Voices from the Fringe: Lucy Gillespie, Writer of ‘Son of a Bitch'

Another piece making its world premiere at the Fringe is Son of a Bitch, the story of the controversial political strategist Lee Atwater. It was written by Lucy Gillespie, playwright of last year’s Keeping Up with the Prozorovs, and directed by Billy Ray Brewton, who helmed last year’s A Beast/A Burden at the Fringe.

Ms. Gillespie took some time from her busy Fringe schedule to talk to Better Lemons about the new show.

Better Lemons: What was the inspiration for Son of a Bitch?
Lucy Gillespie: Lee Atwater is an awesome character. I wanted to work with Billy Ray Brewton, and this was right up his alley. Also, it's a fun writing challenge to condense all that history/spin into plot.

BL: As a native Brit, what did you find intriguing about the story of Atwater, one of the most polarizing political figures of our time? Why tell his story now?
LG: Though I grew up in the UK, my mother is from Chicago, and she raised us to self-identify as American. This was confusing and alienating for me as a teenager living in London in the early 2000's, where the last thing you wanted to be was American.

When 9/11 happened, my friends all cut school to protest "Americanization.” They burned effigies of President Bush in the streets. I was often called upon to explain or apologize for the atrocities of my people. Looking back, I think that's a big part of what led me to leave the UK at 18. I felt unwanted, like I had to pick a side.

I first learned about Lee Atwater in 2008, when I was living in Chicago after college. Between the devastation of the financial crisis and the upswell of hope from the Obama campaign, the air was very charged. I saw a documentary about Lee, became obsessed, and read every book I could find. I think I felt like that was whom I needed to channel and become in order to survive in America. I wrote a play about him, The Atwater Campaign, which went on to become an O'Neill Finalist, effectively starting my career as a playwright.

Politics is a perennial topic — and especially now. A lot of folks are asking how we got here. The answer is, largely, Lee Atwater.

But he was a much more complex, charismatic, compelling human than the demonized bogeyman/genius the liberal and right wing media make him out to be.

BL: How do you hope audiences will react to the piece — on both sides of the political spectrum?
LG: It's interesting because you assume — or I did — that a bunch of theater people in LA will all be ultra-liberal, preaching to the choir. Between the cast and crew, we actually represent a wide political spectrum. So much so that we had to put the kibosh on talking politics after some workshop readings got heated...

Our intention is to show Lee Atwater as a man, and how his personality catalyzed a dramatic shift within the Republican party, and subsequently American politics. We have no interest in theater that's dogmatic or preachy. We want everyone, regardless of political stripe, to laugh, lean in and learn.

Left to right: Billy Ray Brewton (director), Corsica Wilson (Gladys), Chloe Dworkin (Cass), Lucy Gillespie (Playwright)

BL: Tell us a bit about your collaboration with the director, another Fringe veteran, Billy Ray Brewton. How did you work together on the piece? 
LG: I saw Billy Ray's A Beast/A Burden last year, thought it was hysterical and brilliant, and knew I wanted to work with him. Though The Atwater Campaign was an O'Neill Finalist, it had never been produced, so I'd been sort of roaming the earth looking for a home for it ever since. In August 2018, I sent that script to Billy Ray — a Southern boy like Lee — and he signed on immediately. We chatted about story/character/cast/production throughout the year, and then I rewrote the entire script for him before rehearsals started.

It's been an equally scary and thrilling ride. There were definitely moments in April where I wanted to cut and run, never to be heard from again. In theory, I love to devise and workshop; in practice you need a foundation of trust to give in to the process. My baseline is neurotic, and Billy Ray is so chill. It took me a minute to realize that's because he trusts me, and he's not worried. That helped me relax and go with the flow.

Now we're rehearsing, and I'm in awe of him and the actors. He has such a quick, brilliant mind for orchestration. It's a master class watching him zoom in to the tiny details, then zoom out to the big picture. I'm super excited to share this with the world.

Ben Hethcoat (Lee Atwater), and Luke Forbes (George "W" Bush)

BL: Is there humor in this show?
LG: For sure. I'd describe the tone as political satire.

BL: Tell us about the performers and how they came to be cast in their roles.
LG: The cast is a mixture of Prozorovs and Burdens. Ben Hethcoat, who played Chris Burden last year, is reviving his 70s hairstyle for Lee Atwater. Corsica Wilson, playing Gladys, is also a Burden alum. On the Prozorovs side, we have Chloe Dworkin — who you may recall as the pregnant, constipated Olga - playing Cass. Luke Forbes, who played the Kanye-esque Demetrion, is now a young George W Bush.

Rounding out the cast are David McElwee (writer/director of Rory and the Devil, also in Fringe), who is bffs with Ben from college, and Dennis Gersten, who saved all of our asses by signing on at the last minute as George H W Bush.

BL: What makes Son of a Bitch a good fit for the Hollywood Fringe?
LG: It's bold and funny, fast-paced and hard-hitting. We work hard, but we don't take ourselves too seriously.

BL: What brings you back to the Fringe again this year?
LG: Last year was so much fun. Between the show rehearsals, our tight and loving Chekhovian-Kardashian cast family, the wider network of Fringers, and all the great theater we saw, it was just a blast. I spend the rest of the year writing screenplays and pitches, which is lonely and somewhat more creatively constricting, so I've been counting down the days. No joke, I hit up Billy Ray about this project in August.

BL: Since the Fringe is an environment of collaboration, what other shows are you interested in seeing?
LG: Rory and the Devil (of course)
Public Domain: The Musical
The Duchess and the Stripper
If We Run
Sex with Strangers
Raised by Wolves

Son of a Bitch plays June 6 (preview) through June 29 at the Broadwater, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd. Find show times and make reservations on the Fringe site.

Fringe Friday: Venue Workshop Next Week + Become a Fringe Mentor + Open Houses

Mentor applications for the Fringe Scholarship Program are due by 11:59pm on January 15th.  Mentoring a Hollywood Fringe Scholarship recipient is a tremendous way to support artists, plus all mentors will receive free quarter-page ads in this year's Guide to promote their own projects. To be a mentor, you need to have participated in at least one Hollywood Fringe Festival and commit to meetings and events with your mentee.  For more information on the requirements and to apply, visit the Fringe mentor page.

The first Fringe workshop of the season, Working with Venues, is coming up next Thursday, January 18th from 8-10pm at Thymele Arts. The event is free and there will be a mixer in the space following the event with beer and wine available for a $3 donation.
Parking in the area can be tricky, so please plan ahead. There is a sub level parking garage right around the corner at 1110 N. Western ($1.50 for the first two hours or $8.00 for the day; most days garage parking is free after 6:30 pm). The venue is just down the block from the Metro's red line (Hollywood/Western or Vermont/Santa Monica) and a number of buses stop right outside the front door (757, 147, 207, 704, 4).
You can see a full list of the Town Halls & Workshops the Fringe folks be hosting this year on the Fringe blog (the first Town Hall is also coming up!).

Additionally, a number of venues will be hosting open houses next week:
The Complex Hollywood: Tuesday, January 16; 3 - 6 PM
Asylum @ McCadden Theatre: Thursday, January 18; 6 - 7 PM
Asylum @ Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre: Thursday, January 18; 6 - 7:30 PM
Asylum @ Studio C: Thursday, January 18; 6 - 7:30 PM
The Complex Hollywood: Thursday, January 18; 1 - 3 PM  and 4:30 - 6:30 PM
Thymele Arts: Thursday, January 18; 6 - 8 PM
You are encouraged you to notify the venue, if you plan to attend their open house. Please visit the Fringe venue's page at hollywoodfringe.org/venues for more information and contact details.

Finally, February 1st marks the official opening of the Fringe registration period. Start your season ahead of the game by creating a project today.

Is the Hollywood Fringe really ‘fringe'?.... by a Disheartened Fringe Participant

I wrote, directed, and performed in a show in the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival, and I came away rather disheartened.
At first, I thought that this was completely my fault. I went straight to the drawing board to assess where I went wrong; marketing? Price? Budgeting? What was it that led me to have a rather unsuccesful brief run?
I'm not an egomaniac, but I am very confident in my abilities as an artist, and I strongly believe my product was of a high standard. I had industry professionals, some with decades of theater and acting experience under their belt, come and assess (brutally, honestly) my show. Yet all the feedback, and everyone who came to the show, was very positive…
In fact, people were really impressed. It was, according to many, the bravest and best original piece of theatre they had seen in a long time, and one of the best on offer at the festival (this also coming from other festival artitsts and theatre staff).
So, if the product was at a good standard, what happened?
Ticket sales were low. Very low… I mean, one evening, I had 6 people in the audience (including my usher, mother, and roommate).  Probably the hardest thing I've had to do in my career.
I had a pretty small budget, but I ran ads on the Fringe website, put flyers in all the places we could put flyers, and put the word out on social media and through all available channels. I followed the ‘marketing advice' completely.  Maybe I could have done better with marketing, I guess, but I don't think I did terribly either.
What I noticed was that all the shows with lines out doors, and coincidentally, all the shows that won awards, were artists returning with the same company and building off success of previous years. The ‘popular kids' of the fringe had an advantage and I guess, rightly so.
It just doesn't sit well with me that as I watched the same people getting up to accept awards, I couldn't help but feel that this establishment who was trying to be so ‘un-Hollywood' , was in fact, very ‘Hollywood'.  It was a glorified popularity contest. The best show was probably not going to the best show, but in fact, just the most popular show.
Doesn't this contradict what the term ‘fringe' means??...
In my experience, going to a "fringe" theatre festival is about going to the most obscure, international, and weird pieces of theatre. The more unknown the piece, the better. That's fringe. Not the piece that has a big budget because of success from last year's show. Those people should be working to get their pieces in a proper theatre season at a proper theatre and ‘graduating' to be the ‘adults' of the theatre world.
I had moderate ‘success'. I had an extension, producers award, and an audience critic award from an established (independent) review site. But to be honest, there were half a dozen awards at the ceremony that I, and others, thought I deserved at least a nomination for.
But given that the majority of my audience members were friends, collegues, connections, and people in my life, I was never going to scoop any of these awards. Again, I'm not looking for validation, but it's very unsatisfying as an artist to be so handicapped when it comes to recognition by your peers.
I was disheartened by the fact that you could have the most heartfelt, original piece of storytelling at the festival, yet you haven't got a chance of winning any of the awards, because you simply won't get the crowds. You will quite literally drown in the swamp that is Hollywood Fringe.
Does the festival need judges to go to each show to make it fair? Maybe.
Could I have done things better on my end? Of course.
Does the festival need to have a big think about supporting emerging, new, international artists? Absolutely.
I didn't feel a big sense of ‘community'. It felt like high school. The ‘cool kids' of returning years snubbed the new kids. The festival didn't really value the concept of originality or creativity from new practitioners.
Long story short, I wouldn't the Hollywood Fringe again, nor would I recomment it to any other practitioner.
I thought I was alone, but the more I voiced my concerns, the more I learned that others felt the same, and that other festivals around the world were a lot more in line with the ‘fringe' concept than the Hollywood festival…
Don't get me wrong, it's a big task to hold that many practitioners and run such a diverse and complex organisation, but the word ‘fringe' should certainly be omitted from their title unless some serious changes are made.
Yours Sincerely
A Disheartened Artist

Paul Yen's Finding His IDENTITY (SECRET Or Otherwise) in Fringe

Armed with the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2017 Fringe Scholarship, actor Paul Yen will world premiere his one-man show SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS June 3, 2017. Paul took some time off from his superheroing to answer a few of our superpowering, probing questions.

Thank you for doing this interview with me, Paul!

If you were to pitch your super one-man show to the networks, what would your three-line pitch of SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS be?

A Vietnamese-American re-establishes three iconic superheroes as Asian-American men to examine the journey of Asians in America throughout history.

What was your process of elimination in picking your three superheroes to feature in SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS?

Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man were my first three choices. Before the superhero craze, these were the three characters I most associated with the word 'Superhero.' My original intention was to develop a separate show for each one, but I eventually combined them all into one show.

Will Fringe audiences get to see you in hero masks and tights?

Elaborate costuming was my hope, but the costs of producing my first show wouldn't let me go as far as I'd like. There will be fun hints of the heroes and some key accessories, but the audience will mainly recognize the heroes through their stories.

You have acting credits going back to 2008. Why, in 2013, did you change your stage name from Paul Nguyen to Paul Yen?

When I joined SAG-AFTRA in 2013, there were quite a few Paul Nguyens on file. I wanted to hang on to my Vietnamese heritage; however, I didn't want to be pigeonholed, since Nguyen is such a common Vietnamese last name. I took out the 'Ngu' from my last name and hung onto the end, because I'm gonna work hard until the end. 'Yen' is ambiguous enough and also happens to be my favorite Vietnamese name.

What was your parents' reaction when you told them you wanted to become an actor?

My mom was supportive in that "worried-mother" kind of way. I think my dad gave me his best effort: "That's great…but how are you gonna pay the bills?" Followed by a laugh. But they've become truly supportive over the years, and one of my favorite moments of all time was when I told my dad about an audition and he gave me a genuine, "Good Luck!" I didn't care how the audition went at that point.

My only Asian movie role model was Bruce Lee. Please tell me you're not too young to know who he was? 

I didn't grow up as a big Bruce Lee fan, but I certainly knew who he was and thought he was a badass. He passed away before my time, but I think many generations have been influenced by his legacy. Bruce Lee plays a pivotal role in SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS, and through my research, I've become a firm admirer of his accomplishments, the legend he is and will continue to be.

Who is your Asian role model?

First and foremost, my parents. Then Son Goku (he's Asian), Russell Wong, John Woo, Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung, Wong Kar-wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Faye Wong, Ken Leung, Maggie Cheung, Ang Lee, Justin Lin, John Cho, Akira Kurosawa, Bruce Lee, Jeremy Lin, Keni Stylez, Kenneth Choi, Ashima Shiraishi, Benedict Wong, Constance Wu, Ali Wong... to name a few.

Tell us the most funny 'ha-ha' audition you had.

When I booked my first network co-star. I was required to prepare the role with, and without, an Asian accent. I was determined to wow casting with no accent, but also offer a third option where the character was pretending to have an accent (influenced by Ken Leung in Keeping the Faith). I went in, did no accent, accent, and they stopped me before I got to my third option. I really didn't want to play the role with an accent, so of course, that's exactly what they offered me. I was certainly appreciative of the opportunity, but I tried to downplay the accent to the best of my ability during the shoot.

Tell us the most not-so-funny "I can't believe they said that!" experience you had.

Someone in the business threatened my acting career over a heated debate we were having about the presidential election. I thought, "Are you being serious right now?"

In my formative years in Los Angeles, armed with my S.A.G. card, I was told I didn't look 'Chinese enough' or 'Asian enough.' I did book a commercial as an Eskimo though. What ethnicities have you been cast as?

Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Nepalis. I strongly believe that in Asian/Western Asian stories, Western Asians should be able to play all Asians. I'd like to tell Vietnamese stories, but I wouldn't want to limit myself to only my ethnicity. If that were the case, I'd only ever play a Vietnamese person from the Vietnam War. Asians are complex. I'd love to play a Special Forces Soldier. A samurai. A Chinese gangster. A member of the 442nd. A space pilot. A porn star. So on and so forth.

What classic role would you like to tackle the 'Asian version' of?

Michael Corleone.

You are an avid motorcycle racing fan. Do you know of any Asian motorcycle racers?

There are many overseas. My favorite Asian motorcycle racer is Noriyuki Haga, aka "Nitro Nori." I instantly gravitated toward him when I first started following World Superbike in the early 2000's. He was the essence of cool.

What is in the immediate future for Paul Yen?

I'd love to tour this show in major cities and on college campuses. If I can inspire one Asian-American, then it will all be worth it. On screen, I'll continue to seek out roles that are complex and that challenge me as an actor and as a human being. I'll also continue researching the 442nd Regimental Combat Team for a project I'm developing. Aside from that? Spend time with friends and family, catch up on my reading, and rock climb!

Thank you again, Paul! I look forward to meeting all your superheroes!

To meet Paul and his superheroes at the Asylum @ Underground Theatre, log onto www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/4564 for available tickets and schedule through June 24, 2017.