Chris Kauffmann, Libby Letlow and Mark Whitten in "Avenue Q"
Two and a half years ago, I had never even heard of Avenue Q.Â I hadn’t considered puppetry as an occupation, or even as a specialty inside the acting community.Â Yet within the past year, both of these things became an integral part of my life.
Most of my students tell me about their obsession with the Muppets and all things Jim Henson from an early age. But even though I, too, was a huge Jim Henson fan, that’s not what sparked my love of puppetry.
It all started with something you wouldn’t normally hear from an actor: “I want a role with no lines; puppeteering the plant sounds interesting.” I had just come off a production of A Streetcar Named Desire with the Glendale Theatre Guild as Blanche, and I was actually tired of talking.Â When I found out the next production was Little Shop of Horrors, I knew I wanted to be involved, but I wasn’t sure in what capacity.
Then I realized this Little Shop needed a puppeteer. I saw the perfect opportunity to try something different and develop a new skill I could throw on the ol’ resume.Â It turns out I absolutely loved it.Â Apparently the quirky nerd in me got great enjoyment out of dancing around in a giant, 100-pound foam rubber suit.
As soon as the production was over, I immediately contacted Paul Pistore, a great puppeteer whom I had worked with on the set of Saban’s Masked Rider in 1995.Â I told him I was pretty sure I needed to find out what this whole puppetry business was about.Â Well, I guess I wasn’t the only one who had puppet mania, because one of the people he put me in touch with was Emmy-winning Michael Earl from Sesame Street. He had just started a whole school for puppetry right here in Los Angeles.
Libby Letlow, Janelle Dote, Mark Whitten, Benai Boyd (center), Chris Kerrigan and Chris Kauffmann
When I began my training with Michael, his school offered classes only in TV Puppetry. Â I won’t say I was awful when I started, but something wasn’t clicking.Â It wasn’t until Christian Anderson, from the touring company of Avenue Q, came in to teach Theatrical Puppetry that I began to grasp the concept of really bringing life to these goofy, cloth characters.
I made a special trip up to San Francisco to see my first production of Avenue Q at the Orpheum Theatre, and I was hooked on the show; I saw puppetry in a whole new light.Â I thrived, and my family and friends began to see a real enjoyment in my craft that had been missing for a while. Puppetry just made sense.Â After 18 weeks of training, I graduated Puppet School and was left with the big question, “now what”?
That question was answered for me just a few weeks later, when I moved back to my hometown of Bakersfield.Â The very day I moved into my apartment, a friend from a local theater informed me the company had just put Avenue Q on its season and was looking for people to work on it.Â I jumped at the opportunity.
The director was a friend of mine from college. He told me he already had a puppetry coach, but that I was welcome to assist — and that he’d love to have me in the role of Lucy.Â As the schedule progressed, our puppetry coach got busy with other projects, and I took over the position.Â While all of this was going on, Puppet School called . Would I be interested in teaching the Theatrical Puppetry classes?Â So while I was in rehearsals, I was also commuting every weekend to LA to teach puppetry to whole new batch of students.Â Puppets were ruling my life and I was thrilled.
Libby Letlow and Mark Whitten
Two weeks after Avenue Q closed in Bakersfield, I packed up and moved right back down to LA to continue teaching.Â The co-owner of Puppet School put me in touch with Mike Abramson at DOMA Theatre Company, who needed a puppet coach for DOMA’s upcoming production.Â There was no way anything could have kept me from being a part of this show.Â As soon as I met the director, Richard Israel, I knew the production was in great hands and felt right at home.
This has been one of the most fulfilling theatrical experiences I’ve ever had.Â I am so proud of how far this cast has come and incredibly grateful to be part of something as beloved as Avenue Q.Â This past year has been a whirlwind of fleece, felt, and foam, and I’m the luckiest gal in the world to be caught right in the middle of it.
Avenue Q, presented by DOMA Theatre Company, MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles 90029. Opens Friday. Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun 3 pm and 7:30 pm. No Sunday evening performances on Nov. 11 or 18). Through Dec. 16. Tickets: $30″“$34.99. www.domatheatre.com. 323-802-4990.
***All Avenue Q production photos by Michael Lamont
Libby Letlow is the puppet master, in addition to playing the roles of Thistletwat and Bad Idea Bear, in DOMA Theatre Company’s Avenue Q at the MET Theatre.Â A theatrical actress all her life, Libby began to work in film and television 16 years ago on the Fox children’s show, Masked Rider. She soon moved behind the camera and into the position of producer and writer on a few independent projects.
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.
Ensemble of “A Fried Octopus.” Photo by Justin Zsebe.
A Fried Octopus is about to open — an abstract dream that tries to tangle up the artistic minds of the present with those of the past, within a surreal night at the Bootleg Theater. Inspired by the women dancing in the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec and other performers of the time, A Fried Octopus leaps into a pool of absinthe to find the divine feminine bubbling up. The male ideal of art surrenders. It’s an assemblage of text and movement that serves as a canvas, reminding us all of the beauty that can be found in ugly places.
Collaboration. Union. I am asked to describe my process in the first person and I instantly stumble for words. The team creating A Fried Octopus is in its final push toward opening night. We are short on sleep and constantly juggling schedules to find time where we can all meet and fall into a dream that welcomes the artists of the past into our current world.
Justin Zsebe. Photo by CURAphotography.com.
However, this process is far from a first person-narrative. This play is a dream slipping into and out of shared realities, realities formed and expanded by surrealists and performers — who, over decades and decades, slowly found partnerships next to each other, within one another’s writing. Those of the present day welcomed those of the past. And then they asked for more. They asked for actors and performers, dreamers and singers. This nascent Octopus wanted another arm.
So now there was a dream and actors meeting to play and imagine. Games. Jokes. Songs. Dances. Stories. Emotions. Images of the past reminded us about our current time and place, our moment of now…. Moments spent at the Bootleg Theater. And now… And now the words started to swirl and the actors took on greater and greater challenges and then there was something more. The young Octopus again asked for another arm.
It asked for space. Then light. It wanted clothes. It asked for sound. All swirling around a dream that was inspired by a painting, which was painted by a man who was inspired by a woman, who was actually a girl who simply wanted to dance and feel free. Freedom inspires love. And again we arrive at our moment of now and if ears perk up perhaps there is one last ask… the ask for an audience to come and share this surreal wild dream bent on absinthe and love.
That’s the amazing thing about theater, I think. So many arms coming together to create a wiggly living thing that is fascinating to watch. However, to avoid sentimentality, let’s cook that baby up and see what we’ve got. And after so much asking, A Fried Octopus just might have something to give.
Please join us at the Bootleg Theater during the limited run of A Fried Octopus.
A Fried Octopus, Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd, LA 90057. Opens tonight. Plays Thurs-Sat. 7:30 pm. Through June 8. Tickets: $20. www.bootlegtheater.org.
Justin Zsebe lives in Los Angeles and enjoys telling stories with passionate artists. He holds an MFA from UCLA’s department of theater, film and television. Zsebe’s past productions at the Bootleg include Nine Circles, The Fun Family Festival of Tragedy and the annual Janky Christmas Spectacular.
PREMIERES…Geffen Playhouse in Westwood is completing its 2013-2014 season with the debut of a solo work starring Annette Bening, performing a selection of monologues created and first performed by solo performance pioneer Ruth Draper, opening Apr 16, 2014. The title and director are yet to be revealed. This completes the previously announced nine-play Geffen season, performing in the Gil Cates and Audrey Skirball Kenis Theaters…BootlegTheater in Los Angeles is offering A Fried Octopus, “an original dream play that links the world of women in Toulouse-Lautrec‘s paintings to the men who loved them,” conceived and helmed by Justin Zsebe, based on research by artistic director Alicia Adams, created by the Bootleg ensemble, opening tomorrow…Also debuting Friday, at Celebration Theatre in Hollywood, is the LA premiere of At the Flash, “a fast-paced journey that juxtaposes five different decades whose stories collide and blend, bringing them all together on one night,” scripted by Sean Chandler and David Leeper, helmed by David Zak…Valley Village-based Luminario Balletis highlighting its fourth rep season with two premieres, performing May 31-June 2 at El Portal in NoHo. The new works include Brace…yourself, “an unforgettable travel dance theatre trip,” choreographed by Debra Lynne Brown; and Firebird Rising, a Stravinsky/electronica ballet/aerial multimedia showcase, helmed by Stephen Hues…
TUNER FARE…Broad Stage and LA Opera have united to co-produce the premiere of Dulce Rosa, wrought by composer Lee Holdridge and librettist Richard Sparks, based on the Isabel Allende short story “Una Venganza” (“An Act of Vengeance”). With LA Opera general director Plácido Domingo conducting, the production opens tomorrow at Broad. It’s the inaugural project of the LA Opera Off Grand series, “devoted to new and eclectic operatic works presented in venues away from the company’s home at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.”…Tony winner Lillias White (The Life),currently co-starring in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come And Gone at the Mark Taper Forum, is debuting her new cabaret show, A Woman On Love, at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood, Mondays only, June 3 and 10, joined by power tenor Jake Simpson, accompanied by music director Abdul Hamid…While we’re focusing on cabaret, singer/dancer/thesp Neile Adams premieres her new song-and-story-fest, One Hell of a Ride, June 11, at Upstairs at Vitello’s in Studio City, helmed by Ted Sprague, accompanied by pianist/music director Andy Howe…2Cents Theatre Group is offering Jonathan Larson’s landmark rock tuner, Rent, in celebration of its 20th anniversary, helmed by Kristen Boulé, with musical direction by Morgan Fitch, opening May 24. It will run in repertory with Private Eyes by Steven Dietz, helmed by Shaunessy Quinn, opening May 30, running through June 30 at the Hudson Theatre Mainstage in Hollywood…
Ian Ruskin as Thomas Paine On Religion
AROUND TOWN… Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica is hosting two performances only of Amy Tofte’s FleshEatingTiger, helmed by director/choreographer Vincent Paterson, June 21 and 22. The surrealistic two-hander, featuring Sam Breen and Gabriela Trigo, “chronicles an affair under the influence.”…In Pasadena, A Noise Within (ANW) continues this season’s Words Within Wednesday night play reading series with four free, one-night-only readings this summer: The Heiress by Ruth and Augustus Goetz (June 5); August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata (June 17); Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, which originally premiered in 1947 at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles, starring Charles Laughton (July 24); and Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill (Aug 14)…Long Beach Playhouse is offering Vigils, focusing on a widow’s reluctance to let go of her deceased husband’s soul, scripted by Noah Haidle, helmed by Olivia Trevino , opening June 15…Scripter/thesp Ian Ruskin is offering a pair of biographical solo outings at a pair of spaces. Ruskin’s From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks — inspired by the life of labor leader Harry Bridges – opens May 23 at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood, closing May 30. Then it moves to Electric Lodge in Venice, opening June 20, closing June 27. His second bio spotlight, To Begin The World Over Again: The Life Of Thomas Paine, opens May 24 at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood, closing June 2. Then it re-opens at Electric Lodge in Venice on June 21, closing June 30…
EXTENDING…No sooner had Burbank-based Colony Theatre confirmed the May 19 closing of its successful Rodgers and Hart bio tuner, Falling For Make Believe — book by Mark Saltzman, helmed by Jim Fall – than it announced that it is bringing it back, re-opening June 6, reaching out until June 30…Do Lord Remember Me, a look at the past through the words of ex-slaves, scripted by James de Jongh, helmed by Wilson Bell, continues at Chromolume Theatre on Washington Blvd, through May 26…In Hollywood, Blank Theatre is extending Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers, based on Peter and Wendy by JM Barrie and scripted by Michael Lluberes, helmed by Michael Matthews, through June 16…
INSIDE LA STAGE HISTORY…On July 20, 1945, I celebrate my seventh birthday by attending the matinee show at the Gayety Theatre, located at 523 S. Main Street in downtown LA. The Gayety is a dedicated burlesque house, headlining stripper Ann Corio and featuring actor/baggy pants comic Joe Yule, father of Joe Yule Jr (also known as Mickey Rooney). I am sitting in the first row, a guest of Mr. Yule, who is a friend of my dad. I don’t quite get the relevance of Miss Corio’s talents but I think Joe Yule is the funniest man on earth. After the show, Yule escorts me back to my dad’s restaurant, located a half block away in the Pacific Electric Building at 6th and Main. Along the way, Yule spouts, “The Gayety has been called a lot of names over the years and I’ve worked every one of them.” Indeed. When it is constructed in 1905 as the main floor of the Waldorf Hotel, the theater is called the Novelty, changing to New Peoples in 1906 and just Peoples by 1909. It features second-tier vaudeville acts and silent film shorts. In 1913, it is operated by Charles Alphin who renames it the Olympic, then changing it to the Alphin in 1914. Later that year, it is taken over by Mr. J.A. Quinn who titles it Quinn’s Century. It continues as the Century after Quinn’s tenure until 1916, evolving away from vaudeville and into burlesque, while continuing to have a matinee and evening slate of films, mostly lighthearted comedies. Over the years the name changes continue, from the Omar(1917-22) to the Moon (1923-36). It becomes the Gayety from 1938 onward, featuring the country’s most famed strippers and burlesque acts. By 1960, the Waldorf Hotel continues to operate, but the Gayety closes. In 1980, Mickey Rooney reveals, “If you want to see me dad’s routines, you’re going to have to catch Sugar Babies on Broadway. Ann (Miller) and I do ‘em all.”…
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).
Michael Peretzian directs Laurie Okin in “Dying City.” Photo by John Flynn.
Award-winning stage director Michael Peretzian is happily giving his undivided attention to staging the LA premiere of Obie winner Christopher Shinn’s two-characterDying City, starring Burt Grinstead and Laurie Okin, opening Saturday at Rogue Machine on Pico Boulevard. Taking a break in Rogue’s prop-littered lobby prior to resuming rehearsals, Peretzian remarks, with an accompanying chuckle, “I don’t have a day job I have to go back to anymore. This is great.”
Although few audience members who might have attended a Peretzian-directed play during the last 30-plus years and looked up his bio in a theater program would have known it, Peretzian was one of the most successful literary agents in the US, rising to the position of senior vice president at William Morris before moving to Creative Artists Agency in 2000. “I’ve always kept the agency career out of my bios and credits,” he affirms. “I didn’t want that stereotype of agent as flesh peddler to any way be influencing peoples’ feelings about my work. So, I’ve always kept that to the side.”
Peretzian does admit that the huge plus side of his agency career was the company he kept. During his agency tenures he has represented such notable playwrights as Mark Medoff, Beth Henley, Terrence McNally, Christopher Hampton, Michael Cristofer, Hugh Leonard, Steven Sater, Zach Helm, John Madden, Alexander Dinelaris, Christopher Shinn and many more. “Of course, I loved working with some of the most talented writers in the world. But by 2008, I knew it was time for me to leave.
Laurie Okin and Burt Grinstead in “Dying City.”
“The agency business had changed so completely. When you work at a big talent agency, eight hours of your work week are spent in these very big meetings. I remember one meeting focused on the idea that if we could represent the writers who write the sequel to the movie Transformers, we could make a lot of money. I realized that after 38 years, I didn’t care. I was getting bored and feeling restless and I left. I had a successful career for over three decades. I did very well and I felt I could afford it. And now, I can do the things I want to do, direct the plays I want to direct. I am really looking forward to living out this next chapter in my life.”
At this moment, he is happily wrapped around Dying City, which came to him — as did many of his past directorial efforts — because of his agency connections. “When I was still an agent, CAA asked me to become involved with Christopher Shinn’s career, in terms of film and television. So, I went to see this play, Dying City, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in New York [in 2007]. It made such an impression on me, I thought, ‘Wow’.”
According to the program, this one-act work plays out “as a psychological showdown of wits when, unannounced, Peter [Grinstead] shows up at the apartment of his sister-in-law [Okin]. Having not spoken since the funeral of her husband, Peter’s twin brother, the two now face-off as more questions surrounding the suspicious death resurface through flashbacks and old letters.”
“It was one of those situations where, after the play was over, I just thought about it for days. It offers no easy answers but it just resonates. And a lot of it is — the text is not the play. The dialogue is not the play. It is what they’re not talking about that makes the play. Christopher is a great student of psychology, having gone to psychotherapy five times a week. But this is not a psychological study. It is very natural, very real, but it has all these implications. It is like a mystery that plays out in the conversation between these two people who know each other well — intensely revealing as it goes but never indicating or relying on exposition. Their degree of empathy and sensitivity to one another is so strong, they see each other in three dimensions.”
Once Shinn gave Peretzian the go-ahead to stage his work (subject to casting), the director began his journey to find a house in which to stage it. “I wanted to try the Mark Taper Forum, but that wasn’t available. So, I went to Gil Cates at the Geffen and they had it for about six months. When I hadn’t heard anything from Gil, I decided to do a reading of the play at Pacific Resident Theatre. It was a nice reading and they were kind of interested in producing it. So, I wrote to Gil Cates, informing him that I had interest from another theater and I’d like to pursue it. Well, Gil called a couple of days later and left a message on my voicemail, stating he wanted to meet me for a drink. He wanted to talk about the play. Then, a few days after that, he died suddenly of a heart attack.
“Then I found Rogue Machine. In this production, I am coming out of the agency closet, because it is really those clients I’ve worked with who have won Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards and Oscars — being with them and watch their process and read their scripts – that has taught me a lot. I owe them thanks for letting me be part of their wonderful careers and for leading me to being a stage director.”
Peretzian didn’t become a literary agent so he could abscond with his clients’ literary goodies, but he certainly let many know he was available and quite able to represent their work on stage. “When I first launched myself into directing, Michael Cristofer was a very important client of mine. After The Shadow Box — which was originally produced by the CTG in 1975 — won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award , I asked Michael if I could direct the first Equity Waiver production of the play and bring it back to Los Angeles. He said OK and I staged it at Theatre 40 [in 1979].
“Happily, we got some really nice reviews. Michael, who wasn’t in LA at the time, read the reviews and asked Gordon Davidson to check out the production. Gordon came with Madeline Puzo to see it. Later, out in the parking lot, Gordon — God bless him — said, ‘You know, you had something we didn’t have in our production [which Davidson had directed]. How would you like to start directing some stuff at the Mark Taper Forum?’ My first job for Gordon was A Christmas Memory at the Itchey Foot — a CTG developmental outlet [in the recently demolished restaurant on the northwest corner of Temple and Figueroa]. That led [in 1984] to Talking With by Jane Martin at Taper Too [which occupied what is now Inside the Ford, in Hollywood] That was a very important nod and it encouraged me to do more of this.”
Laurie Okin and Burt Grinstead.
Peretzian continued to balance his enormous responsibilities as a literary agent for some of the world’s most talented writing talent with his increasing desire to direct worthy stage works. For his 1983 staging of Hugh Leonard’s A Life at Theatre 40, he received a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. He had earlier staged Leonard’s Summer there. “Sylvie Drake of the Los Angeles Times was most supportive, suggesting I stage both Leonard plays in repertory. I would love to do that.”
Peretzian feels he got his love for the theater organically, since his father was an actor in Armenian theater in New York. The Peretzian family moved to New Jersey when he was six months old. His father died of a heart attack when Michael was 15. Since his mother’s two daughters from a previous marriage were living in Hollywood, California, Michael soon found himself on the West Coast. “I went to Le Conte Junior High, Hollywood High and then UCLA for seven years. I got a bachelor’s degree in motion picture production because I thought I wanted to be an actor. This was in 1959. Then I got a masters degree in the history of theater. During this time, I was acting a lot in school productions. Then I got an MFA in directing for the theater. I subsequently taught at Pasadena Playhouse while it still had a credited conservatory. Of course, the Playhouse went bankrupt and I had to get a job.
“That’s when I landed in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency. I fantasized I could then leap to a job at one of the studios like Warner Brothers or Columbia, working in the story department. One day, I saw Steve McQueen walking down a hall at William Morris. I was surprised how short he was. Shortly after that, a check arrived in the mailroom for McQueen. It was his profits from the film Bullitt in the second year. Now, the procedure was to get the check to Mr. McQueen’s accountant, because William Morris couldn’t take its 10 percent directly from McQueen’s check. The accountant got the check and then issued the agency its check.
“So, my supervisor told me to take McQueen’s check in this envelope and walk it to his accountant’s office down Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills and then come back. I got about two blocks before I carefully peeled back the scotch tape that was loosely holding the envelope closed so I could see how much it was. It was a check for $1,200,000. Here I was, 28 years old, walking down Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills with over a million dollars in a pocket next to my heart, which started to beat very fast now. That’s when the penny dropped and I thought, ‘Maybe I should stick around here.’ And because I was interested in writers and not glamorous movie stars, I was promoted very quickly and that’s how it all started.”
Burt Grinstead and Laurie Okin.
Peretzian has no complaints about William Morris or CAA, which he feels were always appreciative of his efforts as an agent. “Creative Artists Agency was very generous when I left and paid for me to travel to New York and London so I could have one-on-one dinners and lunches with each one of the clients I was involved with, so I could tell them personally. So, at the Palm in New York, I was having drinks with Alex Dinelaris and told him I wanted to leave and direct plays. He told me I had to direct Red Dog Howl — centered on the Armenian genocide. Within 15 minutes, I had the job directing Red Dog Howl with Kathleen Chalfant, which we ended up staging at El Portal in North Hollywood.
“I know the world of theater is not the same as it was 38 years ago,” Peretzian affirms. “But during that time I endeavored to elevate the craft of playwriting in the minds of my clients. Anytime I signed a playwright, I would always say, ‘I’ll represent you and try to get you work writing for film and television, but you must write at least one play a year.’ I also worked worked very hard to establish some rapport with literary agents in New York and to give them a sense that Los Angeles has some small theaters that are worth their clients’ while, maybe not in terms of money but in terms of exposing the work to people who potentially might want to hire them for film or television.
“I know it is not easy. I am on the advisory board of the Ojai Playwrights Conference and I volunteered to be on the reading committee. We read over 500 plays for this next festival. I discovered a lot of emerging playwrights are writing about the internet. There is also a lot of whining about aging parents and Alzheimer’s. Many of these plays read as if they were showcases for getting a job writing for Lifetime TV. Dying City is not one of those plays. I am proud to be able to bring it to LA.”
Dying City, Rogue Machine, 5041 Pico Blvd., LA 90019. Opens Saturday at 5 pm. Sat 5 pm, Sun 7 pm, Mon 8 pm, through July 8. Memorial Day weekend schedule: Thu May 23 8 pm, Sun May 26 7 pm. Dark on June 24. Tickets: $30. www.roguemachinetheatre.com. 855-585-5185.
Alexandra Goodman and Bo Foxworth of the “Putnum” cast in “The Crucible.” Photo by FacetPhotography.com.
Actors, more than directors, are sometimes recognized on the street. But in this case, two of those actors are directing.
Armin Shimerman is known as the Ferengi bartender Quark on the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series (along with two others). And Geoffrey Wade pops up regularly on television series, including The Bold and the Beautiful and Law & Order. They have now happily stepped off stage to co-helm The Cruciblefor the Antaeus Company in North Hollywood (and to co-star in an Antaeus promotional video in which they mock their own co-directing — see the link at the end of the article).
“Every theater company should have a signature style,” says Shimerman, sitting across from Wade in the theater’s well-stacked library, walled on two sides by shelves stuffed with play scripts and research material to support every text there. “And in our case we are doing Crucible as presentational theater.”
Armin Shimerman and Geoffrey Wade
Company members commonly suggest plays to study, read and perform at Antaeus. In this case, Arthur Miller’s 1953 story of the 1692 Salem witch trials, which he wrote as a metaphor for the witch hunts in the search for Communists in Hollywood, first appeared in last year’s Antaeus ClassicsFest in July. The artistic team asked Shimerman, who had helmed readings but not full productions yet, to direct the reading.
“Sadly one of my friends died,” Shimerman says. “She lived in New York. I felt compelled to attend her memorial service, but that was going to conflict with the last days of rehearsal for the reading and the first couple days of performance. I looked around the room very quickly and saw Geoff. I approached him and said I had to go and I’d like to make him the co-director.”
Wade, who had recently directed productions of Harold Pinter’s 40-minute Celebration by Antaeus’ A2 Ensemble and Joe Orton’s Ruffian on the Stair at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center around the corner, agreed. Shimerman took his leave and says he was gob-smacked upon his return. “The reading was in a much better place than I had envisioned it. He brought such wonderful characterizations and theatrics and an understanding of the play.”
Later, when the artistic directors told Shimerman they’d like him to direct a full production, he recalls that he told them, “‘Look, what you saw was a combination of what I did and what Geoff did. So if you’re going to hire me, you need to hire us both.’ Geoff readily agreed; well, maybe not readily, but he agreed.” They laugh.
Wade says, “It was an interesting bit of serendipity. Armin had the original concept and did the blocking, and he very generously said to feel free to work on it. I didn’t change any structure or anything like that. We were able to do some detail work and everyone seemed to be happy with it.”
Devon Sorvari and Christopher Guilmet (top) and Kimiko Gelman and Bo Foxworth (bottom) as Elizabeth and John Proctor. Photos by Geoffrey Wade.
He remembers that in a Cincinnati production of Stepping Out he was in, the director had to leave for a couple days toward the end of the rehearsal process. “His wife was having a baby. So the artistic director came in and completely re-directed it. He literally flipped all the staging 180 degrees and did all kinds of stuff — I felt so sorry for that guy! I certainly didn’t do that, but I made some contributions.” And he improved some of the blocking, says Shimerman.
Shimerman adds, “If we have two casts and two stage managers for every show [as Antaeus does], why not have two directors? Geoff and I think as one. Early on we said to the cast there will be no differences of opinion. If Geoff says this is so, then Armin says this is so. And so far that’s 99% true.”
What about the one percent?
Wade says, “Just the other day I told Armin I thought he should do X and he said ‘No! I’ve always seen it as Y!’”
“And he was very nice about it,” Shimerman says. “We’re reasonable men and we listen to each other’s point of view.”
Presenting The Crucible
“One of the things the artistic directors said when they saw the reading last year,” Shimerman notes, “was that they wanted that presentational style in the production as well. We have tried to maintain that. When you go to Public Theater in New York, there’s a type of theater you expect to see. If you go to the Mime Troupe in San Francisco, there’s a style you expect to see. I’m not trying to create an Antaeus style; I’m just trying to incorporate this style into our readings.”
The result, he says, is seeing The Crucible through a different facet of the prism.
As Wade puts it, “You may see this presentational style in readings in particular when you have the performers facing straight forward instead of facing each other. It’s as if you’re talking to someone in a mirror. I think whenever we do this, someone says, oh, that’s Frank Dwyer‘s style, one of the original founders of this company. The actor tends not to get lost in the script or in each other.”
It’s a little easier in a reading, he admits, because the actors stand and hold scripts, much as they would in radio theater, standing before a mic. “When you translate it to actual scene work, it’s a little different, but the audience reaction to the reading we did was,’ oh, I never got the story so clearly before’.”
Ann Noble and Saundra McClain of the “Putnam” cast.
Shimerman chimes in, “There’s also something classical theater-oriented in this style. It is not unusual for a Shakespearean actor to stand on stage with a group of actors around him and present a speech as though it’s a monologue or soliloquy. In that you talk to the audience, but in this case you’re talking to another character through the audience. In a sense, we are a classical theater and we are using this classical approach, but this time, for Miller.”
“It actually involves the audience even more,” says Wade. “That’s the reaction we got to the Classicsfest audience in July. In a more traditional presentation, it’s like you’re watching the scene like a fly on the wall, the invisible fourth wall. But there’s no denying that to connect with another character an actor has to send his energy and emotions and intentions out through the audience, and it comes back around like a boomerang.”
Explaining The Crucible
The directors agree The Crucible is a wonderfully enduring play. Its themes are many and varied. Wade says, “It’s not just about the historical incident of the witchcraft trials in Salem in 1692. It’s not just about a reaction to the Communist witch hunts of 1953; he’s acknowledged he wrote this in reaction to them. But as often happens as art, it became larger than its inspiration.”
It’s among Miller’s most produced plays — Theatre Banshee produced it two years ago in Burbank, just two miles east of the current Antaeus rendition. Shimerman performed it in high school. But Wade admits he is probably the only actor in America who has never been in it. “It deals with broadly human, but particularly American, themes,” Wade says. “They never go away. They’re as much a part of the fiber that makes us up as anything else. It’s why you can read [19th century philosopher and historian] de Tocqueville and find things that still apply to our society.”
Shimerman nods. “The mix of church of state, the debate all of us in this country are debating every day, is a part of The Crucible, and the play echoes those debates even though it was written half a century ago.”
John Prosky, Steve Hofvendahl and Aaron Lyons of the “Proctor” cast.
Miller wrote it in a manner unlike that of his other significant works. “It is not the Arthur Miller we are used to hearing in Death of a Salesman or All My Sons. There is a sense of historical language in the play. But it is amazing, because we have such good actors, and we are being true to Mr. Miller, there is less of that [old language sound] every day; it becomes more modern. I seem to remember that he did, indeed, depend on someone who was doing research in the King James Bible.
That style gives the work an iambic pentameter. Wade recently was listening to an actor and hearing the ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum speech pattern. “It’s the rhythm of the King James Bible and Shakespeare and Lincoln. It was a wonderful flow to it.”
And the characters so earnestly reflect the times. “The scenes between Proctor and Elizabeth or Proctor and Abigail are wonderful in outlining what a litigious, contentious society this was. Americans, even when they were colonists, loved to sue each other, bickering over property lines and whose cow was this — that’s who we come from. Many of those scenes have the same kind of passion and human nuance that Miller is so good at.”
He shows us people dealing with difficult, knotty problems. “None of these people is perfect. They all have feet of clay at some point. John Proctor is a moral failure in his own eyes. Elizabeth Proctor is a good, upright woman, but maybe she’s too rigid and cold. Miller’s characters are appealing to us because their nuances and quirks make them so human to us.”
“That’s what we’re going for,” adds Shimerman, “the humanity in our characters. We have no desire to have heroes on the stage. We have a desire to show humanity as it is and one man in particular being put through a crucible, a trial by fire, and coming through the other side.”
While Wade has never acted in the play, he did see one and a half performances of it. He caught a friend’s performance in drama school in England and the last half of one at a well-respected American theater that he declines to identify. “I was unimpressed with it. They did it with pilgrim hats and buckle shoes and we are not doing pilgrim hats and buckle shoes.”
William C. Mitchell and Philip Proctor of the “Putnam” cast.
This version takes place in modern times, allowing the directing duo to change the gender of some of the characters and place them in clothing that simply reflects people suppressed or restricted by their religion.
Says Shimerman, “We take elements from the Mennonites or Amish or Hasids, communities where God is present in every moment of their lives. One of the reasons we are not [using 17th century dress] is we believe the arguments in The Crucible are today’s arguments, not merely something that happened in 1692. By putting it in modern times, we are definitely saying, no, these issues are just as current as anything in the news today.”
Directing The Crucible
Antaeus has usually hired outside directors. But it used one of its own actors, Gigi Bermingham, to direct You Can’t Take It With You in 2012. “Who better?” asks Shimerman. “We know the strengths our actors can bring.”
“Directors often come out of a literary tradition,” Wade says. “They sometimes don’t quite understand the actors’ problems. An example — I was in a production of Much Ado About Nothing in a regional theater and I was Dogberry. It’s a very good theater and the director had written a lot of books and was the head of theater department at a big Midwestern university and knew his stuff. He could tell you wonderful stories about what the characters would’ve done once they left the stage: they’d go to an inn and eaten this and sung these songs, but it was completely useless in terms of figuring out what to do in a scene. He was fascinating and erudite and completely useless as a director.”
The pair has managed to endure, with each of the directors complementing the other’s talents. It doesn’t hurt, says Wade, that it’s a “cracking good story.”
The Crucible, Antaeus Theatre Company, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601. Opens May 16 and 17. Through July 7. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. Through July 7. Tickets $30-34. www.antaeus.org. 818-506-1983.
**All “Proctor” cast photos by Karianne Flaathen, all “Putnam” cast photos by FacetPhotography.com
Orlando Chavez and Michelle Ramos in “Long Way Go Down.” Photo by Johnny Patrick Yoder.
During the 2008 presidential race, GOP veep hopeful Sarah Palin snidely quipped that candidate Barack Obama “palled around with domestic terrorists.” Now a play by the son of those revolutionaries Palin alluded to is having a West Coast premiere — and its ripped-from-the-headlines subject deals with an issue President Obama and Congress are currently grappling with.
Set in the Southwestern desert, Long Way Go Down is an immigration-themed four-hander by Zayd Dohrn, whose parents, Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers, belonged to the ultra-left Weather Underground (aka the Weathermen), the notorious ’60s/’70s militants, who advocated — and carried out — armed struggle against the U.S. government. (Robert Redford and Susan Sarandon play former members of this radical organization in the recently released movie The Company You Keep.)
Zayd Dorhn & Don K. Williams
Long Way Go Down is being presented in LA by a stage venue with a lofty leftist lineage, the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company at the Art of Acting Studio. This is the West Coast branch of Manhattan’s Stella Adler Studio of Acting, which was founded in 1949 and mounted LongWay Go Down in 2010. The artistic director of this bi-coastal theater operation is Tom Oppenheim, grandson of Stella Adler, the fabled acting teacher and Stanislavsky Method apostle.
Harold Clurman and Adler co-founded the legendary Group Theatre, which presented the 1935 Broadway premiere of that proletarian theater classic, Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty. It’s a long march from the pro-union Lefty to the pro-immigrants’ rights Long Way Go Down.
According to the latter’s director, Don K. Williams, “One of the things we try to do here with the Studio and Harold Clurman Lab Theater is do plays that are sociologically relevant. The first play we ever did here was Waiting for Lefty [in 2011]. Our first production was speaking to not only the time it was done, not only to the history of our Studio, but to the union strike going on in Wisconsin. Long Way Go Down speaks eloquently and personally — and violently — to the struggle for people involved in illegal immigration and the smuggling of [undocumented] immigrants across the border and people trying to have a better life.”
Although not all of the Clurman Lab’s productions are explicitly political, Williams, who is also associate artistic director of the bi-coastal Adler outfit, goes on to say, “The whole concept Tom took from Stella and infused in the theater companies is that we have to grow as human beings and entertain at the same time. As opposed to the 1920s and the early ’30s, a lot of the theater they were seeing was entertainment only. The well-made play, the cocktail and witty banter.” But Oppenheim and Adler before him “saw a need for a social consciousness,” and for asking “what do we have to say about the world around us? — that being a driving force behind what we do.”
Johnny Yoder, who is Long Way Go Down’s producer and director of the Art of Acting Studio’s school, adds: “We try to instill in all of our actors that they’re socially involved, that they’re socially conscious, that they are actors who are living, breathing and aware of the world going on around them. That’s our focus. Harold Clurman wanted that too,” as did Adler — Clurman’s wife from 1940 to 1960.
Dan Evans and Michael Keith Allen
Dohrn is proud to belong to this tradition of a theater of conscience. “I like the connection. I think it’s a continuum that’s fascinating for me as somebody interested in theater history and also to be a part of. Tom Oppenheim… is most definitely carrying on socially conscious theater that the Group Theatre pioneered in New York a generation ago. So Tom has been very supportive of my work and very interested in work in the tradition of Clifford Odets and the Group Theatre that tries to say something about the political state of our society.
“Clifford Odets is a big influence for me and this play. In the same way that he was writing about class and work issues of his time, I’m trying to write a similar thing about our moment. It just happens that right now the underclass is immigrant… and English is not their native language. Odets’ pioneering of a kind of naturalistic speech was considered revolutionary at the time and was an attempt to bring onstage voices that hadn’t been heard before. This play, which is partly in English, partly in Spanish, and mostly in a hybrid of the two, is also an attempt to show characters onstage who maybe haven’t been seen onstage that much. They’re certainly not characters you’d find in a drawing room comedy; they’re people the average theatergoing audience might not have come in contact with.”
Dohrn says that while the multi-national coyote and Mexican characters have language barriers, “there’s lots of action onstage, it’s very intense… there’s plenty of sex and violence going on onstage that doesn’t require translation.”
The origins of this ongoing immigration imbroglio can be traced back to the Mexican-American War, which — 120 years before Bernardine Dohrn, William Ayers and millions of others in the “flower power” generation opposed the Vietnam War — was the first widely unpopular war in U.S. history that generated protests. Philosopher Henry David Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay a war tax, and on the floor of the House Congressman Abraham Lincoln denounced President Polk for perpetrating a war of aggression.
“I don’t know that this was at the top of my mind, but certainly in the play some characters talk about some of the historical resonance,” Dohrn says. “They talk about Ulysses Grant and his role in Mexican-American relations…There was a time when North and South America were populated entirely by indigenous people and there was a time colonists came and changed those identities to these new national identities, and suddenly you had an idea of Mexicans versus Americans…I didn’t think about the particular parallel with my family, but I am certainly always interested in how these kinds of dynamics arise historically and how conflicts framed in different guises come back to haunt them.”
The younger Dohrn was born in 1977 while Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers were fugitives hiding out from the FBI and other authorities. “I was born at home in an apartment in New York; there was no hospital because we were living underground at the time,” says Dohrn, adding with a laugh, “I don’t remember the details.”
He was named after a friend of his parents, Zayd Malik Shakur, who had a Black Panther Party pedigree and “died before I was born” in a May 1973 shoot-out on the New Jersey Turnpike with state troopers. This gunfight was recently in the news, when the FBI observed the incident’s 40th anniversary by making another Black Panther named Shakur, Assata Olugbala Shakur, the first woman on its most wanted terrorist list. She had been convicted of the first degree murder of N.J. State Trooper Werner Foerster in the shoot-out but subsequently escaped from prison and fled to Cuba, where Fidel Castro granted her political asylum. (Dohrn’s mother had been on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list for three years.) Shakur, aka Joanne Chesimard, was reportedly the step-aunt of the late gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur.
William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, December 3, 1980. Photo by KNOBLOCK / AP.
Dohrn says he never met the hip-hop icon or Assata, but just as Tupac’s genealogical connections helped forge his “thug life” aesthetic, Zayd’s family background, growing up on the lam, shaped his awareness and artistry. Nevertheless, his unusual childhood “all felt, for me, very normal. Most people who grow up even in strange circumstances, it’s hard when you’re a kid to have anything to compare it to and to be able to know that it’s strange. For me — I knew we were hiding out from the authorities, but I didn’t know much about why, except that I knew that my parents had been against the Vietnam War…We had a family, I went to school, my parents worked, so there was nothing in our day-to-day life that was especially strange, except maybe for the fact that my parents were deeply, politically committed, and there was a lot of talk about politics in my house,” recalls Dohrn.
In 1970, during the Vietnam War, Bernardine Dohrn issued “a declaration of a State of War” against the US government, and the Weather Underground bombed official property that symbolized the powers-that-be, including the US Capitol Building, Pentagon, military recruiting stations and NYPD police stations. Zayd was about four or five when his fugitive folks decided to turn themselves in. William and Bernardine did not “serve long prison sentences. Most of the charges were dropped due to FBI misconduct and the statute of limitations. A few years later, my mother did about a year in jail for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury investigation… Former members of their organization [as well as Tupac’s stepfather, BLA member Mutulu Shakur] were involved in the Brinks [armored car] robbery in upstate New York, and the prosecutor tried to compel my mother to cooperate with the investigation of her friends, and she refused,” recounts Zayd. He grew up mostly in Harlem until the age of 13, when the family moved to Chicago because his father got a job at the University of Illinois.
Instead of becoming, literally, a bomb thrower, Zayd — whose lightning-rod mother had issued communiqués — turned to the theater as a means of communications. “I’ve always known I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid, of books or movies,” Dohrn recalls. “I was always interested in theater and going to Shakespeare plays and things like that when I was a kid. But the first time I thought of it as a potential career was probably in college, when I took some playwriting classes at Brown. I went to graduate school; I got my MFA in playwriting at NYU, and then went on to be writer in residence at the Juilliard School for a couple of years.”
Dohrn’s website reveals details of nine of his plays. “They’ve all been produced, around the country: New York, Off-Broadway, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, New Orleans…They’re published by Samuel French…I started doing it right after college. Wrote my first play, Shameless, when I was 22 and it was produced first in Boston, then in New York…They’re all dramas and they’ve all got dark comedy in them. They’re all political dramas and fairly dark in tone…The unifying theme is a dark look at the political and social forces that make people do the things they do.”
This, of course, also applies to artists. Even when they tackle topical matters, playwrights bring the baggage of their own selves to the work at hand and see the world through the prism of their own subjectivity. Dohrn’s oeuvre is arguably a case study wherein the political is fused with the personal.
Consider Sick, which won the Kennedy Center’s Jean Kennedy Smith Playwrighting Award and Dallas-Fort Worth Critics Award for best new play, 2008 (not to be confused with Erik Patterson’s play of the same name, which played LATC in 2010). Dohrn describes his Sick as being “about a family of allergy sufferers who never leave their house because they’re afraid of environmental collapse. It’s about family, paranoia and the environment.” A blurb at his website states Sick “toys with post-9/11 phobias.” Perhaps — but the way Dohrn relates the plot during this interview, it also sounds strikingly like how a child whose parents are the subject of an intense manhunt might metaphorically view the world.
Outlining Long Way Go Down’s border-crossing plot, Dohrn says, “the desperation at certain moment leads to outbursts of violence” — which can also describe how his militant parents allegedly turned to armed struggle in their reaction to the devastation in Vietnam and racial injustice at home.
“Artists mine their own experience and history for what they write,” Dohrn muses. “But I don’t do it particularly consciously. So yes, it’s true that the play in some ways is about being underground and hiding and a lot of my plays have those themes, but it’s not something I go to as a conscious source of inspiration. It’s more that I’m trying to write about what these people might feel, and the only way I can access that is by putting some of my own experience into it… Certainly, a lot of my work is inspired by the way I grew up. But I think that’s true of all artists. Everybody has to deal with and define their legacy.”
Michelle Ramos and Dan Evans
In early May William Ayers was embroiled in yet another controversy when he delivered the keynote address at a Kent State commemoration of the “four dead in Ohio,” the students shot and killed by National Guardsmen during the 1970 campus antiwar protest referred to by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in the song “Ohio.” Ayers denied that the Weather Underground’s bombing campaign, which generally targeted property, was comparable to the Boston marathon bombing, which struck unarmed civilians.
The prolific playwright’s new Muckrakers, inspired by the WikiLeaks controversy, will open in June at the Barrington Stage in the Berkshires — his tenth full-length play. Zayd Dohrn says he does not know if his name — celebrated in some circles but reviled from Washington to Wasilla — is more of a hindrance or a help in his theatrical career. But as many aspirants following in their parents’ famous footsteps have found out, even if a prominent moniker opens doors, the proof, as Brecht reminded us, is in the pudding of their performance as artists.
Long Way Go Down, Art of Acting Studio, 1017 N. Orange Drive, LA 90038. Opens May 17. Thu-Sat 8 pm. (Plus Sunday, May 19 at 3 pm). Through June 7. www.artofactingstudio.com. 323-601-5310.
**All Long Way Go Down production photos by Johnny Patrick Yoder.
When the musical Chess opens at the David Henry Hwang Theater tomorrow night, it will look a lot different from the original production, which premiered in London’s West End in 1986 and ran for three years. It also will stray from the ill-fated Broadway version, which opened in 1988 and lasted only two months — and from a third version that served as the Los Angeles County premiere, produced by Long Beach Civic Light Opera in 1990.
Director Tim Dang, who is also East West Players’ (EWP) producing artistic director, decided to re-imagine Chess for the 21st century with a multicultural cast. Elijah Rock, who is African American, stars as Russian chess player Anatoly. Joan Almedilla, who is a Filipina immigrant, plays his American love interest. Victor E. Chan, who is of Chinese and Filipino descent, portrays his American competitor Freddy. Four of the 15 Chess cast members are of mixed race.
“As artistic directors, we have a responsibility for what happens on our own stages,” says Dang, who hopes to lead in the campaign for more multicultural casting by example with Chess.
Dang’s philosophy stems from his three decades-plus years of experience working in Los Angeles theater. He has been artistic director of EWP for 20 years and a part of it for 33 years. He usually directs one show a year, minus a few years when he spent more time fundraising. He estimates he has directed a total of 16 plays.
He’s attempting to push American theater, and more specifically Los Angeles theater to reflect 21st century society in casting choices. EWP has presented multicultural casts in the past when the script demanded it, as in its revival of M. Butterfly in 2004. But for Chess, the casting was completely colorblind. The usual number of submissions received when East West is casting all-Asian performances is 300, but with Chess it doubled to 600.
“I wanted to present a multicultural cast and show there’s no lack of talent in any community,” says Dang. “[I have spoken to] other people of color who wish they had a theater like East West in their community.” Not only Asian Americans but also African Americans “never get an opportunity to do Chess. They feel like they can’t audition for Chess because historically it’s perceived as an all-white cast.”
Dang saw the musical Chess as a perfect opportunity to feature a multicultural cast because of its international backdrop. “You have the U.S. versus U.S.S.R. Act one [in this version] takes place in Merano, Italy, and act two in Bangkok, Thailand.”
Last year, the lack of Asian-descent actors in casts led to two controversies cited by Dang. In La Jolla Playhouse’s workshop of The Nightingale, which was set in ancientChina, the cast of 12 had only two actors of Asian descent. Also last year, the Royal Shakespeare Company staged the 13th century Chinese revenge drama The Orphan of Zhaowith a mostly white cast.
“There is a lack of opportunity for Asian Americans on all fronts: acting, writing, directing,” says Dang. “We [also] find that other people of color are looking for the same amount of opportunities, too.”
Chess is not only EWP’s first production utilizing colorblind casting, it’s also the company’s first rock opera. The score by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, formerly of ABBA, with lyrics by Tim Rice, is sometimes performed solely as a concert.
Jasmine Ejan, Ryan Castellino and Shay Louise.
“I have never seen a production of Chess,” admits Dang. “I have seen a concert version. I told the creative team and cast, there has to be a reason why we’re doing a production of Chess and not a concert. Chess is a metaphor for life. Our lives have specific strategic moves, and each move that we make in life influences what happens with our next move, and that’s exactly how Chess is. I don’t think you get that from a concert.”
During the rehearsal process, Dang and his creative team discovered that their production of Chess explores ideas of spirituality or religion.
“One act takes place in Merano, Italy, a Catholic culture. People are judged by a Supreme Being. How much of the things that happen to you do you say is God’s will? It can’t be helped because a higher power has destined that this happen to you. Act two takes place in Bangkok, Thailand, which is basically Buddhist. There’s no judgment in terms of what you do. Everything is much more karmic-influenced. The amount of good you give out is the amount of good that will come back to you. Those philosophies make you think that the decisions you make in life, whether in Buddhist philosophy or Catholicism, how much of it is actually your doing instead of depending on a Supreme Being that’s causing you to do something? It’s an interesting way of thinking in terms of philosophy, and I hope that we’re able to touch upon that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in any of the productions, or read stories about [other productions of] Chess” that touch on these differing senses of spirituality.
The storyline of Chess follows an American and Russian player competing in a world tournament during the Cold War. Dang says he looked at the conflict between America and North Korea as a modern-day parallel.
“There’s lots of posturing,” he says. “[In Chess], the Russians are seen as darker, heavier, the bad guys, as opposed to the Americans. We’re doing it opposite. Americans can be seen by the rest of the world as bad guys. We tried to temper scenes so the Americans also look like they’re the bad guys. Both of them [Russians and Americans] have valid points in terms of what it is they’re fighting for.”
Elijah Rock and Joan Almedilla.
EWP’s Chess also adds more humor to the production than previous incarnations, Dang hopes. “Our first number ‘Merano’ takes place on the border of Italy and Germany. It has a Sound of Music kind of feel. Everyone has infectious smiles. It almost looks like The Stepford Wives. I hope people will get that.”
Ultimately, Dang tried to stick to the original script. “One of the things Tim Rice has in the book of Chess is, ‘whenever in doubt, go back to the beginning.’ We licensed the UK version of Chess. We have permission for slight variations, but it’s basically the original version we’re doing.”
The original version — but with a 21st century cast, that is. Dang hopes EWP’s audience is ready for it. “At our first dress rehearsal on Sunday, there is a love triangle of an American woman who falls in love with a Russian. Our Anatoly is African American, and Florence is Filipina. For the first time, they actually kissed on stage. It’s such a riveting moment — an interracial kiss. You don’t see that a lot. It makes a statement outside of the story of Chess.”
Dang would like to see EWP continue in its leadership in breaking new ground for colorblind casting without sacrificing its mission of presenting Asian-American work. He’d like for the 50-year-old organization to be able to do both.
“Sometimes I facetiously think that the mission of East West Players is to eventually not exist because everyone’s doing Asian-American work, so there’s no need for us to be here,” says Dang. “But that’s not going to happen in my lifetime.”
Chess, David Henry Hwang Theater at Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., LA 90012. Opens Wednesday. Wed-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through June 9. Tickets: $51-$56. www.eastwestplayers.org. 213-625-7000.
Dimitri Christy and Lori Berg in “The Matchmaker.” Photo by Lindsay Schnebly.
I was nine years old. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat in Woodbridge Senior High’s auditorium swinging my feet back and forth as fast as I could — a game I made up to occupy myself. I stopped kicking only to try and touch my jelly shoes to the floor when the lights finally went down. The play was Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. My brother Shawn, a senior, was cast in the role of Editor Webb.
Up until that point, seeing plays meant waiting for the lights to dim so I could run into the back of the cavernous room. I crawled under the tunnels of chairs, escaping into my own adventures while the play continued down front. Plays felt like an eternity at nine. Shawn would enter and I would rush down to my parents, staying just long enough to see my brother say his lines. As he exited, I returned to the back aisles of the theater.
But that particular night was different. The lights went down and one of my brother’s friends, Craig, appeared on stage… looking right at me? For a millisecond I considered waving at him. Before I could, he said in a strong voice, “This play is called Our Town.” I was confused. Why was he talking to me? I thought something was wrong. “I know Craig. We all know.”
But as he continued, it was clear that Craig was not talking just to me, but to the entire audience. And Craig was not Craig at all, but our guide to the small town of Grover’s Corners. I lived in a small town myself, so I followed the story of Emily and George with eagerness. The way they met and married was a reflection of my own surroundings. I was literally being invited inside the world of a play. Later, my drama teachers would define that as “breaking the fourth wall.”
Looking back, I understood Grover’s Corners more deeply as a nine-year-old than I ever could today. The absence of a set made no difference to me. I was accustomed to imagining my surroundings. “Let’s pretend” started every conversation of my childhood. I did not doubt the presence of ghosts and magic or the supernatural. My experience with religion and education was still fun and exciting.
So in the famous final act of Our Town, it made perfect sense to me that Emily could sit and speak with the dead while observing the living. We watched her become a member of our audience, a tourist to the town, depending on the stage manager to be her guide. I was captivated. I felt like I was a part of the play.
Five years later, I joined our drama department on a trip to Arena Stage. This time it was Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth. Once again, Wilder punches through the fourth wall. Using the Antrobus family and their maid Sabina as our guide, we live through the ice age, a great flood and war. Different from Our Town’s sentimental look at American life, Skin of Our Teeth was a gritty look at the faults of man.
Ellis Greer and Katie Buderwitz.
I was struck! By 15, the world had been categorized for me: Republican vs. Democrat, Catholic vs. Protestant, male vs. female, rich vs. poor. Yet in Skin of Our Teeth mankind survives and thrives despite its faults. When the fourth wall is dropped, not only do we believe in this flawed family, we want to live alongside them.
This year, Actors Co-op gave me the opportunity to direct Wilder’s The Matchmaker. Once again, I find myself enamored with Wilder’s ability to stop the action of the play, drop the fourth wall, and simply take in the audience. By way of four differing monologues from each of the farce’s story lines, The Matchmaker begs the audience members to step away from their daily routines in order to enrich their lives in unexpected ways.
Thornton Wilder’s theater requires active participation. Like so many others, my life moves as fast as my phone can connect me. It is a challenge for me to engage. It is a challenge to collaborate. It occurs to me that Wilder is asking quite a lot through his plays, but I have enjoyed the challenge. Each member of the cast and crew took the lead during the process — and now, as they give that lead over to the audience, like the Stage Manager did for me so long ago in that Woodbridge auditorium, I find myself grateful for people who have been willing to stop and share their stories with me.
This month, we’re dropping the fourth wall at Actors Co-op. We are living the adventure of this story together. I hope you will join us at The Matchmaker.
The Matchmaker, Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower Street, Hollywood 90028, on the campus of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2:30 pm. Saturday matinees May 18 and June 15, 2:30 pm. Through June 15. Tickets: $30. www.ActorsCo-op.org. 323-462-8460 ext. 300.
**Photo by Lindsay Schnebly.
Heather Chesley has been the artistic chairperson of Actors Co-op for the last four years. She has also directed The Learned Ladies and the new musical Trails. She has produced several shows for Actors Co-op, including Merrily We Roll Along and the new musical Makin’ Hay.
Can the stage produce anything about the anti-Semitism that culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust that we haven’t already seen? Well, I’ve seen a lot of plays related to the Holocaust, but I have never seen a play structured like Our Class, currently being produced by Son of Semele in the southern space of Atwater Village Theatre.
Although the production had been scheduled to close yesterday, five additional performances have now been scheduled after a brief break. That extension is a welcome mitzvah.
The extension of Our Class also happens to coincide with a mighty revival of the musical Parade, which tells the story of what was probably America’s worst outbreak of the same fever that later would slaughter so many Jews in Europe.
Gary Patent (front), Alexander Wells, Dan Via and Sarah Rosenberg in “Our Class.” Photo by Kim Chueh.
But first, Our Class. Playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek set most of it in a small town in Poland, his homeland. It’s a part of the world that was assaulted by a whipsaw in the prelude to World War II — conquered first by the Soviet Union and then by the Nazis, before returning to East Bloc communism after the war.
Our Class is fictional, but it’s based on the killings of most of the Jews who lived in the small town of Jedwabne, northeast of Warsaw, in 1941. This incident took place after the Nazis seized control of the town, and for years the Nazis got most of the blame for it. But in the last 15 years, historians have concluded that in fact the Nazis primarily provided cover for the dastardly deeds committed by the ostensibly Christian villagers against their Jewish neighbors.
Slobodzianek wrote about a group of 10 classmates — half of them from Catholic families, the other half from Jewish families. The saga begins in the late ‘20s, when the children play together amicably enough. But during the ‘30s, the poison from what we assume is happening in the adult society around the children gradually filters into their lives, culminating in the horrors of 1941. And that’s just the end of the first act.
After intermission, the play follows the survivors of the war all the way into the 21st century, while those who have died watch silently, mostly from the sidelines. By the end, it becomes clear that the savagery of 1941 has virtually ruined the survivors — including the remaining perps — to such an extent that they occasionally envy those who died.
Our Class is an intimate epic — reducing the scope of a world war down to these 10 people from this one town, but at the same time extending its examination of these 10 for more than 80 years.
For Son of Semele’s West Coast premiere, director Matthew McCray realized that the group’s own 36-seat space on Beverly Boulevard was simply too tiny for a play of this size, but he has retained the intimacy in Atwater by limiting seating to 50, who sit in a single row around the entire square stage.
In an email, he explained his decision to produce in the round at Atwater Village:
Gavin Peretti, Kiff Scholl, Melina Bielefelt, Sharyn Gabriel, Gary Patent, Sarah Rosenberg, Michael Nehring and Alexander Wells. Photo by Kim Chueh.
“This play, which sometimes has five or six different narratives happening at the same time, needed more space for the audience to be able to track who was doing what. And I also felt that the extra space would be helpful for the audience on a comfort level as well, because the play is so intense emotionally.”
Obviously, a play that covers so many decades has to reject realism. Much of the story is narrated in story theater style. The same actors play their roles from childhood into old age (at least for those who survive the longest), so suspension of disbelief about age-matching between actors and roles is sometimes necessary.
The awful violence isn’t steeped in stage blood or actual flames. Many of the victims were burned or smothered to death inside a barn, and pieces of classroom furniture are used to suggest this. In a theater, this imagery is probably more effective than more ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to suggest the violence with greater verisimilitude.
The audience should be prepared for a mental workout — not only in imagining the ultimately unimaginable but also in keeping track of the many characters and their fates. Still, if you arrive at the theater reasonably well-rested, you should have no problem being caught up in this sweeping, novelistic saga.
Despite the many decades covered here, the characters are not cardboard victims and villains. The Jewish characters are hardly saintly martyrs, and two of the Polish characters are seen helping Jews escape, in different ways. Even the most publicly unrepentant killers (who are also rapists) have moments of self-doubt during the play’s three hours.
The experience is dotted with musical interludes and accompaniments, usually with the actors playing instruments they retrieve from boxes along the sidelines. While the music by Sage Lewis and McCray is suitably atmospheric, some of the lyrics are difficult to understand.
The lyrics and the spoken lines are drawn from the English version by Ryan Craig, which was the text used in the play’s premiere at the British National Theatre, prior to the Polish premiere. But McCray has also drawn from a more Americanized text used at the US premiere at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater.
Kiff Scholl and Sharyn Gabriel. Photo by Mainak Dhar.
The actors become an impressively cohesive ensemble. I don’t relish singling any of them out, but I can’t help but heap honors on Michael Nehring, as the one Jew who escapes to America before the war. He recites two long lists of names in the play. In the first, he recalls his family members who stayed and died. Later he enumerates his younger family members who survive in America. The length of the latter list becomes a rare moment of affectionate humor near the end of the play, while the former is delivered with Lear-like power.
Our Class is closed next weekend in order to integrate an understudy into the ensemble for a few shows, although the original actor is expected to return later. Five more performances are now scheduled, from May 24 through June 2. That’s not enough. This Class should stay in session for months or even years — and perhaps eventually move into a space that could accommodate at least a few more than 50 spectators.
Our Class, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Atwater. Fri May 24 and 31, 8 pm. Sat May 25, 8 pm. Sun May 26 and June 2, 3 pm. www.sonofsemele.org.
I wonder if the fictional Abram, the one Jew who escapes to America in Our Class, might have ever heard the story of Leo Frank, the Jewish pencil manufacturer who was charged with murdering an employee at his Atlanta factory in 1913 — almost exactly a century ago from now.
Frank was lynched by an anti-Semitic mob in 1915, shortly after his death sentence had been reduced to life imprisonment.
His story was told in the Broadway musical Parade, which has had two professional productions in Los Angeles County – most famously the Mark Taper Forum’s in 2009.
Perhaps, as with many complex musicals, seeing Parade more than once allows us to better appreciate it on different levels. I don’t recall having such an intense emotional response to Leo Frank’s fate in those two previous LA productions as I did in Fullerton last weekend — could it be, at least in part, because I had just seen Our Class as well?
Jeff Skowron in “Parade.” Photo by Isaac James Creative.
In Parade, note how a somewhat sentimental song sung by the mother of the murder victim Mary Phagan suddenly, in the last line, turns venomously anti-Semitic — a pattern that also occurs at a moment near the beginning of Our Class, after the classmates honor a deceased Polish leader with a song.
At any rate, T. J. Dawson’s staging of Parade overcomes the boxy and insufficiently raked aspects of the Plummer to reach deeply inside the audience’s heart, with a cast led by a picture-perfect Jeff Skowron as Leo and a remarkably precocious Caitlin Humphreys as Lucille Frank. Her program bio reveals that she is on the verge of getting her BFA from Cal State Fullerton, with a photo that makes her look as young as she apparently is — but from the evidence on the stage and in her voice, one would assume she is at least 15 years older.
It’s a big production — 36 actors on stage, 14 of whom have Equity asterisks by their names (not including Humphreys, but that shouldn’t last long), and an orchestra that sounds big. The designers include such respected names as Tom Buderwitz and Shon Le Blanc. Yes, 3-D is approaching the big leagues.
Jason Robert Brown’s score and Alfred Uhry’s book are in excellent hands, and so is the audience. Don’t forget to examine the blow-ups in the lobby of some of the original newspaper articles about the Frank case.
Parade, Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Also Sat matinee on May 25, 2 pm. Closes May 26. www.3DTshows.com. 714-589-2770 ext 1.
In one of those articles in the lobby at Parade, the second references to the two original suspects in the murder of Mary Phagan are “Frank” and “the negro” (his name was actually Newt Lee).
Raynor Scheine, Lillias White and Glynn Turman in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.
And in one of the songs in Parade, the black characters get to reflect on the irony that the Frank case is attracting so much attention from the Yankees, as opposed to the scant notice taken of many cases in which black defendants were railroaded and/or lynched.
In short, perhaps the most seriously threatened people during that period of American history were the African Americans who had been freed from the shackles of slavery 50 years earlier but who had yet to escape the many tribulations of Jim Crow — or, you might say, the influence of Joe Turner (aka Joe Turney), a white man who was able to impress young black men in Tennessee into peonage during the 1890s, long after slavery had supposedly ended.
Lynell George writes about the common themes of the two productions in an illuminating essay that is posted here and is also printed in the two programs.
Neither of the CTG plays depicts the perils of being part of the “other” group as directly and as graphically as Our Class or Parade. The CTG plays are more about the psychological journeys of the characters as they struggle to transcend the heritage of slavery.
Stylistically, however, Joe Turner’s and The Royale are almost 180 degrees apart from each other. As with many of Wilson’s plays, Joe Turner’s is largely realistic, even when the material includes references to spiritual or other not-so-realistic phenomena. The climaxes of each act are beautifully executed in Rashad’s version, but I grew impatient with some of the play’s less vital moments in a way I don’t remember from the last Joe Turner’s I saw — the Fountain Theatre production in 2006.
The Royale is almost a piece of performance art as much as a play. In depicting a fictional version of the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson (here named Jay Jackson), Ramirez and director Daniel Aukin have the actors functioning as percussionists (without any actual drums) as well as actors.
David St. Louis, Desean Terry and Robert Gossett in “The Royale.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.
The performances are compelling, but the play feels slender. Jay Jackson is seen confronting his anxieties about the racial repercussions of his successes — which he seems to fear more than defeat — but we don’t learn all that much about what actually happened to him in the wake of his victories. Perhaps Ramirez didn’t want to tread where Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope had already gone, but can anyone remember the last time The Great White Hope was professionally staged in LA? I don’t.
I would have appreciated a few more trims in Joe Turner’s and a few more turns in the tale of The Royale. But I’m staying tuned for another CTG dramatization of early 20th century black history in The Scottsboro Boys, coming soon to the Ahmanson.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. No public performances May 21-24. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.
The Royale, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. No public performances this Tuesday or Wednesday. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.
The 99-Seat Transitional Committee, organized last year under the auspices of LA STAGE Alliance, is “finally ready to present the structure and bylaws for a Greater Los Angeles Producers League,” according to a statement released by the group.
After both of the informational meetings, the final proposals will be drawn up for a presentation at a third meeting, at 7 pm on Monday, June 17 at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. At this meeting, the proposals will be submitted “to the community for ratification.”
The sessions are open to the public, but LA 99-Seat Plan producers will be given priority admission if capacity is reached at any of the locations. Reservations are requested, here.
The members of the 99-Seat Transitional Committee are Greg Crafts, Martha Demson, Michael Seel, John Flynn, David Mack, Tim Wright, Oanh Nguyen, Gedaly Guberek, Jenny Byrd, Matt McCray, David Elzer, Rick Culbertson, Michael Kricfalusi, and JJ Mayes.
Jeff Skowron in 3-D Theatricals’ production of “Parade.” Photo by Isaac James Creative.
As Broadway bounces to the beat of comedic tuners such as Kinky Boots, a dark and classically flavored musical epic from 1998 returns to the Southland. Piercing tragedy, historical drama, and hard-hitting themes of miscarried justice and racial bigotry in the post-Civil War South converge in librettist Alfred Uhry and composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown’sParade .
The revival of the ambitious, fact-inspired musical, which earned Tonys for Uhry’s book and Brown’s score, opens at Fullerton’s Plummer Auditorium Friday, produced by 3-D Theatricals. Following its offerings of lighthearted fare such as Peter Pan, Hello, Dolly! and The Drowsy Chaperone, the three-year-old 3-D Theatricals is taking a plunge into more challenging fare. Parade is based on a startling series of events in Atlanta in 1913, when Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank was falsely convicted of murdering 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan. Frank ultimately was killed by a lynch mob of local citizens.
Brown is a versatile musician-singer-songwriter. His credits as composer-lyricist include the musicals Songs For a New World, 13, (which had its premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in 2007 prior to a Broadway run), and Urban Cowboy . One of his most frequently produced works, the semi-autobiographical two-hander The Last 5 Years is now in an Off-Broadway revival that Brown terms “a fantastic production.” This property goes before the cameras for a movie adaptation next month, starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan.
Joining the Parade
Harold Prince and Jason Robert Brown.
Brown shares details on the germination of Parade, as he worked with the accomplished Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy, The Last Night of Ballyhoo) and legendary impresario-director Harold Prince (Cabaret, The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd). According to Brown, “Alfred and Hal had a couple of meetings with Stephen Sondheim. But Stephen decided this wasn’t something he wanted to do. He felt like it was too dark and heavy, and he had just finished writing Passion. He felt he needed a break. Hal, being sort of famously impatient, said, ‘Well what about that kid who writes with Daisy? Let’s ask him.” Prince was referring to his daughter, Daisy Prince, who directed Brown’s first musical Songs For a New World. According to Brown, “So I came into a meeting with Alfred and Hal and I was suitably overwhelmed, as you can imagine, but I just never got fired.”
Brown, who was in his late 20s at that time, elaborates, “I was working with two guys who had so much experience and so much understanding of what theater was and what the musical theater could be. So it was every kind of education for me all at once. And it was thrilling. It was terrifying and frustrating and it was certainly full of all kinds of emotion, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything on earth.”
The acclaimed 2007 Donmar Warehouse staging of Parade in London gave Brown a chance to re-visit the project, and he relished the opportunity. He remarks, “Rob Ashford, who had been the dance captain of the show on Broadway, decided that for his directorial debut he wanted to do Parade. He had several suggestions to make the show fit in the Donmar, which is a smaller space than where we first did it at Lincoln Center. So we had to make the cast and orchestra smaller. And we had to figure out a way to tell the story that was more contained and streamlined, and Alfred and I were both eager to do that. We had always felt that some of the pageantry got in the way of the emotion, and so it was wonderful to sort of step back and do a more intimate version.”
Brown notes that there were substantial changes in the score for the Donmar production. “I would say 25% of the show changed between Broadway and the Donmar. You’d have to know the show pretty well to hear what those changes are. None of the signature pieces of the score disappeared.” Book tweaks also occurred. “We introduced different characters at the Donmar and we changed some of the motor of the show.”
Lara Pulver, T.R. Knight and Deidrie Henry in the 2009 Center Theatre Group production of “Parade” at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
For the 2009 Mark Taper Forum production, which earned a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for production while Brown was honored with LADCC’s Joel Hirschhorn award for career achievement in musical theater, there were cast changes and other adjustments. Yet the material adhered to the Donmar version, and Ashford once again directed, preserving his vision of the piece. Brown also was involved in the Taper rendition.
He says, “I got to share it with all the people who live here with me.” Brown’s wife is singer-composer Georgia Stitt, and they have two young daughters. He moved to LA from his home base, New York, in 2005, when he began teaching classes in musical theater composition at University of Southern California. He says he hasn’t done that for a while, as work on new projects consumes his time, but Stitt has been teaching there for the past two years. Brown says he’s pleased to keep “the family connection” at the school.
Parade remains dear to Brown’s heart as a significant musical, imparting themes that explore seemingly timeless sociopolitical problems. “Unfortunately, it has always felt relevant, Brown remarks. “I feel like the politics of today are so divisive, they feel very regional — and this is what made the sort of North/South divide in this country. Much of Parade deals with that and it’s set 100 years ago. There is a cultural and political divide that is reflected very clearly in the show, and I wish it wasn’t still true but it seems to be.”
Supporting the profundity of the narrative and themes is the widely lauded Brown score, which incorporates a rich array of musical styles, including ragtime, folk music, patriotic anthems, blues, gospel and more.
T.J. Dawson, 3-D Theatricals’ artistic director, who helms the Fullerton production, says Parade “is so important for many reasons. Aside from educating the public about a little-known case that caused the KKK to rear its ugly head and [spurred the formation of] the Anti-Defamation League, the Tony-winning score and book are among a few out there, comparable to that of Ragtime, that evoke such raw emotion and get directly to the soul of the piece and those taking part in it — on stage or off. It is risky and groundbreaking.”
Dawson continues, “This is darker, much darker, than anything our company has produced. I, however, am no stranger to drama and have been thirsty to return to doing something meaningful and deep. This will be a challenge for our subscriber audience, but we go to the theater for so many reasons — to be entertained, to laugh, to cry, to be inspired and to challenge ourselves, to step outside our comfort zone for a couple of hours and open our minds and our hearts to new things. I feel this could definitely bring in new audience members to check out what we have to offer, and it shows we aren’t afraid to take risks.”
David Lamarr, Allen Everman, Rufus Bonds, Jr., Harrison White and Christopher Van Etten in 3D Theatricals’ production of “Parade.”
The success of the Donmar and Taper renditions has sparked a new wave of interest in the show. According to Brown, “Before Donmar, we had a couple of productions a year but they would be at colleges or very large community theaters that support the size of the show. And it’s always a hard show to do simply because its racial element is very specific. You need to have a certain number of black people and a certain number of white people and you can’t fudge it, because the racial element is a big part of the energy of the show.”
He further observes, “We would get a couple of productions here and there but after the Donmar production, we got much more, especially from smaller theaters that had always wanted to do the show but could never figure out how to do it. Now that we had scaled it back, they better understood how to make it work. There was a wonderful production at Ford’s Theatre just last year. And I think that wouldn’t have been possible without the Donmar production.”
Brown confirms that there have been talks of a Broadway revival. “There have been a couple of conversations about it. I’m not sure Broadway is meant to do this sort of thing anymore. When I got into the business and dreamed about writing Broadway musicals, there was room for shows like Parade. I’m not sure that’s true anymore. I don’t know that the current culture of Broadway is really interested in supporting a piece that has so much to say about human nature and is historical and complicated.”
Brown, who is currently busy with other projects, is not involved in the 3-D production, which is under the musical direction of David Lamoureux, but he spoke to the company briefly about re-integrating a larger ensemble into the piece. Dawson notes, “We are essentially doing the changes made for the Donmar production but with a larger company. We opted for the larger cast size as we feel passionately about the show, but don’t feel that the smaller version would have the same translation and resonate the same way in the large houses that we play to. Also, there’s something magical about hearing 36 people sing this incredible score.”
On the Horizon
Tyler Mann and Emma Degerstedt in the 2007 Center Theatre Group production of “13″ at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Brown continues to add to his canon of wide-ranging musicals. Two projects are opening this year, and he’s excited about both. His stage adaptation of the best-selling novel The Bridges of Madison County (the basis for the Meryl Streep-Clint Eastwood film adaptation) premieres at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer, with a planned Broadway opening in 2014. He speaks of its conception: “We started on it about 2½ to three years ago. Marsha Norman [book writer] approached me about it. We had done a couple of things together, and we loved working together. I didn’t respond to the original novel all that much, but what Marsha was suggesting and her ideas about how to bring the show to life musically were exciting and beautiful.”
Brown and Norman then approached actress-singer Kelli O’Hara and said they would like to write this for her. Brown adds, “She got excited about that. Then we went to Bartlett Sher, the director [who helmed the 2008 South Pacific revival, winning a Tony]. He listened to what we had and said, ‘This is so exciting, I want to be a part of it.’ So we put together this dream team to make this show happen.”
Another project, Honeymoon in Vegas, is based on the hit film comedy. “For 10 years I’ve been pushing that thing up the hill,” he quips. “But we have the best cast in the world. I love the show so much because it’s funny, it’s bright, and I wanted to write a show that high schools could be doing the rest of their lives. I want when I’m 90 years old to be invited to the Paducah Valley high school production. It’s an old-fashioned musical, but one with my vocabulary to it.” Among the cast are Tony Danza, Rob McClure (current Tony nominee for Chaplin), and Rory O’Malley. “We also have Gary Griffin, an astonishingly good director,” Brown remarks. “So I’m really excited. We’ll be doing that at the Paper Mill Playhouse in the fall, and then hopefully coming to Broadway after that.”
Jason of All Trades
Brown admits that his musical-theater oeuvre encompasses a lot of styles and says that’s what he enjoys the most: “I feel like a costume designer has to be able to design the costumes that will be right for what the characters wear, and music to me feels the same. The characters are going to tell me what they need to sound like and it’s my job to be true to that. I love music. It’s so much fun being able to fit the right music to the character. That’s really the whole job as far as I’m concerned. So it’s important for me to know all these possible styles and all these possible energies because I may have to fit them to the characters. And I want the characters to be as full and as rich as they can be, and not limited by my limits as a writer.”
Robert Yacko and Leslie Stevens in 3-D Theatricals’ production of “Parade.”
Is it true that he originally considered being a rock musician? “I used to see Billy Joel on television and I thought I could do that and I wanted to. I was a little ethnic kid who played the piano and wrote songs. Somewhere along the way, musicals seemed like fun. It was an interesting diversion, a fun thing to do… And somehow it became the thing that I do with my life.”
Besides composing, Brown has written arrangements and orchestrations, as he was enlisted to do for Urban Cowboy, based on the John Travolta film. Ultimately, he also was tapped to write some new songs to augment the score, which incorporated a blend of existing songs by different composers. “I love doing all of that,” he says. “To me that’s the fun of being a musician — to be able to be that well-rounded and that involved. I know there are plenty of composers who are not as broadly trained as I am or as curious as I am about all of those elements, but it’s always been my blessing and my curse. I’ve always wanted to be in the middle of it. I love making music.”
Does he have a yet-unfulfilled ambition? “I think sustaining a career in theater is a substantial accomplishment all its own. And I would like to keep doing that. That’s my entire agenda — to keep making music for the theater. And to have it be heard. I love what I do, and I love it when people respond to it.”
Parade, Plummer Auditorium, 201 E Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Opens Friday. Fri–Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. (Also Sat May 25, 2 pm.) May 10-26. Tickets: $23-60. www.3dtshows.com. 714-589-2770. Ext. 1.
**All 3-D Theatricals Parade production photos by Isaac James Creative.
PREMIERES… The premiere of Henry Ong’s Sweet Karma — a fictionalized, surrealistic sojourn within the life and death of Cambodian refugee-turned Oscar-winning actor Haing S. Ngor — scheduled to open tomorrow at GTC Burbank, helmed by artistic director Kevin Cochran — has been postponed until June 22, due to cast changes… Joseph Stern and Matrix TheatreCompanyare presenting theWest Coast premiere of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 — a dramatization of the first genocide of the 20th century, helmed by Jillian Armenante, featuring Daniel Bess, Julanne Chidi Hill, Joe Holt, Phil LaMarr, Rebecca Mozo and John Sloan, opening June 8. This is the first production under Matrix’s new mandate to produce only one play each year…Downtown LA-based Loft Ensemble is fracturing the modern fairy tale genre with the premiere of The Princes’ Charming — two princes scramble through speed dating, arranged marriages, and random encounters in the woods, hoping to avoid a mysterious curse, scripted and helmed by Mitch Rosander, opening May 25…As an entrant in Hollywood Fringe Festival 2013, Rodeo Town, a surrealistic vision of a dying way of life, scripted by Graham Bowlin, helmed by Cameron Strittmatter, premieres June 7 at East Theatre @ The Complex…Also premiering under the umbrella of Hollywood Fringe is The Ruby Besler Cabaret, wrought by Anastasia Barnes (script, music), Gere Fennelly (music, music direction), Jim Senti (additional dialogue) and Flame Cyndars (choreography), helmed by Doug Oliphant, opening June 11 at Elephant Stage…
OPEN AIR FARE… Resolving the status of its artistic leadership following the departure of former artistic director Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez, Watts Village Theater Company is launching its annual environmentally interactive Meet Me @ Metro IV: Bringing it Home to Watts under the guidance of co-founder/artistic director/dramaturg Lynn Manning, introducing two works, May 25 & 26. Scattered Joy, helmed by Jameelah Nuriddin performs at 103rd Street Station, while Under The 105, helmed by Ryan Vincent Anderson performs at Rosa Parks Station…Fountain Theatre in Hollywood is taking its recurring Forever Flamenco series outdoors to a larger arena. Celebrating founder Deborah Lawlor’s 20-year dedication to producing, nurturing and broadening the art form in LA, Forever Flamenco!at the Ford — under the artistic direction of internationally renowned flamenco dancer Maria Bermudez, featuring an international lineup of flamenco artists — returns to Ford Amphitheater in the Cahuenga Pass, one night only, June 15…
AROUND TOWN…Coeurage Theatre Company is reviving Irish playwright Brian Friel’s 1980 play Translations, “about language and cultural imperialism,” helmed by Ryan Wagner, opening May 25 at Lost Studio in Hollywood…Cabrillo Music Theatreis producingthe 2007 Broadway tuner Legally Blonde: The Musical, wrought by Laurence O’Keefe & Nell Benjamin (music and lyrics) and Heather Hach (book),helmed by Tiffany Engen, starring Emma Degerstedt, at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza’s Kavli Theatre, opening July 19…Long Beach Playhouse is closing its 2012 – 2013 mainstage season with the 1982 rock tuner perennial, Little Shop of Horrors by composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman, helmed by producing artistic director Andrew Vonderschmitt, opening May 25…..Finally, distilling the 37 stageworks of the Bard is the goal of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), scripted by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, helmed by Sarah Gurfield, opening June 7 at Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica…
EXTENDING...The debut outing of Years to the Day, a dark comedy by Allen Barton, helmed by Joel Polis, is extending through June 2 at Beverly Hills Playhouse…In Santa Monica, Edgemar Center’s staging of the N. Richard Nash perennial The Rainmaker, helmed by Jack Heller, starring Tanna Frederick and Robert Standley, extends through May 26…Back in Hollywood, Actors Co-op’s production of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, helmed by Thom Babbes, is also reaching out until May 26…Over in Burbank, Colony Theatre’s tuneful Falling For Make Believe — music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, helmed by Jim Fall – is not extending beyond May 19 but is adding a Sunday, May 12 performance at 7 pm…
INSIDE LA STAGE HISTORY…Born in Cleveland , Ohio on June 29, 1934, actor/director/educator Corey Allen blossoms into an accomplished thesp when his family moves to Los Angeles in the late ’40s. A 1954 graduate of the UCLA theater department, where he wins a best actor award, Allen receives his big tinseltown break when he is cast as the arrogant but doomed teen gang leader Buzz Gunderson in Rebel Without a Cause, opposite James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. Although Allen finds steady acting work in film and TV, he is drawn into directing, eventually earning an Emmy for helming an episode ofˆHill Street Blues (1984) and guiding the two-hour pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987). Along the way, Allen never loses contact with his first love — live theater. In 1959, Allen becomes a partner in a touring theater operation called Freeway Circuit Inc., which tours California for six seasons. LA STAGE Times editor emeritus Lee Melville recalls, “In 1961, Corey Allen’s Freeway Circuit brought its touring production of (Jerome) Lawrence and (Robert Edwin) Lee’sOnly in America into the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood. It starred Herschel Bernardi as the Jewish humorist/journalist Harry Golden. The Ivar was operated then by partners Zev Bufman and Stan Seiden. We had a successful four-month run there. It was my first Equity job as assistant stage manager and I played a small role. There were many well-known actors in the 20+ member cast. Harold Gould was Herschel’s understudy and got his Equity card from the show. I remember Lawrence & Lee did some rewrites from the original play which had flopped on Broadway.” Following Freeway Circuit, Allen co-founds a small repertory theater called Actors Theater in 1965. As the demands of his television directorial work become more time-consuming, Allen segues into teaching, which is less time-intensive than running a theater. Allen teaches stage performance, including three years at the Actors Workshop. For nine years, he conducts cold reading workshops at the Margie Haber Studio. Later, Allen is presented with an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Columbia College-Hollywood for his work in helping to create the acting and directing curricula. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease the last 20 years of his life, Corey Allen dies on June 27, 2010 at age 75…
– The Julio Martinez produced and hosted ARTS IN REVIEW, showcasing the best in live theater and cabaret in the greater Los Angeles area, broadcasts weekly on KPFK 90.7fm, Fridays at 2 pm. On May 10, the spotlight is on actor/singer Teri Ralston, who is co-starring with Stephanie Zimbalist in the Laguna Playhouse staging of Steel Magnolias…