Playwright Henry Ong Sharpens his BLADE, Always Aiming to Pay It Forward

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 at WHY DREAM IN INGLEWOOD? part of this grant award?

No, DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER resulted 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.

For ticket availability through August 26, 2018; log onto TheBladeofJealousy.brownpapertickets.com


SXSW 2018 Film Interview: Kai Nordberg and Kaarle Aho, Producers of 'Heavy Trip'

The producers of ‘Heavy Trip' talk about the making of first Finnish comedy to premiere at SXSW.

Touted as the first Finnish comedy ever to premiere at SXSW, Heavy Trip is the story of a group of best friends who are members of a band named Impaled Rektum, possibly the most obscure heavy metal group in Finland.

They've been perfecting their style in the basement for the past 12 years, but their ultimate dream is to escape their confines of their tiny village and land a real gig. When they stumble upon an original sound, they throw caution to the wind and hit the road to play the hottest metal music festival in Norway.

This delightfully offbeat comedy provides amusing jabs at familiar metal clichés, as well as a cast of characters that you can root for.

Kai Nordberg and Kaarle Aho, the film's producers and partners in the production company, Making Movies Oy, sat down with me on Saturday, Mar. 10 at SXSW to discuss the development of the film and the challenges of making the most expensive Finnish comedy ever produced.

What was the inspiration for Heavy Trip?

Kai Nordberg: It was the inspiration of the directors (Jukka Vidgren and Juuso Laatio), who came up with the idea for the film. We grew up in the ‘70s, the golden era of heavy rock coming up in Europe. So these two guys came up with a script that had all the rock clichés, but still treated it with respect. It was something we found inspiring. And it's great music!

Are any of the characters based on fact?

KN: Yes! The directors!

Kaarle Aho: Especially the [character] with the long hair (Turo) was loosely based on one of the directors. He was from a small village and he used to play heavy metal music. The real inspiration for him was having grown up in a small place where having long hair and listening to heavy metal music was a weird thing to do. It made him an outsider.

The way the characters in the film are ostracized, too. How popular is metal in Scandinavia?

KN: I wouldn't say all of Scandinavia. It's Finland and Norway. It's not popular in Sweden or Denmark. But it's still huge, especially in the countryside, outside the biggest cities. It's hard to say why, but it's a fact that Finland has the most metal bands per capita in the world. And Norway is number two.

KA: It must be something to do with the weather — or the aggressiveness of the music!

And it's the villages where it's popular.

KA: Yes, the villages. Hipsters live in the big cities.

How does it feel to have the first Finnish comedy premiere at SXSW?

KN: It's a huge honor and a huge achievement. We've been in business for 25 years, and...

KA: It's also the first comedy for our company.

Kaarle Aho and Kai Nordberg, producers of the Finnish heavy metal comedy ‘Heavy Trip' at SXSW (Photo: Kurt Gardner)

How do you think Americans will receive the film?

KN: I think it will go down very well. Much of the comedy is unintentional. It's based on the characters. We don't laugh at the characters — we laugh with them.

And I recognized the metal tropes. They're universal.

KN: Absolutely.

How were the actors cast?

KN: Basically, the directors had some ideas of who could be whom, and their main idea was not to take the most obvious guys — the famous ones — and bring in new faces.

KA: Did they all know how to play instruments beforehand?

KN: No, not at all. In the band, there are four characters and they each represent a genre. One is sub-heavy metal, one is thrash, one is death, one is shampoo metal. I was just at our domestic premiere, speaking with the costume designer. She said it was a very careful process to find costumes for every guy, for him to present a certain type of music within the genre.

There are some interesting special effects in the film. How were those handled?

KN: They were all done in Belgium, one of the co-producing countries of film.

KA: It was the last missing piece of the puzzle. We needed a co-producer to take care of the special effects.

KN: In terms of content, what special effects do you mean?

The characters jumping into the sea, the explosions; the huge concert venue.

KN: Basically, all of Norway, the mountains and the fjords, it's all built up. Most of it was shot in Helsinki. But it all comes down to the content. How can we put together a huge concert where they could perform? At some stage, we realized it was too complicated to do it outside.

KA: We wanted to go to a real festival and do it outside...

KN: We contacted festivals in Finland and Norway, but they have their own agendas. They can't just let us put an extra gig in the middle of their festival. So we said, “Okay. Let's have the concert in a cave, a huge cave." We started looking for that kind of location to see if it was possible, but it was not. There are a lot of shipyards in Helsinki, so finally we used a big shipyard building.

The effects do the job, and they do it well. They give the film a polish.

KN: That's true.

What was the most challenging thing about making Heavy Trip?

KN: It wasn't easy, I tell ya. It was such a great project. Still, at the end of the day, I would say it was the comedy side of it. Comedy is the most difficult genre in all arts. You can move the storyline, you can build up the characters, but is it going to be funny? This is the question. Is it going to work? Is this joke going to go over with the audience at all?

KA: Our domestic premiere in Finland was this past Tuesday. It was the first time we saw the film with a real audience. Still, ten minutes before the film, we didn't know if people were going to laugh. And you know, it's very embarrassing to make a film where no one's laughing.

KN: Luckily, they did laugh. They seemed to enjoy themselves.

Heavy Trip -Trailer (official) from Making Movies Oy on Vimeo.

Featured photo: Left to right: Max Ovaska, Samuli Jaskio and Johannes Holopainen in 'Heavy Trip' (Photo: Making Movies 2017)


Director Michael Peretzian on Anthony Minghella, Changing Careers & Helming CIGARETTES & CHOCOLATE/HANG UP

Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella's early radio plays CIGARETTES & CHOCOLATE and HANG UP will receive their West Coast premiere at the Pacific Resident Theatre beginning July 15, 2017. Friend and former talent agent of Anthony Minghella, Michael Peretzian will be directing this edition. We jumped at the chance to delve into Michael's thoughts on forsaking his long and lucrative career that initiated his unique friendship with the prolific writer/director Anthony Minghella.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview!
Both CIGARETTES & CHOCOLATE and HANG UP were written by Anthony Minghella as radio plays in the late 1980's. What year did he first ask you to direct CIGARETTES & CHOCOLATE as a main stage production?
Actually, we never talked about it.  Anthony unexpectedly and sadly died at the age of 54 on March 18, 2008.  He was more than my client, he was one of my dearest friends. I miss him very much, so for me, doing these plays brings him back for a moment and I can hear his voice again. 
You were Anthony Minghella's theatrical agent at CAA. He must have known of your legit background studying at UCLA and teaching at the Pasadena Playhouse. What was his reaction to the non-agent side of you?
Anthony knew that I was moonlighting as a director while I was an agent, so when I decided to let go of my career as an agent to go back to directing plays, at my good-bye party thrown at CAA, he gave me a gift - a carry-on bag that was loaded with anthologies of plays written by Pinter, Brecht and Ibsen, to name a few. His agent (in the U.K.) Judy Daish and his widow Carolyn Choa were thrilled that I did these readings, so I think Anthony would be pleased, too, if only to keep his legacy alive.
Do you remember what notes he gave you on directing his play?
Never did that happen. His notes are from the anthology of his plays published as Anthony Minghella: Plays 2 by Methuen in 1997, and serve as my guiding notes from him.
Any major tweaks to your directing approach since the first time directing CIGARETTES & CHOCOLATE and this current one?

Yes. We are doing them as an enhanced play reading - not as a radio broadcast, as though the actors are British actors doing these readings in the 1980's during the time of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. So the stage directions are not read by an actor on stage this time. The concept is closer to LOVE LETTERS, or VAGINA MONOLOGUES, but with the sound cues heard as they would have been heard in a broadcast, without a Foley technician. In other words, without a set per se, but with sound  being used primarily to set the location for each scene as indicated in the script.
You directed a staged reading of HANG UP for Pacific Resident Theatre in June of last year. What circumstances or factors inspired the pairing up of HANG UP with CIGARETTES & CHOCOLATE for this current production?
All of these characters live in the time of Margaret Thatcher's government and her alignment with the "free market" philosophy of Ronald Reagan and each character in a way is a product of those times.
You brought back the entire cast from the June 2016 workshop production for this present one. Would you say it's more efficient/easier/advantageous/fun to work with creative talents you have experience with?

Yes, definitely, there is a shorthand that we have in our work which is a great advantage. But, what is interesting in our approach to the material now is how we have grown and discovered subtle undercurrents which were always there, but not as completely realized as we are finding them to be this time around.
As one who's been an active creative in the Los Angeles theatre community, do you believe actors in LA have a unique situation when it comes to performing in Equity-Waiver plays, different from theatres in other cities? A main reason, besides the experience and exercising their acting chops, is the hope that they will be seen by someone who will book them for a film or TV role.

In the Los Angeles Equity-Waiver theatre community, there exists a host of opportunities for actors, especially to tone and exercise their craft between chances to earn an income in television and film -  a unique asset not found as much in other major cities such as New York and Chicago. Certainly, actors in Off-Broadway can earn $600/week or more working in a production between plays, but other career opportunities with more potential income are rare, and Chicago actors primarily seem to enjoy working in the theatre exclusively. But in Los Angeles, while waiting to be cast in a pilot, there are many ways you can keep creatively fit until that break comes your way if you are lucky. 
I haven't had the chance to ask this question from any of my past interviewees: but did you as an agent at both William Morris and CAA ever go to Equity-Waiver productions to scout talent? Or did you know of any talent agents who did?
Not many agents do this, but yes, I did go to Equity-Waiver plays which is where I discovered and became the first agent for several LA artists. At a small theater downtown, called the Night House, I saw John Steppling's THE SHAPER. I attended Jon Robin Baitz' MIZLANSKY/ZILINSKY at a small theater on Melrose, Damon Intrabartolo and Kristin Hanggi's production of bare at the Hudson Theatres in Theatre Row, to name a few.
Any particular plays you would love to direct?
Yes, it has been done here already, but yes, I hope I can one day direct Stephen Karam's SONS OF THE PROPHET somewhere, as well as Will Eno's REALISTIC JONESES.
Any projects in the near future you can share with us?
On August 6,  I will be directing a reading of a new play DEATH HOUSE by a young playwright, Jason Karasev as part of The Road's Summer Playwrights Festival 8. And next year, I am to direct the world premiere of a wonderful new play BEDLAM by Zayd Dohrn at the Rogue Machine.
Do you recall any specific audience reaction you were not expecting in the original CIGARETTES & CHOCOLATE you directed?

Well, most audiences were taken by the skill of the actors in the original version which is why I insisted we only do this with them. We had more laughs than I expected then, and the new version adds a more human quality which we hope to make the experience even richer than the original version.
What Pacific Resident Theatre audience responses would you be thrilled with after the cast's curtain call?

It would be a recognition of Minghella's gifts as a writer, and their amazement how what affected him then to write these characters is so familiar in amazing and disturbing ways today. The more things change, the more they stay the same. We are in the end all humans, all leading messy lives who, as Minghella would say, are nevertheless capable of love and healing.
Thank you again, Sir! I look forward to re-experiencing Anthony Minghella's voice via your directorial vision.
For ticket availability and show schedule through September 10, 2017; log onto www.pacificresidenttheatre.com


Joe Mantegna Speaks His Mind on Theatre 68, Directing, & the Infamous Comic Mind of Lenny Bruce

Theatre 68's world premieres I AM NOT A COMEDIAN…I'M LENNY BRUCE, opening June 23, 2017. With the blessings of Lenny's daughter Kitty Bruce and the Lenny Bruce Foundation, Theatre 68's artistic director Ronnie Marmo has written this solo show reprising his previous 2010 role as Lenny from LENNY BRUCE IS BACK (AND BOY IS HE PISSED). Directing Ronnie will be Tony Award-winner Joe Mantegna, also known to television viewers as an actor and a director of Criminal Minds.
We managed to persuade Joe to take a few moments from rehearsals to answer a few of our queries.
Thank you for taking a break from your rehearsals for this interview. What specific aspects attracted you to this Theatre 68 production?
Well, my past experience with them. I met Ronnie and some company members years ago in a movie and I really liked their energy. Theatre 68 also reminds me of the Organic Theater out of Chicago. I have a lot of respect for what Ronnie and the company do. They get out there and create content. That's the key to getting anywhere in this business. Don't wait. You just have to get out there and do it. 
Lenny Bruce had a pretty controversial career with his numerous arrests for using obscenities in his act. Were you aware of him in your teenage years?

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Yes, I was well aware of Lenny Bruce. I wound up doing the play LENNY in Chicago in 1974 and understudied the lead part. I remember seeing films of him, although I had never seen him live. I was well aware of what he did, and years later, I did a movie with Richard Pryor. All of the comedians today owe a lot to Lenny because he broke down a lot of barriers. It's taking freedom of speech to its purest definitions.
As a budding actor, what did you think of Lenny Bruce and his routines?
The same way I think about him now. He was a special artist. He wasn't just an artist, he had such social commentary in his humor. He was very unique. A lot of times artists who are breaking ground are not recognized in their own time. Just like Van Gogh cutting off his ear. Lenny Bruce is someone who was much more appreciated later on. No different than Martin Luther King, Jr. People who were killed and vilified, and now, they have a holiday named after them. 
You have been onstage (debuting in a Chicago production of HAIR in 1969) and in front of the camera for years now. When and what made you say, "But what I want to do is direct!"?
I don't know if I have ever said that. It was a natural evolution. I just took to it and I enjoyed it when I did it. I never gave up my day job, so to speak. I've directed in the theater a fair amount of times. I've done eight or nine episodes of Criminal Minds. Once I felt confident about it, I enjoyed it. I'm glad I don't have to make a choice between being just an actor or just a director. 
Was your Tiffany Theater production of David Mamet's LAKEBOAT, with Ed O'Neil and George Wendt in 1994, the first play you directed?
That's a good question. I directed a lot of little things before that. I think this was the first full-length with a full audience. I directed scenes and auditions for people before that. LAKEBOAT the play was successful, and then, we did the film of it after that. I gained a lot of confidence after that. 
What fond memories do you have of that production of LAKEBOAT?
I had a lot of fond memories. I hired a lot of people I knew and respected. I brought in Andy Garcia, Charles Durning, Denis Leary, Peter Falk, Robert Forrester. I had a great cast in the movie as well. I had fond memories of both the play and the film. It was a nice evolution. I'm glad I was able to do both. 
As one who's worked on both sides of the camera, and both on and off the theatre boards; do you feel you have a better understanding or a shorthand communication when speaking to actors you're directing?
Yes, definitely. I have worked with a lot of directors who are actors. There is a certain common language we can speak. There is something to be gained from that. If you have an actor who has a flare for directing, it can cut through a lot to create a nice shorthand. 
Also, as one who's worked on and off stage, what advice would you give to a neophyte auditioning for you?
I would say, it's all about the preparation. Come in as prepared as you can. You won't always get the role. 90% of the time, it has nothing to do with your talent. You must give it your best shot. Most of the time, it has something to do with "you're too short, too tall, etc." You have to come in prepared with the attitude, "I am here to solve your problem." You must be able to take direction, and feel good that you did your best with your preparation. The more prepared you are, the more you can say that this is the best you got. I think if you have decent chops, eventually it will happen for you. It's happened to me, I did things half-ass when I was younger, and I learned from it. You have to go in there and feel that you nailed it. When I bring people in and someone will knock my socks off, but that person may not be the best for the role, I will pull them aside and I will tell them that. I will bring them back three, four or five times and then, finally, they will get something that fits them. You want the reputation of someone who auditions well. Eventually, you will be perfect for the role, and that will lead to something else, and then something else after that. 
What would you like the Theatre 68 audiences to leave with after Ronnie takes his curtain call?
That it was a night well-spent. That they got their money's worth. That it was a better time than staying home or going to the movies. That they liked it enough to tell their friends to see it.
Thank you again, Mr. Mantegna!
For ticket availability and schedule of performances thru July 29, log onto www.Theatre68.com


Inside the Creative Minds Behind MEMORY 5D+ - A Harmonic, Yet Explosive Experience

I had the pleasure of sitting down with four of the creatives of MEMORY 5D+ - AN IMMERSIVE MUSICAL ODYSSEY TO A DISTANT PAST at their satellite production offices in Alhambra - from China, its creator Ulan Xuerong, musicians Erkin Abdulla and Lucina Yue; and from California, writer John Hughes.

With the wonderful assist of Eileen Cheng who translated for the three Mandarin artists, we were able to get noteworthy insights into the makings of MEMORY 5D+, which will be having its world premiere at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium May 26 and 27.

Ulan, the founder and current general manager of her production company China Film HuaTeng Movies & TV Culture Company (CFH) shrewdly sought out contributors familiar with Western tastes in entertainment to introduce the Yin-&-Yang-rooted, classic Mandarin arts to non-Asian audiences. Quite evident in the round table interview, just in first-impression appearances, the cultural mix from traditional Mandarin to blended Chinese and Western to Americanized Western - a perfect example of Yin & Yang in everyday life. Ulan (the total female Yin) carried a lovely air of guarded formality dressed most stylishly from her striking jade jewelry to her shiny silver oxfords. Lucina and Erkin possessed a open ease in their respective smart, fashionable attire. John (the total male Yang), accustomed to working behind the scenes as a senior visual effects artist at Dreamworks Animation, attended in comfortable casual jeans and a Oakley-logo-ed tee. The words 'harmony' and 'love' (and the ideas behind them) were brought up repeatedly in their descriptions of MEMORY 5D+.

The Tao philosophy of Yin & Yang serves as the basis of MEMORY 5D+, with complementary opposites, that when combined, fuse to form a stronger unit of cosmic strengths.

Yin's attributes include qualities of darkness, softness, femininity, being cold and wet; and is associated with water, earth, moon and nighttime. Yang - hardness, masculinity, being hot and dry; and is linked with fire, sky, the sun and daytime.  Results are harmonic against the background of universal creation, the opposing forces combining to form the mountains and rivers and other harmonic elements of nature.

The title itself MEMORY 5D+ refers to Ulan's recollections of her beloved Chinese cultural heritage, presented in five dimensions via creative designer Tom E. Marzullo's multi-dimensional, immersive, state-of-the-art concert production techniques (including high-def digital video and lighting, surround sound, lasers and aromatic sensory technology). Don't worry, no 3-D glasses needed to be worn. But do expect show-stopping visuals from Tom (whose own impressive resumé includes designing and directing international tours for Justin Bieber, Prince, Luther Vandross and KISS).

Ulan trained as a child to become an actress. "Acting is in my blood."The beginning seeds of MEMORY 5D+ came to Ulan decades before, but she finally started working to realize her vision just three years ago. Ulan wanted to share her centuries-old Chinese tradition via music, dance and visuals. Ulan founded CFH to implement her worldwide delivery of her proud, creative histories. Ulan chose the specific musical instruments in the show with their very distinctive sounds as to how they fit into enhance the MEMORY 5D+ story line. Ulan's hoping the Pasadena audiences like the show. "It would mean we did it right!" Afterwards, CFH plans to tour MEMORY 5D+ internationally.

John credits yun-qi (Chinese for 'luck') and networking (between friends and friends of friends), that put him together with Ulan. One day, John came home to find his wife (who's Chinese to his Liverpudlian lineage) chatting with Ulan in their living room. After hearing Ulan's passionate, very clear description of what was to become MEMORY 5D+, John made the easy choice of signing on to script and shape Ulan's vision. "Although it's a show focused on traditional Chinese music, it's also highly visual in a way that I haven't really seen before." John has sharpened his experienced eye for visuals working on big Hollywood productions (including Kung Fu Panda 2, Moana, I Am Legend, Spider-Man 3). Actually, the choice wasn't that easy as he had to decline work on the Wreck-It Ralph sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2.

John describes MEMORY 5D+ as immersive. "You're in the environment embedded in the visual performance of the show, a visual experience that's larger than the stage, surrounding you, above you, behind you, filling the auditorium." In the process of adapting this unique Chinese show for Western audiences, John changed as little as possible, instead adding visual touches throughout to clarify the communication of the eastern Taoist philosophy of Yin & Yang for Westerners' more accessible comprehension. In MEMORY 5D+, Yin and Yang transform into competing characters for the affection of a young maiden. The 'good guy' and 'bad guy' don't 'win' in the absolute sense. In MEMORY 5D+, love and harmony remain the prominent through-line with no winners or losers. John commented, "My job was quite simple." He made simple adjustments to the order of the twelve segments of the show. "Lots of the elements were already in place and worked very well." Despite also being the visual effects artist for Oscar-winning animations Frozen and Big Hero 6, John left all visual effects decisions to Tom and his live concert expertise.

Ulan credits John with making her original ideas more dramatic, more striking; making the storyline more consistent in reaching the hearts of the audience.

The 43-member cast of MEMORY 5D+ will most skillfully demonstrate examples of Chinese performance arts - Chinese acrobatics, Dolan Muqam (an integration of ethnic group Uygur's singing, dancing and music), Khoomei (Tuvan throat singing), Shadow Play, Suzhou Pingtan (storytelling and ballad singing), Tibertan folk songs and Urtin Duu (Mongolian Long Tune).

As part of this four million dollar production, seventeen of China's revered musical performers (considered national treasures) will perform their artistry on rare traditional instruments. Test your own musical instrument acumen on how many of these musical devices from Chinese history you have heard of. MEMORY 5D+ will include guqin (Chinese zither), ‘cowboy' flute, gijak, guzheng, konghou, morin khuur (Mongolioan horsehead fiddle), pipa (Chinese lute), Tuva drum (Shamanic drum), and two chordophones - Topshur and Yekele.

Lucina Yue will be playing the Konghou (Chinese harp). Lucina has mastered four different types of harps - the modern Konghou, the old Konhou, the western harp, and the triple harp. A former actress, Lucina's virtuosity of the contemporary Chinese Konghou has led her to many firsts - performing at the Lincoln Center, at the United Nations headquarters and at New York Fashion Week.  Lucinda also has the honor of being the first Konghou performer to appear on Chinese stamps.

Guitarist Erkin Abdulla will be performing his original compositions in MEMORY 5D+, combining his Flamenco proficiency with the essence of Uygur's Dolan Muqam, Turkish folk songs and hints of Brazilian samba and Southern American Blues. Erikin continues striving to make folk music more inclusive, more modern integrating additional international musical elements and ancient Chinese musical forms into western styles. Erkin entertained with a sampling of Turkish folk songs at the press round table.

For an insight to where in the Yin & Yang scale you yourself might fall in, come with an open mind to MEMORY 5D+ - AN IMMERSIVE MUSICAL ODYSSEY TO A DISTANT PAST at the Pasadena Auditorium May 26th or 27th and let it be filled with new knowledge of a culture you might have thought you've known all about. For an unique exposure to centuries of Chinese culture, concise and abridged, combined with an immersive light and sensory show experience, log onto Memory5D.com and all Ticketmaster outlets for available tickets.


Playwright James Harris Merrily Makes His World Go Round the Santa Monica Pier

The Santa Monica Public Theatre will world premiere AN ILLEGAL START, featuring the combined talents of Santa Monica denizens Tony Award-winning actor Paul Sand and playwright/Santa Monica Pier Restoration's deputy director James Harris. Paul will direct James' new play in the Santa Monica Pier's national landmark, the Looff Hippodrome. James' story of two complete strangers whose disparate paths lead them to a defunct amusement park where an unexpected bond's formed will debut on May 5, 2017.

Like grabbing a hanging ring on a carousel ride, I grabbed the chance to quiz Jim on his merry-go-round-centric projects.

Thank you, Jim for taking the time for this interview.

When did you first start writing AN ILLEGAL START?

I completed the very first draft of AN ILLEGAL START in the fall of 2003. At that time, it was strictly autobiographical - a cathartic exercise to help me to cope with a near-fatal event that I experienced in my teens and which has had a profound impact on my life ever since. The story has since been through a number of rewrites and re-imaginings in order to make it into a better, more engaging play. In 2007, I completed what I considered to be the final draft of the play - a very good working version for the traditional stage. And now, of course, I've adapted it to be performed in the Merry-Go-Round!

You have been deputy director of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corporation since the beginning of 2003, the same year you completed your first draft of AN ILLEGAL START. With your intimate knowledge of the Pier's historic Looff Hippodrome (the Merry-Go-Round Building), did you set the plot of AN ILLEGAL START around the merry-go-round locale? Or did the merry-go-round become an added, perfect complement to your play?

I originally wrote the play to be performed on the traditional stage with a very simple set - a telephone pole at center stage. One day, over lunch, Paul Sand and I were discussing the play and Paul glanced over at the Merry Go-Round Building and suggested that I adapt the play to be done there. Since I know the building so well, and since I handle event bookings there anyway, how could I resist? 

How freeing has it been to adapt that single telephone pole into the Santa Monica Pier's Merry-Go-Round?

Switching the telephone pole out for a merry-go-round was actually not easy at all! The original version of the play includes a car crashing into the pole, as well as some other business that just cannot be done with the merry-go-round. I had to be mindful that the Pier's Merry-Go-Round, which I was adapting specifically for, is an antique and commands great care and respect. There were things in the original script that I would never dare attempt with those horses! As I progressed with the rewrite, though, things did become easier, and I allowed myself to have fun with the new atmosphere. 

This will be the first time the Santa Monica Pier's national landmark will be used for live theatre. What notable events in its past 100 years has been held here?

In 1954, art curator Walter Hopps used the Merry-Go-Round Building as a gallery for his show ACTION 1 (often referred to as "The Merry-Go-Round Show"). Other than that, the building has been used for hundreds of private events, receptions and weddings, but no other cultural activities or shows that I am aware of. 

A good majority of your creative projects seem to revolve around the Santa Monica Pier. Would you tell us your history with the Pier that raises such passion in you to share it?       

In 1989, I moved to this area from western Colorado with dreams of a career in writing or acting. I had a Bachelors Degree in Theatre, so why not try to use it, right? Like so many before me (and after), I took a job as a bartender. As fate would have it, my bartending job was at the old Boathouse Restaurant on the Santa Monica Pier. At that time the Pier was far less popular and far less celebrated than it is today, but it did have a number of long-time regular visitors who told the most colorful and interesting stories of the Pier's past. As a bartender, all I had to do was listen. 28 years later, I'm the one sharing those old stories! And now, with this "Theatre in the Merry-Go-Round," I have the opportunity to add a unique little chapter of my own.

What initially brought you and Paul Sand together - KURT WEILL AT THE CUTTLEFISH HOTEL in 2015? Or did you two meet before while he had an office over the Merry-Go-Round?

As the Pier's centennial approached in 2009, I took on the project of writing a history book about it (Santa Monica Pier: A Century of the Last Great Pleasure Pier). My vision for the book was for it to be more than just a cut and dried retelling of facts and happenings. Since I learned about the Pier and fell in love with it by listening to the colorful stories told by those who lived the Pier's history, I wanted for readers of the book to experience that same feeling, that same passion for what the Pier has meant to people. So I began searching for people to interview. Paul Sand actually lived in one of the apartments above the Merry-Go-Round when he was a teenager. Eventually I was introduced to him and we have been good friends ever since!

Was having Paul direct your play SAVE THE PIER at Loyola Marymount University in 2015 the seeding spark for Santa Monica Public Theatre (SMPT), which you two co-founded in 2016?

Actually, no. SAVE THE PIER was more of a reinforcement of an idea sparked by Paul when he put together his initial run of KURT WEILL AT THE CUTTLEFISH HOTEL at the west end of the Pier in 2013. Paul has always felt at home at the Pier, just as I have. And since I know the Pier and its intricacies so very well, he and I began envisioning possibilities for something really site-specific and really unique back then.

What's in the near future for SMPT?    

We currently have our eye on another possible venue on the Pier. Additionally, Paul has long wanted to stage a very specific production inside an airplane hangar, and Santa Monica just happens to have a few of those! We'll keep you posted!

What is in the immediate future for James Harris?  

There are three things that I insist on keeping constant in my life: my family (I have a wife and two daughters), my writing (yes, more to come!) and the Santa Monica Pier (because it's my home). As long as I can keep a good, consistent balance of those three in my everyday life, what more could I ask for?

What would you like your audience to go away with after the curtain call of AN ILLEGAL START?

Without giving too much away, I think that many will walk away from this play thinking that they need to call that close friend whom they haven't been in touch with for years. 

BTW, will the audience get to ride the merry-go-round?

Because the merry-go-round is, in fact, the stage, it will be very difficult for us to quickly convert it back to being ready for public use. We're working on it, but I cannot make that guarantee at this time. Something special that we will have available, though, is Soda Jerks, the old-fashioned ice cream soda fountain inside the building. They will be staffed and open for business exclusively to our patrons before the show, during intermission, and immediately after the show. 

Thank you again, Jim! I look forward to my Paul Sand-directed 'ride' on your merry-go-round.

For available tickets for their 8pm performances May 5, 6, 11, 12 & 13, log onto PaulSandprojects.com


Multi-Mediums Writer Gary Goldstein Comments on His Teaching, His Chairing & His Latest Writing APRIL, MAY & JUNE

Playwright Gary Goldstein will be world premiering his latest APRIL, MAY & JUNE at Theatre 40 March 16, 2017. Gary managed to make some time in between his writing, chairing and rehearsing for Better Lemons and myself to address his writing, chairing and rehearsing of APRIL, MAY & JUNE.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. You write for three entertainment mediums: stage, film and television. What would your three-line pitch of your latest play APRIL, MAY & JUNE be?
 April, May and June - three very different, 40ish sisters, each born a year apart - convene to finish cleaning out their late mother's Long Island house (the house they all grew up in decades ago).  But when they discover a major surprise about their mother tucked away among her remaining things, it makes them rethink their lifelong feelings about the mom they thought they knew--as well as their feelings about each other. 
What sparked the creation of APRIL, MAY & JUNE?
Honestly?  The title.  It just kind of came to me, had a nice ring to it, and I thought, “I need to write something with that title.”  Then I thought, “What great names for three sisters!” and decided they belonged in a play.  I figured out a meaningful story for the sisters from there.
Would  some of your friends and family members who attend a performance of APRIL, MAY & JUNE, see themselves in some of your characters?
I think most people will see one side or another of themselves - or someone they know - in these women. They're a pretty relatable trio in, I hope, a very relatable situation.
How long has the gestation period of APRIL, MAY & JUNE been?
I finished the first draft about two-and-a-half years ago, worked on it more over time, then submitted it to Theatre 40 via my director, Terri Hanauer, last April.  The theatre picked it up for their 2016-17 season shortly after. More recently, once we were cast, we refined the script during read-throughs and rehearsals.
As the playwright, how involved were you in the casting and behind the scenes personnel of this Theatre 40 world premiere production?
Fully involved on the auditions, along with Terri and the play's producer David Hunt Stafford, Theatre 40's Artistic/Managing Director. Theatre 40 handled all behind-the-scenes personnel. 
Aside from the obvious advantages of multiple locations available to use in film and TV vs. stage, describe the challenges writing for theatre vs. writing for film or television.
Screenwriting relies a lot on “showing, not telling,” whereas writing plays is often more about “telling” because of the limits of how much you can actually “show.”  Given that, it's important to avoid overusing exposition on stage to fill in the “visual gaps” and to find inventive, natural ways of relaying information.
Still, there's a kind of freedom writing plays over screenplays, as play structure is not always as strictly defined as screen structure. Plays also offer more opportunity for verbal segues and tangents that can take the characters to some interesting places. You can also tell what might be considered a more intimate, personal story on stage than in many screenplays, which can make for a deeper, more emotionally rewarding writing experience.
Do you teach both writing for film and television in your screenwriting classes?
I primarily taught screenplay writing when I did my classes at Writers Boot Camp, which is a while ago now. But since then, I've done one-on-one consulting with writers working on structuring and writing everything from TV and film scripts to books and plays. There are similar kinds of character and storytelling threads that unite all the mediums.
In what situations do you think going for the laughs is more appropriate, is more effective, than going for the jugular? And what situations would you deem inappropriate?
Sometimes you can go for a laugh and go for the jugular at the same time. A laugh can often sell or temper a more aggressive, yet pertinent speech. It can leaven what might otherwise become an overly serious or melodramatic moment. 
I try to aim for humor that's organic, that comes from an inherently funny or quirky or flawed character trait, rather than just a joke or one-liner for joke's sake.  That said, there are definitely moments that demand humor and others in which humor has no place.  Sometimes less is more.
Do you find you need to be more PC in your subject matters now than when you first began writing in the 1990s?
Interesting question. By and large no, though I think it's fair to say some words and concepts have become a bit more loaded over time, so I like to be thoughtful about my choices. Mostly, though, I try to just stay true to the moment.
You are the chair of the WGA's LGBT Writers Committee. What attitude change towards LGBT content have you noticed since your writing beginnings?
It used to feel nichey, less mainstream, even “edgier” to include LGBT characters in a script, much less write one with LGBT leads or with an LGBT theme. Now?  LGBT characters are everywhere in everything and they're often just there as “people,” not strictly because of their sexuality.  There's also been a significant increase lately in the inclusion of trans characters, which is great.
Would you agree that plays with any LGBT characters in the 1980s and 1990s mainly dealt with AIDS or included the perquisite deaths of these characters?
Not sure I'd say mainly. AIDS definitely factored into many plays back then, but so did coming out and just “being” or adjusting to being LGBT. I had two plays on in LA in the 1990s, JUST MEN (1996) and PARENTAL DISCRETION (1999), neither of which dealt with AIDS. The latter play, in fact, involved two gay men considering starting a family, which was a bit ahead of the curve back then.
So, in this day and age, LGBT characters don't all have to die or be villains, right?
Far from it, thankfully.
Which do you find more rewarding, making your audience laugh or making your audience cry?  
As a writer, it's really gratifying to connect with an audience through laughter.  It's like magic, in a way.  And funnily enough, you don't always know where the big laughs are going to come from, which can be a great and thrilling surprise. Making people cry, evoking some kind of deep and relatable emotion, can be a trickier, even less predictable response, but an equally powerful, rewarding one. In APRIL, MAY & JUNE, I think we accomplish both.  We'll see if audiences agree!
Any particular message you'd like the Theatre 40 audiences to leave with?
First and foremost, I want audiences to be moved, amused and entertained by the play. Beyond that, I hope viewers are inspired to go home and ask a parent or grandparent, aunt or uncle, whoever, any of the “big questions” they've always wanted to know before it's too late.  Once a loved one is gone, certain answers go with them and sometimes all we're left with is conjecture.  I've learned that the hard way. 
Thanks again, Gary! I look forward to meeting your three sisters!
For further info on APRIL, MAY & JUNE, ticket availability and schedule through April 16, 2017; log onto www.theatre40.org


Dan Castellaneta on Oscar Levant, Winning Emmys, and Finding His Voice(s)

Dan Castellaneta's latest creative project FOR PIANO AND HARPO world premieres at the Falcon Theatre February 1, 2017. In FOR PIANO AND HARPO, Dan writes about and stars as the renowned 20th century pianist/comedian/actor Oscar Levant. The busy multi-tasker managed to spare us some moments between his The Simpsons responsibilities and FOR PIANO AND HARPO rehearsals to answer a few questions for Better Lemons.

Thank you for taking time out of your crazy, busy schedule for this interview!

When did you first become aware of Oscar Levant?

I had a record album of old comedy bits from radio and television. One of the cuts was of The Fred Allen Show where he interviewed Oscar Levant. He was introduced as a concert piano player, but was really funny. I became more aware of him as my wife had a childhood crush on him. Then I noticed his appearances in many MGM musicals.

What attracted you to Oscar Levant - his off-centered wit? His eccentricities? His uninhibited bon mots?

I love the fact that he was this accomplished musician and composer with one foot in the world of high culture and the other in the world of Broadway and pop culture. He was extremely well-read, but took to talking like a wise-cracking “B” movie gangster.

What made you want to write a piece around Oscar Levant?

I was reading Harpo Marx's biography, Harpo Speaks. There was a chapter about how Oscar Levant crashed a dinner party at Harpo's Beverly Hills home and stayed for a year and a month. I thought a play about these two completely funny, interesting, and different characters living together might make an interesting play. I didn't want it to be a 1930's Odd Couple, so I focused primarily on Oscar Levant's struggle with mental illness and drug addiction and how perhaps memories of his friendship with Harpo helped him cope.

One of my favorite Oscar Levant quotes is "Roses are red, violets are blue, I'm schizophrenic, and so am I." What's yours?

Here's one that he said to his friend George Gershwin. “Tell me, George. If you had to do it all over again; would you still fall in love with yourself?”

You were still a teenager when you realized you had a gift for doing impressions. Yet you initially studied art to become an art teacher. What incident convinced you that comedy could be a viable career for you?

When I was teaching, one of my students was helping me clean up the art class and I started doing voices for him just to make the task a little less tedious. He said to me, “What are you doing here, man? You should be in Hollywood.” It kind of hit home to what I truly felt. So after that, I resolved to pursue acting.

Did you start off doing voice-overs in commercials on radio?  What are some of the first ones you ever did?

I did start off doing voice-overs for radio and television with my wife Deb, in Chicago. We were a male-female voice team, as was the fashion at that time. My first voiceover was for a national TV spot -- I think was for Betty Crocker. It was a picture of a guy looking at a chocolate cake. And I was voicing his thought, which was, “I'm a fool for your chocolate!” I had to say that line fifty different ways until they found the one they liked.

There seems to be major periods of time in between your stage performances - in 1999, you wrote and starred in WHERE DID VINCENT VAN GOGH? Your next stage role was in THE BICYCLE MEN at London's The King's Head Theatre in 2007. Here we are in 2017, and you'll open February 1 in FOR PIANO AND HARPO at the Falcon Theatre. Too busy on your day job passion? Miss being on the boards? What brings you back on stage?

Actually, I've always been performing on stage during that time. Most times, it was doing improv in and around LA. I've also done other plays. Between VAN GOGH and BICYCLE MEN, I was in THE ALCHEMIST Off-Broadway in New York, THE UNDERPANTS at the Geffen in LA, NIGHTHAWKS and TWIST YOUR DICKENS at The Kirk Douglas Theater in LA, and MOONLIGHT & MAGNOLIAS at the Old Globe in San Diego. Since then, I've been more interested in writing plays and using improvisation to create material. I'm doing FOR PIANO AND HARPO because I wrote it and wanted to see it get a production. I was available and I work cheap.

Since Oscar Levant was schizophrenic, I would imagine you portray different characters of him in FOR PIANO AND HARPO. Would The Simpsons fans recognize any voices that you'll 'do' as Oscar Levant?

I'm sure Oscar Levant's quote about being a schizophrenic was more to score a laugh off of his struggles with mental illness, and also because most people mistake schizophrenia with having multiple personalities. As I understand it, Oscar Levant did not suffer from being schizophrenic or having multiple personalities. If he were diagnosed today, he would no doubt be treated for being bi-polar. But in his day, they didn't really have the proper treatment for it. So I only use one voice to do the character – that of Oscar's. I don't know if any Simpsons fans will recognize it.

There's only an elite few who have won multiple Emmys in their respective category. After winning four for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance, does it get old hat each time you get nominated again? Or do you still get that original burst of excitement like the first time you won?

It's not as old hat as you would think, because over the years, the competition has been fierce. There are so many more prime time cartoons. Which means there are many more fine-talented voiceover artists to go up against. Now more than ever, it's a big deal just to get nominated. I haven't won in a while. But the last time was as thrilling as the first because you never think you are going to win.

In your everyday life, do you fall back on certain voices of your treasure trove of voices in the heat of the moment?

I wish I could tell you a fantastic anecdote about how using one of my voices got me out of a tight situation, but alas, the only voice that comes out is shrill and whiny.

What would you like the Falcon audiences to leave with after you take your curtain call for Oscar Levant?

Other than being entertained and emotionally moved, I hope to introduce and spark interest in this fascinating character. He's definitely worth knowing about. He thrived in so many arenas -- pop music, classical music, literature, Broadway, movies, television, radio.  

Thank you, Sir, for taking the time for this interview! 

FOR PIANO AND HARPO plays at the Falcon Theatre February 1 – March 5, 2017; visit www.falcontheatre.com for more information and tickets.


Burt Young Lightly Spars on His Life From Rocky to THE LAST VIG

Burt Young, universally known for his Oscar-nominated role as Paulie in the Rocky film series, will be starring in David Varriale's world premiere of THE LAST VIG beginning January 12, 2017 at the Zephyr Theatre. "Vig," for the majority of us who don't know, means the cut charged by a bookmaker for processing a bet. This actor/writer/painter took some time to answer a few questions for Better Lemons.

What initially attracted you to THE LAST VIG?
To me, it's a slice of life from our bottom fears to the top of our politics. Big Joe is in the middle of it all.

Had you been acquainted with David Varriale before?
No.

If you were to comment on your experience with THE LAST VIG, what would it be?
Solid performances by all. A pleasure to be on the stage with this gang.

What can you tell us about Big Joe, your role in THE LAST VIG, without giving too much away?
Big Joe is a survivor, until he isn't.

Have you been back on stage since your Broadway debut in 1986 in Reinaldo Povod's CUBA AND HIS TEDDY BEAR, with Robert De Niro and Ralph Macchio?
Yes – did a one-man play called ARTIST FOUND.

What prodded you into acting in theatre now?
A lack of attention. And a very exciting true-to-life play.

Are you approachable or receptive to young creatives (writers, directors, producers) who want to work with you?
Of course.

How would you, yourself, define a cast breakdown description of “a Burt Young-type”?
Handsome, articulate, studious, refined. A pleasure to be with.

You've written two stage plays: SOS and A LETTER TO ALICIA AND THE NEW YORK CITY GOVERNMENT FROM A MAN WITHA BULET IN HIS HEAD. Any immediate plans to bring them to the boards?
I've had enough trouble with them before.

What memorable incident you experienced with Lee Strasberg studying at the Actors Studio can you share with us?
He laughed at me when I changed my name.

You were a professional boxer winning all of your 14 professional fights. Your boxing expertise must have come in handy in shooting the Rocky films. Were you the go-to guy for quick boxing technical questions? Or was there a separate boxing technical consultant?
No, but it was 17 pro fights. Stallone really choreographed all the movie fights like he had a camera in his brain.

You got to spar with Muhammad Ali for a charity event, becoming good friends afterwards. What do you remember of that once-in-a-lifetime night?
Just that it was a once-in-a-lifetime event for me.

Was your first passion acting or painting?
Painting. Acting was too far removed from me and the neighborhood.

What is on the near horizon for Burt Young?
I hope we take THE LAST VIG to New York.

What would you like your audiences of THE LAST VIG to leave with feeling?
That they saw something strong and honest and worthy of a two-hour visit.

For schedule, tickets and show info, log onto www.plays411.com/lastvig