COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Seeing the Funny Side of Life – An Interview with Buzzworks’ Courtney Fortner

Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Courtney Fortner is a performer, writer, producer, director, and voice coach. She is a producer and board member for Buzzworks, a non-profit theater company. She has directed over a dozen children’s productions and teaches musical theater in Los Angeles. She has performed improv at the Vittum Theater Chicago, Comedy Sportz Theater Chicago, and Theater for the New City, New York. She has been nominated by the Television Academy Foundation for her work writing sketch comedy and currently takes classes at The Groundlings. She has also worked in casting at CBS in New York City. Courtney graciously took time from her busy schedule to interview in April 2020.

Rich Hutchman and Davey Johnson in “The Exit Interview” – Photo by Craig Anton

When did Buzzworks Theatre Company begin? What led to its creation? What is the mission of Buzzworks? Were you involved from the beginning? When did you become producer/board member for Buzzworks?

Courtney Fortner:  Buzzworks is a non-profit theatre company founded by Andrea Hutchman in 1992. After not getting cast as Juliet in Minneapolis and another play fell through last minute, she decided she needed to take her career into her own hands. She got the rights to Painting Churches by Tina Howe and produced and directed it in Minneapolis. It featured Mo Collins (MadTV, Fear the Walking Dead.)  And thus, Buzzworks was born!

Over the next couple of years, we did summer stock on Mackinac Island, Michigan for the next two summers and then continued in Green Lake Wisconsin. At that time, the company was just Andrea and two partners and eventually only one partner. In 1996, Buzzworks moved to LA; but we continued to produce in the Midwest, as well as in Los Angeles.

The mission has always been to produce shows that are funny – that is to say, funny and dark, funny and sad, funny and poignant. Funny always has to be in there. We want to create “a theatrical buzz” meaning producing new works, fascinating or unusual works, or just hilarious pieces that allow us and our audience to play.

In 2003, Andrea expanded the board.  We have had as many as 12 board members, but we have never been a company that keeps a big roster of non-voting members or requires dues. At present, we have ten board members. I was referred by a previous board member and got involved with the company at the beginning of 2019. I became a board member and took on the task of producing our next play alongside our artistic director, Gregory Kucukarslan. Recent productions included Sex by Mae West and Exit Interview by William Missouri Downs. We’ve received several awards, including Best Comedy Ensemble from LA Weekly for our productions of Bad Seed and Eight Ways to meet your Neighbor. So far, it’s been an exciting ride!

Carla Velentine and Wayne Wilderson in “Sex” – Photo by Rich Hutchman

When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?

CF: We closed down officially March 16 after LA started regulating the number of people that could gather in a public venue. We were anticipating opening our latest production, It Is Magic by Mickle Maher on April 4.  We were disappointed, of course, but thankful that we were lucky enough to not have opened already or planning to open sooner.

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen? Auditions? Fundraising?

CF: Of course, we are no longer holding rehearsals or meetings in person. We have adapted like many to virtual meetings discussing how to move forward. Buzzworks is anticipating opening our production of It Is Magic as soon as we get government approval on public gatherings and we are able to lock down new dates. We’re using this as an opportunity to expand our social media presence and look for new works which we could possibly produce in the future. Currently, we are actively seeking and searching for new playwrights to whom we could commission an entirely new piece – or perhaps workshop one of their not yet produced works.

Samantha Sloyan and Andrea Hutchman in “Munched” – Photo courtesy of Buzzworks Theatre Company

What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes? What would you like to ask of the theater public?

CF: We believe live theater will be more needed than ever after this pandemic clears. People will be thrilled to just leave their house and gather in that magical energy of live performance. I do worry that certain theaters may have trouble paying rent during these months. Hopefully, we can all hold through until the storm is over.

Supporting the arts is more important now than ever. If you love a theater group, or are able to support in any way, reach out and see what you can do for them. As far as Buzzworks is concerned, we are accepting donations and looking for new playwrights. If you know of a fabulous new play, a great writer, or are one yourself, please contact us through our website We also might be interested in commissioning a play.

What are some of your future plans?

CF:  We are planning on running our 2020 season, but there will be a delay in the opening of our first show. In addition to that, we’re hoping to continue growing as a theater company with regular seasons every year and more and more plays we are able to produce.

This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.

Spotlight Series: Meet Dana Weisman, A Musical Theatre Actor Who Longs to Get Back Onstage ASAP

This Spotlight focuses on Dana Weisman, a musical theatre actor who longs to get back on the stage and entertain audiences as soon as possible!

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

Dana Weisman (Dana): It seems like I have been involved with theatre my whole life. Originally from New York, I began taking dance lessons at around 7 years old and then became a company member in a local children’s theatre troupe when I was around 10.  Like many young girls at the time, I was captivated by the musical Annie when it opened on Broadway and would have given my right arm to be part of that experience. In my mid-teens I attended a performing arts camp called French Woods in the Catskills and further fanned my musical theatre ambition.

Roy Okida and Dana Weisman in “Somethings Afoot”

Then, after the movie Fame came out, I was given the opportunity to audition for the High School of Music & Art (now LaGuardia) and was accepted as a Vocal Arts major. We were classically trained, but for me one of the most fun and fulfilling parts of my high school years was being a member of M&A’s acclaimed Gospel Choir. While at M&A, I was also a part of a professional theatre company in Manhattan called The First All Children’s Theater. With this troupe, I had the opportunity of performing at the Kennedy Center in an original musical called The Trip when I was 16 years old.

After high school, I attended Northwestern as a Theatre major for a couple of years before transferring to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (Circle-In-The-Square) as I had decided I wanted to earn a BFA. After college followed long years of waiting tables at MANY restaurants up and down Manhattan. You can definitely “Betcha your life a waitress earns her pay!”

In between waiter gigs and other odd jobs, I took classes and built my resume doing lots of regional and summer stock theatre. I made lifetime friends at all these jobs and seemed at times to move closer to my goal of a Broadway gig – but then would slide back. It became frustrating as I saw many of my friends move on to Broadway and my confidence eventually began to erode. I learned there is no question one needs to have an unflagging, burning desire coupled with talent and being in the right place at the right time in order to succeed in this biz. But I seemed to never have all three at the same time.

Dana Weisman as Frau Blucher

Eventually, after a break-up, I decided to move to Los Angeles where my brother was living and try out a change of scenery and maybe pursue the TV/film side of the biz. Shortly after being in LA, I met my husband Jon, a native Angelino, and my fate to become a West Coast transplant was sealed. After getting married, I decided to pursue my other strong interest – psychology – and in between raising a family of three, I earned my graduate degree and became a licensed MFT.

However, as almost any theatre person can attest, once you are bitten by the theatre bug, it is impossible to truly get rid of the itch to be involved in the business in some way, shape or form. After years of singing lullabies to my children, I decided I wanted to get back to singing in another capacity. A few wonderful years singing with the famed Angel City Chorale was followed by my LA theatre debut with Kentwood Players at the Westchester Playhouse. Since then, I have been performing in many other venues around LA, The Blank Theatre, The West Coast Jewish Theatre, and the Cupcake Theatre, to name a few, and also trying to break into the television / commercial / film / VO side as well.

Dana Weisman in “Broadway Bound”

(SB): I remember being amazed at your performance in Broadway Bound with The West Coast Jewish Theatre, quoting from my Broadway World review: “And what dedication to her craft was on display by Dana Weisman (understudy for Maria Spassoff), taking the stage with a broken leg in a boot and walking on crutches as Kate’s sister Blanche Morton. But as soon as the initial surprise wore off in a matter of seconds, the lovely scene with Blanche visiting the family home, dressed to the nines by Shon Le Blanc in a lovely dressy suit and fur coat, reflected how well she has done for herself.” A truly masterful performance! What production(s) were you involved with when word went out you needed to immediately postpone/cancel the show? 

(Dana): Luckily, I was in between shows at the time the “Safe At Home” quarantine began. I had recently ended a run at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center as Donna in Mamma Mia and was auditioning for my next opportunity. I had a callback in the works but unfortunately, the show was postponed as we started to see the ripple effect all over LA of theaters closing and schedules being put up in the air indefinitely. Post show confidence is always a great booster for moving forward to one’s next goals. So while I wasn’t part of a show in the works at the time the quarantine began, any momentum I was hoping to build upon post Mamma Mia has had to be suspended indefinitely.

Dana Weisman as Donna in “Mamma Mia”

(SB): If you missed Dana in “Mamma Mia” in Simi Valley, here is my review of that fabulous production.

Regarding that callback, how was the shutdown communicated with you?

(Dana): News of this particular shutdown was communicated online via Facebook, emails, and other social media. That said, I knew it was coming and had contemplated perhaps not even attending the original audition because by that time, shutdowns were already taking place all over town. But I am glad that I did though as it always feels good to get out and turn in a mini-performance and get to do what you love, even in nerve-wracking audition circumstances.

(SB): Do you know if plans are in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?

(Dana): As far as I know, this particular production will commence in the future but no dates have been announced as yet. I certainly hope and pray that CoViD-19 and future precautions do not effectively “kill” live theatre, and I look forward to the day when auditions and live performances can resume. But I know that smaller theaters and theatre companies will have their budgets affected by the shutdown, and that all shows will be pushed back and schedules will have to be altered and reworked. I have a daughter who is attending Northwestern University in the fall as a freshman but, as with theatre, schedules are up in the air and may look like something completely new that we have not yet seen as we get closer to the start of the next semester.

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

Dana Weisman with “Sunday in the Park” cast

(Dana): So far, I have taken advantage of this time by cocooning at home with my family by resting, cooking, baking, watching TV, taking safe distancing walks, meditating and attempting to get some much-needed sleep. Lots of self-care. However, I will say that it can be difficult maintaining motivation as lethargy is not easy to stave off when the rule of the day is to stay at home and mostly indoors. As a theatre person – and generally a “people person” – the distance created by interacting onscreen is not always as fulfilling as the live experience. But if this is the new normal, we will all need to adjust.

Moving into this next phase, I hope to begin keeping up personally by honing my audition songbook, learning monologues, and reading plays. There are so many online classes for just about any aspect of the theatre — auditions, dance, acting — I hope to begin taking part in many of them. Some groups I participate in are doing online play readings, and I am planning to also take part in those. Keeping up with my fellow actors in Zoom chats is also a much-needed balm.

(SB): It’s been fun being in a few of the Zoom meetings with you! Any more thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the LA Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Dana): It is difficult to maintain hope and positivity during such unprecedented and anxious times. But theatre isn’t going anywhere. I think it’s best to just take a little rest and time to recalibrate and emerge with renewed vigor once it is safe to again “go live.” As we have all seen, the Arts in all forms are what people are turning to in these crazy times to keep going and to be inspired. They provide solace, laughter, a creative outlet, and catharsis even when shared via distance and online.

Forgive my corny sign-off but it’s true: “The sun will come out tomorrow!”

This article first appeared on Broadway World.

Spotlight Series: Cindy and Perry Shields

This Spotlight focuses on popular South Bay entertainers Cindy Shields and Perry Shields who met in 1980 when they were both performing in Guys and Dolls at El Camino College and  have been entertaining audiences around Los Angeles and the South Bay for over 40 years!

Perry Shields discovered acting in Kindergarten when he realized how much he enjoyed performing magic tricks for an audience. He continued to read books to other students, then finally, in seventh grade, he played Santa Claus in a Christmas play and was hooked. Since performing all four years during high school, Perry has been involved in over 100 productions in the capacity of actor, director, and musician. And for the past 11 years, he has been an MC at every “Monsterpalooza” event in Burbank and Pasadena.

Cindy Shields in “The Ultimate Christmas Show”

His wife Cindy remembers that as a kid who was frequently sick, she spent way too much time watching TV during the glory days of The Hollywood Palace, holiday specials, variety shows, The Carol Burnett Show, The Honeymooners, The Dean Martin Show, and the beloved Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. In her sophomore year of high school, Cindy put her shyness and fear aside and auditioned for their Spring Show, No, No, Nanette and was actually cast as a dancer! And that was it – she too was hooked on performing for an audience and has been a (mostly musical) theatre geek ever since.

After a lot of encouragement, Cindy took stand-up classes and has been on that exciting journey performing stand-up the past eight years, which led to her getting noticed by an agent in 2015. She is happily doing a few commercials while regularly performing stand-up at Flappers Comedy Club and at other locations around LA and Orange Counties. She shares, “it’s not a life I ever saw coming but I love it – although I truly miss the joy of working with an ensemble in a show.”

Perry Shields in “Cabaret”

Perry had just completed performing in Pick of the Vine at Little Fish in San Pedro, which closed mid-February just before the shutdown happened. The other theatre company in which he is involved as V.P. of the “Friends Of” organization, the Torrance Theatre Company, was about to open Good People, the fourth show of their season when word came on Friday, March 13th that Saturday’s opening, and subsequent run, was cancelled. The same thing happened to Cindy who had a headlining gig at Flappers that weekend which was cancelled.

But in the midst of all this, Cindy shares, “we sadly lost Perry’s sister, my dear sis-in-Love, so her illness and passing and her precious daughters were our focus. Our dear younger niece moved in with us (hate the circumstances but LOVE having her with us) and so our world turned upside down for a few reasons, and our faith continues to see us through it all. It’s getting better because I get little ideas for material here and there – like sweet little blooms brightening up Spring right now. You have to remember to appreciate the little things in life and not worry about the big things all the time.”

Perry is staying involved at Little Fish with its “Virtual Theatre” initiative where members are invited to share performance art or any artistic endeavor online. “Our daughter Kimmy, niece Lana, and I have created several stop-motion pieces, the longest of which was posted by Little Fish. It’s a short film called You and Eye.”

Lastly, Cindy shares, “Theatre has been a precious and powerful presence in our lives for over 40 years, and to share this passion with our dear children Craig and Kimmy onstage has been such a gift. And artists can only go for so long before they have to create – and that’s a beautiful thing!”  For these two (and me), theaters can’t re-open soon enough and we hope all postponed shows will return as soon as it is feasibly possible.

This article first appeared on Broadway World.

‘Patrick Cassidy’ Leaves ‘5-Star Theatricals’ as Artistic Director

Patrick Cassidy has resigned as Artistic Director, according to a statement released by 5-Star Theatricals.

As Artistic Director, Cassidy oversaw two seasons of successful productions such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Shrek,” “Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical,” and, most recently, “West Side Story” at 5-Star Theatricals’ Thousand Oaks theatre venue.

5-Star Theatricals (formerly Cabrillo Music Theatre) is an Ovation Award-winning resident musical theatre production company of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, and a non-profit theatre organization, producing live performing arts experiences and musical theatre productions for over three decades to the Ventura and Los Angeles Counties and the surrounding area patrons.

“We are so grateful to Patrick for the time he spent as Artistic Director of our company,” said Executive Director Cindy Murray in a statement. “His talent and expertise continued the excellence that our subscribers and audiences expect from our productions. He will be greatly missed and we wish him nothing but the best as he moves forward on his artistic journey.”

As an actor, on Broadway Cassidy performed as Frederic in “The Pirates Of Penzance” opposite Kevin Kline in 1982, played Jeff Barry in the Tony-nominated “Leader Of The Pack,” and the Balladeer in Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins.”

A theatrical director and producer as well, Cassidy is the son of Oscar-winning Shirley Jones and the late Jack Cassidy, and his past directing credits include “The Music Man” at the Kennedy Center, “Oklahoma!” at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Western Michigan University, and “Showstoppers” at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas as resident director, to name a few.

“I have nothing but respect and admiration for the board and staff and everyone at 5-Star Theatricals,” said Cassidy in the statement. “This experience has been a gift that I will never forget, and [I] am so grateful to have had the opportunity to serve my community and my Los Angeles theatrical family in this role.”

According to Tennessee publication, the Williamson Source, Cassidy, as Artistic Director, will be joining Studio Tenn,  a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in Franklin, Tennessee.

5-Star Theatricals is to announce a new Artistic Director soon.