Photo by Monique A. LeBleu - Director Jessica Lynn Johnson of Soaring Solo, at the Hollywood Fringe Festival Prom Night 2016, Hollywood, California.
I interviewed Director Jessica Lynn Johnson, teacher of Soaring Solo, a how-to series of workshops and individual instruction on creating solo theatrical projects and bringing them to fruition. Jessica is often a one-woman cheering squad for her students, creating unique costumes out of their promotional bar cards and items for Fringe Festival parties.
I first met Johnson at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2016, dressed head to toe in a costume crafted entirely from her students' and other producers' show cards. This creative endeavor she makes special each year for the annually anticipated social event, "Prom Night."
After seeing some of her students' shows at the festival and at the Whitefire Annual Solofest, I caught her in action at a recent Saturday morning workshop with LAFPI: The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative at Whitefire Theatre, on Saturday, July 21, 2018.
I later spoke with Johnson, here, where we talked on the mechanics of her process for creating solo artist theatrical projects, her use of inspiring and provocative word prompts with exploring through two-minute on-the-spot writing, the free workshops she teaches at the Whitefire Theatre, and various festivals and creative outlets that feature solo shows such as Solofest, the Hollywood Fringe Festival, the North Hollywood Fringe Festival, and work with The Los Angeles Women's Playwrights Initiative.
The atmosphere in her home studio is designed to be conducive to creativity, both for herself and for her students, and she talked further on how the process that she teaches can go far beyond that of creating a solo show, but lead a deeper path into self-discovery.
I interviewed Heather Keller of the "Chemo Barbie Show" which has made its journey from the Hollywood Fringe Festival to this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, now currently underway until the end of the month.
In this series of five podcasts, Keller talks on her cancer diagnosis, the ups, downs, and side effects of treatment, "cold-capping" (to keep her hair), healthy living, the enduring and lost relationships (the other side effects of cancer), workshopping at Samuel French and Johnson's Soaring Solo, woman power, the desire and plans to raise a family with her husband Brian McCarthy, and motherhood and planning for Edinburgh Fringe.
After her breast cancer diagnosis on December 30, 2015 and a few months into her treatments, Keller has been documenting her experience through a series of YouTube videos on her channel "Keep Abreast W/ Heather: A Cancer Survivor's Story," with her videos reaching cumulatively over 150,000 views.
Inspired through a few propitious events in her writing and further encouraged by her director Jessica Lynn Johnson through her solo artist workshops, and encouraged by the many comments from those affected by cancer on her YouTube channel, Keller then developed the funny and charming, with only a smattering of bittersweetness, "Chemo Barbie: My Lady Bits' Journey Through Breast Cancer."
Premiering at Studio C in Hollywood for the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival, it was nominated for Best Solo Show and won the Encore Producers' Award. After running its encore, it then went to the Whitefire Theatre's annual Solofest in 2017 where Keller began to think even broader for the future of the show.
Still currently being treated to stay cancer-free, through crowd-funding assistance and with producers Michael Blaha and Nigel Thomas, Keller has brought the "Chemo Barbie Show" to Edinburgh's Gilded Balloon Teviot for a coveted run in annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The Chemo Barbie Show plays at 1:30 p.m. every day from now until Tuesday, August 28, 2018, with the exception of this coming Monday, August 13, 2018, (the only day the show is dark) at the Gilded Balloon Teviot. For those planning to visit Edinburgh this month, visit the Edinburgh Fringe Festival ticketing page for tickets.
Like a hard-core drunk coming off a massive bender, I am still whoozy and wobbly from the three weeks of Fringe. Did I really see 50-odd shows - some odder than others? Did I really turn around that time in Serial Killers to find the couple sitting behind me suddenly naked, as they vaulted past me, approaching the stage? And while we're on the topic, there was a lot of nudity in the Fringe. A lot more than I'd seen onstage in a while. Or did I just imagine it?
(No I didn't. I mean, there was one show, Naked Shorts, in which not only were all the actors naked, but the audience was required to strip down as well. Somehow I missed that one, maybe because I'm not 25 anymore. Also, the featured image is from Apartment 8, an immersive Fringe show I was never able to get a ticket for because the number of audience members was limited to how many could fit in a bathroom and watch a woman taking a bath.)
FRINGE SOLO SHOWS
There were by my count over 100 solo shows in the Fringe, on pretty much every conceivable subject. There was even a show that was a send-up of one person shows - EASY TARGETS - and it was one of the highlights of Fringe.
Here are a few of the shows that I was able to catch up with.
INGERSOLL SPEAKS! by Ernest Kearney
This fascinating show about "America's greatest intellectual" and "greatest foe of religion" is obviously a labor of love for the loveable Ernest Kearney, who also portrays Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll, whose life spanned the latter two-thirds of the 19th century, was prophetic in his support of giving women the right to vote and in advocating for the equal rights of minorities; and Kearney completely captures that sense of the free-thinking philosopher who refuses to bow down to the prejudices and superstitions of his day. But Kearney's poster for his show touts Ingersoll as "The Great Infidel" and "The Great Satan" for his vehement opposition of religious intolerance, and Kearney comes off as too nice a guy to earn such labels. I would love to see more of the thundering orator displayed in his show - and maybe in the show's next incarnation, it will be. In any case, I am grateful for this introduction to an outstanding and influential American who I was unaware of before Kearney's show.
BEHIND THE PULPIT by Noam Friedlander
Noam Friedlander opens her show about her childhood in London by confiding a conversation she had when she was grown up and feeling at loose ends. The man she was speaking with told her that he felt the same way some years ago and was saved from despair by a wise rabbi he went to. "Was his name Rabbi Friedlander?" she asked. The man nodded. "He's dead now," she told him, adding that the man had been her father. Noam's one-person show is an intimate and intriguing look at what it's like to grow up "the child of a saint" who was also a highly imperfect father. Noam's father had a close college friend who was a higher-up in Hugh Hefner's empire and who traveled to London to open up a British Playboy mansion. This resulted in Noam and her family taking some visits to the mansion, which earned her father the nickname of "The Playboy Rabbi" and gave Noam some amusing stories to tell. The only downside is that Noam is still reading her narrative from the page, which makes it less spontaneous and transfixing. Once she's able to master her material's flow and relate more directly to the audience, she will have achieved something witty and wonderful. (She could also use a few more slides to give her stories a visual dimension.)
MAGIC 8-BALL (My Life with Asperger's) by George Steeves
There were two one-man shows in the Fringe on the subject of living with this condition - the other was A PAIN IN MY ASPERGER'S by Jeremy Ebenstein - and I wasn't really planning to see either one. Only because I'm wary of shows that have such specific agendas and that seem basically predictable - I'm attracted to experiences that will surprise me or at least keep me from getting too far ahead of them. But Mr Steeves approached me personally and beseeched me to see his show, which I did - and I'm glad to have done so. Contrary to the image of him in his show's poster - which I've posted above - George Steeves is not a wild and crazy guy. In fact, his show could be sub-subtitled "I wish I was a wild and crazy guy but I have Asperger's." Because Mr Steeves grew up obsessed with becoming a great entertainer, and he has all the attributes - good looks, a pleasant voice, a sharp mind and a good sense of humor - but Asperger's gives his voice and behavior a flat affect which prevents him from investing his performances with the passion and individuality necessary for commercial success. It also prevents him from having the fulfilling love life he envisions, because what we find attractive in people is the way they respond to our cues, and people with Asperger's are locked out of that dialogue - or rather, locked inside themselves by their condition. I never really grasped before how tragic that is, and Mr Steeves's show brought me to tears several times. Not because he's filled with self-pity - he isn't. He's grateful for being so high-functioning. I'm grateful for having a more visceral under-standing of what it means to have his condition. One note - because a writer with Asperger's is still a writer and thus subject to criticism - if you're going to call your show "Magic 8-Ball" then you need to incorporate that 8-ball into your finale rather than simply telling us how you've triumphed over adversity. What does your Magic 8-Ball say?
TOUGH BROWN LEATHER by Tonya Jones
Tonya Jones has a great story to tell - that of being a little eight year old football-playing girl who thought she could take a hit with the best of them, until she was repeatedly raped by an uncle; something that she's spent her life coming to terms with. But having a great story and being a great storyteller are two different things, and Tonya Jones is not there yet. She has moments of greatness, as when she takes her time analyzing the rapes from many angles, and then analyzing her response to it, including the way it changed her behavior. It's unnerving and highly unusual to dwell like that on something so disturbing, and it's very effective. Then she launches into a desperate monologue of self-hatred, and we can feel the terrible ways in which her sense of self was wrenched from her body. But this mixes uneasily with other stories of hers, acerbic stories about lovers who hurt her and jobs that didn't work out. Tonya Jones bears a slight resemblance to Chris Rock, and there are times when her delivery resembles his too, in a good way. At those moments it felt like she was finding her own voice, finding a way to talk about sexual abuse and her father's emotional abuse and the exploitation of women (especially black women) and still make us laugh. Still make us feel okay about laughing. That's the brilliance of Chris Rock, that he can talk about the most serious issues and the most frivolous and have us laugh equally at both, becuse he's in such control of his material. Tonya Jones has not found this yet, she hasn't found that kind of control. She's good now, but someday she may be great.
SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS: Is Asian the Mask We Choose Or The Mask We Are Given? by Paul Yen
I must confess that one of my personal blind spots is superheroes and superhero-related projects. Yes, I watched "Superman" on TV as a kid - the old-fashioned black-and-white show featuring George Reeves. Yes, I had a thing for Lois Lane and had fantasies of flying around with her in my arms. And then I grew up and was more interested in the complexity of human behavior and the difficult development of the Self. So when I encounter a presentation like Paul Yen's - which relies so heavily on superhero ideas and images - then I do my best to get past my own biases and try to experience the material on its own terms. But I don't usually succeed, and I didn't in this case. Mr Yen is handsome and charismatic, smart and articulate, and his subject matter - the ways in which Asians have been ignored, dismissed and short-changed by our society - is an important and interesting one. But as soon as he began expressing it in terms of "How come there aren't Asian Superheroes?" and "What would an Asian Superhero look like?" and "What if Superman, Batman and Spiderman were Asian?" - well, my attention span just went out the window and nothing he said really made any impression on me. I will say that the packed house at the Underground loved it and cheered frequently and hung on his every word. But I couldn't have cared less.
CHEMO BARBIE: My Lady Bits' Journey Through Breast Cancer by Heather Keller
So this was another show that I had no intention of attending - another one of my blind spots is "inspiring stories of triumph," despite how much money they make, because of how they typically follow a tried and true formula - but Heather Keller is a very persuasive person, and she broke down my resistance. And Heather Keller proved to be funny and talented and able to summon up details about her battle with cancer - like the cold-capping routine that she had to do in order to keep her hair from falling out - which made her ordeal very real for the audience. She was able to articulate the shock of dealing with cancer at such a young age (her 20s), while also making it okay for us to laugh and experience the various stages of her "journey." In that way, yes, this is a very important story about how important it is to keep up a positive outlook and get support from your loved ones - in this case, Heather's husband, who was there for her big-time - in order to maximize your chances of suriviving a life-threatening illness. Very inspiring - which, as I've said, is not really my kind of story. Still, I'm very happy for Heather and for her lady bits.
THE GIRL WHO JUMPED OFF THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN by Joanne Hartstone
I have truly saved the best for last. There is actually no other one-person show in the Hollywood Fringe that even deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence - and yes, it is that good. I wish I could embed the entire show on a link for you here, because it's the kind of good the people want to share right away, want their friends and family to see. And also because it's not easy to describe what makes it so special. It's not because the story in and of itself is so different from anything you may have heard before. Rather, it's the way that it reminds you of so many other Hollywood stories, like Sunset Boulevard and A Star Is Born and a thousand others seen late at night on Turner Classic Movies. Also the Nathaniel West novel The Day of the Locust - there was a strong link in tone and content to that, even though I don't think it was intentional. There are several songs in the piece, and Ms. Hartstone has a pleasant voice, but not a particularly memorable one. No, that's not what makes it great. The piece is simply pitch-perfect. That is, it does exactly what it sets out to do - to tell a Hollywood story of a loser who never lost her humanity - and it does so with just the right amount of wit and grace and humility. In a more perfect world, this would run for several months and be as popular as Hamilton - though on a smaller scale and in a lower key. But the pleasures of a beautifully-imagined and realized show like this are hard to describe and even more difficult to market. "A young woman who loves Hollywood is driven to the brink by twists and turns of an unhappy fate" hardly seems calculated to have audiences turning out in droves. But if you watch closely enough, you will see Ms. Hartstone walking a tightrope as dangerous as anything Phillippe Petit ever crossed, and doing so with great ease. Yes, she does that nearly impossible thing, create a new Hollywood myth out of pieces of a forgotten past. I salute you, Joanne Hartstone, for the delicacy and toughness of your creation. I just wish that everyone could get to see it.