COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: The Actors Co-op and the Pandemic - An Interview with Heather Chesley


Artistic chairperson of the Actors Co-op, Heather Chesley has stretched her talented artistic limbs through acting, directing, and producing. She has been active at the Actor’s Co-op, as well as the Garry Marshall Theatre, and clearly does not let dust gather around her. Her talents have contributed to the success of a number of productions, including Our Town, Dancing at Lughnasa, The Learned Ladies, and Merrily We Roll Along. Splash Magazine had the good fortune to interview her about the current crisis in live theater.


Cast of "The Learned Ladies" (2012) - Photo by John Dlugolecki

When did the Actors Co-op first begin its long career? Were you involved from the beginning?

Heather Chesley:  I think I was in elementary school when Actors Co-op was founded!  Hard to believe. The company started in 1987 as a group of actors (including our official founder David Schall). Everyone in the company attended First Presbyterian Church, where our theaters are located. They were looking to support each other and their careers in Hollywood. One thing led to another, first with scene classes and then the first play. Then came the first season and the first official theatre opening (now the David Schall Theatre) in 1989. The second theatre, the Crossley, opened in 1995; and now we are in our twenty-eighth season! I joined Actors Co-op around its twelfth season; that was in 2004. This is my sixteenth season! It is crazy to think about how time flies.

Leslie Spencer, Brent Schindele, and Matt Bauer in "Merrily We Roll Along" (2010) - Photo by Gregory Bell

How about some history of your cheaters. How about a brief timeline of changes as they occurred. 

HC:  I joined the company in 2004 and was elected to the Board in 2005. In 2008, I started producing shows for Actors Co-op, and I became artistic chairperson in 2010 - which is what I do today. I took a little break due to my mom’s illness from 2013 to 2014. Otherwise, I’ve been here faithfully.

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

HC:  We officially closed March 13 because of the Mayor's suggestions. Lee Blessings' A Body of Water was in its final weekend, and Marvin's Room was planning to open March 20. A Man of No Importance had just finishing casting.

Cast of "Dancing at Lughnasa" (2016) - Photo by Lindsay Schnebly

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

HC:  Here's the thing. We are lucky. Our relationship with First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood means we can put our shows on hold but open our doors the second the church does. We are in a position to wait alongside our country; and we are in a position to reach out to our community, our membership, our guest artists and our Theatre Guild. We have members who are at risk, some members with families, and some who are at the frontlines in our hospitals. Many folks are out of work. We are working hard to help where we can.

Cast of "Miracle on 34th Street" (2019) - Photo by Matthew Gilmore

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? 

HC:  At the moment, nothing is streaming. But we are hard at work. Our Executive Committee, public relations, and artistic and production teams are meeting virtually.  We are looking at the shape of the year. There are so many unknowns. We are patiently waiting and looking to ways we can be ready when our city says it’s time to return to the boards.

Joseph Barone and Eva Abramian in "Anna Karenina" (2019) - Photo by Larry Sandez

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?

HC:  The community has gone through so much in the last few years with union changes and changes in tax law. But it is a resilient community. There will always be a need for art- and, more importantly, a desire for art. Great art, often comes from moments like this.

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

HC:  For the moment, I ask that you stay home, wash your hands, and love each other. Get yourselves ready to come back to your lives; and, when you are ready, we'll be here waiting for you at eight o'clock curtain.

What are some of your future plans?

HC:  For the company?  I think for Actors Co-op we look forward to entertaining and provoking thought. We look forward to working on new plays and re-visiting the classics. To crying through dramas like this very real life drama. Eventually to laughing again with our audience. Ultimately we want to provide and share in hope. For me? My future plan? Like the company, I plan to continue on in any way the world and theater allows me.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: After the Pandemic - Reflections by Theatre 40's David Hunt Stafford


Active for over 45 years as an actor and theater producer, David Hunt Stafford currently serves as the artistic and managing director of Theatre 40, a post he has held since 2000. He serves as producer on all of the productions and has also performed in over 80 plays at Theatre 40 productions, including Arms and the Man, Our Town, and Screwball Comedy. Television and film credits are numerous and include M*A*S*H, Lou Grant, and The Waltons. Theatre 40 works hand-in-glove with the Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD) and presents its productions at the Reuben Cordova Theater in Beverly Hills High School. He is also responsible for producing the long-running and critically acclaimed The Manor – Murder and Madness at Greystone, which has played inside Greystone mansion in Beverly Hills for 18 years. David took time from his busy schedule to interview in April 2020.


When did your theater first begin its long career? What led to its creation? What's the mission statement? Were you involved from the beginning?

David Hunt Stafford:  Theatre 40 was founded in 1964 by a group of actors who got together at the home of Susan French in Santa Monica Canyon. They assembled to read Shakespeare. Susan French, John Houlton, Jonathan McMurty, Robert Cornthwaite, James Boles, and a few others went on to incorporate Theatre 40, filed for a 501(c)(3) status, and formally organized the company. At that time, Theatre 40 did not have a “home.” That happened about 10 years later when the deputy superintendent of the Beverly Hills Unified School District, Dr. Reuben Cordova, became familiar with the theater group and brought Theatre 40 onto the campus, creating a permanent home for us. I joined Theatre 40 in 1989 as an actor. Around 2000, I stepped in to handle a misunderstanding with the Beverly Hills Board of Education, settled the dispute with the assistance of fellow board member Gloria Stroock, and was voted managing director.

The contract that was created between the BHUSD and Theatre 40 is honored to this day. Theatre 40 would be given the “room” - which was originally a storage room for custodial supplies - in exchange for an Adult Education class for senior citizens in the community which members of Theatre 40 would teach on Monday night. This program is called the Adult Education Monday Night Theatre Appreciation Class. Again, the Monday night theatre appreciation class is still ongoing to this day after approximately 45 years. Doing the math, that adds up to over 1,150 plays readings that we have done over the years for the adult students who enroll in the class. The founding fathers sought the help of donors to build the theatre inside the “room.” Ana Bing Arnold stepped up and contributed to the cost of the design and building of Theatre 40. Ming Cho Lee did the design for the theater.

Over the years the Beverly Hills High School has rarely used the theater. When they do, it is with our blessing and full cooperation. Our relationship with the BHUSD and the high school administration has been maintained and is always positive. The members of the Board of Education, the members of the BHHS administration, the superintendent of the BHUSD, and the principal of the high school have changed over the years – and continues to change. Nonetheless, we maintain a positive, flexible, and cooperative relationship with whoever is in charge. The City of Beverly Hills, the City Council members and City staff have always, over the years, been very supportive of Theatre 40, especially in recent years. The City Council have always been strong supporters of our programs and productions and an enormous advocate of our organization. We are always grateful for their support. It has worked well for us.

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

DHS:  We closed the theater after the first weekend of the fifth production in our 54th season, the world premiere of the award-winning new play Taming the Lion by Jack Rushen. The play had already received several positive reviews praising the acting, story, and the design. It was scheduled for four more weekends.

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

DHS: We are closed - that is the impact. No show - no audience - not actors - no box office - no revenue coming in. The impact is dramatic, and we need to get going again as do all the small theaters and everyone else in the world - but not at the risk of contamination to ourselves and others or illness to anyone.

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?

DHS: We are not streaming. We are having virtual meetings and virtual rehearsals, and we are planning on re-opening Taming the Lion as well as our final show of the season. Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help by Katie Forgette was scheduled to open May 15 and it still may - but that is only a possibility at this point. It may be delayed longer, depending how things are in the world. When the world is given the "green light" to resume, we will hit the ground running. We will be ready. We just don’t know when that will be quite yet. Yes, we are doing fund raising; and we need funds and resources very badly.

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?

DHS:  When the world gets going again and the economy returns, I think that there will be a healthy appetite for people to get out and enjoy what the theater community in Los Angeles has to offer. There are a lot of very high quality theater productions going on in Los Angeles. Many very high quality theater groups producing great shows. Theatre 40 is proud to be considered among those theater companies that has interesting, compelling, and extremely high quality productions available to the public and to the community we serve. We are proud of our choices, our staff, our board, and our company of actors.

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

DHS: We need fund raising, more season subscribers, and younger audiences. From the theater public, we need more charitable contributions, donations, more corporate sponsorships, more financial support from the private sector, and grant monies to support our theater. We also want more season ticket holders, more subscribers, and more subscriptions.

What are some of your future plans?

DHS: We want to continue as soon as possible - and continue with energy, high quality, positivity, and excellence - with commitment to our audience and to our company. We want to grow as much as we can so that we reach more people – the theater lovers of Los Angeles - with what we have to offer. Our plans include growing our base of season subscribers and our resources so that the future is secure for our Theatre 40 audiences and for our company of Theatre 40 actors, designers and technicians. We want this most important art form to thrive and bring entertainment and intellectual stimulation to those who attend.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Ronnie Marmo on the Move - A Coast-to-Coast Artist


Originally from the East Coast, actor / producer / director / writer / chief bottle washer Ronnie Marmo has managed to call both the East and West coast home during his life-long career. Perhaps best known for his stellar performance in I'm Not a Comedian... I'm Lenny Bruce, which he also penned – directed, by the way, by the talented Joe Mantegna - or his three year / 150 episode run on General Hospital just a few years ago, Ronnie traveled from Los Angeles to New York to Chicago to entertain audiences far and wide. With critically acclaimed performances in dozens of plays, including Bill W. and Dr. Bob and Tony ‘N Tina’s Wedding, Ronnie co-founded Theatre 68 Los Angeles 19 years ago. The New York Chapter opened nine years ago now, making Theatre 68 a bi-coastal home for many artists. Despite his perpetual-motion-machine style, Ronnie took time out to interview during the COVID-19 “holiday” from live theater.


Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce - Photo by Doren Sorell

How is the COVID-19 ban on live theater affecting you and Theatre 68?

Ronnie Marmo:  We tried to keep the Lenny Bruce show open in Chicago as long as we could. We got as far as Sunday, March 15 before we ultimately postponed the show and went dark for the time being. For our last four performances, we deliberately sold only a quarter of the 180 seats in the theater to allow for social distancing; and we sanitized everything that people might touch. In 25 years, I’ve never missed a performance. Now we don’t have a choice, but this virus is scary and it’s important to respect the people who know more than us about COVID-19 safety.

The LA and NY Chapters of Theatre 68 are currently dark for productions; however, the community is sticking together with our Monday Night Actors Gym on both coasts. It's a hard time right now because many of us don’t know much about this virus. I’m concerned for theaters both small and large around the world because, generally speaking, theater is not a very lucrative business; and many of us survive month to month. After all, we don’t get into the theater business to get rich. We do it because we can’t help ourselves; we love it. It’s a sickness of sorts (laughing). My hope is that people will continue to support the arts. For example, if you currently have tickets for a show or event, it would be wonderful if people can move those tickets to a performance down the road as opposed to asking for a refund - but ONLY if they could afford to do so.

Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce - Photo by Doren Sorell 2

Tell us about your plans for the future. Will you continue with I'm Not a Comedian...I'm Lenny Bruce? Do you have any new shows planned?

RM:  First and foremost, we plan on bringing the Lenny Bruce show back to Chicago just as soon as it is safe to do so. Also, we plan on having a few pop-up performances here in Los Angeles. We have just signed with Columbia Artists Theatrical, and they are working on a national tour. We have already had an offer for early 2021 in Tampa, Florida; and many other venues have inquired. But I assume that, with the virus, things may be delayed a bit. We will see.

Let me tell you a bit more about Theatre 68 and our productions. We have great leadership on both Coasts, and we’ve been in constant meetings making plans and finding ways to keep the company inspired during this very tough time.

I plan to keep moving forward in hopes that all will be well soon enough / Combined on both coasts, we have 90 actors who take part in our NOW virtual Monday Night Actor’s Gym. I’m constantly trying to help keep everyone engaged. We’re working really hard with lots of writing assignments, monologue jams, anything we can do virtually to continue to grow as artists. We’re constantly producing on both coasts. Right now, we’re working on Stupid Fucking Bird by Aaron Posner. It’s a great play, a really cool play. It’s sort of a contemporary version of Anton Chekhov’s, Seagull. We plan to open in June in Los Angeles. We’re having virtual auditions next week, and we plan to move forward as if it will happen, even if maybe we have to postpone it. In NY, we are in the middle of developing seven original one-act plays written by NY company members. We’re going into virtual auditions for that as well in the coming weeks.

Monday night at Theatre 68's virtual gym - Photo by Ronnie Marmo

Any final thoughts on live theater's survival during a pandemic?

RM:  Our survival depends on how kind the landlords are to theater owners. I’m going to work my pants off to keep this thing going for all involved. I feel that enthusiasm is the key to life, and that certainly has been the case for me. People have asked me how I’ve found success in different areas of show business, and I simply tell them - I do my best to finish what I start.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Seeing the Funny Side of Life - An Interview with Buzzworks' Courtney Fortner


Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Courtney Fortner is a performer, writer, producer, director, and voice coach. She is a producer and board member for Buzzworks, a non-profit theater company. She has directed over a dozen children’s productions and teaches musical theater in Los Angeles. She has performed improv at the Vittum Theater Chicago, Comedy Sportz Theater Chicago, and Theater for the New City, New York. She has been nominated by the Television Academy Foundation for her work writing sketch comedy and currently takes classes at The Groundlings. She has also worked in casting at CBS in New York City. Courtney graciously took time from her busy schedule to interview in April 2020.


Rich Hutchman and Davey Johnson in "The Exit Interview" - Photo by Craig Anton

When did Buzzworks Theatre Company begin? What led to its creation? What is the mission of Buzzworks? Were you involved from the beginning? When did you become producer/board member for Buzzworks?

Courtney Fortner:  Buzzworks is a non-profit theatre company founded by Andrea Hutchman in 1992. After not getting cast as Juliet in Minneapolis and another play fell through last minute, she decided she needed to take her career into her own hands. She got the rights to Painting Churches by Tina Howe and produced and directed it in Minneapolis. It featured Mo Collins (MadTV, Fear the Walking Dead.)  And thus, Buzzworks was born!

Over the next couple of years, we did summer stock on Mackinac Island, Michigan for the next two summers and then continued in Green Lake Wisconsin. At that time, the company was just Andrea and two partners and eventually only one partner. In 1996, Buzzworks moved to LA; but we continued to produce in the Midwest, as well as in Los Angeles.

The mission has always been to produce shows that are funny – that is to say, funny and dark, funny and sad, funny and poignant. Funny always has to be in there. We want to create “a theatrical buzz" meaning producing new works, fascinating or unusual works, or just hilarious pieces that allow us and our audience to play.

In 2003, Andrea expanded the board.  We have had as many as 12 board members, but we have never been a company that keeps a big roster of non-voting members or requires dues. At present, we have ten board members. I was referred by a previous board member and got involved with the company at the beginning of 2019. I became a board member and took on the task of producing our next play alongside our artistic director, Gregory Kucukarslan. Recent productions included Sex by Mae West and Exit Interview by William Missouri Downs. We’ve received several awards, including Best Comedy Ensemble from LA Weekly for our productions of Bad Seed and Eight Ways to meet your Neighbor. So far, it’s been an exciting ride!

Carla Velentine and Wayne Wilderson in "Sex" - Photo by Rich Hutchman

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

CF: We closed down officially March 16 after LA started regulating the number of people that could gather in a public venue. We were anticipating opening our latest production, It Is Magic by Mickle Maher on April 4.  We were disappointed, of course, but thankful that we were lucky enough to not have opened already or planning to open sooner.

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?

CF: Of course, we are no longer holding rehearsals or meetings in person. We have adapted like many to virtual meetings discussing how to move forward. Buzzworks is anticipating opening our production of It Is Magic as soon as we get government approval on public gatherings and we are able to lock down new dates. We're using this as an opportunity to expand our social media presence and look for new works which we could possibly produce in the future. Currently, we are actively seeking and searching for new playwrights to whom we could commission an entirely new piece – or perhaps workshop one of their not yet produced works.

Samantha Sloyan and Andrea Hutchman in "Munched" - Photo courtesy of Buzzworks Theatre Company

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? What would you like to ask of the theater public?

CF: We believe live theater will be more needed than ever after this pandemic clears. People will be thrilled to just leave their house and gather in that magical energy of live performance. I do worry that certain theaters may have trouble paying rent during these months. Hopefully, we can all hold through until the storm is over.

Supporting the arts is more important now than ever. If you love a theater group, or are able to support in any way, reach out and see what you can do for them. As far as Buzzworks is concerned, we are accepting donations and looking for new playwrights. If you know of a fabulous new play, a great writer, or are one yourself, please contact us through our website Buzzworks.org. We also might be interested in commissioning a play.

What are some of your future plans?

CF:  We are planning on running our 2020 season, but there will be a delay in the opening of our first show. In addition to that, we're hoping to continue growing as a theater company with regular seasons every year and more and more plays we are able to produce.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: The Show Must Go On - An Interview with Echo Theatre Company's Chris Fields


A Los Angeles-based director, teacher, and actor, Chris Fields is currently the artistic director of the award-winning Echo Theater Company, a theater which he co-founded in 1997. Since its beginnings, the Echo Theater Company has presented multiple award-winning productions. Chris has worked in film and television, including stints in Fight Club, Apollo 13, Jurassic Park, NYPD Blue, and ER. From 1996 to 2000, he was founder and artistic director of the Ojai Playwrights Conference. As a director, he won the LADCC for Firemen and the Stage Raw award for Gloria. In 2017, the Company founded the National Young Playwrights in Residence in order to encourage and mentor young writers across the country. Describing Echo Theater Company’s approach to play selection, KCRW noted:

“The Echo Theater Company is on a fierce journey…they’re choosing plays that are consistently challenging, and all have a deep conscious…a rare commodity…the body of work that Echo is building is substantial…if you wanted to pick one small theater to add to your cultural roster – Echo is a consistent favorite.”

Chris took time from his busy schedule to interview in March 2020.


Steven Stroble, Alana Dietze, and Devere Rogers in "Gloria" - Photo by Darrett Sanders

Tell us something about the founding of the echo theatre company. What was the impetus for it to begin? What kind of programs does Echo offer? 

Chris Fields:  A half dozen of us founded Echo in 1996. The group of us went to the Eugene O’Neil National Playwrights Conference every year in the summer. One of the things we learned in the workshops was that the only way to develop a play is by working with the writer. Process, not product, is the key. We were all actors and transplants to LA, so we thought we would start a company that emphasized having a relationship with the writer.

One outgrowth of that was that award-winner Bekah Brunstetter wrote The Cake in our Lab. We told her to take her time with the play. We were able to do that because we have a relationship with her. Another writer we have a relationship with is Kate Robin, a writer for Six Feet Under on TV. She wrote Anon, and we put 22 women on stage in that one. By developing and maintaining a close relationship with writers, we’re able to develop really powerful stories.

Megan Ketch and Jackie Chung in "Cry It Out" - Photo by Darrett Sanders

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

CF: We were planning to open Chiara Atik’s Poor Clare on March 14, and we had previews on March 11 and March 12. The play was very well received. Then the Mayor shut down all the theaters, so we never really had an opening night.

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

CF: Poor Clare was a world premiere production, and we put all our money into the show. When it didn't open, it was scary. We took a financial hit and immediately launched a fundraising campaign. Our financial model was shaken up quite a bit. Like almost everyone else in theater, it’s been tough going.

Kari Lee Cartwright, Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, and Martica De Cardenas in "Poor Care" - Photo by Darrett Sanders

Are you doing anything right now to keep our live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen? Auditioning? Fundraising? What would you like from the Theater public?

CF: We will have on-line meetings of Echo National Young Playwrights in Residence. We pair a novice with a professional artist mentor. We’ve always done that on Skype because the writers are chosen from all over the country. We also have the Echo Young Playwrights, which is LA-based; that too will meet digitally.

We’ve moved everything to digital platforms. That includes our weekly meetings and the Young Playwrights. We’re rehearsing a play right now via Zoom. It’s called Forget Me Not When Far Away by Kira Obolensky. She’s from Minneapolis and wrote the play for the “10,000 Things” Project. She wrote for an inmate population in Minnesota, and her play has 39 women and one male character. Eleven of our Associate Company members are cast, and we even have men playing women. It’s fine by me so long as they don’t “camp” it up; and Kira agreed. I’m not sure when it will open, since everything is up in the air.

Jenny Soo and Teagan Rose in "Dry Land" - Photo by Darrett Sanders

We have a Playwriting Lab headed up by Darcy Fowler, a writer, and Stephanie Ward, a director. We discussed the current situation and decided we can’t just sit around. We’re putting content on our Facebook page. We’ve also already posted a radio play to our Facebook page. We introduced a “Lifetime Pass” in which people pay $500 and have a lifetime pass to everything that Echo does. People are responding well to that. Since we’re a non-profit, it’s tax deductible too. We want the theater public to remain connected and involved.

 

What are some of your future plans?

CF: We want to keep on going. We’re hoping to open Poor Clare in July. We have a season of three plays planned. I hope that everything works out. Right now, I know that this will end at some point; and then we’ll be ready to offer quality productions again. We just keep going with love for our work and our community.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



COVID-19 Theater Series: Deaf West Theatre Broadens our Horizons - An Interview with David J. Kurs


Having grown up in a deaf family in Riverside, California, it was no surprise that David J. Kurs became interested in theater performed in American Sign Language (ASL) early on. His passion for the power of the arts was realized when in 2009 he joined the Deaf West Theatre (DWT), founded in 1991 by Ed Waterstreet. Upon Waterstreet’s retirement in 2012, he became the second artistic director in the history of the company. Prior to becoming artistic director, Kurs wrote and produced Aesop Who?, a multimedia show for young audiences, and served as associate producer and ASL master for Deaf West’s productions of Children of a Lesser God (2009), My Sister in this House (2010), and The Adventures of Pinocchio (2011). To quote Kurs: “Deaf West has had a great impact on me in my artistic development, and I can only hope to spread this passion on to others and to create opportunities for them so that we all can achieve a shared goal of artistic growth.” In 2020, he was named “Deaf Person of the Month” by DeafPeople.com. David took time from his busy schedule to interview in May 2020.


Daniel Durant and Natasha Ofili in "Orphee" - Photo by Brandon Simmoneau

When and how did Deaf West Theatre first form? Were you there from the beginning? What are some of the most popular shows you presented? Have you received any rewards? 

David J. Kurs:  Deaf West Theatre (DWT) was founded in Los Angeles in 1991 by deaf actors. Our theater engages artists and audiences in unparalleled theater experiences inspired by deaf culture and the expressive power of sign language. We weave American Sign Language (ASL) with spoken English to create a seamless ballet of movement and voice. Committed to innovation, collaboration, and training, DWT is the artistic bridge between the deaf and hearing worlds.

Recent and past productions include Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, The Solid Life of Sugar Water by Jack Thorne, and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a co-production with the Pasadena Playhouse. In co-productions with the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, we also presented Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo. The Deaf West production of Spring Awakening transferred from a small 99-seat theater to the Wallis and then to Broadway, where we received three Tony Award nominations in 2016. American Buffalo was named the Los Angeles Times “Critic’s Choice.” In a co-production with the Fountain Theatre, we also presented Cyrano, which won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for outstanding production. Big River won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and Backstage Garland Awards for best musical in its Los Angeles premiere, as well as a Tony nomination and four Drama Desk Awards on Broadway. In a co-production with Center Theatre Group, DWT produced Pippin, which was presented at the Mark Taper Forum, and Sleeping Beauty Wakes, produced at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Oliver! won the Ovation Award for best musical, and A Streetcar Named Desire won the Ovation Award for best play. In 2005, the Secretary of Health and Human Services selected DWT to receive the highest recognition award for its “distinguished contributions to improve and enrich the culture lives of deaf and hard of hearing actors and theater patrons.”

I have attended DWT shows since the company’s inception when I was in high school. I began working with the theater in 2009 and succeeded our founding artistic director Ed Waterstreet as artistic director in 2012.

Daniel Durant, Eddie Buck, Troy Kotsur, Ipek D. Mehlum, and Maleni Chaitoo in "Cyrano" - Photo by Ed Krieger

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

DJK:  We opened and closed our new production, Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, on the same night. It was heartbreaking; but, in retrospect, I am thankful that everyone is safe. My heart goes out to the actors, designers, and creatives who labored so mightily and valiantly to bring together an exemplary show that was seen by so few. The memory of coming together with the company in the empty theater after the curtain will remain in my heart for a long time.

How has the COVID-19 shutdown impacted your theater?

DJK:  We had to cancel our run of our play on the first night, as well as a planned tour to Tokyo. We also cancelled a planned fall show. Other than readings and workshops, we don’t have anything on the calendar for another year. But I’m still hoping that we’ll get back onstage before then.

Sandra Mae Frank, Treshelle Edmond, Natacha Roi, Katie Boeck, Lauren Patten, Amelia Hensley, Alexandra Winter, and Ali Stroker in "Spring Awakening" - Photo by Tate Tullier

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Are you streaming? Do you have virtual meetings? Are you planning for your next show when the theater can reopen?

DJK:  We are staying in touch every day, mainly on Zoom. We collaborated with NBC on an episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist that premiered a few weeks ago, and it was extremely gratifying to see the love and praise from the community. We also collaborated with Kelly Clarkson and helped create a community-sourced video for her latest song, “I Dare You.” It’s a blessing to be able to generate work for all of the actors from our community during these times, and we’re not going to stop. We’re also working on several digital projects, including a full production to be streamed.

Nick Apostolina, Natalie Camunas, Sandra Mae Frank, and Tad Cooley in "The Solid Life of Sugar Water" - Photo by Brandon Simmoneau

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?

DJK:  It is my observation that theatergoers in Los Angeles are creatures of habit. Once we emerge from the end of the tunnel, I think that things will return to normal quicker than we expect. I also think a lot about what prospective patrons will need to feel safe in a theater again.

Troy Kotsur, Matthew Ryan Pest, and Paul Raci in "American Buffalo" - Photo by Noel Bass

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

DJK:  I, for one, count my blessings every day. We have a wonderful community of actors and patrons that keeps us going. Our Board has been extremely supportive, and we’ve received some wonderful donations. Theater is an art form that’s been around for ages. While we will continue to fill our need for communal experiences, our industry will continue to evolve. I think our industry will make advances in virtual space. I’m thinking about this time in our industry and how we can step up to the challenges posed by quarantine. But in my mind only one thing is certain: that we must move forward together with grace, strength, and compassion.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



COVID-19 Theater Series: Robey Theatre Company and COVID-19 - Reflections by Ben Guillory


Producing artistic director and co-founder of Robey Theatre Company, Ben Guillory has long graced the entertainment field as director, producer, and actor in film, theater, and television. Born in Louisiana and raised in San Francisco, Ben has been an advocate for human rights, black culture, and black theater for decades. In 1994, Ben and Danny Glover formed Robey Theatre Company, named in honor of Paul Robeson, the late, great actor, activist, and famed operatic singer. Ben took time from his busy schedule to interview in May 2020.


Dwain A. Perry and Ashlee Olivia in "Anna Lucasta" - Photo by Tim Alexander

When did your theater begin and what led to its creation? What is your mission?

Ben Guillory: The Robey Theatre Company was founded in 1994 by myself and Danny Glover in Los Angeles. We recognized a need for a continued and concentrated representation of black culture in the Los Angeles theatre community. Robey’s mission is to develop and produce plays about the global black experience and to reinterpret black classics.

Robey was Paul Robeson’s nickname. Paul‘s artistry and activism were the inspiration for the theater. Danny and I were both attracted to theater because it was a platform to present social consciousness through this art form. In creating this theater, we honor Paul’s life-long commitment to human rights and his unyielding, outspoken stance on the brotherhood of man. As a result of his uncompromising need to be active, he sacrificed much of what he had earned as a successful artist. He would not rest on this seeming success and remain silent. We were passionately interested in creating and contributing by presenting to audiences a point of view through a black consciousness that contained how we felt about many things. We also recognized the need for an institution that would provide artists of color a place to grow, develop, and mature in an atmosphere that understood, was unhurried, and possessed a sensibility that placed these artists first - and not as an afterthought, which was so often done in the past and is still frequently happens even today. We wanted a company where artistic disciplines could be nurtured and cultivated, where raw talent and gifts could be honed. Most importantly, Robey was founded to produce works that speak to the black experience and through that prism.

Jermaine Alexander and Marcus Clark Oliver in "Birdland Blue" - Photo by Ian Foxx

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

BG: We’re not closed. Obviously, production is shut down because of COVID-19; but our developmental work, playwrights’ lab, commissioned plays, Board meetings, and fundraising continue through the internet, zoom, and ongoing meetings and discussions. Given all that has happened in our society in 2020, we are not presenting our program this year. Our 2021 season is being designed for spring and fall productions. We are also planning our summer Paul Robeson Theatre Festival. Those who wish to volunteer, participate, and support Robey need only contact us at (213) 489-7402, and I will gladly speak to them. Right now, we have conversations about our upcoming plans. People can also visit our website to make contributions – something that we need and would really appreciate. We feel boundless gratitude for any support and want to sincerely thank our supporters for their ongoing interest and help. Without that support, we could not continue our work. It is through public grants and individual donors that we find the resources to do this work and fulfill our mission.

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

BG: Obviously, right now we are unable to bring in our audience to see our productions. We are hoping that will change soon, but we realize that we must wait until it is safe to again perform for large groups.

Elizabeth June and Tiffany Coty in "The Magnificant Dunbar Hotel" - Photo by Tomoko Matushita

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Are you streaming? Do you have virtual meetings? Are you planning for your next show when the theater can reopen? Are you auditioning or fundraising?

BG: We haven’t been doing any streaming. We strongly feel that theatre must be a live event. This is the essence of theater. Anything else would not be the same. Of course, we are planning for our 2021 season. But that’s a lot of months away. At the moment, everything is in flux; and we have to wait and see what the future brings.

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?

BG: One has only to look around to see the impact of COVID-19 on all of us. I do not know of any production that is running. Everything is at a standstill. After it is safe – and especially when our audiences feel that it is safe to return – then we can enjoy live theater again. At that point, some companies will be able to continue; but others will not be able to return. I believe that this will happen gradually - with the result that the theater community will diminish somewhat. But then I strongly feel that it will rebound – just like it has always done in the past - because there is no substitute for LIVE theater. Our artists will always have the creative urge to continue - because it is and will always be our nature.

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

BG: We need our audience to understand and continue to recognize our value. When this is all over, we need our audiences to return and continue to support live theater. We also need our artists to weather the storm and continue on their creative path. We know that our patrons will keep supporting us any way they can; and, of course, donations are always welcome.

What are some of your future plans?

BG: As I said before, we’re planning our 2021 season, as well as our Robey Theatre Festival next summer. In the longer term, we will secure a permanent home for the Robey Theatre Company.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



COVID-19 Theater Series: A Repurposed Movie Theater Goes Live - Sierra Madre Playhouse and Christian Lebano


Since 2011, when he first joined Sierra Madre Playhouse (SMP), Christian Lebano has produced, directed, or acted in over 43 shows. As an actor, he has played major roles at theaters across the country, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Utah Shakespeare Festival, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and American Players Theater.

In 2014, he became artistic director of SMP. Under his leadership, it has earned two Ovation Awards out of thirteen nominations for eight different shows and many awards from other critic’s groups. Six years ago, he initiated the Theater for Young Audiences (TYA) series of plays for schools; the program has drawn 14 school districts and over 13,000 students. He started the Off the Page free monthly reading series which has performed 44 readings to date. Three have moved to full productions, and another is slated for 2021. In 2019, he launched the Off the Screen movie series which is screened with and supports each new production. Christian is currently recovering from COVID-19 but nonetheless made time to interview in April 2020.


Brighid Fleming and Christian Lebano in "To Kill a Mockingbird" - Photo by Gina Long

Tell us something about the history of your theater. When did your theater begin its long career? What is your mission?

Christian Lebano:  The building was built in 1910 as a furniture store and was converted to a silent movie theater and limited vaudeville in 1923. It continued as a movie house until it closed in 1970 when the building was chopped up and used for many different purposes. In 1980, a community theater took over the building and became the Sierra Madre Playhouse. The building underwent major renovations to make it look as it does today. In 1996, we started using Equity actors and began professionalizing our offerings. In 2014, we had a major reorganization and mission change. That was the year I became the first artistic director in over 10 years.

Lee Chen and Grace Shen in "The Joy Luck Club" - Photo by Gina Long

The Sierra Madre Playhouse is a nonprofit, award-winning 99-seat theater. With century-old ties to our community; we are dedicated to fostering an appreciation of live performance in people of all ages and backgrounds by illuminating the diversity of the American experience.

I was not involved from the beginning. I first came to SMP as an actor in 2011 and then joined the board in 2012. I became artistic director in 2014.

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

CL:  We closed on March 5. At the time, we had a rental in the house, and they cancelled their remaining performances. We had cancelled our sold-out production of Charlotte’s Web a few weeks earlier because of the added costs incurred due to AB5 – specifically, the redefinition of independent contractors – so we were spared having to shut down a production.

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

CL:  Of course, we have canceled all programming: our film series, our reading series, and all our productions through the end of 2020.

Aaron Shaw and Katie Franqueira in "Dames at Sea" - Photo by Gina Long

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? Fund Raising? 

CL:  We have not yet streamed anything for our audiences, but we are considering the best ways to stay connected to them, including live streaming performances. We have just launched a newsletter and continue to send email updates. We are also on Facebook. Our marquee has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, LA Times, CNN, and MSNBC. Pretty soon we’re going to need an agent!  We have been updating our marquee messages weekly.

We’re having lots of virtual meetings with staff and our board. We’re planning on our grand reopening production for April of next year. We haven’t set a date yet. Given our uncertainty about the opening date, we haven’t yet scheduled auditions.

In terms of fund raising, we haven’t made any direct appeals for support at this time. We feel that - with so many people struggling - it isn’t the right time to ask for money. However, we have received several unsolicited donations from patrons, all with notes telling us how important we are to the community and how much they hope we will survive the shutdown. WE WILL!!

Brad David Reed and Jack Sundmacher in "The Odd Couple" - Photo by Gina Long

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? 

CL:  I imagine that quite a few intimate theaters will be forced to close. I see a contraction of offerings looming. COVID-19 comes on the heels of the disastrous AB5 law which changed the definition of independent contractors and thus added thousands of dollars to the cost of productions. The uncertainty of the future makes it very difficult to plan. It is our opinion that we won’t be allowed to gather until 2021 and that, even then, audiences will be wary until there is a vaccine. That is why we are not planning to produce in 2020 and will only begin later in 2021.

Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James in "The Gin Game" - Photo by Gina Long

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

CL:  We definitely need patience and fortitude. Obviously, we also need donations as we try to keep paying our small staff through these dark times. We love hearing from our patrons. Knowing that they are rooting for us and looking forward to our reopening keeps our spirits strong and makes us determined to come back better than ever.

Most importantly, very soon we will be announcing ways that the audiences can reach out to their State Senators and Assembly persons to help rethink and rewrite AB5. This law has had a great impact on our ability to produce shows at the high level we’ve come to be known for. That’s why we are planning only a four-show season, which is down two shows from our past production schedules.

Susane Lee and Christian Prentice in "4000 Miles" - Photo by Gina Long

What are some of your future plans? 

CL:  We plan a four-show season in 2021 which will include three of the cancelled productions from 2020 – Lauren Yee’s King of the Yees, Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, and a return of our Christmas classic, A Christmas Story. We will be announcing one more show which will open the season. We are ready to announce our Silent Film Festival which will be in the spring. Our reading series, Off the Page, will be back with its monthly offering. We will include a full month of four new plays in June or July, and we’ll launch our Story Telling events (to be named) with two dates. AND we have a few more ideas in the works.

We are also using this time to make many long-needed upgrades to our theater. These changes, large and small, will make our producing capabilities stronger, our actors better supported, and our audiences happier. I am very excited to share them with our patrons when we reopen.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



Spotlight Series: Meet Selah Victor, Former Actors Co-op Theater Production Manager


This Spotlight focuses on Selah Victor, an actor and former Production Manager of Actors Co-op Theater Company in Hollywood whose next production, which is very personal, is due later this year. And while the “wait is on,” Selah is sharing her musical comedy talents by creating clever and very relevant “safe at home” videos on YouTube. So, with a toddler at home as well as a new addition to her family on the way, how is she fueling her creativity at home and sharing it with others?


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

Selah Victor (Selah): I have been a performing in the theater since I was 10 years old and graduated from UC Irvine with a degree in Theater, which also included a year studying and performing in theater all over the UK.

Selah Victor with Floyd Van Buskirk in "Lend Me a Tenor" at the Actors Co-op

After college, I moved to Los Angeles where I continued to perform on the stage all over the city including Actors Co-op, The Garry Marshall Theater, Theater West, Pico Playhouse, and Second City. I became a member of Actors Co-op Theater Company in 2003, serving on the Production Committee and producing several shows before becoming the Production Manager from 2015-2019. I also co-founded an independent theater production company called Standing Room Only to bring shows from concept to creation.

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

Selah Victor in "The World Goes Round"

(Selah): I wasn’t involved in any stage productions personally. But our two Spring shows at Actors Co-op, Marvin’s Room and A Man of No Importance, had to be postponed, and the closing weekend of A Body of Water (March 13-15) had to be cancelled.

(SB): Now that you find yourself at home, how are you keeping the Arts alive by using social media or other online sites?

(Selah): I have been having so much fun keeping the Arts alive while at home by producing sketch comedy with my toddler! And I am pregnant with our second child due later this year. As busy as I have been, it has truly helped to keep my spirits up and I have found it such a thrill to produce things at home, sharpening my skills as a performer, writer, and editor, as well as a Mom! It’s also been so rewarding to post my sketches on social media and YouTube and to get positive feedback from the internet audience.

(SB): My personal favorite, which I saw on Facebook, is your “Stay at Home Rap” which I watched over and over again, laughing myself silly over the cuteness of your son and your relevant lyrics with such important messages.

(Selah) Here are the links to my “quarantine” sketches:

Quarantine With Kids:

Stay at Home Rap:

 

(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?

(Selah): It’s been so wonderful to see how the LA Theatre community has come together throughout all of this. I’ve seen online rehearsals, performances, play readings, and more, all of which have helped artists to keep their spark alive to keep creating. I do think we need to support our small theaters to help them keep the lights on through this difficult financial time, and so many people have been going the extra mile to make sure these theaters can stay open. 

Let’s stay in touch through my website, my instagram and my twitter accounts.


This article first appeared on Broadway World.



COVID-19 Theater Series: Rogue Machine's Journey Beyond Adversity - An Interview with John Perrin Flynn


Leading one of L.A.’s most prestigious theatre companies for twelve years, John Perrin Flynn has nurtured Rogue Machine from the seed of an idea into a group of over 300 artists with an impressive array of accolades and awards. Most recently, he helmed two epic productions, the American premiere of Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer and the west coast premiere of Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London. John received the LA Weekly “Career Achievement Award,” just one of over one hundred awards during his tenure with the company. He was the executive producer and director of Lifetime’s award-winning series Strong Medicine and has produced two other series and 14 television movies or miniseries, including the Emmy nominated Burden of Proof. John took time from his busy schedule to interview in April 2020.


When did Rogue Machine First Begin? Were you involved from the start? Who/what/where was it founded?

John Perrin Flynn:  Our inaugural production was in 2008. The prior year, I had happened to read a new play by a young playwright who was looking for a director. The play was called Lost and Found and the playwright was John Pollono. As soon as I read it, I knew that I had to direct it. We ran it at the Lounge Theatre. Later that year, I directed the West Coast premiere of Craig Lucas's Small Tragedy at the Odyssey Theatre. Afterwards, I was invited to pitch plays at a couple of local venues. By then, John Pollono was working on another new play. I had also begun to work with Henry Murray, developing his Tree Fall; and I quickly learned that none of the companies that I was approaching were interested in producing new work.

Cast of "Pocatello" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

I brought together three disparate groups: theater friends I had made during my time as a television producer; theater friends I had made doing the two plays I had recently directed; and theater friends from the time I was artistic director of Theater Exchange in North Hollywood. We all felt that there were already too many theaters in Los Angeles. At the same time, there seemed to be a need for one which would produce new work and the edgier kind of new work which was then coming out of Chicago, New York, and London. In early 2008, the opportunity to share the Theatre/Theater space on Pico Boulevard opened up and we decided to take the leap.

Ron Bottitta and Tucker Smallwood in "The Sunset Limited" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

How about a brief timeline of changes at they occurred?

JPF:  We began running our monthly salon “Rant and Rave,” which has continued to be one of our most popular programs. We converted a classroom at the space into a second smaller stage. Our programming for that stage brought us a great deal of attention. We opened Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited with Tucker Smallwood and Ron Bottitta. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz designed the small one-room urban apartment set that worked brilliantly. The show became an LA Times Critics’ Choice and ran for five months. We modified that set and opened John Pollono’s third play as a late-night show. It was Small Engine Repair, which ran for six months until we had to move it to open Joel Drake Johnson's Four Places, for which we received our first Ovation Award for Best Production.

Small Engine Repair swept the Los Angeles Award season, winning best production and many other awards. Our fifth season brought us the long-running hit Dirty Filthy Love Story by Rob Mersola and our first collaborations with playwrights Samuel Hunter and Enda Walsh. The sixth season brought us Pollono’s Lost Girls and Kemp Powers’ One Night in Miami, which became our largest box office hit ever. It ended up having multiple productions around the world, including at the Donmar Warehouse in England. We closed that season with Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, which won us our second Ovation award for best production. The eighth season was an abbreviated season because rent increases forced us out - but not before we did our second Sam Hunter play, A Permanent Image. We moved to The Met Theatre in our ninth season and opened with a strong season of multi-award nominated productions, including Hunter’s Pocatello, and Greg Keller’s Honky and Dutch Masters.

Shari Gardner Desean, Kevin Terry, and Jelani Blunt in "Les Blancs" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

Our tenth season featured the first ever professional production of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs in Los Angeles, as well as a collaboration with the Getty Villa of a modern-day refugee version of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women.

We were forced to move once again during our twelfth season, but not before we produced the American premiere of Dionna Michelle Daniel’s American Saga: Gunshot Medley Part I. We moved to the Electric Lodge in Venice and in the fall, where we opened Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer and Joe Gifford's Finks. We closed our latest season with the world premiere productions of Disposable Necessities by Neil McGowan (an LA Times Critics’ Choice) and Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London.

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

JPF:  We were fortunate that we had closed the twelfth season in early March. At that time, we weren’t sure if we would open again until July. Now we have no idea when theaters will be allowed to reopen and we don’t know what the final damage to the economy will be. Fundraising may be more difficult. We understand our existence is imperiled; but all of us, Rogue Machine’s Board and staff, are determined to survive. There is a proverb that “Adversity creates opportunity.” Many theaters are attempting to build an online audience during this period of isolation. We will be offering some programming as well.

Corey Dorris and Josh Zuckerman in "Dutch Masters" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

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

JPF:  We have most of our next season in place. We will open with a world premiere production of Justin Tanner’s Little Theatre, directed by Lisa James and starring Jennie O’Hara. We are also planning to produce the American premiere of Timothy Daly’s Man in the Attic, with French and Vanessa Stewart and Rob Nagle.

I am participating in weekly meetings with LA area artistic directors to see what we can do collectively, now and in the future, when theaters reopen.

John Pollono, Jon Bernthal, Josh Helman, and Michael Redfield in "Small Engine Repair" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

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

JPF:  I suspect that some organizations will not be able to survive this shutdown, particularly if they have leases and rent to pay. I think it might be a long time before things return to a semblance of how they were. Some people that were key to how intimate theatre operated may be forced to take up other careers.

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

JPF:  Funding. I am concerned about our employees. We have applied for the SBA paycheck protection loan, but the funding ran out before we were approved. If more funding is forthcoming, we will be able to offer some employment to the staff, all of whom have been laid off. I want our theater public to stay safe and come out of this healthy, and hungry for the common bonds that live theater encourages.

Joshua Bitton, Burl Moseley, and Jennifer Pollono in "Dirty Filthy Love Story" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

What are some of your future plans?

JPF:  We plan to do some online programming, which includes a joint project called “Common Ground” with The Road Theatre. We may also stream some live readings and something with “Rant and Rave.” In addition to the plays that I mentioned, we are hoping to do another Samuel D. Hunter play; and we are reading a number of new plays during this forced hiatus.


This article first appeared in Splash Worldwide.



Spotlight Series: Meet Christine Joëlle, a Versatile Actor Who Also Runs a Successful Pet Care Service


This Spotlight focuses on Christine Joëlle, an actress I first saw onstage in the summer of 2004 as Madge Owens in Picnic, directed by Gail Bernardi for Kentwood Players at the Westchester Playhouse. Christine and I went on to work together in many productions for the community theatre group, both onstage and on production teams. Since then, I have been fortunate to follow her path across the stages of professional theatre companies all over town, always enjoying her ability to transform herself into a great variety of characters – often during the same show!  And I am also a very happy customer of her pet care service, Movin’ Paws.


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

Christine Joëlle (CJ): I graduated from James Madison University and attended The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Since moving to Los Angeles, I have worked in several theaters all around the city, having performed in over 60 stage productions. I am a proud theatre company member of THE ROAD and THEATRE 40 and union member of AEA, SAG-AFTRA.

Jennifer Laks, Lary Ohlson and Christine Joëlle in "Night Watch" at Theatre 40. Photo by Ed Krieger

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

(CJ): I was currently working on Mistakes Were Made: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda by Jerry Mayer at The Santa Monica Playhouse. We were on its 4th extension before having to postpone until a future date.

Christine Joëlle in “Mistakes Were Made: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda" at the Santa Monica Playhouse. Photo by Evelyn Rudie

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

(CJ): Via emails and phone calls. Ultimately, we came to a mutual decision to close the theatre for our and our patron’s safety.

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

(CJ): Our producers, Evelyn Rudie and Chris DeCarlo will most likely resume running the show. I have no doubt that all the cast members would be delighted to return.

(SB): I really enjoyed Mistakes Were Made: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda and all the characters you played in it. It’s so much fun to attend a show that keeps you laughing - and crying - at the same time from start to finish at such universal human foibles! Here is my review on Broadway World.

What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown? 

Christine Joëlle in the immersive theatre show “Delusion”

(CJ): I was not planning to be in other shows at the moment. But I do have a strong feeling many fall shows and activities may not happen either. For example, the Haunted Play production staff of the immersive theatre show Delusion will most likely not take place this year because it’s the type of show where you must secure and rent a location by May/June in order for production planning to commence.

Caleb Slavens, Alison Blanchard, Christine Joëlle and Christian Pedersen in "Flare Path" at Theatre 40. Photo by Ed Krieger(SB):  How are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(CJ): I’m definitely becoming a master of ZOOM chats! Ha! And am putting my self-tape skills to good use as well.

I am also the owner and CEO of a successful pet care service called Movin’ Paws. So, I’ve been busy keeping it movin’ during these crazy times. If you need any dog/cat care for your furry ones, we’d be delighted to lend a helping paw. Check out our services at MovinPaws.com 

(SB): My dog Cody, bird Ernie, and I all highly recommend Movin’ Paws for their excellent service and personal care of your pets! 

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?

(CJ): Stay Strong and Safe. Without our health, our return to the stage shall take longer. The Arts and our creative community shall never die. We shall need it now more than ever. Keep that creative flow going!

(SB): And in closing to you personally, Christine – windmills!


This article first appeared on Broadway World.



Spotlight Series: Meet Jennifer Chang, a Director, Actor and Educator Who Helped Found Chalk Repertory Theatre


This Spotlight focuses on Jennifer Chang, a director, actor and educator who helped found Chalk Repertory Theatre, a production company which matches plays to site-specific locations around Los Angeles. I first worked with Jennifer on Chalk Rep’s production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan which featured a multicultural cast, performed outdoors throughout the lawns and courtyards at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles where the pre-eminent collection of Oscar Wilde materials in the world is housed.


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

Jennifer Chang (Jennifer): I am a director, actor and educator.  I helped found Chalk Repertory Theatre and am currently a Visiting Professor at Pomona College and will return to UCSD this fall and continue my role as Head of Undergraduate Acting. I staged Chalk Rep’s immersive productions at site-specific locations around Los Angeles because I believe architecture affects human psyche, and I’m curious as to how unconventional spaces can illuminate and unpack story, especially since storytelling provides opportunities for communion and conversation for promoting empathy in order to inspire action and change.

The cast of Chalk Rep's production of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" directed by Jennifer Chang included (from left): Feodor Chin, Scott Keiji Takeda, Allie Jennings, Teri Reeves, Owiso Odera, Amielynn Abellera, Brian Staten, Tess Lina, Peter Wylie, and George Wyhinny
Photo credit: Shari Barrett.

I also believe it is vital to tell stories that challenge mainstream ideas, hold the door to opportunity open to diverse groups of artists, and I hope to dismantle notions of elitism in theater while pursuing rigor and excellence through fun and artful theatricality. I love language – its syncopation, musicality and power. And as a child of immigrants, I am interested in investigating what it means to be an American.

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

(Jennifer): We (the theatre company and I) were in the midst of casting The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan at Antaeus Theatre Company when the shelter-in-place orders and subsequent shutdowns were implemented.  While we held out hoping that we might be able to continue or postpone, since rehearsal was scheduled to begin at the end of April, it became evident that the show was not going to be able to proceed as planned and the cast and production team were informed via Zoom, phone calls and emails.

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

Jennifer Chang in "director mode"

(Jennifer): Its future is currently under discussion by the artistic leadership at Antaeus. The artistic directors and executive director have been absolutely supportive of the show and the vision and want to make sure they are responding to the science and information our state and city leaders are providing and with the longevity of the theatre company in mind. In general, I think only the institutions can really respond to this question, not the individual artists, but even then, it's difficult to predict what will or won't be happening in the next year or so.

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

(Jennifer): I was in early talks for various projects but I have not had follow-up discussions as would be the norm. All institutions seem to be in a wait-and-see stage.

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

(Jennifer): I'm still teaching my classes via Zoom and the on-line academic portal Sakai. Zoom has been the tool used for play readings that I've been and will be a part of in the future. Personally, I've been using this time to do many domestic projects that I enjoy that my schedule usually doesn't allow for, including baking, knitting, crafting, and doing my part to help make masks as I think my current state of watchfulness is best soothed by doing with my hands rather than the usual art-making. I've been asked to be a part of others' projects that utilize smart phones but have not initiated projects myself. I think I'm in a grieving period right now and am taking a break from my own personal theatre projects. I'm happy to be contributing to others' work.

Vietnamese refugees hit the road to see America in "Vietgone", directed by Jennifer Chang for East/West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts

(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?

(Jennifer): We will need to be patient and resilient, and whatever one needs to do to survive the wait is important and good. You can make art or not make anything and that is absolutely alright. If you feel like doing and making something that's awesome, and if you don't feel like doing anything at all, that's awesome too! Theatre has survived multiple pandemics so it will be back as soon as we are able, but the road back will require patience and adaptation and we are all coping in different ways and on different timelines. I think practicing patience for each other will be vital.

We are incredibly lucky to live in an age where content can reach us in our homes, and food and other necessities can be delivered to our doors. My family and I are incredibly privileged to be able to partake in these modern luxuries and to be citizens in a wonderful state and city where science and data are appreciated and heeded. While it is a real challenge to be separated from the various communities we are accustomed to being a part of, I am so very thankful that my family is safe and well and that our quarantine can help our larger community.

Being a theatre practitioner is an incredible training ground for understanding collaboration, care and empathy for others. While our theatre brethren are hard hit in the repercussions of separation and shutdown, we are also uniquely able to understand how our contributions fit in communion with others. A big thank you and virtual hug to everyone!


This article first appeared on Broadway World.



Spotlight Series: Meet Simon Levy, a Director and Producer Who Calls The Fountain Theatre His Home


This Spotlight focuses on Simon Levy who began his directing career in San Francisco, then moved to Los Angeles in 1990 where he has been the Producing Director for the Fountain Theatre since 1993. His directing and producing credits are numerous, with over 100 productions in Los Angeles and San Francisco that have won more than 200 awards. His journey has been blessed with having wonderful mentors along the way, which has enabled the talented director to earn his living doing theatre and earned him great respect from the entire LA Theatre community.


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

Simon Levy (Simon): I started off as a sax player, but when I got bored with some of my music classes at City College of San Francisco, I decided to take an acting class. I immediately became friends with two very talented dynamic actors, Harry Groener and Peter Kors, who are still friends to this day, and because of their encouragement, I fell in love with acting and switched my major. Then it was on to San Francisco State, a national tour doing Hamlet with the rag-tag/caravanning San Francisco Shakespeare Company, a season at the Alley Theatre as an apprentice actor, then back to San Francisco State to finish my degree, where I fell in love with directing.

Simon Levy as Hamlet with the San Francisco Shakespeare Company

My friend, Michael Lynch, a playwright, was having his plays produced at the One Act Theatre Company, and he and I became a playwright/director team which allowed me to really earn my chops as a director. At the same time, I worked at Steve Silver's "Beach Blanket Babylon" for 7 years as everything from House Manager to Stage Manager to General Manager, where I learned to appreciate the business side of theatre.

Eventually I ended up in LA in 1990 and the Fountain Theatre in 1993, where I've been ever since. I've been very fortunate to have wonderful mentors along the way and to earn my living doing theatre.

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

(Simon): I was literally days away from going into rehearsals for Steven Levenson's magnificent play If I Forget at the Fountain with a really wonderful cast and creative team.

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

Stephen Sachs and Simon Levy at The Fountain Theatre

(Simon): It was pretty obvious to Stephen Sachs and me at the beginning of the week of March 9th that our lives were about to change, so we started preparing. We were supposed to have a meeting with the cast and designers of If I Forget with our consultant, Rabbi Daniel Bouskila (who was one of my consultants on The Chosen) to start prepping for the background work on the play. We cancelled that meeting out of a growing concern about being in the same room together. Then on March 12th, we made the decision to suspend the production of Human Interest Story and rehearsals for If I Forget. We really wanted to do both in person, with everyone in the room. But, again, out of a heightened sense of precaution and uncertainty, we decided to communicate with everyone by email. By then it was pretty obvious where the news cycle was going.

Bill Brochtrup and Tim Cummings in "Daniel's Husband", directed by Simon Levy at the Fountain Theatre

(SB): I am so happy I was able to attend the opening weekend of Human Interest Story and have featured Spotlight interviews previously on the show’s two stars: Rob Nagle and Tanya Alexander. I also interviewed Bill Brochtrup, one of the stars from Daniel’s Husband which you directed last year at the Fountain, which was one of my favorite shows last year.  And I treasure the Make America Kind Again badge you gave to some of us in the audience on opening weekend, and I proudly wear mine every day. It’s an important message, especially right now.

Are plans in place to present those two postponed productions at a future date?

Rob Nagle and Tanya Alexander in "Human Interest Story" at the Fountain Theatre.

(Simon): Both productions are currently suspended, but it's our intention to re-open Human Interest Story and go into rehearsal for If I Forget once we get an All Clear from the City and State. We recognize, of course, that re-opening businesses, especially theatre, will be a helter-skelter, slow rolling out and testing, but we will adjust accordingly. Safety first for our artists and patrons, above all else.

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

(Simon): We have the rights to two very exciting projects, Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone and Lucy Kirkwood's The Children. Future announcement about all Fountain Theatre productions will be posted at FountainTheatre.com.

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

(Simon): There's a stunning amount of material online right now, from local companies like Impro Theatre to readings by Skylight Theatre and L.A. Theatre Works and others, from Broadway and London, and world theatre from Berlin to Japan, plus all the Zoom meet-ups. So I'm sampling a lot of that, and I like to listen to Broadway musicals. Ironically, I haven't been able to read any plays yet as I feel like the real-life world drama that's unfolding on TV and my news-feeds supplants everything else right now... though I'm starting to feel the urge to dig into the huge backlog of plays sitting on my desktop.

But as much as I appreciate all the online content available right now, you can't hit the ‘pause’ button when you're attending live theatre. I miss that immediacy... that visceral thrill... and the danger of it. But I recognize that we're about to enter a "new" normal, which will include theatre online, because this pandemic has forced us to think/create in different ways, and we have to be aware of and sensitive to those changes. Creativity is about growth and moving into the future, and artists will always find a way to be creative. Who knows, perhaps there's a future for Mask Theatre! One thing I know for certain: We artists are phoenixes and we will blaze anew!

(SB): As always, Simon, thank you for your insightful words and presence in the LA Theatre community. For more information about Simon Levy and his projects, please visit:

SimonLevy.com
FountainTheatre.com
TheGreatGatsbyPlay.com


This article first appeared on Broadway World.