Monday, April 30, 2012

The Best Show I Never Saw

Chicago, 1990. I read a review of Stumpy's Gang in the Chicago ReaderStumpy's Gang was a parody of children's puppet shows, set in a genetics laboratory.  Although it is Frank the Janitor's job to pitch the genetic mistakes into the incinerator instead he keeps them as his friends. 

At the age of fifteen, I REALLY wanted to see this show, but I chickened out and didn't make my way through the big, scary city to find it. Every few years or so I search online for some tidbit -- a photo, something. Today, I find a YouTube channel with video of the actual show -- uploaded in 2008 (how have I missed it?!?) It is ... more ... than I imagined:

The show moved to Los Angeles in 1994 where it enjoyed a successful run at the Zephyr. I imagine there are some people on the scene today who saw it back then.

As elated as I was to find these videos online, I am even more distressed that I missed out on this all those many years ago. This show appears to be way ahead of its time. The puppets are incredible.

The lesson here is twofold: First, go see it. If you feel the urge to check something out, don't put it off, don't make excuses for yourself, go. There is no substitute for lost moments or unexperienced experiences. Second, if you make theatre, put your archives online. Please. There is no Academy of Theatrical Arts and Sciences dedicated to the preservation of stage plays, no UCLA Theatre Archives keeping the detritus of past productions in a cold, dry place. We cannot recapture the past, but we can show people what they missed.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Waxman Letters, #1

My dear nephew Clive,
Thank you so much for the generous offer to serve on the board of directors of your exciting new endeavor.  Alas, I am stretched a bit thin between my obligations to a number of other theatre companies around town, so I fear I must decline.  However you know your uncle will always be here with a word of encouragement, to steer you in the right direction as you and your cohorts build what will no doubt become one of the better intimate theatre companies in Los Angeles.

It was right for the group of you to splinter off from that other company.  No one ever solved anything by staying where they are and trying to improve things.  You all no doubt know how to better run a theatre company than that tyrant of an artistic director who has kept a stranglehold on things for the past ten years.  How he manages to hold onto his position year after year is anyone's guess.  Alas, he is a friend, and I remain on his Board of Directors out of a silly sense of obligation.

I am excited to hear you have already decided on a name and are hard at work on a mission statement.  Be thorough, but try to keep it under 200 words.  And remember:  Grantors really care about the way such things are worded.  Keep it specific yet a little vague, focusing on the importance of "storytelling" and "trying new things."  "Edgy" is a good word to use, as funders like to believe they are on the cutting edge of an artform as old as time.  They also like to see a committment to "collaboration" and "community".  These are largely empty words, but everyone uses them. 

Don't worry if what you come up with seems like a carbon copy of a carbon copy.  It is far more important that you outline your mission without baring your teeth, so to speak.  You can express who you truly are onstage.  The mission statement is simply supposed to make you look professional, and so it will invariably seem a little too like the mission statements of other theatre companies.  Again, this is wholly acceptable.  It makes your new company consistent with all those other, more established companies, i.e. "professional."
I trust you are also wildly patching together your first season.  I hope you will think to include a Shakespeare for your old uncle.

Kindest personal regards,

Mort Waxman

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Festive Crack-Ups!

Well, we're doing it again.  Some thoughts:
  • The variety show format is very much alive and well in Los Angeles!  There are a number of shows out there spreading the love, and I hope to spotlight them in the coming weeks.  It's a great format.  First, this town is chock-a-block with variety artists of all stripes:  magicians, burlesquers, contortionists, jugglers--the list is endless.  That's part of the reason why Mr. Snapper & Mr. Buddy are so cavalier about booking a "Craigslist Wildcard" sight unseen.  We know that we will draw talent.  Second, the risk the audience takes in attending a variety show is pretty small.  Even if there are one or two bum acts on the bill (and there rarely are!) it's over quick and you're onto the next act.  Finally, a smart producer can do some really fun stuff with framing the evening.  I like what Bella Luna is doing at Red Light Revue with her continuing storyline.
  • The artists Phillip and I ask to join us are game.  Our process is very improvisational at the beginning and so we cannot put a show together without active involvement from everyone.  At the beginning of the first rehearsal for each show I'm nervous that our guest artists are going to walk out, convinced of our unprofessionalism.  Invariably, they jump into it with us, and help us craft a show that is way better than I could imagine at the outset. 
  • Always be on the lookout for something awesome.  Phillip discovered FanFueled recently, and we're using them as our online ticketer.  They have a bunch of bells and whistles we're looking forward to exploring, including a neat little incentive for ticket buyers to promote your show.  Go check them out.
  • We are having fun with our promotional efforts, and I believe it is accurately capturing the madcap fun we have with the show itself.  The "Press Releases and Branding" class I attended with New York's Mayor of Burlesque, Jonny Porkpie has altered the way I view such things.  Read the press release below and see if you don't agree:  We're having fun.   
Our quarterly excursion into insanity (or rather, our quarterly presentation of how insane Phil and I truly are) is happening this coming Sunday night!  We handcraft each show for our audience, and we would be thrilled if you'd join us.

Press release follows:

Local Neo-Vaudevillians Postpone Blockbuster Show in order to Release Press Release
HOLLYWOOD -- Regional celebrities Mr. Snapper and Mr. Buddy (they originate from a very small region) proudly and brazenly announce the rescheduling of their next variety showcase, THE MR. SNAPPER AND MR. BUDDY RUMPUS REVUE IN: "FESTIVE CRACK-UPS". This paganesque cacophony of sight, sound, and half-naked women was previously scheduled for April 15th, but will now be found thrilling audiences at the historic Theatre Asylum on April 29th, mere blocks from where Buster Keaton’s movie studio once stood!
"The time is ripe to really shake things up in Hollywood," said Mr. Snapper, balancing a piano bench on his chin. "This is a jaded town; a cynical town. You have to give the suckers something they've never seen before. So we are rescheduling our show. Bam! Suck on that, Hollywood!" Mr. Buddy, his silent partner, looks up from his hookah and nods in blissful, unknowing agreement. His hookah smoke smells of cinnamon and hashish. Mr. Buddy blows a series of oddly shaped smoke signals and passes out. Mr. Snapper interprets, "Ah. Also, we forgot to put out a press release the first time. Our mistake." At this point in the interview, the piano bench falls violently to Mr. Snapper's face, knocking him to the ground. "One more thing," Snapper struggles to say as blood pools on the floor, "it's BYOB."
Mr. Snapper and Mr.Buddy invite you to resurrect frivolity and join them for an evening of song, variety, half-naked women and hubba hubba! Snapper, a ukulele playing songster, and his silent foil, Buddy, are your hosts, making a barely capable attempt at maintaining order as the libidinous passions of a group of ragtag performers rage wildly out of control! Jacob Smith returns as the irrepressible Pistachio the Mime. Burlesque from Red Snapper, the balloon art shenanigans of Rob the Balloon Guy, the musical magic of Elizabeth Luttinger, and the trombone musings of Sean Pawling round out the evening. There will also be special appearances by the Los Angeles Light Orchestra and the Craigslist Wildcard (literally whatever variety act answers the ad on Craigslist first). ONE PERFORMANCE ONLY, April 29th at 8:30 pm at Theatre Asylum in Hollywood. Tickets are $12 at the door, or $10 if purchased in advance online at Visit for more information.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Jennie Webb Shows Great Judgement and Does Us All a Favor

"Jennie Webb Blogs Against Her Better Judgment About LA Theater" -- "Against her better judgement"?  Please.  This is a thoughtful survey of some great theatre companies in the LA area, from a playwright's perspective:
So here goes: my very non-expert and way subjective (and geographically biased; I’m in Eagle Rock) run down of intimate theaters (we don’t say 99-seat anymore) who do new work from one playwright’s perspective – a woman playwright who’d like to see more women playwrights LA stages (can’t we do better than 20%?).
"Non-expert"?  Such modesty.  For anyone hoping to see their work onstage in LA, this is THE article for you.  These are the theatre companies to watch, the bar-setters, and the companies who are actually debuting awesome, original plays.  Go see their productions, o ye burgeoning playwrights of the City of Angels.  Take notes.  Meet people.  Get inspired.  Write.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Don't Fence Me In

Can't look at hobbles
And I can't stand fences
Don't fence me in.
-- "Don't Fence Me In," Cole Porter and Robert Fletcher
I am in awe of Rebecca Novick.

The Bay area director and dramaturg has knocked one out of the park with her article at Grantmakers in the Arts entitled "Please, Don't Start a Theatre Company!"  She beautifully describes the problems facing theatre makers as they enter the market before outlining solutions that are nothing short of genius (and not just because I agree 100% with them.)
We should encourage apprentice artists to self-produce work, or band together and produce each other's work. We should not demand that they cloak that straightforward practice in the trappings of a made-up company simply to attract funding or press notice. Moreover, we should encourage artists to operate like bands do — coming together to play a few gigs, then dissolving as people's interests diverge, perhaps performing regularly with a few different groups and experimenting with different styles and genres. Forming a permanent company at this stage is a bit like getting married too young, before you've had the chance to discover your own identity or what you're really looking for in a collaborator.
Good God, what are you still doing on Mad Theatrics?  Click through and read Novick's entire article.
The idea encapsulated in the quote above is something I've blogged about before.  The Autonym thought experiment was an attempt to suss out this kind of approach.  The above is also perfectly in line with the idea of small theatre as an extension of the bardic tradition.  Novick is far more eloquent than I, and she goes much farther in describing the role funders may play in the changes she proposes.
There is another quote that really jumped out at me, the words of MAP Fund program director, Moira Brennan: “Why build a building and such heavyweight infrastructure for this thing [theater] that is both underfunded and ephemeral? This just doesn't make much sense.”  Why indeed?
When you are producing theatre on the margins, the lighter you are the better.  Small theatre can zoom like the motorcyclists that split lanes and weave through traffic on our jam-packed highways.  You can respond to emerging events in your community.  You can artfully engage with the audience in a way that shapes a production.  You can be vital, God damn it!
In short, if you are a small theatre company, you have the option of roaming free.  Why would you hobble yourself?  Why would you fence yourself in?  The world we should be exploring is out there, not in a board of directors meeting or a committee assignment.  Make theatre, not bureaucracy!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Elephant Man

presented by The Mechanicals Theatre Group at Pico Playhouse
review by Andrew Moore
Left to right: Daniel Jimenez, Mouchette van Helsdingen, Rachael Meyers, Bonnie Kathleen Ryan, Cynthia Beckert, Richard Gilbert-Hill, John Newman, Michael Matthys

[Disclaimer:  I am friends with Cynthia Beckert, and we perform together on the burlesque stage.  I took this assignment knowing that I could give a fair appraisal of her performance.  She would expect nothing less from me.]

The Elephant Man is not really about John Merrick.  It's about yearning, desperation, "normalcy," repression, illusion, mercy, and human connection.  It is about what truly motivates charity:  Pretension or philanthropy?  Posturing or altruism?  And finally, it is about two very different men who cling to their illusions, and who fall apart when their illusions end.  It is remarkable how stirringly Bernard Pomerance's 1979 play speaks to the world of 2012.  The Mechanicals selected this play as part of a season that promises "outside the box" interpretations of modern classics.  There is no doubt that The Elephant Man is a modern classic, and that the Mechanicals have achieved their aim with this production.

The Mechanicals thrust us immediately into the world of the play.  As the audience enters, the cast is already assembled onstage, knitting, reading, playing solitaire -- each player occupied in his or her own place on Wan Chih Haley Ho's set.  Ho has conjured a delicious environment, earthy and worn; a rich decoupage of antiques, exposed lighting and grime.  The depth of space is phenomenal, lit beautifully by Hilda Kane, and managed with ease by Director Neil Patrick Stewart.

Stewart understands theatrical mise-en-scรจne. We joke sometimes about how theatre is "in lifelike 3-D," but few directors actually seem to take advantage of all axes of physical stage space.  There is a dimensionality to Stewart's direction from which some other intimate theatre directors could take a lesson. In addition to the mastery of his space, Stewart has created a fertile environment for his actors, either giving them permission to dig deep into the script or else prodding them to do so.  With an ensemble like this, it is difficult to tell where the director ends and the actors begin.

Left to right: Rachael Meyers, John Newman, Bonnie Kathleen Ryan, Michael Matthys

John Newman sublimely expresses emotion beneath the emotionless mask of John Merrick.  The parroting of other characters is done in a mocking sort of way, revealing Merrick's cunning intelligence.  Newman's physicality is just enough, as it meets the audience halfway.  The playwright recommends against realistic make-up for this role, a poignantly powerful choice.  The audience is forced to confront the man while simultaneously "creating" the deformity in their imaginations.

Cynthia Beckert is simply wonderful as the actress, Mrs. Kendal.  One moment sums it up:  Before meeting Merrick for the first time, Mrs. Kendal rehearses her goodbye.  "It has been my great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Merrick," or some such banality, repeated until she has the inflection just right.  Then she meets Merrick, and is moved by his wit and insight.  At the end of the visit, the moment happens.  She extends her hand -- Treves prompts Merrick to take her hand and shake it -- and she says her goodbye.  As I recall, it is word for word what she rehearsed with Treves, but gone is the actorly inflection, replaced by a genuine sincerity that stops time.

Michael Matthys turns in a deeply moving performance as Freddie Treves, the physician who "rescues" Merrick from the sideshow.  Matthys sneaks up on us.  The evolution of Treves from a buttoned down, conservative Brit to a thoroughly disillusioned and dismayed man on the verge of breakdown happens so naturally, so delicately, that by the time he is at wit's end, we are right there with him.  He makes a strong choice -- completely backed up by the text -- and breaks our hearts.

The ensemble in general delivers thoughtful, committed performances.  I wish I could have observed their process, because the care with which each choice has been made implies a considerable amount of time spent tearing apart Pomerance's words, sucking the marrow from the text, and dutifully crafting their roles with the same care the playwright took in crafting this elegant play. 

Some issues:  The depiction of the Pinheads is a little problematic.  It is not clear exactly who or what they are, in part because they are given a more presentational treatment than the rest of the characters.  (After Merrick begins speaking to them, this issue becomes almost entirely moot, as he feeds the audience the information we need to understand what is going on.)

There are some sight line issues with the projections.  Although this is not the end of the world with the transitional slides at the top of each scene, the projections are absolutely vital when Treves presents Merrick in his scene 3 lecture.  This is the only time the audience will see what the real Merrick looked like, which feeds our imaginations and how we perceive him for the rest of the play. 

Finally, there were two performers who remained upstage: one who wrote words on the upstage wall, and the other who sat upstage left in sunglasses and headphones.  I call them performers, but they were more like living scenery, and no indication or explanation of their purpose could be discerned.  Granted, they added considerable atmosphere to the play, but on balance they seemed to exist as a directorial whim; a theatrical affectation.  I'm not saying lose them, I'm saying throw us something, at least performer bios in the program with trumped up "character" names.  "The Scribe" and "The Anchor".  I don't know -- something.

Unless, of course, wondering about them is the point!  In which case I'd say kudos.  I am baffled by their inclusion, but I cannot imagine the play without them.

At any rate, these minor points don't detract from a production that is elegant, moving and immediate.

The Elephant Man is on display for all to see Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Sundays at 7:00 pm through May 15th.  Pico Playhouse is located at 10508 W Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064 (a bit north of the 10.  Overland Avenue is the nearest cross street, to the west of Pico Playhouse.)

Tickets are $15 at or $20 at the door.  Street parking is available, but get there a little early to ensure you find a spot.  The Mechanicals run a tight ship, and they do start on time.  You will not want to miss a moment.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Reviewers Wanted

Mad Theatrics needs reviewers. Our approach is simple: Theatre artists reviewing theatre artists with a focus on specific, constructive, and honest critiques that aim to improve the overall quality of Los Angeles theatre. No snark, and we leave our prejudices and preconceptions at the door. Think of it as giving notes to a fellow artist -- because that's the majority of who actually reads reviews.  

Interested? Email me. We'll talk.

Pepper's Holograph

"My hour is almost come, when I to sulphurous and tormenting flames must render up myself." - The Ghost, Hamlet Act I Scene V

This is amazing. And I can't wait for this technology to find its way into the hands of intimate theatre makers (maybe it already has?)


Indeed, it has:

Evri - Holographic Theatrical Performance from Musion Systems on Vimeo.

Find out more at the Musion website.

Has anyone seen this sort of thing onstage in Los Angeles? Hit me up and let me know.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Little More Regarding "Build the Piano"

The quote that inspired the original post comes from Teller:

"To compose a new tune in magic, you don’t just write the notes, you build the piano."
- Teller
I maintain this is true of all variety arts:  The mark of a "professional" is the customization and handcrafting of costumes and props.  "Amateurs" by comparison are very much off-the-shelf.  (It may be true for all theatrical arts, but I'll let you be the judge of that.)

In this article, a few examples of exactly what I'm talking about:

Red Snapper, photo by Markus Alias

Red Snapper.  Red documented the construction of "Mega Costume" on her blog.  Everything you see in this picture (except for the stockings) is either hand-crafted or modified.  There's at least a hundred dollars worth of rhinestones on her shoes.

Rob the Balloon Guy, photo by Ashley Clinton

Rob the Balloon Guy.  Rob made most of his costume, but the detail I want to focus on:  The chair.  Standard folding chair, right?  Rob couldn't find a red chair, so he painted it.  It's a simple thing, a simple customization, yet it works.  It shows he cares, it makes the prop consistent with his performer persona, etc.  (Imagine if he was balancing a standard beige folding chair on his chin.)

Red Bastard.  You can't buy a costume like that off the rack.  Really look at how it moves, how the silohuette changes with the performer's movements.  Outstanding!


Clownvis -- he's the King of Clowns for a reason.  This hard-working performer puts a lot of work into his costume and make-up.  I can't find a clear picture of this one dais he uses -- actually his travel case. The few times I’ve seen him live, he’s been on his own, without the full entourage and set dressing. Using his travel case as a dais is smart: There’s less for him to tote around. And do you think such a colorful act would go onstage with a plain Jane travel case to stang on? Of course not. It's painted up with stars and stripes, consistent with his color palatte.

New York's Rock 'n' Roll Ventriloquist, the hysterical Carla Rhodes posted this picture on Facebook today with the accompanying caption, "Our newest castmember! Debuting this Sunday."  It's a simple modification, but effective and funny.  I'm not sure how it factors into her current show, Dirty 30: the Continuing Story of Carla Rhodes, but damned if I don't want to find out!

This is just a small sampling, and I could do this all day. The point is, “building the piano” shows respect for the audience; it shows that you care enough to take the time to get things right, whether that means a hundred dollars worth of rhinestones or putting googly eyes on a rubber cockroach. Each of these performers could have gone with an off-the-rack solution, using unembellished props and costumes. But what would be the point?

We are creating an experience for the people in the dark, not an experience for ourselves onstage. Off-the-rack and unembellished would work if we were doing it for ourselves – we know what it’s supposed to look like in our imaginations. They don’t, and they’re the ones we care about, right?

The Downside of the Collaborative Process


by Moliere
Translation by Richard Wilbur
Directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott
A Noise Within Production

Review by Phillip Kelly

There's one reason to go see A Noise Within's production of Moliere's rarely produced The Bungler; it's incredibly entertaining. The piece itself is pure cotton candy shaped by the serrated edge of the English language dictionary and seasoned with a dash of Tabasco sauce. An idiotic young gentleman, Lelie, is hopelessly in love with Celie and seeks assistance from his brilliant servant Mascarille to devise a plan that will get her away from her overbearing father so they can marry. What follows is a series of episodes in which each of Mascarille's clever and underhanded attempts are foiled by the one he's trying to help!

Why, you ask, would such a brilliant tactician as Mascarille continue to help such a complete fool who can't help but step in the middle of each concoction? That's the joy of the show. Mascarille feels it's his life's greatest challenge to overcome his employer's interfering; his boss, the man he's trying to help, is also his nemesis. Cascading from agitation to anger to joy from the thrill of the hunt is JD Cullum as Mascarille. And foiling every plan is Michael Newcomer. Like the great classic comedians of the silent era, the two work in tandem; one performance cannot exist without the other. Newcomer's blissful ignorance in every situation eventually garners laughs from his mere stepping on stage into a situation that has been so well devised. And Cullum zips back and forth from intolerant to inspired, from hatred to pity, with the drop of a hat. It's a joy to watch these two play on stage.

The production itself, directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, is a wily one. Within moments I knew she was on the right track when the cast began to sing and a live instrument appeared onstage. I love instruments in non-musicals; they give vitality to a live production that's lacking in film - in this instance it was, a very appropriate, tuba. At times the production feels like one of those old cabaret shows one might have seen in France at the turn of the century - crowds drinking beer and pushing each other around! Performers in masks ... have I mentioned the beautiful masks? The lighting was vibrant, the set and costumes detailed. Every aspect of the show only adds to the free-wheeling experience. Perfectly timed light changes elevate perfectly delivered witticisms. It all works in synchronicity to provide the highest end of shenanigans; follies for the quick witted, farce for the enlightened.

Elliott even makes the bold and rather brilliant choice to incorporate a hint of surreal science fiction into the show. I won't ruin the surprise, but it's such an other-worldly moment, it enraptures, and I must admit I found myself the only one guffawing at first while those around me stared in wide-eyed wonderment. It's a directorial decision that made my nerves tingle with delight.

The rest of the cast enjoys themselves tremendously. How could you not? Moliere has fashioned a show that's all about wit and really nothing else. If you enjoy the British sitcom The Black Adder, you're heading in the right direction with this production of The Bungler.

Create for yourself a chance to see this show. I've also seen Antony and Cleopatra, which I enjoyed very much and found some of the Elliott's choices to be strongly realized. And with the good word on The Illusion (which I haven't seen), this season at A Noise Within is a strong one.

The Bungler by Moliere. Translated by Richard Wilbur. Directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. Sat. April 7th-Sun. May 27th at A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91107

$46 Fri, Sat Evenings and Sun Matinees. $42 Wed, Thurs, Sun Evenings and Sat Matinees. Group and special rates for school groups available. Tickets and info (626)-356-3100 ext. 1 or

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Locating Change

Ever since that Esotouric tour of Main St. and the surrounding area, my interest in the local history of burlesque has only deepened.  I started a Pinterest board where I'm trying to pool photos of all the historic L.A. burlesque houses (most of which are now parking lots, I'm sad to say) and I've been spending considerable time in the Los Angeles Times archives, reading as much as possible.

The generally accepted derivation for "burlesque" is the Italian word "burla," which is an old commedia dell'arte term:

Burla (pl. burle)    comic interlude or practical joke introduced, usually extempore, into a performance by the servant masks of the commedia dell'arte. Unlike the lazzo, the burla involved some horseplay and could be developed at will into a small independent ‘turn’, the characters returning at its conclusion to the main theme of the plot. Although there is no adequate English translation of the word, the terms burletta and burlesque derive from it.
(ref: Oxford Reference Online)

Only recently (in the past 70 years or so) has Burlesque become synonymous with striptease.  But when exactly did that change take place?
COMING ATTRACTION. The sale of seats opens this morning at the Los Angeles Theater for the spectacular extravaganza, “The Spider and the Fly,” which comes to this playhouse for four nights and Saturday matinee, Thursday, January 18. This will be Los Angeles’ first big burlesque attraction, and no doubt the only one this season.
-- Los Angeles Times, January 15, 1900
According to ProQuest, and as far as I've been able to determine the above quote is from the earliest mention of burlesque in the Los Angeles Times (at least, the earliest reference to burlesque as a thing.  There are earlier uses of the term, as in "the local courts have become a burlesque of justice.")  I've found reviews and advertisements of burlesque plays between the 1900s and the 1920s, when the term began to refer more explicitly to striptease artistry.  Now I'm trying to track down exactly when the change occurred.

History is fun.  It's far easier to pinpoint when important change has occurred in hindsight; it is far easier to divine the meaning of events long after they've happened.  It is virtually impossible to draw a bead on your situation when you are smack in the middle of it.  William Goldman once said that in Hollywood, nobody knows anything.  Right.  Because they are in it.

The search for meaning may be a job for historians.  For us in the now, it is enough to continue the work.  "It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."  Thus spoke Lincoln, albeit about more important things than mere entertainment.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

On the Way Down

Friend, burlesque co-conspirator, and frequent purveyor of Bardian verse Patrick J. Saxon posted the following quote on Facebook this afternoon:
Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down. - Ray Bradbury
It also seems like a fairly accurate description of producing theatre.

Imagine the Possibilities

Project Glass, from Google:

Can you imagine an entire audience equipped with these devices? How could the heads-up display be used to enrichen the theatrical experience? Some thoughts:
  • A play where the character's "inner monologue" pops up at key moments.
  • The heads-up display could be used to superimpose a ghostly character onstage.
  • A character watches a video message on her electronic device. The audience sees this video message on their headsets.
  • During blackouts, the device could extend the narrative, provide linking scenes, etc. (Imagine a stage production of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where the guide segments play out on this device.)
  • For an environmental staging, the device could guide the audience through the space, from scene to scene.
This looks to be an amazing device with some incredible potential.

Read more about it here.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

A Specific Place and Time

Clifton's Cafeteria, Downtown Los Angeles.
“We have wasted History like a bunch of drunks shooting dice back in the men's crapper of the local bar”
- Charles Bukowski
One of the blogs I follow (although I don't read it as often as I should) is Scott Walter's Theatre Ideas.  His philosophy is an inspiration:
Theatre Ideas is based on a single premise: something is deeply wrong with the state of the American theatre, and without radical change it will continue its slide into irrelevance. As Al gore says in An Inconvenient Truth, quoting Winston Churchill, we have passed the "era of procrastination" and are now in an "era of consequences." It is no longer enough to simply "do the work," one must reconceive the context, refashion the business model, revise the purpose, and refocus the values.
At the center of his philosophy is the community.  Not the insular, social network-stuccoed community of artists, but the community-at-large.  The Joe Publics, if you will.  Please take a moment to read Scott's summary:  "Welcome, New Readers".  I would like to draw your attention to his second principle:
2. Localization. Connected to number one above, regionally-based theatres should encourage the development of local aesthetics. Regional theatres should not be like malls -- the same no matter where you are in the country. The choice of plays, the artistic staff, and the experience itself should reflect the place where the theatre is based. The Era of McTheatre must end.

Ceiling of the Palm Court in the Alexandra Hotel, Downtown Los Angeles

On Saturday, March 3rd, my wife and I took a tour of "Hotel Horrors and Main Street Vice" with the kind and knowledgeable bunch at Esotourric.  What was intended to be a fun diversion on a beautiful Saturday afternoon was instead quite revelatory.  We know that we're steeped in history -- this is tinsel town, after all.  For instance, the Elephant/Lillian/Theatre Asylum complex is just across the street from a parking lot that used to be Buster Keaton's movie studio.

The corner of Lillian Way and Eleanor Avenue, the site of Buster Keaton's original motion picture studio, Hollywood.

This sort of history is all around us.  There's a cemetery walking distance from my house, Rosedale Cemetery, the final resting place of Hattie McDaniel.  Hattie won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1939, for her work in Gone with the Wind -- the first black actor to win an Academy Award.  It was her wish to be buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery (then known as Hollywood Memorial Park) along with ... well, everyone who was anyone.  At the time she passed, Hollywood Memorial Park was "Whites Only," and so Hattie was laid to rest at Rosedale, the first cemetery in Los Angeles to be open to all races and religions.

It's fascinating.  And there is such a fine line between the glamour and the gutter in this town -- Randy Newman nails it in "I Love L.A.", a wry song for a cynical city:
Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at that bum over there, man
He's down on his knees
Look at these women
There ain't nothin' like 'em nowhere
(Odds are, that bum used to work in the industry.)
I'm not saying that every story should be an L.A. story.  Still, it wouldn't hurt to listen to Scott Walter; to tell stories that speak to this specific place and time, stories that may reflect and comment upon the lives our audiences lead.

I'm preaching to the choir, by and large, and I take great satisfaction in theatre companies that "get it".  Leo Geter may have set Naked Before God in Arizona, but it's an industry story that speaks to a Hollywood audience.  Based upon Phillip's review of Feedback, Jane Miller's play concerns itself with identity, the need for self-improvement, and the loneliness that caused by constant outside evaluation -- sounds very Los Angeles to me.  I'm terribly interested to see what Sacred Fools does with Stoneface, a play about Buster Keaton that opens May 25th. 

Let us continue to listen to Los Angeles.  Tell her stories; react to her news, her events and her people.
"Three million people in the City of Angels according to the last census, easily half of them up to something they don't want the other half to know. We all get sucked in by the lobby.  Palm trees finger the sky and there's enough sunshine to lay some off on Pittsburgh.  But that's all on top. L.A., truth to tell's, not much different than a pretty girl with the clap."
- City of Angels, book by Larry Gelbart

Monday, April 02, 2012

The Seagull

by Anton Chekhov
directed by Andrew J. Traister
translated by Paul Schmidt
Presented by Antaeus

review by Phillip Kelly

I could summarize Chekhov's The Seagull for you, but by God just type it in your google search bar and you're bound to run into a few story and character breakdowns, or simply go see this magnificent production by Antaeus. Although they do mostly everything by the book, they do such an extraordinary job at it, it makes me wonder why people try to do it any differently.

A couple years ago I was involved in a production of a selection of Chekhov's short works, his comedies, and I read many of his essays. It was startling to me how intoxicating and incisive his sense of humor was; his pessimism gave an edge to his wisdom and understanding of human complexities. As a writer, he doesn't so much show us the world, but heightens aspects of it ever so slightly, allowing us to laugh at ourselves while feeling empathy for those we're watching. It's hard for me to understand when people overlook this element, especially when it's so essential to not only his work, but any tragedy you hope to produce, write, direct or act in. Comedy is essential to tragedy, because it allows us to see the characters as human. It gives them life as they approach death. Directed by Andrew J. Traister, this production of The Seagull is brimming with life and characters that simply don't know how to make it work in their favor. The ridiculous often meets the dry comment. It's really quite funny. The only way this comedy can be mined at the doors of tragedy to any degree is if the actors on stage embrace the imperfections of their characters, leave their egos at the door, and become as vulnerable as newborns; suffice to say the actors here are up to that challenge and Traister's fluid, subtle and natural direction allows us to be enveloped by the performances. There's nothing here to distract.

Antaeus makes it well known they double cast their shows and revolve the actors in and out, mixing and matching them. I love the concept, not only as a way to get more people in the doors, but as a way to keep the performers on their toes. I was blessed to get this cast (and would love to see the other!), not only because the fanboy in me ate up Kurtwood Smith's perfectly balanced Doctor Dorn, or because each actor found a corner of this world to inhabit all their own, from Bonnie Snyder as the Maid, who with her two lines cracks up the audience, to Joe Delafield's portrayal of the tortured writer Konstantin, so driven to break free of the world's mediocrity and discover something new that he can never relax into his own voice as an artist or a person, to Abby Wilde's portrayal of the innocent and naive Nina, so wanting to embrace life that she confuses fame for the joy of creating art and has to suffer from the consequences of this confusion the rest of her life. Yes, everyone that graces this stage proves that they are more than just capable performers, but no one more so than Laura Wernette who embodied completely the matriarch, Arkadina.

From Arkadina's carnal seduction of Trigorin (an excellent Bo Foxworth), to her dismissive assumptions about her son Treplev, and her sudden realizations of her abhorrent behavior which bring a tenderness to her face, Laura brings a divine light to the stage like I imagine the great actors of Broadway and London did in the Golden era of theatre, when actors were treated less like faces for marketing campaigns, and more like Gods, as well they should have been. Ms. Wernette breathes, as they did, altitudes of complexity into one of the most complex female creations written and literally brings words on the page to life in the form of a living breathing human being. Chekhov as Dr. Frankenstein and Arkadina as his Monster can only work with someone like Ms. Wernette bringing beauty, grace and a willingness to embrace every imperfection of this tragically unaware and sad creature. I liken her to a Monster, but what might be more apt is Cleopatra:
Age cannot wither her,
nor custom stale Her infinite variety.

This makes her wondrous and treacherous. Arkadina in Ms. Wernette hands is Nature herself. Bravo to her and everyone else for bringing such vulnerability to the stage, it makes it hard to look away. Rarely do I gush, but this is well deserved for everyone in the production I saw.

Another round of applause for the scenic design team Lechetti Design, for which my only constructive criticism would have been to force the road and river's perspectives ever so slightly. Though in the 2nd half they create a haunting, ghost like interior, which is elevated by the very subtle, yet effective sound design by Jeff Gardner. Combined with the lighting (Jeremy Pivnick), costume (A. Jeffrey Schoenberg) and prop (Heather Ho) designers, it truly feels like you've taken a step into their world. One I'm tempted to see a second time only to rediscover the story again with a whole new selection of actors!

In the end Chekhov's The Seagull, isn't about our dying elderly, but our dying youth. We have the potential to destroy them with the emptiness we feel inside ourselves, that we're too afraid to deal with, and like a weapon when we choose to do so, that emptiness can lash out and needlessly shoot them out of the air.

The Seagull presented by the Antaeus Company. March 1st - April 15th. Thurs.-Sat. 8pm, Sun. 2pm. Tickets $30-$34. The Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood. 818-506-1983. for tickets and cast dates.

The cast I saw:

Arkadina.........Laura Wernette
Sorin................Gregory Itzin
Treplev...........Joe Delafield
Nina.................Abby Wilde
Shamrayev.....John Achorn
Paulina............Reba Waters
Masha.............Avery Clyde
Trigorin..........Bo Foxworth
Dorn................Kurtwood Smith
Medvedenko..Patrick Wenk-Wolf
Yakov..............Brian Abraham
The maid.........Bonnie Snyder


a new play by Jane Miller
directed by Craig Jessen
presented by the Lyric Theatre Foundation

review by Phillip Kelly

Feedback, a new play by Jane Miller, was a delight. I'm truly glad I was able to see this show in it's first live incarnation, because I feel with a little more work it has a bright future, and I can say, I was there when ...

Our heroine, Holly (April Grace Lowe) signs up for a new self improvement process from a company called Perception, in which they assess your personality and re-brand you, so you can better fit into society and move ahead in life. From your boyfriend to your hobbies and career, they will adjust your personality and make you the best brand of "you" that you can be, so the consumers, your friends, coworkers, etc, will want to metaphorically purchase you. Kinda creepy, but really interesting.

The emotional center of the play occurs between Holly, played with a grounded vulnerability and sincere likeability by Ms. Grace Lowe and her agent at Perception, Elizabeth, whom Angela Ryskiewicz fashions to be a by the books observer but is too easily swayed to empathy by Holly's struggle and outgoing personality. Both women find themselves reaching out to one another for a sincere connection in the hopes to rediscover who they truly are. It's a touching, funny and ultimately moving relationship that works because both actors are so good at just barely containing their burdensome emotions. They come from the school of less is more. Ms. Grace Lowe gives us the pleasure of seeing Holly's transformation on stage and, Miller has crafted the character's arch beautifully. There's nothing overtly clever about Miller's dialogue, it's real, awkward, and a testimony to her ear for the natural rhythms of regular people. She's given each character a distinct voice - refreshing.

The other voices that add to Holly's struggle for strength and direction in her life, and may or may not be holding her back, are her kind-of ex-boyfriend, Ian (Cody Roberts) and Claudia (Karen DeThomas), who both do a respectable job here. The 5th member of the cast is Judith (Dorrie Braun, equally as solid as her cast mates) the creator of Perception who has taken up the cause, as one of the panel members for the deconstruction of Holly's life.

I laughed out loud often and was moved, because I understand what it feels like to question my own identity based on others' assessments and that sense of loneliness that can come from being uncertain if you matter or are liked at all. I think these are fairly Universal feelings and thoughts people have at all points in their lives. Am I really worth it? Is what I'm doing worth it? Every day, especially in the environment of Hollywood, we're assessed and judged by all around us. It's a city of glances, ogling and glares, and it has the ability to beat down your self esteem. There's a very telling line in which Holly calls herself aware, then back peddles to self-aware, and then that further curtails to self-conscious; the very funny part is she's so anxious at that moment to please she doesn't seem completely aware of the differences. The show is elevated by these small truths; which means it was most likely written by someone who is aware of their faults as a person and not afraid to explore them. That could make this a very personal play. The Director, Craig Jessen, then, knows how to keep those faults grounded and enjoyable to watch. He guided these actresses and actor with a smooth hand.

The show however isn't without it's flaws, most of which will hopefully be ironed out as Ms. Miller is allowed to see the show through the eyes of her audience's reactions and really just to see the show performed over and over again, and of course a little critical appraisal doesn't hurt. My only problem comes nearing the end of the show: we're allowed to see and hear about Holly in her most vulnerable moments, yet we aren't allowed to see the climax of Holly's journey in a way that is cathartic before the different stories come to a conclusion. Usually when something is missing in the end, you need to go back and look at your beginning.

***Some spoilers, as this is intended mainly for the writer.***

I don't like simply writing reviews for certain shows--what's there to learn for the audience or author? I like, I don't like - kind of boring and unhelpful, and my years of developing original work in a theatre company won't let me leave the conversation without giving some constructive criticism, especially when the show is so close to being great (and easily sold in the film market! I'd option and direct it myself.) So, I ask the writer, what is the overriding relationship in this show? Holly and Ian? Holly and Elizabeth? Holly and Claudia? Holly and Holly? It's not Holly and Claudia. I never felt it was Holly and Ian, it could be if their relationship is at least as strong as Holly and Elizabeth, but it's not. So, right now it's Holly and Elizabeth, who share a final scene together, but the falling action hasn't been earned yet. Between Holly's final assessment and that final scene there has to be something else. My first thought would be, we need to see Holly try and play out the personality she was given and realize through the act of it just how unnatural and unlike her it is, so the audience can live with her through that awkward moment. This can add another layer to the Holly and Ian arch before it's complete. I felt it would have helped to see Elizabeth try harder to get her assessment to Holly before Elizabeth is forced to leave the room, so when she finally gives it to her, we're waiting to hear what it was, why it didn't work when she tried to be that way with Ian and just couldn't be. Right now these last moments come and go before Holly can reach bottom, yes, we see her become empowered throughout the show, but we miss the final moment of struggle before she rears her head and proudly says, no. She's decided while the lights are down. What might also strengthen this is allowing the audience to see a little more of the unhealthy side of the Holly and Ian relationship story in the beginning. Yes, they argue, but it's brought on by Holly's paranoia - he's actually there to do something kind. And aside from what's said about the relationship before the show started, that's all we're allowed to see, the two of them being really good to one another. We need to see what's talked about, some of that interaction that we only hear referred to as it happened before the show's start. I do like the paranoia aspect as well. I wonder if there's a way to hold onto that until Elizabeth reveals it and then Holly goes back to Ian, but that doesn't seem as detrimental.

***Spoiler done.***

All in all an original and intelligent idea that drew me in with it's sincerity, humor and insight. I recommend it be seen.

Feedback an original play by Jane Miller. Directed by Craig Jessen. March 30-April 28. Friday & Saturday at 8pm; additional matinee performances on Sundays, April 15 & 22 at 2pm. $20.
The Lyric Theatre, 520 N. La Brea Avenue, in Los Angeles, 90036. Street parking available.
Tickets available online at,,, or by calling (323) 960-1055.