Saturday, September 20, 2014

Carnie Wilson, Wendy Wilson, and Chynna Phillips aka Wilson Phillips have sold over 10 million copies worldwide and scored three number  one singles on the Billboard Hot 100, making the trio the best-selling female group of all time. The group won the Billboard Music Award for Hot 100 Single of the Year for "Hold On," and in addition was nominated for four Grammy Awards and two American Music Awards. Other hits include "Release Me," "You're In Love," "Impulsive" and "The Dream Is Still Alive." Most recently, the trio appeared in the hit comedy movie Bridesmaids, and also released a new album, Dedicated, featuring cover versions of songs by The Beach Boys and The Mamas and Papas. 

Carnie, daughter of Brian Wilson, one of the original Beach Boys, and sister of Wendy Wilson, is also known for her television work and recently for creating gourmet desserts for Vitello's Ristorante in Studio City. Carnie is married to music producer Rob Bonfiglio and has two young daughters, Lola 9 and Luci 5. She recently sat down with me to chat about the upcoming concert and various aspects of her career.

How long has Wilson Phillips been doing concerts since getting back together?

We've been touring for four years now. We do probably at least two shows a month...yeah, it averages out to about two shows a month.

Have you done LA a lot?

Oh yeah, we perform here every year, from Ventura County Fair to Mission Viejo to the Saban and Thousand Oaks...oh, yeah.

What are you going to perform at the Saban on the 26th?

We'll be doing a few songs from out last album Dedicated. We're actually changing our set list a little bit right now. We've got some rehearsals scheduled, but we do all the hits, a few covers. We kind of go through some of our albums and do at least one from each album. Of course, we do about five from the first one. It's great, but we've got some surprises for Saban. It's really a fun show. We laugh a lot.

I was at Vitello's recently and I read that you contribute desserts exclusively to them called Love Bites. Tell me about that.

I know. It's incredible. It's really taken off. I've been six months there. I worked with Matt Epstein when he was part owner of Sweethearts in Sherman Oaks.That business sold and then I saw him at an open house. He's a big realtor. He said to me "We've revamped our whole restaurant (Vitello's) and the wine is selling great, the food is really delicious now. We just need to revamp our dessert menu. What have you been doing with your desserts?" I said "I was just on The Talk doing a Thanksgiving bread pudding. You know me. I've got this great stuff up my sleeve and I'd love to come". So, I went in and we made a deal together and the next couple of months I went in to train one of their bakers there, and it's been great so far.

How much contact do you maintain with them? Are you there weekly?

I try to get in once a week, but the last couple of months have been hard. It's once every two weeks now.I do get in and bake desserts with Mary quite often. I like to be hands on, and I'm a bit of a control freak. I like my desserts to look and be exact recipes. We're not going crazy with too many items because we want there to be consistency, and we want basic feedback from the public, which has been really positive. My whoopie pies are not working there right now. It's either the humidity or whatever it is, so we go with what is taking off beautifully which are the cheesecakes, bread puddings, peanut butter pies, and if I do make the whoopie pies, I make them from another kitchen and bring them in. It's really catching on now. They're starting to tweet about it and stuff, so I'm really like "wow", and OK Magazine just kind of...the review was amazing with 'Carnie Takes the Cake!'

It's a whole other career for you. How great is that!

I know.

Let's get back to Wilson Phillips. In 2004 when you guys got back together you did an album called California. Is that similar to the album Dedicated or are they completely different?

Those are two different concepts.  California...the general vibe of it, there were these classic 60s and 70s songs. The songs were some we had written or performed, or artists who were known for their California vibe. That was our first reunion record. There was a twelve year gap. It was the beginning of coming together again which was extremely meaningful to us. Dedicated...we were kind of like not forced into doing the tribute record to our parents but it was like "let's just get this done" because everybody's been asking us to do it for 25 years. We were scared to do it, because we were just a little hesitant... because of how beautiful and genius those songs are, the way they are.We were nervous. We didn't want to reinvent the wheel, but we were also like "Well, let's just do our spin on it." My husband Rob was the producer of Dedicated and he did a marvelous job.

I heard the digital of "California Dreamin" and it sounds terrific.

Thank you. You should listen to "God Only Knows", "Good Vibrations" and "Dedicated". Those three are the showstoppers to me. "Good Vibrations" is vocals only; it was very hard to do, no instruments, just our voices.

Why did Wilson Phillips split up in the 90s after a short but wonderful success?

Chynna just got big head ego s---- and wanted to go solo. We basically begged her not to. We've been very open about all that, and she is too. She's the first one to say "You know, I wanted to go on my own and it wound up not working." She was also tired and wanted to take a break. My thought was "We're just getting going. We've had two hits. Let's keep going." It took a long time to heal those feelings for me, boy...(she lets out a loud sigh)! It was unbelievable, and I couldn't fathom anyone walking away from something that was so promising. The fear was that it would never come back again. And every year I would ask if we could have a reunion and they - Chynna and my sister Wendy - would both say "No. We're not ready. We're not ready." I went off to do television in a whole other direction, and that's great. But I became very depressed. I put on a bunch of weight, and it was really bad.

Your talk show was fabulous. That was a perfect arena for your charmingly talkative nature and personality. But I read that you had problems with it.

The formula was wrong. Every time I'd want to be myself and just be, you know, they wouldn't let me, and that was the year ('95-96) that 22 talk shows came on.

There was Ricki Lake...

There was also a bunch of new ones like Tempestt Bledsoe and Danny Bonaduce and Gabrielle Carteris, all of these people. It was really a bad year to be introduced to that. Every time I was more myself the ratings were pulled in. That's what I think they needed was someone to be really honest and say to a wife beater, "You're a f----in' asshole!" instead of "Oh, so you hit your wife, huh?" I wanted to b myself and I couldn't do that. I needed to be on HBO.

Is there any possibility you might do one now...maybe on cable? I know you've been on and off on several projects.

I do a lot of filling in - a lot - on The Talk, and that's been a blessing for me. They're always having me back. I'm very good friends with Julie Chen and Sharon Osbourne and the wonderful Sarah Gilbert. Whenever I'm there, it's a lovefest, it's great...I've been a regular fill-in for three years.They have me and Marie Osmond on the most. They know I want the job, I want that seat and I'd rather be a part of an ensemble than solo.

OK, but you have the talent and ability to swing it on your own. What about the singing solos? Were you pleased with them?

Oh, yeah. I loved it. I did a beautiful lullaby album that I'm really proud of, and I got to work with my dad (Brian Wilson) on there, and my mom (Marilyn Rovell, founder of The Honeys) and my sister sang on it, and I did some family recordings. Wilson recordings. I did Elvis Presley. I did "What a Wonderful World", "Over the Rainbow", but my favorite on there I think probably is "You Are So Beautiful", the duet with me and my dad. It's just so, so pretty. It was to honor my first child Lola, and the whole routine of putting them down at night with the music was really special to me. And with my second child Luci, we have yet to do some songs, and we will. I love lullaby music beyond words, so... The Christmas record was really just fun, and my record guy at the time wanted me to do it, so I just banged it out. I wish I had spent more time on it, but it was good.

What else can you say about Wilson Phillips now?

My sister (Wendy) has four boys and Chynna (Phillips) has three, so we have nine between us. It's fun. We don't take a tour bus and go out for six weeks. We do these weekend gigs. October is extremely busy with six shows, but we'll do them.

Anything that you haven't done that you would really love to do?

Honestly, another original record, CD. where we write all the songs. An album of all originals. That's kind of what I'd love to do.

We didn't talk about the weight and its effect on your life. There's been so much you've made public about that, I wasn't sure you wanted to talk about it.

Really, I'm so over it. Go to a music park and go ride the roller coaster. You go up, you go down. Bingo!

Catch Carnie Wilson, whose honest, open sense of humor has made her the lovable star she is, along with her sister Wendy and Chynna Phillips as Wilson Phillips at the Saban on Friday September 26 for a truly great show!

Saban Theatre, Beverly Hills

Friday, September 26
Opening sets by Brynn Elliott and Danielle Taylor
Doors 6pm.  Show 8:00pm.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Interview with Jane Monheit

Singer Jane Monheit will appear October 19 at the Saban Theatre, Beverly Hills singing the jazz of Judy Garland. Her latest CD - there are 9 - is called the heart of the matter (cover pictured above). Since high school, she has been dazzling audiences world-wide with her beautiful multi-ranged voice. For a young singer to concentrate on jazz and the classics is in itself quite extraordinary in this day and age. Monheit graduated with a BA from the Manhattan School of Music winning many prizes and is a two-time Grammy nominee. She is married to drummer Rick Montalbano Jr. and has one little boy.

What stimulated you to want to become a professional singer?

     I grew up with this music, and my entire family, everybody loves to sing. So, my singing was encouraged from the time I was a little thing, and my family played all this great music for me all the time.

Did you go to Broadway shows all the time?

     Oh yeah, they took me to see everything. From the time I was tiny, I've been on this path.

Do you have any favorite memories from your teen years?

     The Broadway shows were highlights of my childhood. Growing up on Long Island, I was able to see everything. I'll never forget, my first Broadway show was Into the Woods.  I loved Phantom of the Opera. 

Have you ever sung Christine in Phantom?

     Oh, well,  along with the CD over and over again. (she laughs)

You should, because you definitely could. Of your nine best-selling albums, did you aim to create a particular variety of styles?

     I grew up with almost every genre of music going on at once, from jazz to theatre to folk music. My dad's a bluegrass musician, who plays the banjo. It just felt like the most natural thing for me to reflect all these styles in my albums from the time I started. I never thought much about it; I just did what felt right.

Is jazz your favorite genre?

     I suppose. I don't really have a favorite. I love doing all of it. I really do.

Do you have a favorite singer?  

     The favorite of all time is Ella Fitzgerald. The thing about Ella is not only did she have technical prowess that was completely unmatched, but she sang the lyrics with so much love and joy and could break your heart and totally warm it at the same time. She had this magical quality of communicating so sincerely while never sacrificing the technical aspect.

Judy Garland. I can't wait to hear you sing these songs on October 19. You haven't recorded this show. Is it a new show?

     I've done it all over the place, but I haven't done it in Los Angeles yet. It's brand new for LA but I've been touring it around the country. The two major places I haven't hit yet are LA and New York. Garland is my first hero. I think it's that way for most of us who love to sing. We all love Judy, and I just have always been very drawn to her and her way of communicating. She loved jazz so much and was so swinging when she sang that I thought it would be an interesting idea to celebrate that side of her in a show rather than rehashing all the drama.

Which songs of hers will you be performing?

     A lot of the songs she recorded for Decca. Like "That Old Black Magic", "Stompin' at the Savoy", stuff like that that is known as jazz repertoire, but were songs that she performed and loved.

What is different about audiences in Europe and the US from your experience?

     People are very serious about jazz in other parts of the world. Here in the states you get a lot of sincere fans but you also get people who just want to go out to a jazz club because they think it's cool and they've seen it in the movies and they're on their phone the whole time. (she laughs) In Europe the audiences seem to be very very serious about the music.

More sophisticated, like people in New York will always point to a lack of sophistication in LA. Do you notice that?

     No, not at all. I've always had amazing audiences in LA. We've played a ton in Los Angeles; it's a second home to us.

Do you have any goal to achieve that you feel you haven't as of yet?

     I'd love to make a Broadway album one of these days. I'd love to make a big band album. There are some things I'd still like to do.

                                                      (photo credit: Timothy Saccenti)

Interview with Lee Sankowich

After serving sixteen years as Artistic Director of the Marin Theatre Company, Lee Sankowich resigned in 2006 to return to producing and directing independently. Among the forty five plays he directed at Marin, there were two Estate sanctioned world premieres of previously unproduced Tennessee Williams’ plays. His career began with a jump start with his successful productions of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS’ NEST which ran for two and a half years in New York, five and a half years in San Francisco, a year and a half in Boston, and in Israel. Since then he has worked in Regional Theatres across the country including Baltimore Center Stage, The Mark Taper Forum, South Coast Rep, Florida Stage, Geva, Jewish Repertory Theatre, City Theatre, Center Rep, San Jose Stage, Theatreworks, Pittsburgh Public Theatre where he was a Resident Director, and was an Associate Professor of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University. Among his several awards, he has been the recipient of four San Francisco Bay Area Drama Critics Awards for Direction. Lee currently owns and operates the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles, where he directed and produced "The Last Schwartz" which was a huge hit for Sankowich and the Zephyr and ultimately ran from October 2007 to April 2008.  Next Lee tackled the well-received "Moses Supposes" starring Karen Black which was well-received during its limited run in 2011.

by guest writer Steve Peterson

You have had quite a career in the theatre, how did you get started directing?  Do you remember the first play you directed? 

I was the only student of the theatre in a singles-group when I was in my early 20’s and the group asked me to direct a play.  At the time I was acting and hadn’t thought about directing but I said, “Oh sure, let’s do Fiddler on the Roof.” While it was my inexperience and naiveté that caused me to commit to such a large endeavor, it ended up being an exhilarating experience.  Since then I’ve never looked back.

The first play I directed professionally was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which ran for five and a half years in San Francisco, two and a half in New York.  I did eleven productions of the piece, including internationally, and I owe much of my success to it.

It’s been a while since you produced and directed a main stage play at the Zephyr.   “The Last Schwartz,” the first play back for you upon your return to Los Angeles in 2007, was well received as was the world premiere of “Moses Supposes” in 2011.   What brings you back to the stage?

For the past two and a half years I’d been taking care of a sick daughter and have wanted to return to directing.  After reading this script, I knew this was the one I wanted to return with.

What brought this play to your attention?  Was the playwright known to you? Or was it just a blind submission?

Robin Bradford was very familiar with my work in Northern California, and she reached out to me asking if I'd read this script and give her my opinion. I was very impressed with the story and writing so we had discussions about me directing the play at The Zephyr. 

What is it that made you want to put this play on stage at the Zephyr?

I have a lot of plays submitted to me as I have my own theatre. This one attracted me immediately as it deals with an important, largely unknown issue (the plight of homeless female vets). In addition, it is very well written, character driven, and has a good balance of drama and humor. Robin Bradford, the playwright, has written a play that entertains and works. 

Is this play a call to action?  If so, what would like to see as a result of someone seeing this play? 

Women veterans are an under-appreciated and largely invisible segment of our society. I would hope that people leaving this play would become more aware of the service they have rendered and some of the problems they face in returning home, and support the efforts to make the military and our lawmakers more sensitive to those issues military women encounter. 

I know this play has yet to open, but is there something else coming up for you---something you’re preparing or something else someone wants you to direct? 

We are currently considering a San Francisco production of Low Hanging Fruit and I’m also talking with Nicholas Guest about directing his one-man show.  I’m also writing a play about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which will have a staged reading in the next couple of months.

Thank you!

After a two and a half year absence from the stage, Lee Sankowich returns to direct the world premiere of “Low Hanging Fruit” written by Robin Bradford.   The play centers around four homeless women, all combat vets of Iraq/Afghanistan.  Without support from society, the women face their toughest battles trying to make their way on the mean streets of LA's Skid Row.   The play opens Saturday, September 20th and runs through October 26th – Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00PM and Sundays at 2:00PM at the Zephyr Theatre at 7456 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood 90046. Admission: $25.  For tickets and information please visit  or 323-960-7788.  

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Interview with Jacque Lynn Colton

By Steve Peterson

How did you first get involved in theatre and acting?

I first got involved with a small part in a community theatre in Medford, Oregon as a child and had the usual school plays and debate teams.  I was fairly shy as a kid and my voice would rise when I was nervous, so I took a college course in the theatre department at the University of Washington to “modulate” my voice and learn “vocal placement;” one thing led to another till I was firmly ensconced as a drama major and began getting cast in great character roles.

Did you have a teacher, mentor or particular experience that encouraged you along the way in your acting career? 

I had a teacher at the UW, Vanick Galstaun, who maintained some faith in my abilities of which I had been unaware.  He said some confidence-inspiring words at the right moments, allowing me to sail on stage to glowing critical praise.  At that time, we played six nights a week for six-week runs.  This allowed one to apply the classroom acting techniques to genuine performances before paying audiences. 

In the past you performed in a few Sam Shepard plays.   Which plays were you in and where? Also please share with us a little about each experience.

After college, while on tour with the LaMama Troupe under the direction of Tom O’Horgan, I played Myra in Sam Shepard’s “Chicago” and we subsequently won an Obie Award, for the shows we had toured in Europe, when we performed them Off-Broadway in “Six from LaMama” at the Martinique Theatre.
My next Sam Shepard play was in Los Angeles at the Pilot Theatre. We did a double bill of “Cowboy Mouth” and the second play, “Action” for which I won a DramaLogue Award for my acting.  Our cast included super Sam Shepard actors, such as Darrell Larson and Ed Harris.  A great experience.

Is there anything about working on this production of BURIED CHILD or this particular character that has affected you in some way?

This production has cast some outstanding actors (in my opinion) who are able to articulate their ideas in rehearsal.  We are very open with one another; this, in combination with my character "Halie's" direct and outspoken behavior feels like it has influenced (a little) how I currently express my own opinions.

What has been the greatest joy of your career?

My greatest joy is not an isolated moment in time, but a kind of continuum in my life and career. I am lucky to keep finding important and challenging projects and people, on an ongoing basis, that enrich my life as a whole. Great Joy!

Do you have a future project you are currently working on?

I have done some independent and student films that haven't been widely released, but are lurking around the festival circuits now. Nothing as timely as my current theatrical projects.


Buried Child opens: September 6 with reception to follow
Runs:  September 6 – October 11, 2014
Plays: Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM
Where: The Whitefire Theatre 13500 Ventura Blvd.(at Sunnyslope) Sherman Oaks 91423
Parking:  Metered parking until 8pm on Ventura Blvd; some side-street parking
                 Please carefully read all parking signage.
                 Please allow at least 15 minutes to park
Tickets: $25

Buy Tickets:  or 818-990-2324

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Interview with Actor Blake Boyd

Joanne Mosconi's new play You Love That I'm Not Your Wife is set to open at the Avery Schreiber Playhouse in NoHo September 12. Blake Boyd is one of the leading actors in the play.

Tell me about the play from the actor's standpoint and about the character you play.

I play Tony Ciccarelli, an extremely successful entrepreneur who is in love with the idea of being in love.  Perhaps not attuned to the feelings of his previous conquests, Tony gets more than he can handle and (hopefully) a life changing lesson in the form of Marie. Tony’s relationship with Marie epitomizes the old adage that ‘characters get not what they want, but what they need.’

Is it comedic or dramatic? 

Both! Some parts are very moving and some are out right hysterical.  I think it depends upon the actors and audience on a particular night.  What one person feels is funny, another could feel is sad.  A lot of times people laugh at the irony of terrible circumstances.  Does that make them any less tragic?  I think we’ve found a lot of humor in Joanne Mosconi’s play You Love That I’m Not Your Wife by simply telling the truth and speaking honestly with each other.  With a cast of 10 and actors ranging in age from their mid twenties to their fifties, audiences are sure to find people, relationships, and scenarios they can personally relate to….for better or worse!

Describe your association with Joanne. Have you been in plays of hers before? What is her perspective?

This is my first of hopefully many times working with Joanne.  We met through a mutual friend on another play.  I’d heard many wonderful things about her:  her tireless work ethic, boundless energy, obsessive organization and communication and was thrilled when she cast me.  She is one of the most open, supportive, nurturing and yet tough people I’ve ever worked with in the 20 plus years I’ve been doing theatre in Los Angeles.

Rehearsals are truly a collaborative effort where actors are empowered and encouraged to take risks.  A few weeks ago, Joanne (writer/director) cut 10 pages of her dialogue.  This was a statement to all the actors that we are, above all else, committed to telling a compelling story at whatever cost. 

What is significant about the play? 

The play explores the lives of 10 different people living in Los Angeles.  We are all of different backgrounds, levels of maturity, and varying moral and ethical compasses.  Some characters are afforded the opportunity to grow and change as their relationships evolve but can’t or won’t. 

What kind of audience reaction is expected? What will they take away from the play?
Perhaps more than any other city in North America, living in LA will make a person more of who they really are. The hours spent alone in traffic or killing time waiting for the next appointment have tendency to reveal one’s true character. Similarly, romantic relationships reveal who we really are. Each of Joanne’s characters are afforded this opportunity to see themselves and each will make decisions….likely much more impactful than they ever realize.  

In LA, some can’t make it and move back home.  Other’s stay and keep taking swings hoping to connect with the ball and hit a home run.  I think what Joanne’s play says is that base hits – growing, evolving, giving and enjoying the game of life - are all that really matter.

The Avery Schreiber Playhouse is located at 4934 Lankershim Boulevard in NoHo. Opening Night is Friday, September 12th at 8:00 pm, followed by performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 7:00pm through October 5.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Interview with Playwright/Director Joanne Mosconi

Joanne Mosconi's new play You Love That I'm Not Your Wife is set to open at the Avery Schreiber Playhouse in NoHo September 12.

What kind of plays do you write? Comedies? Dramas? Where does this play fall in the spectrum?

I write plays that examine the complex and chaotic world of love.  They fall under the romantic dramedy genre.  I always aim to evoke strong emotions from my audience by portraying different couples in different stages of relationships.

What made you write it? Is it based on real life experiences or is it total fiction?

I wrote You Love That I’m Not Your Wife because I wanted to explore what modern day love in Los Angeles looks like.  Los Angeles is a character in this script, as this play could not take place in any other city.  No one comes to La La Land to fall in love, as Los Angeles is arguably the most lonely, non-committed city in the world. People move to Los Angeles to chase “the dream”.  The characters in this play are very much influenced by this, as well as the city’s abundance of beauty, glamour, wealth, consistent sunshine and amount of options.  Although this is not an autobiographical piece, some characters were based on real life experiences.  The ten characters in this play are all very different, but they are bound together by one thing- their need for love and the fear they experience when they are not receiving it.  This causes them to act in ways they never expected.  These are insatiable, crazy, complex, but lovable characters all yearning to be understood and wanted.

Who is your greatest inspiration as a writer? Why?

Woody Allen is my greatest inspiration as a writer because he never stops working and is committed to uncovering all the many ways to tell a story.  His talent, discipline and passion towards his work are all things I strive for. He is a risk taker.  Allen has a unique mind and his work is always original.  His imagination is one of a genius and his courage to write such complex and interesting characters inspires me.  Like me, he is also a neurotic native New Yorker, who is obsessed with life, death and why we are all here. 

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

No matter who we are, where we are from, and what our age is…our need for connection with others shapes the structure of our emotional lives and causes us to act in ways we never imagined.  Love at its best is a bouquet of great feelings, such as: joy, romance, passion, trust, interest, curiosity, and openness.  This is the love we all strive for and want.  The characters in this play disconnect from their partner when someone or something threatens them from getting this kind of love.  Love triggers our fears and vulnerabilities.  To love another means accepting them exactly as they are.  Without this acceptance, we will never be able to have a committed relationship sealed by trust.  I want our audience to take away these ingredients from my love recipe.

What is it like wearing several hats in the production of a play? Are you serving as director/producer/writer in this case? Do you like a third eye or not?

I am serving as the director, producer and writer of this production, and it is exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time.  I actually do not think I could do it any other way.  I love wearing all these hats, as I am a control freak who needs to micromanage every part of this production.  I have not slept a full night since we started rehearsals, yet I am more awake then ever. I do receive help from my co-producer Stacy Raposa, as well as my technical director Kajal Ardestani and publicist Michael Sterling.  Paul Storiale, theater manager of The Avery Schreiber Playhouse, often serves as my third eye when I choose to listen to what he sees.  I find that the best directors are open to the collaborative nature of our work.

Anything else you care to add?

I am dedicating this production to my beautiful dog Match, who died of sudden death from an unknown cause on July 18th 2014.  I wrote this play with her on my lap, and she is at the center of all the heart, passion and love I have put into this.   Her sister Skype has been my assistant director who radiates Match’s loving energy at every rehearsal. I also have been blessed to be working with a very talented and supportive group of actors who helped me bring my words to life. 

The Avery Schreiber Playhouse is located at 4934 Lankershim Boulevard in NoHo. Opening Night is Friday, September 12th at 8:00 pm, followed by performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 7:00pm through October 5.

Interview with Christian Lebano

New artistic director of Sierra Madre Playhouse Christian Lebano is busy as director rehearsing 4000 Miles for its opening at Sierra Madre Playhouse September 26. Lebano talks about this play, this season at Sierra Madre and his role as artistic director, including his plans for the playhouse.              

What is your background at Sierra Madre Playhouse?

           When I first came to the Sierra Madre Playhouse as an actor to play the Stage Manager in Our Town, I had the same reaction to the building that a lot of people have. I loved that I was walking into a space that had been designed to be a theater, albeit a movie theater built in 1923, but a theater nonetheless. By the time that I worked at SMP in Our Town, the theater had already begun its transformation from its days as a community theater.  In that cast alone there were two actresses who had been on Broadway – one of whom had been nominated for a Drama Desk – so the attraction of the space and the company were working on other actors besides me. The coincidence of doing that particular play in this town (Sierra Madre is a lovely, quiet, and very charming community) made me feel that there was an enormous potential for the theater to become a real draw – almost a destination theater, if you will. I worked at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and the Utah Shakespearean Festival both for a couple of seasons years ago and both of them started the same way – as small theaters in charming towns.  Both of them also had leaders who could envision something larger and more substantial growing out of their intimate beginnings.

I was invited by the Board to direct Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind (artistic decisions were made by a smaller committee of the Board as the theater had been without an Artistic Director for several years.)  Directing this play allowed me to learn what producing a play was like at the theater and the challenges inherent in the model that the theater had been using. That play got an LATimes Critic’s Choice designation – the first in the history of the theater – which gave me some credibility. I joined the Board later that year and joined the Artistic Committee. 

What are the theatre's strengths and weaknesses?

It starts with the building and the location and our place in the theatrical community of the San Gabriel Valley. I believe that you have to assess your strengths and weaknesses before you can make any decisions.  Our strengths were in our location, the fact that we owned a lovely little playhouse, that our theatrical reputation had been on the rise, that we had a loyal base of patronage, and that we had a small but really dedicated group of people who cared a lot about the Playhouse and its future. Our weaknesses were that we didn’t have a “brand” that distinguished us from other theaters, that little attention had been placed on fundraising, that the old model of directors coming in and having free reign to make decisions that had a great impact on the theater as a whole (I likened it to occupying armies) made a unifying vision impossible, and that because of those factors there was no overall marketing strategy to get the word out about what we were doing.

What is your mission?

Our new mission is to celebrate the American experience in plays written by American playwrights and to put those plays in a cultural and historical context.  What better place to celebrate America than in Sierra Madre? Those plays will create an identity for us, one that fits beautifully with our location and will distinguish us from the other theaters with whom we are competing for patrons. 

How do you plan to carry this forward?

I have always felt that a theater has to look at the complete experience that a patron has – from his or her first visit to the website, to their interaction with the box office, the lobby, the program, the show and what happens afterwards.  That’s why I’ve been so big on our placing the plays in context and have made it part of our mission – we started with my production of Driving Miss Daisy  (our first Ovation Recommended play) for which we had a couple of symposia with Freedom Riders mixed in with songs of the Civil Rights movement, to the world we built around our first Field Trip play (a Series I created to produce school-day matinees) Battledrum, a play about Civil War drummer boys, which included talkbacks with Civil War Historians at every show, a beautiful study guide, and a wonderful lobby exhibit.To the lobby exhibit we have up for our first play of my tenure, 6 RMS RIV VU, which highlights the references in the play and has some fun interactive things (designed by Diane Seigel) for the audience to engage with.  The lobby is already planned for 4000 Miles, our next play, and we are now working on A Little House Christmas, our holiday offering this year. It adds another level of planning and deadline pressures, but I am convinced after seeing audiences engage with the exhibits that it is worth the effort.

Another initiative I started was a refinement to our Sunday Series which had been a really loosely structured series with occasional Sunday evening performances.  I set about curating it more aggressively.  The theater is a wonderful space for music and I thought a music series would be fantastic.  Last year I developed a collaboration with the Colburn Conservatory of Music in downtown Los Angeles.  I call that part of the Series “Emerging Artists in Concert at the Playhouse” and it features young, incredibly talented musicians making wonderfully beautiful music in our acoustically fine little gem of a theater.  The series proved very popular and is back this year with six concerts with the Colburn, two with Idyllwild Music Conservatory, and a concert featuring our new Resident Composer, Jonathan Beard.   With this series I am trying to link the music to the plays that we have on the stage at the time of the concerts.  So for this year’s Field Trip play Einstein is a Dummy I hope the String Quartet will feature music that Albert Einstein enjoyed – filling out the experience of that play.

Finally, and most importantly is engaging the audience with what we are doing.  We’ve been using the line “Come home to the Playhouse” lately – that’s just what I want people to feel.  I want the Playhouse to be a place our patrons feel belongs to them, a place in which they feel comfortable – comfortable to take risks with programming they may not be familiar with, comfortable to engage and speak up about issues that the plays may bring forth, comfortable encouraging other people to join in because they will be sure that no matter what the quality of the work will always be good – whether or not they like the play.  This is the key to my overall strategy.

Tell our readers about 4000 Miles and its significance to this season.

As I said earlier, I’m thrilled that we are premiering 4000 Miles. I thought the LA premiere would have happened at the Geffen or the Douglas, and I’m amazed that we got it and this play could really put us on the map theatrically. It is a beautifully written play and I’ve had enormous luck with the casting – Mimi Cozzens is playing Vera, the grandmother and heart of the play. Mimi has had a long career and has been on Broadway several times directed by the likes of Herb Ross and Gene Saks. Christian Prentice is playing Leo, her grandson. This play brought out a wonderful group of young actors to audition - Estelle Campbell (managing director) and I think it was the strongest showing we’ve ever had – a testament to the attraction of the material – and Christian is an example of that. He’s just so right for the role. The relationship he’s developing with Mimi is beautiful and funny and true. Susane Lee is playing Amanda, the girl Leo picks up in a bar and Alexandra Wright is playing Bec, Leo’s girlfriend – both of these women are remarkably good actresses and are going to be wonderful in the show. I’ve got a wonderful design team who are as committed to making this a success as I am and in whom I have the utmost respect and with whom I’m having a very happy collaboration.

More importantly, this show will let the theatrical community know that we are serious about broadening our reputation and ambition.  We’ve made it clear in our press releases and in our advertising that this is not a “family show” and though we have no intention of abandoning our commitment to families, we will have a range of shows in each season and this play will signal that.  I hope audiences respond to it as I have.

I’m one of the last of a dying breed – I really believe in theater as a place where good things can happen.   My goal is to remind our audiences of the power of live theater, of being in communion with a group of people sharing an unmediated experience, of the incredible thrill it is to be invited in to another world, to consider possibilities and choices foreign to our everyday experiences, to sit in the dark and laugh or cry surrounded by other souls.   That’s the real work of my position – and be it Neil Simon or Amy Herzog or Lee Blessing or any of countless playwrights and artists I hope to people the stage with – that will always be my personal mission and goal.