Bruce Kimmel and Hartley Powers joined forces to develop May and June Group Rep fundraisers which they are sharing with the world.
Clearly a man for all theatrical seasons, Bruce Kimmel has achieved success in every endeavor which he tried. Bruce wrote, directed, and starred in the cult movie hit, The First Nudie Musical. He also co-created the story for the hit film, The Faculty, directed by Robert Rodriguez. As an actor, Bruce has guest starred on most of the long-running television shows of the 1970s.
Bruce is also a legendary Grammy-nominated producer of theater music on CD and has produced over 180 albums. His song “Simply” won the Mac Award for best song of the year. Most recently, he’s directed rave-reviewed productions of L.A. Now and Then, Welcome to My World, Li’l Abner, Inside Out, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, and the world premiere of a new Sherman Brothers musical, Levi, the story of Levi Strauss. For the past ten years, he has been producing and hosting a monthly series of live entertainment called Kritzerland, which most recently was seen at Feinstein’s Upstairs at Vitello’s. In his spare time, Mr. Kimmel has also authored twenty books. Bruce took time from his crowded schedule to an interview with me in May 2020.
Hartley Powers started her acting career at the early age of 11 months and continued in the business through college, studying theater at Cal State Northridge and Fullerton. After graduating, she continued her studies and earned a degree in Digital Media from FIDM. She built a career in the post-production industry and is now the President of Pongo - a boutique A/V marketing agency. After taking a break from acting, Hartley decided to return to her love of theater by becoming a member at the Group Rep in North Hollywood. She played Hermia in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut in Avenue Q, the title role of Carol in A Carol Christmas, and Maggie in The Man Who Came to Dinner ; the last two were directed by Bruce Kimmel. Whether on the stage or through the art of editing, she loves being able to share and tell stories with others. Hartley also agreed to an interview in May 2020.
Bruce, your career goes back nearly 50 years as an actor, writer, novelist, blogger, director, composer, and Grammy-nominated CD producer. How did you happen to branch out so extensively? Which of those roles fits you best and gives you the most satisfaction?
Bruce Kimmel: 50 YEARS??? Yikes. I was blessed, I suppose, to be able to do several things well; and I always felt it would be a sin not to nurture anything I did well. It didn’t always serve me well because people in show business - especially when I was coming up - like to put everyone into little boxes. But from the time I was fourteen, I knew I wanted to write - songs, musicals, and plays – as well as direct; back then, I especially wanted to act. The CD-producing came about in a roundabout way at a time when I had recently emerged from a negative place in my life. I was given the opportunity to be a full-time record producer, and I grabbed it with gusto. In a year, I achieved the kind of success that had eluded me for all those years prior. Not that I didn't have success, mind you, because I did. I was very lucky in that way. But we all have silly places we think we should be and - if you haven't gotten there - then maybe it's time to take the blinders off and look at other avenues. This is what happened to me. But after producing all those albums (over 180 that I personally produced) and releasing over 400 albums on my CD label, Kritzerland, I got back to directing. I absolutely love directing. For the past twenty years, I've written a book a year (seventeen works of fiction and three non-fiction). That has actually been the most satisfying thing of all. I've also written several musicals in the last few years.
Hartley, I noticed that your bio goes all the way back to 11 months of age “waving baby arms from a Chevy Astro van.” How and when did you first get involved in show business? What are some of the high points in your career thus far?
Hartley Powers: My parents got me involved in acting when I was just a baby. As a couple that moved to Hollywood to act, they were eager to get me into show business. I was lucky enough to appear on TV shows, movies of the week, some feature films, and the stage - as a child and on to my teen years. A big moment for me was being cast as Billy Crystal’s daughter in Mr. Saturday Night at the age of six. I was lucky enough to work with the likes of Tyne Daly, Melissa Gilbert, Shelley Hack, Richard Crenna, Kay Cole, Jules Aaron, Vincent Dowling, Fred Willard, Marian Seldes, and Cherry Jones.
How did both of you get involved with the Group Rep? What are some of the shows you were involved in, and what was your role in these shows? Any awards?
Bruce Kimmel: Doug Haverty, a long-time member there (and now the artistic director), and I had been working together for a couple of decades; he designed CD covers for me when I was at both Varese Sarabande and then Fynsworth Alley. He’s also designed all of the Kritzerland releases. Because of our connection, I'd occasionally see a show at the Group Rep. Then I directed a production of Doug and Adryan Russ's musical, Inside Out at the Grove Theater in Burbank. Inside Out actually began life at the Group Rep; it was a big hit award-winning production with a brilliant cast. Larry Eisenberg, who was then co-artistic director at the Group Rep, came to see it and loved it. He kind of put the word out that he'd be interested in me directing a show for the Group Rep. He asked me what show I'd like to do; and, for reasons I can't really explain, I blurted out, Dial M for Murder. I don't think he thought it was necessarily a good fit for the theater, but I was passionate about it because it's a real old-fashioned talking play with a great plot and great roles. I convinced Larry; and that production did really well for them - great reviews, and audiences just ate it up.
Then Doug came to me with an idea he had for a musical version of A Christmas Carol, but in a modernized and feminized version, where it takes place in the present and Scrooge is a woman. All the ghosts of the past were also women. We called it A Carol Christmas. I thought it was a clever idea - and so Doug wrote the book; and I wrote the score. The theater had actually committed to do it before we even started writing. I also directed the production, and it happily turned out well. Again, audiences just really took to it. Doug and I were both nominated for Ovation Awards - he for his book and me for the score. I won a Scenie Award for the score, so that was nice. Then last December, I directed The Man Who Came to Dinner. Directly after that, I directed Doug's play, In My Mind's Eye, which was a big change of pace for me and which I loved doing because we had an absolutely perfect cast.
Hartley Powers: The Group Rep has been a part of my life since I was born. My dad has been a member for about as long as I’ve been alive - so that theater has been a huge part of my upbringing. I had never considered becoming a member until I saw my dad really starting to participate in several productions. After going to opening night after opening night I thought, “Wait a second…I wanna jump in and play, too!” It makes for a full schedule to balance a career – but being in a show is always worth it. The Group Rep has given me room to explore roles I would have never thought possible for me - from Hermia in Midsummer Night’s Dream to Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut in Avenue Q. I definitely learned a new appreciation for artist’s when I played the titular role of Carol in A Carol Christmas, a female turn on the Christmas Carol classic where our Carol is the Scrooge of a QVC-style business. Most recently, I was lucky enough to share the stage with Jim Beaver, Barry Pearl, and Kay Cole in The Man Who Came to Dinner.
Your Kritzerland concert usually takes place at Feinstein’s at Vitello’s restaurant in Studio City. How was the idea hatched to move the concert onto a virtual platform in support of the Group Rep?
Bruce Kimmel: We began our monthly Kritzerland shows back in 2010, and Feinstein's Upstairs at Vitello's is our third venue. When this craziness began in mid-March, it became obvious right away that we wouldn't be doing the April show there. So for April, I did a kind of off-the-cuff best-of-show, but I knew so little about Facebook Live and how to do it that it was fun but kind of lame. I would just have to link to videos that were on YouTube, and it was ultimately just irritating to me. Having had that experience, I decided we'd do the May show online as a real Kritzerland show. I contacted Hartley Powers, who's Doug's talented daughter. I had directed her in A Carol Christmas and The Man Who Came to Dinner. Fortunately, she knows from technical stuff - and so we began to figure out how to do it without having any technical issues. We did three or four days of testing on Skype and Zoom and something else, I think; and I just didn't see how we could take the chance of actually doing it live. There were too many variables like the lag time between audio and video. It was just crazy. Then Hartley said, "We should just pre-tape everything, and I'll edit it together." That's what we ended up doing. But I have to tell you, everyone thought it was live - we were very clever about it. We'd done three "tests" prior to the show to make sure what we were doing worked. Everyone thought those tests were live, too; but they weren't. At the end of the show, I revealed that we'd pre-taped - but that the performances had no editing or fixing. They were shot and sent to us, and those takes were used without trickery. Even after I revealed that, everyone still thought my commentary was live - but it wasn't. We really couldn't have been happier with the way it turned out.
Hartley, how did you get involved on the technical end of the May and June Kritzerland Fundraisers for the Group Rep?
Hartley Powers: My career is based in post-production, so Bruce knew that I had tech savvy. When he approached me about doing a fundraiser show for Facebook and YouTube, I knew I might have a learning curve as far as live broadcasting goes - but I knew I would definitely be able to figure out the editorial side of things. And, with our current state of the arts, I knew I was happy to do anything to help my home theater.
In executing a show that features this many performers, a host, and an accompanist, we have to make sure people are set up to film and/or record in their homes (something everyone is facing as we keep moving through this time). I made myself available to make sure performers were set up correctly and submitting video files we could work with. From there, I pieced together Bruce’s hosting segments along with the songs, finessing timing of fades in and out of songs as well as audio levels. From there, we created a 90-minute video file that we needed to “crunch” or make small enough for an upload to a streaming website. With this, I was able to learn about live broadcasting software as well as scheduled live broadcasts. It’s the new world we’re moving into so I’m glad to have knowledge of it.
Bruce, what goes into gathering the songs and creating the patter you developed as host?
Bruce Kimmel: I choose the theme of the show and the songs, and then I cast it from our incredibly talented LA talent pool. Once I have the theme, I just listen to a lot of songs and pick the ones that seem to make a good show. I'm a stickler for the show structure and order; and, from the very start, I insisted on two rehearsals and a stumble-through so that no one was reading lyrics on a stand and everyone was super prepared. To that end, I was the first person in cabaret to ever pay the performers a fee for doing a multi-singer cabaret show. It was unheard of; but I thought it was only fair since the rehearsals were key. It's not a lot of money, but I know our performers have appreciated it. At least in LA, it set a precedent - so that at least one of the shows that copied our format had to start paying. I'd never intended to do anything but introduce the show; but, when we did our first show based on a series of albums I produced called Lost in Boston - cut songs from hit Broadway shows - I realized the songs wouldn't make any sense without some context. That’s why I wrote a commentary; people liked it and then expected it - so I was stuck. Now I've had to do it for 106 shows. Even so, I really enjoy writing it, and it's given me back all my performer confidence, a nice and unexpected benefit.
Hartley, was there anything that came up that surprised you (in a good way or not so good way) while working on the May fundraiser online?
Hartley Powers: I was surprised as to how much work it actually was! As someone who tackles production schedules, I thought this would be a breeze. But between creating teasers before the show in order to build momentum, and creating the graphics to help us start and bookend the show, it turned into a pretty big task. And Bruce was wrangling talent as well as directing the performers. We both dedicated a lot of time to this and are really proud of the outcome.
Based on your experience with the May Kritzerland Fundraiser for the GRT and the upcoming June Kritzerland concert, do you think that you might again serve as a technical advisor for any upcoming events?
Hartley Powers: Considering that we don’t know what the future holds and how our entertainment platforms are going to continue to evolve, I think that many events are going to turn to more of a pre-recorded live type of broadcast. At this point, I think it’s the only hope that is available to live performers. So I hope that I get to participate in more of these.
Bruce, have you made any modifications as a producer and director in order to plan a concert using a virtual format, rather than onstage before a live audience? What differences are entailed in performing in this virtual world? Is technology your friend or your enemy?
Bruce Kimmel: We haven't made any changes to the format of the show, and we still rehearse - just via Zoom. I hear what everyone is doing and give any little notes I may have. We miss the laughs and applause, of course, which is the downside of doing it online; but it works pretty well. The singers who would be normally playing to the audience have to adjust to playing to the camera, and we do have to get the balances right between voice and track. That’s why I have everyone send a test video to make those adjustments prior to taping the number. Richard Allen, our musical director, has the daunting task of making all the tracks; but it's been pretty smooth. Technology is my half-friend; but technology, thankfully, is Hartley's really good friend.
Hartley, you are an actress/singer who will also be performing in the June concert. What song or songs will you be singing? Did you have to make any changes in your usual performing style to accommodate the virtual format?
Hartley Powers: I believe Bruce would prefer I keep my song a secret, but I think I can say that it will help spread a little cheer. Once I went to record myself, I realized just how strange it is to just sing to a camera with no audience to react to you, no mic to help reverb your sound. It’s an odd setting, for sure. I am equipped to film but I’m used to just worrying about being on one side of the camera - not both!
The Kritzerland concert is a fundraiser for the Group Rep. What do you hope to accomplish with your virtual June concert?
Bruce Kimmel: What we always hope to accomplish: To give a good show that makes people happy. That's all we can hope for - and bringing people happiness, especially now, is important. I decided to make our online shows benefits for the Group Rep because - like all small theaters right now - they are struggling to pay the rent without having shows running. It's really daunting. Over the years, I've directed a couple of benefits for the Group Rep; and this just seemed like a natural to me. We raised over $1,000 for them with the May show, and I'm hoping June will do well, too.
This question is for both of you. What are some of your plans during and after COVID-19?
Bruce Kimmel: Right now, I should be in rehearsals at the Group Rep for the fiftieth anniversary production of the musical Applause - but who knows when that will happen. I am ever hopeful that it will be sooner rather than later, but I tend to always accentuate the positive rather than the negative. Other than that, we'll continue doing our Kritzerland shows online until we can get back to Vitello's. I have a new book that just came out, and so I will be doing some press for that. Otherwise, I'm just trying to stay productive here at home, writing and stuff, and staying safe and out of harm's way.
Hartley Powers: I wish I could say I had plans for after COVID-19, but I think I’m taking it one day at a time. If we do return to “normal,” I look forward to taking dance classes, browsing the aisles of Target, getting a massage, and visiting with my family. My husband and I have been very fortunate to work from home at this time.
This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.