This Spotlight focuses on Elmira Rahim who began her acting career in Iran, trained at USC, and created the ÉLAN Ensemble whose inaugural production, How We're Different From Animals, was the recipient of Best Adaptation at Stage Raw Theater Awards in 2019 as well as nominated in multiple categories including Best Production at Stage Raw Theater Awards and LA Drama Critics Circle Awards. But like so many others, this year’s production of a modern adaptation of Trojan Women with A Noise Within had to be postponed until theaters can safely open again.
Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background?
Elmira Rahim (Elmira): I started my acting career in Iran when I was a teenager and was fortunate enough to work with some prominent theater companies including Ayeneh, which led me to perform in in Paris in 2004. Working in Iran as an actor has given me a perspective of what it means to push the boundaries and use limitations as opportunities to be creative, which I will forever cherish and use as a force. After leaving my roots in Iran, I joined the USC MFA Acting program where I got the chance to work with some of my most inspiring mentors. The training at USC and the opportunity to collaborate with artists from different backgrounds inspired me to start a theater company, ÉLAN Ensemble, dedicated to creating adaptations and devised works rooted in physical theater techniques.
I am proud to share that ÉLAN's inaugural production, How We're Different From Animals, was the recipient of Best Adaptation at Stage Raw Theater Awards in 2019 as well as nominated in multiple categories including Best Production at Stage Raw Theater Awards and LA Drama Critics Circle Awards. I have also been working as an actor with other theater companies in Los Angeles as well as pursuing a career on camera and in voice over, but working as the leader and artistic director of ÉLAN has been one of the greatest honors of my theatrical career.
(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out it needed to immediately be either postponed or cancelled?
(Elmira): Before the pandemic, I was in conversation with A Noise Within to present a modern adaptation of Trojan Women with ÉLAN Ensemble as part of their Noise Now season. As you can imagine, an opportunity like this is really valuable for a new theater company and often takes time to come to fruition, but it did seem like we were getting closer. The presentation was not yet announced but we were planning to schedule it for August and could not wait to share this powerful piece with the audience. But it was clear to us after the shutdown that live performance in August was not going to be an option.
(SB): How was the shutdown communicated with the cast and production team?
(Elmira): I deeply feel for all colleagues and friends who had to cancel shows before opening or in the middle of a run. As an actor and a producer, I can totally understand the financial and emotional burden such action incurs. Since our performance dates at ANW were not yet confirmed, we were lucky to only have to communicate with the cast that we will be looking at another time to share this work, which was still hard considering we are still not certain when we will be able to safely gather in theaters again.
(SB): Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?
(Elmira): As of right now, Trojan Women is announced to be performed at ANW on Dec 19th, but we are still waiting for more specific guidelines. As you know, most theaters have cancelled their seasons until next year, so there is a possibility of having to postpone again.
(SB): What future productions on ÉLAN’s schedule are also affected by the shutdown?
(Elmira): ÉLAN is also in development for another project which is going to be a devised piece in process for a year or so. Now that we can’t be in the same room, we have started working on it one day at a time online.
(SB): How are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?
(Elmira): We have been scheduling multiple Zoom readings and meetings like most companies. I am also trying to use this time to write, read and think of ideas for future productions. Some online works and creations have been truly inspiring, but we all miss being in the same room together and feeding off of each other's energy and artistry.
(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?
(Elmira): I would like to extend my love to the LA Theatre community. During this time of isolation and reflection, I was reminded of how lucky I am to have met many wonderfully talented artists who are also wonderful human beings. At the same time, I wish that we will come out of this as a community with more awareness to create works that reflect our society more truthfully. Living in such a multicultural city is truly an asset for the Arts, and with all that is going on in our society today, I hope that we can recognize an opportunity for change and our individual role in creating it. I cannot wait to see you all in the theater! "Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself." Rumi
I would love to invite readers to a wonderfully unique modern adaptation of Trojan Women at A Noise Within/Noise Now at ANoiseWithin.org/noise-now.
Also, would love to share ÉLAN's website for any upcoming productions. ElanensEmble.com
ÉLAN Ensemble's productions of How We're Different From Animals and Seven. Photo credit: Meredith Adelaide
This Spotlight focuses on Elizabeth Adabale, a dedicated musical theatre entertainer who studied public health and theatre at the University of Southern California and taught high school biology with Teach for America, until the stage pulled her elsewhere. I first met her in 2013 when she began to audition for productions in Los Angeles and knew with her talent and stage presence, Elizabeth was destined to “hit it big” on stages across the country! I reached out to her to find out how is she dealing with the cancellation of her national tour in The Color Purple after 111 performances.
Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your own theatrical background?
Elizabeth Adabale (EA): My musical theatre career has been a windy road, beginning with my claim to fame, "starring" as Passenger #3 in my middle school's production of Anything Goes. From the age of 11, I realized that my happy place was on stage singing and dancing in front of an audience. So much so, I begged my parents to let me go to a performing arts high school, but instead went to a medical magnet school that would prepare me to study medicine at the collegiate level. I was still able to participate in some children's theatre in high school, and went on to study public health and theatre at the University of Southern California.
During my time at USC, I realized that there were a lot of opportunities I missed out on because I wasn't a theatre major. I was able to perform in a few shows, but felt I didn't have the training to pursue a career right out of college. Though I was pre-med throughout my time there, I decided at the last minute to pursue another career and joined Teach For America as a high school biology teacher. During the day, I would teach 11th graders about photosynthesis and eventually helped found the theatre program at my school. At night, I would audition and pursue regional theatre in the greater Los Angeles area.
(SB): I do remember you were teaching during the day and doing theater at night when I first met you when you walked into the Westchester Playhouse to audition for Little Shop of Horrors in 2013 and blew us away with your voice and stage presence. As I recall, it was one of your first community theatre shows in Los Angeles.
(EA): And my first paid performance was in the ensemble of Queenie Pie, a Duke Ellington opera, with the Long Beach Opera. Realizing I could get paid for my passion lit a fire in me to take things to the next level. My turning point was participating in a musical theatre competition called LA's Next Great Stage Star. It was a 6-week process where 19 contestants and I sang audition cuts to a panel of judges (think American Idol) that included casting directors, agents, and directors.
I signed with Across the Board Talent Agency in 2015, and went on to book shows at various regional theatres in LA such as 3D Theatricals (Parade and Oklahoma), 5-Star Theatricals (Evita, Children of Eden, and Hunchback of Notre Dame), Performance Riverside (Sister Act), The Cupcake Theatre (Little Shop of Horrors, Hairspray, and Urinetown) and the Taylor Performing Arts Center (Sister Act and Joseph...Dreamcoat).
In January of 2019, I took the big leap and moved to New York City to further pursue my career, and waking up at 5am to stand in mile-long lines in 30-degree weather paid off! Within 9 months in the city, I made my Off-Broadway debut in Revelation The Musical, played Jan in Grease at the Fingerlakes Musical Theatre Festival and played a Dynamite in Hairspray at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre. I also made my national tour debut as a Church Lady and Sofia in The Color Purple. It was a dream job, working with Tony Award-winning director John Doyle and the original set and costumes from the Broadway revival.
(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out it needed to immediately be postponed or cancelled?
(EA): I was on the beautiful island of Key West, Florida and had just completed my 111th performance of The Color Purple. We were making the drive to Cutler Bay, our next tour stop, when our company manager notified us, first by email and then later in person, that we would be laid off for a month. Our tour bus was pretty silent as the weight of the situation dawned on all of us.
Truth be told, we hadn't felt the effects of COVID-19 yet because Key West was such an isolated place that hadn't put any stay-at-home measures in place as yet. It wasn't until we stopped at a Walmart on our way into Miami that we realized the severity of the virus, amazed that lines were irrationally long and it was impossible to purchase simple things like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and gloves.
Our company of over 35 people were on planes home 2 days later. Originally, we were to resume performances in mid-April and finish the rest of our tour, which was due to run until the end of May. But 2 weeks later, we were informed that Key West was indeed our final performance and the rest of our tour dates had been cancelled. It was devastating to say the least. But while I am unaware of any plans to pick the tour back up in the future, I would love the opportunity to continue telling this story across the country as part of a future touring company.
(SB): What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?
(EA): I was in the audition process for a lot of projects that would have started after my tour ended in May. It's so difficult to be unsure of when I'll be able to perform again, but know that everything will work out exactly the way it's supposed to!
(SB): In the meantime, how are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?
(EA): I am so grateful for the wealth of resources that have been available to artists during this difficult time. I am in a Facebook group called No Marking which is led by casting director Kate Lumpkin. From Tuesday-Friday, the group provides various Zoom calls on topics ranging from audition tips to meditation to financial literacy. 3D Theatricals also has a similar program called 3D+U that provides virtual classes geared at supporting the artistic community. I've also been a part of a few virtual cabarets and readings that have helped raise money for The Actor's Fund. But then sometimes, I need to just unplug and take the time to rest. But I am grateful that I know where to go and get resources should I need it.
(SB) Any other thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?
(EA): Stay strong! These are unprecedented times and it's easy to find the bad in all this, but focus on the good. I am using this time as an opportunity for self-reflection and preparation. I've been ruminating on why I've chosen this profession, and what I want to accomplish. I've also been taking the time to update my resume, fine-tune my self-tape skills, read, and network. We will get through this, and can't wait to see how our industry evolves once this is over.
Tomorrow I'll pick up my final pay check. It's my “last day of service” at the great University of Southern California, where I've taught in the School of Dramatic Arts for 31 years.
I started as a simple adjunct instructor with a single improv class, and I ended up improvising my way to becoming a full-time “Associate Professor of Theater Practice”. Non- tenured… but still impressive in my parents' eyes, and not anything I could have anticipated or imagined when I graduated college in 1969 with a degree in Frisbee.
That's almost 50 years ago… during which time I grew up, became an adult, became an artist, a modern dancer, a poet, a documentary filmmaker, a director and producer, a story teller, an educator, and most surprisingly… a professional clown. I hustled, hassled, worried, and fought my way to a career in the arts, in Chicago, in New York, and for the last 35 years, in Los Angeles. During that last…. almost half century, I've had my share of successes and disappointments. I've won some awards and been ignored many times. I've had cancer and been lucky enough to survive it, along with many other, near-brushes with death. Fifteen years ago, I got married for the first time to an Indonesian woman 31 years younger than myself (anything magical about the number 31?). And even more recently, I adopted a son at age 68. Me, 68, not the son.
But tomorrow is my “termination date”, after which I will no longer receive a salary, health care, life insurance, or any of the many other benefits I've taken for granted these last many decades. I'm throwing myself out of the academic nest, off the retirement cliff, to see if I have any wings left to fly. To see if I can create a “third act”, you know, the last act of a contemporary play, after which the curtain comes down and the stage goes dark. I wonder how many more years I have left to live, and if I'll have enough money and ingenuity to thrive, to still live with some creativity, risk-taking, comfort, and grace. They didn't teach us about the “third act” in school. And by that, I don't mean the “third act” of a play.
“Life is what happens while you're waiting for your plans to work out.” John Lennon, the iconoclastic Beatle and one of my childhood heroes, supposedly said that, but I'm convinced that he overheard it from a little old lady in Liverpool. In any event, I've certainly found it to be true. Because any plans I ever made… never really materialized. Yet along the way, by saying yes to the opportunities that came my way, by following my gut, my needs, and my instincts, somehow… life has “worked out”. Then again, life has a way of doing that… “working out”…. one way or another. Some times better than others. But almost always in ways you can never have predicted.
I'd like now to take a look back… on my unpredictable life, not via the full blown memoir route, but via the short-order “retirement” version… to make some sense out of it all… to thank some people and some circumstances… to give some context to this so-called “third act”. And to hopefully, do so in a way… that is not all about… myself.
I was born in “New Yawk” in the late, post-WW2, Baby Boom 1940s.
Me and my generation grew up in the Ike Eisenhower, buttoned-down 1950s, until we collectively erupted in the mid 1960s, into sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. The word “erupted” perfectly fits the needs of my childhood- adolescence personality, as I was too self-conscious and too repressed to ever take a dance step, sing a note, or do anything that I didn't think would please my parents and make them proud. That's why I think it's ironic that I first became a modern dancer and a clown, two the most far-fetched and unimaginable careers this straight-laced, well-behaved young man could ever have stumbled into. But as I said, life has a sense of humor, and I had… the need. As apparently did…. my whole generation.
I was supposed to become a New Yawk Jewish, “my son, the doctuh”. Unfortunately, along the way to that expectation, I dropped calculus 3 times in college at the University of Buffalo, and physics twice. Amidst the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll of the late 60s (or at least the drugs and rock ‘n roll; as I was abysmally late to the sex part), I discovered that I didn't want to become a doctor, that was someone else's idea, and that I wanted instead to discover who the hell I was. The drugs helped, expanding my mind and perhaps setting me free; then one bright, icy-clear day in the windy City of Chicago, I climbed an old wooden staircase… into my future. (https://www.culturalweekly.com/finding-new-voice-windy-city/)
I became a modern dancer and I didn't open another book for the next seven years.
I discovered my body, the 95% of me that existed below my head and over-stuffed brain. I discovered movement, freedom, self expression, instinct, improvisation, and… a part of myself that my 22 years of formal education had completely neglected. I discovered… my “self”. And as I said, I think that's what happened to “all of us”, to the youth movement of the era, to the kids who rebelled against conformity, materialism, and convention, who became “hippies”, artists, and part of the “alternative culture”. Bob Dylan and the Beatles led the way – into politics, protest, Eastern religion, peace, love, and the erstwhile “sex, drugs, and rock ‘roll”.
But of course, it was hard to hold onto these values, activities, and ideals as we grew up and aged, long after we helped end the Vietnam War and pass civil rights legislation; long after Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal. Some of us became parents, had to hold down reliable jobs, became “yuppies”. The ideals faded as many of us had to button down ourselves, just like our parents before us, and our children no longer wanted to celebrate and preserve our “hippie” ideals, but instead dismissed them as silly and unrealistic. They wanted instead to become successful business men and women, to become rich and famous, to own start ups, dot coms, and brimming 401(k)s.
But now here's the rub, as I, as we, retire 50 years later. Were they right? Our kids? And their kids? Was I, were we, wrong? Were freedom and transcendence superfluous? I mean, for me, “art” was my god, my way to “transcend” myself. To be bigger than myself. To connect with and touch others. To be part of the whole. I rejected the idea that it was only money, wealth, accumulation, and security that mattered. While now I wonder: are those the very prerequisites, and lessons of, old age, contentment, and retirement?
I certainly didn't think so, or care, as I outgrew my black tights and dancing days, became a crazy clown in my 30s, founded and directed NYC's Resident Clown Troupe, the Cumeezi Bozo Ensemble, ran for Mayor of New York City as clown Gino Cumeezi in 1977 and finished 5th out of 4 candidates.
I held onto my artist identity with all my might. I didn't want to let it go, to compromise it. I was an artist, a clown; I spoke truth to power. I would find a way to make a living… which I did… while the NEA was still generous with grants to small non-profit arts companies. When there was a will, there was always a way. Even if we clowns had to do corporate parties for the likes of Macy's, Cunard, and George Steinbrenner, the owner of the NY Yankees and the Donald Trump of his day, we did it. Happily. We traveled to Holland, Switzerland, and France… as clowns! We were celebrated, feted, and well-paid. At least… well enough.
Then I simply got tired of being the clown king of New Yawk, of running non-profit arts companies, with too many legs and too many mouths to feed. I took a leap out on my own, trying just two legs, as I assaulted the Hollywood TV and film industry by moving from New Yawk to LA in late 1982.
I failed… miserably.
Partially because I wasn't a very good actor…. becoming someone else; I was always better at being myself. Furthermore, I just didn't like the life of an unemployed Hollywood wannabe – actor, writer, director, producer. Pitching myself to agents, taking meetings, doing auditions… I just didn't have the thick skin or stomach for it. It seemed like “the work” was always trying to “get work”. Whereas I was used to “working” as an artist… taking dance classes daily, rehearsing daily, teaching daily, clowning daily. I simply didn't like the beggared life of the aspiring, but mostly unemployed, Hollywood actor… whatever.
Fortunately, I was offered a job to teach that single improv class at USC's School of Theatre in 1986, by newly-appointed Dean Ric Toscan, whose play I had directed with offbeat, enthusiastic, and apparently, improvisational aplomb. And before I knew it, I was out of the Hollywood wannabe business, and into both my long teaching career in academia, and back into my self-motivated, self-producing career as a multi-disciplined artist.
First I directed friends' one person shows, then I did the first one myself in 1988, taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it was “short-listed” for “Best Show of the Fringe”.
Then in 1989 I was diagnosed with Hodgkin 's disease, cancer of the lymphatic system. I was shocked. Dismayed. Scared. “Why me?” Was I going to die at age 42? But… after 6 months of chemo therapy under the good care of Dr. Daniel Lieber, I was pronounced to be in remission, and soon found myself back on the carousel of life. A little wiser and less angry, I hoped, but by 1990 I had begun a documentary film, “The Poet and the Con”, about my relationship with my criminal uncle, Harvey Rosenberg, trying to figure out why I identified more with my outlaw uncle than I did with the middle class, conservative part of my family. How was an artist like a criminal, both living outside the law, by their own rules? Seven years later, the film premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival in Nyon, Switzerland, and then it ran theatrically for four months at three different Laemmle Theatres in LA, due to the support and enthusiasm of Greg Laemmle, the current namesake of the LA art house movie theater “chain”.
Right after my recovery from cancer, I also started producing City-wide arts festivals: the poetry segment for Peter Sellars in the 1990 Los Angeles Festival, then the Santa Monica Festival '91, WORD/LA, an Oral Response to the Rodney King Verdict in 1993, and Solo/LA in 1995 at CBS Radford Studio.
Since then, the new millennium has found me reading my own work regularly at spoken word and poetry events at Beyond Baroque, usually under the aegis of Eve Brandstein's “Poetry in Motion”. I've developed and produced many solo shows of new artists at many of the Hollywood Fringe Festivals that have won “Best of the Fringe” awards. I've traveled the world on several Fulbright grants, and created Word Press blogs of my own: “Trules Rules” and “e-travels with e. trules”, as well as blogged for the Huffington Post and theCultural Weekly. And most recently, I've done a TEDx Talk, and now I seem to be spending most of my creative time working on, and promoting, a new travel podcast, also called “e-travels with e. trules”
For all the years that I've taught at USC (1986 – 2017), both as an adjunct and then as a full time member of the faculty, the job and the institution have supported my life choice of being an artist. I was one of the lucky artist-dinosaurs who got a job at a university, through no effort of my own, teaching something I love, while at the same time, being able to have an income, health care, a retirement account, and maybe best of all… 3 and a half months off every summer, and almost a month off over the winter holidays. I was fortunate enough to work with Gordon Davidson, the godfather of LA theater and founder of the Mark Taper Forum, when I brought him to USC near the end of his life and we co-taught classes for a couple of years together, inspiring and instructing a new generation of hopeful theater artists.
On paper, it sounds like “a wonderful life”, right?
In reality though, and in my own experience, it hasn't been easy, not without its many challenges, confrontations, and life-changing choices. No life is… very simple at all.
But now… three days into this story… I'm officially “retired”. I have already picked up that final pay check and paid for the first month of my wife's and son's new Kaiser Individual and Family health plan. It's not cheap. And I don't qualify for the Affordable Health Care Act, desperately fighting for its life in Congress, not to become Trump's “American Health Care Act” of 2017.
Our country is not kind to its poor or middle classes. Or to its aging population. To those without power or wealth. Why no one has to pay Social Security taxes when they earn more than $118,000 a year… is an unanswerable abomination of a question. Why health care is not a right of all American citizens and residents, like it is in the rest of the civilized world, can only be answered by the humongous greed of our insurance companies and the insatiable appetite of the capitalistic system.
Our country is not set up for a comfortable “Act Three”. And what I think is a real oversight, even an educational crime, is that we Americans haven't been educated or prepared for retirement or a “third act”. I mean, why didn't Ike Eisenhower and his School Board require all us Baby Boomers to take a class in economics? In real estate? In investment? In health care? In retirement? In aging and dying? Because… as we're quickly finding out, and we should have been forewarned, aging isn't for the weak of heart, or… as our great American novelist, Philip Roth, says, “Old age isn't a battle, it's a massacre.”
Shut up, Trules! You still have the rest of your life in front of you. Why don't you see it as an opportunity? As the glass being half full instead of half empty? Who knows what you can create in these next many years, for as many as those may be? Why don't you just keep saying “yes”, like you've done for all these years; that's what the improvisational rules of life demand?
Because… there's good part of me (or maybe not so “good”) that is scared to death. What an idiom! “Scared to death”. What exactly does that mean? We all know death is coming, right? Even though our society and culture try to avoid and escape the reality at all cost. Instead we try to preserve life with medical, technological wizardry as long as scientifically possible… even long after the quality of life is gone. In contrast – to other countries and cultures – who accept death… as part of life. Who push their aged off into the frigid sea – on icebergs – when it's time to let go and die. Who respect and care for their elders. Who worship their ancestors and expect them to come back for an annual visit on the Day of the Dead. Mexico. My wife's Indonesia. Most simpler and more “primitive” cultures. But… who has it right? And who has it wrong?
So yeah… I'm scared… not so much of dying… but more of running out of money. Of losing health care. My Social Security. My Medicare. Of facing the “massacre” unprotected by the society and country I trusted and believed in.
I don't know what more to say about “retirement”. Other than perhaps… “I used to be a Theater Prof at USC for a while. It was one of my many careers in the arts. Sure, it was for a long time, 31 years, and I was a lucky man, but that was Act 2. Now it's time for the leap into Act 3… my last.”
Do I still yearn to go into an empty theater, to create theatrical magic out of a simple black box? To tell stories? To see other peoples' shows? To live a “life in the theater”? Honestly, I just… don't know. I'll have to see.
For now… I just want to stay healthy. Play tennis a few times a week. Help raise my 10 year old son. Teach him well. Do simple things. Take care of the garden. Walk the dog. Not plan too much. Enjoy the day. Walk around, re-seeing my city, Los Angeles, anew. Live life… one day at a time. Since none of us have figured out how to predict the future… or know when our run will be over…. then I figure… I might as well try to enjoy the time I have left.
I'm sure the rest of my life will be revealed to me, just as my life, until now, has been revealed… created… one day… one year at a time.