Well, here we are - on the verge of a new chapter for Better-Lemons.com, and certainly something different for me. I've been writing since I was 15 - that's a while ago, folks - and I've been a journalist in many venues - New York Times, Village Voice, New Republic, so many others - but mostly I've just been a writer, and even then, mostly a freelancer. That's been by choice. I have liked the freedom of not being tied down to a staff job with regular meetings and office politics and all that. I've done a lot of editing, but even then it's been as much on a freelance basis as possible. Then again, I do a lot of other kinds of writing too - plays, movies, poems, novels, memoirs, sketch comedy, photography - art is long and life is short, and there's never enough time to do everything. Most of my journalism was written when I lived in New York City, where I grew up, but when I ran into Enci a few months ago at the Odyssey, I asked if there's was a place for me at the revamped website, and she said yes and introduced me to Ashley Steed, and the "Twisted Hipster" was born. I've really enjoyed getting back to that. And then when she approached me a week ago about taking on this editorial job, I tried my best to say no. I've had a great experience with Ashley, and I really didn't see myself as a good choice. Time may prove my first instinct right, who knows, but when Enci mentioned that she wanted to expand Better-Lemons into a website that could cover all the arts - or provide as much coverage as possible - then I did see a role I could play in making that happen. While the majority of my writing has been about theater, I've also written quite a bit about film, painting and literature. I've also written about politics, and - on the hard news side - I was the only journalist to meet with boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in maximum security prison (when I was 24) between the time of his re-conviction for double murder and his release by a Federal Judge. So I thought that this could be a good opportunity to make use of my varied background and very unusual skill-set, to connect with other writers and provide whatever guidance and insight my experience has given me. And perspective - yes, perhaps the only great thing about getting older - other than the fact that I'm still here - is that I have a hell of a lot more perspective about what is possible and what is important than I used to. And I hope that this can be of some help to the other writers at Better-Lemons. I do know what draws me into a story and what repels me as well, and I will be quick to let you know when I think you're on to something, or when you've strayed off the path - a path that was probably your idea in the first place.
The other thing is, I really believe in the importance of Better-Lemons and the service that it provides, both to the arts community and to readers. Having been a playwright and book writer, working almost exclusively on the indie level of little if any publicity and very small budgets, I know how hard it is to get coverage, even when I've done something that is well-reviewed. I also know that feeling of having shouted at the top of my voice and having still not been heard. The variety of artistic activity in the Los Angeles area is overwhelming, and the majority of it is not taking place at large institutions like Center Theatre Group or Disney Hall or LACMA. (Not that those places don't deserve our attention as well, especially when they make bold choices and take risks.) In many cases, we are the only media outlet that will shine a light on outstanding work that otherwise would go unnoticed. It's also up to us to provide alternative points of view for looking at artists and artistic activity that will expand the reader's perspective and get a dialogue going. And that kind of dialogue - which is so essential to the purpose of art, and to the ongoing life of a functioning democracy - has never been more necessary than at the present moment, when Trump and his minions are trying so hard to demonize the Other - whoever that happens to be at any particular time - and to shut down dialogue and debate.
As I've written in my columns, the current social climate is not business as usual for this so-called democracy. As bad as things have gotten under other presidents, I've never felt so threatened and so outside the mainstream as I do now. It was the primary reason that I asked Enci if there was a place for me at Better-Lemons, because it didn't feel right anymore to sit at home working on screenplays that will not be seen for two or three years, if indeed they're ever made. As much as I need to make money - never more than now, when I have a daughter entering USC Film School next fall - I really felt the need to get my voice out there and make an impact. Not allow myself to be silenced, not allow other writers with something to say and the ability to say it to be denied that basic right to have your point of view heard. And you have my word that I will do everything I can to support your voice, whether I agree with your opinion or not, as long as it's sincere and makes a positive contribution to the social dialogue. There are limitations on what I can do, of course - time, energy, all those things - but I will certainly be there as much as I can to support whatever you have it in mind to do. (My technical limitations are another thing - I'm doing my best to get up to speed on the workings of the website, and I'm not Luddite, but please have patience with me at the outset.) I believe that there is something sacred in what we're doing, in the service we're providing, in a time of such hate-filled rhetoric and intolerance. So much of that hate and anger is voiced by people in the shadows, and we are there to shine a light and bring attention to works of artistic merit that provide a counterpoint to an implicit or explicit censorship.
Finally, I just want to thank Ashley Steed again for all her hard work and for her encouragement along the way, which will be missed, no doubt, but which I will do my best to emulate. And I want to thank Enci Box for continuing the mission of Better-Lemons to provide a grassroots view of art and artists and artistic activity in the Los Angeles area. I have known Enci for 12 years now, ever since she was cast in a production of a play I adapted, and I've always known her heart to be in the right place. I am humbled by your belief in me, and I will do my best to make you feel good about your choice.
Looking forward to getting to know all the writers and to hearing more from the readers and to publishing great columns and articles and interviews - and to making a difference in the way people view the arts and the role it plays in their lives. And here we go.
The Cabrillo Music Theatre, nestled in Ventura County, has been a theatre force to be reckon with for over 30 years. CMT consistently produces award-winning productions, along with providing outreach programs to kids, seniors and the military to give back to the community. Just this year, CMT welcomed to their board of directors, their new Managing Director Will North. Better Lemons and I had the chance to exchange a few words of inquiry and responses amidst Will's multi-tasking schedule.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview with Better Lemons and myself, Will.
Sooo, to begin with... Who, what, where, why brought you into your still relatively new position of Cabrillo Music Theatre's Managing Director?
It is interesting, indeed. I, of course, began as a musical theatre performer as a kid. Did my first Equity show at 12, then really went through a period of time going from show-to-show-to-show playing leads as a performer all the way through my MFA program. Then, continued to perform professionally after that. At the same time, I directed my first show at age 18. My philosophy was always: I am a storyteller. I want to stay in the theatre (the building) always, in whatever capacity, whether on stage or directing. That philosophy led me to eventually tech, direct and produce as well. Simultaneously, I had some tremendous opportunities in the business side of entertainment that allowed me valuable experience on that side of things. So, this position truly is a situation of me being led to a place where every bit of my training and experience is highly relevant.
Your business resume is equally extensive and impressive as your theatrical resume. Would I be assuming correctly that your business accomplishments came before your theatrical?
Theatre came first, because I basically grew up on stage.
You earned a Masters of Fine Arts in acting pedagogy from the University of Alabama, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theatre from Jacksonville University. What exactly is an "acting pedagogy"? I've never heard of a "pedagogy.”
"Pedagogy" is the method or practice of teaching. In my MFA program, I studied the methods of acting conceived by the greats and how to teach them. I got both a broad and deep survey of all the various methods of acting—in-to-out, emotional-based approaches, as well as, movement-based, out-to-in approaches. I graduated with a valuable toolbox of techniques to both unlock roles that I portray and the roles for the actors I direct. The University of Alabama has an excellent program.
Did you receive your business acumen from formal training? Or from your assistant stint at the William Morris Agency?
I did not receive formal business training. All of my business knowledge comes from doing. I have worked closely with the marketing department of Mattel since 2005, and that has been an extremely valuable learning experience in the marketing and PR side of things. Also, working with Abel McCallister Designs taught me a great deal about producing. However, yes, as assistant to Sam Haskell (though immediately after his William Morris days), I learned many things, including contracts, budgets, and other important lessons. I was there as he produced the Miss America Live, Miss America Reality Check, his 60-city book tour for his bestseller; among many, many others. So, yes to your point. I have spent quality time in marketing, PR, production, and the agent side of entertainment—but have had no formal business training. I guess you can say I am an advocate for getting a degree in what one is passionate about. I fully believe following one's passions will open the right doors. All of that time spent in the theatre department made me more than comfortable speaking in front of large crowds, and helping me be an effective communicator. So, yes, one can have a career that is congruent with one's degree choice—even in theatre (said he with a smile of amazement).
I would think that the position of CMT's managing director would be the perfect outlet for merging your creative and business talents. Could you give the Better Lemons readers an example of a typical work week at Cabrillo Music Theatre?
You are correct in your assessment. And already my short time here has been greatly fulfilling, rewarding, and the perfect blend of my passions and skills. To give you a typical week is impossible. No one week is like the other—yet another reason for why I thrive in this environment. Audition weeks are different than rehearsal weeks, which are different from production weeks, which are different from planning weeks. For someone like myself, who gets bored VERY easily and quickly with routine; it is a dream situation.
Does this executive position allow any leeway for you to take time off to rehearse for an acting or singing gig?
I don't really ever take time off; my phone is always within reach. But I do have time to squeeze in quick gigs here and there that don't take a large time commitment. You may have seen me on the barrage of Chrysler Pacifica commercials that have been running all year (said he with a wink). When I interviewed, someone asked when did I stop performing and just direct and produce. I answered, “I didn't realize I had stopped.” Obviously, a majority of my time is spent producing and directing, but I would hope I will always sing and perform as well.
Do you plan to be performing in or directing any future CMT shows?
Well, I am super excited to be directing the first show of our 2017-18 season, JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT! I have a very specific vision for this show, which includes updating the choreography for 2017. I want to bring one of the masters of hip hop choreography, Dave Scott, on board to do just that. Cannot wait to work with him! Performing? Stay tuned.
For our Patrón drinkers and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf patrons, can you share what your experimental event marketing for those two brands were?
I was producer for the Patrón Aficionados tour in 2015 (that went to all of the major cities in the US), as well as, events such as Celebrity Fight Night in AZ, Bloom Fest in San Diego, and many more activations across the country. For Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, it was more SoCal-based, doing activations at the Emmys, Nickelodeon Kid's Choice Awards, etc.
You've performed in a variety of major venues across the States - Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Disney World and the Celebrity Galaxy Cruise Ship, to name a few. Can you pick an element or two of each's wonderfulness that you would love to incorporate into CMT?
They are all so unique and different. What we have here at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza is unique and great in its own right. So from a venue standpoint, I don't know that I would change too much. But let me answer your question in another way. I do plan to perform in other venues while still continuing our yearly schedule at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. There are some projects and shows that simply don't work in an 1800-seat space (amazing as our venue is for the large-scale musicals). But these other shows and concepts I believe are very relevant, and I am very committed to producing.
What did you learn from the various challenges you encountered in all these different venues that you're bringing to CMT?
Again, the venues you list that I have performed in were all top notch. The venues themselves didn't really pose any particular challenges to speak of. I guess if anything, the level of quality—not that Cabrillo ever lacked quality—I think the shows have always been top notch. But I guess what I am saying is elevating the brand to a place of national notoriety. Eventually, I want actors in NYC, when they see a casting call for a Cabrillo show, to understand the quality and artistic excellence that that implies. There are a handful of regional theatres in the US that everyone knows the name of. I want Cabrillo on that list.
You had EVITA, now SISTER ACT and PETER PAN planned for your current season. Can you give us a hint as to what you're shooting for next season? Or is it too early?
Next season is: JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT (as I mentioned I'm directing, said he with excitement.), DISNEY'S HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and another Disney Classic that I can't announce until July.
For a future CMT production, what would your biggest get be?
That I don't want to let the secret out on. But I will say, I am committed to doing West Coast premieres here at Cabrillo.
For a future Will North project, what role would you still like to conquer?
Oh, I certainly have my list: Javert in LES MISERABLES, Sweeney in SWEENEY TODD, Floyd in FLOYD COLLINS, George in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, Archibald in SECRET GARDEN, the Russian in CHESS, and more recently, Pierre in NATASHA PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812…to name a few.
In regards to CMT's “Beyond the Footlights” program, what goals have been met and what future goals have you set for it?
While we are committed to producing Broadway-quality shows, we will always give back to the community—and that is a priority for us. Our kids and teens programs, outreach to senior centers through performance, our free Christmas show to the troops on the naval base in Oxnard, CA, "Buy a Bus" program to bus in kids to see our performances who otherwise might not get the chance, as well as, other causes/programs will continue to be a part of who we are as an organization.
Any other thoughts you'd like to add on the future of CMT? The future is extremely bright for Cabrillo Music Theatre.We will continue to produce Broadway-caliber shows here at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. We look forward to expanding our footprint to other venues and experiences in the very near future.
Thank you again, Will!
For further info, tickets and scheduling of Cabrillo Music Theatre's current season of musicals (SISTER ACT begins April 21, PETER PAN on July 14), visit www.cabrillomusictheatre.com
After a critically acclaimed run in 2010, Michael Leoni returns to Los Angeles bringing his creation ELEVATOR to The Coast Playhouse. I had the extremely incredible opportunity to experience his opening night March 25. This is one ELEVATOR you never want to get off of - but they will get you off!!! It's a totally involving, fast-paced, ninety-minutes stuck in an elevator with seven of the most disparate characters one could put together - always surprising, chocked full with sight-gags and great visual effects; and powered by a very talented cast of actors (with some great voices and some intentionally hysterically bad dancing).
During his final week of rehearsals, Better Lemons and I had the chance to have Michael break away to answer some of our probing questions.
Thank you, Michael for agreeing to this interview with Better Lemons and myself.
Your ELEVATOR had a critically acclaimed ten-month run in Los Angeles back in 2010-2011. What prompted you to bring ELEVATOR back to LA?
It just seemed like the right time. This play brings a lot of love, heart, and humor; and I think that's incredibly important right now. The world is changing so much. It just seems that now more than ever we all need to connect with each other, more than anything else.
Have you made any tweaks to your 2010 version of ELEVATOR?
Yes. After we first mounted the show back in 2010, I spent a lot of time talking to audience members. I wanted to see what parts they connected to and which characters they related to. The heart of this show is about who we really are behind closed doors—it's about shedding our masks and showing who we really are as people. I feel like I've grown a lot since we first opened the play, and naturally, have shed more of my own mask. So, it compelled me to look at the characters to see how I could make them more authentic, make the show more poignant, and really take the audience through a deeper journey of discovery.
What would your short pitch of ELEVATOR be to potential producers?
I think we can all relate to at least one person in the elevator and what they are going through. ELEVATOR really is a show for everyone; it's about life and who we are deep down as humans. It's a comedy with a ton of heart. The show previously ran for ten months during 2010-2011 and we found that people were coming with their families (grandkids with their grandparents; parents with their kids) and with their friends. We felt like it really did cross the boundaries of generations.
ELEVATOR is based on your 2008 short film Someplace in Between. What initially inspired you to write Someplace in Between?
I got stuck in an elevator—which is one of my biggest fears. Sitting there with all those different people, I found myself looking at them and thinking I could die with these people. It struck me that this could be a funny short, if we could actually hear the thoughts in their head. When I would walk down the street, I'd look at the people around me, and wonder what each person could be thinking, what is the voice-over in their head, and what do we all think about. So, I combined both ideas into the film. Then once it was in festivals, I just had the idea that it might work well on stage, too. I re-wrote it over the course of a weekend and we mounted it in the first annual Hollywood Fringe Festival.
What was your thought process of adapting your short film into a play, instead of a feature-length film or in some other medium?
I felt that as a film, it would be fine, but as a live theater experience with an audience right there in the elevator with the actors, you could do more stylized things. It's really interesting to see the fast forward of time and all these kind of musical sequences live versus on film, which I don't think would have broke any boundaries. The stage show is very cinematic in the way that it is being stylized. I have always wanted to bring film technique into theater, and theater technique to film, crossing those mediums.
We have a New York/Off-Broadway set designer, and are really upping the production value. This is definitely going to be an experience that hasn't been done in a 99-seat world. Everyone asks, "How do you make a show in a box be entertaining for 90-minutes?" The audience response from ELEVATOR is that they feel like they are literally watching a film. It moves quickly, it's fast-paced, and at the core, has a lot of heart and is a lot of fun. And, especially with the way we are presenting it now, the audience will feel like they are going to be on the ride.
Have you worked with any of the Coast Playhouse cast or creatives before?
Yes, on the creative team, Michelle Kaufer (producer), David Goldstein (lighting and scenic design), and Mario Marchetti (music and sound design) are returning. For the cast, Deborah Vancelette (CEO Woman), William Stanford Davis (Maintenance Man), Erica Katzin (Temp), Karsen Rigby (Hot Girl), and Tyler Tanner (Cyrus) are returning.
What advantages or challenges do you find in working in theatre, as opposed to working in film? Film's obvious plus is its ability of reaching a much larger audience.
In film, if you don't like a take; you can stop, go back, and reshoot to get it right. With theater, it's live. It's all prep. In order for me, as a director, to get that kind of raw truth from my actors, I have to break them down as people. We are telling a story about love, connection, shedding our masks, and being unafraid to let our guard down and let our truths come out. As a director, as an actor; we have to take our own masks off to bring that raw truth in, and it's live. I am asking the cast to be completely present for 90 minutes in this elevator, and once it is goes, it's going. You cannot stop it. But, the cast is prepped, trained, and ready to go. Every show is different. Every audience is different. You never know what they are going to be like. We are all trained to go with it and have fun with each other. Especially with this show, I spent a lot of time having the actors bond with each other, so they are a team up there. They support each other and have each other's backs on stage.
You wet your directing whistle in Boston with HAIR, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, and FALSETTOS. Do you find it easier or harder (or just a different animal) having musical beats connecting the plot vs. dramatic beats in a drama or comedic bits in a comedy? Which genre do you prefer to direct?
I like all of it. For me, it is important to have projects that are going to wake people up, whether through music, through song. Every play I do always has some kind of music element. I love music and think it is a crucial tool to move the story forward. You will see the technique we use in ELEVATOR. Whatever I am working on has got to be something that is going to wake a person up, something that is really going to inspire someone to change. That is what I am really all about. Getting the truth, whether it is through music or through dialogue.
What is the significance behind the name of your production company ‘An 11:11 Experience'?
The significance of the name is that it represents a moment in time when you are connected to all, connected to yourself, to everyone around; and knowing we are one, focusing on the connection and on the experience. And, the story behind it—I would regularly look at the clock and see the time at 11:11. My producing partner and I looked it up on the internet, and it basically told us that it was the universe tapping you on the shoulder and letting you know that you are in the right place at the right time.
A number of your projects deal with homeless kids - American Street Kid, THE PLAYGROUND. Tell us about the Spare Some Change organization you founded.
When I was shooting the documentary American Street Kid, I realized that what was being offered out there for the kids wasn't enough. My business partners and I decided we had to create a non-profit that helped these kids. After spending eight years on American Street Kid, we got a clearer picture of what the kids needed and what wasn't there. We did our best to set up an organization that provided what them needed. With the success of American Street Kid, things started to get moving, and we're hoping to spread Spare Some Change all around the country to help homeless youth. And, even right now, we have an ex-homeless youth that got off the streets and is working on ELEVATOR. We are always trying to provide kids job opportunities in any project we do, to keep them working, to keep them active and feeling inspired.
Would you share with our Better Lemons readers your first-hand knowledge of the benefits of an arts education or even arts awareness for our younger generation?
I think arts education is essential and that everyone should be involved or have access to some sort of art program. I can't say it enough. I had some jock friends when I was in school, and they could be so closed-minded about the arts. But then, sometimes I would cast a show and bring them in. They were jocks and bullies, but when they were together with theater people, I watched the connection grow between them. Seeing that change, made me realize how beautiful it is, when people are open and working together on something creative. That is essential.
What piece of art inspired you as a youth?
Looking back, RENT was a big influence for me. It was new, unique, and edgy; and it spoke to that generation. I was young, but I got it. It was something that was there for a younger generation that looked at theater differently. When I thought of theater, it was musicals like GUYS AND DOLLS, and that didn't get me inspired, but RENT did. Seeing the struggling artists, the friendships, and all the stuff they were dealing with. Jonathan Larson is a hero of mine. I think he is incredible, how he woke up a generation.
What would you like to see Spare Some Change achieving in ten years?
An important part of Spare Some Change is building and funding The Change House, a two-year program to help change the lives of kids who've lived on the streets. I also want a national mentoring program in every major city that inspires kids to get off the streets and help them to believe in themselves. That, in short, is our goal.
What do you see Michael Leoni achieving in ten years?
I am doing what I love right now, and I am going to continue to do what I love, which is creating art that inspires change and connects one another and audiences.
What would you like the Coast Playhouse audiences to leave with after ELEVATOR's curtain call?
We didn't know what we had when we first premiered ELEVATOR. So, to watch audience members look at one another differently, to see people hugging strangers after the show, there was so much love and support of one another. I would hope that you leave the show looking at yourself and looking at others, and opening your mind to who people really are when they take off their masks. I hope you walk out with a lot of hope and a lot of love for life. After one of the shows, a woman asked me if I was the writer. I said, "Yes!" She then told me that she was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor and given a few months to live. She told me that this show inspired her to keep living and to live life to the fullest. Those are the kind of reasons we do what we do.
Any closing thoughts, Michael?
One of the things we hope for is that the community embraces us, and we connect with our WeHo neighbors, our LA audience, and we build a home here for ELEVATOR. We are hoping to stay here for a while.
Thank you again, Michael for taking the time for this interview.
To experience your own ride with the seven craziest, most interesting people you thought you would never want to meet, log onto plays411.com/elevator for available tickets. Should be a very good chance that Michael Leoni's ELEVATOR will get extended beyond their original closing date of April 30, 2017.
There is a transcendent moment when the singers give themselves over to the song. They are not just singing, they are also revealing themselves, their deepest pains and most ecstatic dreams. Sometimes for a moment you can see them get lost in the music and become someone else.
Lee Solomon sings at the Jazz Vocal Workshop (all photos by E. Lorenzetti)
This is as you might expect not as effortless as it appears. It works requires practice, practice and more practice. And nearly every Tuesday night for years now, a very unassuming man named Howlett Smith has pushed his students at the World Stage performance and gallery space in Leimert Park to work harder at their craft – and while he isn't cruel, he is very demanding. The workshop is attended by both professional singers and inexperienced performers – he says he often prefers newcomers because they have fewer bad habits – but whatever their expertise, everyone here calls him Mr. Smith.
Even if you don't like jazz, you probably know who Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk were. You probably don't know Mr. Smith, 84 – a composer who has written more songs than he cares to count. After you begin to hear about him and his expansive career, you'll be wondering why you don't know his name too. Mr. Smith's most important legacy might not be found in his resume or songs – but with his students, who work with him either privately or at the workshop. They come to learn from the man who several of them describe as a "master."
"I tell them all the time in class that when I'm out of here, when I'm gone and can't monitor what you're doing, you will do what you want to do," Smith says. "I already know this – but I still want you to learn what I've learned, and learn my legacy and pass it on keep it alive" or else, he warns, "be stuck with inferior music."
Born blind in racially segregated Phoenix, Smith already knew he wanted to be a musician by the time he was 6, and when he first heard the Nat King Cole trio, he knew what kind of musician he was: a jazz pianist. Smith has said that jazz was his salvation, and if hearing classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz intimidated him, it was Cole who gave him the courage to keep playing.
"I already knew that I wanted to be a musician, I knew that always," he tells me in a small apartment in Palms, sitting near the two metal file cabinets that contain the only copies of the hundreds of compositions he has written through the years. They are his archives. He has no idea exactly how many songs he has written because, as he says, "I don't know cause I'm afraid I'd be disappointed." He laughs when he says this – Mr. Smith is not a bitter man.
I first encountered Mr. Smith a few years ago at the World Stage's old space which is across the street from the new one. At the time, The World Stage's very existence was threatened, and everyone there was a bit nervous about whether it would continue – but they survived, and the new space is more spacious and inviting than the old one. What struck me most that night was seeing Smith work with Yolanda, a woman who suffered a stroke, on stage at the workshop. She didn't give up either. She came that night in her wheelchair, still working her craft. Smith heard her familiar voice, and said, "Yolanda, I'm so happy to see you. Sing a song for me."
Yolanda sang "Memories of You" by Eubie Blake, a song Mr. Smith chose for her to work on. He instructed her on what exact line to take a breath – "here and there, everywhere." Smith sang with her, reminding her again and again to breathe – "breathe, breathe breathe" said Yolanda, drilling it into herself. "What's happening is you're not feeling the music – you've got to feel the music," he told her.
"It's not an easy song, Mr. Smith," Yolanda said. He replied, "I know it's not an easy song, but I will show you no mercy." He paused for a few seconds, then added, "You're going to be a good singer, Yolanda." She was visibly tired after her workout with Mr. Smith – she released a great breath, and relaxed when she was finally done.
"You have to evaluate people as a teacher or as a coach, and you know that if you tell them too much, they're going to get discouraged," Smith says. "When they deserve it, you offer them praise." He tells me this in the compact studio he has in his apartment where three keyboards and a Macintosh compete for space, leaving a small gap between them just barely big enough for Mr. Smith to navigate. There are hundreds of cassettes stacked in neat rows along the wall, and a few feet away, are those two file cabinets containing his life's work. Numerous certificates and awards from the likes of former Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden and Mayor James J. Hahn are displayed on the walls. Mr. Smith claims he doesn't care about any of that stuff, that somebody just puts it up there for him. It is a very simple place, not unlike the man himself who tends to be very direct and not always expansive when talking about his life and career.
He offers private lessons here, but you have to audition to get in, and he has turned away a few students over the years. Anyone can come to the Tuesday night workshop at the World Stage, but wherever he teaches, Mr. Smith doesn't want anyone to ever quit, but to persevere and work harder. "The people I work with – none of them work as hard as I want them to work on practicing everyday and paying attention to their craft and I wish they would work harder and get more serious about it because you can't do music without practice and you must practice industriously," Smith says.
Mr. Smith was already playing and practicing piano by the time he was 8 – he'd wanted to start a few years earlier, but his family told him his hands were still too small. He doesn't claim that his blindness had any influence on him becoming a musician, or that his sense of hearing was somehow better developed because of it. During conversation, he maintains steady eye contact with the speaker, so that you might occasionally forget that he is blind.
Music came to him naturally – perhaps because there were several musicians in his family, or because many people in those days had pianos in their homes. He had been hearing little melodies and snippets of song in his mind since as early as 3 or 4. He may have had a wayward year or two when he doubted music was what he wanted, but by the time he was 10, Smith suffered no more reservations, got serious and never let go of it.
"But on the other hand, I had to work at everything else I have in life," Mr. Smith says. His work ethic is what gained him acceptance among peers at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind, who, despite sharing similar challenges, did not accept him immediately. Smith claims he battled institutional racism at that school until he left at the age of 18. While many of the students supported this struggle, he believes others harbored racist thoughts themselves. He kept working anyway. He always got excellent grades. When he won just about every award at a school assembly, he could hear all of the students clapping for him together, a moment that thrilled him. It was not just his success that got him their recognition, it was also their realization that everyone at the school was confronting similar problems, whatever their skin color.
"I used to think my hair was the best hair in school – I was very proud of it – and I used to feel the Mexicans and the whites and Indians hair and I think to myself, well this is nice, but look at my hair, they don't have this," he says, laughing at the memory. "And then I learned that you're not only inferior with your hair but in other ways." When he and about 30 other students went to a Phoenix lunch counter in 1953, Smith was refused service. In a silent sign of solidarity for the kid they all called "Smitty," the other students rose up together and walked out.
"It made me feel very good, it was worth it just to get that feeling," he says now of that memory. Residential segregation in Phoenix was not legislated at that time, but blacks and whites were kept separate by an unofficial refusal to sell blacks homes in predominantly white neighborhoods, something that still persists to this day, according to author Kenneth LaFave. 1953 was the same year racial segregation was outlawed in the Phoenix schools – a full year before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. Smith claims no direct connection between his experience at that lunch counter that day and what transpired shortly thereafter, but he says, "We proved that segregation is a myth, that it doesn't have to be." Today he says what really weighs on his heart is that there is still so much racism left in this country, and for a moment his voice catches. "I believe fervently that all the races can get along and they can mix and go about their business. After all, that's what the Kingdom is going to be like, so we may as well get used to it now."
Let's go where the grass is greener,
for the grass is greener just beyond the hill.
We'll laugh it up at troubles there,
no one bursting bubbles there.
Day after day there'll be thrills after thrills,
So, let's go where the grass is greener,
where the grass is greener and skies are ever blue.
To the east, to the west, either one is the best,
for the grass is greener everywhere there's you.
--The Grass is Greener, composed by Howlett Smith
and recorded by Nancy Wilson in 1964
When he came to Los Angeles in 1959 after graduating from the University of Arizona, the city seemed for a time like what he calls Heaven on Earth, where different races were living side by side instead of separated by arbitrary rules. He first moved to 47th street and Western. "When we moved into our neighborhood, it was properly integrated – it had Asians and whites and blacks, and everybody was thrown in together. It was just wonderful – but then white flight began, and they moved out to the Valley" he says, and over the years the city lost its appeal for him – gradually becoming more violent and crowded. But Mr. Smith never left his adopted city, raising a family here, always working on his craft, and eventually becoming a mentor to countless singers. He's been teaching for probably more than fifty years.
Smith was turned onto teaching by his instructors at the School for the Deaf and Blind, and they showed him the sacrifice being a good mentor requires. They worked weekends and after regular hours, and his best teachers did not dictate their ideas – they presented arguments, some devoting an entire class period to showing students both their own viewpoint and opposing ideas. They gave their students the power of making their own choices – but also stringently taught them musical theory, and the dedication making music requires. "As soon as theory class was over, I began to break the rules," Mr. Smith says, "but not before I learned them."
(Lto R) Hillard Street, Sandra Renee Williams and Howlett Smith
His students begin to arrive at the World Stage in a steady trickle by 7p.m.and the room is soon filled with more than 20 people on some nights, but as few as four or five on others. You have to get there early most nights – Smith works with each student for about 10 minutes, and it's on a first come, first served basis. People sign up at the door, greetings abound, hugs between comrades and friends. He sits behind a piano on a tiny narrow stage, a sign asking for a $10 donation set before him. The crowd is well-versed. If you forget the exact words to the song you're singing, someone in the room will not unkindly correct you. Good singing, Mr. Smith says, requires an audience, and here you will get an appreciative and knowledgeable one. Some students repeatedly work on a single line as they navigate a song, others get a few comments from Mr. Smith only after they are finished. Class never goes past 10pm. and always ends the same way – everyone sings "Don't let what you don't know disturb what you do know" – a phrase that Smith first heard in Bible study class, and which he set to to music.
He's been teaching the workshop for about 7 years now. Smith gets discouraged sometimes when the class size dwindles down to a handful, thinking someone is trying to tell him something, but then new students start drifting in again, and before he knows it, the room is full again. He is not sure how people find out about him, but they do, and they are deeply appreciative of him. René Fisher-Mims (aka Mama Ne-Ne) has been helping manage the World Stage for twenty years, always hustling to help keep the doors open for a valuable venue in an underserved community, and says they are blessed to have someone as over-qualified as Smith for such a humble position.
Arienne Battiste and Howlett Smith
Arienne Battiste, a singer who trains with Smith and has collaborated with him on several projects, took her first class at the World Stage when he was ill. She found the teacher's approach that night arbitrary, and decided not to return. But something called her back – call it Spirit if you will – and when she got there everyone was saying, "Oh Mr. Smith, we're so glad your back." She saw a little man with grey hair sitting at the piano–and saw that he could figure out what key a song was in, and immediately begin giving the singers specific instructions. And the singers improved as she watched. Only then realizing Smith was blind, she quickly recognized his talents as a teacher.
"And I went up on stage and I sang, 'There Will Never Be Another You'," that was the first song I sang with him, and he said, "Well, where have you been?" She began working with his Harmony Choir, and became part of Smith's inner circle. She doesn't believe in coincidence, and now sees it as her calling to help him regain his legacy – it is what the universe has asked her to do, she says. She is working with the Howlett Smith Legacy Project to digitize and archive his music.
Most of us, no matter how hard-working or committed to our craft we might be, do not attain the legacy of a Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk – that's more a question of fate, largely out of our hands to control. But before his death in 1995, Larry Gales, who played bass for the Thelonious Monk quintet, told the L.A. Times that Smith was serious, sentimental and funny, but never routine – and put him in the same league as Davis and Monk.
So the question still lingers – why isn't this man better known? A few of his songs are still remembered– like "Little Altar Boy," which was recorded by Andy Williams, Glen Campbell and The Carpenters–but his name is not. He served as musical director for "Me and Bessie," a project with blues and gospel singer Linda Hopkins that went to Broadway in 1975 and ran more than a year. He has written several musicals, directed multiple church choirs and written all those songs that clamor for space in his file cabinets. Battiste believes his obscurity may stem from Smith having been burned in the "sighted world" by associates who made promises they did not keep. Maybe it's because, as Smith says, "I'm not a very vociferous person when it comes to blowing my own horn."
He is also a man of deeply felt religious conviction, and as a Seventh-Day Adventist, gave up playing gigs from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset – primetime for any musician. He did this willingly and without reservation, but he also passed up other opportunities to tour Europe or play any number of nightclubs. During his twenty year residency at the now defunct Bob Burns restaurant, he never played once on the Sabbath. If he suffers from regret, it is from never having found a good manager, describing himself as the worst businessman ever.
Smith is someone with ideas of his own, and he can be very stubborn. He rarely compromises. He almost ended a recording session with a singer who wanted to pronounce the word "stream" as "strum"–a confrontation that nearly came to blows. Another musical project ended after he and another composer disagreed over a lyric. Smith doesn't quote the exact line, but says "I'm not going to have one of my melodies subjected to a lyric like that." He wrote a song called "Visit Me" and legendary Jazz singer Nancy Wilson wanted to record it, but she wanted the phrase "frying pan" taken out of the line "I'll take my frying pan and my electric fan." Smith, who painstakingly crafts his lyrics, refused. "That could've been thousands of dollars for me, but I don't care. It's not about money, it's about the principal. I wanted a frying pan in the song, and you either sing it the way I wrote it, or you find something else. And she chose to find something else," he says, again laughing. "Can you imagine a black woman not saying frying pan? I mean, come on," he adds.
These stories might lead you to conclude that Mr. Smith's relative obscurity comes from being a bit too principled for his own good. Maybe so, but Smith also says he considers everything he has written a work in progress, and says any of his songs could be expanded or rewritten at any time. If a singer comes in late in the process wanting to change his lyrics, Smith might consider it if they could propose a better idea. Changing a word or two of the song to make it easier to sing, whether it's written by him or someone else, is not acceptable.
Younger people can still incorporate their own ideas into what he is teaching – but they still have to know the rules, and Mr. Smith teaches them with the same demands for discipline and self-sacrifice that he always made of himself. The most important rule: Phrasing is logical, and the sentence structure of a song determines when the singer should take a breath. Many singers simply do not breathe in the right place, and Smith is relentless is requiring that they learn how to do this properly. There is no singer that can't be criticized, or pushed to try just a little harder.
Mr. Smith will continue teaching for as long as he can. The devotion of his students proves that fame is not the only criteria by which we should take the measure of a lifetime. And if you ask him, it's pretty simple what his legacy will be. "My legacy is music, and it always has been and it always will be," he says, "A man who totally devoted himself to music – a man who wrote it, lived it and performed it."
In a recent interview, Damien Chazelle (Director of “La La Land”), said that his initial impression of Los Angeles being a cultural vacuum changed after he moved here from the East Coast. He found that LA is a fascinating city, rich in history and beautiful. Thanks to the methodically creative compositions of Justin Hurwitz, the original soundtrack of “La La Land” is a splendid mix of memorable award-winning music. The film “La La Land” is a musical love letter to Los Angeles and is shining a beacon on jazz music.
In “La La Land,” the character Keith (John Legend) critically lectures Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in a scene at a recording studio; “How are you gonna save jazz if no one is listening? … You're playing to 90-year-olds at The Lighthouse. Where are the kids… the young people? ... You're holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Jazz is a true American art form that began in New Orleans during the 1800's and is an evolutionary music genre, from which many of the popular genres we listen to today have developed. Even in “La La Land” John Legend's character Keith combines jazz with modern electronic pop music to appeal to a younger and bigger music buying audience.
Once upon a time, Los Angeles was all about West Coast jazz and there were many clubs all over the city and adjacent neighborhoods. The Sunset Strip had so many jazz clubs back in the early 1950's that you could park your car in one spot and walk to a choice of several clubs to hear live jazz within a four block radius. Hermosa Beach (20 miles southwest of Downtown LA) has been home to The Lighthouse Café jazz club since 1949 and was featured in “La La Land” as a location and important character of its own as part of the story. The ninety-year-old that Keith refers to in the scene I noted is Gloria Cadena (91) who is the jazz booker for The Lighthouse Café. In the past, jazz was played there seven nights a week, but in recent years Gloria books jazz bands only on Wednesday nights and Saturday and Sunday afternoons. To attract more customers to the club on the other nights, local bands and artists that play music from rock to reggae are booked through another manager at The Lighthouse Café. Gloria's late husband, Ozzie Cadena, was a jazz record producer and promoter in Los Angeles. He promoted The Lighthouse and is credited with helping to popularize jazz in Los Angeles.
Since “La La Land” was released in early December 2016, The Lighthouse Café has become a popular destination for tourists, fans and locals alike. Just about a month before this phenomenon occurred, Mark Sonners opened his art gallery, Gallery Exposure, in the front portion of his fine art printing company, Print and Show. His gallery and shop are located in the quaint Old Town Village in Torrance, California about four miles southeast of Hermosa Beach where The Lighthouse Cafe sits. Mark Sonners has been very successful in the commercial printing business for many years, but after the Northridge earthquake destroyed his shop and the rise of digital image formats and decline in the traditional printing, he moved from the San Fernando Valley to the South Bay region of LA and settled in Hermosa Beach, just a few blocks from The Lighthouse Café and was delighted to have a club where he could enjoy live jazz. When he lived in the SFV, he used to be a regular at jazz clubs like Charlie O's, Dante's (both closed) and occasionally The Baked Potato which is still there.
Being an ardent jazz fan and photographer, Mark began taking pictures of the brilliant jazz players who perform at The Lighthouse and got to know Gloria Cadena and saw the legendary Howard Rumsey (bassist) who started playing jazz with his band at The Lighthouse in 1949. Mark's knowledge of jazz from its roots through its evolution into many new music styles is only exceeded by his passion for jazz music itself. His photography exhibit reflects his love for jazz played at The Lighthouse Café.
The Lighthouse – café was added to the name of the club many years later – was a very important establishment in West Coast jazz with famous players like Miles Davis, Ramsey Lewis, Art Pepper, Shorty Rogers, Mose Allison, Stan Getz, The Jazz Crusaders, Cal Tjder, and more. These artists I listed all recorded live albums there. Mark Sonners has been snapping the current players at The Lighthouse and his show is a reflection of the club today. Also showing at Gallery Exposure are some select prints from photographer Chuck Koton who has dedicated the last fifteen years to documenting jazz musicians with his photography.
Mark Sonners, jazz musicians, fans and I would love to see a resurgence of the popularity of jazz, particularly West Coast jazz. When Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) declared to Mia (Emma Stone) that jazz was dying he wasn't kidding. In America, the land of its birth, jazz clubs are closing and becoming other types of venues; jazz radio stations are switching their format to other genres, and even at the
Grammys, the jazz categories of awards are not televised. Gregory Porter won his second Grammy Award for Jazz Vocal Album of the Year in 2017 for “Take Me To The Alley” and he happens to be a Californian. His first Grammy Award was in 2014 for “Liquid Spirit.” Yet Gregory Porter was not part of the live performances during the televised Grammy Awards. None of the jazz nominees performed for the “main” show. Al Jarreau passed away on the day of the Grammy Awards and he was barely mentioned during the live show. Music fans in other countries like Japan, Italy, Germany and The Netherlands seem to revere jazz more than we do and they keep it alive. Young jazz musicians from those countries make their way to the USA thinking that jazz still thrives here, but find themselves among a minority of young people who appreciate and know the rich history of jazz in America.
If “La La Land” has sparked a renewed interest in jazz and a curiosity among Millennials to listen and learn about it then let the spark burst into a flame that will help save jazz in the USA. So far, the multi-award winning film has shined a beacon on The Lighthouse Café and people are following the beam of light to the club to hear jazz in numbers they haven't seen there in years. If the crowds continue Gloria might be able to book jazz artists there more than three days a week and attract the big names in jazz to play there again. The Lighthouse can also help guide music fans from all over America to have an interest in West Coast jazz and recognize it for the revolutionary and evolutionary cultural art form that it is. That is the La La Land dream for this LA native and many other dedicated jazz lovers.
The Antaeus Theatre Company has been a vital artistic component of the NoHo Theatre District for quite a few years now. Not only does Antaeus put on solidly-produced shows, they also provide theatre training for budding actors with community outreach to high schoolers and seniors. Now on the eve of staging an open house of their new facilities in Glendale — the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, Better-Lemons grabbed the chance to talk to Antaeus Co-Artistic Director Bill Brochtrup. Thank you for taking time out for this interview, Bill. Antaeus has been at its various North Hollywood addresses for over 20 years. How did your new space in Glendale come about? Honestly, there were so many programs going on at Antaeus that our old space in NoHo simply wasn't big enough to contain them all. There were classes, readings, rehearsals in every nook and cranny. So we began looking for a place that would be big enough to fit them all in. We couldn't just rent a theatre because we needed space for the Academy, offices, library, etc. There are a lot of zoning restrictions, parking restrictions, all kinds of things I had no idea about. But the City of Glendale has been amazing — they helped us identify a building right in the downtown Art and Entertainment District that could be built out to fit all of our needs. And throughout this time we had been raising money, first internally from our members and Board, and then externally in our Play On! Capital Campaign. We worked with a wonderful architect who found a way to fit all of our wishes into what will be the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center. This has been a multi-year journey! Space-wise, do you have specific plan to take advantage of your increased square footage? Our new home has been very carefully designed to include everything we needed to allow Antaeus to grow. But the space is still tight, not an inch has been wasted. We'll have two performance spaces, a lobby with an art gallery, library, comfortable green room and dressing room for our actors — and lots of bathrooms! You are currently one of three rotating co-artistic directors (w/Rob Nagle and John Sloan). How did this leadership model evolve and how does it work exactly? Do you divvy up responsibilities? We work as a triumvirate, making decisions together. It's an unusual model, but it works surprisingly well. We've built up a great deal of trust in one another, and we share a vision for Antaeus' future. We like to have our hands in every aspect of the company. So while we each have varying areas that are of particular interest to us, it really is a group effort. Which is emblematic of the way the company works. We've been elected to represent the members' wishes. It can be a little unwieldy trying to get all three of us to sign off on something, especially if one or two of us are out working as actors — which all three of us are — but as I said, there is a great deal of trust there, and a shared taste and outlook. Rob is on his way to New York to open CHURCH & STATE Off-Broadway for an open-ended run. Luckily, we have his email address and phone number. He can't get away that easily! Your inaugural season in your new digs opens with CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, followed by AS YOU LIKE IT and NATIVE SON. Does the recent Equity ruling requiring minimum wage to all small LA-based theatre companies affect your season in any way? We are living in a challenging time for theatre everywhere, and for theaters in LA in particular. Things are changing and we must to learn to adapt. Antaeus will be operating under the AEA Membership Rule which currently allows membership companies to work with Equity actors without the benefit of contract. Our membership is virtually one hundred percent Equity members, so naturally we will continue to follow all union rules regarding hours, breaks, working conditions, etc. — just as we always have. We are an ensemble of Equity actors volunteering together to create the kind of work we want to create. That hasn't changed. I have seen many of your fellow Antaeus company members in Equity-waiver shows in various Los Angeles theatres, They and you, as Equity members, now can't do another small theatre show without getting paid, like you, yourself so wondrously did at the Fountain Theatre in THE NORMAL HEART in 2013, right? It's a confusing time and every intimate theater in LA is facing tough choices about how they will move forward. Our members can generally be seen on stages all over Southern California and beyond, from Broadway to South Coast Rep to the Taper to every 99-seat theater in town. Some of my very proudest moments onstage have occurred in intimate theatre, like the Fountain's THE NORMAL HEART. It will be a sad day indeed if we're shut out of those places — and it certainly will happen at some venues. What would be the alternative to doing small theatre work be other than within Antaeus? You mean like hiking or yoga? I guess if I couldn't work in the theatre, I'd have more time for those. Antaeus is well-known for its partner-casting in all its productions. Who would you credit this Antaeus practice to? Partner casting has been with Antaeus from the very beginning. It began as a way to answer the logistical problem of actors in LA wanting to work onstage but needing to make money in film and television — where they can be called away to Vancouver at a moment's notice. This practice allowed actors to leave a production for a day or a week or even more without scuttling the show, since there was another actor just as rehearsed as you, sharing the role. But we found that there are additional artistic benefits to working this way — if you can operate without ego, you find that partnering on a role allows you to find and explore many choices that likely wouldn't have occurred to you on your own. It can forge deep bonds between partners who've created the work together. I could go on and on about it, but that's for a different interview! How does a new-to-Los Angeles actor or writer get involved with Antaeus? It can be a little tricky getting involved at Antaeus quite honestly, as we try to cast our shows from within the ensemble. Nevertheless, we often need to use guest artists when company members aren't available. We find these guests from a variety of sources — from our Academy classes, from recommendations, from actors we've seen in other venues (between the three of us, we see a lot of shows). We're pretty approachable — come to one of the shows and say, "Hello." When did you, Bill Brochtrup, initially become involved with Antaeus? Was it after I saw you in Black Dahlia's SECRETS OF THE TRADE in 2008? I met former Antaeus Artistic Director Jeanie Hackett when I was working on NYPD Blue. She suggested I get involved with Antaeus and invited me to some workshops and then I was cast in PERA PALAS, a co-production with the Theatre @Boston Court in 2005. I joined the company right after that. What are your acting plans regarding Antaeus' inaugural season? Ha! I begged director Cameron Watson to let me be one of the no-neck monsters in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, but to no avail. But not to worry, there's plenty for me to do at Antaeus behind the scenes as we move in and get situated this year. What are your goals you'd like to accomplish with Antaeus? I would love to see Antaeus continue to grow and thrive in every sense. I want to grow our audiences and donor base, nurture our ensemble, establish deep roots in the Glendale community, strengthen our commitment to inclusivity and Arts Education. Make great theatre. And I'd like to do it without the fret and worry that is my normal demeanor! What are you personal goals? I'm very lucky to have a career as an actor which has allowed me to work in films, television, and on stage. I'd like to keep that going. Working as Co-Artistic Director at Antaeus has been an impactful personal journey for me. Taking on leadership responsibilities has been eye-opening. Making decisions that affect people's artistic lives is both daunting and highly rewarding. Any roles you'd love to tackle? I'm not one of those actors who has a long wish list starting with “Hamlet” and “Lear.” I'm always surprised by the parts I end up getting and then by how much I end up falling in love with them. When we did CLOUD 9 last season I didn't plan on playing “Betty/Edward,” but now it's one of my favorite roles ever. And I have a recurring role on TNT's Major Crimes as savvy police psychologist, “Dr. Joe,” which I just adore. He's awesome. Anything you'd like to add regarding Antaeus? I'd like to invite everyone to come to Glendale to join us for Open Stages, a 4-day celebration of the opening of Antaeus' new home at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center (March 2 thru 5). There'll be tours, open houses, classes, a high school monologue competition, improv, music. It's for the community, it's all free and everyone is welcome. Come get to know us. Thank you again for doing this, Bill.
For further info on Antaeus Theatre Company's Open Stages, as well as, and tickets and scheduling for their inaugural season in their new Glendale space, log onto www.Antaeus.org
The Jewish Women's Theatre will produce the Los Angeles premiere of Rain Pryor's new solo outing FRIED CHICKEN & LATKES at the Braid, beginning February 16th. Actress/comedian/songtress/writer, Rain performs her autobiographical performance piece covering her early years as the bi-racial child of a broken home, through coping with being a comedy legend's daughter, becoming a performer in her own right, and to her very busy present. We had the chance to chat with Rain between her rehearsals for her Braid bow.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Rain!
You're already in rehearsals for FRIED CHICKEN & LATKES?
I am currently in rehearsals five days a week for FRIED CHICKEN & LATKES. Also, trying to conserve some energy for the opening and the six-week run.
You originally wrote your autobiographical FRIED CHICKEN & LATKES in 2002. Has a lot of your show changed into its present state from its original?
When I originally wrote FRIED CHICKEN & LATKES, I wrote for the purpose of just presenting a showcase of my talents. Over the past 14-15 years, it has become a very poignant piece of theatre.
How did you come up with the catchy title FRIED CHICKEN & LATKES?
The title, (thanks for saying it's catchy) just popped up after calling my showSWEET POTATO & LATKES. Fried Chicken (although cliché) seemed better to grasp the juxtaposition of two sides of my cultural lives.
Which are you better at making - fried chicken? Or latkes?
I love to cook. I would say I can do both extremely well. And that the combination is fabulous.
What was your father's initial reactions to FRIED CHICKEN & LATKES?
My father never got to see me perform this piece. However, I showed him the reviews and asked his permission to play him and do a part of his act in it.
It was difficult not to have Dad come to a show because he came to every show I have ever had. Even came to set.
You're referring to your first TV series?
Yes, Head of the Class.
Did you rewrite any specific sections after hearing your father's comments?
I have never rewritten based on my family's input. I write with authenticity, just as Mom and Dad taught me to do.
What was your mother Shelley's reaction to FRIED CHICKEN & LATKES?
My mother's reaction was, "Ya know, Rain. I don't really talk that way, but as long as you're making money, it's okay. By the way, I'm proud of you."
Did your mother have you Bat Mitzvahed?
My mom never had a Bat Mitzvahee. My mom Shelley's family did not do Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. They did Shabbat and holidays though.
When did you realize you wanted to be a performer?
I think I realized I wanted to be a performing around 4 or 5. I was always imitating family and people I met. I loved to sign big band music and could recite the entire The Wizard of Oz.
When were you old enough to understand, or even see, your father's comedy routines?
I grew up in the comedy clubs with both my parents. I may not have understood the language, but I knew about what was funny.
How old were you when you fully realized how famous and well-loved your father was?
I talk about this in my show. He took me to his Long Beach concert in 1979. I was 9 years old, and 3,000 people were there. I got it - Dad was God! Ha!
I hear you do a mean Richard Pryor impersonation in FRIED CHICKEN & LATKES. What other characters, real or composite, can the Braid audiences expect to meet?
I do about 10-11 people from my life. I hope I bring a realness and depth to them.
Since you wrote about real people in your life, was there any particular person (other than your parents), you were apprehensive getting their feedback?
I don't seek approval from the people I portray. I have nothing to hide, because my intention is not mean-spirited. I create realized real versions of the people in my life. I love them, even the bad teen girl in my show.
You've performed FRIED CHICKEN & LATKES all over the world. Tell us the most surprising response you received from an audience.
I had a show in Harlem where the audience stood up and applauded in the middle of my show. I was taken aback with profound emotion and gratitude.
Was the Beverly Hills community during your childhood there less racially color-blind/sensitive than they are today in 2017?
1970s - there weren't kids like me in my area of Beverly Hills. My mom was a single white Jewish woman, raising a bi-racial child. We had to face a lot of adversity, anger, hatred. We survived and overcame. That's what strong Jewish women do. We endure.
Did you find comedy or singing great weapons in your arsenal to use in your growing up?
Comedy and singing were a huge part of life. You can escape any bad mood with a song or a joke. Well, at least, if you're in my family.
What do you hope your Braid audiences leave with after your curtain call?
I hope the Braid audiences, leave with a sense of hope and action to keep evolving and changing the world for the better. Our kids are the change.
Thank you, Rain! Looking forward to seeing you do your favorite foods!
An avid, frequent, and popular staple of in Los Angeles theatre scene, Drew Droege adds to his impressive repertoire of female characterizations with his latest role as Angela Arden, the role Charles Busch wrote and originated in his DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! Drew will be high-camping it up at The Celebration Theatre beginning February 10th.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Drew!
My pleasure! Thank YOU!
You will be taking on Charles Busch's iconic role of Angela in his 2007 cult classic DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! at the Celebration Theatre. When did you first become aware of Charles Busch?
I grew up in a small town in North Carolina. However, I had a very well-worn Samuel French catalog and stumbled onto the title PSYCHO BEACH PARTY. I ordered it and immediately fell in love. I desperately campaigned for my high school drama club to produce it, but they had just canceled prom because of freak dancing. So obviously, it was never approved. Instead, we just performed an evening of original and clean poetry.
Have you seen Charles Busch perform live?
Yes! I got to see him in his play THE THIRD STORY at La Jolla Playhouse in 2008. I was playing his role in RED SCARE ON SUNSET in LA at the time, so the cast drove down to see him and meet him. He is poisonously hilarious to watch live.
What were your preparations for this role of Angela?
I've watched several Bette Davis, Lana Turner, and Susan Hayward movies to get into the mindset of these women and into the style we're playing. Angela is a blast, because she's equal parts washed-up, drunk, raunchy, vulnerable, glamorous, vindictive, and every inch a STAR! I think it's truly Charles' best character.
You are a fixture of LA Theatre, frequently appearing @ the LA LGBT Center, the Rockwell, Casita del Campo and Celebration. Which gets your creative juices up more, performing live theatre or TV shows and podcasts?
I love doing all of them because they all work different muscles. There's nothing like performing in front of a rowdy LA crowd - I feel so lucky that I get to do stupid fun shows. And, Oh, My God! We all need to get together and laugh - now more than ever. But TV and film are satisfying because I can be a piece of something bigger and try to be somewhat real. And podcasts are just pure raw, sobbing, naked honesty that I also find myself needing now more than ever.
Do you prefer tackling a female role (Miranda Priestley in UMPO THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, Velda in UMPO TROOP BEVERLY HILLS, Mellie Moleson in PRAIRIE-OKE!) to a male role (BRIGHT COLORS & BOLD PATTERNS)?
I always just look at the character's point of view first. To me, their gender is less interesting than what drives them. I hope that I get to play both men and women for my entire life.
UMPO producer Kate Pazakis told me, once you put on Miranda's wig, you became her. Do costumes make the woman for you?
Oh, my god, absolutely. I have always been that actor who screamed for his rehearsal shoes! And wigs are powerful beasts - put them on and just say, 'Yes!'
Did you 'become' Angela when you first tried on her wig?
I'm still trying wigs, and I'm still finding Angela, so...
I put on a wig for something else and realized I looked like her. And I've long been fascinated by Chloe and her world. And she has been the gift that has kept on giving. And I debuted her in a sketch comedy show at Celebration Theatre - 15 years ago!!!
What was growing up in South & North Carolina like?
It was perfect for me. Everyone is a drag queen or a sketch character there. And I had a family and very close friend circle, and it was always about love and laughter and FOOD!
Was being funny your defense mechanism?
Yes. And pretending to be possessed by Satan - that created a necessary fear that kept the Carolina bullies at bay.
When did you decide you could make a career out of being funny?
I'm still figuring that out.
Who were your comedy idols growing up?
Carol Burnett, Divine, Jan Hooks, Madeline Kahn, Goldie Hawn, Kevin Kline, The Kids In The Hall, The State, Laurel and Hardy, and my Dad.
Was being part of The Groundlings a major stepping stone for your career? Absolutely! First of all, the training is unparalleled, because it made me create original characters. It made me stop waiting for the phone to ring and create my own career. And it's never about jokes at The Groundlings - it's about what's true to the people you are playing. I was fortunate enough to make it through their program and get to perform there and work with the funniest people in the world. My first legit TV job was on RENO 911!, thanks in many ways to The Groundlings. And my most recent TV job was doing four episodes of IDIOTSITTER, created by and starring brilliant Groundlings friends Jillian Bell and Charlotte Newhouse. I will be forever grateful.
Did you find your NY audience reactions different or similar to your LA audience reactions to your BRIGHT COLORS?
Every audience was wildly different. I guess in general, New York has less regard/respect/reverence for celebrities, so they understood the ridiculous tragedy of my character's obsession with them. Truly, that show is my favorite thing ever, ever, ever to perform.
What's in store for Drew Droege in 2017?
I'm going to be shooting TVLand's brilliant new Heathers series and writing sporadically for a Netflix show - and hopefully bringing BRIGHT COLORS & BOLD PATTERNS back to New York soon. It all feels so exciting and exhausting at once! Come see DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! The cast is amazing and our director Ryan Bergmann is a genius. We're having a blast, and so will you!
Thank you, Drew! Looking forward to seeing you transformed into Angela.
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
As January 20th approaches, I'm afraid that the world is coming to an end. It feels like I'm waiting for doomsday to happen, while trying to pretend in front of my boys that life is the best thing ever and every day is the “bestest day ever” as my son, Sydney (5 years), likes to say.
November 7th seems to have put me in a black hole. I have been avoiding friends and people in general. Even at my son's school I have not been able to talk to people much and I've avoided running into people. If I see someone I know, I say a quick “hi” and usually I quickly turn my attention back to my boys. They are a great distraction!
If I talk to anyone, I have to make a concentrated effort to say something positive and if I can't, I talk about the weather. Thankfully we have that now to talk about which also is a great distraction. If I don't focus on the positive, I'm afraid that I will crack and start to cry and fall apart.
I've been searching for inspiration online. Articles about why the wig-man might be a good president fail to inspire me or lift me up. The petitions I'm signing daily seem pointless (though I keep on signing). Calling the White House or my representatives is depressing because people either hang up on me, or the tell me to call someone else, or they connect me to a black hole.
I have avoided social media because it's full of bad news. Some people are outraged, some post articles that are not legitimate, and a lot of people share more and more petitions.
My email inbox has been getting little attention as well. I get emails about great deals on something that I don't need. Emails to sign more petitions. Harassing emails from the Democratic Party to fill out survey after survey and “Why don't I respond. Do I not care about the election?”
And as I'm trying to avoid everything, this past week finally inspiration found me when a friend of mine, Leonora Gershman Pitts, posted in her timeline in response to Meryl Streep's Golden Globe speech. Leonora is is a graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She works as an actress and filmmaker, serves as a City Commissioner for the City of LA, and is the co-founder of the Los Angeles Women's Film Collective. She is married, has two kids and two dogs and she lives in LA. Her post is very well articulated and call to action to artists. I needed this! I needed her post to finally be inspired to do something! To not sit at home and dwell on what is happening but to get up and inspire others around me with my art.
I want to talk about Meryl, about bubbles, about cities, and about makers.
The reaction from Conservative Twitter and our own President-Elect after Meryl Streep's speech at the Golden Globes was swift and predictable. After she called on us to access and nurture our collective empathy, to protect and challenge our free press, and to continue to create create create, the Right called the rest of us “elitists”, said that actors should stick to acting, that we West and East Coasters live in a bubble.
First, let's quickly recognize and then release the irony of this relatively small group of Americans decrying the idea that actors/performers/entertainers should hold political opinions and say them out loud; this is the same group of people who worship Reagan, wanted to change the Constitution to allow Schwarzenegger to run for president, and just put a reality show blowhard idiot in the White House.
Secondly, don't come at me with this idea that Trump wasn't mocking the disabled reporter, which seems to be a common right-wing response on Twitter. Own that you voted for the guy who made fun of someone's disability. Own it. You know full and well he was, there is no other excuse. Also, if you think asking people to choose empathy over bullying is political, examine your life and make some changes, I beg you, for the betterment of our fragile world.
On to the generalization that Hollywood, or the coasts, or cities, or any diverse area is stuck in a liberal “bubble”. I live in the second largest city in the United States. Before I lived here, I lived in the largest city in the United States. Before that, I lived in a small city in a vast but tiny-populated state. So, I have a little experience with white, rural America, and a little experience with diverse, urban America.
Here in Los Angeles, my family and I are surrounded by immigrants, transplants, and homegrown Angelinos of every imaginable ethnicity, class, race, and religion. My kid goes to public school, so we have seen first hand how a group of racially, ethnically, socio-economically, academically, and behaviorally diverse little people can come together and immediately form a little society. My white kid is a minority at her school. This isn't a bubble. It couldn't possibly be - we are all so very very different from one another.
Just because our experiences are diverse and co-existing humans has led us to be more collectively progressive in our views doesn't mean we live in a bubble. It means, as they say, that the arc of human thought and action bends toward progress. Always has. The more we work to get through each day together in a large city, the more we realize that we are all in this together, that we need to exist and protect and align with one another: that's progressivism in a nutshell. We co-exist in this city, sharing our experiences, our ideas, our troubles, our triumphs. We come together when we know someone is in need, we create micro-communities within our communities, we know each other's names. That's not a bubble.
A bubble is being surrounded by people who look and think exactly like you. That's a bubble. If you lack the intellectual curiosity to suss out the difference between fake news and real news - and then just automatically doubt the reporting of the real news, you're in a bubble. If you have convinced yourself that a man who uses the kind of bullying, hurtful language that our president-elect uses, is worthy of our higher office: bubble. Bubble. Bubble. If you think his cowardly and cruel heart is somehow honorable, bubble. Awful bubble.
To Hollywood, specifically, being an “elitist” bubble, I invite any of you to please come visit a set. Nearly every single person on that set belongs to a union. Nearly every single person, save maybe the very biggest stars (who have earned their money and acclaim are shouldn't be excluded from the conversation just because they happened to succeed) are working- and middle-class. Electricians, grips, sound designers, hair and makeup artists, PAs, most actors, costume designers, editors, line producers, location managers, camera ops, DPs, casting directors, set dressers and designers -- most of us are just independent contractors working from job to job. Union workers, just like a mason or a police officer or a plumber.
Lastly, to the point that Meryl should shut up, that actors / entertainers / performers / makers / creators / artists shouldn't speak about politics or current affairs - this might be the point that pisses me off the most. The entire reason art exists, in every single form, is to illuminate, explore, dissect, and attempt to explain the human experience. Since the dawn of man, since people could speak, artists - STORYTELLERS - have helped us understand ourselves. When a movie makes you cry or a TV show makes you laugh or a painting has taken your breath away or a piece of writing has made you blink in disbelief at its beauty or a song has given you goosies from head to toe - even if it is escapist art - it is because some part of you recognizes yourself within the art. Maybe not even you, personally, but yourself as a member of the human race.
Actors, creators, artists, we are all just storytellers. It's our one job. Art is inherently political, and it always, always, always has been. So to the people on the right who want us to shut up, nice try. We've never been able to shut up - it's precisely why we, even the shyest among us, became artists in the first place. So, as we say in California: yeah, no. We aren't shutting up. We're turning up, now more than ever. Make your own shit if you don't like it. Dare ya.
Artists: let's get to work. It's annoying them. That means it's working.
If you feel like I felt the past few months, I hope you will find inspiration to create art. Don't wait for others to invite you to create. Start on your own. And if you are inspired to create something, let us know what it is. We would love to hear it.
As for me, neighbors, inspired by my edible forest front yard, came over today. I gave them a tour of our garden and told them how we are harvesting and storing water with Hügels and ditches, with drought tolerant plants and native flowers. I showed them what vegetables and herbs we have planted and how we are protecting our plants from the scorching sun with arches and plants that will grow in during spring. They are inspired to have a garden like ours and I offered to help.
This will be the year for me where I can put my knowledge and pass it on and who knows, maybe these next four years I will work toward transforming our neighborhood into a sustainable community.