Voices from the Fringe: Erik Blair, Writer/Director of ‘Internal’

Making its world premiere at this year’s Hollywood Fringe is INTERNAL, a new piece from They Played Productions, creators of last year’s God: the Apologies Tour and 2016’s horror musical Nothing Bad.

INTERNAL’s writer/director, Erik Blair, was kind enough to give Better Lemons a sneak preview of this intriguing new production and how it fits in with the Fringe.

Better Lemons: Tell us a bit about the genesis of Internal.
Erik Blair: One of the ongoing ideas behind They Played Productions is to examine horror stories from new and different angles. That's what made us launch as a company with a werewolf rock musical and do a multi-chapter modern immersive version of Frankenstein over a 15-month period.

We continue to be really interested in looking at how horror stories are told and seeing how we can transform them in a modern setting or through a new lens.

Internal came from the idea that zombie stories are always about the shambling (or rushing) horde swarming around a group of people. We wanted to find a new way to tell the story — for one person, using specific technological ideas, and on the streets of Hollywood. We couldn't be more excited about how it's coming out!

BL: Briefly, what’s the show about?
EB: The show is about a growing viral zombie threat that is happening in real- time. It's a show built for one audience at a time as they traverse the streets around Vine and Santa Monica. As audience members walk, they will experience a story that is happening directly to them.

The goal is to find a way to terrify audiences by weaving a personal story in the midst of the busy Friday nights of Hollywood.

BL: What are the immersive aspects?
EB: This is one of the most exciting aspects of the show for us. We're going to try to immerse audiences directly into a story that is tailored to each audience member — while they are walking around outside.

We're going to use technology to place the audience member directly in the role of someone living through the early stages of a zombie apocalypse while still letting them experience the street they are walking on at the same time. We're going to add actors to the experience who are completely relevant to the story — and yet if others walk by, they wouldn't even look twice. It's a combination of clever storytelling and using the street itself as part of the story.

BL: What can audiences expect when they attend the show?
EB: They can expect to have a full story with a beginning, middle and absolutely terrifying end. They will find that the show places them directly where they are in real-space, even as the story they are experiencing is something mysterious, terrible and dark. This is not a kids story in any way — it's very much a horror tale.

BL: What makes Internal a good fit for the Hollywood Fringe?
EB: The Hollywood Fringe Festival is about trying things out that can't be done easily elsewhere. This is a true experiment for us as we try to find a simple but compelling way to flip the zombie story around. It might be too much for audiences — or too little.

And that's what makes it so interesting to us as a concept and also makes it a perfect fit for the festival. Hollywood Fringe has always embraced productions that expand how people think about theatrical experiences, and we fit that idea of expansion perfectly this year.

Erik Blair

Erik Blair

BL: Is anyone in the show that people will recognize from past Fringes?
EB: We're excited to have two new actors for this year, as well as one veteran, Adam Briggs, who is very excited to be back once again.

BL: How many Fringes have you participated in?
EB: I've been a participant in Fringe since 2016 as an actor/stage manager and They Played Productions has had a production that we have written, directed and produced since 2017. So this is HFF number four for us.

BL: What keeps you coming back?
EB: The sheer creativity of the festival is a tremendous draw for us. Last year, They Played Productions even launched our own sponsored award because we love the vast and unique takes on stories, theater and performance that we see every year. Even if we had a year that we didn't bring a production, I'd still be running around the festival and seeing everything I can manage to get to during the month. We just love HFF all around.

BL: What other shows are you interested in seeing at the Fringe?
EB: Everything immersive (as that's our focus these days). But a more accurate question would be what I'm not interested in — and the answer is very, very little.

I long ago learned that my favorite shows every year are those that I go see spontaneously and randomly. These days, I simply select the shows that I can up front, watch those shows that request to be considered for our awards....and then I just choose things that sound interesting at the moment.

Really, there's no wrong thing to go see in a festival full of such incredible talent and passion.

Internal will be performed on Friday nights from June 7 to 28 at the Hollywood Fringe. Audiences begin their experience at the corner of Santa Monica and Vine. traveling north to Sunset and back south to Vine. This performance requires audience members to be able to traverse that distance at a walking pace.

Ticketing and further information can be found on the Fringe site.

Steven Sabel's Twist on the Trade: Do The Show That You Know

This week I will open my 128th full-scale production as a producer/director. The group of artists working on this post-modern adaptation of Euripides' “Trojan Women,” will become the 128th group of artists to hear me say – at every rehearsal and performance to come over the next three weeks – one of my most famous Sabelisms: “Do The Show That You Know!”

Having produced and/or directed 128 productions, I still hesitate to say I've seen it all. I've learned that's the best way to ask for a situation you have yet to encounter. Nobody likes to face a situation they have not yet encountered. Familiarity is an essential part of success in our trade. Look how many directors and actors have chosen to work together time and again due to their familiarity with each other's work. The history of famous director and actor teams goes back hundreds of years. Familiarity is the reason why theatre companies form and exist. It is an essential focus in the making of every major motion picture – especially today, when audience “familiarity” with certain brands leads to entire series of films featuring the same actors playing the same characters in sequel after sequel. It is the key to the success of any long-running sitcom, dramatic series, and even game shows, with audiences developing their familiarity with the hosts of the shows.

Humans crave consistency. With hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, film producers crave consistency too. Consistent talent, consistent performance, consistent work ethic, productivity, attitude, and most of all – consistent box office draw! The best and most sought after artists in every field of this trade – editors, sound engineers, lighting designers, special effects teams, make-up artists, costumers, actors, directors, you name it – are the people who are known for their consistency. They are the people who do the show that they know, consistently. They are a known commodity, and in this industry, where a known commodity can be worth gold, it is no wonder that a known commodity is always going to be considered for the job before taking a risk on an unknown.

Taking all of this into account, you would be surprised how many times I have watched an artist decide to stray away from familiarity and throw consistency to the wind while on stage in a performance. “Do The Show That You Know” is a pretty clear direction. It is straight forward. It contains only single syllable words. It even rhymes so conveniently. Yet there are actors – I've seen countless numbers through 128 shows – who just can't seem to understand those six simple words. As I mentioned above, I hesitate to ever say I have seen it all, but I have seen a wide variety of actors do outlandish things in changing a performance after a show has opened.

Green Room Gary has been giving advice to his fellow actors throughout the production process, continues to do so in performance, and then also decides – since he obviously knows best – to make changes to his own performance as well. “When the director isn't here, I'll do it my own way,” says Gary.

Sam the Ham

Dorothy Drama and Sam the Ham have different motivations. When her best friend, Edna, and her Grandma Matilda are in the audience, Dorothy just can't help but turn on that extra juice, and melodrama the bones right out of the text of the play! With sudden bursts of random emotion and much sawing of the air, Dorothy sets out to prove to her friends and relatives that she is indeed a serious actress. Sam has the same intent whenever his mother comes to the see the show, or even worse yet, when he has a potential love interest in the room. Then consistent performance be damned, because Sam is trying to impress a lady and win himself a date.

Isaac Ideas isn't a bad fellow, but his “magnificent brainstorms” are a day late and a dollar short. Poor Isaac is just trying to be helpful when he arrives to the theater with new blocking in mind for an important scene. He isn't trying to sabotage his fellow actors by presenting them with something they haven't encountered before on stage, he's just trying to make the show “better.” His pal, Brandon Brando, is just trying to keep things “real” when he decides to change a line or two to make them sound more “natural” and “true” to the character.

Last Night Norman is such a prankster. He just can't help chatting with everyone back stage about anything and everything completely unrelated to the show at hand. He's full of funny jokes and silly anecdotes, and thrives on being the class clown of the cast. On the last night of performances, Norman just can't resist playing that little prank on his fellow actors, that he is oh so sure will help them forever remember closing night. He is always right. We never forget him…

These types of actors can be a terrible detriment to a performance. Changes of any kind to a performance should be made only with the knowledge of the stage manager, and only after thorough discussion with every actor involved in the scene. Anything less is disrespectful to all involved, and completely self-absorbed behavior. Whatever your great new idea is – if it wasn't good enough for rehearsal, it isn't good enough now.

On occasion there are unforeseen circumstances that call for required changes involving safety, or semantics, or sight lines, etc. There are occurrences on the stage, mid-performance, which sometime call for quick thinking, adjustment, and adaptation right on the spot. Props hate people, and they can often be the cause of these unforeseen moments. It's live theater. Things happen. All the more reason you don't want to be the person causing things to happen that are outside the realm of what was rehearsed and prepared for performances. If a prop sabotages a performance, we blame the theater spirits. If you sabotage a performance by making changes, we blame you.

Do The Show That You Know. Stick to the plan. Be consistent. It is what your fellow artists have become familiar with. It's what they expect from you, and it's a quality that will get you more work in the future.

Actors often ask me why I don't make it a point to watch every performance of my productions. Part of that aspect of me is based in having other responsibilities to fulfill, and the nature of our trade which finds the director's job complete after opening night. It is the stage manager's show after that, and their job to maintain a consistent production. You think directors get upset when an actor changes things on stage? Hah! I fear any stage manager worth their salt on this issue, and you should too.

Secretly a key reason I often can't bear to watch performances of my productions is because of actors like Green Room Gary, Dorothy Drama, Sam the Ham, Isaac Ideas, Brando Brando, Last Night Norman, and any variety of others who decide that they just can't possibly show up to the theater on time, follow their preparation routine, warm up, get on stage, and do the show that they know. I don't give director's notes to actors once a show has opened. I shouldn't have to. The show should be the same way I left it on opening night, if you will just Do The Show That You Know!

A Conversation with June Carryl

I met June Carryl back in 2010 when the two of us were participants in Directors' Lab West. Her ideas about theatre mesmerized me because of their narrative specificity and rootedness in sound dramaturgical practices. In 2011, June was part of my playwright renaissance: I'd taken about 3 years off of writing in order to find out why I still told stories through this medium. When Son of SemeleTheatre invited me to present my play ONION CREEK, an Adam and Eve tale set in rural Texas, I immediately called June because she was an exciting theatrical mind whom I knew would direct the HELL out of that piece. My instinct was right – her work on the show was wonderful. But more importantly, I learned that she was a fellow writer, and her mentorship of my creative development process (as a burgeoning post undergrad finding his way in LA's theatre scene) helped mold the writer I am today.

But there is more – in addition to writing and directing, June is also a powerful actor, someone who knows how to really pull audiences into the center of a character's need through performance. Right now, June Carryl is performing in Celebration Theatre's production of CABARET. The show runs through August, and you can get tickets here: CelebrationTheatre.com

And if you know what's good for you, you will get some tickets. The show is amazing.

I saw the production, helmed by Celebration's co-artistic director Michael Matthew earlier this week, and - the old folks used to say – the show sent me, honey. Of course, I was gaga for June's turn as the now-alone but love-seeking boarding house owner Fraulein Schneider. She brings a tautly constructed, grounded, polished, and full-bodied interpretation to the character who, seeing limited options in light of changing politics in rising Nazi Germany, forgoes a chance at love in exchange for her perceived route to survival.

I was so proud of my friend June! And you know I had to get the skinny on the show. So you know I had to have a kiki with June. And better believe that I had to spill some of this tea for you guys, our lovely Better Lemons readers.

So, without further ado, here's my conversation with June Carryl:

Roger Q. Mason (RQM): This is your 13th collaboration with lauded director Michael Matthews! Wow, what an accomplishment!! How did you two start working together?

June Carryl (JC): In 2009 I got to do OTHER PEOPLE'S GARDEN GNOMES by Aliza Goldstein as part of The Blank Theatre's Young Playwrights Fesitval. Michael Matthews was the director. He was this lovely presence, fierce intelligence and vision, big brown eyes and just so kind and supportive. First day of rehearsal and before we went up he said, "Just say what you mean, and mean what you say." Part of my journey has been learning what that means.

RQM: You are a consummate artist - you act, write, and direct. How do these different disciplines inform each other as you make work?

JC: Honestly, I just want joy in my life and I get that telling stories. My mom achieved a lot in life, but I don't think she got to do what she really wanted. Writing is a way to take back some control. It's my way to vent, to talk about the world. I suppose directing is the same thing, though I get a real charge out of seeing an opportunity to shape words or a moment or a stage picture; acting is my excuse to play people who are just braver than I am, more messed up, but way more honest and vocal than I am.

RQM: Tell me EVERYTHING about CABARET - well, as much as you want. You're acting in the show, right? What's your role? What was the rehearsal process like?

JC: I get to play Fraulein Schneider who ends up betraying her heart for the sake
of survival. When Matthews told me he wanted me for this role, I was like, "You want me to WHAT?!?" It was really scary to think of myself as the betrayer. In life, you want to think you'll be stronger than that, but to get to be a full-fledged human being who is flawed and fails is just the greatest gift. Black bodies are so often portrayed as either wholly noble or demonic. We don't often get to be fully human. Matthews' rehearsals are really fun. He has a vision, a goal, but he leaves it to the actor to find their way there. You feel challenged and terrified and so supported. You're willing to fail because you're in such a safe space.

RQM: Why do we still need to see CABARET?

JC: We've cycled backward. We are staring fascism and genocide in the face and having to decide what direction we'll go with detention camps for immigrant children and an American president who wants his people to stand up and listen like Kim Jong Un. We are witnessing the last gasps of white supremacy, and not sure what happens next. This show asks the hard question of whether we go there before going in a better direction.

RQM: What is next for you?

JC: Don't know. I'm writing a musical with my singing teacher, Mia Milan who is AMAZING.

"Meet the Critics" Panel Podcast

On Saturday, June 2, Better Lemons and Theatre West hosted “Meet the Critics!” featuring several of LA's premier critics for a panel discussion of theatre criticism.

The following critics attended:

Shari Barrett from Broadway World
Shari Barrett, a Los Angeles native, has been active in the theater world since the age of six - acting, singing, and dancing her way across the boards all over town. Shari now dedicates her time and focuses her skills as a theater reviewer, entertainment columnist, and publicist to ""get the word out"" about theaters of all sizes throughout the Los Angeles area.
Dale Reynolds from Edge Media Network
Dale Reynolds, a SoCal native, has been a critic for theatre, film and DVD since 1970, for a wide variety of outlets in NYC and L.A., including StageAndCinema.com, StageHappenings.com, EDGELosAngeles.com, and for Frontiers Magazine for many years, in addition to being West Coast Editor of A&U Magazine for four years.
Monique LeBleu from Los Angeles Beat
Monique A. LeBleu is a reviewer, writer, photographer, videographer, shameless foodie and wineaux. She has won multi JACC Journalism awards for her feature writing, critical journalism, and social media statewide competitions.
Patrick Chavis from LA Theatre Bites
Patrick Chavis is the creator, designer, podcast writer, and head editor of LA Theatre Bites. Because of the massive size of the Los Angeles area and its theatre presence, Patrick decided his reviews should take the form of podcasts en lieu of more traditionally written articles. He is also one of the creators of the Orange County based theatre review site, the Orange Curtain Review.
Bill Raden from LA Weekly
Since Bill wrote his first review for LA Weekly over 30 years ago, he has covered theater on both coasts, won multiple awards for his political journalism, and today continues to focus on Los Angeles' experimental and intimate stage scenes for LA Weekly as well as for the online stage journal, Stage Raw.
Leigh Kennicott from ShowMag
Leigh Kennicott has an extensive background in theatre, film and television and a Ph.D. degree in Theatre, awarded in 2002. A writer, director and actor, Leigh Kennicott began theatrical reviewing at Backstage, followed by Pasadena Weekly and Stage Happenings blog before joining showmag.com in 2018.
Katie Buenneke from Stage Raw
Katie has been a theater critic for over a decade, and has been reviewing Los Angeles theater for 7 years. She ran Neon Tommy's theater section for three years before freelancing for LA Weekly for another three years. She joined the LA Drama Critics Circle in 2015, and she's currently a regular contributor to Stage Raw. She earned her BA in theater and MFA in film producing from USC.
Jordan Riefe from The Hollywood Reporter
Currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, and KCET Artbound. Cover theater for OC Register/Coast Magazine in Orange County and theatre and film for LA Weekly. Assigned beat for THR focuses on touring productions of Broadway shows.
Ernest Kearney from The TVolution
He is presently the cultural critic for The TVolution.com.
Michael Van Duzer from This Stage LA
Michael Van Duzer has reviewed opera performances, both locally and nationally, for over 30 years in a variety of print and online media outlets. After leaving his job in 2014, he was finally able to add theatre to his reviewing schedule.
Ryan M Luevano from Tin Pan LA
Ryan Luévano is a professor of music at Woodbury University and Santa Ana College. During the summers he is a regular teaching artist at A Noise Within Theatre Company in Pasadena. When he's not making music he pens as a theater critic for his blog Tin Pan L.A. where you can read all about the L.A. theater scene.


Have you ever wished you could squeeze our brains so you could ask questions about how to make the most out of our website?
Here is a FREE workshop where you will be able to do just that!
Sat, May 19, 2018
10am - 12 noon
Theatre West
3333 Cahuenga Boulevard West
Los Angeles, CA 90068

  • Do you register your shows on Better Lemons?
  • Do you use the playbill insert to encourage audience reviews?
  • Do you use your sweet ratings to further promote your shows?
  • Do you review shows that you've seen on Better Lemons?
  • Do you use the resources page of the Better Lemons website?
  • Introduction to new website features
  • and more

Come to this free workshop to learn all there is to know about Better Lemons and bring your friends and family! Film, Theatre, and Event Producers, Publicists, Reviewers, Performers, and everyone else who goes to live theater, film festivals, art events, etc. will benefit from this workshop!
Join us! It's FREE!

Audio Interview: Richard Fancy - Mr. Lippman of Seinfeld stars in “Daytona” at Rogue Machine Theatre

Enjoy this interview about “Daytona” By Oliver Cotton (Cesare Borgia in the BBC's 1981 drama series The Borgias) staring Richard Fancy (Mr. Lippman in a recurring role on Seinfeld) at RogueMachine Theatre, running until Oct 30th. You can listen to this YouTube interview while commuting, while waiting in line at the grocery store or at an audition, backstage and even front of the stage.  For tickets and more info Click here.

James Eckhouse & Richard Schiff Wax Trippingly On Their Tongues On Joint Directing Triptych's NOCTURNE

With full committed schedules and a lucky twist of fate, veteran actor/directors James Eckhouse (Beverly Hills, 90210) and Richard Schiff (The West Wing) have come together as co-directors for Triptych Theatre Company's production of Adam Rapp's NOCTURNE, a solo show featuring Jamie Wollrab, Triptych Theatre's artistic director. We had the chance to question these two gents on their artistic affiliations with and contributions to the Los Angeles theatre community.

Thank you Both for taking the time for this interview.

What initially drew you to become involved with NOCTURNE?

James Eckhouse: Jamie brought me the script last year and asked if I would direct. I had worked with him over at IAMA Theatre. I loved the script and was very excited to have the chance to work with Jamie again.

Richard Schiff: Jamie asked me to look at the play and to direct, if interested. I had some time before my TV show starts in Vancouver later this summer so I read it.  I'm a fan of Adam Rapp. I was moved by this play; it's a compelling story of surviving grief. It's almost triumphant in the end in that this character confronts the darkest corners of his existence and tells this harrowing story and yet there's that survivor's sense of irony and even a little humor wrapped inside the darkness. I've done a one-person play, by that I mean I've acted it. It's challenging and scary and asks the performer to go to the edge of that cliff and make the leap. I thought it would be interesting to coach another actor through that with the perspective of someone who's been there.

Who came up with the idea that the you two co-directing NOCTURNE?

JE: What a crazy idea! Actually this was by necessity. I started to work on the play with Jamie in January. We were hoping to get back into rehearsal in June, but I had some conflicts and wasn't sure I would be able to resume as director. Richard stepped in to direct and did a fantastic job with bringing the piece near to fruition. Then Richard had to bow out (to shoot a pilot). So I (happily!!) stepped back in to bring us to the finish line.

RS: Well, my schedule turned out not to be so accommodating and I had to come to NY for two weeks. I offered up a co-directing or any option that would be most comfortable for Jamie and the company. Then James, who originally was going to direct this, when he became available again, I was happy to give over the reins. Apparently, James, after seeing a run-through, felt compelled to have us share the credit. Jamie and I had worked pretty hard to set the foundational work, but I was fine either way.

Were either of you aware of NOCTURNE since it opened in New York in 2001, or during the succeeding years?

RS: No. I hadn't seen it before. My reading of it was my first introduction to it.

JE: I was aware of Adam Rapp, but not this play of his.

James, you mentioned you've worked with Jamie before. How about you, Richard?

RS: Jamie and I met in Vancouver while filming a TV show. He was coaching an actress in the show and we had dinner up there. Years later, which was just recently, I was doing a workshop for my wife, Sheila Kelley, at her S Factor studio. Sheila has created a journey for women through movement which is extraordinary. She basically invented the industry known as pole fitness back in the early 2000's. But now she has transcended its origins and has created a movement and journey for women that is transformative, life-changing. This workshop included men and understanding the differences between the genders. Jamie was there. He had been working with Sheila for years, but I didn't know until we met again at the workshop. I don't know the Triptych theater's work. I have been bad about LA theater, usually saving my theater going for New York, Chicago or London. I decided to change that recently and take advantage of what is here in town. I was looking at doing Hallie Feiffer's play at the Rogue Theater but the dates weren't working for now. I was going to act in that one. Then when Jamie presented this opportunity, I thought I should really think about this.

JE: As I mentioned, I had worked with Jamie at IAMA and he approached me to work with him at Triptych. I directed one of the John Patrick Shanley one-acts at Triptych this spring, which was a blast. This is growing into a very exciting company!

You both have been steadily acting for the eyes of the mass public since the mid-1980s. Surely, your paths must have crosses once or twice in the past decades. What do you remember of the first time you two met?

JE: Richard and I actually worked together many years ago at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, CO. I was producing and directing several one-acts that were part of Ensemble Studio Theatre's line-up. Richard (of course) was extraordinary to work with and watch perform. After that we haven't really played together but I enjoy being a huge fan of his work and admiring his kinda wonderful career from the peanut gallery.

RS: It was produced by HBO for the Aspen Comedy Festival. We had a good time. That's all I remember. That and that festival was my first introduction to Eddie Izzard, who was performing. That was a seminal moment for me. The guy is brilliant.

James, you started your theatrical career acting. When did you say out loud, "But what I want to do is direct!"?

JE: I've always directed when I had the chance. I don't think you have to pidgeonhole yourself. I started directing in a rather wacky theater company I helped found in 1981 in NYC. It was called Dearknows and we started out creating pieces from JAMES JOYCE'S DUBLINERS. Since then I've been a part of several theater companies both here and in NY where I've acted and directed, including a stint as Artistic Director of Ensemble Studio Theatre LA. I've been lucky to direct on camera as well, doing several episodes of hour TV, a documentary, and a couple of short films. I've also been teaching the last 12 years, which has been a fantastic journey. It has fed my work as an actor and director in all kinds of ways. I can't imagine growing up and having to choose one ‘label' or the other.

Richard, you started your theatrical career directing. What do you recall of your directing the then-newbie actress Angela Bassett in ANTIGONE?

RS: Oh, Jeez! She was amazing. Just out of Yale Drama. I was trying to figure things out as a director and she couldn't have been more patient and professional. And she was phenomenal in the role, as she always is.

Richard, you are co-executive producer of NOCTURNE. Does that give you an edge/advantage over when you and your co-director and James don't see eye-to-eye on a directing issue?

RS: Jamie and I had no disagreements during our time rehearsing. Of course, since I had to leave, perhaps he just sat on his hands and has changed everything since I left. Kidding! I believe that if your title is the final arbiter then you're probably on the wrong path.

Both of you have long, successful television careers. What draws you onto the LA boards?

JE: I have never been away from theater for more than a few months. Two years ago, I spent the year in NY acting in the Tony award-winning production of ALL THE WAY with Bryan Cranston. An incredible experience by the way. Last year I did a world premiere in Minneapolis. I have worked out here at The Geffen, the Taper, the Old Globe, Pasadena Playhouse, South Coast Rep, La Jolla, as well as, the typical LA actor diet of gazillions of 99-Seat theater productions! It's my life's blood.

RS: I think I explained that. I did a play that opened the Wallis Annenberg a couple years back. Directed by the great Mark Brokaw, it was called PARFUMERIE. A beautiful production. That's the only theater I've done here since GOOSE & TOMTOM by David Rabe in 1991 and a couple of things with The Actor's Gang. I've gone to Broadway, to The West End, to Off-West End, even to New Brunswick and yet so little theater here in LA. I decided to face my prejudice and embrace what's here.

As one who's frequented the LA theatre boards for the last couple of decades, what do you see as the real value of doing theatre with little-to-no-compensation? 

RS: Do the work you love. Love the work you do.

JE: I don't really divide the work into that which I get compensation for and that I don't. Never really think of it that way. It's all ‘the work.' It's all diving into the process and trying to expand, improve, excel at this elusive craft.

Richard, don't you credit acting in David Rabe's GOOSE & TOMTOM at the Stella Adler Theatre in 1991 for opening up the opportunity to be cast in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon?

RS: Well, yes. A producer saw me in GOOSE & TOMTOM, and next thing I know I'm at the table read of the film version of Glengarry with Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon and a bunch of Hollywood brats. Later, I was flown to New York and auditioned numerous times. They kept me in New York for two weeks before casting a movie star in my role. Pacino remembered me at a party a few years later and that led to City Hall, which was a big break, and later to GLENGARRY with Al on Broadway. So, wait a second or two and the thing you thought was a break but isn't might yet turn into one.

James, would you share some of the perks you found in directing productions for Bonnie Franklin's Classic Contemporary American Plays?

JE: Working on great texts is like getting in there and really flossing your mind, your soul. It spurs the imagination which can get a little dormant (with a constant diet of television!). It challenges in a myriad of ways – having to dig deeper to reveal the essence of the work, really digesting the text and making sense of it, getting your mind and imagination to get deeper than just a surface level take on a piece.

What major differences/improvements do you notice in LA Theatre today as opposed to when you first entered the LA theatre community?

JE: That's a loaded question! We are at an extremely difficult moment in LA theater with the passage of some arcane rules that are supposed to be for the actor's benefit, but might well limit the opportunities we have to do the extremely important work of practicing our craft. It is a complex issue. I did a play last year in Minneapolis. A great theater town. They have all kinds of sized theaters – no 99-Seat plan. But they have a devoted audience – probably more sophisticated in some ways then LA. They aren't interested in seeing the star from the latest vampire thriller up close. They go to see gritty, exciting work. The actors get paid – not a lot in the small theaters – but a decent wage. Wouldn't we all love that? Of course! But this city's (LA's) relationship to “The Theataaaah” is very different than in Minneapolis or NY or Chicago. We need a much more inclusive and rigorous discourse from all parts of our community to create an environment where the theater life in LA can truly blossom. It's possible! The amount of theater has been growing and growing and the diversity of the participants is expanding, all wonderful to behold. I want theater to feel ‘essential' in this town. It needs to be a high protein/high calorie/vital part of everyone's cultural diet! (I tell ya'! If they'd only make me dictator of the world!)

RS: My nephew, Seth Russell, came from Montana to be an actor here. He is involved in all sorts of theater enterprises and companies. He got involved in the Rustic Theater Company at Santa Monica Airport where I've seen a few things he's been in. Good stuff. They also have cafe plays where a writer writes a theme-based play in four hours, and a cast and director then work on it for six hours, and then they perform it twice that very night. They were fun to see. They asked me to direct one, and I did with Spencer Garrett and Rob Morrow. We had a blast. That's what got me interested in doing more in LA. Funny, The Geffen or the Taper or Kirk Douglas have never asked me to do anything at those theaters. Don't know if I've been too busy or what. Also, I started teaching a master class out of the Rustic space. I actually loved doing it and was exposed to some very fine actors, some of whom have asked me to come to their plays in town. I did so and thoroughly enjoyed them.

Any one specific audience reaction you would love after the curtain call of NORTURNE?

RS: I'm always curious how audiences will react to material. One of the great joys and great mysteries is how when performing a show, it seems so different from night to night, and most of the time I think the energy of that night's audience is the major ingredient to that phenomenon. I don't like to predict a response largely because they vary so much. I stay curious and only hope that audiences listen and absorb everything they can from seeing an act of creativity unfold in front of them.

JE: Thunderous applause and a sea of invitations to expensive dinners.

Thank you Both again!

For NOCTURNE's show schedule and ticket availability, log onto www.triptychgroup.org

Big Thanks to Ashley

Better Lemons was launched as a team effort and I'm grateful for Ashley Steed, the founding Editor in Chief, who was there at the beginning, encouraging and nurturing writers, and working with me to get Better Lemons to where we are today.
Ashley and I have a lot in common, including a passion for artists, Los Angeles, and the performing arts.
I'm grateful for her contribution and look forward to supporting her in one of her productions sometime soon.
Ashley has done a great job in organizing an incredible brigade of Better Lemons writers and her accomplishments at Better Lemons will go a long way toward setting up our next Editor in Chief for success.
I'm thankful for Ashley's support and I wish her well as she returns to making theater her priority.
Publisher, Better Lemons

Ashley Steed Concludes EiC Tour

Ten years ago I was an intern at LA Stage Alliance. One day Lee Melville, who was the Editor of LA Stage Magazine (like an actual magazine made of paper), came to us interns and asked us if we'd like to write an interview for the publication. I immediately said yes, whilst simultaneously having a flashback to my senior year of high school.
Lying in the center of my room in the fetal position, my mother comes in, “Oh my god honey what's wrong!”
“Essay,” is all I can muster. I used to love writing but something twisted senior year and now anytime I had to write something I'd have an anxiety attack.
“You are a beautiful writer,” my mother exclaims. “You are a beautiful writer.”
I took me a long time to believe her - the first step towards that was saying “Yes” to Lee Melville. I was so nervous conducting that first interview, even more nervous writing it, but Lee guided me along the way and kept asking for more articles. He was a wonderful mentor and I was deeply saddened by his death nearly four years ago - his love for the LA theatre community is what has inspired me the most.
With writing for LA Stage, I discovered a passion for interviewing artists - I love hearing about what inspires them, what drives them, the challenges they face, the magic they make. I also have a deep, deep love for Los Angeles - I firmly believe this city needs more coverage of the arts. We need the rest of the world to know that we are a culturally rich and diverse city, “Hollywood” is only one aspect of our identity - this city is brimming with artists who are passionate, creative and imaginative. They deserve to be recognised and celebrated.
When offered the Editor in Chief position of Better Lemons, I immediately said yes. Again, that same flashback of my mother came rushing to my mind, this time with a different resonance. For me, the hesitation of saying yes wasn't from insecurity, it was because my mother was dying - I didn't know if I'd have the time or headspace to dedicate to the site. Yet, I could hear my mother's never ending encouragement in the back of my mind, so I took the leap.
When my mother died, I wrote about continuing on with creating despite living with immeasurable grief. It's been four months since she's passed and I've been blessed to have gone from production to production to production. I'm still grappling with the grief, but I'm thankful to have the work to keep me busy. Making theatre is my passion and what a joy it is to be able to do what I love.
It is for this reason that I'm not continuing as Editor for Better Lemons. My priority will always be making theatre. I will continue to do interviews and write about theatre when I can, but Better Lemons deserves a leader who can dedicate more time moving it forward. Which is why I'm delighted Stephen Fife is taking over the helm. He's an incredible writer with a wide range of experience in writing for and about the arts. I have no doubt that he will do great work for arts and culture coverage in Los Angeles.
My deepest gratitude to Better Lemons in allowing me to help it transition into this new chapter of the site, and I look forward to watching it grow.

Who is Richard Cotovsky?

Who Is Richard Cotovsky?
The Orignal Superior Donuts.

CBS launched a new sitcom earlier this year titled “Superior Donuts,” which is and isn't an adaptation of the play written by the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Letts.  The sitcom version stars Judd Hirsch in the lead as Arthur Przybyszewski and Jermaine Fowler plays Franco. These are two characters from the stage production of “Superior Donuts” that sort of resemble the original characters of the play. Also, the location, Chicago, is central to the story, but not in as much depth as it is in Letts' play. The TV series “Superior Donuts” would be more accurately described as a production created by Bob Daily, Garrett Donovan, Neil Goldman and Jermaine Fowler who are credited as producers and writers of the show.

This by no means is a pan on Judd Hirsh, Jermaine Fowler, Katey Segal, Dave Koechner and the rest of the cast of the TV series. They are all fine actors. My friend and neighbor, Marla Cotovsky - who is Richard Cotovsky's sister - attended a SAG-AFTRA Foundation event, “Conversation with Superior Donuts” in Los Angeles. She submitted a general question to the whole cast about their audition process for the show when panelist and cast member Dave Koechner, who knows Richard, asked Marla to repeat her last name because he recognized it. Once Marla confirmed she was Richard Cotovsky's sister Dave went on to pay homage to Richard and told the cast and audience that he was the character Arthur and credited him for the existence of “Superior Donuts.” The event was videotaped and you can see it on YouTube.  However, I watched that event and a few episodes of the sitcom, and get the feeling that none of the producers, cast members or series writers has seen the play.

richard cotovsky way

Dedication of Honorary Richard Cotovsky Way - Photo credit Chicago Tribune

In my conversation with Richard Cotovsky, I ask him for some pre “Superior Donuts” history.  Cotovsky, who has a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois in Chicago, started acting in college when he took an elective class, introduction to theater.   He has performed in and directed many plays, been cast in various TV show episodes, but his most notable and recognized role has been the Artistic Director of the Mary-Arrchie Theater Group in Chicago for 30 years until the theater closed in 2016. To honor Richard Cotovsky's contribution to the Chicago Theater community the street, West Sheridan Road by Angel Island, where the Mary-Arrchie Theater was located, was dedicated as Honorary Richard Cotovsky Way, by Alderman James Cappleman.

Richard Cotovsky met Tracy Letts many years ago when Letts moved to Chicago and became part of the theater community.  They became friends and Richard sat in Tracy's improv theater group a few times. They regularly hung out with a group of theater folks in a bar in Chicago, and as Richard put it, “Tracy got involved with the right crowd and I watched him succeed and we maintained a friendship in theater over the years.”  A few years ago, Letts approached Richard telling him he's written a draft of a play, “Superior Donuts,” and was surprised when Tracy told him he based the main character Arthur on him. Tracy Letts is a member of the Steppenwolf Theater Group in Chicago and took the draft of “Superior Donuts” to them.  Shortly after they got the play, Cotovsky gets a call from the casting director at Steppenwolf and tells him that the info on the call is top secret and they want to see him about Letts' play “Superior Donuts.” So Richard goes to the theater and meets with the producers and casting director and auditions for the play.  That was the first time he read the part of Arthur.  They tell him if another actor doesn't come on board the part is his. Michael McKean came on board so Richard's role fell to understudy, but they wanted Richard to workshop the play with them, and he was happy about that.

Since the character Arthur was based on him, Richard was able to help the Steppenwolf Theater Company develop the play.  Letts is originally from Tulsa Oklahoma and not as deeply familiar with Chicago as Richard so he was able to add some details and nuances of the city as well as character depth in Arthur. Workshopping the play was a very interesting creative process that Cotovsky enjoyed and found satisfying. Many of Richard's suggestions for the play were considered and accepted by the production group.

The play went from the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago to Broadway, but when the play went to The Studio Theater in Washington DC Richard finally gets cast in the lead as Arthur.  He got a call of congrats from Tracy Letts and Richard tells his friend, “The play has come full circle.”  “Not until you produce it at the Mary-Arrchie,” urged Letts.  And so he did.  Richard Cotovsky produced and starred in the lead as Arthur at his theater.  He got Matt Miller to direct as he knew Matt was not only a great director but also well connected with the best actors in Chicago.  Miller cast a young actor, Preston Tate Jr. for the role of Franco and at first Cotovsky thought he might be a little inexperienced for the role, but quickly he found that Tate was very passionate about playing the character Franco and turned out to be the perfect Franco.

The original “Superior Donuts”

franco & arthur - superior donuts

Franco & Arthur - Superior Donuts, Mary-Arrchie Theater, Photo by Greg Rothman

In the play, Arthur is a man in his 50s, a pothead who has avoided things all his life and stuck in his ways. A Vietnam War draft dodger who fled to Canada, Arthur had a strained relationship with his father whose last word spoken to Arthur was “coward.” Arthur's father dies and his mother is left to run the donut shop but needs Arthur to come back and take it over.  So he comes back during the amnesty period when draft dodgers could return to the US without penalties or imprisonment.  Arthur has no ambition or love for the donut shop and it's a dingy, rundown lifeless place that barely gets by as the donut business hangs on by a thread. Arthur reflects the condition of his shop, unkempt; he keeps his wild frizzy hair in a ponytail and wears old t-shirts and dirty jeans. Arthur's style supports the weight of his life; the disappointments and tragedies. Arthur was married some years earlier but his wife leaves him and takes their daughter with her and they get a divorce.  His wife dies five years after she leaves him which causes a deep divide between Arthur and his daughter who has not spoken to him in years. Arthur uses marijuana as a smoke screen to avoid the pain of life.

Franco is a young, intelligent, energetic and idealistic black man who has a gambling addiction betting on football. He is also a writer who carries his novel's manuscript with him at all times in a series of notebooks tied together with a bungee cord.  Franco is a central character but he's introduced later in act one. Prior to Franco entering Arthur's world, there is a lot of background in the dialog with and between the characters that frequent the donut shop. The dialog and monologs in the first act reveal details of the why and the how of Arthur. Without this background, an audience would not connect and have emotions for Arthur.

Franco wins the trust and heart of Arthur through persistence.  He begins to give Arthur ideas to improve his shop and pointers on how to give better customer service and marketing to increase donut sales.  A transformation starts to take place as Franco begins to clean up the place and suggests Arthur get a radio to play music and inject uplifting energy into the donut shop.  Franco also sparks an external and internal transformation of Arthur as he pries into Arthur's past. Like a sly therapist, he gets Arthur to reveal his life story and helps Arthur stop avoiding change. Franco extends his trust and friendship with Arthur with the ultimate gesture. He gives Arthur his novel “America Will Be” to read.  Arthur takes the bundle of notebooks home and reads the novel.  When he brings back the manuscript he tells Franco how good the story is, and that he needs to type it out into a computer so he can submit it for publishing.

preston tate jr. & richard cotovsky

Preston Tate Jr. & Richard Cotovsky -Franco & Arthur, Photo by Greg Rothman

The emotional turning point in the play comes when Franco who owes a lot of money to a gangster bookie, but can't repay his debt.  The gangster burns Franco's notebooks, the only copy of his novel, and cuts off the fingers on one of Franco's hands.  This pushes Arthur to break from his life of avoidance and fear to help Franco by paying off his debt and get into a fist fight with the gangster.  The play ends with Franco and Arthur quietly sitting at a table in the donut shop, Franco's hand is bandaged where his fingers were cut off, and Arthur has a notebook in front of him and a pen in hand, and begins to help Franco re-write his novel, “America Will Be.”

Tracy Letts wrote his play “Superior Donuts” with thoughtful, unpretentious honesty and a sarcastic wit. Ironically, during “Superior Donuts'” run at the Mary-Arrchie Theater, Richard Cotovsky had a thought that the play would make a good sitcom.  In my interview with Richard, he said he could see ten episodes straight from the play.  Franco's character would not be introduced until the third episode, but that would allow for the audience to connect with the story and Arthur, and by then be ready for something to bring about a change in him.  Though Richard admits it would be very difficult to change the key dramatic scenes with the notebooks being burned and Franco's fingers being cut off into comedy – these were scenes that brought gasps from the audience every night the play was performed – but there are so many possibilities for the TV series to be an actual adaptation of the original “Superior Donuts” and stretch into many episodes.

At the SAG-AFTRA Foundation event, another question from the audience was how were they able to adapt this play into a TV series? Jermaine Fowler answered, “Keeping the story intact and keeping the soul of the story alive.”  That would have been doable, but after watching a few episodes of the sitcom it appears the writers have created a new TV story, not an adaptation. I don't find much of the original story included in this series and the soul… I hope the producers of the TV show will bring in the essence and depth of connection and transformation from the original “Superior Donuts” into the series.

Heather Lipson Bell

Heather Lipson Bell

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
Performing with LA Opera - Community Opera Noah's Flood - shows 5/6/17

To keep up to date on Bell's work, visit her Website



Escaping and Not Escaping The Tension Experience

Circling the World of the O.O.A.

Until this year, I'd never been to any kind of haunt production. I hadn't heard of Delusion, I didn't know what My Haunt Life was, and (I'm embarrassed to say) I had never even been to Sleep No More. What about an escape room? Nope. Hadn't done that, either.

However, I have been part of live events that push beyond the proscenium of “traditional” theatre, and I love it. I've attended as well as created various types of immersive and interactive productions in several genres and forms. So, when I first heard about The Tension Experience: Ascension, I was instantly riveted.

If you're not familiar, The Tension Experience is a highly-produced, ever-changing, individually-tailored machination of tentacled performances that just released its hold on LA (at least officially, and at least for the moment). It was part theatre and part mythological rabbit hole. It was part puzzle and part interrogation. It was made up of guerrilla mind games and shifting layers of morphing storylines. It also was, and is, a complete obsession for those who stepped into its shadowy waters.

My explanation is a little vague because, well, it would take me about 27 pages to give you my initial take on what actually went down. Also, to be honest, there's a part of me that's still nervous they're tapping my phone and monitoring my email, and if I reveal too much I'll come home to find some masked guy waiting with a coil of rope and a tray of scalpels. If you want to dig into their history, scour the internet at your own risk.

The short version of what happened: a cult called the O.O.A. came to town. They were full of mystery and controversy, popping up all over LA for months to interview people and disperse clues. Then, if you actually bought a ticket and showed up at your appointed time, you might have a chance to learn their secrets and become part of their mission.

Unfortunately, I was broke. So I decided not to go.

That is, until a friend of mine offered to loan me the money. Where did he get the funds? I assume the O.O.A. wired them to his account, and blackmailed him into buying me a ticket for their own nefarious purposes. In any case, we secured our admissions, girded our loins, and finally arrived at the designated alleyway at our appointed time.

Shortly afterwards, the black van pulled up.

Inside the Machine

Again, I'm not going to go into great detail about what went down for the next two or three hours of my life. I can tell you that I was stripped of all my possessions (including my clothes, thank you), questioned by several different people, and put through a battery of physical, mental, and psychic tests.

In nearly no time at all, I knew I had been singled out. I was separated from the rest of the group for most of my journey. I was given tasks that pitted me against my fellow entrants, and I was rewarded with encouraging words as I passed through each new challenge. For a good stretch, it appeared they'd narrowed it all down to me and one other person.

But narrowed it down for what?

Finally, my one remaining companion (enemy?) and I were knelt down. We began a strange and frightening ceremony in total darkness. And the question was posed: which one of us was to go first? I held my breath…and they took him first. Then I was alone. For a long time. Until they came back to get me.

I suppose it was after I woke up in a room full of sand. It was after a woman whispered in my ear that she was “so jealous” of what I was about to feel. It was after they strapped me to a medical chair and someone started swabbing my arm. That's when I started to think that maybe I shouldn't have come.

I learned something that night, though: when someone tells you it's time to say your final goodbyes to everyone you know? It's hard, in that moment, to come up with the right words.

The Tension Experience site is now mostly dismantled remains.

The Experience Continues

Clearly, I'm here writing this, so I didn't wind up dead. But it was close. As often happens with cults, things didn't exactly go as planned, and by the time I managed to get out of there, I was a bit shook up—and covered in blood. So, I did the sensible thing: I decided to write about my escape, publish it for all to see, and call out the O.O.A. on their messy little slip-up.

And you know what? They heard me. The next day I received a special message from the O.O.A. Within the week, I was back at their headquarters to ‘bear witness.' To what? I could only assume it would be a very jarring finale.

It was.

While I was there to witness the final moments of the show, I saw others in attendance that I recognized from The Tension Experience forums. There were people I recognized from events like Screenshot Productions' The Rope. It was a small but highly devoted audience, and a group that was apparently very loyal to this brand of terror-driven immersive experience. Everyone gathered with a particular type of fervor and suspense that I have honestly never seen in the theatre.

The Lust Experience is the next chapter, but very little is currently known about it.

However, despite the closing of the O.O.A.'s doors, this isn't over. We already know that the next chapter of this saga will surface in the form of something entitled The Lust Experience, and after that we'll encounter The Adrenaline Experience. It's hard to say what they have in store.

I have a million questions. Some have to do with the story we know, and some have to do with the chapters to come. Some have to do with my interest as a playwright, actor, and producer: how was this thing assembled? I wonder how many more secrets will be revealed. I wonder how many locked doors will remain unopened as this experience continues to grow.

Then I wonder about the audience. For these next installments, will it be the same fervent group of devotees who adore horror and fantasy? Or will new participants emerge after hearing about the success of this first experiment? Will people be more or less comfortable facing Lust than they were facing Tension? Is this the start of a new LA institution?

As I said, the haunt scene is entirely new to me, but I can't help but think that The Tension Experience is, in many ways, the most memorable piece of theatre I've ever witnessed. It grabbed me in ways I couldn't shake, and now it continues to follow me afterwards. On the one hand, I feel like this kind of production could be the future of live theatre. On the other hand, perhaps it follows the form of the exact thing it claimed to be from the start: a small and devoted cult meant for a select few.

Only time will reveal what comes next. But if you're even the tiniest bit curious, I encourage you to visit The Lust Experience and join the list. Even if you're not a haunt-goer. Even if you're not a theatre-goer. Even if you have to bum some money from a friend down the line. Get involved with this story, because what's going on here feels big. It's a narrative that extends far beyond a 90-minute window or a 99-seat theatre. It's not just another live event. It's a living, breathing, organism. And it's waiting for you.