Spotlight Series: Meet Holly Baker-Kreiswirth and Bill Wolski, the Dynamic Duo Who Call Little Fish Theatre Their “Home Away from Home”

Anyone who has attended a production at Little Fish Theatre in San Pedro has most likely met Holly Baker-Kreiswirth and Bill Wolski, the dynamic duo who call Little Fish Theatre their “Home Away from Home.” As well as appearing onstage together, the married couple also work behind-the-scenes with Holly managing the theatre’s Press Relations and directing shows while Bill often takes on the roles of Director and Producer when not acting onstage.

Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background?

Bill Wolski (Bill): I’m a veteran of over a hundred plays and a whole host of other projects and performances. I cut my teeth on the small theatre circuit in greater Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up. I’m primarily known for my work at Little Fish Theatre, which has been my artistic home since 2007, and for being the husband of the equally talented and prolific Holly Baker-Kreiswirth.

Holly Baker-Kreiswirth (Holly): I started out in television before I worked in theater; the very first paid job I had was in the acting category on Junior Star Search which led to various roles in shows such as Chicago HopeGia (HBO), and Private Practice. I studied theater in college, but took a 10-year break to work on a career in TV production, and then had my kid.  In my early 30s, I started with Palos Verdes Players as a sound tech, then worked my way up to directing, producing, and finally acting again.  When PVP sadly went down, Bill and I appeared onstage in The Tender Trap at Long Beach Playhouse (when we started dating!) and subsequently found our artistic home at Little Fish Theatre, where we produce Pick of the Vine and act in or direct roughly 1/3 of the productions every year.

(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out you needed to immediately postpone/cancel the show?

(Bill): I was working on a show called Becky’s New Car, written by Steven Dietz, and directed by my wife. It was scheduled to open on April 9th. I was playing Becky’s steadfast, not-as-dumb-as-he-looks husband, Joe.

(Holly): We were both deeply into rehearsals for Becky’s New Car. I pre-block the shows I direct before rehearsals even begin; we had ten rehearsals under our belt with our lead actress, Amanda Karr, already off book.  Costumes/props were bought, lights/sound were being designed… everything was in motion.  Our stumble-through was the last rehearsal we had, and the show was already in great shape.

(SB): How was the shutdown communicated with the cast and production team?

(Bill and Holly): First, the sports teams postponed their seasons. Then, it was gatherings over 250 people. Then, gatherings over 50 people. Being a very intimate theater, there was still a possibility that LFT could limit ticket sales and hold performances, but the conclusion was reached that we didn’t want to put our fan base and company members at risk. Emails went out to those involved that everything was going to be put on hold.

(SB): Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?

(Bill): Becky’s New Car will open at a later date, once we’ve been given the all-clear.

(Holly): We’re thrilled that the work we’ve already put into the show will be seen by an audience someday.  I believe the message will resonate with them.

(SB): I have seen the show before and was really looking forward to seeing the production at Little Fish. So I am happy to hear that eventually that will happen. What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?

(Bill and Holly): We are involved at LFT all the time in a volunteer capacity. The shutdown has affected our entire season. Shows and special events that have not yet been cast or started production may be canceled entirely to give the shows that were already in progress a chance to be performed.

(SB): I know Bill is an avid hiker, but how are the two of you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(Bill and Holly): Little Fish Theatre and its company members are doing a lot to bring theatre to a virtual audience. We’re promoting and reaching out to our subscribers with videos and newsletters, and writing and sharing original content through our social media platforms. Specifically, we have a 5-part original web series called “Little Fish” that features hilarious portrayals of our artists.  We’ve produced multiple virtual readings of everything from comedic short plays to screenplays to a play about the shootings at Kent State 50 years ago this month.  And coming up next month we have a reading of a M*A*S*H* script donated to us by one of the writers, Ken Levine!  All of our readings are free — we’re so happy to be able to provide the arts to everyone in this format.

(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Bill and Holly): Please, be safe. Follow the rules and the health guidelines and limit the risk posed to yourself and your loved ones. In Shakespeare’s time, theaters were closed due to the plague, and 400 years later, theatre is still alive and well. As long as there are stories to tell, there will be people to tell them. We’ll all be together again soon enough. From our theater to yours, here’s a big hug from Little Fish. We love you!

Here’s how to stay in touch with Little Fish Theatre:

All production photos credit: Miguel Elliot

This article first appeared on Broadway World.

Spotlight Series: Meet Bill Brochtrup Who Rose to Fame on NYPD Blue, L.A. Stages, and is now the Artistic Director of the Antaeus Theatre Company

This Spotlight focuses on Bill Brochtrup who rose to TV stardom as PAA John Irvin on the ABC television drama NYPD Blue and continues to dazzle audiences as an actor, most recently in the Ovation Award-wining Daniel’s Husband at the Fountain Theatre, and planning programming for the Antaeus Theatre Company in Glendale as its Artistic Director. And when he can, Bill enjoys traveling around the world and hiking in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Fountain Theatre Company’s “Daniel’s Husband” with Bill Brochtrup and Tim Cummings. Photo by Ed Krieger

Shari Barrett (SB):  What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background?

Bill Brochtrup (Bill): I started working in Los Angles theatre as soon as I got to town in the mid-1980s and that led directly to my work in film and television. But I’ve always returned to the Theatre, first as an actor and more recently as Artistic Director of the Antaeus Theatre Company. I’ve seen LA theatre grow and deepen and thrive, and I’ve been very lucky to experience what a close knit and warm community this is.

(SB):  What production(s) were you involved with when word went out you needed to immediately postpone/cancel the show?

(Bill): Antaeus had just opened a new production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which is an extremely pertinent and timely play. Word of mouth was going very well and we had a number of sold out performances coming up, so it was a blow to everyone involved to have to shut it down.

(SB):  How did you communicate the shutdown with your cast and production team?

Opening Night of Antaeus Theatre Company’s Native Son at CTG’S BLOCK PARTY with Bill Brochtrup, Ana Rose O’Halloran and Kitty Swink

(Bill): Early on I met with Co-Artistic Director Kitty Swink and our Executive Director Ana Rose O’Halloran to talk about our options — and it was pretty clear that for the safety of our actors, staff, and audiences we needed to close the show.  We spoke first to the play’s directors, Armin Shimerman and Elizabeth Swain, and then I wrote a difficult email to the cast and production team.  Everyone understood because it was becoming increasingly clear what the world would be up against.  With sickness, death, and true hardship on the horizon for many people, closing a play is a small thing — but it was sad news nevertheless.

(SB):  Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?

(Bill): At this point it’s hard to say what we’ll do in the future because we just can’t be certain of any kind of timeline.  I will say that the set is still standing and the costumes are still in the dressing room, so it remains a possibility — I’d love for more people to be able to see our wonderful actors.

(SB):  What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?

(Bill): We had just finished casting our next production, William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life which was meant to begin rehearsal this month. We’re still determining how we’re going to proceed. And we were in the midst of finalizing Antaeus’ next season, which will be our 30th and some of those plans are now in flux. We will obviously be following all guidelines from the county and state about when we can reopen and get things going again.

(SB):  How are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(Bill): Antaeus has numerous programs and many of those have been able to move online fairly seamlessly — a number of our Academy classes are meeting that way as is the Antaeus Playwrights Lab. We have weekly Zoom check-ins with our Company members, another with our staff, and we have also already enjoyed a really fun virtual Happy Hour with some donors and supporters.

(SB):  You mentioned what a close knit and warm community our L.A. Theatre world is. What thoughts would you like to share with them while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Bill): We believe that live theatre is about artists and audiences coming together in person to create a community, so we’re really looking forward to the time when we can gather together in real life. Antaeus isn’t going anywhere and we’ll be back with a vengeance as soon as we’re able.

(SB): I totally agree. Nothing can compare to being part of an assembly of people experiencing the magic of live theatre together. It’s so symbiotic, making each performance unique and special in its own right. Any other thoughts to share?

(Bill): On a personal note, I’m so proud to be a part of the LA Theatre scene in all of its vibrancy and diversity. I believe we’ll come through this stronger and more unified than ever.

(SB): Amen!

Featured headshot by Rory Lewis

This article first appeared on Broadway World.


LOS ANGELES: Ovation TV, America’s only arts network, has completed an agreement with the Actors Studio to produce and air future episodes of Inside The Actors Studio, the award-winning interview series about the art of acting. As part of the agreement, the network will also curate content from the series’ extensive library for additional episodes.
Ovation will premiere the new Inside The Actors Studio in the Fall of 2019. James Lipton, the series’ creator, original host and executive producer, will turn the microphone over to a number of rotating guest hosts, who are in consideration now by the network and The Actors Studio.
“It’s very gratifying to see the legacy of Inside The Actors Studio being carried forward for a new generation to appreciate and enjoy,” said James Lipton. “I made a vow early on that we would not deal in gossip — only in craft, and Ovation, as a network dedicated to the arts, will continue that tradition with the next seasons of the series. I’m excited to see the new hosts engage with the guests and students and continue to entertain viewers in the U.S. and around the world.”
Inside The Actors Studio is a series that fits perfectly with Ovation’s mission to provide viewers with diverse arts programming, and we’re doing it from the heart of New York City with the support of our partners at AT&T/DIRECTV, Comcast, Charter, Verizon FiOS and independent cable operators across the country,” said Charles Segars, CEO, Ovation.
Inside The Actors Studio began and will continue to be a televised craft seminar for the students of The Actors Studio MFA program at Pace University. Paul Newman, a former Actors Studio president, was the show’s first televised guest. The series has gone on to host a veritable “Who’s Who” of award-winning actors and directors over the past two decades, over 200 in all, including Sally Field, Ellen Burstyn, Alec Baldwin, Bradley Cooper, Brad Pitt, Sidney Pollack, Carol Burnett, Jessica Lange, Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Billy Crystal, Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Jeremy Irons, Barbra Streisand, Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, and scores of others. The series has received 20 Emmy nominations in the Outstanding Informational Series or Special category. The series received an Emmy in this category in 2013. James Lipton also won the Critics Choice award for Best Host in 2015.
“Ovation is dedicated to supporting The Actors Studio’s commitment to providing the best educational resources for its students. In so doing, we will uphold the high standard set by James Lipton for excellence in producing programming that is multicultural, informational, enlightening and entertaining,” said Scott Woodward, EVP of Programming and Production, Ovation TV. “We look forward to introducing a whole new generation to the craft of acting through vibrant new hosts and guests that we will begin to announce in the coming months.”
“Over the years this series has had a profound impact on the Studio’s MFA program at Pace University,” said Ellen Burstyn. “I know my co-presidents, Alec Baldwin and Al Pacino, and our Board of Directors, share my enthusiasm that Ovation has come on board to continue this enduring legacy.”
The series is filmed at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University’s New York City campus. Ovation will continue filming at this venue.
In addition to having exclusive linear and digital rights in the U.S. to new episodes of Inside The Actors Studio, Ovation will also control all international rights to such episodes.
Gray Coleman of Davis Wright Tremaine and Michael Kagan of ICM Partners represented The Actors Studio, and Rob Rader, General Counsel, negotiated on behalf of Ovation.

Local, National, and International News to Inspire, to Stir, and to Entertain


DIY Music and Art ‘Unscene Fest’ Announces 2018 Los Angeles Dates

Unscene and Goon are happy to announce that Unscene Fest will return for its third year at the Hi Hat in Los Angeles, CA.

This year, the festival will take place over the course of two days on June 30th and July 1st. read more here

Shubert Foundation awards Fountain Theatre $20,000 to support growth and artistic achievement

The Fountain Theatre has been awarded a 2018 grant in the amount of $20,000 from The Shubert Foundation to support the general operating of the organization.  The Shubert Foundation provides grants only to organizations that have an established artistic and administrative track record, as well as a history of fiscal responsibility. read more here

Audio Interview: Tom Dugan (Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle Award) stars in “Wiesenthal” at Theatre 40

As Holocaust survivor and the world’s most renowned hunter of Nazi war criminals Simon Wiesenthal is about to retire, he recounts for an audience the stories of his most famous cases of bringing wrongdoers to justice. listen to it here

Voices from the Hollywood Fringe 2018: Lola Kelly and Sterling Powers of ‘The Witnessing’

Making its world premiere at the 2018 Hollywood Fringe is The Witnessing, an immersive, multisensory theatrical experience that explores a shocking paranormal experience. As described on the Fringe site:

“Unexplained phone calls, disembodied voices, moving objects and heart-stopping apparitions plagued the Davidsons’ Utah home from 2008 to 2010. Desperate for an explanation, they called upon the renowned Daugherty Paranormal Research Center to help solve the mystery behind the strange disturbances.” read more here


Leading Chicago director Rachel Rockwell is dead at 49

Rachel Rockwell, one of Chicago’s leading directors and choreographers of stage musicals over the past two decades — and also a rising star on the brink of a major national career in the American theater — died Monday afternoon at the age of 49, said her father, Gary Heyde, who is also known as the novelist Austin Gary. read more here

Weinstein is charged with first- and third-degree rape and commission of a criminal sexual act.Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Harvey Weinstein surrenders to NYC police, is charged with rape

“Mr. Weinstein did not invent the casting couch,” his lawyer said, vowing to fight the charges.

Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was charged Friday with rape and a criminal sexual act in connection with accusations by two women — after being marched out of a New York City police station in handcuffs before a jeering crowd. read more here

US TV series Rise has been cancelled after only one season. Photo: Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Where are the good new TV shows about theatre?

For generations, US network television has done a successful job of telling the stories of doctors and lawyers, police officers and private detectives. Of witty families with dopey dads and even, notably, a long-running show that claimed to be about nothing.

With the advent of cable, followed more recently by Netflix and its streaming peers, almost any subject seems possible. This has been especially true since the advent of TV’s second golden age, or “peak TV” as it’s sometimes called, ushered in by the mafioso-in-therapy drama of The Sopranos. read more here


Canadian Opera Company and Toronto Symphony Lose City Council Funding Over Diversity Concerns

Signal Toronto reports that the Toronto City Council has cut part of the cultural grants awarded to the Canadian Opera Company and The Toronto Symphony Orchestra “for not meeting the city’s diversity goals.”

The Canadian Opera Company lost $100,000 in grants, while the Toronto Symphony Orchestra had their grant cut by $50,000. read more here

Sam Donnelly and Jessica Guise in ‘The Great Gatsby’ Helen Maybanks

Immersive theatre may be sexy – but we need to start talking about consent

After reports of audience members sexually assaulting actors, it’s time the boundaries in this most hedonistic of art forms were redefined

“Truth or dare?” This is the challenge put to a few audience members in a game of “spin the bottle” at an immersive production of The Great Gatsby currently being enjoyed by audiences in Borough, south London. read more here

Riding Along with MARTIN LANDAU on Life’s Great Adventure

Last Sunday evening, I was privileged to attend the 3 hour tribute to Master Actor-Teacher Marty Landau at the Writer’s Guild Theatre.  Life’s unpredictability being what it is, though, this piece is appearing a few days later than originally planned.  The reason?  Well, there are two.

One is something that happened after I’d left the event, which I’ll go into later.

The second is the nightmare we’ve all been living through, the massacre in Las Vegas.  It’s a soul-crushing tragedy.  We don’t even have fundamentalism or terrorism to blame this time.  The violence was arbitrary, the shooter had no higher purpose, it appears, than destroying the happiness of strangers.  “He was just a guy,” his younger brother said.  But clearly he wasn’t.  And he didn’t just snap – he planned this meticulously, including setting up a sniper’s nest.  How does a 64 year old retired accountant with no history of violence do that?

I spent some time as an investigative reporter, and this doesn’t scan.  I’ve also spent a lot of time as a screenwriter, and this scenario is not believable.  There has to be something else, something crucial that hasn’t come out yet.  Maybe it will by the time this is published, or hopefully sometime soon.  Right now this feels like an X-Files episode come to life, with some paranormal force in charge. I’ve alternated between being heartbroken by the human tragedies and being mystified by this enigmatic shooter.  I mean, I’m intrigued by conspiracy stories and have written a few myself.  But I see no indication of a conspiracy here.  Did he have cancer?  Did he lose all his money gambling?  Some kind of death sentence hanging over him that made him want to take as many people with him as possible?

I don’t like stories that don’t make any sense.  Life may not be art, but it does have its reasons, whether love or hate, money or payback.  So far none of these seem to apply, and I won’t be able to let it go until something does.

Landau in Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “North by Northwest.”

So, let’s go from that scene of Hate – straight out of the “Hell” panel of a Heironymous Bosch triptych – to the lovefest that was the tribute to the great Martin Landau, organized by Landau’s older daughter, Susie, and directed by Daniel Henning of the Blank Theatre.  Susie kicked off the proceedings by telling the overflowing crowd of family, friends, colleagues and admirers, “When Martin Landau was born, his father Morris hired a brass band in Flatbush to celebrate the occasion.”  And then here we were to continue the celebration, a few months after Landau’s passing at age 89.

The MC of this “occasion” was Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, who proved to be funnier and faster with the off-the-cuff lines than I expected.  After informing us that the only two actors to be accepted for the 1955 class at the Actors Studio were Martin Landau and Steve McQueen – the two also starred together in the 1966 film Nevada Smith – Mankiewicz added: “Lest we think of Martin Landau as some kind of saint who never made mistakes, just remember that this was also the man who said no to the role of Spock on the original Star Trek, while saying yes to the role of J.J. Pierson in The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. ”

Diane Ladd and Frances Fisher and the handsome young Mr Landau

Susie Landau quoted her mother Barbara Bain to describe her father: If you burrow deep into Marty Landau’s DNA, you will find the word “ACTOR.”

This set the tone for the evening, which was a celebration of the craft of acting and the life of the actor.  Two of the more unlikely (but still very touching) tributes were delivered by celebrity actors who were not close friends with Landau.

In fact, Hal Holbrook admitted that, in his 92 years, not only had he never worked with Marty Landau, he couldn’t recall ever meeting him.   But he felt compelled to attend because “Martin Landau represented what is really good about our people.  Whatever he was in, there was always something genuine and true about it.”  (Holbrook, who has been performing his one man show about Mark Twain since 1954, now seems – with his halo of white hair – to have completely merged with his character. I am hoping to see his “Mark Twain at 100” in the near future.)

Jon Voigt – not just Angelina Jolie’s dad but an A-List actor again thanks to Ray Donovan – also never worked with Landau and freely admitted that he didn’t know why he was there.  “I had to come as a show of respect,” he said. “I just admired the way he carried himself, and the way his personal generosity carried over to his roles.  He made me want to be a better person and a better actor.  I feel that again tonight,  being here in this room.  When I leave here tonight, I want to be a better person because of Marty.”

Landau with his wife and TV co-star Barbara Bain

Landau’s 65 years as an actor had many highlights.  In the early ’50s, there was his close friendship with the mercurial James Dean and his acceptance by The Actors Studio.  In the late ’50s, there was the beginning of his acting career on stage, screen and TV.  This section concluded with his supporting role in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece North by Northwest.  But this did not lead to his being offered more great movie roles.  His next role in a major movie was in the disaster Cleopatra with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.  Instead it resulted in a slew of guest-starring roles on TV shows, culminating with his starring role as Rollin Hand, “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” on the original Mission Impossible.   This ran on Sunday evenings from 1966-69,  171 episodes, and it cemented Landau’s status as a pop culture icon.  It’s also where he met his wife, Barbara Bain, with whom he would have two daughters.  (Ben Mankiewicz reminded the audience that, while Marty and Barbara were both nominated for 3 Primetime Emmys, Barbara won each time while Marty lost each time; “that third time must have been a bloodbath when they got home,” Mankiewicz joked.)

In the mid-70s, Marty and Barbara starred together again on the TV series Space 1999 (insert your “he coulda been Spock” joke here), but it only ran for two seasons.  Marty went back to guest-starring on TV series and appearing in highly forgettable TV movies.  In fact, his career went downhill along with his reputation and his marriage to Barbara Bain (they officidally divorced in 1993).  Somehow – and I don’t know how myself – he turned everything around, starting with his mesmerizing turn as a financier in the Jeff Bridges movie Tucker: A Man and His Dream in 1988.  This was followed by his indelible performances in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.  Landau was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for each film, and he won for playing Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.  (A former reporter for Deadline confided to the Writer’s Guild audience that one of the other four nominees that night made no attempt to hide his bitterness at being “beaten” by Landau for the award.  “Anyone but Martin Landau,” this actor had reportedly complained.  The reporter refused to tell us which of the four it was:  Paul Scofield, Chazz Palminteri, Samuel L. Jackson or Gary Sinise.  I feel certain I know which one it was.  Do you?)

Woody Allen directing Landau in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989)

Landau went on to give terrific performances in Rounders (1999), and in the Jim Carrey movie The Majestic.  But his final Act would take place in small indie films Lovely, Still (2008) and Remember (2015), but especially on TV shows like Without A Trace (where he played Anthony Lapaglia’s father, a military man dealing with dementia) and Entourage, where he gave an unforgettable comic turn as Bob Ryan, a washed-up film producer who suddenly finds himself back in the mainstream.  He even had his own catchphrase: “Does that sound like something you might be interested in?”  Mostly, though, for his last 25 years, Marty invested a huge amount of himself and his spirit in the Actors Studio West, where he was co-artistic director with his lifelong friend Mark Rydell and worked long hours to pass along his wealth of knowledge to new generations of actors and writers.

Marty and a younger, less-Twisted Hipster – only one of so many who feels a debt of gratitude for having had such a great teacher (Photo: Eric Wade)

My favorite story of the evening – and there were so many great ones! – was told first by a film director (I believe his name is Mark Sobel) and then embellished upon by the actress Gina Gershon, regarding an exploitation flick titled Sweet Revenge (I believe) which did its filming in the Philippines during a revolution.  Gina, then a young actor just getting into the entertainment business, had read the script and found it to be “crap,” but she was drawn to the chance to work with Martin Landau.  Before accepting, she called Landau and asked if he was really attached.  “Yes, I’m going to do it,” Landau said.  “But it’s a terrible script,” Gershon said.  “Nothing makes any sense.”  Landau replied: “But it’s a free trip to the Philippines!  It’s a chance to have a great adventure!”  “Yeah?” Gershon replied, still not convinced.  “So what if it’s a failure?” Landau told her.  “I’ve learned a lot more from failures than I ever did from successes.”

In the end, Gershon accepted, and soon she was in the Philippine rainforest with Marty Landau and the other actors.  Very early on it was clear that they were horribly unprepared for the very real violence surrounding them.  One day they were on the way to a waterfall location when they were ambushed by 50 former government guards with machine guns, who had been tossed out of power in the People’s Revolution.  The cast and crew were in serious danger of losing their lives.  But Marty Landau remembered seeing TV antennas coming out of the houses they had passed.  He asked the director to let him handle it.  Then Marty stepped forward and spoke directly to the group leader, who in turn addressed Marty harshly and belligerently, waving his gun in the air.  Suddenly this changed.  “Mission Impossible?” the leader stuttered. “You are…him?”  Marty nodded, and the tide turned.  The ousted guards became the film crew’s protectors, insisting on going with them to the waterfall and then providing food and drink for the cast and crew.

What a great story, huh?  What a great Marty Landau story (he had millions).  What an adventure. . . .

And oh yes – I said I would tell you what happened right after the tribute, an event which has eaten up my last few days.

So yeah, I had parked my car on Wilshire Blvd, two blocks west of Doheny, and when I got back from celebrating Marty, this is how I found my car – a complete wreck.  There were several police cars surrounding it, as well as the car in front of mine, which was also totaled.

A policeman handed me a small sheet of notepad paper with a lot of information written on it in blue ink.  He pointed to a young man nearby.  “He had a sneezing fit and lost control of his car.”

“What?”  I said.  This was a lot to take in.  The Sneezer was very apologetic.

As it happened, the other wrecked car belonged to Jamie Marsh, an actor I knew from the Actors Studio West, who had also been at the Writer’s Guild event.

“Dude, this is a great thing,” Jamie whispered to me.

“Yeah?” I said, not seeing his point.

“The insurance is going to give us enough money to buy new cars.  It’s like Marty made it happen.”

“Yeah?” I said again, starting to see his point.

“Marty Landau wants us to have new cars!” he repeated.

Huh, I thought.  Another Marty adventure?

"US CELEBRATING US" – The New Garry Marshall Theatre and Lots More Showbiz Biz

This has always been a piece about Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theatre in Burbank becoming – with the passing of Mr Marshall – the Garry Marshall Theatre.  And I will get back to the important changes going on there, but Garry Marshall was also very much a creature of show business – stage, film and especially TV – so let’s take a dip in those waters before circling back to the legacy of the one and only Mr Garry M.

It’s almost 35 years since Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves To Death was published.  The book couldn’t be more topical, as we are awash in “dystopian societies” as soures of entertainment, and that was Postman’s Topic A.  It was 1984 at the time, and everyone had George Orwell (author of 1984) on their minds – fear of Big Brother and the onset of the totalitarian state.  But Postman posited that the dystopian model we were heading towards wasn’t the one in Orwell’s novel but rather the one to be found in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  In Huxley’s dystopia, the population all becomes addicted to a pleasure-inducing drug called soma, whch causes them to exchange their interest in rational thought and public discourse for an obsession with televised entertainment.

Sound familiar?  Certainly thoughts of both Huxley’s and Postman’s books were stirred up by THE 69th PRIMETIME EMMY AWARDS, which host Stephen Colbert described as “us celebrating us.”  This is something that Hollywood is justly famous for, which, again, Colbert deftly characterized as “clapping our hands while patting ourselves on the back.”  I’ve already read some accounts panning Stephen Colbert as a host, but I don’t agree – those opening musical numbers are intentionally silly, and his sophisticated sense of humor was surely an upgrade on James Corden, who bores me to tears, or whoever else hosted it last year.  No, the sad part was seeing someone as witty and intelligent as Colbert having to be dumbed down so he could play to the lowest common denominator, which probably still wasn’t dumb enough for the advertisers… though I could almost hear them sighing out loud that at least he wasn’t Jewish or black.  And yes, it was good to see some well-produced shows rewarded, and to have more women and African-American winners than in recent memory.  White American men, especially of the hetero variety, were definitely the big losers, though British hetero men (John Oliver and that guy who wrote Black Mirror) did very nicely, thank you very much.  Of course Latinos and Asian-Americans of all kinds were largely left out, which oddly seems to arouse little attention or concern.  My guess is, though, if you follow the money trail, it would still lead largely to white men.  For those who think there’s been a major power shift going on, get real.  That’s the very meaning of “soma,” which provides a pleasant fantasy-high while the old sleight of hand is taking place.

Now I was going to use this as a transition point into talking about two of the more amusing series on TV right now,  EPISODES (Showtime) and GET SHORTY (Epix), both of which find the source of their humor in the deeply anxiety-ridden and often-perilous world of show business.   Both take place deep inside the Hollywood bubble, where the power plays for fame and fortune are going on.  Anyway, I recommend both shows highly and am happy to say that Episodes has come back stronger than ever from its premature death (yes, it was cancelled in 2016) and is, for my money, the funniest show on TV.  But I’ll have to save that discussion for another day, as the spirit of Garry Marshall has begun barking at me in that inimitable Brooklyn accent, telling me that it’s time to circle back already, if I know what’s good for me.

So yes, back to my own Topic A: what has been The Falcon Theatre in Burbank for the last 20 years has now become The Garry Marshall Theatre.  This may seem odd at first, since Garry Marshall was known mostly for commercial film blockbusters like Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries, and for TV shows like The Odd Couple and Happy Days (and its various spinoffs).  But the Falcon was a passion project for Garry, who participated in every aspect of its creation, then ran it with his daughter Katherine Marshall LaGambina in a very hands-on way.  I saw many shows there over the years, and Garry was often in the lobby, especially for the first 10-15 years, greeting the audience as if welcoming them into his home.  Sometimes – especially on  matinee days – Garry could be found napping on a chair in the lobby.  When roused, he would smile and go right into a conversation, as if he’d just been conversing with you a moment before.

The 130 seat Equity house will now become the non-profit Garry Marshall Theatre under the leadership of co-artistic directors Joseph Leo Bwarie and Dimitri Toscas.

As Joe Bwarie explained to me, the theatre will now be developing a subscriber base, like the Geffen and the Center Theatre Group.  For the first season, the plan is to present four plays, all by Pulitzer-Prize winners and all with some connection to Garry Marshall.

First up is MASTER CLASS by Terrence McNally, directed by Mr Toscas and starring Carolyn Hennesy as the great opera diva Maria Callas.  That begins performances this week (Sept. 20) and will run until Oct. 22.  You can click here for further information and tickets.

This will be followed by A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the West Coast premiere of THE OCCUPANT by Edward Albee (about the sculptor Louise Nevelson), and LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR by Neil Simon.

Here’s hoping they can do Garry proud and bring his distinctive touch to the work – which means being something more than just “us celebrating us.” But I’ll let co-Artistic Director Dimitri Toscas speak for himself on this point.  Take it away, Dimitri.


Garry believed that gathering people together to share a live storytelling experience was one of the most important ways we process our lives together. He loved live television. He loved live theatre. And to honor that lifetime dedication, our mission is to continue to bring people together for the unparalleled experience of participating in the live arts. We will continue to strive to connect people through diverse storytelling and innovative performances, and echo and expand upon the philosophy that the live arts spark ideas, elicit conversations and pledge the promise of possibility. Our hope is that we can open the theatre up to be a community stomping ground for exploration and education as we celebrate and cultivate artists and audiences alike, and we’re working toward programming, classes, and other opportunities that can support these big, abstract ideas. That’s a tall order, we know…but we want to prove we are up for the challenge.

We are also excited to carry on Garry’s tradition of looking for new works and developing new pieces to produce in the future. To do that, we will be hosting a New Play Festival in the Spring. This will give us a chance to review new works that will be submitted by both new and established playwrights. After the preliminary review process, we will present the selected new plays in a series of readings that the audience will be able to give us feedback on. Hopefully we will find new works to develop into full productions in future seasons here at the Garry Marshall Theatre and beyond.

2017 marks the 20th Anniversary of Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theatre in Burbank, where there has been a subscription season for the past 15 years. For the past twenty years, the theatre was a for-profit company that was subsidized by Garry himself, but now, to keep the theatre thriving and growing into the future, we are in the process of transitioning to a nonprofit company, putting the new theatre more in line with the industry standard for successful regional houses across the country. Now, as a new nonprofit theatre, we are reaching out more to the community, sharing our story with a wider audience, because we can only survive with the continued support of our subscribers and the Toluca Lake, Burbank, and Los Angeles community at large. For the first time, we have a Board of Directors, Joe and I have been named Artistic Directors to maintain and develop the artistic vision of the theatre’s growth and expansion, and Sherry Greczmiel has been named the Executive Director. Together, we are developing the programming, productions and procedures that will hopefully grow the theatre into the next twenty years.

An important way we are reaching out into the community is by including other successful theatre companies in our programming. Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever looked at other artists, directors or companies as “competition” when it comes to theatre. Art is collaboration. Not competition. And to be true to that, we are opening our doors and welcoming successful companies and artists to collaborate with us every season here at the new Garry Marshall Theatre. This year, we are welcoming Rogue Artists Ensemble to our stage in the Summer of 2018 with their multi-media production of WOOD BOY DOG FISH, a macabre retelling of the Pinocchio story. It’s a dark, arousing curiosity written by the remarkable up-and-coming playwright Chelsea Sutton, with original music by Adrien Prévost, directed by Sean T. Cawelti. Besides this Hot Summer Show, we will also host other companies throughout the season, with special events and concerts — all in an effort to reach out into the community and welcome more people to make ART with us for our Inaugural Season.



THE PLAYWRIGHT AS HERO – Shepard, Kushner, Stephens and Yee

I am going to talk about the National Theatre Live screening of Tony Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA with Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield, and two new plays at CTG theaters, HEISENBERG and KING OF THE YEES.   But, to be completely honest, I’m having trouble moving on from the death of Sam Shepard.  Silly, I know.   I mean, I already wrote about my one extended encounter with him, so what more is there to say? Sam had a great run – 44 plays written, all the honors in the world (10 OBIE awards!), 68 film and TV roles, 27 screenplay credits, 32 credits for “himself” – that is, for playing Sam Shepard.  Remarkable.

when he arrived in NYC at 21

Of course, to be honest, Sam hadn’t written anything great since A LIE OF THE MIND and PARIS, TEXAS, both in 1984-85.  His 20 years of amazing creativity began in 1964 with Cowboy and The Rock Garden, and it included such gems (which you should definitely check out, if you don’t know them) as The Geography of a Horse Dreamer, The Unseen Hand, and Seduced – his odd but ingenious play about Howard Hughes, whose effectiveness depends on who’s playing Hughes.  I was lucky enough to see Rip Torn, and I’ll never forget it.

The thing with Sam is, he never sold out.  Some of his acting roles aren’t great – his dad afflicted with periodic spells of blindess in 1994’s Safe Passage is definitely not going in the time capsule – but even there, he never embarrassed himself, and he rarely if ever seemed to do anything just for the money.

in 1983, when he had the world by the short hairs

He was flat-out great as both Chuck Yeagar in The Right Stuff and as Major-General “Bill” Garrison in Black Hawk Down.  He was the best thing in the film of August Osage County, though his role should have been larger.  But if you really want to see a mind-blowing performance, check out Sam in 2012’s Mud as a fat, balding retired U.S. military sniper.  It’s not just that he’s unrecognizable, but his character is very real, and so different from anything else he’s ever done.

It’s hard to be as gifted as Sam was, and to become as famous as Sam did, and still hold on to your honor, your humility and your soul.  So here’s to Sam: you put up a battle with your demons that we can all be proud of.  Sleep well, my friend.

In my 2004 theater memoir, Best Revenge,  I wrote, “As tremendous as Tony Kushner’s achievement was [in Angels in America], its “universality” may have been largely a product of being in the right place at the right time.  It will endure as dramatic literature, not drama.”  Wrong.  So wrong.  After viewing the eight hours of Angels on successive Thursdays in the National Theatre Live production, I can only say “Wow. What a writer.  And what an epic!  How universal!”  It really is one of the great American plays, which does things and goes places that no other writer has done or gone.  It has the largeness of spirit of Walt Whitman (the main character is “Prior Walter”) with the analytic genius of George Orwell and the sheer theatricality of Brecht at his greatest and, well, Tony Kushner at his greatest too.  What a vision!  This production is directed by Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) and features Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter, Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, Denise Gough as Harper Pitt, Russell Tovey as Joseph Pitt, Susan Brown as Hannah Pitt, James McArdle as Louis, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize and Amanda Lawrence as the Angel.  All excellent actors, worthy of mention.  The major curiosity, of course, surrounds the two best-known actors, Garfield and Lane.  How were they?

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter. Photo by Helen Maybanks

Now I saw both the original Broadway cast  and their replacement cast, as well as the Mike Nichols film, so I have some basis of comparison.  Andrew Garfield is very good, but I’ll still take Stephen Spinella, who originated Prior Walter on Broadway.  Garfield has more charisma and style than Spinella, but Spinella had more gravitas, a more matter-of-fact sense of hurt.  Spinella anchored the show in the reality of his gayness, the richness of his emotional pain.  Garfield just doesn’t have that.  As for Nathan Lane — sorry, but no.  He’s a great actor, one of our greatest, but he’s not right for this role; in fact he couldn’t be more wrong.  Physically, he suggests J. Edgar Hoover, not Cohn.  Lane’s great gift is to humanize his characters, to show us the clown crying on the inside, and that doesn’t work here.  Giving Roy Cohn a soul – wrong!  That’s not how Kushner wrote him.  Ron Liebman was the greatest Cohn I’ve seen, seething with rage at the injustice of his fate.  But Pacino was also great.  Neither of them gave Roy Cohn the gooey center that Nathan Lane does, and it simply doesn’t work.  For me, this production was stolen by McArdle and Tovey, who are both endlessly fascinating as Louis the temp and as Joe Pitt, the Mormon lawyer he works for.  Both are much better than the other actors I’ve seen take on those roles.   Stewart-Jarrett comes alive in Perestroika, the second half of the show, but he can’t hold a candle to Jeffrey Wright in the original Broadway cast.  (I doubt anyone ever will.)  Gough is fine as Harper, the pill-popping wife of the gay lawyer, but both Marcia Gay Harden on Broadway and Mary Louise Parker in the Nichols’ film were better.  I loved Susan Brown’s work as Hannah, the gay lawyer’s mother, she’s gruff at first, but then reveals her inner sexiness in a way I don’t recall seeing before.  Still, better than Meryl Streep or Kathleen Chalfant?  Not really possible.  On the whole, the production didn’t shake up the world the way that Wolfe’s did.  But the real star is and always will be Kushner, who has written an American masterpiece about the way we dream.  My only caveate – and I have to say it – is that ending, in which Prior Walter becomes Tony Kushner and “blesses” the audience as “fabulous.”  Sorry but that feels patronizing.  Just stay inside your character, Tony, and let him speak for himself.  No need to pat yourself on the back when everyone else already wants to.  That said, go and see an encore showing of this video version – essential viewing for anyone with a brain.

KING OF THE YEES by Lauren Yee, Directed by Joshua Kahan Brody

Lauren Yee’s play The King of the Yees is about Lauren Yee and her family’s 150 year old trade association, to which only male Yees can be admitted.  This is actually a great idea for a play, with a great central  metaphor: the red double doors to the family association, doors which Lauren as a female has never been able to open.  And I’m convinced that there’s a very good – even possibly great – 90 minute play hidden in the 125 minutes of the current version about how Lauren finally gains admission to the secret history of her ancestors.  If I was a dramaturg – a position I held for 5 years at an Off-Broadway theater – and I was assigned to this play, I would say: I know that this play is based on your life and that many events related here actually happened, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily belong in your play.  Because right now the First Act is 10-15 minutes of good theater and 30 minutes of pseudo-theater, in which you’re playing silly games and stalling for time, so you can slip in two minutes of a cliffhanger before intermission.  A third of your audience left, and I would have too if I wasn’t contracted to stay.   Then you have 40 good minutes in your Second Act and another 15 minutes of bullshit.  Let’s find a way to take this apart and put it back together into 90 strong minutes.  As Scott Carter (Bill Maher’s producer) once told me, “If you do five minutes of standup, and there are two good and three bad minutes, the audience is not going to love you for the two good minutes; they’re gonna hate you for wasting their time with the three bad minutes.”

HEISENBERG by Simon Stephens, directed by Mark Brokaw

Mary Louise Parker and Dennis Arndt

This is an enigmatic little play which belongs in a small theater not as large a space as the Mark Taper.  The Taper seems to realize this, and they seat audience on both sides of a skinny slice of stage space, trying to create as intimate a playing area as they can.  Personally I was sitting in the 5th row, and the magic didn’t quite touch  me.  (A friend of mine told me she sat in the third row, and she was swept away, so maybe that’s the key.) I admired the eccentricity of Mary Louise Parker’s performance as a 40 year old woman who begins the play by kissing the back of the neck of a 77 year old stranger in a bus station, an event that in real life might instigate many things, but significant dialogue is not one of them.  I was deeply aware throughout of the unlikelihood of this scenario, this sequence of events, though that seemed to be what the playwright, Simon Stephens (The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime, Punk Rock), is going for.  “How far can I push these highly unlikely events?  How long can I sustain this highly ridiculous premise?”  The actors, Mary Louise Parker and Dennis Arndt, are both deeply focused and committed, though I kept wondering why Parker didn’t have a British accent?  In the play she speaks again and again about how she comes from Islington in London, but Parker makes no attempt to change the speaking voice that we are so accustomed to from Weeds and so many other shows; and Arndt’s character never mentions this, so I simply don’t get it.  Nevertheless, there is something engaging, even moving, in the way that Stephens stretches out his slight and unlikely premise into a full-length play.  The play after all is titled Heisenberg, the scientist who is known for giving us The Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Physics.  Simon Stephens captures here both the uncertainty of the human condition and the uncertainty of ever really connecting with another human being.  It’s only around until August 6th, so go this weekend if you can.  Just sit in the first 3 rows, okay?

Who is Richard Cotovsky?

Who Is Richard Cotovsky?
The Orignal Superior Donuts.

CBS launched a new sitcom earlier this year titled “Superior Donuts,” which is and isn’t an adaptation of the play written by the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Letts.  The sitcom version stars Judd Hirsch in the lead as Arthur Przybyszewski and Jermaine Fowler plays Franco. These are two characters from the stage production of “Superior Donuts” that sort of resemble the original characters of the play. Also, the location, Chicago, is central to the story, but not in as much depth as it is in Letts’ play. The TV series “Superior Donuts” would be more accurately described as a production created by Bob Daily, Garrett Donovan, Neil Goldman and Jermaine Fowler who are credited as producers and writers of the show.

This by no means is a pan on Judd Hirsh, Jermaine Fowler, Katey Segal, Dave Koechner and the rest of the cast of the TV series. They are all fine actors. My friend and neighbor, Marla Cotovsky – who is Richard Cotovsky’s sister – attended a SAG-AFTRA Foundation event, “Conversation with Superior Donuts” in Los Angeles. She submitted a general question to the whole cast about their audition process for the show when panelist and cast member Dave Koechner, who knows Richard, asked Marla to repeat her last name because he recognized it. Once Marla confirmed she was Richard Cotovsky’s sister Dave went on to pay homage to Richard and told the cast and audience that he was the character Arthur and credited him for the existence of “Superior Donuts.” The event was videotaped and you can see it on YouTube.  However, I watched that event and a few episodes of the sitcom, and get the feeling that none of the producers, cast members or series writers has seen the play.

richard cotovsky way

Dedication of Honorary Richard Cotovsky Way – Photo credit Chicago Tribune

In my conversation with Richard Cotovsky, I ask him for some pre “Superior Donuts” history.  Cotovsky, who has a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois in Chicago, started acting in college when he took an elective class, introduction to theater.   He has performed in and directed many plays, been cast in various TV show episodes, but his most notable and recognized role has been the Artistic Director of the Mary-Arrchie Theater Group in Chicago for 30 years until the theater closed in 2016. To honor Richard Cotovsky’s contribution to the Chicago Theater community the street, West Sheridan Road by Angel Island, where the Mary-Arrchie Theater was located, was dedicated as Honorary Richard Cotovsky Way, by Alderman James Cappleman.

Richard Cotovsky met Tracy Letts many years ago when Letts moved to Chicago and became part of the theater community.  They became friends and Richard sat in Tracy’s improv theater group a few times. They regularly hung out with a group of theater folks in a bar in Chicago, and as Richard put it, “Tracy got involved with the right crowd and I watched him succeed and we maintained a friendship in theater over the years.”  A few years ago, Letts approached Richard telling him he’s written a draft of a play, “Superior Donuts,” and was surprised when Tracy told him he based the main character Arthur on him. Tracy Letts is a member of the Steppenwolf Theater Group in Chicago and took the draft of “Superior Donuts” to them.  Shortly after they got the play, Cotovsky gets a call from the casting director at Steppenwolf and tells him that the info on the call is top secret and they want to see him about Letts’ play “Superior Donuts.” So Richard goes to the theater and meets with the producers and casting director and auditions for the play.  That was the first time he read the part of Arthur.  They tell him if another actor doesn’t come on board the part is his. Michael McKean came on board so Richard’s role fell to understudy, but they wanted Richard to workshop the play with them, and he was happy about that.

Since the character Arthur was based on him, Richard was able to help the Steppenwolf Theater Company develop the play.  Letts is originally from Tulsa Oklahoma and not as deeply familiar with Chicago as Richard so he was able to add some details and nuances of the city as well as character depth in Arthur. Workshopping the play was a very interesting creative process that Cotovsky enjoyed and found satisfying. Many of Richard’s suggestions for the play were considered and accepted by the production group.

The play went from the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago to Broadway, but when the play went to The Studio Theater in Washington DC Richard finally gets cast in the lead as Arthur.  He got a call of congrats from Tracy Letts and Richard tells his friend, “The play has come full circle.”  “Not until you produce it at the Mary-Arrchie,” urged Letts.  And so he did.  Richard Cotovsky produced and starred in the lead as Arthur at his theater.  He got Matt Miller to direct as he knew Matt was not only a great director but also well connected with the best actors in Chicago.  Miller cast a young actor, Preston Tate Jr. for the role of Franco and at first Cotovsky thought he might be a little inexperienced for the role, but quickly he found that Tate was very passionate about playing the character Franco and turned out to be the perfect Franco.

The original “Superior Donuts”

franco & arthur - superior donuts

Franco & Arthur – Superior Donuts, Mary-Arrchie Theater, Photo by Greg Rothman

In the play, Arthur is a man in his 50s, a pothead who has avoided things all his life and stuck in his ways. A Vietnam War draft dodger who fled to Canada, Arthur had a strained relationship with his father whose last word spoken to Arthur was “coward.” Arthur’s father dies and his mother is left to run the donut shop but needs Arthur to come back and take it over.  So he comes back during the amnesty period when draft dodgers could return to the US without penalties or imprisonment.  Arthur has no ambition or love for the donut shop and it’s a dingy, rundown lifeless place that barely gets by as the donut business hangs on by a thread. Arthur reflects the condition of his shop, unkempt; he keeps his wild frizzy hair in a ponytail and wears old t-shirts and dirty jeans. Arthur’s style supports the weight of his life; the disappointments and tragedies. Arthur was married some years earlier but his wife leaves him and takes their daughter with her and they get a divorce.  His wife dies five years after she leaves him which causes a deep divide between Arthur and his daughter who has not spoken to him in years. Arthur uses marijuana as a smoke screen to avoid the pain of life.

Franco is a young, intelligent, energetic and idealistic black man who has a gambling addiction betting on football. He is also a writer who carries his novel’s manuscript with him at all times in a series of notebooks tied together with a bungee cord.  Franco is a central character but he’s introduced later in act one. Prior to Franco entering Arthur’s world, there is a lot of background in the dialog with and between the characters that frequent the donut shop. The dialog and monologs in the first act reveal details of the why and the how of Arthur. Without this background, an audience would not connect and have emotions for Arthur.

Franco wins the trust and heart of Arthur through persistence.  He begins to give Arthur ideas to improve his shop and pointers on how to give better customer service and marketing to increase donut sales.  A transformation starts to take place as Franco begins to clean up the place and suggests Arthur get a radio to play music and inject uplifting energy into the donut shop.  Franco also sparks an external and internal transformation of Arthur as he pries into Arthur’s past. Like a sly therapist, he gets Arthur to reveal his life story and helps Arthur stop avoiding change. Franco extends his trust and friendship with Arthur with the ultimate gesture. He gives Arthur his novel “America Will Be” to read.  Arthur takes the bundle of notebooks home and reads the novel.  When he brings back the manuscript he tells Franco how good the story is, and that he needs to type it out into a computer so he can submit it for publishing.

preston tate jr. & richard cotovsky

Preston Tate Jr. & Richard Cotovsky -Franco & Arthur, Photo by Greg Rothman

The emotional turning point in the play comes when Franco who owes a lot of money to a gangster bookie, but can’t repay his debt.  The gangster burns Franco’s notebooks, the only copy of his novel, and cuts off the fingers on one of Franco’s hands.  This pushes Arthur to break from his life of avoidance and fear to help Franco by paying off his debt and get into a fist fight with the gangster.  The play ends with Franco and Arthur quietly sitting at a table in the donut shop, Franco’s hand is bandaged where his fingers were cut off, and Arthur has a notebook in front of him and a pen in hand, and begins to help Franco re-write his novel, “America Will Be.”

Tracy Letts wrote his play “Superior Donuts” with thoughtful, unpretentious honesty and a sarcastic wit. Ironically, during “Superior Donuts’” run at the Mary-Arrchie Theater, Richard Cotovsky had a thought that the play would make a good sitcom.  In my interview with Richard, he said he could see ten episodes straight from the play.  Franco’s character would not be introduced until the third episode, but that would allow for the audience to connect with the story and Arthur, and by then be ready for something to bring about a change in him.  Though Richard admits it would be very difficult to change the key dramatic scenes with the notebooks being burned and Franco’s fingers being cut off into comedy – these were scenes that brought gasps from the audience every night the play was performed – but there are so many possibilities for the TV series to be an actual adaptation of the original “Superior Donuts” and stretch into many episodes.

At the SAG-AFTRA Foundation event, another question from the audience was how were they able to adapt this play into a TV series? Jermaine Fowler answered, “Keeping the story intact and keeping the soul of the story alive.”  That would have been doable, but after watching a few episodes of the sitcom it appears the writers have created a new TV story, not an adaptation. I don’t find much of the original story included in this series and the soul… I hope the producers of the TV show will bring in the essence and depth of connection and transformation from the original “Superior Donuts” into the series.

Pasadena Film Festival, part 3: THE WORLD IS BROKEN. CAN IT BE FIXED?


The ABC-TV dramatic series American Crime is just two episodes into its third season (Sundays 10-11 pm), and it’s already a crashing bore.  As usual, the series is pursuing multiple storylines, which include a Mexican man searching for his lost son in the fruit-picking fields, the many Grapes of Wrath-type exploitations of workers by management there, teenagers saved from the sex trade and human trafficking who are trying to get their lives back, an African-American caseworker for those teens who wants to get pregnant by her ex using IVF, and something with Felicity Huffman as an unhappy wife that I can’t make any sense of. The show is created by John Ridley (Oscar-winner, 12 Years a Slave) and boasts some of the best writers on TV – Julie Hebert, Diana Son, Keith Huff – and some of the best actors on any series – Huffman, Regina King, Timothy Hutton, Richard Cabral, Benito Martinez, Lili Taylor, Conor Jessup.  The show has always been deeply entrenched in the progressive agenda and many times in the first two seasons it veered toward agitprop.  But those  seasons also featured great risks, great writing and 3-dimensional characters who audiences could care about.  This season, however, it has ditched its multiple perspectives for a soapbox.  The second episode ended with a finger-wagging sermon on the evils of corporate farming aimed right at the sweet spot of white guilt.  I think I understand where it’s coming from: life under Trump is a never-ending cycle of horrors and frustration, as the government rolls back all the social progress made under Obama and encourages the worst aspects of consumerism and economic exploitation.  I get it, dudes, and I share your outrage.  But you’ve stopped writing a story and simply turned your show into a screed.  Not good. I’m sure you have loads of tricks up your sleeve, but I’ve stopped caring.  Go, make a documentary.  ‘Cause right now, your drama lacks any drama, and – sad to say it, but your show really sucks.

Reed Birney and Blake DeLong star in the urination epic Shy Guys

The recently-concluded Pasadena Film Festival also featured several films, both fictional and documentary, which tried to address the many ills of the modern world.  Some of these were small, humorous films about small, personal subjects like potty-training (House Broken) and pissing at public urinals (Shy Guys), others were small films about big issues like slave labor (The Raft) that for one reason or another never caught fire.  But a few of these films were excellent efforts that have stayed with me.  They are worth tracking down and catching up on if possible.

Victor’s Last Class by Brendan Brandt is both one of my favorite films in this festival and one of my favorite documentaries in recent memory.  Its premise is simple: a noted west coast acting teacher, stricken with cancer, has publicly declared that he is going to end his own life.  Brendan, a sensitive actor/filmmaker, has heard about this and approaches the teacher, Victor Altorio, in the hopes of changing his mind.  Thus begins a five-month cat-and-mouse game in which it’s often difficult to tell who is the cat and who is the mouse.

Victor is a very out there gay man in his 50s who has lived his life on his own terms and encourages his acting students to do the same.  “Tell the truth to the people you love!” he exhorts (this is also the film’s tag line), and his acting exercises are all designed to get past our social filters, our censors and defense systems, so the truth of primal emotion and real feelings can be revealed.  But Victor is a complex individual who can also be very evasive, and so is his truth.  It’s clear from the outset that he enjoys the attention that Brendan is giving him, enjoys performing for the camera and saying outrageous things.  But does he mean them, or does he just enjoy the shock value that he knows they will have?  Or both?

Much like the Gary Cooper character in the great Frank Capra movie John Doe, Victor seems to understand from the beginning that there is no movie without his suicide.  In the Capra film, Barbara Stanwyck plays a hard-hearted reporter sent to cover Gary Cooper’s final days who ends up falling in love and trying to save him.  Something similar happens here, though it’s more complicated.  A seduction is clearly going on.  On the most obvious level, Victor is heavily flirting with Brendan, a good-looking straight guy in his 30s.  Victor says as much several times, and Brendan replies very sincerely that he’s been falling in love with Victor too – and that’s why he can’t stop trying to save him.  But is that the truth?  Certainly a complex bond forms between them, which is one of the considerable pleasures and achievements of this film.  Yet, as much as Brendan genuinely wants Victor to live, part of their bond is a tacit understanding that there is only one way this can go.   We as the audience come to understand this too, on the same unconscious level as Brendan and Victor do.  In the end, we all do a strange Dance of Death, and Victor emerges for me as one of the more memorable and elusive characters in recent cinema.

Gabriella Stone and Alex Lynn Ward in It Happened Again Last Night

It Happened Again Last Night is a fairly straightforward short about spousal abuse with some interesting spins.  Written and directed by Gabriella Stone and her male partner Roze, and starring Ms. Stone, the film depicts the spousal battery of Paige by her husband Stephen, and her attempts to leave her husband for her female lover Kris.  The film feels very real without being pedestrian or like a public service announcement.  Even the more predictable elements – as when we see the young Paige being beaten by her dad, and then repeating that pattern with her spouse – have an understanding of how shocking human violence is on a personal level, and how it comes out of nowhere and then feels inevitable after it’s happened.  Similarly, the outbursts of love and hate feel casual, almost sloppy, in the way real events unfold.  The actors may be a little prettier than most of us, but they’re not Hollywood models, just attractive people caught in a very unattractive situation.  Gabriella Stone won the Best Actress award for the Pasadena Film Festival, and she is very good.  But so is her husband, played by Randy Wayne.  He looks like a cowboy – almost a combination of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Brokeback Mountain” – but his behavior is brutal and brutish.  He seems to hate himself for it, and yet that doesn’t stop him.  That really works, and it gives the film added urgency.  Plus there’s the cinematography by Roze, which is gorgeous throughout.  You wouldn’t think that a film this disturbing should look this good, but it ends up re-enforcing the tragic toll these events take on all those involved.

Bruce Beatty in Neighbor

Neighbor is an example of a film which is kind of brilliant without being very well made or even particularly good.  It was written and directed by Tony Gapastione, and at the festival talkback he freely admitted that he was learning how to make films on the fly.  Here is Tony G.’s logline for his 11 minute film: “A homeless man witnesses a kidnapping, and when he goes after the perpetrator he uncovers a dirty little secret in suburbia.”  Except no – that’s not in fact what happens.  The homeless man is beaten up when he interrupts a white guy moving two young girls in tight clothing from a car to a van.  Then the dark-skinned homeless man cries out for help, wandering into a leafy, suburban neighborhood and into the backyard of an upscale family just as dad gets home and is revealed to be … yes, the guy who just beat up the homeless man while trafficking teenagers.  Ouch, that makes my brain hurt and would get an “F” from Mr. McKee the film guru.  But there’s something so earnest about the way that Tony G. chronicles the homeless man’s anguish that it somewhat mitigates the heavy-handedness of his message.  And then the credits roll – a full two  minutes of credits, and it may be the best two minutes in the entire festival, as three actual victims of human  trafficking tell their real stories silently with a succession of handmade signs. The three stories are completely different and yet equally wrenching.  I understood more about the pain of being exploited from those two minutes than from anything else I have ever seen on the subject.  Now if Tony Gapastione can just find a way to make his films as memorable and compelling as his credits, he may turn out to be a filmmaker who can change the world.

Johnny Rey Diaz and Aliyah Conley in I Am Still Here

I Am Still Here is a feature from writer/director Mischa Marcus on that same subject of human trafficking.  The subject is inherently disturbing, and the early parts of Marcus’s film succeeds in making it painfully real in a way that I found difficult to look away from.  The sight of these girls as young as 10 being manhandled by adult men of many ethnic backgrounds prompts a visceral disgust, at least from this Twisted Hipster.  But halfway through the movie, the timeline skips ahead seven years, when the girls have become seventeen year olds, and the movie starts falling apart.  First, it’s just hard to believe that they are still in this hell, that Ricky (their pimp) has been able to keep it together while moving them from location to location.  Second, the little girls are now young women, with womanly figures and curves, and the grotesque spectacles of before are replaced by more familiar (if no less nauseating) male behavior.  Then there’s a turning point when the central girl, Layla, is able to get away, saved in very unconvincing fashion by one of the deviants who has “fallen in love” with her.  Scenes in this section verge on the ridiculous, as Layla is treated respectfully by her well-to-do admirer, who we have already learned has made his money by trafficking in pornographic images of young girls.  In the end, the film is elevated by the brilliant performances, especially from Aliyah Conley (who plays young Layla) and the other young girls, and from Johnny Rey Diaz, who makes Ricky the trafficker/pimp into a monster of stomach-turning proportions.  I look forward to seeing what Mr Diaz will do in his next role, even as I remain haunted by his depiction of unredeemable evil in this one.