Tuesday, September 18, 2018

2018 Interview with Ken Sawyer

Ken Sawyer is an award-winning director for his productions of Deathtrap and Hit the Wall a few years ago at the LGBT Center. He is getting ready to open Rope at Actors Co-op this Friday September 21. Sawyer took time from a busy tech week to discuss the play that became one of Alfred Hitchcock's curious films. 

How does Rope in play form differ from Hitchcock's movie?

Hitchcock's movie took place in the 40s in New York City. The play originally was set in the late 20s in London. We are returning to that time and location. Interestingly Hume Cronyn and Arthur Laurents worked for months with Hitchcock in adapting the script closer to an American esthetic and in the process made some significant character changes. You will note that though we are returning to the original time and place we have included nods to the Hitchcock version...while also developing a world that is uniquely our own.

What are your challenges as director of the piece?

This is a very rich play with a very old fashioned structure. It is talky. It is three acts. And it only works if it achieves an ever tightening sense of tension. In the playwright's own words "Rope is a thriller. A thriller all the time, and nothing but a thriller." How do you take a play written for a completely different audience sensibility and rhythm and make it tense for a modern day audience? Thrillers operate on precise rhythm after all. What fresh light can we shine on the play so it packs a punch while still honoring and living in the shadow of a classic Hitchcock film?
A challenge indeed!

Talk about the bizarre sense of humor in this work.

I have a saying when directing a thriller. "Entertain 'em. Get 'em to laugh. Then stab 'em in the back." The audience will scream. Then laugh at the fact that they got caught off guard. Then later, if the show was good, ponder why they got sucked in. And why they are a little afraid now of turning out the light. That is the cat and mouse game we play with the audience in a thriller. Humor is always a big part of that.

As a psychological thriller, the murderers must contain their feelings so as not to be suspect.
What, if anything, is your advice to the actors for their specific behavior onstage?

Hmmmm. The murderers do not have to hide much because nothing is suspect. In this show it's not a "who dunnit?" but "Whose figurin it out?" or "Whose gonna realize that there is something to figure out?" Everyone is blissfully unaware. Until that quiet woman seems to pick up some bad psychic vibes. And the maid seems to know something about about her two male employers that's not quite...acceptable. One of the hosts is getting trashed on booze. The other alternates between Redford charm and something ...almost dead behind the eyes. And wait....did that perky young girl just say something off handed about murder? Wait. is there something to figure out? I thought this was a party!

Tell us about your cast. I understand Burt Grinstead, who has worked with you at LGBT, is part of the ensemble.

I love working with my "people". I have worked with Carl J. Johnson and Liz Herron since the very first shows of my career. Don Smith was a part of my extraordinary cast of Hit the Wall as a tough NYPD cop. And of course now I have had the pleasure of working with some new and exciting talent from the Co-op. The family grows.

And yes Burt Grinstead was one of the stars of my Deathtrap at the LGBT center. We have taken the "thriller" ride before. Ha! The last one was actually shut down after a very successful run for being too "controversial". I knew he was a daring actor unafraid to take risks with this kind of material and yet give a grounded and thoughtful performance.

You have had tremendous success at LGBT through the years. Tell us a bit about the plays you directed there and the reaction to them from both critics and audiences.

Under the guidance of artistic director Jon Imperato I have been given a gift of being associated with a huge organization who wants to not only provide health services to the LGBT community, but also wants celebrate its artistic and compassionate place in the world today. Jon is a bold and aware individual and we have collaborated on projects that aspire to entertain, heal, educate, and stir up our audience. How lucky am I? I get to explore art in a place whose purpose is to uplift a community long misunderstood. It feels good to work there.

Do you have a favorite play of those you have directed? 

Each has ingrained itself as a marker of where I was in life...because your life always seeps into your work in some way. I will always have a special place in my heart for The Woman in Black at The Road and later The Coronet Theatre. It was a little horror play I directed that somehow hit a nerve at the time and ran forever. Just last month someone I really respect in our theatre community gushed with praise of the show I directed almost 20 years ago as though he had seen it yesterday. Also Hit the Wall, an immersive play about the Stonewall Riots, was a magical experience.

Let's conclude with anything you would like to add. For example audience takeaway from Rope.

I prefer the audience to figure out what they take away. I have my thoughts on what I would take away and have directed it with a point of view. But I'm not going to tell you what to experience. Just today I heard an excited impressive explanation of why I chose for the set to be all red. My reaction? If that's how it spoke to you...sure. It's an over 80 year old play that is speaking. Goal achieved.

ROPE will preview Thursday, September 20 at 8:00 pm and will open on Friday, September 21 at 8 pm and run through October 28, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:30 pm. Special Saturday Matinees are September 29 and October 6 at 2:30 pm. To buy tickets or make reservations please visit www.actorsco-op.org or call (323) 462-8460.  Actors Co-op Crossley Theatre. 1760 N. Gower St. (on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood) in Hollywood.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Interview with Director Mark Kemble

Mark Kemble is an award-winning writer/director from Providence, Rhode Island. He has written and directed over twenty stage productions in Providence, Los Angeles and New York. He is about to open Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Lenane at studio/stage in East Hollywood.

In 1995, Mark’s world premiere play about the Hollywood blacklist, the multi-award winning show NAMES played to sold-out audiences in Los Angeles. Mark also directed the production. NAMES was critic's choice in every major newspaper, and was named one of the Top Plays of 1995 by NPR. In the spring of 1997, Kemble directed his play NAMES Off-Broadway, starring Tovuh Feldshuh, prompting notable New York critic, Clive Barnes to call NAMES “a better play than Odets' The Big Knife”.

Mark is Artist-in-Residence at Actors Studio West.

What do you the director find special about Beauty Queen?

I very much like the authenticity of the material. The characters are delineated and alive, the plot and story are fully realized and the play is "about something", which is never to be taken for granted. Keep in mind that this was written when the playwright was in his mid-twenties, remarkable.

McDonagh's works are compelling to say the least. Is Actors Studio West involved in the production?

Well, it isn't an Actors Studio West production, per se.The actors brought some of the scenes from the play to session at the Studio and many of us involved in the production are Studio members. In many ways it's a perfect production for the Studio because it allows for the opportunity to explore many levels of the work. The wonderful writing will always be there but it is important to go beyond a translation of the author's intent to an interpretation of the author's intent. I think the Studio is well-suited for that exploration.

Talk about the message of the play.

Survival, survival, survival. Not just physical survival, and it is very much about that, this is a hard life we are witnessing and the precarious nature of the character's very existence is always apparent but, perhaps more importantly, it is about the survival of the soul, the spirit, the wonderful doggedness of having even a sliver of hope to carry one through to the next day, the next moment, even.

Tell us about your cast and how they hopefully work as a creative team.

You can't beat big talent and big talent is what I have been fortunate to work with. Casey Kramer, Angela Nicholas, Curtis Belz and Tim Hildebrand are all so very talented. They trust one another and I trust them. They are aware of the importance of trusting their impulses, as opposed to their "talented tendencies", which all actors have, but that can get in the way of true impulses.

Is this your favorite play of this playwright?

I like all of Martin McDonagh's work but I am very much attracted to, "Beauty Queen..." because of the family element. This inescapable need to maintain the family in spite of the continual onslaught on them is very compelling, very hard to keep your eyes away from even as it self-destructs.

What fresh perspective are you bringing to the play...one that will put bodies in the seats as soon as they read about it?

I liked the idea when working on this to let the actors live fully and make the play force them to play the play. Too often, even in good productions,I feel the actor has been left out of the play. They are achieving the play well enough but are too often bound by the play which prevents their own unique talent, unique personality, from emerging. I think we have achieved a situation where the actor's own individuality has been able to come to the play.

What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing the play?

The audience may well say to itself, "Shit, I thought I had it bad...", but it's such a funny and meaningful play. When an audience witnesses something and they then reflect on something in their own lives, then they are witnessing art as opposed to entertainment and the lovely thing about this play is that it is so entertaining, and yet it challenges you to reflect on yourself. Great art.

About show times and tickets: Preview: September 13 at 8:00 pm. Opens September 14 and runs to October 21. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Sundays at 7:00. tickets: go to www.plays411.com/leenane or call (323) 960-7774. studio/stage 520 N. Western, Los Angeles. Wheelchair Accessible. Ample street parking

2018 Interview with Mona Z. Smith and Traci Mariano

FIRE IN A DARK HOUSE opens tonight at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks and runs every Thursday through November 15. Co-Creators Mona Z. Smith and Traci Mariano chat with us about the play and their collaboration.

 by Steve Peterson

You live on opposite coasts and have worked together before. How did you meet and how did this partnership come to be?

We met at graduate school, at Columbia University in New York. Mona was starting the MFA program in playwriting. Traci was in her second year in the MFA directing program.

Traci interviewed Mona for a job at the Miller Theater, and Mona showed up with her 10-month old daughter in a stroller. We got along like a house afire right from the start. Traci offered Mona the job, but Mona felt conflicted because Second Stage had offered her a work-study position. Traci said, "What? Are you crazy? Go with Second Stage. They do new plays!" So Mona took her advice, and she's been taking Traci's advice ever since!

That fall, Mona's first full-length play -- a very early, and very different version of FIRE IN A DARK HOUSE -- won Columbia's John Golden Award. This entitled her to a full production of the play in the spring. Mona really, really, really wanted Traci to direct that production. There were very few women in the theater department, and that first meeting with Traci made a huge impression on Mona. So, about six months after their first meeting, Mona showed up at Traci's door to make the ask. At the time, Traci was in the middle of tech rehearsals for an incredibly complex, brilliant, Brechtian version of Hamlet. Her first response was, "Are you kidding? No." But Mona was persistent, and persuasive, and a bit pitiful, actually, and finally Traci relented and agreed.

That was the start of a beautiful friendship and a rich and rewarding collaboration that has endured for 25 years -- through graduate school, jobs, a transcontinental move, marriages, children and more children! Aside from being with our families, our favorite place to be is with each other in the rehearsal room, creating work.

What was the genesis of this play?

Mona wrote a much different version of this play in graduate school at Columbia. The inspiration for the play -- then and now -- is a fascinating family story her grandmother told her many times when she was a child. That story, about Mona's great aunt Rose, was something of a mystery, and questions about Rose lingered in Mona's mind for many years. Fire in a Dark House imagines one possible answer to those fascinating questions. We can't answer them here: It would be a major spoiler!

What drew you to the subject matter, and why did you want to bring it to the stage?

We loved the idea of working on a wartime romance set during World War I. We believed it was important to stage Fire in a Dark House this fall for many reasons. We wanted to celebrate the 25th year of our collaboration, a rare and beautiful thing for two women in theater. We also are marking other milestones with this production. The true events that inspired this play happened almost exactly 100 years ago, including events that involved members of Mona’s family. This fall also marks the 100th anniversary of the World War I Armistice. And finally, we believe this story explores themes that resonate today, including what it means to be an American, an immigrant, a young Dreamer, and a patriot.

What do you want the audience' take away' to be? Is there anything else about FIRE IN A DARK HOUSE you want us to know?

This play is in part about waves of anti-immigrant sentiment that periodically sweep this nation. In World War I, anti-immigrant fervor targeted German Americans, throwing their families and communities into turmoil.

German Americans came here from many different countries. They practiced many different faiths – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Mennonite, Hutterite, Amish. Some were sophisticated city-dwellers; some were farmers; some helped to build small towns all across the nation. Some came in search of religious or political freedom; others for economic opportunities; and others simply for the chance to start afresh in the New World. Some had been in this country since colonial times; some were the first generation born here; some were immigrants fresh off a boat from Europe.

All of them were Americans. All of them spoke German, or had German-sounding names. And that made all of these “German-Americans” suspect once the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917 and sent troops to fight in World War I.

Right now we are in a another period of American history where immigrant groups are under attack. We think Fire in a Dark House raises important questions -- about America, our freedoms, our principles, and what we want to stand for in the global community. And we think these questions are especially important to consider during this important election season. Our cast is hosting talkbacks after every performance, and we welcome everyone to please join in the discussion!

For tix and info call 800-838-3006 or visit fireinadarkhouse.bpt.me The Whitefire Theatre is located at 13500 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks. Please arrive early to find street parking.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

2018 Interview with Bert Emmett

A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Bert has taught, acted in, produced, written, and directed plays for over 35 years. Bert’s favorite acting roles in L.A. include Col. Armadillo in The Armadillo Necktie (Last Straw Award), Karl Lindner is A Raisin in the Sun (A Noise Within), Kanute in Don't Hug Me I'm Pregnant (Eddon Award). Other LA shows include Sherlock Through the Looking Glass, Lombardi, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, Sherlock’s Last Case (Scenies Award), and Cobb. Film: "The Forsaken,” "Alien Hunter,” "Outside Ozona,” and “Our Next Caller” (with Eric Roberts). Member of SAG/AFTRA and AEA. This is Bert’s directorial debut at The Group Rep. 

Interview by Steve Peterson

When did you get interested in directing?

When I was in 7th grade, I found that I could boss my friends around as long as we were making a movie. We had my dad’s old 8mm camera and shot stories that were about as stupid as they could be, but we all enjoyed the collaboration. I couldn’t stop thinking of what to do next - orchestrating anything that told a story. I was interested in every facet of putting on some kind of show and still am.

Although I haven’t formally directed in Los Angeles, I directed plays and scenes in Flagstaff Arizona as a teacher of drama at Sinagua High School in the 1990’s. I have predominately spent my time in Los Angeles performing, but, as a director, mining for the gold in a well written script is one of the most rewarding experiences a theatre person can have.

The Group Rep is special in that it provides its members the chance to create and develop projects. We were blessed that Co-Artistic Directors Larry Eisenberg and Chris Winfield thought our “project” (presented to members on only one night after weeks of rehearsal) should be given the chance to be a full-fledged production in our own little theatre upstairs. The studio is a perfect venue for us at 32 seats, as the play is such an intimate experience.

How did this play find its way to you? What intrigued you about this particular play?

It wasn’t a bad idea for Hansel and Gretel to try to leave a trail in the woods so they could find their way home. The trouble is - breadcrumbs disappear! Jennifer Haley’s play came to me through a friend who has an ear for the eloquent and a heart for art that is redolent with the tender needs of fear, loneliness and loss. Breadcrumbs is an exceptional work, full of longing, metaphor, beauty, and humor. Told through the lens of Alzheimer’s (although the disease is not mentioned in the play), Breadcrumbs displays not only the painful tussles someone with a form of dementia might have, but also the effort that must be made by anyone who is braving the path towards personal truth. Many of us may have a loved one who is struggling to remember even the simplest of things, but I think we can all relate to the feeling of being lost in the woods, striving to pick up the fragile trail that can lead us back home.

What was your greatest challenge directing BREADCRUMBS?

There are 25 separate scenes in the play suggesting 11 different environments. We have a small stage! But, as Viola Spolin said, “constraints make it happen.” So, the very limitations of our modest but very serviceable space didn’t hinder us - it functioned as a crucible. Since much of the play is in Alida’s mind, we blend now with yesterday in the space with lights, sound, and most important, our talented actors’ performances.

What do you want the audience take away to be?

Although the play sets up what could possibly be the most terrifying thought one could have - what if I couldn’t find my words anymore? - I believe it has a message of hopefulness. I hope audiences feel encouraged to be honest with themselves and ultimately know that each of us is more than his or her own story.

Audiences will be touched by the creative power of Jennifer Haley’s minimalist exploration of what it means to struggle to find the “points of reference” that lead to personal truth. Dementia, longing, painful reality, and mother/daughter relationships are explored through scenes that are mystical, lyrical, funny, and tender.

Do you have an acting or directing project coming up, and if so – what?

What I am actually most excited about is an upcoming wedding for friends at which I will me officiating. Now THAT makes me nervous!

Is there anything you wished we had asked about you or BREADCRUMBS?

There are very few theaters that actually have the kinds of budgets that can present quality plays with the care they deserve, but I believe the Group Rep does more with the few dollars it has than many other higher end theaters do with more. Packed with passion for our craft, my team has truly put their blood, sweat, tears, and heart into making this happen. It takes patience, flexibility, hard work, and love for a special play such as Jennifer Haley’s Breadcrumbs to truly make moments audiences will be happy to experience.

BREADCRUMBS written by Jennifer Haley, directed by Bert Emmett, produced by Helen O’Brien for the Group Rep. September 8 – October 14. Saturday matinees at 2:00 pm, Sunday evenings at 7:00 pm. After matinee talk-backs Sept. 15 and Sept. 29. General Admission: $20. Seniors and Students with ID: $15. Buy tickets: www.thegrouprep.com