Enjoy this interview about the "Scotsman Fringe First Award for excellence" & "Broadway Baby Bobby Award for exceptional work" winning play The Interference at Rogue Machine Theatre, which closed Jun 8th. You can listen to this YouTube 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.
Tomorrow I'll pick up my final pay check. It's my “last day of service” at the great University of Southern California, where I've taught in the School of Dramatic Arts for 31 years.
I started as a simple adjunct instructor with a single improv class, and I ended up improvising my way to becoming a full-time “Associate Professor of Theater Practice”. Non- tenured… but still impressive in my parents' eyes, and not anything I could have anticipated or imagined when I graduated college in 1969 with a degree in Frisbee.
That's almost 50 years ago… during which time I grew up, became an adult, became an artist, a modern dancer, a poet, a documentary filmmaker, a director and producer, a story teller, an educator, and most surprisingly… a professional clown. I hustled, hassled, worried, and fought my way to a career in the arts, in Chicago, in New York, and for the last 35 years, in Los Angeles. During that last…. almost half century, I've had my share of successes and disappointments. I've won some awards and been ignored many times. I've had cancer and been lucky enough to survive it, along with many other, near-brushes with death. Fifteen years ago, I got married for the first time to an Indonesian woman 31 years younger than myself (anything magical about the number 31?). And even more recently, I adopted a son at age 68. Me, 68, not the son.
But tomorrow is my “termination date”, after which I will no longer receive a salary, health care, life insurance, or any of the many other benefits I've taken for granted these last many decades. I'm throwing myself out of the academic nest, off the retirement cliff, to see if I have any wings left to fly. To see if I can create a “third act”, you know, the last act of a contemporary play, after which the curtain comes down and the stage goes dark. I wonder how many more years I have left to live, and if I'll have enough money and ingenuity to thrive, to still live with some creativity, risk-taking, comfort, and grace. They didn't teach us about the “third act” in school. And by that, I don't mean the “third act” of a play.
“Life is what happens while you're waiting for your plans to work out.” John Lennon, the iconoclastic Beatle and one of my childhood heroes, supposedly said that, but I'm convinced that he overheard it from a little old lady in Liverpool. In any event, I've certainly found it to be true. Because any plans I ever made… never really materialized. Yet along the way, by saying yes to the opportunities that came my way, by following my gut, my needs, and my instincts, somehow… life has “worked out”. Then again, life has a way of doing that… “working out”…. one way or another. Some times better than others. But almost always in ways you can never have predicted.
I'd like now to take a look back… on my unpredictable life, not via the full blown memoir route, but via the short-order “retirement” version… to make some sense out of it all… to thank some people and some circumstances… to give some context to this so-called “third act”. And to hopefully, do so in a way… that is not all about… myself.
I was born in “New Yawk” in the late, post-WW2, Baby Boom 1940s.
Me and my generation grew up in the Ike Eisenhower, buttoned-down 1950s, until we collectively erupted in the mid 1960s, into sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. The word “erupted” perfectly fits the needs of my childhood- adolescence personality, as I was too self-conscious and too repressed to ever take a dance step, sing a note, or do anything that I didn't think would please my parents and make them proud. That's why I think it's ironic that I first became a modern dancer and a clown, two the most far-fetched and unimaginable careers this straight-laced, well-behaved young man could ever have stumbled into. But as I said, life has a sense of humor, and I had… the need. As apparently did…. my whole generation.
I was supposed to become a New Yawk Jewish, “my son, the doctuh”. Unfortunately, along the way to that expectation, I dropped calculus 3 times in college at the University of Buffalo, and physics twice. Amidst the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll of the late 60s (or at least the drugs and rock ‘n roll; as I was abysmally late to the sex part), I discovered that I didn't want to become a doctor, that was someone else's idea, and that I wanted instead to discover who the hell I was. The drugs helped, expanding my mind and perhaps setting me free; then one bright, icy-clear day in the windy City of Chicago, I climbed an old wooden staircase… into my future. (https://www.culturalweekly.com/finding-new-voice-windy-city/)
I became a modern dancer and I didn't open another book for the next seven years.
I discovered my body, the 95% of me that existed below my head and over-stuffed brain. I discovered movement, freedom, self expression, instinct, improvisation, and… a part of myself that my 22 years of formal education had completely neglected. I discovered… my “self”. And as I said, I think that's what happened to “all of us”, to the youth movement of the era, to the kids who rebelled against conformity, materialism, and convention, who became “hippies”, artists, and part of the “alternative culture”. Bob Dylan and the Beatles led the way – into politics, protest, Eastern religion, peace, love, and the erstwhile “sex, drugs, and rock ‘roll”.
But of course, it was hard to hold onto these values, activities, and ideals as we grew up and aged, long after we helped end the Vietnam War and pass civil rights legislation; long after Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal. Some of us became parents, had to hold down reliable jobs, became “yuppies”. The ideals faded as many of us had to button down ourselves, just like our parents before us, and our children no longer wanted to celebrate and preserve our “hippie” ideals, but instead dismissed them as silly and unrealistic. They wanted instead to become successful business men and women, to become rich and famous, to own start ups, dot coms, and brimming 401(k)s.
But now here's the rub, as I, as we, retire 50 years later. Were they right? Our kids? And their kids? Was I, were we, wrong? Were freedom and transcendence superfluous? I mean, for me, “art” was my god, my way to “transcend” myself. To be bigger than myself. To connect with and touch others. To be part of the whole. I rejected the idea that it was only money, wealth, accumulation, and security that mattered. While now I wonder: are those the very prerequisites, and lessons of, old age, contentment, and retirement?
I certainly didn't think so, or care, as I outgrew my black tights and dancing days, became a crazy clown in my 30s, founded and directed NYC's Resident Clown Troupe, the Cumeezi Bozo Ensemble, ran for Mayor of New York City as clown Gino Cumeezi in 1977 and finished 5th out of 4 candidates.
I held onto my artist identity with all my might. I didn't want to let it go, to compromise it. I was an artist, a clown; I spoke truth to power. I would find a way to make a living… which I did… while the NEA was still generous with grants to small non-profit arts companies. When there was a will, there was always a way. Even if we clowns had to do corporate parties for the likes of Macy's, Cunard, and George Steinbrenner, the owner of the NY Yankees and the Donald Trump of his day, we did it. Happily. We traveled to Holland, Switzerland, and France… as clowns! We were celebrated, feted, and well-paid. At least… well enough.
Then I simply got tired of being the clown king of New Yawk, of running non-profit arts companies, with too many legs and too many mouths to feed. I took a leap out on my own, trying just two legs, as I assaulted the Hollywood TV and film industry by moving from New Yawk to LA in late 1982.
I failed… miserably.
Partially because I wasn't a very good actor…. becoming someone else; I was always better at being myself. Furthermore, I just didn't like the life of an unemployed Hollywood wannabe – actor, writer, director, producer. Pitching myself to agents, taking meetings, doing auditions… I just didn't have the thick skin or stomach for it. It seemed like “the work” was always trying to “get work”. Whereas I was used to “working” as an artist… taking dance classes daily, rehearsing daily, teaching daily, clowning daily. I simply didn't like the beggared life of the aspiring, but mostly unemployed, Hollywood actor… whatever.
Fortunately, I was offered a job to teach that single improv class at USC's School of Theatre in 1986, by newly-appointed Dean Ric Toscan, whose play I had directed with offbeat, enthusiastic, and apparently, improvisational aplomb. And before I knew it, I was out of the Hollywood wannabe business, and into both my long teaching career in academia, and back into my self-motivated, self-producing career as a multi-disciplined artist.
First I directed friends' one person shows, then I did the first one myself in 1988, taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it was “short-listed” for “Best Show of the Fringe”.
Then in 1989 I was diagnosed with Hodgkin 's disease, cancer of the lymphatic system. I was shocked. Dismayed. Scared. “Why me?” Was I going to die at age 42? But… after 6 months of chemo therapy under the good care of Dr. Daniel Lieber, I was pronounced to be in remission, and soon found myself back on the carousel of life. A little wiser and less angry, I hoped, but by 1990 I had begun a documentary film, “The Poet and the Con”, about my relationship with my criminal uncle, Harvey Rosenberg, trying to figure out why I identified more with my outlaw uncle than I did with the middle class, conservative part of my family. How was an artist like a criminal, both living outside the law, by their own rules? Seven years later, the film premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival in Nyon, Switzerland, and then it ran theatrically for four months at three different Laemmle Theatres in LA, due to the support and enthusiasm of Greg Laemmle, the current namesake of the LA art house movie theater “chain”.
Right after my recovery from cancer, I also started producing City-wide arts festivals: the poetry segment for Peter Sellars in the 1990 Los Angeles Festival, then the Santa Monica Festival '91, WORD/LA, an Oral Response to the Rodney King Verdict in 1993, and Solo/LA in 1995 at CBS Radford Studio.
Since then, the new millennium has found me reading my own work regularly at spoken word and poetry events at Beyond Baroque, usually under the aegis of Eve Brandstein's “Poetry in Motion”. I've developed and produced many solo shows of new artists at many of the Hollywood Fringe Festivals that have won “Best of the Fringe” awards. I've traveled the world on several Fulbright grants, and created Word Press blogs of my own: “Trules Rules” and “e-travels with e. trules”, as well as blogged for the Huffington Post and theCultural Weekly. And most recently, I've done a TEDx Talk, and now I seem to be spending most of my creative time working on, and promoting, a new travel podcast, also called “e-travels with e. trules”
For all the years that I've taught at USC (1986 – 2017), both as an adjunct and then as a full time member of the faculty, the job and the institution have supported my life choice of being an artist. I was one of the lucky artist-dinosaurs who got a job at a university, through no effort of my own, teaching something I love, while at the same time, being able to have an income, health care, a retirement account, and maybe best of all… 3 and a half months off every summer, and almost a month off over the winter holidays. I was fortunate enough to work with Gordon Davidson, the godfather of LA theater and founder of the Mark Taper Forum, when I brought him to USC near the end of his life and we co-taught classes for a couple of years together, inspiring and instructing a new generation of hopeful theater artists.
On paper, it sounds like “a wonderful life”, right?
In reality though, and in my own experience, it hasn't been easy, not without its many challenges, confrontations, and life-changing choices. No life is… very simple at all.
But now… three days into this story… I'm officially “retired”. I have already picked up that final pay check and paid for the first month of my wife's and son's new Kaiser Individual and Family health plan. It's not cheap. And I don't qualify for the Affordable Health Care Act, desperately fighting for its life in Congress, not to become Trump's “American Health Care Act” of 2017.
Our country is not kind to its poor or middle classes. Or to its aging population. To those without power or wealth. Why no one has to pay Social Security taxes when they earn more than $118,000 a year… is an unanswerable abomination of a question. Why health care is not a right of all American citizens and residents, like it is in the rest of the civilized world, can only be answered by the humongous greed of our insurance companies and the insatiable appetite of the capitalistic system.
Our country is not set up for a comfortable “Act Three”. And what I think is a real oversight, even an educational crime, is that we Americans haven't been educated or prepared for retirement or a “third act”. I mean, why didn't Ike Eisenhower and his School Board require all us Baby Boomers to take a class in economics? In real estate? In investment? In health care? In retirement? In aging and dying? Because… as we're quickly finding out, and we should have been forewarned, aging isn't for the weak of heart, or… as our great American novelist, Philip Roth, says, “Old age isn't a battle, it's a massacre.”
Shut up, Trules! You still have the rest of your life in front of you. Why don't you see it as an opportunity? As the glass being half full instead of half empty? Who knows what you can create in these next many years, for as many as those may be? Why don't you just keep saying “yes”, like you've done for all these years; that's what the improvisational rules of life demand?
Because… there's good part of me (or maybe not so “good”) that is scared to death. What an idiom! “Scared to death”. What exactly does that mean? We all know death is coming, right? Even though our society and culture try to avoid and escape the reality at all cost. Instead we try to preserve life with medical, technological wizardry as long as scientifically possible… even long after the quality of life is gone. In contrast – to other countries and cultures – who accept death… as part of life. Who push their aged off into the frigid sea – on icebergs – when it's time to let go and die. Who respect and care for their elders. Who worship their ancestors and expect them to come back for an annual visit on the Day of the Dead. Mexico. My wife's Indonesia. Most simpler and more “primitive” cultures. But… who has it right? And who has it wrong?
So yeah… I'm scared… not so much of dying… but more of running out of money. Of losing health care. My Social Security. My Medicare. Of facing the “massacre” unprotected by the society and country I trusted and believed in.
I don't know what more to say about “retirement”. Other than perhaps… “I used to be a Theater Prof at USC for a while. It was one of my many careers in the arts. Sure, it was for a long time, 31 years, and I was a lucky man, but that was Act 2. Now it's time for the leap into Act 3… my last.”
Do I still yearn to go into an empty theater, to create theatrical magic out of a simple black box? To tell stories? To see other peoples' shows? To live a “life in the theater”? Honestly, I just… don't know. I'll have to see.
For now… I just want to stay healthy. Play tennis a few times a week. Help raise my 10 year old son. Teach him well. Do simple things. Take care of the garden. Walk the dog. Not plan too much. Enjoy the day. Walk around, re-seeing my city, Los Angeles, anew. Live life… one day at a time. Since none of us have figured out how to predict the future… or know when our run will be over…. then I figure… I might as well try to enjoy the time I have left.
I'm sure the rest of my life will be revealed to me, just as my life, until now, has been revealed… created… one day… one year at a time.
Zombie Clown Trump takes place in 2020, when a certain current president is running for reelection. Syria, Iran, North Korea, South Korea, and Sweden have all been destroyed. In the name of a curative vaccination, Dr. Ben Arson has unleashed a powerful virus on the United States, but now millions of people — including the president — have been transformed into zombies.
From the press notes: “Will our Zombie Clown-In-Chief be reelected and bring the hammer down on the world for good — or will a group of heroes rise up and help deport him to Twitterland forever?”
Zombie Clown Trump features a satirical score set to the music of such artists as The Beatles, Madonna and Cee Lo Green. Four actors play multiple roles, and there's a Spitting Image-style puppet — White House Press Secretary Sean Sphincter.
The creator of the piece was kind enough to answer some questions for me from the security of his underground bunker.
What's the value of humor and satire in the age of Trump?
For me, the value of humor in the age of Trump is to vent serious frustrations and use satire as a healthy form of protest.
What is it about today's political climate that's making the country so divided?
I think that is the subject of an entire book. But some people like chocolate ice cream, others like vanilla, and neither respects the other's choice, or is willing to take the time to learn about one another's preferences. Perhaps finding a bridge somewhere along Neapolitan Avenue.
Also, the very fabric of the American Dream has come unraveled. Our politicians have lost the ability to lead or inspire. They've replaced positive leadership with old-fashioned mudslinging. In today's political climate, that translates into exploiting the fear of “the other.”
Michael Moore has just announced he's doing a Broadway solo show intended specifically to destabilize the president. Do you have a particular agenda with Zombie Clown Trump?
Of course, if Broadway producers come calling, I'll gladly accept their calls! In the meantime, we're just going to have fun doing these seven performances at Hollywood Fringe. If an opportunity arises to continue the circus, we'll cross that clown car when we come to it.
Tell us a bit about the show and what audiences can expect.
The show is about Zombie Clown Trump running for reelection in 2020 while presiding over a zombie apocalypse.
We're basically conducting our comic sermon for others who, like us, are truly frightened of what's going on not only in our country, but across the world. We want to provide a safe and enjoyable space for people to come together right now and relieve some tension, aided by the magic of music and laughter.
And, perhaps they'll come to the conclusion — as I have — that the Trump Circus will one day leave town and order will be restored.
How was this piece developed? What was the inspiration?
I had previously created another zombie musical. When I woke up the morning after this last election, I knew what I had to do to exorcise my own feeling of tremendous powerlessness in the face of such a negative force.
Can you talk about the actors' backgrounds and what they bring to the piece?
The three other actors involved come from a variety of disciplines and they first and foremost bring courage and an openness to the show. This musical took me about 40 hours to cast. I looked at 600 demo tapes in an effort to find eight actors, and we ended up with four.
Not only was the project censored by the main casting outlet in town, I also discovered that it's not easy to cast a non-paying theater gig, especially in a place where everyone wants to be a star. They are more focused on themselves rather than the big picture. The Big Picture, in this case, being political protest.
What's the takeaway you hope audiences will get?
As with all my projects, I like to hear one sentence when it's through: “That was fun!”
Is this your first time at Hollywood Fringe? How are you enjoying the experience?
This is my first time at Hollywood Fringe and I haven't yet really been mingling in the Fringe scene. The experience has been a master course in respecting the creative process, going with the flow and making something work, no matter what challenges spring up on a daily basis.
Zombie Clown Trump: An Apocalyptic Musical has seven performances beginning June 2 at the Complex Theatre, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd. Dates, times, and ticket information can be found on the Fringe website.
Making its world premiere at the Hollywood Fringe next month is Apathy Killed the Cat, a new play by Fringe veteran Ryan Lisman. This intimate piece concerns a depressed playwright, his catatonic mother, a dying cat, and some shocking secrets.
Ryan took some time out from the Fest's rigorous production schedule to talk with me about the play and about his overall Fringe experience.
Tell us a bit about the play.
It's about a playwright who feels that his life is crumbling. His mom is in the hospital in a catatonic state, and his cat is about to die. As a coping mechanism, he writes an 826-page play chronicling his entire life. He plans to give it to his mother, knowing she won't be able to read it, but he's always given her all his plays as a way of trying to connect with her. He puts the play in her hands with plans to retrieve it, but it is found by his girlfriend and his brothers before he can do so.
This unwanted exposure unravels everything in his life, revealing things he never wanted anyone to know. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but I will say it's something very controversial and disturbing.
What was your inspiration for writing the piece?
I try to put a good amount of personal elements into my work. I find it makes the writing process a lot more meaningful for me. Obviously, I dramatize it a lot. I put my own cat, Rosebud, in the play. My cat is very young and healthy, but the Rosebud in the play is old and dying. I was just thinking about what it would be like to have to put Rosebud down, and how hard life would be after that.
I guess I was inspired by the fact that losing loved ones is always traumatic, and grief can often dominate your life. I think it's important to know yourself and how to work through that grief so it doesn't cripple you forever. A key message in the play is understanding how to accept death as a natural part of life, and how to let go in a healthy way as part of that process.
You've been at the Fringe before, right? How many times?
This is my third Fringe. The first time, I produced and acted in a play. Last year was the first time I produced something I'd written, and this will be the second year producing something I wrote.
How is the process going? I know there are challenges and time constraints with the Fringe.
There are definitely some obstacles that the Fringe throws at you, but I welcome them. I find the whole thing very exhilarating. I enjoy having these set obstacles. It's always difficult, I think, with independent, non-union theater. Scheduling is always especially hard. Everyone has such different schedules, with work and all. It's really hard finding a time that works for everyone. Being on a limited budget is also a challenge. You want to do something, you want to get a certain prop that's too expensive, and you know you have to just let go sometimes.
For the most part, though, it's going pretty well. I feel good about where we are.
How did you acquire your cast?
I find auditions to be one of the most fun aspects of theater. Starting out as an actor and as the person being judged, it's nice to find myself on the other side. I just find it really fun being in the audition room and getting to work with the 30 or so actors auditioning. I really enjoy being able to meet them for the first time, give them direction and see if their energy matches the character's. It's really an energy thing, I think.
I used Actors Access and Backstage.com. I also was lucky to have a network of people I'd met at the Fringe and in other theater ventures. I have a main cast of five and an ensemble cast of 10, so that took a while to cast. It's a pretty eclectic mix.
When you go into production on a piece, are you collaborative? Do you find the work changing or evolving?
Yes, especially with an original script such as this. It's the first time it's going to be produced. The way I look at is that the actors are the ones saying the lines, so I welcome the collaboration. Honestly, if there was more time, I'd like to do it even more. I'm only one brain, so the more brains I can get into the room to give input the better. I find it helpful because there can be things that I don't catch that they catch.
As a Fringe veteran, what do you like about the festival?
I just love the fast-paced nature of it all. I really try to take full advantage of it and have as much fun as possible. The past few times I saw about 20 to 25 shows, more or less. I love being able to get there in the afternoon and see three or four shows, going to Fringe Central afterward and just meeting people. I love the community. I really love talking to other artists. There's really great conversation that happens.
It's nice to see other people who are passionate about what they're doing and hearing about their experiences with their plays. And, of course, networking is fun. The more people you have a good relationship with, it's always going to help. And as a producer, it's always nice to do a comp swap. “I'll give you a ticket to my show, you give me a ticket to yours.” We see each other's show, we support each other, no one loses money. It's perfect. That's something that's really unique to the Fringe.
I also think the 15-minute in-and-out time is really fun. The energy is so high, because you know you only have 15 minutes to set up. It's just that high-energy, spontaneous environment that I feel like I really thrive in.
Since the Fringe is a community, what other shows would you put on your must-see list this year?
Making its triumphant return to the Fringe after last year's acclaimed Thug Tunnel, the award-winning musical improv group Robot Teammate & the Accidental Party is premiering its third scripted musical for the #HFF17, entitled TURBULENCE!.
The story: The 4242 Intergalympics have arrived, and the competition between humans on Earth and Mars is at a fever pitch. An epic race around the sun concludes the events, but the untimely demise of Earth's designated competitors means the haphazard crew of the S.S. Albacore and their android assistant Mambo 4 (Dave Reynolds) must go to bat.
Can Captain Davin Galaxy (Miles Crosman) win the respect of his team in time to win the race and prove that Earth isn't the shabby dirt turd the Martians think it is? Will astrophysicist Dr. Joules Johnson (Kat Primeau) be able to master turbulent energy to their advantage? Can demolition-derby mechanic Mick Cribbins (Chris Bramante) translate his expertise in space? And will nihilist navigation specialist Pattern MaGerk (Molly Dworsky) find a way to really care about it all?
Robot Teammate producer/performer Kat Primeau was kind enough to take some time out of the busy preproduction schedule to answer some questions about the show and the troupe's activities. What was the inspiration behind this year's show?
The Robot Teammate ensemble floated a lot of ideas before TURBULENCE! was voted into development. The story is very loosely based on a zany space crew musical with the same title that we improvised in 2016 at Impro Theatre, but we had no recordings of the show, so only our best memories have made it into the script. After last year's original musical Thug Tunnel, we were really excited by the idea of doing an ensemble piece, and we love playing with sci-fi, but this show also has a sports comedy twist. What about the development process? How did the show evolve?
We continue to refine our process through trial and error, and for the first time this year we codified how the script was to develop. Pulling what we loved from the initial improvisation, we started by creating an outline as a group, with Miles (our head writer) hammering out drafts, watching reference materials (Cool Runnings, Galaxy Quest and Noises Off, especially), researching the science behind the story (Cosmos and StarTalk Radio with Neil DeGrasse Tyson), and bringing what made us laugh to each subsequent round of revisions. It is still evolving as we get it up on its feet, and we're grateful for our improv background for allowing us to be comfortable with changes this late in the game. Tell us about the actors involved and what they bring to the show.
Each member of Robot Teammate is contributing to the story — lyrics, production, and most importantly, their characters in this show — even the musicians! We're celebrating our 5th anniversary as a musical comedy ensemble in 2017, and know that we are our most entertaining selves when we lean in to our unique chemistry as an ensemble. When we are making each other laugh and bringing our critical eye to the table, we are able to create stories that have a larger impact than any of us could have done alone. What about the music? Is there a particular theme or style?
We initially wanted a more electronic palette, with our spaceship's console as functional, pre-programmed synth pads the crew would play in conjunction with the action on stage. We still hope to do that one day, but we've transitioned to our music director, Sam Johnides, composing tracks and all of us writing lyrics. The style is very modern, with thick harmonies and high-intensity arrangements to go along with the sports theme, but we hope audiences will still find it to be catchy and most of all fun! For fans of Robot Teammate (and I'm thinking along the lines of MST3K), are there Easter eggs in TURBULENCE! that will strike a chord?
There are many nods to classic sci-fi tropes. As for Easter eggs, you'll have to bring your baskets to the hunt (aka the show). We don't want to spoil the fun. Since you've become Fringe veterans, have you become more confident with the time constraints involved in setup and staging? How have you taken advantage of it?
Making cuts for time is challenging, but always leads to a tighter, more comedic script, so we are embracing that and anticipating killing many more of our darlings before opening night. We're being more playful with our set and costumes and have a load-out joke in our closing number. Knowing what to anticipate is helpful, but there are always new obstacles in Fringe theater! What is it about the Fringe that makes it so welcoming to projects like TURBULENCE!?
Robot Teammate performs a lot in comedy venues and weekly on the Geek & Sundry live stream, which broadcasts on Twitch.TV to audiences around the world, so Fringe really allows us to get back to our theatre roots and be a part of the immediate community. We love seeing our peers experimenting on stage, and enjoy challenging ourselves to write better jokes, songs, and heartfelt stories in response to the raw feedback inherent in Fringe. Talk a bit about the release of the soundtrack of last year's show, Thug Tunnel. How did that come about?
We were thrilled when A Little New Music gave us the ‘Outstanding Songwriting Award' at Fringe last year as well as being encouraged by the effusive response to our music we received from audiences, so recording it for our fans seemed like a no-brainer. I work part-time at a recording studio and my boyfriend Chris Sousa (who was also the bassist for THUG TUNNEL) is an audio engineer, so we spent Labor Day 2016 recording vocals in Frank Sinatra's old room at EastWest Studios and the remaining five months recording, editing, and mixing the album at home. Check it out on Spotify, iTunes, and robotteammate.com now! What other shows are on your hit list for #HFF17?
We're excited for Cherry Poppins' Shakeslesque, MB Productions' remount of The Video Games, Trump in Space (which Sam Johnides also composed music for), Office Beat and SLASHED! The Musical. What's next on the agenda for Robot Teammate?
We have new live-stream shows in development at Geek & Sundry as well as three live shows, an album release, an album release party and multiple rehearsals before the end of this week, so we're taking it one day at a time. We'll have more songs, stories and narrative musicals available for more audiences soon. Stay tuned! TURBULENCE! plays June 10 through June 22 on various dates and at various times at the Sacred Fools Theatre Main Stage, 1076 Lillian Way. More information and tickets can be obtained on the Fringe site.
The Hollywood Fringe Festival has a long and storied history of making musicals out of cult classic films, and #HFF17 is no exception as we witness the world premiere of Robot Monster the Musical, with songs and book by Rich Silverman.
Not only is this Silverman's first Fringe experience, it's his first theatrical experience entirely. He took some time out of the dizzying production schedule to answer some questions about the show.
Are you a fan of ‘50s sci-fi or of bad cult movies in general? If so, what are your favorites?
You know, my answer may surprise people. I'm not really a diehard fan of cult movies or “bad” movies. I'm sure I would lose at trivia night on the subject or on Jeopardy. I've never even really been into the Ed Wood catalog. I find his personal story more interesting than his work. I do love The Room, though, but who doesn't?
You're tearing me apart! Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the show.
Robot Monster is a film I've loved for literally decades. I'm also a big fan of the Great American Songbook and Broadway's golden age – from Jerome Kern through Lerner & Loewe, really. I attempted a musical once years ago and always thought I would try again. When I attended a screening of Robot Monster a few years ago in Hollywood, it just popped into my head that it would be a great musical, and here we are!
Are there modern references in the piece that will resonate with audiences?
Like the movie, the show is set in the 1950s. It works best that way. Most of the modern references are really thematic. There are some things in there – mostly about anxiety and neurosis – that feel more relevant to today's audiences than they may have in the '50s, or at least they're not quite as repressed! About as modern as I get is Philip Glass and Lawrence Welk, and I'm pretty sure this is the first show in history to wink at both.
Obviously you don't have to be deeply familiar with the original film to enjoy the show. How did you manage delineating the plot and exposition while squeezing in 16 original songs?
Oh that's easy. The film doesn't have that much plot to begin with! There's some clumsy exposition in the movie, which I've retained for its absurdity, but at least 10 minutes of the 60-minute original is spent watching Ro-Man and other characters walking around Griffith Park.
What about the music? Is there a particular style or is it a potpourri?
As I mentioned, my frame of reference is our great standards. While I would never in a million years compare myself with those songwriters, about half my songs are in a Sinatra/‘50s vein along with my take on Broadway ballads, plus a smattering of pop, a hint of opera and a maybe a tad of Sparks thrown into the mix.
How did you go about casting the piece? How does the cast contribute to the show?
It all just kind of came together and in a really great way. We held auditions and Derek Long, the show's director, and his assistant director, Pam Paulson, brought in people they've worked with before. I also have a friend of mine in the cast, Val Peterson, who is a very talented and versatile professional singer. Talk about knowing the Great American Songbook – she probably has 1,000 songs memorized. Val's more into Ella Fitzgerald, whom I consider the second greatest singer after Sinatra, but we don't fight about it – not too much, at least.
How do you manage the strict Fringe 15-minute load-in and load-out? Did you come up with some creative solutions?
Rogaine extra strength.
Is this your first Fringe experience? How have you been enjoying it?
This is my first theater experience! And I'm Jewish, so I don't enjoy anything.
Since the Fringe is a community rather than a competition, what other productions stir your interest?
I'm very interested in other new musicals. I've gotten friendly with a few creators. I just bought a ticket to Comic-Con the Musical (also at Sacred Fools). There are other shows I find really interesting because of their somewhat obscure and/or intellectual source material, like a play about the Algonquin Roundtable and the baseball player, Mungo.
Finally, can we watch Robot Monster the Musical without 3D glasses?
Only if you don't mind getting hit in the eye with a bubble.
Robot Monster the Musical plays June 4 through June 23 at Sacred Fools Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online or by phone at (323) 455-4585. As a special offer for Fringe participants, the June 4 performance is pay-what-you-can.
Armed with the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2017 Fringe Scholarship, actor Paul Yen will world premiere his one-man show SECRET IDENTITY CRISISJune 3, 2017. Paul took some time off from his superheroing to answer a few of our superpowering, probing questions.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, Paul!
If you were to pitch your super one-man show to the networks, what would your three-line pitch of SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS be?
A Vietnamese-American re-establishes three iconic superheroes as Asian-American men to examine the journey of Asians in America throughout history.
What was your process of elimination in picking your three superheroes to feature in SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS?
Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man were my first three choices. Before the superhero craze, these were the three characters I most associated with the word 'Superhero.' My original intention was to develop a separate show for each one, but I eventually combined them all into one show.
Will Fringe audiences get to see you in hero masks and tights?
Elaborate costuming was my hope, but the costs of producing my first show wouldn't let me go as far as I'd like. There will be fun hints of the heroes and some key accessories, but the audience will mainly recognize the heroes through their stories.
You have acting credits going back to 2008. Why, in 2013, did you change your stage name from Paul Nguyen to Paul Yen?
When I joined SAG-AFTRA in 2013, there were quite a few Paul Nguyens on file. I wanted to hang on to my Vietnamese heritage; however, I didn't want to be pigeonholed, since Nguyen is such a common Vietnamese last name. I took out the 'Ngu' from my last name and hung onto the end, because I'm gonna work hard until the end. 'Yen' is ambiguous enough and also happens to be my favorite Vietnamese name.
What was your parents' reaction when you told them you wanted to become an actor?
My mom was supportive in that "worried-mother" kind of way. I think my dad gave me his best effort: "That's great…but how are you gonna pay the bills?" Followed by a laugh. But they've become truly supportive over the years, and one of my favorite moments of all time was when I told my dad about an audition and he gave me a genuine, "Good Luck!" I didn't care how the audition went at that point.
My only Asian movie role model was Bruce Lee. Please tell me you're not too young to know who he was?
I didn't grow up as a big Bruce Lee fan, but I certainly knew who he was and thought he was a badass. He passed away before my time, but I think many generations have been influenced by his legacy. Bruce Lee plays a pivotal role in SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS, and through my research, I've become a firm admirer of his accomplishments, the legend he is and will continue to be.
Who is your Asian role model?
First and foremost, my parents. Then Son Goku (he's Asian), Russell Wong, John Woo, Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung, Wong Kar-wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Faye Wong, Ken Leung, Maggie Cheung, Ang Lee, Justin Lin, John Cho, Akira Kurosawa, Bruce Lee, Jeremy Lin, Keni Stylez, Kenneth Choi, Ashima Shiraishi, Benedict Wong, Constance Wu, Ali Wong... to name a few.
Tell us the most funny 'ha-ha' audition you had.
When I booked my first network co-star. I was required to prepare the role with, and without, an Asian accent. I was determined to wow casting with no accent, but also offer a third option where the character was pretending to have an accent (influenced by Ken Leung in Keeping the Faith). I went in, did no accent, accent, and they stopped me before I got to my third option. I really didn't want to play the role with an accent, so of course, that's exactly what they offered me. I was certainly appreciative of the opportunity, but I tried to downplay the accent to the best of my ability during the shoot.
Tell us the most not-so-funny "I can't believe they said that!" experience you had.
Someone in the business threatened my acting career over a heated debate we were having about the presidential election. I thought, "Are you being serious right now?"
In my formative years in Los Angeles, armed with my S.A.G. card, I was told I didn't look 'Chinese enough' or 'Asian enough.' I did book a commercial as an Eskimo though. What ethnicities have you been cast as?
Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Nepalis. I strongly believe that in Asian/Western Asian stories, Western Asians should be able to play all Asians. I'd like to tell Vietnamese stories, but I wouldn't want to limit myself to only my ethnicity. If that were the case, I'd only ever play a Vietnamese person from the Vietnam War. Asians are complex. I'd love to play a Special Forces Soldier. A samurai. A Chinese gangster. A member of the 442nd. A space pilot. A porn star. So on and so forth.
What classic role would you like to tackle the 'Asian version' of?
You are an avid motorcycle racing fan. Do you know of any Asian motorcycle racers?
There are many overseas. My favorite Asian motorcycle racer is Noriyuki Haga, aka "Nitro Nori." I instantly gravitated toward him when I first started following World Superbike in the early 2000's. He was the essence of cool.
What is in the immediate future for Paul Yen?
I'd love to tour this show in major cities and on college campuses. If I can inspire one Asian-American, then it will all be worth it. On screen, I'll continue to seek out roles that are complex and that challenge me as an actor and as a human being. I'll also continue researching the 442nd Regimental Combat Team for a project I'm developing. Aside from that? Spend time with friends and family, catch up on my reading, and rock climb!
Thank you again, Paul! I look forward to meeting all your superheroes!
Heather Lipson Bell is a genuine Los Angeles hyphenate; dancer, choreographer, actress, educator and entrepreneur. She has carved out a successful career by following her heart and soul, connecting experiences and collaborators and weaving them together to create a tapestry of creativity, artistry, education, altruism and family.
Bell is a force in the world of dance and opera, especially as it intersects with young people and both children and adults with different needs. A quick rundown of her current job titles illustrates her lifelong love of music, dance and activism. She is the founder and creative director for Performing Arts For All, providing arts opportunities for and specializing in working with those who have special needs and limitations. She is a lead educator and the managing director for KIDS/IQUE, a division of www.muse-ique.com, an organization which provides artistic opportunities for those in foster care facilities, at-risk youth and those with additional special needs. PAFA partners with LA Opera, LA Ballet, MUSE/IQUE, Center Stage Opera and is Fiscally Sponsored by the 501c3 Dance Resource Center. Her programs are unique in that they do not separate nor isolate participants by challenge. Rather, all dancers work together and use their different strengths and weaknesses to create a stronger whole.
Bell has worked with the LA Opera since 2008 as a teaching artist, choreographer and assistant director for their in-school and community programs. She is a dancer and choreographer who works consistently. She has performed in over ten concerts with the New York Philharmonic, two of which she both choreographed and danced and which will be kept as part of a new online platform, nyphil.org/ypcplay. She performs regularly and has film and theater pieces in all states of production. Recent work includes dancing at the Ford Theater, at the Pageant of the Masters, choreographing and co-producing the short film Halfway, which she and her partner Christine Deitner (They also created the award winning "Freeze! Try Again) are now developing for presentation at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Finally, with co-artistic director Tom Dulack (www.teatrofilarmonico.org) she is planning on touring their concerts and also in development on 2 other theater projects: Extravaganza (based on the life and work of Vivaldi) and Aphra (a play he's written about the fabulous Aphra Behn that Bell would choreograph).
Lastly, Bell is a mom who home schools her two young children and also serves as their audition chauffeur. Final note: Heather Lipson Bell is busy.
We met for hot drinks on a rainy Thursday morning for a freewheeling conversation that circled around the ideas of art as a source of inspiration, community and service, making it as a freelance artist in Los Angeles and the immense value of the support of friends and family.
The phenomenon of dance as a tool for work with differently abled people is relatively new to the general public but has been part of Bell's career path from early on. Her first major foray was her senior showcase at Boston Conservatory, with a project that involved blind and deaf dancers. Although the artistic director was “completely not on board, she thought it a terrible idea…,” Bell and her creative partner stayed committed to their idea and eventually found an enthusiastic mentor in their Laban professor. They focused on research, teaching classes and small workshops at both the Perkins School for the Blind and Caroll Center for The Blind.
“For me it was specifically a movement inspired thing. How do different people move? How do they understand movement?" She continues, "it became really interesting because we met people who were born with different levels of disability. Then also those who had lost their vision - one man who had so much anger but agreed to do our little movement class, and he was able to find movement, spacial awareness and comfort in this new sightless world.” Eventually they combined sighted dancers into the project and her path, curvy and indirect though it would be, was set. “It was this huge vast world that I had never been exposed to…..that kind of sparked my interest in movement study.”
Bell and PAFA at The Hard Rock Cafe in 2016
Bell moved to LA in 1999 “not to dance, but following a boyfriend. I thought I'd hang out for a year and go back to New York.” But she she stayed, “I was lucky when I came to LA - to meet a really good group of people right away who were not competitive in the typical sense of what I grew up with, but really supportive and were like, well if I don't get the job, it's good because you got the job and we all kind of came up together." She adds, "To this day - I find this a really unique group of women and that has been a great support under everything I do.” Her circle of friends and collaborators continues inspire and support her. When casting dancers for a short film she recently choreographed and co-produced, she invited people to simply take part, without telling them exactly what they would be doing. “I expected five or six people to show up and over 25 beautiful dancers came to give of themselves.”
Bell and Gary Franco dancing with City Ballet of Los Angeles at the Ford Theater in a piece that she choreographed.
Bell talks a lot about community and friendship; of the give and take of this industry. She credits much of her success to friends looking out for one another and mentions job after job that she earned after a recommendation from one friend or another. The path to creating Performing Arts for All started with a job vacated by a friend who went to go dance on a cruise. Bell was hired as a dancer by Zina Bethune and Bethune Theatre Dance, a company that created work with both traditional and differently abled dancers. When Bethune later saw Bell's resume, she hired her as an educator which led to 10 years of teaching dance to people with all kinds of challenges. After Bethune was killed in a tragic hit and run accident, some parents approached Bell because they missed her classes. This inspired the creation of PAFA.
What stands out when listening to Bell speak is the fluidity with which she adjusts the focus of her work. There is equal value given to performance, teaching, choreography and activism - all fueled by a constant search for new and inventive ways to create movement stories. Each feeds the other. For example, when choreographing a film scene with Marines who were uncomfortable with the entire premise of dancing, she drew upon what she had learned teaching those who were blind, having them do movement they were already familiar with, then guiding that movement into patterns to create dance. In this way, she essentially allows her dancers to make their own dances. She sums up her philosophy by saying, “there was never a break, I started teaching at 15, following the concept, from an Ailey dancer, of; I am not your teacher, we teach each other.” She is also vocal in visualizing, setting goals and manifesting what she wants. For example, when auditioning for a beer commercial she asked in the moment if they had a choreographer. They said no. She got the job.
Bell is pragmatic about the ups and downs of the industry. She revealed her disappointment in coming to the realization that she had limits as a choreographer; that creating new movement vocabulary was not among her skills. Initially she mourned what she considered a failing but then turned that liability into an asset. Becoming an expert at research, she studied organic movement and approached her work that way instead. Her work for the NY Phil was based in flamenco, a dance form that she was unfamiliar with at the beginning of the process yet by the time she came to the performance, the world renowned musician with whom she was partnered thought her an expert.
How does she get through the downs? "In regards to fighting depression, a simple thing to do is find one thing, one small thing a day to be joyous about," says Bell. "We all experience depression and feel stuck or powerless. For me, it seems my nature is to be happy - I am drawn to laughter and beauty and stories of strength and resilience like many, and shy away from darkness and evil and blood and guts." For example, "I choose not to go out for roles playing parts of victims, etc." Adding, "I am drawn to other projects and have been lucky to have opportunities that support this. For me I try to always: Explore. Learn. Play. Move. Connect. I'll continue to set goals, and take on too much, and procrastinate and enjoy my craft and community and family more than I could ever express."
Bell is quick to credit her family for their ongoing support. Her parents, her husband, even her young children all support and participate in her process. “I was a performer when I met my husband. He knows that it is not about the money.” She recounted her dad's reaction when she turned down an opportunity to create a health oriented business when a much less lucrative but much more artistic performance opportunity arrived. “He was like, of course you'll go dance!”
"We seem to all strive for this ‘balance' or even for ‘perfection' - and it is a fleeting thing. If it wasn't I'm sure I'd be bored by the stillness. I have always been grateful for the language of dance, for experiencing and appreciating on a very deep level the impermanence of what we do. And for the voice and opportunities it has given me. Balancing creative work, work, a marriage and motherhood is a dance. I am constantly reminded what a gift it all is and that I'm not perfect - and that is perfect."
"What I'm doing now, who I am - was present in me as a very young child. I really have always been an artist and activist and as I've been thinking the examples go so far back. I've always loved human movement and storytelling and history and music and art and elephants and trees and collaboration and community and the connections of it all and just the complexity of this world."
Performing Arts For All has a full schedule for 2017.
Two 6 week workshops culminating with a showcase.
Session 1: 1/7/17 - 2/11/17, Session 2: 2/25/17 - 4/1/17
Additional inclusion workshops at Olive Middle and High Schools (Baldwin Park)
KIDS/IQUE outreach visits us: 2/11/17 & 4/1/17
MUSE/IQUE Concert Field Trips: 2/12/17, 4/2/17
LA BALLET Field Trip: TBA
Performing with LA Opera - Community Opera Noah's Flood - shows 5/6/17