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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen? Auditioning? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are some of your future plans?

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


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



Lee Blessing Shows Multiple Perceptions of Reality

Actors Co-op presents Lee Blessing's "A Body of Water" that opened February 5 for previews with official opening night Friday February 7. The play runs through March 15. Multi award winning actress Nan McNamara serves as director. I sat down with Blessing and here's what he has to say about the play and mounting this production.

I am always fascinated by your plays. What character is telling the truth? Or is it all a dream...or a nightmare? You keep us on the edge of our seats with your wonderful dialogue. How did A Body of Water come about? 

LB: I can't answer most of these questions, but I will say that the idea for the play occurred to me as I was waking up one morning. I was relatively newly divorced (from a long marriage) and was still feeling the very powerful (for me at least) post-trauma effects of that. In some ways I suppose this is a play about trauma in all its forms. It's about those moments in life when nothing that we think we know feels real any longer--nothing that we depended on, nothing that we knew in our hearts to be true. This happens to different people for different reasons of course, in different ways and at different points in their lives. But it happens to nearly everyone, I'd argue, whether we'll admit it or not.

You have been called our greatest American playwright because you deal with issues that are relevant. Sports are a typical love of the American culture and have played into many of your plays, like baseball in The Winning Streak and football in For the Loyal. Do sports play into this piece?

LB: Sports really don't have a role in this play, unless you count jogging. Actually I have the bad habit (for a playwright) of writing about a great many different phases and aspects of contemporary life as well as many different sorts of people encountering quite a range of challenges. America tends to favor playwrights who stick to a fairly narrow range of issues and styles and sort of do the same thing over and over again, often quite brilliantly. They develop sort of a "shingle" to hang out, so people will know what to expect before even seeing their next play. For whatever reason, I tend not to do that.

Tell our readers about A Body of Water in detail without creating a spoiler alert.

LB: This is such a difficult piece to talk about. It's highly conceptual, and one really doesn't want to ruin any surprises or sharp turns that it may contain. I will say that the two people that we meet at the start of play are in their fifties and in great physical health--just as I happened to be when I wrote it. I'll also say that while it's hard to talk about the play before seeing it, it's hard not to talk about the play after seeing it. So feel free to look me up then.

You always lace your plays with a delicious sense of humor. Is there humor here as well?

LB: There is a LOT of humor in this play. And, just like my life, it never fails to make me laugh.

What is the main theme of the play? What do you want audiences to take away after seeing it?

LB: I suppose if the A Body of Water has a theme, it has something to do with the nature of courage and our inability to live without faith. After all, something has to get us through the inevitable traumas.

Do you care to add anything?

LB: If there's such a thing as music in dialogue, I think this is one of the most musical plays I've written. Just don't expect to hum along.

To purchase tickets for A Body of Water, call 323-462-8460 or visit ActorsCo-Op.org


Ashton's Audio Interview: The Cast of "A BODY OF WATER" at Actors Co-op

In this play about lost identity and rediscovering love, a couple in their fifties wake-up in an isolated house above a picturesque body of water, with no idea where they are or why they are there. The situation is further complicated by the arrival of a young woman with questionable explanations. Funny and charming, this lyrical, intriguing drama examines the wisdom of embracing a pure moment of joy...when nothing else is certain.*

Enjoy this interview with the cast of “A BODY OF WATER” at Actors Co-op, running until Mar 15th. 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


It's A WALK IN THE WOODS for Ken Sawyer to Direct Uniquely & Honestly

A consistently, in-demand, creative force in the Los Angeles Theatre community, director Ken Sawyer will be directing his latest project A WALK IN THE WOODS beginning February 9, 2018 at the Actors Co-op Theatre Company's Crossley Theatre. Ken managed to carve out a few moments of his time between rehearsals of Lee Blessing's 1987 Pulitzer Prize finalist to answer a few of my inquisitive questions.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Ken! I have had the pleasure of seeing a number of your shows in the past.
Soooo, what cosmic forces brought you and A WALK IN THE WOODS together?
Several years ago, I did a three-person adaptation of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT for the Co-op. It was such a pleasure working with this supportive and dedicated company. In the years following, we toyed with other collaborations. Recently, I was in the middle of tech for an epic show called TROJAN BARBIE at USC. I adored it. But in the middle of a stressful moment I sighed, "Won't someone just offer me a two-person, linear, one-set play?" Two weeks later, The Co-op called with A WALK IN THE WOODS.
A WALK IN THE WOODS was originally produced in 1988. Do you find it ironic (or sad) that a play about arms limitation negotiators is relevant today in 2018?


I find it scary. And it gives me pride to be part of the Arts. There are smart, aware, and empathetic writers like Mr. Blessing who can tap into concerns of their time... and, also highlight what is deeply human and, therefore, timeless. There are passages in this play that seem to be ripped from today's headlines.
Your directorial resume includes musicals, drama, two-handers, in-the-round and more. Any preferences? Or do you like to mix it up from production to production?
I like telling stories. And I have been very lucky. I have been offered varied stories to tell. Whether it's the personal true-life journey of a trans man from Sri Lanka, or a futuristic modern telling of Trojan women with a cast of 17 - if the story is compelling, if I feel I can tell it in a way no one else has, I'm in.
What aspects of a theatrical project make it so enticing for you, you just have to get involved? (script? cast? message?)

Just a gut feeling. A few years ago, I was presented with HIT THE WALL. It is the true story of the night in 1969 a gay bar called Stonewall was raided and a riot ensued. This riot sparked the gay rights movement. I passed on the play. A year later, it came around again. For some reason, it felt right. I wondered why I did not see the potential the year before. By pure chance after saying yes, Jon Imparato and The LGBT center scheduled the opening a week after the much hyped and protested Stonewall movie. The LA Times did a huge article on this. Also, gay rights sadly started to reverse. By doing the show a year later, it was a call to arms, not a period piece. It is my biggest hit to date. That was luck. And I have been very lucky stumbling into projects that hit a nerve.

You're a Juilliard graduate and toured with John Housman's Acting Company. When did you have that "But what I want to do is direct!" revelation?
I grew up in Texas on movies, not theatre. My original desire was to direct movies. But oddly at an early age, I thought in order to direct actors I'd have to know how they feel. I auditioned for plays locally. I guess I was good at it. That led to studying at The Dallas Performing Arts High School, which led to Juilliard. I always thought I'll see this through, but "What I really want to do is direct!" The Road Theatre Company gave me my first chance to direct a play years later. And then, continued to give me opportunities to develop these skills. For that, I will be forever grateful.
Since you've been on both sides of the audition table, what advice would you give an anxious actor reading for you for their first time?
Do not try to second guess who I want you to be. Be you. Show me what YOU will bring that no one else will. I try to think out-of-the-box when I direct a play. I choose a play because I will direct it in a way no one else has. I like actors who come in with the same attitude. Show me what makes you unique.

Now that you are on the directing side of the audition table, what would you have changed in your younger self's audition process way back when?
I was sent on major auditions when I first arrived in L.A. with a Juilliard pedigree. Sexy, young leading man. I kept bombing auditions. My agent called me in. She said your feedback is, “You are handsome, you are smart, you are a good actor...” They can't put their finger on it, because you are not gay, but you have no sexuality. At the time, I was in the closet. I thought if it was discovered I was gay, my acting career would be over. It was the 80's. There was something I was not dealing with in my life that blocked my acting. I went to every audition wanting to please them, not confident in who I was and what I bring to the table. Ironic. I got pulled back into acting somewhat recently. Six months ago, I was pursued and signed by a commercial agent, and have been put on avail for three commercials so far. I go in. Show ‘em who I am, then go back to my life. If I'm who you want, great. If I'm not the right combo, fine. Be confident in who you are and what makes you unique and honest.

You've worked with theatre newbies, established working actors, as well as, marquee names. How do you balance the delicate egos of all these artistic personalities? Any secret to your success in handling fragile ids to get the results you want on stage?
Listen and watch. Good actors are collaborators whether they are students or stars. They want to be seen as unique with a voice (which is why I cast them). Inspire them. Give them an interesting box to play in. Then watch them play. Observe how they overcome challenges you set for them. Listen to what they say. Then steal the best of what you observe and hear. My job is to get the entire team excited about the story and the way I want to tell it. My vision becomes our vision.
Last year I worked with Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner in adapting THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE for a twelve-person cast. I was working with two artistic geniuses on a classic they were extremely close to. OMG! What an honor this was, but also what pressure. And, yet, they were so loving and giving. We would sit down and just be artists trying to figure out how to tell a story in a new way. As with any relationship, it's all about respect and communication.

As a founding member of the Road Theatre Company in 1991, you must now be familiar with the behind the scenes mechanics of starting/running a theatre company. What do you remember of that time in 1991?
Wow! The landscape of Los Angeles theatre has changed so much since I was on that artistic board. Theatre in the early days of The Road Theatre was a no-man's land. We started in an industrial complex deep in Van Nuys. But, in that complex, we made the rules. We would beg, borrow, and steal to put on new plays - plays we cared about that no one else had the guts to present. I have to hand it to Taylor Gilbert (artistic director of The Road Theatre). She was part of a movement who had a vision for a thriving theatre community. I remember when she arranged for the company to move to from Van Nuys to a creepy building on Lankershim. We thought, “What the hell are we doing?” Now that sketchy hood is the thriving NoHo Arts District. I wish I could take credit for that vision. But that was Taylor. I was just lucky she gave me a canvas to explore my artistic passions.Can you pinpoint the various elements of progress you have seen in the L.A. theatre community since you first became actively involved?

When I first arrived here, theatre was a showcase for actors to get into movies. Now that is no longer the case. We have directors, actors, designers, and producers who are true artists mounting projects because they are passionate about what they are creating, not because it is a means to another end.What questions/feelings/reactions would you like the Actors Co-op Crossley audience to leave with after experiencing your A WALK IN THE WOODS?

Last night a friend came to see a run-through. After we went out to dinner, he said, "You know the more I think about your show, the more I like it. It deals with so many things we are thinking about now as a nation, but through the eyes of two good people who are just trying to make sense of it all. We need a play like this right now. We need hope." If this is the reaction of most of the people seeing our show, I will once again be a very lucky man.
Thank you again, Ken! I look forward to seeing you work your directorial magic on Lee Blessing's piece.
For A WALK IN THE WOODS ticket availability through March 18, 2018; log onto ActorsCo-op.org