Thursday, July 30, 2009

New Interview with Jake Broder & Vanessa Claire Smith

Jake Broder and Vanessa Claire Smith created and star in the multi-award-winning Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara! onstage through Labor Day Weekend in the Skirball Theatre of the Geffen Playhouse. It all began in 2008 at the Sacred Fools Theatre, then moved to the Matrix last fall and now it is going into its 6th month at the Geffen.The two phenomenal - and very humble, I may add - talents took time out of their busy schedules to talk about the show.
Q: How did the idea germinate for this show? You guys are so young! It's amazing to me that you know the music of Louis and Keely so well.
JB: This is Vanessa's seed. What is funny is that musically and story-wise, I'm the dirt. I've been unconsciously preparing to grow a story like this my whole life. Between being a jazz musician, playing Lord Buckley, Mozart in Amadeus on Broadway, and working so intensely with the audience, I've written stories about musicians who struggle with their humanity before.
VCS: I grew up around the music in Louisiana. My grandfather was a fan and would see his (Prima) shows at the Royal Sonesta, and he became a character in one of my earliest works about jazz-era New Orleans. In my research, I found myself more drawn to Louis Prima's love story with Keely Smith, and began actively writing this story when I met Jake in December 2006. He joined me in the writing later in 2007.
Q: Tell me how and why director Taylor Hackford encouraged you to change the show.
JB: Taylor wanted to add more drama and infidelity to the show. He thought we had something strong before, but thought that the audience could really cry properly at the end if we had more clarity about the journey of their love affair in a conventional narrative, rather than purely onstage.
VCS: And…through Taylor's long friendship with Keely, he knew stories that we hadn't found in any literature or in the documentary about Louis Prima. We really endeavored, with Taylor's help, to make this version of the show more accurate to what really happened. We also changed songs around to reflect the most popular titles in the Louis/Keely canon.
Q: Where are you taking the show after the Geffen? Is Broadway or Off-Broadway a goal?
JB: World domination...children in Malaysia singing 'I've got it Bad'...
(after laughter dies down)
VCS: New York is most surely a goal. However, at the moment, we have received interest from numerous theatres, yet have not made commitments to any of them.
Q: Jake has described himself as the dirt in the mix, so, Vanessa, I think this question is more appropriate for you. How did you prepare to play Keely? Did you meet her?
VCS: I have met Keely, but at that point we had already been performing the show for several months. So in order to prepare, I would listen to her CDs over and over again, just to burn the nuances in my brain. Nobody could ever re-create perfectly her sound, but one can get at her very specific vowel changes and phrasing. As for the acting of it, I've approached it like any other role: find the essences of the character, her honesty, her dry wit, her big heart, and play through the filter of that lens.
Q: Well it works, because I remember seeing her on The Ed Sullivan Show and you look and sound remarkably like her. Are you constantly changing the show from week to week, night to night, or is it pretty much set at this stage?
JB: It changes. I like to think of it as Stand Up Tragedy.
VCS: We have the freedom of being the writers of the show. We have been known to change lines in the show from time to time in the moment of the scene to more accurately describe what we're experiencing. But the variances are usually slight. Sometimes, we like them so much, we put them into the script.
Q: You work so well together. That is certainly clear! …
Frank Sinatra is not played as an impersonation of Sinatra. Neither are Louis and Keely for that matter. But, somehow, Sinatra's mannerisms and vocal style are downplayed. Is there a specific reason for that?
JB: Oh. I thought he was trying to do them. Oh well. Nick (Cagle) has the hardest job in the show. Everyone knows Sinatra, so they have a very clear picture in their mind's eye and ear of him. So his every move is scrutinized for authenticity by the audience in a way that mine and Vanessa's aren't.
VCS: We didn't want a Frank impersonator. We wanted a good actor that could sing and get at the moral ambiguity of the character we had written. Portraying real people is very challenging. Do we go for a cartoon impression, or do we try to find the soul of these people? I think Nick does a great job of finding the charisma and machismo of Frank, without doing a blatant imitation.
Q: I understand you did the recording at Capitol Records in Hollywood in one day. That’s truly amazing! Talk a little about that!
JB: It was a glorious, freaky experience. We came off of 8 shows and went into this huge iconic building that is in our show even, with the ghosts of the greats on the walls and up our noses, challenging, supporting and intimidating us. Wanting to hold back and save the vocals for later was the plan, but the spirit of the moment took over (for 18 hours) and we just played our hearts out and almost everything on that album came from that day. Lord above.
VCS: Jake was like a mad scientist that day, getting everyone to be at their best. Our company had had the advantage of playing this music for more than 200 shows at that point, so there didn't have to be a whole lot of takes. Nevertheless, it was a long day. Our poor bassist had to put anti-inflammatory cream on his hands before the last song of the day.
Q: Jake, what's the greatest challenge as an actor playing Louis?
JB: Fighting the battle between feeling the love of a glorious woman (Keely) and the legacy of a showbiz mom and the love for an audience, and Louis’ colossal ego, and making it a fair fight.
Q: Vanessa, what's yours playing Keely?
VCS: My greatest intimidation was that I was portraying someone that was still alive, and that she would show up one day. Which she did, to my surprise... and it wound up being one of the most sublime experiences I've ever had as an actor: Watching her watch me be her. Everyone has such high expectations for how she should sound and act. I've worked very hard to be able to fill those legendary shoes.
Well, they do indeed fill those legendary shoes. See them at the Geffen until September and buy the CD!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

New Interview with Stephanie Fredricks

Crown City Theatre's Passionella from The Apple Tree - Stephanie Fredricks - talks about her passion: the theatre.
Q: How many plays have you done for Crown?
This is actually my first show with Crown and my third stage production since I moved to Los Angeles three years ago. So I’m averaging one theatre production per year. I’d better get busy! And…knowing that this is only my first role with Crown makes me wonder how I could improve the experience, but… I’m having such a blast!
Q: What are the challenges of playing Ella/Passionella and making her delightful to the audience?
Ella and Passionella have two completely different personalities but, unlike someone with a mental disorder, they are completely aware of each other. Ella is meek, awkward, clumsy and completely talent-free! Passionella is beautiful and confident – a movie star! I find playing the different characters to be the easy part. The challenge comes when Passionella is feeling nervous or threatened and I have to bring little bits of “Ella” into her personality.
Q: What is the appeal of the three musicals that make up The Apple Tree? Do you think Passionella is the best of the three?
All three musicals have that “careful what you wish for” theme which will never lose its relevance. As far as which one is the best I’ve found that each audience responds differently to each act. Some people really connect to the charm of The Diary of Adam and Eve. Others laugh out loud at the campy flavor of The Lady or The Tiger? And, there are those audience members that respond the most to the old-school humor and Cinderella story of Passionella. It’s just a question of what appeals to the individual.
Q: How do you like teaching acting to young children?
I love teaching! It has a lot to do with that “if I knew then what I know now” thing. To have the opportunity to help prepare young people (and their parents) who want to pursue careers in theatre, film and/or television is a really gratifying experience. It’s important that they understand that their job isn’t to “book the gig.” It’s to audition and build relationships with casting directors, theatres, producers, etc. Those are the people that are eventually going to help them develop their careers. And, the only thing they can control is how prepared they are and what they do in their audition. Everything else is out of their hands.
Q: How many musicals have you done? Is it your favorite type of theatre?
I don’t know that I could actually count the number of musicals that I’ve done and come up with an accurate number. I love all types of theatre. For me, it comes down to the project I’m doing, the role I’m playing, and the people I’m working with. And, really, there’s nothing like live theatre. You never know what’s going to happen and you just have to roll with it!
Q: What role do you really want to play?
Growing up, there were so many roles I wanted to play and I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to play them. Now, I’m too old to play them! I’d have to say the next dream role on my list would have to be Galinda/Glinda in Wicked. Aside from the fact that it’s an absolutely hilarious role, to have the opportunity to use different vocal styles and personalities, and to really be able to grow with a character over the course of the show . . . well, it just doesn’t get any better than that. If it does, then it hasn’t been written yet.
Q: Who are your acting idols?
Too many to innumerate in multiple mediums! When I was a kid I wanted to be Jody Foster. I’ve been a fan of hers since she was the Coppertone baby! But, I remember seeing Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice and it changed my life. I’d never seen anyone in a role like that – such emotional range, multiple languages, she even made me laugh! I just didn’t realize that was possible. It was definitely something to aspire to. Since then I can honestly say there have been dozens of actors, both male and female, that I have learned so much from. In fact, it’s rare that I leave a play or a film where I didn’t learn something from someone’s performance.
Q: What is your favorite musical of all time? Why?
That is probably the toughest question you could’ve asked me. There are so many to choose from, and while my head keeps buzzing about every musical I’ve ever known in hopes to not leave one out, I keep returning to West Side Story. The genius of Bernstein’s score and Sondheim’s lyrics notwithstanding, it is the best telling of a story through dance that I’ve ever seen. That show, in its original form, was like the perfect mating of writers, director, and choreographer that any show has ever had!
Q: How have your audiences been for The Apple Tree?
I’m so appreciative of theatre audiences especially those that support small companies. In our current economic situation I’m truly touched that people are still doing what they can to treat themselves to the things they enjoy while supporting the arts. I have hope that theatre in Los Angeles will continue to grow and thrive despite the difficulties it faces as long as there are still people who love it!

New Interview with Matt Williamson

Come Back Little Sheba
One of the stars/directors of Crown City Theatre's smash hit The Apple Tree - Matt Williamson -shares his love of theatre with us.

Q: How many plays have you done for Crown? Have you always alternated as actor/director?
MW: Since I met Bill and Gary in 1999 I've done 9 plays with them. We became CCTC in 2005 and since then I've done 4 shows. This is the first time I've directed but I really enjoyed the process so I'm sure it won't be the last. It is a challenge to do both simultaneously so next time I'll just do one or the other.
Q: What's your favorite role so far?
MW: I've been fortunate to do a lot of different roles but the ones that stand out are Lee from True West and Hamlet.
Williamson plays Adam in The Diaries of Adam and Eve in The Apple Tree.
Q: What are the challenges of playing Adam and making him interesting to the audience?
MW: My biggest challenge with Adam was to make him somewhat endearing. He's written sort of short tempered and mean on the surface but I tried to make all that come from being nervous, unsure, innocent, and very attracted to Eve. He's experiencing emotions that we all take for granted before anyone else, so everything that he feels is a surprise.
When asked if it was ever suggested that Adam and Eve be played in the buff, he responds:
It was suggested to go without longjohns and then quickly rejected. He's traditionally done wearing some sort of clothing which I think is a great idea. I don't think au natural is too risky, I just think it can be an unnecessary distraction. I personally feel that audience members miss much of what's being said when it's being said by naked people on stage. Or even mostly naked people.
Q: What is the appeal of the three musicals that make up The Apple Tree?
MW: I think there are several appealing aspects to this show. Variety. You get three shows for the price of one. Also, it's just a ton of fun. It deals with basic and powerful human emotions in a way that doesn't take itself too seriously. Finally, the music is really great. It's catchy and playful without being too overbearing.

In 2007 Williamson played the milkman to S. Epatha Merkerson’s outstanding portrayal of Lola in William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba @ The Kirk Douglas Theatre for CTG. (see top photo) In 2008 the production went to Broadway for a limited engagement.
Q: Talk a little about the difficulties of getting Come Back, Little Sheba to New York.
MW: Well, it's always a challenge to get any show on Broadway but Sheba was especially hard because it's not considered to be one of Inge's best works. I personally feel that it was S. Epatha Merkerson's beautiful performance that made it happen. I'm sure that the producers felt that it was a risk, but a risk worth taking. I'm glad they did because it was one of the most memorable experiences of my career.
Q: Did New York treat it differently from LA? I mean, both audiences and critics?
MW: Not really. If the critics on both coasts had any problem with it, it was with the play itself. I think it is a wonderful play that is funny and heartbreaking but many people don't agree. I was particularly impressed by the fact that people in both LA and New York quickly let go of the fact that Lola and Doc were a mixed race couple in the 1950s. That is a testament to the strength of the acting and directing.
Q: What role do you really want to play?
MW: Wow. Um, I kind of feel like Bottom in Midsummer in that I want to play all of them. I think acting is the most fun you can have with your clothes on so there are few roles that I wouldn't enjoy. If I had to make a short list though, I'd say McMurphy in Cuckoo's Nest, Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Macbeth, and either one of the men in Pinter's Betrayal. Beyond that, I just love playing characters that allow me to break out of my comfort zone and really work. That was one of the things that made Apple Tree such a challenge was the fact that it was the first time in my life that I had to sing solo. I was terrified, but it made me work hard to avoid totally embarrassing myself and in the end it was a lot of fun.
Q: Who are your acting idols?
MW: I've always really looked up to people that can do it all and that really commit to whatever they are doing. The list is long but distinguished. Ben Kingsley and Meryl Streep are right up there at the top along with Anthony Hopkins, Kevin Kline, Sean Penn, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, and even Robert Downey Jr. The list could go on and on but those are the ones that pop out. Actually, S. Epatha Merkerson is someone that really impressed me. She brought her A-game 100% of the time and could draw on a huge range of emotions at will. I'm biased, of course, but she earned every bit of praise that she has ever received.
Q: Tell me about your film company - Nautaroc Films.
MW: My brother and I started it several years ago to produce a short film that he wrote. It was called The Box and was directed by CCTC's Gary Lamb. We would like to make a few more shorts and eventually expand to features or documentaries. However, my primary focus right now is building up CCTC to be one of the most respected 99 seat theatres in the city.
Q: Any final comments about the future of theatre?
MW: I just hope that people continue to support live theatre in Los Angeles. We have such a well of talent in this city that it is a shame that the theatre scene isn't on par with New York or London. It would be nice to have more Equity houses in Los Angeles so that more actors, directors, and technical staff can earn a living applying their craft.

Catch Williamson and Fredricks in The Apple Tree @ CCTC on Camarillo in NoHo through the end of this month!