Director Jon Lawrence Rivera Celebrates 25 Years of Playwrights' Arena

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera founded Playwrights' Arena in 1992 at the time of the LA riots. Wanting to produce plays by LA-based playwrights and to create opportunities for actors of color, Rivera has been changing and challenging the Los Angeles theatrical landscape for 25 years.

To celebrate 25 years of producing new work, Rivera wanted to do something big, something that also addressed the era that the company was created in. Thus sprung an idea for The Hotel Play. Set at a 25 year high school reunion, audience members are greeted at a registration table at the pool area of the Radisson Hotel across from USC. The first act consists of six scenes which will each be played consecutively in the adjacent hotel rooms facing the pool. For this first half, the audience will rotate from room to room to get each bit of the story. The second act, everyone will congregate at the pool patio.

Having just had a production meeting at the hotel to see the rooms and discuss logistics, he shows me one of the rooms before we sit down by the pool to discuss the play.

The initial idea came from a Danish film called The Celebration he saw 15-20 years ago. “I remember watching this movie,” says Rivera, “in the first half you see vignettes of different rooms, they're all getting ready for a celebration. There's a lot of discussion about having anxiety about the celebration and seeing certain people. So there's all this intrigue that's happening. And then in the second part they come down to the ballroom - it's the 60th birthday of the mother. Then you get all these big reveals of secrets people have been hiding for years.”

He continues, “as I was watching this movie I thought - this would be really interesting if it was happening live. In my head, it was something Playwrights' Arena would never be able to do because where do you get the money [for something of that scale]?”

Cary Thompson and Stevie Johnson

About two or three years ago the idea reemerged. Knowing that the 25th anniversary was fast approaching Rivera wanted to celebrate by doing something he'd never done before. For their 20th anniversary they did Flash Theatre LA, with 20 short site specific pieces throughout Los Angeles. This time, he wanted to create a full length site specific play.

“I started revisiting the idea of doing a show in a hotel. Then I thought who's going to write it? Is it one person, three people? Ultimately it was a time when we were discussing women playwrights in American theatre and how they're underproduced. This was an opportunity for me to do a play and to exclusively ask women to write it.”

After asking female playwrights he had worked with (and suggestions from them for other playwrights) he finally settled on having six playwrights write each scene, with each taking place a separate room for Act One (Velina Hasu Houston, Jennifer Maisel, Nahal Navidar, Julie Oni, Janine Salinas Schoenberg and Laurie Woolery), and one playwright (Paula Cizmar) to write Act Two, which is where all the characters congregate by the pool.

“When I finally decided on the seven playwrights two years ago - I told them about the movie [Celebration]. When we started, we all sat around a table and I put out six squares and we just started talking about what's in each room. What types of characters are there? So that was the beginning of the conversation. From there they were each assigned to a room” with Cizmar writing the second half.

“About six months later they got their first drafts in and we read them. From there we started to fine tune - oh that character in your play can interact with this character because they know each other. So it's been a two year process of that.”

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera working with the company

He made sure to keep them all focused on what they are trying to address. He elaborates, “Playwrights' Arena came out of the 1992 LA riots and the racial conflicts of that time. 25 years later, where are we? Are we still the same, have we moved forward?”

The tone of the conversation shifted after the election. “When in November when we had a different,” he hesitates, “President... the conversation has shifted again about racial relationships. We were at a different path writing this play so after the election we had to address that.”

Was it more hopeful before the election? “Yes! It was a much more hopeful thing. Now, it's not so much. And 25 years later how do these people who have experienced racial tension and unrest here in Los Angeles - how do they then interact with each other?”

They've created a fictional high school calling it South Central High School. “We've made it near Crenshaw and Jefferson, around that area,” says Rivera. “We tried to make it be a place where the unrest was really bad. In our play, the high school had to shut down [during the riots] so they never had a formal graduation.” Which leaves a lot of things unresolved, disconnected and unanswered.

Stevie Johnson and Melissa Greenspan

“It has really been a journey up to this point with re-writes. And we're still re-writing.” They just locked in the script this past Sunday. Explaining the process he adds, “Paula Cizmar, who is the main architect of the second act - she basically got all the scenes for the first act and wrote what she thought would happen with them when they all come together, with a consultation from the other playwrights. She did an amazing job to get all the pieces into a solid shape.” Of course, there's the back and forth with the other playwrights with things like, “I don't think my character would say that.”

The conceit of the play is that it's happening in real time and so some things will be adapted per show in order for everything to happen in real time for the audience. For instance, if it's Saturday or Monday night, they'll make reference to that.

Rivera has been rehearsing the show at LATC (downtown) and has shown the actors pictures of the rooms to give them a better sense of their playing spaces. Although there's a guide for each room, the audience is free to follow the characters around the room and sit or stand anywhere they please. To help with this, Rivera has had other actors not in the scene being rehearsed sit or stand in the space. If an actor needs to be in a certain area, then they just have to gently move the audience member.

“Unfortunately we only have two previews,” admits Rivera. “So those are very important for us to get a sense of how people are interacting with each other.”

Because there are knocks, phone calls and characters going from one room to another, the timing has to be precise. “The actors are now getting into the rhythm of things because they need to be in time for when those things happen. If it's delayed, they have to add whatever they need. Or if it's early they have to make an adjustment because the knock or phone call will happen at the exact same time every night. If there's a key line, they better say it before they open the door.”

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera working with the company

Christina Bryan, the stage manager, will be the one knocking on doors and coordinating phone calls. So she is the keeper of the time. They've gone through the script and have carefully timed these moments so she will be there with a timer making sure everything's running smoothly.

“In the rehearsal room we all see each other,” in other words they aren't practicing in separate rooms but in one big space. They've been finessing the timing in rehearsals because for the show it will be the same time, every time.

It takes a lot of fundraising to put on a project of this scope: 15 actors, seven playwrights, four associate directors, stage management, and designers - not to mention the fact that they are renting six rooms at the Radisson. Rivera chuckles, “I'm so stubborn - once I have an idea, I'm relentless. I started knocking on people's doors. I talked to Diane [Rodriguez] over at CTG and told her about the project. I told her I wanted to be able to support the playwrights. They didn't even blink, they gave me what I asked.” He jokes, “I should have asked for more!” That money was essentially a commission fee for the playwrights. Then he developed a partnership with USC's Visions and Voices and they gave them money which went towards rehearsals, fees and some of the hotel expenses. The Puffin Foundation also funded some of the workshop process. And the rest of the money is from their end of the year fundraiser. Rivera adds, “So all of that got us to this point, to make this happen.”

Cary Thompson, Stevie Johnson and Durant Fowler

What's next for Playwrights' Arena?

“That question always lingers, what is the next step? Having a space and being able to accommodate larger audiences is a desire for most companies. I feel conflicted about that. Because new work is such a hard sell. We're always going to be doing new works - and with that sometimes the work is by unknown playwrights. I don't think audiences in LA are trained to go to new work. That's a problem.”

Perhaps the future is in building more partnerships. “I would love a real relationship with an organisation where we can have housing,” for Playwrights' Arena to be a resident company. He continues, “for me, I think it's all about partnerships. I find that we are able to do a lot more stuff when there is a partner. Native Voices is talking to us about a future collaboration. We already have a relationship with Skylight Theatre. Maybe that's where we need to go - go build more permanent relationships.”

For now, Rivera is “very excited with this project. It's epic!” He adds, “I feel that we're trying to create something that I've never done myself. With Flash Theatre, those were five minute pieces. With this, it's huge! Even just sitting here, I'm wondering how I'm going to pull in the focus of the audience when they're all over the place. We'll see. Should be fun!”

The Hotel Play runs April 1 through 16, on Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 and 7 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. There are two preview performances on March 31 at 8 p.m. and April 1 at 3 p.m.

Tickets are available at www.thehotelplay.brownpapertickets.com or by calling 800-838-3006. The Radisson Hotel Midtown at USC is located at 3540 S Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA.


Director/Writer Michael Leoni on Loving Going Up in His ELEVATOR Ride

After a critically acclaimed run in 2010, Michael Leoni returns to Los Angeles bringing his creation ELEVATOR to The Coast Playhouse. I had the extremely incredible opportunity to experience his opening night March 25. This is one ELEVATOR you never want to get off of - but they will get you off!!! It's a totally involving, fast-paced, ninety-minutes stuck in an elevator with seven of the most disparate characters one could put together - always surprising, chocked full with sight-gags and great visual effects; and powered by a very talented cast of actors (with some great voices and some intentionally hysterically bad dancing).

During his final week of rehearsals, Better Lemons and I had the chance to have Michael break away to answer some of our probing questions.

Thank you, Michael for agreeing to this interview with Better Lemons and myself.

Your ELEVATOR had a critically acclaimed ten-month run in Los Angeles back in 2010-2011. What prompted you to bring ELEVATOR back to LA?

It just seemed like the right time. This play brings a lot of love, heart, and humor; and I think that's incredibly important right now. The world is changing so much. It just seems that now more than ever we all need to connect with each other, more than anything else.

Have you made any tweaks to your 2010 version of ELEVATOR?

Yes. After we first mounted the show back in 2010, I spent a lot of time talking to audience members. I wanted to see what parts they connected to and which characters they related to. The heart of this show is about who we really are behind closed doors—it's about shedding our masks and showing who we really are as people. I feel like I've grown a lot since we first opened the play, and naturally, have shed more of my own mask. So, it compelled me to look at the characters to see how I could make them more authentic, make the show more poignant, and really take the audience through a deeper journey of discovery.

What would your short pitch of ELEVATOR be to potential producers?

I think we can all relate to at least one person in the elevator and what they are going through. ELEVATOR really is a show for everyone; it's about life and who we are deep down as humans. It's a comedy with a ton of heart. The show previously ran for ten months during 2010-2011 and we found that people were coming with their families (grandkids with their grandparents; parents with their kids) and with their friends. We felt like it really did cross the boundaries of generations.

ELEVATOR is based on your 2008 short film Someplace in Between. What initially inspired you to write Someplace in Between?

I got stuck in an elevator—which is one of my biggest fears. Sitting there with all those different people, I found myself looking at them and thinking I could die with these people. It struck me that this could be a funny short, if we could actually hear the thoughts in their head. When I would walk down the street, I'd look at the people around me, and wonder what each person could be thinking, what is the voice-over in their head, and what do we all think about. So, I combined both ideas into the film. Then once it was in festivals, I just had the idea that it might work well on stage, too. I re-wrote it over the course of a weekend and we mounted it in the first annual Hollywood Fringe Festival. 

What was your thought process of adapting your short film into a play, instead of a feature-length film or in some other medium?

I felt that as a film, it would be fine, but as a live theater experience with an audience right there in the elevator with the actors, you could do more stylized things. It's really interesting to see the fast forward of time and all these kind of musical sequences live versus on film, which I don't think would have broke any boundaries. The stage show is very cinematic in the way that it is being stylized. I have always wanted to bring film technique into theater, and theater technique to film, crossing those mediums.

We have a New York/Off-Broadway set designer, and are really upping the production value. This is definitely going to be an experience that hasn't been done in a 99-seat world. Everyone asks, "How do you make a show in a box be entertaining for 90-minutes?" The audience response from ELEVATOR is that they feel like they are literally watching a film. It moves quickly, it's fast-paced, and at the core, has a lot of heart and is a lot of fun. And, especially with the way we are presenting it now, the audience will feel like they are going to be on the ride.

Have you worked with any of the Coast Playhouse cast or creatives before?

Yes, on the creative team, Michelle Kaufer (producer), David Goldstein (lighting and scenic design), and Mario Marchetti (music and sound design) are returning. For the cast, Deborah Vancelette (CEO Woman), William Stanford Davis (Maintenance Man), Erica Katzin (Temp), Karsen Rigby (Hot Girl), and Tyler Tanner (Cyrus) are returning.

What advantages or challenges do you find in working in theatre, as opposed to working in film? Film's obvious plus is its ability of reaching a much larger audience.

In film, if you don't like a take; you can stop, go back, and reshoot to get it right. With theater, it's live. It's all prep. In order for me, as a director, to get that kind of raw truth from my actors, I have to break them down as people. We are telling a story about love, connection, shedding our masks, and being unafraid to let our guard down and let our truths come out. As a director, as an actor; we have to take our own masks off to bring that raw truth in, and it's live. I am asking the cast to be completely present for 90 minutes in this elevator, and once it is goes, it's going. You cannot stop it. But, the cast is prepped, trained, and ready to go. Every show is different. Every audience is different. You never know what they are going to be like. We are all trained to go with it and have fun with each other. Especially with this show, I spent a lot of time having the actors bond with each other, so they are a team up there. They support each other and have each other's backs on stage.

You wet your directing whistle in Boston with HAIR, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, and FALSETTOS. Do you find it easier or harder (or just a different animal) having musical beats connecting the plot vs. dramatic beats in a drama or comedic bits in a comedy? Which genre do you prefer to direct?

I like all of it. For me, it is important to have projects that are going to wake people up, whether through music, through song. Every play I do always has some kind of music element. I love music and think it is a crucial tool to move the story forward. You will see the technique we use in ELEVATOR. Whatever I am working on has got to be something that is going to wake a person up, something that is really going to inspire someone to change. That is what I am really all about. Getting the truth, whether it is through music or through dialogue.

What is the significance behind the name of your production company ‘An 11:11 Experience'?

The significance of the name is that it represents a moment in time when you are connected to all, connected to yourself, to everyone around; and knowing we are one, focusing on the connection and on the experience. And, the story behind it—I would regularly look at the clock and see the time at 11:11. My producing partner and I looked it up on the internet, and it basically told us that it was the universe tapping you on the shoulder and letting you know that you are in the right place at the right time.

A number of your projects deal with homeless kids - American Street Kid, THE PLAYGROUND. Tell us about the Spare Some Change organization you founded.

When I was shooting the documentary American Street Kid, I realized that what was being offered out there for the kids wasn't enough. My business partners and I decided we had to create a non-profit that helped these kids. After spending eight years on American Street Kid, we got a clearer picture of what the kids needed and what wasn't there. We did our best to set up an organization that provided what them needed. With the success of American Street Kid, things started to get moving, and we're hoping to spread Spare Some Change all around the country to help homeless youth. And, even right now, we have an ex-homeless youth that got off the streets and is working on ELEVATOR. We are always trying to provide kids job opportunities in any project we do, to keep them working, to keep them active and feeling inspired.

Would you share with our Better Lemons readers your first-hand knowledge of the benefits of an arts education or even arts awareness for our younger generation?

I think arts education is essential and that everyone should be involved or have access to some sort of art program. I can't say it enough. I had some jock friends when I was in school, and they could be so closed-minded about the arts. But then, sometimes I would cast a show and bring them in. They were jocks and bullies, but when they were together with theater people, I watched the connection grow between them.  Seeing that change, made me realize how beautiful it is, when people are open and working together on something creative. That is essential.

What piece of art inspired you as a youth?

Looking back, RENT was a big influence for me. It was new, unique, and edgy; and it spoke to that generation. I was young, but I got it. It was something that was there for a younger generation that looked at theater differently. When I thought of theater, it was musicals like GUYS AND DOLLS, and that didn't get me inspired, but RENT did. Seeing the struggling artists, the friendships, and all the stuff they were dealing with. Jonathan Larson is a hero of mine. I think he is incredible, how he woke up a generation.

What would you like to see Spare Some Change achieving in ten years?

An important part of Spare Some Change is building and funding The Change House, a two-year program to help change the lives of kids who've lived on the streets. I also want a national mentoring program in every major city that inspires kids to get off the streets and help them to believe in themselves. That, in short, is our goal.

What do you see Michael Leoni achieving in ten years?

I am doing what I love right now, and I am going to continue to do what I love, which is creating art that inspires change and connects one another and audiences.

What would you like the Coast Playhouse audiences to leave with after ELEVATOR's curtain call?

We didn't know what we had when we first premiered ELEVATOR. So, to watch audience members look at one another differently, to see people hugging strangers after the show, there was so much love and support of one another. I would hope that you leave the show looking at yourself and looking at others, and opening your mind to who people really are when they take off their masks. I hope you walk out with a lot of hope and a lot of love for life. After one of the shows, a woman asked me if I was the writer. I said, "Yes!" She then told me that she was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor and given a few months to live. She told me that this show inspired her to keep living and to live life to the fullest. Those are the kind of reasons we do what we do.

Any closing thoughts, Michael?

One of the things we hope for is that the community embraces us, and we connect with our WeHo neighbors, our LA audience, and we build a home here for ELEVATOR. We are hoping to stay here for a while.

Thank you again, Michael for taking the time for this interview.

To experience your own ride with the seven craziest, most interesting people you thought you would never want to meet, log onto plays411.com/elevator for available tickets. Should be a very good chance that Michael Leoni's ELEVATOR will get extended beyond their original closing date of April 30, 2017.


A Forgotten Master Reclaims His Legacy

There is a transcendent moment when the singers give themselves over to the song. They are not just singing, they are also revealing themselves, their deepest pains and most ecstatic dreams. Sometimes for a moment you can see them get lost in the music and become someone else.

Lee Solomon sings at the Jazz Vocal Workshop (all photos by E. Lorenzetti)

This is as you might expect not as effortless as it appears. It works requires practice, practice and more practice. And nearly every Tuesday night for years now, a very unassuming man named Howlett Smith has pushed his students at the World Stage performance and gallery space in Leimert Park to work harder at their craft – and while he isn't cruel, he is very demanding. The workshop is attended by both professional singers and inexperienced performers – he says he often prefers newcomers because they have fewer bad habits – but whatever their expertise, everyone here calls him Mr. Smith.

Even if you don't like jazz, you probably know who Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk were. You probably don't know Mr. Smith, 84 – a composer who has written more songs than he cares to count. After you begin to hear about him and his expansive career, you'll be wondering why you don't know his name too. Mr. Smith's most important legacy might not be found in his resume or songs – but with his students, who work with him either privately or at the workshop. They come to learn from the man who several of them describe as a "master."

"I tell them all the time in class that when I'm out of here, when I'm gone and can't monitor what you're doing, you will do what you want to do," Smith says. "I already know this – but I still want you to learn what I've learned, and learn my legacy and pass it on keep it alive" or else, he warns, "be stuck with inferior music."

Born blind in racially segregated Phoenix, Smith already knew he wanted to be a musician by the time he was 6, and when he first heard the Nat King Cole trio, he knew what kind of musician he was: a jazz pianist. Smith has said that jazz was his salvation, and if hearing classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz intimidated him, it was Cole who gave him the courage to keep playing.

"I already knew that I wanted to be a musician, I knew that always," he tells me in a small apartment in Palms, sitting near the two metal file cabinets that contain the only copies of the hundreds of compositions he has written through the years. They are his archives. He has no idea exactly how many songs he has written because, as he says, "I don't know cause I'm afraid I'd be disappointed." He laughs when he says this – Mr. Smith is not a bitter man.

I first encountered Mr. Smith a few years ago at the World Stage's old space which is across the street from the new one. At the time, The World Stage's very existence was threatened, and everyone there was a bit nervous about whether it would continue – but they survived, and the new space is more spacious and inviting than the old one. What struck me most that night was seeing Smith work with Yolanda, a woman who suffered a stroke, on stage at the workshop. She didn't give up either. She came that night in her wheelchair, still working her craft. Smith heard her familiar voice, and said, "Yolanda, I'm so happy to see you. Sing a song for me."

Yolanda sang "Memories of You" by Eubie Blake, a song Mr. Smith chose for her to work on. He instructed her on what exact line to take a breath – "here and there, everywhere." Smith sang with her, reminding her again and again to breathe – "breathe, breathe breathe" said Yolanda, drilling it into herself. "What's happening is you're not feeling the music – you've got to feel the music," he told her.

"It's not an easy song, Mr. Smith," Yolanda said. He replied, "I know it's not an easy song, but I will show you no mercy." He paused for a few seconds, then added, "You're going to be a good singer, Yolanda." She was visibly tired after her workout with Mr. Smith – she released a great breath, and relaxed when she was finally done.

"You have to evaluate people as a teacher or as a coach, and you know that if you tell them too much, they're going to get discouraged," Smith says. "When they deserve it, you offer them praise." He tells me this in the compact studio he has in his apartment where three keyboards and a Macintosh compete for space, leaving a small gap between them just barely big enough for Mr. Smith to navigate. There are hundreds of cassettes stacked in neat rows along the wall, and a few feet away, are those two file cabinets containing his life's work. Numerous certificates and awards from the likes of former Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden and Mayor James J. Hahn are displayed on the walls. Mr. Smith claims he doesn't care about any of that stuff, that somebody just puts it up there for him. It is a very simple place, not unlike the man himself who tends to be very direct and not always expansive when talking about his life and career.

He offers private lessons here, but you have to audition to get in, and he has turned away a few students over the years. Anyone can come to the Tuesday night workshop at the World Stage, but wherever he teaches, Mr. Smith doesn't want anyone to ever quit, but to persevere and work harder. "The people I work with – none of them work as hard as I want them to work on practicing everyday and paying attention to their craft and I wish they would work harder and get more serious about it because you can't do music without practice and you must practice industriously," Smith says.

Mr. Smith was already playing and practicing piano by the time he was 8 – he'd wanted to start a few years earlier, but his family told him his hands were still too small. He doesn't claim that his blindness had any influence on him becoming a musician, or that his sense of hearing was somehow better developed because of it. During conversation, he maintains steady eye contact with the speaker, so that you might occasionally forget that he is blind.

Music came to him naturally – perhaps because there were several musicians in his family, or because many people in those days had pianos in their homes. He had been hearing little melodies and snippets of song in his mind since as early as 3 or 4. He may have had a wayward year or two when he doubted music was what he wanted, but by the time he was 10, Smith suffered no more reservations, got serious and never let go of it.

"But on the other hand, I had to work at everything else I have in life," Mr. Smith says. His work ethic is what gained him acceptance among peers at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind, who, despite sharing similar challenges, did not accept him immediately. Smith claims he battled institutional racism at that school until he left at the age of 18. While many of the students supported this struggle, he believes others harbored racist thoughts themselves. He kept working anyway. He always got excellent grades. When he won just about every award at a school assembly, he could hear all of the students clapping for him together, a moment that thrilled him. It was not just his success that got him their recognition, it was also their realization that everyone at the school was confronting similar problems, whatever their skin color.

"I used to think my hair was the best hair in school – I was very proud of it – and I used to feel the Mexicans and the whites and Indians hair and I think to myself, well this is nice, but look at my hair, they don't have this," he says, laughing at the memory. "And then I learned that you're not only inferior with your hair but in other ways." When he and about 30 other students went to a Phoenix lunch counter in 1953, Smith was refused service. In a silent sign of solidarity for the kid they all called "Smitty," the other students rose up together and walked out.

"It made me feel very good, it was worth it just to get that feeling," he says now of that memory. Residential segregation in Phoenix was not legislated at that time, but blacks and whites were kept separate by an unofficial refusal to sell blacks homes in predominantly white neighborhoods, something that still persists to this day, according to author Kenneth LaFave. 1953 was the same year racial segregation was outlawed in the Phoenix schools – a full year before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. Smith claims no direct connection between his experience at that lunch counter that day and what transpired shortly thereafter, but he says, "We proved that segregation is a myth, that it doesn't have to be." Today he says what really weighs on his heart is that there is still so much racism left in this country, and for a moment his voice catches. "I believe fervently that all the races can get along and they can mix and go about their business. After all, that's what the Kingdom is going to be like, so we may as well get used to it now."

Let's go where the grass is greener,
for the grass is greener just beyond the hill.
We'll laugh it up at troubles there,
no one bursting bubbles there.
Day after day there'll be thrills after thrills,

So, let's go where the grass is greener,
where the grass is greener and skies are ever blue.
To the east, to the west, either one is the best,
for the grass is greener everywhere there's you.
--The Grass is Greener, composed by Howlett Smith 
and recorded by Nancy Wilson in 1964

When he came to Los Angeles in 1959 after graduating from the University of Arizona, the city seemed for a time like what he calls Heaven on Earth, where different races were living side by side instead of separated by arbitrary rules. He first moved to 47th street and Western. "When we moved into our neighborhood, it was properly integrated – it had Asians and whites and blacks, and everybody was thrown in together. It was just wonderful – but then white flight began, and they moved out to the Valley" he says, and over the years the city lost its appeal for him – gradually becoming more violent and crowded. But Mr. Smith never left his adopted city, raising a family here, always working on his craft, and eventually becoming a mentor to countless singers. He's been teaching for probably more than fifty years.

Smith was turned onto teaching by his instructors at the School for the Deaf and Blind, and they showed him the sacrifice being a good mentor requires. They worked weekends and after regular hours, and his best teachers did not dictate their ideas – they presented arguments, some devoting an entire class period to showing students both their own viewpoint and opposing ideas. They gave their students the power of making their own choices – but also stringently taught them musical theory, and the dedication making music requires. "As soon as theory class was over, I began to break the rules," Mr. Smith says, "but not before I learned them."

(Lto R) Hillard Street, Sandra Renee Williams and Howlett Smith

His students begin to arrive at the World Stage in a steady trickle by 7p.m.and the room is soon filled with more than 20 people on some nights, but as few as four or five on others. You have to get there early most nights – Smith works with each student for about 10 minutes, and it's on a first come, first served basis. People sign up at the door, greetings abound, hugs between comrades and friends. He sits behind a piano on a tiny narrow stage, a sign asking for a $10 donation set before him. The crowd is well-versed. If you forget the exact words to the song you're singing, someone in the room will not unkindly correct you. Good singing, Mr. Smith says, requires an audience, and here you will get an appreciative and knowledgeable one. Some students repeatedly work on a single line as they navigate a song, others get a few comments from Mr. Smith only after they are finished. Class never goes past 10pm. and always ends the same way – everyone sings "Don't let what you don't know disturb what you do know" – a phrase that Smith first heard in Bible study class, and which he set to to music.

He's been teaching the workshop for about 7 years now. Smith gets discouraged sometimes when the class size dwindles down to a handful, thinking someone is trying to tell him something, but then new students start drifting in again, and before he knows it, the room is full again. He is not sure how people find out about him, but they do, and they are deeply appreciative of him. René Fisher-Mims (aka Mama Ne-Ne) has been helping manage the World Stage for twenty years, always hustling to help keep the doors open for a valuable venue in an underserved community, and says they are blessed to have someone as over-qualified as Smith for such a humble position.

Arienne Battiste and Howlett Smith

Arienne Battiste, a singer who trains with Smith and has collaborated with him on several projects, took her first class at the World Stage when he was ill. She found the teacher's approach that night arbitrary, and decided not to return. But something called her back – call it Spirit if you will – and when she got there everyone was saying, "Oh Mr. Smith, we're so glad your back." She saw a little man with grey hair sitting at the piano–and saw that he could figure out what key a song was in, and immediately begin giving the singers specific instructions. And the singers improved as she watched. Only then realizing Smith was blind, she quickly recognized his talents as a teacher.

"And I went up on stage and I sang, 'There Will Never Be Another You'," that was the first song I sang with him, and he said, "Well, where have you been?" She began working with his Harmony Choir, and became part of Smith's inner circle. She doesn't believe in coincidence, and now sees it as her calling to help him regain his legacy – it is what the universe has asked her to do, she says. She is working with the Howlett Smith Legacy Project to digitize and archive his music.

Most of us, no matter how hard-working or committed to our craft we might be, do not attain the legacy of a Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk – that's more a question of fate, largely out of our hands to control. But before his death in 1995, Larry Gales, who played bass for the Thelonious Monk quintet, told the L.A. Times that Smith was serious, sentimental and funny, but never routine – and put him in the same league as Davis and Monk.

So the question still lingers – why isn't this man better known? A few of his songs are still remembered– like "Little Altar Boy," which was recorded by Andy Williams, Glen Campbell and The Carpenters–but his name is not. He served as musical director for "Me and Bessie," a project with blues and gospel singer Linda Hopkins that went to Broadway in 1975 and ran more than a year. He has written several musicals, directed multiple church choirs and written all those songs that clamor for space in his file cabinets. Battiste believes his obscurity may stem from Smith having been burned in the "sighted world" by associates who made promises they did not keep. Maybe it's because, as Smith says, "I'm not a very vociferous person when it comes to blowing my own horn."

He is also a man of deeply felt religious conviction, and as a Seventh-Day Adventist, gave up playing gigs from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset – primetime for any musician. He did this willingly and without reservation, but he also passed up other opportunities to tour Europe or play any number of nightclubs. During his twenty year residency at the now defunct Bob Burns restaurant, he never played once on the Sabbath. If he suffers from regret, it is from never having found a good manager, describing himself as the worst businessman ever.

Smith is someone with ideas of his own, and he can be very stubborn. He rarely compromises. He almost ended a recording session with a singer who wanted to pronounce the word "stream" as "strum"–a confrontation that nearly came to blows. Another musical project ended after he and another composer disagreed over a lyric. Smith doesn't quote the exact line, but says "I'm not going to have one of my melodies subjected to a lyric like that." He wrote a song called "Visit Me" and legendary Jazz singer Nancy Wilson wanted to record it, but she wanted the phrase "frying pan" taken out of the line "I'll take my frying pan and my electric fan." Smith, who painstakingly crafts his lyrics, refused. "That could've been thousands of dollars for me, but I don't care. It's not about money, it's about the principal. I wanted a frying pan in the song, and you either sing it the way I wrote it, or you find something else. And she chose to find something else," he says, again laughing. "Can you imagine a black woman not saying frying pan? I mean, come on," he adds.

These stories might lead you to conclude that Mr. Smith's relative obscurity comes from being a bit too principled for his own good. Maybe so, but Smith also says he considers everything he has written a work in progress, and says any of his songs could be expanded or rewritten at any time. If a singer comes in late in the process wanting to change his lyrics, Smith might consider it if they could propose a better idea. Changing a word or two of the song to make it easier to sing, whether it's written by him or someone else, is not acceptable.

Howlett Smith

Younger people can still incorporate their own ideas into what he is teaching – but they still have to know the rules, and Mr. Smith teaches them with the same demands for discipline and self-sacrifice that he always made of himself. The most important rule: Phrasing is logical, and the sentence structure of a song determines when the singer should take a breath. Many singers simply do not breathe in the right place, and Smith is relentless is requiring that they learn how to do this properly. There is no singer that can't be criticized, or pushed to try just a little harder.

Mr. Smith will continue teaching for as long as he can. The devotion of his students proves that fame is not the only criteria by which we should take the measure of a lifetime. And if you ask him, it's pretty simple what his legacy will be. "My legacy is music, and it always has been and it always will be," he says, "A man who totally devoted himself to music – a man who wrote it, lived it and performed it."


A Serious Talk with A Serious Man: Robert Schenkkan, Pulitzer-Prize Winning Playwright

"Everything Donald Trump is doing now is right out of the Authoritarian Playbook.  Right out of it.   Make people feel powerless and overwhelmed?  Check.  Attack the press as the enemy of the people?  Check.  Portray yourself as the only one who can save the day?  Check."

It's a beautiful March day in Los Angeles, 85 degrees and sunny, but here at the beach in Santa Monica, it's foggy and chilly.  Robert Schenkkan is saying this as he sits on a bench beside the Twisted Hipster, looking out at the rapidly-disappearing vista.

"What Trump is up to is nothing less than a full-out assault on basic American values and individual rights.  People need to stay very conscious about what is going on and need to keep asking: what can I do?  How can I help defend against this attack on our freedoms?  The most important thing - and I cannot stress this enough - is that we cannot cede moral authority to the State and allow them to let us feel irrelevant.  We have to reject the false narrative that this administration has been putting out there.  The decisions we make over the next 18 months are very important and may well determine the future of this country - and, consequently, of the world."

Schenkkan may well be the most important American playwright of our time.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Kentucky Cycle in 1992 - his cycle of nine connected one acts exploring American Mythology and identity -- his career went into overdrive last year with All The Way (about President Lyndon B. Johnson) receiving the Tony Award for Best Play and getting made into an HBO film starring Bryan Cranston (who also played LBJ on Broadway, winning the Tony for Best Actor), while his co-adaptation of the film Hacksaw Ridge nabbed  him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.  But anyone looking at him here would simply see a slight, aging man with a knit cap pulled closely over his scalp.  His voice is high-pitched, his tone is thoughtful and worried, like a dad terrified for his child's future.

"I feel like artists working today have a pressing responsibility to speak to these issues, and to the choices that we as a country are facing.  The urgency I feel right now as a citizen and as a theater artist cannot be over-stated.  This is a crisis like no other that we have faced in our country's history.  Yes, the threat of fascism and autocracy has been there before, certainly during both World Wars in the last century, as well as during the purges of Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee.  But there has never been a president like Donald Trump, who is using the highest office in the land to pose such a clear and present danger to everything we represent as Americans.  The hypocrisy of his doing this in the service of protecting us individually and collectively - well, like I said before, that's right out of the Authoritarian Playbook.  And that's why we have to keep pushing back when he tries to divide us and fill us with fear."

What Schenkkan has specifically done is to write a 2-person play called Building The Wall about the Trump Presidency that is currently in previews for its World Premiere at LA's Fountain Theatre.  Directed by LA's own Michael Michetti and starring local actors Bo Foxworth and Judith Moreland, the production will open on March 18th and is scheduled to run until May 21st.   (boxoffice@fountaintheatre.com or 323-663-1525 for tickets and information.)  Its opening here will be followed by productions at four other theaters across the country and possibly more - and there is great interest from theaters in Canada, London and elsewhere.

Building The Wall takes place in 2019, when the impact of Trump's current immigration policies have run their destructive course, rounding up and detaining millions of immigrants.  Now a writer interviews the supervisor of a private prison as he himself awaits sentencing for carrying out this federal policy, and they both look back at the time we are living in now, trying to figure out how such terrible violations of individual rights could ever have been carried out in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

"I think history will not look back at us kindly," he says with deep sadness in his voice.  "But we have to give the devil his due - Donald Trump spoke to people's anxieties in a way that the progressives weren't able to.  We took our eyes off the ball during the Obama years, and the result is the terrible situation that we find ourselves in right now.  Each of us helped in our way to create this situation, and each of us will have to account for our moral courage - or lack of such - in the face of such an assault on the values that we purport to represent.   The outcome is by no means decided.  And the choices that we make now will determine the course that this country follows, both in the near future and in the very long term."

Building the Wall previews tonight and tomorrow and plays March 18 - May 21. Visit fountaintheatre.com for tickets.


Doggie Logic in Mac Wellman's The Offending Gesture

I'm currently rehearsing Mac Wellman's The Offending Gesture at Son of Semele Ensemble (opening Saturday, March 18th). This play is both bewildering and delightful. It follows Blondi, a German Shepherd belonging to Noble Wolf (aka Adolf Hitler) and Jackie, a Finnish mutt, as they try to encourage Noble Wolf to invade Iraq instead of Finland. Yes, you read all of that correctly. Although Wellman began writing it in 2013 and it premiered in 2016 at the Connelly Theater in New York, its parallels to our current political climate is particularly eerie.

Throughout the rehearsal process the entire cast and creative team have had endless questions. Wellman's absurd comedy plays with repetition and malapropisms as our narrators of the piece are dogs - and doggies don't always get things right in the complicated world of humans.

 

Mac Wellman
Photo Credit: Timothy Keating

Wellman took time recently via phone to answer a few of our questions. Although certainly relevant pre-election as the play focuses on Iraq, there does feel like a certain anticipation of the rise of Trump and nationalism. “I don't know if it anticipated what's going on now,” says Wellman, “but there are a lot of odd things going on in this country. I don't think of it as anticipating Trump and his madness, but I do think that we're in a weird time. It's not just Trump, the whole political landscape is screwed up.”

Drawing parallels from Hitler's rise to today's world, Wellman admits, “When I was born Hitler was still alive. I've done a number of tutorials with students studying his life so I know a lot about him. He was a very canny character. He said if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it. Which is true. And the political party he wanted to run “The Party of No” said no to everything.” If you say no enough, “eventually you will win. We live in a time where both those things are guiding principles.”

What, then, was the impetus for writing The Offending Gesture? “I just found this weird story about a dog in Finland [a mutt named Jackie] who would do the Nazi salute when his master would say ‘Heil Hitler' and I thought that's odd. When I began thinking about it, I got interested in dogs.”

Noble Wolf (Melina Bielefelt) with Blondi (Ashley Steed). Photo by Meg Cunningham

Hitler actually had a dog named Blondi who he had killed when they were in the bunker. He was terrified that she would be captured and tortured by the Russians. Wellman adds, “Doggies are very nice. Blondi loves Hitler, she doesn't know that he's a bad person. It doesn't make a difference to Blondi. And Hitler loves Blondi. I also looked up the meaning of ‘Adolf' and it means ‘Noble Wolf' and so thought he's a dog too - I then became very interested in writing a doggy play. And it just took off from there.”

There's a lot of repetition and variation in the script - and an absurd doggie logic that drives the play. What has been the process in creating this deceptively simple logic with the language? Wellman says, “I began to write bits of it. Then I'd put it down and come back to it in a few weeks. Gradually I figured out what I wanted to do. The purpose of the play is not to say Hitler's a nice guy, but I also think that we're used to saying Hitler is evil and we are good. I think that's what I'm trying to attack.

“We're not so different [than Hitler]. Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize and I don't know how many people he's murdered with drones. It's pretty scary. We're all not so different, it's sad to say.”

On the repetition of the language he says, “it's really about doggie logic. Dogs like to repeat things. When they're having a good time they want you to throw the bone and they'll run after it and bring it back to you. They love repeating things that they like. So do people. Dogs in particular like that. I think that's a big part of their enjoyment of life. They don't try to disguise [themselves] the way people do.”

At the end of the play Blondi has a monologue which is taken from the father of pragmatism, Charles S. Peirce. Was it a conscious decision to incorporate pragmatism in a play that's questioning meaning and understanding? It was purely coincidental says Wellman. “I was reading Peirce and there's all this stuff about dogs. And I thought, this belongs in this play.”

He elaborates, “it seemed like something that was in opposition to Nazi commitment to it's own importance.” The speech attempts to analyse our own thought processes which could be compared to the Third Reich's motto of “working towards the leader.” Wellman say, “everybody was trying to do [what Hitler wanted] but no one could figure it out because Hitler would never say it. That's what's so weird about the Nazis, is that no one ever wrote anything down. Particularly the anti-semitic stuff. They'd say it, but would never write it down because they knew it would get them in trouble.”

The play calls for women to play the Mooncats (who play music throughout and various characters) and the three dogs (Noble Wolf, Blondi and Jackie), why have an ensemble of women playing men (and animals)? “A few years ago I did a play about Mussolini - a guy played Mussolini and all he did was imitate Mussolini and it wasn't very interesting. When I did a full production I had a woman play Mussolini. I just think, for whatever reasons, women are more theatrical than men are on stage. I didn't want Hitler to just be a stereotype. Everyone knows what he looked like and immediately you stop thinking and go to the stereotype.” He adds, “Also, there aren't that many great parts like that for women.”

The Mooncats: Kyla Ledes, Rachel Appelbaum, Flor San Roman, Kate Williams Grabau. Photo by Meg Cunningham

Music plays an integral role in the production. Throughout, the “Mooncats” comment on the action through song. Wellman elaborates, “I mention the Polish composer Goreki's work [“Miserere”]. He wrote very emotional music about the Holocaust. We used a little bit of that. And my composer adapted some of of Goreski's work with her own music. I think [the music] provides an emotional undertone to the whole play.”

Gorecki's “Miserere” was written in 1981 as a protest to the Polish government. The lyrics include “Domine Deus Noster” which means “Lord our God”. Was this included as a protest to government oppression or a more literal calling on “Lord our God” to help us? “It's both,” says Wellman. “The cats and dogs are chattering like people do in a sort of meaningless way. And yet there's this hideous reality that they're ignoring, which comes through the music.”

Wellman shares a story of when he went to Warsaw in his youth. “When I was 20 years old I hitchhiked across Europe and I ended up in Warsaw in the winter. I had a tour of the Warsaw ghetto in the middle of winter which was a big white square of snow. There was nothing alive there. The tour director said when the war ended there were only three things alive in the ghetto - just three trees. They're still there. And that had a huge impact on me. The horrific nature of what had happened. Which people ignore and forget.”

How does Wellman feel about theatre as a form of political protest? “I think it's something theatre can do better than anything else. It's right in front of you. At its best it really shows you where you are in the moment. I think it's always a protest against the political realities we don't like - by the very fact that it's live. It's happening right in front of you.”

Blondi (Ashley Steed) with Noble Wolf (Melina Bielefelt). Photo by Dan Via

With the rise of Trump here, Brexit, and nationalism growing in Europe, this piece feels even more relevant. There are so many of layers in this play that audiences won't get everything with just one viewing. “You never do,” says Wellman. “Hopefully you'll think about it. But I also don't like preachy theatre so I didn't want to tell people A is good and B is bad.”

At the end, Jackie makes a speech directly comparing the Republican party to the Nazis. Wellman elaborates, “It's a fact that the Republican Party said no to everything and that's exactly what the Nazi Party did for a long time. Now they run everything in this country and they don't have an idea in their heads of what to do. They don't care about people. They only care about their own self interests.”

Have these interesting political times we live in sparked a new political play? “Maybe. I don't know. I haven't gotten an idea yet that I like. I'm just mad at the Democrats because they refuse to attack the Republicans. But that's what happened with the Nazis - no one would attack them.”

Hopefully this new generation will stay active and engaged. Wellman hopes so too, “It's just as important to get organized. Start at the local level and work up. That's what the Republicans did and now they run everything.”

The Mooncats: Kyla Ledes, Rachel Appelbaum, Kate Williams Grabau, Flor San Roman. Photo by Dan Via

Wellman is known for being an extraordinary playwriting teacher at Brooklyn College. The playwrights coming from his programs are incredibly diverse in terms of style and content. He implores, “I think there are more good playwrights now than ever before. What there are fewer of are theatres. Everyone wants to do Broadway, do corporate theatre.”

It's different in LA I tell him. He agrees, “I've been to LA a few times and I'm always struck by how many good small theatre there are. LA is a great theatre town.”

He asks me how I'm getting on with Blondi. “I curse your name everyday in rehearsal,” I say, adding, “with affection and admiration, of course.” He laughs. I tell him i love the simplicity and sincerity of playing a dog.

He says, “You're just a good dog and you're mad at Noble Wolf because he won't tug at your ears and pat you enough.” Adding, “Dogs, they live positively. They love to be stroked and wag their tails. They don't necessarily like other dogs and they don't particularly like cats, but they're interesting. They're sweet.”

 

The Offending Gesture by Mac Wellman plays at Son of Semele Ensemble from March 18th. Tickets on sale at sonofsemele.org 

Feature image: Anastasia Coon, Ashley Steed and Melina Bielefelt. Photo by Dan Via


RSC's Jerry Kernion Muses On His Abridged History of Working TV, Cirque du Soleil & the RSC

Director Jerry Kernion returns to The Falcon Theatre with the latest installment of The Reduced Shakespeare Company's laughfests, THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF COMEDY (ABRIDGED) opening March 22, 2017.  Last year, Jerry, a long-time member of RSC, helmed THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF AMERICA (ABRIDGED) to deserved critical acclaim.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview with Better Lemons and myself.
You have been a member since 2001 of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, well-known for their "...(ABRIDGED)" concept. How did you first connect with RSC?
I first connected with the RSC after being called in for an audition by their casting director, Sandi Logan, who is also the casting director for The Falcon Theatre and for this show.
You started out as a performing member, right? 
I did.  I was still touring with them as recently as 2015.  In 2006, they hired me to produce and direct the DVD version of THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF AMERICA (ABRIDGED).  We shot three live shows up in a beautiful theater in Sonoma, CA and then edited them as one.  That DVD is available now at stores/websites with bad taste everywhere.  Actually, we did it on a shoestring budget and it came out really great.
Were you involved in any incarnations of COMEDY (ABRIDGED)?
Yes.  I toured with this show for a short time and performed it at Merrimack Repertory Theatre outside of Boston for a six-week run in 2015.
How about any participation in past editions of any ...(ABRIDGED)?
Out of the RSC's 10 shows, I believe that I've performed in five of them throughout the years.  As a company, we have performed all over the world and I'm fortunate to have been able to perform in countries that I may have never even visited had I not been involved. 
When did you say, "But I really want to do is direct!"? 
Well, I've been directing ever since high school. So I'm not sure that I ever had that particular revelation.  I feel that, in our business, the more tools you have in your tool chest, the more chances you have of working.  And working is what makes me happy.  So I decided long ago to try to keep juggling all aspects of what I do so as to never be bored.  I've been lucky enough to switch between job titles and mediums to mostly achieve that.
I was fortunate enough to see your production of THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF AMERICA (ABRIDGED) last year. A belated congratulations on winning the LA Stage Ovation for "Best Acting Ensemble of a Play."
Thanks.
I love how a solid, bull-eyed ad-lib fits right into scripted lines. Is a list of possible ad-libs made up pre-show? Or is each performer on their own to improvise? Or are the ad-libs already scripted? The scripts of COMEDY (ABRIDGED)AMERICA (ABRIDGED) allow room for improv, right?
Somewhat, but it's less than you think.  In every RSC show, there are places where we change things from city to city.  We would get to a city and, while we were fitting the show to the stage for that performance, we would question all the local stage personnel about different local references that we could add that night.  On any given night, those could be the only things that you would hear differently.  The goal is to make it all appear as it's being made up on the spot.  When you can get the audience believing that, you've successfully served the style.  That being said, when the cast is at its best, those brilliant mistakes that happen on stage or in the audience are not to be ignored.
You are a consistently working TV actor. Do you prefer being in front of the camera or being behind-the-stage in a theatre?
My response to that is always "Whatever I'm going to do next!" I'm very fortunate to have opportunities to act, direct, write and produce. I love doing everyone of those things equally, so I'm always thrilled most about what the next thing will be.
Do you incorporate some of your Cirque du Soleil training and experience into your direction of COMEDY (ABRIDGED)?
Always.  Working with Cirque is very different from theatre.  First and foremost, it's circus and there are circus rules that most of the artists have been following for years.  So you really need to adjust to that when you go about crafting your performance because lives are at stake.  One could fight against that rigidity or embrace it and see what it brings.  I choose the latter and I've found that it's sharpened my sense of specificity and theatricality, both as an actor and a director.  COMEDY is really about the clowns that we all grew up with, the people that made/make us laugh.  So I hope to bring all of my experience as a clown with Cirque to bear in order to honor those clowns.  
After working in large-scale productions (like Cirque du Soleil's THE BEATLES LOVE), do you find it challenging scaling down to a mid-size house like The Falcon?
Not at all.  "The play's the thing."  Large, mid-size, small or tiny theatre, it's always about serving the playwright's vision and telling the story. 
You have done a number of shows in the Los Angeles Theatre community. What's your take on the recent Equity ruling on small theatres?
I see both sides.  I'll leave it at that.
What makes a production successful in your eyes?
For me as an audience member, a successful production is when I walk out of the theatre knowing that I want to find out more information about the subject matter of the show.  Whether that be from talking to others about it, reading source material or surfing the internet.  Those are the shows that stick with me.  As a director, I want to somehow achieve all of those things...and be sold out.
What responses do you hope for with The Falcon audience for THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF COMEDY (ABRIDGED)?
(Besides what I just said) I hope that the audience has a small attack of nostalgia, a large dose of laughter, and an unquenchable thirst to seek out and reintroduce themselves to all of the clowns and comedians that inspired this show.
Thank you again, Jerry. If COMEDY (ABRIDGED) is anything like your AMERICA (ABRIDGED), I know I'll be laughing my eyes out! Break a leg!
For more information and ticket availability through April 23, 2017; please visit falcontheatre.com


Ann Talman On Her Amazing Life With Woody, Being Funny & Dame Taylor

Growing up, Ann Talman did not know her older brother Woody acted any differently from any other older brothers. Every action or gesture she did for him came naturally and second nature to her. Not until she was old enough to venture out in public with him, did she learn that Woody had cerebral palsy. In WOODY'S ORDER! (beginning March 22), Ann has crafted a show around Woody, the various choices she made, and the effect Elizabeth Taylor had on her life.
Thank you, Ann, for taking the time for this interview with Better Lemons and myself.
WOODY'S ORDER! is a major slice of your life. Being nine years younger than your brother Woody, when did you become aware that his behavior caused by cerebral palsy was different from most other people?
This is such an interesting question because my answer would have been different had I not viewed ALL the many hours of home movies I have, since my birth in 1957. I have more, beginning from about 1950, but I had honestly never seen many of them until I started gathering all and digitizing them for the stage show, and for the short documentary that I made.
When I viewed the very early ones of Woody and me together, I noticed that we were always playing, cuddling, and connected. He was like a fellow toddler being non-verbal, not walking, but cuddly. Mother often told me how, when I was a toddler, Woody would have to have some part of his body touching me if I was anywhere near him. He would fall asleep in his wheelchair bent over the rail of my crib or playpen with his twisted hand on my pumpkin head. At a certain point, around age three, I noticed that I would toddle over to him and wipe his mouth with a Kleenex, or crawl up in his lap on the wheelchair to hug and kiss him and I was always trying to push his wheelchair. I would try to hand him objects he could not hold on to. So I would try to help him, or finally just set it on his lap.
I think, at that time I just adapted to HIS NEEDS, not necessarily aware that he was different. It was all I knew. I would set up my Barbies on his wheelchair, play the xylophone on his lap, play with him in the baby pool, and snuggle with him to watch cartoons on TV. And I guess I was aware that someone had to feed him long after I could feed myself. But it was my family “normal.” I viewed him as a real live doll to care for, and, boy, I did. That is why I was so thrilled to begin to learn to feed him at age five! I have seen my friend's kids at that magical thinking age beg to learn to feed him too. And I teach them.
I remember knowing very early on that when we were in public, people - especially kids - would stare at Woody and it made me furious. I became extremely protective of him and as a three-to-six-year-old, I would give a really mean look to anyone who stared too long at him. Especially kids my age, and especially at Pirate baseball games! I even carried my Romper Room baton around because I wished I could hit the kids on their funny bones if they stared too long at Woody. I also would divert folks from staring at him by acting out and being so silly they would look at me instead. The comedian was at work in me, to deflect unpleasantness or pain.
For those who haven't dealt with a family member with cerebral palsy, please describe what this condition involves for your brother, as well as, for your parents and yourself growing up.
Woody is clinically: A non-verbal, spastic quadriplegic. His Cerebral Palsy is severe. However, cognitively he is normal and quite brilliant as were my parents (IQs in the 160 -170). Woody was unable to breastfeed because he is unable to make his mouth suck inward. Mother often spoke about how her world revolved around nourishing him his early years because he had “failure to thrive.” He has always had to be fed. He has always needed bibs. But Mother was adamant about calling them 'protectors' because he was no longer a baby. Pretty much all things had to be done for him, but the few things he could do on his own, our parents made sure to accentuate. Like turning onto his sleeping side, Woody was also in charge of helping Dad with colors and patterns for his clothes. Dad was colorblind, so he would roll Woody into his walk-in closet and have Woody point to what he should wear.
We had sleds with backs so that he could sled with us. Our swing set and toys were adapted as well. Woody had battery-operated toys with a cord and button to push like airplanes and cars and Lionel trains. Neil Young has two children with CP and his one son, very much like my brother, loved Lionel trains so much that Neil bought the company. Swimming is wonderful for kids with CP, so summer was all about the pool or the beach!
Until 1980 when Medicaid began, his care was out of pocket. Mother once told me, as a child, that since the year he was born in 1948, it was like having a son at Harvard every year.
Our parents did everything possible to give Woody independence and self-pride. They were told to leave him in diapers and think about a tube feed. They refused and he was potty trained and continent up until about a decade ago when he aged. This was a real source of pride and independence for him. He has been downgraded from what is called chopped soft to pureed, which he HATES, but he will never ever be put on tube feed!
You have been acting since the early 1980s. When did you start writing the beginnings of what is now WOODY'S ORDER!?
I come from a long line of storytellers. So in middle school, I began to write them all down. I have well over 500 computer pages of these stories. I began reading them aloud in theater groups and series in New York and LA from the 80s to the present. I have appeared on NPR's Tales From The South radio show four times. Five years ago, I began attending Naked Angels Tuesdays @ Nine after a long hiatus. Many friends and audience members told me that these stories should become a book, play, screenplay or solo show. A wonderful casting director, Billy Hopkins, urged me to do a solo show of all my characters, because I loved to mimic. 
Then, Matt Hoverman introduced himself and urged me to keep the stories coming, he had a special sister too. I found out that he is THEE Solo Show Guru. He teaches “How To Create Your Own Solo Show.” In 2012, I took his Level One, then his Level Two FIVE times over the years! Each class culminates with 20 minutes of a solo show read aloud to an audience. I built the show this way.
I have worked for five years to get this production the way I want it. In the Pittsburgh premiere production, my wonderful director John Shepard was also a great dramaturge. We honed the script even further, which was invaluable.
Did you also do stand-up comedy?
I think I have been doing stand-up all my life. Honestly! Since kindergarten, I was class clown and even if I had straight A's, I got N's in conduct (Needs Improvement). I was a chatterbox and loved making everyone laugh. I know it is because of Woody. I spoke for two, and my world revolved around making him laugh or making others laugh for him. In the show, I have a scene when I did stand-up for the residents at Woody's nursing home during meals while wearing a bib and using a spoon as a microphone. I created such a disturbance that Anna, who was in charge of prayers before the meal, could not get anyone's attention. She burst into tears and told the charge nurse. I got written up and I called her a heckler from then on.
In high school and college, I did stand-up in variety shows. But my best shows were for slumber parties, dorms and student apartments. I also dated a well-known comedian and stand-up in the 90s. I would go with him to his sets in LA. Loved it! He taught me so much.
So, after all those years acting and stand-up, what made you finally say, "But what I really want to be is a writer!"
I joke that I was never a triple threat, darn it, because I act and sing, but dancing… not so much. So now I can say, "I am a triple threat." I act, sing and write! My father often would say, “The best things that ever happened in my career (mining, engineering) came as complete surprises. But then, if I looked back, I could see that this led to that… led to that… and it was a natural progression, and meant to be. I feel the same way. I have been writing my entire life, and been a comedian my entire life, and did so, in spite of myself. I think that even with all of my professional training, I have spent more of my life writing. Just because you don't study something does not mean you can't learn it. I am best self-taught anyway. And since I never did test well, I learn best by DOING.
You must be of the school of thought that lessons/messages are more easily communicated with laughter, right?
I often say if it were not for comedy, I would be either dead or in a straight jacket. Red Skelton was one of my childhood heroes and I was allowed to stay up an extra half-hour on Tuesdays to watch The Red Skelton Show. I often dreamed of clowns too. Once as mother was feeding Woody breakfast, I told them both the entire clown dream and then finished by asking her why did I dream it? Her response was, “So that God willing, you will always keep your sense of humor, Miss Ann!” Red Skelton's widow Lothian even allowed me to use a poem Red wrote to his father, titled “The Clown,” in one of my stories. When I was dating Michael Richards in the early 90s (Kramer and the stand-up I referred to earlier), we attended Red's 80th birthday party in Taos and Michael read the poem on Red's request. Then Red did 40 minutes of stand-up! I was in heaven and felt like the little girl in her PJs, bath taken and teeth brushed, loving Red all over again. Michael had idolized Red as a child too, and studied him.
Please tell us how you met and worked with one of the many characters you include in your one-woman show - Ms. Elizabeth Taylor.
I had often been told that I resembled Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet. In grade school when it re-ran on TV, teachers would mention it the next day to me. In 1980, I was the cabaret intern at Williamstown, where I sang with Austin Pendleton. I later studied with him at HB Studios and when he got the directing job for THE LITTLE FOXES, he brought me in. I had a callback and then twice went to Lillian Hellman's apartment on Park Avenue to read for her. She was legally blind and mostly listened, but she had final casting approval. I never met Elizabeth until the first read-through. Over the years, she adored Woody and Dad. When I attended the Emmys in the early 90s, she helped me find my dress at Saks in Beverly Hills. I was at her 50th Birthday party in London, and then her 60th when she rented out Disneyland. I met Michael Jackson that night too.
That was some cast you were in! Besides Ms. Taylor, the 1981 Broadway production of THE LITTLE FOXES included Maureen Stapleton, Anthony Zerbe, Tom Aldredge, Joe Seneca and Dennis Christopher. Tell us some funny memories you have of working with that cast.
I am actually thinking of writing a book full of fun backstage stories, especially from THE LITTLE FOXES. Elizabeth was a dear friend for life and I promised her I would never, ever write a tell-all or disparaging book about her. She used to tease me because I was always writing in my diary backstage. She would say, “That better not be about me!” and then cackle her delicious cackle. I was approached twice to contribute to unauthorized tell-all's and offered money. I turned them down and explained I would never do such a thing because she is my dear friend. Then I would call her and tell her all about what they had said and offered. She really appreciated that. Elizabeth LOVED to play practical jokes backstage. Once she slathered the banister of the set with vaseline and when Tom Aldredge had his banister heart attack death scene he practically slid down it like a rollercoaster. It was hilarious and Tom loved it.
Once she put real booze in all the prop drinks throughout the show. That play had a lot of booze! Of course, a few of the cast were in AA and smelled it in time.
Once in DC, one of her front teeth caps fell out and she had to finish the show snaggle-toothed. In one scene, Dennis Christopher even worked his way around behind the sofa and got down on his hands and knees to find the cap, which she then had glued back in, right after the show. BUT, for the curtain calls we all got black electrician's tape and blacked out a tooth of our own. Afterwards, we all turned to her and grinned our Hillbilly grins, which made her double over in laughter.
She loved to try to make me break on stage, which I never did, but, boy, would I get her offstage. Before an entrance once, when she used to try to make me laugh, I turned away and put on an Elizabeth Taylor mask, and then turned back to show her just as she was about to re-enter for a scene. She laughed so hard she had to recover before she walked on.
Our hair and wig person, named Michael, dressed up entirely (head-to-toe including wig and makeup) in Elizabeth's understudy's costume. Elizabeth would always get in place the last minute for her first entrance  (which was a dinner scene that would begin with the sliding doors of the dining room opening and her walking down into the parlor), Michael was in her seat at the table in full regalia. When she rushed to get to her place before the doors opened, she absolutely flipped out with laughter to find her doppelganger waiting in her place. We had to delay the sliding doors until everyone recovered from giggles. I have so many more!
In 1986, you were on the Great White Way again in THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES. Your cast included Danny Aiello, Stockard Channing, Julie Hagerty,  Swoosie Kurtz,  John Mahoney and Ben Stiller. Would you share some fond recollections of that cast?
WOW, again there are so many… but... Christopher Walken originated the role of Billy Einhorn, which then, Danny Aiello took over. Once during previews, Chris forgot to set his clock back and he did not show up for the half-hour call. He was taking a nap and his phone was off. No one could reach him. Since he only appears in the second act there was still time, but Jerry Zaks, our director, had to suit up and be ready to go on… book in hand. They had not cast understudies yet. Chris arrived at what he thought was his half-hour call, which was an hour late but he still got there in time to quickly dress and go on.
Swoosie and Julie and I would take naps on gym mats in the ballet studio of Lincoln Center between matinees and it was always like a hilarious slumber party. John Mahoney tried to break me up always, and never succeeded. But I got him back. Our entrances were frenetic and traded off. So, once while I was standing backstage during that sequence, I made a startled gasp and looked at him like he had missed his run onto the stage. Sure enough, he instinctively ran onstage. He had to turn around and run right off because it was not his entrance. John congratulated me for getting him good.
I played "Little Nun" in full nun get-up designed by Ann Roth. Once, as I rushed on stage the habit caught on a nail, ripped off and stayed stuck on the nail flapping away. I was in only my white skullcap with little thread nubs sticking out, but I did not even realize it. So when I got down to Swoosie and Chris to play the scene with them, I couldn't understand why they were cracking up. They both had to turn fully upstage to recover from laughing, but I could see their shoulders bouncing with their laughs. It was not until I made my exit and saw my habit flapping away on the door that I realized what had happened.
Swoosie's father, Colonel Frank Kurtz was a dear, dear friend of my uncle Colonel John Chiles. They were bunkmates in WWII at Clark Air Base in The Philippines and they got out together, in their skivvies, when it was attacked.
Colonel Kurtz wrote many books and stories and always mentioned my uncle. My Aunt used to say, “I hope you work with Swoosie Kurtz someday.” And luckily, I did. Colonel Kurtz was the most highly decorated fighter pilot in WWII and Swoosie was named after his airplane called The Swoose, which is now on view at The Smithsonian.
How many re-incarnations of WOODY'S ORDER! have there been before its current state now?
I have lost count. I was constantly editing based on feedback. I also presented it in different forms, twice, in The United Solo Theatre Festival. I have worked this whole past year editing it, and again when we went into rehearsal in Pittsburgh, January 3, 2017. I continued to edit every day with John Shepard's guidance. Matt Hoverman has continued to work with me on it at times. Matt is now in LA and writing for Disney, so I am thrilled he will see it. I hope to take another workshop with him because I want to write a sequel that is especially about our beloved housekeeper Amelia Albina Kuna Critchlow who worked for my family since I was six months and she was 31. She is 90 now and going strong!
As you just mentioned, you premiered WOODY'S ORDER! just January of this year in your hometown Pittsburgh, at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. What audience reactions took you by surprise?
I was most pleasantly surprised at folks who came more than once. When we invited the audience to come up on stage after the show to take in all the pictures that are part of the set, they stayed for a long time. One night we had two wheelchairs, a service golden retriever and aides in the front row. That was amazing and so rewarding. We also did an ASL performance which I loved doing. We had lots of wonderful audience feedback and reviews.
I always dreamed of premiering this show in my wonderful hometown of Pittsburgh and it was a “dream come true,” thanks to John Shepard. I have known him since 1982 when he and my former husband, Bruce MacVittie, were in AMERICAN BUFFALO with Al Pacino on Broadway. John, now a professor at Point Park, pulled the production together with The Professional Rep Company of Point Park University at Pittsburgh Playhouse. I loved working with student crews and audiences, even taught a few classes while there.
Any tweaks between the show you performed in Pittsburgh and what you're doing at EST/LA?
Not really, so far. But, we're doing a lot of outreach for the LA show to connect with the CP community. We open March 25th, which was the first National CP Day and March is CP Awareness Month. There are a lot of Pittsburghers and Steelers Bars in LA. Many local celebrities are from The Burgh including Michael Keaton who I hope will come, and Laura San Giacomo who has a son with CP. Susan Lucci and Julie Andrews have grandchildren with CP, John Ritter had a brother with CP, John C. McGinley has a son with Down's Syndrome.
What would you like your WOODY'S ORDER! audiences to leave with after your curtain call?
I suppose, maybe a feeling that even if you do not have a sibling or child like Woody; if in your life you are faced with adversity or infirmity, you can get through it especially with love, laughter, and a little help from your friends.
Thank you again, Ann! I look forward to seeing the show, and joining you down your memory lane.
For ticket availability through April 2, 2017 and further info on WOODY'S ORDER!, visit www.estlosangeles.org


Mr. Gazillionaire On Delivering His Intoxicating ABSINTHE to Your Laps

With an award-laden, six-year run in Caesars Palace in Vegas; ABSINTHE, hosted by its incomparable master of ceremonies Mr. Gazillionaire, will be playing at LA Live starting March 22, 2017 for a limited engagement. Better Lemons and I were fortunate enough The Gazillionaire could find a couple of minutes to answer our probing, tongue-in-cheek queries.

Hello there and thank you for taking your invaluable time to answer these questions. Should I call you Sir Gazillionaire? Mr. Gazillionaire? Or just Gaz?

The Gazillionaire or Gaz is fine. 

To the uninitiated and the unwashed, please describe the Number One Greatest Show in Las Vegas ever, ABSINTHE.

The show features the hottest, most talented and provocative performers in the world and is hosted by me, which is an extra treat. Imagine your wildest wet dream, add nine more people, three goats, a yacht, 15 bags of cocaine and a ton of lube; and you might be close to how great this show is. 

I'm sure you would say that ABSINTHE is incomparable to anything out there. But how would you draw analogies to some revered acts that people might already know?

Cirque du Soleil as channeled through the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Did you originally drink gallons of absinthe in the name of research for this show?

I actually use absinthe to rinse my mouth out in the mornings. Gives me a good kick in the dick first thing in the morning. There was an old gypsy woman I met in Istanbul. She showed me the magical elixir and how it can be used to coax money from wealthy businessmen. They just open their wallet for you. So…

How did you initially come up with your distinctive look?

I was born this way. When you've got it, you've got it.

If someone wanted to copy your look, how would you instruct them in styling their hair on top of their head? And on their upper lip?

Ugh, I'm actually sick and tired of people trying to dress and act like me. There are thousands of them walking around Vegas and Lithuania. Be your own person. 

How often do you change your fabulous outfits?

Change outfits? What do you mean? I've just got one.  My idiot assistant Dotty cleans it for me multiple times a day. 

How long have you and Penny Gibbets been partners?

Penny was my old assistant. I fired her ass! Lazy bitch! My new assistant is Dotty Dibble. Just as annoying and possibly even stupider. Hard to find good help these days. 

Can LA LIVE audiences expect lots of costumes? Or lots of skin?

Lots of costumes that come off to reveal lots of skin.

Would you encourage those attending ABSINTHE to sit in the front rows for a better tactile experience?

Sitting in the front row is definitely a more testicle experience. Get in there!

Aside from the self-described "offensive" lapdances, what other visuals will the ABSINTHE audience be seeing? (i.e., girl in balloon, roller skating)

Lots of hot sweaty bodies in motion. Guys and girls, there's definitely something for everyone in this show. Aerialists, contortionists (famous head-inside-vagina move), back flips and a couple guys swinging around on horizontal poles. You might even see a peepee tip!

BTW, how many millions is a Gazi?

More than you can count.

When and how did you make your first million?

Producing a show when I was six.

You've been producing and hosting ABSINTHE at Caesar's Palace for six years now. What easy 'in' do you have with the centurions?

Man, those guys love to fuck! Just take them some sheep and you can have anything you want!

Since you have endless amounts of money, name your dream celebrity-filled cast and what they would do (trapeze, hula hoop, slip on a banana peel).

Neil Patrick Harris – Host

Dave Grohl – Musician

Ivanka Trump – Contortion (head inside vagina!)

The Rock – Bodyguard and stripper

Channing Tatum – stripper

Helen Mirren- Stripper pole

Betty White - flying trapeze

Kim Kardashian – clean up

I'm sure you and your troupe are all total professionals and never let your audience see you sweat (Unless you want them to!). Share with us an incident that didn't go as planned during a show, that was seamlessly covered up without the audience noticing the mishap. 

Dotty constantly fucks up every night. Other than that shit, the show is perfection.

But, seriously now, don't you ever get hot and bothered with all the sexiness surrounding you?

Yeah, I guess. But I've fucked all the performers already, the ones I want to anyways. That's how they got their jobs.

Have you been ABSINTHE-ing so long that you never get nervous?

Why would I get nervous? People are idiots and I'm not.

What is the best compliment you have ever received as Gazillionaire?

I'd let you fuck me with all three of your dicks!

What would pleasure you more, to have your ABSINTHE audience leaving -  Laughing? Titillated? Awed? Wowed?

Opening their wallets and dumping whatever cash they have left into a bucket.

Thank you, Mr. Gazillionaire! I look forward to feeling all kinds of emotions from experiencing your ABSINTHE.

For further info and ticket availability through April 23, 2017, visit Absinthela.com


Unleashing the Animal Within at Deaf West

Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo, produced by the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts and Deaf West Theatre opens in the Lovelace Studio Theater at The Wallis on Friday, March 10. It will run through March 26. Single tickets: $40 – $75 (prices subject to change) TheWallis.org

In 1958 Edward Albee wrote his first play, the one act The Zoo Story, about two men, Peter and Jerry, who happen to meet at a park bench in New York's Central Park. It's an intense play which examines isolation and a desperate need to connect and to communicate. Although a success, Albee always felt there was a piece of the story missing. He felt Peter needed more exploration. Nearly 47 years later, towards the end of his illustrious career he wrote Homelife, a prequel to The Zoo Story which examines Peter's relationship to his wife Ann.

As with all Deaf West shows, the production is done in both American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English with open captions. Usually there's a mix of hearing and deaf characters, but with this production all of the characters are played by deaf actors (with the hearing actors voicing their characters on stage with them). This adds to and enriches the themes of isolation and miscommunication.

I sat down with deaf actors Troy Kotsur (who plays Peter), Russell Harvard (who's playing Jerry from March 7-15, with Tyrone Giordano finishing the run) and Amber Zion (who plays Ann).

Deaf West did The Zoo Story back in 2007 which starred both Kotsur and Giordano and was directed Coy Middlebrook, who has returned to the helm for this production. Last time they didn't have the prequel Homelife, thus Kotsur had to create and imagine a backstory for Peter. This time he says, “I see what has happened before [Zoo Story begins] and it gives me a better idea of who Peter is.” He smiles, “it's a much better idea than what I had and what I knew ten years ago. Now, we know that he has two daughters. I have a daughter who is now 11. That Peter has these two daughters is a great thing for me to bring to the character - I understand his frustrations, I know how hard it is to find your own private time when you have a family.”

Troy Kotsur [Peter]. Photo credit: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

This production is very different than when they did it ten years ago - most notably by the set design by Karyl Newman. “We're in a cage,” says Kotsur. “It's very different for me, as my character, to experience life in a cage. It's fun discovering these things and we're not through discovering them.”

He goes on to add, “Albee is really talking about people being animals. We are animals. We breathe, we feel, we think about sex, we think about food just like animals do. It's interesting to see how Peter is in this - he feels very isolated and he can't really give love. His marriage is pretty commonplace, he goes to work to the same bullshit everyday and he feels like he's disappearing. Where is the Peter inside who used to have a better outlook on life? Who could be excited about love and about his family? He has this wife in Act One now who's trying - we're playing this game of cat-and-mouse - she's trying to find the love inside him. It's hard for him to express it. And then, when I have the scene with Jerry - what happens in the park in Act Two relates to what happens at home in Act One. Both acts are getting to this notion that people are animals.” When Peter meets Jerry there's a realization that he needs to release this animal. Kotsur continues, “Jerry's really trying to break through the ice to find the animal inside him, to help him find love again. So throughout the rehearsal were finding all this new information - we have so much more now than we had ten years ago.”

The first act, Homelife, focuses on Peter and Ann's marriage. Both feeling stuck in a routine, they're trying to communicate to each other - with neither one really getting through. Zion elaborates on Ann, “I need to discover what these problems Ann is having are. Are these things that Ann has known about and been thinking about for some time or she discovering them through the process of the story? I have to figure out why I come to him at the beginning of this play and feel the need to talk to him about our lives. I'm feeling like it's too stable too boring and am thinking what if I had an affair? What would you do what if I left? I'm feeling stuck inside - again like the animal that is stuck - there's a lion in here that needs to get out. I'm trying to pull it out of Peter, trying to pull it out of myself and Peter just isn't quite getting it. Finally there's a moment in the play where I just say, okay this is what I need and it starts to get through to him. It's a very emotional process.”

Kotsur poses the question, “Did you party a lot in college? Did you have a lot of fun back then and then years later as you get married, move on, grow up, do you tend to forget what those years were like? The question here is can you bring that excitement from college back into an otherwise routine marriage? Can you find yourself, that old spirit you used to have. For Peter and Ann, they've been married for a long time, they're almost like roommates. That's kind of what it feels like. She's trying to tell Peter, we're not roommates we're in love. Where's the passion we used to have?”

Pictured (l-r): Paige Lindsey White [Voice of Ann] and Amber Zion [Ann]. Photo credit: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

He adds, “Peter has a past trauma, he had a bad experience that happened in a fraternity in college with a girl - a horrible experience that has never left him and since then he's been very careful. Too careful with Ann. They get to the point where, finally, they both open up about how they're feeling - they get it. They understand each other but, they don't quite get everything they need. Peter is still not able to give her enough.”

Harvard interjects, “it seems like you've been tamed. You want something crazy, something more exciting, something more filled with life.”

Zion agrees, “Ann has a speech about life being like approaching icebergs and how you avoid them. Ann gets excited by the notion of almost hitting an iceberg or almost going to the bermuda triangle but their marriage has been about avoiding those dangers. She wants to wake up, she wants to fight.”

Harvard's character Jerry, perhaps, is the iceberg that Peter runs into. He's an intense and enigmatic character, and he demands Peter's attention. This role, “it's hard,” says Harvard. “It's a strange character, he goes down a strange path. The more that I think about Jerry, I do see a lot of myself in him, which is actually quite scary. But I think that my experiences are going to enhance the character. It's been an exciting process.”

Not only is it a challenging role, but there's also the added task of translating the spoken English into ASL. Harvard says, “First you need to understand theses line, I need to understand everything that [Jerry's] saying. Translating this from English [to ASL] for all of us - we are deaf actors - and understanding both the English and the sign language that are working in concert with each other. I have to stop thinking about the English words that are printed and get myself more in the headspace of the sign language. My [translated] sign language script in and of itself is difficult. I have this crazy four page monologue which is just a beast. Those four pages are a struggle.”

Pictured (l-r): Jake Eberle [Voice of Peter] and Troy Kotsur [Peter]. Photo credit: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

Although it's a difficult piece to learn he adds, “this is a universal story, people are going to be able to relate to all three characters in many different ways. It's this similar experience that they are all having - this pain they all have. I think that audiences who come see this are going to be able to reflect on their own lives and find the painful moments in them, which will help them relate to this story being told.”

Adding on to this, Kotsur believes that their deaf experiences definitely inform their characters and the play. Having deaf people randomly meet at a park, or a mall, or a theatre is a rare experience and when it does, “you chat and connect,” says Kotsur. “That's what happens here. Peter and Jerry, two isolated people meet not just some [random person] in the park, but someone else who's deaf.” When Jerry notices that Peter can sign, he is compelled to talk to him.

“Peter is very resistant to opening up to Jerry,” says Kotsur, “but because they're both deaf there is a moment that they're able to connect. Coy [Middlebrook] has been working with that - this idea that deaf people don't just happen to bump into each other randomly all the time and that's helping to spark their relationship. It's a way that Coy has used deaf actors to inform the story.”

As all of the characters were originally written as hearing, they've had to make some adjustments for the translation. What's being spoken is as written, but some of it wouldn't make sense to a deaf audience. For instance there are times when characters say “I don't want to hear that' so that's been translated to “I don't want to see you.”

Being a play that is driven by miscommunication “there's a lot in this play of ‘what?', 'huh' - these very short lines that are typical of spoken conversation,” says Zion. “It's not something typical of deaf conversations. As a deaf person you don't really look away when someone is signing. We've got to look at each other. You have to keep the eye contact. It's a different type of discourse that happens in sign language. So we have to translate that [into something that fits with] this husband and wife relationship.”

Pictured (l-r): Troy Kotsur [Peter] and Russell Harvard [Jerry]. Photo credit: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

A lot of what Albee writes is purposeful confusion. Zion explains the difficulty of translating this into sign language while retaining Albee's intention. “We'll translate it and I'll think, ‘well that doesn't make any sense' but then realize, the English doesn't make sense either. Deaf people may look at our signs and think, ‘what are they talking about?' Well, that's right. There is a lot of abstraction in the writing and we're trying to keep that.”

Agreeing, Harvard adds, “Deaf West has got a great team in place, working on the sign language with us. Working to understand what the text means. Once we understand it then we can paint our picture. Hearing people who don't know sign language will be able to see things that they didn't really notice before.” Sign language is a visual and physical language. You communicate not just with signs, but with your body and facial expressions. This may allow one to see new themes that have a greater resonance. Sign language has the potential to express more than the written text can.

He adds, “Deaf West is a different type of theatre, it's a different experience. Jerry's monologue for an example - I'm acting like a dog. I'm drawing this character in space which is helping me become the character in this story.” Thus, the translation and sign language helps to create the character physically.

“It's a very special thing that Deaf West does,” says Kotsur, “to combine the original meanings with the new meaning that the deaf adaptation gives it.”

Deaf West was founded in 1991 and has proliferated deaf theatre to the masses, not just here in Los Angeles, but also Broadway (with the most recent transfer of the musical Spring Awakening). In recent years, the deaf community has been very vocal when deaf characters are played by hearing actors. “We have felt oppressed,” states Zion. “We've been speaking up and using #deaftalent on social media. Whenever there's a movie with a hearing person playing a deaf character, we come together and say quite loudly why that isn't right.

“I'm not giving up my power,” she asserts. “I'm here to educate people why something like that [giving deaf roles to hearing actors] is wrong. We start a dialogue. With #deaftalent, it's bringing more [deaf] actors out that I've never seen before.” Which means deaf talent is growing.

Kotsur adds, “I have witnessed [the growth] since the founding of Deaf West, from when Ed Waterstreet founded the company to his retirement, to DJ [David Kurs] as the new Artistic Director. I was here before Russell and before Amber,” he smiles, adding, “I was here before all of you - and I've seen it grow. I've seen all the new faces and it's great to see a new generation. It's great to see theatre continue. And it's great to see more opportunities [for deaf actors].”

Pictured (l-r): Jeff Alan-Lee [Voice of Jerry] and Jake Eberle [Voice of Peter].
Photo credit: Kevin Parry for The Wallis.

Working at Deaf West is a unique experience not just for deaf actors but also for the hearing actors. Kotsur elaborates, “When hearing actors come in for the first time, when they haven't worked with us before, they're scared. They're just seeing these weird hand movements. But slowly they start to pick things up and they start to match what they're saying to certain signs. There are times when we have to stop because the English and sign language aren't matching up. So we do need to work together. Sometimes what happens is our lines are too short and the hearing actors are behind while we [the deaf actors] have moved on to the next part of the script. Everything needs to be in sync between the hearing and deaf actors on stage.”

Even though their lines are being voiced, Kotsur hopes that the audiences recognize the expressivity of sign language. “I'm sure there are some who can't imagine [ASL] having any sort of equivalency with English - especially with a play of this stature. I hope they see that sign language is a language and it can also give a new perspective to a text. It can open people's minds. Especially for those who know the play, it can give them the chance to see a new dimension to the show.”

Harvard also wants audiences to see something different with this production, especially if they've seen the play before. “I hope people come to it with open eyes and an open mind,” he says. “I want people after [the show] to want to see more deaf work, to want to work with deaf actors and to see deaf theatre grow.”

For Zion, she hopes audiences are on the edge of their seats “with their mouths agape.” She adds, “I hope they leave the theatre thinking. I want married couples to look at each other and say ‘we need to talk'. I want them to think about what just happened here.”

Perhaps audiences will wonder about their own personal cages, wonder about their own animal within.

Zion, with a smile asks, “What kind of animal are you?”


Multi-Mediums Writer Gary Goldstein Comments on His Teaching, His Chairing & His Latest Writing APRIL, MAY & JUNE

Playwright Gary Goldstein will be world premiering his latest APRIL, MAY & JUNE at Theatre 40 March 16, 2017. Gary managed to make some time in between his writing, chairing and rehearsing for Better Lemons and myself to address his writing, chairing and rehearsing of APRIL, MAY & JUNE.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. You write for three entertainment mediums: stage, film and television. What would your three-line pitch of your latest play APRIL, MAY & JUNE be?
 April, May and June - three very different, 40ish sisters, each born a year apart - convene to finish cleaning out their late mother's Long Island house (the house they all grew up in decades ago).  But when they discover a major surprise about their mother tucked away among her remaining things, it makes them rethink their lifelong feelings about the mom they thought they knew--as well as their feelings about each other. 
What sparked the creation of APRIL, MAY & JUNE?
Honestly?  The title.  It just kind of came to me, had a nice ring to it, and I thought, “I need to write something with that title.”  Then I thought, “What great names for three sisters!” and decided they belonged in a play.  I figured out a meaningful story for the sisters from there.
Would  some of your friends and family members who attend a performance of APRIL, MAY & JUNE, see themselves in some of your characters?
I think most people will see one side or another of themselves - or someone they know - in these women. They're a pretty relatable trio in, I hope, a very relatable situation.
How long has the gestation period of APRIL, MAY & JUNE been?
I finished the first draft about two-and-a-half years ago, worked on it more over time, then submitted it to Theatre 40 via my director, Terri Hanauer, last April.  The theatre picked it up for their 2016-17 season shortly after. More recently, once we were cast, we refined the script during read-throughs and rehearsals.
As the playwright, how involved were you in the casting and behind the scenes personnel of this Theatre 40 world premiere production?
Fully involved on the auditions, along with Terri and the play's producer David Hunt Stafford, Theatre 40's Artistic/Managing Director. Theatre 40 handled all behind-the-scenes personnel. 
Aside from the obvious advantages of multiple locations available to use in film and TV vs. stage, describe the challenges writing for theatre vs. writing for film or television.
Screenwriting relies a lot on “showing, not telling,” whereas writing plays is often more about “telling” because of the limits of how much you can actually “show.”  Given that, it's important to avoid overusing exposition on stage to fill in the “visual gaps” and to find inventive, natural ways of relaying information.
Still, there's a kind of freedom writing plays over screenplays, as play structure is not always as strictly defined as screen structure. Plays also offer more opportunity for verbal segues and tangents that can take the characters to some interesting places. You can also tell what might be considered a more intimate, personal story on stage than in many screenplays, which can make for a deeper, more emotionally rewarding writing experience.
Do you teach both writing for film and television in your screenwriting classes?
I primarily taught screenplay writing when I did my classes at Writers Boot Camp, which is a while ago now. But since then, I've done one-on-one consulting with writers working on structuring and writing everything from TV and film scripts to books and plays. There are similar kinds of character and storytelling threads that unite all the mediums.
In what situations do you think going for the laughs is more appropriate, is more effective, than going for the jugular? And what situations would you deem inappropriate?
Sometimes you can go for a laugh and go for the jugular at the same time. A laugh can often sell or temper a more aggressive, yet pertinent speech. It can leaven what might otherwise become an overly serious or melodramatic moment. 
I try to aim for humor that's organic, that comes from an inherently funny or quirky or flawed character trait, rather than just a joke or one-liner for joke's sake.  That said, there are definitely moments that demand humor and others in which humor has no place.  Sometimes less is more.
Do you find you need to be more PC in your subject matters now than when you first began writing in the 1990s?
Interesting question. By and large no, though I think it's fair to say some words and concepts have become a bit more loaded over time, so I like to be thoughtful about my choices. Mostly, though, I try to just stay true to the moment.
You are the chair of the WGA's LGBT Writers Committee. What attitude change towards LGBT content have you noticed since your writing beginnings?
It used to feel nichey, less mainstream, even “edgier” to include LGBT characters in a script, much less write one with LGBT leads or with an LGBT theme. Now?  LGBT characters are everywhere in everything and they're often just there as “people,” not strictly because of their sexuality.  There's also been a significant increase lately in the inclusion of trans characters, which is great.
Would you agree that plays with any LGBT characters in the 1980s and 1990s mainly dealt with AIDS or included the perquisite deaths of these characters?
Not sure I'd say mainly. AIDS definitely factored into many plays back then, but so did coming out and just “being” or adjusting to being LGBT. I had two plays on in LA in the 1990s, JUST MEN (1996) and PARENTAL DISCRETION (1999), neither of which dealt with AIDS. The latter play, in fact, involved two gay men considering starting a family, which was a bit ahead of the curve back then.
So, in this day and age, LGBT characters don't all have to die or be villains, right?
Far from it, thankfully.
Which do you find more rewarding, making your audience laugh or making your audience cry?  
As a writer, it's really gratifying to connect with an audience through laughter.  It's like magic, in a way.  And funnily enough, you don't always know where the big laughs are going to come from, which can be a great and thrilling surprise. Making people cry, evoking some kind of deep and relatable emotion, can be a trickier, even less predictable response, but an equally powerful, rewarding one. In APRIL, MAY & JUNE, I think we accomplish both.  We'll see if audiences agree!
Any particular message you'd like the Theatre 40 audiences to leave with?
First and foremost, I want audiences to be moved, amused and entertained by the play. Beyond that, I hope viewers are inspired to go home and ask a parent or grandparent, aunt or uncle, whoever, any of the “big questions” they've always wanted to know before it's too late.  Once a loved one is gone, certain answers go with them and sometimes all we're left with is conjecture.  I've learned that the hard way. 
Thanks again, Gary! I look forward to meeting your three sisters!
For further info on APRIL, MAY & JUNE, ticket availability and schedule through April 16, 2017; log onto www.theatre40.org


LA Drama Critics Circle Announces 2016 Nominations

This year the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award ceremony will take place on March 20, 2017, at the Colony Theatre at Burbank Town Center, 555 N. Third Street, Burbank. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. for a reception with a cash bar, and the show will begin at 7:30 p.m. There is ample, free, on-site parking.
Tickets are $40.00 and can be purchased at  2017criticsawards.brownpapertickets.com (a small service fee applies), or, depending on availability, at the door.
Following is a list of special awards and nominees:
The Margaret Harford Award for sustained excellence in theatre: Antaeus Theatre Company.
The Polly Warfield Award for an excellent season in a small to mid-size theatre, sponsored by the Nederlander Organization: Rogue Machine Theatre.
The Ted Schmitt Award for the world premiere of an outstanding new play: Aliza Goldstein for A Singular They, originally produced by the Blank Theatre.
The Kinetic Lighting Award for outstanding achievement in theatrical design, sponsored by Kinetic Lighting: lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg.
The Joel Hirschhorn Award for outstanding achievement in musical theatre: Cabrillo Music Theatre.
 The Milton Katselas Award for career or special achievement in direction, sponsored by the Beverly Hills Playhouse: Maria Gobetti.
The LADCC's newest award, the Gordon Davidson Award for distinguished contribution to the Los Angeles theatrical community: I Love 99.
 
 ANNUAL AWARD CATEGORIES 
Production

  • A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Center Theatre Group, Ahmanson Theatre.
  • Cloud 9, Antaeus Theatre Company.
  • Disgraced, Center Theatre Group, Mark Taper Forum.
  • Fly, The Pasadena Playhouse.
  • The Boy from Oz, Celebration Theatre.
  • Urinetown the Musical, Coeurage Theatre Company.

McCulloh Award for Revival (plays written between 1920 and 1991)

  • Cloud 9, Antaeus Theatre Company.
  • Endgame, Center Theatre Group, Kirk Douglas Theatre.
  • Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Center Theatre Group, Mark Taper Forum.
  • West Side Story, Musical Theatre West, Carpenter Performing Arts Center.

Lead Performance

  • Hugo Armstrong in All the Way, South Coast Repertory.
  • Andrew Bongiorno in The Boy from Oz, Celebration Theatre.
  • Ginna Carter in The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Pacific Resident Theatre.
  • Kate Morgan Chadwick in Bed, The Echo Theater Company.
  • Darren Criss in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hollywood Pantages Theatre.
  • Hari Dhillon in Disgraced, Center Theatre Group, Mark Taper Forum.
  • Rebecca Gray in One of the Nice Ones, The Echo Theater Company.
  • Connor Kelly-Eiding in Dry Land, The Echo Theater Company.
  • Matt Orduña in Bars and Measures, The Theatre @ Boston Court.
  • Gedde Watanabe in La Cage aux Folles, East West Players.
  • Jacqueline Wright in Blueberry Toast, The Echo Theater Company.

Featured Performance

  • JD Cullum in Cloud 9, Antaeus Theatre Company.
  • Bo Foxworth in Cloud 9, Antaeus Theatre Company.
  • Lena Hall in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hollywood Pantages Theatre.
  • Steve Hofvendahl in The Engine of Our Ruin, The Victory Theatre.
  • Bess Motta in The Boy from Oz, Celebration Theatre.
  • Jessica Pennington in The Boy from Oz, Celebration Theatre.
  • Victoria Ortiz in The Super Variety Match Bonus Round!, Rogue Machine Theatre.

Ensemble Performance                                    

  • Ameryka, Critical Mass Performance Group, The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles.
  • Casa Valentina, The Pasadena Playhouse.
  • Cloud 9, Antaeus Theatre Company.
  • Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Center Theatre Group, Mark Taper Forum.
  • The Boy from Oz, Celebration Theatre.

 Solo Performance

  • Deborah Puette, Captain of the Bible Quiz Team, Rogue Machine Theatre.

Direction

  • Tim Dang, La Cage aux Folles, East West Players.
  • Kari Hayter, Urinetown the Musical, Coeurage Theatre Company.
  • Ricardo Khan, Fly, The Pasadena Playhouse.
  • Michael A. Shepperd, The Boy from Oz, Celebration Theatre.
  • Casey Stangl, Cloud 9, Antaeus Theatre Company.
  • Darko Tresnjak, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Center Theatre Group, Ahmanson Theatre.

Writing

  • Ayad Akhtar, Disgraced, Center Theatre Group, Mark Taper Forum.
  • Idris Goodwin, Bars and Measures, The Theatre @ Boston Court.
  • Erik Patterson, One of the Nice Ones, The Echo Theater Company.
  • Jason Wells, The Engine of Our Ruin, The Victory Theatre.

Musical Score

  • Noah Agruss, Bars and Measures, The Theatre @ Boston Court.
  • Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Center Theatre Group, Ahmanson Theatre.
  • Jason Robert Brown, The Bridges of Madison County, Center Theatre Group, Ahmanson Theatre.

Music Direction

  • Bryan Blaskie, The Boy from Oz, Celebration Theatre.
  • Paul Litteral, Louis & Keely: ‘Live' at the Sahara, Geffen Playhouse.
  • Marc Macalintal, La Cage aux Folles, East West Players.
  • Gregory Nabours, Urinetown the Musical, Coeurage Theatre Company.

Choreography

  • Hope Clarke, Fly, The Pasadena Playhouse.
  • Reggie Lee, La Cage aux Folles, East West Players.
  • Janet Roston, The Boy from Oz, Celebration Theatre.
  • Leslie Stevens, The Full Monty, 3-D Theatricals.

Set Design

  • Tom Buderwitz, Casa Valentina, The Pasadena Playhouse.
  • Alexander Dodge, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Center Theatre Group, Ahmanson Theatre.
  • David Gallo, Empire the Musical, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.
  • Michael Navarro, My Mañana Comes, The Fountain Theatre.

Lighting Design

  • Brandon Baruch, Urinetown the Musical, Coeurage Theatre Company.
  • Ken Billington, Dreamgirls, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.
  • Rui Rita and Jake DeGroot, Fly, The Pasadena Playhouse.XXX
  • Tim Swiss, Dream Boy, Celebration Theatre.

 Costume Design

  • Kate Bergh, Casa Valentina, Pasadena Playhouse.
  • Amy Clark and Mark Koss, The Little Mermaid, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.
  • A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, Cloud 9, Antaeus Theatre Company.
  • Anthony Tran, La Cage aux Folles, East West Players.

Sound Design

  • John Farmanesh-Bocca and Adam Phalen, Tempest Redux, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and New American Theatre.
  • John Gromada, Fly, The Pasadena Playhouse.
  • Rebecca Kessin, Dream Boy, Celebration Theatre.
  • Eric Snodgrass, The Boy from Oz, Celebration Theatre.

Specialty: Fight Choreography

  • Jen Albert, Punch and Judy, The School of Night, Ruby Theater at the Complex.

Specialty: Wigs, Hair and Makeup

  • Rick Geyer, Casa Valentina, The Pasadena Playhouse.
  • Jessica Mills, Cloud 9, Antaeus Theatre Company.