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

Gil Kaan

Writer, Registered Critic

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 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.

Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas in his career, including Ann-Margret, Diana Ross, Faye Dunaway, Carol Channing, Shirley MacLaine, Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Sandra Bernhard, Anna Nicole Smith, Margaret Cho, and three Catwomen—Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar. He had the fortuitous opportunity to conduct Lily Tomlin’s coming out interview. Gil has since reviewed movies and theatre for a number of local and national outlets.
A photo montage of Gil’s Halloween Carnavale photos through the last decade was recently included in the WeHo@ 25 juried exhibition.