Female Fusion: Local Artists, Short Film, Social Justice

How do you make a message film without being preachy? Three veteren Los Angeles filmmakers; director Deborah Lemen, writer Stacy Dymalski, and producer Megan Ford-Miller tackled that challenge with their short film Everything Has A Home. Shot in one day on location in Shreveport, Louisiana, the film is a character study focusing on two young girls with very different circumstances. It looks at classism, homelessness, and the dichotomy of appearance vs. reality. The film stars sisters Julianna Kilgarlin and Isabella Kilgarlin as girls who have a chance encounter. The filmmakers hope to both raise awareness and empathy for those in challenging circumstances while creating a calling card for their young actors. A note to the readers; this interview was conducted prior to the current COVID-19 crisis and does not take the reality of today’s situation into consideration.

I spent a morning talking with the filmmakers about creating relevant content in today’s world, the unique power of an all female production team, and how they each navigate the different roles that they each hold in the industry; as friends, colleagues, and creators.

Deborah Lemen, has a successful acting studio. She and Stacy Dymalski are longtime friends and collaborators. They initially combined their talents to create scenes for Lemen’s on camera classes. When the opportunity arose for them to make a reel for some of Lemen’s students in Louisiana, they decided to take the collaboration to the next level by creating a short film, which they plan on expanding into a feature. Once they made the transition to a professional shoot, Ford-Miller (who’s professional actor son studies with Lemen) joined the team. They filled out the cast with Katie Walker and focused on creating a strong team to shoot the film in just one day on location in Shreveport, Louisiana.

My first question focused on creating art as women. They enthusiastically agreed that feminism, motherhood, and the female essence is integral to the way that each of them, separately and as a team, approaches her work, both generally and in relation to this particular film. Ford-Miller has two children, a son and a daughter, both in their early twenties and is married. Dymalski is also a mother to two sons, but not married. Lemen, with a gentle laugh, says that her students are her children. The vulnerability of being a woman, the deep seeded fears that every woman has of ending up alone, on the streets, is an overwhelming sensation that all identified with. They also spoke of the friendship and the ability to think in a similar way and how they can communicate quickly. They all laugh a lot and finish each other’s sentences. They clearly enjoy each other and their work reflects this community spirit.

The path to Everything Has A Home began when Dymalski in short order discovered a homeless man living in her parking garage, and saw a young girl living in a parked car in a homeless encampment under an overpass. She realized what she wanted to approach with the film and then tailored the story to the two girls. She was able to craft a story that, in her words, “showed a bigger story; people are not what they seem, there are people working and living in their cars… you don’t know what a person’s circumstances are.” All three knew that this is a “hot button issue.” The homeless population is still soaring, especially in California. Current counts list it as around 17% of the general population, but it is difficult to tabulate correctly. What is lost in much of the discussion is the humanity. That is what the filmmakers sought to focus on. According to Lemen, their job was to “find the humanity and intimacy.” They did this by focusing on details; the car had a flat tire, sanitary wipes on the dashboard, tight shots of the actors. By doing all of this, they hope to increase awareness. “People don’t have any awareness of what is around them.” Dymanski states. “Who knew that sanitary wipes are a sign of homelessness?” This short is leading to a feature, and will serve as a launching off point for the film.

"Everything Has a Home"

Race is a sticky issue in regards to both homelessness and filmmaking. This is an all white cast, which is notable in today’s film world. They approached this problem head on. “It was an issue in casting.” According to Ford-Miller, “We struggled with what we were saying with that. We came down to this, the reality is that many people do not understand that homelessness is not a problem for ‘others’.” In this short piece, by keeping race and immigration out of the equation, they hope to bring understanding closer to the majority who could, if there was an excuse, easily make it about “those people.”

"Everything Has a Home"

Once they had their story and stars, the three transitioned into production mode, and from this observer’s point of view, really soared. Every part of the shoot was meticulously planned, so that when surprises occurred, there was space to improvise. There were seven set ups in three locations all shot in one day. Ford-Miller; “We were prepared and efficient. The DP (Director of Photography, Jeremy Enis), said, wow, I never shot a short in one day. Bam.” Because of the pre-existing relationships with the actors, Lemen was able to work in short cuts and because members of the team had already worked together successfully, there was an established trust prior to the day of the shoot that contributed to the speed and efficiency. There was initial fear that the DP, with whom they had not worked before, would balk at the all female team, but he was impressed with the seamless work flow.

"Everything Has a Home"

This is an artistic venture, but the team is looking for organizations to partner with and may end with a call to action. They want people to come away with the question, “Where can I go and what can I do.” If you want to make that happen before the film is released, here are a few options:

School On Wheels: School on Wheels volunteers provide free tutoring & mentoring to children from kindergarten through twelfth grade living in shelters, motels, vehicles, group foster homes, and on the streets in Southern California.

National Coalition for The Homeless: The National Coalition for the Homeless is a national network of people who are currently experiencing or who have experienced homelessness, activists and advocates, community-based and faith-based service providers, and others committed to a single mission: To prevent and end homelessness while ensuring the immediate needs of those experiencing homelessness are met and their civil rights protected.

The Midnight Mission: The Midnight Mission offers paths to self-sufficiency to men, women and children who have lost direction. They remove obstacles and provide the accountability and structure that people who are experiencing homelessness need to be productive in their communities.

Theatre Row Fixture The Lounge Theatre Closes Fueled by Coronavirus Lockdowns

The Lounge Theatre, Hollywood Fringe Festival 2018, Hollywood, California, June 1, 2018. Photo by Monique A. LeBleu.

The Lounge Theatre recently announced that it has officially closed its doors due to the coronavirus epidemic and lockdowns.

The Lounge Theatre, which is run and managed by Theatre Planners, and has been a part of the Hollywood Theatre Row community since 2005, has also been a venue participant in the annual Hollywood Fringe Festival up until 2019. Racquel Lehrman, founder and managing director of Theatre Planners, who graduated from NYU-Tisch School of the Arts and lived in New York for over eight years producing theatre prior to coming to Los Angeles, reflected on opening the theatre in 2005 in LA fresh from her marriage and honeymoon in New Jersey.

"The timing was not ideal to say the least, but I knew it was right," said Lehrman, via the venue's Facebook page post. "I remember returning from my honeymoon 2 weeks later, walking in and seeing all the construction. I nearly had a heart attack and thought 'What the hell have I done???' 'I can't do this?!!?!' Well, flash to 15 years later. The Lounge Theatre became a staple in the theatre community as a two theatre arts complex in the heart of Hollywood on Theatre Row."

Cat LaCohie in "Vixen DeVille Revealed" at the Lounge Theatre, Hollywood Fringe Festival, Hollywood, California, June 17, 2018. Photo by Monique A. LeBleu.

On the closing now, she specified that the timing in her decision was aided by much reflection along with concern overall for the return of theatre audience attendance in Los Angeles, post-COVID-19.

“It’s my choice that I gave up the Lounge Theatre, the time was right. It’s strictly a business decision and one that I’ve been contemplating for over a year,”  she said in the post. “This global pandemic sped that decision up and exposed the reasons why I need to leave sooner. We don’t know when theatre will return and the Lounge simply can't survive without it.”

The venue, which features two theatres on the ground floor coupled with coffee-concessions and lounge space, premiered many great shows that this reviewer was privileged to see during the Hollywood Fringe Festival, including solo shows like the delicious variety mixed-bag of aerial, circus arts (fire eating/glass walking,) comedy, magic, and burlesque art of Cat LaCohie  in Vixen DeVille Revealed in 2018, or the pleasures and perils of modern motherhood in April Wade Wish's Clementine or the stylish, visceral, and perfect Butoh interpretation of Shakespeare in Yoshiko "Yokko" Sienkiewicz' Hide Your Fires: Butoh Lady MacBeth in 2019.

Wish, whose show Clementine and its successful run at the Lounge for Fringe, enabled her to take her solo show to other venues post-festival as My Name Is Mommy.

Preshow preset of "Clementine" at the Lounge Theatre, Hollywood Fringe Festival, Hollywood, California, June 7, 2019. Photo by Monique A. LeBleu.

"It was the space I felt like I could take a breath in the whirlwind of the festival, a home to an untold number of stories and artists, the kind of space that was cozy, inviting you to pull up a couch and ...lounge," she said. "I will miss it. It is a huge loss to the creative community in Hollywood."

LaCohie, whose show placed challenges for other theatres that she approached, not only found the Lounge Theatre able to accommodate the physical and technical needs of her show, but was warmly embraced by it.

“This theatre helped give birth to the almost impossible show that is 'Vixen DeVille Revealed.' They really allowed me to bring my art to life and trust in my vision," said LaCohie. '"Can I eat fire onstage?' Yes you can. 'Can I rig circus equipment from your roof?' Go for it. 'Can I drag a tarp filled with broken glass on to the floor and smash bottles with a hammer?' Why not! 'Can I bring audience members on stage and teach them death-defying skills during the show?' Why of course!"

“So many theatres tried to nay-say my vision, or say it was too risky or that the set-up was too complicated to pull off, but the Lounge saw my vision and breathed life into it,” she continued. “I still drive by The Lounge and fondly remember 'where it all started' and now that nostalgia will be all the more melancholic.”

Soaring Solo Director, Jessica Lynn Johnson, who recently produced the Soaring Solo Stars Series at the venue, directed Wish, as well as Lisa Verlo for her show Hollywoodn't, Stacy Dymalski's A Bit Much, Heather Dowling's FERTILE, Corina Calderon's Corina: From Lap Dance to Sundance, and several solo artists who have had featured shows at The Lounge for the Hollywood Fringe and beyond.

“Over the past decade as a regular Fringer, I have enjoyed many achingly beautiful stories be shared from the Lounge stage,” said Johnson. “That theatre holds so many precious memories and my heart is certainly broken at the loss of this and so many other things in this season.”

Theatre Planners also runs the Zephyr Theatre and The Lounge on Melrose, both of which remain and await any re-opening changes for theatre and performing arts venues in Los Angeles. The Lounge Theatre will retain its Lounge 3 space upstairs with plans to convert into a 35 seat theatre/studio.

Updated: 5-29-20 - 1:15 p.m.