Photo by Monique A. LeBleu - Director Jessica Lynn Johnson of Soaring Solo, at the Hollywood Fringe Festival Prom Night 2016, Hollywood, California.
I interviewed Director Jessica Lynn Johnson, teacher of Soaring Solo, a how-to series of workshops and individual instruction on creating solo theatrical projects and bringing them to fruition. Jessica is often a one-woman cheering squad for her students, creating unique costumes out of their promotional bar cards and items for Fringe Festival parties.
I first met Johnson at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2016, dressed head to toe in a costume crafted entirely from her students' and other producers' show cards. This creative endeavor she makes special each year for the annually anticipated social event, "Prom Night."
After seeing some of her students' shows at the festival and at the Whitefire Annual Solofest, I caught her in action at a recent Saturday morning workshop with LAFPI: The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative at Whitefire Theatre, on Saturday, July 21, 2018.
I later spoke with Johnson, here, where we talked on the mechanics of her process for creating solo artist theatrical projects, her use of inspiring and provocative word prompts with exploring through two-minute on-the-spot writing, the free workshops she teaches at the Whitefire Theatre, and various festivals and creative outlets that feature solo shows such as Solofest, the Hollywood Fringe Festival, the North Hollywood Fringe Festival, and work with The Los Angeles Women's Playwrights Initiative.
The atmosphere in her home studio is designed to be conducive to creativity, both for herself and for her students, and she talked further on how the process that she teaches can go far beyond that of creating a solo show, but lead a deeper path into self-discovery.
I interviewed Heather Keller of the "Chemo Barbie Show" which has made its journey from the Hollywood Fringe Festival to this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, now currently underway until the end of the month.
In this series of five podcasts, Keller talks on her cancer diagnosis, the ups, downs, and side effects of treatment, "cold-capping" (to keep her hair), healthy living, the enduring and lost relationships (the other side effects of cancer), workshopping at Samuel French and Johnson's Soaring Solo, woman power, the desire and plans to raise a family with her husband Brian McCarthy, and motherhood and planning for Edinburgh Fringe.
After her breast cancer diagnosis on December 30, 2015 and a few months into her treatments, Keller has been documenting her experience through a series of YouTube videos on her channel "Keep Abreast W/ Heather: A Cancer Survivor's Story," with her videos reaching cumulatively over 150,000 views.
Inspired through a few propitious events in her writing and further encouraged by her director Jessica Lynn Johnson through her solo artist workshops, and encouraged by the many comments from those affected by cancer on her YouTube channel, Keller then developed the funny and charming, with only a smattering of bittersweetness, "Chemo Barbie: My Lady Bits' Journey Through Breast Cancer."
Premiering at Studio C in Hollywood for the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival, it was nominated for Best Solo Show and won the Encore Producers' Award. After running its encore, it then went to the Whitefire Theatre's annual Solofest in 2017 where Keller began to think even broader for the future of the show.
Still currently being treated to stay cancer-free, through crowd-funding assistance and with producers Michael Blaha and Nigel Thomas, Keller has brought the "Chemo Barbie Show" to Edinburgh's Gilded Balloon Teviot for a coveted run in annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The Chemo Barbie Show plays at 1:30 p.m. every day from now until Tuesday, August 28, 2018, with the exception of this coming Monday, August 13, 2018, (the only day the show is dark) at the Gilded Balloon Teviot. For those planning to visit Edinburgh this month, visit the Edinburgh Fringe Festival ticketing page for tickets.
Actor, writer and director Richard Lucas of “Bono and The Edge Waiting For Godominos” discusses the inception of the idea for the show, its fruition fueled by the ongoing “Serial Killers” serial show series at Broadwater (formerly known as Sacred Fools), their successful run in various venues throughout California, his new book “The Dog Log,” and the future of “Bono and The Edge Waiting For Godominos.”
“Bono and The Edge Waiting For Godominos“ stars Richard Lucas as Bono, Curt Collier as The Edge, Jeff Blumberg as Lucky, and Bruno Oliver as Domingo.
After recently returning from PianoFight in San Francisco, the “Bono and The Edge Waiting For Godominos” now heads to The Majestic Repertory Theatre in Las Vegas for shows on Friday, July 13, 2018, and Saturday, July 14, 2018, each night at 10 p.m.
For updating info on future shows visit their website or the show Facebook page.
Dashing Melchor moves to Los Angeles to court his online dating connection but unexpectedly falls in love with a mysterious veiled lady (Magdalena), and she with him. He later meets her sans veil but is unimpressed, thus igniting Magdalena's jealousy--of herself! A madcap comedy of disguise and deception, Henry Ong's modern take on a 17th century Spanish play is surprisingly relevant today, in light of society's obsession with outward beauty and how it relates to self-worth.*
Enjoy this interview about “The Blade of Jealousy” at Whitefire Theatre, running until Aug 26th. You can listen to this 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.
Known to The Young & The Restless aficionados for 36 years as Esther Valentine; as well as, the personable United Airlines stewardess to UAL passengers, Kate Linder takes on another role - that of Sarah in DESPERATELY SEEKING LOVE opening at the Whitefire Theatre June 29, 2018. Kate managed to find some time between flying, rehearsing and fundraising to answer a few of my queries. Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Kate! It's been quite a while since our paths have crossed at an opening or charity event I've covered. Between your day job (The Young & The Restless), your other day job (United Airlines flight attendant), and your various charities involvement (ALS Association and others), how do you juggle your time to be a part of Ryan Paul James' DESPERATELY SEEKING LOVE? You know what they say, if you want something done, ask the busiest person you know! What forces of nature brought you to this project? I ran into some friends of mine and they told me about the project. Once I read it, I knew it was something that I had to do. Did you happen to see the 2012 production of this at The Pierson Playhouse with Bernie Kopell and Mariette Hartley? No, but if I had known about the production, I'm sure I would have gone to see it. Would you describe your character in DESPERATELY SEEKING LOVE? Sarah was married for 35 years. Her husband has passed away and now she is trying to figure out how to move forward with her life. Does the character of Sarah hit too close to home for you? Or is that why you chose to take it on? Sarah is definitely in the same stage of life that I am. Reading the play for the first time was an unbelievable experience. Some of the dialogue is exactly whatI have said myself. It was almost as if Ryan had been inside my head. Do you find this role cathartic in dealing with your Ron? It's too soon to tell until the play opens, but I'm hoping that it will have a cathartic effect on me. I just know that I was instantly drawn to it because of the parallels to my own life since I lost my husband of 42 years. What would you say was the key for your successful 42 years in marriage? That's like 294 dog years in Hollywood! Definitely communication and mutual respect for each other. Every time I left on a trip, I always left a note on his pillow. What would Esther Valentine say or do to console Sarah? Would Esther be the one to push her into dating again? Esther would tell Sarah to hang in there. That things will get better. You are a fan favorite at the Y&R conventions. What's the most outrageous fan incident that you can laugh about? Thank you. As the police were escorting a problematic couple off the airplane, one of them turned to me and said, "Aren't you Esther on The Young & The Restless?" Airline passengers must do double takes recognizing you as you recite the safety instructions. Do you do them as Esther Valentine? Or as Kate Linder? I am usually the Purser and since the safety demonstration is serious, it should not be done in a humorous way. As a former office-holder in both AFTRA and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences; what improvements in the Los Angeles theatre community have you noticed since you settled down in Los Angeles in the late 1970s? I'm a current and longtime SAG-AFTRA board member, but I think that question would be better answered by a member of the Actor's Equity board instead. What upcoming charity event would I have a good chance running into you? July 15th is the 20th anniversary of the Vancouver Afternoon Tea with Kate Linder & Friends benefiting the Canucks For Kids Fund. I fly up with several of my The Young & The Restless castmates and Robin Wyss, my charity tea partner, always makes sure that the fans and the castmates have a wonderful time while raising money for a great non-profit. Any immediate plans in the near future for Kate Linder, besides being Young and Restless and flying United? I'm looking forward to bringing Sarah to life in DESPERATELY SEEKING LOVE and helping to introduce this wonderful play to a new set of theatregoers. Thank you again, Kate! I look forward to seeing you live on the ground! (You know, as opposed to on the tube or in the air!)
For ticket availability through August 3, 2018; log onto WhitefireTheatre.com
An Angeleno for decades now, the internationally-produced playwright Henry Ong always manages to find his way back to his home base in Los Angeles (FABRIC at Pasadena Playhouse, SWEET KARMA at The Grove Theatre, to name a few of his works). The prolific writer's latest world premiere THE BLADE OF JEALOUSY will open June 24, 2018 at the Whitefire Theatre. We managed to find a few spare moments of Henry's time to pick his creative brain on L.A. theatre and always giving back.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview with me, Henry!
The original draft of THE BLADE OF JEALOUSY came from your involvement with Jon Lawrence Rivera and Golden Tongues. Can you elaborate on this 2015 association?
I was invited and commissioned to participate in Golden Tongues, which is a joint project by Playwrights' Arena (Jon's the Artistic Director) and UCLA's William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. The purpose of the project is to draw attention to the vastly untapped treasures of the Golden Age of Spanish theater. Playwrights were asked to pick a play and re-interpret it in a contemporary setting. I picked Tirso de Molina's LE CELOSA DE SI MISMA (JEALOUS OF HERSELF) and modernized it against the backdrop of Los Angeles.
What inspired you to adapt Tirso de Molina's LE CELOSA DE SI MISMA (JEALOUS OF HERSELF) into THE BLADE OF JEALOUSY?
After poring through a catalogue containing hundreds of untapped plays, I was immediately struck by the vibrancy of the story and the madcap quality of JEALOUS OF HERSELF. Tirso de Molina is himself an interesting character. He was not only a Catholic friar; he was also a successful playwright writing under a pseudonym. The story of a woman who became jealous of herself was simply too delicious to ignore! For me, it also raises questions about society's obsession with beauty and its implications. Apparently, it was no different during 17th century Spain.
What did you learn from your one-nighter at the Odyssey Theatre in August 2016? Any particular audience reaction take you by surprise?
The reading at the Odyssey was magical. We had a sold-out house. And a “red carpet” event, for crying out loud! We, playwrights, never know how our work will be received until it is staged, but the reading was a good gauge that perhaps we were ready for a mass audience. Generally, I had very positive feedback. I don't remember anyone expressing anything negative. There was a lot of laughter throughout the show, and I don't think they were just being polite.
Are there a lot of tweaks from that 2016 reading to this world premiere at Whitefire?
I have done several edits to trim the “fat.” As we rehearse, we are delving into the deeper issues. Hopefully, the comedy goes deeper than just mistaken identity—that deep down, there is also human connection and love. There's a fine balance between being in your face and being subtle. That's what I'm working on at the moment. In the back of my mind, I wonder whether it will work when you have actors try different things. With different casts, the coloring of the play changes somewhat as well.
Any of the actors from your 2016 show back for this Whitefire production?
Unfortunately, the actors were unavailable for this production (e.g. one is moving out of town, another is in India at the moment, etc.) There is also the situation which does not allow us to use Equity actors. So, we have a brand new cast.
How did you come up with the name of your production company - Blue Apple Productions?
Actually this particular production is co-produced by Whitefire Theatre and Artists Against Oppression (AAO), a non-profit organization whose primary mission is to encourage artistic projects in the community that have a charitable bent. We have an arrangement with Thai Community Development Center to honor its Executive Director, Chancee Martorell who supported a number of my artistic endeavors like FABRIC and THE BOONSOM PALAT STORY. There will be at a special event prior to opening for this event, and it will raise monies for Thai CDC as well.
Blue Apple is the literal translation of the name, “Jiang Qing.” She was Chairman Mao Zedong's wife and widow. My first play, Madame Mao's Memories, is based on her life. Because that play defined me as a playwright, I have fond memories of it. Hence, I thought using her adopted name would be an interesting one for my production company.
How does one become a 16-time recipient of Department of Cultural Affairs Artist-in-Residence grants?
By applying for grants with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. I was lucky. I submitted 16 project ideas, all of which were funded. My main proposal was to conduct oral history projects in various underserved or minority communities; it's a way of giving back to the community. I learned that regular people, not just artists, are hungry to tell their stories. It's more about the participants than it is about me, but in the process, I learn about the various communities as well. I've done oral history projects in the Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Thai communities, as well as partnered with Marlton School, Los Angeles' only day school for the deaf and hearing impaired students, to stage several plays for youth. The school had hitherto not done any Asian plays, and there's such a wealth of Asian folktales, so it was a very happy partnership for several years.
Was your six-hour DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER atWHY DREAM IN INGLEWOOD? part of this grant award?
No, DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBERresulted from an IGAPP (Inglewood Growing Artists Performed Projects) initiative awarded by the City of Inglewood. It gave me the opportunity to revisit my six-hour adaptation of the Chinese classic novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, a story I grew up with. What a treat to be able to use the beautiful Inglewood Amphitheater and park, as well as its Agee Playhouse theater as the setting to tell this epic tale! We had 13 actors taking on some 70 roles, performing all over the park, over an entire day, with breaks in between, of course. Additionally, we did half the play on one day, and the other half on another. We were also able to use some members of the audience as “actors” for bit lines, which they seemed to enjoy.
How involved are you with your scripts once they get produced past their premieres? Do you partake in any creative decisions? Do you watch rehearsals and give notes?
I do. I try and attend every rehearsal and I like getting various viewpoints, especially from the director. I don't always agree, but I appreciate that everyone wants to do the best for the play. Ultimately, as the playwright, I have final say on whether or not to include suggested changes. And, yes, I do give notes, but always through the director.
Once your plays are published, how flexible are you with any script changes?
I feel that no play is set in stone although, after publication, unless I'm actively involved, any production will have to deal with the published version rather than alter the script.
Did you have any creatives you looked up to in your formative years?
I wasn't originally trained to be a playwright. As with many Asian families, my parents wanted me to be a doctor. So I had to “prove” to them that I had no aptitude for medicine. By which time, I'd graduated with a science degree. I hated my years having to study disciplines I had no interest in, so when I graduated, I decided I would follow my own path. Not knowing what that would be, except that I wanted to write, I became a journalist for a while. I took a UCLA playwriting class, and that was enough for me to decide that that was what I wanted to do. There was a lot of catching up to do, so I immersed myself in reading plays, seeing them when I could. My favorite playwrights were Tennessee Williams and William Inge (the gay ones!). I also looked at Asian playwrights, such as David Henry Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda. I'm glad to see there are a number of Asian playwrights now making their mark on the national stage.
How has the Los Angeles theatre community changed in all the years you've been active in it?
My goodness, there's so much theater in Los Angeles. It took me a while to navigate through all the theaters, and I'm still discovering. I like the fact that many productions companies just do it! I even appreciate "bad" theater. No one produces a show to be bad. So there's something to be said for the effort, and there's always something to learn from any production. Plays are also getting shorter. Gone are the three-acts (well, mostly gone!). Today, more and more plays are one-acts, but not any less substantial. The Equity situation certainly is a game-changer. There are so many actors I would love to have worked with on THE BLADE OF JEALOUSY, but we can't. While we appreciate that actors need to get paid, by the same token, they need to constantly exercise their creative muscle. Unless they belong to a membership company, many actors are barred from productions that cannot afford to pay actors more than a minimal wage. Hey, being in a show beats taking acting classes (for which actors pay!).
What emotions would you like Whitefire audiences to leave with after THE BLADE OF JEALOUSY's curtain call?
For this play, I want people to have fun, and at the same time think about the underlying idea of self-esteem and how that's linked to our concept of beauty. I think this play touches on that—excuse the pun—beautifully! I would love it if people can see in the characters, glimpses of themselves. In many of my plays, I would love it if audiences are moved by the message and cry. In this, I hope they are moved to laugh. I remember someone telling me, God loves laughter. I want to my audience to laugh. Pure and simple.
What's in the immediate future for Henry Ong?
I go with the flow. I never know where my next inspiration will come. For instance, last year, I was asked if I would write a play about sexual abuse by Thai Community Development Center (CDC). It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I was game. So we did a movement piece (I asked my friend Donna Eshelman to choreograph) called THE BOONSOM PALAT STORY (title may change), and we presented it at a Thai CDC event. My friend who is opening a Thai restaurant later this year has indicated that I'm welcome to stage it in her restaurant anytime I would like.
I've had several people approach me about writing projects, but I'm considering them one at a time. What I know is, I would love to go beyond just writing plays. I would love to collaborate. I would love to incorporate movement, music, and stage plays in non-traditional spaces. Come to think of it, I've done some of these already! But more. I have several projects in the works, but we'll see if they come to fruition. Some are big, some are simple to execute, but always these projects have to excite me. We'll see. Or I may just not do anything. I remember several years ago, I said I would not write anymore. And I was immediately happy. Then, the next day, I put pen to paper. On the blank page.
Thank you again, Henry! I look forward to seeing your BLADE in action.
Producer/actor/career coach Jake O'Flaherty has lived and breathed the Whitefire Theatre Company since he and Bryan Rasmussen (Whitefire Theatre's artistic director since 2005) started it in 2013. With diversity one of the hot button topics at issue to discuss, Jake gives us Whitefire's take on running a theatre company with inclusiveness, while also carefully balancing his acting career, his coaching responsibilities, his producing duties and his home life.
Thank you taking the time for this interview, Jake!
Thank you for giving me the opportunity for this interview.
Is your upcoming COMPANY SHORTS Whitefire Theatre's most diversified evening of performers and subjects?
Yes, the upcoming show called COMPANY SHORTS has a diverse group of theatre company members, and plays that embrace themes of diversity.
Whitefire Theatre's been around for 35 years and you and Bryan took charge of it about five years ago. Was there always a conscious effort to be inviting to all people of all colors and orientations? Or was there a specific lightbulb moment for this policy?
When I started the theatre company with Whitefire Theatre artistic director Bryan Rasmussen five years ago, we very much from the start wanted to embrace absolute diversity in every category so that each 10 minute play would reflect the real world. All races, age ranges, sexual orientation, cultures, and religions. All of this was planned between myself and Bryan Rasmussen from the very first meeting.
How does an evening of Whitefire Theatre's various SHORTS come about? Writing workshops? Acting improvs? Drinks at the neighborhood bar?
Whitefire Theatre's evening of 10-minute original short comedy plays comes about through the process of meeting every Tuesday night from 7 to 10PM, and reading every original play submitted to the theatre company. Some of them are through friends, as well as playwright websites, as well as social media submissions that come from my announcements on Facebook and Instagram. Half-price sushi at Izakaya after doesn't hurt either 🙂
In the early days of Whitefire Theatre, did you ever cast Caucasian actors in non-Caucasion roles? (MISS SAIGON, comes to mind. Unfortunately, so does Mickey Rooney in the film Breakfast at Tiffany's.)
In regards to the Whitefire Theatre, I can only speak to the casting of the plays in the five years I have been there producing the shows. We make every effort to expand on the opportunities of every character that is written in the play to involve diversity of some kind. Honestly, I was getting tired of going to other theatre productions & watching 25-year-old Caucasian people playing every role. It was not authentic and didn't make sense to me.
We feel like the diversity actually enhances the dialogue and brings new light and meaning to the situations at hand in most of the plays.
What's your opinion of #Oscarssowhite? Would you agree that Oscars aren't necessarily the source of the issue, but the end game?
#OscarsSoWhiteHasBeenAnIssueForALongTime. And yes, the Oscars are not the issue, but a reflection of the endgame. In my opinion, things are changing for the better now, and hopefully, will continue to do so each year moving forward. People from diverse backgrounds have very diverse stories to tell from a very specific point of view that can appeal to a mass audience. The people in charge of making the decisions have to embrace the opportunities that are available for all of us, regardless of what language we speak, or what country we come from, the color of our skin. I think they're finally starting to see in movies and TV shows today, that their bottom-line financial gains are part of that process as well.
You were born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. How long were you there before moving to Tampa, Florida?
Yes, I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and lived there for a few years before moving to Tampa, Florida to start grade school at Incarnation Catholic school.
Did your FBI father teach you to get along with all kinds of people? Or did it just come naturally for you?
Yes, my FBI father and my mother raised all four of us children to treat everyone the same, as human beings. That everyone deserved respect, consideration and appreciation for who they were. I use these values and raised my daughter with them as well , and am grateful every day that I had the parents God gave me.
You seem like a person who makes lemonade out of any lemons rolling your way. Would you share your worst audition experience that was completely morphed into a totally unforgettable positive life lesson?
I like the lemonade analogy. In this entertainment business, you have to see the glass half-full or you will drive yourself crazy. There are opportunities all the time, every day if you look for them.
OK, my worst audition experience that was completely morphed into an unforgettable positive life lesson, occurred many years ago when I was reading for the network executives for what would eventually become a huge hit television series. They kept asking me to behave like one of the other actors(out in the lobby with me), and to talk like him and to make facial reactions like him etc. I knew it was him, because I saw him doing them out in the lobby for 30 minutes before he went in, before me, to audition. This other actor was the son of a well-known 30-year veteran actor. In my opinion, you bring a certain amount of yourself, that is different from everyone, to each part that you play. So they were asking me not to be myself and telling me that they really didn't appreciate my choices. But, perhaps I was a less expensive option? It kind of crushed my soul for a few weeks, but then I realized that there's nothing I can do except be myself. And those were the roles that I would book anyway. When you embrace who you are. The good, the bad, the in-between. It makes life a lot easier from there.
You have degrees in both psychology and business admin. To complement that book knowledge you're absorbed, you must share a lot of your own learning experiences with the commercial acting and career consultant classes you teach at Whitefire Theatre. Would you tell us what personal experience always seems to find itself being told to your classes?
Yes, my bachelors degree in psychology and business administration have helped a great deal in my acting career, as well as my career consultation side business. Hollywood is a business of show. You have to make sure you run your business in an organized and professional manner every day. Always be kind and considerate. Be on time, have your lines memorized, understand before the audition the who, what, where, when, and why of your character in the script pages provided and commit to those choices before you enter the audition room. Then be flexible and able to listen to redirection if needed. In the beginning of my career, I wasn't booking jobs, but I was always being called back by the same casting director for a different episode of the same show, or a different show that they were casting. And I was told it was because I was pleasant and professional and didn't over extend my welcome in the room. I share that with every class I teach.
What do you find the most common practical mistake actors make in managing their careers?
One of the most common mistakes that actors make in their careers is relying on their agent/managers to do all the work for them. As an actor, it is your responsibility to be proactive every day and do something positive for your own career. Including self-submissions through online casting sites, taking classes, learning a new language or a skill to add to your resume, do a play or write your own material. Through all these experiences, you will meet new people to network with, see different points of view about acting, and observe all kinds of great character work.
How Whitefire Theatre's live streaming program coming along?
Whitefire Theatre's live streaming is up and running. We just finished six weeks of a live improv show directed by Bill Chott called Live on Fire, which aired live on Facebook as well.
We will live stream our theater company show COMPANY SHORTS which opens Tuesday, April 17 at 8 PM and runs for six consecutive Tuesday nights.
Which do you enjoy absolutely the most: Wearing your coaching cap? Donning your producer's chapeau? Tipping your fedora at an acting partner under the stagelights?
That's a really tough question. I am really proud of my Whitefire Theatre Company and all the up-and-coming actors and playwrights that have found representation, going out on auditions and booking jobs from our shows. I've been coaching clients and teaching since 1998, and I do really enjoy being able to give back a little of what I have learned, but I also find myself learning from my students/clients more than I expected every time. Truthfully, being on stage/set as an actor and creating different characters is a feeling like no other for me, almost euphoria.
Thank you again, Jake! I look forward to seeing your fresh new COMPANY SHORTS.
Thank you Gil. It takes a village to raise awareness, appreciate artistry and entertain the masses, and your support and encouragement are always welcome.
For COMPANY SHORTS Tuesday night ticket availability and other White Theatre shows, log onto WhitefireTheatre.com
An annual Valley holiday staple for a raucous time to be had by all, SANTASIA - A HOLIDAY COMEDY opens December 1, 2017 at The Whitefire Theatre. We had the chance to chat with one of the co-founders of SANTASIA, Shaun Loeseron the familial inspiration and family ties that creatively bind this troupe of funny, funny people. Thank you, Shaun, for agreeing to this interview! Thank you Gil! I'm really excited to talk with you. I see a number of people with the last names 'Loeser' on the SANTASIA website. How wonderful that this is a family affair, yes?
Ha, ha!, Yes! This is a family affair. My brother Brandon and I started SANTASIA - A HOLIDAY COMEDY 18 years ago. My wife Tania, has been part of SANTASIA for 15 years and Brandon's new wife Rachel, has been with us for two years - she's the newbie. BTW, The full show title is SANTASIA - A HOLIDAY COMEDY. But most people call us simply SANTASIA. We've reached the Cher and Madonna level!
Do you have to separate SANTASIA creative pow-wows from your everyday family lives? Or does everything overlap? I wish we had separate SANTASIA pow-wows! Unfortunately, this show has pretty much taken over our lives for eleven months of the year. (We try not to think about it in January!) Things will inspire us throughout the year, so we start to create those ideas as soon as they transpire. Can you specify who originated the idea of your first SANTASIA? Or was this a group light bulb? SANTASIA was honestly created to get me and Brandon through the holidays without our Dad. Our Dad passed away after a hard-fought battle with cancer on July 1st, 2000. He (our Dad) was crazy about Christmas, holiday decorating and frigging Christmas lights. He made us hang all these lights on the coldest Chicago nights. But he always made Christmas the most fun and the best time of the year for us. Our Dad was also the funniest guy we ever knew. He had a great sense of humor, and he was very snarky and sarcastic. He was the most lovable asshole you'd ever know. After he died and Christmas was approaching, we didn't know what to do with ourselves. We knew that Christmas and that holiday season would just cause us pain and anguish. So we decided to get in front of that depression and start making fun of Christmas, it's traditions and our family. Seemed like something “our Dad would want us to do.” So that's when we created our SANTASIA. I remember telling Brandon, I think producing this show would be cheaper than a shrink. 18 years later, I was way wrong.
So, your first SANTASIA was put on in winter of 2000?
Our first SANTASIA was performed in 2000. We did four shows. We played on Tuesday nights, and between 15 to 20 people attended every night. But, on our final performance, we sold out. Sixty people showed up and we got our first standing ovation. Have revised any original SANTASIA sketches from your first show for this show opening December 1st? From the original show back in 2000, there's only two scenes we've kept for all 18 years. And these scenes are pantomime - one is an epic snowball fight, and the other, an adventure's bobsledding fiasco. Any cast members who have been involved in all of the editions? Do you have a core SANTASIA troupe (besides the four Loesers)? Brandon and I, of course. And, then my wife Tania has been with us the longest for 15 years. Another cast member Lon Gowan has been going strong for the past 13 years. Then Rachel for just two years. Does your wife Tania choreograph around the unique dancing strengths of your core cast? Or does she have to audition for someone to be able to perform a specific dance move? Ha! Yes, we do have a “unique dancing strength.” You're never going to believe this, but none of the guys in SANTASIA are trained dancers. I know, but it's true. We do try our damnest to be the best we can. It's a part of the charm and innocence of the show. Tania has a real gift of creating and inspiring non-movers and non-dancers to look the best they can. Tania is able to pull your unique strengths out of you and incorporate them into her amazing vision. Her choreography is very imaginative, and her ideas are both clever and funny and always smartly executed. Fun fact - Tania is the genius who incorporated dance and the musical numbers into our show. After Tania saw our show for her first time in 2000, she insisted we add a dance number to bring the show to the next level. Tania came up with the idea of "The Full Monty" and proposed it to me. It ended up being a hit and "The Full Monty" is still in our show as a staple. We have added musical parodies ever since. Our take offs include “A SANTASIA Line,” “All Those Toys,” “Snow Block Tango.,” Last year, we added a HAMILTON parody. Now we have to describe SANTASIA as a holiday musical/sketch comedy/multi-media event! Whitefire Theatre's currently in its 35th season. How did you originally connect with Whitefire? By phone. That's partially true. SANTASIA was performing at the El Portal Theatre as the guest artist for the 2004 “Valley Theatre Awards.” SANTASIA was nominated for, and won, Best Comedy Ensemble. Tania won Best Choreographer, and a I won for Best Comedy Actor (Although, Brandon claims he's the funnier Loeser brother). It was at that awards show Bryan Rasmussen, owner of the Whitefire Theatre, first saw us perform. After we ended that year's run, we knew we needed a bigger venue. It was fun because when we called Bryan, he remembered us and welcomed us with open arms. Bryan is one of the most supportive and most giving theatre owners I have ever had to pleasure to work with. Bryan is truly passionate about his theatre, the work that goes on there and their patrons. In my opinion, the theatre is the nicest one in the valley. It also has really comfy seats that don't hurt your butt. How soon did you start conceiving this current edition? Right after last year's? To be perfectly honest…we usually get inspired two weeks into the run. Somebody will shout backstage, “Next year we should…” Then we'll, “yes and...” the idea and that will be our starting off point come February. How did the inclusion of claymation multi-media come about? I've always been a fan of the Rankin and Bass holiday specials. I grew up on Rudolph and Frosty. I met Michael Granberry the second year he came to see SANTASIA. He was what we like to call a super-fan or a “Santasi-ac.” Anyway, he told me he was a stop-motion animator. Michael asked me if I ever wanted a claymation piece for the show. I told him I had an idea for this split scene I was working on. It was going to be live on stage. Two kids were trying to build a snowman and just when the snowman was completed everything and everyone kept falling down. It's revealed later on the other side of the stage there was a little girl shaking a snow globe. So I wrote the scene down on a napkin for him. And I couple month's later he produced our first claymation film San Andreas Snowman. We now have four claymation films - Pulp Christmas, Some Assembly Required and Penguins Don't Fly. Fun fact - after Michael worked on our SANTASIA projects, he is now a two- time Emmy Award-winning animator for the show Tumble Leaf on Amazon. Not sure if SANTASIA had anything to do with it, but we are tight with Santa Claus. Video plays a big part of SANTASIA. Who's the mastermind behind your videos? Yes, they are, and they began out of necessity. Brandon and I hate long blackouts and scene changes. I wrote the very first film parody, based on the Matrix, titled Santasia Reloaded. This first trailer was our unique take on the Matrix Reloaded. It had stunts, Santa flying through the air and special effects. It was ridiculous! The audiences loved it. Then they asked, “What are you doing next year?” We realized then, we had to make more. Whoever is inspired, gets to write and direct them. Tania, Brandon and I have all had our fair share of creating and producing these films. This year's film was directed by Tania. These films are full-on mini-productions. Tania will also do costumes and hair. Brandon does all the post-production. I'll get props, locations and talent scheduled and booked. These films are definitely a collaboration of ideas by the SANTASIA team. Since our first film, we've produced Brokeback Igloo, Breaking Naughty, On Santasia Tides, Snowfall 007, The Walking Gingerbread, to name a few. Also, we add various commercials and PSA's throughout the show. But to be honest, I'm very excited about this year's parody film. It's really a bit Strange. You and your brother Brandon both studied under Chicago's improv guru Del Close. Did you and Brandon start out performing together? Yeah, pretty much. We started doing shows in college, and then Brandon and I started training at the iO in Chicago. If you know Del's work, you'll see the big influence Del had us in our storytelling. SANTASIA's structure is derived from Del's famed long form, the “Harold.” Del showed us how to truthfully do a scene and find the comedy within that truth; and how scenes, people and relationships will organically always find a connection. After we studied with iO, both Brandon and I both went on to pursue careers as actors and stuntmen. We've both been lucky enough to work film, TV, and commercials. Brandon and I usually don't work together too much. We usually get cast as the same type. It just depends if production wants the short, chubby Loeser brother or the tall, goofy one. A couple of times, we did a sketch on the Conan show together. Come to think of it, SANTASIA is the only show we do that we actually share the stage. Was stuntwork your entree into the entertainment industry? Or we you acting first? For me, it kind of came at the same time. I was a diver in high school, so I developed some pretty good air sense. I auditioned for this Batman Stunt Show at Six Flags in Chicago. My big stunt was falling off a two-story building, and because I acquired that air sense, I was able to successfully do that fall. Then I bought some high fall pads and taught Brandon how to high fall. He became my counterpart the next year at the show. The live shows were a great way to make ends meet while pursuing the film and TV work. I have done the live show circuit, and it has literally taken me around the world. I've done shows in Chicago, New Jersey, Orlando, California and Italy. It was in California at Six Flags Magic Mountain doing the Batman and Robin Show where Brandon and I met Tania for the first time. Tania was playing Poison Ivy, and Brandon and I were cast as the mad scientist. Any specific themes you incorporate into your yearly SANTASIAs? Basic holiday dysfunction and the craziness of the holiday season and family. It seems like we always go back to family, if you love them or not. We go out of our way to try to make SANTASIA an escape from the holidays, so we try our best to keep current events out of the show, and make it more of a timeless production. Any different goals you Loesers have set for this year's SANTASIA? (Laughs per minute? Shocked gaffaws? Extended standing O's?) Usually we get about 10 to 12 laughs per minute. This year, I'd like to see if we could bump that up to 14.5 laughs with a guffaw every three minutes. (I don't want to push it.) But, you know what would be really cool is an ovation so big that after we run off stage the audience cheers so much, they demand us to return. You know like the rock stars get! Then we perform Freebird and call it a night!!! Thank you again, Shaun! I look forward to laughing a lot at your SANTASIA! Thanks, Gil! It was fun. Let me know if you need anything else from us! I gotta go so I can learn Freebird.
For schedule and available SANTASIA tickets through December 25, 2017; log onto www.santasia.com
Whitefire Theatre will be presenting their latest edition of their SHORTS series, FALL SHORTS, opening September 26, 2017. Whitefire Theatre has been a reliable San Fernando Valley fixture providing countless entertaining theatre pieces and workshops.
Whitefire Theatre's artistic director Bryan Rasmussen took some moments from his creative multi-tasking to chat with us. Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Bryan! This is your fifth year of presenting your evenings of original short comedy plays. What was the genesis of inaugurating this series? When Jake O'Flaherty (the producer) and I started the company; we still didn't know exactly what material we would be presenting as a company. Because the choice of the material you do is your reputation usually for the company itself. I had already been working in the 10-minute format for a while and thought it was just amazing. And then it all came together, being able to use every actor in the company for every show. And they would basically get cast as leads in their short pieces. So everybody got great roles, and we could use 25-to-30 actors for a show. So we started using that format. It worked so well, we just kept using it, and we use it now exclusively for the company. How do you select what shorts become a part of each production?
We have a core group of writers that we work with on a regular basis, both within the company and outside of the company. Many award-winning comedy writers are involved. It takes approximately 16 weeks to find the plays, rehearse and develop them. Because these are plays and not sketches, it needs that kind of rehearsal process. We pick the nine or ten best plays we can find, and we cast them that way rather than the opposite way of finding plays that fit the company. But it happens anyway every time. Amazing! Have any of the 100-plus shorts you've presented in the last five years grown into full-length plays? Some have, but that's not necessarily the reason this is happening. The 10-minute play is its own genre. It's not just a short clip in order to get the long-form produced, etc. And many great things can happen in that arc of 10 minutes. I did one that covered the characters from babies to Alzheimer's, and it was incredible! The format that these lend themselves well to is the web series. And we are developing many of those as well. Any specific success stories to brag about? Well, we have many great relationships with artists, but collaborating with Academy Award-winning writer (Crash)/director/producer Bobby Moresco for over eight years is a great one! Many of our projects that we developed in the Gym have gone on to full-length play productions, feature films, scripts and other projects. We've been developing a new work inspired by Studs Terkel's WORKING but with completely new characters and written by members of the Actors Gym and Bobby Moresco who conceived the project called WORKING2017, starring a world-class cast that we will be streaming live worldwide. This is the 35th anniversary of Whitefire Theatre. What made you decide to stake ownership in Whitefire eight years ago?
It was actually a very serendipitous event. I was an actor at the time bartending with no real ability to start a business whatsoever. But a friend of mine stepped in and put up a little money, and then I was able to get a few others to do the same. Amazingly, it all took place over the course of a six-month period. Then after about three years of steady bookings, the recession hit and changed everything drastically. I had run spaces and produced before but having my own theatre was not a realistic goal of mine. I think everybody would like one, but it was certainly not on my goal list. I was on full steam ahead for an acting career, and had already done a lot by the time this came along. But it came along in my life when I was at a crossroads trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life and, Boom!, this came into my life. It's been an amazing ride! Your Whitefire website pictures a core group of eleven company members. Do you choose the plays Whitefire produces to fit their talents? Actually, our core group is 25 company members. The biggest difference is most casting is the actors becoming characters that have already been written. But in film and television, it's very important to understand what your 'personal' essence is, as opposed to your 'casting' essence. So these parts are all customized for each of their individual talents and diversity or ethnicity. And it's worked just fantastically that way! Do company members get first crack at new roles? Or do they have to audition at your open auditions?
Yes, they do...we always consider our company members for other shows playing at the Whitefire. Theatre company members read all the submitted plays and are then cast based on who can represent the characters best as written. We have open auditions after the close of each show for any new company members who would like to join for the next show. Our producer Jake O'Flaherty arranges the audition process. How does one become a company member? Auditions are held on the week after the current show closes. The actor needs to prepare a two-minute comedy monologue of their choice to perform, and bring a headshot and resume. You, Bobby Moresco and Jessica Lynn Johnson offer classes at Whitefire. Does one need to audition to enroll in your classes? Yes, but they aren't as much classes as they are workshops. Bobby's are by referral and he has writers, actors, and directors in that. Jessica's is a free ongoing workshop developing solo shows. Mine is an ongoing on-camera, working-actors class for all pro-actor needs. Bill Chott (This is Us) teaches an ongoing improv workshop on Saturday and Sunday 11am-1pm. Portia Scott runs a Sunday morning voiceover workshop. Jake O'Flaherty has commercial and business of acting classes as well. The rest of the time we are in production.
What are your long-term goals for Whitefire? We are launching our live-streaming program as we speak. We are very excited about what this could all mean! What's in the immediate future for Whitefire?
I'd love to make the Whitefire the Netflix of theatre. Broadcasting our content nightly live out of the Whitefire, and creating a stream of income for theatre artists so they can make a living doing theatre in LA! And in the future for Bryan Rasmussen, acting or directing?
The Company show FALL SHORTS that opens Tuesday, September 26 at 8pm. Then, I am acting in a feature film in October, shooting in New Orleans about the aftermath of Katrina. Jake O'Flaherty and I are also doing multiple web series together. So life is good when you get to do what you love. That is true success. After my heart attack a year ago, it helped me hyper-focus on what is important, and who I wanted to work with. I'm the luckiest guy in town. Thank you again, Bryan!
For FALL SHORTS ticket availability and schedule thru October 31, 2017; as well as, ongoing Whitefire Theatre class schedules; log onto www.whitefiretheatre.com
Those of you who read my column regularly - and yes, I mean you, Sandra Zeitzew, and you, Mary Tierney, and you, guy I went to high school with, who has hated me ever since I didn't return your wave "hello" in 8th grade (I didn't see you!) - oh, and you, person of taste, whose face I can't quite make out - you know that I've been posting my "Hipster Tips" and "Hipster Laments" for the last few months. Making or breaking shows, wielding a mighty influence with the light touch for which I am known. And now here is an entire column of "Tips" and "Laments" - can it be a new spring/summer ritual? - some new, some shows I've mentioned before and am reminding you of before they close (you're welcome). One whose demise I've chosen to analyze, because that's the kind of guy I am.
HIPSTER TIP: SHANE GUFFOGG's art exhibition "The Dance of Thought"at the Manhattan Beach Art Center closes on June 11th. I wrote about this show in my 4/18 column. It's a dazzler, and it's free. Go for the art, stay for the sunset. (1560 Manhattan Beach Blvd, Manhattan Beach 90266; Wednesday-Saturday 10 AM - 9 PM; Sunday 10 AM - 5 PM; FREE)
HIPSTER TIP: MARTHA, at the Whitefire Theatre, is a one-woman bio play by Ellen Melaver about Martha Graham, the American diva of divas and founder of Modern Dance. It has been performing once a week (Sunday evenings) for the last 3 months, but it's about to close this Sunday, and its future is uncertain. I urge you not to miss it if you have any interest at all in the expressive powers of the body and soul. While I freely admit to not liking one person "genius" shows in general, I have a soft spot for this particular show because I was at the Shenandoah Playwrights Retreat along with the author when she was writing it. But the play needs no apologist, no more than Martha herself does. Martha was a genius of the grand style, a visionary with an imagination that spawned and embraced the mythical. The author creates a cogent narrative that moves gracefully through the major events of Martha's life, while conjuring up a believable "goddess" who struggled with the smallness of most human aspirations. Christina Carlisi brings Martha to vivid life as a woman and artist tormented by betrayals (especially by her own body) and director Stewart Zully keeps everything moving briskly, providing wonderful images projected on the brick wall.
Jerry MacKinnon and Samantha Ressler; photo credit: Chris Whitaker
HIPSTER TIP: ACTUALLY at the Geffen Playhouse's Skirball Kenis Theatre is a new play about a date rape case at Princeton by Anna Ziegler that runs until June 11th - after which it will be performed at every college campus and many small theaters throughout the country, so you might as well see it now in this excellent production. It's literally the perfect play for our time - requiring two late-teen actors (Jewish young woman, African American young man) and two chairs and an audience. The play is maddeningly manipulative, setting up a cage match of legal arguments for and against the case for rape, but in the process the playwright does create the basis for two credible character, who these actors (Samantha Ressler and Jerry MacKinnon) do everything in their power to imbue with complex humanity, under the exacting direction of Tyne Rafaelli. While the audience is being appealed to as judge and jury, what emerges is a terribly sad, even tragic, story of teenagers who don't know themselves much less each other, and who are trapped inside a narrative that they can't really fathom, no matter how many layers of explanation they try to provide. And yet this haphazard event will determine their futures.
HIPSTER LAMENT: AMERICAN CRIME (ABC-TV) - In my column of March 30th, I lamented the degeneration of this show, which boasted one of the best writing staffs and acting ensembles on any platform, anywhere. Under the leadership of Oscar-winner John Ridley (12 Years A Slave), it had a brilliant first season, and a pretty good second season. But the third season was just awful - the waste of so much talent was a crime against art, not to mention how little commerce it did. And now it's been CANCELLED. What was awful about this season was the sense of victimhood that haunted every scene like a ghost, never allowing us to believe a positive outcome was even possible, much less likely. Yet if you go to John Ridley's IMDB page - which you really should, since his Comments page is longer than the Gettysburg Address - he makes it very clear that he hates the victim mentality that infuses so much of the American dialogue about social issues. So what happened? I'll tell you - this guy is simply too busy, the quality is not keeping up with the quantity. He has documentaries (Let It Fall about the Rodney King riots) and new series (Guerrilla on Showtime) and movie scripts and novels and direction and producing and... well, you get it. I watched the first episode of Guerrilla, which had all the trappings of being good without actually being good. It just didn't seem credible, this too-easy prison break in 1971 London. The style is great, but where is the substance? I can understand how hard it must be to say "no" to a project when everyone is telling you "yes." Sometimes, however, that may be the best thing you can do. Or so it seems to me from my seat here on the sidelines.