Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Actor Bennett Saltzman Soars in First Two Plays

1     Actor Bennett Saltzman is a new member of Group rep in NoHo, but has already played two leads in a row in the last two plays. He has been critically and publically praised for Lost in Yonkers and the current Midsummer Night's Dream. Saltzman talks about his young past and about his love for his craft.

       Tell us about yourself. Where you were born and grew up and how your love of theatre began. 

I was born and raised in Chicago, well, this suburb forty minutes outside of Chicago called Buffalo Grove, but I went into the city almost every weekend so I think I can say I’m from Chicago. From the beginning I wanted to be a Power Ranger so that’s kind of where I caught “the bug.” I started doing Karate and Fencing at an early age, but my family’s a very musical family so I did a lot of singing and dancing growing up. I really liked to dance at Bar Mitzvahs. I would win all the prizes. I did ballet and jazz for ten years until I was about sixteen. Anyhow, I was always really “into comedy” so I’d go downtown every weekend to take improv classes at The Second City and see the shows. I just liked entertaining. I wanted to be an actor early on and my Mom told me I could try after my Bar Mitzvah. I had a small role in A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas when I was fifteen, but school was always very important. 
      So, I went to USC to study theater and really started digging into acting there. Eventually, in my junior year. I studied Shakespeare abroad in London at the British American Drama Academy. It was the first time I’d really tackled the guy, I’d kinda been hiding from him but I quickly learned how much I loved it. Then back to USC, graduate and here we are. Kind of that classic theater kid upbringing dipping my toes in everything. Besides that I guess I really like American history? Comic books? Greek mythology? I don’t know.

     Did you feel prepared for the real world of acting when you graduated from USC? How did the program prepare you?

        Between USC and BADA I definitely feel more prepared for the “real world” than had I not gone to school, although I may not have realized it at the time. There was a lot of times in school where I didn’t understand the point of all the classes: the exercises were ridiculous and it didn’t feel like I was getting any better especially when I could sleep walk through a scene and still be told I did a decent job even when I knew I didn’t. But I think the point was to find out what techniques and methods worked best for you and to be able to make yourself put in the effort. You got to learn who you are and how you work and that’s what the classes were for. Bit of a ramble-y answer but short version, yes, college did actually prepare me. Also USC offers fun and interesting things that you wouldn’t normally get to try like stand-up and voiceover and writing and producing. 

     What were your challenges in Lost in Yonkers, your very first play for Group rep?
    I think the biggest challenge of being in Lost in Yonkers was that, short of one thing in high school, it was the first professional acting gig I’d ever had, ever. I had to figure out how everything worked and how to live a balanced life as a professional actor really quickly. I felt very in over my head. I’d never done an eight week run before, school plays only run one weekend! I think that was the biggest learning curve that I’m still figuring out, how to sustain a role for months and keep it fresh. It’s a great challenge, I love it, I feel like an adult tackling it.

4         Tell us about Midsummer, how it is different from other productions and the challenges of playing Puck.

    We have a very “different” take on this production of Midsummer. It’s not different in that we are being edgy or wacky for the sake of shock value, but that we are grounding this play in a certain reality. No matter how cooky the characters and antics get, these are real people, with real thoughts, feelings, values, and responsibilities. Even the fairies. That’s been the biggest challenge; making Puck a “real person.” He is a boy, who has a job in serving and entertaining his king. He doesn’t fully understand his responsibilities or the consequences of his actions but over the course of what occurs throughout the play he realizes that all actions have weight to them. Finding a way to convey that and not slipping into the classic “Pucky” tropes, yet to still be the lovable “Merry Wanderer” has been an exceptional challenge. I guess the audience determines if I succeeded.

          Is this your first Shakespeare play? Do you think Shakespeare is more difficult to play in today's world than when it was written?

    This is my second Shakespeare show. Last year at USC I got to play Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and I loved absolutely every second of it. Between the sword fights and the explosive language, it’s one of those “roles of a lifetime.” I probably think about that production at least once a week. They had me bouncing off the walls and in constant motion, it was just so much fun. And no, I don’t think Shakespeare is more difficult to portray today. Once you get through the language barrier you’re just open to this huge range of emotions. Nothing is really off limits and any questions you have are answered in the text. The meter really does tell you what you are supposed to be feeling and when; you just need to know how to look for it. Plus, and this is my favorite part, you truly have the freedom to move and play around with Shakespeare, each show lends itself to being very visual and active. I find it very freeing to be in a Shakespearian play, especially compared to your classic “family room” play. Shakespeare is very freeing for an actor.

       What is your favorite play of all time?

    My favorite play has got to be Columbinus by Stephan Karam and PJ Paparelli. Having read it, seen it, and been in it… It’s an explosive and powerful show that dissects the columbine massacre. The first act is about eight “breakfast club” stereotypical teenagers, (Jock, Faith, AP, Freak, Loner, Rebel, Perfect) and the troubles each face and how there’s more to them then the box they fit in. In act two you watch as Freak and Loner go down a darker and darker path and “become” Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, eventually committing themselves to the massacre. A recent third act deals with the aftermath and how it affected the community and America. It’s just a phenomenal show that truly nails the sense of aimlessness and anger that you experience at that age, and the terrible consequence of letting that darkness take over. As the number of mass shootings increases I wonder more and more if you can still put this show on today. It is told from the perspective of the killers; it DOES humanize them, though the third act shows how what they did was unforgivable… I don’t know. Seven years later ... and it still sits with me more than any other show. That’s a powerful and meaningful piece of theater.

       Do you have a favorite playwright?

Right now I’ve been reading a lot of Sam Shepard. I love how raw his plays are. His characters love each other, but the intensity of it makes them claw their eyes out.  I just relate to his style of writing immensely, and try to incorporate it in my own work.  Also he had a crazy rock and roll life.

      What roles would you like to play?

     Oh gosh. well the classic answer is Hamlet, but if we’re going to be honest with ourselves… Frankenfurter in The Rocky Horror Show. That show is a freaking rock concert live and he is just raw sex and it looks like so much fun. On a more serious note… Wesley in Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard. Also, and I know this will sound ridiculous, but when I’m older I really want to play Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. We did scenes from it my senior year of college and that play is a lot funnier and more relatable than a high school English class would let on.


              Do you have an agent or manager?

 I’m currently with Littman Talent Group and PureTalent Management. I’m currently just auditioning and trying to get my foot in the door, looking forward for things to pick up. Also trying to make fun films with my friends. Classic actor stuff.

      Tell us a bit about being a member of Group rep and what it means to you.

9     The Group Rep has become like a second little home to me post grad. The company offers great opportunities and it has been amazing to become a part of a network of experienced actors so eager to take me under their wing, give me their wisdom, and help me out. I really appreciate everything they’ve done for me.
             Any long range plans?

I may pursue an MA in Theatre if that’s how my life gets going, but currently I have a very youthful look and type and I want to take advantage of that while I still can.

      Anything you'd like to add that we didn't discuss?

      I normally don’t rant and ramble and wax philosophic about my opinions like this. Yes, it’s cool that I’ve done two shows at the Group Rep, but ask anyone my age in this craft and you’ll find an absolute well of creativity and intelligence. I’ve got friends I never see because they’re constantly writing, directing, and working and I’m truly inspired by them and envious of their work ethic. Though I’d never say that to their face because that would be super lame.

         You have until December 31 to see this amazing young talent in Midsummer Night's Dream
at Group rep in NoHo.  Don't miss him!  

Friday, November 24, 2017

2017 Interview with David Engel

Triple threat performer David Engel needs no introduction. He is one of the top 5 musical stars on local stages and has won multiple Ovation Awards. He is currently preparing to open White Christmas for two weeks at Musical Theatre West (MTW) Saturday December 2. In our chat he tells us about the show and why MTW is so important to him.

How many times have you done this role? What attracts you to it?
This is my sixth time performing White Christmas. 10 years ago I toured with the show playing Phil, the more comedic dancing role that Danny Kaye played in the classic 1954 film. Since then I have played Bob, the more romantic crooning role that Bing Crosby made famous. I must say that playing Phil is a lot more fun, but playing Bob is way easier. The production does take advantage of my dancing skills (because I can), but my costar playing Phil is the one who is really out there working up a sweat. The role of Bob is much less active, and this being my 5th time playing him, it's like putting on an old pair of comfy slippers. A pair of Sparkley, Glittery, Holiday Slippers!

Is the stage show by your standards better than the film White Christmas? If so, how?

Them are fightin' words to say that the stage production is better than the film version. The original film is an annual favorite and is just about as charming as you can get. And you just can't beat Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen. So we don't even try. None of us are doing an impression, although I do tip my hat a bit to Bing when singing the title song. I kind of scoop and give it a little Bing-like lilt to give the audience the comfort of hearing the song the way if was introduced by Bing himself. The film is actually quite an intimate little film. It's all about the relationships of the core four and the General and Martha (Dean Jagger and Mary Wickes).The stage version opens it up with huge productions numbers to give the audience a spectacular Christmas-y experience. 

The only thing about this film that says Christmas is that it opens on Christmas Eve 1944, and ends on Christmas Eve 1954. The stage version utilizes more of the great Irving Berlin catalogue of Christmas songs like "Happy Holidays" and "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm". Then we have retained "Snow" from the original film version of course.The stage version gives the audience everything they want from the film, and then goes way beyond it.

Who is sharing the stage with you?

Well that's funny. My immediate costars are the fabulous Jeffrey Scott Parsons, Rebbeca Johnson, and Tro Shaw. But you may lose us in the crowd. It's a whopping 29-person cast, THEN a 22-person orchestra live onstage in big band style with Dennis Castillano at the baton. The stage is bursting with talent and energy. 52 of us at a time.

What is the message of White Christmas? Is it peace on earth? Boy, do we need that now.

White Christmas does exactly what it sets out to do. It's an escape from all the craziness outside, and brings everyone together in one place to put you right in the holiday spirit. It has everything to make you leave the theatre humming all the familiar beautiful Irving Berlin tunes, and has all the heart to lift your spirits and put you right in the Christmas mood. It's also a valentine to our fighting men and women who served and continue to serve for our freedom. It is everything you could possibly want it to be.

What is different about this production? Any unusual choreography or staging?

I think the real star of the show are the glorious Irving Berlin tunes played by a live onstage orchestra, and the dazzling production numbers with original choreography by Lisa Hopkins, all performed by a crazy talented energetic cast. I think the concept for this production by director Todd Nielson is pretty brilliant.  Having the orchestra onstage brings the show to life far greater than if they were buried in the pit.There are enough set pieces to completely transport the audience to the location without having a literal full scale inn or nightclub on stage.Then it has all the colorful costumes and stunning lighting to satisfy everyone's eyes, and it just may or may not actually snow on the audience!

What else do you want to say about the show?

The book to the show is as light as air, and any conflict could be explained away with a single word. But then there wouldn't be a show. Don't ask it to make perfect sense, just go with the flow and you will be completely charmed. It is constructed in the style of a good old fashioned Broadway or movie musical...Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy sings song and get girl back. It's not going to challenge your intelligence if that is what you are looking for. But if you want an escape and to just be moved and entertained and put in the holiday spirit, then come and escape at the Carpenter Center.

What's your next project?

Funny you should ask.  At the end of every show, I usually have a whole itinerary of shows lined up. As of now, I have absolutely nothing following White Christmas. Intentionally. My agent and myself are going to focus on me getting more large scale production work on Broadway or on tour. That plan starts on January 1st. I am going to New York for a chunk of time and start auditioning for new upcoming Broadway shows. It's a bit scary heading into the new year with nothing lined up, but I have always been incredibly lucky and blessed to have continuous work over the past four decades. I am hoping and trusting that my luck will hold out on this next adventure.  

MTW is close to your heart, isn't it? Why?

Oh yes, Musical Theatre West is quite close to my heart.  Paul Garmen has given me many great opportunities on this stage, and my work there opened doors for me everywhere else. This is the first time I am back at MTW in 5 years. Paul asked me to come back a couple of years ago to reprise my role in Singin' in the Rain for them, but I just had to go and tick off a bucket list role and play Harold Hill in The Music Man at Moonlight Amphitheater. I am so excited to be back on this stage and in front of this audience that I have great history with. This marks my 14th show at MTW. Favorites being La Cage aux Folles, Crazy for You, Never Gonna Dance, Kiss Me Kate, The Full Monty, Hairspray, The Producers, and of course Singin' in the Rain. Thrilled to be home!

White Christmas plays December 1 through December 10 only at MTW. For tix, go to their website whose link is listed below:


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Stephen Tobolowsky On Road Event Reading

On Sunday, December 10, for one night only, the Road Theatre on Magnolia is proud to present a first-time reading of a compelling story from actor/writer Stephen Tobolowsky’s new book My Adventures with God. The performance, which runs about an hour, will feature Tobolowsky and fellow guest actor Alan Mandell and will take place at 5:30 pm. Preceding the reading, wine and refreshments will be served at 5:00 pm. Immediately following the reading, there will be a book signing made possible by Skylight Books.

Tobolowsky, currently on a book tour on the east coast tyook time out of his busy schedule to expound specifically upon the content and message of this reading:   

“Alan Mandell and I are reading “A Good Day at Auschwitz” from my new book My Adventures with God published by Simon and Schuster. 

I write stories from my life, and this is one of my favorites - a true story of a man I met at my synagogue. His name is Abe. Abe is a man of great humor and heart who survived three years at Auschwitz - certainly the worst place on earth. And …  he fell in love there! Amazing! 

Besides being an entertaining story I thought it was perfect for the holidays. It is a story about the resilience of the human spirit, renewal, and hope where there seems to be none.”

Don’t miss this one of a kind event with these highly respected actors Stephen Tobolowsky and Alan Mandell. The Road at Magnolia is located in the NoHo Senior Arts Colony at 10747 Magnolia Blvd in NoHo. Tickets are $40. There is plenty of street parking available, but come early to guarantee your space.