play." Photo by Heather Wynters.

1.     Patrons with deep pockets.  Because they can sneak in their concessions easier, making it less awkward for the front of house staff to admonish them for no food in the theater.

2.     I would like to be hit thousands and thousands of times.  Sincerely, our website.

3.     We’d like an ovation.  Standing or award.  Okay”¦we’ll take both.

4.   Peace on earth, good will to men/women, and a creatively profitable New Year for all LA theater.

GHOST ROAD COMPANY

If you follow company member Christel Joy Johnson on Facebook, you know that she spends a lot of time leading yoga classes in places such as downtown Los Angeles parks. And if you follow the company itself, you might find Christel, Ronnie Clark, Brian Weir, Katharine Noon and Mark Seldis taking part in a reading in someone’s home or rec room. You’ll also see the company scavenge for objects, language and images. Producing director Seldis developed this holiday wish list for the theater community:

1. That theater artists take more pride in their work.  Stop looking for validation beyond themselves and their audiences.

2.  Large workspaces for several companies to share.  Many of them all over the city.

3. Go easy on the carbs. Unless you’re doing really physical theater, like Grotowski or Commedia work.  Really.

4. Place value on the work and stop giving it away for “almost” free.

5. Pay artists a wage so they can be artists full-time.

ROAD THEATRE

Just as Santa’s elves go through their own research and development every year to introduce new and popular toys, co-artistic directors Sam Anderson and Taylor Gilbert and their group work to support, nurture and present new voices and new thoughts to the American stage.  Here is Anderson’s wish list as the reindeer guide the sleigh along the road toward North Hollywood (At press time, negotiations are underway between the NoHo Arts district and the tower at Burbank Airport to allow an approach during overnight hours when jet flight restrictions have kicked in).

Elizabeth Sampson, Chet Grissom and John Cragen in the 2012 Road Theatre Company production of "That Good Night." Photo by Deverill Weekes.

1. We would like an audience to find the Road at our new second space at the NoHo Senior Arts Colony on Magnolia and Riverton, to join us on our much-expanded journey of new plays and more outreach to the burgeoning NoHo Arts Community and Los Angeles at large.

2. A set of risers to use when we produce work in the art gallery of the Lankershim Arts Center, making it more like a real theater. Studios take note: any castoff studio audience risers that still support will do!

3. A state and federal government that sees the power and necessity of the arts in all shapes and sizes and begins to support them for the greater good.

ROGUE ARTISTS ENSEMBLE

Artistic director Sean Cawelti writes,

Dear Santa,

Rogue Artists Ensemble has been a very good theater company, having successfully completed our busiest year yet. We had the pleasure of receiving two commissions in 2012 creating Songs of Bilitis at the Getty Villa and Zen Shorts at the Segerstrom Performing Arts Center along with the return of D is for Dog and a workshop of our newest Pinocchio (for adults only please) project. With so much going on and with the incredibly active 17-person ensemble of designers and artists which make up Rogue, we have a great big wish list.

The 2011 production of the Rogue Artists Ensemble production of "D is for Dog"

-  A year’s supply of cardboard – We make everything to start out of cardboard, mocking up whole shows with the stuff before deciding we really need the actual thing. It allows us to work fast and loose and no one feels too bad ripping up a piece of cardboard if a puppet doesn’t work out.

- A tricked-out Nissan Rogue to be our company vehicle, and to tow a trailer when we tour. We have a very active outreach and education program, and things would feel much more star-aligned if we Rogues could drive a Rogue (hint hint Nissan).

- A state-of-the art warehouse and shop space, to rehearse and create new projects in. We don’t want another theater, because LA has a lot of theaters, but we do recognize the need to have real and functioning laboratory space that is both a rehearsal and build space combined. These are very common in New York (Wooster Group anyone?) but not here in Los Angeles. If we get a space that works, we would gladly share with others and everyone will win!

- A case of puppet wax*.

*If puppet wax is a thing.

ROGUE MACHINE

John Perrin Flynn, artistic director of Rogue Machine, hopes that Santa has influence with Congress. Good luck with that.

Here’s his list:

Matthew Elkins and Heather L. Taylor in the 2012 Rogue Machine production of "A Bright New Boise." Photo by John Flynn.

Highest on my list would be gun control and compassionate care for the mentally ill. Next would be that Congress would stop being stupidly stubborn and understand that taxing people who make more than$400,000 a year isn’t a sin against the country. Paying taxes is in fact an act of patriotism, and we pay less tax now than our fathers and grandfathers did.

Then I’d like a state-0f-the-art dual-space theater that could expand into an Equity-contract house someday in the future. OK, just 10,000 feet of raw space with parking would be good — and a RMY sugar daddy or mommy.

Oh, and the rights to Pillowman.

THEATRE PALISADES

From the Palisades, company member Brett Chapin and VP of production Sherman Wayne send this wish list, Santa. By the way, give ‘em credit for heading into their 50th year.

1) Lobby carpet

2) Stage curtains

3) Solid state dimmer system

4) Lobby paint

5) Laptop for office

6) 10″ blade table band saw

7) Fog machine

8) ETC selador series LED fixtures

9) 6″ Fresnel Quartz

10) Apollo right arm

Got it? Good. And if you can bring the rest of Apollo, knock yourself out.

24TH STREET THEATRE

Norma Angélica and Julieta Ortiz in the 2012 24th Street Theatre production of "Rome at the End of the Line." Photo by Andrea Lopez.

Artistic director Debbie Devine thinks she got greedy:

1. We wish Santa would commission Mike Daisey to write a piece of non-fiction ;-)

2. We wish Santa to make ‘Theatre for Young Audiences’ a priority for LA theater artists and families.

3. We wish Santa would persuade all sports fans to spend as much time at live theater as they do in front of their Direct TVs.

4. We wish Santa would convince the LA Times to hire more critics, so more theaters could be reviewed on opening weekend.

5. We wish Santa would inspire Michael Ritchie to resurrect the opening night complimentary ticket policy for the 99-seat theater community.

6. We wish Santa would restore the California Arts Council budget to pre-2003 levels.

Now, is that so much?

FROM THE NORTH POLE

From our house to yours, we at LA STAGE Times hope all of your season’s wishes come true. And, if they don’t, perhaps every theater in town next year should do Reindeer Monologues in unison. Eight shows a week.

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LA Stage Times

Ariana Grande and Curt Hansen From Pasadena’s Panto

by Steve Julian | December 12, 2012

 

Ariana Grande and the dwarves in “A Snow White Christmas” at Pasadena Playhouse

The Pasadena Playhouse is going panto. Its holiday offering is A Snow White Christmasan Americanized adaptation of the genre that’s extremely popular in Britain every December, although panto hasn’t caught on much in the US.

In the show, when Snow White’s wicked aunt, the reigning queen, asks the Magical Mirror on the Wall who is the fairest of them all, the answer will come from a recorded Neil Patrick Harris. It’s an ideal casting decision, given the actor’s love of illusion and magic. But because he won’t be on stage, he’ll be the only cast member who’s unable to hear the audience’s boos and cheers — which are encouraged in panto.

Ariana Grande

The queen’s query will come via Charlene Tilton, the actress who portrayed Lucy Ewing on all three dips into the television show Dallas. And it will be prompted by the title character who, through no fault of her own, brought forth a jealous rage in her aunt. In the Grimms tale, Snow White has skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as the night. It’s an image most of us know courtesy of Disney, which has sought to trademark the name.

While Pasadena’s Snow White has dark brown hair, her skin reflects her part Sicilian roots and the many childhood weekends spent on the beach in Boca Raton, Florida. Ariana Grande, a star on Nickelodeon, says acting does not come naturally to her. “Acting is more work,” compared to singing — which she says she hasn’t studied, as “I was literally born with it. It’s like my purpose.”

We sit in the library above the Playhouse during a rehearsal break of the Lythgoe Family production. After shaking hands, her arms go inside and stay inside an over-sized sweatshirt with the letters SCC on the front. It’s the same one she wore when she was recorded covering Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” this fall. It’s had millions of online views. Her blue jeans have a hole in the knee.

“I don’t know what the letters mean,” she admits. “I stole this from my makeup artist, Michael.” Will you give it back? “Probably not. Actually, he let me have it. He always gives me his old hoodies. I have a thing for other people’s clothes.”

Tweet, Tweet, Tweet

At the age of 19, Grande is composed, but before and immediately after the conversation, her eyes are glued to her phone. With her 3.7 million Twitter followers, there’s much to keep track of.

Ariana Grande in the 2008 Broadway production of “13″

She performed the title role in Annie at age eight and continued with community theater in Florida. “I did show after show after show after show. I was always acting or doing concerts with, like, the Sunshine Pops in Florida. I was doing a production of Cinderella at the Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theater when I was 14 and got the call that I was going to be on Broadway in 13 [in the role of Charlotte]. So it was literally doing little production after little production after little production and then a Broadway musical.”

The day after 13 closed, Grande flew to Los Angeles for a callback for Nickelodeon’s Victorious. “I booked that two weeks later. I did the pilot and then a reading of a musical with [Grammy-winning songwriter] Desmond Child called Cuba Libre [creating the role of Miriam in 2010]. Then we went back into Victorious and then I started working on my album, and then the second and third season of Victorious, and now I’m doing a spin-off show called Sam & Cat with Jennette McCurdy from iCarly. It’s been non-stop work. It’s all happened so quickly. I haven’t had any down time and I can’t imagine it any other way. I’m such a workaholic. I get off on it.”

Along the way she amassed millions of fans. “I’m a teenage girl on a television show with a young demographic. My fans are all teenagers and I have to please them.”

Ariana Grande as Cat in Nickelodeon’s “Victorious”

Pleasing them all is an impossible task, of course, particularly as working in the entertainment industry encourages young stars to grow up so quickly, often outpacing non-entertainers. “Even now fans will say, ‘Hey, you’ve changed so much. I miss the old Ariana.’ I’ll say that I’m the same Ariana I’ve always been, I’m just growing up. I’m learning new things and making new friends just like everyone else in the world, and I’m wearing my hair in new ways and I’m buying a new sweater. People always evolve. People will change their style and mature, but I’m still the same me no matter what color my hair is [it has been red] or what I’m wearing. I’m always this goofy girl from Boca who loves musical theater.”

This “goofy girl” despises the paparazzi and media hype. “Red carpets are my biggest fear. First of all, the point of those pictures is so that you can be judged. Literally. You’re put on a paper and they either hate your dress or love your dress, and I always get a bad makeup artist who puts like too much makeup on me, and I feel like a clown and I don’t know how to pose right. I’m not the kind of girl who can just strike a pose. I’m too awkward for that.”

Jennette McCurdy and Ariana Grande to star in Nickelodeon’s “Sam & Cat”

Grande, who recently moved from LA’s Hancock Park to the San Fernando Valley, admits she loves dressing up to go out to dinner with her family, but as far as events and red carpets are concerned, it’s much better when her brother is there with her. “I’m okay if he’s there because he reminds me it’s funny and that it doesn’t matter because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks about you, unless they’re your family or your friends. But there’s so much pressure on the red carpet to be the best-dressed and who you’re wearing, and it’s all so superficial to me. It psychs me out.”

She adds, “There are people in this business who want to be famous. They want to be followed by paparazzi. I’m so not that girl. I’m all about the craft and making music and acting and having fun and going home and getting into my pajamas and sitting on the couch and watching TV. I don’t encounter paparazzi very often. When I do, I try to be cordial but my heart drops. It’s scary. I’m not meant for it.”

Snow White’s Prince

While Grande’s life to date may sound more like a fairy tale than Snow White’s, her Pasadena Prince, Curt Hansen, has enjoyed five years of professional success. Hansen, who didn’t get his first professional gig until he was 20, is about to move to Los Angeles from New York where he has twice appeared on Broadway (Hairspray and Next to Normal as Gabe’s understudy and cover). His two LA appearances have been in Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s Parade at the Mark Taper Forum in 2009 and as Gabe in the tour of Next to Normal the following year at the Ahmanson.

Ariana Grande and Curt Hansen in “A Snow White Christmas”

He’s broad-shouldered, but not as buff as David St. Louis, with whom he performed in Parade and who was in the Playhouse’s most recent production, Intimate Apparel, nor does he sing as low as Davis Gaines, another Parade colleague. “I’m a tenor and I think I sing higher now than I did when I was younger.”

He never had formal training other than some lessons in high school. “I feel that has helped me because I have a rawer quality to my voice. I was taught to not be afraid. If you take lessons they often tell you not to do something because you could hurt yourself. I didn’t have anyone telling me that, so I just did it. It’s a muscle.”

Hansen’s voice will ring out during A Snow White Christmas. “I get to sing Power of Love by Huey Lewis, which is from one of my favorite movies, Back to the Future. I sing Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You [first recorded by George Benson in 1985]. Even for theater auditions I tend to sing pop.”

He also has a connection with the dancers. “They’re what makes this show look amazing. I know the choreographer, Spencer Liff, from the New York scene [he's also an Emmy nominee for So You Think You Can Dance]. Spencer works a lot with Rob Ashford [who choreographed Parade].” Musical direction is by Michael Orland of American Idol.

Curt Hansen

Compared to Grande, Hansen’s late to the game. “I had my first job at 20. She had hers at 14, but she seems to be handling it really well, considering. If I had what she has when I was younger, I don’t know that I’d be the person I am today.”

He grew up two hours north of Madison, Wisconsin and had decided to be a pre-med student. “My parents didn’t like that because they knew how much I liked acting. I had a couple of friends who went to [the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point] who were going to do Aida, which was one of my favorite shows. So I left my other school mid-semester, applied, got in, auditioned, got the lead and everyone hated me. ‘Who’s this kid? Who does he think he is?’ It showed me that I was doing the right thing.”

He completed only two full years of college before dropping out and moving to New York to do Hairspray as Sketch, the nice hot dog cart guy. He also understudied the role of Link and went on as Link “three and a half times –  half-way through the show one day because [the actor playing Link] had run off stage and vomited.”

Later he auditioned for a Nickelodeon pilot, Big Time Rush, which got picked up, but his role was re-cast. “I really don’t know why, but they had me back as a recurring guest, which was really nice of them. I did an episode of The Good Wife and an indie film without lines and a short film called Monkey Wrench. It’s an Australian director and they’ll submit it to a film festival there.”

Curt Hansen, Alice Ripley and Asa Somers in the 2010 national tour of “Next to Normal,” which launched at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

In order to successfully segue from theater to television he films many of his auditions, which he will send to LA. “I’ll do four or five takes of a scene and really break it down the way a football player breaks down film. TV is smaller, more intimate so my go-to, which is to be big and silly, is wrong. I feel like on TV I’m whispering and yet they say it’s perfect. I’m not as comfortable with it. I’m not a quiet person in real life. I’m not a boring person.”

Among his blessings he counts being cast with older actors. “Sometimes I think, God, this business is really exhausting and I’ve only been doing it for five years, and I can’t imagine doing it for 55. I would love to, but it sometimes seems like a pipe dream, but when you see older adults still doing it, you realize it’s possible.”

If worse came to worst, what would he fall back on? “I paint for fun so I’d want to be an art teacher or go to culinary school.” He laughs. “They’re very unstable things!”

Backstage Mom

Grande and Hansen share an appreciation for co-star Tilton. “Just before I walked into this room,” Grande says, “I’d had a half-hour conversation with her about boys and which ones to stay away from and which ones are the keepers.”

Charlene Tilton and Ariana Grande in “A Snow White Christmas”

She recounts coming in to work the other day upset because she went on a red carpet horrified by her makeup. “I was like, oh my God, these pictures will be out there forever. And she was like, ‘Sweetheart, come sit with me.’ She talked to me about how it’s not the end of the world. She always has such good advice for me. We talked about the stress and the pressure of being a young television actress and being in the industry at such a young age and regular stuff like boys and drama and friends and everything, and she’s just so wonderful. I’m so thankful I’ve met her and that she’s a part of my life.”

So which boys are the ones to stay away from? She hesitates. “She’s just trying to help me out right now. I don’t want to go too much into it. She’s telling me that the good boys, like the mama’s boys who say all the right things that you want to hear and the ones who are always there for you and love you more than anything else in the world, are the keepers, and the bad boys, the ones that look like a lot of fun, are usually the ones to stay away from.” She giggles.

David Figlioli and Curt Hansen with “Drowsy”

Meanwhile, she’ll keep her radio on KIIS-FM or 97.1 and listen to Frank Ocean, Mariah Carey, India.Arie, Fiona Apple, and Imogen Heap, or some R&B, as she considers what she should sing on her album. The body of work is done, she says, but she wants to record another half-dozen songs to see if any could boot a current one out of the mix. “I write about love and I write honestly and openly. As I grow up with my fans I want to express that in my music. I’m not going to go crazy and make party records, because that’s not who I am.”

She doesn’t want to rush it. “I want it to be a very big debut album. I want it to be perfect, but imperfect. I don’t want it to be perfect because I don’t want to be perfect.”

So if she were to ask the Mirror on the Wall just one question, it would be what she considers fair: “What will my album release date be?”

A Snow White Christmas, a Lythgoe Family Production at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena 91106. Opens tonight. Tue-Fri 7 pm; Sat and Sun 11 am, 3 and 7 pm. Through Dec. 23. Tickets: $22 – $100. www.pasadenaplayhouse.org. 626-921-1161.

***All A Snow White Christmas production photos by Philicia Endelman

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LA Stage Times

Margulies and DeLorenzo Spend Christmas on
Coney Island

by Steve Julian | November 28, 2012

Lilly Holleman and John Sloan with the ensemble of "Coney Island Christmas"

Donald Margulies is impatient. “As soon as I fall out of love with a line, I want it gone,” says the Pulitzer Prize”“winning playwright. It doesn’t always mean the line disappears; directors like Bart DeLorenzo aren’t always ready to wield the knife. Margulies feigns offense and says, “Hey, I thought we killed that!” DeLorenzo laughs and replies, “I know. When it’s dead to you, it’s dead to you.”

The two sit in the founders’ room off the Geffen Playhouse lobby, energized by the play, but also missing their old friend Gil Cates. Cates founded the theater and produced more than a dozen Oscar telecasts; he died just over a year ago. The mainstage at Geffen is named in his honor.

Donald Margulies and Bart DeLorenzo during rehearsal for "Coney Island Christmas"

Margulies and DeLorenzo have long histories at Geffen Playhouse and with Cates, and this is the playwright’s and director’s second play together. Over the years, Cates brought in Margulies’ Time Stands Still before it moved on to Broadway, Collected Stories and his 2000 Pulitzer winner Dinner With Friends. (Collected Stories and Margulies’ Sight Unseen were Pulitzer finalists in 1997 and 1992 respectively.) In 2009, Margulies teamed up with DeLorenzo to mount his play Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself), first at South Coast Repertory, which commissioned it, and then at the Geffen.

This time the duo premieres Margulies’ Coney Island Christmas, a piece Cates commissioned. Shipwrecked and Coney Island Christmas forced Margulies to write with a young audience in mind, although “kid” never leaves his lips in our conversation “” it’s always “children” “” and it’s seemingly a departure for a writer who has earned acclaim for writing on adult themes.

For Children, Not Childish

Shipwrecked initially was meant for SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences, but the production moved to SCR’s mainstage. “As that play evolved, I realized it’s far bigger than a children’s play because of the universality of the themes,” Margulies says. “It had a timeless quality, and I didn’t want it to be ghettoized as a children’s play.”

Melody Butiu and Gregory Itzin in the 2007 South Coast Repertory production of "Shipwrecked!" Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR.

And when people came to see it, Margulies heard them say, “Gee, this doesn’t seem like one of your plays at all.” “And I differed with that because I felt it was completely in line with what I’d done in the past: the nature of storytelling, the role of the artist in society,” says Margulies. “There are moments in it that deal with parents and children and loss. These are moments that recur throughout my work. I just found a different way to tell the story.”

Coney Island Christmas shares with Shipwrecked its G rating but emphasizes nostalgia. “It’s particularly poignant now,” says Margulies who has friends in Seagate, at the end of Coney Island, who could have lost their home in Hurricane Sandy but didn’t.

“But the Coney Island of my childhood is gone,” he laments. “Shirley Abramowitz, who takes us on a tour of her past, is in her 80s and shows us an idealized Coney Island, which I wasn’t privy to as a kid in the ’60s. It had already disappeared.”

Sandy is gone, too. Many affected residents who were without power have received non-discounted utility bills. And Margulies says if Coney Island ever is rebuilt, it’ll have to be redefined by a younger generation. It bothers him that the quaintness of sideshows and arcades long ago gave way to noisy neon and electronic sounds. He instead spent his summers on nearby Brighton Beach, mostly because he and his family lived only a couple of blocks away. “We couldn’t afford anything else,” he says.

Having Themselves a Jewish Christmas

Donald Margules

When Cates asked Margulies to develop a Christmas show, the writer joked, “Okay, but I’ll write a Jewish Christmas play.” But then, he says, “I proceeded to panic because I had no idea what I was going to write. Thankfully I remembered a short story I had read in high school by Grace Paley, The Loudest Voice, reread it and was struck again by what a delightful premise it was.”

The Coney Island of Margulies’ youth and his family history are very much a part of this play, he says. “It’s a specific tangible reference for me. The stories represent a time and place that I learned about through my grandparents. The people in it are amalgams of the immigrant Jewish population that I knew growing up in the ’60s.”

Paley wrote about Abramowitz, a Jewish girl cast as Jesus in the school Christmas pageant because she has the loudest voice. Margulies says, “One of the responsibilities I felt was that children would be brought to see this play, and for many of them it will be the first play they ever see. I did recognize that responsibility in giving them something accessible and a little magical that spoke to them, not down to them, and something that would resonate to the parents and grandparents of those children.”

He brings up Thornton Wilder: Our Town continues to be a holy grail for me. One of the discoveries I had made after dispatching Wilder to the kitsch bin when I was younger was how profound it was. There is no sugar coating, no pandering to children. I may have seen terrible school productions of it that made everything seem trite and hackneyed and old-fashioned, but when I saw it again in my 30s, I was just gob-smacked by how existential it is.”

Directors’ Directors

One of LA’s busiest directors, DeLorenzo founded Evidence Room theater almost 20 years ago and directed numerous plays, including Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. He has received coveted LA Weekly Theater awards, Back Stage Garlands, and three LA Drama Critics Circle awards. He also earned the 2012 Theatre Communications Group Alan Schneider Award for Directing.

Helen Sadler and Time Winters in A Noise Within's 2012 production of "Cymbeline." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

DeLorenzo recently helmed Cymbeline at A Noise Within and has a date with LA Theatre Works coming up (Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart) and possibly a gig after that with Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman. (He previously directed Mullally in Kelly Stuart’s Mayhem and Adam Bock’s The Receptionist.)

He is accustomed to working with playwrights living and dead. There are advantages to both. The dead ones, of course, can’t disagree. “With Mr. Shakespeare you can cut and rearrange as you will,” DeLorenzo says. “But wouldn’t it be nice to tell Mr. Shakespeare, “˜I’d like to cut this, would you mind cutting it or rearranging it for me?’ I feel, my egotism speaking, if he were sitting next to me he would say “˜Oh, I agree completely, it’s gone on way too long!’ and he would jump in and do what I’m doing, only do a much better job of it. Every playwright is different, and there are some, though not many I work with, who feel if you want to make even a slight change that you’re throwing acid on the Mona Lisa. Don is not that kind of writer.”

With Margulies and other living playwrights, DeLorenzo will read a script, develop questions and ask the playwright where the germ of the idea came from. “That gets my imagination started,” he says.

Surprises may come during the table read and workshop stages. As DeLorenzo recalls, “The casting breakdown on Coney Island Christmas and Shipwrecked changed during the workshops as we began to listen: the play tells you what it needs. We had a reading of Coney Island this February with two days of rehearsal. Donald edited the script and we explored the music, just around a table, but we got a good sense of it. ”

Bart DeLorenzo

DeLorenzo describes himself as a collaborative, storytelling director who has to keep it simple: “My own experience as an audience member tells me I’m very easily distracted and very easily confused, so I really try to carve a really clear path through a story. Once I’ve done that, then I feel like I can have a lot of fun. Once the bones are there, you can decorate them a whole bunch of different ways.”

He has earned Margulies’ respect. Says the playwright, “I utterly trust this man. It was only when Gil died that I worked overtime to finish the play because I promised my friends here at the Geffen that they would have it for Christmas ’12. We met that deadline. Sadly, Gil never got to read the early draft of the play. But when it came into focus for me, Bart was the first director I thought of.”

Margulies has little appreciation for playwrights who direct their own works. “I never think it’s a good idea,” he says. He is a playwright who admits he cannot see full scope with sound and lighting and sets.

And while DeLorenzo feels comfortable adapting the works of Shakespeare and others, he says he doesn’t have the ear for writing more than program notes. “Capturing humans talking or specific tones or flavors, that’s not my gift,” he says.

But the two men mesh well. And it felt to Margulies as if Coney Island Christmas had come from such an emotional place that it was best to build it from the ground up with the director. “It required invention and problem solving,” he says. “Bart will tell you this has presented him with many challenges.”

DeLorenzo laughs and adds, “There is not a spare inch backstage. It’s a giant Broadway musical in a small theater. I don’t even think there’s room for the 20 actors!”

Annabelle Gurwitch, Arye Gross and Isabella Acres in "Coney Island Christmas"

Cates had even invited Margulies to add a skating rink if he wished. “He said, “˜I want it to be big!’” Margulies reports. “Gil wanted to make this an annual event; LA doesn’t have anything like this.”

“Gil was such a supporter and prince among men,” says DeLorenzo, who also directed Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress at the Geffen. “He had such a strong exuberant spirit that you could feel blocks away from the building. And months away from a project, you could feel the embrace of support. Oftentimes he was more excited about your work than you were.”

Geffen Playhouse, DeLorenzo says, has a very special feeling to it. “I feel we’re all handpicked by Gil, and I don’t know what criteria were in his head, but you do feel like you’re in the bosom of a family here. The creation of this theater is an enormous legacy to one man. I hope this play will be part of that legacy.” Or, as the playwright and Yale adjunct professor of English and Theatre Studies adds, a living tribute.

Coney Island Christmas, at Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Opens Nov. 29. Tue-Sat 8 pm, Sat. 3 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Dec. 30. Tickets $45-$75. 310-208-5454. www.geffenplayhouse.com.

***All Coney Island Christmas production photos by Michael Lamont

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LA Stage Times

Carr, Hormann Bring Pride and Prejudice Back to LA

by Steve Julian | November 14, 2012

Jane Carr, Nicholas Hormann, Chloe Dworkin, Cerris Morgan-Moyer and Julia McIlvaine in "Pride and Prejudice"

The day before Barack Obama was re-elected last week, the touring cast of Christina Calvit’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was holed up on a cold, rainy day in a motel in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The LA Theatre Works group had been on the road for three weeks, often performing in university towns, before heading back to Los Angeles for this week’s five performances at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater.

Jane Carr and Nicholas Hormann, who play Mrs. and Mr. Bennet in the production, had cabin fever.  Blurring the lines between acting and activism, they began banging on doors in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood near their motel, campaigning on behalf of the incumbent. Wisconsin, remember, was the GOP vice presidential nominee’s home state. “I just felt as though I ought to do something,” Carr says by phone, her toes once again warm. And, for the record, Obama won Wisconsin the following day.

Women had little say over anything, let alone involvement in politics, when Jane Austen penned Pride and Prejudice during England’s Regency period. It was her second published work, following Sense and Sensibility in 1811 and preceding the 1814 release of Mansfield Park and Emma a year later. Two more novels were posthumously published after her death in 1817 at age 41, but none of her books was as well received as P&P.

Carr is a Brit and grew up on the classics, reading all of Austen’s books many times. “Didn’t all women read Jane?” she quips. She first stepped on stage at age 14 and performed with Vanessa Redgrave in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at London’s Wyndham Theatre at 16. She would go on to do the film version three years later with Maggie Smith. This summer she appeared as one of the witches in Antaeus’ Macbeth.

Jane Carr

She first traveled to the U.S. with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby and was seen for three years on Broadway as Mrs. Brill in Mary Poppins. She reprised the harried housekeeper in the 2009-10 run at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre.

Working on behalf of President Obama seemed as natural as marrying once did to her. “If you didn’t marry in those days, there was nothing left for you to do but be a governess or be put off on some unsuspecting relative or be a servant somewhere, even if you’re middle class,” she notes. “Houses were passed down to the nearest living male relative, so what’s a woman to do, really?”

Perhaps best known to wider audiences as Louise Mercer on the NBC series Dear John, Carr is well versed in Austen’s Mrs. Bennet character — the mother of five young women, including Elizabeth and Jane. Last year, she played the same character at South Coast Repertory (but in a different adaptation, by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan). Mum is often thought to be silly and pushy, and quite forward. “But she’s desperate to get her girls married so they won’t have a fate worse than death.”

Carr believes the story has remained romantic because Elizabeth, or Lizzy, is not going to take the first offer that comes to her. “She wants to marry for love and not for convenience. I think that’s the running theme in Jane Austen’s novels — you marry where your heart is and not where your head tells you to go.”

Elizabeth’s first offer of marriage is from the wealthy yet socially inept Mr. Darcy, who proposes to her seemingly to do her a favor. She rebukes the offer. She remains steadfast in her willingness to remain single, a position that offends and worries her mother. But eventually she changes her mind — after Darcy changes his approach.

Nick Toren, Chloe Dworkin, Jane McIlvaine and Darren Richardson

Are men any different today? Carr laughs. “If I could answer that I think I would be in a relationship! I don’t know what men are looking for, especially in LA where older men are looking for 16-year-olds. I think men want a loving relationship with a partner they share things in common with. Lovely Wickham is a thoroughly bad egg, although the girls fall in love with him — the James Dean of his day. He’s rather tricky and handsome and not much truthful. Most Darcys are looking for a partner in a much more equal sense than back then. Darcy does want somebody with intelligence and a wife who won’t be subservient. In those days most men wanted women who would run the household and have children.”

Austen’s work is half as old as Shakespeare’s, lies in an entirely different genre, and remains beloved. It touches the romantic in us as Peter Pan touches the child. The divorced Carr notes an onslaught of dating services. “People obviously are still looking for romances that are much harder to come by.”

Gone are the socials and formal introductions. “When I was younger, that’s how it was done. Now it’s Twitter and Facebook and dating sites. People’s lives have gotten so extraordinarily busy. I think a lot of us would like to go back to this quiet time. You also aren’t expected to get married these days. Women can earn a perfectly good living without a husband or can live together without having to marry.”

Teen Romance

“Yes, it’s a romance,” says Nicholas Hormann, “but high school students on this tour are attentive to every word. They’re never restive.”

Nicholas Hormann

Speaking from his hotel room after campaigning in a strange city for the president, Hormann looks back on some of the audiences. “When the final kiss comes you can feel that adolescent surge — it’s wonderful. In upstate New York a young boy called out ‘Kiss her, just kiss her!’ Jane Austen’s characters so often use irony and today’s millennials do, too, so I think they can relate to the tone.”

Hormann begins to wonder aloud why the show is so intriguing for millennials. “My son is an English major and loves live theater and the written and spoken word. The radio versions, you get that very clearly, the text. I’m not sure why that is, like a constant close-up. The eye is not distracted by physical movement.”

This tour is an anomaly for Susan Loewenberg’s LA Theatre Works. At the group’s regular performances in UCLA’s James Bridges Theater (to which the company moved last year, after many years at the Skirball Cultural Center), actors keep their scripts in hand and don’t wear costumes. But not this time. For the tour, the cast puts down the books and dresses in period fashions, adding a touch of movement, color and spontaneity. And they’ll keep that sense and sensibility for the Los Angeles performances.

Hormann wasn’t the Austen fan Carr was. “I defer to my wife for that,” he says. “In Q & As, we’ll be asked about the various film adaptations, and I can honestly say I haven’t seen them. I’ve not based my character on any particular performer.”

Having known casting director Cathy Reinking from shows at South Coast Repertory (among his credits there are The Only Child, The Retreat From Moscow, Making It, The Homecoming, A Delicate Balance, Pygmalion and Blithe Spirit), Hormann agreed to the tour. “She remembered me as an American actor who can do an English accent. I got the call at the beginning of summer and I jumped on it. Go see the nooks and crannies of America? Sure, I thought.”

His recent LA credits include Titus Redux at the Kirk Douglas and Radar L.A. and Agamemnon at Getty Villa. He has nine Broadway credits from the ’70s and ’80s, including Harold Prince’s staging of The Visit.

Nicholas Hormann and Jane Carr

He and Carr agreed their favorite nook, or cranny, along the tour was Fayetteville, Arkansas. “It’s a quaint, little university town with a tolerant atmosphere,” says Hormann. “We filled a 1,200-seat theater and not just University of Arkansas kids. It was astounding.”

Fayetteville is only 28 miles south of the Bentonville home of Walmart, and the show was partly underwritten by the Walton family. “Corporations are smart enough to know that if you’re going to attract an educated workforce, you have to provide arts for them. My only complaint,” he adds, “was that it was a non-union house.”

Hormann was comforted by discovering a farmer’s market that weekend with its local produce and vendors. “I talked with one young woman who said that her produce supplies the cafe where I had breakfast. She said ‘my wife’ is the chef there.”

Carr expected Fayetteville to be all “Walmart-y, with lots of nasty big supermarkets, plastic and very modern. It’s actually this enchanting town with little old shops and a square in the middle and a beautiful hotel, the nicest we’ve stayed in. Just charming. I went to Jamestown [Virginia], which I’d never done, so we’ve had outings to see where the first Brits came all those years ago. A day in New Orleans. College Station, Texas is just a university town with big highways.”

They’ve been flying mostly in what she describes as two little planes. “You have to lean one way or the other way to keep it steady, help it a bit. None of us knows what day it is. It’s a little too whirlwind for my old lady taste.”

Yet, after a holiday break, the tour resumes its second half in January. It has not been without its pains. “We stay so briefly at each place,” Hormann adds, “that I got lost one night at a theater. I didn’t know if I was stage right or stage left. I just knew I was somewhere backstage!”

Adapted

Chloe Dworkin, Cerris Morgan-Moyer, Julia McIlvaine, Nick Toren and Darren Richardson

Christina Calvit‘s adaptation is one of many she has written. An ensemble member of Lifeline Theatre in Chicago, Calvit’s Pride and Prejudice won a Joseph Jefferson citation in 1986. She has also adapted Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, along with Angus, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Talisman Ring and several others. Her play Several Voices from the Cloud garnered the Agnes Nixon Award in 1981.

“With all adaptations,” says Carr, “it has to be the Reader’s Digest version. You can’t put in all the ins and outs. The books are always better, aren’t they? I challenge anyone to say a play or movie is better than a book. But the task, if you’re doing any theatrical thing, is to give us the flavor and tell us the story in the amount of time you have.”

This adaptation works, she says, noting “people laugh at the funny bits and are sad and moved at the end. Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, boy and girl re-unite. It’s a classic format with all those obstacles in the way — wrong class, wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, and misunderstandings.”

Brian Kite directs the cast and checked on things, Hormann says, at the New Bedford, NY performance. “He was happy enough to go back home.”

The actors are back home this week for five performances at LA Theatre Works. Then, after the holidays, they’re off to explore more of the country’s nooks and crannies.

Pride and Prejudice, produced by Susan Loewenberg for LA Theatre Works, James Bridges Theater, 235 Charles E. Young Drive, UCLA 90095. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sat 3 pm, Sun 4 pm. Tickets $49. www.latw.org. 310-827-0889.

***All Pride and Prejudice production photos by Matt Petit

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LA Stage Times

Gigi Bermingham Takes It With Her

by Steve Julian | October 17, 2012

Lawrence Pressman and Eve Gordon in “You Can’t Take It With You”

Gigi Bermingham is preparing to make her mainstage directorial debut at Antaeus with Kaufman’s and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You — a play in which some of the characters are baffled by how to cope with the modern world of the 1930s.

Now, in the next century, Bermingham admits in her living room that she, too, is mystified. The next door gardener’s leaf blower has an engine that could power a small plane and Bermingham’s dog, Mr. Bingley, is having none of it.

“Sorry. That’s so annoying. I just don’t understand that. I used to live in Eagle Rock at a time when blowers were outlawed and then I moved to Pasadena. I don’t understand the world.”

Nestled in the hills a couple miles south of the Rose Bowl, visitors get a birds-eye view of birds looking back from a very large backyard tree. The home is more aerie than house. Bingley settles next to Bermingham on a small couch as the intruding gardener eventually flies away.

Gigi Bermingham

A decade ago, Bermingham’s one-woman comedy about substance issues, Non-Vital Organs, garnered an Ovation nomination for solo performance, and the same year she also won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle’s Natalie Schafer Award for an emerging comic actress. It changed not only her career, but her, too. “It’s multiple characters and I just played everybody. You only hear half the dialogue. It was a really hard experience.”

The play exposed her vulnerabilities and insecurities in a way no other work had done. “You’re just laying yourself out there, naked. This is the best I can do. This is the best I have in me. I hope and pray they like it. I felt they did.”

She settled in Los Angeles in 1990 after eight years in New York City and cites Non-Vital Organs as a turning point. “I felt the theater community, those who came, got me and got what my abilities were and patted me on the back for them. That felt so good. I wasn’t so sure until that point whether I was deluded about my abilities. I always thought I was pretty good but I felt I wasn’t getting attention. You feel a little insane. If I don’t get confirmation, am I a completely deluded person? That show gave me the confidence I’d never had.”

 

Julia Prud’homme, Gigi Bermingam and Nicholas Podany in “Hermetically Sealed.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

Non-Vital Organs premiered in 2002 with City Stage at the Hudson, and it moved into a co-production with the Odyssey Theatre. There, she also played Dorine in Circus Theatricals’ Tartuffe. Other theater credits include Venture West Theatre’s 1999 premiere of William Hoffman’s Riga at [Inside] the Ford and Playwrights’ Arena’s 2002 production of Failure of Nerve at LA Theatre Center. Last year, she drew praise for her performance in the Katselas Theatre production of Hermetically Sealed at the Skylight.

“I’d never been afraid of being emotionally naked in front of people. For some of us actors, with our strange psychology, it’s easier to be naked in front of people than it is to be in our own private lives. I think of an athlete doing something really difficult and then afterward saying, I did it, man! I did it! You feel victorious over your own fears. It’s fear and courage and victory!”

She felt validated — and not deluded. “A lot of us artists are a little off. We perceive ourselves as being unlike others. That’s okay.  I don’t mind being a little off, or being considered a little off, as long as I’m validated by some people.” But at those performances where the audience can barely rouse a clap, “It’s the worst. It’s devastating. But we have to just chalk it up to experience and move on to the next thing. Gotta keep going.”

Stepping into Antaeus

Michael Eric Strickland and Gigi Bermingham in The Globe Theatre’s 2000 production of “Henry V.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Bermingham got the attention of Antaeus founder Dakin Matthews when he directed her as Princess Katherine in Henry V at the Old Globe in San Diego. He invited her in 2000 to join Antaeus, a company in North Hollywood known for double-casting its shows and attracting well-seasoned, working actors.

Why invite her? “Easy question,” Matthews emails. “She nailed the audition. Being perfectly fluent in French didn’t hurt. But more than that she was elegant, intelligent, completely self-confident, a stage creature, fun, and eminently directable. She brings so much to rehearsal — even too much sometimes — that she keeps a director on his toes and challenges him to work as hard as she does.”

Bermingham is pleased with Antaeus’ current leadership — a triumvirate of co-artistic directors and a membership that maintains its voice. “It’s like the bridge was falling and someone had to hold it up and these three men (Bill Brochtrup, Rob Nagle and John Sloan) are holding up the bridge. It’s working beautifully. I think all of us have felt motivated to stand up as well. It’s thrilling.”

Bermingham started and leads a career goals group that tries to meet weekly around the theater’s large library table. “I am ambitious. I do marketing. We support each other in our individual career goals. There’s always something to do to make the next good thing happen in theater, TV or film or commercial work. There’s always lots to do.”

It is no longer enough to send head shots and resumes to casting directors. First and foremost, she says, “It is having a representative who gets who you are and has some power to get you the right auditions. That’s the first big hurdle for actors. If you’re lucky enough to say you’re pleased with your agent and they’re getting you in for appropriate roles, the next step is being in shows and inviting people to see them.”

Josh Clark and Jeremy Glazer in “You Can’t Take It With You”

For example, she points to director and producer Rob Reiner. “He saw me in The Cherry Orchard at the Odyssey almost a decade ago. I was playing Charlotta and he cast me in his next film, Alex and Emma.

 

Less-experienced actors who enter Antaeus’ A2 training program have a leg up, she says, because there is an opportunity to work alongside professionals in mainstage productions. “I was in Seagull recently and happen to know that a woman in her 30s got signed to an agent of one of the other actors from that show. A good agency.”

Antaeans may initiate a “down and dirty” reading of any play they choose. They do dozens every year. Such was the case over a year ago when Jeff Doba asked Bermingham to direct a table read of You Can’t Take It With You.

“‘Direct’ meant simply to listen to it,” she says, but excitement grew and the work was moved into a staged reading during ClassicsFest a year ago, which Bermingham directed. “It got enough positive response that the artistic directors decided to put it in a full production slot. They certainly could have un-attached me from it, but they kept me involved.”

Bermingham brought in Tom Buderwitz to design the set, which is challenging in Antaeus’ deep and narrow space.  You Can’t Take It With You is commonly performed on a wide stage. “We have numerous entrances and different playing areas. We’re crunching the set, but it works for the story since the family is intimate.”

Eve Gordon and Nicholas D’Agosto

The experiential advantage to directing, she finds, is that a director is involved in every part of the production. “What I love about the theater is that it’s a playground and I get to go. It’s sort of like You Can’t Take It With You in that there’s an inner world where there’s an unspoken acceptance and unconditional love and no explanations are necessary. But when we in theater go into the outside world, we constantly have to explain to people what we do and people go, what?”

It was the attraction to pretending, to being someone else, that first attracted Bermingham to acting as a child. “I got to let go of my own head, which is not always the most happy place to dwell. I never grew out of it.  I just love acting for that reason. I can forget the real world and go into this pretend world. As a director I get to stay inside of this world during [every minute of] rehearsals, not just as one character [who comes and goes].”

Outside Antaeus

A native of the Sacramento suburb, El Dorado Hills, Bermingham grew up in San Jose. She is fluent in French and Spanish — the former skill derived primarily from her French mother and the latter from having taken Spanish classes from the fifth grade through college. Her theatrical reel includes highlights of a French stewardess in Weeds and a hot-blooded American cougar in The Bachelor. She put her foreign language skills to use last winter in a holiday cabaret show at Pasadena’s Boston Court, singing in English and French.

Kate Maher, Linda Park and Veralyn Jones

“I can’t remember the last time I didn’t feel excited about getting [TV] work. Even a straight-ahead lawyer. Of course, if it’s character-y I always feel I have a better shot at it. I get really excited by any character that’s a little off, whether it’s over-sexed or under-developed emotionally or intellectually or troubled in some way. Those roles always excite me.”

Most experiences have had some pain attached to them, she admits. “But I can say I’m letting go. I’m enjoying it more and more. I feel like acting something I’m driven to do. I’m more confident in what I have to offer than I used to be.”

Her on-camera skills grew during a stint in 2005 as Dr. Lois Banks on Days of Our Lives. The experience helped to instill more confidence. “As a theater person you always worry you’re going to be too expressive [on TV]. I don’t really have a preference between the two. I believe in truth-telling. There’s nothing interesting about someone being artificial. That’s the only criterion for me is authenticity, to use an over-used word.”

Earlier this year Bermingham appeared with Richard Chamberlain, Heather Tom and Julia Duffy in The Heiress at the Pasadena Playhouse, a much larger venue than Antaeus. She apologizes for laughing when asked if working on a larger stage is more rewarding.

Gigi Bermingham, Steve Coombs, Elizabeth Tobias (in back), Julia Duffy, Richard Chamberlain, Heather Tom, Anneliese van der Pol and Chris Reinacher in “The Heiress.” Photo by Jim Cox.

“I don’t know why I’m laughing. There’s something very gratifying about working in a place where hundreds if not thousands of amazing performers have worked before, a place that’s a landmark, a place I’d heard of my whole life. And I got to play on that stage. It feels like I am part of history now. It was really wonderful, a lovely experience.”

But like many talented LA actors, she has yet to appear at the Geffen or on a Center Theatre Group stage. “That is important to me. I would love to do that. But I choose to not have that as a driving force in my life because I don’t have much control over it.”

Getting an audition in any of those places can be challenging, she acknowledges. It depends on who’s casting and whether they know her work. “The competition can be challenging, especially when TV-name people are doing it. I understand that.”

She empathizes with theaters that cast well-known actors if it means attracting a larger audience.

Tony Abatemarco and Marcelo Tubert

“Sometimes you have to put aside your idealistic hopes in order to keep a theater running. In fact, we’re doing something interesting with the G-man in You Can’t Take It With You. He’s a powerful character and comes in for three pages toward the end, but the actor has to come in with gravitas. We’re doing cameo casting for that role. So you won’t know who’s playing it until you show up that night at the theater. That way I could get some of our wonderful heavy hitters and, hopefully, some name people for this ‘stunt’ casting.”

Once the run is over, Bermingham will decide whether she would welcome a second mainstage directorial project in her future. “I feel lucky to be doing what I am doing. I’m happy with my career. I’m earning a living with commercials and my theater work. That’s a lot. And, of course, I still hope for more. Much more. It gently came to me — my God, I’m just so lucky.”

You Can’t Take It With You, Antaeus Company, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601. Opens Thursday and Friday. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. Through Dec. 9. Tickets: $30-34. www.antaeus.org. 818-506-1983.

***All You Can’t Take It With You production photos by Geoffrey Wade

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Shannon Warne and Erin Bennett in "The Full Monty"

LA Stage Times

Shannon Warne on Stage Nudity and Vocal Cords

by Steve Julian | September 7, 2012

Shannon Warne and Erin Bennett in "The Full Monty"

While her role as Pam in Third Street Theatre’s The Full Monty requires no nudity, Shannon Warne can empathize with her male cast mates who are required to briefly flash…the full monty.

Shannon Warne

When David Lee cast her in the Pasadena Playhouse’s slimmed-down version of Camelot in 2010, Warne knew she would be nude. A lot of versions of the Lerner and Loewe musical “imply they have kissed or gotten a little physical but have not consummated their relationship,” Warne says. “David really wanted to drive home the point that the two of them had had a sexual relationship.”

In fact, an early pre-production script of Lee’s production called for Guinevere (Warne) to not only have a naked embrace with Lancelot, played by Doug Carpenter, but to also arise undraped from a bathtub, don a robe, and conduct her scene. That scene was dropped.

In discussing nudity in the multi-Tony-winning Terrence McNally’s musical adaptation of the 1997 film The Full Monty, Warne makes two points. First, “I think the nudity is representative of the guys undressing themselves emotionally, their willingness to be vulnerable, to get over hang-ups they may have over how they need to serve the people in their lives. It’s not gratuitous.”

And second, when it comes to seeing another person naked, “I’m just as curious as anybody! The other day they took their shirts off for the first time. I know there are people who have no problem taking off all their clothes and running around. I don’t happen to be one of those people,” she says with a laugh.

Shannon Warne as Guenevere with Doug Carpenter in "Camelot"

Furthermore, Warne admits she never got past her own insecurities over her Camelot in-the-buff scene. “I was always very conscious of it, and I think the performers in this show have their own feelings about their bodies. But thankfully they’re willing to share those feelings and their bodies. It’s lovely, really lovely.”

It’s the story of half a dozen unemployed steelworkers who see their wives enjoy a Chippendale show and think, hey, we can do one better “” we can take everything off — and perhaps make some money in the process. The full frontal nudity might seem over the top except for the demons the men work through. Warne says, “This isn’t about the turn-on and the bodies. This is about six men willing to overcome their insecurities and hang-ups about their physical appearances so they can find their self-worth. It really comes down to these guys accepting themselves for who they are.”

Sydney Blair, Erin Bennett (above), Nikki Jenkins (below), and Suzan Solomon in "The Full Monty"

Pam and her ex-husband Jerry (Will Collyer) are on the outs. Most of their scenes are arguments. “There’s a lot of hurt and anger,” Warne says. “The challenge is you still want to be likable to the audience, so it’s playing the hurt honestly while finding the love that was there. You can show the softer side of each of them.”

“The most important thing about Pam was finding those core emotions I could identify with. Thank goodness I’ve never been through a divorce, but I understand losing a relationship and feeling frustrated.”

Warne is married to TV and film actor Tom Musgrave, a Road Theatre Company member, and has a four-year-old son. The two met at what is now Minnesota State College, Moorhead, and moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago when Musgrave booked a recurring role on a short-lived sitcom.

Richard Israel

Shannon Warne and Richard Israel in "Fiddler on the Roof"

This is the fourth production for Warne and director Richard Israel, who directed last year’s Falsettos at Third Street Theatre and earned the 2009 LA Drama Critics Circle career achievement award for directing.

Warne and Israel first met as cast mates in Fiddler on the Roof. “He played Motel to my Tzeitel.” That Music Circus production in Sacramento was seven years ago.

Israel directed Warne as the lead in the Musical Theatre Guild’s one-night-only production of Violet in 2009. “That was before I became a MTG member,” she notes, “and he’s really become one of my favorite directors.” The two also tackled the seven-time Ovation-nominated Having It All in 2011. The musical about five women (Warne, Lindsey Alley, Kim Huber, Alet Taylor and Jennifer Leigh Warren) stranded at JFK Airport enjoyed a five-month run at the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSb8smv–WA[/youtube]

“That was such an emotionally satisfying role,” Warne remembers, so she is thrilled the quintet is going to do it again at the Laguna Playhouse in February and March, 2013. “I hope it gets a chance to move to New York.”

The other Israel-Warne project was part of a 29-hour reading series, Anyone Can Whistle. Israel, she notes, “has a way to articulate to someone how to approach a scene or moment in a way they can understand. Sometimes he does it with very few words and sometimes without words at all. No, it’s just ‘this’ and they get it.”

In working on Violet, Israel approached her with a concise summary of how he saw a moment. “Again, it’s just “˜this’. And I somehow understood exactly what the moment needed. From then I said I’d do anything to work with him. It’s so fulfilling because he gets you to bring parts of you that you wouldn’t have thought to bring. He sees them in you and knows how to get them out of you.”

LA’s Female Theater Community

“I think that Los Angeles has a lovely, supportive and talented female theater community. For instance, I watched Smash this last season and one of the things that I had an issue with was how catty the people were written. I don’t find that to be the case among men or women here.”

When Warne loses a role to a friend, she admits feeling conflicted. Kim Huber, for example, is one of Warne’s closest friends. “We’re always after the same roles. She is probably one of the most supportive people in my circle. Same with Michelle Duffy [whom Warne recently helped pack off to New York]. I carry the attitude that if my girlfriend books a role I wanted, I can’t help but be happy for her. That doesn’t mean I don’t get disappointed but it’s not jealousy or anger. I find that by and large the women in Los Angeles carry that same feeling.”

And it isn’t as if there isn’t enough to go around, she says. “I feel there is more than enough work to be had. Sometimes you have to create work for yourself but that helps to prime you for what the next big thing may be.”

Chip Phillips, Harrison White, Ryan O'Connor, Justin Michael Wilcox, Morgan Reynolds and Will Collyer in "The Full Monty"

When discussing career highlights so far””and it’s early to even have the discussion for someone who plays 25-35″”Warne fondly discusses Amy in Having It All. “There was so much of me in that. I connected with it so much. That’s been my biggest contribution in creating a role.”

And when the talk turns to hoped-for roles, she speaks of dreams and realizations.

“I would love to do Marian in The Music Man. But I’m also moving toward contemporary musical theater. I’m working with [vocal coach] Peter Pergelides who’s helping me develop a more contemporary sound. The older I get, and having my son, the limitations I’ve put on myself are falling away really quickly.”

Warne, who has also studied voice with Rickie Gole and Dan Callaway, longs for the day when she’s also known as an actor in non-musical theater. “I haven’t really had the opportunity because I’ve been blessed to be working consistently in musical theater. Not that I could ever leave musical theater! But Erin Bennett, who plays Georgie in Monty [crosses over to non-musical theater] very well. I would like to be one of those people, too.”

The Warne Voice

Warne’s first show was as a seven-year-old in My Fair Lady. “I was lucky to do, on average, three shows a year from the time I was 13 or so. My folks were super supportive and drove me all over just to get me to rehearsals.”

Shannon Warne, age 7, in her first theater appearance in "My Fair Lady"

Among her favorite shows as a fledgling junior high and high school actor are Jeannie in Brigadoon, Nanette in No, No, Nanette and Gladys in Pajama Game.

“I studied classical singing for the first 10 years or so. I thought about doing opera but found that I really loved musical theater and really didn’t begin developing my belt until I was in college. So I put limitations on what I thought my range could be. Then after working with some great coaches, I learned to build a different sound through exercises.”

The learning process continues today. “Technically, what I’ve been told, the difference between producing sound in a soprano range and belting has to do with how much air is working over how much cord. You use more of your vocal cord when you’re belting and less of your cord when you’re singing legit. A different technique entirely.”

She had struggled relating the terminology voice instructors would use to the practicality of producing sound. “I told Peter, who works on The Voice, that it was always sort of hit-or-miss. So I met with him twice and continue to work with the CDs and I see a big improvement. It’s like building your biceps.”

Warne would love to do Jekyll and Hyde, for example, and auditioned for Emma in the upcoming La Mirada production. “I’d also like to be considered for Lucy, which I tried for a few years ago, but I just hadn’t developed that part of my voice so I struggled. Now it’s something that comes easily to me and I find that very exciting.”

Ryan O'Connor, Morgan Reynolds and Will Collyer in "The Full Monty"

Warne, who five years ago made a living singing in Miceli’s restaurant in Studio City, will get to stretch her vocal cords at La Mirada in December when she performs in Winter Wonderettes.

Meanwhile, she gets to look at six naked men in The Full Monty for the next several weeks and look for the project that may take her to New York.

“So, like Michelle [Duffy], I send out audition tapes and fly out if I need to, laying the ground work for something else one day. But there are so many new works that are being workshopped and produced out here that are moving that way. I’m confident. I think I have a definite place in musical theater and I think I’ll make it to New York.”

The Full Monty, Third Street Theatre, 8115 W. Third Street, LA 90048. Opens tonight. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Oct 14. Tickets $28-34. 1.888.71.TICKETS. www.showclix.com.

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LA Stage Times

Stephen Spinella on the Edge of Too Much

by Steve Julian | August 17, 2012

Lesli Margherita, Graham Hamilton, Jonathan Cake and Stephen Spinella in The Grönholm Method at the Falcon Theatre. Photo by Chelsea Sutton.

His two Tony Awards from Angels in America dusted, Stephen Spinella was settling into a long summer’s nap at home in New York City. Then the telephone rang. “It was a Monday. My agent said, look, I know the strangeness of how this sounds, but you’re being offered a role in a play in Los Angeles. It starts rehearsing tomorrow.”

Not a dim individual at all, Spinella asked who dropped out. In fact, it was also the first question he asked director BT McNicholl when they spoke. “Nobody, he tells me. You were the person we’d first thought about. It just took us a while to talk to your people.”

Stephen Spinella

Spinella landed in Los Angeles on that Thursday, giving up all hope for the summer nap, and joined a play that has Mike Nichols‘ fingerprints all over it.

The Grönholm Method also has been through the hands of several translators, most recently Anne Garcia-Romero and Mark St. Germain. It has gone from Catalan to Spanish to French to Los Angelean. (It was also a 2005 movie, mostly in Spanish, titled El método (The Method).

Jordi Galcerán Ferrer’s 90-minute play pits four job seekers against one another at a Fortune 500 multinational company. The “interviews” unwittingly begin the moment they walk in the door, and the psychological tension is sparked as much by what the characters reveal as by what they keep hidden. Spinella is joined by Jonathan Cake, Graham Hamilton and 2011 Ovation Award winner (Kiss Me Kate)  Lesli Margherita.

“My character, Rick, is ambitious and foolish and aggressive but sympathetic. He is very smart and not too bright and (laughs), this unbelievably rare amalgam of contradictions that all seem to intelligently cohere in one guy. He disarms people by making them think he’s less all there than he actually is. I think he’s conscious of that,” Spinella says.

“It’s fun to play someone who’s a little foolish and dim and yet has moments of real inspiration, really figures stuff out.”

Jonathan Cake, Stephen Spinella, Lesli Margherita and Graham Hamilton

Now 55, the thin, wavy-haired actor sits in the lobby of the Falcon Theatre, fresh from a shave two minutes ago. “I wouldn’t ever say Rick’s an extension of me but I would say that it’s fun to play someone who is as excitable as he is. I can certainly be foolish and dim, too. And I have moments of inspiration, so everything he’s able to do in the play I do in my life one way or another. We all present ourselves in particular ways, actors included.”

Spinella recalls taking the role only so far during rehearsals, then putting the brakes on. “BT would have me explore further in directions that I had stopped moving in. I would get to a point and he would say, no, you can go further with that and I would be hesitant. I have since discovered he’s right, that the play supports going right up to the edge of too much.”

Mind The Gap

It’s safer to hold back, Spinella says, admitting that he sometimes is too cautious. “I tend to read stuff and go, oh, I’m not right for this. I think I’m a pretty hard sell because there are a lot of parts I am not ideal for. It’s always been my agent having to say to me, Stephen, you will work again. I’m not a heroic leading man or an easy character actor to cast. I’m not heavy-set and balding or the guy next door.”

Yet he was a perfect fit as Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS, in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and the follow-up, Angels in America: Perestroika.

“I didn’t really have much of a career until I was on Broadway with Angels. I got out of graduate school in ’82 from NYU and met Tony who was in the directing program.”

Stephen Spinella in Eureka Theatre Company's 1991 world premiere of "Angels in America". Photo by Katy Raddatz, Museum Of Performance & Design SF

The two became friends and Kushner began writing for Spinella. “I was this incredibly odd, skinny guy in my early 20s. There wasn’t going to be a lot of work for me. When I got out of grad school, one of my teachers said to me, it may take 10 years for you to really start working because you’re a character actor and at your age there aren’t many character parts. You could play [the shepherd] Silvius in As You Like It and even that’s usually cast as more of an ingenue or whatever the male version of that is.”

Spinella started working performing at Berkeley Rep and Syracuse Stage, but not in New York. “I barely had an agent. I had a couple of people who were sending me out. Tony started writing Angels and we did the first workshop in ’89, and in ’90 the second workshop [in LA, under Mark Taper Forum auspices at the space downstairs at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, currently called Inside the Ford]… Otherwise I couldn’t get arrested.”

Then Angels started building steam. “We had the world premiere [of part one, Millennium Approaches] at the Eureka [Theatre in San Francisco in 1991] and then the Taper picked it up” and presented the entire Angels in America in LA in November 1992. “Oskar Eustis, who commissioned it, had gone from the Eureka to the Mark Taper Forum. Frank Rich came and loved it and wrote that review that moved us to Broadway.” The play won the Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony awards.

Spinella remembers the time in New York. “We opened it in March and that was just the first play. We went through that slew of Tonys in June and opened the second play in November and then I was in it until the following September and we went through the second slew of Tonys. I got out, had one day off in which I shot a small movie, and the next day I started rehearsals for [Terrence McNally's] Love! Valour! Compassion! and then they moved to Broadway with that.”

Before McNally’s play got its Broadway invitation, Spinella had shot another movie in Los Angeles and then returned to New York where he did Shakespeare in the Park. “Did the dam burst with my Tony wins? No. I wouldn’t say the dam burst. It’s been this and that ever since.”

Bridge The Gap

Spinella this year saw Nichols’ staging of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. “I had worked with Mike on [The Seagull] a few years ago, and the guy [Brian Webb] who did our set [at the Falcon] is the guy who took the [Jo] Mielziner set and put it on Broadway for Mike. Our lighting designer [Jennifer Schriever] was the associate lighting designer on it. BT was Mike’s assistant on Spamalot.”

Stephen Spinella, Graham Hamilton and Jonathan CakeÂ

BT McNicholl was also resident director for Billy Elliott: The Musical from 2008-2012 in New York and associate directed a revival of The Country Girl, The Year of Magical Thinking and The Vertical Hour.

Furthermore, says Spinella, Nichols, now 80, read The Grönholm Method script, liked it, and is running it through his production company in association with the Falcon. “We flew back to New York a week ago,” Spinella says, “so that Mike could hear it. He’s been involved in rewrites along the way.”

Spinella found new insights into the Death of a Salesman characters in Nichols’ version. Willy Loman boasts to his wife and sons that his brother Ben, whom Willy encounters in flashbacks and delusions, walked into the jungle one day and came out rich. “That’s just absolute bullshit,” Spinella exclaims, marking Ben as an extension of Willy’s self-aggrandizing ego.

“What I took away from that production was all the things I’ve seen over the years you assume to be true, things that aren’t right to assume. Such as the brother and [Willy's] relationship with the next door neighbor Charlie. That was much more complicated than I had ever seen before.”

Yet, as a young actor coming out of NYU, hadn’t Spinella ventured into the metaphorical jungle with hopes of coming out rich? “Well, there are a few that go into the jungle and come out rich but most don’t. Most go into the jungle, come out, and find something else to do.”

He considers his world. “It’s taken me a long time to realize that there are things that just won’t work out. I have become accustomed to there being rare parts for me.” Is that enough? “I don’t know what enough would feel like. I’m content. Well, I wish there was more, so I guess I’m not completely content.”

That may change — at least, this fall. After this American premiere he flies east to do Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn, a two-hander with Estelle Parsons. “We’ll either start it in New York and take it to the Arena in Washington or the other way around.”

And edging just a little closer to the edge of the safety net he says, “And I am going on record as saying it is not a great title. But it is a beautiful play. I think it should just be Autumn.”

The Grönholm Method, presented by Baby Tiger Productions, Daniel Wallace and Trish Whitehurst in association with Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank 91505. Opens Friday. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 4 pm and 7 pm. Through Sept. 30. Tickets $27-34.50.   www.falcontheatre.com. 818-955-8101.

***All “The Grönholm Method” production photos by Chelsea Sutton

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