How Wearing a Mask Could Help the Theatre Industry and Your Local Economy


The following was posted on facebook by film and theatre actress Kitty Swink, who is a member of the Antaeus Theatre Company in Los Angeles. With her permission I'm reposting for all to read and share.

Kitty copied and slightly edited this and shared from multiple of her dear and fabulously talented colleagues.


Please read this...this is personal!!!

Our industry is gone, and it will be a very long time before it recovers. Hope you all are enjoying the beach and theme parks while we just sit home and hope our jobs come back. Stop being selfish. Stay home. Wear a mask.

Yesterday, Broadway formally announced the rest of the year is canceled and Cirque du Soleil has filed for bankruptcy protection. Lincoln Center is closed. Multiple orchestras and opera companies have cancelled seasons. Smaller regional companies , venues and organizations are in jeopardy. Even community theatres , bands, orchestras, free lance gigs have gone away. So when you see your entertainment friends begging you to wear masks and stay home, understand that we are helplessly watching our industry crumble before our eyes because the country is doing so poorly at reducing the spread. This IS personal for us.

If you plan on watching ‘Hamilton’ today... or if you loved the ‘Chicago’ movie... or if ‘Sound of Music’ or Nutcracker is a holiday tradition for you. THEY ALL started on a stage.

Now Broadway is shut down till Jan 2021. Major performing arts presenters are closed for the next season.

ALL of the following people are out work.

It’s not just the actors or musicians.

For those of you not in the theatre or music community, please understand the scope of Broadway/Off-Broadway being shut down. Frankly, this affects all theatre and music anywhere. It travels much further than the stage boards where you see the brilliant performers giving you an amazing show. You also have:

- Tour managers
- Production managers
- Tour accountants
- Stage managers
- Company managers
- House managers
- General managers
- Stage Techs
- House crew
- Runners
- Truck and Bus drivers
- Promoter reps
- Caterers
- Production Assistants
- Dressers / Wardrobe
- Hair/Makeup
- Carpenters
- Electrics
- FOH Sound Engineers, Monitor Engineers & techs
- Lighting Designers and Techs
- Props
- Musicians
- Ushers
- Bartenders
- Box office treasurers
- Porters
- Cleaners
- Matrons
- Merchandise
- Security
- Marketing
- Producers
- Directors
- Choreographers
- Authors
- Orchestrators/Arrangers
- Interns
- Press Agents
- Casting Directors
- Set Designers
- Costume Designers
- Hair/Makeup Designers
- Lighting Designers
- Sound Designers
- Prop Designers
- All the design assistants
- Vocal/dialect coaches
- Child wranglers
- Doormen

Now go out of the theatre district and see the jobs this shutdown also affects:

- All the costume shops where the costumes are made
- The millinery shops where the hats/headpieces are made
- The cobblers where all the custom shoes are made
- The wigmakers
- The fabric/bead/feather shops- while these may reopen they will suffer huge losses with no shows requiring anything for this entire year.
- Scenic shops where the sets are built
- Prop shops where the props are made
- Sound and Lighting shops where the lights & mics are rented from
- Design studios where the sets, costumes, props, etc are dreamed up to make the directors vision a reality
- Rehearsal spaces for the show to be worked out before it appears for your pleasure
- Merchandise vendors, concessions
- Advertising agencies & press agencies
- Talent agencies and managers
- Union offices
- Producer & general management offices

Now venture even deeper into the shutdown and see the business that is lost in the theatre district from just the people in the industry not working on a show (then on top of that the loss of audience members buying stuff at)

- Delis
- Restaurants
- Post-show bars
- Coffee shops
- Hotels
- Garages
- Gyms
- Physical therapists

If that list seems long - it is! And that’s just New York. That’s not even taking into account all the theatre around this country. For most of us - this is our whole life!!
Wear a damn mask!



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Twelve Actors and a Laundromat - An Interview with Group Rep's Doug Haverty


Talented California-born Doug Haverty has done it all, from actor and playwright to lyricist and producer. Little did he know that his first play, a college comedy called Hello, This is the Bottom Drawer, would draw so much positive attention and lead to a writing job in New York. But it was not until In My Mind's Eye premiered at the Los Angeles Group Repertory Theatre in 1984 that his talent won him a most promising playwright award, as well as a Drama-Logue award for best playwriting in 1985. Musicals included Love Again, Roleplay/Inside Out, Flavia, and The Dream Maker, and The Ghost of Gershwin. Doug has acted in numerous Group Rep productions, most notably And Then There were None, Lend Me a Tenor, and The Cape and the Klan. In addition to his role at the Group Rep, Doug also co-moderates Theatre West’s Writer’s Workshop. A true multi-tasker, Doug took some time out of his busy schedule to interview in April 2020.


Kyle Bares, Jean Altadel, Emma-Jayne Appleyard, Daniel Lench, Suzy London, Andrew Bourgeois, and Gregory Guy Gorden in "The Ghost of Gershwin" - Photo by Sherry Netherland

When did your theater first begin its long career? Were you Involved from the beginning?

Doug Haverty: The Group Rep began life in May of 1973 when 12 actors converted a laundromat in Hollywood into a 37-seat theater. They convinced Lonny Chapman to come on board and be their Artistic Director. Shortly thereafter, they relocated to a charming theater on Magnolia Boulevard in North Hollywood. I saw plays at this space, which reminded me (personally) of the summer stock theater in Michigan where I met my wife. The building looked like a barn. It was red with white trim, and it was set back off Magnolia. There was a walkway lined with pine trees and benches. It was really bucolic. It had a front porch and the box office/concessions looked like the bar in a saloon.

I joined the theater in 1982 as a playwright. Lonny liked my play, In My Mind's Eye, and told me he’d like to help me develop it. My first meeting with the group was on a Monday night, and they were presenting a workshop of a new play they’d been rehearsing. It was memorized, directed, costumed; it even had working props. But it was played on the set of their current show. The work and dedication was astounding. Every role had been cast perfectly, it was beautifully directed, and I could not believe the level of commitment from these actors and this director. They had obviously been working on it for weeks without any guarantee of production — they just believed in the play. I knew, then and there, that this was the place for me. The play was The Lilac Tree, and it did become a production — in fact, it was the last production at that charming space. The City of North Hollywood had determined that they needed that land for a senior citizens tower (which is there now). One or two of the pine trees survived.

The City relocated Group Rep to its current space on Burbank Blvd.; and the first full-length production was my play, In My Mind's Eye. The production did very well, and this play went on to be produced in Berkeley and Whittier. It was eventually published by Samuel French, where it’s been done all over the country. The Group Rep just revived this play as part of their 2020 season; and it was, again, very well received by audiences and critics alike. I had many people tell me how moved they were by the play — even perfect strangers liked it.

Reenie Moore, Pat Lentz, Claudia Fenton, Bonnie Snyder, Jodi Carlisle, and Julie Bloomfield, the world premiere cast of "Roleplay/Inside Out"  - Photo by Dale Cooke

When did you become the artistic director?

DH:  Through the years, I have participated in various productions at Group Rep wearing various hats. I have acted in many shows, produced several shows, and done sound design and graphic design for many shows. As a playwright, I’ve had several premieres, including In My Mind's Eye, Next Window Please, Roleplay (A Musical written with Adryan Russ), Love Again (a musical written with Adryan Russ), The Ghost of Gershwin (a musical written with Wayland Pickard and Laura Manning), and A Carol Christmas (a musical written with Bruce Kimmel).

When previous co-artistic directors Larry Eisenberg and Chris Winfield announced their plans to retire, the search committee offered me the artistic directorship about a year ago. We began planning the 2020 season last June. I took over, officially, on January 1, 2020. Larry and Chris are both still very much involved with the theater — which is great for the company and me.

“The Group Repertory Theatre was one of the original 99-seat Equity waiver theaters in Los Angeles (allowing us to use Equity actors and not have to pay Equity wages). The 99-seat plan was dissolved by Equity a few years ago, and Equity named a dozen membership companies as AEA approved membership companies. This allows us to use Equity actors and non-Equity actors without any restrictions. AEA recognizes that we are a company run by actors, and therefore assumes we will treat actors justly and with respect.

Some of my works have started at Group Rep and gone on to have other lives. So, it’s fun to realize that things we’re developing in our little theatrical think-tank could actually “grow up” and expand after their debut in NoHo. I wrote a musical with Adryan Russ which started as a workshop. We were going to present it as a two-nighter to the public. After Lonny Chapman popped into a rehearsal for a look-see, he came up to me afterwards and said, in his usual theatrically startling way, “No. We’re not going to do this as a two-nighter. Let’s do a little more rehearsing and just open it.” And we did. It was supposed to run five weeks and it ran five months, which was fairly unheard of at that time. That little musical, now called Inside Out, eventually wound its way into Manhattan , had an Off-Off Broadway run at the Village Theatre Company, and eventually an Off Broadway run at the Cherry Lane Theatre. It’s been done around the world, was recently translated into Serbian, and had an 18-month run in Belgrade that was tremendously successful.

“We did a relatively new version of A Christmas Carol in 2009. It was adapted for the stage by Richard Hellesen and David De Berry. This extravaganza was directed by our then-artistic director, Ernest Figueroa. It was one of the most ambitious shows we’d done with a huge cast, glorious set design, tons of costumes, and beautiful, lush music. The author of the book combined text from the short story, as well as other essays Dickens wrote about Christmas. So, it was a Dickensian Christmas buffet. I played Bob Cratchit, and Chris Winfield was Scrooge. It was magic. Audiences loved it. It was so rewarding to be a part of that; and I genuinely felt affection for all the Cratchit kids, especially Tiny Tim.

It was that experience that inspired me to write my own musical version of the classic by Dickens. I wanted to make mine modern and set in the U.S. I converted all the major men’s roles into women’s roles. I enlisted Bruce Kimmel to direct and create the songs and score. In 2018, A Carol Christmas was born; and audiences absolutely loved it. We’re in the process of marketing it now to a national theater network and hope to have the GRT-streamed version available during this shelter-in-place.”

Stephanie Colet, Tricia Hershberger, Shelby Kocee, Gina Yates, and Bianca Gisselle in "Next Window Please" - Photo by Doug Engalla

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

DH:  Our first production was scheduled to close on March 15, and we did run until the published conclusion. That last weekend, groups of 50 or more were being discouraged. We limited sales to 50 seats per show (which wasn’t difficult at that point) and encouraged seat selection using social distancing. Those last three shows were very good, and the audiences seemed very appreciative. My friend, talented director John Musker, remarked, “Well, this may be the last play I ever see…and if it is, then at least it was a good one.”

“Our next two plays, Neil Simon’s London Suite and Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, were both in rehearsals. Rehearsals continued for a few days, but then the order came through that groups larger than ten were discouraged. That’s when we collectively decided to postpone all activity in the theater building until the Mayor/Governor determine it’s safe to gather again.

Cast of "A Carol Christmas" - Photo by Karen Staitman

Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?

DH:  This has impacted us drastically. We are completely volunteer-run and member-funded. Our members pay dues and are, in essence, shareholders in our company. Somehow, over the past 46 years, we have managed to stay afloat with donations, dues, fundraisers, and box office. Some months are leaner than others. We had two shows almost ready to open and fundraisers planned. Everything has been put on hold. Plus a lot of our members utilize the theater space for work on various projects that they’ve devised. There is a lot of activity at that building, given two theaters and two additional rehearsal spaces.

Additionally, we are in a Triple Net Lease, which means we are responsible for the physical upkeep of the building (as well as property taxes and insurance). With the rains and a very old roof, we have to constantly keep watch for leaks. We were right in the middle of refurbishing the dressing rooms for the upstairs theater and putting in a new lighting system upstairs.

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

DH:  Just this week, we put a video of In My Mind's Eye; and it’s available for steaming. In the coming weeks, we will upload other original works and make them available for streaming. Once it’s safe to gather again, we will resume rehearsals and start to reschedule our fundraisers. We have had tele-conferences, and some people have been meeting via Zoom."

Bobby Slaski, Kait Haire, Lloyd Pedersen, and Peyton Kirkner in "In My Mind's Eye" - Photo by Doug Engalla

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

DH:  Will live theater in Los Angeles change as a result of COVID-19? I am an optimist, so I always hope for the best. I hope that, after people have been quarantined and sequestered for weeks or months on end, they will be hungry for live theater and crave participating in live art played out before their eyes. I hope that theater-going habits will survive this pandemic. I hope that people will once again look for activities outside the safety of their homes.

Our matinees have always been popular with audiences. We had already planned to introduce additional Saturday matinees with London Suite, and we will continue to schedule them in once we’re up and running again.

My fear is that many businesses, including many theaters, will not survive this pandemic and will shutdown. I just hope that we can hang on and continue doing what we love doing.

What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?

DH:  Naturally, the thing we most need is money just to keep paying the rent (and in our case also the property taxes and insurance). We realize that — at this point in time — money is not easily given. We desperately need a new roof. The rains have damaged our structure and exterior doors and carpets. We’d also like a large storage shed to hold costumes, props, and set pieces. So, since we are an official 501 (c) (3), we can accept donations in kind (things like materials, labor, etc.)”

What are some of your future plans?

DH:  Once we re-gather, we will complete the rehearsal process and open two plays in rep (upstairs and downstairs). We have a very ambitious season planned (in both spaces). We will re-strategize our fundraising campaigns and events. And we will continue to audition and bring in new members, as well as continue to develop new plays and musicals.

In 2008, we did Inspecting Carol, which is kind of Noises Off  meets A Christmas Carol. It was in the beginning of the financial downturn, and people were generally depressed. It was so wonderful to be able to offer the community an evening of belly laughs. There were times where the laughter was so intense that the huge laughs turned into coughs. Laughter can be healing. So, personally, I am looking forward to presenting Neil Simon’s London Suite. A lot of people are familiar with Plaza Suite and even California Suite, but not that many people are familiar with the third entry in his Suite of Suites. It will be like discovering a new Neil Simon. That play opens whenever we reopen - which is currently set for mid-May - pandemic permitting, of course.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



Spotlight Series: Meet Holly Baker-Kreiswirth and Bill Wolski, the Dynamic Duo Who Call Little Fish Theatre Their “Home Away from Home”


Anyone who has attended a production at Little Fish Theatre in San Pedro has most likely met Holly Baker-Kreiswirth and Bill Wolski, the dynamic duo who call Little Fish Theatre their “Home Away from Home.” As well as appearing onstage together, the married couple also work behind-the-scenes with Holly managing the theatre's Press Relations and directing shows while Bill often takes on the roles of Director and Producer when not acting onstage.


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

Bill Wolski (Bill): I'm a veteran of over a hundred plays and a whole host of other projects and performances. I cut my teeth on the small theatre circuit in greater Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up. I'm primarily known for my work at Little Fish Theatre, which has been my artistic home since 2007, and for being the husband of the equally talented and prolific Holly Baker-Kreiswirth.

Holly Baker-Kreiswirth (Holly): I started out in television before I worked in theater; the very first paid job I had was in the acting category on Junior Star Search which led to various roles in shows such as Chicago HopeGia (HBO), and Private Practice. I studied theater in college, but took a 10-year break to work on a career in TV production, and then had my kid.  In my early 30s, I started with Palos Verdes Players as a sound tech, then worked my way up to directing, producing, and finally acting again.  When PVP sadly went down, Bill and I appeared onstage in The Tender Trap at Long Beach Playhouse (when we started dating!) and subsequently found our artistic home at Little Fish Theatre, where we produce Pick of the Vine and act in or direct roughly 1/3 of the productions every year.

(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out you needed to immediately postpone/cancel the show?

(Bill): I was working on a show called Becky's New Car, written by Steven Dietz, and directed by my wife. It was scheduled to open on April 9th. I was playing Becky's steadfast, not-as-dumb-as-he-looks husband, Joe.

(Holly): We were both deeply into rehearsals for Becky's New Car. I pre-block the shows I direct before rehearsals even begin; we had ten rehearsals under our belt with our lead actress, Amanda Karr, already off book.  Costumes/props were bought, lights/sound were being designed... everything was in motion.  Our stumble-through was the last rehearsal we had, and the show was already in great shape.

(SB): How was the shutdown communicated with the cast and production team?

(Bill and Holly): First, the sports teams postponed their seasons. Then, it was gatherings over 250 people. Then, gatherings over 50 people. Being a very intimate theater, there was still a possibility that LFT could limit ticket sales and hold performances, but the conclusion was reached that we didn't want to put our fan base and company members at risk. Emails went out to those involved that everything was going to be put on hold.

(SB): Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?

(Bill): Becky's New Car will open at a later date, once we've been given the all-clear.

(Holly): We're thrilled that the work we've already put into the show will be seen by an audience someday.  I believe the message will resonate with them.

(SB): I have seen the show before and was really looking forward to seeing the production at Little Fish. So I am happy to hear that eventually that will happen. What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?

(Bill and Holly): We are involved at LFT all the time in a volunteer capacity. The shutdown has affected our entire season. Shows and special events that have not yet been cast or started production may be canceled entirely to give the shows that were already in progress a chance to be performed.

(SB): I know Bill is an avid hiker, but how are the two of you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(Bill and Holly): Little Fish Theatre and its company members are doing a lot to bring theatre to a virtual audience. We're promoting and reaching out to our subscribers with videos and newsletters, and writing and sharing original content through our social media platforms. Specifically, we have a 5-part original web series called "Little Fish" that features hilarious portrayals of our artists.  We've produced multiple virtual readings of everything from comedic short plays to screenplays to a play about the shootings at Kent State 50 years ago this month.  And coming up next month we have a reading of a M*A*S*H* script donated to us by one of the writers, Ken Levine!  All of our readings are free -- we're so happy to be able to provide the arts to everyone in this format.

(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Bill and Holly): Please, be safe. Follow the rules and the health guidelines and limit the risk posed to yourself and your loved ones. In Shakespeare's time, theaters were closed due to the plague, and 400 years later, theatre is still alive and well. As long as there are stories to tell, there will be people to tell them. We'll all be together again soon enough. From our theater to yours, here's a big hug from Little Fish. We love you!

Here's how to stay in touch with Little Fish Theatre:


All production photos credit: Miguel Elliot


This article first appeared on Broadway World.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Tom Vitorino - Reflections on COVID-19 and the Thursday Night Theater Club


Actor, producer, and co-founder of Thursday Night Theater Club (TNTC), Tom Vitorino has appeared in film, television, commercials, soap operas, and live theater. Most recently, he starred in The Elephant Man, the tale of tragically deformed John Merrick, at the historic El Portal Theatre. Tom graciously took time from his busy schedule to interview in March 2020.


Vanessa Vaughn, Jennipher Lewis, Robin Roth, and Tom Vitorino in THE ELEPHANT MAN - Photo by David Ruano

When did your theater company first begin? Were you involved from the beginning? Who/how/why/where was it founded?

TV:  Alice Walker and I started “Thursday Night Theater Club” at her kitchen table in 2017. While the company has no long career in the sense of decades, anyone who’s ever taken on the task of starting a theater company ages a decade in the first year!

Alice and I wanted to put on plays that held a mirror up to the audience. That was the reason we started the company. The plays we’ve produced deal with very real social issues, tend to be timeless, and have large casts. We wanted to involve large groups of people from all social groups. It is about activating the idea of change, some sort of mind and spirit expansion, even if for just those associated with the production.”

Tom Vitorino and Alice L. Walker in "A View from the Bridge" - Photo by Cierra Danielle

Have you had to close down any productions due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run - or do you have any upcoming productions - which are affected?

TV:  I was at the pre-production stage of Anne Nelson’s The Guys. This was my new endeavor outside of TNTC. This play takes place during the period right after 9/11. It really amplifies the idea of how complete strangers can lean on each other in the most difficult of times. We’ve had a few get-togethers and were set to meet on March 15, but we’ve postponed all of our meetings. We were just about at that point to really dive in, so that is on hold. Ronnie Marmo is directing. Robyn Cohen is playing the role of Joan, and I will be Nick. This will open at Theater 68 in the NoHo Arts District on September 11, 2020. Yes, I am projecting that we return to a sense of normalcy. I have to.

Tom Vitorino and Alice L. Walker in "The Elephant Man" - Photo by David Ruano

Over the past weeks, has COVID-19 impacted on your group in any way?

TV: I think right in front of me is the fear, the anxiety, and the depression that I have never really experienced like this. Usually those feelings are in the moment; but, with this deadly outbreak, you go to bed with it. You awake, and those feelings are still there. Every cough creates a sense of panic!  New terms like “social distancing” are forever a part of the world; and that distance - while 110% needed - creates the inability to physically comfort a friend, a stranger, or anyone outside of your “home stay” crew. I spend a lot of time on Zoom, and it is rather ironic that the very medium of online connectivity that many felt was not a real connection is now in many cases the only connection we have left at this point. My wife Stephanie and I have stayed at home since March 11 except for a few trips to the grocery store wearing whatever PPE (there’s another new term) we have. We are three weeks into this situation. If I should meet eyes with another shopper while grocery shopping, there’s this knowing nod, this unspoken support of each other. The “social distancing” that we all employ is a shared experience is a sign of solidarity against this virus and an act of love for life itself.  So all of this makes me even more grateful for many things I have taken for granted.

Ethan Micael, Tom Vitorino, and Jeremy Falla in "A View from the Bridge" - Photo by Cierra Danielle

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Having virtual meetings? Streaming?

TV:  We have discussed when the time is right to start some readings on Zoom. At this time, I just think that people need space to figure out the day-to-day life changes that this virus has created. There is a lot of information to process, and that reality is front and center every day. But, in the near future, we will find a way forward.

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

TV:  In hard times like World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, and 9/11, people needed entertainment to forget - if just for a few minutes or a few hours - about the reality just outside the living room, cinema, or theater door. Some look at “the arts” as being non-essential in these difficult times; but to me, that is like saying love is non-essential. Art will always be essential to the healing of the world and the existence of a loving, caring humankind. Los Angeles is an amazing, resilient town, and we will come out of this stronger than we went in. As for theater goers, the theater needs them as much, if not more, than it needs the performers. We are all counting on them, as we always do; and they have never let us down.

I understand that you are offering something special to theater patrons for your upcoming productions. Will you tell us more about that?

TV:  We had always planned on offering free tickets to firefighters for our upcoming production of The Guys,, since it deals with the subject matter of eulogizing eight firefighters who lost their lives in 9/11. It just felt like the right thing to do. The COVID-19 outbreak has shifted our social awareness, and we have a responsibility as artists to our community. Any student, healthcare worker, first responder, and anyone 65 years or older, is added to our comp list. We will have to figure out how we administer that. Maybe half the house will be reserved for those groups. Everyone else will be “pay what you can afford,” but that will be our policy.

Do you have any closing thoughts or words of encouragement for your patrons?

TV:  You are not alone in your thoughts. We all share those same fears. But know that this will eventually end, and hopefully we come out a little better than we were before this happened. I wish I could line all of you up and give each of you a hug, but that might not happen again for a good while. So, wrap your arms around yourself and give a little squeeze. That hug’s from me.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



Spotlight Series: Meet Fringe Management Co-Founder Mike Blaha


This Spotlight focuses on Mike Blaha, Co-Founder of Fringe Management, a company that has produced an incredible assortment of shows for both the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Hollywood Fringe Festival. Listen in as he shares his insights on how the Coronavirus pandemic has affected both this year, especially since the initial shutdown occurred just as the Edinburgh event had begun.


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

Mike Blaha (Mike): I did a little bit of acting in high school, but never really thought about producing.  Then a friend of mine asked me to be his associate Artistic Director at a small, long-defunct theatre in the Valley in the late 80s and I caught the producing bug.

Since beginning in 1989, I’ve produced or co-produced over 100 shows in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Hong Kong, London and especially at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where our company Fringe Management,  LLC (co-founded with my Edinburgh based partner, actor-director Nigel Miles Thomas) has presented approximately 70 productions since 2001.  I have also produced 18 shows at the Hollywood Fringe Festival since 2012.

I was also one of the co-founders of Sci-Fest, a festival of one act science fiction plays that ran from 2014-2016 and have served on the Board of New Musicals, Inc. for most of the last 20 years (as President from 2015-2019).

(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out it needed to immediately be either postponed or cancelled?

(Mike): I was producing, along with Joel Shapiro of the Electric Lodge in Venice, the Edinburgh Fringe sensation “Hitler’s Tasters,” a brilliant dark comedy by Michelle Kholos Brooks.  We were originally scheduled to run March 12-30, 2020.  We had previews Thursday and Friday, March 12 and 13, 2020, opened on Saturday, March 14, 2020 and had to close on Sunday, March 15, 2020.

(SB): Here is “Hitler’s Tasters” promo reel on You Tube. How did you communicate the shutdown to the cast and crew?

(Mike): We communicated the heartbreaking reality of the shutdown in person with the cast and crew after the performance on Saturday night.

(SB): Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent? 

(Mike): Fortunately, we made an archival recording on opening night and we were able to negotiate an agreement with Equity to stream that recording for a two-week period, May 8-21, 2020, so audience members who bought a ticket to the live performance, and some new audience members, were able to watch that recording during that window. It is possible that there may be a remount of the play at the Electric Lodge, but it’s tricky because the cast members, who were the actors in the Edinburgh Fringe production, are all from New York.

(SB): What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?  

(Mike): I had five shows lined up for the 2020 Hollywood Fringe Festival, including three shows from the UK (The Nights, The Tanner and West), a local sketch comedy show Gold Baby and the 7th annual “Combined Artform’s Pick of the Fringe”.  With the Hollywood Fringe now cancelled this year, except for online shows, I have lost most if not all of the planned productions, although they may return for 2021.

We were also producing 7 shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, which has been cancelled altogether including Activities of Daily Living, Bard Overboard, Elton John: Rocketman, Elvis: He’s Back, Hiding Anne Frank, Once Upon A Time in Hollywoodland, and Two Girls: One Mic.  Fortunately, it looks like most if not all of the shows want to perform at the 2021 edition.

(SB): I saw Joanna Lipari in her one-woman show Activities for Daily Living at the Sierra Madre Playhouse and believe everyone needs to experience her incredible and very personal observations about life and love in that show. So I certainly hope she will be able to take the show to Edinburgh in 2021. (Here’s the link to my review on Broadway World.)

So now that everything is on hold, how are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(Mike): Well, I’m reading my daily reports from Broadway World, of course, following updates from various theatre companies, as well friends’, colleagues’, and various theatre forums on social media (and occasionally posting myself), and trying to keep up with the amazing explosion of content by artists of every stripe on YouTube, Facebook, Patreon, Twitter . . . the list goes on.  I’m in touch with all of the artists involved with the delayed and cancelled productions referenced above, and working with a couple of them on developing new projects.

(SB): Are there any thoughts would you like to share with L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Mike): Some people think the pandemic will move live theatre online permanently; some people think live theater will return eventually unchanged. I fall somewhere in the middle. I think there may be a hybrid model that combines live theatre with more digital innovation, both with respect to the design and production of live theater, but also respect to the supplemental, possibly complementary exploitation of those live productions.  One thing I am certain of, having witnessed the resilience and creativity of our community over these past few weeks, is that the L.A. Theatre scene will adapt and thrive in whatever becomes the “new normal.”

Of course, this has been a very difficult time for all of us.  One of the things that has kept me sane in spite of all the postponements and cancellations and missed openings is the knowledge that theatre has been around for a couple of thousand years and ain’t going anywhere.  It may be very different or not that different at all; but in a few weeks or months we will all be sitting in a dark black box once again in thrall to the magic of live theatre!


This article first appeared on Broadway World.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Susan Loewenberg "Sets the Stage for Learning" - LA Theatre Works and Educators


LA Theatre Works, a non-profit organization dedicated to the arts, says it all in their mission statement: “To record the most significant and important stage plays from the American and World canons and to make these recordings available worldwide.” LA Theatre Works invites the public to hear and see well-known actors perform classics by icons like Shakespeare and modern plays by playwrights like Lynn Nottage and then record the results.

Today, LA Theatre Works has the largest library of recorded plays in the world — over 500 audio productions, both free and for purchase, available to the public. In response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, they are offering 25 audio recordings of significant stage plays, each performed by leading actors of stage and screen and free to educators worldwide. LATW’s “Setting the Stage for Learning” initiative is designed to help teachers enhance distance learning during the crisis — as well as classroom learning when schools are again open.  In addition to the current initiative, LATW has remained busy in the community, offering weekly two-hour radio shows on public radio stations nationwide, worldwide streaming and through their podcasts. LATW also broadcasts their show daily in China, where they have over 15 million listeners a week, and they broadcast weekly on KCRW Berlin in Germany. All of these offerings can be accessed on their website. In the midst of this never-ending activity is producing director and CEO Susan Loewenberg, who kindly agreed to this interview in March 2020.


LA Theatre Works Digital Cover Art - Photo Courtesy of LA Theatre Works

What is LA Theatre Works, and how did it begin?

Susan Loewenberg: Originally, six theater artists and I started the organization. Eventually I agreed to head it up. It was around 1972 when a group of artists, actors, and playwrights associated with the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles began to do workshops in Federal, State, and County prisons. We called ourselves Artists in Prison. We created plays with inmates, and the general public was allowed inside to watch our productions. At one point, we even arranged for a group of furloughed inmates to perform live at the John Anson Ford Theater.

It was 1977 or 1978 when the group received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and we changed our name to LA Theatre Works. By 1980, we had begun to produce professional theater, including several award-winning world premieres. In 1985, a group of well-known actors, including John Lithgow, Marsha Mason, Amy Irving, Hector Elizondo, Ed Asner, Helen Hunt, Julie Harris, and Richard Dreyfuss, approached LATW to become their producers. We agreed, and our first project was to record Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt for radio station KCRW. It took 18 months to record the book; all 34 actors in the company participated. The recording was 14-and-a-half hours long and was released on Thanksgiving Day in 1986. It was a huge success and got great reviews. We had to follow up on that success.

Jane Kaczmarek and Nicholas Hormann in "Spill" - Photo by Nick Toren

How do you arrive at the final recording from start to finish? How do you pick your casts?

SL: Depending on how difficult the play is, we either perform in front of a live audience; or, for the more difficult plays, we record in a studio. For the live performances, we record four or five times in front of audiences, using state of the art technology. There are actors with microphones and live sound effects. I take notes on every performance. The first time, I watch the actors. But after that, I never look at them again. I focus on listening. I put on my headset and take notes, then decide which performance is better for each section of the play. For example, perhaps the first scene was better on Saturday, but the second scene was better on Sunday. We have people in continuity who make sure that every word is correct; everybody makes notes, and the editor looks at all the notes. We edit three times. It takes two to three months from performance to the finished product.

In order to cast our plays, we have a group of both high profile and excellent working actors who love to record with us and who find the work to be challenging and a wonderful way to experience great dramatic literature and exercise their professional muscles at the same time. Think of it as akin to working out in the gym! We give them the opportunity to do that, and they feel it’s invaluable.

Gregory Harrison, Diane Adair, John Heard, and John Getz in "Top Secret" - Photo by Derek Hutchison

What are the advantages of your recordings over live staged theater or audio books?

SL:  Instead of using several senses, like you do in live theater, you’re just listening. That fires up your imagination. You begin to visualize… it’s really very stimulating. With audio books, you usually have only one person telling the story; with LA Theatre Works, there is a whole cast interpreting the story. It’s a doubly rich experience — the recordings stimulate concentration and imagination. It’s more fulfilling to listen when you want to learn, and it’s a better teaching tool than a film would be. The teachers who use our recordings say that the students learn better. One student said that listening to Romeo and Juliet instead of reading it helped him to understand the play for the first time. The head of the Division of Instruction at LAUSD recently remarked about how useful we are in assisting students during the pandemic.

Gregory Harrison and Richard Kind in "An Enemy of the People" - Photo by Joshua Arvizo

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted LA Theatre Works?

SL: It’s had a big impact. Every year, we take a play and tour it around the US to 30-40 performing arts centers. We enhance the production values for touring audiences. Everybody is in costume, we don’t use scripts, there is lighting and movement. This year, we were in the middle of a tour of Seven. It’s about seven women from seven countries whose actions impacted women and human rights in extraordinary ways. We did a fabulous performance in Palm Beach on March 7, which I had flown in to see; then they flew to Minnesota to do five performances, but they only got through two when it, and the rest of the tour, was cancelled. We had 11 more performances to go. It’s sad, because it was a great show and we lost all the fees from those bookings — a big blow. We also had to cancel our NTLive film screenings and our next live in performance show at UCLA for the month of April, and we are waiting to see what we may have to cancel after that. We are trying to get new dates.

But we’re a little more fortunate than most because we still have audio sales and the radio show. We can weather the closures and cancellations. Hopefully, we’ll get aid for the losses on the tour, and maybe we and other nonprofit arts organizations will be eligible for additional governmental and private support.

Larry Powell and Aja Naomi King in "The Mountaintop" - Photo by Matt Petit

Do you have any final thoughts or information that you want your audiences to know?

SL: Absolutely. We always have the play recordings available for purchase. We also have another group of plays available for free online listening. They’re on scientific themes, and they’re called The Relativity Series — titles like The Great Monkey Trial about the Scopes trial with the great speeches of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. We just recorded Behind the Sheet. It’s based on a true story about a doctor in the 19th century who performed experimental gynecological operations on slave women. It was good research, but they didn’t use anesthesia and the women suffered terribly. We have others about autism, DNA, and ethics. And we just put up a free listen to the late Terrence McNally’s Lips Together Teeth Apart starring Kristen Johnston and Steven Weber.

Again, the general public can log onto our website and find a host of wonderful free and for sale recordings — a great way to help get through this trying time.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



Spotlight Series: Meet Elmira Rahim Who Began Her Acting Career in Iran, Trained at USC, and Created the ÉLAN Ensemble


This Spotlight focuses on Elmira Rahim who began her acting career in Iran, trained at USC, and created the ÉLAN Ensemble whose inaugural production, How We're Different From Animals, was the recipient of Best Adaptation at Stage Raw Theater Awards in 2019 as well as nominated in multiple categories including Best Production at Stage Raw Theater Awards and LA Drama Critics Circle Awards. But like so many others, this year’s production of a modern adaptation of Trojan Women with A Noise Within had to be postponed until theaters can safely open again.


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

Elmira Rahim (Elmira): I started my acting career in Iran when I was a teenager and was fortunate enough to work with some prominent theater companies including Ayeneh, which led me to perform in     in Paris in 2004. Working in Iran as an actor has given me a perspective of what it means to push the boundaries and use limitations as opportunities to be creative, which I will forever cherish and use as a force. After leaving my roots in Iran, I joined the USC MFA Acting program where I got the chance to work with some of my most inspiring mentors. The training at USC and the opportunity to collaborate with artists from different backgrounds inspired me to start a theater company, ÉLAN Ensemble, dedicated to creating adaptations and devised works rooted in physical theater techniques.

I am proud to share that ÉLAN's inaugural production, How We're Different From Animals, was the recipient of Best Adaptation at Stage Raw Theater Awards in 2019 as well as nominated in multiple categories including Best Production at Stage Raw Theater Awards and LA Drama Critics Circle Awards. I have also been working as an actor with other theater companies in Los Angeles as well as pursuing a career on camera and in voice over, but working as the leader and artistic director of ÉLAN has been one of the greatest honors of my theatrical career.

(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out it needed to immediately be either postponed or cancelled?

(Elmira): Before the pandemic, I was in conversation with A Noise Within to present a modern adaptation of Trojan Women with ÉLAN Ensemble as part of their Noise Now season. As you can imagine, an opportunity like this is really valuable for a new theater company and often takes time to come to fruition, but it did seem like we were getting closer. The presentation was not yet announced but we were planning to schedule it for August and could not wait to share this powerful piece with the audience.  But it was clear to us after the shutdown that live performance in August was not going to be an option.

(SB):  How was the shutdown communicated with the cast and production team?

(Elmira): I deeply feel for all colleagues and friends who had to cancel shows before opening or in the middle of a run. As an actor and a producer, I can totally understand the financial and emotional burden such action incurs. Since our performance dates at ANW were not yet confirmed, we were lucky to only have to communicate with the cast that we will be looking at another time to share this work, which was still hard considering we are still not certain when we will be able to safely gather in theaters again.

(SB): Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?

(Elmira): As of right now, Trojan Women is announced to be performed at ANW on Dec 19th, but we are still waiting for more specific guidelines. As you know, most theaters have cancelled their seasons until next year, so there is a possibility of having to postpone again.

(SB): What future productions on ÉLAN’s schedule are also affected by the shutdown?

(Elmira): ÉLAN is also in development for another project which is going to be a devised piece in process for a year or so. Now that we can’t be in the same room, we have started working on it one day at a time online.

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

(Elmira): We have been scheduling multiple Zoom readings and meetings like most companies. I am also trying to use this time to write, read and think of ideas for future productions. Some online works and creations have been truly inspiring, but we all miss being in the same room together and feeding off of each other's energy and artistry.

(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Elmira): I would like to extend my love to the LA Theatre community. During this time of isolation and reflection, I was reminded of how lucky I am to have met many wonderfully talented artists who are also wonderful human beings. At the same time, I wish that we will come out of this as a community with more awareness to create works that reflect our society more truthfully. Living in such a multicultural city is truly an asset for the Arts, and with all that is going on in our society today, I hope that we can recognize an opportunity for change and our individual role in creating it. I cannot wait to see you all in the theater!  "Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself." Rumi

I would love to invite readers to a wonderfully unique modern adaptation of Trojan Women at A Noise Within/Noise Now at ANoiseWithin.org/noise-now.

Also, would love to share ÉLAN's website for any upcoming productions. ElanensEmble.com


ÉLAN Ensemble's productions of How We're Different From Animals and Seven. Photo credit: Meredith Adelaide


This article first appeared on Broadway World.



Spotlight Series: Meet Kristy Edmunds, Executive and Artistic Director of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance


Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about you and CAP UCLA?

Kristy Edmonds (Kristy): UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance produces and supports programming that builds a community around the world’s creative artists whose ideas find a home in contemporary theater, dance, music, writing and collaboration. Artists that have achieved a towering legacy in their chosen art forms, alongside those who are well on their way because of their generous and singular vision. At CAP UCLA we leave no stone unturned in assuring that people (in every age, culture and means) have artists in their lives one project at a time.

(SB): What production(s) were you (and/or your company) involved with when word went out it needed to immediately be either postponed or cancelled?

(Kristy): After presenting Octavia Butler’s Parable of The Sower by Toshi Reagon, on the now legendary evening of March 7, there were but days before the safer at home order would come in. An additional 13 performances were immediately impacted. Our work began in earnest for postponing (cancelling was a last measure position for us), and important in every discussion around rescheduling was CAP UCLA’s commitment that we would not leave artists, managers and audiences out to dry, as we knew that artists and their creative teams would be in a severe cash flow challenge (one that would move from stressful to imperiling within weeks as more organizations began to cancel). But none of us anticipated the long duration of the marathon this would rapidly evolve into.

In our situation at CAP UCLA, I had an enhanced vantage point because of the leadership of UCLA – they were responsibly addressing a scale of change that was unfathomable and because of the transparency of critical decision-making, I had a slight head start on the crucial reality of public safety measures spreading in every direction imaginable. We had to all focus on the huge contour and the exacting detail concurrently. I remember getting off of a Zoom call and saying to myself: “Kristy Edmunds, this is not a surreal dream this is happening. You have to move NOW, you’ll add to the chaos if you wait a second longer.”

As hard as it was, it ensured that no one was left unaddressed – not my staff, not the audience, our supporters, associated businesses and not the artists. I knew what the scale of impact would be to artists instantly, this is my profession after all. But I didn’t know it would spread to all of us in every allied workforce and in all walks of life. That equally heart-breaking realization would come later (and rapidly).

(SB): How was the shutdown communicated with the artists and production teams?

(Kristy): With all speed and with emotional intelligence. CAP UCLA one of the first performing arts organizations to suspend our programs, so everyone effected would have a different level of awareness and the impact would be different for everyone. I knew that there would be a shock reaction, or a denial impulse (the show must go on!), and then too the gracious diplomacy of understanding. It would land differently for everyone, and everyone would be affected unevenly. Our imperative was that every artist would be supported, and every ticket holder would be refunded. We were bleeding of course, but we acted on principle and did not stand still in justifiable but acutely problematic suspended animation.

(SB): Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?

(Kristy): Yes, there are plans in place for future dates and all of us are operating from plan A, B, C and D. We have also worked closely with artists to explore what approaches for presenting their works will look like, and we will start the soft launch of the programming for the upcoming season in a few weeks.

Every project is now rescheduled, or being re-developed. Some are being filmed and we will present the work online later. Some projects have jumped to the fall of 2021 to get to more solid ground where it may be less crazed by uncertainty. Others are adjusting their work for new platforms and we are there for that as well.

It’s different for each artist and each art form, and with everything still changing, it’s about generating continuity with far less means. All is considered and thought through after many earnest discussions, and in a full recognition that the future of anyone’s capacity is subject to change. For CAP UCLA this means we have had to create possibilities and innovate for the most immediate future as well as the further flung horizon line.

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

(Kristy): We have this rapidly assembled “newsletter” generated weekly. It’s actually becoming a real touch stone for our audiences locally, nationally and around the world. Once the programming for next season is announced, we will all have a lot to look forward to as well.

(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghost light on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Kristy): Each of us have assets that are strained now beyond our wildest imagining. It was hard enough before. We do not know how long we can survive in this suspension or what proceeding will look like. But we are an incredible part of the cultural infrastructure of the city and country, and the more we are able to collaborate together, the better off our ecology will be as we work on recovery.


(SB): And with forced theater closures world-wide and long-range performance cancellations, presenting organizations are faced with a myriad of challenges as they navigate artist support with organizational sustainability, and how to plan for an unknown future.

Here is a link to a Conversation with Kristy Edmunds, Executive and Artistic Director, UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, and Lauren Snelling, Senior Director of Alumni Programming, National YoungArts Foundation, in which Kristy offers an honest conversation addressing the harsh realities associated with a return to public gatherings and ongoing postponements and cancellations, as well as a hopeful perspective on alternatives for artists operating in a virtual landscape and her motivation to activate recovery for the preservation of America’s cultural ecosystem.

Websites and social media:

cap.ucla.edu

facebook.com/CAPatUCLA

instagram.com/cap_ucla

twitter.com/CAP_UCLA

twitter.com/KristyEdmunds

Photo captions:

Kristy Edmunds, Executive & Artistic Director of Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA - Photo by Reed Hutchinson

Production photos of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and “Parable” by Phinn Sriployrung

"Love Letters Straight From Your Heart" promotional photo provided by CAP UCLA


This article first appeared on Broadway World.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Open Fist Faces COVID19 - An Interview with Martha Demson


Yale-educated and two-year student of the legendary Sanford Meisner, Martha Demson has spent a good part of her professional career working with Open Fist Theatre Company. After brief forays into acting and directing in the film and TV world, Martha joined Open Fist in 1991 and became artistic director in 1997. Although her first love is directing, her current role has been primarily as producer for the many shows staged by Open Fist in the past few years. Martha took time from her busy schedule to interview in April 2020.


Ensemble in "Musical Fools" - Photo by Darrett Sanders

When and how did Open Fist Theatre Company first form? Were you involved from the beginning?

Martha Demson: The Open Fist Theatre Company was founded in 1990 by a group of recent MFA graduates out of Cal State Fullerton. Then-artistic director Ziad Hamzeh had a great appetite for large-cast European experimental theater, and the early years of the Company were characterized by the selection of ambitious (if often obscure) pieces performed with great enthusiasm and varying degrees of success by a very young company. Some of the early productions were by icons like Caryl Churchill and Bertolt Brecht.

I joined toward the end of the Company’s first year and became the organization's artistic director in 1997. Open Fist has had quite a varied history. From 1990 to 2005, Open Fist performed in its famous “quonset hut” of a theater - until it was demolished to make way for a condo development. In 2006, we moved into what had been the Actors Gang space in Hollywood. It was a beautiful, large theater which permitted us to mount visually ambitious productions. Unfortunately, a sudden 50% rent hike forced us out after seven and a half years. With no time to find a new home, we became a nomadic theater group. We floated in and out of different venues between 2013 and 2017 and hoped to purchase our own theater. When that didn’t work out, we found the perfect space in the Atwater Village Theatre complex. Even though it has meant developing a new patron base, we are very happy putting down roots as a resident Company at AVT.

Jade Santana and Jill Remez in "Anna in the Tropics" - Photo by Darrett Sanders

What are some of the most popular plays you've done? How about awards?

MD: We’ve mounted dozens of popular productions, many of which have won awards -- Ovation, LA Weekly, LADCC, Garland etc. Our shows tend to be an exuberant and eclectic mix. A few stand out in my mind. The world premiere production of Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage was probably our most memorable hit musical; and over the course of its run I grew to love and respect Zappa’s music. He had a following of millions, and fans flew in from around the world to come to the show. After each performance, patrons didn’t want to leave -- they would linger for hours in the lobby. It was really very exciting for everyone. Another personal favorite was our LA Weekly award-winning production of Tom Stoppard’s comedy Travesties. Stoppard’s use of language in that play is astonishing, and the clever interweaving of the lives of Lenin, Tristan Tzara, and James Joyce is delightful; I had loved the play since high school and I don’t think I missed a single performance. And then there was Papa, a one-man play starring Adrian Sparks about Hemingway’s life in Cuba; I directed the hit. While we were in rehearsal, Adrian was involved in a near life-ending accident which left him unable to swallow or speak. But he was determined to do the play. Little by little, he worked his way back to health; and, when we eventually opened, the performance was magnificent. It garnered several Ovation nominations and awards. As a footnote, ten years later, Adrian had an opportunity to reprise the role in the movie PAPA: Hemingway in Cuba with Giovanni Ribisi and Joely Richardson.

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

MD: We announced that we were suspending performances effective immediately on Thursday, March 12.  We were halfway through the run of RORSCHACH FEST, an ambitious festival of boundary-pushing theater, featuring plays by Caryl Churchill, Harold Pinter, John O'Keefe and Daniel MacIvor. We had already paid for the licenses to perform the plays into April, as well as the theater rent and production costs; this left us in a financial bind. After all, even when we’re closed, we still have to pay our bills.

AlgeRita Wynn and Carmella Jenkins in This is a Chair - "Rorschach Fest" - Photo by Darrett Sanders

How has COVID-19 impacted on your theater?

MD: The negative impact has been largely financial.  We lost four weeks’ ticket revenue on our Festival (estimated a minimum $8000), we had prepaid a month of license fees for performances which were cancelled (nearly $4000), and we had prepaid the theater rent for the month of March ($8000).  Depending on the length of the Stay at Home order, we may suffer other losses (most significantly loss of venue).”

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

MD: Yes, we are a strong community.  Rehearsals for our next production, The Solider Dreams, are underway virtually.  Production meetings continue on their regular schedule with preliminary designs due in a couple of weeks.  Staff and company meetings occur using the Zoom platform.  Last week, we opened some rehearsals to patrons at no charge; and we are surveying our patrons to ask what other forms of virtual engagement they would be interested in (readings, conversations, classes). We considered presenting readings of some classic plays using Zoom, but we ran into a problem: Actors Equity is requiring that groups negotiate an agreement with them for any online presentations, and they have not gotten back to the LA community with an overview of what that agreement will be.  So we are looking for other ways to engage with our patrons – maybe a cocktail hour where patrons and artists exchange ideas about plays and the theater; and perhaps some puppet shows for young patrons.

Derek Manson, Parvesh Cheena, Robyn Roth, Cat Davis, Brendan Mulally, and Hank Jacobs in "Musical Fools" - Photo by Darrett Sanders

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

MD: I think the answer to that question will depend on the length of the Stay at Home order and the extent of the devastation (both health-wise and economically).  I believe that live theater will have an important role to play when we finally re-emerge from isolation and begin to rebuild a sense of who we are together.  It may be that patrons feel a residual reluctance to go into public performance venues, so we will have to figure that out - perhaps turning to outdoor spaces for a while.  But long term, I believe that the live theater community in Los Angeles will prove as resilient as ever. The number of organizations we lose altogether will really depend on how long this outbreak endures. Some companies are better positioned than others to weather the storm.

WHAT DO YOU NEED RIGHT NOW TO KEEP GOING FORWARD? WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE FROM THE THEATER PUBLIC?

MD: To keep going forward, we need to maintain engagement.  Engagement of our members to continue their creative activity and maintain a sense of family; engagement of our inner circle to absorb the expenses required to sustain us during a period of zero revenue; and engagement of our patrons to maintain their connection with us. This engagement will underscore the mutual understanding that together we form an indestructible community.

Tom Noga and Laura James in Landscape - "Rorschach Fest" - Photo by Darrett Sanders

What are some of your future plans?

MD: When business resumes, we will open The Soldier Dreams.It’s a funny and poignant play that chronicles the struggles of the family of a young man who has died of an unnamed illness. We chose the play long before the outbreak of the coronavirus, but it certainly resonates with what’s been going on all around us.

We do have plans for the rest of the season, but I prefer not to announce other projects because our schedule (and budget!) will definitely be impacted by the duration of the shut-down. It is almost certain that we will move titles around and postpone some of the more ambitious projects to next year. One thing we do know. Assuming that we are operating in September, we will definitely produce our fourth annual "political pop-up" featuring short plays by playwrights from around the country.  The "political pop-up" tradition began in response to Trump's inauguration in 2017; and we have continued it annually, each year around a different theme. For our "pop-ups”, we convert the theater into a speakeasy. We bring in couches, comfy chairs, tables, rugs, lamps and a bar. This year, our theme will be “In a Perfect World,” which should provide a context for addressing our shared goals and challenges, as well as important issues like climate change and social injustice.


The article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Kritzerland Goes Virtual - Bruce Kimmel and Hartley Powers Together for Group Rep Fundraisers


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.

Hartley Powers - Photo by Russell Baer

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?

Sam Golzari, Esperanza America, Olivia Cristina Delgado, Ella Saldana North, Julio Macias, Kenneth Miles, and Ellington Lopez in "A Mexican Trilogy" - Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography

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.

Michael Robb and Carrie Schroeder in "Dial 'M' for Murder" - Photo by Doug Engalla

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.

Bobby Slaski, Kait Haire, Lloyd Pedersen, and Peyton Kirkner in "In My Mind's Eye" - Photo by Doug Engalla

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.



Spotlight Series: Meet Michael Leoni, the Playwright, Bi-Coastal Director, and Co-Founder of The 11:11 in WeHo


This Spotlight  focuses on Michael Leoni, a playwright, bi-coastal director, and co-founder of The 11:11 in WeHo whose productions have brilliantly focused attention on the pitfalls of modern society, especially in the entertainment industry and on homeless street kids.


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

Michael Leoni (ML): I have been directing theater and film since high school and have been fortunate to direct professionally in both LA and NYC. One of my very first shows in Los Angeles was an original rock musical that I wrote and directed, called The Playground.  It built a cult following and ran successfully at multiple theatres around Los Angeles over several years.

Then, I adapted a short film I had written and directed into the stage play, Elevator. It ran for 11 months starting at The Hudson Mainstage and then moving to The Coast Theatre in WeHo. Here is the trailer:

 

(SB): Read my 2017 Broadway World interview with writer/director Michael Leoni and Erica Katzin who was in the cast of “Elevator” to learn more about that incredible play which won 11 Broadway World nominations including "Best New Work" as well as "Critic's Choice" and "Best Bet" from the Los Angeles Times.

(ML): Following that, my business partners and I opened our theatre in West Hollywood, called “The 11:11.” It became the home to my next original show, Famous, which ran for nine months, was developed into a feature film, and is now in post-production. Here is the trailer:

 

(I’ve lost count of how many times I went back to see “Famous” or the number of people I took with me to experience it. The production remains on my all-time favorites list of shows I have reviewed. If you missed it, here is the link to my 2019 interview with Michael about the cost of fame as faced by those in its spell, which led to the creation of the #MeToo movement.)

(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out it needed to be either postponed or cancelled immediately?

(ML): When we first got the news that all theatre was going to be shut down, we were in the beginning stages of casting for my newest show, The Boulevard. And at the time, The 11:11, was also in full swing with live theatre, comedy and music.

(SB): How was the shutdown communicated with the cast and production teams?

(ML): Luckily, since we had just begun casting, we did not have to communicate any cancellations to actors. However, our staff at the theatre was directly affected and we, like everyone else, had to cancel all theatre bookings as none of us know when live theatre will return. Of course, we’re hopeful that live theatre will return sooner rather than later and are doing as much pre-production that we’re able to do remotely.  We will be looking into a larger theatre, as the technical requirements of The Boulevard demand a larger venue. We can’t wait to get started!

(SB): What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?

(ML): In addition to all of the rentals that were booked to run at The 11:11, we're also a film company. So those productions are also on hold until further notice.

(SB): With all those postponements, how are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(ML): As a writer/director, I am passionate about using the Arts to create social impact.  I feel like it’s one of the few ways that people from all backgrounds can be brought together to create positive change.

I feel really fortunate that one of my films, American Street Kid has just secured distribution. So, we’re able to channel our creativity into building our online marketing campaign.

For our other current feature, #WhenTodayEnds, we did have to cancel our theatrical premiere, which was set for this summer. We'll also be using Zoom for a read-through of my newest script, The Boulevard, and personally, I've been using some of the isolation time to write another script.

I think it’s really important that creativity is kept alive, especially in the hardest of times. I wrote a book for artists called Dare to Be Bad that helps with removing obstacles and allowing the creativity to flow. During this time, we've seen an increase in sales, and I'm grateful that it's been able to help!

(SB): Any other thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the LA Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghost light on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(ML): We must continue to have faith. Live theatre is vital to our lifeblood as artists. There is nothing that compares to watching performers live and being a part of that collective energy.  It’s life-changing and a connection that is hard to put into words, but you know it when you feel it; it’s like nothing else.  I have a feeling that some amazing art is going to come out of all of this, and I can’t wait to see it.

(SB): Stay in touch with Michael and his work on Instragam:

Instagram.com/michaelleoni1111

Instagram.com/famoustheliveexperience

Instagram.com/americanstreetkid

Instagram.com/elevatortheplay


This article first appeared on Broadway World.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Bringing Latino Tradition to the Theater - An Interview with Jose Luis Valenzuela


Born in the U.S. and raised in Mexico until the age of 21, Jose Luis Valenzuela got his first taste of acting in school productions in Mexico. Eventually, he returned to the U.S. to pursue a graduate program in social studies. But the acting bug bit deep, and Jose soon began his professional acting career in Chicano Theater in 1970. He moved to Los Angeles in 1984 and became a founding member of the Latino Theater Lab.

In 1984, he was invited by Los Angeles Theater Center founding members Bill Bushnell and Duane White to their new theater in the former Security Pacific National Bank building – which by then had been converted by the City into a theater space as part of a plan to revitalize downtown Los Angeles. In 1986, the company finally presented its first full production, a play about immigration called La Victima. In 1995, the Latino Theater Lab changed its name to the Latino Theater Company and has been operating as a non-profit ever since. In 1995, Jose Luis Valenzuela also became their first artistic director, a role he has had for the past 25 years. Over the years, multi-talented Jose has been an actor, director, and producer. Jose took time from his busy schedule to interview in April 2020.


Cast of "La Victima" - Photo by Jintak Han

Tell us more about the Latino Theater Company. What is your mission? How big a group are you? 

Jose Luis Valenzuela: The actual company is small. Six members are left from the original group 35 years ago. We have 11 full time people, and we hire part timers as we need them. Our mission is to bring people from different cultures together to make the world better and aid in mutual understanding. We produce the entire season. Now we have lots of departments. We have educational programs, theater productions, and a writing festival in the summer. Mostly, we produce new plays.

We have a 20-year lease with the City. It expires in 2026, and we hope to get a long extension then. We pay $1 a year, but we do all the maintenance. It costs us $350,000 just to open the doors, and that’s not counting repairs. That’s just for the basics. To some extent, we depend on ticket sales, so you can imagine how the theater shut-down in March affected us.

Cast of "Dementia" - Photo by Christopher Ash

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

JLV:  We shut down on March 14. We were rehearsing La Victima, a play we first did in 1986. We brought back the original version about immigration because it remains as relevant today as it did in the 1970s. We were going to tour local high schools and colleges with a free presentation. We planned to open our new season on April 16. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

Marta Carrasco in "Perra De Nadie" - Photo by David Ruano

Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?

JLV:  We had to postpone our 2020 season and cancel entirely our presentation of two companies which were going to come from Spain. Barcelona’s Marta Carrassco was supposed to present two plays in repertory (Perra de Nadie and Jo, Dona, a Lili Elbe). Kulunka Teatro was supposed to return with their Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award-winning production of Andre and Dorine.

It’s been very difficult financially. Even if our rent is low, we need to keep up the building. That’s really expensive. We’re also trying to hold on to our staff, but that’s hard to do under these circumstances. Now our hourly employees are without jobs.

"Andre & Dorine" - Photo by Gonzalo Jerez and Manuel D.

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

JLV:  We’re having a lot of virtual staff meetings. All the full time employees are working remotely from home and still on salary. At this point, I don’t know when we will re-open; but we’re all set up to begin as soon as we can. Hopefully, that will be in the fall. We would like to open on August 29, 2020, with a play called August 29. It’s about a journalist in LA who was killed in 1970. The play marks a 50-year celebration, a City and County remembrance. We have the director and designers, and we’re supposed to be auditioning right now – but we’re not because everything is up in the air.

We want to put shows on the internet, and we’re trying to stream a play we did before – but it’s complicated because of the union. We’re putting things on our Facebook website. Beginning next week, we want to have conversations about a play; it will be streamed live and available for people from the website. Maybe we can show a little bit of a show, and people can read the script before the live stream. We plan to send emails to everyone telling them how to get into the scripts and some video scenes. We’d like to do whole shows, but we can’t afford all the costs that would entail.

Esperanza America in "The Mother of Henry" - Photo by Andrew Vasquez

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

JLV:   It’s really hard to say. Right now, most people are watching television and films and using the internet while quarantined in their homes. I wonder what will happen in this society if the shut-down lasts a long time. But I think we’ll find a way through it. There’s something about people looking at humans doing things and having intellectual conversations face-to-face. Somehow, people are attracted to being with other people. We are social beings, and theater offers dialog with each other on an intimate level. I think people will always find that important and appealing.

Sam Golzari, Esperanza America, Olivia Cristina Delgado, Ella Saldana North, Julio Macias, Kenneth Miles, and Ellington Lopez in "A Mexican Trilogy" - Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography

What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?

JLV:  The public should know that we are planning to open as soon as they tell us it’s safe. We need people to come to the theater when we have the opening.  We are going to need people to support us.

What are some of your future plans?

JLV:  When we’re allowed to reopen, we’re planning on presenting several shows. I already mentioned “August 29.” We’re also planning on Sleep with the Angels, a story about a young boy with Mexican parents who’s trying to decide his gender. Another show we want to do is The Last Angry Brown Hat. It’s about the Mexican Brown Berets in the 1970s; that’s a Mexican group a lot like the Black Panthers. We also have Ravine on our agenda. The play tells what happens when the city decides to build Dodgers Stadium and forces the Mexicans living in that area to re-locate. We’re also working on La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin, our annual Christmas play.

So you can see that we have lots of plans and want to grow and bring our message to every Angelino. In the meantime, we’ll keep planning and hoping for the end of the pandemic.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Youth and Theater - An Interview with Young Stars Theatre's Jack Bennett


The multi-talented Jack J. Bennett has tried his hand at nearly every aspect of show business, including stand-up comedy, live theater, and directing. Jack is also the veteran of over 100 television commercials, as well as film and television appearances in shows like Desperate Housewives, House, and The Bold and the Beautiful. In 2000, he and his wife Gloria co-founded Young Stars Theatre, specializing in live theater for youth, where he is the artistic director. Jack took time from his schedule to interview in April 2020. 


Corwin Daley, Rowan Farley, Augie Matsuura, and Victoria Field in "Disney's Beauty and the Beast Jr. - Photo by Jack J. Bennett

When did your theater first begin? What led to its creation? What is your mission? Were you involved from the beginning?

Jack J. Bennett:  I met my wife Gloria doing Equity theater in 1996 at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida. We became friends, and then I went to work for her as the office manager of her music studio. In 1997, we got hired to run a youth summer drama camp. We noticed that there were some issues working with a few of the staff, but we learned something too. We took away the idea that we could do this ourselves. We did a yearly summer drama camp for several years and started noticing how sad the kids would be at the end. They became tearful because it might not be until the next summer that they got another chance to do theater. That’s how we came up with the idea of year-round youth community theater for kids 18 and under. The Young Stars Theatre (YST) was born in 2000.  Gloria produces and directs the music, and I direct and design/build sets and handle marketing materials. Up until the summer of 2005, we continued doing summer camps in Jacksonville – even after we had moved to the LA area.

We literally knocked down a wall in Gloria's music studio to create a small theatre space with a tiny stage that was 13.5' wide x 8' deep that could seat about 40. We started doing regular productions there; for a couple of years, we did around six a year. The building in Florida was sold, and the new landlords asked for debilitating rent increases. We were forced to shut the Florida program in 2002 (except for the summer camps). After moving to the LA area in 2005, we reopened YST. Starting in 2016, we moved into our permanent space at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena. Although we still mostly do eight youth productions a year, we do at least one show a year with adult performers. We almost always have a youth cast for those productions as well.

Kurt Koehler, Tara Cox, Aidan Martin, and Eadan Franklynn in "Bye Bye Birdie" - Photo by Jack J. Bennett

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

JJB: We made the decision on March 11 and closed on March 12, right after hearing that the NBA was shutting down. We were right in the middle of our run of Seussical Jr. We had already performed for two weekends and had two more weekends (eight shows) to go. Audiences were already very low, as the coronavirus news was already making people wary.  A big moment was when one of our actors commented, "I'm not worried about the virus, but I don't want to catch it and take it home to my grandma." That was a real wake-up call.

Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?

JJB: As with any small theater, our margin is razor thin. Losing two weeks, which was really four weeks since the first two weekends were not well attended, meant that the loss of ticket sales was financially crushing. Largely thanks to some donations and purchases of gift certificates, we were able to pay our lease for April.

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

JJB: We were in the middle of rehearsals for our next show, The Wizard of Oz.  My wife has been using ZOOM for years, both for virtual lessons (she is a voice teacher) and for meetings for a side business. Because of that, we translated almost immediately to ZOOM rehearsals. Virtual rehearsals have actually gone quite well. Of course, there are challenges trying to communicate movement and spatial relationship in a virtual environment. Besides, having everyone sing a group song is impossible in the traditional sense. But I think we have come up with some viable workarounds for the time being. We are also continuing our improv classes online for our youth membership company.

Jack J. Bennett and Gloria Bennett in "Sweeney Todd" - Photo by Marie Lafranque

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

JJB: I truly hope we can get back to business more or less as usual; but right now, it's impossible to see. Even when theaters reopen, some questions remain. Will audiences be okay with coming back? Will they have income to spend on theater? I'm actually more concerned about the economic effects going forward than anything else. We were somewhat fortunate to have recently come off a very successful run, so we had a tiny buffer - but not everyone does. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm afraid there are going to be a lot of theaters that close permanently because of this. That really makes me sad.

Brayden Nguyen, Ella Dan, and Carolyn Mottern in "Elf Jr." - Photo by Terre Marriott

What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?

JJB: It's pretty simple: money. Bills are not susceptible to the virus. We've applied for different programs and loans, but we have no idea whether we'll see a dollar of that. If you have a favorite theater where you love to go, you need to support them financially right now. Donate, buy gift cards, help with fundraisers, anything you can do that helps them keep paying their bills when they have almost no income right now. If you don't, they might not be around later.

What are some of your future plans?

JJB: We are still planning to complete the run of Seussical Jr, put The Wizard of Oz on stage right after that, and then start our summer camps. Fingers crossed.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.