Michael John LaChiusa, Ellen Fitzhugh and Graciela Daniele during rehearsal for "Los Otros"
Writer-lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh remembers exactly when composer Michael John LaChiusa first got her attention. “We were both participating in a Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop oh so many years ago,” she says.
“Actually, Ellen was the star of the Lehman Engel workshop,” LaChiusa interjects.
“I was taken by this young man’s originality,” Fitzhugh continues undeterred. “Well, he was being snipped at by other members of the workshop, as always happens. And I remember, afterwards, regretting I hadn’t said anything. I hadn’t come to his defense. That bothered me, the more I thought about it. So, I contacted him and told him I would really like to work with him someday. And here we are.”
Michele Pawk in "Los Otros"
At this moment, Fitzhugh and LaChiusa are sitting in a Center Theatre Group rehearsal room in downtown LA, following a full day of rehearsals for the premiere of their two-hander musical, Los Otros (“The Others”), anticipating this evening’s first preview at CTG’s Mark Taper Forum. “This has been an amazing collaboration,” says LaChiusa. “This is a huge, panoramic work, spanning decades; yet it has been so intimate, working with Ellen; our director, Graciela [Daniele]; and two phenomenal performers, Michele [Pawk] and Julio [Monge].”
Collaboration is certainly a concept familiar to Fitzhugh and to LaChiusa. As both a scripter and lyricist, Fitzhugh has united her talents with such disparate tunesmiths as Larry Grossman (Tony-nominated Grind, Diamonds), Walter Edgar Kennon (Off-Broadway Herringbone), Adam Guettel (Myths and Hymns), Marc Blitzstein (Juno), Mary Rodgers (The Griffin and the Minor Canon), William Finn (Muscle), Henry Mancini (Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective) and even Johann Strauss II (Paradise Found).
Previously, LaChiusa has joined creative forces with George C. Wolfe (book co-writer on Tony-nominated The Wild Party), Jim Lewis and Daniele (Tony-nominated Chronicle of a Death Foretold), Sybille Pearson (Giant) and John Strand (The Highest Yellow), among others. On his own, LaChiusa has proven to be a triple threat (music, lyrics, book) with Obie-winner First Lady Suite and Hello Again, as well as Little Fish (helmed by Daniele).
Julio Monge, Michele Pawk and CTG Artistic Director Michael Ritchie during rehearsal for "Los Otros"
“Los Otros developed from an idea I had a few years back about a woman living in Southern California,” Fitzhugh recalls. “I grew up in Southern California, and I guess that is what stimulated the idea. Then I was approached by [CTG artistic director] Michael Ritchie, who was interested in developing stageworks that were California-based. CTG commissioned me, and off I went. So, the idea I had tucked away in the back of my psyche just started to work itself forward, focusing on this woman and a Mexican-American man whose lives move through latter 20th century life in Southern California. Somewhere along the way, I knew I wanted it to be a musical.”
LaChiusa chuckles. “And me being an Italian boy from Buffalo, New York, I was the perfect choice to be the composer.”
Fitzhugh nods. “Actually, he was,” she says. “John has done spectacular work, always so inventive and surprising. I know this would be a perfect project for us to do together.”
Los Otros can be likened to an episodic song-cycle, the first section chronicling three defining moments in the life of the Woman (Pawk), each of which involves chance encounters with Mexican immigrants in Southern California. The second section focuses on the Mexican-American Man (Monge), following his journey from 12-year-old migrant farm worker during World War II to a 75-year-old who is starting to lose his mental faculties. “There is no real intermission separating the two sections,” Fitzhugh reveals. “It is more like a brief pause.”
Julio Monge in "Los Otros"
“Developing this work has been a remarkable amalgamation of talents,” LaChiusa says. “I have worked with Graciela before on several shows. She is from Argentina, an amazing choreographer and director. And she works so well with performers. And with this show, that is so important.”
Fitzhugh concurs, “In some ways, as Graciela points out, it is a lot more exhausting to work with just two actors because you get so focused in on the individual person you are working with, you are sending out everything you have to him or her. You don’t have the option to switch your attention to something else happening that might offer a welcoming distraction, even for a moment or two. And for the actor, it must be the same thing. There is no place to hide. “
LaChiusa nods. “It is very naked relationship,” he says.
Both creators feel they have put together a dream cast. Pawk is a 2003 Featured Actress Tony winner for the Carol Burnett bio play, Hollywood Arms, and has starred in such Broadway fare as Hairspray, Losing Louie, Mamma Mia! and Cabaret (Drama Desk nominee). Monge’s Broadwaycredits include Twelfth Night, Paul Simon’s The Capeman, Jerome Robbins’Broadway, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Fosse, Man of La Mancha and Victor/Victoria.
As much as LaChiusa is involved with melodies, harmonies and rhythms, he is equally intrigued by the dialogue. “One of the fascinating aspects of this work is the use of words, the way the characters use words to describe this and words to describe that,” he says. “It has been fascinating to me to develop the character of the Mexican-American man, chronicle the experience, what’s that like to be him and how does that experience sing.”
But the pair seems unwilling to reveal much about instrumental accompaniment for two ethnically diverse onstage characters evolving within the same environment. “John is having a lot of fun with that,” is all Fitzhugh will share.
“We really have a luxurious situation with the accompaniment,” LaChiusa says, beaming. “We have a nine-musician ensemble. It is wonderful. We have some strings in there. I have my mariachi trumpet player. We have a guitarist who is playing four different instruments. We have great Mexican drums [Latin percussionists]. The musical texture is wonderfully enveloping.”
Now that previews are beginning, La Chiusa and Fitzhugh are looking forward to finally having an audience tell them where the beats are working and where they are not working. “It is exhilarating and exhausting,” says Fitzhugh. “We rehearse from 10 am to 6 pm and then sit through previews. The next day is the same process, incorporating what we learned from the night before.”
“There is actually another project Ellen and I are working on, but we haven’t talked much about it lately,” says LaChiusa. “This has been so involving.”
Los Otros, presented by Center Theatre Group. Opens Sunday, June 3. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA 90012. Plays Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm, through July 1. Tickets: $20-$65. Call (213) 628-2772 or visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
IN MEMORIAM…LA STAGE Times editor emeritus Lee Melville died earlier this week. As editor-and-chief of Drama-Logue (1977-89), Lee hired me, in 1982, to write a cabaret column and feature articles. After I turned in my first article, Lee called, calmly uttering, “Stop writing to impress yourself. The subject of your article is a lot more interesting than you. Make sure the reader knows that.” Ever gentle but persuasive, Lee continued to be my journalistic guiding light in his position as editor of the bi-monthly LA STAGE Magazine (2000-09) and the current LA STAGE Times (2009-11). A memorial service in his honor is in the planning stages, to be announced…
A NOISE WITHIN SEASON 2013-14…Celebrating its third season in its now not-so-new home in Pasadena, the classical repertory ensemble A Noise Within (ANW) offers a seven-play season, thematically tied by “the tireless search to find that which has been lost.” The opening salvo is William Shakespeare’s romantic fantasy, Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Sep 7–Nov 24). The lineup continues with: Ferenc Molnar’s 1910 marital comedy about a Hungarian stage star and his starlet wife, The Guardsman (Sep 28-Nov 30); Samuel Beckett’s 1957 landmark, Endgame (Oct 19–Nov 23); A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted for the stage by ANW co-artistic director Geoff Elliott (Dec 7-22); Tartuffe, Molière’s 1664 tale of religious hypocrisy and lust (Feb 15–May 24, 2014); Macbeth, ANW’s first excursion into the Bard’s Scottish Play in eleven years (Mar 8–May 11, 2014); and Come Back, Little Sheba, William Inge’s 1950 chronicle of a life-defeated middle-aged couple whose lives are dramatically altered when they take in a pretty college coed boarder (Mar 29–May 17, 2014). All plays are performed in repertory. Directors are to be announced…
ACTORS CO-OP SEASON 2013-14…Hollywood-based Actors Co-op launches its five-play 22nd anniversary season “Stories of the Soul . . . From the Heart” with a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s 1933 romanticized sojourn within early 20th century New England family life, Ah, Wilderness, opening Sep 11. This is followed by Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “Stevenson’s look at the evil that lurks in the hearts of men,” opening Oct 11. Lee Blessing’s Going to Saint Ives, about the suspenseful encounter between an English eye surgeon and a patient who is the mother of a sub-Saharan despot, opens Feb 7, 2014. The 1989 Tony-winning comedy, Lend Me a Tenor, by Ken Ludwig, follows, opening Mar 21, 2014. Closing the season is the 1964 tuner, 110 in the Shade, wrought by Harvey Schmidt (music), Tom Jones (lyrics) and N. Richard Nash (book), based on Nash’s 1954 stage play, The Rainmaker, opening May 9, 2014. All performances are staged at either the Crossley or David Schall Theatres. Directors are to be announced…
PREMIERES…The husband and wife scripting/helming team of playwright Peter Lefcourt and director Terri Hanauer (La Ronde de Lunch, Mutually Assured Destruction) are now openingThe Assassination Of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy, June 22 at the Odyssey Theatre in West LA…LA-based physical-theater ensemble Not Man Apart (NMA) is debuting Roman philosopher/playwright Seneca the Younger’s 54 AD tragedy Hercules Furens (The Madness of Hercules), adapted and directed by NMA artistic directorJohn Farmanesh-Bocca, co-choreographed by the director, Jones Welsh and the NMA ensemble, opening June 6 at Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica…The premiere of Perennial — the coming-of-age saga of a free-spirited young artist, scripted by and starring thesp Tammy Minoff, helmed by Alexa Coblentz, is being hosted by Sidewalk Studio Theatre in Burbank, opening June 1…
Just Imagine - Live Stage Theater - Trailer
AROUND TOWN...Humor Abuse, created by Lorenzo Pisoni and Erica Schmidt, starring Pisoni, helmed by Schmidt — is replacing Center Theatre Group/MarkTaper Forum’s previously announced staging of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, opening Sep 21. Pisoni, whose parents ran San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus, was enlisted into the act at age two, and Humor Abuse tells his story of growing up within a circus…As a 2013 Hollywood Fringe Festival entry, Silver Lake-based Moving Arts is presenting the surrealistic, three-characterFathers at a Game, scripted by Trey Nichols, helmed by Vesna Hocevar, opening June 15 at East Theatre at the Complex in Hollywood…TheJohn Lennon bio tuner Just Imagine, scripted and helmed by Steve Altman, starring Tim Piper, enjoyed a lengthy sojourn at mid-Wilshire Boulevard’s Hayworth Theatre in 2011. With Greg Piper as music director, backed by rock band Working Class Hero, this rock and roll celebration of Lennon’s life returns to the Hayworth, beginning June 8…Taikoproject — an Arabic-Japanese fusion of drumming, storytelling, music and choreography — brings its Rhythmic Relations 2013 to the Ford Theatres, featuring Middle Eastern percussionist/performance artist Amir Sofi, June 29…Ever-popularThe Rainmaker by N.Richard Nash, helmed by Jack Heller, is now reaching out through June 30 at Edgemar Center in Santa Monica…In Little Tokyo, East West Players (EWP) is extending the run of the tuner Chess — wrought by Richard Nelson (book), Tim Rice (lyrics), and ABBA alumni Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (music), helmed by EWP artistic director Tim Dang – through June 21 at David Henry Hwang Theater…The dark comedy, Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake), scripted by Sheila Callaghan, helmed by Ronnie Marmo, is extending to May 31 at Theatre 68 in Hollywood…And the espionage-laden comedy, The North Plan, scripted by Jason Wells, helmed by David Fofi, extends at Theatre Asylum in Hollywood, through June 8…
Miles Memorial Playhouse
INSIDE LA STAGE HISTORY…When Troubadour Theater Companyisfounded in 1995 by Matt Walker, it roams as an itinerant band of commedia performers for three years with no space to call home. In 1998, Troubadour has the opportunity to be one of five arts organizations to be housed in newly restored and renovated Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica (nearly destroyed by the 1994 Northridge earthquake). “We had to argue like hell to the City Council to be allowed to get in,” recalls Walker. “There were a whole lot of people from the city’s historical society who wanted to turn it into some kind of museum. They didn’t want any scruffy actors coming in and scratching up the floors. The building is beautiful.” Beautiful indeed! Miles Memorial Playhouse is designed in 1929 by local architect John Byers in the Spanish Colonial revival style under the sponsorship of developer J. Euclid Miles (also credited with founding Santa Monica’s Mayfair Theater). Miles specifically designs it to be “a theater for the children and young men and women of Santa Monica.” For 65 years, Miles Playhouse — with its massive wooden beams, plasterwork, gleaming hardwood floors, ironwork details, and grand fireplace — is rented and loaned out to an eclectic array of performance ensembles, many subsidized by the City of Santa Monica. In 1955, it houses weekend puppet shows produced by Del Hagen Studios. Following the Northridge disaster, restoration begins almost immediately. At the 1998 City Hall occupancy meetings, Walker and his Troubies convince the city fathers to let them call the Playhouse their home. Beginning in 2000 with Twelfth Dog Night, the Troubies debut a series of Shakespeare/rock n’ roll mashups, including All’s Kool That Ends Kool (2002), Fleetwood Macbeth (2003), The Comedy of Aerosmith (2004) and Hamlet: The Artist Formerly Known As the Prince of Demark (2005). Troubadour also begins producing at Falcon Theatre in 2002 and leaves the Miles in 2006, but Miles continues to be a performance outlet for such stage ensembles as Theatre for a Small Space, Santa Monica Rep, Pacific Opera Project, Virginia Avenue Project, Ruskin Group Theatre, Los Angeles Metropolitan Opera,LA Women’s Shakespeare Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA, Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Company, Playwrights 6, Trapdoor Ensemble, Santa Monica Playhouse, Site Unseen Theatre Group, Ziggurat Theatre Company, Venice Theatre Works, Norris Center for Performing Arts and many others…
Julio Martinez-produced and hosted Arts in Review, celebrates the best in LA-area theater and cabaret, Fridays (2 to 2:30 pm) on KPFK Radio (90.7FM).
My sister, Vivienne, laughed through tears as she hugged me. “I’m glad you didn’t tell me I was driving over 300 miles to see you in a three-hour Holocaust musical.”
She had just witnessed my performance as the “handsome and thrusting” Menachem in Our Class, the current Son of Semele show now playing at Atwater Village Theatre. I appreciated her gallows humor but, really, why would I tell her that? First of all, it’s not a musical, it’s a play-with-music (created for this production by Sage Lewis and Matthew McCray). Second, the Holocaust is only a small part of this epic, sweeping drama, and finally, the running time is really closer to two hours and forty-five minutes.
OK. That’s still long, but every person I’ve spoken with has said what my friend Dennis posted rather eloquently, “Go see this show if you think that a story needs to be as long as it needs to be rather than to fit in 90 minutes.” But not everyone is that generous. We couldn’t help but wonder how we were going to drum up an audience for this troublesome play.
Long before we opened, we knew this show would be a bear on most levels. Nobody had much time to think about marketing, as we were busy rehearsing on the postage-stamp-sized Son of Semele stage, using only theater cubes and chairs as set pieces. I remember director Matthew McCray saying for the fourth time, “Who moves this chair?” to which one of us responded, “Isn’t that a desk?” Then Matt would clarify again that a chair is only a desk if it has a piece of green tape on it.
But blocking this show in a closet was only one of this play’s challenges. We also had to learn a boatload of lines, tons of Polish pronunciations, a song entirely in Russian, Polish folk dancing, the history of Poland around WWII, and many of the actors had to learn (or re-learn) to play musical instruments. But it was overcoming those obstacles that made us realize that this show was worthy of drawing a big crowd.
We did our best on the limited Son of Semele budget, thanks to the unflagging ensemble, taking full advantage of social networking, postcard distribution, and contacting Jewish and Polish organizations. But once the show opened (after a fortuitous but expensive change in venue to the more spacious Atwater Village Theatre), the immediate small audiences were a wake-up call — we were not only actors, we were now also marketers.
We all started pushing the play like crazy. We started emailing friends, talking it up at bars, restaurants, hair salons, and theaters. I was careful not to call it a Holocaust play as I pontificated about the joy of being in a play staged in the round, using only chairs and school desks to define the many locations, with characters aging from six to 60. Only after people said they’d come did I dare mention the length and harsh content.
Ensemble of “Our Class.” Photo by Kim Chueh.
But we only had five weeks left. Would that be enough time for this show to catch fire?
Apparently Yes. Once the glowing reviews started, everything started to change. I have never seen a play get so many unsolicited Facebook and Twitter plugs. Total strangers were telling their friends and followers not to miss this show. But why? I’ve been involved in lots of critically-acclaimed plays over my many years in L.A., but I have never seen such an outpouring of love and support. Was it because of McCray’s masterful grasp of storytelling, which guides us effortlessly through the relatively unknown, yet hotly-contested, 1941 Jedwabne pogrom? Was it because of Sarah Krainin’s simple and brilliant set, which places the audience all the way around the stage, forcing unabashed performances from actors, and implicating the audience in the story? Was it because of the grand arc of Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s play, which hooks the audience to five Catholics and five Jews at age six and follows them all until their respective deaths? Or was it due to the critics, who have called us “an impressively cohesive ensemble” of “heroic actors” whose “performances are top notch”?
I think it finally hit me when an actor friend, Joe Fria, who was finally able to come to the show, told me how great it was that we’d extended. “Everybody should see this show,” Joe said. “Personally, it made me want to work harder as an actor.”
Dan Via and Kiff Scholl. Photo by Mainak Dhar.
I was shocked to hear this from an award-winning performer. But suddenly it all started to fall into place. Our Class shows these Jews and Poles at their worst and, ultimately, at their finest, and exposes the universal human experience on a deeply personal level. It holds up a mirror to the audience, and reminds us, through the recounting of this horrific, true event, that we all make mistakes and we all die. But even at our darkest hour, Our Class tells us we can rise above. We can forgive our own mistakes, and others, and aim to be better people.
Marketing a play in L.A. is never easy. Every show speaks to a different audience, and reaching that audience is always a challenge. But the job gets surprisingly easier when the target audience is everyone.
Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave. LA 90039. Remaining performances: Fri May 24 8 pm, Sat May 25 8 pm, Sun May 26 3 pm, Fri May 31 8pm and Sun June 2 3pm (no show Sat June 1). Tickets: $30. www.sonofsemele.org.
Kiff Scholl is an LA Weekly and Backstage Garland Award-winning theater actor who has been in countless plays in Hollywood since 1994, most recently in Absolutely Filthy at Sacred Fools. TV roles include Criminal Minds, Reno 911! and Talk Soup, and he’s currently rocking a few national commercials. Film roles include Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss,11/11/11, Where the Bears Are and Girls Will Be Girls 2012. As a director, his productions have been given seven Garlands, five LA Weeklys, and one Ovation. Also an award-winning filmmaker, his feature Scream of the Bikini just sold in Japan, and is now available on Google Play.
Lee Melville, the founding editor of LA STAGE Times and its predecessor, the print magazine LA STAGE, has died. Terence McFarland, the CEO of LA STAGE Alliance which publishes LA STAGE Times, issued this statement last night:
“I am deeply saddened by Lee Melville’s passing. He was the most extraordinary advocate Los Angeles theater has known. The entire community owes a debt of gratitude to Lee and his work on our behalf. I will miss most his post-show lean-in, followed by “What did you think?” with that smirk of his mischievous eyes. Thank you, Lee, for a life well spent in the theater. You will be truly missed.”
Others who would like to submit memories of Lee Melville, for possible publication in a tribute article next week, should email their stories and remarks to LA STAGE Times editor-in-chief Deborah Behrens at email@example.com. Details of a public memorial tribute will be published here when available.
Here is an article by Steve Julian about Melville that appeared in LA STAGE Times two years ago:
Playwrights’ Arena Award Renamed in Honor of Lee Melville
When Lee Melville smiles, his eyes beat him to it.
The editor-in-chief of this publication, LA STAGE Times, smiles frequently as he reminisces over his 50-year career in theater: actor, stage manager, producer, critic, editor. His outstanding contributions to theater, principally in Los Angeles, prompted Playwrights’ Arena artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera this year to rename the company’s prestigious award after Melville.
“It’s a real honor,” says Melville, in one of two cozy lobby chairs at LA STAGE Alliance, not 20 feet from his office that awaits renovation from a seeming storage room to something habitable. “In 2005 I was honored with the Playwrights’ Arena Award along with Emily Kuroda and Diane Rodriguez. Jon usually honors three or four people a year.”
We sit close, too, to Terence McFarland’s office. McFarland enjoyed a 12-year stint in the New York fashion and publishing business before completing both his bachelor’s of fine arts and MFA at CalArts. In 2003 he became LA STAGE Alliance’s executive director and shared the Playwrights’ Arena Award last year with Ben Guillory and Madeline Puzo.
McFarland calls Melville “a huge resource for me since I was brand new to this community. Lee is our living archive of Los Angeles theater knowledge — fact, innuendo and scandal!”
Sit with Melville or chat with him at one of the dozens of shows he sees each year, and you find he freely shares facts and sage insights; innuendo and scandal remain parked inside his vest.
It was at last year’s production of Velina Hasu Houston’s Calligraphy at Los Angeles Theatre Center that Rivera and Melville found themselves chatting at intermission. “Jon told me the next awards ceremony was going to be in the Tom Bradley Theatre at LATC. They’d always done it at a club in West Hollywood, so it was going to be a whole different [and grander] thing. And as he was telling me about the change, like a run-on sentence, he says, ‘And the board has decided we’re going to call it the Lee Melville Award.’ I said, ‘What?’”
His eyes widen as if the shocking news had been delivered for the first time.
“I was very touched,” he remembers. “I think back to Polly Warfield and others like Margaret Harford, both of whom have awards named after them by the LADCC [Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle]. When Polly was honored with an award [named after her], I was glad because Polly was special, a very dear friend, a critic from whom I learned a lot.”
Deborah Behrens and honoree Lee Melville at Playwrights’ Arena’s 2005 Hot Night in the City Awards
Reached by telephone, Rivera says, “For years I felt we really needed to change it from the Playwrights’ Arena Award to being named after someone with longevity here in Los Angeles. The natural reaction is to look for someone who’s dead. But I thought, why name it after someone who’s gone when there are people still living and still creating the work and who’ve been around many, many years?”
The name that kept coming back to him was Lee Melville. “There is nobody else more fitting because he’s actually doing it; he’s never slowed down. When I told him about it last year at Calligraphy I thought he was going to burst into tears. He said, ‘Jon, next year is my fiftieth year in the business.’ I thought, well, that’s perfect: we’ll have a double celebration.”
On May 10, the first Lee Melville Awards will be presented to playwright/director Luis Alfaro, Cultural Affairs executive director Olga Garay, and artistic director Katharine Noon and producing director Mark Seldis of Ghost Road Theatre Company for “Outstanding Contribution to the Los Angeles Theater Community.”
While Melville may be one to hold his tongue with innuendo and scandal, history shows him capable of writing scathing reviews. “I was harsh. I know I was,” he says. “I stopped reviewing in 1989 and, over 20 years later, people still come up to me and say I gave them a horrible review. Sometimes they even quote it!”
Even friends were not immune. “One friend, who I reviewed pretty harshly, didn’t say anything until the show closed at South Coast Rep. We were having lunch one day and I asked her why she’d never said what she thought of my review.” He chuckles. “She said, ‘I didn’t agree with it, of course, but you have to do your job and I have to do mine.’ She let it go at that. I wish everybody could do that.”
He laments, “Reviewing is a thankless job. The trouble with reviewing is if you’re going to be honest then you’re going to have to be somewhat brutal. You try to finesse it the best you can, but…”
Finessing can be an elusive skill. “I took a great lesson from Polly. People felt she was too easy, always finding something good to say. She would come back from a performance and tell me she really didn’t like it. Then I’d read her review in print and I’d think, ‘You didn’t like it? Sounds pretty good to me!’ It was a lesson to keep in mind.”
A critic’s obligation, Melville believes, is to the reader. “You must inform the audience of what the play or musical is and evaluate its production. A review’s purpose is not to bring something down or give it an artificial lift. I don’t necessarily love theater but I do respect it. Love is blind.”
If Melville’s complete personal history were being honored, it would stretch back nearer 70 years than 50. But the Playwrights’ Arena, appropriately, does not take into account tap dance awards won at four years of age or performances before Kiwanis and Lions clubs at eight, when the family moved from Provo, Utah to Los Angeles.
By the time Melville got to high school, he was a tap-dancing king, thanks, in part, to the wooden staircase his father built for him as a child. “But I couldn’t do any other kind of dance,” he remembers. “I ran for student body president in my senior year but lost by six votes to the baseball jock. To tell you the truth, I was glad I wasn’t student body president because otherwise I couldn’t have been editor of the yearbook.”
Politics was out; theater and journalism were in. “I got into the senior play as the male lead in Stage Door. That bit me,” he recalls, reinvigorating his love of performing.
Melville matriculated to UCLA, went to work for NBC in Burbank as a page and joined the Freeway Circuit, a theater company run by Corey Allen that toured synagogues and civic centers.
“Corey was the actor who played opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause,“ Melville says. “On the chicken run, he was the guy who got his sleeve caught and went over the cliff, so Corey became kind of an idol among young actors.”
In 1961, when Melville joined the Freeway Circuit, the 101/110 four-level interchange was 12 years old and the region was abandoning a mass transit system in favor of one that favored motorists. There had been calls for new freeways that could shuttle commuters from urban area to urban area without being funneled through downtown Los Angeles. The company took advantage of the public outcry and development of new highways in choosing its name and developing its mission.
“We did a play called Only in America by Lawrence and Lee about Harry Golden. Herschel Bernardi played the role of a Jewish journalist in South Carolina. I was the assistant stage manager and had a small role. It was my first chance to work with professional actors. And when the show moved to the Ivar [in Hollywood] I got paid. That’s why I consider 1961 my first professional year in theater.”
Melville continued on as a page at NBC until 1962 when he took a summer stock job in picturesque Carmel Valley, along the Pacific Coast. “Everyone had been talking throughout the summer about going to New York, the mecca. I got the bug and wanted to go there also to study with Sandy Meisner because he was such a legend.”
By January 1963 Melville had successfully auditioned and relocated to New York City. He studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy where Meisner taught. “I took all the courses I could the first year. By the second year, because of finances and being a bit bored with other aspects of the school, I studied only with Sandy. When I finished, I figured I was ready to go out and be an actor.”
Melville auditioned throughout New York City and found it particularly intimidating and discouraging. A friend offered him an assistant stage manager job at Starlight Musicals in Indianapolis. “That’s where I got my Equity card and played little roles. So eventually, armed with my card, I went back to New York, went on the rounds of auditions and still didn’t get anywhere.”
He did, however, get stage managing offers. “I pretty soon figured out I better stick to the production end rather than acting. But it took me until I was almost 30 before I called it quits as an actor.”
Melville views stage managing as a life saver. He worked in regional and summer theaters, still missing New York but thankful to be employed in his chosen vocation. Along the way, he and a partner formed American Children’s Theatre, a company that performed at the old RKO 86th Street movie theater in New York City. “We got a grant from Con Edison to do Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. We bused in disadvantaged children from all five boroughs for two shows a day, all week long. I used the same script Corey had used in Los Angeles; in fact, I got him to fly in and direct the first year. We got Mayor John Lindsay and James Earl Jones to alternate as narrators and Orson Bean played Scrooge. Orson and I still joke about it to this day.”
Melville calls producing the children’s show one of his biggest thrills. “When that huge curtain opened and the kids squealed, I knew I wanted to be a producer.”
Other productions followed, including a version of Peter and the Wolf that Jacques d’Amboise of the American Ballet Theatre created, and Toby Tyler, a children’s show taken from James Otis’ book Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks at the Circus. Melville wrote the adaptation and toured it throughout Manhattan parks under a grant from Chef Boyardee. They towed a trailer whose side could drop down to serve as a stage.
In his late 20s, Melville formed the Brier Hill Playhouse near Uniontown, PA with two partners, which they ran for four years. He remained in Pennsylvania during the winter and managed the Twin Coaches Dinner Theatre. Brier Hill’s last production before folding was Gypsy. Melville played Herbie; it was his final appearance on stage. “It was fun but after opening night, which was a hoot, I turned to the actress playing Rose and said, “˜You mean we have to do this for two more weeks?’ That’s when I knew my desire to act was over.”
Lee Melville in 1983 as editor of Drama-Logue
Instead of returning to New York in 1972, Melville rejoined his parents in Los Angeles where he rediscovered his penchant for writing. He penned freelance pieces for various theatrical publications.
“Bill Bordy, the owner of [now defunct] Drama-Logue, asked me if I would like to become the editor. His editor was going to New York. That began my 12-year tenure as editor-in-chief of Drama-Logue. In 1977 I started the Drama-Logue Awards by compiling a list of what I considered the outstanding shows I’d reviewed that year.”
It was a popular idea and inspired other Drama-Logue reviewers to create their own lists. The winners were published in the paper. “We got a huge reaction, of course,” Melville remembers. “One person even came to the office and handed me a carnation because he was so touched.”
Bordy decided the response deserved an actual ceremony, which inaugurated the following year and included the winners of the first awards. “We gave them certificates and it just built and built until it was too many awards. Three and a half hours of people getting up and accepting awards? But Bill didn’t want us to narrow it down.”
Melville moved the paper from reviewing only Equity-waiver shows to productions in larger venues such as Center Theatre Group’s. “Some years we had actors such as Jon Voight, Julie Harris, Gregory Harrison, Gena Rowlands and Ed Harris coming to the ceremony to receive their awards. We had a great time.”
Bordy told Melville in 1989 he wanted to produce films. Melville offered to buy Drama-Logue from him. “But we couldn’t come to any kind of a deal. He later sold it to BackStage.”
It was time for a change and Melville left town, heading to the high desert where his family operated a wedding business for Angelenos who couldn’t wait until they reached Las Vegas to tie the knot. Ten years of that was enough, he says, and the business was sold. During those years he still drove to LA every week to see plays. Melville moved to Valley Village where he purchased a townhouse. “One of the first calls I got,” he remembers, “was from Lars Hansen who was the director of what was then the precursor to LA STAGE Alliance.
Larsen and Melville were cronies from his Drama-Logue days. “Lars wanted to start a print publication but only if I would do it. I told him I would, as long as it wasn’t a casting newspaper like Drama-Logue and on a monthly, not weekly, basis. He said that would be perfect.”
It took a while in 2000 to get it off the ground. Melville describes the first issue as a thin 16 pages. “Then Lars left for a position at USC and the magazine survived in print for nine years. But we had to stop publishing in January 2009 because of the economy. [Executive director] Terence McFarland said he didn’t want to stop but we just couldn’t afford to publish. That’s when he suggested we do it as an online blog. I said, “˜What’s a blog?’”
LA STAGE TIMES
Lee Melville with some of the covers of LA Stage magazine
Turns out “blog” is a word kept mostly hidden inside his vest, discouraged alongside innuendo and scandal. LA STAGE Times is an arts journalism site, according to program director Doug Clayton. Last October the site was renamed LA STAGE Times, which received over 300,000 page views by over 100,000 unique visitors in 2010, Clayton reports. It currently averages about 1,100 page views a day.
The difference in the site versus blogs, Melville believes, is that most other online theatrical publications are “very limited.” He counters that, however, by acknowledging, “I’m sure each one has a devoted following as we do.”
As editor-in-chief, Melville credits his writers for the site’s success. “First, we don’t do reviews except for [former LA Times reporter] Don Shirley’s ‘commentaries’ as he prefers to call them. We worked hard to get Don who said he would write for us only if he could do a column similar to the one he wrote while at LA City Beat. He sees a lot of theater and is so versed in it so we said, sure, why not?”
Up to that point, Melville says, the focus was solely on supporting member theaters and promoting their shows. “We really didn’t want to write anything negative. That was our policy during our nine years of [print] publication. But now that we’re on a website, we have a lot more flexibility in length and the number of stories we cover.”
Melville also credits other writers for moving LAStageTimes forward. Gary Ballard, Connie Danese, Julio Martinez and Tom Provenzano were among Melville’s cadre of writers at Drama-Logue and continue with him today.
“When we started the magazine, I asked them if they would write for us and they’ve all stayed on with the blog, er, website.” He laughs at yet another reminder that “blog” is no longer fashionable. It is understandable given the first few months he endured as online editor. “Were it not for Janet Thielke, a wonderful intern from USC, I might have remained terrified about computers and websites. I would just edit the stories, send them to her and she published everything online. She spoiled me.” He laments her departure once her internship wrapped up.
Deborah Behrens and Lee Melville at “God of Carnage” opening night party
In discussing his staff, Melville singles out Deborah Behrens. “She has blossomed not only as a writer but also as my managing editor. She has gained so much knowledge over the years and wrote her first cover story about Megan Mullally in our third issue.”
It is a story Melville relishes. “I called Bart DeLorenzo, who was directing Megan at what was then the Evidence Room, and asked if he could line up an interview. I was afraid if we had gone through her publicist, we would’ve been turned down. Deborah went to Megan’s home, had a wonderful afternoon and came back with a great interview. She has been writing terrific pieces ever since.”
Behrens met Melville through San Francisco director and critic A.J. Esta, who wrote a column for Drama-Logue. “I’d been living in the Bay Area for nearly a decade working in public relations and marketing,” Behrens recalls. “A short play of mine was produced locally and in New York City, plus I’d performed in and written others. When I returned to LA in 1998, Lee acted as entree to the various players in town as well as theatrical historian.”
Behrens agrees with Susan Dietz that Melville “holds the institutional theatrical memory of this town. He dearly loves show business and genuinely respects those who try to earn a living doing it in any capacity at any level. People with well-known careers remain grateful for his help when they were first starting out. That’s why he is so beloved by so many.”
Yet, for Melville, the line between criticism and journalism often is blurred. “Sylvie Drake and Dan Sullivan were both editors and reviewers for The Los Angeles Times. They would go out, Sylvie in particular, interview someone who was opening a play and then go back the next week and review it and maybe not like it. I found doing that difficult. At Drama-Logue, I decided I would just edit the interviews and not actually write them since I was also reviewing.”
Melville prefers critics who are knowledgeable about theater and have experience as an actor, playwright or director. A reviewer, he believes, should not be like one he won’t name from the 1970s and ’80s who famously would review a performance with his own script tucked under his arm, ready to hand it to the director during intermission.
Having seen so much theater over the years, however, he often is asked what productions stand the test of time. He refers to what he calls The Golden Years (late-’70s to late-’80s). “There are a few plays I find stay cemented in my mind as being quite phenomenal,” he replies. “Oliver Mayer’s Blade to the Heat at the Mark Taper Forum and Bouncers at the Tiffany, both directed by Ron Link,” are on the list. “Link also directed the wonderful spoof Women Behind Bars which Frank Levy’s Catalina Production Group presented and toured.”
Catalina, he remembers, also was responsible for the production of The Hasty Heart with Gregory Harrison which started at the Cast Theatre, then moved to the Ahmanson and was an HBO movie. “And I must include Ray Stricklyn’s portrayal of Tennessee Williams in Confessions of a Nightingale which I saw several times here, then in New York and Edinburgh.”
Melville also recalls, “three exquisite Lanford Wilson plays presented by Center Theatre Group: Fifth of July, Tally’s Folly and the world premiere of Burn This. And there were excellent productions at the Colony, Odyssey, Theatre Exchange, LA Actors Theatre and Company Theatre.”
He also points to exceptional performances by Karen Kondazian and Ed Harris in Sweet Bird of Youth and Susan Dietz’s version of Cloud Nine at the Canon Theatre. “There are others from that era as well as later on,” he says, “but that’s a start.”
Melville says plans are for online coverage to expand to report on music and dance events in the fall. “Someday we may cover live performance in other states and countries. I’m still trying to find out how much people will read,” he says.
He also would call for an end to the debate over whether Los Angeles is a theater town. “It happens all the time, people arguing over whether LA is a theater town or it’s not a theater town. Who the hell cares? We have wonderful theater groups here of every size and shape. But maybe we have too much theater so the part that really stands out is a smaller percentage than in a city like Chicago.”
Furthermore, he believes the future of Los Angeles theater is directly in the hands of producers and, to a degree, actors and playwrights. His opinion is that commercial producers must create shows on a long-term basis, allowing themselves the flexibility to extend runs past five or six weeks.
“Theaters with subscriptions have to have a season and their shows have limited runs. There isn’t a way to really make money with these limitations. I love it when theaters, like the Colony or the Fountain, have an extra dark week [or weeks] that can be used to extend a hit show. You can’t be so rigid that if you have a hit you can’t keep it going.”
The longer a play runs, Melville believes, the more likely it is to attract out-of-town attention. “It’s good for the whole of theater.” He credits producers like Dietz and “modern-day wonder” David Elzer who took The Marvelous Wonderettes out of a very long run in Los Angeles to New York. “That’s a show that hasn’t breathed its last breath,” Melville notes.
Dietz, who met Melville in the late ’70s, is taking a breather as she awaits her second grandchild this summer. She says, “Lee is like an encyclopedia of LA theater. He’s so intellectually curious of everyone in theater and what we were doing. I find him to be the pillar of Los Angeles theater now.”
Lee’s dog, Zoe
After a long hiatus Melville returned briefly to producing in 2006. He co-presented his partner Bo White’s play Manner of Trust at the Underground Theatre in Hollywood in association with Playwrights’ Arena. It received favorable notices and Melville hoped it would rejuvenate White’s spirits enough to continue writing and return to acting. “However, his health took a downward spiral and he died March 31, 2009. Bo was the love of my life for 20 years. In 2000, we adopted a mixed breed puppy from the shelter and Zoe became a great comfort to Bo. Now, 11 years later, she is my constant companion.”
It is the first time his mouth beats his eyes to the smile.
Everyone has their place to be emotionally touched. “I defy anybody to say they haven’t had wonderful experiences in theater.” He chuckles at people who question his ability to see so many productions each year, a number that far exceeds his years in the business. “They ask me how I can go to theater four or five times a week. I just look at them and ask how they can watch television four or five nights a week. Everyone has their own church at which they worship. Mine happens to be theater.”
M3-IV is the fourth installment of the Meet Me @ Metro series, a theater event performed annually on or near the Metro rail system. This year’s offering includes two shows of original poetry written and performed by a diverse collection of artists exploring the subjective theme of “home.” There will be musical accompaniment, dance/movement, singing and audience participation.
Lynn Manning. Photo by Christopher Voelker.
“Home as a theme is universal,” says WVTC artistic director Lynn Manning. “Whatever we do there will surely be something that everyone can connect with.”
The title of the show at the 103rd Street Station is Scattered Joy, which takes a meditative look at “home”. It’s directed by Jameelah Nuriddin and will be performed by Trevor Davis, Sam Mandel, Pat Payne and Diana Vaden.
The ensemble-based show at the Rosa Parks Station is Under The 105, which takes a more musical approach. Directed by Ryan Vincent Anderson, it features Jessica Cornejo, Wynne Henry and Erica Peeples.
Both shows, targeted to audiences of all ages, run Saturday and Sunday at each station with performances at noon and 1 pm. Each performance is 25-30 minutes and runs twice simultaneously — allowing guests to see both presentations.
For the fourth year in a row, ticket holders, as well as some unsuspecting Blue Line train passengers, will witness an interactive variety show. It’s curated by Gamal Palmer and produced by David Mack, WVTC’s managing director.
“The show is designed to bring an audience to Watts,” says Mack. “The show starts at a place that is ‘quote unquote’ safe like Union Station. Attendees would then hop off the train, see a production, get back on and realize they are in Watts. Then they will discover that Watts was not so apocalyptic like they imagined in their heads.”
According to Mack and Manning, this year’s attendees can expect some changes.
“This year is completely different,” says Mack. “Anyone who has seen our previous show will notice that the entire model is different. Previously it was a guided tour model. Previously we took the audience as a group and assigned them tour guides and led them to the trains and the stations. In the past it has been three or four hours long.”
This year the event is considered a festival model.
“Instead of the audience moving as a single group, the two performances at Watts and the Rosa Parks stations will start simultaneously,” says Manning. “Audience members can choose to watch any show first and then switch and see the other station’s show.”
Dave Mack. Photo by Lee Zagari.
In addition, this year, according to Mack, there will be no performances on the train or the platform. In previous years puppetry and music was performed on the platform, which, Mack admits, was in violation of Metro rules.
“They reminded us of that each year,” says Mack, who added it’s the first year the event has been coordinated with the Watts Neighborhood Council. “This year we complied with Metro rules. This year there are no performances on Metro property. There are no clowns and no musicians roving. This time you simply walk to performance places near a Metro stop and experience the poets with musical accompaniment. This year is smaller and more focused. It’s still new work. The pieces are commissioned specifically for this performance. Everyone’s piece is a world premiere.”
At the Rosa Parks station, the performance will take place right next to the platform, under the highway overpass. It’s within walking distance of the train station.
Performances at the 103rd Street Station will take place across the street at the historic Watts Station (1686 E. 103rd St).
“It will be a challenge this year with no performance on the platform or on the train,” says Mack. “This year the audience is going to be more dispersed. We are going to have volunteers in Meet Me t-shirts in strategic places inviting people to discover what’s going on and to participate in the action.”
In the Beginning
Meet Me @ Metro, launched in 2010, is the brainchild of former Watts Village Theater Company artistic director Guillermo Avilés-Rodríguez who, according to Manning, resigned unexpectedly in January, due to creative differences. (Today, Company of Angels announced that Avilés-Rodríguez has been named the downtown-based company’s development coordinator).
“The relationship [at Watts Village] fell apart between the board and artistic director Guillermo,” says the 58-year-old Manning, who co-founded WVTC in 1996 with actor and Watts community activist Quentin Drew. “He decided to resign. He submitted a letter of resignation without being asked.”
Although Avilés-Rodríguez left the company, Manning, a playwright, actor and poet, still applauds his efforts.
Jessica Cornejo, Wynne Henry and Ryan Vincent Anderson.
“Guillermo did some very good things, started some things,” says Manning, who took over the reins of WVTC, once again, in February. “I think conceptually Meet Me @ Metro is a great thing. It has some attractiveness for those who don’t know theater. It’s not theater, not in the way I see theater as a means by which it’s a storytelling tool where we learn about ourselves and others. But the vignettes can be entertaining. Humanity and the world is the most important aspect of what theater can do. It opens us up to the humanity of others. People who never thought about theater might be attracted to it.”
Manning, who became blind after being shot in 1978 by a stranger in a bar in Hollywood, hopes the project opens the eyes of people in the community.
M3-IV will be Manning’s first mainstage production as artistic director of WVTC.
“My feeling about Meet Me @ Metro is that it has that value of introducing people to theater and bringing people into a community they may not have visited,” says Manning. “It’s a great way to get people to come to Watts.”
Back in 2011, Avilés-Rodríguez said the prime objective of the event was to “provide those Watts youth who had never ventured outside a 10-mile radius of their neighborhoods with a cultural experience outside their comfort zone.” Also, he wanted to provide a reason to visit Watts for Angelenos who had never seen it.
Over the years a number of theatrical companies have participated in the event. This year WVTC is the sole performing theatrical company. However, M3-IV is being produced in partnership with Plus Community Marketplace.
This year’s theme, home, is a reference to Meet Me @ Metro IV returning to its roots. Last year the event highlighted East Los Angeles using the Gold Line.
“This was Guillermo’s vision of expanding it beyond Watts and making it regional,” says Mack, who added that there also was talk of Meet Me @ Metro going from Union Station to Pasadena.
However, with the return of Manning, the event will again emphasize Watts.
“This time, because of funding limitations, we have to be limited to the number of stations where performances will be held,” explained Manning, who was born in Fresno, but considers Los Angeles home. “I wanted to bring it home and make Watts the focus once again. We’re inviting the greater community to come join us.”
Shuffling The Deck
Manning, who was one of the co-founders of WVTC 16 years ago, left the organization about 11 months ago.
“After 16 years on the job, I needed a break,” he says. “Several board members, including myself as chair, rotated off. I wanted to replace old board members with new ones to get new ideas and new directions. I wanted to make room for fresh minds and bodies. I thought it would be a good process. Some people, because they were there from the beginning, refused to accept new ideas. When that happens your company can get stuck.”
When Avilés-Rodríguez submitted his resignation, Manning returned as artistic director.
Later this month there will be yet another personnel shuffle at WVTC. Mack, 29, has announced that he is leaving at the end of the month, making Meet Me @ Metro IV his last production for WVTC.
“It’s time,” says Mack who started working at WVTC in 2009. “I love WVTC, but all good things must come to an end.”
Mack has joined a new opera company based in Silver Lake, The Industry. Starting June 1, he will serve as the general manager. Yuval Sharon is the artistic director.
In the meantime, the show must go on.
“This was designed to address the problem of Angelenos not traveling to Watts by providing a vehicle whose journey begins outside of the area and culminates in the heart of the area,” explains Manning. “This is a great opportunity for people to have fun discovering Watts”.
Tickets are $25 for the Saturday performance and pay-what-you-will on Sunday; however, the shows are free for the community and no one will be turned away for lack of funds.
Attendees may take Metro to either location. Free parking is also available at both locations. If you choose to attend Scattered Joy first, parking is available on Grandee Street adjacent to the 103rd Street Station. There is also parking available in the parking lot adjacent to the Rosa Parks Station if you choose to attend Under The 105 first.
Between the stations, you can ride a train, walk, or drive. There is a 30-minute window between performances to allow for travel time between venues.
Audio description for the hearing impaired and interpretation for the visually impaired will be provided during the 12 pm Sunday performance of Scattered Joy at 103rd Street Station and the Sunday 1 pm performance of Under The 105 at Rosa Parks Station.
Mask Work – Making Dinner. Photo by Evita Castine.
LA STAGE Times is posting several dispatches from the annual Directors Lab West Lab, which began Saturday and will continue until next Saturday, based at Pasadena Playhouse. Today’s report covers events on Monday and Tuesday. Go here for the report on the lab’s first two days.
Monday, May 20
Four Improvised Dances with Megan Finlay, by Sara Fenton
“All movement is dance. We don’t have to be doing unusual things with the table. We can… but all movement is dance” — Megan Finlay
Monday morning’s session of improvised dance gave the Directors Labbies some movement improv exercises to springboard from and use in the creation process.
Megan Finlay. Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins.
Megan Finlay of Rapid Descent Physical Performance Company shared four activities she uses in her rehearsal process. I anticipated that we might go through a lot of familiar exercises such as mirroring, flocking, or leading/initiating movement with different body parts, but I was happy to discover a different perspective on what Finlay calls “a way of being in the moment physically.”
1. The Person is Not a Chandelier. With the group divided into couples, each person explored the mechanics of the partner’s body. Curiosity was recommended. Helpful in building relationships, familiarity and group dynamics.
2. Follow Your Partner’s Center. With a hand placed on the partner’s center (front or back or both) we followed our partners around the space. This exercise was most successful for me and my lovely partner Doyle when we really committed to it and put our attention on the other person. A fast track to non-intimate relationship building.
3. Copy or Invent. Both options were available in this exercise. I liked the freedom within this structure. It was a simple, low-pressure, low-stakes chance for me to contribute when I felt compelled. At this point Finlay introduced the concept of a movement “score”, basically the parameters or rules that a particular structured improv would follow.
4. Copy or Invent with a set. Using the structure of copy and invent, a few set pieces were added, and dancers and actors moved about to music. The group pulled six moments/movements/shapes from the improv as the “score” for the next step. Two actors were arbitrarily assigned three of those movements to incorporate into their blocking in an improvised scene.
I most appreciated how this generated unconventional but very usable choices for blocking that could be used as “ingredients” to further create and set the final blocking for a production.
Pop Mythology with Eurydice, by Cindy Marie Jenkins
“You should never see a goddess naked, for your information; If you can avoid it, do” — Laura Shamas
Pop Mythology break out session. Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins.
Because the core text for this year’s lab consists of Jean Anouilh’s and Sarah Ruhl’s adaptations of Eurydice (we saw A Noise Within’s production of Ruhl’s on Sunday) playwright and mythologist Laura Shamas presented a slideshow and workshop on archetypes, symbols and the future.
That’s right. A mythologist is often called upon to predict the future. According to Shamas, “Story represents a pattern of human behavior which is so true it repeats itself.” Every story, every symbol, every gesture has happened before we see it. The most striking of these to me was the repetition of the goddess Diana’s pose in a shampoo commercial (actually, most shampoo commercials).
We viewed a series of these parallels before splitting into groups. Shamas had each group find certain story elements in both Anouilh’s and Ruhl’s adaptations that build a foundation of myth. Through these lists, we saw certain guidelines for adaptations take place. It made me want to walk around Pasadena and find all the symbols of archetypal poses based in mythology.
When asked which modern adaptation of mythology nailed both the original story and adapting it to a modern audience, Shamas suggested Oedipus el Rey by Luis Alfaro.
Masks With Anastasia Coon, by Megan Kosmoski
“In a scene, being comfortable doesn’t get you far… Say, YES to something new” — Anastasia Coon
Masks. Photo by Evita Castine.
Anastasia Coon first woke up our bodies by building a dance party through a classic mirroring exercise. We paired up and started mirroring our partner. Then she threw in some rockin’ tunes and encouraged our mirroring to become mobile. The exercise slowly grew until everyone’s movement in the room was influencing each other and became a full-on dance party. The icebreaker was ideal to create a safe and supportive environment for the subsequent movement work, learning to “ride the impulse.”
The workshop was to introduce us to mask work by first explaining the need to respect a mask due to its importance, energy, and spirit. The mask was our scene partner and you cannot just leave your scene partner on the floor to be crushed. Throughout the workshop we created a new vocabulary for our body, letting the mask inform us, which led to discovering new stories. When learning how to let the mask inform us, we embraced a different form of storytelling, in which we create a world that offers nothing but possibilities. The workshop not only gave us information on creating a play that included masks but armed us with a new tool to organically create and explore the stories we were telling.
How do you Say……, by Cindy Marie Jenkins
“I’ll think about that later when I’m in Tech” — Skyler Gray DLW ‘13
After dinner we split into groups to prepare a pitch for a site-specific Eurydice with a twist: 20 vignettes, 20 seconds for each vignette — no more, no less. We asked some groups to choose one director, others to work in groups. After two hours, everyone shared their pieces, to hilarious and very creative results. All integrated something from a session as well, and it was interesting to hear how participants were processing the week so far. We saw some very diverse pitches, but the main take-away appeared to be that a group full of directors and choreographers could absolutely collaborate on a story. It even surprised some of the participants.
Tuesday, May 20
Impro Theatre, by Cindy Marie Jenkins
“When people are confused or stuck they go to plot. We want to encourage you go to character because that’s where the story is” — Dan O’Connor DLW ‘08 – Impro Theatre
Impro session. Photo by Evita Castine.
Impro Theatre has such a specific style that it’s always fun to hear how its creators explain it. They rehearse and study different authors, then take an idea from the audience and start an improvised play in the manner of the chosen author. On our feet we tried these styles firsthand. Dissecting these classics really illuminates the craft, both of the authors and the stage. The director’s challenge, O’Connor revealed, is “ to keep the company inside the world while thinking outside of the box .” No small feat.
Heidi Duckler and Site-Specificity, by Megan Kosmoski
“Make the entire night an experience” –Emily Wanserski
We gathered in a small proscenium theater, with seats, to watch a power point presentation on site-specific theater….not exactly where we would expect this to take place. Emily Wanserski, the managing director of Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre, first introduced us to this site-specific dance company and their inspiring work. She explained the process of placemaking — taking the culture, geography, architecture, energy, and history of a space to enhance the story, illustrating how “each site has its own story.”
Heidi Duckler session. Photo by Evita Castine.
She then turned to the logistics of site-specific theater with the advice “you have to be smart.” We separated into groups and handled the business aspects of putting on a performance. Where is it going to happen? Where do you get the money? Who will be needed to put together and put on the performance? Who will come and see it? How do you get them to come and see it? And finally how will the show operate?
24th St Theatre, by Sara Fenton
“Always give children hope” - Debbie Devine
Field trips are always fun, especially to a part of a city that you don’t often visit. 24th Street Theatre, helmed by Debbie Devine and Jay McAdams, is just off the 10 freeway’s Hoover exit.
They introduced us to the three pillars of their work: community outreach, arts education and professional theater.
24th STreet Theatre. Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins.
We visited Devine and McAdams at their carriage-house-turned-99 seat-theater and joined the conversation of viable subject matter for “Theatre for Young Audiences” (TYA). Up for discussion was the “taboo of sadness” and the frequent hesitation of most TYA producers to create work that evokes truthful feelings (specifically sadness) in their audiences.
Through getting on our feet and producing our own 15-second works, the message of the session became clear — no subject matter is off limits. As directors we are responsible for setting the bar high for audiences of all ages.
CTG-Preshow Social by Megan Kosmoski
”Social media is word-of-mouth on steroids” — Jim Halloran, marketing associate, creative, at Center Theatre Group
The group had a session at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre prior to seeing a preview of The Scottsboro Boys. The pre-show social event included two parts.
CTG Social. Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins.
First was a dialogue with Evangeline Rose, stage manager of The Scottsboro Boys, which will open next Wednesday. As she talked about the show’s process and the director/stage manager relationship, she was confident, delightful, interested, organized, structured, kind, a great listener, and direct – everything you want in a stage manager. The conversation focused on the idea of the stage manager as the caretaker of the company and show. She articulated the necessity of communication and trust between the director and stage manager. After all, “it’s a marriage – we are in it for better or worse and are raising a child together. One day that child will be handed over [to the stage manager] to care for and protect.”
She was followed by a quick but surprisingly in-depth rundown of social media and engagement by Jim Halloran, CTG’s marketing associate, creative, who is about to begin a new job at Twitter. He explained that social media is just an extension of what we already are doing: social media is communication, communication is storytelling, storytelling is theater. With social media or pre-show engagement you can prime your audience for the production, and encourage a more active audience member who will want to continue to engage even after the event. He also encouraged, just as we take risks in our work, to take risks in social media, challenge our audiences and let them in on the fun. There are many ways to achieve this: Throw events, make the online conversation visible and accessible to everyone, help your audience feel a part of the experience and reassure them their opinion matters. He advised us to “not focus on being a good salesperson, just be a good neighbor.”
Ian Ruskin in “To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine.” Photo by Tom Dempsey.
A highlight of my career in England was performing the one-man play The Man Himself, by Alan Drury, which I performed in repertory theater and twice in London. When I moved to Los Angeles I performed it at Stages in Hollywood.
By now I had developed a love of one-man plays. I worked primarily in television and a pattern developed of guest star roles, usually playing the intelligent bad guy, in shows such as Murder She Wrote, Scarecrow and Mrs. King and MacGyver. While this paid the rent, it did not in any way fulfill the dream that I had as a student at RADA — to be involved in work that would affect an audience. As an actor in repertory theater I had performed in plays by great and exciting new playwrights that could give audiences something to reflect on as they headed home.
Then in 1994 I was cast to play a real-life character named Harry Bridges for a staged reading, directed by my friend Heidi Helen Davis, and my life changed. Bridges was a visionary labor leader whose beliefs and values inspired me. We performed the reading for his union, the ILWU. The cast of 12 actors received a 10-minute standing ovation, and I realized that I had found a way to “affect” again. The play with its large cast was too expensive to produce, but with a single actor…
Ian Ruskin. Photo by Verofoto/Veronica Puleo.
So in 2000 I wrote the one-man play From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks. It had its premiere at the Warner Grand in San Pedro, in front of 1000 longshoremen. This led to the film of a live performance, directed by Haskell Wexler. Since then, as part of the long artistic tradition of the traveling actor, I arrive, set up, perform, pack up and move on to the next gig – which is always totally different in space, size, lights and audience, from all the others. I have performed it more than 200 times, across America, in Canada, Hawaii, England and Australia. Audiences everywhere are inspired by the extraordinary life of Harry Bridges. Then while performing as Bridges….
Two friends introduced me to Thomas Paine and suggested a new play. As I read about him, my astonishment and admiration grew. When the Founding Fathers were debating the requirements for white men to have the right to vote in 1776, Paine supported universal male suffrage, with no slavery, and by 1797, equality for women! No one else was even close! America needed to hear this story.
In 2011, I wrote To Begin the World Over Again: the Life of Thomas Paine, with a COLA Fellowship, about the man whose writings were the fire that lit revolution on two continents and defined the idea of reason, yet who is largely forgotten today. As with the research I did while writing From Wharf Rats, I read books about Paine, interviewed people who had studied his life, and had scholars approve the accuracy of my script.
Ian Ruskin as Harry Bridges. Photo by Daniel Castillo.
I employ extensive sound effects and music in To Begin the World…, but I keep the production very simple and focus on defining the person, not a historical figure. For example, the first 30-plus years of his life in England were remarkably unremarkable. He then went from hero on the streets of Philadelphia, with all citizens reading his book Common Sense, to prisoner in Paris awaiting the guillotine. He died poor and largely forgotten. Those who did remember him were not kind in their opinions. The New York Citizen’s obituary said “He had lived long, did some good and much harm”.
As an actor, I want full-fledged characters to sink my teeth into, men with the highs and lows of a unique life yet with very ordinary weaknesses and struggles. I am an actor who has found his calling in telling forgotten heroes’ lives. I hope I inspire and affect audiences even as they inspire and affect me.
From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks. Thursdays 8 pm, 5/23 and 5/30 at Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood 90038, and 6/20 and 6/27 at Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Avenue, Venice 90291. To Begin the World Over Again: the Life of Thomas Paine. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun. 3 pm, 5/24-6/2 at Lillian Theatre and 6/21-6/30 at Electric Lodge. Tickets: $20.LAStageTix or www.brownpapertickets.com/profile/63869, 800-838-3006.
Ian Ruskin trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The film version of his play From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks has aired on PBS for the past four years. To cap off this run, To Begin the World Over Again will be performed at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art Summer Festival in London on July 5.
The story of Translationsis a snapshot of a 22-year event known as the “Irish Survey” (1824-1846), a process in which thousands of English soldiers crawled across the entirety of Ireland to make a new map of the country. England had long established colonial rule over Ireland, and tension between the two cultures was boiling just below the surface. Practically no English soldiers spoke any Irish, yet their instructions were to create an English-language map of a Gaelic-language region.
Ryan Wagner. Photo by Laura Crow
In Translations, playwright Brian Friel turns this set of circumstances into an engaging story. He uses the concept of a language barrier to paint an entire spectrum of emotions — it’s a story made of moments that border on farce with their delightful absurdity, only to give way to unique and deeply moving perspectives. As a director, I consider the chance to explore this brilliant and mature work as an unending gift.
My work with Translations, as it always does, began with research. This time, however, I had the opportunity to take my study beyond the normal Amazon shipment of books that consumes my life for a week or two. I was fortunate enough to take a trip to the New York Public Library, where I spent a day in a reading room that could double as the Sistine Chapel. I read original accounts from the Irish Survey and viewed the original maps, photocopying like a madman for my actors back home. Friel’s characters are based in such a specific reality that my intellectual understanding of the situation was what unleashed my emotional understanding as well. My comprehension of these people and their sights, sounds, hopes, and fears began to materialize, and I returned to my actors a director equally educated and inspired.
Kurt Quinn, Peter Weidman. Photo by Laura Crow
The word I keep coming back to for Translations is “lyrical.” The best definition I’ve found of the word (ironically, from my iPhone’s built-in dictionary) describes it as “[the expression of] emotion in an imaginative and beautiful way.” While I understand this as a fundamental goal of most art, I have to tip my hat a little further to the writers who are able to successfully apply this imaginative and beautiful style to subject matters that can, to the layman, risk seeming particularly pedestrian or academic. I’ve come to respect Friel as a master of this feat. This material stimulates intellect and emotion all at once, challenging the mind to listen and rewarding the heart for doing so.
Appreciators of Chekhov will immediately recognize that trademark blend of humor and pathos. (Fun fact: Friel himself was working on a translation of Chekhov’s Three Sistersas he prepared to write Translations. It shows.) Friel himself has said the play is about “language and only language,” but I disagree. I don’t believe the man gives his own work or those who see it enough credit with this statement. Translations encompasses the themes of dignity, responsibility, hope, identity, and above all, loyalty.
Peter Weidman, TJ Marchbank. Photo by Laura Crow
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the work is that while Friel has made his own opinion of the Survey’s lasting effects clear through his external writings, in Translations he actually presents opposing perspectives on the topic, allowing his characters to present their conflicting viewpoints with equal clarity and elegance. I think it’s a wonderful gesture of respect to blur the line for the audience and let us draw our own conclusions. We are allowed to listen in on a debate rather than endure a sermon.
Beyond that, it remains only to say how proud I am of my actors. Working with such a mature group of artists feels like opening up a sports car on the Autobahn. It’s been an exhilarating, surprising ride. They will never know the depth of my appreciation for their work, because no amount of gratitude could adequately express it.
Translations, presented by Coeurage Theatre Company at Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Blvd., LA, 90036. Opens Saturday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Through June 23. Tickets: Pay What You Want. https://coeurage.secure.force.com/ticket. 323-944-2165.
Ryan Wagner is the associate artistic director of Coeurage Theatre Company. He has worked with Coeurage for three years acting, directing, and serving as the company’s resident graphic designer. Also a performer, his credits include mainstage and workshop productions at La Jolla Playhouse, Under Milk Wood, The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love Suicide, Assassins, Is He Dead?, and The Trouble With Words.
Jared Taylor Wilson, John Sperry Sisk, Ashley Snyder, Tor Jensen Brown. Photo by Bree Pavey.
I’ve been known to be rather, shall we say, long-winded. I’ve always seen it as a double-edged sword — either you’re super into what I’m saying, or I’m boring you to death. But there is something to be said about a really good story, you know? It’s the kind of story that you want to take with you and tell someone else. It’s those kinds of stories that last forever, and the kind of stories you wish you were a part of. Stories that in time, become legend or even myth, like a fairy tale…
Mitch Rosander. Photo by Phillip Holbrook
The Princes’ Charming started out as a one-act play I wrote for a friend as a school project, the fall after I graduated high school. I had written some in high school, to marginal success and even won a few awards, so I figured, why not? It went over splendidly and won several awards itself. So I thought to myself, maybe I’ve got something here…
Flash forward two years: I was a three-time community college dropout who worked for the weekend and basically had given up my dreams of acting, writing, and directing. Sure, I had talked about writing the play into a full length, and even asked people if they would be interested in being a part of it, but secretly I had done nothing to make it happen. I was lying to my friends, my family, and myself. Before I knew it, I magically found myself kicked out of my house because of my growing drug and alcohol problems. So in true dramatic fashion, I packed my things into my tiny Honda Civic and moved to the state of Washington.
Jared Taylor Wilson and Lauren Sperling. Photo by Bree Pavey.
After the move, I got my act together and cleaned up. That’s when it happened — my good friend, Josh Sharp, called and asked how things were going and if I’d been working on the show. Naturally, I lied and said yes, but it got me thinking; could I actually write the show into a full length? Eight months later, I moved back to San Diego and had written the show. With some help from friends, I soon had the means to stage the show and it was welcomed with a warm reception. I thought I’d made it.
Flash forward another six months: I had auditioned and gotten accepted to AMDA, a performing arts school, here in Los Angeles. Throughout the course of my first semester, I had become roommates with a Mr. Tor Jenson Brown. He would later be the key to getting The Princes’ Charming produced yet again, only this time at a growing theater company here in Los Angeles – Loft Ensemble. It would be another two years before we started production at Loft, and without Mr. Brown, this would not have been possible.
Jared Taylor Wilson and John Sperry Sisk. Photo by Tor Jensen Brown
The Princes’ Charming is a show that speaks to my inner child. I say this because I grew up watching and being infatuated with Disney films and the enduring works of Mel Brooks. It reminds me of a time when it was okay to not understand the seriousness of issues because they were in some way funny, and because everything always worked out in the end, a time when my imagination could counteract any injustice the world could throw at me. I believe it’s that sense of naivete that makes The Princes’ Charming so close to me.
Something about comedy speaks to all of us – a sense of pure entertainment that I believe we all need in order to maintain an even balance in our expanding lives. That being said, The Princes’ Charming is, at its core, a true satire. It’s an homage to the stories and films that influenced the way that I thought things should be, when I was a child. As an adult, I realized that things can’t always be the way they are in fairy tales, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still hope.
Bree Pavey. Photo by Tor Jensen Brown.
All in all, my wish for this show is that it brings you joy, laughter, and entertainment. This show has saved my life, my sense of spirit, and my hope. Without people like Josh Sharp, Tor Jenson Brown, Adam Chambers, my cast, and everyone at Loft who has made this dream a reality, it wouldn’t be possible. And I wouldn’t have the honor of sharing it with you — I’d be dead in a ditch somewhere.
The Princes’ Charming, Loft Ensemble, 929 E. 2nd St.LA 90012. OpensMay 25. Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Through June 30. Tickets: $20.www.loftensemble.com.213-680-0392.
Mitch Rosander was born in White Salmon, WA and grew up in San Diego. He graduated AMDA’s Studio conservatory in 2011. Credits include: Jeff in The Homecoming written and directed by Joseph Konigsberg, Dr. Scott in The Rocky Horror Picture Show directed by John Tirado, and John Lennon and Me directed by Luke Benning. The Princes’ Charming is Mitch’s directorial debut. He lives in North Hollywood.
LA STAGE Times garnered two nominations today for the 55th annual Southern California Journalism Awards sponsored by the Los Angeles Press Club. The awards will be presented at the club’s centennial celebration gala held June 23 at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.
Columnist Don Shirley was cited in the category of best online entertainment commentary/review for his weekly LA STAGE Watch column. Other entries nominated in that category include commentary or reviews from The Hollywood Reporter, The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Reason.
Contributor Jessica Koslow was nominated in the best online personality profile category for her “Mikhail Baryshnikov: A Russian in Paris,” in which the dance icon discusses the US premiere of In Paris at Broad Stage as well as what his 64-year-old body wants to express now. Other nominees include articles from The Hollywood Reporter, People.com, 89.3 FM-KPCC and Streetsblog.com.
The SoCal Journalism Awards recognize Los Angeles-based journalists in print, television and radio while promoting excellence in new and emerging media. This year’s President’s Award will be presented to Hollywood legend Carl Reiner.
LA Stage Day – Terence McFarland. Photo by Katie Gould
Does LA have one “theater community” or many? Often the latter notion seems more plausible. When we define communities within an area as far-flung as Greater LA, geography or ethnicity or race can create boundaries. So can the many varieties of theater and the sizes and budgets of theater companies.
Often, theater practitioners are likely to meet some of their colleagues who work outside their particular spheres of interest only by attending awards events. Of course, on these occasions, most of the time isn’t spent talking to each other but rather in wondering whether you or your own particular theater tribe will win. And most of those who attend theater awards ceremonies don’t win those awards, so potential disappointment is always waiting in the wings.
LA STAGE Alliance has recently been sponsoring one-night panel discussions on various subjects, in various locations, under the LA STAGE Talks banner. But this year it also decided to revive a former tradition of holding an annual one-day gathering for extended talk about LA theater, with no awards distractions. The result, LA STAGE Day, was on display Saturday at Cal State Los Angeles.
Let’s get this out of the way at first — a lot of the major players within LA theater did not attend LA STAGE Day. I spotted no more than a handful of artistic directors of high-profile companies, mostly on the 99-seat level. I certainly can’t say that every subset of LA theater was represented.
LA Stage Day – Anna B. Scott, Ph.D. Photo by Katie Gould
Panel discussions, which might have attracted some of those absent artistic directors as participants, weren’t the chosen format at LA STAGE Day. Instead, the day began and ended with short Ted Talks-like presentations by individuals, usually abetted by visual aids. In between these were concurrent small-group presentations and discussions on a wide range of subjects.
Total attendance was between 350 and 400 — which seemed somewhat more manageable and intimate than a larger conference. Enough people attended to fill the house at the final session of the day, but more people might have required extra seating outside the room. Enough points of view were represented to instigate some lively conversations.
That final session was not only the best-attended but also the most provocative session I attended. Essentially, most of the speakers — except one — were making the case that certain groups aren’t visible enough on the stages of our remarkably diverse city.
LA Stage Day – Evelina Fernandez. Photo by Katie Gould
First up was Evelina Fernandez representing Latino Theater Company and the complex it manages, Los Angeles Theatre Center. Of course, she was primarily there to argue that in a city that is likely to eventually become majority-Latino, the number of Latino faces and stories on most of our stages is still strikingly small.
However, in a conversation with me before she spoke, Fernandez said that members and supporters of Latino Theater Company also hold discussions about its own diversity. It recently presented a Canadian play, Habitat, which didn’t do well at the box office, at least in part because a lot of the company’s usual Latino supporters didn’t show up.
The subject of diversity in our theaters is wide open to the possibility of paradox. If every theater company in LA followed Fernandez’s advice and started programming more Latino material and using more Latino talent, would the loyal Latino audience start diversifying too, going to other theaters so much that there would eventually be less of a reason for the ethnically-specific Latino Theater Company to exist?
Among those who followed Fernandez, also representing particular constituencies, were DJ Kurs of Deaf West Theatre and Tim Carpenter of the EngAGE nonprofit, which develops arts programs at senior housing communities.
Then there were two speakers from the world of opera, defying the stereotype that opera is stuffy and ossified. Opera director and sometime arts administrator Thor Steingraber argued for reaching younger and less conventional audiences — “we have to be willing to meet our users where they’re at” and “expand our idea of who our supporters are” through unorthodox technology, among other avenues.
Yuval Sharon of the experimental opera company The Industry said “LA has the most open-minded audiences in the country” and advocated for every company to get “a brand-new point of view.”
LA Stage Day – Erin Quill. Photo by Katie Gould
The parade of appeals to open the doors for more participation by underrepresented groups culminated with lacerating remarks from Erin Quill about the “theatrical ethnic cleansing” she discerns in recent controversies over the casting of some Asian roles with non-Asians, at La Jolla Playhouse and the Royal Shakespeare Company. She mixed mordant humor — “Maybe I’m being too polite…damn those genes!” — with statistics on underrepresentation of Asian Americans in American theater with ringing rallying cries such as “yellowface is off the table!” and “there’s no reason to skin us and wear us culturally like a coat.” In her closing moments, she became visibly choked up in her fervor. It was LA STAGE Day’s most striking display of raw emotion.
Then there was Mark Seldis, Ghost Road Company’s producing director, who — alone among the speakers — spoke not about reaching wider audiences by opening up theater to new players or new methods. Instead, he spoke about the “pure artistic impulse” that his seven-member ensemble tries to honor, about the importance of the “process” more than the product. The company decided not to worry about establishing a home base at a theater, because it considers itself “more like an indie rock band than a theater company…the rock band doesn’t think about how to attract people who don’t like rock music or how to change the industry.” They and the members of Ghost Road “just do the art.”
LA Stage Day – Mark Seldis. Photo by Katie Gould
In the context of this program of speakers, Seldis sounded like an outlier — someone whose company probably wouldn’t do well in the competition for grants that are based on sociological as well as artistic factors and the ability to reach wider audiences. On the other hand, you’ve probably heard that creating “devised theater” is actually quite fashionable these days, and Ghost Road certainly falls into most definitions of that phrase. Yet Ghost Road — and many of these “devised” companies — are fairly homogeneous, at least by the standards of race, ethnicity, age and disability that are also sometimes factored into grants decisions.
Will grants givers have to choose between these two impulses? Will audiences? Or are audiences primarily interested in who’s going to get them to laugh, cry and/or think – more or less in that order?
LA Stage Day – Outdoor bazaar. Photo by Katie Gould
Every resident of LA should be able to find at least one theater company (and preferably more than one) that engages him or her on a very personal level. For many people, that is more easily achieved if at least some of the people on stage look or sound more like themselves than many of the actors currently occupying the stage. On the other hand, a much smaller group of people is at least occasionally interested in examining characters or milieus that do not remind them of home, that introduce them to others.
I wonder if LA is diverse enough that it can be the home for both extremely diverse companies and for companies such as Ghost Road that appear to have little interest in the usual definitions of diversity. A city as big and as eclectic and with as much talent as LA should be able to accommodate all theatrical tastes. But not every company should have to serve every taste.
Fresh labbies – Sheldon Epps session. Photo by Evita Castine
LA STAGE Times will run several dispatches from the annual Directors Lab West Lab, which began Saturday and will continue until next Saturday. On the first day, after gathering at the Lab’s home base at Pasadena Playhouse, most of the Lab participants joined other theater practitioners at LA STAGE Day, sponsored by LA STAGE Alliance on the campus of Cal State LA. Today’s report includes two perspectives on that event. But the activities moved back to Pasadena Playhouse on Sunday, and those activities are also covered today.
Saturday, May 18
Check-in and Orientation, by Cindy Marie Jenkins
Kappy Kilburn, Sheldon Epps. Photo by Evita Castine
“I don’t know any theater that does anything new without the hope that it has a future life” — Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps.
A quiet morning greeted us in the courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse. It’s rare to see so many directors and choreographers in the same place at the same time. We usually work as the only person in our specific role. It’s also rare that strangers strike up conversation so early in the lab, but that’s what happened. Steering committee members Kappy Kilburn, Che’Rae Adams, Jessica Bard, Ernest Figueroa and I gave the basic information on signing up for shows, how we communicate during the lab and a little history. Erny encouraged everyone to make the lab their lab. Even though the steering committee and alumni curated these sessions around a theme (2013 is “Diverge and Converge”), the participants steer the conversations.
Directors Lab West is hosted most years by the Pasadena Playhouse. This year the Playhouse grounds are exceptionally busy — 30 directors and choreographers travel in packs while staff simultaneously runs technical rehearsals for Sleepless in Seattle, the musical that opens at the playhouse on June 2. The theater’s artistic director (and Sleepless director) Sheldon Epps took time to greet the lab and offer his perspective on the playhouse’s recent history. It did seem funny at first to begin a week of inspiration with a tale of the playhouse’s recent but brief bankruptcy, but ultimately we all found lessons to learn from the journey. Epps is always very candid with the lab, giving professionals insight into how an artistic director makes decisions.
LA STAGE Day by Megan Kosmoski
LA STAGE Day. Photo by Evita Castine
“Now that you know better, do better” — Erin Quill
Fresh and new to LA, I got out of the cab to Cal State LA and followed the black and silver balloons into a small world of artists. Everyone seemed to know each other, buzzing around asking each other about upcoming projects, laughing about longstanding jokes. Through the day we scattered into dark lobbies, fluorescent classrooms, and large theaters. Every event seemed to focus on one thing — approach theater better.
The opening session, before we split into smaller groups, was filled with ideas and inspirational thoughts to get the ‘do theater better’ conversation started. Michelle Ramos-Burkhart brought up the need for change in how we approach and represent theater, citing the common stereotype that “theater is elite. Theater is culture…. And [that perception] is just not working for us anymore.” Tomas Benitez asked for a revolution within Western theater to expand beyond the traditional canon. Yosi Sergant opened our eyes to new ways to engage and involve the community.
LA STAGE Day – Craig Fleming. Photo by Katie Gould
My first small-group session was “Spreading the Love: How to Convince Anyone to Support the Arts” hosted by Arts For LA. It was about arming an artist on how to change misconceptions when involved in discussions about the importance of the arts. Next session was “Unpacking Engagement.” After briefly introducing ourselves we started a roundtable discussion around what the buzz word “engagement” means and how it’s utilized by theaters and artists. My last session was “Writing is Hard and Other Excuses,” in which Che’Rae Adams gave useful tips on dealing with writers block as well as a standard language when talking to playwrights in play development.
In the closing session, as the entire group re-united, we heard Deaf West Theatre’s DJ Kurs pledge, via signing and with a voice interpreter, “My goal is to bring together people from different cultures, different languages and see what happens.” Mark Seldis of Ghost Road Company reminded us to “just do the art.” Finally Erin Quill stole the show with an unbelievably powerful speech on the recent controversies over the lack of Asian-American actors in plays focusing on Asian stories.
Every room was a safe space, an environment excited and interested in discussion and feedback. Every session seemed to start with who are we, what are we doing, and how can it be better! It was a great way to kick off the lab.
LA STAGE Day by John R. Lacey
Upon arrival at the Cal State LA campus, we were greeted by volunteers from the LA STAGE Alliance, which did a wonderful job organizing the event under the leadership of Terence McFarland.
LA STAGE Day – Jonathan Dorf. Photo by Katie Gould
There were simultaneous seminars around topics such as diversity on the LA stage, support for the arts, dialects, artistic disciplines, writing and marketing plays, acting, community, new media, puppetry, engagement, jazz dance, “Blue Sky” sessions (articulate your biggest hopes), social selling, grand guignol, Shakespeare, African dance, stage management and house dance.
I was instantly attracted by the Alliance of LA Playwrights’ “PLAY!” session (the 60 minute-everything-you-need-to-know-about-playwriting-in-L.A.-marathon) moderated by Jonathan Dorf and Dan Berkowitz with presentations from Ron House and my friend Dale Griffith Stamos.
I also attended an informative discussion on our “Community and Big Data” moderated by IT wizard Mark Doerr (who is responsible for LA STAGE’s Arts census), who recommended Theatre Bay Area’s book Counting New Beans, edited by Clayton Lord, which presented the findings of the 2012 report on the two-year WolfBrown study about how to measure the intrinsic impact of theater on audiences, by Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin.
From there it was on to Cindy Marie Jenkins’ “The Social Sell: 10 Ways We Can Use Social Media for Audience Development” — and who doesn’t need a larger audience in LA? If you get a chance to participate in one of her seminars next year, don’t miss it- even if it’s to promote yourself!
LA STAGE Day – Erin Quill. Photo by Katie Gould
Then I ran down to “Writing is Hard and Other Excuses” by Che’Rae Adams, producing artistic director of the LA Writers Center, who has a great back-to-basics approach on author intent, concept sentences and character development — invaluable for any writer at any stage of their development.
The day culminated in the final large-group session, with inspirational remarks by Evelina Fernandez of Latino Theater Company, DJ Kurs of Deaf West, Tim Carpenter on revitalizing art for the aging, Yuval Sharon on re-imagining the opera industry, Thor Steingraber on reaching new audiences through new media, Mark Seldis of Ghost Theatre Co. on respecting the “pure artistic impulse” and Erin Quill — who gave us all a real lesson on diversity and made anyone who was ever in a production of South Pacific, Flower Drum Song or The King and I think again about Asian American casting.
LA STAGE Day. Photo by Evita Castine
And, as if that weren’t enough, there was an outdoor bazaar with tables where we could meet representatives of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, Sacred Fools Theater, Theatre of NOTE, LA Writers Center, Rogue Machine Theatre, Road Theatre, Actors’ Gang, Theatre @Boston Court, A Noise Within, Ghost Road, Loft Ensemble, Skypilot Theatre, Son of Semele Ensemble, 24th St. Theatre, LA Theatre Works, DOMA Theatre Co., Contra-Tiempo Dance Theatre, Cornerstone Theater, Emerging Arts Leaders, East West Players, Bootleg Theater, the great guys from Company of Angels, Center Theatre Group, Santa Monica Playhouse, Edgemar Center, Pacific Resident Theatre, La Mirada Theatre, Musical Theatre West, 2Cent Theatre Group, Theatre West Arts for L.A., California Lawyers for the Arts.
Even my union — Stage Directors & Choreographers Society — sent out the contract folks Mauro Melleno and Randy Anderson from New York. They don’t mess around when you need help!
Sunday, May 19
Bagels, Coffee & Contracts with SDC (Stage Directors & Choreographers Union) by John R. Lacey
SDC – Randy Anderson, Mauro Melleno. Photo by Evita Castine
Day two started with a one-on-one conversation with Mauro Melleno and Randy Anderson from the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society on compensation, subsidiary rights and collaborative agreements, right of first refusal, dispute resolution, arbitration and property rights (with some great true stories where the names had been changed to protect the innocent!) These guys mean business!
Dreamscape in KRUMP by Cindy Marie Jenkins
“I create theater for people who don’t go to the theater….I create theater because I want to change the world” — Rickerby Hinds
Alum Carrie Klewin Lawrence suggested that we listen to Rickerby Hinds and his KRUMP dance theater. A professor at UC Riverside, Hinds integrated hip hop into his work at first to encourage friends and non-practictioners to consider theater a viable form of entertainment. He dissected four performative hip hop elements (the DJ, MC, break dancers and graffiti) plus one informative element (knowledge) and how their origins in the culture sparked a theme to explore in performance. Hinds explained how hip hop informed culture and vice-versa. But what is KRUMP dancing? It began in the hip hop culture with people simply “releasing frustration creatively”, and evolved into an acronym, standing for “Kingdom radically uplifting mighty praise”. They demonstrated Dreamscape, a work in progress, which begins with a coroner’s report of the multiple bullet wounds inflicted by police on a 19-year-old African-American girl while asleep in her car. We journey through parts of her body as she gets shot with just the aid of voice, beat box and movement.. An astonishing meld of organic and trained movement not only attracts new audiences to theater, but opens the eyes of seasoned artists — that is, if the enthusiastic reaction of the lab is any indication.
Krump - John "Faahz" Merchant, Rhaechyl I. Walker. Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins
Krump - Carrie Mikuls, Rhaechyl I. Walker, John "Faahz" Merchant. Photo by Evita Castine
So, the Stones Could Talk? by Cindy Marie Jenkins
“Nothing builds community like rep” – Julia Rodriguez-Elliott
A Noise Within Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins
After seeing the last performance of Eurydice at A Noise Within, we had a talkback with artistic directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. While we started, Geoff Elliott (who directed Eurydice) was pulled aside by an audience member who thought casting an African-American man as the “villain” perpetuated a stereotype. They left on good terms, but it sparked an interesting conversation about diversity (still on our minds from LA STAGE Day), not only on stages but in artistic leadership. Why aren’t there more non-white faces at A Noise Within? Beyond race and ethnicity, how does a married couple co-direct? How do they give notes to guest directors and how can directors collaborate without losing their vision? Most of us left with more questions than answers. A Noise Within’s dedication to perform shows in repertory, which Elliott believes is part of the company’s DNA, allows much more time (eleven months) for word of mouth to build. And we were told that when three companies create different material at the same time, it feeds the energy of the building as well, including the theater’s welcoming house staff.
How Do You.. Part 1
“We are ‘othering’ this person” – Mary Spence, DLW ’13
Round Table Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins
Round-tables are scattered throughout the week for unpacking the lab’s theme and questions that arise from sessions. It was no surprise that on Sunday, diversity was topic number one. During dinner, most groups large and small had discussed it, and all the ideas converged in one room for a rousing two-hour conversation on diversity, responsibility, and audience development. This session also marked the first time that all the lab participants — also known as “labbies” — got a chance to really talk to one another. Once we started, the questions flew. What do you need for authentic story-telling? Is it color-blind or color-intentional casting? How can we be aware of blind spots that unexpectedly create barriers to entry? Know why you seek diversity; don’t just do it out of obligation. We all agreed the topic can be tricky, but we simply made a pact that we would listen to understand and not listen just to reply. We all firmly believe there is a bigger danger in not talking about it.
Round Table Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins
There are many different ways to welcome diversity, too. One labbie told of her Othello with a Desmond instead of a Desdemona — and how the switch to a gay couple offended a lot of people, resulting in that theater losing its space. Others recounted tales of new audience members who were energized to see characters who look like themselves on stage. The question became: do we care about those people who are offended or focus on welcoming the new faces?
Later I saw that intern Allegra Breedlove had tweeted “Feeling very hopeful about the future of American theater after today’s round table discussion on diversity”
To which Kara Goldberg replied “We ARE the future of American theatre!”
And it’s only Day 2!
Directors Lab West is modeled after the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab in New York City. Like its NY counterpart, the Lab is a series of discussions, working sessions, panels and symposia with some of the nation’s and region’s leading directors, playwrights, designers and other theater practitioners. DirectorsLabWest.com . Follow #dirlabw
Golden participated in a Chicago Dramatists workshop in early 2009 in which each playwright would write a play for five provided actors, he says. During one early class, Golden was chatting with one of the actors, Cecil Burroughs, whom he had previously met. When he realized that Burroughs was from Los Angeles and a Dodgers fan, Golden commented on his own admiration for Jackie Robinson. Burroughs’ response, however, was less than enthusiastic.
“It was something like, ‘Eh, what’s the big deal?’” Golden remembers. “Here was me, on some level, as a white guy trying to connect with an African American and being like, ‘Certainly we will share the same opinion on this crucial historical figure’ — and we couldn’t.”
Golden says now that it was “dumb of him” to assume that he and Burroughs would be able to connect over Jackie Robinson, but out of that interaction was born an idea to write a play examining why someone like Burroughs might feel indifferent toward Robinson, and how those feelings could be justified.
That play became Cooperstown, which premiered in December 2009 at Theatre Seven of Chicago, where Golden is managing artistic director. Cooperstown will make its West Coast debut with Road Theatre Company beginning Friday at the new NoHo Senior Arts Colony, directed by Darryl Johnson.
The play is set in a diner in Cooperstown, New York, in 1962, when Robinson is about to become the first black man to enter the Hall of Fame. The historic moment and other civil rights issues of the day underscore the trials of each of the five characters: Junior, the diner’s hardworking manager who can’t get a promotion; Sharree, his activist-leaning little sister; Dylan, a waitress obsessed with Bob Dylan; the diner owner’s wife Grace; and Huck, an Ohio minor league pitcher who comes into town for the induction ceremony.
Burroughs played Junior in the original Chicago production and will reprise the role for Road’s production.
Golden says Cooperstown is more of an exploration of the characters and how their lives are affected — or not affected — by Robinson’s achievement than a rigidly historical piece. As with many watershed moments in history, Robinson’s induction into the Hall of Fame may not have had as much of an immediate, positive influence on people’s lives as we might assume, Golden says.
“There’s certainly a historical moment that has happened but that doesn’t necessarily make Junior and Sharree’s lives any better,” Golden says. “Those things are really monumental and should be celebrated, but it’s kind of folly to think that, in itself, makes everything better.”
Jackie Robinson, c. 1945.
Johnson, the director, says he immediately connected to Golden’s writing style when Road company member Alexa Shoemaker gave him Cooperstown to potentially include in the company’s annual Summer Playwrights Festival. The response to the staged reading of Cooperstown was so positive at the festival that it turned into a full-fledged production.
Although Johnson held an open casting after the reading, all five actors who performed the reading ended up keeping their roles for the play.
Cooperstown is “old-fashioned” storytelling, Johnson says, which he appreciates. “There’s just about every kind of love relationship in the story — a great brother-sister relationship, a budding young romance between two young people that are just cute as all get-out together, and then there’s a more bittersweet, deep love affair at the heart of it,” Johnson says. “Junior’s ultimate choice at the end of the day, with all the things he’s trying to do and all the ambitions he has, is ‘My place in the world is making sure my family is taken care of and that’s where I belong.’ I love that about it.”
The opening night of Cooperstown will mark the official gala opening of NoHo Senior Arts Colony’s new theater(although The Baby Project was the first professional production in the space, last February). Johnson excitedly points out the detail currently being put into Cooperstown’s set. A neon sign, jukebox and pastel-colored booths help to create an authentic ‘60s diner atmosphere, and the walls will soon be covered with baseball memorabilia. Johnson credits the design team, including set designer Desma Murphy, with bringing all the small details to life.
Cecil Burroughs and Ann Hu.
“By the time [Murphy] is done, I really think people are going to walk in here and ask for a menu,” Johnson says. “We want to brew coffee backstage so the room has a little of that scent of a diner when you walk in.”
Though Johnson and Golden have yet to meet in person, they’ve already bonded over baseball — Johnson is an Angels and Dodgers fan, Golden is a Reds fan — and Johnson thinks Golden will be pleased with the production when he comes to see it.
Johnson agrees that Cooperstown raises important questions about how much these great historical moments really affect people’s everyday lives. It also speaks to contemporary themes of race and the definition of family, he points out.
And it’s just a good story, told in a refreshingly simple and honest way, he adds.
“It’s just people with integrity,” he says. “Trying to figure it out and trying to work with each other and do their best.”
Cooperstown, The Road on Magnolia, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, 91601. Opens tonight. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through July 20. Tickets $34. www.roadtheatre.org. 818-761-8838.