The One and Only
Theater director Shirley Jo Finney walked a lonely path but now builds universal worlds.
By Ethan Davison
Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, and Leith Burke in the Shirley Jo Finney–directed Citizen: An American Lyric, at the Fountain Theatre
Photo by Ed Krieger
If the role of the storyteller is to expand our perspectives and open us to diverse ideas, why does it seem so many stories are created by white males? Shirley Jo Finney says she struggles with this issue every day. The director of such plays as The Ballad of Emmett Till, From the Mississippi Delta, and her most recent project, Citizen: An American Lyric, at the Fountain Theatre, gravitates to projects that focus on the pain and struggle racism has caused throughout history.
Finney never intended to be a director. While a student at UCLA, she focused solely on becoming an actor. “I would direct on and off on school projects and wouldn’t think anything of it,” she says. “I would just think, ‘Eh, it’s something to do. But I’m an actress. That’s what I’m going to do.’ That was the mantra.”
That changed when a friend of hers suffered a heart attack. Finney recalls, “He said to me, ‘If I live through this, I would love for you to work with me in putting on a show.’ Well, he lived through it, and we took pieces of poetry…created the story, made a character arc…. Then we decided we wanted to put it up.” The piece, directed by Finney, was honored by Los Angeles Times as one of the 10 best Equity-waiver productions of the year. Finney would later be invited into the director’s program at Los Angeles Theatre Center, which would cement her path from actor to director.
Still, it hasn’t been an easy path to walk. Says Finney, “I was female, and even though I hate to say that, that becomes a challenge. And I was a female of color. And one thing I learned from that was how to navigate the political system, because there’s a lot of theaters across this country, where I was the first either female or female of color, to walk in those doors.”
Finney refers to this as “The Only One Syndrome.” She says, “When you’re the only one in a place, there is a certain burden that comes with that. So what I had to learn is what was mine and what was theirs.”
Societal challenges weren’t the only obstacles that presented themselves. The emotional journey Finney had to embark on with some of her projects also took their toll on her. When Yellow Man, a play centered on the color caste system within the African-American community, was proposed to her, Finney initially turned it down. “It’s all about trying to dissimulate into the main culture, and what that does, and how that impacts relationships,” she explains. “I lived it. I did not want to go there because it’s a wound. But I did.”
Valuing the Core
Finney’s process involves finding the emotional core of the piece. “I believe that the playwright has given you the themes of the play. So it is my job as a director to do the visceral work of it, to do the emotional investigations. So, when I first read a play, I go, ‘How do I feel about this? What does it trigger in me?’ Then start with the conceptual process. And I usually try to find out what the emotional heart of a play is.”
With this emotional core, Finney universalizes the story. Though each story may tell of a very specific group or individual, Finney still strongly believes that the message of the play should provide knowledge of or insight into everyone. “Just like in ancient times with the very first indigenous people, it’s about how we navigate the world,” Finney says. “Every story tells us, the people sitting in a circle in the tribe, how to navigate the world. And because we’re human beings and emotions are universal, they don’t see color or gender, right? That’s a key human experience. So you as the audience member, and I as the facilitator, and the acting team, we’re conduits. We’re witnessing each other and taking this journey energetically.”
And it’s not just the overall story she applies this process to but also the individual characters whose journeys we follow. In doing so, she asks herself, “Who is this person to me? What does he want? How does he feel? How’s he going to feel when he gets his objective? What are his human flaws? What are his joys?”
Finney points out to actors she directs that humans have only three basic needs: to be nurtured, to be seen, and to be safe. She says, “So you’re getting all those when you come out if you’re a pretty healthy human being, but if you’re missing one of those, then you’re going to act out to get it. So when you’re looking at a story and the protagonist, or even the antagonist, you have to keep that in mind.” This work with her actors begins around the table, much like the storytelling in tribes. “We start looking at the theme of the piece and how that relates to us in our lives,” she says. “So when you have a group of people sitting in a circle and they begin sharing, then they start bonding. And that’s how you create great ensembles.”
Being a Good ‘Citizen’
Citizen: An American Lyric, adapted by Stephen Sachs from the book by Claudia Rankine, focuses on today’s racial issues. Says Finney, “Her conversation is about the everyday encounters of the unconscious/conscious racism. And it’s the speak of middle- and upper-middle-class whites and blacks, which is the discourse that’s happening in America now. So I lived that. This is one of those pieces where everything that she’s talking about I have lived.”
Ultimately, Finney’s message is about breaking out of the roles society sets up for us. Rather than just being defined by or limited to what is expected, she says, we should strive for what’s important to each of us. “Don’t get locked in a box,” she says “We didn’t come here in a box so why put yourself in a box?”
As for how to start breaking out of that box, Finney recommends taking advantage of modern media. “You can blog, you can write, you can put it on the Net. So there is nothing stopping one from expressing oneself.” She wrote, directed, produced, and helped to finance her first opportunity, a decision she refers to as “an investment in who I am today.”
Adenrele Ojo and Lorenz Arnell in The Ballad of Emmett Till at the Fountain Theatre, 2010
Diarra Kilpatrick in In the Red and Brown Water at the Fountain, 2012
Gilbert Glenn Brown and Theodore Perkins in The Brothers Size at the Fountain, 2014
Production photos by Ed Krieger
Portrait of Shirley Jo Finney by Dany Margolies, ©ArtsInLA.com
Actor-director Gigi Bermingham brings songs and singers to life.
by Jonas Schwartz
Gigi Bermingham with Matthew Goldsby in Cabaret Noel
Photo courtesy of GoldsbyMusic.com
Gigi Bermingham is well-known in Los Angeles for her performances, comedic and dramatic. Recently, these have included leading roles in Terrence McNally’s Master Class at International City Theatre and Non-Vital Organs at Skylight Theatre. She also directs, lately for Antaeus Theatre Company (You Can’t Take It With You) and Sierra Madre Playhouse (An Ideal Husband).
Now there’s proof she’s a musical star, too. Over the Christmas season, she and her husband, composer Matthew Goldsby, took their love for the holidays and songs in her native French language (thanks to her French mother) and offered up a musical present titled Cabaret Noel, at Vitello’s Jazz and Supper Club.
This is the third production of Cabaret Noel but the first that includes just the couple. When the pair performed the show at Theatre @ Boston Court and at Antaeus in 2011 and 2012, says Bermingham, “There were seven to nine of us performing, others doing solos and traditional English Christmas songs. It was more of a Christmas review.” At Vitello’s, Bermingham and Goldsby converted the evening into a cabaret. “I always had a dream that [Matthew] would sit at piano, while I sing,” she says.
Bermingham and Goldsby had first met while in college, at UC Berkeley. “Even back in college, he was doing piano for shows, and I acted and sang,” she recalls. They were part of a drama school circle but “we barely knew each other.” They reconnected 20 years later, when Bermingham moved to LA, and they have been together after running into each other at a Fourth of July party.
The current format of Cabaret Noel at Vitello’s “felt more authentic to who I am and to our onstage relationship,” she says. “This year was just the two of us performing. I just wanted to do a cabaret with chitty chatty and singing in an intimate [environment] where people are relaxed and having a cocktail. No pressure, no strain. People just having a good time.”
Goldsby started writing music at Berkeley. But, Bermingham says, “Many of his songs have been written since we were together.” Some of the songs she sang in this year’s cabaret weren’t written for her but for multiple voices, so he retailored them. “Matthew likes to write comic songs for me that create a character of a vapid Beverly Hills housewife, like ‘What’d Ya Get Me’ and ‘I Know What You Want for Christmas.’”
Some of Bermingham’s favorite songs from the show include the above and “Josephine.” “It’s about a girl who grows up with a princess attitude, and has a wakeup call,” says Bermingham. “The sibling rivalry converts into appreciation and love and a sense of family and loyalty in face of a potential horrific event that is averted by the love of the little brother. When I started rehearsing, I couldn’t get through without stopping because I would cry. I had to concentrate on getting the words out.”
Another favorite is “Hollywood Frost,” she says. “That one really moves people. They make comments about how touching it is. When you come to LA from somewhere else, there is that loss of winter weather.” She says the song evokes nostalgia. The couple fully expects to do Cabaret Noel again next year. “I’d like to get Matt to write new songs, and I want to learn new French songs” she says. “The French is tricky because you’ll lose your audience if it’s a long song. [This year] we didn’t have as many French people in the audience usually we do.”
There is talk that the duo will create a Valentine’s Day show. “If we did,” she says, “I would love to do “La vie en rose” and some of Matthew’s love songs. There would be a lot of Piaf songs.”
According to his wife, Goldsby’s next musical is a “work in progress with a 1940s film noir tone.” He's also composing music for a play by Mimi Seton, titled Body Without Bones. Bermingham has been cast as Judy Garland in Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow at International City Theatre in Long Beach, which opens Feb. 21. But it seems Bermingham is in the midst of the rainbow, and LA is the better for it.
December 28, 2014
Birmingham in ICT’s Master Class, photo by Suzanne Mapes
The cast of Antaeus Company’s You Can’t Take It With You, photo by Geoffrey Wade
Matters of Life and ‘Death’
Orson Bean looks back, gears up for Geffen premiere.
by Dany Margolies
David Clayton Rogers and Orson Bean in Death of the Author
Photo by Michael Lamont
Most of us know of Orson Bean as a longtime figure on our big and small screens. For decades, we saw him as a game-show contestant and talk-show guest and host. But he also earned a SAG Award nomination for his performance in the film Being John Malkovich, and lately he has appeared on Desperate Housewives and Two and a Half Men.
Fewer of us have been lucky enough to see him on the stage. For his decades-long career on Broadway, he won a Theater World Award for John Murray Anderson’s Almanac and a Tony nomination for Subways Are for Sleeping.
Locally, he has appeared onstage at Odyssey Theatre—including starring in a production of A Song at Twilight opposite his wife, actor Alley Mills—and at his neighborhood playhouse, Pacific Resident Theatre, in a variety of roles.
Starting May 28, he’ll star in Steven Drukman’s Death of the Author, directed by Bart DeLorenzo. But now, the legendary raconteur talks with ArtsInLA.com about his early days as an actor, about passing the hat in Los Angeles’s 99-Seat theater scene, and about rehearsing his new role as an old academic.
How did you first become interested in performing?
Orson Bean: I was given a magic set when I was 7 years old, and I never recovered. That morphed into standup comedy. I came to New York in 1950 and walked into a club called the Blue Angel, and went on, and I stayed there about six months out of the year for the next 10 years. And then people would come in and see me doing my standup set, which was different characters. And I began to be cast in plays. I did Broadway from 1950 to 1970. Most of them comedies and musicals, but some serious stuff.
So you started by creating characters for yourself?
Bean: Yes. I had a fan obsessed with Bela Lugosi. I had an Australian who was in love with an ostrich. I had two Martians talking about a pet one had given his kid who then ate the kid. And people came in and began casting me. It’s different creating and performing your own characters.
How did you learn to do other writers’ material?
Bean: I studied with everybody. I studied with Uta Hagen, Lloyd Richards, Paul Mann, Morris Carnovsky. Finally I had to learn it all, but I forgot it. When two little kids play house, they are so real. Acting is finally getting back to that make-believe. If you make yourself believe it, you make the audience believe it. When you watch little kids do that, the belief is total. I had to learn all that stuff in order to unlearn it. I sat in the subway train, trying to look at people and absorb. Uta had told me to do that. One time, I brought in a scene in Uta’s class, way before HB Studio, I brought in a scene with Bill Hickey, we did a scene from Juno and the Paycock in cheap vaudeville Irish accents. The class screamed, Uta howled until she cried, pulled herself together, and said, “Really terrible, boys.” If I could make Uta Hagen laugh, why isn’t that acting? I was just doing my thing. Actually, the first play I was ever cast in was a serious play. We toured endlessly and closed in Chicago. It never got to Broadway.
At that point did you need survival jobs?
Bean: I did. I washed dishes in a restaurant when I was still in high school. And then, because it was World War II, I got promoted to busboy, and then to waiter, and I was still in high school. Because I was a hard-worker, I began to wait tables and get tips. But the truth is, I graduated from high school and went into the army for a couple of years. I spent a year in Japan, right after World War II. I did my magic act to try to get out of KP. But after I was 19 years old, I never had to do it because I could do my standup, and I wrote my own material. After I started acting, if didn’t have gig, I was doing standup.
I played at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. I was an apprentice, opening the box office, sweeping under the seats. I was 16. Marion Seldes was one of my fellow apprentices. At age 16, she was already old. She looked at me and said, “Orson, if you never learn to sweep better than that, how do you expect to become an actor.”
Did those magic skills or other skills ever get you an early job or help you keep a job?
Bean: I’m still a lifetime member of The Magic Castle. I can still do 20 minutes at the kids’ Halloween festivals. Last year, I was in a play by Noah Haidle at South Coast Rep, [Smokefall]. I got this part [Death of the Author] because Bart DeLorenzo saw me in it. There was a transition where there was no time and actors had to change costumes. I said, “I can do something,” and I built my paper tree, which was a magic trick I had done on Broadway in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. In [Smokefall], a giant tree comes through the window and plays a part in the second act. In what would have been that dead-weight [scene change], I built my paper tree and just hummed.
Did you ever audition for these roles?
Bean: I auditioned like crazy! I like to audition. The reason actors will never have a strong union is, you give them a copy of Chekhov and put them in a church basement…. So I always tell actors, think of the audition as a chance to act. I love to audition, and I always do the audition like I have part already. And I didn’t get an awful lot of them, sure, but that’s what you have to learn to do as an actor. As a writer, too, you get rejected, and you come back anyway. That’s what separates the wolf from the sheep.
In all this time you were working and auditioning, did anybody ever discourage you, and, if so, how did you respond?
Bean: I wouldn’t have listened if they did. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t succeed. Nor did I want to be so famous that it would interfere with my having a life. I wanted to be famous enough that a waiter would give me a good table. And I achieved my goal: I always walked that thin line between fame and oblivion
What makes a good director, or what kind of direction work best for you?
Bean: I’ve been a professional actor for over 65 years. I can count on the fingers of one hand the directors who inspired me. The directors who said something, and I said, “Ooh, I can’t wait to go out and try that. Can I go right now?” Conversely, I can count on even fewer fingers the directors who were really destructive. Three or four. Not many. The vast majority of directors cast people that are right for the part and know how to take care of themselves, and tell them when to get up from the couch and move to the door. That’s basically what they do. Very few people understand what direction is, in my opinion. Spike Jonze. I did a movie with him [Being John Malkovich]. Best part I ever had in a movie. The way I got the part was, I was being interviewed by Tom Snyder, who did a one-hour late-night interview show. [For the film], they had apparently auditioned every geezer in the business. Spike turned on the TV. After he cast me, I said to him, “At 2 in the morning, the dame on next barstool starts looking pretty good.” That’s why I got the part.
I had a scene with Cameron Diaz. She comes in out of the cold. I said, “My dear, you’re going to catch your death.” She’s trying to talk to me about her obsession with John Malkovich. I say, “Take a bath and join me in front of the fire.” We played this scene in front of the fire, and we played it a few times. [Jonze] whispered something to her. And he came over to me and he whispered, “This time, play it as if you just finished making love and it was wonderful.” What a great note! He’s a kid, Spike Jozne, but he has that thing already. I count him as one of the four or five who really inspired me.
I’m grateful when they leave me alone. I’ve been in the business long enough, I know how to take care of myself. But the other three kids [in Death of the Author] are taking care of themselves, too. When you do it for a while, whether it’s writing or painting, you’re pretty much on your own anyway. [Writing] is more solitary than my business. I saw Annette Bening [at the Geffen in Ruth Draper’s Monologues]. I thought she was wonderful. But I’ve done one-man shows, and there’s no one to go have a beer with afterwards.
I played Rudolf Hess at the Odyssey, in an English play, about the solitary prisoner at Spandau Prison. The prison was in Berlin in East Germany. The powers who won the war took turns running it. Finally, there was nobody left but Hess. Four times a year the guard would march in, music would play, and they would change, just to keep this poor old bastard alive. I did this one-man show. It was okay, but there was no one to have a beer with afterwards. That’s why I don’t like them.
At that point I met Alley [Mills], the woman who was to become my wife, [at Odyssey Theatre]. She was playing Eva Braun [in a play there]. We met, but we weren’t ready yet [to marry]. When we were ready, we met again.
How did both of you become involved with Pacific Resident Theatre?
Bean: It’s in our neighborhood. We live in the [Venice] canals [in West Los Angeles]. The woman who runs it, [Marilyn Fox], called me and said the actor playing Dorn in The Seagull had dropped out. I had seen a couple of their things and thought they were good, so I said sure! I did that, they did it as a workshop there, and then they decided to put it on for a run at the Powerhouse [Theatre, in Venice]. It was $12.50 a ticket, and on the first preview we had two people in the audience. I got the cast together afterwards and said, let’s give the show away free, and we’ll pass the hat afterwards. If we do that, we’ll make enough money. If we don’t, I’ll kick it in. Well, we got a rave in LA Times, and it said, “Best of all, the show is free.” We sold out every seat for nothing, and I made a little pitch at the end of the show. I said, “You don’t have to give anything, but just remember, all over town people are laying out five bucks to see Sylvester Stallone in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Well, we made enough dough that we had $2,000 left over at the end of the run, which they put into the kitty for future shows. And we had a packed, grateful audience every night. That was a great lesson. You give stuff away, and it comes back to you. That’s a Zen principle.
How did you and Bart decide to work together on this play? You didn’t audition, did you?
Bean: Yes! First of all, at my age, they don’t know if you can remember the lines. So I always come in off-book for the scenes I audition with. There’s a portion of the brain, I can learn a whole play in three days. Names of close acquaintances elude me, but that part of my brain—I’m just lucky. They give me new stuff, I know it that night. I use tricks, first of all. There’s a line I have, “To begin with, I should lecture you on the hazards of plagiarizing, but let’s dispense with that.” To learn that, I pictured those orange hazard cones that are in the street, and next to them one of those metal paper-napkin dispensers from Junior’s Restaurant. After I’ve used that and I know the lines and run it a few times, I forget about the cones and the napkins. But I use those tricks. Laurence Olivier said, “Get the memorizing out of the way first, and then you can spend your rehearsal time figuring out what you want from the other character.” So I always do that.
What was the last note Bart gave you?
Bean: He gives me the same note every time. “Stay upstage.” I have a natural tendency to go downstage because I feel when the other actor is talking, the focus should be there. He said no, stay upstage.
So who is your character in Death of the Author?
Bean: It takes place in the world of academia. I’m an old professor, mentoring a younger professor to take my place when I retire. The younger professor [played by David Clayton Rogers] has a student whom he’s accused of plagiarizing on a term paper. I have questions about whether it is plagiarism. The fourth character is the kid’s girlfriend, who may or may not have written the term paper. But it’s full of twists and turns.
I grew up in Harvard Square. I watched 50-year-old men with green book bags over their shoulders going for their third Ph.D., never having left the world of academia and gone into alleged reality. So I got this guy immediately. I said he should wear a bowtie. The costumer said, “We don’t want to go that far. Maybe patches on the elbow.”
What do you do to keep him from being a stereotypical “professor” type?
Bean: Spike Jonze said to me, “Do less.” I said, “If I do any less, I won’t be doing anything.” He said, “Yeah, but your 80 years will come through if you’re not doing anything.” I haven’t even thought about the character. My wife keeps saying to me, “Aren’t you going to work on the character?” I’m just trying to immerse myself in being interested in the other people, and then whatever comes out of me. I realize he’s kind of eccentric, but I haven’t set out to make him eccentric. I am eccentric. It’s better than being centric.
What have you noticed about the work the other actors are doing on the play?
Bean: The boy, Austin Butler, is astonishing. I went home and said to Alley, “This kid is amazing.” I asked him, “What have you done on the stage?” He said, “Nothing.” I said, “Nothing? You never did Hansel and Gretel in school in the fifth grade?” “No.” He’s never even done a play at Thanksgiving, and he has an immediate sense of what to do on the stage. He’s amazing. He’s a big TV person. I’d never heard of him. I don’t know anybody since Clark Gable. But all my kids said, “You don’t know him?” They’re all good. The girl [Lyndon Smith] is astonishing. We learn lines our lines, and then, like in tech week, we’re out here running [lines], running, running until they call for a scene, so we don’t waste a minute. I kind of instigated it, but they’re all for that.
In the world of acting, what do you think has changed the most since you began?
Bean: In terms of the product, they’re making Godzilla again. I was starting to get sick of Captain America and Spider-Man when I was 16, and now there are 60-year-old guys lining up to see movies about them. It’s appalling to me. I guess all the good writing is taking place on cable now. But I don’t watch it, because I’m so busy. I keep waiting to sit in a rocking chair and whittle. So I don't want to get involved [watching cable]. But in the movies, it’s appalling. Occasionally a new interesting show comes along, but so many revivals, especially in musicals. I saw Once, which I loved. I loved the movie, and the stage show is better. But that’s the rare exception. They’re doing The Sound of Music. Things cost so much, they don’t want to take a chance. When I started doing TV, in the days of live TV, they did really interesting things on Playhouse 90, because it didn’t cost anything to put a show on. You didn’t need to reach billions of people. Very few people had TV sets. It was usually one person in the neighborhood, and everyone would come over to watch Sid Caesar on a Saturday night. So you could take a chance when you wrote these scripts, you didn’t have to appeal to such a mass. Really interesting stuff came out if it, like Marty and Requiem for a Heavyweight. The more money is involved, the less risks people are ready to take.
Recently one I saw called Don Jon was so good, I went back to see it the second day. Then I had the good fortune to work with this kid who made it, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He’s a kid, and he wrote, directed, and starred in it. I talked to him, and he told me he made the picture for $2 million, and it looks like a fortune. Scarlett Johansson did it for a nickel. But those are the exceptions. That’s why I don’t go to the movies anymore. There’s the art films, but I’m sick of Czechoslovakian prison dramas.
Have you ever felt miscast?
Bean: No. I think I could play Juliet. My wife turns down plays a lot, because she says, “I just don’t get her.” I’d say, “Do it, and then you’ll get her.” No, I never felt miscast. Other people have thought I was. I remember my first terrible review, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was cast Off-Broadway in The School for Scandal. Walter Kerr said, “Orson Bean finds no particular inspiration in the role of a mug-thumping clown named Careless.” And he was right. But it wasn’t because I was miscast. I just didn’t know how to do Restoration. Now I can do it. I’m doing this guy [the professor] a little that way.
So you are giving the professor a little something different! How soon after you first read the script do you picture the character? How soon do you start deciding…?
Bean: I never decide. It just happens. I was surprised the other day. I made a breakthrough, and I started really getting into it for the first time. And Bart said, “You didn’t stay upstage enough.” I’m kind of surprised when the character comes about. And I think that’s the best way. It is for me, anyway. I don’t think a lot about it.
Was the Kerr review your worst ever?
Bean: My first line, it was a Saroyan play, The Time of Your Life, and I was cast in the role of, it said, “a cocksure sailor looking for Kitty.” I came in and said, “Where’s Kitty!” My father’s friend was Marjorie Adams, who was the movie reviewer for the Boston Globe. They sent her to cover this, and because she knew who I was, she gave me my first review. But there was a misprint, and my first review, which I could not send to my grandmother, said, “Orson Bean makes an auspicious debut in the role of a cocksore sailor looking for Kitty.” The actors howled and kept it up on the bulletin board backstage for the whole summer. I was devastated.
What was the most dreadful line you ever had to say?
Bean: If they’re dreadful, I change them. I learned that in the army: You never ask permission, you do it. The sergeant says, “What the hell?” and you say, “I’m sorry.” And then you do it again. “Did I do that again? I’m so sorry.” Onstage, you’re in charge of where the people look. In the movies, the editor is. Onstage, not that I ever try to draw focus—I don’t, because it’s a cardinal rule—but whoever is most interesting is who people look at. So, going back to your question about a terrible line, I’ll change it, and when they yell at me, “Oh, did I? I’m so sorry.” And then I’ll do it again. Finally they give up. And the way I said it was better. But [with Death of the Author] I like this guy’s writing, so I am trying to get it word perfect. It’s damn good. This guy is very talented. And a good guy, too.
Interviewed on May 14, 2014
As Mr. Bevis on The Twilight Zone, 1960
With Alley Mills in Playboy of the Western World at Pacific Resident Theatre, 1996
With Laurie O’Brien, Alley Mills in A Song at Twilight at Odyssey Theatre, 2010
With Carmela Corbett in Smokefall at South Coast Repertory, 2013, photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR
In Death of the Author, photo by Michael Lamont
With David Clayton Rogers and Austin Butler in Death of the Author, photo by Michael Lamont
In his own adaptation of A Christmas Carol at Pacific Resident Theatre
To Tell the Truth
Television writer-producer Gary
Lennon has repeatedly felt the lure of the stage. There, his authentic
self gets its own catharsis while contributing to ours.
by Dany Margolies
Josh Randall and Elizabeth Regen rehearsing Dates and Nuts
Photo by Jason Adams
would a by-any-standards successful television writer spend his sparest
moments on a play? And why would he offer that play to a 99-Seat
theater, even a by-any-standards well-respected one?
Gary Lennon says he’s driven by the desire to communicate. That’s
been a theme through his life, whether as an aspiring actor studying
with Geraldine Page in New York or as a co-executive producer on Black Box and supervising producer on Orange Is the New Black. It’s why he writes.
In Page’s class, he says, “I felt like I was lying on the stage, and I
wanted to be honest.” So, instead of bringing in published works of
playwrights, he began to write monologues for himself. Then, he
realized, he didn’t want to act. He wanted to tell his own stories, and
that meant writing, and Page encouraged him.
His real-life stories became a collection of monologues, which became his play Blackout—about people in recovery—which played in a tiny theater in New York. He sold the script as a film, titled Drunks.
That prompted him to come to Los Angeles for the film and television
industries. He garnered writing and producing credits on series such as The Shield and Justified, and currently he co-executive produces the new series Power.
But, as he explains below, he continually feels the pull of theater. Television didn’t keep him too busy to write his play A Family Thing,
which The Echo Theater Company premiered last year and which garnered
LA Drama Critics Circle nominations, including one for the production.
His West Coast premiere romantic comedy Dates and Nuts opens this weekend at Jessica Hanna and Alicia Adams’s Bootleg Theater.
How did you find your way to Bootleg Theater?
Lennon: [Co-owner] Alicia Adams is from New York. As an actress, she was in one of my first plays, called Rated X.
We became immediate friends back then, in our 20s. She went to the
Neighborhood Playhouse. We both studied Meisner [technique] as actors.
Then, when I moved out here, we reconnected, she told me about Bootleg,
and she was generous enough to produce my first play in a long time, The Interlopers. And we’re again fast friends, her family and me. And she’s producing this, as well.
Why return to writing for theater?
Lennon: After Drunks, I wrote Dates and Nuts,
and we did it, and it hasn’t been done again. I was going to sell it as
a movie, and there was lot of interest in the movie, and then it didn’t
happen. I went on to do different things, sold lots of movies. Seven
years ago I started writing plays again.
Darryl Stephens and Trevor Peterson in The Interlopers
Photo by Ashley West Leonard
Lennon: The desire to communicate, with the immediacy of theater.
The desire to get an immediate reaction from what I’m saying to you, to
see if it affects you in any way—good, bad, or indifferent. I wrote The Interlopers,
which Diarra Kilpatrick starred in. At the time, I was going through a
feeling of, “Who am I? Why am I here? What do I have to say?” I wasn’t
sure I was able to really say that on television, which was the arena
I’d been working in. I had a great desire to tell my truth again, to be
authentic. I was going through a thing of trying to figure out, who am
I? The most incredible way to write a play about who I am, exploring the
theme of identity, was through a transgender character, who’s in the
wrong body and wanting to be authentic. So these two characters popped
up for me, and I wrote [The Interlopers].
From there, we had such a great experience—Diarra, myself, the
Bootleg—that I was like, I have to write another play, and then I wrote A Family Thing.
Again, I think playwrights make sense of their own personal chaos
through their plays. I have two brothers, who I have a very difficult
relationship with: One of them is dead now, and I haven’t spoken to
another one for quite a while. I wanted to have healing with those
relationships. So I put that on the page, and that became A Family Thing. It’s about three brothers.
I was again making sense of my own chaos. There’s a monologue in the
play, about connecting, and we’re all sort of snowflakes. I felt I was
this snowflake that was always in this incredible storm. I would land on
someone’s nose and melt before I was able to meet another snowflake and
One of the themes of my play is finding another snowflake to make
snow—which is love and home. The play has a happy ending. There’s a
Yiddish saying: There’s a lid for every pot. We’re all out there,
searching. Our biggest motivation is to make contact with another human
being and to have them really see us, really hear us, and not run in the
Elizabeth Regen and Andrea Grano in A Family Thing
You said you were making sense of your personal chaos. How do you do that while writing?
Lennon: It’s an unconscious process. I don’t write from an
outline. When I start creating a project, it comes from emotion. I start
writing stuff I’m interested in, or a character speaks to me, and
that’s the way I start unloading. When I wrote Dates and Nuts,
the desire and motivation for contact was primal. That’s where this
character Eve came out of me. She came to me, and I started following
her, and the story unfolded itself. There’s a quote I love, by Thornton
Wilder: “Art is the desire to tell your secrets and hide them at the
same time.” That’s part of any good piece of material. The writer is
telling you their story and hiding it under this really beautiful piece
of clothing. They are dressing up their truth and presenting it to you
as a piece of entertainment.
Then is writing wish fulfillment for you?
Lennon: Sometimes. In your personal life if you can’t have a
reconciliation, for example with a brother, you can fantasize about what
that reconciliation could be, and dramatize. So you can have a
relationship and work it out on the page when you can’t work it out in
I came to LA for the feature and TV world. It’s very hard to make a
living as a playwright, so I spent about 12 years in the feature world,
selling my own original scripts to the studios, and then the movies were
not getting made. That was disappointing, which led me to TV, which has
been very good to me, and which I love. But there are certain
storylines I’m not able to explore, especially if it’s not my own show.
So that led me to writing plays again.
What is it about television that embraced you when film didn’t?
Lennon: I think that film did embrace me, but movies were not
getting made. With TV, you work on a schedule. When you work on a show,
you write it, and it gets shot in number of months. For me, certainly
within the last 10, years TV is doing what I do best, which is character
work. Movies are no longer characters. I don’t know who the characters
are in X Men. There’s no growth, no character arc. But on the best shows on TV, like Breaking Bad, like Mad Men,
its all about characters, it’s about small moments, the human condition
and how we get by, how we’re trying just to get through the day. Those
are all the great shows that I love. So, since I’m a writer that deals
with character, I’ve been able to excel in working in TV. It’s what I
know, coming in as a playwright.
What are the differences in the writing process, besides lack of time and story constraints, between screen and stage?
Lennon: The idea of writing a play, it can take years. I worked on A Family Thing
for three or four years. When you write on TV, you get an assignment to
write a script in four to six weeks, or shorter, and you deliver that
script. The good news is, all of us work together to break the story, so
you’ve worked out the big plot beats. So you have a roadmap when you go
off to write the script, and then you get creative. When you’re writing
plays and you don’t have a roadmap, you find the play as you write. On
TV, you break the story with six or seven writers. You know where you’re
going, you have all the big bullet points, and then you create within
those bullet points.
And everybody in the room agrees on the story points?
Lennon: Usually you all need to agree before you leave the
writers’ room. There will be debates and arguments—heated ones. But at
some point you need to go with the group flow in order to make stories.
Was it hard to sell your work initially, and what did you do to get it on the stage or screen?
Lennon: How did my early stuff get noticed? Through my plays. Through Blackout,
I got three movies. Producers came to see it. And I got hired to do a
bunch of work. “We have an idea,” or “We have a book, we’d like you to
come in and tell us how you would adapt it. What’s the movie version?”
And then you have to do a lot of work. How do you make this cinematic?
Then you go in and tell them your vision. They usually interview a
number of writers for the same job. You hopefully get them locked in to
your vision, and then they pay you to write the script. It’s fun,
though. I love figuring those things out. I love reading a book and
going, “I know exactly how to do this.” I think that you find the
throughline in the story that connects with you. I think all writers
find themselves in the material they’re working on.
You’re a brave man.
Lennon: We’re lucky to do what we do as writers. There’s an
enormous amount of talent out there, and getting the opportunity to do
what we love to do is a gift. I try never to forget that.
four weeks television gives you, do you believe you will manage to
finish the script? Do you panic, or is four weeks ample for a script?
Lennon: I think it’s ample. I think every writer panics when they
look at the blank screen. If you don’t, my hat’s off to you. I do,
still. I never think I’ll be able to do it. They say, “Don't listen to
anything you tell yourself about writing, while you’re not writing.” As
soon as you actually get in front of it, all that procrastination and
“I’m terrible, everyone’s going to find out I’m an impostor,” that all
goes away as soon as you start focusing on the work. You get so lost in
the story and the telling of it that all those other voices leave you,
and you’re alone with the story, which makes me happy. When I’m working,
I’m happiest. When I’m not working, I’m a mess.
How do you start when facing the blinking cursor? Do you hear characters’ voices?
Lennon: I hear a voice. It’s a line of dialogue. I might hear it
on a bus. I don’t know how to drive a car. In New York I love taking
buses, or I’ll sit on a park bench, and you’ll overhear a piece of
dialogue. I overheard these two old African-American men on the train.
The were really old and drunk, and one just leaned into his friend and
said, “Halle Berry or Pam Grier? Pam Grier back-in-the-day Pam Grier.”
Like they think they have a shot, first of all. That piece of dialogue
someday will inspire me to write a one-act. They will wind up in
something I write, those two men. I heard that over a year ago, and it’s
still inside of me, ’cause I thought it was so brilliant. I’ve been
really lucky, because I’ve worked on a lot of TV shows that were in the
first season, so I was able to help create characters. You bring a lot
of yourself when you’re creating characters. Creating original
characters is awesome. If anybody reads my material, they would
definitely see me in it, but you’ll also see my friends and my family. I
use every little tidbit. James Ellroy said that about his writing—that
he exploited his family for all the books he’s written. I’ve exploited
myself in the sense that I use of myself when I’m creating original
material. What else do I have to offer?
Do you use Meisner technique while writing?
Lennon: “Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” That
to me says everything. What would I do if I was in this scene? If we’re
breaking stories, in every writer’s room I’m in, when we’re having a
problem with a character, I always go, “I don't know if this works, but
if that happened to me, this is what I would do.” That always helps a
character. Why? Because we’re being truthful. I love Meisner.
Milla Jovovich in the film 45
How did you decide on Wilson Milam as your director for Dates and Nuts?
Lennon: He directed a workshop production of my play 45
in London at Hampstead Theatre, with Natalie Dormer. I went to see it,
and we became friendly. When we were doing this, Alicia Adams suggested
him. I loved his production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Taper. And he’s really good with actors, and that’s what I wanted for this play. It’s really about the acting.
For Dates and Nuts, were you involved in casting?
Lennon: Heavily involved in casting. All of my theater, I’m at
every single casting session. It’s super-important to me. It’s
everything. They say 98 percent of directing is casting. I have a great
cast for this, that I love.
How did you put together your cast?
Lennon: We held auditions. I offered the lead role of Eve to Elizabeth Regen, because she had just done A Family Thing.
She is just so New York, and she is so the character. And I have a
rhythm, and Elizabeth so gets my rhythm and musicality. Same with Darryl
Stephens, who had done The Interlopers and A Family Thing. I rarely have notes for them.
And then we were going to have two other actors from A Family Thing in this play, but both of them had other work, so we had to audition. Josh Randall came in and was perfect. He was on Ed,
he looks like a Denis Leary guy—a fireman, blue-collar, good-looking,
regular Joe. He doesn’t look like an actor, doesn’t look like he went to
Yale or Juilliard. When he left, I said, “He’s great!” The same thing
with Dave Scotti. He came in [and auditioned with] a pickup scene in
bar. He’s supposed to be like a barfly. He was hilarious in his attempt
to pick up Elizabeth. I’d never met him before, but I said, “He’s
You wrote this play awhile ago. For this production, did you rewrite anything?
Lennon: I rewrote. I created a new character. I did a new polish
on the play, updating it a little. It was really nice to revisit it. I’m
a different writer now, but the one thing consistent is my voice. But I
still feel the things I felt when I wrote it. I still have the yearning
to really have contact with people, make real relationships, have
authentic friendships and romantic relationships. If you like the play, I
think you’ll like me, because it’s who I am, take it or leave it. I
don’t make a lot of apologies. I’m not politically correct, and I’m a
little messy. And I sort of embrace my mess.
How long ago did you write it?
Lennon: I wrote it maybe 15 years ago.
Did you see things you would consider “young” writer errors, or were you impressed?
Lennon: I was surprised it held up. Everyone I showed the play
to, they were like, “This is a great new play.” It’s just a West Coast
premiere. The idea behind the play is that we’re all looking for someone
to have a relationship with. That’s timeless.
You updated references? Thank you!
Lennon: I updated references, and I created a new character, who
is Eve’s neighbor. I wanted another insight into who she was, and I
thought Patrick illuminated a couple of things that weren’t there
originally, about who she is and what she’s saying and how she’s
feeling, rather than having her say it.
So the neighbor gets her into a conversation about it?
Lennon: The neighbor calls her on her abrasiveness and makes her
think about her choices and behavior. Patrick isn’t going to tolerate
that kind of behavior, and he calls her on it and makes her a little
How do you build confidence in yourself and your writing? And confidence to send the script out into the world?
Lennon: Confidence is an amazing thing. What I was rewarded with
by showing my work was it was embraced. Not by all, by the way. Some
people said, “Your taste is a little revved up for me.” Or “Your voice
is a little hard-hitting. We’re looking for something a little more
Disney.” I pride myself that I’m not for everyone. I don’t want someone
to have indifferent reactions to my material. I like strong reactions. I
remember having a play read once when I was very young. A group of
people were like, “I don’t get it,” and another one was, “I love it.”
When I was building confidence, I started seeing people like what I did,
and it made me want to do more. The more you do it, the better you’re
going to get at it, and after years of self-doubt you go, “Maybe I do
belong here.” I still doubt my ability at times. We all need someone to
give us a nice gentle pat on the back or a warm hug, and say, “You’re
good just as you are.” I love doing that for other people: writers,
actors, directors, designers. I could not be doing this without them,
and I want to reward them and say thank you for giving me your talent.
Josh Randall and Elizabeth Regen rehearsing Dates and Nuts
Photo by Jason Adams
your words over to Wilson Milam. Is there frustration that others have
more of a “final say” in how they sound? Or is it thrilling? Or both?
Lennon: Both. It’s scary at times. Are they going to get my
intention? Are they going to get my voice? Wondering if they’ll hit the
rhythms. I hear in my head the way it should be said.
Do you ever give line readings to your actors?
Lennon: I don’t. I might tell them what my intention was and see
if I can work with them that way. The other thing is that you hired
people, so let them do their job. If they’re confident, they won’t mind
you coming in. Wilson has been very generous to me, in saying, “What do
you think?” And I’ll give notes. “Does he have to move then? It makes
the action blurry.”
Were you ever tempted to direct your own work?
Lennon: Yeah, and THAT scares me. You talk about fear and
excitement. When you say that to me, I get fearful and excited at the
same time. My actors Diarra and Elizabeth, my two leading ladies of
late, have both said to me that I need to direct.
Need to direct, yes. Direct your own writing, though?
Lennon: See, that’s the fear. They think so, and I’m like,
really? Because you always need another set of eyes. It scares me, and I
have not embraced the thought of that really. David Mamet directs his
own stuff, and a lot of people are like, “Don’t do it!”
How much do you let the actors change your subtext or even your dialogue?
Lennon: I’m really open to hearing someone’s ideas, but if I have
a strong reaction to it, either I’ll agree with it and I’ll put it in,
or I’ll say that doesn’t work for me.
What new things have you seen actors bring to your scripts?
Lennon: Elizabeth brings her whole life experience to the stage
in this character. She’s a New Yorker, she understands this woman to a
T. She’s a New York girl who has been in the dating jungle and had major
frustrations and found major love. She knows what that search is like.
Did she bring anything that you hadn’t noticed in the character?
Lennon: Yes: great vulnerability in Eve that isn’t so clear or obvious. It happens in this monologue about the snowflake.
Has any reviewer given you a review that helped you?
Lennon: I try not to read reviews. They can be very hurtful. I
usually let people tell me what is good. I listen to friends. For
example, [director] Chris [Fields] and I on A Family Thing—originally
the ending was going to be one brother puts on a tie and the brothers
start walking off the stage slowly. We did the first preview, and his
friends and my friends said, “That moment with the tie, that’s the end
of the play. Don’t have them walk off; it just muddies it. It’s such a
What do the best directors do for a screenwriter, and what do they do for a playwright?
Lennon: For a screenwriter, they elevate the material with a
visual component that the writer did not see. That’s by the blocking,
the location. If people are acting like children and you have them in a
Laundromat, a director might say we should put them in front of a jungle
gym. For stage, directors have really helped me personally by helping
me streamline the scenes. Sometimes I’ll have too many words. I’ll tell
you what I was saying twice. I worked with directors who are good with
scripts, who helped produce onstage the best, tightest script possible.
Let’s do a few questions just for fun. Who’s your favorite playwright?
Lennon: It’s a cliché, but Tennessee Williams. My new favorite playwright, contemporary playwright, is Annie Baker, who wrote Circle, Mirror, Transformation. If I see “a play by Annie Baker,” I fly to New York. Girl is crazy-talented.
Where’s the strangest place you’ve gotten inspiration or an idea?
Lennon: I was walking in Runyon Canyon. These women were talking
about plastic surgery. It made me go off on my own little riff, and I
wrote a monologue about plastic surgery, because I heard this woman
talking about how she wanted to change her nose and talking about how
she wanted to change her dog’s nose.
If you taught, what overarching principle would you pass on to your students?
Lennon: I was supposed to teach this summer in Provincetown, in
the Fine Arts Work Center, but I had to cancel because of this job I’m
working on now, Power.
But I was supposed to teach a four-day class. What I have to offer to
other writers is how to find their voice and put it on the page. People
who want to write have imposed such restrictions on themselves: not only
about how they write but what they should write about and what’s
appealing to the public. I would ask them to think about, “Something
you’ve never told anyone before, that you’re ashamed of.” Write it down,
and that’s a great play. Our secrets are our gold. So many people don’t
want to tell you their truth. They’re hiding. People are hiding all day
long. It’s exhausting. When you don’t have to hide anymore, it’s so
freeing. That’s the truth.
Interviewed on May 22, 2014
2220 Beverly Blvd., near downtown LA.
Thu-Sat 7pm (note early curtain), Sun 2pm (dark Sat, June 7; Sun, June
22; and Sat, July 12). Running time 1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission.
All’s Wells for The Secret City
Chris Wells returns to town, his very spirited services in tow.
by Travis Michael Holder
and much-admired ex-Angeleno actor Chris Wells took flight to the Big
Apple a decade ago to further his acting career. In 2007, he officially
called it quits and gave up his dream to stand on a New York stage and
accept an award for his efforts. Instead, he founded The Secret City, a
secular church-like meeting place where artists could join together to
worship art and celebrate their talent, no matter what that talent may
be. In a wild twist of fate, in 2010 Wells found himself rushing to the
stage at the Obie Awards ceremony to accept a special Obie for Service
to the Creative Community. The irony is not lost on Wells—nor to any of
the legion West Coast Secret City revelers gathered March 16 at Bootleg
Theater for the third of the now ongoing Secret City “services” packing
the place once every three months.
The theme Sunday at Bootleg was “Passion”
and, without a doubt, there was enough passion in the room to start a
mass orgy, even including a passion fruit love potion created by Mike
Anderson, handed out in little plastic cups so everyone assembled could
toast one another and themselves.
The New York Times called The
Secret City “sort of a salon, sort of a church” and noted that, since
its inception seven years ago, it has “grown into a half-irreverent,
half-earnest blend of revival meeting and group meditation session.”
Wells, however, was advised not to refer to the event as a church, even
though it’s obviously patterned after one, if he wanted to be eligible
for grants and public aid.
Still, there’s a cultural calendar to read, a benediction in which
congregants are asked to intone, “And so it is,” after each declaration,
the passing of a collection plate, and even a choir called Secret City
Singers, most members of which would be familiar faces to
Bootleg/Evidence Room aficionados. All are welcome additions to the
event, although the musical director might next time gently advise one
particularly enthusiastic choir member to move a lot farther away from
the microphones where her obvious passion can remain but her flat notes
could be buried.
The offerings Sunday were wildly
eclectic and without guidelines, beginning at 11:30am with a knockout
musical riff by guitarist Jeremy Bass and his Secret City Band. Included
was a striking Argentine tango from Moti Buchboot and Ayona Weaver; a
question-and-answer session with featured painter Paul August Bruins
Slot, whose oils of sphinxes dominated the room; an amazing turn from
singer-guitarist Kera Armendariz from Kera and the Lesbians, joined by
trumpeter Brandon Burns for her bone-chilling “Gypsy Song”; and a
reading of the gossamer “Found Poem on Passion” by Wendy C. Ortiz.
A heartfelt recitation adapted from Rachel Carson was brought to life
by the Right Reverend Wells, which began with, “Those who dwell among
the mysteries of the earth shall never grow weary of life,” and ending
with reminding us that the “clearer we see the wonders of the earth, the
less taste we shall have for destruction.” Wouldn’t that be nice? Talk
about preaching to the choir.
What a treat to have sorely-missed Wells and his Secret City back in
LA for quarterly gatherings to inspire us, rock us all out, and prompt
us to remember that, despite the struggle of generating and maintaining a
life in any creative field, “Art is what artists do for the world.” As
he reminded us from Bootleg’s stage, “We remind the world what it is.”
The Secret City will return to
Bootleg June 22, when the theme will be “Adventure”—something, my
friends, that would purdy much be guaranteed.
March 17, 2014
The Sweet Smell of a Successful Career
LA stage veteran Arye Gross helps debut Annenberg theater productions with ‘Parfumerie.’
by Dany Margolies
Arye Gross and Eddie Kaye Thomas in Parfumerie at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Photo by Jim Cox
anyone have been a theatergoer in Los Angeles over the last three
decades and not seen Arye Gross onstage? The gifted actor has appeared
in some of the best productions around, in the “big” houses and in
black-box productions, carrying on grand traditions in period comedies,
trusted with roles in noted world premieres.
He trained at South Coast Repertory’s conservatory and served as
managing artistic director of Stages Theatre Center, in Hollywood,
founded by Paul Verdier in the early 1980s. Gross has appeared at SCR in
Brooklyn Boy (which transferred to Broadway), Our Mother’s Brief Affair, and Circle Mirror Transformation. He created the character of the levelheaded father in Donald Margulies’s Coney Island Christmas at Geffen Playhouse. He starred as a tenderly confused Gallimard in M. Butterfly at
East West Players. He has played other great characters in other great
productions: with El Teatro Campesino, Theatre @ Boston Court, Mark
Taper Forum, Pasadena Playhouse, and with The Antaeus Company, of which
he is a busy member.
Currently, he is opening at the sparkling new Wallis Annenberg Center
for the Performing Arts, inaugurating its theater series with Parfumerie (adapted by E.P. Dowdall from Miklós László’s Illatszertár). The play, of course, earned reincarnations as She Loves Me, The Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime, and You’ve Got Mail.
Parfumerie is directed by Mark Brokaw (Broadway’s Cinderella). It stars Eddie Kaye Thomas (recently on Broadway in Golden Age)
and Deborah Ann Woll (in her LA stage debut but trained at USC’s School
of Theatre) as the anonymous correspondents. And of course it stars
Gross as Mr. Sipos.
Gross spoke with ArtsInLA.com after several preview performances of Parfumerie.
You ran Stages Theatre Center for a while. How did that come about?
Gross: I was managing artistic director from 2000 to 2003, but I
first walked in to Stages in 1981. I was assisting [director] Frank
Conden on play at the Odyssey, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Jaffa Wasserman was producing the play for [Odyssey Theatre artistic
director] Ron [Sossi], and at one point she said, “You know who Eugene
Ionesco is? Would you like to come meet him today?” She brought me to
Stages, when they were doing Ionesco’s Tales….
Shortly after, I was sitting in rehearsals, holding the script in case
anybody called “line.” I was there, off and on, all through those 20
What’s one challenge and one joy about working in a brand-new theater space?
Gross: It’s a beautiful space. All throughout rehearsals, and
continuing through this period when we’re early on in previews, there’s
this kind of psychic pleasure walking into and moving around a
beautifully designed space. It’s this magnificent 1930s Italianate post
office, transitioning into this state-of-the-art facility. We rehearsed
in the Lovelace Studio that has skylights. If the sun was too bright,
they would close the clerestory transom skylights, and then we’d be in a
black box. The theater is gorgeous, the acoustics are wonderful, and
it’s such a pleasure to be working in a much-needed additional theater
in Los Angeles. I grew up in LA, I went to high school here, I saw Ronny
Cox and Eva Marie Saint do Summer and Smoke in
1973. We went on a high-school, Wednesday-matinee, field-trip thing.
And I remember sitting there, thinking, “That’s it. That’s what I want
to do.” It feels like since [those bigger theaters are] gone, there’s
been this big gap. I love being part of this inaugural production.
And one challenge?
Gross: With virtually every
contingency considered, it’s a new building, so every now and then
there’s things that are counterintuitive. You don’t walk out of your
dressing room across a hall and go into the backstage. It’s a big place.
That’s it. The dressing rooms have showers. I can’t complain.
with Linda Gehringer, Marin Hinkle, Brian Kerwin, and Lily Holleman (Gross at far right) in Circle Mirror Transformation at South Coast Rep
Photo by Ben Horak/SCR
How did you start to create your character, the kindly Mr. Sipos?
Gross: Because of the sound of the play, I just tried to play it
in the way that I thought would please Paul Verdier. Since late spring,
Paul has been in an assisted living place in Hollywood, and I’d gone to
see him several times. I’ve learned so much from him. Somewhere, he’s
floating in the background of all this, for me.
Which of Paul’s traits or pieces of advice did you work with?
Gross: His fey sense of humor and
seriousness, and all those things I learned from him, working on Feydeau
and Ionesco and those days on McCadden Place. That was in my head as I
was looking for a shortcut. I didn’t even search for it. As I was
reading the material, I was thinking, ‘This is how Paul would want this
After those initial ideas, how did you continue to develop your character?
Gross: The major task was avoiding watching The Shop Around the Corner or In the Good Old Summertime,
or any other things inspired by this play. It’s really been about the
fun of playing one of these characters that I used to see in old movies.
So there is, for me, a sense of just flat-out getting to play. Add to
that, Paul Verdier teaching me how to stand on the stage. Paul had
absurdly strict rules. It was very stylized. But he would talk about how
you held yourself. He comes from a very old-fashioned tradition. He
hated naturalism. It’s how the actor gets out of the way of letting the
character come through. You find a neutral position and stand up. You
press your heels into the floor, shoulders down and slightly back, hold
your head up. Any gesture from that is telling. This and Mrs. Warren’s Profession
[which Gross performed at Antaeus] are the kind of play where you do
something rather controlled with your carriage. But it informs
It’s not that everybody was stuck up. The concept of the middle class
is new, and nobody knows what to do, so the first thing they’re going
to do is not try and look like a guy who is just hanging out, but
everybody wants to be perceived at their best. They may go home and
they’re boiling diapers on the stove, but when you’re in public, you
want to be able to take your place. It’s a way of becoming middle class,
which for these characters is a matter of aspiration, not this thing
now, “It’s so bourgeois.” These people are trying to come out of the
Is everyone in the cast working with that?
wonderfully had Stephanie Shroyer, a marvelous director and
choreographer and a professor at USC, brought in as a period movement
consultant on this production. She came, she watched rehearsals, after a
while she would give some notes and lead us in some exercises.
you’re leading someone, you don’t take them by the arm. You open a
space for them [gestures graciously with his arm, as if clearing the
area in front of him] to allow them the impulse to fill that space. You
What was the last note you got from your director on this show?
Gross: “I didn’t hear the word job.”
with Anne Gee Byrd in Mrs. Warren’s Profession at Antaeus
Photo by Karianne Flaathen
What have you learned from watching your cast mates?
all been working hard on the text. It’s a long text, it’s not
extraordinarily poetic. Eddie and Deborah are magical, and I think
they’ve known they were going to be playing George and Amalia for a
while, so on the first day we got on our feet after a couple of days of
table work, they were off book, which, really, you want to kill them. So
their work habits, their work ethic, is inspiring. Richard Schiff,
whose work I’ve admired for such a long time, is digging so deep into
the soul of this man [the shop owner Mr. Hammerschmidt], and he anchors
the play. In a way, there’s this lightness that can only happen because
he’s the solid, deeply rooted trunk of this play. It has been a really
wonderful experience being in the company of these actors. And these
have been some of the most intensely concentrated and focused rehearsal
days of anything I can remember. I’m including 15-hour set days. I could
not believe how exhausted I would be at the end of the day, day after
What if, during the run, you’re tempted to change something you’ve been doing onstage?
Gross: The responsibility in this play, now that we
have found the choreography, is to enrich what we’re doing, not to
alter what you’re doing. Once you see it and you know what’s going on,
and you see how many storylines there are, and the fact that there are
thousands of hand props in this show, and when you pick something up
here and place it there, you can bet either in the next minute or 15
minutes later, somebody else is going to need to do something with it.
There are so many things going on, you can’t make it up. Consequently,
the responsibility and the challenge is to continue to create dimension
in the moment that’s being described.
with Jenny O’Hara in Our Mother’s Brief Affair at South Coast Rep
Photo by Henry DiRocco
Mr. Sipos is the comic relief. How do you keep him real and still be funny?
Gross: Some of it is farce, some is screwball comedy. The
obligation is to be truthful, and truthful within the style of the play
and sometimes within the style of the scene. So a lot of different
things happen. That’s the fun of it. It’s not all farce. There are some
moving bass notes. For my character, as well. Yes, there’ s a lot he
does that’s comic, but everybody has comic stuff they’re doing.
It comes at an interesting time, this play. There are scenes that
Eddie and I have together that feel like they’re lifted from Vaudeville
but placed in the context of the play. They work when you play them not
with a disregard for character but, stylistically, with the lightness
those bits would be played. There’s lazzi in the play. There’s a bit
where Sipos senses Amalia has a cold, and I’m going to take her
temperature, there’s a whole thermometer-cold lazzi that played funny if
you played it like a Marx brother, but something much richer happens if
it’s played with extraordinary concern for her health, because it’s
about setting up the potential for her to possibly leave the building
that day and also for her to have a brief fainting spell at a moment
where everything would go fine if she were on her feet. There’s no
character who wants just one thing, there are no arcing transitions;
people operate in successive states, people tend to express their
feelings as they experience them. And there are those [Chekhovian]
moments, too. Richard has [them], because his character is undergoing
this incredible heartache and can’t say it in public.
There’s this whole other element: The play was written and takes
place in 1938 in Budapest, and the playwright and none of these
characters have any awareness of what is going to happen. But there is a
certain feeling from certain characters that things are not okay. Sipos
has a lot of anxiety about the future. I googled Sipos; it is an almost
exclusively Jewish-Hungarian name, and it means somebody in an
orchestra who plays the pipes. That also informs the character. It did
something to my voice. He’s the one who would pipe up.
Are all the actors doing accents?
Gross: Yes, I don’t know what it is. It’s just something elevated
throughout. I’d like to think of it is as this idea that everyone [of
the characters] is trying to present their best self.
with Annabelle Gurwitch and Isabella Acres in Coney Island Christmas
Photo by Michael Lamont
What’s your routine the night of a show?
Gross: I’m coming from the east side of town. While I’m
navigating across the city in under an hour, I’ve listened to [voice
coach] Bob Corff’s speaker’s technique warm-up, and I’ve realized from
these two previews that I will probably want my half-hour to be not 7:30
but closer to 6, to warm up and visualize the action of this play. I
wear bow ties in this play, and I had to learn how to tie a bow tie.
There’s one change where I have two minutes, and it’s not a lot, but I
have to take off and then put on and tie a bow tie.
Do you keep any special items in your dressing room?
Gross: What I have is the desire to have adequate amounts of
throat lozenges and tea and talcum powder, to the extent that my
dressing table looks like a remainder bin from Rite Aid. I have an
embarrassing amount of crap, to cover every contingency. If I need to, I
can shave, wash my hair, shower, go on a cruise for three days. I
probably will bring a tent just in case. I have been seriously
considering a bathrobe, which I don’t wear at home, but I was thinking
it might be nice. I wind up with too much stuff at my station, and
virtually no makeup.
The actors are
costumed for a Hungarian winter. Those overcoats on the costume rack
look like wool. How do you stay cool enough onstage?
Gross: To stay cool, I drink a lot of water. It is really hot. I
think it’s going to be good for me in the long run. I realized Wednesday
during the preview, should I have an ice pack or a shammy thing? Am I
perspiring so much that I look like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News?
It’s hot. And I’m wearing a high starched collar that’s about 15 years
out of date from the time of the play—based on a conversation with the
designer. Sipos keeps things going.
Are you usually nervous on opening night?
Gross: Always. On the first preview, opening night, first
matinee, last Thursday—I always find some importance to put on it. I
don’t want to know who’s out there. I wind up not telling enough people
something’s going on, because I’m hoping they’ll just find their way
here and surprise me.
December 4, 2013
Taking Trains of Thought Through the Opera
‘Invisible Cities’ travels through Union Station as it makes music history.
by Dany Margolies
republished courtesy Downtown News
of late, Yuval Sharon hasn’t been putting his shows on in theaters.
That is, his venues are not theaters in the standard sense. No, Sharon
seems to prefer museums and empty warehouses and, in the case of his
latest, Union Station. He is directing the opera Invisible Cities,
to be staged Oct. 19–Nov. 8 throughout downtown’s iconic depot and
heard there over wireless headphones. Over the span of 70 minutes, the
rushing of departing passengers and the greetings of arriving ones will
share the space with eight singers, 11 musicians, a conductor, dancers
and, of course, operagoers.
Sharon, an established creative force in opera directing, is
currently the artistic director of The Industry, a collaborative
organization that presents “new and experimental productions that merge
music, visual arts and performance.” Last year his Crescent City—a
“hyperopera,” as he termed it, depicting post-Katrina New Orleans—took
place in a warehouse he converted with the collaboration of Los
Angeles–based visual designers, so that audience members could remain
seated or wander around the space.
The UC Berkeley graduate with a
degree in English literature has been pondering Invisible Cities since
he found it, in its incipient form, in 2009 while he was the project
director for New York City Opera’s workshop program, VOX. The opera’s
composer, Christopher Cerrone, adapted the libretto from Italo Calvino’s
1972 novel, Invisible Cities. The framing devices of both versions are fictional conversations between the real-life Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.
In the novel and the libretto, Polo describes cities, which are
wildly imaginary. One is created of staircases encrusted with spiral
seashells. Another is populated with those who were loved but died, then
who were reborn but no longer recognize their loved ones. “All these
very fantastical cities are meant to provoke an internal look, for the
reader, as to how a city can reflect their own makeup, their own
psychology,” says Sharon. “Every time we go traveling, we’re just
searching for something in ourselves we can’t otherwise find. It’s done
in a way that gives you an incredible amount of power. It’s meant to be
your journey through these cities.”
The audience can literally journey through Union Station during the
opera, gazing at the building’s 1930s tiles and moldings or espying
dancers from Benjamin Millepied’s L.A Dance Project, which co-produced Invisible Cities.
But the audience will not see sets, as in traditional theater. “The
minute you start representing the cities, you take away the magic,” says
Cerrone scored his opera for the
two main characters, four ensemble members who play other roles, and two
lead sopranos who, Cerrone says, “sing wordless lyrical music to evoke
the feel and color of each city.”
For example, while Polo describes the city of Isidora, each woman
sings a melody. Cerrone notes Isidora is beautiful, the type of place we
would have wanted to go to in youth. Polo reveals that by the time we’d
get there, we’d be old. The two sopranos begin to sing the melodies on
top of each other, says Cerrone, “and suddenly there’s dissonance and
they’re a little out of sorts with each other—the experience of what you
desire versus what you have.”
The 2009 workshop version at VOX comprised only three scenes, but
Sharon had been instantly smitten. Cerrone then workshopped it on his
own until 2012. Meanwhile, Sharon pondered his own next project: the mix
of opera over headphones in a public space. “When I started thinking
proper content or the reason for doing it,” he says, “it hit me Chris’
work would be the most appropriate, because, like the Calvino book,
we’re inviting the audience to create their own experience.”
So, Sharon shopped for a venue.
Union Station seemed apt for the travel themes, and it had recently been
purchased by Metro. Sharon carefully looked for the “right conversation
partner” at Metro—to secure the space, set guidelines for appropriate
use of it, but keep in mind that The Industry was a brand-new nonprofit,
completely artist driven, with no institutional backing. Meanwhile,
Sharon needed to resolve how singers could move out of sight of their
conductor and still keep time with the orchestra. Enter his music
director and conductor, Marc Lowenstein. Contrary to most maestros, “He
believes the orchestra should be following the singers,” says Sharon.
“He rehearses the singers with vigor and discipline to be appropriate to
the music, but he wants the singers to have an expressive freedom.”
The public, walking through Union Station, may hear individual voices
floating by but won’t hear the blend of voices and
instruments—including found items such as tuned metal pipes—that the
audience hears. For the operagoer, Sharon promises a “vibrant and
high-quality” audio experience over the Sennheiser headphones.
In part that’s because Cerrone, who holds two master’s degrees in
music from Yale, is “totally an audiophile.” Here, he says, he is
working closely with the production’s sound designer, E. Martin Gimenez,
to create a very specific “sound world.” Says Cerrone, “Each scene will
have a different acoustic, a different reverberation. Some scenes are
dry and dead and not reverberant. Other scenes feel like they’re in the
middle of a cathedral.”
Cerrone seems sure everyone in the audience will understand the
music. For example, Polo will sing repeated melodies, and where a
sophisticated operagoer might be able to hear how the motifs and
intervals return, Cerrone hopes those compositional elements seem
natural and invisible. “My goal is not to mystify,” he says. Sharon
expects veteran opera lovers to attend, but he says first-timers are his
primary target. Like the novel’s readers and Polo, all will be able to
roam and dream, pondering the literal and metaphoric.
So, don’t bother with a new hairdo before heading down to the show,
and seriously consider comfortable walking shoes. Then, wander the
station’s tiled halls and the brick paths of the rose gardens, or sit
and let your ears do the traveling. All aboard for the opera!
October 7, 2013
Photos by Dana Ross
A good creative team knows how to collaborate on a new musical—and when to toss out a favorite song.
by Melinda Loewenstein
Cliff Wagner, Dan Bonnell, Bill Robertson, and Tom Sage
Photo by Agnes Magyari
Cliff Wagner didn’t set out to write a musical. Initially, he just wanted to give his band a new way to perform—something to set them apart from the sea of musicians. But what developed was The Book of Mormon’s Bluegrass-Country cousin—a more-intimate, more-accessible, less-traditional musical that’s witty and politically incorrect. Paradise—A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy is a foot-tapping musical comedy that tells the story of a traveling preacher bringing a reality show to a poor rural town to bring prosperity and build a new mega-church.
Wagner, whose band was on Fox’s Next Great American Band in 2007, came up with the initial idea and wrote all the music. He envisioned it as something along the lines of Hee Haw and reached out to his friend Tom Sage to write sketches. As the two began collaborating, Sage suggested writing a throughline story. Wagner put the pieces together: story plus music equals musical.
“And we’re like, ‘No, I hate musicals. We’re not writing a musical,’” says Wagner. But they were, albeit a different sort of musical. Luckily, Bill Robertson (Sage’s writing partner) and director Dan Bonnell (who was a “chorus boy” in musicals with Shirley Jones and Tommy Tune in New York) were fans of the genre.
Brecht and Bluegrass
What Wagner didn’t like about musicals was using songs as dialogue. But he wanted the music to be part of the story. So the band sits onstage and, “although not a character, they’re there,” Wagner says. Bonnell says, “This to me feels more in the realm of like a Brecht or a Kurt Weill kind of musical, where you’ve got scenes going on and then oftentimes characters will just break the moment and kind of step out of the scene, and we have a song that is related to the moment but not as necessarily dramatically engaged at the moment, and then we jump back in and move forward.”
Robertson notes that in his mind “Boom to Bust” (which opens Act 2) is the only true musical number. The rest are songs—“everyman” songs that Robertson hopes are playing in audiences’ heads as they leave the theater, which was exactly Wagner’s intention. “Something that is catchy, that is memorable, that has a good beat, that has a good melody,” says Wagner.
Robertson was working on a few other projects when Sage approached him about joining Paradise. Sage told Robertson he was working with Wagner on a project similar to Hee Haw, Robertson says, “And I went, ‘Knock yourself out.’” But Sage wouldn’t give up, and eventually Robertson agreed to listen to some of the music. It won him over. With writers onboard, Wagner turned his focus to the songs, letting Robertson and Sage take charge of the script. Wagner had been building sets at the Ruskin Group Theatre for a couple of years, so he asked Ruskin managing director Michael Myers if he’d like to read the musical. Myers suggested putting up a staged reading, and then it was time to talk about a director. Robertson and Myers came up with Bonnell’s name independently. “The fates were taking care of me that day,” jokes Bonnell.
“Dan coming in actually helped Tom and myself become even better writers, bottom line,” says Robertson. Bonnell, who has directed many new plays, was able to look at the project with fresh eyes and help pose questions that shaped the story. Wagner also thinks the creative team’s shared sense of humor has helped make the collaboration work. But, says Robertson, his favorite part was when “we would go to [Cliff] with an idea and say, ‘We need this type of song to drive the story, these characters are involved, this is what they’re dealing with…’ and he would take it and run off, and in about a week we’d get a song, and it would literally encompass everything we’d been talking about that helped to drive the story.”
Collaborating, Changing, and Chucking It Out
The creatives weren’t the only ones collaborating. The actors were involved, as well, and some of them, including Kristal Lynn Lockyer, were involved from the first reading on. The casting process wasn’t necessarily easy, though, says Bonnell: “We were looking for a very specific style of voice and people who kind of had musical comedy chops, but weren’t locked in to that style.” But Robertson adds, “We’re very blessed with the cast.”
And because it was a new musical and they weren’t handing the actors pre-existing scores, the actors reportedly were pleasantly surprised to discover that Wagner was willing to change the keys for them and even change the songs for them. “There was no hard and true melody. It’s like if you feel something, sing it,” says Wagner. “That’s part of the simplicity of the music, which also makes it more human.”
Also enhancing the collaboration was every participant’s openness to change. “Nothing seems entrenched in stone,” says Bonnell, “I think it comes both out of the music being improvisational and the comedy writing which is very fast and loose and off the cuff and very, very fluid.” Everyone on the team was willing to let go of something if it wasn’t working and try something new. Bonnell says, “They’re comfortable enough in their point of view that they’re willing to say, ‘Sure, let’s try it,’ and out of that there comes this great sense of collaboration and trust.”
Robertson agrees that his and Sage’s backgrounds in sketch comedy had taught them to be flexible and change things that weren’t working. However, Robertson notes, even when a writer knows a joke needs to go, it can be hard. “When we write a joke and it works and then we realize it doesn’t drive the story…the two of us [Sage and Robertson] will look at each other and go ‘Oh, alright, let’s let it go.’ But it is kind of like we’ve birthed something and then we’ve got to give it back.”
For Wagner, letting go of one of his favorite songs because he needed something more upbeat for the scene was tough, but, he says, “I really couldn’t disagree with it either.” Throwing out things that didn’t work served the final goal of creating a solid, funny musical, so everyone was willing to let go a little. And ultimately, Wagner says, “We didn’t necessarily take ourselves that seriously and we like other people not to, either.” In the end, he says, they just want people to come to the show and have a great time.
March 6, 2013
Middle photo: Marie-Francoise Theodore, Michael Rubenstone, Kristal Lynn Lockyer, and Robert Craighead. Photo by Agnes Magyari
Bottom photo: Jason Rowland, Jonathan Root and Elijah Rock. Photo by Agnes Magyari
The Woman Who Writes Operas
Meet O-Lan Jones, one of LA’s most-intriguing composers.
by Dany Margolies
term Renaissance woman may fit O-Lan Jones in several ways. Actor,
writer, sound designer, opera composer—Jones takes on eccentric roles
and tasks and creates with inspiration from across the globe and through
She may look familiar from dozens of screen roles, having delivered such
memorable lines as “Trample down the perversion of nature!” as
Esmeralda the organist in Edward Scissorhands, and “My name’s not Rosie, it’s Mabel!” from Natural Born Killers.
LA theatergoers may know her from dozens of stage roles over the years—including Wesley Walker’s Wilfredo at 2100 Square Feet and Mark Taper Forum, and Beth Henley’s Abundance at South Coast Repertory. We have certainly heard her compositions, perhaps when she created music for Murray Mednick’s Mrs. Feuerstein for Padua Playwrights in 2001 or Ken Roht’s “99-Cent” show Pageant of the 4 Seasons at Bootleg Theater in 2006. She served as artistic director of a production of “mini-operas” under the umbrella title String of Pearls.
But notably she has been an opera composer over the decades, and now
it’s time for a retrospective. Tomorrow night, The Theatre @ Boston
Court presents O-Lan Jones: 20 Years of Theatre and Music. There and then, the audience will hear nine songs from a handful of her productions.
“I have an idea of a story that must be told,” she says of her process.
First come the words, then she’ll write the music. She admits to having
tried the reverse. “But, for me, it feels more organic and filled out if
I start with the word—the rhythms of the speech or poetry.”
Hitting the Wall
Possibly, her unique musicality comes from creative freedom. She had
no academic training. “My grandmother was a prodigy,” says Jones. “She
could hear a tune and figure it out when she was 2. I think music is in
the genes.” Jones has no recollection of being taught to read music.
Over the years, she learned to notate music and early in her career, as
she says, “depended on the kindness of various musical directors.”
One might think academics look down their spectacled noses at her lack of formal
training. Not at all, she says; most have told her she was lucky not to
have the schooling. “Some have told me I have a freedom of expression
that they had to struggle to get their way back to,” she reports. “I
know how to find the principle of a thing if I listen to it enough. I
can tell what the scales are, the common intervals in melodies, the
The talent enabled her to compose her latest opera, which premiered earlier in 2012, The Woman in the Wall.
Jones wrote it in medieval modes for period instruments. For audiences
not intellectually connected with medieval music, Jones made sure the
opera resonated emotionally. “There is meaning in melody,” she says. “If
I am connected to that meaning when I’m writing something, it resonates
with people who are hearing it. I have no interest in that kind of
music where it’s one bizarre note following another—it’s intellectually
interesting because it has a strange shape to it but it isn’t connected
to feeling. We’re hardwired for some kinds of harmonies that satisfy.”
For example? She was driving when she first heard the music of Arvo
Pärt. “I had to pull over and listen and hear who it was—it was so
perfect. Sometimes it’s just a couple of notes, but they come from
someplace. They connected to an understanding and experience.”
A solid backbone is essential to a song or aria, she insists, otherwise
its basic nature is never clear, no matter how much the composer “dolls
it up” with instruments and voices. Another musical pet peeve of hers
seems to be bad imitation. She claims to be able to spot lack of
originality or, conversely when the composer has connected with his or
her music. Likewise with acting, she deplores the “fifth cousin twice
removed” of gesturing that imitates bad acting but has nothing to do
with real-life behavior.
Real Sounds, Imaginary Lands
Someday, soon, she hopes, she’ll work from site to song, traveling to fascinating places
and writing based on feelings they inspire. Whether monoliths and
Neolithic mounds in Europe, or Luray Caverns in Virginia, she could
foresee being prompted by these places to create new works. Meantime,
she recently returned from France where she hopes to revive The Woman in the Wall at
the abbey on the island of Mont San Michel, the building that helped
inspire the opera. “I wanted to go to [there] to let it know I was still
here,” she says. On the trip, “The first day I went through the whole
tour of the place, I was in awe and happy, it had made such a strong
impression. I was wandering through and taking pictures. The second day,
‘I know the whole tour. I can run ahead of the crowd and sing my head
off in the rooms.’ And I did. Just to warm the place up, so it knows I’m
She transacted a bit of business in France, too, at meetings with
potential producers there for Wall. One of her main goals these days is
to attend to business. She is currently creating a position at her
company, Overtone Industries, that will ensure her works will have lives
after their premieres. Her next producing project after this concert is
to do a local revival of a 2010 work, Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands—which boasts a collaboration of 32 artists.
A Woman and Her Own Walls
These operas, along with The Woman Who Forgot Her Sweater—a fairy tale in which the heroine must triumph over trials, which debuted in 2001 at Inside the Ford—take Jones years of work.
“I want to build lasting works of art, not torn from the headlines, so
it’s meaningful hundreds of years from now,” she says. “If it’s going to
be good for hundreds of years, it’s going to be good for 10, so take
your time” creating it, she explains. Wall and Songs and Dances each
took about seven years from idea to production. “If it’s a big idea, it
takes time to gestate, to reveal itself even, to reveal all of its
aspects, I don’t think they all have to take that long, but that’s just
been the case so far.”
She has learned even deeper lessons over the years. “For many years,
like so many women, my ambition has been questioned by so many others,”
she says. Ambition, it’s like a dirty word. So I am now feeling no
qualms about how big my ambition is. I know that part of what’s required
is promoting what I’ve got that’s already been created. The new
creations are a given, but part of what’s not a given is that inner
stance—that this is what I’ve got, and I know people enjoy it, so I’m
going to spread it around all over the place.”
Spontaneity Does Not Vitiate
Adding extra charm to the Boston Court concert, she’ll debut the Spontaneous Combustion
Choir, her group of singers who create on the spot. Inspi-ration comes
from such assistance as pieces of a poem pulled from a box. When one
chorister improvises a melodic line, others can join in to support it,
and perhaps the audience will eventually join, “following a few simple
rules laid down by me,” Jones says in a schoolmarm voice. “It’s a
birthright to make up music together.” She has worked with these singers
on or off for five or so years, just for fun. “Beautiful things show
up, and it’s such a gift,” she says. “It’s a magic trick because you
start with nothing. And then something grows. It’s completely dependent
on each person’s sensibility.” These musicians are trained, but Jones
insists the effect can be achieved without trained voices. The work
began when she was coaching actors who were afraid of singing and afraid
of singing in harmony.
Looking back over 20 years of her own works, she has observed a growth
in her understanding of music. Some of her early pieces now prompt her
to say to herself, “That’s cute, and I know what you meant,” but it’s
not making the retrospective concert. She observes a consistency in the
subject matter of her pieces: “penetrating where we are, and expanded
consciousness.” From Wall, one of the concert pieces is about the dead trying to get through, without much of a voice, to the woman. From Sweater,
Jones is including music about the lioness goddess and “the mighty
powers of attitudes and beliefs that can eat you up from the inside.”
Jones also suggests she nowadays writes more-balanced orchestrations and
more-complex harmonies, “and things that can be understood without
seeming complex.” She adds, “I don’t like it when you hear the effort of
the singer trying to sing the damn stuff. Even though it took me two
months to write one of these songs, the result feels understandable and
effortless. I have to do the hard work, the singers and musicians have
to do the hard work, and all the audience has to do is receive it.”
If Jones has her way, that’s something audiences can plan to do for even more decades to come.
October 19, 2012
Top photo: O-Lan Jones at Mont San Michel, France
Second photo: The Woman in the Wall, photo by Emily Brooke Sandor
Third photo: Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands
Bottom photo: The Woman Who Forgot Her Sweater
Hurt’s So Good
John Hurt on scripts, career advice, and conflict resolution.
Interview by Dany Margolies
British actor John Hurt has made a career from an impressively wide
range of characters. He has played crazy emperor Caligula (I, Claudius) and savvy wand purveyor Ollivander (the Harry Potter films). He has played broken (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and heartbreaking (The Elephant Man). In 2011 he starred in the short film Sailcloth, in which an athletic Hurt silently steals our hearts.
He is currently in our city, taking on Beckett’s one-man, retrospective, regretful masterpiece, Krapp’s Last Tape, at Kirk Douglas Theatre.
This interview was conducted via telephone earlier this year.
indicated you prefer being handed a script and told to go for it,
rather than minutely examining its meaning for a long while.
Hurt: That’s how I like it. Sometimes it’s essential that you
have some sort of backstory, and sometimes it doesn’t help you at all.
The script has always been my springboard—being able to go further, take
it to the next round and physicalize something.
Your son wants to act. What do you tell him?
Hurt: He has murmured that, on more than one occasion. Whether or
not he’ll get round to it, I don’t know. Have I offered advice? I’ve
said, ‘Well, if you really decide that it’s a passion, I’ll do what I
can to help you, but until you decide that, I’m not going to say a word
about it.’ I don’t think there’s any point in becoming an actor unless
you have a passion for it. I wanted to act from the age of 9 and had no
idea how to go about it at that time.”
When you were starting, what kind of career did you imagine you’d have?
Hurt: Oh, good heavens, I had no idea I that I would ever make
films. The pledge I made to myself was that if I became an actor, I
would be prepared to stay in repertory theater for the rest of my life.
If I could tell myself that I was prepared to do that, then I could say I
will do everything I can to get into the theater. But then we weren’t
too concerned with things like stardom at that time.
How did you get your first jobs? Did you audition?
Hurt: I never got a single job from an audition. I don’t know how
I got into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I went up [forgot my
lines] about 20 times in the main speech for the audition for that. I’ve
never been any good at being tested. I was never good at exams, and I
was never good at auditions. I could read [for a role]. I’d read for a
part anytime. But I hate being tested.
How do you handle “conflict resolution” on a set or in stage rehearsals?
Hurt: It’s very tricky, that. If you can spin a little spell,
that’s probably the best way. If you can charm somebody into another
area…. But if you’re really, really having trouble with somebody, it
might be something to do with what you would consider to be stupidity,
and if it’s to do with stupidity, you can’t beat it. You have to ride it
Were you ever intimidated working with another actor or director?
Hurt: I was certainly intimidated working with Orson Welles [in A Man for All Seasons].
Or when I first worked with Olivier or with Gielgud. They were
intimidating, to me. You just get on with it, pull yourself together.
You’ve worked with the greats. What do you now notice in young actors that’s particularly good?
Hurt: We’re all links in a chain. Everything develops. You can’t
judge anybody else by your standards. I think there are some fantastic
actors now, coming up, and I think there’s a greater understanding of
film than there was, certainly, in my youth, in this country [the UK].
Not so much in the States, because you have so much more possibility in
order to practice the art of film. But in this country, in my youth, the
stage was their No. 1 thing and film made a bit of money on the side. I
think now people really do appreciate film as an art in itself, at its
best, and it’s a very legitimate medium, at its most ordinary.
How do you decide which roles to take on?
judge writing, scripts, just like I was an examiner. I try not to do
anything that in my examination gets less than 50 percent. Every now and
again you come across a script which is in the high 90s, which is very
What’s the most important lesson you learned over your career?
Hurt: There is something you learn about professionalism. People
talk about being on time, but to me the thing that you learn about being
a professional is you have to be able to do the work even when you
really don’t feel like it.
Top photo: John Hurt in Krapp's Last Tape, photo by Richard Termine
Bottom photo: in Sailcloth
Being on View
Playwright Henry Murray journeys from Greek structure to modern predicaments with his premiering play.
by Melinda Loewenstein
Henry Murray photos by William Scalia/ArtsInLA.com
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” —Robert Frost
in the poet’s footsteps, playwright Henry Murray explores the profound
effect a single decision can have on the course one’s life in his new
play, as well as in his own life. “I’ve often thought in subsequent
years that my life might have been very different had I gone to New York
and I might have had more of a career on the stage as an actor and I
might have gotten to my writing sooner; but one of the points of the
play is you don’t get more than one choice. You make your choice and you
live that life,” says Murray, and he has done that. His decisions have
brought him to his artistic home, Rogue Machine theater company, where
he is about to debut his play Three Views of the Same Object.
It takes place over a 24-hour period and weaves together three stories
to show how three choices in the same scenario can result in three
different conclusions by the play’s end.
Murray didn’t set out on the path to a writing career. In college, he
studied theater with a focus on acting and directing. He landed his
first professional job as an actor at the Nashville Children’s Theatre
in Tennessee, where he also taught modern dance and mime. A few years
later, he headed west to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career, but,
says Murray, “I always wanted to be a writer, and I ended up having some
short stories published, and I wrote a novel that got me an agent.” So
he combined what he loved: theater and writing.
his passion for writing, and a deep love and knowledge of the theater,
the road hasn’t always been smooth. When his novel wasn’t published, he
turned his full attention to playwriting. His play Treefall,
inspired by an image that came to mind as he was falling asleep, tells
the story of three boys living in a world nearly destroyed by
environmental disaster. After writing it, Murray felt it had a chance of
going somewhere. His instincts were right; the critically successful
play not only won him a fellowship, which he used to produce a staged
reading, but also eventually led to him finding a home at Rogue Machine.
From East to West
Murray invited producer John Perrin Flynn (now artistic director of
Rogue Machine) to attend the staged reading at Santa Monica Playhouse.
Flynn says he was so inspired by the play that he wanted to direct a
production of it. Because few theaters were producing new work at the
time, Flynn decided to form Rogue Machine to serve this purpose. Murray
became one of its founding members, and Treefall became the first of the plays Murray would premiere at Rogue’s home, Theatre/Theater in West Los Angeles.
The play has since been produced at multiple other theaters and will open at American Theater of Actors’ Sargent Theater in New York the same week as Three Views of the Same Object premieres here.
From Inspiration to Reality
The inspiration for Three Views of the Same Object
came from a real-life encounter with an elderly couple. While driving
in Santa Monica Canyon, Murray saw a woman on the curb clutching her
mailbox. After pulling over to help her, he could see that she had
fallen and had scabs on her legs. He helped her back to the house, where
her husband opened the door. He was in a wheelchair. “It was sort of a
horrifying situation, but it was a gift to me as a writer,” says Murray.
He turned that event into a 10-minute play. After letting it sit for a
few years, he decided there was still more story in it. So he began
developing it into a full-length play. Although there are similarities
between the two versions, Murray says the full-length play is not just
an expanded version of the short, it’s a re-conceptualization of the
One of the more-challenging parts of the writing process for Murray
is the first draft. “You’re still defining the parameters of the work,
so you don’t know how big a play it is, you don’t know how many pages
it’s going to be, you don’t know if you’re going to end up cutting
characters or changing situations,” he says. And with this play,
breaking from traditional form presented him with unique challenges.
Murray says he’s not sure exactly where the idea to split the story into
three different realities came from, but once he’d made that choice a
new set of challenges arose. “It became a mental game about what is
similar about these three stories and what is different and how do I
orchestrate that on the page? It became a game of compare and contrast.”
out how to make the transitions between scenes smooth was also a
puzzle. If one actor portrayed the woman in all three realities, how
would she change her appearance and costume between one variation and
the next, and how much time would that take? So Murray settled on the
solution of using a different actor for each reality, which saves time
and makes it easier for the audience to follow the different storylines.
(The Rogue Machine production actors playing the role are Anne Gee
Byrd, K Callan, and Nancy Linehan Charles.) Part of the inspiration for
the three-views format was the tradition of Greek plays that were
performed over a three-night period. While keeping with the contemporary
form, Murray says, he wanted to bring back the idea of subplots that
shed light on the main plot, either by resonating with or providing a
stark contrast to it, “so that there could be resonant versions of the
same story happening at the same time, but in a much shorter form,” he
From Awards to Rewrites
But even after deciding on the form and writing a draft, work remains
to be done. Seeing the creative growth of a project is one of the
highlights of the process for Murray, who takes a very hands-on approach
to the development process and values workshopping as part of that
process. “I love actors, but I also love the directors and designers and
the people who run the show,” he says. And thanks to input from many
people throughout the process, the play has evolved a great deal from
its first draft. Three Views of the Same Object was
first produced in Bloomington, Ind., after winning the Woodward/Newman
Drama Award, followed by the 2012 Holland New Voices Award, which
resulted in a staged reading at The Great Plains Theatre Conference.
Murray took the feedback he received from those productions and rewrote
for the Rogue Machine premiere. Less than a month from the opening,
Murray was still making “micro-changes” in the dialogue during
Although he would like to return to novel-writing in addition to his
plays, he’s happy in the theater and is already working on another play.
Flynn says he won’t let Murray stop writing plays. Murray is pleased
that more theaters in L.A. are producing new plays since Rogue Machine
was founded to encourage just that. He says, “The future of the theater
depends on new plays being written.”
September 10, 2012
Treefall photo: Brian Pugach, Brian Norris, West Liang, and Tania Verafield
Henry Murray photos copyright William Scalia/ArtsInLA.com
Thinking and Rethinking Athol Fugard’s The Blue Iris [show closed]
by Bob Verini
Some of my colleagues in the critical community have carped at, if not downright dismissed, Athol Fugard’s The Blue Iris, currently in its U.S. premiere at Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre. As far as I can make out from reviews of this production directed by Stephen Sachs, they complain that (a) the scope is too narrow for an artist of Fugard’s stature, (b) the script overrelies on exposition, and (c) the theme is just not compelling.
(a) Most artists in their golden years (Fugard is 80 this year) tend to retrench; they pull away from the giant subjects they tackled in their youth to work in miniature. Of course Fugard has always worked in miniature (how many of his plays have ever involved more than three characters? I can’t think of a one offhand). But if the political content and humanistic rage that fueled Master Harold and Boesman and Lena and My Children! My Africa! have cooled, who can be surprised or begrudge him? Especially since his major activist goal, the destruction of apartheid, has been achieved. I have a hunch that South Africans might be able to find political meaning if not downright allegory in The Blue Iris; when I try to do so, I strain.
But so what? It was always fallacious to pin Fugard down as a solely, or even primarily, apartheid-obsessed writer. His most important political acts were always in the productions—the insistence on mixed-race casts, for instance, in his native South Africa. Throughout his work, he has always had as much interest in the complexities of the human condition generally as in the moral and legal corruption of his beautiful, wretched homeland. Anyway, the explicit weaving in of the supernatural element—the spirit of the dead wife returning (no spoiler; her presence is announced in the program and is played by Jacqueline Schultz)—is something new for Fugard. Even at 80, he’s still experimenting with form.
(b) The house a man built—the pride of his life—has just burned down, causing a fatal heart attack in his beloved wife, and he has to pick through the rubble. If there was ever an occasion for sharing memories and the trotting out of backstory, it’s this one. In times of family tragedy there is a tendency for the mind and mouth to roam over well-trodden soil: “Remember when dad was hosing down the basement windows but mom had taken them off, so he was really hosing the screens and the whole basement got wet?” Everyone within earshot has heard the anecdote a thousand times before, but it’s told as if it were a surprising revelation. With the exception of a couple of lines that seemed forced, I found nothing in the “exposition” Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill shared that didn’t sound like believable reminiscence, prompted by all the once cherished possessions now melted or charred with ash.
(c) An elderly man discovers that all of his assumptions about his wife and home have been faulty, that he may have constructed his life on a lie. What could be more shattering to him than that? How can one not empathize deeply? I ached at farmer Robert’s gradual realization of how blind he’d been, and I was moved to think that the only reason he was able to learn how shaky his foundations were was that the house had been destroyed to leave the literal foundation exposed. That’s pretty good stuff for an octogenarian playwright.
The principal theme of this play, as I see it, is the disjunction between appearance and reality, as exemplified by the titular flower that is exquisitely beautiful but contains enough poison to kill a herd of cattle. Obviously this is far from a novel theme. But I find much novelty in how it’s worked out here—in the way, for instance, the wife’s beautiful painting is judged to be fatally flawed, or the housekeeper’s devotion turns out to have a very different underside.
There’s much more to The Blue Iris than meets the eye—a statement true of flower and of play.
August 30, 2012
Photo:Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill.
Gary Grossman, Tony Abatemarco, and Michael Kearns guide plays through the birthing process.
by Dany Margolies
Gary Grossman, Tony Abatemarco, and Michael Kearns
Photo by Dany Margolies
you’ve got an idea that’s still a twinkle in your eye. How do you turn
it into a production worthy of a theatrical staging, a paying audience,
and perhaps a critical acclamation or two?
The trio heading the INKubator program at Katselas Theatre Company
just might be willing to nurture that twinkle. But you’d better be
prepared to face ample constructive criticism and a little fatherly
Renowned theatermakers in their own rights, Gary Grossman, Michael
Kearns, and Tony Abatemarco established the INKubator program in January
2011, along with Susan Krebs. Its purpose, says Abatemarco, was “to
give voice to and a venue for new work because we felt that a lot of the
big institutions were starting to cut back on development.”
Grossman, as producing artistic director, and Kearns and Abatemarco
as co–artistic directors of KTC, collectively bring dozens of years of
experience to the program. Each has worked as an actor, director, and
writer. “And now we’re in the daddy role,” says Kearns. “We’ve reached
an age where nurturing is part of our artistry. We are the parents of
this theater community.”
If they feel paternal, they can well be proud of the progeny they’ve
attracted. Grossman estimates 500 artists have participated since
INKubator’s inception—including actors Jon Tenny, Mary McDonnell, Helen
Hunt, Stephanie Zimbalist, and Deborah Ann Woll, and directors Jon
Lawrence Rivera, Richard Hochberg, and Randee Trabitz.
And the three are proud of the children who left the nest for other climes. Last year, for example, John Fleck’s Mad Women ran at La Mama in New York.
A Good Start in Life
So, where to begin developing that twinkle? Visit KTC’s website’s “call for artists”
page. Your idea will be assessed but so will your passion, says
Grossman. “We’re not looking for perfection,” says Kearns. “But if it’s
producible, if it looks like it has potential, we’ll say, ‘Okay, let’s
go ahead, let’s find a director, let’s find the actors, let’s set a
date, and let’s start the process.’” There is no charge to the artists
at any stage of the work.
Don’t, however, expect a trophy just for showing up in this program.
“We’re smart in who we bring in here,” Grossman emphasizes. “Unless
we’re sold that the person is going to be able to do the work or really
wants to do the work, we’re not going to waste our time. If we’re going
to sit in a reading, we want a payoff, and it’s not just to produce your
show. There are plenty of other theaters that are doing these kinds of
series where they can do that: put it up and invite grandma and grandpa
and go out of there saying, ‘Look how good I am,’ and have them all
The three admit that initial concepts they lean toward will have
social and/or political resonance—some sort of conscience, says Kearns.
But, he adds, “We are also looking for comedies.”
Precocious Kids and Late Bloomers
Under the trio’s nurturing care, the pieces are assessed at every
stage, and nothing goes up before its time. Says Grossman, “We’re not
under the gun to produce anything. I got trained by Milton [Katselas].
We spent nine months getting Romeo and Juliet together before it went up for the critics.”
Rewrites might be called for as late as the weekend of a performance.
A writer can be expected to listen to notes, head into an adjacent
room, and crank out new pages within a day of a performance. Sometimes a
script needs a setup, sometimes a character needs an introduction. Why
doesn’t this get resolved earlier? As the trio insists, no writer can
direct his or her own work, and no director can notice everything. So
another director and Grossman will watch a final rehearsal and give
Good dramaturgy takes several eyes on a project, they say. In one
instance, Kearns stepped in as director, and he and the young
writer-performer worked on the piece for almost a year. At its preview,
says Kearns, “It was a mess. A great mess. There was a show there and a
great performer there, but it needed work. So, six more weeks of
intensive work. Then the show [was scheduled for] Sunday, and, on
Friday, Gary said, ‘Well, that ending….’ He made some of the most
insightful comments—because at some point the director can’t see it and
the performer certainly can’t see it. So [the writer] and I literally
went in the other room, and he rewrote three pages, and 48 hours later,
he performed those three pages and the rest of the script, and he hit it
out of the ballpark. That’s INKubator. That’s what a piece has to go
through to find itself.”
Listen to Dad(s)
Once a script has been honed on the page, it’s time to hear it. “All
of us have found through these years of developing work—others and our
own—for playwrights to hear their work in front of an audience, that’s
really the most important next step of development,” says Abatemarco.
“You can sit in front of your computer screen and work ad infinitum, but
it’s really necessary for an audience to respond.”
Adds Grossman, a reading in your living room might not provide you
with adequate feedback. Still, he emphasizes the nonjudgmental nature of
INKubator. “Nothing against critics, but this is a safe space,” he
says. So the program offers its own living room to playwrights, though
in this case that living room is one of the two KTC theaters: the
Skylight and Beverly Hills Playhouse.
As the best dads would say, it’s KTC’s living room, so Grossman
insists hosts and visitors behave respectfully in it. Even after a
production, the three “grab onto these things and stay with it,” keeping
very much in touch with the writers after they are sent away to finish,
edit, rewrite, add to, or completely reconceive their scripts.
For the ‘Bigger’ Kids
More-experienced playwrights might want to apply for KTC’s
Playwrights Lab. Other development programs at KTC include a solo-show
class, taught by Abatemarco and Kearns. The two also work with “elder”
When they are readying their own works for production, Kearns and
Abatemarco don’t hesitate to take the constructive criticism, if not
needing the nagging, from each other and from others. Among other
projects, Abatemarco’s Beautified
experienced the INKubator crucible before the play earned a run this
summer, and Kearns is continuing development on a production already
given a showing: In Heat In Hollywood, by David Trudell.
Up next for KTC, seven world premieres from the company’s PlayLab will run in repertory in August at Skylight Theatre.
Seven directors and 35 actors contribute to the productions, scheduled
for afternoons through late nights. And you can bet the dads will be
watching over each of them.
July 25, 2012
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