This Spotlight focuses on Michael Leoni, a playwright, bi-coastal director, and co-founder of The 11:11 in WeHo whose productions have brilliantly focused attention on the pitfalls of modern society, especially in the entertainment industry and on homeless street kids.
Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background?
Michael Leoni (ML): I have been directing theater and film since high school and have been fortunate to direct professionally in both LA and NYC. One of my very first shows in Los Angeles was an original rock musical that I wrote and directed, called The Playground. It built a cult following and ran successfully at multiple theatres around Los Angeles over several years.
Then, I adapted a short film I had written and directed into the stage play, Elevator. It ran for 11 months starting at The Hudson Mainstage and then moving to The Coast Theatre in WeHo. Here is the trailer:
(SB): Read my 2017 Broadway World interview with writer/director Michael Leoni and Erica Katzin who was in the cast of “Elevator”to learn more about that incredible play which won 11 Broadway World nominations including "Best New Work" as well as "Critic's Choice" and "Best Bet" from the Los Angeles Times.
(ML): Following that, my business partners and I opened our theatre in West Hollywood, called “The 11:11.” It became the home to my next original show, Famous, which ran for nine months, was developed into a feature film, and is now in post-production. Here is the trailer:
(I’ve lost count of how many times I went back to see “Famous” or the number of people I took with me to experience it. The production remains on my all-time favorites list of shows I have reviewed. If you missed it, here is the link to my 2019 interview with Michael about the cost of fame as faced by those in its spell, which led to the creation of the #MeToo movement.)
(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out it needed to be either postponed or cancelled immediately?
(ML): When we first got the news that all theatre was going to be shut down, we were in the beginning stages of casting for my newest show, The Boulevard. And at the time, The 11:11, was also in full swing with live theatre, comedy and music.
(SB): How was the shutdown communicated with the cast and production teams?
(ML): Luckily, since we had just begun casting, we did not have to communicate any cancellations to actors. However, our staff at the theatre was directly affected and we, like everyone else, had to cancel all theatre bookings as none of us know when live theatre will return. Of course, we’re hopeful that live theatre will return sooner rather than later and are doing as much pre-production that we’re able to do remotely. We will be looking into a larger theatre, as the technical requirements of The Boulevard demand a larger venue. We can’t wait to get started!
(SB): What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?
(ML): In addition to all of the rentals that were booked to run at The 11:11, we're also a film company. So those productions are also on hold until further notice.
(SB): With all those postponements, how are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?
(ML): As a writer/director, I am passionate about using the Arts to create social impact. I feel like it’s one of the few ways that people from all backgrounds can be brought together to create positive change.
I feel really fortunate that one of my films, American Street Kid has just secured distribution. So, we’re able to channel our creativity into building our online marketing campaign.
For our other current feature, #WhenTodayEnds, we did have to cancel our theatrical premiere, which was set for this summer. We'll also be using Zoom for a read-through of my newest script, The Boulevard, and personally, I've been using some of the isolation time to write another script.
I think it’s really important that creativity is kept alive, especially in the hardest of times. I wrote a book for artists called Dare to Be Bad that helps with removing obstacles and allowing the creativity to flow. During this time, we've seen an increase in sales, and I'm grateful that it's been able to help!
(SB): Any other thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the LA Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghost light on and promising to return back to the stage soon?
(ML): We must continue to have faith. Live theatre is vital to our lifeblood as artists. There is nothing that compares to watching performers live and being a part of that collective energy. It’s life-changing and a connection that is hard to put into words, but you know it when you feel it; it’s like nothing else. I have a feeling that some amazing art is going to come out of all of this, and I can’t wait to see it.
(SB): Stay in touch with Michael and his work on Instragam:
The 11:11 experience is what happens when you tap into a creative flow, something beyond conscious thought, serendipity you might call it, that exact moment when everything comes together. For the theater and film production company called the 11:11 Experience, who are led by writer-director Micheal Leoni, it also means connection.
They have created a space - called simply the 11:11 - where they want to bring unlike-minded people together, challenging audiences with socially conscious work aimed to provoke awareness.
The 11:11 is located on Kings Road in West Hollywood and was last known as the Macha Theater. The aluminum warehouse exterior remains basically the same, but the interior is all new. It is intended to be a venue for all of the arts – hosting dance performances, film screenings, pop-up art pieces as well as theater like Famous, an original play by Leoni.
In a very fractured and diverse Los Angeles, they want the 11:11 to be something beyond a rental space or a home for a rep company. "We want artists to feel comfortable here, and create a community or hang out where people can be inspired, and develop new ideas," says Leoni.
Elevator, the play
11:11 didn't anticipate taking over the Macha. Their show Elevator – about seven strangers trapped in an elevator who confront their preconceptions and differences – ran at the Macha in 2010 after premiering during the first Hollywood Fringe Festival. 11:11 loved the Macha, and Famous was set to open there earlier this year. They planned to partner with the operator of the Macha theater and be something of a company in rep. She left the partnership rather abruptly, however, no longer wanting to deal with managing the space. An opportunity suddenly presented itself when the landlord offered the theater to 11:11.
"We came in planning to open a show, and suddenly we're renovating a space and opening a show on the same timeline," says Michelle Kaufer, a producer with the company who handles the logistics of running the 11:11 space. They just wanted to be creative, but all of a sudden, as Kaufer says, they also became general contractors – and may have wondered how that ever happened. But they decided to embrace the moment, and dove headfirst into it, learning along the way.
The 11:11 opened about five months ago. They hosted an opening night with bands, dancers and magicians, an event which briefly drew the ire of neighbors who thought the 11:11 was going to be a club. "After that," says Kaufer, "we introduced ourselves to the neighborhood and as soon as they realized that we were going to be a theater, and not a night club, they became much more supportive."
The 11:11 cafe/lobby is done up in what they call a retro-Laurel Canyon vibe, it's walls covered with film posters and album covers they found at thrift shops. The interior has a far more luxurious feel than that of it's predecessor, which had seen better days (originally opening in 1973 as The Globe Playhouse, a warehouse theater modeled on the Shakespearian-era Globe Theatre in London--you can still see the Tudor style windows and framework peeking through the remodeling.) Even more impressive is the technical firepower on the stage, featuring state of the art sound and theatrical lighting.
The Playground, the play
The five core members of the 11:11 Experience have worked together since The Playground, another original play by Leoni inspired by the true stories of homeless kids. Together they found a collective passion. They seldom if ever work outside the company, and juggling multiple projects is a habit for them. It's a little bit of magic and a little bit of crazy as Producer Michelle Kaufer says – a unique energy that has attracted people who mesh well within the group.
Erica Katzin, Creative Development Executive, says meeting the 11:11 Experience was very inspiring – they were doing, she says, meaningful work that was stylistic, edgy and different. She works closely with Leoni, researching and acting as a sounding board for his scripts. "I'd rather continue with this than keep farming out and finding out about whatever stupid meaningless stuff, which is great and it's still work, but why would I stop doing something that I find so meaningful and engaging and so connective through the company, but also from the people you meet?" she says.
Leoni writes and directs all of their material. He is certainly busy – writing another play about hazing called Frat Boy, as well as finishing a treatment for a musical. He's also written two feature film scripts, completed the show bible and first episode of a television show--and "he'll probably go home and paint his room a different color," says Christine Dickson, who runs the lobby's cafe/bar and created the look of the new space with Leoni. All of this work seems animated not only by a desire to do socially conscious work, but to resist overthinking and hesitation (Leoni also wrote Dare to be Bad, a pocket book about creative freedom similar to Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon.)
Famous is my first exposure to their work. It is about a taboo topic – the sexual exploitation of young actors by older, more powerful men in Hollywood (although the play also portrays sexual assault inflicted on an underage actress.) Leoni at one point dropped the project because friends warned him that it could get him blacklisted. It takes place in 1994 during a party thrown by an actor named Jason Mast (Christopher Dietrick), who has just been nominated for an Oscar.
The play was originally conceived as a screenplay, and that's easy to see in the construction of the scenes and the way we jump from character to character and room to room. The action is played simultaneously on a video screen that Mast watches as the characters slowly spiral toward a dark conclusion that leaves no one unharmed.
Famous is about the abuse of power in Hollywood, but as the play progresses, it delves into themes that everyone--and not just industry insiders-- can understand. Katzin believes Famous is "...ultimately about dealing with your past, dealing with yourself and with whatever those boundaries to gain success you must cross that are sometimes questionable."
We see plenty of disturbing scenes during the play, but it's never gratuitous. The full technical prowess of the 11:11 is on display here – strobe lights to simulate slow motion, actors moving backwards as though stepping back in time, brilliant lighting design, the stunning multi-level set that looks like a cutaway of a Hollywood Hills home - although this abundance of technique sometimes overwhelms the material, muting the play's emotional impact.
The piece, however, cannot be faulted for a lack of ambition, and audiences have reacted strongly to its depiction of abuse. Leoni said they have seen people walk out before intermission, not necessarily because they disliked the show, but because the material reminded them of their own experiences, things they hadn't talked about with anyone.
"When we were putting it up, we didn't realize how it was going to affect audiences." says Leoni. "We had people leaving during intermission, sometimes four or five a night, and we thought the show might not be working." But Leoni found that many of those early exits came back. "What's beautiful is what they tell us." he says. "I've had people come up to me and say, 'I'm back, I left during intermission, because I was triggered and needed to process, and now I've come right back to see it.'"
The tagline for the play is "before we knew," but we have not come so far from 1994 as we might like to think, the revelations of the #metoo movement notwithstanding. "An actor came up to me, and he said the same thing that happened to this character happened to him, so it is still happening," says Leoni. He was shocked when a director he met at a recent party told him, "C'mon what director hasn't taken out their dick and made an actor jerk them off, c'mon?" Leoni was most struck by how cavalierly he said it, like it was just routine business, and not a big deal at all.
Famous also has triggered something of a reckoning for anyone in the industry who saw such abuse and did nothing to stop it. "People have come to the show, whether they are producers or people that we talk to afterward, and we can feel the guilt that they have. We've even had male directors and producers approach us and say I'm part of the problem, I didn't molest people, but I put them into that situation, and they're starting to say I've got to change," says Leoni.
The long overdue conversation about the abuse of women has only begun, but in the case of male victims, there has been little discussion yet, only the same unsubstantiated rumors about certain actors and producers that have been circulating for years. There has not yet been that one floodgate moment when someone speaks up, enabling countless others to step forward (the Kevin Spacey revelations may have brought some of this problem to light, but hardly all of it.) Famous wants to jumpstart that conversation.
Ideally Leoni would like to see actors and others who have experienced this type of abuse step forward and talk about their experiences – a chance not only for them to get this story out of their system, but perhaps change the industry before the same thing happens to someone else.
Leoni believes male victims have been afraid to speak out because of the male ego, and the way men are taught to handle themselves. Men are supposed to be strong, and if they were attacked it is seen as an indication of their own weakness – not entirely dissimilar from when women are ridiculously blamed for being raped. The cast worked intensely on this idea of male ego and the shame that comes with acknowledging you have been sexually assaulted. No one wants to say anything--and as Kaufer points out, this is the ultimate abuse of power - knowing that you can do whatever you want because your victim will not say anything.
Dickson cried when she first saw Famous during previews. It struck her in a way she wasn't expecting (she sounds like she is only half-joking when she says it is the most she cried since Trump's election.) She felt it tapped into the collective unconscious of the victims. "I was sobbing in a way where I don't even know where it came from, but I think as a women too you've been in so many situations where you've had to decide – when you've been stuck in a predatory situation – how to handle it," she says.
"I feel like there's been a process over the past decades of how the police and how you deal with a woman who has been sexually assaulted, but there's really been no talk about how you deal with a man whose been sexually assaulted," says Dickson.
A male victim might be younger and stronger than their attacker, and more than capable of defeating them in a fight, but this shame and psychological intimidation stops them from resisting, or even talking about what happened--because their assailant has fame and power on their side. This is what power, and desire for fame, can do. The repercussions of stopping the attack scared them into inaction.
You may find yourself asking how one play in a small theater is going to make much of a difference. Maybe it won't change a thing, but the collaborative nature of the work, and the process of developing a story, is at least as important as any impact it might have. And if your work reaches even one person, maybe has them reconsider their point of view or feel empathy for another human being, then hasn't it been worth all the long hours needed to bring that work to life?
"I think art has the capacity to change the world, I really do," says Kaufer. "You can't change the world in one fell swoop, it's one morsel at a time, one person at a time. It's the same thing: change is progressive." She is fueled by having a theater or film experience where you feel an impact, and can have an intense discussion about it afterward. "It's ultimately about facilitating the vision and connecting people to it because there's something fulfilling for me when someone walks out of a show and they're crying or they're laughing or they're hugging each other," she says.
That's why there is a joy to be found within the company--not always, as Katzin says, evident on the surface because catharsis isn't joyful. "There's an enjoyment that comes from all the work we do, from being on set encouraging collaboration--there is a joy in the process," she says.
"The bigger message of the show – yes, it's about abuse and sexual harassment and your inner child and fighting your demons, but I think what it's really about...is being an artist," says Leoni, his words echoing the monologue that ends Famous. "We're all here to create, and no matter what you do, you're an artist." The 11:11 Experience has found something they believe in – their why as Leoni puts it, and he believes when you find a calling you have to follow it. Within their work and the space they have created, the 11:11 Experience asks at least one important question--What do you want to do? Once you have answered that question, jump in without a second thought and commit everything you have to making it happen.