Monday, November 11, 2013

2013 Interview with Spider Saloff

Actress/singer Spider Saloff will appear at Rockwell in Hollywood December 3 with her award-winning Cool Yule Christmas show. A big hit artist on the jazz/cabaret scene in Chicago, Saloff is considered one of the greatest song interpreters of Ella Fitzgerald. In our talk, she discusses her roots and her love of music.

Tell me about your background. Where were you born?

I was born outside of Philadelphia. My father's first jewelry business was in South Phillie, but eventually we moved to New Jersey where I grew up. I lived in New York City most of my adult life, then I moved to Chicago and fell in love with it and have been here ever since.

You are the talk of the town there. Chicago has the reputation as being the 'it' town for the music business. What special meaning does it hold for you?

Well, I'll tell you what happened. Living and working in New York I really worked as a musical theatre actress, and it was such a struggle just to live there. Then when I started to work in the night club many people and so few gigs that developing as an artist was a real challenge. When I was offered a long-term engagement... to come to a club that was partly owned by Bobby Short, the Gold Star Sardine Bar, I took it, and I really worked like a crazy person. The bar is no more, but it was an incredible opportunity, one that I never would have had in New York City. Bobby (Short) was wonderful to me; we actually did a big benefit together one time. I just adore this city. There are so many creative opportunities for not only musicians but actors and comedians especially. It's just a very active entertainment town.

Let's talk about The Roar of the Butterfly, the one-woman play you performed here at the old Celebration Theatre a couple of years back. You were just sensational in that. The way you incorporated all of the characters into the story and backed it up with your original musical score. I was disappointed that you didn't have a bigger audience.

I was too... you know, but any place you're unknown...

Is that the reason you stayed away from LA when you've toured your acts elsewhere?

Absolutely, yeah. We couldn't get a venue that was appropriate. And the play (Roar) did get produced here in Chicago the following year, but I haven't done it for a year now. I'm not sure what I will do with it later, but I don't want to have to produce it again. If I found an outside producer that wanted to do it, I would certainly do it again.

How did Roar originate?

It was a long process. I started writing it years ago. It had another title; it didn't have original music; I wasn't even writing songs at that point. And it was sort of autobiographical. Then I put it away and 2008 was when I started to revamp it. I decided to write a whole original score. I added more characters, and it developed that it wasn't my story, that it was the story of Butterfly. One thing led to another. And there you go...

Did you grow up in a musical environment?

Not really, no. (she laughs) There are no artists in my family. They were retailers that were mystified; they didn't know what to make of me...

But did you listen to Broadway and pop albums growing up?

Oh, yes. They used to take me to musicals and they really loved big band music. My dad had Billie Holiday albums that I used to sneak away to listen to and pretend that I was listening to pop music, but I never thought the music of my generation did anything for me. I have always loved musical theatre and classic jazz. That's been my great love.

Who are your mentors? Your favorite artists?

My influences really were: Ella Fitzgerald, of course, was a huge influence; Sarah Vaughn, Johnny Hartman...Art Murphy...and Rosemary Clooney...and of course, Frank Sinatra. It's a whole mish mosh of influences. Also, there are instrumentalists that I love to listen to as well.

Do you credit your love of jazz to your parents' love of the big band era?

It had a lot to do with it, yeah. It just moved me. I remember seeing Ella Fitzgerald on television when I was a little kid, and she was scat singing... I remember thinking "I don't know what that lady is doing but it's amazing!" I was just blown away by her. I absolutely adored her.

Before I get to "When You See Me", which I think is a fantastic new song...

Oh, thank you. By the way I will be performing that at Rockwell. A holiday show with a song about loving each other is perfect.

Great... we'll come back to the song. How would you compare today's music to that of yesteryear? 

It's such a wide range of popular music now. The super, super Top 10 popular stuff, it has the same effect on me as the stuff that was out when I was a kid. I really don't feel connected to it, or like sounds like a lot of yelling. I think there's a lot of vocal technique that is loud and louder. No dynamic's just all people screaming. It's one dimensional...I think it's formulated. Then, there are some independent artists that are writing beautiful things that you don't get to hear enough of. Thank God for the internet to be exposed to some really beautiful sensitive stuff. As far as my taste is concerned, jazz in particular is very, very emoting... of what is part of our humanity. It's a style of music that is so expressive. It has dynamic range, but most of all, it's spirit driven. That are poems in that; there's storytelling. You know what they're saying. In a lot of pop rock, I have a problem with the diction. I can't understand what they're saying. It doesn't mean anything to me. So much musical theatre stuff that has become popular music, that became standards, had such a long shelf life...I mean new artists are still doing these songs. Pop artists are doing old standards. They were written 70 years ago and sound as fresh as the day they were written. You're refreshing the style, which is what I love to do in performance. To put a fresh turn on something! It needs to have a life now. I don't think it needs to be necessarily performed in the way it was originally done. That's what really is great about timeless music.
Let's get back to your new song "When You See Me". Tell us about its roots. It has quite a mix of music, with a rap singer introducing it.

This has a really crazy story. I broke my leg this summer. I was laid up for 10 weeks. It's totally healed now; I'm very happy I can wear high heels again. (we laugh) That was the part that was really breaking my heart. I was in bed and was talking to David Bloom, who owns the Bloom School of Jazz in Chicago. I've taught there for many years. He's a colleague of mine and a champion of what I do. He was talking about Trayvon Martin. He said, "What if you wrote a song about that?" I thought "You're crazy!" I hung up, I started to think about it, and then I started writing and I couldn't stop. It just kept coming. It's part of the process I go through when I write something. Before you knew it, it was finished and David wanted to produce it. We talked about how it was going to be performed. We were definitely going to record it. It started with just piano and then we had all sorts of other ideas. Then another singer/friend Jewel Tancy got involved, and David suggested the whole hip hop style. We hired all those fantastic hip hop guys and recorded the whole thing in two hours.

When I listened to the song, I thought the elements of the Trayvon Martin case kind of blended well with that hip kind of style.

Yeah. And Max Hornung, who was a student of mine, is 19 years old, just starting college and wrote a really short rap to open it. It all turned out to be one of those crazy miracles.

Do you teach voice?

Yeah, but not traditionally. I actually teach jazz style and performance, but it's not a typical technique class with people doing scales. It's about using the voice you have. I work with people that have incredible instruments, some of them are classically trained, and they want to learn how to sing jazz or to sing in a more popular tone. I work with them on style. And then I have some that want to do it for their own head. I work with the instrument that they have. I teach them how to embrace what your own style is. I'm a style coach. We learn by imitation, but are afraid to break the imitating. Find your own voice!

What can you add about December 3 at the Rockwell? You're doing your Cool Yule songs for Christmas and the new to say anything else?

Come to this celebration at Rockwell! You'll have a blast! I promise you a good time. Meow!

Spider Saloff is phenomenal. You do not want to miss her on the 3rd of December! In the meantime, check out Spider's American Songbook Preservation Network, a small non-profit organization based in Chicago which funds recording projects for artists... and her website:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

2013 Interview with Albie Selznick

Actor/magician Albie Selznick's autobiographical play Smoke and Mirrors has been a phenomenal success first in Santa Monica and now at the Road in NoHo where it has extended and extended. Selznick tells us what he thinks is special about the show.

Tell me briefly how Smoke and Mirrors originated.

The kernel of Smoke and Mirrors actually started in Larry Moss’s acting class 15 years ago. One night Larry said, “Turn to the person next to you and tell them a story-- something profound that happened to you.” I told my neighbor about an event that happened to me when my juggling and magic act The Mums toured New Zealand. Then Larry Said, “Okay, next week, I want you to bring it on stage in some way and physicalize it.”  That story “Nigel” changed my life and it is now the final act of Smoke and Mirrors.

Also I was a magician as a kid and later became an actor, but I’ve always thought it would be interesting to combine the two disciplines, specifically by exploring why someone would get into magic as a child. I think it usually develops from a psychological reason. For me it was the death of my dad when I was 9. He had given me a magic set a year earlier and I toyed with it but really threw myself into it after he died. I guess I used magic to escape the sadness of my life. I think for me, magic symbolized hope and fantasy in an era that felt like my life was covered in a cloud, or more accurately a shroud.

Are the audiences different at the Road from those who attended in Santa Monica a year ago? I am referring to numbers, yes, but also to the type of people attending.... Has the move helped?

The North Hollywood theatre-going crowd isn’t so much different people-wise, but the theatre is– The Road is such a beautiful space, and fits our show perfectly. It’s also such a comfortable space for the audience-- which for me is very important.  And since I was a member of the Road’s theater company, it was a natural fit to move the show there. Also we had originally started by performing parts of it on the off-night series at the Road a couple of years ago, so it was a homecoming of sorts. Taylor, Sam, Bettina, and everyone else could not have been more welcoming. We did a special show for just Road company members for Cinco de Mayo and the love and encouragement I felt from the company was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It still moves me to think about that night and how embraced I felt while performing. (Of course it could have been because we got everyone drunk on “cervezas” … mmmmmm maybe I’m on to something here.) 

Changing venues can be difficult if people start associating the show with a certain space. When we moved to the Road, we’d already been reviewed by the LA Times at the previous theatre, but apparently Philip Brandes (the reviewer) came into the Times Building and suggested they do a profile piece on me… right around the time we moved… so that helped us tremendously.

It appeals to all ages - kids of all ages. Do you think that is why so many people like it - apart from the fact that you are so damn good in it...?

There is something for everyone in our show I guess. Kids… and the kid at heart. It’s funny, wacky, emotional, serious and magical enough that it seems almost everyone can find some point to suspend their disbelief . Everyone “wants to believe” somewhere in the back of their minds and our show hopefully lets them, if only for a moment. Even Houdini, the foremost medium buster and debunker of his time-- he ruined many a career by exposing and humiliating fake “spiritualists” every night in his show-- still made a pact with his wife that if there was any way possible he would return from the dead. We all want to believe.

Without giving too much away, tell me how you have reshaped the show over the last year. You have reduced it from two acts to one act, correct? What about changes in content?

We didn’t condense the show… it’s always meant to be 90 minutes…. but it gives or takes depending on the audience since there is a lot of improvisation with them during the show. And I’m always constantly working on it… adding new tricks (we just added our own unique take on Houdini’s famous Metamorphosis: The Trunk Escape) as well as trying to find new ways of connecting all the dots. There are a lot of strands that concurrently run through the show: my semi-autobiographical life story; Houdini’s search for an after-life; mine and the audience’s fears-- how we can face and overcome them; my journey of finding peace with my father’s death, and what really matters in life…. And these themes are all linked through magic and illusion. I’m always working on how to connect everything but also keep it somewhat abstract and open to everyone’s individual interpretation. I want to make this show a wild rollercoaster ride… something that has never been done before.

What plans do you have for the show?

We are planning to take this version down Dec 31 (my birthday is New Year’s Day… so it’ll be a big party night for us). And I’m also currently in the process of rewriting and developing a “Smoke and Mirrors Version 2.0” with Robert Egan (Mark Taper Forum, Ojai Playwrights conference) in hopes of taking it to other theatres, across the country... my end game, of course, being New York.

Anything else you care to add?

I also want to say how lucky I have been to work with such amazing partners in this show… all first-rate performers and people,  who help me on and off stage… and we have a lot of fun in the process. This is and has continued to be a great journey for me. One of my favorite shows is Sunday in the Park with George. And After George does this painting of a hat; he sings that he made a hat where there wasn’t a hat. I think I’m trying to make a hat where there wasn’t a hat… and then pull a rather large rabbit out of it.

Friday, November 8, 2013

2013 Interview with Sam Anderson

Popular stage and TV actor Sam Anderson, co-artistic director of The Road Theatre Company, will direct the next play at the Road entitled The Different Shades of Hugh, to open in January 2014.

Tell me about the next play you are directing. Wasn't it part of the Summer Playwrights Festival a year or two ago?
I am directing "The Different Shades of Hugh" by Clete Keith. The play was brought to me by my old friend and colleague Craig Berenson, a film producer who has worked with the writer. It's a fascinating piece about the artistic process and within 2 pages, I was completely hooked. We included it in our Summer Playwrights Festival two years ago and I directed it. It produced a wonderful and lively discussion about art and artists and I couldn't get it out of my head.

What is special about it? 
What's special about "Hugh" is its voice, which runs the gamut from very very funny to very beautiful and moving, all the while asking some important questions about the creation of art and the toll it takes on some personalities. The idea of an audience living what the artist lives in his process is wonderfully challenging to me, as well as creating the world of art around him. 

How does it fit into the Road's mission of producing edgy new works?

The Road's mission introduces new works and new voices to the American stage and "The Different Shades of Hugh" fits that mission perfectly. Clete Keith is a local writer, a wonderful screenwriter and this is his first play. I am honored that he has trusted me and the Road with it. It will create all kinds of discussion after, while the trip itself will be wonderfully entertaining.

What's challenging for a director doing a play about a visual artist is we need to create his paintings, quite a number of them, as well as some incredible visual imagery that will take us inside his process. I had such an incredible time a few years ago directing Stacy Sims' "As White As O," which was set in an art gallery, and I'm drawn to material which explores where art comes from. I am reuniting with a big part of my design team from that show -- Adam Flemming, the brilliant scenic/video designer, our resident sound designer Wiz Dave Marling, and the amazing Jeremy Pivnik, lighting designer, along with Jocelyn Hublau who I've worked with a lot now as costume designer.
I have my talented Assistant Director/Co-Producer Bettina Zacar back, and co-producers Suzanne Hunt and my friend Craig Berenson, in his first producing stint with the Road to take on these challenges and like the play, the process is profoundly enriching.

          Can you tell us the cast yet?

The cast includes: Coronado Romero, Whitney Dylan, Stephan Smith Collins, Ellie Jameson, Tom Musgrave and Zachary Mooren. Many of these company members are making their debuts on the Road stage in the new Road on Magnolia and it is my first time directing there. The auditions were so inspiring I could have chosen three complete casts from our talented members, and it was a very difficult decision making process.

You have done extensive work onstage as an actor and director ...  as well as on television. What is the greatest plus you get from each medium?

 In this phase of my life and career, what I'm enjoying so much is changing hats all the time.  I spent a month in New Orleans this year filming a very unique horror film which opens in January called Devil's Due with four young directors who work under the name Radio Silence and it was one of the most enjoyable, freeing experiences I've had in a long time, tons of fun.... and a very scary product, I might add.  I have simultaneously been recurring on FX's JUSTIFIED, playing one of the nastiest characters I've ever played and loving that ride as well -- wonderful cast, writing and very caring producers. Teaching my ongoing scene study class for professional actors is my way of giving back what I've learned and continue to learn about both the business of Hollywood and the art of the character actor, and nothing has energized me more than that. Helping my compadre, Taylor Gilbert (founder of the Road) make this company grow and do the kind of dangerous work we do in choosing and presenting new work takes up another part of my brain and when I direct, which I've tried to do at least once every other year if not once a year, I get engulfed in that process of creating the world in which a great new playwright's voice can best be heard. I deal with a lot of playwrights the Road chooses to produce and work through rewrites with them and the goal is always that they walk away, like the actors, designers and patrons do,I hope, feeling like they've been well taken care of at the Road. You put all that together, and it's one plus after another: the chance to work, to lead, to serve. It keeps me humble and happy.
Be sure to catch The Different Shades of Hugh directed by Sam Anderson at the Road Theatre Company in its new space at the NoHo Senior Arts Colony on Magnolia January 24-March 15, 2014!

news: Choreographer Matthew Bourne to Present his Sleeping Beauty

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty to play the Ahmanson November 21 through December 1 only.