Ovation Awards Playwrights Roundtable

On the brink of their big night, I checked in with four of this year’s Ovation Awards nominated playwrights: Malcolm Barrett for Brain Problems with Ammunition Theatre Company; Jami Brandli for Bliss (or Emily Post Is Dead) at Moving Arts; Jonathan Caren for Canyon at Latino Theatre Company in association with IAMA Theatre; and Nate Rufus Edelman for Desert Rats at Latino Theatre Company.

You've been nominated for an Ovation! Major congrats! How do you feel about this exciting moment?

MALCOLM BARRETT: It’s a pretty amazing feeling considering this is my first full-length play, made all the more meaningful by being recognized for a story as personal as this: the journey of a man trying to cope with death via his imagination, based on a buddy of mine, Thomas Mejia who suffered from multiple AVM's. I think it was both therapeutic and cathartic for both of us to go through this process.

JAMI BRANDLI: I feel very blessed, extremely grateful and, of course, honored.

JONATHAN CAREN: Before I even answer that question, I want to acknowledge the many world premieres of plays that are happening in Los Angeles these days. It’s exciting to know that LA is becoming a hub where plays can gestate. I look at Kemp Powers career, starting off at Rogue Machine, and then bringing his play One Night in Miami across the country and then even to the Donmar in London. I think every aspiring playwright in LA should take that in. I’m very happy to be a part of the larger movement here.

NATE RUFUS EDELMAN: Surprised. I caught the majority of the other plays nominated and they’re really good. It’s an honor to be nominated alongside them.

How did your LA production come about? If it was a regional or world premiere, how was that experience of seeing this work put up for the first time?

MALCOLM BARRETT: I first shared a couple of pages of it for my company’s writing workshop, it was my way of coping. After the reading those first couple pages aloud, Bernardo Cubria, who would later become the director, encouraged me to continue writing. It was a tremendous experience to have it up on its feet for the first time. I never actually got to see it as I was always in it and seeing the audience’s reactions as a performer is always surreal, but it was always enjoyable seeing my friends eyes light up from the stage. It wasn’t until we had our understudy performance that I realized that this play had legs, that it wasn’t relying on my particular performance to carry the writing, which can be a fear when trying to create work you’re featured in.

JAMI BRANDLI: Moving Arts' Artistic Director, Darin Anthony, first gave BLISS (or Emily Post is Dead!) a workshop in 2016 and committed to a future production. As luck would have it, two more theaters wanted to produce the play. So, in 2018, BLISS (or Emily Post is Dead!) received a rolling world premiere with Moxie Theater in San Diego, then Promethean Theatre in Chicago and finally with Moving Arts here in Los Angeles. I had a very unique experience in that I got to see three different productions, which ties in nicely with the next question…

JONATHAN CAREN: It was a world premiere. I workshopped the play with IAMA two years prior to this production. I first got to know IAMA when they did my play THE RECOMMENDATION in 2014. They were incredibly generous to me with space and time to develop it with their ensemble, and when the Latino Theater Company got involved, things took on a whole different energy. The collaboration brought disparate audiences together, which was the most exciting part of the experience.

NATE RUFUS EDELMAN: Desert Rats went through years of development from Los Angeles to London. The Latino Theater Company produced it at the right time with the right cast and crew. It has been my favorite experience in the theater.

Tell us a little about your role in the rehearsal process? What did you learn about the work through production?

MALCOLM BARRETT: My role in the rehearsal process was to listen. Serving as playwright and lead actor, you have to pick and choose when and where to wear which hat. We had over a year of rewrites and readings - that’s where I was the playwright. Once we got deep into rehearsal I had to let go of being a playwright so that I could allow the actors to do what they do, myself included. That was a lot me learning when to shut up and get out the way.

JAMI BRANDLI: Although the San Diego and Chicago productions of BLISS (or Emily Post is Dead!) were solid, I realized there were some areas of the play I wanted to revise and Moving Arts was more than game to work with me on my revision. So I took full advantage of the collaborative experience during rehearsals and the dramaturgical notes from Darin Anthony (the director), Chuma Gault (the assistant director) and Cece Tio (the head producer) were, quite simply, invaluable. The cast and creative crew were truly stellar, and their talent and vision helped me to bring my play to the next level. The play is now set for future productions, and I am forever grateful--especially since BLISS has another production this February at Defunkt Theatre in Portland, OR.

JONATHAN CAREN: I loved working with Whitney White. She challenged me to keep pushing each character’s perspective up against each other. Keep tightening the screws. All the actors brought personal antidotes and perspectives that I considered and sometimes even wove into the text. This was a long collaborative process and to me, feels like a tapestry of colliding worlds and viewpoints, that may never find common ground, but buttress up against each other in our sprawling city.

NATE RUFUS EDELMAN: I production manage the plays at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, which is operated by the Latino Theater Company. Desert Rats rehearsed and ran in tandem with my friend Oliver Mayer’s Member Only. It was a lot of work balancing dual roles, but I was able to be very present in the rehearsal room, share thoughts, and rewrite. I also teach and help run a Summer Youth Conservatory at the LATC with Angie Scott, the director of Desert Rats. We were able to hire alumni of that program to work on the play as the stage manager, assistant director, costume designer, and production assistant. It was particularly rewarding to give these bright young adults their first professional gigs. Rehearsals were like a very happy family making a play for ourselves. I’m extra happy people seemed to dig the production.

Though our reputation is growing, not everyone knows how vibrant the theatre-making scene in Los Angeles really is. Please share your perspective on making theatre in Los Angeles.

MALCOLM BARRETT: There’s clearly a lot of talent here as New York and Los Angeles are the a Mecca for young actors but it gets overshadowed by Broadway and by LA’s film and television scene. But as our theatre communities grow so has the city’s reputation for it’s work on the stage.

JAMI BRANDLI: I feel Los Angeles has entered into "a golden age" with theater, especially developing new plays. In addition to Moving Arts, I've had the great fortune to develop my plays with The Inkwell Theater, The Road Theatre Company, Chalk Rep, Antaeus Theatre Company, The Playwrights Union and HUMANITAS as a 2019 PLAY LA Winner. Every organization has their own exciting approach to new play development, which has helped me grow as a playwright and breathe more life into my plays. I've been *very* lucky in that two more of my plays have been produced here in LA because of this development: Through the Eye of a Needle with The Road Theatre Company and Sisters Three with The Inkwell Theater.

JONATHAN CAREN: The biggest problem with LA theater is that it used to be completely overshadowed by the film industry. Now, I think the problem has more to do with geography. There are great shows happening in Venice, but I don’t think I can get to an 8pm curtain on a weeknight from Echo Park. I’d love to see more co-pros and even transfers where a show doesn’t have to move to another city, but to another part of Los Angeles. We’re that damn big.

NATE RUFUS EDELMAN: I’m from Eagle Rock and, while I have spent years away from Los Angeles in Ireland and New York, Los Angeles and its theater community are my home. The diversity and talent of the theater scene in LA is immense. I am lucky to be friends with great artists, designers, and other playwrights who constantly inspire me.

What advice would you give to a young playwright living and creating in Los Angeles?

MALCOLM BARRETT: Write. See plays. Find your community, find people who are smarter than you, and work with them.

JAMI BRANDLI: Go see all types of LA theater! From 99 seat to CTG to The Hollywood Fringe Festival and everything in between. I can't stress this enough. Then, once you're familiar with LA's amazing theater community, introduce yourself to theaters that would be a good match for your work and inquire about development opportunity. If there isn't a development program, perhaps the theater has a writers group or they're looking for volunteers (volunteer if you have the chance!). The important thing is to show up and support first, and then inquire. There are so many new play development opportunities in LA, but you have to be proactive about it.

Goodness, aren't we all so lucky to be a part of this incredible theater community? I know I am, and I'll never take it for granted.

Thanks for much for the interview!

JONATHAN CAREN: I started out by volunteering at The Elephant and Black Dahlia theaters as an usher. I assisted Matt Shakman on a show back when he ran the Black Dahlia and now he runs The Geffen. I’ve worked with sound designer Jeff Gardner multiple times after first meeting him at The Elephant. Just show up because theaters depend on volunteers. They need you. If you want to put in the time and energy, someone will take you up on the task, but be pro-active. Find a way to show that you are dependable and follow through consistently. Don’t just help once. Do it for a year. Then you’ll know what it’s like to be a company member and soon enough you’ll become a part of the community.

NATE RUFUS EDELMAN: Have patience. Be authentic and humble. Explore and engage with the theater community. Write plays you love. Others will too.


Ashton's Audio Interview: Derek Chariton - Billy the Kid on AMC's "The American West" stars in "Desert Rats" at The Los Angles Theatre Center

Estranged brothers Frank and Jesse reunite to plan a kidnapping in a squalid motel room on a hellish day in Barstow. When day turns into night and their hostage is brought out of the trunk, the siblings find their troubles have just begun.*
Enjoy this interview with Derek Chariton also known as Heinrich on "Stargate Origins" and the cast of “Desert Rats” at The Los Angles Theatre Center, running until Jan 20th. You can listen to this interview while commuting, while waiting in line at the grocery store or at an audition, backstage and even front of the stage. For tickets and more info Click here.

*taken from the website


Latino Theater Company's 'Desert Rats' Returns to its Western Home

The Latino Theater Company is bringing back the U.S. Premiere of their noir comedy about life and crime in America's contemporary West to the Los Angeles Theatre Center (L.A.T.C.)

Written by Nate Rufus Edelman, directed by Angie Scott, and starring Derek Chariton, Lila Gavares, and Walt Gray IV, "Desert Rats," puts two brothers, a trunk, and a hostage in a motel in Barstow into the mix and stirs.

This new American play was picked out of 10 American plays featured in a reading series in London, according to Edelman. The “Ovation Recommended” Desert Rats originally world premiered in London in 2016, as part of a summer festival at Las Americas Above.

"The festival was good, but kind of rapid paced. It didn't breathe," said Edelman, who works in development and grant writing at the L.A.T.C. "The production here is now about 20 minutes longer than the London production... I really liked the London production, but I was a lot more involved in this one just because I'm home and was able to be at rehearsals from beginning to end."

The play addresses issues between the social classes, as well as issues between siblings – a subject matter close to home and in growing up for Edelman.

"There's a lot of discussions about class through this kind of kidnapping genre narrative – with the 'kind of' poor and the wealthy – to bring them together to try to find some empathy between the two, which might have been subconsciously about gentrification in North East L.A. But I think it's an interesting story to tell in Los Angeles now."

Edelman, whose brother has yet to see the play, reflected on life before gentrification in the North East L.A. area and on growing up with his twin brother, where he characterizes their relationship as more of a mild inspiration for the brothers' relationship in the play.

"[My brother and I] spent every day on earth together," said Edelman. "We shared a room for 16 years, in a small house and we were had a really dysfunctional brother relationship. And he knows how to get on my nerves, and I know how to get on his. That kind of Cain and Abel myth I think, this is my version of it. The kind of squabbling and power games and knowing how to kind of puppeteer a brother to get a reaction... That's definitely kind of there, the dysfunctional brother relationship. I wouldn't say [the relationship] is close to us, but it is an exaggeration."

Edelman, who is also part of a collective with five other playwrights called The Temblors, also teaches playwriting to under-served students in East Los Angeles as a volunteer in a weekly workshop. He grew up in Eagle Rock, went to grad school at NYU for dramatic writing and to Trinity College in Ireland.

After the deaths of friends around him from both accidents and suicides, and struggling in a New York apartment with roommates while going to school, Edelman felt "weirdly selfish" in "pursuing something like writing at a place like NYU." With the onset of both positive and negative effects of gentrification in North East L.A., returning to Los Angeles for Edelman and his friends after college was a bit of a shock and an influence.

Derek Chariton and Walt Gray IV in the Latino Theatre Company's "Desert Rats" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Photo by Giovanni Solis of bracero.

"I thought about the kind of characters – kind of maybe ne'er do well, working-class types – who don't see any opportunity or don't have opportunity in a lot of ways, and divide that with other sides of things like some of my family, and other people I knew," said Edelman.

"None of my friends live in Eagle Rock anymore. They've all been displaced through rent going up," he continued. "But I feel like a 'towny' when I go back in a way that I don't like. I have weird memories of it. I sometimes feel weirdly afraid, like PTSD, in certain parts of Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Glassell Park, even driving down certain streets, because we avoided them 20 years ago. And now they're nice. It's weird."

According to Edelman, the L.A.T.C. brings over 3,000 students to the program via that RACC in outreach to educational opportunities, which has brought some good feedback.

One student specifically came up to Edelman after a show and said that "Desert Rats" made him want to see another play. And while in the lobby of an unrelated production at ELAC, he overheard, "I saw this show downtown called Desert Rats. It was really good!"

As opposed to some honest feedback one might get from a New Yorker, Edelman said, “You don't really get that in L.A. It's such an unusual peek at real honesty."

Students have been working at the L.A.T.C. in various capacities, such as a Stage Manager, Assistant Director, Costume designer, and production assistants. This has helped create a young network at the theater that has brought younger college age and high school students into shows as well.

Frustrated with the stereotyped life and lifestyle “Hollywood” genre product that has come from some theater, Edelman seeks to bring more realism about Los Angeles life in his works.

"So rarely do we see Los Angeles stories on stage in a way that isn't stereotyped or about Hollywood. I can't think of too many plays – Sam Sheppard did a couple – but it's weirdly been kind of largely ignored, except through the lens of Hollywood, which I think there should be a moratorium."

With the show's director, Angie Scott, Edelman said they have been working together since they were undergraduates and studying abroad at different schools in Ireland. Since then, along with producing by the Latino Theatre Company, they've brought a more fleshed-out version of "Deserts Rats" to Los Angeles.

“We cast actors who we really know, like, and who happen to be perfect for these roles,” said Edelman. "Everything worked in a way it almost always doesn't. It was kind of a labor of love for everybody. All the details in performance and design were really kind of lovingly created by people who wanted to do it. I don't know if I'll ever get that again. And I'm really glad it's coming back so I'll have a little more time with it before it goes away forever."

Desert Rats” returns to the L.A.T.C. in a limited three-week run, from Saturday, January 5, to Sunday, January 20, 2018. The Los Angeles Theatre Center is located at 514 S Spring St. Los Angeles, 90013, and visit their website for more information on tickets and show times.