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Heffington’s in the KTCHN With Hendrickson

by A.R. Cassell | May 9, 2013
Ensemble of "KTCHN." Photo by Melissa Manning/thelookpartnership.com.

Ensemble of “KTCHN.” Photo by Melissa Manning/thelookpartnership.com.

Choreographer, performance artist and dancer Ryan Heffington is certainly no stranger to the melding and twisting of mediums. From the underground club scene to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Heffington has earned quite the reputation for himself as a curator of dance performance pieces that extend, break and many times completely dissolve the boundaries of Los Angeles dance culture.

With his latest installation, KTCHN (currently running through May 19 at the Mack Sennett Studios in Silver Lake), Heffington has drawn inspiration from the paintings of contemporary artist Nolan Hendrickson to create what he feels is his most “elaborate endeavor to date”.

Wanting to bring Hendrickson’s signature style of wildly colorful figures, overt sexuality, and dark humor to life in a three-dimensional setting, Heffington assembled a team of collaborators, designers, and dancers to help him realize his vision. An Indiegogo fundraising campaign was launched, through which $15,000 was donated in support of the project. Hendrickson himself joined as an artistic collaborator and flew out from New York to witness his work reinterpreted in literally living color.

Ryan Heffington

Ryan Heffington

“I’m overjoyed!” exclaims Heffington, when asked about his feelings on the final product. “The whole process and working with Nolan as a collaborator was incredible. I feel like I’ve never been so prepared for a performance before. We put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into it, and I think people have really responded positively to that.”

For those unfamiliar with Ryan Heffington’s work, his hybrid style of highly-stylized dance, outrageous costumes and characters, grandiose set pieces (which in this case includes larger-than-life hanging genitalia), indie music, and pop culture commentary may come as something of a culture shock. Hendrickson himself was left dumbfounded upon his first viewing of KTCHN.  “I went to all three nights of opening weekend. I think an appropriate reaction to the first time you see that show is ‘What the fuck?’ And that’s being already familiar with where they’re coming from. I’d imagine that’s even more so for someone who isn’t prepared for what they’re going to see. So that first night, I was just sort of overwhelmed, and it was all a blur. When I went back the next night, I was able to sit back and look at the details and nuances. But the first night, I was a bit delirious.”

The collaboration between Heffington and Hendrickson has been one of mutual artistic respect and creative autonomy. According to Hendrickson, it all began about a year ago in true contemporary fashion…with a Facebook message. “I got a Facebook message from [Ryan]. I didn’t know who he was at the time, I just saw that he was a cute guy. [Laughs] At that time, he was just asking me about what the title was of this one particular painting. And then this past September, I got an email from him and he said that he and a friend were going to be in New York and that he had a project in mind that he wanted to discuss. I mostly just said yes because he had really fun pictures of himself. I didn’t really have any expectations. I didn’t know what they wanted to talk about. So I met up with him and his producer Allison, and we all went on a little date here in New York and it was really fun. They proposed this project, and by then I had done a little research and I knew that he was a serious artist. I didn’t really have to think about it too much — the whole thing seemed like a lot of fun. So we kept in contact, and they kept developing on the initial idea they told me about.”

Nolan Hendrickson's "Supple Sometimes." 2012.

Nolan Hendrickson’s “Supple Sometimes.” 2012.

When Hendrickson was invited to collaborate on the project, he intentionally remained at a respectful distance to allow Heffington’s vision and interpretation of the paintings to come through in the performances. “I had some ideas about how I thought the overall vibe of the space should be. I got the idea pretty early on that they had a lot of very talented people working on this, so I just really wanted to see what they would do. I mean, who am I to tell the choreographer how to move the dancers? I didn’t expect them to understand my work the same way I do. I don’t expect anyone to. It’s not something I care about. They told me what they were picking up from it, I told them things that I thought might enhance their view, but my efforts were mostly toward the environment that the show takes place in and general vibe of the thing. I kind of had a feeling that it would be something deep and strange, and that’s what I really wanted.”

To move beyond the canvas and bring Hendrickson’s figures to life, Heffington envisioned a fully-realized cast of characters — all with distinct looks, personalities and stories. “It was a process of discovering [Nolan’s] paintings and realizing that world as much as I could through those two-dimensional characters. There were so many elements that I could extract. Because it’s a painting, I felt that there were so many stories that I could develop from his characters. I had a strong feeling of mood from his work, so that came through in the choreography and how I would set these people onstage. A lot of times they were in very similar poses as his characters would be on the canvas. So that was a pretty direct parallel. But then I also created my own story and narrative.

“There are 10 characters, and each has…individual qualities. Yeah, at times they dance in a chorus, but it was more about their development and their relationship onstage to one another and to the audience, as well. So in that sense I may have moved beyond sort of what his intentions were, but I always found myself looking back at his paintings when I had any questions. This one time I called him because I didn’t know what a drag character in his world would be like or what their aesthetic would be. And he had the most brilliant answer ever! And we used it for the show.”

Ensemble members

Ensemble members of “KTCHN”

Naturally, the drag character that Heffington was inquiring about was the one he himself ended up playing. And Hendrickson’s answer did indeed translate directly into the look and feel of that character. “I got this email [from Ryan] really late at night that said ‘Hey, if you were to do drag, what would you be?’ He didn’t give any reason as to why he was asking; it was just a blunt question. I told him ‘I would be ‘business safari’ and went on to describe what ‘business safari’ was—like a khaki pantsuit, blonde power hair, and carry and attaché case and lint roller. He didn’t really respond or anything. Turns out he forwarded that to Mindy, the costume designer, and that’s where she developed the look for Ryan that he has in the show. That just thrilled me when I saw it in the flesh!”

Though the look of the KTCHN characters was in many ways a literal interpretation of Hendrickson’s paintings, Heffington fully admits that each of his characters comes from a very personal place in his own life story. “It definitely was a little autobiographical in terms of the last year and a half of my life — relationship-oriented as well as having a taste of major exposure, being on television with RuPaul, and just how people would interact with me and their level of comfort with me. It was just this very sensitive situation for a while, of me feeling exposed and sort of not wanting to be exposed. I used that story a lot in this piece.”

When it comes to delivering a fully emotionally-realized performance using only the movement, the trust and communication between Heffington and his dancers is critical. “I look for dancers who are really comfortable with themselves and who are comfortable being vulnerable onstage. Dancers who can take direction and who can take the nuances that I give them and kind of run with it. These characters are so vulnerable that I need to know that I can trust the people that I give them to. I’ve worked with most of these people for years.

Ensemble of "KTCHN."

Ensemble members of “KTCHN”

“I’d rather have dancers who all have a really unique quality about them, and try to fit them into a chorus situation, than have dancers who are more comfortable blending into a chorus and then trying to draw them out of it. I think it helps that I know their history as well. I know their relationships and their lifestyles, so I think tapping into that makes it a little more real and establishes that emotion really quickly. Sometimes too real, actually! There were times where I had to remind them that ‘this is a character, it’s not you’ and having to find that performance level and make sure it was a safe place for them to go.”

One of the trademarks of Heffington’s work is the incorporation of the space and the setting into his pieces. For KTCHN, that idyllic venue for this highly-modern and experimental piece came in the form of Mack Sennett Studios — a landmark of Hollywood History. Heffington and his design team transformed the space, which is typically used for photo and commercial video shoots, into a floor-to-ceiling immersive environment where the audience is at times invited to step out onto the floor and be a part of the show.

“I wanted to present this work in a venue where the actors were on the same level as the audience. I never saw it on a proscenium stage. I needed the audience to really be in awe and care for these people, to not only look at them but really be about to reach out and touch them. From very early on, I knew I wanted it to be a very audience-participatory experience. So I needed everything to be at the same level, so the audience could go up to the characters and the characters could go out into the audience.

“When we walked into the space, we all got goosebumps. The timing was absolutely brilliant. The new owners had gotten the keys to the venue the day that we had our first production meeting. They were very receptive to how we wanted to present this piece and create a new theater. Their vision is support art in Los Angeles, and become a new art mecca for the east side. I feel like they’re going to be this new heartbeat for artists here in LA. Being in there and feeling the history of standing in the spot where all of these old films were made…it had this magic that I feel like you don’t often experience in LA from just walking into a space.“

Heffington’s desire to incorporate his surroundings rather than conforming to the typical conventions of the dance world have ultimately allowed him to carve a niche for himself. “I have just always done what I wanted to do. I feel like to find the opportunities here, you have to make them. And I feel like that’s what I’ve done. I’ve been here so long and I’ve never really worried about money. I’ve just been keeping true to my artist self and am always wanting to produce and put stuff out there. I mean, we’ve done some completely illegal performances in parks where 200 people would show up and helicopters would be circling and we’d just try not to get arrested.

Ensemble of "KTCHN."

Ensemble members of “KTCHN”

“Using my environment as inspiration has also really been a big help,” he continues. Rather than relying on traditional stages, Heffington feels that setting his pieces in the “gritty nightclubs of downtown LA” has afforded the opportunity to expose dance theater to audiences who may not be able to afford high-priced theater tickets. “It has allowed us to stir things up a bit and create more dance culture here in this city. I have a drive here that I think you really need, because there’s not really a niche for the kind of performance that I do. I’ve never really looked at it that way. I’ve always just said ‘I’m gonna do this and that’s it’.”

While some critics of performance art and experimental hybrids may claim the genre is too isolating and exclusive to general audiences, for Heffington, the goal of his work is the exact opposite. Hendrickson describes the experience as “something otherworldly, but still grounded in something really human.”

For Heffington and his team, it’s an emotional experience that is meant to be immersive and transporting, and ultimately unifying much like the hybridized structure of his pieces. “I hope the audience really leaves with a sense of joy. The piece is all over the place: there’s a lot of humor, it’s dark, it’s emotional, it’s a fantasy. You’re diving into a painting, and that’s so powerful to just be able to play and be free and leave with something that doesn’t exist in reality. I hope that everyone can release themselves enough to go on this journey with us. I really want to build a relationship with these people. It’s not about excluding anyone, and hopefully they can relate to what they see and we can have a long romantic journey together.”

KTCHN continues performances at Mack Sennett Studios, 1215 Bates Ave., Silver Lake. 8 pm on May 9, 14, 15, 16. Tickets: $35. www.brownpapertickets.com/event/360947.

**All KTCHN production photos by Melissa Manning/thelookpartnership.com.

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LA Stage Times

Shirley MacLaine’s Memory Lane at La Mirada

by Julio Martinez | May 8, 2013
Shirley MacLaine

Shirley MacLaine

Shirley MacLaine – that Oscar-winning actress, dancer, singer, author and self-realization guru — admits to having little down time in her life. But she considers her solo outing An Evening With Shirley MacLaine with two performances scheduled for May 18 at La Mirada Theatre — to be one of her more relaxed performance endeavors.

Speaking from her home, she says that “I’ve been doing this for a while now.  It’s a fairly simple evening. I talk to the audience.  I show them films. I have it all on remote control so I can stop the video at any time to tell an anecdote or a story behind the particular scene they’re watching.

“It is all very interactive between the audience and myself. At times, I’ll be telling a story and somehow it leads to a completely different story. That’s because there is a story behind almost every scene, not just every film.  I tell them about the Rat Pack because I worked so often with Frank [Sinatra] and Dean [Martin]. I talk about all the men stars and the women stars.  I tell the audience whatever occurs to me, and sometimes I am not sure which way the story is going until I’ve told it.”

Shirley MacLaine on the cover of Time Magazine in 1984.

Shirley MacLaine on the cover of Time Magazine in 1984.

MacLaine certainly has a lot of material from which to pull anecdotes. Having starred in more than 50 films plus myriad television and stage projects during her nearly 60-year career, she realizes it would be impossible to cover all aspects of her life in show business in a given evening, so she leaves herself open to performing variations on the theme.

“I change the format around a lot. So, from performance to performance, the evenings can be quite different from one another. What does stay the same is the way I finish the performance. I throw the whole thing open to questions and answers at the end and they can ask me anything they want. It is very much like being in my living room having a conversation about life.”

Seeing an opening, this interviewer asks about the very real-looking knockabout she has with Anne Bancroft in Turning Point (1977).  “The fight scene between Anne and I in Turning Point wasn’t choreographed at all. You can’t organize something like that. We just went into it and started fighting, both of us in elegant evening gowns and high heels. I was afraid of hurting her because she seemed so fragile and thin, but I was wrong. Anne could really pack a punch.  And all of that was improvised. And that is what I do in my stage performance.  I’ll run a scene like that from the film.  Then I’ll tell them what happened and how we got to it. This is stuff they would never hear about off screen.  I am not shy.”

It is also safe to assume MacLaine could handle herself quite well in a round of fisticuffs.  Born in 1934, Shirley MacLean Beatty (Warren Beatty is her brother) was raised in Arlington, Virginia. She displayed so much physical prowess that she played baseball on an otherwise all-boys team, earning the nickname Powerhouse after setting the record for hitting the most home runs.

The young athlete’s interest was drawn to dancing, which began at age three when her mother enrolled her in ballet in order to strengthen Shirley’s weak ankles.  She decided rather early that dancing and acting were what she wanted to pursue, and she headed for Broadway right after high school graduation. Within a year, she was understudying legendary Broadway hoofer Carol Haney in the Tony-winning 1954 Broadway musical Pajama Game, also starring Janis Paige and Eddie Foy, Jr.

Shirley MacLaine and John Forsythe in "The Trouble with Harry."

Shirley MacLaine and John Forsythe in “The Trouble with Harry.”

In what sounds like a clichéd plot point taken from 42nd Street, Haney broke her ankle during the run and MacLaine replaced her. It just so happened that film producer Hal B. Wallis saw one of MacLaine’s performances and signed her to a contract at Paramount Pictures. Within a year, MacLaine was starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry (1955) and the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis comedy, Artists and Models (1955).  MacLaine chuckles, “I guess I had a fairly short Broadway career.”

Actually, if Edwin Lester, the creator/producing director of Los Angeles Civic Light Opera had his way, MacLaine would have been right on stage at the old Philharmonic Auditorium when Pajama Game had its West Coast premiere in 1955. I was a callow 16-year-old theater usher, and a few hours before opening night I was treated to a Lester tirade about how he had petitioned the powers-that-be at Paramount to give Shirley MacLaine time off to do the show but was turned down.  Having already been tabbed as a tinseltown up-and-comer, MacLaine was considered too valuable a property who was needed to promote the upcoming blockbuster, Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), co-starring David Niven and Mexican comedian Cantinflas.

“I knew nothing of this,” utters MacLaine.  “I guess it makes sense, though.  I started working pretty non-stop from then on.”  Within a year, MacLaine was cast opposite Sinatra and Martin for the first time in the acclaimed James Jones post-WWII drama, Some Came Running (1958), which garnered MacLaine her first Oscar nom. The steady film output has continued, highlighted by MacLaine’s Oscar-winning performance in Terms of Endearment (1983).

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicoholson pose with the Oscars they won for "Terms of Endearment." Photo by Rex Features.

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson pose with the Oscars they won for “Terms of Endearment.” Photo by Rex Features.

Although MacLaine never returned to musical theater, she certainly found other areas of interests. In 1983, she authored Out on a Limb, chronicling her journey through New Age spirituality and reincarnation, subsequently adapted into a five-hour ABC mini-series (1986).  “During all this time, I was also involved in live seminars and workshops,” says MacLaine.  “I still do past life seminars now but they last about six days.  I have past life facilitators and they work with clients and we do former life investigations which is quite helpful to understand what is going on in your life today.

“My seminars now would naturally be different from what I was doing, say, 20 years ago. I don’t think I repeat much of anything.” She lets out a chuckle. “Maybe it’s because I can’t remember what I did. But I do have another book coming out.  I am re-editing it now.  It will be out in the fall. I am always taking notes, so I guess I will always be writing a book or planning to write a book.”

As far as her film work goes, MacLaine happily admits she is as busy as ever. “I start shooting the next season of Downton Abbey in July.  I’ll be in England for about two and a half weeks.  They use me to either close out the series every year or open in it.  I am not sure.  I haven’t read the script yet. But I am pretty sure I won’t be there any longer than that two-to-three week time. Upcoming, I have The Secret Life With Walter Mitty, which I did with Ben Stiller.  That is coming out in December. Before that, Christopher Plummer and I did a mature love story called Elsa and Fred [a remake of a 2005 Argentine-Spanish romantic comedy].   It is very good and that will probably be out in the fall.”

When asked if her show at La Mirada will include any new film clips and anecdotes, she lets out a hearty, “Sure it will. I am now including clips from Downton Abbey.  I do get questions, a lot of questions about shooting with Maggie Smith. People also ask me how it is shooting scenes in all that English weather; how it is to shoot in the rain and pretend it is not there.

Shirley MacLaine in Downton Abbey

Shirley MacLaine in “Downton Abbey.”

“I am fortunate enough to be able to do An Evening With whenever I feel like it.  They just need time to plan and advertise.  I am booked into 2014. By then I’ll be changing it all around again. I have over 50 films to choose from as far as clips. Up to now, I have picked the ones that got awarded. I had no other way to decide what to leave out. Next time around, I’ll pick some films that maybe weren’t awarded but might be more fun to talk about.

“I love doing my shows because I can make it different every night.  It is a wonderful joy to be that spontaneous with the audience.  That’s what I’m enjoying. I can’t dance anymore or sing anymore, any of that. I am glad that there is an album of my performing at the Palace way back when. But now, I like to talk, feeling the audience, being one with them.

“And audiences can be so different, from locale to locale. This is a very diverse country we live in.  That’s what I’m learning when I go out with this show. It is very entertaining for me.  There are no tough audiences. They all have a great time. I think everybody wants to know the real behind-the-scenes truth about pictures I’ve been in.  They really want to know what the stars were like.  They want to know if I had a love affair with this or that man. And I tell them the truth. They want to know about Dean, Frank, the Rat Pack and the mob. They want to know what I personally thought and felt and liked and didn’t like, and I enjoy like hell telling them all about it.”

 


An Evening With Shirley MacLaine, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd,  La Mirada, 90638. Saturday, May 18, 2013 at 2 pm and 8 pm. Tickets: $50-85. www.lamiradatheatre.com. 562-944-9801 or 714-994-6310.                    

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LA Stage Times

Glynn Turman’s Comings and Goings

by Darlene Donloe | May 7, 2013
Keith David and Gynn Turman in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Keith David and Glynn Turman in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

He has a body of work that many an actor would envy, which makes the words coming out of his mouth unfathomable.

Here he is sitting in his dressing room at the Mark Taper Forum, waiting for rehearsal to begin for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. He’s dressed casually in a black and white kufi, green slacks, green suede shoes and floral shirt and chomping heartily on some pizza when, in between bites, he utters something quite peculiar.

“My career didn’t go as planned,” he says. “I didn’t become a star. On my way to stardom, I became a legend.”

The “legend” status is understandable. It began when he played Preach in Eric Monte’s 1975 coming-of-age film, Cooley High. It’s a role for which Turman has been continuously applauded and lauded.

Glynn Turman (front) and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (rear) in the 1975 film "Cooley High."

Glynn Turman (front) and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (rear) in the 1975 film “Cooley High.”

Cooley High is my favorite movie because of what it means to us as black people,” explains Turman, who is also a writer and director. “It’s one we share with our culture and the world. I’m proud to be a contributor to that movie.”

Being a legend isn’t too shabby. But, looking at his list of credits, one could argue that Turman is wrong in his career assessment. He is, indeed, a star — just ask his fellow actor and friend of 37 years, Art Evans (A Soldier’s Story).

“What he’s saying is that he sets his goals very high,” says Evans.  “He is a star. His interpretation of what star means to him is perhaps different from what a lot of people would recognize. He’s not good, he’s consummate. As far as I’m concerned the brother is a star and has been a star for a long time.”

If Turman needs more convincing he can just ask his House of Lies (Showtime) son, Don Cheadle, who, Turman says, personally asked him to play his father on the show.

“Glynn Turman is the motherfucking man,” says Cheadle. “He is held in the highest regard on the set and I have had the best time working with him and getting to know and learn from someone who literally laid the stones for the path I get to walk everyday. If I didn’t already have the best dad in the world, I’d bribe Glynn and press him into service.”

Comings and goings

August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, directed by Phylicia Rashad, opens Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum.

In the play, the second installment of August Wilson’s decade-by-decade chronicle of the African-American experience in the 20th century, Turman plays a character named Bynum, a freed slave from the south.

“Bynum is a man who is looking for a certain amount, as they all are, of affirmation,” explains Turman. “He’s looking to fulfill a certain prophecy that was handed down to him by his daddy.”

When it came to character development, Turman said it was already in the text.

Glynn Turman during the first rehearsal of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."

Glynn Turman during the first rehearsal of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”

“Everything you need to know about any character in an August Wilson play is there,” says Turman. “Your job is to be a detective and find those truths in yourself that can latch on to the characters he writes about so that when you’re making the music it rings true to August’s score.”

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone centers on the daily routine of the residents of a boarding house in Pittsburgh in 1911. A couple of the tenants, of African descent, are former slaves only 50 years out of bondage, whose goals include finding lost family members and starting life anew in the North. Some are searching for something, anything — but for what, they’re not quite sure.

The play went through a workshop in 1984 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., and it opened in 1986 at Yale Repertory Theatre. It played Broadway in 1988, directed by Lloyd Richards and starring Delroy Lindo and Angela Bassett. In its 1989 LA premiere at Los Angeles Theatre Center, Roscoe Lee Browne played Bynum.

The main reason Turman took the role was to work with his friend, Rashad, who directed A Raisin in The Sun at the Ebony Repertory Theatre in 2011.

“Phylicia Rashad, Phylicia Rashad, Phylicia Rashad,” echoes the award-winning actor, who hails from New York, but lives in Los Angeles. “She is the reason I’m doing this show. For years we would see each other on the red carpet and we would whisper in each other’s ear how much we wanted to work together. We just never found the right project, until now. It finally happened.”

Turman, whose fresh smile, boyish charm and youthful spirit bely his 66 years, remembers getting the call from Rashad that she was directing the play. According to Turman, she gave him first dibs on whatever role he wanted to play.

“She called and said, ‘How would you like to do Joe Turner’s Come and Gone? I’m directing,’” remembers Turman.  “I said, ‘Where and when?’ She said, ‘Mark Taper. Who do you want to play?’ I said, ‘Let me read it and I’ll get back to you.’ I called her back and asked, ‘Who do you see me playing’? She said, ‘Bynum.’ I said, ‘I’m your Bynum.’”

Get smart

This will mark Turman’s second stint in an August Wilson play.  The first was Two Trains Running for the Ebony Repertory Theatre in 2008, for which he won an Ovation Award.

Ellis E. Williams and Glynn Turman in Ebony Repertory Theatre's inaugural 2008 production of "Two Trains Running."

Ellis E. Williams and Glynn Turman in Ebony Repertory Theatre’s inaugural 2008 production of “Two Trains Running.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

“I wish I could say I have always been a Wilson disciple, but I haven’t,” admits Turman.  “I didn’t think I was bright enough to contribute to Wilson’s pieces. He’s extremely dense and complex.  The sense of August’s pieces can be lost in the verbiage. If you’re not bright enough to detect what he’s talking about, it will go right over your head as an audience and as a performer. For me, I think I’m just becoming smart enough to interpret an honest interpretation of August. Now I think me and Bynum are simpatico.”

Turman may think he’s only recently become “smart enough,” but his friends and his colleagues don’t mince words when they talk about his talent.

Take, for instance, Turman’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone co-star, Keith David (The Bible, Belle’s).

“That man is someone I feel like I have wanted to act with all of my life,” says David.  “He’s a wonderful actor.  And I have been watching him, if not all of my life, then most of my life.  Even before I knew him, I’ve always wanted an opportunity to work with him.  So this is a blessing and a great opportunity, and I relish this because it’s wonderful.”

Turman co-signs the thought.

“He’s fantastic,” said Turman about David. “I’m a big fan and have been for years. He’s a talented, talented man. On stage we’re bringing the fun we have as buddies and mischievous partners. We’re having a great time.”

“Glynn Turman?” asks actor Earl Billings, best known for his AFLAC commercials. “I used to know an okay actor by that name. Is he still working? That would be nice. I never saw anyone who worked so hard to get to the middle.”

“Billings and Art Evans are both cheating scoundrels,” jokes Turman, who plays golf with the two and several other friends on a weekly basis when he’s not working. “They owe me money to this day from bets they won’t pay.”

Glynn Turman and Gabriel Brown.

Glynn Turman and Gabriel Brown in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”

Both Billings and Evans laugh and brush off Turman’s allegations.

“That’s what all losers say if you think about it,” says Billings. “When you lose you gotta find some kind of basis. You can’t say you’re not good at golf.”

“He is a rascal and you can’t trust him with chicken feed,” says Evans of Turman. “He’s one of my dearest friends. We’ve been insulting each other for years. We’re tied. He comes up with some good ones.”

Billings, Evans and Turman all worked on a 1977 CBS movie, Minstrel Man.

“Ever since then we’ve been friends,” says Billings. “We share the same since of humor. We take the work seriously, but not the business. It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. He’s a real grounded person. He’s one of the great actors. He has this style — it’s inside-out kind of work. We did Two Trains Running at Ebony. He does his homework at home and then brings it to rehearsal.”

“He’s a dear person,” says Evans. “He’s a consummate actor with incredible abilities. He cracks me up. He’s a magnanimous person.”

Billings has enjoyed watching his friend grow as an actor.

“When you work with someone like Glynn, you have total trust,” says Billings, whose credits include television, film, theater and commercials. “I don’t have to think about what he’s doing. It’s true and real and honest. He works hard. He brings truth to everything.   I like all the things he’s done. Cooley High is one of those things you do and you’re famous the rest of your life.”

Getting started

When Turman talks about the stage, his broad, signature smile, framed by his salt and pepper moustache and beard, envelops his face. He says he doesn’t like to spend more than two years away from the stage because it keeps him grounded in his craft.

“The stage is work,” says Turman. “It’s such a joyful process in which the outcome is in your hands. The first thing I do when I step on stage is thank the stage for allowing me to step on it. Then we go from there.”

Turman first stepped on a professional stage at the age of 13.  He was starring on Broadway in 1959, opposite Sidney Poitier, Diana Sands, Claudia McNeil and Ruby Dee in Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed A Raisin In The Sun. In the drama Turman played Poitier’s son, Travis Younger.

Glynn Turman and Don Cheadle in Showtime's "House of Lies." Photo by Randy Tepper.

Glynn Turman and Don Cheadle in Showtime’s “House of Lies.” Photo by Randy Tepper.

“I didn’t want to be an actor as a result of that experience,” says Turman. “Doing Raisin was just something to do. I had no idea. It was just fun. I had to audition. I didn’t even know what an audition was. When I got the part, the fun part was going on the road and meeting people and staying up late.  I quit the play after a year because I was tired and bored.”

In junior high, Turman’s teacher, Mr. Wilson, suggested he audition for High School For The Performing Arts.

“I was a poor student, but the first time I received an A was in acting class,” says Turman. “I ran home and showed my mother. I saw her face light up. That’s when I said, ‘I’m going to be an actor.’”

Just your average Glynn

It’s easy to understand why Turman is a consistent working actor and why he is so highly respected and well liked. He’s warm, engaging, present, personable and funny.  His hugs are genuine. He looks you in the eye and doesn’t rush the conversation.

When he talks about his life, he admits there were a few bumps along the road before his career shifted into gear.

“I raised kids from the time I was 18,” says Turman, who has three children and has been married to his wife, Jo-An, for 24 years. “I was a young daddy.”

Before he made a living as an actor, Turman says he was a delivery guy in the diamond district in New York. He worked in the mailroom at United Artists, was a cashier, a stock clerk and a truck driver for a moving company.

“I had babies to feed.”

But it wasn’t long before television came calling.

The television roles began in the 1960s with Peyton Place, Julia and Mod Squad. His more recent standouts include A Different World, Thornwell, HBO’s The Wire, In Treatment (for which he won an Emmy in 2008) and House of Lies. Besides Cooley High, Turman’s film credits include John Dies at the End, Super 8, Burlesque, Takers, Sahara, Men of Honor and Gremlins.

Giving credit

Raynor Scheine, Lillias White and Glynn Turman in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."

Raynor Scheine, Lillias White and Glynn Turman in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”

Among his LA theatrical credits, besides Two Trains Running, are What the Wine Sellers Buy at the Mark Taper Forum (and also at Lincoln Center); Eyes of the American at LATC and Deadwood Dick (Image Award) at Inner City Cultural Center. Elsewhere his theatrical credits include Do Lord Remember Me (American Place Theatre), national tours of Movin’ Man (autobiographi­cal) and I’m Not Rappaport, Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! and Good Boys (Guthrie).

When he’s not acting or playing golf, Turman is a cowboy at heart who has participated in the Bill Pickett Rodeo and was inducted into the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame in Fort Worth. He runs the IX Winds Ranch Foundation, a 501c3 organization he and his wife founded in 1992. It boasts a western-style summer camp program called Camp Gid-D-Up that hosts disenfranchised inner-city and at-risk youth on the Turmans’ 20-acre ranch just north of Los Angeles.

Running Camp Gid D Up is more satisfying than any role he’s ever played, Turman says.

“I’m more happy about the kids who have smiles at Camp Gid D Up than I am with anything I’ve done,” says Turman. “It’s so great to see and have kids come back years later as grown people and say they remember the camp.  That blows my mind.”

Good night

Whether he acknowledges his star status or not, there’s no getting around the fact that Turman has had a satisfying career and an even better life.

“I’m doing what I want to do,” he says. “I’m working with Phylicia Rashad, I’m on stage with one of my best friends, doing one of the best plays ever written, in a prestigious house. I’m on a hit show (House of Lies) working with Don Cheadle and some other wonderful people. I have a beautiful wife and great kids. I’m picking in high cotton. It doesn’t get much better than that. I’ve been blessed.”

Opening night is fast approaching and Turman is ready to take the stage.

“Opening night holds its own fascination, its own energy and its own dangers, all of which make it exciting,” says Turman. “It’s like a beautiful woman with a lot of rouge on.” He laughs heartily.  “You want to kiss her, but you know you’re going to get something on you.”

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA 90012. Opens May 8. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat. 2:30 pm and 8 pm, Sun. 1 pm and 6:30 pm; no public performances May 21-24 (student matinees only). Through June 9. Tickets: $20-$70. www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/2013/Joe-Turners-Come-and-Gone/. 213-628-2772. 

**All Joe Turner’s Come and Gone production photos by Craig Schwartz.

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LA Stage Times

NOTE and TMB Create a New Ensemble for Hot Cat (as in Tin Roof)

by Amy Tofte | May 3, 2013
Jenny Soo, David LM McIntyre, Blaire Chandler, Eric Neil Guiterrez, Crystal Diaz and David Guerra in "HOT CAT." Photo by Darrett Sanders.

Jenny Soo, David LM McIntyre, Blaire Chandler, Eric Neil Guiterrez, Crystal Diaz and David Guerra in “HOT CAT.” Photo by Darrett Sanders.

Theatre of NOTE has dedicated itself to providing “a stimulating environment for new playwrights” in Los Angeles since 1981, according to its own online written history. But while there is no “P” for “playwrights” in the company’s original NOTE acronym, there is an “E” for “ensemble” — NOTE originally stood for “New One-Act Theatre Ensemble.”

This season,  NOTE returns to the company’s ensemble roots by developing Hot Cat — an original work inspired by Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roofunder the guidance of Theatre Movement Bazaar’s Tina Kronis (director/choreographer) and Richard Alger (writer).

NOTE first built itself though an annual one-act play festival. The one-acts and late-night productions quickly led to an active ensemble looking for a home to create more work. Full-length plays and seasons of shows followed.

Functioning without an artistic director, NOTE has created an artistic and management committee served by five company members and one alternate who select final projects from a slate voted on by the membership. This rotating body of leadership changes every two years to give the company new voices driving the artistic vision.

Justin Okin, Crystal Diaz, David Guerra and David LM McIntyre.

Justin Okin, Crystal Diaz, David Guerra and David LM McIntyre.

Four members of Hot Cat’s six-person cast (and two swings) — Crystal Diaz, David Guerra, David LM McIntyre and Justin Okin — offer some insight into the TMB creative process as NOTE returns to more ensemble-driven productions.

As a member of the artistic and management committee, McIntyre first proposed the possible collaboration after working with TMB on its recent production of Track 3 (which is heading to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer). McIntyre knew there might be challenges working with TMB, but he was banking on the thrills those challenges can lead to.

“One of the things [Kronis] emphasizes in performance is restrained presence,” says McIntyre. “There are all these things happening — emotions — but they are bubbling under the surface. There’s a potentiality that something’s going to happen, and [she] knows how gripping that can be.”

Okin, who covers the challenging position of male swing, chimes in on the TMB process that creates completely new, complicated movement and text performance within the pressure cooker of a finite rehearsal process.

“They kinda give themselves an uphill battle,” he says. “Forget everything that you were taught about making choices and being an actor. In some ways you’re patting your head and rubbing your stomach; and it’s actually quite a lot harder than it sounds.”

The first week of rehearsals involved such activities as performing for each other, attempting physical challenges and experimenting with gestures. There was no script used in rehearsal for almost a week. The actors describe Kronis as leading the ensemble in not just exploring movement but themselves.

“They set a very level playing field in the beginning for us to get to know each other,” says Guerra. “It opens up that vulnerability so we can really examine ourselves and see ourselves as people.”

Eric Neil Gutierrez and David Guerra.

Eric Neil Gutierrez and David Guerra.

The physical work continued even with the introduction of script pages, in some ways intensifying the process as text was added to detailed movement sequences. The actors came to realize that many of the things done during the first week that seemed rudimentary were actually building the story and relationships — even without their full awareness of it. This organic process of discovery gives Crystal Diaz, who plays the role of Maggie, even more appreciation for the TMB process as well as her role in it.

“I feel like I have a great deal of ownership of my part,” says Diaz. “[Kronis will] extract or simplify things but it’s all based off our creation. That’s part of what really excited me when we talked about bringing them to work with us. It feels curated by our company and for our company. We were all very much involved in creating these movements.”

Very little time was spent on what a traditional process might call “table work.” The actors recall one actual table read, but every subsequent discussion and dissection of text and character motivation happened on their feet, drawing solutions and inspiration from what the actors would naturally try to do through their bodies.

The trademark specificity of TMB’s staging also creates specific challenges for the busy actors outside of rehearsals, such as the necessity to simply stay healthy by eating well and getting enough sleep. The actors find themselves needing more time than usual to prepare both mentally and physically before rehearsal starts. There are specific movement notes as well as textual notes to process each day. And the pressure is on if an actor doesn’t get it right, because it’s not about letting down a director or yourself — it’s about letting down the entire ensemble.

“And what amazes me is that [Kronis] is incredibly efficient,” says Guerra. “She knows exactly how to make those four hours count. She’s listening to us as well as looking at the movement.”

Once a dues-paying membership company, NOTE abandoned that policy years ago and replaced monetary dues with required work hours for members. All casting for shows occurs from within the company, unless a role demands a particular type that the company cannot fulfill. Colorblind casting is common and supports the ensemble dynamic of Cat.

McIntyre is particularly excited that 2013 presents a slate of NOTE shows that lean heavily toward the ensemble side of the casting spectrum. Cat is followed immediately by Avery Crozier’s Eat the Runt and later in the year by Aloha, Say the Pretty Girls by Naomi Iizuka.

David LM McIntyre and David Guerra.

David LM McIntyre and David Guerra.

With the script for Cat set and movement tweaks still happening since the first preview, the actors feel it’s still evolving. And, although they all recognize the shared qualities with Williams’ original script, working with Alger’s deconstructed text has exposed new insights into the sexual tension and familial power-plays of the family drama.

“The characters we’re doing are definitely not the characters I thought,” says Guerra, who plays Brick. “But they’re still identifiable.”

Okin is particularly struck at how minor characters from the original, like Gooper and May, can have such detailed and interesting arcs in this version.

“In this play they’re just so colorful and funny,” says Okin. “It’s just a different life for those characters.”

NOTE boasts a true black box theater with painted brick walls pressing in on a simple striped back wall. Various props along the perimeter suggest the possible character of a room while sparse furniture elements leave most of the stage empty with plenty of room for play. According to Okin, the theater itself also inspired Alger to shape the mood of the script, creating it for the physical space as well as the cast.

”I think for me, working in our space like this…no raked stage, no flats,” says Guerra, arms stretched out in the openness. “It’s pretty awesome to be in Theatre of NOTE’s space and use it like this.”

The team knows the experience with TMB will likely reverberate into future productions and non-TMB processes.

“I can’t even think of something that resembles working like this…that integrates so much of the story into the physical aspect. It’s a style, not a dance,” says Diaz. “I think this [experience] will help me use my body more…accepting a character into my body and not just the intellectual side of learning lines and thinking about character.”

As final rehearsals keep whittling away at the marble stone holding the final piece captive, the actors begin to fidget as the rehearsal hour approaches. They need to start preparing.

“It requires that all of us trust that if we make our contribution, the piece as a whole will be told,” says McIntyre. “[Kronis] talks a lot about how you tune up the orchestra, but the violin doesn’t play the entire piece. The violin plays its piece and that’s how you get the full piece.”

“And then you don’t even necessarily hear the violin specifically,” adds Okin. “What you’re hearing is the whole ensemble.”

Hot Cat, Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd, Hollywood 90028. Opens Friday. Thu – Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Through June 1. Tickets: $25/$20.  www.theatreofnote.com. 323-856-8611.

 **All Hot Cat production photos by Darrett Sanders.

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LA Stage Times

Teri Ralston Returns to Laguna for Steel Magnolias

by Cynthia Citron | May 3, 2013
Joanna Strapp, Stephanie Zimbalist, Alyson Lindsay, Elyse Mirto,Teri Ralston and Von Rae Wood in "Steel Magnolias." Photo by Ed Krieger.

Joanna Strapp, Stephanie Zimbalist, Alyson Lindsay, Elyse Mirto,Teri Ralston and Von Rae Wood in “Steel Magnolias.”

‘All of life is an audition,” according to actor/director/singer Teri Ralston.

For Ralston, who started her career at 12 in a play called Ghost in the Green Gown at the old Laguna Playhouse, auditions have been the central focus of her life.  That and her Maltese dog, Lizzie, who died recently at the age of 13.

But when we meet at an outdoor café, she introduces me to Cali, her new Maltese who, was born the same day Lizzie died.

“I took that as a sign,” she said as she cuddled this adorable little ball of fluff.  “I have to have a little dog because I fly a lot, and in her carrier she just fits under the seat.”

Teri Ralston and her Maltese puppy, Cali. Photo by Cynthia Citron.

Teri Ralston and her Maltese puppy, Cali. Photo by Cynthia Citron.

Ralston, who lives in New York, has flown back to her old stomping grounds in Laguna to play Ouiser in Laguna Playhouse’s production of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias“Ouiser is a tough cookie, always angry,” she explains.  Known as the town curmudgeon, Ouiser says things like “I’m not crazy; I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years,” and “Don’t try to get on my good side; I no longer have one.”

Steel Magnolias deals with the ups and downs of a group of six women who get together each week at a beauty salon in the fictional Chinquapin Parish, in northwest Louisiana, to share gossip, advice, humor, and friendship.

First produced in New York in 1987, the comedy-drama covers the relationships between the women over a three-year span of time and the death of a character based on the playwright’s sister.  These are women whom he depicts as “delicate as magnolias but as tough as steel.”

The play was made into a movie in 1989 with an all-star cast that included Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts.

In addition to Teri Ralston, the current production features Elyse Mirto, Alyson Lindsay, Joanna Strapp, Von Rae Wood, and Stephanie Zimbalist.

It’s directed by Jenny Sullivan, whose recent credits include Geffen Playhouse’s Love, Loss and What I Wore!, Beautified at the Skylight Theatre, and Nazi Hunter — Simon Wiesenthal at Theatre 40 and Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre, where Sullivan has also staged Our Town, The Mystery of Irma Vep, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Rainmaker, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and others.

Teri Ralston and Von Rae Wood.

Teri Ralston and Von Rae Wood.

Sullivan directed Wood and Zimbalist in Steel Magnolias in 2011 at the Rubicon.  Zimbalist also has a long history with Ralston, having appeared with her in 2007 in A Little Night Music at South Coast Repertory, where “she played my daughter,” Ralston says with a rueful smile.

She notes that her friend Bonnie Franklin played Ouiser in the Rubicon production of Magnolias and that she (Ralston) is honored to be playing it in Laguna and is dedicating the show to Franklin.

Ralston created the role of Jenny, “the pot-smoking wife” in Stephen Sondheim’s Company on Broadway in 1970 and again in 1993 in a reunion concert. She appeared in the show’s US national tour in 1971 and in its run on London’s West End in 1972. She also was in the original cast of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, playing Mrs. Nordstrom.

She toured for eight months in Stephen Schwartz’s musical The Baker’s Wife, which, sadly, closed on the road.  But she notes that Schwartz had written the song “Chanson” for her in her role as Denise, the cabaret owner.

Her involvement with Sondheim and his music has continued over the years as she has appeared in, or directed, Side by Side by Sondheim, Into the Woods, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Sunday in the Park with George.  She has played Sally in Follies in three productions.

As a musical actor and cabaret singer, she appears regularly in clubs and she is included in seven original cast albums.  Her first CD was titled I’ve Gotta Get Back to New York, and she accomplished the goal expressed in that title some six years ago.  Nevertheless, she considers Laguna Beach, where she grew up and attended high school, her second home.


“I’m thrilled to be back in Laguna,” she says, “it’s such a supportive community for the arts.”  She credits her high school drama teacher, Joan Lee Woehler, for encouraging her to “follow her dreams,” and notes that Woehler “influenced lots of people in very personal ways.”

Which may help to explain why Ralston became a teacher as well.  Having graduated from San Francisco State (along with Jenny Sullivan and “all of the people at South Coast Rep,” she laughs), she finds teaching “as rewarding as performing.”

She has taught musical theater and dramatic arts at UC Irvine and teaches voice privately now in New York in her apartment on the Upper East Side.  “It keeps my voice in good shape,” she says, “and I really love it.”  She also believes that “students have ‘that magical thing’“ and “the more you keep studying and growing, the better off you’ll be.”

And flexibility is also important.  She cites a production called Lunch that she played first in Beverly, Massachusetts, in a theater in the round, and then in Pittsburgh in a theater with a proscenium arch.  “Everything was in a mess,” she says, “and we had no time for tech.”

So when she came out for her “big 11 o’clock number,” the moving set didn’t stop, but kept right on going, offstage right.  Undeterred, she followed the scenery until it came to a stop and sang her number from there.

She also tells of a set that was late in arriving and slammed into her on its way onstage, which resulted in her continuing her performance with two broken ribs.

Larry Kent, George Coe and Teri Ralston in the 1970 Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's "Company."

Larry Kent, George Coe and Teri Ralston in the 1970 Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.”

And then there was the performance of Company in Boston that was interrupted by a bomb scare.  “The whole audience and the cast were herded out onto the street together,” she says, leaving the listener to imagine what that did for the “magic” of the musical.

As Ouiser, however, she delivers a cranky speech that couldn’t be more out of tune with her own sentiments about her profession.

“I don’t see plays because I can nap at home for free,” Ouiser says.  “I don’t see movies because they’re all trash and full of naked people.

And I don’t read books because if they’re any good they’ll be made into a mini-series.”

Having happily covered every aspect of show business in her long career, Teri Ralston could not disagree more vehemently with that statement.

Steel Magnolias, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach 92626. Opens May 4 at 7:30 pm. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. thru May 26. Additional performances Sun May 5 and 12 at 7 pm and May 16 and 23 at 2.  Tickets $35 -$65.  www.lagunaplayhouse.com. 949.497-2787.

***All Steel Magnolias production photos by Ed Krieger.

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LA Stage Times

Approaching Under-30 Theatergoers With Andrew Carlberg

by Robin Migdol | May 2, 2013
Adam Cooper, Andrew Carlberg, Andrea Adams and Ariana Mufson at the 2011 4th Wall event for “Next Fall” at The Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Vivian Frerichs.

Adam Cooper, Andrew Carlberg, Andrea Adams and Ariana Mufson at the 2011 4th Wall event for “Next Fall” at The Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Vivian Frerichs.

On a recent Monday, producer Andrew Carlberg rattles off his schedule: meetings about his latest film and television projects, a casting session, lunch with a reporter and a rehearsal for a theater workshop top the list. For the busy Carlberg, it’s a typical weekday.

“I don’t know when he sleeps,” says Karen Gutierrez, Geffen Playhouse director of advertising and promotion.

A look at Carlberg’s accomplishments over the past six years offers some idea of just how little sleep he must be getting. At 28, Carlberg has already had a hand in producing a variety of projects that span theater, film and television, and he has helped create multiple initiatives to support theater communities in Los Angeles. There’s no secret to his success, Carlberg says. It’s just a lot of hard work.

Carlberg was raised in Charlotte, where his father runs a community and business relations firm and his mother manages volunteers for a nonprofit healthcare service.  After graduating from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 2007, he parlayed a television production internship in Los Angeles into a full-time job, working on shows including the hit ABC drama Castle. But Carlberg had higher aspirations.

Andrew Carlberg. Photo by Shiloh Strong.

Andrew Carlberg. Photo by Shiloh Strong.

“When I moved out here, I thought I wanted to be a director, but it was very quick for me to find out that I wanted to be a producer,” says Carlberg, who frequently attended Broadway shows growing up and was active behind the scenes in high school theater.

Carlberg met actress Sharon Lawrence at the end of his internship and the two bonded quickly. Lawrence says Carlberg has been primed from a young age for the entrepreneurial rigors of being a producer — Carlberg’s father used to write to notable public figures, asking them to write letters of wisdom to his son. The responses they received, Lawrence says, instilled an important confidence in the young Carlberg.

“Andrew grew up with this personal connection to people who weren’t necessarily in his social and/or cultural world, yet he felt that they were already part of his world,” Lawrence says. “I think that really set him up to believe that approaching anyone was worth trying.”

When Lawrence and Carlberg attended a star-studded benefit for the Geffen Playhouse in 2009, Lawrence introduced him to Geffen founder Gil Cates, who took an interest in Carlberg’s passion for getting young people interested in theater.

Carlberg quickly lines up some of the usual suspects for reasons why so many people of his generation don’t go to theater in LA:

“One, it’s too expensive. Two, they don’t know about it. Or three, they don’t understand why they should. They don’t understand why in a ‘film and TV town’ they should be going to the theater,” Carlberg says. “We set out to illuminate and change that.”

Carlberg met with Gutierrez and the two joined with other Hollywood assistants to form the 4th Wall Geffen Playhouse Arts Alliance, an outreach initiative that offers discounted ticket prices and special events for young theater patrons. The 4th Wall has since expanded beyond the Geffen to sponsor shows around Los Angeles, and Gutierrez says the following it attracts is extremely loyal, with attendees often bringing friends to shows and posting on social media about their new interest in theater.

But the 4th Wall hasn’t been Carlberg’s only venture by far. He’s producing Ron Klier’s Cops and Friends of Cops with Vs. Theatre Company. It premiered April 24. He just attended the South By Southwest premiere of the independent film he co-produced, Some Girl(s), starring Kristen Bell, Emily Watson and Adam Brody and written by Neil LaBute, based on the LaBute play that received its West Coast premiere at the Geffen in 2008.

Andrew Carlberg and Sharon Lawrence at Celebration Theatre's 30th Anniversary Benefit. Photo courtesy of Sean Lambert Photography.

Sharon Lawrence and Andrew Carlberg at Celebration Theatre’s 30th Anniversary Benefit. Photo courtesy of Sean Lambert Photography.

Carlberg’s other theater credits include Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath with Rogue Machine, The Mercy Seat with Vs. and a Geffen reading of 110 Stories that benefited the Red Cross.  He also teamed up with actor Devon Gummersall to create the Piece Project, which stages readings with celebrities to raise money for theaters.

Carlberg says the relationships he has formed in the arts community of Los Angeles, from his television experience to his outreach for the Geffen, propel him from one project to the next. Especially in theater, he says, cultivating a community of peers and supporters is key to getting his work off the ground.

“More than any other medium there’s definitely community in the theater,” he says. “It’s hard out here, everybody knows that, and this is a group of people that can rise in the ranks together. You’re figuring out how to make ends meet while fulfilling your creative desires.”

Each project may require Carlberg to adapt to a different role, he says. Sometimes he’s  involved only in deal-making, other times he may be overseeing casting, securing locations and managing ticket sales. But for each production, Carlberg says he tries to be a calming influence within the team — which is often composed of many strong personalities — and do everything he can to help each collaborator achieve his or her goals.

Gutierrez attests Carlberg’s success at such a young age to his “old soul” personality and his sincere, passionate commitment to every project he takes on.

“I see him comfortably talking with his peers, 20-somethings, and then comfortably talking to a playwright double his age, or a donor that’s triple his age,” she says. “That’s a quality that will serve him and has served him very well.”

Andrew Hawkes and Johnny Clark in "Cops and Friends of Cops." Photo by Kate Compton.

Andrew Hawkes and Johnny Clark in “Cops and Friends of Cops.” Photo by Kate Compton.

Not to mention, she adds, “He just has really good taste.”

Lawrence agrees that Carlberg has good taste, but more important, she says, he is simply committed to making sure productions he cares about come to life and find an audience. He understands the importance of allowing large theaters to co-exist with smaller ones and is able to find new ways to make things happen instead of relying on traditional methods.

“He is the way of the future, for his ability to seek new talent, to identify it, and to not let the old ideas of what it takes to bring something into the public’s view slow him down,” Lawrence says. “He loves connecting people with performance, however that is possible, and that’s why he’s exciting to me.”

It’s not an easy lifestyle, Carlberg makes clear. His job is 24-7, he says, because when he’s not actively working on a project he’s seeing as much film, television and theater as he possibly can in order to stay informed of everything happening in the industry. And the communication never stops — even over lunch, Carlberg pauses subtly to check his email more than once.

But when everything goes right, there are high rewards. He counts the opening night performance of Celebration Theatre’s Ovation-winning The Color Purple, for which Carlberg helped produce a fundraiser benefit, and attending the South by Southwest screening of Some Girl(s) with his parents as two of his proudest moments.

Specifically, “seeing the look on my mom’s face when the movie was over,” Carlberg recalls. “I’m sitting there with my mom on one side of me and Adam Brody on the other side, and it’s a blast to get to share that with them.”

Cesili Williams and La Toya London in "The Color Purple." Photo by Barry Weiss.

Cesili Williams and La Toya London in “The Color Purple.” Photo by Barry Weiss.

Carlberg says he hopes to continue working with artists he admires whom he hasn’t worked with yet, but he mostly just wants to work on “good projects.” It takes only one amazing performance, he says, to make the producer’s job worthwhile.

“It’s the one job where you get to work to make other people’s dreams happen,” he says. “It’s not very glamorous. But when you deliver something, whether it’s a cast member or a location or whatever, something that someone really wants, there’s a great feeling to that.”

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LA Stage Times

Ramirez Reaches For a Rhythmic Rush in Royale

by Steven Sabel | May 1, 2013
David St. Louis, Desean Terry and Robert Gossett in "The Royale." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

David St. Louis, Desean Terry and Robert Gossett in “The Royale.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

“I’m a big fan of naked theater,” says playwright Marco Ramirez.

His comments are far more figurative than literal, but his new play, The Royale, premiering this week at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, presents a raw version of what is “arguably the most famous story in boxing,” he says.

“I wanted to write a full-length play about boxing. There is something about the stripped-down nature of the sport. It’s a naked sport in a lot of ways,” Ramirez says.

Based on the true story of Jack Johnson, the first black boxer to become a heavyweight champion, The Royale uses a minimalist approach to create the world of boxing. The set is sparse, and a small cast of five actors depicts the characters.

“I’m not interested in creating realism on stage. I cover that in the characters and the dialogue,” says Ramirez. The ensemble-driven show acknowledges the “economics of theater,” while capturing the essence of the themes within. “I have cut it down to the necessary elements of the play. Much like boxing — you only have what you absolutely need on your body.”

Marco Ramirez

Marco Ramirez

Ramirez is also a minimalist when it comes to writing stage directions. Entrances, exits, and a few important looks between characters are all that he includes, he says.

“I’m a student of David Mamet in a way,” he states. “The director and actors get to fill in the blanks on their own.”

An avid fan of comic books, Ramirez, who is best know for his television writing for Sons of Anarchy and now Da Vinci’s Demons, says he tends to see things in comic book “frames that let your mind fill in the blanks in between.”

As a writer, he likens himself to a “director who doesn’t over-direct.” He focuses on creating a piece of theater that calls for actors to do “a small amount of work, but the right work,” he says.

“It is all about how we can come together and create a compelling story,” Ramirez adds. Black Dahlia Theatre produced his Broadsword in 2011.

Stepping Away

Ramirez was very involved in the casting process for the premiere of The Royale. “Eighty percent of production is in the casting,” he says. “I saw every person who auditioned.”

And then he stepped away.

“We have assembled the total dream team,” Ramirez says of the cast, which includes Robert Gossett, Diarra Oni Kilpatrick, David St. Louis, Keith Szarabajka and Desean Terry. “If anything works in this production, it is because they do it. I take absolutely no credit for any of it.”

Finding the right cast was a difficult process, he says. “Everyone was great. Whether they were right (for the roles) was the issue.”

One important aspect was whether the actors fit a certain “period look” he wanted for the production. “That was one element. The rhythm element was a whole other level,” Ramirez says.

Diarra Oni Kilpatrick and David St. Louis.

Diarra Oni Kilpatrick and David St. Louis.

Throughout the play, the actors are required to create percussive musical sequences to embody moments of the story. Clapping hands, stomping feet, slapping thighs and hips, are all among the rhythmic elements required by the play.

Director Daniel Aukin helms the production, and Ameenah Kaplan provides the rhythmic movement sequences.

“It’s complicated. The musicality of it tells the story of each fight,” says Ramirez. “It’s a play about boxing where nobody throws a punch.”

Each sequence is designed to help the audience “get inside the boxers’ heads — each jab, each punch,” he says.

“It’s a very percussive sport,” Ramirez says, describing elements of training such as using speed bags and jumping rope. “Everything requires rhythm.”

In Training

As part of his research for the play, Ramirez spent some time in a boxing gym. “I did some training, but I really just wanted to be there to listen,” he says. Not wanting to “over-research it,” he wanted to stay true to the vision of writing a play that was more about boxers than boxing, says Ramirez.

“There are so many boxer stories about whether the boxer can win the fight. In the world of theater, it is more about a moral and ethical question about whether he should win the fight,” Ramirez states.

Ramirez credits Center Theatre Group resident dramaturg/literary manager Pier Carlo Talenti with his contribution to the production. “There has been a lot of open communication” between the two of them.

Hip-Hoppy Swagger

Ramirez equates the central character of his play to modern stars of hip-hop music and celebrity athletes. He says there is a certain “hip-hoppy” feel to the production and a level of “swagger” in the leading role.

“In terms of the character of someone like Jack Johnson, there isn’t really that much change from people like Kanye West or Kobe Bryant,” he says. “These are people who are completely about their art and their work, who don’t give a shit about what’s going on outside.” In The Royale audiences will see a character much like these men, imbued with “a level of arrogance.”

Desean Terry

Desean Terry

“He’s kind of a bad-ass,” Ramirez says. That element of the character and his story touches at the very heart of the play and its look at “the consequences of his winning,” he says.

At the central core of the story stand the relationships he has with his trainer, his promoter, and the others around him, but there is no romantic aspect of the story. “That was a specific choice,” says Ramirez. The poignant elements are based more in familial connections. “There is an aspect of love in the play when it comes to family relationships, and the paternal relationship between trainer and boxer.”

Adrenaline Rush

Ramirez says that watching The Royale come to the stage represents a new thrill for him as a writer. “I can’t overstate how important the adrenaline rush is and how much it means for me,” he says.

Watching the creation of the fight sequences and rhythmic moments has been a part of his reward. “There is a rush in creating these fight sequences that don’t include fights. It’s full of adrenaline and testosterone,” says Ramirez excitedly.

“The rhythm, the beat, are all part of the thrill.”

The Royale, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City 90232. Opens Sunday. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. No public performances on Tue-Wed May 7, 8, 14 and 15. No Saturday matinee on May 11. Through June 2. Tickets: $20- $35. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.

**All The Royale production photos by Craig Schwartz.

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LA Stage Times

Storefront Church Meets Transitional Home in Anatomy of Gazellas

by Amy Tofte | April 30, 2013
Elizabeth Frances, Elia Saldaña and Bianca Lemaire in "The Anatomy of Gazellas." Photo by Blake Boyd.

Elizabeth Frances, Elia Saldaña and Bianca Lemaire in “The Anatomy of Gazellas.” Photo by Blake Boyd.

As a playwright participating in the 2009-2010 Center Theatre Group Writers’ Workshop, Janine Salinas Schoenberg was given the task of choosing two topics of interest as the subject for her next play. She chose the urban storefront church movement and transitional housing for women released from prison.

After further exploration of these subjects, Schoenberg meshed what might seem an odd pairing into one play — The Anatomy of Gazellas. The premiere of Gazellas, presented by Playwrights’ Arena, is now playing in Atwater Village, and Schoenberg has discovered these two disparate ideas have more in common than one might think.

Schoenberg’s idea began with a question: “What would happen if there was this home for young teens run by an evangelical leader and what would be the purpose behind that?” asks Schoenberg. “Choosing to take in all these women no one was willing to take a risk on. Then, as you see the play unfold, you understand [the leader’s] reasons for taking in these kinds of girls, and you understand why she’s made the choices she made.”

Janine Salinas Schoenberg

Janine Salinas Schoenberg

The Center Theatre Group Writers’ Workshop is run by CTG’s literary department, who selects seven or eight local playwrights for participation in the nine-month process of play development. Schoenberg credits the workshop with the inception of her play, but it was her previous work teaching creative writing and theater in women’s prisons that sparked her interest in transitional housing for women who had served time.

“Before I went back to graduate school, I did a lot of work in women’s prisons and juvenile halls,” says Schoenberg. “I was very familiar with that world, and it has really inspired and influenced my work.”

As part of CTG’s program, the playwrights received contact lists of specialists on their selected topics. The specialists could then enlighten writers with story fodder for potential scripts. Schoenberg was led to local theology experts specializing in the storefront church movement and explored churches in her own neighborhoods of Echo Park and Hollywood. With little prior knowledge of these churches, Schoenberg quickly learned the significance of these organizations from the point of view of their parishioners.

“The reason why we see so many of these small churches pop up is because they cater to recent immigrants,” says Schoenberg. “They are not just places of worship; they are community centers.”

With programming every night in an immigrant’s native language, the storefronts not only offer connection to a higher power who can offer guidance and inspiration but also connections with others in the same situation of being in a strange new land that may or may not be all they had anticipated.

Schoenberg also recognized what she describes as “a feeling of abandonment” within some immigrants who take to storefront evangelists. They’re often looking for a community that relates to their experiences specifically — even if the religion might feel altered from their strict religious upbringing back home.

“Even with those that are coming to America with a religion such as Catholicism,” says Schoenberg. “there is still that desire to search for a different type of belief system that caters to what they’re experiencing currently, rather than what they grew up with.”

Elia Saldaña, Jacqueline Real and Christine Marie Mantilla.

Elia Saldaña, Jacqueline Real and Christine Marie Mantilla.

Continuing with the CTG program, Schoenberg was introduced to Susan Burton, executive director and founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, which assists women with the transition from incarceration and other legal issues to rewarding and sustainable lives. Burton’s work in South Central Los Angeles has received national attention including being named a CNN Hero in 2010.

Fueled by her research, it wasn’t long before the seeds of story took root and Schoenberg’s story began to grow. Her plot became the struggle between a 16-year-old girl arriving at a transitional home and the enigmatic evangelical leader who runs it. The evangelist wishes not only to help the young women who come through her doors but also to use the opportunity to grow her congregation. But the newcomer has different ideas about what she wants to believe in.

“As a kid I was really pretty shy and read a lot. My work has always had fantastical elements,” says Schoenberg. “So I created this girl who has an amazing imagination and is creating her own entire belief system that she follows and it clashes with [that of the evangelical leader].”

Schoenberg workshopped new pages with her colleagues at CTG, meeting once a month for readings and feedback. Then at the end of the nine-month program, CTG hosted a reading of the first draft. Last year, after another staged reading at Playwrights’ Arena, artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera approached Schoenberg about the company producing it.

Schoenberg describes a process in which she felt “completely supported” by the Playwrights’ Arena team. Schoenberg also credits the success of the Gazellas process to the ensemble cast of seven women — some who received new pages daily during rehearsals — as well as the astute guidance of Rivera, who directs.

“He truly understands how to work with new plays,” Schoenberg reflects on the first week of rehearsals. “He had a conversation with me and with the actors about how there were going to be many revisions and it’s going to come out of the rehearsal process.”

Elia Saldaña and Jacqueline Real.

Elia Saldaña and Jacqueline Real.

Once the rehearsal guidelines were set, Schoenberg had an open invitation to re-write, which she did. And while she states the play is still fundamentally the same, she also believes all the characters evolved, becoming deeper and richer throughout the process. Particularly, she felt the core conflict revealed itself more clearly.

“These are two women who have their own belief systems that are also very similar [to each other's],” explains Schoenberg. “One is based on religion and the other is based on what’s really a recurring dream, a fantasy world she’s creating.”

Schoenberg believes her characters are “young women in limbo, women who have served their time and now must pick up the pieces of their lives and learn how to live.” She says they are learning to find routine within a structured environment, such as helping to run the facility. But Schoenberg also reaches for lightness within the struggle.

“I’m the type of artist that strives to create work that is visually beautiful, poetic and socially conscious,” says Schoenberg. “But there [also] needs to be an element of entertainment and even comedy in the darkest moments.”

Comedy and music. In fact, part of Schoenberg’s research revealed the importance of music, especially singing, as part of the storefront church experience. She and her husband, composer Adam Schoenberg, created original music for the play which is sung by the cast.

Schoenberg describes how one can forget the arduous journey it sometimes takes for a script to come full circle, no matter how much re-writing is done prior to the first rehearsal. She believes it’s within the rehearsal process where even more discoveries happen. For Schoenberg, it was also the connecting of her two initial impulses, the storefront churches and transitional homes, that solidified in the weeks leading up to opening.

“In a way—even though they are extremely different—they both are providing the same thing, which is a sense of hope,” says Schoenberg. “The hope for a better life, regaining hope within ourselves, a faith in god. We all need a little bit of that every day. And that’s what these churches and transitional homes are really providing for people.”

The Anatomy of Gazellas, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, LA 90039. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Through May 19. Tickets: $25.  gazellas.brownpapertickets.com. 800-838-3006.

All The Anatomy of Gazellas production photos by Blake Boyd.

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LA Stage Times

Saltzman’s Make Believe Tries to Give Larry Hart His Life Back

by Steven Sabel | April 30, 2013
Brett Ryback, Rebecca Ann Johnson and Ben D. Goldberg in "Falling for Make Believe." Photo by Michael Lamont.

Brett Ryback, Rebecca Ann Johnson and Ben D. Goldberg in “Falling for Make Believe.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

When the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization asked writer Mark Saltzman if he was interested in looking through old Rodgers and Hart songs and material, Saltzman began “poring over” the songs and texts of “long forgotten titles filled with one or two hit songs we remember” to come up with a book for a new musical, he says.

Saltzman’s relationship with the R&H organization developed through his musical, Tin Pan Alley Rag, about the lives of Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin. It’s one of many shows beyond the Rodgers and Hammerstein repertoire that are licensed by the R&H organization. Tin Pan Alley Rag opened at Pasadena Playhouse in 1997; among its later productions was a 2004 version from Fullerton Civic Light Opera.

This time, it was the life of Lorenz Hart that spoke to Saltzman. “So much of his life was shadowy and literally struck from the record when he died….. I thought, let’s give his life back to him. It wasn’t a happy life, but it belongs to him,” says Saltzman.

Mark Saltzman

Mark Saltzman

In his new musical, Falling For Make Believe, Saltzman attempts to tell the untold story about the Larry Hart whose musical genius was both fueled and faltered by his bouts of depression and uncontrolled alcoholism, as he was forced to conceal his homosexuality.

“At that time you could never touch homosexuality. They used terms such as ‘confirmed bachelor,’ and put the sort of ‘house spin’ on his life,” Saltzman says. In Falling For Make Believe, the goal is to “fill in the blanks” of the untold romantic aspect of the life of a musical master who wrote mostly songs about love.

“Ninety percent of the songs are love songs. So it was clear we were going in that direction,” he explains.

Placing the Songs

Describing Falling For Make Believe as much more of a “biopic” than a revue, Saltzman says that choosing which songs to include, and deciding how they would come into the story, were challenges. Members of the production team had their favorites to suggest, and other songs were selected for their popularity.

“Some songs audiences might be hearing for the very first time,” he says.

“Disguising” musical moments, and providing a “naturalistic” approach to characters beginning to sing was another aspect to the writing important to Saltzman.

“From the beginning, when opera was first created, the critics have complained about characters suddenly bursting into song. Yet, we create some kind of desire to be in that world, and people flock to hear others burst into song,” he says.

Saltzman describes it as a “god-like” power the audience craves and obtains to see into the hearts and inner thinking of characters in a musical. There is truth in the music that cannot be expressed through words alone, he says.

“The music goes beneath and beyond the consciousness of the character. The words are what the character is thinking, and the music is what the character is feeling,” says Saltzman.

Rodgers and Hart understood this, and “one of the tricks in their tool box was contrasting music with lyrics that don’t match,” he says, citing “My Funny Valentine” as a perfect example.

Planning the Premiere

Rebecca Ann Johnson and Brett Ryback.

Rebecca Ann Johnson and Brett Ryback.

For the new musical’s first production, Saltzman “wanted a space for this show, large enough for it to have the premiere it needs to hopefully go beyond Burbank,” he says. Having premiered his play Clutter: The True Story of The Collyer Brothers Who NeverThrew Anything Out at the Colony Theatre in 2004, Saltzman approached Colony artistic director Barbara Beckley.

“This is a little darker than their last musical, Dames at Sea,” he says with a chuckle.

When it came time to choose a director for the project, Saltzman says he was reminded of enjoying movie night with a group of friends when director Jim Fall brought the film, At Long Last Love to be viewed. The 1975 romantic musical comedy features the music of Cole Porter.

Saltzman and Fall sat down to lunch together to discuss the project, and a shared knowledge of the history of musicals sealed the deal. “It really turned into a great match,” says Saltzman, “except when we both get so distracted by discussions about great musicals of the past.”

Harkening back to his desire to keep a naturalistic element to the piece, Saltzman says that they are “approaching it as a play that happens to have songs in it.”

“These are people who had singing in their lives every day,” he says.

Casting the Production

Saltzman played a very hands-on role in casting the production, sitting in on every audition. “For a first production, the writer’s just sort of got to be involved,” Saltzman says.

The storyline of the book follows the relationship between Rodgers and Hart, as well as a few other characters representing aspects of Hart’s life, including a potential romantic interest.

“Writing about gay human beings, [who lived] before a certain date, requires conjecture. Their [written] lives were sanitized. There is no historical reference to draw from,” says Saltzman.

Brett Ryback

Brett Ryback

Casting actors who could convey the complexities of the relationships between the characters was very important, especially the relationship between Rodgers and Hart, he says. “They were cast together. They had to have the right look about them — the right chemistry together. It was like casting a couple,” Saltzman says.

Actor Brett Ryback agrees.

“His partnership with Richard Rodgers was the closest thing to a marriage Larry Hart would have been in. The closest thing to a spouse,” says Ryback, who portrays Rodgers.

Saltzman says that after “beating the bushes” to find the right actors, Ryback came to the cast through a mutual friend, and it was “another minor miracle finding Ben through Jim.” That’s Ben D. Goldberg, who plays Larry Hart.

Also important to casting a new show is selecting talents who know what they’re getting into, says Saltzman. “It’s pretty much ongoing that every day we’re making changes…..the cast has to roll with those changes,” he says.

Ryback enjoys that part of creating a new show. “I really enjoy getting in and sort of tinkering — coming in on the ground floor of creating this new piece of theater,” he says. He wrote the music for Liberty Inn, a musical that was adapted from a Goldoni play by Dakin Matthews and produced by Antaeus Company in 2010.

Iconic Characters

One of the acting challenges of the piece comes through the requirement of portraying someone as iconic as Larry Hart or Richard Rodgers, says Ryback. “When you’re playing these historical icons, it’s real easy to get this dusty, statuesque image that is almost inhuman. The challenge is to make them as human as I am.”

Ryback began his process by reading Rodgers’ autobiography, and then “a whole lot of books,” he says.

“The most recent biography of Hart treats Rodgers very unfairly,” Ryback says. “A good deal of him is depicted as sort of very controlling.” But Ryback sees Rodgers as more of a grounding force in Hart’s life, who was “trying to keep Larry where he is at his best.”

“He was so important as the in-control figure in Hart’s life, who is steering him,” agrees Saltzman.

“Rodgers was a person really in love with the world of theater, and the world they were creating. He was trying to protect the partnership — coming from a place of trying to make it all work for everybody,” says Ryback.

Still, he adds, there was a lot about Hart that Rodgers wasn’t willing to understand, which Ryback says contributed to Hart’s alcoholism and eventual downfall. “The tragedy is the downfall of Larry Hart. Why a man who wrote such incredible love tunes wasn’t able to allow himself to love or be loved.”

Tyler Milliron and Ben D. Goldberg.

Tyler Milliron and Ben D. Goldberg.

Rodgers described Hart, who was about five feet tall, as sort of “gnome-like” in appearance. Living in a time of extreme closeting of homosexuality, paired with a lack of personal confidence in his own appearance, created deep torment for Hart.

“It was a part of who he was. He didn’t see himself as lovable. He still sought it out, but he wasn’t able to obtain it,” says Ryback.

Human Love Story

Writer and actor both see the show as essentially a human love story. Saltzman is clear that he didn’t set out to write a piece of theater aimed at social activism, and Ryback says the piece easily transcends that element of the story. “The social activism aspect is a side effect of the play,” says Ryback

“Because you want to do a story about a gay person, you wind up delving into the realm of social activism,” Saltzman says.

But both men say that the play is actually more of a product of social change and acceptance, in that the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization has allowed these truths to come out now, due to the changing times.

“It’s much more of a love story, and it explores something a little more human about what it takes to love and be loved,” says Ryback. “Sometimes you get what you really want, and sometimes you’re just left wishing.”

Falling For Make Believe, Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. Thur and Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm through May 19. Tickets: $20 – $42. www.colonytheatre.org818-558-7000.

**All Falling for Make Believe production photos by Michael Lamont. 

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LA Stage Times

Elephants Aren’t Necessarily Republicans. Take The North Plan

by Amy Tofte | April 26, 2013
Christopher Game and Dominic Rains in The North Plan. Photo by Joel Daavid.

Christopher Game and Dominic Rains in The North Plan. Photo by Joel Daavid.

Chicago playwright Jason Wells’ new play aims to offer plenty of laughs wrapped in political mindfulness. Told through the microcosm of a remote police station in the Ozarks, The North Plan combines what Wells describes as “a tightly structured comedy with just enough political commentary.” In fact, it was mostly the comedy that enticed the hard-hitting Elephant Theatre Company to mount the production’s Los Angeles premiere this week.

“Last year we tackled some serious plays,” says Elephant co-artistic director David Fofi, who is also helming the production of North. “We wanted to come back with something people would really enjoy…but we still wanted something with bite to it.”

According to Fofi, the selection of North was easy after culling through the numerous script submissions Elephant received for its latest season. “I need to get passionate about something,” says Fofi of the script. “And I get passionate when something stirs me up inside.”

Jason Wells and David Fofi.

Jason Wells and David Fofi.

Since 1995, the Elephant has built its reputation as a 99-seat theater doing thought-provoking plays with plenty of acclaim and awards. That reputation has helped grow connections with larger, more established theaters around the country such as Manhattan Theatre Club, Portland Center Stage and LA’s own Center Theatre Group — to name a few — and a cross-section of literary managers and agents who have fed new scripts to the company for consideration. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Little Flower of East Orange was one such project which the Elephant introduced to the West Coast in November 2010.

The Elephant invites its company members to get involved with the multitude of submissions that come in. The company of about 75 engages in reading submissions, whittling the pile down to about a dozen plays which are then presented as a reading series. Then, based on company input, Fofi and co-artistic director Lindsay Allbaugh make the final decisions about the season.

This will be Wells’ first production at the Elephant, but he’s no stranger to Los Angeles audiences. Furious Theatre Company presented the West Coast premiere of Wells’ Men of Tortuga in 2010. Tortuga, like North, combined another cautionary tale with a dark comedic spin on current events. But where Tortuga dissected corporate culture, North goes after politics and privacy.

“I was noticing the hyperbolic political climate we were having a few years back and still having now to a certain degree,” says Wells. “It reminds me of the old joke about the dog who chases cars. What’s he gonna do when he catches one?”

Inspired by the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency, Wells began imagining what a true revolution might look like for the sparring factions within American politics. His imagined “political coup” became the premise for North but with a decided twist — those finally in power would come to it not through violence but through eroding personal freedoms. And although his inspiration was decidedly Republican, the perpetrators in Wells’ play remain intentionally apolitical — making any political persuasion the potential perpetrator. This particularly caught the attention of Fofi.

Kerry Carney

Kerry Carney

“He’s done an amazing job of tackling the issue of our amazing government surveillance machine that seems to be running away from us,” says Fofi. “And I don’t even believe in any one political party…I think too often people care more about their political party than real people.”

Wells agrees.

“If Facebook and Google have taught us anything, it’s that our freedoms can be whittled away,” says Wells. “I think a lot of Americans wouldn’t know they are in the midst of a dystopia.”

Fofi says The North Plan will bring a desired lightness in tone while still carrying what audiences have come to expect from Elephant plays — particularly, the Elephant’s tendency to stage plays about distinctively American topics. “It’s important to be provocative and to challenge,” says Fofi. “How do we respond to things that are ‘dirty’ to us? Americans sometimes want everything to be TV-land…and I’ve found when you do this kind of [theater], people respond.”

Plays, much like political movements, take time to build momentum. And for Wells, the ability to develop work with other artists is an important step when constructing plays. The North Plan went through its paces before emerging in its final form three years ago.

“All my plays have gone through some kind of development and with this play in particular it was helpful,” says Wells. “There was a lot to pull apart…actors are great because they become experts on the character…[development] was always intended to be part of the process.”

North was primarily re-tooled as part of the Portland Center Stage’s Jaw Festival in 2010, where the play first premiered after an intensive development process. Wells then worked to further polish the script for Steppenwolf’s First Look series in that same year.

“That’s been my process all along, and I wouldn’t want to do it any other way,” says Wells. “I never want to be so famous as a playwright that people would just do whatever I write right away.”

There seems to be symmetry between the playwright Wells aspires to be and the theater company Elephant has become, in part, through Fofi’s leadership.

John Forest and Dominic Rains.

John Forest and Dominic Rains.

“I was not your typical theater person,” says Fofi. “I’m an ex-Navy, ex-football player who took his first theater class when he was 23, after four years in the Navy.”

Fofi’s brand of theater stems from an everyman’s rough-and-tumble viewpoint on life. He identifies some of his early theater gods as David Rabe, Sam Shepard and David Mamet, and he co-founded Elephant specifically to encourage new work alongside the occasional published play. Fofi describes the Elephant aesthetic as “real people with real problems” — alcoholism, crises of faith, family issues, unemployment. But he’s drawn to the tightly woven serio-comic where — just as in life — a tragedy can quickly turn to comedy.

“What I’m looking for is usually contemporary, pretty much American. Not for nationalism but because I want to do theater that I live in. I like it to be reflective of what’s happening around us,” says Fofi. “And the tensions caused by our country being split from the inside.”

As a playwright, Wells does not ascribe to any one method or theme for creating work, but he spends ample time mulling over a premise before committing words to the page.

“Sometimes I’ll just walk around thinking about something for months and months and then sit down and write the whole thing…and that’s it,” says Wells. “Then I won’t change anything until it gets to the development process. I don’t even want to work on it if I don’t know going into it that it’s already a play.”

In the end, Fofi and Wells agree that North is, at its core, an entertainment. But they also hope those who think more deeply about where we are as a country will mine some of the messages to be found beneath the humor.

The North Plan, Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood 90038. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm. Through June 1. Tickets: $25. www.ElephantTheatre.org. 855-NO-FORGET [663-6743]. 

**All The North Plan production photos by Joel Daavid. 

 

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LA Stage Times

Stories of Ex-Slaves Dramatized in Do Lord Remember Me

by Ed Rampell | April 26, 2013
Alysia Livingston and Charles Mathers in "Do Lord Remember Me." Photo by James Esposito.

Alysia Livingston and Charles Mathers in “Do Lord Remember Me.” Photo by James Esposito.

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” is a traditional lyrical lament long associated with the hardships suffered by African Americans. Audiences at the revival of Do Lord Remember Me will be able to get a sense of precisely what those “troubles” were and how they affected the enslaved and the newly emancipated in the 19th century.

From 1936 to 1938 the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project transcribed 2,300 oral histories in 17 states, assembling a massive bank of memories called Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States. James de Jongh’s Do Lord Remember Me is derived from these first-person accounts by ex-slaves, recalled when they were in their 80s and 90s. The two-act play dramatizes about 20 of these ex-slave interviews recorded by the FWP.

Lord’s director Wilson Bell notes that during an era of widespread unemployment and poverty the initiative had dual benefits: “The process of doing this created work for writers and those artists who actually collected the oral histories. All of this — in addition to trying to preserve the history of what had happened — was also an attempt to create jobs” for women and men of letters. Among those who received work through the government-subsidized FWP were authors-to-be James Baldwin and Richard Wright (Native Son), whom Bell previously portrayed in the 1990s in Willard Simms’ Wright From America at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and at LA’s Fountain and Zephyr theaters.

Wilson Bell

Wilson Bell

“African-American people who had been enslaved and who went through the transition were interviewed for posterity purposes decades after freedom,” says Bell. He explains that the verbatim biographies are enacted on the stage “with lots of blocking… The play is performed in a very streamlined process. The stage is fairly bare… There are a few props… changes of shirts suggest a different character. It’s a combination of storytelling, monologues or interspersed in the monologue is interaction with another actor. Most of the time all of the actors are onstage, either participating in the recounting of another person’s stories or in a frozen position waiting to tell their story.”

Bell adds, “There are white slaveholders depicted. Characters depicted don’t necessarily have verbiage, sometimes it’s just their physical representation, but sometimes they do have dialogue. Some of them are masters, overseers or the missus of the house. All the actors are African Americans and they play any character in the play, whether they be white or black.” Audiences are cued to a role’s ethnicity because “very often comments are preceded by ‘missus said’ or ‘massah did this,’” Bell points out.

“This is not a musical per se,” Bell says, “but it is a play with music. The music is old Negro spirituals,” among them the eponymous song from which the play’s title is derived, as well as a portion of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” which, with its haunting melody and refrain, is a veritable anthem of the African-American experience that has been covered by Louis Armstrong, Marian Anderson and Lena Horne.

Bell was born and raised in New Orleans, living in the Lower Ninth Ward until he was 13, then moving to the city’s Algiers district. He attended Loyola University. It’s ironic that the actor/director’s home state of Louisiana was the only former member of the Confederacy that did not participate in the WPA’s 1930s Slave Narratives undertaking. Bell relocated to LA in 1993 and has acted in TV shows such as NYPD Blue and Frasier and onstage as Troy in August Wilson’s Fences and Jesus in Godspell.

Samuel Simmons

Samuel Simmons

He says, “This show is one of my favorite pieces I’ve directed in L.A. It has been produced a couple of times before,” with Bell at the helm both times. In 2006 he directed Lord at the Raven Playhouse in North Hollywood and in 2007 at Theatre/Theater on West Pico Boulevard to “quite good audience response and critical acclaim,” Bell says. In 2008 Lord’s Paul Wong won the NAACP Theatre Award for best musical director. James Esposito, who saw an early version of Lord in the 1980s, produced the two prior L.A. productions, as well as the current show — all three of them for Chromolume Theatre. (Long before she directed The Lion King and Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, Julie Taymor was the scenic designer for the 1982 and1984 Off-Broadway productions. Samuel French published de Jongh’s text in 1984.)

Bell says the opening of the current version of Lord was postponed a week because “the rehearsal process was fairly short and there’s lots of dialogue there. We just needed a little bit more time to put the best foot forward. So I decided to give it another week to simmer before putting it out.”

What made the play’s previous LA runs so outstanding, Bell says, “is the story of American history and the joy that comes through, the joy that is the strength that got these people through that ‘peculiar institution.’” This history is “a continual process” for all Americans of whatever race, he adds.  “We must learn from our past to absolutely prevent re-visiting it in the future. That is so relevant in terms of Muslims and American issues, in terms of terrorism right now, particularly in the last week.”

Referring to the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath, Bell muses: “Something happened with a couple of people who happened to have become Americans after having come from Chechnya.” He says one immediate response has been to associate their Muslim backgrounds with their recent activities “and to make them ‘other.’ And not figure out that that doesn’t define all Chechens, that doesn’t define all terrorists. Beyond that, we have to find a way, as Rodney King said, to ‘get along’ and to learn from the mistakes we’ve made, before alienating and ‘otherizing’ people, and how that informs us to do it better this time.”

Like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Lord is also timely because America is observing the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. “That’s actually a great thing to connect it to,” declares Bell. “It’s really relevant. The point is we need to remember where we have come from, so we can better find where we want to get to. All of us, as Americans, need to embrace our history. The Civil War was not just freedom for black people — but for white people and any other color in between because it freed us from that peculiar institution, it freed us from a wrong that is continually being righted even today.”

Annzella Victoria

Annzella Victoria

For youngsters or others who claim America is now a “post-racial” society and that Lord’s subject matter is ancient history, Bell responds: “Every other week there’s an example why it’s not over. What I find is people make that comment, and when they’re pressed they say, ‘Well, maybe it’s not completely over but it’s better.’ And my response to that is: ‘If you’re saying it’s better that means it’s not done.’ And if it’s not done, we’ve got to keep learning about it so that it is done… When it’s finished we won’t say, ‘it’s getting better,’ we’d say: ‘It is better, it’s done.’”

Does Bell think that even though most slavery in America ended about 150 years ago that there’s still a legacy in America that can be traced back to enslavement? “I don’t think that, I know it. Most Americans who are honest with themselves, who have eyes and ears, know that as well. A lot of it is in hip-hop music, which multi-cultural people sing, and often times just sing words without listening to the phrases that are there. In the court system, if an African American commits a crime he’s six times [likelier] to get a stronger sentence than his white counterpart committing the same crime,” claims Bell.

This is where, for Bell, the play’s the thing: “It’s the role of theater — it’s largely about entertainment and there is education there, certainly. Theater does this thing in a way that politics in general don’t do… It’s more than just talking to the head, but theater talks to the heart. It can touch, it can create empathy and sympathy, and that can often be more revelatory than having debates. It can present situations that people will really think about.”

Bell is a big fan of Lincoln because of “what it says about the better angels of our nation when we figure it out in the right way. We do have those times in our history and this was one of those moments… Slavery was a stench and it needed to be cleaned… [Lord is] about joy. The characters laugh to keep from crying, and it is that joy that pushed them through that pain so that they got to the other side.”

So, lord knows that while Lord may have some Kleenex moments, some audience members may also find themselves crying tears of joy. Although author Gore Vidal caustically called our country “The United States of Amnesia,”  Do Lord Remember Me offers an experience that could help contemporary theatergoers to never forget the harsh horrors of chattel slavery — or the bliss of liberation — by interweaving a web of collective recollection through a theatrical persistence of memory. As his name suggests, Wilson Bell is sounding a wake-up call from the slumber of forgetfulness.

Do Lord Remember Me, Chromolume Theatre at the Attic, 5429 W. Washington Blvd., LA 90016. Opens tonight. Plays Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm. Through May 19. Tickets: $25. www.chromolume-theatre.com. 323-510-2688.

*All Do Lord Remember Me production photos by James Esposito. 

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Cops Launches New Home for Vs. Theatre

by Les Spindle | April 25, 2013
Paul Vincent O'Connor, Andrew Hawkes and Johnny Clark in "Cops and Friends of Cops." Photo by Kate Compton.

Paul Vincent O’Connor, Andrew Hawkes and Johnny Clark in “Cops and Friends of Cops.” Photo by Kate Compton.

The formerly itinerant Vs. Theatre Company, a 99-Seat Plan group that began in LA in 2004, is about to unveil its first resident artistic abode. The intimate performing facility at 5453 W. Pico Boulevard that Vs. is now ready to inhabit is the former home of Black Dahlia Theatre. The premiere of writer-director Ron Klier’s Cops and Friends of Cops bows at the new Vs. Theatre on Friday.

Artistic director Johnny Clark and literary director/resident director Klier have overseen the renovation of the space, including a new lobby created in an adjacent vacant storefront.  Clark appears in the new play, amid a five-member ensemble cast that also includes Rolando Boyce, Andrew Hawkes, Paul Vincent O’Connor, and Gareth Williams.

In the Beginning

Klier worked closely with Clark and Kimberly-Rose Wolter (former Vs. co-artistic director, currently on leave from the group) as they planned and launched Vs. Klier says, “I’m originally from St. Louis, but I met Johnny here when he was visiting from Chicago, where he was doing theater. He was getting ready to move out here. We started talking about theater, and this led to a long-standing friendship.”

Ron Klier

Ron Klier

Clark’s foremost interest is acting, and he has appeared in most of VS.’ 14 productions, most recently in 2011 in Neil LaBute’s The Mercy Seat, at [Inside] the Ford.  Klier’s professional focus is on writing and directing. His prior script that received a premiere from VS. was Waste of Shame (2006), and he has directed most of the company’s offerings.

Klier describes his working relationship with Clark: “I think it’s impossible to do anything solely on your own, so it’s nice to have a kindred spirit. We kind of fill in each other’s gaps. He’s such a great actor but also a great administrator, a great collector of people, and things like that. He makes everybody feel valued. And I read every play I get my hands on.  I read five to seven a week. I also love the behind-the-scenes elements of things, and trying to bring the works to life.  We tend to have the same tastes — actors, sets, material. We’re very lucky.”

Some highlights of Vs.’  history include the aforementioned The Mercy Seat, The Credeaux Canvas, In Arabia We’d All be Kings (co-produced by Elephant Theatre Company and winner of a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle production award), and John Kolvenbach’s On An Average Day, which was staged in LA and Chicago, earning awards in both cities.  The bill of fare has encompassed the work of several major contemporary playwrights (including Stephen Adly Guirgis, John Patrick Shanley, Adam Rapp, Brett Neveu and Itamar Moses). Among the 99-seat venues where Vs. has performed have been the Elephant Theatre complex, the Victory Theatre, the Hayworth Theatre, and others.

The Shuffle Begins

Clark said that the idea of Vs. taking this space first came up in 2012, when Vs. was producing a workshop that featured guest directors. He says, “We invited Matt Shakman [Black Dahlia’s founder/artistic director] to come. We were talking in the break about what his plans were, what his next show was. And he was asking us the same thing. He mentioned that he was looking at El Centro Theatre [the former Cast Theatre, in Hollywood] to possibly relocate his company.”  Shakman’s plans were to share the space with actor James Roday’s itinerant company, Red Dog Squadron. Shakman and Roday agreed on a deal. Re-dubbed El Centro Theatre-Circle Stage, the facility remains in renovation, with an opening date not yet announced by its partnering occupants.

Johnny Clark

Johnny Clark

Clark continues, “Matt had asked if his group were to do that, would we want to rent [at the former Dahlia space].  We loved the thought of having our own space. It was one of those things where you just want to get to the next level of development as an organization, and this space seemed the perfect thing for us. Matt said it would break his heart if his longtime space — for the past 12 years — would go back to being a rental storefront [for non-theatrical purposes][. He said, ‘Let’s keep theater going.’ Acting as go-between, Shakman talked to the Pico Blvd.  landlord, and negotiations were successful.

“So we took the plunge,” Clark continues. “I think we’ve done it right. We really spent a lot of time figuring out what the space would be, how it would embody our brand, what we wanted to say. The show that we had earmarked maybe to do at the Ford again was Ron’s play [Cops]. We have always operated by choosing our next production as the one that we are most passionate to do, and we had been dying to do this one.”

The New Chapter

About 10 months following the initial discussions with Shakman and six months following the beginning of renovations, the theater is ready to officially open, complete with the spacious new lobby adjoining the original theater. The auditorium has not been extensively refurbished nor reconfigured, though it appears to be in tiptop shape, as the stage houses Danny Cistone’s barroom set for Cops.

Clark reports that the facility includes state-of-the-art sound and that lighting has been enhanced. According to Klier,  “we have one of the best lighting set-ups in town for a small theater” — Jack Stehlin of New American Theatre loaned Vs. some lighting equipment to help the group move into its new space. Klier and Clark speak highly of the members of the L.A. small-theater community, saying that the groups are often supportive of each other. Klier notes, “People have been telling us, ‘You guys deserve this. You’re ready for it.”

Johnny Clark in "Cops and Friends of Cops."

Johnny Clark.

Clark, Klier, and the company’s 13 staff members performed most of the labor, and some of their friends stepped up to the plate to pitch in. Clark adds, “We didn’t necessarily have the money, but we had the time and the talents.”

Vs. is more of a producing company with a strong shared vision than a membership company. No dues are collected.  Simpatico artists whom Clark and Klier originally knew, or other local artists who came to work on a Vs. show and repeatedly returned, form the company’s nucleus of loyal talents. Some members have official capacities. Besides Clark, Klier, general manager Tommy Dunn and resident designers, there are a few administrative officers.

According to Klier, the company invites interested parties to “come on in and be a part of it, however that is for you, whether you want to be an actor in a play, or come and do some other stuff and hang out. We want you here for your spirit and your talent, that’s it. Our group is a little bit of a hybrid. One of the things I’m most proud of is that we’ve been able to retain so many people.  I think it means that for a long time, we’ve been doing something right, and they all like being here.”

In the past, Vs. has not announced seasons, instead choosing to schedule and mount shows at the members’ own pace. Clark says that no seasons will be set at present, but he doesn’t rule out the possibility of eventually moving to a seasonal structure. For now he and Klier are happy to get the theater open, with the inaugural production on the boards. “We might end up doing the equivalent of a season’s worth of work,” Clark says. “Just because we have our space, it doesn’t mean we need to get ahead of ourselves. We decided that at first, we would operate under the same discipline that got us here.”

Clark is confident but realistic about what’s next: “We’re under no illusion that now that we have our own space, we’ll suddenly open the doors, and be packed in like sardines. It’s almost two years since we produced a play, and we’re thinking about that.”

Meanwhile, that dry spell will be broken by Cops and Friends of Cops. Billed by Vs. as “a classic morality play” and “a suspense-fueled ride”, the play, set in an urban bar, adheres to the company’s dedication to intimate and intense works that are brand-new or LA premieres.  Clark remarks: “We often do single-set, hyper-realistic sorts of production designs and actor-driven scripts.” In Cops, men of different ages and life experiences are hanging out in a bar, when another man walks in with a secret.  The bartender wants to get through his shift. One man is tired of another customer’s bullying sense of humor. The company describes Cops as exploring “regret, loss, explicit and implicit racism, while wrestling with masculine identity.”

Andrew Hawkes and Johnny Clark.

Andrew Hawkes and Johnny Clark.

Klier speaks of his vision of the play: “First of all, I hope that it’s a very engaging piece and has you on the edge of your seat, in its narrative.  Thematically I hope that despite its genre trappings, it explores what it means to be a good man in the constantly changing contemporary America, though sort of disguised as a B-movie/cop thriller/Western. I like long, sustained performances, where some guys are out on a ledge. I like taking real risks. You don’t have a lot of blackouts to get you out there. And my plays are very language-oriented. “

Clark says the beauty of the play is watching the mystery unfold. He calls it a “page turner” and adds that “the challenge for me is the emotional ride that goes through the night.  You don’t get parts like that very often. It’s a challenge for me to get to play all those notes. I come from Chicago and the Steppenwolf ensemble sensibility.  Part of why I love doing theater is the group dynamic. You get to know complete strangers, and by the end of  it, you feel like you’re family.  You’re all in this battle together, doing something really challenging. Ron has written a five-hander in which all five guys are leads.”

Cops and Friends of Cops, Vs. Theatre Company, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. Opens Friday. Wed-Sat 8 p.m. through June 1, Tickets: $25. www.vstheatre.org or www.brownpapertickets.com.  323-739-4411.

**All Cops and Friends of Cops production photos by Kate Compton. 

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The Traces Team Ventures Into the Music Center

by Jessica Koslow | April 24, 2013
The cast of "Traces." Photo by Michael Meseke.

The ensemble of “Traces.” Photo by Michael Meseke.

On Monday, 7 Fingers circus performer Bradley Henderson boarded a plane for Los Angeles for the Music Center debut of Traces, which opens Friday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and runs through the weekend. Fresh off a three-week break from the US tour, he’s excited to re-unite with the cast as well as the show’s directors/choreographers, Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider, who choreographed the circus scenes for the current Broadway revival of Pippin and have been busier than usual, preparing for its opening night Thursday.

Henderson and these two (out of seven) founding members of Les 7 doigts de la main (7 Fingers) go way back. They all met in San Francisco, where their individual passions for circus were piqued, and then headed to Montreal, the epicenter of modern-day circus.

In 2002, seven like-minded circus lovers in Montreal — Carroll, Snider, their husbands and three former circus colleagues — decided to form 7 Fingers. Its first production was Loft, and the company went on to create a string of wildly popular shows, which although different in setting offer the same 7 Fingers style of blending circus with dance and theater. Most important, the performers play themselves, without makeup and costumes, and each new added cast member brings his or her personality and talent to a production.

Bradley Henderson and Valerie Benoit-Charbonneau.

Bradley Henderson and Valérie Benoît-Charbonneau.

Now in its third incarnation, Traces fuses classic acrobatics with street culture activities such as skateboarding, basketball and parcour. Since its premiere seven years ago, the production has scored excellent reviews — including the notices for the show’s LA debut in 2011 at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre in Hollywood.

One of the more appealing features about Traces, and any of the 7 Fingers productions, is how it aims to break down the barriers between circus performer and audience. The artists appear to be normal people whom audience members can relate to. Traces is set in a makeshift shelter, and the seven characters are awaiting an unknown catastrophe outside. For what they believe may be their last moments, they plan to live their lives out to the fullest. Creation is the only antidote to destruction, and so they burst into music, song, dance and high-risk acrobatics.

As the show unfolds, the audience gets to know the individual performers. They share details about their past and reveal their personal strengths and weaknesses. They’re not dressed up and parading around like characters. They’re just like you and me, except they can do amazing things. This is also an aspect of the show that the performers appreciate — they get to play themselves on stage.

Henderson is one of original Traces cast members. Starting in 2006, he toured with the first troupe of five artists for four years, took a year off while another five toured Europe, and then jumped back on board for round three. He’s performed the show more than 1,000 times.

While he admits that doing the same gig over and over can be repetitive, he’s also quick to declare his love for his job. When he returned to Traces for this US tour, the company had expanded to seven artists, which meant adding even more energy to the high-flying mix.

Florian Zumkehr

Florian Zumkehr

The energy can change at the drop of a hat — or a hoop — if someone gets injured. “There are 20 artists or more that know the show,” Henderson says, “and if anybody is available when someone gets injured they replace them, and the show changes again.”

Alongside the shake-ups caused by injuries, Traces leaves room for error. “[They] choose artists because [they’re] good at improvising,” says Henderson. “When stuff goes wrong, we can play it up. In so many shows, hoops fall over, a basketball falls off stage, but we make it work. It’s action-packed.”

Henderson, like Snider, was raised in a circus family — well, sort of. Although his mom is a nurse and his dad is a firefighter, Henderson’s brother and two sisters have also joined a circus at one time or another (his brother is part of 7 Fingers’ eighth and newest creation, Sequence 8). Snider, on the other hand, is the daughter of the founders of San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus. While she began performing at age four, Henderson waited until he was eight.

Already into basketball, skateboarding and various other sports, Henderson and his siblings got hooked on Chinese acrobatics with Mr. Lu Yi at the San Francisco Circus Center. They attended his class for two hours every other day after school. Henderson left for Montreal first to attend Montreal’s National Circus School, where his younger sister is currently enrolled, with one more year until she graduates. Snider has been a guest teacher at Montreal’s Circus School.

In his early days, Henderson chose to focus on Chinese acrobatics, specifically four disciplines including poles and hoop diving. When he left circus school, he had mastered the big metal rings, which spin like quarters on a table. As a key member of Traces, he’s expected to do a little bit of everything, except play live music on stage.

“I’m bad at that,” he says, adding that he leaves that part of the act to the other players.

Valérie Benoît-Charbonneau is another Traces cast member and graduate of Montreal’s National Circus School. The 23-year-old and her partner, Mason Ames, met there, and three years ago Traces recruited their hand-to-hand duet. She spent the first six months of her career with 7 Fingers in Montreal, readying herself for a show that calls for 90 minutes of nonstop moving from start to finish. She learned how to handle a basketball, skateboard and even play a piano. For the first time, she was also asked to perform solo.

Valerie Benoit-Charbonneau

Valérie Benoît-Charbonneau

Benoît-Charbonneau is fast approaching her 1,000th show with this production. Despite the fact that she is tossed up in the air on most nights, she only has one broken finger story. One night in Chicago she dislocated her finger while performing. Powered by an adrenaline rush, she put her finger back in place and kept on going.

Although he’s not yet 30 years old, Henderson is a veteran Traces performer, and he’s thinking about his next move. In September, he’ll be finished with the show. He is considering creating something with his family.

For now, though, his mind is on the week’s shows, and the special guest who will appear in Los Angeles. “He’s a rock star,” says Henderson about Daqi. After taking some time off, Daqi is returning to the production Friday night. “It’s funny because we’re always doing Chinese disciplines, and this is our first Chinese guy.”

Traces, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Opens Friday. Fri-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm. Tickets: $25-$70. www.musiccenter.org. 213-972-7211.

**All Traces production photos by Michael Meseke.

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A Peter Pan for Grown-Ups

by Robin Migdol | April 24, 2013
Amy Lawhorn, Benjamin Campbell, Liza Burns, David Hemphill, Jackson Evans in "Peter Pan." Photo by Mary Ann Williams.

Amy Lawhorn, Benjamin Campbell, Liza Burns, David Hemphill, Jackson Evans in “Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers.” Photo by Mary Ann Williams.

Peter Pan, the flying boy from Neverland, may never grow up, but with the looming West Coast premiere of Michael Lluberes’ play Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers, his story has officially left the kids’ table.

Blank Theatre is opening Lluberes’ adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s original play and novel, directed by Ovation winner Michael Matthews, Saturday at 2nd Stage Theatre in Hollywood.

Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers tells the familiar story of Peter Pan, Wendy, the Lost Boys and Captain Hook but re-imagines it for a modern audience, emphasizing the darker themes of family relationships, loss and violence present in Barrie’s work. Also, Captain Hook is a woman.

But this is still Peter Pan, so the play also includes flying, sword-fighting and other magical effects.

The day before the first preview, at the Hudson Theatre Café just down the street from the 2nd Stage Theatre, cast members Daniel Shawn Miller (Peter Pan), Liza Burns (Wendy) and Trisha LaFache (Captain Hook) recall being impressed by Lluberes’ radical take on the classic story of Peter Pan when they read the play for the first time.

Liza Burns, Daniel Shawn Miller and Trisha LaFache.

Liza Burns, Daniel Shawn Miller and Trisha LaFache.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is an ambitious play’ — the imagery, the ideas behind it. I thought this show had incredible potential,” Miller says. “I didn’t know how any of those things on the page were going to happen [onstage], but that’s what intrigued me about it. It was so not your run-of–the-mill show.”

For Burns, the play treads on sacred ground. She grew up loving the original book, musical and Disney movie, and thought Lluberes’ play was “weird” at first.

“But the more I read it and the more I got into it, I realized it’s a more direct way at the actual story than maybe some of the other versions of it,” Burns says. “So I ended up loving it a lot.”

“I didn’t think at all about the story of Peter Pan and the Darling family,” LaFache says. “I looked at it a lot more as a story about being afraid to grow up, and the beliefs you hold as a child versus as an adult looking back on being a child, and also being afraid of getting old. Which, living in Los Angeles, I think is a recurring theme.”

All three actors say they tried not to be influenced by previous portrayals of their characters, instead attempting to tap into the characters’ personalities and the defining themes laid out in Lluberes’ play.

Miller says the last thing he wanted to do was play the “idea” of Peter Pan, or the cartoon character with which most are already familiar. He drew more inspiration from Peter’s unusual upbringing and physicality.

“What I love about Peter Pan is he grew up on an island on his own accord. There’s no filter,” Miller says. “He’s just this wild, free spirit with no manners, which I had a lot of fun playing with and struggling with.”

Burns (and her cast mates, affectionately) recognize similarities between her personality and Wendy’s. She recalls feeling the same as Wendy when she was 12 years old, especially in terms of Wendy’s feelings toward Peter —  “that first-crush feeling of being horrible and wonderful all at the same time,” Burns says.

Jackson Evans (on stairs), Amy Lawhorn, Benjamin Campbell, Trisha LaFache, Liza Burns, David Hemphill.

Jackson Evans (on stairs), Amy Lawhorn, Benjamin Campbell, Trisha LaFache, Liza Burns, David Hemphill.

LaFache says she worried at first that she wouldn’t be able to connect to the traditionally male character of Captain Hook, but she found insight into Hook’s character within Lluberes’ text. And, of course, she was just excited to be playing the iconic role.

“I’m Captain Hook,” LaFache exclaims. “So it’s just a party. It’s a lot of work, but she’s a hoot.”

Although many may think of Peter Pan as a G-rated children’s story, Miller points out that Barrie included dark, even disturbing, themes in his original book. “There’s a pirate who loves to kill children. I mean that’s kind of messed up. And Peter Pan’s a kid who ran away to a faraway land and steals children,” he says.

But while Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers deals with these themes head-on, it also wrings comedy from them.

“When we first did the read-through, I didn’t realize how funny the play was until I read it out loud. We were all dying,” Miller says.

“I’m laughing backstage,” LaFache says.

In particular, the actors agree that playing children (many of the characters are under 10 years old) has been a challenge, but one that adds to the humor and honesty of the play. The key to playing a child, they say, is to keep their energy level “at a 10” all the time, to capture the intense vigor of childhood without seeming kitschy or unnatural.

But it hasn’t been the only challenge. The tight-knit cast of seven is still working out the complex technical elements of the play just a week before the premiere, and LaFache and Miller have learned an advanced sword fight. “These two don’t get to watch, but it’s nuts. It’s nuts,” Burns says emphatically.

In the 55-seat 2nd Stage Theatre, the cast assures, the audience will get to experience the action, romance, humor and special effects of the play up close and personal.

Trisha LaFache and Daniel Shawn Miller.

Trisha LaFache and Daniel Shawn Miller.

“Like it or not, it’s all up in your biz!” LaFache says.

“It’s all up in your biz,” Miller agrees. “There are swords in your face, people in your face. You can definitely see us all sweat. But I love theater of that size. It’s more intimate.”

For Peter Pan aficionados such as Burns and even those weary of the century-old story, Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers offers something new to the Neverland canon, the actors say — a more serious examination of the story’s universal themes of loss, love and growing up that other versions don’t always attempt.

“I think it adds pain to the story which is important,” Burns says. “Peter Pan is a lot about play and imagination and Neverland and childhood, but I think what this play does is it makes it about the other side as well — the dark side, which is really important and beautiful and sad.”

LaFache says the play explains the “why” of Peter Pan that she hasn’t seen in the other adaptations, and as a result theatergoers may find themselves relating to certain scenes or characters more deeply than they have previously.

“There is a truth to it that is so bittersweet and so honest,” she says.

“Because who hasn’t felt lonely? Who hasn’t felt abandoned?” Miller cuts in.

“Or lost or misunderstood?” LaFache says.

“Or like a kid who hasn’t grown up?” Burns adds. “That’s what I think is so cool. Every other version is a neat story about kids in England who go to a cool place with a boy – “

“Who have a great time, it’s an adventure,” Miller notes.

“But this is a story about growing up and about mothers which is literally applicable to everybody in the theater,” Burns continues. “The play is so loaded with stuff you can take away. Like [LaFache] said, you leave the theater feeling like you experienced something.”

Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers, 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through June 2. Tickets $30. www.theblank.com. 323-661-9827.

**All Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers production photos by Mary Ann Williams.

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Eisenberg and Winfield Watch Over GRT’s 40th

by Les Spindle | April 19, 2013
Lloyd Pedersen and Bert Emmett in "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me." Photo by Sherry Netherland.

Lloyd Pedersen and Bert Emmett in “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me.” Photo by Sherry Netherland.

As Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood launches its 40th anniversary season with a revival of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Frank McGuinness’ 1992 hostage drama set in 1980s Lebanon, the company’s co-artistic directors Larry Eisenberg and Chris Winfield — longtime GRT members who accepted this shared post in 2010 — reflect on the company’s ongoing hopes and challenges.

Founded in 1973 by its longtime artistic director, noted actor-director Lonny Chapman (1920-2007), GRT is a 99-Seat Plan membership company that is enjoying a renewed wave of critical acclaim — as with last season’s Cobb and The Paris Letter and a promising outlook for the future.

Larry Eisenberg. Chris Winfield.

Larry Eisenberg. Chris Winfield.

Eisenberg is an actor, writer, and director from New Jersey who settled in LA in 1976 to work with Los Angeles Free Shakespeare Company at the John Anson Ford Theatre. He received his MFA in directing for theater, video, and cinema from California Institute of the Arts. His association with Group Rep began in 1991, when he played Sasha, the Russian Waiter, in Room Service. He says that his first passion is directing, though he also enjoys acting, and he has done many roles.

Winfield, whose primary interest is acting, joined the company in 1986, first appearing as an understudy opposite Chapman in Sly Fox. He has appeared in more than 25 GRT productions and has built and designed sets at the theater for the past 10 years. Originally from England, he was a theater arts major at UCLA before returning to England for two years to do repertory theater in Surrey.

Group Rep is now in its third home, on Burbank Blvd. in North Hollywood, where it has been housed since 1980. The dues-paying company has produced more than 200 productions and 37 world premieres. The 103 current members include actors, directors, writers, designers and technicians, both novice and veteran talents. Many members also work in the other fields. Some have become inactive for periods of time, and then returned. There are no specific classifications of membership, but members tend to focus on their primary interest or interests.

There are no work requirements. But task needs are posted, and members pitch in as they can. Winfield remarks, “I’m the set builder, as well as the co-artistic director, and I wish I had better turnouts for work sessions. You have to be fair. I always say, even if you can come and put in a couple of hours, it helps.”

Then and Now

Following Chapman’s death in 2007, company members split up the various artistic director duties for a few years. Then other transitions ensued. According to Winfield, “Janet Wood, one of our founding members, spear-headed an all-out search committee for a new artistic director. Committee member Stan Mazin found Ernest Figueroa. Ernest was working at the Broad Stage [in Santa Monica] and he had experience at the Pasadena Playhouse, so we invited him down, interviewed him, we all liked him, and then invited him to head up the company,  so he did the 2010 season. But he had a lot of duties at the Broad and couldn’t continue with us. So Larry and I stepped up and said we can do this.” Eisenberg and Winfield officially accepted the shared artistic director post in mid-2010.

Lonny Chapman

Lonny Chapman

During these transitional periods, the company has strived to maintain the legacy of artistic goals established by Chapman, while facing the challenges of a tough economy. Winfield explains, “We try to be eclectic. Lonny’s mantra was — don’t be dull, entertain us. We can’t be as experimental as we would like to be, which I think Lonny was able to do back then. It’s a little different now if you want to stay alive.”

He continues, “Lonny was a playwright. During his years, probably 50-60 percent of the shows were original. They wouldn’t all be great, but he didn’t mind that much. He wanted to develop new work.”

The company continues to mix original plays into its seasons. Some members submit original plays, while scripts from outside the group are also sent in. All are reviewed by a GRT artistic council. Says Eisenberg: “I would like to do more originals, and in this new season, we have two, both from company members. Ideally it would be nice if 40% to half of what we did was original, because real recognition as a creative theatrical force can be built on originals.”

Eisenberg recalls a time when box office performance was a lesser concern, thanks to membership dues, lower rent, and fewer theaters to compete with. He says, “It’s important for us to do a wide variety of material, and I like to pick at least one piece every year for either the political or the artistic heart of it rather than its box office potential. So we will do Agatha Christie, we will do Ken Ludwig, but then we will also do The Poor of New York, which hadn’t been done in America since 1935.”

Jon Robin Bates with dir. Jules Aaron, cast, and crew of "The Paris Letter."

Jon Robin Baitz with dir. Jules Aaron, cast, and crew of “The Paris Letter.”

Last year’s Jon Robin Baitz play The Paris Letter, dealing frankly with suppressed gay love and homophobia, directed by Jules Aaron, was warmly received by local critics, including an LA Times Critics Choice nod. Eisenberg comments, “I read it, and I loved the play, also the politics of it. I wanted to make a statement that we as a company are supporting gay marriage, that we are rejecting Proposition 8. It was risk-taking. I think the production was very good, and it did great box office. And I think part of that is because our audience is now starting to really trust what we put up there.”

He adds that a number of the subscribers are elderly widowed ladies who come in groups.  He says they loved The Paris Letter. “I think part of what we’re doing is developing the taste and aesthetic of our audience, and our patrons are really responsive to it. Two-thirds of them throw in another 50-100 bucks, donations, saying they like being part of this group,” he concludes.

One longtime hallmark of the company is fostering a members’ workshop program, which also provides a popular bonus for regular patrons. Members propose personal projects they want to stage, and the artistic directors approve selected ones for workshop performances on the theater’s dark weeknights.

Group Rep Theatre

Group Rep Theatre

Eisenberg explains, “We give them the theater Tuesday and Wednesday night. We send an email to our patrons. It’s not a finished production — not polished. It’s not something that we would charge admission for at this time.  Our community of patrons knows that Tuesday and Wednesday night, the doors will be open for these.”

They attract a lot of the theater’s regular audience members. Says Eisenberg, “A lot of stuff that starts that way will find it way to the mainstage — frankly, not as many as I would like, simply because the decisions on season are driven a lot by box office.” A mainstage production must meet its production budget and make some profit to help pay for operating expenses. The proposed fare for a season is finalized by the artistic directors and the board of directors.

Regarding the workshop projects, Winfield says “If we give it the go-ahead for the mainstage, it’s mandatory that it is thrown open to casting in the whole company, though chances are that the same people who have gotten that far with it will keep going with it.”

GRT’s policy is to cast all shows through company auditions, but occasionally casting outside the group is allowed, when deemed necessary by the director, and approved by the artistic directors. This appears to be acceptable to the members. Winfield says, “Nobody ever comes up to us after we opened a show and said ‘I could have done it better.’ I think our judgment has proven worthy.” An additional season consideration is the necessity to pick some shows with larger casts to balance some of the smaller-cast shows the company wants to do.

Lloyd Pedersen, Bert Emmett, and Evan L. Smith in "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me." Photo by Sherry Netherland.

Lloyd Pedersen, Bert Emmett, and Evan L. Smith in “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me.” Photo by Sherry Netherland.

Most mainstage shows are directed by company members but guests are occasionally brought in. Last season, Aaron directed The Paris Letter, and he is in talks to possibly direct another upcoming play. Gregg T. Daniel, who helms Someone, directed Cobb last year. According to Eisenberg, the guest directors agree to work for less than their usual fees, due to productions’ budgetary requirements.

The current GRT season, launched with Someone to Watch Over Me, seems to fit the objective of challenging fare mixed with lighter entertainment. Following Someone, the season includes the French farce Hotel Paradiso, by George Feydeau and Maurice Desvallieres, translated by Peter Glenville (June 28-August 11); Clifford Odets’ 1931 classic Awake and Sing (September 20-November 5); two premieres — Phil Olson’s family drama Mom’s Gift (December 6-January 19, 2014) and Wayland Pickard’s fanciful musical The Ghost of Gershwin (April 25, 2014-June 8, 2014); plus one show to be announced (February 24-March 23, 2014.)

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood 91601. Opens Friday. Fri-Sat 8 pm., Sun 2 pm, through June 2. Tickets: $15-22. www.thegrouprep.com. 818-763-5990.

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LA Stage Times

Believing’s Not Necessarily About Seeing in Yesterday’s

by Cynthia Citron | April 18, 2013
Sheila Walker, Robert Smith and Sean Gorecki in "Yesterdays." Photo by Lynn Shane.

Sheila Walker, Robert Smith and Sean Gorecki in “Yesterday’s.” Photo by Lynn Shane.

How do you describe a sheep to someone who has been blind since birth?

Someone who has only a relative concept of size and no concept at all of “white.”  Someone who cannot respond to visual cues.

For Lindsay Nyman, a beautiful young actress with bright brown eyes, it is a matter of sensitivity.  Of using your imagination.

Nyman, who is sighted, began her work with the Theatre by the Blind players as a volunteer.  Theatre of the Blind is an integral part of CRE Outreach, and is the nation’s only theater group composed entirely of blind actors. A 2012 graduate from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, she has had to improvise explanations, descriptions, and movements to a diverse group of actors, singers, and musicians.

Lindsay Nyman and Greg Shane.

Lindsay Nyman and Greg Shane.

As for the lamb, she described it by relating it to a dog, “only covered with fluff.” And “soft and marshmallowy” — “marshmallowy kind of describes the ‘essence’ of a lamb,” she says.  “It’s important to get to the inside of things. You have to go deeper and see the core.”

Her intuitive sensibilities have led her to co-direct (with Greg Shane, founder and artistic director of CRE Outreach) a play that she co-wrote (with Colin Simson and with input from the performers).  It’s called Yesterday’s, and no, that isn’t a misplaced apostrophe — it’s the name of a jazz club that is the subject of the play.

An actress who goes by the name of Cookie plays Candy, the owner of the jazz club who is trying to stave off the failing club’s demise.  She gives her friends and regulars the opportunity to help by volunteering their musical talents.

Among the ensemble of 12 are singers Robert Smith and Sean Gorecki, pianist Laywood Blocker, saxophonist Bert Grose, and percussionist Willie Robinson.

As for working with the blind, “They have their individual preferences,” Nyman says. “Some don’t like to be touched and some do.  But, as you can imagine, suddenly being touched can be a startling — and frightening — experience.”

Sean Gorecki and Maria Perez.

Sean Gorecki and Maria Perez.

Instead of touching, she uses sound cues.  “If I need them to come across the stage to a chair, instead of taking them by the shoulders and steering them, I stand by the chair and tap it so they can hear where I want them to come.

“We also have interlaced mats on the floor for blocking so they can follow along and feel where they need to go. They don’t have to use their canes and after a while their muscle memory takes over.  It’s a beautiful thing — we set up an environment that they know is safe and it becomes familiar and provides them with freedom.”

Nyman, who is a 23-year-old New Yorker from Long Beach, Long Island, has established a personal relationship with Cookie, a 64-year-old woman who lost her sight as the result of domestic violence by her partner.  As the star of Yesterday’s, Cookie has learned to “face her fears and push past her limits,” according to Nyman.

“It’s strange, because we are not peers and we communicate differently,” Nyman adds.  “Sighted people bond over things they see and share.  Their bond is built on visual things; they connect on looks and facial expressions.”

“With Cookie I have to connect on bigger things.  I have to be as open and receptive as I can and conscious of what I’m doing at all times.  Directors (and sighted people) have to take more time and thought with how they communicate.”

“It slows everything down.  The director can’t just yell directions, she has to be much more detail-oriented and wait until everyone’s accounted for.  More care has to be taken.  The actors have to take their cues from hearing and feeling the energy from the other actors.  They have to do the work to really listen and stay engaged, to understand without visual cues.”

Laywood Blocker on piano and Willie Robinson on drums.

Laywood Blocker on keyboard and Willie Robinson on drums.

“Listening is so important when you’re not part of the gesturing world,” she continues.  “Most people get their bodies involved when they communicate, but it’s hard for some visually impaired people to break out of their shell. This production serves as rehab as well as theater.  It’s inspiring to see what it’s doing for them, what it means to them.”

She notes that blind people normally don’t want to call attention to themselves.  “Can you imagine how terrifying it is to be seen when you can’t see back?” she asks.  “The theater allows the actors to break through and project themselves, first as a character and then as themselves.”

She finds the process confidence-building.  “You don’t need sight to connect with the audience,” she says.  “For two hours you’re another person — you’re that character — and the audience is with you.”

Nyman, who has been “helping” for only a year, has an extensive theatrical resume for such a young actor. She started at nine as the little Jewish girl in the Broadway national touring company of Ragtime and had a recurring part as a Bosnian refugee on the TV soap All My Children.

Cookie

Cookie

She was part of a pop singing group called Huckapoo and has been recorded on five Disney Channel albums, toured with the Jonas brothers, and danced with the Eglevsky Ballet Company. She has also danced jazz, hip hop, modern, lyrical, and tap in various shows and is a certified Pilates instructor.

Her family is equally productive.  Her father, Bruce Nyman, has served as a supervisor of Nassau County and then as city manager of their home city of Long Beach, Long Island.  Her mother, Shelley, was a schoolteacher and a copywriter at an ad agency.

“The positive attitudes of my family, and of the actors in Yesterday’s, have changed my life,” Nyman says.  “They’ve shown me how to see the world by stepping outside yourself and looking at it with gratitude and appreciation.

“As the tagline for CRE Outreach claims, we’re ‘Transforming lives — one play at a time.’  And I stand backstage silently shouting, ‘You can do it!  You’ve done it!  It’s happening!’”

Yesterday’s, produced by CRE Outreach, Promenade Playhouse, 1404 Third St. Promenade, Santa Monica. Opens Friday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. thru May 5.  Tickets: $20. www.creoutreach.org/theatre_by_the_blind. 310-902-8220.

**All Yesterday’s production photos by Lynn Shane.

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LA Stage Times

Dana Delany: April in The Parisian Woman

by Deborah Behrens | April 17, 2013
Steven Culp, Dana Delany and Steven Weber in "The Parisian Woman." Photo by Ben Horak/SCR.

Steven Culp, Dana Delany and Steven Weber in “The Parisian Woman.” Photo by Ben Horak/SCR.

For Francophile Dana Delany, being asked to star in the premiere of a play titled The Parisian Woman while doing a press tour in Paris seemed like divine intervention.

“Even as a little girl, I’ve always felt an affinity for France and specifically Paris,” the 57-year old Body of Proof star explains one weeknight after a late March rehearsal at South Coast Repertory. Celebrity never held any appeal to her, but being famous in the City of Light did. “That’s true!” Delany exclaims, when reminded of a remark she uttered to that effect on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last month.

“It’s funny, my character is a lot like that, too. She doesn’t really care about competition or being successful. She likes sensuality and she likes watching people and just being part of the dance. She doesn’t need to be the center of it all.”

The Parisian Woman was inspired by Henry Becque’s La Parisienne. New York’s Flea Theatre commissioned Beau Willimon ( House of Cards, Ides of March, Farragut North) to adapt the 1885 cause célèbre. The play was considered scandalous by Parisian audiences for its dispensing of traditional late 19th century theatricality. Becque had employed a naturalistic style to expose the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie.

Dana Delany. Photo by Brian Smith / Art & Soul.

Dana Delany. Photo by Brian Smith / Art & Soul.

Willimon elaborates on SCR’s blog: “He eschewed romance for obsession, he explored sex in terms of power rather than pure scintillation, and he tossed aside cartoonish archetypes and populated the play with three-dimensional souls. He did all this with biting wit and comedy…”

“The original was quite shocking at that time, which I love,” Delany admits. “I think it’s more farcical than our play. What’s a real challenge about this, and I hope we pull it off, is there are a lot of different tones. There’s some farce as well as some stuff that’s really serious. And I think Beau wanted to play with that.”

The painter Édouard Manet was a Becque contemporary and ignited similar scandals with his work in the decades prior to La Parisienne’s debut. A copy of one of Manet’s works now hangs in the SCR rehearsal room.

“I find that visual art for some reason translates in my head and helps me with my acting,” Delany offers. “Beau explained that at the time this play came out, Manet was still shocking people with his paintings. I’m a big fan of Manet. I immediately said, ‘Oh, my god! One of my favorite paintings is the perfect image for this play,’ which is Le déjeuner sur l’herbe [The Luncheon on the Grass]. We got a copy of it and put it up on the rehearsal room wall. It’s a famous image of two men in suits having a picnic in a park with a naked woman. There’s another woman in the background wading in the water.

“That to me is Chloë — the naked woman sitting there between two men.”

As reimagined by Willimon, Chloë is now one half of a Washington, D.C. power couple. The two of them pursue every angle at their disposal to get corporate lawyer husband Tom (Steven Weber) a shot at becoming Attorney General. The character is described by South Coast publicity as “A social über-operator armed with charm, wit and sensuality….who eschews the everyday rules of polite society unapologetically and pragmatically, in favor of getting what she wants.” Steven Culp, Linda Gehringer and Rebecca Mozo round out the cast.

When it’s suggested that the role seems tailor-made for her, Delany laughs heartily. “Oh, they’ll wind up casting it with Annette Bening on Broadway.”

manet

Édouard Manet’s “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.”

She nearly passed on doing the piece. Her agent sent the script last February during a whirlwind press tour in Europe. Delany promised to read it on the return flight — so she could turn it down. The series star had worked non-stop since the summer and needed a vacation. But as soon as she started reading, she was hooked.

“The writing was so good,” Delany explains. “I’d seen Farragut North at the Atlantic Theatre Company in 2008” [it had its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in 2009]. “Chris Noth and Olivia Thirlby, who I knew, were in it.” Both actors recurred in the Geffen production. “I said to Chris, ‘this guy is really good.’ And he said, ‘I know, he’s definitely someone to watch.’ The play became the movie Ides of March and now he’s got House of Cards.”

Fast forward to Delany deplaning in New York with plans to tell The Parisian Woman’s director Pam McKinnon (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Clybourne Park, Extraordinary Chambers) that she’s too tired.

“We met for coffee, and the minute Pam walked in I said, ‘wait a minute, do I know you?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I was Dan Sullivan’s assistant on Dinner With Friends.’” Delany replaced Lisa Emery during the 2000 run of Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize winner at the Variety Arts Theatre in New York. The play was remounted that fall at the Geffen Playhouse with Delany, Rita Wilson, Kevin Kilner and Daniel Stern. South Coast Repertory had commissioned the work and presented the West Coast premiere of it in 1998.

“I said, ‘Oh my god! I remember!” Delany continues. “I liked you and you are now this big star director.’ I remember her being so smart and so calm and so decent. We talked over coffee, and I said, ‘Oh boy, I think I’m going to have to do this.’ The only reason I thought twice about it is because I have not had a break since last August. But this play was worth it to me. I said to Pam, ‘I’m going to be a little tired, just so you know.’”

So what has it been like working with McKinnon 13 years after Dinner With Friends?

Dana Delany and Steven Weber in "The Parisian Woman." Photo by Ben Horak/SCR.

Dana Delany and Steven Weber in “The Parisian Woman.” Photo by Ben Horak/SCR.

“I would love to work with Pam in every production!” she laughs. “She’s just a great captain. I’ve never seen her get rattled once. You can’t panic when you are around Pam because she’s so calm and it’s all about, ‘take your time, we’ll find it. Just be honest and the rest will follow.’ I really appreciate that because I don’t do theater all the time. I think my fear is well, theater is different, and I need help because I’m so used to doing television now. And it really comes down to just find the truth, you know? Like you do in anything.”

Willimon participated at the beginning of the rehearsal process and has physically stepped in and out as time permits, given that House of Cards recently started production. According to Delany, McKinnon confers with him nightly over proposed changes to the script and new pages arrive in a constant flow.

“Beau’s one of those people that can work 24 hours a day, I think,” she posits. “He’s really quick and obviously extremely smart but very self-effacing. No airs whatsoever. Like Pam. He’s funny and nice. The play is very different from when I first read it to what it is now. The character is very different. Today we got new pages so I think it’s going to keep changing right down to the wire. It’s just fun to be part of the process.”

As a board member of both the Ojai Playwrights Conference and New York Stage and Film, Delany understands what a rare opportunity it is to work on a play with a team of this caliber at a respected theater. The Parisian Woman is one of two fully produced works for SCR’s 2013 Pacific Playwrights Festival. Noah Haidle’s Smokefall is the other. This year’s festival also includes readings of five new plays from Carla Ching, Jordan Harrison, Michael Hollinger, Gregory S Moss and Zoe Kazan from April 26-28.

“The theater itself is unbelievable,” Delany admires. “And the fact that they really appreciate  the developmental process. That’s really what South Coast Rep is about and they completely support you. It’s just been great to be part of this. I haven’t been down here a lot but I saw Dan Sullivan’s production of Donald Marguiles’ Brooklyn Boy, The Whale, and a Kate Whoriskey production of Antigone.”

The Whale star Matthew Arkin coincidentally played Delany’s husband in the 2000 NYC Dinner With Friends production. What are the odds that the two would be in back-to-back productions in the same theater? “I know! That was wonderful and a big achievement for him to pull off.”

Victor Slezak and Dana Delany in Neil LaBute's "Things We Said Today" at Ensemble Studio Theatre's 2007 Marathon of Short Plays. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Dana Delany and Victor Slezak in Neil LaBute’s “Things We Said Today” at Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 2007 Marathon of Short Plays. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

It’s been six years since Delany participated in a production outside of staged readings. The last was the premiere of Neil LaBute’s one-act Things We Said Today, directed by Andrew McCarthy at Ensemble Studio Theater’s 2007 Marathon of Short Plays. Desperate Housewives cast her as Katharine Mayfair during the production and she flew west to start a new TV era when it was over.

She admits that carrying a show in which she never leaves the stage is a bit daunting, as are the nightly script changes.

“This script is 96 pages long and I’m talking in 93,” she reveals. “I do not leave the stage except for scene changes. I said to myself, ‘Look, I learn eight pages a night [for Body of Proof], you know?’ So I should be okay but it’s different. Because you are not learning eight pages, you are learning 20 pages. I don’t have it yet, but once I get it all it will be great. Right now I’m in that stage of half in, half out.”

From Broadway to the Odyssey

Delany is most widely recognized for her more than three decades of non-stop film work (Freelancers, Light Sleeper, Exit to Eden, Tombstone), TV movies (Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story), miniseries (Wild Palms, True Women), series television (China Beach, Presidio Med, Kidnapped, Desperate Housewives) and the voice of Lois Lane in numerous animated series. But it was theater that brought the NYC native to LA and helped launch her West Coast career.

She grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Ma. during her senior year of high school and graduated from Wesleyan University with a theater degree. Her parents took her often to see theater in Manhattan. The Lionel Bart musical Oliver! was the first Broadway show she saw at age eight, directed by Peter Coe. The Citadel Theatre and subsequent American Shakespeare Theatre artistic director would later helm Delany’s 1980 Broadway debut in Hugh Leonard’s Irish play, A Life.

“I got to go the theater a lot as a kid,” she recalls. “I didn’t really know how special that was at the time. I saw all of these early great musicals and I love musicals. I absolutely love them.”

After graduation, Delany found work in daytime soaps like As the World Turns and Love of Life while auditioning for stage roles. She landed the part in A Life by faking an Irish accent she learned while listening to Siobhán McKenna read Molly Bloom’s speech from James Joyce’s Ulysses on a LP purchased from an Irish bookstore. Delany had never heard one before.

Dana Delany in "China Beach" and "Body of Proof" (ABC/Richard Foreman).

Dana Delany in “China Beach” and “Body of Proof” (ABC/Richard Foreman).

“I just kept lifting the needle and putting it down,” she explains. “Lifting the needle and putting it down, which is how I memorized all the words to Funny Girl when I was a kid!” She laughs. “That’s how I learned all the words to every musical I went to. Lift the needle and put it down.”

Delany confesses that she wasn’t good at accents and had to maintain the one she’d concocted on her own all the way to the theater. “I talked to the cab driver in the Irish accent, I stayed in the Irish accent backstage and I did the audition in this Irish accent. Then Peter Coe comes down to the edge of the stage and asks me, ‘Where did you get your Irish accent?’ I remembered people in acting class saying you should always lie. So in this bad Irish accent, I tell him my Irish grandfather taught me since I was a ‘wee one.’

“My family has been in the United States since I think 1820. My grandfather was born in Brooklyn in 1885. He did not have an Irish accent.”

Delany believes Coe cast her because she looked like a younger version of her fellow cast member Helen Stenborg, which the part required, rather than for her impeccable mimicry. Of her Broadway debut at 24, she admits, “It was extremely exciting and intimidating because I had all the enthusiasm in the world and none of the technique.” It was a poignant time as well, since her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at 56 and would die three months after opening night.

“We were in Edmonton, Alberta for rehearsals [at Coe's Citadel Theatre] and I got a phone call that my father was dying. I called him and said, ‘I’ll come home. I’ll leave the show. I want to be with you.’ And he said, “No. I want you to continue with the rehearsals. I want to see you make your Broadway debut.’ So I did and he got to see me perform on Broadway.”

Five years later, Delany was cast as Manya in the 1983 Off-Broadway premiere of Nicholas Kazan’s brutal crime drama Blood Moon, directed by Allen R. Belknap and co-starring David Canary and Nicholas Saunders. The play brought her critical acclaim and the opportunity to reprise the role in the subsequent 1985 Odyssey Theatre production directed by Frank Condon opposite Michael MacRae and Greg Lewis.

Michael MacRae, Dany Delany and Greg Lewis in the May 1985 Odyssey Theatre production of "Blood Moon."

Michael MacRae, Dany Delany and Greg Lewis in the May 1985 Odyssey Theatre production of “Blood Moon.”

“That’s when my career started taking off,” she admits. “After A Life, I went back to class and started working hard at it to really develop a technique. So when I finally got to Blood Moon, I had more of a sense of what I was doing. Nick Kazan and I are still good friends. It was a really exciting part. A lot of people came to see it. When it was going to be done at the Odyssey, Nick said come to LA and do it there. I’ve been in LA ever since. I didn’t want to come out until I had a job. So, yes, theater brought me here. Isn’t that funny?”

Hollywood saw the show and came calling. She got cast as everyone’s girl friend until China Beach launched Delany as a bona fide TV star garnering two Emmys, plus two Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for playing Army nurse Colleen McMurphy. Numerous film and TV offers followed and Delany would not return to Broadway until 1995 in another Irish play — Brian Friel’s Translations opposite Brian Dennehy and Rufus Sewell. It closed after 25 performances.

“A beautiful, beautiful play, but the production did not do it justice unfortunately,” she sighs. “You know it just happens and I wrote Brian Friel a note afterward. I apologized for the play not achieving what it should have. And myself. He wrote me the most beautiful note back. He said it should have been produced Off-Broadway, which is true. It’s such a delicate play. The space was too big for it. It has that wonderful Irish ambivalence and ambiguity that you have to let play. You have to lean into that and I don’t think the production did.

“Then he wrote, ‘Never apologize. In the words of Tyrone Guthrie, Rise above my dear, rise above.’ He was so sweet and he made me feel so much better.”

Much Ado About Dinner With Friends

It would take a Pulitzer-winning play to return Delany to Los Angeles theater but not before being asked by its playwright to join the New York production in the summer of 2000.

“I remember seeing Dana on stage decades ago in a Nick Kazan play in New York and being impressed by her,” writes Dinner with Friends scribe Donald Marguiles via email. “That would have been shortly before she was deployed to China Beach and became a television star. When Lisa Emery left the original cast of Dinner with Friends, she was on [director] Dan Sullivan’s and my list of replacements.  Luckily for us, she was available and willing to step into the role.  Dana is the prettiest girl in class who surprises you because it turns out she’s nicer than you’d ever imagine.”

Kevin Kilner and Dana Delany in the 2000 Geffen Playhouse production of "Dinner With Friends." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Kevin Kilner and Dana Delany in the 2000 Geffen Playhouse production of “Dinner With Friends.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Delany played Kate opposite Matthew Arkin as Tom, with Caroline McCormick as Beth (who replaced Julie White) and Kevin Kilner as Gabe. Rita Wilson saw the piece and lobbied Gil Cates to bring it to the Geffen Playhouse, which initiated Delany’s close friendship with the late producing director and his beloved Westwood theater. “I miss him so much. He was just so special.”

Dinner opened in October 2000 with Wilson now as Kate and Daniel Stern as Tom, Delany as Beth with Kevin Kilner reprising as Gabe. Delany is the only actor to have played both Kate and Beth, something she says she never intended to do.

“It [Beth] is actually the harder role to do,” she explains. “I had seen what Caroline went through in New York. I think I had a week in between the two productions, so when Rita was saying her lines I kept hearing them echo in my head. That was what was so odd. I knew her lines but I didn’t know my lines. I’m so happy I did Beth because I feel like I cracked something in that role that has always been very intimidating to me — real crying on stage and also be funny. I finally figured it out and then I couldn’t wait to go to the theater every night.”

Delany credits director Sullivan with teaching her how to feel more confident on stage. Prior to Dinner she’d felt as if the audiences were judging her. She learned to have fun by involving them in an energetic give-and-take exchange while acting from a more natural place.

“It was such a revelation to me to work with him on that play because I had the gift of watching Lisa’s performance,” she offers. “Basically I watched what she did and it was so good that I kind of copied it and then eventually made it my own. With Dan, like Pam, it’s just so matter of fact and down to earth. Straightforward. That’s how I approach my work and there’s no ‘theatrical’ behavior. I think that’s what a lot of young people have a problem with in theater today. It can be theatrical and they don’t relate to it.”

Three years later, Sullivan suggested Delany to director Brendan Fox for Beatrice in his 2003 mounting of Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Globe in San Diego. She had never performed Shakespeare before. It terrified her.

Billy Campbell and Dana Delany in the 2003 Old Globe Theatre production of "Much Ado About Nothing," directed by Brendon Fox. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Billy Campbell and Dana Delany in the 2003 Old Globe Theatre production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” directed by Brendon Fox. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Why? I’ve never done Shakespeare!’ and he said, ‘I think you can do it’ and it was great. Daunting but fun. Billy [Campbell who played Benedick] and I have remained such close friends since then. He’s one of my dearest friends now.”

In 2006, Delany was slated to play Goneril in a King Lear production at the Electric Lodge in Venice, helmed by famed British vocal coach and Shakespeare scholar Patsy Rodenburg making her international directing debut. It starred Robert Mandan as the titular lead and Diane Venora as the Fool. TV projects called Delany away. She’s studied with Rodenburg since and really wants to explore more works of the Bard.

“I’d like to do Shakespeare again because it would be such a challenge,” she offers. “And of course I don’t like the typical plays. I like Antony and Cleopatra. Troilus and Cressida. I like the odd ones.”

Championing Women Writers                                                             

Delany’s bi-coastal lifestyle — homes in Santa Monica and Greenwich Village – allows her to keep a finger on the pulse of new play development both at Ojai Playwrights Conference (OPC) and New York Stage and Film. As a board member, she doesn’t just participate in readings but shares her TV success by supporting female writers financially as well.

“I love seeing plays in development,” she stresses. “That’s my favorite part of the whole thing. I feel very fortunate to make money in television and I just want to support good writing. Especially women writers. Because if there’s no good writing, I don’t have a job!” She laughs. “I’m a female lead on a television show and we have a room full of male writers. It’s ridiculous. And more women need to be supported because they now are experienced, you know?

“I think it’s a different voice that we need.”

Delany got involved at OPC in 2002 when playwright Jon Robin Baitz asked her to participate in a reading of The Paris Letter. She knew both Baitz and OPC artistic director Robert Egan previously and from that beginning would go on to become a major supporter, board member and honoree at OPC’s 2012 annual benefit.

Dana Delany and Robert Egan at the 2013 Ojai Playwrights Conference Benefit.

Dana Delany and Robert Egan at the 2013 Ojai Playwrights Conference Benefit.

“Dana Delany is one of those rare theatrical quadruple threats for the Ojai Playwrights Conference and new play development in America,” states Egan via email. “She has wisdom, grace and great emotional depth on stage. She is also a perceptive and supportive board member…bringing valuable community and industry resources to the development of new plays for America. She is also an extraordinarily generous philanthropist for the development of new drama and has underwritten the workshop of numerous new plays by some of our most promising women writers over the last ten years.

“And finally, Dana is a great audience member for new theatrical work. Despite her enormously busy schedule, you can find her at every OPC workshop each summer in the front row supporting the writers, the actors and the artistic staff in their efforts to bring new perspectives to the human condition. Dana is a rare and totally delightful collaborator in all of her varied roles supporting new theater in the United States.”

“Oh my god, I’ll have to thank him!” exclaims a stunned Delany. “That is true. My favorite job is the audience member. I love it.

I tell everybody that it’s my favorite weekend of the year,” she declares. “I don’t want to be part of it. I just want to watch. I start with the first production and I just go all day long. I watch play after play and it’s so exciting because they’re at the beginning stages when it’s just fresh and new. The atmosphere is completely supportive. That’s where I met Linda Gehringer, who’s in our play.”

Recent OPC workshops supported by Delany include Sarah Treem’s When We Were Young and Unafraid in 2011 and Jennifer Haley’s Sustainable Living in 2012.

The LA-based Haley, who recently enjoyed critical success with The Nether at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, says she was invited to come to the festival last year at this time. After two intense weeks of rehearsing Sustainable Living in 105-degree Ojai heat and the performance itself, she was introduced to Delany.

Dana Delany, Linda Gehringer and Rebecca Mozo.

Dana Delany, Linda Gehringer and Rebecca Mozo in “The Parisian Woman.” Photo by Henry Dirocco/SCR.

“They were like, ‘and here’s the person who made all of this happen!’” she laughs via phone. “It was kind of a thrilling moment. I did feel a sense of sisterhood in that here’s a woman who has really built an incredible career now giving another woman a leg up. That kind of stuff makes all the difference in the world.”

Haley aspires to emulate Delany’s philanthropy herself in the future. “I’m looking forward to eventually transitioning into that person who’s able to help other people. I do that to a certain extent with the Playwrights Union, this group I run. But being able to help someone financially and to help their play financially is a big deal.”

When asked whether she has a bucket list of classical or even musical roles, Delany offers up Tennessee Williams women like faded femme fatale Blanche DuBois or performing a one-night only cabaret act for friends. Regardless, she’s comfortable now in her own theatrical skin.

“I don’t feel like I have to perform anymore. I have more life experience. I don’t have to make it up. When I have an emotional moment, it’s there. You just tap into it. Whereas when I was younger, I felt like I had to create things and use my imagination more.

“I’ve had every one of the experiences I’m acting out now.”

The Parisian Woman, South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa 92626. Opens Friday.  Tue-Fri 7:45 pm, Sat-Sun 2 pm and 7:45 pm. Through May 4. Tickets: $19-62. www.scr.org. 714-708-5555.

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LA Stage Times

Dan Dietz Matches American Misfits With Rockabilly

by Larry Pontius | April 16, 2013
Maya Erskine, Karen Jean Olds, Daniel MK Cohen, Larry Cedar, AJ Meijer and Eden Riegel with Banks Boutte in "American Misfit." Photo by Ed Krieger.

Maya Erskine, Karen Jean Olds, Daniel MK Cohen, Larry Cedar, AJ Meijer and Eden Riegel with Banks Boutte in “American Misfit.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

Dan Dietz is officially a Los Angeles playwright, now that his play American Misfit has opened at the Boston Court.

He has come nearly full circle. He was born in Los Angeles County — in Long Beach. But he spent most of his young childhood in Ohio. He moved with his family to Marietta, Georgia at the age of eight.

Marietta, in northwestern Georgia, isn’t far from eastern Tennessee, where American Misfit is set. The play blends a nugget of post-Revolutionary War American history with a rockabilly musical style.  It is the story of the Harpe Brothers, who murdered and stole their way along the backwaters of what was then the West, all in the name of counterrevolution.  The show bounces from one end of American history to the other, from Washington to Reagan.

Dan Dietz

Dan Dietz

Dietz smiles, describing the beginning moments of the play. “The opening song, the introduction by Rockabilly Boy [played by Banks Boutté], moving into the dance, it all conjures up the strange world of the play, which is a combination 1950s dance hall and late 18th Century slaughterfest.”

After finishing his undergraduate degree in theater from Kennesaw State University in Georgia, Dietz began to look elsewhere. He had heard great things about the Austin music scene, art and theater communities. “It seemed like everywhere I turned [in Austin], people were taking risks with their art and I realized that’s what I wanted to do too.”

He began studying theater history and criticism at the University of Texas at Austin but then switched to playwriting, obtaining an MFA in 1999. He also got involved in the local theater scene, most notably with Austin’s Salvage Vanguard, a company known for its experimental work.  “Grad school taught me things about structure and character development,” he says.  “And then watching what some of the other artists in town were doing, they taught me how to break those rules, how to shake up structure, how to shake up and find different ways of developing characters.”

Austin, he says, is “where I came of age as an artist.” But after about a dozen years there, he moved to Tallahassee in 2007 to teach in Florida State’s playwriting/screenwriting master’s program.  And in 2010, he became a Jerome Fellow at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis.

Along the way, Dietz wrote tempOdyssey, which received a rolling world premiere from the National New Play Network at four theaters in 2006-07 and an LA production by needtheater in 2010 at Artworks in Hollywood. His other titles include The Sandreckoner, which was one of the plays in development at Ojai Playwrights Conference in 2008, and Clementine in the Lower Nine, a post-Katrina play set in New Orleans with a blues band on stage, loosely based on Agamemnon. It opened at TheatreWorks in Mountain View, CA. in 2011.

Daniel MK Cohen, P.J. Ochlan and AJ Meijer.

Daniel MK Cohen, P.J. Ochlan and AJ Meijer.

His work has been commissioned and presented in venues across the country, including Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Guthrie Theater, the Public Theater, and the Kennedy Center.  Dietz has been an NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Program for Playwrights recipient, a Josephine Bay Paul Fellow, and a James A. Michener Fellow, and has twice been a recipient of the Heideman Award.

And now, he’s once again an Angeleno.  After the Jerome fellowship finished in mid-2011, Dietz felt he was faced with a choice between New York and Los Angeles.  A few playwright friends started talking to him about Los Angeles, but what ultimately tipped him toward LA was his acceptance into the  Warner Brothers Writers’ Workshop, where he was one of the writers from the fall of 2011 through the spring of 2012.  He now works as a writer on CBS’s Person of Interest.

American Misfit started in Austin in 2002.  Its seeds were planted by the work of both Salvage Vanguard and the Rude Mechanicals, another Austin theater company, whose works I’ve Never Been So Happy, The Method Gun and Lipstick Traces toured to Los Angeles.  He remembers that “people were starting to blend live music and theater in really cool ways.”  He experimented with it in a previous work called Tilt Angel, but he wanted to go farther.  “And I had just seen Kirk Lynn’s play Requiem for Tesla (also a Rude Mechs production), and I was like, “historical characters on stage, like this is cool!’”

Around the same time, a friend of his introduced him to the story of the Harpe Brothers. “I was blown away by the sheer number of people they managed to kill without getting caught and the extreme loyalty of the women who traveled with them.”

Banks Boutte

Banks Boutte

But where did the idea turning the story of the Harpe brothers into a rockabilly musical come from?  “On a day I was researching them, I happened to be at a coffee shop,” Dietz recalls.  “Then all of a sudden rockabilly music came on over the speakers.”  And it clicked for him that it might make a great soundtrack to the story.  “I tucked that away in the back of my head.”

For Dietz, this collecting of ideas is a part of his process.  “A lot of times what generates a full-length play for me is about pulling together seemingly disparate elements that come to me through various means.”  As he writes, he discovers those connections that drew him to the various elements.  The same was true for American Misfit. “I did a bunch of historical research into the period and where American government stood at the time and then I just thought, I’m just going to combine all of those things into one play.  I’m going to try and weave it all together.”

In 2005, Salvage Vanguard did what Dietz calls a “developmental production.”  After that there were more workshops, but no productions materialized.  He began to think that perhaps the play was never going to get produced.  “It is a pretty wild script,” he admits.  “In some ways it has the requirements of a musical, without the sort of [potential] financial payoff”  of doing a musical that would attract a  supposedly surefire audience. He laughs.

A few years ago, a conversation about American Misfit occurred between Dietz and the team at Theatre @ Boston Court, which is known for taking theatrical chances.  However, it wasn’t until the theater company received $10,000 as part of the new Edgerton Foundation Theater Program that it had the resources to tackle the project.  Dietz smiles. “It really meant a lot to me that two years later they were still interested enough to actually pick it up and make it happen.” The theater’s co-artistic director Michael Michetti staged it.

For Dietz, the show examines the American character at a time when that character was only beginning to form.  “To me the American character,” he explains, “it’s this combination of idealism and ugliness, and it just seems to be fused together.”

Maya Erskine and Karen Jean Olds.

Maya Erskine and Karen Jean Olds.

He reflects upon his research, “When I looked into the period, I discovered the founding fathers couldn’t stand one another.  They were bound together by mildly to moderately overlapping ideals.  But it was useful for them to be allies.”  He points to the rivalries between Jefferson and Adams, and of course, Hamilton and Burr.  “A lot of people hated Alexander Hamilton.  Yet these are our founding fathers.”

Dietz says that while now we might see the founding fathers as speaking with one voice, history shows us the opposite.  They argued and debated endlessly among themselves.  “I love the fact that nothing was arrived at easily, in terms of our ideology or identity.  It was always a fight.  And I feel like that’s very much who we are.”

“It seems like it’s very looked down on in this country — the notion of diplomacy and settling things by talking them out.  That feels not American.”  He continues, “We would much rather take hold of the quick, violent overthrow of what came before, rather than do the long slow painful process of achieving a compromise.”

“We like to think of ourselves as rebels,” he finishes.

Little Harpe, the younger of the two brothers, and the brains behind the operation, drives the action of the play.  He wants to overthrow the nascent democracy, and for him, it’s personal.  His father was killed fighting for the British.  But the Harpes take particular relish in their murderous work.  “I think he believes that the terror he’s sowing will have a good objective in the end.  But he’s also enjoying sowing the terror.”

Larry Cedar

Larry Cedar

Are the Harpes a reflection of our modern America?  Dietz thinks for a moment, then says, “If they reflect anything, it’s the idea that it’s better to destroy around you in order to make change than it is to solve a problem constructively.  What they embody for me is that impulse to tear apart people who get in the way of what you want in order to get what you want.”

Dietz hopes the show will get audiences talking about the American character.  “It will allow them to question how much of what is shown in the play is an essential aspect of the American character, and how much of it is something about ourselves we have the ability to change.”

And of course, “I hope they have enjoyed the ride.”

American Misfit, Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 North Mentor Avenue, Pasadena. 91106.  Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through May 12 with an added performance on Wednesday, May 8, 8 pm. Tickets: $34. www.bostoncourt.com. 626-683-6883.

**All American Misfit production photos by Ed Krieger.

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