Alta Abbott Reflects on Directing Ruthless! The Musical for Theatre Palisades (Now Playing), and the Complexity of Doing a Genre Piece

“I’m very new at this,” director Alta Abbott jokes, noting that she’s been “in theater” in one way or another since childhood (she’s now 55).

“I started ushering with Long Beach Civic Light Opera at age 11! They took me under their wing and taught me everything, from rails to costuming. One day, the conductor came to me, and said ‘Come on you’re coming into the pit with me’ — in the middle of West Side Story, he hands me the baton! I was scared to death! But of course the orchestra knew what they were doing. That was the beginning of my education in theater.”

Like any good ingenue, Abbott did do some acting earlier in her career. She recalls, “I was always terrified at auditions. I’d be fine by opening night, but I thought, ‘Why am I doing this to myself? I can do other things in the theater.'"

“So, I started directing.”

At at time in her career when Abbott was working as an executive assistant to a Vice President in reality TV, she asked her boss, “‘What makes you see in someone that ‘thing’ you think is going to pop on TV?’”

Abbott realized she could ask the same for the stage and pay attention to that special
something she herself can “just see” in people.

“I call it ‘pixie dust,’” she says. “I see this pixie dust, and it clicks; let’s pull him out and see where we can go from here.”

Ruthless! The Musical is Abbott’s first time directing with Theatre Palisades, but not her first experience with the script.

She recalls, “I saw Ruthless! at The Canon in 1994. That was the only time it was produced here in Los Angeles, professionally. The show never got to Broadway, it was an Off-Broadway show. And after it ran here, it kind-of disappeared. But I saw it then, and I fell in love with it and it has been a show that has stuck in my mind ever since. So when I saw that Theatre Palisades was planning to produce it for their 2019 season, I jumped at the chance to direct it.”

Abbott is thoughtful about any criticism her production might receive. “I think this type of comedy is not everyone’s cup of tea. Ruthless! is — you think at first it’s a very simple musical, and it’s not. It’s very complicated. It’s a spoof and a farce referencing so many different movies and theatrical shows. If you don’t know them, you won’t get some of the references."

“We showed the cast The Bad Seed, and All About Eve, and that helped them understand the script. Most of them were too young, had never seen these great old movies!”

Because of the specificity of the genres referenced, and the humor, Abbott notes, “This is a show that you can’t just cast anybody. They have to be suited for very specific roles, to behave in very specific ways."

“I really enjoyed casting this show!” she adds. “And of course, getting a child who could not only act and sing but also tap dance at a young age to play the 8-year-old lead character was an accomplishment! I was so blessed to get Benni Rose. She is amazing. She is so talented and mature, I forget sometimes that she’s actually only 14 years old. And John Sparks, when he turns into Sylvia, he embodies her so completely, we all use the feminine pronouns without even thinking. Every one of the actors in this show, I just love and adore; they are a joy to work with!”

About casting Sparks, she adds, “I’ve known John for years. In the back of your mind, you are always casting... I had cast him in my head, but I’m not a director who just casts my friends; I cast what is best for the show. Another friend of mine also auditioned for Sylvia, and we had to say ‘No’ to him. But he agreed with our choice. He said, ‘I would have picked John, too.’”

Abbott’s history with Theatre Palisades before this came mostly through her husband, Greg Abbott, an actor who has performed in several of the community theater’s shows over the years (The Fantasticks, Lend Me a Tenor, Bark! The Musical).

She says, “I would always drive my husband to rehearsals, and depending on the director, they’d let me sit in. Sherman Wayne would let me sit next to him, and he would teach me about what he was doing. And when I had ideas, I would tell him, ‘...there’s this… Do you see? ...that actor’s pants aren’t looking right…” little details like that."

Her attention to detail and ability to see the pixie dust are just two of the many reasons Theatre Palisades reached out to Abbott to direct one of the company’s shows.

She recalls, “The Theatre Palisades Board first approached about directing Mousetrap, and I said, ‘Agatha Christie isn’t my type of thing.’ When I told them I’d like to direct Ruthless! — they hadn’t found a director for that yet. They had already decided to produce that show for the season, but I could tell that some of them were worried; like, ‘I don’t know… there’s a lot of killing in this....’”

She laughs. “I said, ‘But you guys are doing Mousetrap! There’s lots of murder in that, too. In Ruthless!, I’m murdering people with a pink sparkly gun!’ — and then they said, ‘Okay, that’s funny!’”

Ruthless! The Musical runs Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm, through December 8th, at Theatre Palisades. For Information and Reservations call 310-454-1970 or click here to purchase tickets online.

Sherman Wayne, at 83, Shows No Signs of Slowing Down

Article written by Julie Feinstein Adams

Sherman Wayne is a lifelong participant in nearly every aspect of the production and performance of live theater, from stage management, to directing, set building, and teaching. Most famously, he was the stage manager of The Fantastiks on Broadway for five years. Wayne is 83 years old and he shows no signs of slowing down.

Currently, he is all-hands-in-all-pots at Theatre Palisades production of CLYBOURNE PARK, having built the set, wrangled volunteers to help change it at intermission (five people are needed to transform the entire set from the 1950s to the 2000s at intermission for each performance), co-producing the show (with Martha Hunter), AND stepping in as director when Tony Torrisi fell ill with pneumonia and was hospitalized, also while two actors had to be replaced — just two weeks before opening night!

“The other day I came here at 10 o'clock in the morning because my lighting man is here and I want to talk to him about lighting." he says as he describes a typical day during rehearsals. "And I left here at 11 o'clock at night after rehearsal, which means I got stuff out of the refrigerator, cooked up something in the microwave.”

“I'm very lucky. Knock on wood!" he adds. "I've had my problems (with my health), but I've been able to overcome them. I moved from Torrance to the Palisades, so I didn't have to take the 405. I live about a half a block down the street from the theater now. I walk here which makes it much easier. I'm the kind of guy that says if you do it, you do it. I said I would build the set. And I told Tony I would cover for him. So that's what I did.”

When asked about the challenge of the set change in the script, Wayne says: “The way the play is written, the set is a very nice house in the Chicago suburbs in 1959. It gets abandoned, and 50 years later, a couple is trying to buy it, but it's gone to heck! And so, during the intermission, we have to change a nice set to one that's been basically destroyed by squatters or graffiti or whatever. And it's a big job because the author really wants a major change — so both houses are characters in the show!”

When Wayne came to Theatre Palisades, he was looking to direct, but when he was not chosen for that particular play, he offered to build sets instead. Over time, he has built nearly all of the sets, roughly 45 sets in 15 years, and has directed many shows.

“You don't just don't direct, you are a shrink." he adds when asked about directing. "You have to handle the people and help them and encourage them. You need to be a people person!”

Wayne will also direct the next production at Theatre Palisades, LEND ME A TENOR.

Wayne came to Theatre Palisades after a long career that started in high school, where he directed a drama production and he also put on variety shows at his local church. Wayne attended college at San Jose State University, where he majored in Drama and worked as a stage manager during his four years. He also acquired a teaching certificate to ensure he “would always be able to pay the bills.”

“When I got to San Jose State, I auditioned for a show." he recalls. "I did not get it, but the director who was very pragmatic — he just was marvelous — and he wanted to know if I wanted to be a stage manager. I thought, ‘What the heck is that?' But, I did. And from then on, I became the major stage manager at San Jose State University for my four years at college. After graduation, a local director and I then opened a theatre in Sausalito where we presented musicals and plays. Unfortunately San Jose State did not have a management class in theatre, so I didn't know anything. I knew nothing! So, we failed. And then I was broke, living on the Sausalito side of San Francisco. One day, I was in a park and there was a newspaper on a bench, and in there was a help wanted ad for a drama teacher in San Francisco.”

Wayne spent a year teaching drama, but then decided to move to New York, to “see if he could compete with the ‘big boys,'” stopping along the way in Fitchburg, Massachusetts to take stage director jobs in summer stock productions, and where he also began work in set design. Once in New York, Wayne worked in several off Broadway productions and soon, nearly by luck, he was hired as stage manager for The Fantasticks, a dream gig that lasted five years.

“When I moved to New York, I worked very hard and got several jobs as a stage manager Off-Broadway. Another student and I formed a company to supply Off-Broadway producers with technical help. We would supply everything they needed, from directors through lighting people and all that stuff! So I was running around doing stage managing and running this company. Then I was in my attorney's office one day, and the attorney was being told that the general manager of The Fantasticks was being fired. And fortunately the attorney said, ‘hey, I've got a great guy, he's sitting in the lobby.' So I interviewed and got the job.”

Wayne also stage-managed several other shows on and off Broadway. Eventually he decided to move to the West Coast, where he then worked in several “round houses” such as in Anaheim, where the 3,000-seat venues usually had an audience for musicals. Next, he got a job teaching high school, a role he enjoyed for the next 25 years.

When Wayne retired from teaching, he still wanted to keep his hand in theater, which led him to Theatre Palisades.

And so, with Wayne's considerable contributions, Pulitzer-Prize-winning play CLYBOURNE PARK opened at Theatre Palisades on Friday April 5th for a five week run, every Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through May 5th. (Box Office: 310-454-1970)

The play features a complete scene change between acts, as the script tells the story of a neighborhood undergoing demographic change twice, first in the early 50's and then again 50 years later. Like a character aging in the play, the complete set change demonstrates the effects of the decades that lead to the deterioration of the home.

Set building is hard, physical, and demanding work. However, Wayne notes, “Fortunately, we never hammer and nail anymore. We just put screws in, so that the wood won't split. One of my things here is, of course I reuse stuff. I've got a whole storage area which is packed full. I get a lot of static about storing all of that stuff, but I can save hundreds of dollars per show by pulling out or planning with something that I have. For this show, I'm using the same staircase that I used in the last show. We don't tear sets apart, we just try and store them because I can use them again!”

In 1963, Theatre Palisades was founded by three television writers; Ken Rosen, Sheldon Stark, and Jacquie Chester. By 1967, Theatre Palisades had become a community theatre. From 1967 through 1975, the theatre produced shows in various venues including Palisades Park and Rustic Canyon Park as well as a few touring productions around Southern California.

In 1975, Kate Ahrens of the Pacific Palisades Historical Society brought an offer from Lelah and J. Townley Pierson to Theatre Palisades to donate land to build a theatre. Lelah, along with her husband, Townley, donated the property on which the theatre now stands. In November, 1988, just in time for the 25th anniversary of the group, Theatre Palisades opened the new 125 seat theatre, which was named Pierson Playhouse, in honor of Lelah and J. Townley Pierson who had not only generously donated the property but also contributed extensively to the Building Fund. The current busy schedule of Theatre Palisades includes five major productions per year, with a run of 18 performances per production. TPYouth produces two shows a year by children for a total of 13 performances a year. The theater also offers chamber music concerts, special shows and membership meetings. Theatre Palisades hosts many Palisades Historical Society presentations throughout the year.