Monday, July 29, 2019

2019 Interview with Singer Mark Winkler

Jazz singer Mark Winkler has just released a new album on singer Bobby Troup and will do a CD release party at Feinstein's Upstairs at Vitello's on August 23. In our chat, Winkler talks about his background, his love for Troup, jazz and the world of music in general.

Tell our readers about your background. Where are you from? How did you get interested in music, especially jazz?

MW: Well I’m a native of Los Angeles. I like to say that I never had a sense of reality, so being in show biz is very natural to me. My mother, Marceline Marlowe was a big band singer and would sing on the tourist boats that traveled to Panama and Hawaii—she was always singing around the house. My Dad was a jeweler and would sell watches on the 20th Century Fox lot among other places. My mother’s sister, My Aunt Shirley also had a lovely voice and we would all gather around the piano while my Mother played pretty good piano on Friday nights and sing. I actually had to fight my way in—they didn’t let me sing till I was 13 years old and I guess my voice changed for the better! 

I became interested in Jazz when I became a student at Los Angeles High School in the late 60s and the school was about 60 % Black. My friends told me to throw away my Leslie Gore Records and they hipped me to Nina Simone and Etta James and Wes Montgomery. I was crazy about his LPs – so it was a thrill for me to write lyrics to one of my favorites “Bumpin” and get the Publisher to approve it. She said she’d been getting lyrics for 40 years for that one tune. I had a very big head about it, till she rejected my next three lyrics. The lyric version of “Bumpin” is called “I Could Get Used to This” and was recorded by me and Cheryl Bentyne on our last CD and by Claire Martin in England. So I got into jazz by my choice of school

How did you become interested in Bobby Troup? Is he your idol?

MW: I’ve known about Bobby Troup since I was a little boy. My mother knew everything about show biz- and I knew he had written “Route 66”, was married to Julie London and had produced her hit single “Cry Me A River” But, I really got turned onto his music when I purchased a CD of his “The Feeling of Jazz” in 2002. I was looking to do some outside tunes—and I loved his stuff so much I did a whole CD of his songs“Mark Winkler sings Bobby Troup”- back in 2003. I consider him a kindred spirit. I really understand his songs—they swing and the lyrics are smart and sometimes funny. As a lyricist I appreciate his craft and quirkiness. As a singer- we both are very conversational in our approaches. Plus we’re two guys from the left coast! My other album that’s a tribute to a songwriter covers the material of Laura Nyro- who is sort of the polar opposite to Bobby-her stuff is so dramatic and poetic and overblown (in the best possible way). I couldn’t see them even being in the same room together-talk about a generation gap. But here’s an interesting fact, they were both born on Oct. 18th- which I find amazing.

Another thing I dig about Bobby Troup is that while writing in the tradition of his idol Johnny Mercer, He was quirkier and a little more casual in his approach- he is really the bridge between Mercer and let’s say someone like Leiber and Stoller.

Did you ever meet him?

MW: Unfortunately, I never got to meet Bobby. But after my first CD, I got a lovely email from his son in law, Bob Bayles. Telling me how much he enjoyed my CD. I still have it. Then I got to meet his two daughters by his first wife-Ronne and Cynnie and we all clicked immediately! They’ve been so great over the years—and actually the new CD was inspired by them. I did a concert last October of all Troup Songs and they all attended. After the show they gave me a whole box of his personal sheet music and about eight cds of his music. Playing all the songs over the next couple of days made me realize I had to do another CD of his material. Of course, I think that’s what they had in mind all along.

You have recorded many CDs. Is this latest perhaps your favorite? If not, what elements of what you have recorded over the years appeal most to you?

MW: Recording the new CD, “I’m With You: Mark Winkler sings Bobby Troup” has been an utter joy for me—his material fits me like a glove. For example his ballad “It Happened Once Before”is just lovely—but it has a slightly unorthodox structure , although it’s AABA the second time the bridge happens it’s substantially different than the first bridge—Bobby’s video performance of it on some show in the 60s is fantastic—Julie London is seated at the end of the piano looking glamorous and smoking away—very sexy, definitely un-PC. The chemistry between them was palpable. And I got to do a rare Page Cavanaugh comedy number called “Triskaidekaphobia” with Dave Tull, the wonderful jazz singer/songwriter/drummer who as a young man played with Paige Cavanaugh. We had a blast doing the song.

But each of my CDs has been really a good experience. I know most artists say they hate their work and blah blah blah- but I work very hard on my CDs and I for the most part really like them. I always do the very best I can do. The greatest element over the course of the 30 years I’ve been making them is the fantastic musicians I have had on the CDs.A whos who of the greatest players in LA—So the elements I like from my 17 CDs over the years are my songwriting craft and the great musicians. Wow! I played with Joe Sample and Anthony Wilson and John Clayton and John Beasley. I’m a very lucky guy.

It is difficult to be a jazz singer in this day and age. It seems to be a dying art, especially in the US. Do you see a relationship between current trends and jazz? If so, in what way?

MW: It is difficult to be a jazz singer in this day and age—but it’s what I do best. I really have the voice and the point of view of a jazzer. But I’m encouraged by the success of such jazz singer/songwriters as Gregory Porter and Rene Marie—and singers like Cecile McLorin Salvant and Kurt Elling. As long as they are filling halls, I think Jazz is in good hands.

Who are your other favorite singers of all time? Why did you choose these?

MW: My favorite singers of all time are Mark Murphy and Al Jarreau- both gentleman are now gone, Their music never fails to inspire me. I just love their fearlessness—especially Mark Murphy. I wrote a tribute to him on my CD “The Company I Keep” and got to sing it with my favorite female singer- Claire Martin. What a Thrill! I’m a big fan of singers- I just love Cheryl Bentyne as a singer and I’m lucky enough to have been singing with her for 10 years. I love singers who tell the story and don’t generally show off—Except for Ella and Mel Torme- scatting is not my favorite thing. I’m a lyric guy.

Do you have any interest in the theatre and Broadway pop music? Do you work that into your programs?

MW: I love the theatre and have written 6 shows. My most famous one has been playing off Broadway for 20 years “Naked Boys Singing!” I unfortunately just wrote 2 and a half songs for it, but it’s been a wonderful experience for me. I had a second show open off Broadway in 2011 “Play It Cool” and it was set in a jazz club in the 50s in New York- it starred Sally Mayes who was sensational in it—and it was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Best Musical. Generally the critics killed it- nothing was scarier than seeing John Simon sitting in the front row with his arms folded- scowling before the lights went down. His review was terrible, but hilarious. The reviews all liked the music- it was the story they had problems with. But I loved the show- still do. I don’t usually mention I write for the theatre, because then the writers all say I’m cabaret. And I’m a jazz singer—but just this once I’ll cop to loving musicals!

In what direction do you think music is going? Is it going to be all hip hop, or will there be a resurgence of classic music from the American Songbook?

MW: I think there is way too much hip/hop in the world today. I’m a lyricist. So I gravitate to Country Alternative writers like Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton who write smart and intelligent lyrics- but I love Ed Sheeran’s pop stuff as well as Taylor Swift. I’ve been teaching Lyric Writing at UCLA Extension for 13 years, and I have to keep up with the music—and there’s still good stuff out there. I’m a big fan of Gregory Porters songs and Rene Marie and I love David Yasbek’s stuff- The Band’s Visit was just sublime.

Anything you wish to add that I didn't ask?

MW: Well I’m gay, and I’m rather old—and I think I’m better than ever. The old voice is holding up. I say those two things because for many years I skirted around both. But I think I’ve become more popular, the more comfortable I am with myself, and honest in front of the audience. My husband Richard Del Belso died about 3 years ago- and I wrote a song for him called “I Chose The Moon” which I put on “Jazz and Other Four Letter Words”—I was in Tuscon Arizona in December of last year and the audience was senior and grey haired and looked like the Republican national convention. But I bit the bullet and when introducing the song told them about my husband and his death and how much he loved the song! And they all applauded. It was very rewarding.

Remember Mark Winkler sings the music of Bobby Troup on Friday, August 23 at Feinstein's Upstairs at Vitello's at 8 pm. For reservations, call 818-769-0905. The club is located at 4349 Tujunga Ave. in Studio City, CA 91604.

And for more info on Winkler,  and to purchase his CDs, visit his website:

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

2019 Interview with L. Flint Esquerra

Director L Flint Esquerra has directed two Tennessee Williams' plays A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Group Rep Theatre in NoHo in the last few years to great acclaim. He is currently directing their next production Loose Knit set to open August 2. In our conversation Esquerra talks about the play in detail.

Did you direct Loose Knit before? I understand that this is a revival production.

No, I have never directed this show before. I think 'revival' may be a bit of a misnomer, in the sense that, yes, it was done somewhere else sometime before and now it's being done here, but no, none of our cast or crew has ever worked on it prior.

Tell  our readers what the play is about.

Oh my, that is a complicated question. On the surface, it's about 5 women -- friends and 2 sisters - in NYC, who get together weekly for a convivial knitting circle. Digging beneath that -- all the big themes -- life, love, family, friendship, America, wealth, race, work -- Ms. Rebeck (Theresa Rebeck, playwright) is not shy about digging deep.

Is this a woman's play in the vein of Steel Magnolias or Real Women Have Curves?

There are similarities -- strong bonds of sisterhood, etc -- but I think Ms. Rebeck isn't afraid to travel into some darker corners...though with a very biting sense of humor and wit,

Define the male character Miles and how he affects the women and their various issues.

Ah, Miles -- well, of course, it depends on who you ask. If you ask Miles, he's a hardworking professional who has been very successful, and now he is simply seeking, in his straightforward pragmatic way, to find female companionship. If you were to ask the women he dates and associates with, they'd have very different opinions.

We don't see as many battle of the sexes plays being produced. Why do you think that is? Have women become that independant and empowered?

I can't even pretend to have an answer to this. It'd require hours and hours of discussion time to give the question justice.

What do you think is the message of the play?

Ms. Rebeck is so very skilled and talented that there are a multitude of messages, or perhaps it's more accurate to label them as 'topics of conversation' through out the play. She strongly gives each character their point of view and argues it masterfully, and I don't think she spoonfeeds us an answer. Food for thought for the audience. That being said, at the end of the day, I think the importance of love, hope, and friendship is recognized,

What are your specific challenges as director?

Bringing an honesty and truthfulness to the stage. I'm blessed with a terrific cast and crew, so that helps

What else has been happening in your world of directing? Any other work coming up?

Earlier this year, I directed Tuesdays with Morrie at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. Upcoming, I'll be directing the world premiere, Representative Misbehavior a farce by Tom Walla, for the NEO Ensemble Theatre.

Tell our readers about the cast you have assembled for Loose Knit.

I was overly fortunate to have a lot of talented actors audition for the show. At one point, we were even considering double-casting, ala Antaeus, but ultimately we went with one main cast. The relationship of the two sisters was vital, so I put much emphasis on them. Stephanie Colet and Marie Broderick have an excellent chemistry and complexity that serve those roles well. The other women filling out the cast -- Cathy Diane Tomlin, Lisa McGee Mann, and Julie Davis all captured the special nuances and qualities that their roles of a therapist, lawyer, and actress/caterer called for...and, importantly, also bring much humor to their personas -- which can be a tricky thing, especially when traversing some of the more dramatic sections of this comedy's terrain. Doug Haverty plays Bob, Lily's husband -- everyone seems to have a thing for Bob and Doug, quite naturally, brings that likeability/adorability factor to the role. Todd Andrew Ball has the challenge of playing Miles (we spoke a little about this character earlier) -- a very complex role and Todd skillfully navigates the nuances of this complicated and polarizing character. You need a talented cast to have any chance of succeeding and we're blessed with a wonderful ensemble. I hope many of your readers will come and enjoy their fine work!

Add whatever you wish that we have not mentioned..

Ms. Rebeck is one of the most produced playwrights in America. It's a pleasure to work on this play of hers. It gives the actors and myself much to explore and dig into. It's great being back at the GRT -- they are a wonderful and welcoming community. We're working hard to make this an excellent production. We'd be honored if many of you would come and see it! Thank you!

Remember the Group Rep at 10900 Burbank Blvd in NoHo half a block east of Vineland Avenue on the right, August 2 to September 8. Visit:

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Interview with Ted McGrath

TMB presents the workshop production of a world premiere play Good Enough, written and performed by Ted McGrath and directed by James Barbour.  Good Enough will open on Friday, July 26 and perform through Sunday, August 25 at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood.
Good Enough is the true journey of world renown author and story teller Ted McGrath.  Playing 15 characters, McGrath takes us on an emotional roller coaster ride through addiction as he sabotages his family, his career and ultimately his life in the attempt to answer one question burning inside him his entire life:  AM I GOOD ENOUGH?  Now, having reclaimed his life and at the pinnacle of success, McGrath’s play asks each of us that same question: Are you "Good Enough?”

McGrath took time out of a hectic schedule to tell our readers about himself, his new play and why he is doing it.

I have seen many shows about addiction and recovery where someone manages to turn his life around. Though amazing, your story is hardly new. First, we must have background. Tell us about when and how all the problems started?

TM: I started drinking when I was like 14 just got into regular social parties, you know, and then you get wrapped up and you start drinking. And then I started to do drugs. I got into cocaine or ecstasy my junior year of college and then started doing cocaine, right around my senior year for like a year and a half before the overdose. I had a year and a half really. I wasn’t doing as many drugs as I was drinking, but I was doing quite a bit of drugs and then I OD’d.

What specific paths did you take to recovery? Which one worked the best?

TM: I never went to AA or anything like that. I looked at it from the perspective that addictions could completely be resolved. And so I was searching for that answer. And what worked for me was doing a detox program that completely got the drugs and the alcohol out of my fat cells, which is where it stays and gets stored. I always used to think that you get on a treadmill and sweat it out. But once I did this detox program and got it out of my fat cells, then I was able to completely rehabilitate from it ... meaning I was able to completely like give it up once and for all. For years before the detox program I'd been wanting to give it up. I could go like sometimes seven, eight months without it, and then I’d fall back off the horse and just go on a bender. So I decided to go through this detox program. It worked and it just got it all out of my system. And to this day I don't have a problem with alcohol at all. I can have a glass of wine and be totally fine and have no issues and no addiction to it whatsoever. And I've always looked at it from the perspective that addictions can be completely 100% handled. That's just my viewpoint on it. And I'm completely free today and I feel great.

If I were to come hear you talk as a motivational speaker, why would I want to come to your program? What in your mind makes it better than any other one out there? Give details.

TM: You know, I believe we are what we dream and I have a system that I've created that’s called Message to Millions. Not only has it helped coaches, experts, speakers, and entrepreneurs get their message and story to millions, we're now bringing it to the entertainment industry. So we're now merging the world of business and art together and combining the platforms of coaching and speaking with the platforms of entertainment and movies. And what we're doing is very game changing. So why would somebody want to come see me, well I'm one of those people who goes after my dreams. And I think people would be inspired to see how an entrepreneur who had no acting experience just six years ago jumped into his dream of being an actor and wrote a one man play and is continuing to perform it and is also currently creating a feature film. So to be able to cross industries like that, you don't typically see it. 

If I could do it across industries and do more than one thing and bring forth my abilities to do that, I believe that every other person on the planet has abilities they can put forth to do many things they may enjoy and have multiple purposes in life and completely be fulfilled and change the world with their purposes. I'm also not a guy who just talks about motivation. I have the system to do it. I can teach people how to speak from the stage, I can teach them how to get their message out to the world. I'm a great marketer and I believe that if you control marketing, you control your destiny. Once you have the audience, you can completely 100% communicate with your audience and get your message out.

How do you relate to others' problems? Were you accessible as a child or closed in? If private, what specifically brought you out?

TM: You'll see some things in my show that happened when I was a kid. I was a little closed off. My parents got divorced and I got a little closed off. And then when I was nine years old I had an experience with a boy sexually. Then I had experience with a girl who was about four years older than me. And I was like, wow man, I'm doing some weird stuff here and I was like, do, do you even talk to people about this? So I kind of kept things private. So I would say I was closed off and then over time as I began to change my life, I became more open with people. And now on stage I open up about 100% of my life and am totally game to talk about it. I relate to others' problems because I'm human and I'm vulnerable and people come up to me after a show and they'll tell me something they haven't told somebody in 30 years and you'll watch the weight drop off their shoulders.

Do you bring humor into the work? If so, how do you incorporate it?

TM: Into the work, yeah, absolutely into my play. I think if you can laugh at things in life, and look back on things and go wow regarding things that might have been painful or crazy then, but you can crack a joke now to make it light, I think it's fun to do that, particularly when things can be heavy and dark and you're going to share something sometimes that other people might be like ‘Oh my God, he's sharing that from the stage’. You know, if I can make it a little light and crack a joke at it, people can have it a little bit more. So I think although this is a drama and a journey about my life of not feeling good enough and then overcoming that and really going after my dreams with the obstacles of addictions and different types of experiences as a child and the divorce, you know, if I can overcome that and make light of it and that gives people freedom to also be able to communicate freely themselves, that’s the result I’m after.

Why is it important for you to do a play about your work? It has to be more than self-promotion. What do you expect to accomplish with it?

TM: I'm doing a play because it's a passion and I think when somebody has a calling in life, a calling is just beyond oneself. A calling is also about the contribution to the planet. And I had a calling to share my story and my message. And I believe that when you tell a story, you take people on a journey. And when they are listening to a good story, they're actually living the story through their own eyes, not just how you're telling it. So they're having their own journey. So if I'm talking about a time where I overdosed from drugs and alcohol and almost died, somebody may not have had that experience, but they'll go back to a time of loss or a time of pain and they'll think about it. And when they hear my reflections in my breakthroughs about my life, they'll have reflections of breakthroughs about their own life. So after every play, I pull up a chair for 30 minutes or so and I just answer questions because people have questions of how I made the change. People have questions about, you know, how I had this massive success in my business. I want to help them. And so I'm doing a play and having a meaningful conversation because oftentimes in the business world, you don't get to have those conversations. So having a meaningful conversation is important to me and I want to influence and impact people's lives. So this play goes way beyond me. And I also support causes out there to educate people on drugs. I'm a big proponent of educating people and making them aware. 

That's another contribution the play gives beyond the contribution of just entertaining. It is educating and giving people their own insights and realizations about their life, which I think is surprisingly powerful in storytelling. I don't think there's any type of self promotion that doesn't include other people unless you're doing something to just talk to yourself and the four walls and then it wouldn't really be art because art has to communicate with an audience. There has to be someone there to communicate it to. So for me, it's not an art and my art form unless I'm communicating to people and helping them. 

What do I expect to accomplish with it? The play is being turned into a film. By the time the film launches in the next year and a half, my intention is to have millions of people on my email list who have opted in already, who are interested in the movie, and we're already building that email list. And then we're going to take the film to different networks and we're going to show them what we've done and start to partner with them and get it out on a massive level. And I'm going to spread the message of Good Enough. I'm also writing a book right now, I'm Good Enough. So we'll have the movie, we'll have to play, we'll have the book and we'll create a movement called The Good Enough Movement that helps people wake up to the fact that they are good enough to go after and do what they love. So that's my goal with it and to make the biggest impact on the face of the planet possible. That is in line with what I feel I want to do and the contribution I want to make.

In summing up, describe reactions so far. Tell us what you are changing in parts of the piece, as I was told I could not review just yet.

TM: In summing it all up, we have reactions of people who came to see it. Marty Cove from a Cobra Kai came and saw it and he loved it. We have a great testimony from him on it. I've had a major league baseball player come and watch it So we have testimonials. Regarding things that we've changed, we're adding in some more experiential stuff from my days in corporate America. So you get the experience of it and you actually watch how I did a sales call. So we're adding stuff like that to make it more experiential and fun. We merged a couple of scenes into one, so that when I finally get what I thought my dream was of making partner you see what really happens when I hit the quote unquote dream, becoming Partner of the top life insurance companies in the country. I'm working with James Barbour, the Director, on structure. We changed the way the message was communicated and delivered. So there's been multiple parts that we changed. 

Remember The Lounge Theatre in Hollywood opening July 26 and running until August 25!

For tix, call 800-838-3006 or visit:

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Spotlight on Ray Paolantonio

The Road Theatre Company proudly presents Michael Perlman's At the Table at the Lankershim Arts Center May 17 through July 21. This riveting play deals with six so called liberal friends who realize on a weekend retreat that they are not as enlightened or diverse as they thought. Every week we will spotlight a member of the cast. This week the light shines on producer/actor Ray Paolantonio.

Who do you play and what purpose does this character serve?

I play Elliot, one of the four long-time friends since college who invites his even longer-time best friend since middle school to spend a weekend together at Nate's parent's vacation home. I clearly didn't think things through as new and old friends don't necessarily mesh in this particular scenario - a weekend retreat where there are no phones and no social media so all we have to do is look up at each other and engage in conversation - not exactly easy to do these days, even with plenty of wine to loosen those lips. No topic is off limits and I find that in bringing people together, bringing up current topics and tough conversations always lends itself to conflict. And that's where the drama unravels.

I'm that friend, that 'safe' gay best friend who has the best intentions to bring people together, be that confidant to every situation, all while inserting himself in the middle of every conflict and as a result becomes the butt of the jokes. I have not one but two female best friends whom I've always been there for, the friend to lean on, offered advice, comfort, and always put their needs before mine - until I can't take it anymore and just unload on them. Which then leads to a lot of apologizing, not just for creating awkward circumstances, but quite frankly apologizing for who I am. I apologize a lot. I take the fall for a lot of the jokes. I compensate for being different by trying to make everyone else feel okay for having me around. I connect a lot to what Lauren is experiencing, but from my perspective as a gay man - however white - still gay and still trying to live my authentic life - so that by the end of the play I realize that I'm really not being my authentic self no matter how hard I try. I'm not precious, not a relationship guy so I'm left questioning my identity throughout most of the play but especially at the end it's not resolved by any means. Just like Chekhov!

What are your challenges as an actor and how have you prepared for the role?

The dialogue is so conversational and casual at times that it could seem as if we're improvising. That's a result of very naturalistic writing so that when you're performing in a very physically intimate space, there's no faking it. The challenge with portraying natural conversation around a dinner table is there are multiple conversations - which happens all the time in real life so to then look at it formatted in a script and breaking it down as to where your attention needs to be given to and from where your intention comes from was very important to the rehearsal process. We had eight weeks which is a very long time to rehearse, so much of what we did early on was not only script analysis but to improvise situations where we were eating and drinking... and smoking - all to calibrate how that feels, how it effects you physically and how it changes even the slightest word you may say to another character.

Much of the play I'm inebriated and finding the moments to build upon that calibrate how you behave after a certain amount of alcohol, then smoking, what time of day, how much you've had to eat and when your head actually hits the pillow. All of those behaviors we exhibit in everyday life to then recreate in an intimate setting. Yes, all of that, ALL OF IT, added to the challenge of tackling this particular play. Oh, and being one of the producers too - so pile that on - and I might have had a meltdown or two, but I just used it. That feeling of drowning, which my character talks about, is not only literal but figurative. If it's real and honest to you in the moment, I use it.

What is the theme or message of the play?

As the producer, when I first read the play I immediately felt like we [The Road] had to do it. It has a large ensemble cast calling for diverse actors and that could certainly be cast three times over from within our company. Furthermore, it wasn't just a play that could be cast diversely - it required it. It needed to be leaned into because it's a play about how we go about even having the conversation about diversity. We define diversity by labeling categories - African American, Asian American, LGBTQ - and each has a value assigned to it so it can fit into the hierarchy we currently live in. I certainly am no expert on this, but once I started reading it it felt like a play that needed to be done now because of the conversations it provoked. Initially, I just wanted to do a reading of it but it was deemed too long. The manuscript was 185 pages. So I accepted no and walked away. I felt like maybe I didn't know what was appropriate or what worked best for the company so I sat on it for awhile.

Then, Michael [Perlman] contacted me to see if I was still interested because another company in town expressed interest. Well that lit a fire under my butt and I asked for him to give me two weeks. I pitched it to the artistic board and was given an opportunity to do a reading last summer. That reading sparked a lot of conversation - both positive and negative - sometimes uncomfortable conversations about race and identity, but they were conversations that needed to be had. I listened a lot and to many different points of view. That's when it hit me in the gut, listening to my gut, that we had to do this play. Once it was slated for the fourth production this season, I committed to being a producer because I wanted to give it the care and vision it needed and deserved. I feel both lucky and grateful to be behind this play at this time in our company's history. It's been an incredible - at times overwhelming - journey that comes from the heart.

Talk about your fellow cast members and your director.

I was very fortunate to be involved in the process of selecting a director as well as casting. That's where my producer instincts kicked in. I felt very strongly about leaning into the diversity of the play so I was determined to cast actors who were true to who they were being asked to portray (African American, Asian American, Bi-racial, LGBTQ) as well as finding a woman of color to direct. Having a diverse female perspective to care for each and every character but especially the central character of Lauren was essential to grounding the play in reality. Finding an actor's director in Judith Moreland was a gift. From our first meeting through the audition and rehearsal process everyone involved felt an instant connection, respect and admiration for Judith's work ethic and her keen eye for interpreting difficult material. She elevated this production so that it resonated with a broader audience.

Much of that came by being very specific in casting - not only casting people of color in roles that required it but also casting out actors in gay roles was very important to the message of the play. Judy lead our ensemble through a rigorous analysis of the text which allowed all of us to bring our authentically lived experiences to the table. Lots of lively discussion and debate was had at the table. Yes, we worked 'at the table', so the metaphor of the table whether it brings us closer together or shows how far apart we really are, was incredible to witness in real time. From speaking with company members who initially had reservations about the script, to reconnecting with them after they've experienced the show, saw it evolve to such a richly lived moment of theatre. It's all a testament to the triumph of Judith's direction. What a rewarding journey this has been. Thanks to all who have supported us.

At the Table plays at the Lankershim Arts Center 5108 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood, CA through July 20. There is street parking but arrive early. For tickets call 818 766-8838.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Interview with Daniel Hurewitz

Playwright Daniel Hurewitz is about to open Nancy F***ing Reagan at the Secret Rose Theatre on July 12. In his conversation with us he talks about the play and its background in great detail.
Daniel Hurewitz's plays include Nancy F***ing Reagan, Reclamation, In My Father's Cabin, Registered, and The Way to Oz. Nancy F***ing Reagan, won the Christopher Hewitt Award and was a finalist for the Ashland New Plays Festival in 2018. Reclamation was honored by the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation in 2016 and named a semifinalist by the O'Neill Theater Center in 2018. And the Culver City Public Theater produced The Way to Oz in 2017. In addition to being a playwright, Daniel is a husband, father, and a history professor, and has written two books and a short film on LGBT history.
With a title like the one you have, this piece has got to be very, very comedic, or politically serious. Please comment about the title and how you came up with it.

Well, the play is both comical and serious (as well as emotionally moving.) The serious elements in the play are the history of the AIDS epidemic, and the role the Reagans played in it, as well as current struggles over institutional racism. But because we know some of these issues well, and the Reagan years are long past, there’s also room for a little distance, even some laughter. The title comes out of the dialogue, out of a declaration of both comedic exasperation and genuine anger. I know the title can make some people uncomfortable — because of the profanity, and the disrespect it implies — but for me, it captures the feeling that is the trigger for the whole play.

Tell our readers briefly about the plotline of the play.

The play unfolds over the weekend that David, a gay history teacher, turns fifty. His best friend Maggie, a college dean, gathers their friends at her Palm Springs house to celebrate. But their party plans are undone because Nancy Reagan has just died and someone has decided to bring her body to Palm Springs for a day of tribute, wreaking havoc on the traffic and David’s mood. At the same time, a student at Maggie’s college — where Maggie is the highest-ranking person of color — threatens to launch a media protest against the school because of a racist professor.  So, by the time the party is underway, David is attacking another friend’s much younger boyfriend who seems to have no knowledge of the Reagans or the AIDS epidemic, and Maggie is feeling anxious and fed up with all of them. So the play seesaws (somewhat comically) between plans for a joyful celebration, and the present day conflicts and painful memories that undermine that.

Discuss the sensitive areas of the play without giving too much away.

The play certainly has its “sensitive” moments. Without saying too much, they have to do with acknowledging the real impact of the AIDS epidemic on this group of friends, and the ongoing pain of navigating racist and sexist attitudes. Confronting those experiences drives much of the action of the play. But the play is hardly exclusively heavy — there is also a lot of laughter, and indeed one of the central themes in it is also the value of friendship, and celebrating how long-term friendships endure.

I understand you have already won an award for the piece. Tell us about that.

Yes, I was thrilled last year when A&U Magazine chose the play for its Christopher Hewitt Award. A&U, stands for Art & Understanding and its focus is on the art and activism that responds to the AIDS epidemic and to a degree, its audience is the HIV-affected community. The award is named for A&U’s first literary editor, and is given annually to the best writing that deals in some way with the impact of AIDS. They always have terrific judges, and so for me to be selected was a real honor. Not to mention, they selected the play based on the script — without there being a full production — so that felt especially meaningful as a writer.

How did Larry Margo and other Group Rep members become involved?

I met Larry through my dad, who twisted Larry’s arm to have lunch with me a few years ago to talk about LA theater. Larry graciously accepted and then, against his better judgment, grudgingly let me give him an early draft of NFR. Fortunately for me, he liked it! Last year he worked with a group of actors to workshop a selection of the play, and this year he decided we should put the whole play on. And I’m so grateful.

Why did you pick the Secret Rose or did you? That's a very wide stage. Does the piece need to be centered like an intimate play or is there room to spread out?

The play is an ensemble piece that mostly takes place in the center of the home that Maggie and her husband share — in the large room that doubles as a living and dining room, as well as out on the patio. And some of the scenes unfold with some of the characters out on the patio, while others are engaged inside. So what’s great about the Secret Rose is that it gives us a large canvas and lets us spread out. We are able to present parallel scenes, as it were. And at the same time, it helps us capture that feeling of airiness and open space in a desert home. So it’s really a wonderful space for us.

Are you involved with the production or are you leaving it in Larry's capable hands?

Larry is definitely guiding the production. I’ve been around for some of the rehearsals, which has allowed me to explain some of the characters’ intentions to the actors, when that’s been helpful. And I’ve also been able to modify lines that felt meandering or not quite right. But how the play looks — how it is moving from words on the page to something alive — that’s all Larry. I’m watching him and learning from him and the actors as they make all of that happen!

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

Fundamentally, the play is about history — whether personal or social — and the ongoing role it plays in our lives. The events of the weekend force David and Maggie to look at themselves in mid-life, to think about who they’ve been, and to consider who they want to be going forward. And the question they both wrestle with is how much do they want to stay connected to the past and its profound events, and how much do they want to shed some of that and try something new. The choices they make are not simple, but hopefully for the audience, that effort at self-examination — and the actions they take as a result — will be one of the key things that lingers.

Tell us about your other plays. Is Nancy different from them? If yes, in what way?

So far, almost all of my plays are steeped in history — especially LGBT history. That’s really my background as a writer. So my other two full-length plays, Reclamation and In My Father’s Cabin, are more traditional historical plays. The first is about Bayard Rustin, the gay man who mentored Martin Luther King, Jr., and is set in the 1950s and 60s. And the second looks at a gay party that was raided by the police in the 1930s. So NFR is different in that it is set in the present, and is much more of a reflection on history: in a way it asks, “How do we honor the past without getting stuck in it?”

Anything you wish to add that we have not discussed?

Just that I’m excited that the play is having its premiere here in Los Angeles: that feels so right. And how grateful I am for the encouragement and support of my mentors — Lee Wochner, Jon Marans, Andrea Lepcio, and Poorna Jagannathan — as well as my husband and family and friends!

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