Enjoy this interview about “Culture Clash: An American Odyssey” By Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza, directed by Robert Beltran (Commander Chakotay in a recurring role on the TV series Star Trek: Voyager) at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, running until Nov 17th. You can listen to this YouTube interview while commuting, while waiting in line at the grocery store or at an audition, backstage and even front of the stage. For tickets and more info Click here.
The White Dress, my genre-bending gender queer coming of age play will receive a showcase in New York from November 2-5.
The work melds language, music, and movement to explore one Jonathan Howard's journey to embrace himself as a pansexual, gender non-conforming person of color. The piece is being directed and co-choreographed by Adin Walker. Amongst our mutual loves and affiliations, Adin and I are Princeton alums, aficionados of queer drama, and theatre-makers with backgrounds in dance.
What's been most interesting working with Adin has been the opportunity to think and write from an interdisciplinary place as a dramatist. Before I even re-wrote a word of the script, Adin shared with me dozens of podcasts, interviews, videos, and old-fashioned articles about gender and identity - many from the “I” perspective. Reading them, I was able to put faces and lived experiences to the ideas I was investigating through the play. In the end, reverence, patience, attention to detail, and empathy were some of the virtues reinforced in this re-write experience.
Now, The White Dress is in its final week of rehearsals. But before we fly into tech, I took some time to chat with Adin about the road to our New York debut.
Adin Walker, director and choreographer
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): What attracted you to this project?
Adin Walker (AW): I was first attracted to the project when I met you. Before I even read the script, you and I talked on the phone for a couple hours about art, our lives, queerness, our shared experience attending the same college – though our times there never overlapped – and training under some of the same teachers. I could feel your presence and warmth over the phone as if you were sitting beside me on my bed, rather than all the way on the other side of the country. Your values for theater-making and collaboration also really inspire me. In particular, your work embraces the liveness of theater, your work uplifts and spotlights the ensemble rather than a single and central figure, and you are an artist with a mission to bring people together in rooms to share, feel, and make activism-driven art.
RQM: Who are some of your inspirations for this piece - both as a director and co-choreographer?
AW: Every single person involved with this project has been an inspiration for this piece, and that has been very special. Pina Bausch, Solange Knowles, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Keone and Mari Madrid are a few of many artists who we look to for inspiration. We have also been listening to lots of the NANCY Podcast, re-reading Judith Butler, Nick Krieger, James Baldwin, and other writers and scholars.
RQM: One of the things that's excited me about writing the play is the chance to have characters vocalize their stage directions. How are you working that element of the script into your production?
AW: Each rehearsal for each scene begins with the actors reading the scene and choosing which stage directions they want to say in that moment. They might explore saying the stage direction if they feel like it pertains to their actions, if the description of an action offers an unspoken layer to an exchange with another character, or if they think the stage action described in the stage directions is witnessed from their point of view and the witnessing of the action motivates them to continue to stay in the room and engage with the other character(s.) We then rigorously go through and decide what we want to try when we move onto our feet, and then we just keep learning and playing!
RQM: I've heard there's a go go dancer and a DJ booth onstage. Please tell me more.
AW: Yes! The play is underscored by DJscapes – and I was interested in tapping into the heart beats of all the characters and how their heart beats sync, collide, and eventually move in different directions. Stanley Mathabane, who is playing Jon, is also professional DJ artist [SunSon] and it excited me to think about how Jon is intimately connected to music – that the DJscapes are grounded in his psychology and how he spins, mixes, and samples music is always coming from a place of emotional discovery and memory.
RQM: Why is it important for us to make queer theatre?
AW: I recently attended Diana Oh's brilliant [my lingerie play] at Rattlestick, and the performance begins with audience members writing on paper bags their answers to the question: “why do you create a safer and more courageous world for us all?” And I feel that that mission – to "create a safer and more courageous world for us all" – and its framing question – why are we doing this – is at the heart of making work that is unapologetically queer. “Queer” is a powerful word – its meanings are vast and represent different things to different people. The word continues to take on meanings with each new movement and generation. To me, the power of "queer" rests in its insistence on political and cultural LGBTQ+ visibility: we're here, we're queer. Queer art exposes, interrogates, and disentangles the mechanisms of our politics – the signifiers that aid the world in making sense of our bodies – to therefore distill a story, a character, a corner of a universe to our core truths. And the word itself, "queer," defies definition and parameters – everyone kinda has their own relationship to the word and what it signifies and sums up to that person. And I like to think that making queer art is about making art that cannot be defined...and in that space without the walls of definition, we can start to build that "safer and more courageous world for us all," that Diana Oh so powerfully inscribed onto our little queer hearts.
The title of this meta-comedy will be immediately recognizable to any avid fan of Damien Chazelle's film LA LA LAND. In the film, Mia Dolan, an aspiring actress played by Emma Stone (who won an Academy Award for her performance), writes herself a one-woman show called "So Long Boulder City" in a desperate attempt to boost her faltering career. Only 9 people show up - none of whom is her boyfriend Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling. However, her ploy works out better than she ever expected, since one of the attendees is a high-powered casting agent.
All of this is such far-fetched nonsense - as I wrote about in one of my first columns for this website - that it seems to be crying out for lampooning, and this show by Jimmy Fowlie and Jordan Black more than fills the bill. While not everything works, the parts that are funny are howlingly so - as in one bit that features Abraham Lincoln's niece. Personally, I could see anothere way to go with this parody, that would hone closer to the character of Mia Dolan and evoke Ms Stone's performance more acutely. But this broadly farcical approach works too, and Mr Fowlie is a hoot as an untalented LA actress who is too in love with herself and her "dreams" to even notice how terrible a performer she really is.
I highly recommend this if you want to laugh your ass off at one-person shows in general and at the LA entertainment industry scene in particular. But it's better if you know the source material well - or can go with someone who does.
The fun continues at Celebration Theatre until November 6th. But if it keeps selling out the house, as it's been doing... do I hear extension?
Spawned from Julie Brown's 1980's hit song and subsequent music video, HOMECOMING QUEEN'S GOT A GUN fully morphs into Julie's staged musical beginning October 13 at the Cavern Club Theater. Co-written by Kurt Koehler, this high, high-camped musical will elaborate on how Debi the Homecoming Queen acquired her gun, and the assortment of reasons she went on a shooting rampage of her high school classmates. We got the chance to sit Julie down for a few hot seconds to answer my inquisitive queries.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, Julie!
I've seen your after-show photo with Chico's Angels on their website, so I know you've been to at least one of their shows. How did you and Kurt Koehler first meet?
I think I've been to almost all the shows since I've known Kurt. I met Kurt because he got a hold of me and wanted to do a show that incorporated all my songs. But I told him that I was already trying to do Earth Girls as a musical, so I didn't want to use all my songs in another play. I also started thinking of how I could do Homecoming Queen as a musical, and I went to see Kurt's show INVINCIBLE – THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN and I loved it! It was so funny and campy and exactly the tone I wanted for Homecoming Queen, so I asked him if he wanted to write it with me, and we did. I had so much fun working with him that I asked him if he wanted to write EARTH GIRLS – THE MUSICAL with me because I was trying to do it, but having trouble translating it from the movie to the stage. So we did that too, and we're going to do that in spring!
When did you realize that Kurt and your kooky, off-center, out-there sensibilities were on the same wavelength?
When he first wanted to work with me, I didn't know exactly what his sense of humor was but INVINCIBLE convinced me. When he had puppets singing, “Hell is for children!” I knew we would get along. And we do. We laugh a lot when we're writing and we never fight.
You wrote your hit song Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun in 1983 and followed up with a music video in 1987. Which came first, your Valley Girl persona? Or this song?
The persona came first. I was doing it in my stand-up act, and I'd even been on TV doing it (Evening at the Improv), and then the song Valley Girl came out. I was so bummed, but then I thought, “I can still do my version of my character.” And I'd been doing songs when I was doing my act with Charlie Coffey in San Francisco. So after we'd both moved down here, I was trying to think of a song. The title just occurred to me while I was driving. I asked Charlie if he wanted to write it with me.
Guess you could describe MTV to millennials as the precursor to YouTube. Did you produce/construct your Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun video specifically for MTV to broadcast?
We'd written the song, and I just knew it had to be a video-because that's what was happening then. So we wrote out the video shot-by-shot. Amazingly, this guy came along who said he would finance it if he could be the director. I said, “If you follow our shooting script,” He said, “Fine.” And we got this great DP Dominic Sena, and they followed the shooting script exactly. And then, because I was doing guest VJ spots on MTV to promote my new album, they put it on the air.
I see you've uploaded your videos onto your YouTube channel. Any immediate plans to add to your video collection/selection?
Well, I did direct Another Drunk Chick, that's up right now. And I might do more. Kurt and I are planning to do a webseries of Medusa (the satire of Madonna) that I did in the 90s. It would be her now, with all her kids and her young boyfriends, etc.
Did you have a BFF named Debi who became homecoming queen? Or was Debi your alter ego?
I did not have a BFF who became Homecoming Queen. I think it was my alter ego, because in the video I'm the one with the gun!
In your video, you played yourself and Debi. Who came up with the genius idea to have ever-popular LA theatre staple Drew Droege portray Debi?
When Kurt and I were working on it, we thought about having a woman at first. But, because the whole thing is a campy satire of a girl with a gun at school, we thought the more ridiculous we can make it, the more it's not real. So, we actually added more death – to make it more like an 80s horror movie, and we made Debi the super talented Drew Droege.
So, how will your show at the Cavern Club Theater expand on your music video? More dancing? More singing? More beefcake?
I think the show explains a lot of the mystery in the song. And - there is more singing and more beefcake!
Can you bring us back in time to when Lily Tomlin first discovered you? How did it all happen?
I invited her to come see me in this little club in San Francisco because she was in town doing her show. I just loved her, so that's what gave me the nerve to do it. And she showed up! She was super sweet and said to contact her if I came to L.A. I did and she gave me a part in The Incredible Shrinking Woman and I got my SAG card.
What qualities do you look for in the person that you skewer, er, pay homage to (i.e., Madonna)?
They have to be really interesting. It's sort of best if they don't have that much sense of humor about themselves. Like they take themselves pretty seriously.
Can you give us a hint as to whom your next target, er, honoree will be?
It will be Madonna again! She still cracks me up and I love her!
Since your co-writer Kurt is also the co-writer of CHICO'S ANGELS, any chances of you joining forces with the Angels to solve their latest case in the near future?
Yes, I could be a much younger Miss Marple. I'll have to ask them!
Thank you again, Julie! I look forward to your crazy night at the Cavern Club.
Let's face it, we all want to be heroes. From an early age, we daydream about performing heroically under pressure - saving the drowning man, pulling the woman to safety before she's engulfed by fire, catching the child who falls out a window - and then being celebrated by society for what we have done. And in truth, many of us are upstanding people who would put ourselves on the line - not just for friends and family, but also for strangers in trouble. But what would we do - what would YOU do - if you had to live with constant danger, with constant threat of incarceration or death? Would you be able to rise to the challenge - or would you look for some place to hide?
Six shows I've seen recently here confront these questions in dramatically interesting ways.
This play tells the story of Christopher, an autistic adolescent in a London suburb, who happens upon his neighbor's dead dog - an event that begins Christopher on a journey of many perils, in which he discovers that his life has been shrouded in lies. Directed by Marianne Elliott, it is one of the few truly "immersive" productions, as we experience events entirely through Christopher's eyes, with the help of a computerized cube within which the story unfolds. It is a technological marvel that fills me with misgivings, mostly because of the hypnotizing effect this has on an audience, and the nefarious uses to which such technology can be put by those with the kind of money necessary to construct such a cube. Nevertheless, I highly recommend seeing it before it closes Sept. 10, if at all possible. Christopher's journey on the train to London is simply one of the great coup de theatres of all time. I saw the Broadway production two years ago, and that seemed crisper and more of a jolt than this did, but then that may simply be because I wasn't seeing it for the first time. There were moments this time when the play seemed overly cute and pleased with itself. But its power is undeniable, and I found myself being even more blown away than before by the heroicism of Christopher, who overcomes so many obstacles in his pursuit of a dangerous truth.
When I was a teenager, I saw Janis Joplin headline a concert at Madison Square Garden. (I bought the tickets with cash at the box office - probably $20 or so - only businessmen had credit cards back then, and of course there was no internet.) There must have been 20,000 other screaming fans there who experienced this astonishing voice - so full of hurt, fury, yearning, love and anguish. Torment. Joy. So vulnerable it hurt, like a naked child in a tornado. Talk about "immersive"! I remember it as the only time when a performer truly made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. As the years go by, there are fewer and fewer people left on the planet who had this in-person experience, though Janis as a rock goddess and avatar of human suffering looms larger than ever. At first glance, Arianna Veronesi seems an odd choice to conjure that spirit. Yes, there's a physical resemblance of sorts, but Arianna has a pronounced Italian accent and she doesn't sing or make any attempt to move around as Janis did. Her 30 minute monologue imagines a small slice of Janis's life, as she attempts to make a comeback (at 26) from years of drinking and drug use. What Arianna captures is that enormous vulnerability, that naked child in a tornado, as she battles against both her demons and the huge expectations of her fans, desperately trying to hold onto life even as she's aware of it slipping away. It's very moving, and I hope she continues developing it. Right now it's not clear to me why this phone call marks a crucial turning point in her life. That is,, it works as a one act character study, but not as a one act play. I look forward to seeing where she goes with it.
MARLENE by Willard Manus
Marlene Dietrich was many things - sex symbol, chanteuse, entertainer, movie star - but "hero" would not seem to be one of them. However, as Willard Manus's play tells us, she did in fact act heroically during WWII, being among the first A-List stars to entertain the troops on the front lines, while also helping to get people out of Germany, finding housing for refugees and sponsoring them for citizenship. There was a price to pay after the war for her actions, as her own people viewed her as a traitor and issuing death threats when she returned to perform in Germany - to the point where Marlene in her dressing room grabs a revolver from a drawer every time someone knocks. Cindy Marinangel does everything she can with the role of Marlene, making her a very real woman whose sex appeal is linked interestingly with her independence and dignity. She doesn't especially resemble Marlene, but this was a plus for me in some ways. There were suggestions of Marlene as a forerunner of Madonna, something I hadn't really thought about before. But there's the bi-sexuality, the fashion sense, the political awareness -- the glamour. That said, the play itself is weak and in need of a major rewrite. Right now Ms. Marinagel has to act two roles - both Marlene and the reporter she's pouring out her heart to in her dressing room. It might work better if this was a two-hander, in the manner of John Logan's RED, about Mark Rothko and his studio assistant. I hope that Mr Manus figures out a way to improve it, because Ms Marinangel deserves a better "Marlene."
I'm so sad that this show has already closed, and I hope that it reappears somewhere in the near future. This is not only because Hershey Felder does a great job of bringing historically-significant composers back to life, but because in this case there is an unexpected relevance to current events - well, unexpected to me anyway. Felder does a great job in setting up the big choice of Tchaikovsky's life. Tchaikovsky was homosexual at a time when it was life-threatening to come out of the closet. He had managed to get a degree in the civil service and secure an appointment that would have afforded him a good living. But when pianist/composer Anton Rubinstein opened a music conservatory in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky chose to quit his secure job and dedicate his life to music, in the process opening his private life to scrutiny and potential danger. Felder posits that the composer's death was basically an act of state-sponsored murder for Tchaikovsky's "crime" of being gay. He is further able to complete the circle by showing how little has actually changed in Russia, where men are still rounded up and tossed from rooftops simply for sexual orientation. This is much more than just another biopic or museum piece, and I hope it returns.
Jade Beauvoir was born into an All-American Texan family, the youngest child of five children. His name was Trent then, and he was expected to excel at football and uphold Christian values, like his big brothers. But Trent was only interested in playing with his sisters' Barbies and wearing his mother's clothing. His "gender dysphoria" was incomprehensible to family and community, and Jade paints a vivid picture of the terrible consequenes of internalizing their rejection. He lets us into this world, relating with humor and intelligence and grace how he was forced down a blind alley, which could only lead to his death. (In many ways, much like Tchaikovsky.) The fact that he was able to survive and construct a self that is still thriving and growing is miraculous in its own way, a testament to the will to live and love that cannot be destroyed, even by those who celebrate their ignorance. This show is an act of bravery and transparency by a person who has nothing left to hide.
In the interests of transparency - that word again - let me confide that I am a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA, who are also the producers of Alex Alpharoah's one man show, WET. That said, please know that has nothing to do with my imploring you to go see Mr. Alpharoah's show. It is simply a great piece of theater - deeply wrenching and compulsively interesting - that also has more to say than anything else I've seen about the situation in this country with regard to people who come here from other countries "yearning to breathe free." We often toss around words like "the immigrant crisis" and "illegals," which just become ways to distance us from the human tragedy that these words purport to describe. Alex Alpharoah is the human face of that tragedy, while also being the best example I know of someone who has managed to triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles by making art out of it, by converting his anxiety and suffering into beautiful word-music.
His story is truly unimaginable in any time except our own, under any administration except the misbegotten one that currently makes our policy. I won't give you any specifics because one of the pleasures of this very substantial performance is to hear Mr. Alpharaoh tell it. This is not a civics lesson - this is not theater that is good for you like medicine (though it is) - this is a modern-day Odysseus creating a new mythology of human endurance. The show runs until August 27th - go. Buy a ticket. Don't miss it. You will understand what it's like to walk in Alex Alpharoah's shoes, and you will become a better person because of it.
Singer/songwriter/actor Levi Kreis will be appearing for one night only at the LA LGBT Center's Renberg Theatre August 19 as part of his BROADWAY AT THE KEYS national tour. I have had many an opportunity to interview, photograph, and just hang out with Levi years before he won his Tony Award in 2010 for his Broadway debut role of Jerry Lee Lewis in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET. Needless to say, I was very excited to catch up with the busy Levi prior to his prepping for his LGBT Center appearance.
Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Levi! Our paths haven't crossed in over a decade.
So great to reconnect with you, Gil!
What sparked the initial concept of you latest CD (now tour) BROADWAY AT THE KEYS?
I've been busy with stage and film work the last seven years. When I was last on Broadway, it was with the Tony Award-nominated revival of VIOLET. Through the experience, I found myself reconnecting with my southern roots. My roots have often influenced my material as a singer/songwriter, with more bluesy compositions being used on shows like Sons of Anarchy, The Vampire Diaries, and others. I started to wonder what it would be like to bring my singer/songwriter sensibilities to some Broadway classics. To rebel against the overproduction, the ostentatious belting, and performing at people. I wanted to explore something simple and vulnerable. I wanted to tell the story of the songs in a way that we're not accustomed to hearing them. Nothing showy or self-aggrandizing. Just profound honesty.
This is your sixth CD, not counting the album you recorded at age six or the cast CD of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, right?
Damn, you're good. Yes.
Is there any common theme to your song choices in BROADWAY AT THE KEYS?
Finding your place in this world. I've certainly been trying to do that as I enter the second chapter of my life. Since my last album in 2013, I have changed so much. My values are different. My view of self is different. My view of the world is profoundly different. It's weird, but my 30's have been rather disorienting for me. So much to understand. I seemed drawn to songs that help me imagine. Songs that encourage a dream. Songs that give hope, and a glimpse of the seemingly impossible. My favorite being "Corner Of The Sky."
The LA LGBT Center is just one of the six stops on your national tour. Any immediate plans to add more cities? Or does your schedule not allow it?
There are actually ten stops altogether. I just completed the first leg of the tour. We thought that was going to be enough, but we seem to be adding dates this week. I can't say no to adding dates because it's likely the only time I will tour this album.
Have you appeared at the LGBT Center before? Or just been part of the attentive audiences for the shows there?
It's about time I get to perform at the Center! After all, some of my closest friends have performed there. This is my debut. Very excited!
You won a Tony Award for "Best Featured Actor in a Musical" for your role in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET. What do you remember of the night you won your Tony? Or was it all a blur?
It was more than the Tony win for me that night. I was in the darkest time of my life. That night, I wasn't just astonished at being the recipient of such recognition, but it was very much a finish line for me in a lot of ways. It was important to me because it proved that I could somehow come through the hardest time of my life and still maintain a strong work ethic and a generosity onstage that truly connected with people. That's what made me most proud of that moment.
A major factor component of you landing the role of Jerry Lee Lewis must have been your piano-playing virtuosity, right?
Actually, not at all. When I was asked to do the first workshop for MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, it was because I had been working with the producers on a beautiful new work called ONE RED FLOWER. For all intents and purposes, it was this piece that was going to be my Broadway debut - a beautiful story about five guys in their one-year tour of duty in Vietnam. We workshopped it across the country. Just three weeks after securing a theater in New York City, 9/11 happened. I was told that after this tragedy, it was just too ambitious to invest in a musical that centers around our country being at war. It was so disheartening. This piece was healing. Veterans would come up to us and tell us that this piece felt like their first welcome home. Upon returning to Los Angeles, the producers had received the script of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET. They believed in my ability to create rich southern characters and to understand southern humor. They had heard that I played the piano, but had no idea how well I could play. It was a surprise to them. It's interesting. Alongside my nomination (and win) as Best Featured Actor in a Musical, MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET was nominated that year for Best Book. We gave a lot of time and expertise to developing these characters and nurturing the subtle arc of the story. Since it's departure from Broadway, and over the last few years, it's so sad to see that it's become more of an impersonation/tribute show with an approach that all but abandons the book. It used to be as much about the characters as it was about this iconic rock n roll music.
You started playing piano, by ear, when you were six years old. How many hours a day did you sit at your piano practicing as a little kid?
Ugh, countless. At least three hours a day. I had a full scholarship for classical music to Vanderbilt University - in high school. It was under a special pre-college program that allowed me to begin my college curriculum during my sophomore, junior, and senior years. Very busy kid. LOL!
Who were your musical icons growing up who you wanted to emulate?
I seldom emulated icons of pop culture. I cut my teeth on the gospel music of the south. I feel like so much of where I learned to sing, and communicate, is from the church. As they taught me, if you're gonna sing it, sing it with conviction!
Do you need to read sheet music or just hear a tune once to play it?
Generally, I like to just hear it and play. Which makes it difficult for me to keep my reading chops up.
Does your piano-playing by ear carry over to easily memorizing scripts or grocery lists?
Ha! I wish. I'm horrible to go grocery shopping with.
Your songwriting efforts have been in a variety of projects encompassing various genres of music. Do you have any favorites in categories of music that you like to write for? (folk, pop, classical, country, Christian, musical theatre?)
As you know, I identify most as a singer/songwriter. This has been my primary livelihood since you and I met in 2005. I have built my audience through prominent features on several prime time television shows over the years. Without me realizing it, those features have branded me clearly within the minds of my fans - lyrical insightful laments of love and loss set to a haunting piano and a raw, vulnerable vocal - this is how they would describe my music. This is why I wanted to take the same approach to the newest album Broadway At The Keys. Nobody had done that with Broadway classics before. I'm staying in that lane these days. My first original album in five years is coming out this winter. There is a flirtation with my Appalachian roots on the record, but fans who really know my work are going to be extremely satisfied. I feel it's the best material I've written in my career thus far. I'm getting antsy to share it!
Which do you prefer, being on stage performing in front of a live audience? Or sitting in your quiet space writing/composing songs?
I've always been very autobiographical in my original material. I tell of my past addictions, my six years of conversation therapy, my experience being gay-bashed with a brick to the back of the head in Hamilton Park, New Jersey. My divorce. I mean, not that I'm trying to exploit the ever-so-popular victim culture, but I know I'm not the only one who experiences these core human emotions. When that connects with fans, they are usually gracious enough to return to me their own story. The things they went through. Their personal victories. It's a seriously beautiful bond that makes this undesirable life of entertainment all worthwhile. Because of this, seeing them face to face, on the road, that is everything for me.
How would you describe your character Jimmy Ray Brewton in Del Shores' new A Very Sordid Wedding coming out later this year?
The film has enjoyed some successful premieres this year, starting off its tour across the country as the #1 Specialty Box Office Film in Palm Springs. It's been selling out houses all over the country and is currently premiering in east coast cities. Del Shores is someone who is very dear to me, so working with him was something he and I both had been waiting for! He asked a lot of me. It was tough to channel the men who taught me how to hate myself as a child. To say some of the things I have to say and believe them? That was hard. But I really love playing the villain. This is the second film this year I get to play the antagonist of the film. I'm loving it.
There's an incredible YouTube video of you performing the theme song of Del's Southern Baptist Sissies, "Stained Glass Window."
I was excited to reprise Olivia Newton John's performance of the theme song. Audiences get a kick out of that song.
What's in the near future for Levi Kreis?
My future is one day at a time. My future is reminding myself that it's the quality of life between the awards and movie premieres that matter. The day-to-day stuff. Loving my family and my partner a little better every day. To appreciate the blue birds that sit on my deck in the morning. To enjoy a summer shower without having to obsess about a to-do list. That's the future that matters.
What feelings would you like the LGBT Center audience to leave with after your curtain call?
Don't think you've seen anything like this before - just come. You will laugh as hard as you cry.
Thanks, Levi! I look forward to experiencing your raw and haunting BROADWAY AT THE KEYS.
To let this talented man wow you, log onto www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre for available tickets for his only one-night engagement in Los Angeles. If you happen to be in travelling, check out Levi's website www.levikreis.com for this tour cities and dates.
I went to the Hollywood Fringe Post-Mortem two weeks ago at Sacred Fools. 10 people there. Including Ben Hill and Matt Quinn.
Remember the crowded parties? Lots of empty seats here.
The party was still going on for a few shows, but this felt more like a wake. Which was cool. As wakes go, this one was more productive than most, with some genuine introspection from Ben and Matt and Richard Lucas (from Bono and the Edge Waiting for Godomino's) and Steven Vlasak (from Nights at the Algonquin Round Table) and a few other hardy souls. There were only 2 women present, and I think both of them were on the administrative side with Ben and Matt. Why was that, I wonder? If I was writing the scene, I would probably have had more women than men there, because I'd feel that women in general cared more and would have more passionate feelings about how the Fringe could be improved. But no. None showed up. Just shows you that life is always surprising and most assumptions are wrong.
Ben Hill at the Post-Mortem
Way back in May, when Enci and I were gearing up to cover the Fringe, I was contacted by a freelance reporter who had somehow gotten hold of some angry words I had written about Fringe 2013 at its conclusion. Something to the effect that it was just a scam, the means for a few people in power to fill their pockets, at the expense of the artists. I would say now that this can be true - and may be true for some of the participants - but in general my views have evolved. I think that Ben Hill and Matt Flynn and most of the folks running venues involved in the Fringe work very hard and do try their best to make this a good experience for the participants. But Fringe is, in fact, a game - a game that some play well, while others play poorly. The game involves crafting an irreverent and/or clever entertainment that has a powerful but easily grasped message and that can be loaded in and loaded out of a theater space with speed and economy. Those who understood how to play the game did well. Those who didn't, didn't. That simple.
Back when I was but a lad of 24, I had the great good fortune of studying with Harold Clurman at the Actors Studio in NYC.
Harold was the driving force behind the Group Theatre in the 1930s, which is still the most influential collective in shaping the American aesthetic, the homegrown American style of making theater, as opposed to the one we inherited from our British forbears. Harold also wrote my favorite book about the American theater, The Fervent Years, which is his personal history of the Group.
Harold was always fond of saying that it took hundreds of theatrical misfires to make it possible for a great play to be born. This is not to say that the shows in the Fringe were any more or less good than any of the productions at more established LA theaters - only that there were more of them, and that they were often different in kind. So while there were productions like The Motherfucker with the Hat, which in fact had had a "regular" theatrical run, most of the Fringe plays were only an hour or less in running time and would likely never be seen again after the Fringe. Or were so offbeat in their conception (something like Too Many Hitlers comes to mind) that it is hard to imagine any other forum in which they might be presented.
Which is just why Harold would have loved them. It was precisely the enormous variety which the Fringe offered that represented for Harold what a healthy and vital American theater would look like. And why I think it's a shame that so many theater professionals and artistic directors stayed away - and felt somehow proud of having done so, referring to the Fringe as a distraction and heaving a sigh of relief at its departure.
Well, folks, I caught a final wave of shows, and I do believe that they are worth taking a look at.
So, from Harold Clurman to Shiragirl - a transition that Harold would defiinitely have loved, since he was partial to blond young women and often had one on each arm. And Shira Leigh is a very sexy and attractive performer, who basically does an emotional striptease for her audience, confiding her sexual journey from naive high school girl to sex with studley young guys to a passionate lesbian relationship to a traditional hetero marriage to ... uncertainty. Looking for love and having a very hard time finding it. But it didn't feel like Shira was really searching for love - rather, she was searching for the comforting embrace of fame, that warm Kardashian glow that would give her the security of being worshipped by multitudes. This made the first part of her show seem very calculated and, well, manipulative. It's evident that Shira is also very smart, and she understands that if adoration hasn't been achieved yet, the odds were no longer with her. This lends the latter part of her show some poignancy, as she contemplates her current state of alone-ness. Hopefully she will transition into the more truthful and self-examining show that she appears to be capable of. But then again, dancing to techno music is such a crowd-pleaser, maybe she won't.
The plot of Ava Bogle's 45 minute show - and there is a plot of sorts - is that there are aliens among us, and their minds have been blown by the massively earth-shaking power and pleasure of the female orgasm. They would gladly hang around our planet for all eternity experiencing this, except that the earth is due to explode on November 8th of this year, so they have to return to their own dull but secure planet. We see Ava playing all of these aliens on tape as they meet one last time, then the video ends, and she comes out as each alien in turn to examine and dramatize their feelings about having to leave. It's not really the most dynamic idea, and I can't say that my mind was ever blown by any ability she showed to morph into different characters. No, what made her show memorable - and it is just that - is her capacity to beguile us with her innocence. There is a purity to her odes to the vulva that is really quite wonderful to behold. And, unlike Shiragirl, she never tries to bend us to her will, never demands our adoration, never seems to want anything from us except to convey her own love of and gratitude for the orgasm. She's really like a cheerleader for sexual pleasure. There's something so refreshing in that, so un-puritanical, that I can only admire the single-mindedness of her focus. I am, again, old enough to remember flower children and Woodstock and all those emblems of innocence before they became so badly tarnished. Ava Bogle somehow manages to channel these forces in the time machine of her artistry and touch on something child-like and wondrous in sexual feelings that is so difficult to express anymore. Before such guilelessness, this critic can only lay down his pen and let it wash over him.
At the opening of her excellent one woman show, Sofie Khan rightly calls herself the poster-person for Trump's anti-immigration policies. Born to a Mexican mother and a Pakistani father, she grew up to discover that she was also bi-sexual. All of this gives her a very unique and provocative angle of perception on the current immigration crisis, not just in this country but in the world. Fortunately, she's also personable and relatable performer who brings us into her world with great ease and lets us experience both the small and the large miscarriages of justice that are visited on people everyday who have been categorized as "the other." Her show is so effective because we identify so completely with Sofie and share her experiences of "other-ness" with the same outrage that she felt. She's a great ambassador for Mexicans, for Muslims and for the LGBTQ community, and I imagine that she will be very busy in the immediate future giving versions of her show at schools and community centers, as well as at comedy shows. I'm really glad to be introduced to her work, and I wish her all the luck in the world in bringing some sanity to what has become such an insane and regrettable situation in our society and beyond.
Though this was my first encounter with it, I see that this show has been around Los Angeles for a while, having first been done at the Eclectic Theatre in North Hollywood in 2014 and reappearing around Halloween since then. It tells the story of Brenda, a young Goth woman so bored by the predictability of life that she only wants one thing - to become a vampire. She only has one close friend, another Goth girl who she's grown up with, and there's a potentially interesting story about their friendship being tested by their vampiring yearnings, but this play isn't interested in telling that story. It has an interesting twist at the end which is genuinely twisted, but the journey getting there just feels like a gimmick, a sketch. It doesn't really feel substantial enough to be a successful Halloween standard, but it could be. I just don't think the playwright really wants to work that hard.
Sex trafficking is a terrible crime. Sex trafficking and all such exploitation of children everywhere should be wiped off the face of the earth. I hope that, whatever differences of opinions we may have, we can all agree on that. And the fact that most of us can and do also mutes the power of a show like Toys, which tries to shock us with the inhuman cruelty of such crimes. If I was a child or perhaps even a teenager, I would be troubled by it. But this is one case where I think film is much more effective in conveying how human beings can inflict this kind of atrocity on each other. When you get the full impact of an image in the first 10 seconds, and then the piece goes on for another 17 minutes, I just don't think it effectively rouses us to action, which is what it clearly wants to do.
THE SECOND COMING OF KLAUS KINSKI by Andrew Perez
This is a very odd show. It's odd in the way that shows are that become cult hits or attract a following, which this show very well may do. Is it good? I don't know. Andrew Perez has certainly immersed himself in the consciousness and worldview of the 20th century actor Klaus Kinski, who achieved fame in the remarkable Werner Herzog films (now classics) Aquirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Nosferatu, as well as in Herzog's documentary about him, My Best Fiend. Kinski has nothing nice to say about Herzog here, but then he eschews niceness and the niceties in general for exclamations of disgust with people and contempt for the human race. Perez does a generally good job in maintaining an insane intensity far past the point where most others could. The experience reminded me of Peter Handke's play Offending the Audiencemixed with a reading of anything by the French novelist-philosopher Louis-Ferdinand Celine. I kind of enjoyed it because it was so emphatically unpleasant and abusive, two things that Southern Californians avoid being in public at all costs. I mean, you can die of niceness here. Kinski's hideous behavior, his unrelenting horror at the misery of human existence, was kind of a tonic, shaking me out of my Jamba Juice haze, my Pinkberry daydreams and reminding me of how ugly so much of the world is. If it comes around again, I recommend giving it a try, if only to experience something completely different. But please, don't bring the kids.
Every month or so, playwright Boni B. Alvarez and I have a kiki (Queer dictionary moment: kiki = chit-chat, coffee, shoot the…you understand). We meet up to talk shop, dream, scheme, and generally relish each other's company. Fresh off the opening of Boni's new play Nicky, you know I was eager for this month's talk. And I thought I'd invite your guys, our lovely Better Lemons readers, to the party.
Roger Q. Mason
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): I'll never forget how we met. It was 2009.
Boni B. Alvarez (BBA): Yes, it was my play Ruby, Tragically Rotund. My first production – with Playwrights' Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
RQM: I remember seeing that play and being wowed by the theatricality of the piece, the originality of the writing and the singularity of perspective. Until then, I had not yet seen a Filipino-American play on stage.
Boni B. Alvarez
BBA: The funny thing is I don't think of it as a Filipino-American play. I mean, obviously, it is. I am Filipino-American and there are a lot of Filipino and Filipino-American characters in it, but the inspiration actually came from reading a Maria Irene Fornes play. I think it was Mud and then I just envisioned a fat girl in a pig pen and that brewed in my head for about a year. I had always wanted to write a fat play, or a play of size. And what came out was Ruby, Tragically Rotund.
RQM: Did you start that play while you were at the USC's MFA?
BBA: Yes, it was my thesis play and Jon Rivera saw the reading and committed to it pretty quickly. We developed it and shopped it around. I graduated in 2007 and the production was in 2009.
RQM: That's sort of a fairy tale ending to the MFA experience. So many people bemoan the year after the MFA. You are broken of old habits by the MFA and then you are re-broken by the rejections that come thereafter, especially in that first year out because you're new, people don't know your work yet, and you're trying to establish those relationships. Some people thrive after that first year or so and others don't - they move on from the business. How was it for you coming out of the MFA and having a production right away?
BBA: You have something to look forward to. You know you're getting produced, but it also is a double-edged sword. It was two and a half years after graduation. The play wasn't reviewed as well as I thought it would be, yet audiences really loved it. It was a pretty sold-out run with a couple of extensions. It's kind of disappointing when you don't get that second production of a play when you hoped it would.
RQM: How's your new show Nicky going?
BBA: Really great!
RQM: What's it about?
BBA: It's an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Ivanov.
RQM: Uh oh! Folks better watch out. Boni is taking on the canon.
BBA: It's what I deem as the problem play. It was Chekhov's first play which he labeled a comedy. Contemporary audiences would be like, “Where's the laughter supposed to be?”
RQM: It's Dantean comedy: a journey from a low play to a high place.
BBA: Right! And I keep to the Russian origin. The lead is Russian-American. But the play is definitely inclusive of places and cultures of the world that we live in now. That's usually my goal as a writer. If the play isn't all Filipino, it usually will have a little bit of everyone in it.
RQM: You really inspire me. My mom is Filipino, so I identify as Filipino American. For many years, I didn't know what to say about that aspect of my identity in my work. I just kept coming to your plays and seeing your vigilance in exploring it on the page. You look at the Filipino experience in the US and globally. The East always has one eye on the West.
BBA: The American dream is always at the forefront of my plays. In some works, it's more obvious than others. It's a testament to the career that I've chosen. It's a dream - an elusive dream: to be a playwright who works enough to sustain an existence on playwriting alone.
RQM: So whenever we hang out, we often talk about The Business. No, I'm not asking for your trade secrets in public, but really though, how do you keep working?
BBA: I get really excited by a story. But, once that inspiration hits, it's not like you can just immediately sit down and write that story. You have to let that inspiration live through you and bubble up - what the story is and who the characters will be. Usually it'll be 6 months to a year in between that first strike of inspiration and the first word I commit to the page. At that point, it's boiling to come out of me. I get inspired by the people I work with: directors, actors, companies. I know that times are tough. With the whole 99-seat debacle that's happening in Los Angeles, it's probably wiser for a writer to sit at home and write two-handers and one man shows. But all of a sudden, Nicky has 14 characters. My next play has 9. I've just written a three-act 11-character World War II epic play set in the Philippines. I'm not shying away from the bigness, how grand or how large things need to be. I meet more and more actors. I want to work with people and have things for them to be in. I think that is a big inspiration.
RQM: Process - let's discuss. For me, my writerly coming of age journey has entailed announcing to myself and others that I'm not a “traditional” playwright. A lot of my writing happens through improvisation and experimentation in the room. The work is interdisciplinary too - there's music, there's movement, it's like opera but at a slimmer ticket price. A friend has called what I do librettism. I'm a librettist for performance experiences. Knowing that about myself was a huge relief. What about you? What are your writing conditions like?
BBA: So after an idea boils up, I start writing. I've been fortunate enough to be in a lot of writers groups with various theatres in Los Angeles so I have an avenue in which to write it in, a forum that has a structure to it with deadlines. Usually, I've been working on three or four plays at the same time, juggling between the projects. Now, I have to be more focused. There's usually a project I'm writing from scratch and then there's something I'm revising either for a production or a reading.
RQM: How do you compartmentalize the plays so they don't sound the same?
BBA: Sometimes they do sound the same. But, you know what, audiences aren't watching them at the same time. It's okay. I mean everyone has a trademark. I say that in jest, but also not.
RQM: What is Boni Alvarez's trademark?
BBA: Oh lord, I leave that up to the audiences, to the future. Maybe my trademark is that I've been emerging. It's been 10 years since I got out of the USC Dramatic Writing program and I feel like I am finally hitting a stride and that now most of my efforts are going towards storytelling and playwriting of some sort.
RQM: You are a career playwright. We can say that. We are going to say that.
BBA: Yes, okay. It's important to own it. I am a career playwright.
RQM: So 10 years…Is that about right? That seems to be the timeframe. I remember reading in the New York Times years ago when August: Osage County first came out that Tracy Letts was considered then an “emerging playwright.” I found that quite laughable at the time, considering the man had been working for years. But I guess emerging takes on many definitions and phases - even within the context of one person's career. You can be emerging in some new aspect or developing some new skill set to add to your tool box, and in that sense, you're emerging.
BBA: I'm emerging on the national level, to bigger theatres - getting on their radar through literary departments or other artists. It's an uphill climb being a playwright in LA. We live in the shadow of “the industry” - television and film. And it's hard to get the proper street cred as a playwright coming out of LA.
RQM: But yet you've stayed. So what keeps you here?
BBA: I lived in New York. I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area. My agents told me to move to LA. I never wanted to. There's a NorCal/SoCal thing and an East Coast/West Coast thing and I even had stuff in storage in New York while I was in school at USC.
BBA: I had every intention of moving back. But I found a tremendous community here. There's a humungous theatre scene here - so many talented practitioners of theatre.
RQM: How do plays that have developed here make it to the national scene?
BBA: You have to submit to everything. It detracts from your writing time, but it is writing, it's part of the process. They all ask for some kind of statement of purpose. Those statements help as a check-in for what you are doing, what you are working on. When you have to do a statement about your play, you have to think about why you are writing it. You have to be selective, too. I applied to this one thing year after year. I was a finalist one year. I didn't get it, but there was a private email from someone on the selection committee that said, “I'm a big fan of your work. I know it can seem like you are sending your script out into this empty black hole. You probably don't know if anyone is even reading it. It is being read, it is being appreciated. But it's not always recognized by the entire committee.”
RQM: Oh, the politics of readership.
BBA: There's politics in every committee. And so many points of view. If you are a director, you will judge a work from a director's point of view, what plays you'd like to take a stab at or if you're a producer, there are circumstances you have to take into account in selecting plays. You can't escape the baggage of who you are or your position. But you should also read it outside of that perspective as well.
RQM: And we can't be phased by any of that. We have to write our truth.
BBA: Right! You will write what you will write. And, hopefully, your champion reader will find it. I've been very lucky to have met a lot of generous people.
RQM: This is the people business.
BBA: And it's not just about the work. Are people going to want to work with you? Kindness is so undervalued and underrated. Just being nice - not pure as snow - but someone that people want to have in their presence and work with. For Nicky, we had over 200 submissions. We saw almost 100 people and I'm always amazed - wow they want to be part of my play. They want to be part of something I created.
RQM: And let's be real, some of them are coming specifically because it's YOU, Boni.
BBA: Yes, I realize that and I'm humbled. Some of my plays are mostly Filipino and I have fans who are not necessarily of the ethnicities of the characters I write for.
RQM: You know, according to Anthony Bourdain, we are in vogue. If restaurant trends are harbingers of larger cultural movements, Filipino-Americas are the new thing.
BBA: And we need to get ready to step into our light - the Filipinos of the world. Capitalize on the moment.
RQM: It is a really exciting moment to be a Filipino-American who tells stories.
BBA: I've got a question for you: as an Asian American playwright, do you feel a responsibility to include Filipinos or Filipino culture or African American culture in your work?
RQM: That comes back to my house and my home life. In many ways, my mother came to America to re-imagine herself outside of her Filipino life. Specifically, she came here to be a Western woman. That always bothered me growing up. She did not teach us any Tagalog growing up, amongst other things. My mother had a very difficult home life in the Philippines and she conflated her specific domestic situation with the Philippines as a whole. I had to come into my Filipino self on my own. I'd look on the internet and bombard her with purposefully mispronounced versions of useful Tagalog phrases like “I'm hungry” or “Good morning.” I made her correct me. Then, during the holidays, I went to my cousins' houses and it was like a different country. They served food from lace-doilied buffet tables; after the meal, the adults would sit around the television and give the kids space, and then the karaoke machine would come out. My aunt's house was decorated with a mixture of Chinese statuary and Filipino Catholic icons. I imagined that, were I born in a slightly different household, my world would be completed different. The Filipino world fascinated me, and I wanted to absorb everything I could from it.
BBA: Now this is fascinating.
RQM: I remember going to the Philippines in my 20s and being awed by the resilience, the vibrance, and the pliability of the culture. Here was a place that defined cultural fusion before the tastemakers started commenting on it. During that same trip, I went to Antipologos and looked down on Manila Bay. There was no middle class. It was ritzy Makati City on one side and the shanties on the other. That duality read like tortured poetry to me.
BBA: Well, the middle class of the Filipinos is not in the Philippines. They're all working abroad.
RQM: And also, the telecom industry is creating an emerging middle class there in the Philippines as well. That's another fascinating subculture. You discussed this in your play Dallas Non-Stop: a workforce that is trained to perform a version of self on the phone that is familiar and comfortable to the West. It's a kind of passing. Cultural passing. I am thousands of miles away but I know just what you need out of your hotel or your flight from Omaha to Detroit.
BBA: It's a type of global passing. You have Filipinos infiltrating the States, the UK, Japan, Israel, Australia. What's that show? There was a Filipino caregiver who won X Factor Israel.
RQM: Get out!
BBA: No, I'm not kidding you. Our people are all over.
RQM: Yes, we are! But, we digress. Back to your question, I've never really been able to speak to a monolithic identity, whether it's Filipino or Black American. On both sides of the family, my world is quite strange and unique so my work centers on speaking to that uniqueness as best and clearly as I can.
RQM: So, what have you got brewing next?
BBA: I have a reading of a new play, my WWII epic play Refuge for a Purple Heart as part of Echo Theater's Labfest in July. I have a played called Fixed, inspired by Calderon de la Barca's work.
RQM: Is this the lady boy play?
RQM: I am so excited right now!
BBA: It's about a family of lady boys who run a massage parlor in historic Filipinotown. This is going up at the Echo Theater in September.
RQM: This is literally putting a smile on my face right now. I am over here completely beaming. There is a play. About a house of lady boys. In September. In LA. Yasss!
BBA: The House of Malacanang.
RQM: Everybody needs to try and get into that house. Will there be tea?
BBA: Tea is always served, it might just be too strong for you.
RQM: Oh honey, yes! I just have a feeling. I can smell a smash hit from 4 months away.
BBA: You're a mess!
RQM: I always try to be.
BBA: You succeed, trust. So what's next with you?
RQM: My solo show The Duat is going up in July at Son of Semele Theatre. It's inspired by the shootings at UCLA which took place in the 1960s between differing black student groups on campus. This piece imagines a COINTELPRO informant's spiritual reckoning in the Egyptian afterlife. I feel really good about this piece - a great team and the script rewrites are coming together. Then I'm off to New York. My show The White Dress, the gender queer coming of age play, will be performed at the Araca Project in November. And then I'm filming a movie based upon my short play Softer, the gay slavery piece.
BBA: Look at you - so busy!
RQM: I'm doing what I Iove.
BBA: What is the picture of happiness in terms of your career?
RQM: What is it for you? I'll answer, but you go first.
BBA: Enough success to keep me writing plays. I'm at a point where I feel I need more productions. I mean, what playwright doesn't? But you can't just sit at home and write plays. You learn so much - the experience of being in rehearsal. Revising for production, really focused on the arrival of an audience. Audiences, they're a key element of the work.
RQM: The happiness for me comes in stages and waves. For the longest time, it was knowing what I was. And now that I know I write performance work with a foundation in playwriting, that happiness is fulfilled: I know who I am and what to do. But, as you know, happiness is addictive. So now I've got to get to the next happiness. Well, the next happiness is having a forum to do that work that's supported - my own theatre company, commissions, residencies. That's part of the happiness. The other aspect of the happiness is one that's always been there for me. I remember my first workshop production (and I'm saying that so you readers know the play is still available for world premiere rights). The play was Onion Creek, my Reconstruction-era Adam and Eve tale. At auditions, I remember seeing people in the hall trying their hearts out to come in the room and bring the strongest rendition of those sides. I saw firsthand that I was creating something larger than myself, something that people want to do.
BBA: It's a completely and utterly humbling experience.
RQM: Yes, and that's the happiness that sustains us.
Hello beautiful souls! This is Miss Barbie Q! Your friendly neighborhood drag queen!
What a thrill it is to be reporting from the frontlines of the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival (which I will lovingly refer to as the “Fringe” from now on).
But I come to you from a totally different angle. I am a trans person (I identify as GNC - Gender Non Conformist) AND a POC (Person of Color), so I got all kinds of goggles on! I'll admit, when I got the task of reporting from my point of view, my hardnose activist flag came up and kept looking for things that may or may not offend. I have show in the Fringe as well, so I have been hypersensitive of how my show is being perceived and welcomed. But as the Fringe has opened up, the preparation and people have strived to be as inclusive as possible. And I thank them for providing a space, not just Fringe Central, but the Office Hours and Workshops, for all to be mindful.
The process has been tedious to say the least. This year I am co-writing, co-directing and co-producing! It's called #LastDance. And I must say there are some things that are universal. Rehearsal schedules, press releases, the drama of the getting off book, the joy of blocking, workshopping and creating! Finding the right mix of actors that want to bring someone else's vision to life is beautiful to see. We have a mix of gay, trans, diverse ethnicities and that was done with a mindful purpose. I am not gonna lie, it as a task trying to get drag queens to come audition. Some of it was with timing, some were doing other projects but we as a production crew kept an open mind and realized that the right people would come as the universe saw fit and they did.
The play is dedicated to a dear friend that passed away earlier this year, so we tried to tell a poignant story alongside keeping the homage to him in mind. That was no easy task. Learning to agree to disagree, compromise lines, blocking, costumes all for the good of the show as a whole has been humbling and invigorating as well. Working with such talented people has made me love each one of them and make me want to knock each one them out on occasion as well. HA!
As the previews got closer, something happened. And I noticed it happens with every show I do. There is this “click” that happens when we all find this groove. I think it is a universal “click”. I think it happened for us when we finally got into the space at the McCadden and my actors got to be in the space. Not just be, but really “be”. Aaron, the stage manager, lighting and sound extraordinaire was such a delight during tech, that it helped everyone including me realize we have a real show! What a rush! So after previews, we reminded them to come to the Fringe opening night to make a presence, speak to other performers about their shows, get to know the Fringe folks and get used to talking about themselves and the show!
Miss Barbie Q, From the 2015 Hollywood Fringe
I'll admit, I was just as nervous, although I had a solo show two years ago, I never really participated in the other events because I was on a totally different schedule and I know now that I missed out on so much, and I didn't want them to miss out. So most of the cast and crew were able to come and yes, I was nervous!
And you know what I have found so far?
EVERYONE IS A NERVOUS AS I AM!! LOL what a relief?
I have seen two plays so far, UPSTAIRS, a musical ensemble piece, and LOVESICK, a solo piece.
Upstairs: A Musical Tragedy was such a delight. Although it has already closed, it stressed the importance of LGBT stories, especially the tragedies that cross the newsdesk (this one being about the fire that killed 30 people in New Orleans in June of 1973) The acting, the voices, the music not only told the story, but made you feel for the them and understand that their deaths mean something. Our stories mean something. Each and every one.
Lovesick: The Misadventures of a Love-Crazed Maniac took us on a journey all its own. Bringing the bisexual element to the play, it spoke of the thirst for love, in all the wrong places and the longing to just be loved. And the epiphany we all have in learning to love ourselves. It really is a testament to what the journey is to know what love is. Really. “Lovesick is still playing.
So this is just the first installment of what a chocolate gender non-conformist sees when it comes to the Fringe. I am so grateful to be able to speak my truth and am looking forward to sharing more of the LGBT shows that are at the Fringe. Granted, I am not able to see them all, BUT I am trying my best to go to them and share with you the inspiration, the laughs and insight.
Transparent star Alexandra Billings' latest autobiographical performance piece S/HE & ME: A THEATRICAL CABARETwill be playing at The Renberg Theatre opening this Thursday June 1, 2017. Acting since 1968, Alexandra can legitimately claim that she's the first transgender actress to perform practically every role she's taken on.
Alexandra took a moment from her busy rehearsal week to answer a few questions.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Alexandra.
You will be performing your show S/HE & ME: A THEATRICAL CABARET at The Renberg Theatre. What can audiences expect to experience?
The show is about my personal journey into my own humanness. It's a musical autobiography that centers around my wife Chrisanne, and my marriage, and my parents' marriage. We all met and married around the same age, as well as, the relationship between myself and my younger male self.
You've worked with, and at, The Los Angeles LGBT Center's Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center's Renberg Theatre before. What elements of this place keeps bringing you back?
The history of it. There is great LGBT history that lives in the walls of these buildings, and so we get to continue that by telling various queer stories.
You've written stage shows, and have a PBS documentary on your fabulous life. Would it be safe to say your life's an open book?
No. It's not. I know it seems that way, but it's not. There's a lot of stuff I keep to myself.
Your website has admissions from yourself that's very candid. (i.e., You once spent an entire day showing your vagina to Joseph Fiennes.) Is there nothing you refuse to cop to?
No, there isn't. I'll cop to it all. As long as I did it.
Who has your role model growing up? Was there a celebrity that you looked up to?
A celebrity? There's people I admired. I admire Judy Garland, but I certainly don't want her life. But looking back, I did lead her life; though I just moved through it a little better than she did.
Alexandra Billings performs during the 27th Annual LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards held at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre on January 17, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)
Your father Robert Billings was the musical director for the L.A. Civic Light Opera House for almost 20 years. Growing up surrounded by music and musicians, did you ever want to be anything other than in show biz?
Yes, I wanted to be a teacher, because that's what both my parents were. And now I am.
You earned your MFA from Cal State Long Beach. Was that in Theatre?
Well, yes, Theater Arts, but also, pedagogy.
Did you have a 'practical' fall-back occupation?
I could say teaching, but teaching was never steady. Prostitution... that was steady.
When did Scott Billings become Alexandra Billings?
That's a loaded question. There's no delineation. There's no line. Transitioning is not like shoe shopping. You don't go out looking for flats one day and end up with a pair of heels.
You started your drag career as Shanté at the now defunct Club Victoria in Chicago. What was the Drag Scene like in Chicago (your other childhood home) in the early 1980s?
It was magical and sparkly and beautiful. And then suddenly, it wasn't.
What were the circumstances in which you first met another transgender person? Before you started doing drag?
I stumbled into a club in Chicago called Club Victoria. They were having a talent night, which I assumed meant "Talent," like singing and dancing. It didn't mean that at all. So I decided to strip. I showed up in the dressing room with ten of what I assumed were Las Vegas showgirls. Until they started talking, and then I knew I was home.
Please excuse me if this next question is stupid or offensive - Would you say that identifying one's self as a drag queen would be a baby step for a questioning transgender boy?
It's actually kind of a great question. I would say that it's less about whether it's a step forward or not, and more about a lack of education. If a trans boy identified himself as a drag queen, that denotes behavior, and not spiritual movement. So let's just be careful about how we talk about the younger trans generation. Let's be clear.
Would you share an experience you had that you just had to laugh, or you would start crying?
My whole life is ironic and makes me laugh.
Was, and is it, a heavy mantle to shoulder as the first transgender female to be cast in a transgender female television role (2003's ABC-TV Movie: Romy and Michelle - A New Beginning)?
Alexandra Billings performs during the 27th Annual LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards held at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre on January 17, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)
We found out that's not true. The real first trans person made herself aware to me when she read that I was claiming that. She was in, like a Battlestar Galactica episode, or something like that. I'll have to find out.
You can currently on staff at your alma mater Cal State Long Beach as an associate professor of theatre. Do you teach Viewpoints as well there?
Yes. That's all I teach. And I was recently hired at USC.
Can you describe for the uninitiated in three sentences or less, what Viewpoints principles are?
Viewpoints is the matrix of human behavior. Period.
As an activist for transgender rights, what do you see as the next important step in achieving complete transgender rights?
What do you mean by "complete"? In order for us to live in full equality, we're going to have to deal with each other on a much deeper level. The trans community is going to have to be more visible, and our allies are going to have to be more vocal. And that's true of every marginalized community. I think.
Humor must be a major element in your daily life. Would you agree that a funny delivery gets a serious message across much easier than a serious lecturing one?
I think a truthful delivery gets the message across. You're not funny if you're trying to be funny.
Besides the already renewed season four of Transparent, what projects does Alexandra Billings have in the immediate future?
S/HE & ME opening this weekend at The Renberg Theater. And I start teaching at USC this Fall.
What would be the most satisfying audience reaction to S/HE & ME: A THEATRICAL CABARET for you be?
That they don't walk out screaming. That would be satisfying.
Thank you again, Alexandra! I look forward to experiencing your THEATRICAL CABARET!
For ticket availability and show schedule through June 11, 2017, log onto
Playwright Gary Goldstein will be world premiering his latest APRIL, MAY & JUNE at Theatre 40 March 16, 2017. Gary managed to make some time in between his writing, chairing and rehearsing for Better Lemons and myself to address his writing, chairing and rehearsing of APRIL, MAY & JUNE. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. You write for three entertainment mediums: stage, film and television. What would your three-line pitch of your latest play APRIL, MAY & JUNE be? April, May and June - three very different, 40ish sisters, each born a year apart - convene to finish cleaning out their late mother's Long Island house (the house they all grew up in decades ago). But when they discover a major surprise about their mother tucked away among her remaining things, it makes them rethink their lifelong feelings about the mom they thought they knew--as well as their feelings about each other. What sparked the creation of APRIL, MAY & JUNE? Honestly? The title. It just kind of came to me, had a nice ring to it, and I thought, “I need to write something with that title.” Then I thought, “What great names for three sisters!” and decided they belonged in a play. I figured out a meaningful story for the sisters from there. Would some of your friends and family members who attend a performance of APRIL, MAY & JUNE, see themselves in some of your characters? I think most people will see one side or another of themselves - or someone they know - in these women. They're a pretty relatable trio in, I hope, a very relatable situation. How long has the gestation period of APRIL, MAY & JUNE been? I finished the first draft about two-and-a-half years ago, worked on it more over time, then submitted it to Theatre 40 via my director, Terri Hanauer, last April. The theatre picked it up for their 2016-17 season shortly after. More recently, once we were cast, we refined the script during read-throughs and rehearsals. As the playwright, how involved were you in the casting and behind the scenes personnel of this Theatre 40 world premiere production? Fully involved on the auditions, along with Terri and the play's producer David Hunt Stafford, Theatre 40's Artistic/Managing Director. Theatre 40 handled all behind-the-scenes personnel. Aside from the obvious advantages of multiple locations available to use in film and TV vs. stage, describe the challenges writing for theatre vs. writing for film or television. Screenwriting relies a lot on “showing, not telling,” whereas writing plays is often more about “telling” because of the limits of how much you can actually “show.” Given that, it's important to avoid overusing exposition on stage to fill in the “visual gaps” and to find inventive, natural ways of relaying information. Still, there's a kind of freedom writing plays over screenplays, as play structure is not always as strictly defined as screen structure. Plays also offer more opportunity for verbal segues and tangents that can take the characters to some interesting places. You can also tell what might be considered a more intimate, personal story on stage than in many screenplays, which can make for a deeper, more emotionally rewarding writing experience. Do you teach both writing for film and television in your screenwriting classes? I primarily taught screenplay writing when I did my classes at Writers Boot Camp, which is a while ago now. But since then, I've done one-on-one consulting with writers working on structuring and writing everything from TV and film scripts to books and plays. There are similar kinds of character and storytelling threads that unite all the mediums. In what situations do you think going for the laughs is more appropriate, is more effective, than going for the jugular? And what situations would you deem inappropriate? Sometimes you can go for a laugh and go for the jugular at the same time. A laugh can often sell or temper a more aggressive, yet pertinent speech. It can leaven what might otherwise become an overly serious or melodramatic moment. I try to aim for humor that's organic, that comes from an inherently funny or quirky or flawed character trait, rather than just a joke or one-liner for joke's sake. That said, there are definitely moments that demand humor and others in which humor has no place. Sometimes less is more. Do you find you need to be more PC in your subject matters now than when you first began writing in the 1990s? Interesting question. By and large no, though I think it's fair to say some words and concepts have become a bit more loaded over time, so I like to be thoughtful about my choices. Mostly, though, I try to just stay true to the moment. You are the chair of the WGA's LGBT Writers Committee. What attitude change towards LGBT content have you noticed since your writing beginnings? It used to feel nichey, less mainstream, even “edgier” to include LGBT characters in a script, much less write one with LGBT leads or with an LGBT theme. Now? LGBT characters are everywhere in everything and they're often just there as “people,” not strictly because of their sexuality. There's also been a significant increase lately in the inclusion of trans characters, which is great. Would you agree that plays with any LGBT characters in the 1980s and 1990s mainly dealt with AIDS or included the perquisite deaths of these characters? Not sure I'd say mainly. AIDS definitely factored into many plays back then, but so did coming out and just “being” or adjusting to being LGBT. I had two plays on in LA in the 1990s, JUST MEN (1996) and PARENTAL DISCRETION (1999), neither of which dealt with AIDS. The latter play, in fact, involved two gay men considering starting a family, which was a bit ahead of the curve back then. So, in this day and age, LGBT characters don't all have to die or be villains, right? Far from it, thankfully. Which do you find more rewarding, making your audience laugh or making your audience cry? As a writer, it's really gratifying to connect with an audience through laughter. It's like magic, in a way. And funnily enough, you don't always know where the big laughs are going to come from, which can be a great and thrilling surprise. Making people cry, evoking some kind of deep and relatable emotion, can be a trickier, even less predictable response, but an equally powerful, rewarding one. In APRIL, MAY & JUNE, I think we accomplish both. We'll see if audiences agree! Any particular message you'd like the Theatre 40 audiences to leave with? First and foremost, I want audiences to be moved, amused and entertained by the play. Beyond that, I hope viewers are inspired to go home and ask a parent or grandparent, aunt or uncle, whoever, any of the “big questions” they've always wanted to know before it's too late. Once a loved one is gone, certain answers go with them and sometimes all we're left with is conjecture. I've learned that the hard way. Thanks again, Gary! I look forward to meeting your three sisters!
For further info on APRIL, MAY & JUNE, ticket availability and schedule through April 16, 2017; log onto www.theatre40.org
An avid, frequent, and popular staple of in Los Angeles theatre scene, Drew Droege adds to his impressive repertoire of female characterizations with his latest role as Angela Arden, the role Charles Busch wrote and originated in his DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! Drew will be high-camping it up at The Celebration Theatre beginning February 10th.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Drew!
My pleasure! Thank YOU!
You will be taking on Charles Busch's iconic role of Angela in his 2007 cult classic DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! at the Celebration Theatre. When did you first become aware of Charles Busch?
I grew up in a small town in North Carolina. However, I had a very well-worn Samuel French catalog and stumbled onto the title PSYCHO BEACH PARTY. I ordered it and immediately fell in love. I desperately campaigned for my high school drama club to produce it, but they had just canceled prom because of freak dancing. So obviously, it was never approved. Instead, we just performed an evening of original and clean poetry.
Have you seen Charles Busch perform live?
Yes! I got to see him in his play THE THIRD STORY at La Jolla Playhouse in 2008. I was playing his role in RED SCARE ON SUNSET in LA at the time, so the cast drove down to see him and meet him. He is poisonously hilarious to watch live.
What were your preparations for this role of Angela?
I've watched several Bette Davis, Lana Turner, and Susan Hayward movies to get into the mindset of these women and into the style we're playing. Angela is a blast, because she's equal parts washed-up, drunk, raunchy, vulnerable, glamorous, vindictive, and every inch a STAR! I think it's truly Charles' best character.
You are a fixture of LA Theatre, frequently appearing @ the LA LGBT Center, the Rockwell, Casita del Campo and Celebration. Which gets your creative juices up more, performing live theatre or TV shows and podcasts?
I love doing all of them because they all work different muscles. There's nothing like performing in front of a rowdy LA crowd - I feel so lucky that I get to do stupid fun shows. And, Oh, My God! We all need to get together and laugh - now more than ever. But TV and film are satisfying because I can be a piece of something bigger and try to be somewhat real. And podcasts are just pure raw, sobbing, naked honesty that I also find myself needing now more than ever.
Do you prefer tackling a female role (Miranda Priestley in UMPO THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, Velda in UMPO TROOP BEVERLY HILLS, Mellie Moleson in PRAIRIE-OKE!) to a male role (BRIGHT COLORS & BOLD PATTERNS)?
I always just look at the character's point of view first. To me, their gender is less interesting than what drives them. I hope that I get to play both men and women for my entire life.
UMPO producer Kate Pazakis told me, once you put on Miranda's wig, you became her. Do costumes make the woman for you?
Oh, my god, absolutely. I have always been that actor who screamed for his rehearsal shoes! And wigs are powerful beasts - put them on and just say, 'Yes!'
Did you 'become' Angela when you first tried on her wig?
I'm still trying wigs, and I'm still finding Angela, so...
I put on a wig for something else and realized I looked like her. And I've long been fascinated by Chloe and her world. And she has been the gift that has kept on giving. And I debuted her in a sketch comedy show at Celebration Theatre - 15 years ago!!!
What was growing up in South & North Carolina like?
It was perfect for me. Everyone is a drag queen or a sketch character there. And I had a family and very close friend circle, and it was always about love and laughter and FOOD!
Was being funny your defense mechanism?
Yes. And pretending to be possessed by Satan - that created a necessary fear that kept the Carolina bullies at bay.
When did you decide you could make a career out of being funny?
I'm still figuring that out.
Who were your comedy idols growing up?
Carol Burnett, Divine, Jan Hooks, Madeline Kahn, Goldie Hawn, Kevin Kline, The Kids In The Hall, The State, Laurel and Hardy, and my Dad.
Was being part of The Groundlings a major stepping stone for your career? Absolutely! First of all, the training is unparalleled, because it made me create original characters. It made me stop waiting for the phone to ring and create my own career. And it's never about jokes at The Groundlings - it's about what's true to the people you are playing. I was fortunate enough to make it through their program and get to perform there and work with the funniest people in the world. My first legit TV job was on RENO 911!, thanks in many ways to The Groundlings. And my most recent TV job was doing four episodes of IDIOTSITTER, created by and starring brilliant Groundlings friends Jillian Bell and Charlotte Newhouse. I will be forever grateful.
Did you find your NY audience reactions different or similar to your LA audience reactions to your BRIGHT COLORS?
Every audience was wildly different. I guess in general, New York has less regard/respect/reverence for celebrities, so they understood the ridiculous tragedy of my character's obsession with them. Truly, that show is my favorite thing ever, ever, ever to perform.
What's in store for Drew Droege in 2017?
I'm going to be shooting TVLand's brilliant new Heathers series and writing sporadically for a Netflix show - and hopefully bringing BRIGHT COLORS & BOLD PATTERNS back to New York soon. It all feels so exciting and exhausting at once! Come see DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! The cast is amazing and our director Ryan Bergmann is a genius. We're having a blast, and so will you!
Thank you, Drew! Looking forward to seeing you transformed into Angela.