Voices from the Fringe: Writer/Director Thomas Wortham

Making his Fringe debut this year is Thomas Wortham, the writer, producer and director of An American Video Store, set in one of the titular establishments that barely exist anymore.

In the midst of beginning a new job and preparing his show for the Fringe, Mr. Wortham still found the time to talk to Better Lemons.

Better Lemons: What was the inspiration behind this piece? Personal
experience?
Thomas Wortham: I don't know how it works now, but in the ‘90s kids would just hang out at various retail locations, whether it be the mall, an arcade or — in my case — a video store. I got hooked at a young age by my mom's VHS collection and it just never stopped. There was a Blockbuster up the street from my house that I practically grew up in. I also worked at a Hollywood Video Store in college, which was an awesome and terrible experience all at the same time. I always wanted to write some form of this story and the mistake I always made was trying to make the plot about the actual downfall of the video store business. Something in the vein of Empire Records, where it was all about saving the store.

I finally felt I had unlocked the idea when I realized the story had to be about the characters and allow the business aspects to simply act as a foundation for what was happening.

BL: Any parallels with Clerks - which, of course, would be a perfect connection?
TW: It is so funny you ask this. OF COURSE Clerks and Kevin Smith are a massive influence on myself and the play. In fact, just two nights ago I attended his Fatman Beyond podcast taping in Hollywood. They do a Q&A at the end and I was able to get up and ask a question wearing a shirt that had my play's logo on it.

Kevin is so generous with folks promoting their stuff, and with his connection to video stores, he immediately asked me about my shirt and insisted I plug all aspects of my play before and after me asking my question. It was incredible. He also had some nice things to say about the Fringe, which was cool.

But in terms of the mechanics of the play, it was crucial that the script had scenes that allowed the characters to wax intellectual about movies. Very similar to how Dante and Randal talk about Star Wars in Clerks, or how Brodie and T.S. talk about Superman in Mallrats. And you know just how shitty jobs  really have an impact on how our lives play out, when we are young can, whether we recognize it or not in the moment.

BL: What does (or did) the video store symbolize in American culture?
TW: I think that more than anything the video store era just represented a communal experience that sadly is the biggest thing missing when you select something through a streaming service. I'm sure the algorithms that Netflix uses are very sophisticated, but the way an organic conversation with customers and clerks could lead you down such interesting and unexpected paths was something I think is impossible to replicate.

BL: Briefly, what’s the show about? How will it resonate with audiences?
TW: Taking place over three pivotal moments in the history of the American video store, our intimate story of clerks and customers examines the rise and fall of a cultural phenomenon that defined a generation. The show is an hour long - with the goal being a funny, emotional and nostalgic trip down memory lane for anyone who has ever enjoyed the experience of going to a video store to pick out a movie.

BL: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
TW: My girlfriend Aidan Rees is our lead and is also a producer. She is an incredibly talented actoress who is a regular at Second City. I'm always blown away by her ability to be such a versatile performer. Going from improv to sketch to everything scripted can be challenging for anyone to execute. We found our second lead, Jeff Coppage, through a self-tape. He has the uncanny ability to add flavor to dialogue that wasn't intended as a joke, and all of a sudden I'm laughing my ass off. So damn unique and funny.

Kristin Morris is a close friend of mine and an extremely accomplished actor. I saw her in West Side Story at Musical Theatre West in Long Beach and I always knew I would love to write a part that would be brought to life by her amazing talents. Antoine Dillard, Misao McGregor and Angelique Maurnaé were all actors that Aidan had worked with before. While I was not familiar with their work, they have all knocked it out of the park and made their characters jump off the page in a way I never could have imagined.

BL: Is this your first Fringe experience? Or have you attended in previous years, either as an audience member or talent?
TW: First time Fringer in every capacity. I am so excited and thankful to be exposed to this brand new weird world.

BL: What other shows intrigue you at #hff19?
TW: Lots of shows that are also at Stephanie Feury look great. I have had the chance to meet the creators of George. and Treason so I look forward to seeing those. The ladies who are putting on 2 for 1 seem to be cooking up something unique. An Excuse to Behave Badly sounds like a really smart and fun concept. I am intrigued by the ambitious premise of She Kills Monsters. I am sure there are plenty more I would love to see but honestly those are some of the folks who I have met at office hours that caught my eye.

I look forward to a Fringe year when I can be just an attendee and have more time to learn about other shows instead of focusing so much on ours.

BL: Finally, have you made the trek to the last remaining Blockbuster in Bend, Oregon?
TW: I have not. I would love to. Fortunately, there are a handful of video stores still operating in the LA area that I have gone to recently to help inspire the show. In particular, Cinefile Video in Santa Monica made me feel at home, so if any of this conversation makes you miss the experience, go check ‘em out and show them some love!


An American Video Store plays June 9-29 at the Stephanie Feury Studio
Theatre, 5636 Melrose Avenue. Specific dates, show times and ticketing
information can be found on the Fringe site.


Friday Features

In our Friday Features we are promoting shows that have a Sweet #LemonMeter rating. We hope that you will visit these performances below and will leave your own comments on their show pages.

HERE ARE THIS WEEK'S SWEET SHOWS:

BUGABOO
& THE SILENT ONE

Bugaboo is an inmate in the women's block of Henderson County Jail in West Virginia. After 42 days alone, she is assigned a roommate who she comes to call her “silent little sinner”. Presented by producer Chris Bender (American Pie, History of Violence, Mulan), Marja-Lewis Ryan's timely new drama is an intimate look at the power of female friendship despite devastating circumstances. Bugaboo & The Silent One opens January 6th at The Lounge Theater in Hollywood. Big mouth Bugaboo, played by LA Drama Critics Circle Award Winning Actress Heidi Sulzman, has recently “come fully to Jesus” and is set on saving the soul of her new roommate, The Silent One (Jacqueline Toboni). But as the play unfolds, it becomes clear that they are both desperate for something outside of themselves. see all the reviews and leave your own comment here




ROTTERDAM

Closes this Sunday!

New Year's. Rotterdam, 2017. Alice has finally found the courage to email her parents to tell them she's a lesbian. But before Alice hits send, her girlfriend Fiona reveals that she has always identified as a man, and now wants to live as one, sending their relationship into a tailspin. A queer love story, about all of us… see all the reviews and leave your own comment here


DELEARIOUS

Closes this Sunday!

Tragedy meets hilarity and King Lear gets a happy ending in a madcap musical romp à la Mel Brooks and Monty Python. Open Fist Theatre Company revives its smash hit production of this award-winning play-within-a-play by Second City's Ron West and composer Phil Swann, Ron and Phil are writing about King James I and Shakespeare — who in turn are writing about the legendary King Lear. Phil gets sick of Ron's laziness and womanizing; King James gets sick of Shakespeare and demotes him to working on the Bible; and King Lear gets sick of everyone and goes crazy. Great songs, a clever story and lots of laughs! see all the reviews and leave your own comment here


A LOVE AFFAIR

A hilarious, daring and just-a-touch-racy comedy from long-time LA Playwright Jerry Mayer, that takes you on the roller-coaster-ride of a 38-year (and counting) marriage, from the romantic naivete of a 1950's honeymoon, to the lovingly annoying daily life in the Coming-of-New Age '90's. The successes, the disappointments, the sex, the traumas, the traumas about sex and the budget and the children and the adventure of casting your lot with another human being…for life. see all the reviews and leave your own comment here



FREUD'S LAST SESSION

September, 1939. On the day England enters World War II, legendary psychoanalyst Dr. Sigmund Freud invites the young, rising Oxford don C.S. Lewis to his home in London. There, only weeks before Freud took his own life, they engage in a brain-teasing battle of wits on the subjects of love, sex and the existence of God. Filled with humor, this deeply touching play explores the minds, hearts and souls of two brilliant men addressing the greatest questions of all time. see all the reviews and leave your own comment here




CABARET

A thrilling and up-to-date production of a classic show that is now more relevant than ever. The seedy glamour of the Kit Kat Club with its bawdy Emcee provide an unsettling but fitting backdrop to the story of the hard-living entertainer Sally Bowles in the decadent nightlife of Germany in the early '30s. Come hear some of the most memorable songs in musical theatre history, including “Cabaret,” “Willkommen” and “Maybe This Time.” Right this way, your table's waiting at the musical the New York Times calls “one for the ages.” see all the reviews and leave your own comment here



THE CHOSEN

A silent father, an ancient tradition and an unexpectedly important game of baseball forge bonds of lifelong friendship between two Jewish boys from “five blocks and a world apart” in this funny, poignant, timely and timeless father-son story about recognition and acceptance of “the other.” see all the reviews and leave your own comment here