A good creative team knows how to collaborate on a new musical—and when to toss out a favorite song.
by Melinda Loewenstein
Cliff Wagner, Dan Bonnell, Bill Robertson, and Tom Sage
Photo by Agnes Magyari
Cliff Wagner didn’t set out to write a musical. Initially, he just wanted to give his band a new way to perform—something to set them apart from the sea of musicians. But what developed was The Book of Mormon’s Bluegrass-Country cousin—a more-intimate, more-accessible, less-traditional musical that’s witty and politically incorrect. Paradise—A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy is a foot-tapping musical comedy that tells the story of a traveling preacher bringing a reality show to a poor rural town to bring prosperity and build a new mega-church.
Wagner, whose band was on Fox’s Next Great American Band in 2007, came up with the initial idea and wrote all the music. He envisioned it as something along the lines of Hee Haw and reached out to his friend Tom Sage to write sketches. As the two began collaborating, Sage suggested writing a throughline story. Wagner put the pieces together: story plus music equals musical.
“And we’re like, ‘No, I hate musicals. We’re not writing a musical,’” says Wagner. But they were, albeit a different sort of musical. Luckily, Bill Robertson (Sage’s writing partner) and director Dan Bonnell (who was a “chorus boy” in musicals with Shirley Jones and Tommy Tune in New York) were fans of the genre.
Brecht and Bluegrass
What Wagner didn’t like about musicals was using songs as dialogue. But he wanted the music to be part of the story. So the band sits onstage and, “although not a character, they’re there,” Wagner says. Bonnell says, “This to me feels more in the realm of like a Brecht or a Kurt Weill kind of musical, where you’ve got scenes going on and then oftentimes characters will just break the moment and kind of step out of the scene, and we have a song that is related to the moment but not as necessarily dramatically engaged at the moment, and then we jump back in and move forward.”
Robertson notes that in his mind “Boom to Bust” (which opens Act 2) is the only true musical number. The rest are songs—“everyman” songs that Robertson hopes are playing in audiences’ heads as they leave the theater, which was exactly Wagner’s intention. “Something that is catchy, that is memorable, that has a good beat, that has a good melody,” says Wagner.
Robertson was working on a few other projects when Sage approached him about joining Paradise. Sage told Robertson he was working with Wagner on a project similar to Hee Haw, Robertson says, “And I went, ‘Knock yourself out.’” But Sage wouldn’t give up, and eventually Robertson agreed to listen to some of the music. It won him over. With writers onboard, Wagner turned his focus to the songs, letting Robertson and Sage take charge of the script. Wagner had been building sets at the Ruskin Group Theatre for a couple of years, so he asked Ruskin managing director Michael Myers if he’d like to read the musical. Myers suggested putting up a staged reading, and then it was time to talk about a director. Robertson and Myers came up with Bonnell’s name independently. “The fates were taking care of me that day,” jokes Bonnell.
“Dan coming in actually helped Tom and myself become even better writers, bottom line,” says Robertson. Bonnell, who has directed many new plays, was able to look at the project with fresh eyes and help pose questions that shaped the story. Wagner also thinks the creative team’s shared sense of humor has helped make the collaboration work. But, says Robertson, his favorite part was when “we would go to [Cliff] with an idea and say, ‘We need this type of song to drive the story, these characters are involved, this is what they’re dealing with…’ and he would take it and run off, and in about a week we’d get a song, and it would literally encompass everything we’d been talking about that helped to drive the story.”
Collaborating, Changing, and Chucking It Out
The creatives weren’t the only ones collaborating. The actors were involved, as well, and some of them, including Kristal Lynn Lockyer, were involved from the first reading on. The casting process wasn’t necessarily easy, though, says Bonnell: “We were looking for a very specific style of voice and people who kind of had musical comedy chops, but weren’t locked in to that style.” But Robertson adds, “We’re very blessed with the cast.”
And because it was a new musical and they weren’t handing the actors pre-existing scores, the actors reportedly were pleasantly surprised to discover that Wagner was willing to change the keys for them and even change the songs for them. “There was no hard and true melody. It’s like if you feel something, sing it,” says Wagner. “That’s part of the simplicity of the music, which also makes it more human.”
Also enhancing the collaboration was every participant’s openness to change. “Nothing seems entrenched in stone,” says Bonnell, “I think it comes both out of the music being improvisational and the comedy writing which is very fast and loose and off the cuff and very, very fluid.” Everyone on the team was willing to let go of something if it wasn’t working and try something new. Bonnell says, “They’re comfortable enough in their point of view that they’re willing to say, ‘Sure, let’s try it,’ and out of that there comes this great sense of collaboration and trust.”
Robertson agrees that his and Sage’s backgrounds in sketch comedy had taught them to be flexible and change things that weren’t working. However, Robertson notes, even when a writer knows a joke needs to go, it can be hard. “When we write a joke and it works and then we realize it doesn’t drive the story…the two of us [Sage and Robertson] will look at each other and go ‘Oh, alright, let’s let it go.’ But it is kind of like we’ve birthed something and then we’ve got to give it back.”
For Wagner, letting go of one of his favorite songs because he needed something more upbeat for the scene was tough, but, he says, “I really couldn’t disagree with it either.” Throwing out things that didn’t work served the final goal of creating a solid, funny musical, so everyone was willing to let go a little. And ultimately, Wagner says, “We didn’t necessarily take ourselves that seriously and we like other people not to, either.” In the end, he says, they just want people to come to the show and have a great time.
March 6, 2013
Middle photo: Marie-Francoise Theodore, Michael Rubenstone, Kristal Lynn Lockyer, and Robert Craighead. Photo by Agnes Magyari
Bottom photo: Jason Rowland, Jonathan Root and Elijah Rock. Photo by Agnes Magyari
The Woman Who Writes Operas
Meet O-Lan Jones, one of LA’s most-intriguing composers.
by Dany Margolies
term Renaissance woman may fit O-Lan Jones in several ways. Actor,
writer, sound designer, opera composer—Jones takes on eccentric roles
and tasks and creates with inspiration from across the globe and through
She may look familiar from dozens of screen roles, having delivered such
memorable lines as “Trample down the perversion of nature!” as
Esmeralda the organist in Edward Scissorhands, and “My name’s not Rosie, it’s Mabel!” from Natural Born Killers.
LA theatergoers may know her from dozens of stage roles over the years—including Wesley Walker’s Wilfredo at 2100 Square Feet and Mark Taper Forum, and Beth Henley’s Abundance at South Coast Repertory. We have certainly heard her compositions, perhaps when she created music for Murray Mednick’s Mrs. Feuerstein for Padua Playwrights in 2001 or Ken Roht’s “99-Cent” show Pageant of the 4 Seasons at Bootleg Theater in 2006. She served as artistic director of a production of “mini-operas” under the umbrella title String of Pearls.
But notably she has been an opera composer over the decades, and now
it’s time for a retrospective. Tomorrow night, The Theatre @ Boston
Court presents O-Lan Jones: 20 Years of Theatre and Music. There and then, the audience will hear nine songs from a handful of her productions.
“I have an idea of a story that must be told,” she says of her process.
First come the words, then she’ll write the music. She admits to having
tried the reverse. “But, for me, it feels more organic and filled out if
I start with the word—the rhythms of the speech or poetry.”
Hitting the Wall
Possibly, her unique musicality comes from creative freedom. She had
no academic training. “My grandmother was a prodigy,” says Jones. “She
could hear a tune and figure it out when she was 2. I think music is in
the genes.” Jones has no recollection of being taught to read music.
Over the years, she learned to notate music and early in her career, as
she says, “depended on the kindness of various musical directors.”
One might think academics look down their spectacled noses at her lack of formal
training. Not at all, she says; most have told her she was lucky not to
have the schooling. “Some have told me I have a freedom of expression
that they had to struggle to get their way back to,” she reports. “I
know how to find the principle of a thing if I listen to it enough. I
can tell what the scales are, the common intervals in melodies, the
The talent enabled her to compose her latest opera, which premiered earlier in 2012, The Woman in the Wall.
Jones wrote it in medieval modes for period instruments. For audiences
not intellectually connected with medieval music, Jones made sure the
opera resonated emotionally. “There is meaning in melody,” she says. “If
I am connected to that meaning when I’m writing something, it resonates
with people who are hearing it. I have no interest in that kind of
music where it’s one bizarre note following another—it’s intellectually
interesting because it has a strange shape to it but it isn’t connected
to feeling. We’re hardwired for some kinds of harmonies that satisfy.”
For example? She was driving when she first heard the music of Arvo
Pärt. “I had to pull over and listen and hear who it was—it was so
perfect. Sometimes it’s just a couple of notes, but they come from
someplace. They connected to an understanding and experience.”
A solid backbone is essential to a song or aria, she insists, otherwise
its basic nature is never clear, no matter how much the composer “dolls
it up” with instruments and voices. Another musical pet peeve of hers
seems to be bad imitation. She claims to be able to spot lack of
originality or, conversely when the composer has connected with his or
her music. Likewise with acting, she deplores the “fifth cousin twice
removed” of gesturing that imitates bad acting but has nothing to do
with real-life behavior.
Real Sounds, Imaginary Lands
Someday, soon, she hopes, she’ll work from site to song, traveling to fascinating places
and writing based on feelings they inspire. Whether monoliths and
Neolithic mounds in Europe, or Luray Caverns in Virginia, she could
foresee being prompted by these places to create new works. Meantime,
she recently returned from France where she hopes to revive The Woman in the Wall at
the abbey on the island of Mont San Michel, the building that helped
inspire the opera. “I wanted to go to [there] to let it know I was still
here,” she says. On the trip, “The first day I went through the whole
tour of the place, I was in awe and happy, it had made such a strong
impression. I was wandering through and taking pictures. The second day,
‘I know the whole tour. I can run ahead of the crowd and sing my head
off in the rooms.’ And I did. Just to warm the place up, so it knows I’m
She transacted a bit of business in France, too, at meetings with
potential producers there for Wall. One of her main goals these days is
to attend to business. She is currently creating a position at her
company, Overtone Industries, that will ensure her works will have lives
after their premieres. Her next producing project after this concert is
to do a local revival of a 2010 work, Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands—which boasts a collaboration of 32 artists.
A Woman and Her Own Walls
These operas, along with The Woman Who Forgot Her Sweater—a fairy tale in which the heroine must triumph over trials, which debuted in 2001 at Inside the Ford—take Jones years of work.
“I want to build lasting works of art, not torn from the headlines, so
it’s meaningful hundreds of years from now,” she says. “If it’s going to
be good for hundreds of years, it’s going to be good for 10, so take
your time” creating it, she explains. Wall and Songs and Dances each
took about seven years from idea to production. “If it’s a big idea, it
takes time to gestate, to reveal itself even, to reveal all of its
aspects, I don’t think they all have to take that long, but that’s just
been the case so far.”
She has learned even deeper lessons over the years. “For many years,
like so many women, my ambition has been questioned by so many others,”
she says. Ambition, it’s like a dirty word. So I am now feeling no
qualms about how big my ambition is. I know that part of what’s required
is promoting what I’ve got that’s already been created. The new
creations are a given, but part of what’s not a given is that inner
stance—that this is what I’ve got, and I know people enjoy it, so I’m
going to spread it around all over the place.”
Spontaneity Does Not Vitiate
Adding extra charm to the Boston Court concert, she’ll debut the Spontaneous Combustion
Choir, her group of singers who create on the spot. Inspi-ration comes
from such assistance as pieces of a poem pulled from a box. When one
chorister improvises a melodic line, others can join in to support it,
and perhaps the audience will eventually join, “following a few simple
rules laid down by me,” Jones says in a schoolmarm voice. “It’s a
birthright to make up music together.” She has worked with these singers
on or off for five or so years, just for fun. “Beautiful things show
up, and it’s such a gift,” she says. “It’s a magic trick because you
start with nothing. And then something grows. It’s completely dependent
on each person’s sensibility.” These musicians are trained, but Jones
insists the effect can be achieved without trained voices. The work
began when she was coaching actors who were afraid of singing and afraid
of singing in harmony.
Looking back over 20 years of her own works, she has observed a growth
in her understanding of music. Some of her early pieces now prompt her
to say to herself, “That’s cute, and I know what you meant,” but it’s
not making the retrospective concert. She observes a consistency in the
subject matter of her pieces: “penetrating where we are, and expanded
consciousness.” From Wall, one of the concert pieces is about the dead trying to get through, without much of a voice, to the woman. From Sweater,
Jones is including music about the lioness goddess and “the mighty
powers of attitudes and beliefs that can eat you up from the inside.”
Jones also suggests she nowadays writes more-balanced orchestrations and
more-complex harmonies, “and things that can be understood without
seeming complex.” She adds, “I don’t like it when you hear the effort of
the singer trying to sing the damn stuff. Even though it took me two
months to write one of these songs, the result feels understandable and
effortless. I have to do the hard work, the singers and musicians have
to do the hard work, and all the audience has to do is receive it.”
If Jones has her way, that’s something audiences can plan to do for even more decades to come.
October 19, 2012
Top photo: O-Lan Jones at Mont San Michel, France
Second photo: The Woman in the Wall, photo by Emily Brooke Sandor
Third photo: Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands
Bottom photo: The Woman Who Forgot Her Sweater
Hurt’s So Good
John Hurt on scripts, career advice, and conflict resolution.
Interview by Dany Margolies
British actor John Hurt has made a career from an impressively wide
range of characters. He has played crazy emperor Caligula (I, Claudius) and savvy wand purveyor Ollivander (the Harry Potter films). He has played broken (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and heartbreaking (The Elephant Man). In 2011 he starred in the short film Sailcloth, in which an athletic Hurt silently steals our hearts.
He is currently in our city, taking on Beckett’s one-man, retrospective, regretful masterpiece, Krapp’s Last Tape, at Kirk Douglas Theatre.
This interview was conducted via telephone earlier this year.
indicated you prefer being handed a script and told to go for it,
rather than minutely examining its meaning for a long while.
Hurt: That’s how I like it. Sometimes it’s essential that you
have some sort of backstory, and sometimes it doesn’t help you at all.
The script has always been my springboard—being able to go further, take
it to the next round and physicalize something.
Your son wants to act. What do you tell him?
Hurt: He has murmured that, on more than one occasion. Whether or
not he’ll get round to it, I don’t know. Have I offered advice? I’ve
said, ‘Well, if you really decide that it’s a passion, I’ll do what I
can to help you, but until you decide that, I’m not going to say a word
about it.’ I don’t think there’s any point in becoming an actor unless
you have a passion for it. I wanted to act from the age of 9 and had no
idea how to go about it at that time.”
When you were starting, what kind of career did you imagine you’d have?
Hurt: Oh, good heavens, I had no idea I that I would ever make
films. The pledge I made to myself was that if I became an actor, I
would be prepared to stay in repertory theater for the rest of my life.
If I could tell myself that I was prepared to do that, then I could say I
will do everything I can to get into the theater. But then we weren’t
too concerned with things like stardom at that time.
How did you get your first jobs? Did you audition?
Hurt: I never got a single job from an audition. I don’t know how
I got into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I went up [forgot my
lines] about 20 times in the main speech for the audition for that. I’ve
never been any good at being tested. I was never good at exams, and I
was never good at auditions. I could read [for a role]. I’d read for a
part anytime. But I hate being tested.
How do you handle “conflict resolution” on a set or in stage rehearsals?
Hurt: It’s very tricky, that. If you can spin a little spell,
that’s probably the best way. If you can charm somebody into another
area…. But if you’re really, really having trouble with somebody, it
might be something to do with what you would consider to be stupidity,
and if it’s to do with stupidity, you can’t beat it. You have to ride it
Were you ever intimidated working with another actor or director?
Hurt: I was certainly intimidated working with Orson Welles [in A Man for All Seasons].
Or when I first worked with Olivier or with Gielgud. They were
intimidating, to me. You just get on with it, pull yourself together.
You’ve worked with the greats. What do you now notice in young actors that’s particularly good?
Hurt: We’re all links in a chain. Everything develops. You can’t
judge anybody else by your standards. I think there are some fantastic
actors now, coming up, and I think there’s a greater understanding of
film than there was, certainly, in my youth, in this country [the UK].
Not so much in the States, because you have so much more possibility in
order to practice the art of film. But in this country, in my youth, the
stage was their No. 1 thing and film made a bit of money on the side. I
think now people really do appreciate film as an art in itself, at its
best, and it’s a very legitimate medium, at its most ordinary.
How do you decide which roles to take on?
judge writing, scripts, just like I was an examiner. I try not to do
anything that in my examination gets less than 50 percent. Every now and
again you come across a script which is in the high 90s, which is very
What’s the most important lesson you learned over your career?
Hurt: There is something you learn about professionalism. People
talk about being on time, but to me the thing that you learn about being
a professional is you have to be able to do the work even when you
really don’t feel like it.
Top photo: John Hurt in Krapp's Last Tape, photo by Richard Termine
Bottom photo: in Sailcloth
Being on View
Playwright Henry Murray journeys from Greek structure to modern predicaments with his premiering play.
by Melinda Loewenstein
Henry Murray photos by William Scalia/ArtsInLA.com
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” —Robert Frost
in the poet’s footsteps, playwright Henry Murray explores the profound
effect a single decision can have on the course one’s life in his new
play, as well as in his own life. “I’ve often thought in subsequent
years that my life might have been very different had I gone to New York
and I might have had more of a career on the stage as an actor and I
might have gotten to my writing sooner; but one of the points of the
play is you don’t get more than one choice. You make your choice and you
live that life,” says Murray, and he has done that. His decisions have
brought him to his artistic home, Rogue Machine theater company, where
he is about to debut his play Three Views of the Same Object.
It takes place over a 24-hour period and weaves together three stories
to show how three choices in the same scenario can result in three
different conclusions by the play’s end.
Murray didn’t set out on the path to a writing career. In college, he
studied theater with a focus on acting and directing. He landed his
first professional job as an actor at the Nashville Children’s Theatre
in Tennessee, where he also taught modern dance and mime. A few years
later, he headed west to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career, but,
says Murray, “I always wanted to be a writer, and I ended up having some
short stories published, and I wrote a novel that got me an agent.” So
he combined what he loved: theater and writing.
his passion for writing, and a deep love and knowledge of the theater,
the road hasn’t always been smooth. When his novel wasn’t published, he
turned his full attention to playwriting. His play Treefall,
inspired by an image that came to mind as he was falling asleep, tells
the story of three boys living in a world nearly destroyed by
environmental disaster. After writing it, Murray felt it had a chance of
going somewhere. His instincts were right; the critically successful
play not only won him a fellowship, which he used to produce a staged
reading, but also eventually led to him finding a home at Rogue Machine.
From East to West
Murray invited producer John Perrin Flynn (now artistic director of
Rogue Machine) to attend the staged reading at Santa Monica Playhouse.
Flynn says he was so inspired by the play that he wanted to direct a
production of it. Because few theaters were producing new work at the
time, Flynn decided to form Rogue Machine to serve this purpose. Murray
became one of its founding members, and Treefall became the first of the plays Murray would premiere at Rogue’s home, Theatre/Theater in West Los Angeles.
The play has since been produced at multiple other theaters and will open at American Theater of Actors’ Sargent Theater in New York the same week as Three Views of the Same Object premieres here.
From Inspiration to Reality
The inspiration for Three Views of the Same Object
came from a real-life encounter with an elderly couple. While driving
in Santa Monica Canyon, Murray saw a woman on the curb clutching her
mailbox. After pulling over to help her, he could see that she had
fallen and had scabs on her legs. He helped her back to the house, where
her husband opened the door. He was in a wheelchair. “It was sort of a
horrifying situation, but it was a gift to me as a writer,” says Murray.
He turned that event into a 10-minute play. After letting it sit for a
few years, he decided there was still more story in it. So he began
developing it into a full-length play. Although there are similarities
between the two versions, Murray says the full-length play is not just
an expanded version of the short, it’s a re-conceptualization of the
One of the more-challenging parts of the writing process for Murray
is the first draft. “You’re still defining the parameters of the work,
so you don’t know how big a play it is, you don’t know how many pages
it’s going to be, you don’t know if you’re going to end up cutting
characters or changing situations,” he says. And with this play,
breaking from traditional form presented him with unique challenges.
Murray says he’s not sure exactly where the idea to split the story into
three different realities came from, but once he’d made that choice a
new set of challenges arose. “It became a mental game about what is
similar about these three stories and what is different and how do I
orchestrate that on the page? It became a game of compare and contrast.”
out how to make the transitions between scenes smooth was also a
puzzle. If one actor portrayed the woman in all three realities, how
would she change her appearance and costume between one variation and
the next, and how much time would that take? So Murray settled on the
solution of using a different actor for each reality, which saves time
and makes it easier for the audience to follow the different storylines.
(The Rogue Machine production actors playing the role are Anne Gee
Byrd, K Callan, and Nancy Linehan Charles.) Part of the inspiration for
the three-views format was the tradition of Greek plays that were
performed over a three-night period. While keeping with the contemporary
form, Murray says, he wanted to bring back the idea of subplots that
shed light on the main plot, either by resonating with or providing a
stark contrast to it, “so that there could be resonant versions of the
same story happening at the same time, but in a much shorter form,” he
From Awards to Rewrites
But even after deciding on the form and writing a draft, work remains
to be done. Seeing the creative growth of a project is one of the
highlights of the process for Murray, who takes a very hands-on approach
to the development process and values workshopping as part of that
process. “I love actors, but I also love the directors and designers and
the people who run the show,” he says. And thanks to input from many
people throughout the process, the play has evolved a great deal from
its first draft. Three Views of the Same Object was
first produced in Bloomington, Ind., after winning the Woodward/Newman
Drama Award, followed by the 2012 Holland New Voices Award, which
resulted in a staged reading at The Great Plains Theatre Conference.
Murray took the feedback he received from those productions and rewrote
for the Rogue Machine premiere. Less than a month from the opening,
Murray was still making “micro-changes” in the dialogue during
Although he would like to return to novel-writing in addition to his
plays, he’s happy in the theater and is already working on another play.
Flynn says he won’t let Murray stop writing plays. Murray is pleased
that more theaters in L.A. are producing new plays since Rogue Machine
was founded to encourage just that. He says, “The future of the theater
depends on new plays being written.”
September 10, 2012
Treefall photo: Brian Pugach, Brian Norris, West Liang, and Tania Verafield
Henry Murray photos copyright William Scalia/ArtsInLA.com
Thinking and Rethinking Athol Fugard’s The Blue Iris [show closed]
by Bob Verini
Some of my colleagues in the critical community have carped at, if not downright dismissed, Athol Fugard’s The Blue Iris, currently in its U.S. premiere at Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre. As far as I can make out from reviews of this production directed by Stephen Sachs, they complain that (a) the scope is too narrow for an artist of Fugard’s stature, (b) the script overrelies on exposition, and (c) the theme is just not compelling.
(a) Most artists in their golden years (Fugard is 80 this year) tend to retrench; they pull away from the giant subjects they tackled in their youth to work in miniature. Of course Fugard has always worked in miniature (how many of his plays have ever involved more than three characters? I can’t think of a one offhand). But if the political content and humanistic rage that fueled Master Harold and Boesman and Lena and My Children! My Africa! have cooled, who can be surprised or begrudge him? Especially since his major activist goal, the destruction of apartheid, has been achieved. I have a hunch that South Africans might be able to find political meaning if not downright allegory in The Blue Iris; when I try to do so, I strain.
But so what? It was always fallacious to pin Fugard down as a solely, or even primarily, apartheid-obsessed writer. His most important political acts were always in the productions—the insistence on mixed-race casts, for instance, in his native South Africa. Throughout his work, he has always had as much interest in the complexities of the human condition generally as in the moral and legal corruption of his beautiful, wretched homeland. Anyway, the explicit weaving in of the supernatural element—the spirit of the dead wife returning (no spoiler; her presence is announced in the program and is played by Jacqueline Schultz)—is something new for Fugard. Even at 80, he’s still experimenting with form.
(b) The house a man built—the pride of his life—has just burned down, causing a fatal heart attack in his beloved wife, and he has to pick through the rubble. If there was ever an occasion for sharing memories and the trotting out of backstory, it’s this one. In times of family tragedy there is a tendency for the mind and mouth to roam over well-trodden soil: “Remember when dad was hosing down the basement windows but mom had taken them off, so he was really hosing the screens and the whole basement got wet?” Everyone within earshot has heard the anecdote a thousand times before, but it’s told as if it were a surprising revelation. With the exception of a couple of lines that seemed forced, I found nothing in the “exposition” Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill shared that didn’t sound like believable reminiscence, prompted by all the once cherished possessions now melted or charred with ash.
(c) An elderly man discovers that all of his assumptions about his wife and home have been faulty, that he may have constructed his life on a lie. What could be more shattering to him than that? How can one not empathize deeply? I ached at farmer Robert’s gradual realization of how blind he’d been, and I was moved to think that the only reason he was able to learn how shaky his foundations were was that the house had been destroyed to leave the literal foundation exposed. That’s pretty good stuff for an octogenarian playwright.
The principal theme of this play, as I see it, is the disjunction between appearance and reality, as exemplified by the titular flower that is exquisitely beautiful but contains enough poison to kill a herd of cattle. Obviously this is far from a novel theme. But I find much novelty in how it’s worked out here—in the way, for instance, the wife’s beautiful painting is judged to be fatally flawed, or the housekeeper’s devotion turns out to have a very different underside.
There’s much more to The Blue Iris than meets the eye—a statement true of flower and of play.
August 30, 2012
Photo:Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill.
Gary Grossman, Tony Abatemarco, and Michael Kearns guide plays through the birthing process.
by Dany Margolies
Gary Grossman, Tony Abatemarco, and Michael Kearns
Photo by Dany Margolies
you’ve got an idea that’s still a twinkle in your eye. How do you turn
it into a production worthy of a theatrical staging, a paying audience,
and perhaps a critical acclamation or two?
The trio heading the INKubator program at Katselas Theatre Company
just might be willing to nurture that twinkle. But you’d better be
prepared to face ample constructive criticism and a little fatherly
Renowned theatermakers in their own rights, Gary Grossman, Michael
Kearns, and Tony Abatemarco established the INKubator program in January
2011, along with Susan Krebs. Its purpose, says Abatemarco, was “to
give voice to and a venue for new work because we felt that a lot of the
big institutions were starting to cut back on development.”
Grossman, as producing artistic director, and Kearns and Abatemarco
as co–artistic directors of KTC, collectively bring dozens of years of
experience to the program. Each has worked as an actor, director, and
writer. “And now we’re in the daddy role,” says Kearns. “We’ve reached
an age where nurturing is part of our artistry. We are the parents of
this theater community.”
If they feel paternal, they can well be proud of the progeny they’ve
attracted. Grossman estimates 500 artists have participated since
INKubator’s inception—including actors Jon Tenny, Mary McDonnell, Helen
Hunt, Stephanie Zimbalist, and Deborah Ann Woll, and directors Jon
Lawrence Rivera, Richard Hochberg, and Randee Trabitz.
And the three are proud of the children who left the nest for other climes. Last year, for example, John Fleck’s Mad Women ran at La Mama in New York.
A Good Start in Life
So, where to begin developing that twinkle? Visit KTC’s website’s “call for artists”
page. Your idea will be assessed but so will your passion, says
Grossman. “We’re not looking for perfection,” says Kearns. “But if it’s
producible, if it looks like it has potential, we’ll say, ‘Okay, let’s
go ahead, let’s find a director, let’s find the actors, let’s set a
date, and let’s start the process.’” There is no charge to the artists
at any stage of the work.
Don’t, however, expect a trophy just for showing up in this program.
“We’re smart in who we bring in here,” Grossman emphasizes. “Unless
we’re sold that the person is going to be able to do the work or really
wants to do the work, we’re not going to waste our time. If we’re going
to sit in a reading, we want a payoff, and it’s not just to produce your
show. There are plenty of other theaters that are doing these kinds of
series where they can do that: put it up and invite grandma and grandpa
and go out of there saying, ‘Look how good I am,’ and have them all
The three admit that initial concepts they lean toward will have
social and/or political resonance—some sort of conscience, says Kearns.
But, he adds, “We are also looking for comedies.”
Precocious Kids and Late Bloomers
Under the trio’s nurturing care, the pieces are assessed at every
stage, and nothing goes up before its time. Says Grossman, “We’re not
under the gun to produce anything. I got trained by Milton [Katselas].
We spent nine months getting Romeo and Juliet together before it went up for the critics.”
Rewrites might be called for as late as the weekend of a performance.
A writer can be expected to listen to notes, head into an adjacent
room, and crank out new pages within a day of a performance. Sometimes a
script needs a setup, sometimes a character needs an introduction. Why
doesn’t this get resolved earlier? As the trio insists, no writer can
direct his or her own work, and no director can notice everything. So
another director and Grossman will watch a final rehearsal and give
Good dramaturgy takes several eyes on a project, they say. In one
instance, Kearns stepped in as director, and he and the young
writer-performer worked on the piece for almost a year. At its preview,
says Kearns, “It was a mess. A great mess. There was a show there and a
great performer there, but it needed work. So, six more weeks of
intensive work. Then the show [was scheduled for] Sunday, and, on
Friday, Gary said, ‘Well, that ending….’ He made some of the most
insightful comments—because at some point the director can’t see it and
the performer certainly can’t see it. So [the writer] and I literally
went in the other room, and he rewrote three pages, and 48 hours later,
he performed those three pages and the rest of the script, and he hit it
out of the ballpark. That’s INKubator. That’s what a piece has to go
through to find itself.”
Listen to Dad(s)
Once a script has been honed on the page, it’s time to hear it. “All
of us have found through these years of developing work—others and our
own—for playwrights to hear their work in front of an audience, that’s
really the most important next step of development,” says Abatemarco.
“You can sit in front of your computer screen and work ad infinitum, but
it’s really necessary for an audience to respond.”
Adds Grossman, a reading in your living room might not provide you
with adequate feedback. Still, he emphasizes the nonjudgmental nature of
INKubator. “Nothing against critics, but this is a safe space,” he
says. So the program offers its own living room to playwrights, though
in this case that living room is one of the two KTC theaters: the
Skylight and Beverly Hills Playhouse.
As the best dads would say, it’s KTC’s living room, so Grossman
insists hosts and visitors behave respectfully in it. Even after a
production, the three “grab onto these things and stay with it,” keeping
very much in touch with the writers after they are sent away to finish,
edit, rewrite, add to, or completely reconceive their scripts.
For the ‘Bigger’ Kids
More-experienced playwrights might want to apply for KTC’s
Playwrights Lab. Other development programs at KTC include a solo-show
class, taught by Abatemarco and Kearns. The two also work with “elder”
When they are readying their own works for production, Kearns and
Abatemarco don’t hesitate to take the constructive criticism, if not
needing the nagging, from each other and from others. Among other
projects, Abatemarco’s Beautified
experienced the INKubator crucible before the play earned a run this
summer, and Kearns is continuing development on a production already
given a showing: In Heat In Hollywood, by David Trudell.
Up next for KTC, seven world premieres from the company’s PlayLab will run in repertory in August at Skylight Theatre.
Seven directors and 35 actors contribute to the productions, scheduled
for afternoons through late nights. And you can bet the dads will be
watching over each of them.
July 25, 2012
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