Thursday, April 21, 2016

Interview with Playwright Willard Manus

Local Playwright Willard Manus’ Joe & Marilyn: A Love Story, a new play about the troubled relationship between baseball great Joe DiMaggio and Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe, debuts this Saturday, April 23rd at 8:00 pm, runs April 23 – May 22, produced by John Lant and Anne Mesa, directed by T.J. Castronovo and starring Rico Simonini and Emily Elicia Low,  produced by Write Act Rep@TheBrickhouse Theatre in North Hollywood.  The play was developed at the Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors Unit (West Coast), where Manus and Castronovo are fellow-members.  He shared with us a bit about the play and quite a bit about his life.

Written by Steve Peterson 

When did you first become interested in writing as a profession?

I started writing back in high school, writing a so-called humor column for the Columbus Explorers newspaper.  That was back in the horse and buggy days.  I have continued to write ever since. 

What was your first paying job and what did you learn from that experience?

My first paying job was as a reporter on the Yonkers Daily News. I should have known something was a bit fishy about the paper when the publisher said I could write whatever I wanted, including editorials. A few months later I learned why he was so cavalier about this. The paper was Mafia owned and owed its fairly large daily readership to the fact that it published the gambling line on all major sports. It also published the winning "numbers" every day (also known as "policy numbers"). Gamblers could also place a bet by calling the newspaper which in turn relayed the information to bookies in New Jersey. Right after that, the newspaper was investigated by the police and was then mentioned by the Kefauver Committee when it held hearings on organized crime in the USA.  The Yonkers Daily Times was punished by having all its telephones removed, making it the only newspaper in the world without a working telephone. 

When did start writing plays?  Do you have any favorites in the more than 40 plays you’ve penned?

I wrote a play or two in the 1950s, and a few more in the 60 & 70s, when I was living on a Greek island (see below). But I did not begin to write seriously for the theatre until I moved to Los Angeles in 1979.

Did you have mentors and muses along the way, and if so who?

My first mentor was Joseph J. Friedman, who headed a writers workshop in New York, of which I was a member for the next decade (we published a literary magazine called "Venture" by the way).  In Los Angeles in the early 80s, I joined the Los Angeles Playwrights Group, headed by Joseph Scott Kierland. A playwright and screenwriter himself (who now writes fiction), Kierland had a unique and remarkable grasp of playwriting structure and development. Most of what I know about playwriting I learned from him. I still go to Joe for third-eye advice and help. 

You’ve led what might be called an adventurous life - - I am referring to you and your wife Mavis  visiting Greece for a few weeks and ending up living there for 35 years.  What kept you there?  Were you able to write while you there?

My wife and I went to the island of Rhodes (village of Lindos) in 1961, on our honeymoon.  Our original intention was to stay three days.  Thirty-five years later we were still there.  Our love affair with Lindos and a description of our life there forms the basis of my book THIS WAY TO PARADISE--DANCING ON THE TABLES.  This memoir of Greek island life can be found on It goes without saying that I was able to write there; several novels and a ton of journalism came out of those years. (I served as the Mediterranean Correspondent for the Financial Post of Canada for much of that time). 

You have more than one play about Marilyn Monroe.   What are the titles?  What fascinates you about the persona of Marilyn Monroe that has you writing multiple plays about her and about her life?

Aristotle's advice to fellow writers was "write about kings and queens." Since MM was one of the closest things we have to a queen, I decided she would make a good subject for a play.  I began with a 70-minute monologue which had this off-beat premise: what if MM came back to life when she was in her 50s. What would she make of this second chance, not only as an actress but as a woman?  "MM at 58" was performed at the Zephyr Theatre (was it the late 80s?) by Claire Sinnett, directed by Gary Guidinger.  Because MM was such a fascinating, vibrant, complicated and of course tragic figure, I have continued to explore her different sides in other plays about her,  which includes  "Marilyn--My Secret" (co-written with Odalys Nanin),  which ran at the Macha Theatre for more than a year.

Tell us a bit about JOE & MARILYN:  A Love Story.

This play focuses on Marilyn's relationship to Joe DiMaggio. Although these two opposites were married for only nine months, they remained in love with each other for the rest of their lives.  They had a tempestuous, passion-filled, ultimately heart-breaking relationship which makes for good drama.

What was the development process like with the play at the Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors unit and how did the process there lend itself to fleshing out the play (or concept of the play)?

 My director TJ Castronovo is a fellow-member of the unit. We read the first draft of the play--with actors, of course--in front of the unit.  That draft, by the way, was first written as a play that could be performed at the Hollywood Fringe Festival (one-hour length, simple set and production values).  In feedback from the unit we learned that the play did not work well at that length, and needed to be expanded and deepened. I then sat down and wrote a second draft, which with further refinements is the one people will see at Write Act Rep.

How did the play come to be produced by John Lant and Anne Mesa for Write Act Rep?

Thanks to the interest of John Lant (artistic director of Write Act Rep), I have found a home as playwright at his company. Many of my plays have been produced by John there and he has continued to encourage me to write for him. For that he has my undying gratitude. As for Anne Mesa, she has been a longtime member of Write Act and has helped produce many of my plays.  She also helped choreograph a musical of mine, BLUES FOR CENTRAL AVENUE, which was done at Write Act about ten years ago. 

You recently had the world premiere of PREZ running at the Chromolume Theatre.  What’s up next for you after JOE & MARILYN:  A Love Story?

John Lant is holding two or three new plays of mine which he says he'd like to produce in the near future.  I also have written some other new plays which are under consideration at other theaters in town.  More on those when and if the projects become realities.

Is there anything you wished had been asked about you or the play?

I'd like to mention my solo play about Charlie Parker, BIRD LIVES!, which was produced at the Attic Theatre in 2015.  Actor Montae  Russell will perform the play on May 1st at the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center (in Leimert Park) as part of Jazz History Month, as well as in NYC in the next solo-play festival there.

JOE & MARILYN:  A Love Story runs April 23 – May 22, 2016.  To buy tickets or for more information please visit
1-800-838-3006 (ext. 1). 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

2016 Interview with Kevin Massey

Actor Kevin Massey is currently onstage through May 1 as Monty Navarro in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder at the Ahmanson Theatre. He chats with us about the challenges of playing the role and other theatrical interests.

What is the biggest challenge in playing Monty 8 times a week?

Staying hydrated!  I have to make sure I drink enough water during the day. I hardly have a chance to drink any water during the course of the show, because I am onstage 99% of the time!  

How do you prepare regularly for a performance? Do you have a strict regimen of daily exercise? I ask this because the energy that you have to put out for each performance is quite amazing.  

I make sure I take time to stretch and warm up my body a bit.  This role is deceivingly physical, with share turns, leans, leaning and holding, falling, climbing…the list goes on.  I find that if I prepare my body enough, then I feel much better about giving that much energy every night.  It’s a fun role, so I try to think of the joy giving me the energy rather than conjuring up the energy to act joyful.  I try not to eat spicy food right before the show.  At the same time, I have to make sure I am eating enough calories throughout the day, because I burn through so many during the show!

Is this your favorite role thus far? Explain.

I would have to say it is a tie between playing Monty in GGLAM and Huey in MEMPHIS.  Both require an incredible amount of energy, but they are both extremely fun and rewarding at the end of the night.  With Huey, you feel you have changed every other character in the show.  You show how a quirky and broken man can still bring about good in the world.  With Monty, you get to transform from a timid young man to a confident gentleman killer all the while getting the audience to root for you and hopefully have an evening of pure fun and joy.  Both roles have an incredible journey for different reasons.  Thank you to the writers for creating such interesting characters!

What is your personal feeling about what this show has to say? Do you laugh when you think about it? Or do you just not think about it so much?

I think the show is one of the best nights an audience will have in a theater to date.  It’s not a show that makes you contemplate life for days afterwards.  It is, rather, pure joy and glee.  But they are not empty calorie laughs…these are hearty, give you better abs laughs!

Do you have a favorite victim in one of the characters that John (Rapson) plays? If so, why this choice?

I think Henry is one of my favorites.  I actually get to spend a lot of time getting to know him.  While he still looks down on peasants, he is actually a pretty likable guy in some ways.  Plus, John and I have fun with those scenes in particular.
 Talk a little about some of your other roles like Tarzan and the character in Memphis. Tarzan is another very physical role; these seem to attract you.

I was actually having that realization just recently.  I never had any previous training in movement before I got those roles, but I have come to love the process of getting into the physicality of the character.  We used to spend hours in front of the mirror in Tarzan rehearsals, figuring out how each figure or elbow articulates with certain moves.  In Little House on the Prairie, I had to create an entire horse race with my body and a set of reins.  My quads grew tens sizes!  It was great to apply this to GGLAM where the movement is so specific and timing is imperative to the comedy.  I also love how Monty’s movements change as he gains more confidence as a man, and lover….and a killer.

What about Little House on the Prairie? How was it to work on? Is there any chance they may bring that back?

Little House will forever be a highlight in my life, primarily because it brought my wife into my life.  It was really a magical time in a lot of ways, and we made many lifelong friends. I have no idea what the future holds for Little House.  I know the producers and writers have been working on it since the tour ended…so who knows!

Who is your all-time favorite composer? Why? Musical (not necessarily one that you did)?

I don’t have one favorite…I have many and the list continues to grow.  I love everything from more established composers like Bernstein, Sondheim, Lippa, to up and coming writers like  Jonathan Reid Gealt, Kooman & Diamond, and Matthew Lee Robinson.

Are musicals more difficult to carry off that straight plays? In what way?

I think every piece is unique and couldn’t offer a blanket answer.  Generally, the more pieces to a work (instruments, actors, sets moving, effects), the longer it takes to put together.  But sometimes a one hander in a black box can take just as much work to make it a good piece.

GGLAM plays at the Ahmanson until May 1. For tix and info:

Friday, March 25, 2016

2016 Interview with Irish Actress Lisa Dwan

Irish actress Lisa Dwan, the premier interpreter of Samuel Beckett, is about to step down from the position this spring, but before she does, she will make  an appearance with the Beckett Trilogy at the The Broad Stage in Santa Monica in April.

Why is this the first time that all 3 plays have been performed together?

Well I guess one reason is that Not I is rarely performed and Footfalls has never been performed by one actress playing both roles of Mother (off stage) and May (on stage), and to my knowledge no other actress has tried to perform all three roles in one evening. Up until I tried it, I didn't even think it was possible. 

What do you feel is the single, most urgent theme that runs through Beckett's plays?

Gosh one single theme?!.. Well if I have to squeeze all the sentiment, the ideas, the layers and depth into one single theme, I think DEFIANCE is a good place to start.  Beckett celebrates the very human spirit of I can't go on, I must go on, I'll go on. 

Do you have a favorite of the 3 you're performing? If so, why?

All three are so different and require so much and each have different rewards. Not I is so physically and intellectually taxing but so exhilarating and liberating at the same time, I discover new and profound almost spiritual depths every time I perform Footfalls, and Rockaby's simple compelling poetry grabs me by the throat each time, examining loneliness and yet the honest sharing of this experience and the connection it has with the audience makes me feel less alone.

What do you think audiences are attracted to in Beckett's plays? Is it the harsh reality of the human condition? It is often said that Americans are hooked on violence. Do you think this element is universal?

For me the big attraction is the type of truth Beckett puts on the stage and the fact he isn't selling it to us. He isn't selling us anything, As Pinter puts it "he isn't standing over us with his hand over his heart", There's no polemic, pr or worthy preachiness and I'm so grateful to him for that. He simply puts his finger on his own wounds and in that gentle dark space he leaves us room to find our own. He pays his audience a great compliment. 

Do you feel that Beckett manages to entertain while getting out his message? How does he do that?

The great news about Beckett is that he's not out to entertain, there are no stories on sale here nor does he have an explicit message. As a result we observe the human condition and it’s that profound and real recognition that have us weeping and laughing at the desperate hilarity of our situation.

Talk in depth about Billie Whitelaw, as an actress and human being, and how she helped you.

When Billie Whitelaw spoke, she did so with the arresting gravitas that only someone of profound integrity can. She never minced her words, she was direct, never suffering fools, but she was also disarmingly open, extremely generous and often seemed so emotionally vulnerable as someone who seemed to live life without their skin on. This is precisely why Samuel Beckett loved her.

Despite being a child star Billie had no formal training as an actor. She was therefore a very instinctual artist with a fierce commitment that came direct from the gut. She fearlessly stretched her private landscape around Beckett’s creatures and Beckett drew as much from hers as his own. Their names will always be intertwined as one of the greatest theatre partnerships: a towering master of European theatre and his muse.
Billie Whitelaw
I know that I am only able to perform these late Beckett roles, especially the mouth-only piece Not I, because Billie Whitelaw did. Even before I got to know her, she made that possible. Like Roger Bannister who broke the four-minute mile, Billie’s performance also broke a psychological barrier by turning the famously “unlearnable” and “unplayable” into theatrical tours de force, thus granting those of us who dare to follow in her wake the confidence that it was possible.

But it was Billie alone who was the pioneer of the most innovative theatre of the 20th century. I first met her in 2006 a few months after my first performance of Not I in London. Edward Beckett attended one of those performances and over a Guinness with me afterwards suggested that it might be finally worthwhile to meet her, now that I’d “found my own way”. Up until that point neither of us had ever met anyone who had played Not I, and we greeted each other like two long-lost war veterans. We immediately swapped our trench stories of how we trained our mouths and diaphragms to speak at the speed of thought without moving a millimetre out of the meagre pinprick of light that allows just the lips alone to be seen.

Once she collapsed during rehearsals and Sam rushed over to her saying “Billie, Billie, what have I done to you? What have I done?” Coming to, she replied, “I really don’t know how to answer that Sam.” “Never mind,” he said, “back you go.”

“I would have walked on glass for that man,” Billie admitted. A year after our first meeting she called me out of the blue. “I want to give you his notes, I have to give you his notes ...” Now I had no idea that I would ever play this role again, so I wasn’t quite sure what had me standing in Billie’s kitchen later that afternoon. I thought she might take out and dust off an old rehearsal manuscript, but instead she told me to sit down at the table and “Begin!” As I started speaking she sat directly opposite and began waving her hand, conducting me. I later learned that was exactly what Beckett had done to her, across her kitchen table.Billie lifted the lid on all of his well-worn notes, especially his instruction Don’t Act: “No colour”. She was adamant not to let me emulate her performance or veer towards a surface “Beckett-style” reproduction, but wanted instead for the work to connect deep within the performer. She explained that Beckett dealt with such truths that he had no room for an actor’s craft. He did want emotion, only he wanted all of it – the real stuff, the guts – not some polished fool’s gold. Like a diviner carrying an ancient wisdom she tirelessly helped me and all of us who encountered her to search deep within. She taught me that truth has a sound, a timbre. I will always be in her debt for this. And, of course, for her parting northern wisdom: “Just get on with it.”

What do you hope audiences will take away with them from this newly organized evening?

The most I can hope for is that people will have a personal visceral experience and not an intellectual one. Beckett can be chewed to pieces in the mouths of academics, leaving us to absorb the leftovers, but in fact Beckett wanted his work to play on the nerves of his audience and not on their intellect. Ultimately I would love even just for a few people that when they close their eyes and think about theatre that they remember this show. If it can stay alive in the imagination of just a few long after its performance I would be very very happy. 

With such fantastic reviews, why are you leaving Beckett's work this spring? 

All good things must come to an end. I've been performing these works for over 11 years now and I really have to hang up the lips at least as its wreaking havoc on my neck and my body as well as the strain of putting myself into a nightly state of trauma for such a long and sustained time. I'd like to be able to walk away from this work in one piece. However I'm not done with Beckett and I don't suppose he's done with me and I'm preparing to work on two of his prose pieces one of which with open in the Old Vic Theatre in September and the other I hope to work on in America as I've just got a green card and am planning to make New York my home.

Has this been the greatest challenge of your acting career? How?

It has been the greatest challenge but also the greatest privilege. There is no other experience that has stretched me so much intellectually, physically, psychologically, emotionally and imaginatively.  There is no greater gift as a woman than having the issue of your body removed and being given the freedom to inhabit a role like this, where to be - is to be a slice of life, being paid the compliment  to be consciousness itself from womb to tomb. Wow.. It's very hard to go back to being a petty little bite size cardboard cutout character from the chambers of a frightened limited mind. Women's roles still haven't graduated that far from the three main sexist gears..The bitch, the psycho and the bimbo. We wait in hope..but godot, we've waited a long time.

Plays Thursday, April 7 at 7:30pm; Friday, April 8 at 7:30pm; Saturday, April 9 at 2:00pm and 7:30pm; and Sunday, April 10 at 2:00pm. The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage is at 1310 11th St. in Santa Monica. Parking is free
Box Office at 310.434.3200

Thursday, March 17, 2016

2016 Interview with Actress Amy Tolsky

by Steve Peterson

AMY TOLSKY is a popular character actress currently working in theatre, film and television. Her credits include Regional Theatre:South Coast Repertory. L.A.Theatre: Mud Blue Sky (The Road), The Importance of Being Earnest (Theatre Banshee);Table Manners, Nicholas Nickleby (Theatre 40);I Love Lucy Live Onstage (Greenway Court);City of Angels; Theatre@Boston Court;Antaeus; The Odyssey;PRT. Film:“Please Stand By”;“Fishes ‘n Loaves:Heaven Sent”; “The Tiger Hunter”,“Eat With Me”.  Television: “Crowded”;“Shameless”; “Code Black”;“Married”;“Castle”;“2 Broke Girls”;“Parks and Recreation”; “Big Bang Theory”;“Jeeves and Wooster”. Internet:“You’ve Probably Dated My Mom”.   

When did you first become interested in acting/performing?

I first encountered the acting bug in High School. I saw an audition notice for the student-run variety show, decided to audition with very low expectations and was shocked that I was chosen for the production. I went on to act, direct and crew in a dozen more productions during my high school years including lead roles in Pippin (Leading Player) and Mame (Agnes Gooch).

Who were your mentors along the way (who encouraged you)?

My high school drama teacher, Bob Johnson, was an excellent theatre director and a real taskmaster. He demanded a lot from us kids and we did everything we could to please him. He was pretty realistic about the business and warned me that it wouldn’t be an easy road. However, he sent me on my way with a copy of Michael Shurtleff’s   Audition books when I told him my plans to pursue theatre in college. After receiving my BFA from the University of Illinois, I went on to live in England for thirteen years where I was one of the founding members of Absolute Theatre Company.  Today, my incredibly supportive husband is my number one fan.  He was an actor and understands the trials of the actor’s journey.

Tell us a bit about the play BABY OH BABY. 

It’s a comedic look at two half-sisters whose biological clocks are ticking and are faced with the usual problems of wanting things in life that they don’t have and fretting how to get them. The action of the play takes place in one day, and there are farcical elements when the girls encounter a few interesting folks who come knocking on their door.

What was it about the character of Bella that called out to you?

Doing theatre usually offers more for an actor to chew on than some of the television roles and commercials we work on to pay the bills.  It was an exciting prospect to do a lead role with a lot of range and work on a naturalistic, contemporary piece playing a fully realized character that people could empathize with. She’s a good person who has given up when it comes to herself, but is a hopeless romantic and has found a way to help others.  I was also happy to play a British character as a way of reconnecting with my past. I have a great fondness for my time in England and miss my British mates dearly.

What do you think the audience might take away from having seen the play?

A fun time with lots of giggles! The characters are realistic and I think the audience will easily root for them and hope that they find their way and overcome their challenges in life.

What’s up next for you?

I’m guest starring on the new NBC show called “Crowded”
which premieres March 20th. My episode is called “Daughter” and will air sometime in May. I also worked on a few feature films that should be coming out in the next year or so, “The Tiger Hunter” with Danny Pudi and Jon Heder, “Fishes ‘n Loaves: Heaven Sent” with Dina Meyer, Dominique Swain and Bruce Davison and “Please Stand By” with Dakota Fanning and Toni Collette.

Is there anything you’d like us to know about the play or you that we might not have asked?

It’s really interesting to work on a play from its inception--to be able to help shape the story and tweak the dialogue with the writer/director. It can be a challenge doing theatre in L.A. with scheduling issues and cast changes and we have had a few of those since we did the initial reading in September! We do have a great group of people, though, and I think it’ll be a fun ride. We have another interesting challenge in playing only Saturday nights for twelve weeks. It’s a long commitment and how will we maintain momentum? That is the question! I’m also curious to see what will happen with the documentary aspect of this production(“From Page to Stage”)!

BABY OH BABY runs Saturdays at 8:00 PM, March 19 – June 4.  Adult humor appropriate for ages 18+.  Mature audiences only. Running time: 80 minutes; no intermission. Advance purchase tickets: $20.  Tickets at the door: $25.  Discount Tickets Students/Seniors with ID; Groups of 10 or more: $15. Buy advance tickets at or  call 800-838-3006. For information please call 747-263-9858.  The Whitefire Theatre is located at 13500 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

2016 Interview with Calvin Remsberg

Calvin Remsberg is well known as both actor and director on both coasts. Favorite stage credits: Sweeney Todd (First National, and Television productions), CATS, the acclaimed Los Angeles’ Phantom of the Opera, Man of La Mancha, and Oliver!  Favorite film credits: “Pretty Woman,” “Shrek,” “The X-Files,” “Twilight of the Golds,” “Silk Stalkings.” Favorite Directing credits: The Medium,  Educating Rita, Chapter Two, Dracula,  Triumph of Love, The Sound of Music, Urinetown, Sunday in the Park with George (Ovation Nomination), Into the Woods, Hello, Dolly!, The Last Five Years, Glory Days, F**king Men (American premiere), and Sweeney Todd (Ovation nomination), and ten musicals for The Musical Theatre Guild. This is his directing debut at The Group Rep.

by Steve Peterson

How did you first become interested or involved in theatre? 

It was in kindergarten, and I played the Gingerbread Boy and got lots of laughs. The laughs got me hooked. Then, in elementary school in Roanoke, Virginia, my teachers encouraged me to write and direct plays, which the school actually produced!  I am sure they were terrible.

The real big break came in high school with a program called S.T.A.G.E. Inc. in Fairfax County where eligible kids from 21 high schools in the area auditioned for and performed in summer musicals.  The creative staff was made up of all adults and they were quite gifted.  My first show with them was Brigadoon, and our choreographer had been in the original Broadway production. It was all very exciting!

What was you first professional job?

In 1974, an opera at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia…  I was performing a role in the challenging opera War and Peace directed and conducted by Sarah Caldwell, who was particularly notable in that she was head of the Boston Opera, and was conducting at a time  when there weren’t many female conductors working professionally. Caldwell was also the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera House.

What was your most memorable performance as an actor?

The Beadle in Sweeney Todd; I was in the National Tour with Angela Lansbury which was filmed for PBS here in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion.  I reprised the role in the second National Tour.  It was a dream to work with Sondheim and director Harold Prince.

Did you have mentors along the way?

Oh yes, my acting teachers Mark Hammer and Richard Bauer , who I performed with in Wolf Trap’s production of Kismet.  They were teaching in the educational program at Arena Stage and I started studying acting with them.

My most recent mentor was actress June Havoc who played Mrs. Lovett in the second National Tour of Sweeney Todd in which I reprised the role of The Beadle.   Most people know June Havoc as an actress and as the sister of Gypsy Rose Lee.  However, she was a great director, playwright and coach. She taught me how to bring individuality and character to my work.

When did you start directing, what project drew your attention?

I studied directing at The College of William and Mary, and during that time I directed my friend Glenn Close in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in Menotti’s The Medium.  We’ve remained friends over the years.

I was hired for my first big professional directing job by Steven A. Glaudini who was then the executive director/producer of Performance Riverside to direct a production of Sweeney Todd.   I had already directed the 1999 Reprise! production which starred Kelsey Grammar and Christine Baranski.

You're also a vocal coach.  Is there one point you work at getting across with each of your students.

I was fortunate to have studied voice with Fredrick Wilkerson and he turned my whole vocal life around.  He was one of the top vocal coaches of his time.  "Your body is 89 percent water, something like that," he once told an interviewer, "and so are your bones, so you must think of your whole body as a sounding box. You must feel every syllable you say all the way down to your feet, all the way to your toes.”   Wilkie taught the absolute necessity of developing a rock solid technique. He taught a combination of the French “masque” method of placement as well as elements of bel canto.

How did directing this production of Bach at Leipzig come about?

Larry Eisenberg, one of The Group Rep’s co-artistic directors saw my well-received production of Shuffle Along which I directed for the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival.  We’ve kept in touch about plays I might choose to direct in the future and Bach at Leipzig this brilliant, madcap farce with sparkling dialogue written by Itamar  Moses was on my list.

The play takes place in the 18th century, which I have a huge affinity for, having performed 18th century plays under the direction and guidance of Howard Scammon, the head of my college theatre program, who was a notable scholar on the subject.  So, Bach at Leipzig was right up my alley.  I had seen a production of it at the Odyssey Theatre in 2009 and knew I wanted to direct it someday.

Tell us a bit about the play?

The play takes place in 1722, at the Thomaskirche, the most renowned church in Leipzig, Germany. To fulfill a vacancy in their music department, the church elders held a music competition, a sort of “Organist Idol” if you will, to which came all the greatest organists in Germany. That’s true historically, and is the  take- off point of the play.  From there, Itamar Moses invents a combination farce and treatise on form that is hysterical and informative at the same time! A real feat!

Is there something you want the audience to experience having seen the production?

You will learn something and laugh a lot.

Is there anything about you or the production that you want us to know or wish we had asked?

Without giving it away, pay special attention to the opening of Act 2.

Bach at Leipzig written by Itamar Moses, directed by veteran director Calvin Remsberg, produced by Suzy London for The Group Rep runs March 18 through May 1, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM.  Q & A Talk-back Sundays are April 3 and April 17. General Admission: $25.  Students/Seniors with ID: $20.  Groups of 10+: $15. Buy tickets/information: or (818) 763-5990.   Lonny Chapman Theatre is located at 10900 Burbank Blvd, North Hollywood.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

2016 Interview - Ana Isabel O

Internationally known biologist and writer Dr. Ana Isabel O is constantly embarking on new projects. Educated in Europe and a self-taught Victorian patchwork maker since the early 90s, Ordonez has presented her work in France and Luxembourg. As a scientist she holds Masters and PhDs in Genetics, Forestry and Animal Biology and has lectured extensively throughout Europe, Africa, Japan, China, New Zealand and South America on insect-plant pathology and biological control research. She has also written several articles on the value of nature. Ordonez, however, has not confined her interests to the world of science. A true Renaissance woman, she is also a reputed jazz editor, independent filmmaker, music/art promoter and producer. In 2012 she contributed tirelessly to the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial tribute with Christopher Kennedy Lawford, because she believes in her heart that true valuable art of any kind must never be forgotten. 

Five years earlier, in 2005 with trumpeter Herb Robertson she had founded Ruby Flower Records with the plan to produce avant-garde music, exclusively for connoisseurs and purist audiophiles with the slogan "Creatively speaking...Where the talents blossom". About three years ago she decided to expand the company's offerings to also include poetry and literature for children. Because of the great success of her first books in 2013, she has written and illustrated three new sequels entitled: Aye Aye and Licec the Black Panther (Volume iii), Aye Aye, Professor Tekyp and the Hyperbrits (Volume iv) and How Roibeard Helps Sorley the Cheetah (Volume v). In our conversation she talks in great detail about the books, the animal characters within and their issues.

What stimulated you to continue the story of Aye Aye? 

I fell in love with the characters, thus it had to be a sequel, even if I don't know where it will lead me.  However the writing is spontaneous : I believe in what I do,  I have the courage to be what I'm and I figured out that I need to share my thoughts. Each book's style in the sequel is the product of a million different factors, which are impossible for others to replicate-- It’s my fingerprint. Writing is one of my passions, a form of expression, so I write my little heart out. I have always enjoyed storytelling, especially narratives told through fiction voices. See? Animals are wiser than humans.Their influences are so diverse, so vast. I love incorporating elements of fiction and fantasy into their realities. It’s amusing; I also enjoy mocking myself and laughing. When you write children's books you talk to imaginary characters so…I guess I embrace my crazy or let's say my inner child?  Like a child I'm driven by boundless energy, enthusiasm and passion but I like to go at my own pace, nobody rushes me…no pressure in my own Universe.

The Aye Aye sequel is first and foremost an historical fantasy which explores the impact of animals and reality on the spiritual and physical realms. 

I love the way you teach about each of the animals, so that kids know what each looks like and how they are perceived in the scientific world as endangered species. I think Licec is the most intriguing/mysterious of all the characters. Is he based on your real adviser and mentor? Or is he based maybe on you?

No, I would not say that at all. I had to live a complicated but extraordinary life. However it has nothing to do with Licec. The narration on that volume comes out of the sensuous and emotional things I experienced with Licec. I sympathize with the cries from his heart, the one who is not able to control experiences, even the most terrific, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience manipulated with an informed and intelligent mind,  kind of looking in the mirror. I admire his narcissistic side. I was stunned and astounded by Licec: at one point I was absolutely wild for all he said and everything I wrote and did was desperately "Licec". If you watch it closely artists are the most narcissistic people. I mustn't say this, I'm an artist too.  I like many of them; in fact many of my friends happen to be artists. But I must say what I admire most is the person who masters an area of practical experience, and can teach me something. I mean, Licec taught me so much. And I love the fact he says he can't understand anything, I write or say (laughing).  It makes me laugh; we have so much fun so I find myself liking him, more than most philosophers. Among the things I'm in awe with Licec is that he knows all about notes or knows all about certain phrases, or how to write symphonies in a different language. I'm still fascinated by this mastery of the practical. As an artist, one lives a bit on air. I always like someone who can teach me something practical. This is the sort of polar opposition to being a writer, a dreamer I suppose. Licec fascinates me, but I could never discipline myself to the point where I could learn all the details that one has to learn.  This is the sort of opposition: somebody who deals directly with abstract experiences is able to create, to mend, to help souls this sort of thing. Licec was a big deal, satisfaction! At that moment, I don't think I could live without. Life has been good to me, how lucky I was I could meet him...It was water or bread, or something essential to me. I find myself absolutely fulfilled when he wrote a poem or played a piece to me. It sounds like a mentor right? A high caliber artist, a truly inspiring character who taught me how to transform everything I live and feeling in histories. Absurdity at its best, a protection, Dada stuff. All I say and write about Licec is depicted with love and respect for all he represents.

Explain the mysterious banana devices that Aye Aye uses to interpret Licec's stories. How did that come about? Is it based on fact or pure imagination?

The banana devices are from my imagination. When I was drawing them I was also laughing madly. Here is the thing: Licec can talk, so we decided I was going to record all he said, well almost all. His dialogue is Socratic using the question and answer method…. If you ask him a question he will pass through ten subjects before he answers- if he wants!- (laughing). 

Many people think he's nuts but when you get close enough to him you can tell that every single thing he says is filled with wisdom and philosophy.  The stories are recurrent but if you are patient enough, you will discover there is a new thing. You have to love Licec, to listen to him. If you are going to count your time you won't understand a clue of what he's saying. Once he spoke 16 hours straight. It wasn't exhausting but I did fall sleep, I felt terrible so the next day I bought big sun glasses and I could doze a bit while the recording was going on.  Licec is a rebel and an uncompromising character, I like this kind of person, I found inspiration from the courageous one and he's one. 

I could have chosen nuts devices (laughing) but Licec loves bananas. Thus, associating his bananas to the stories brought about the banana device.

I love the way you combine the worlds of science and music in the second story. Are the 'Hyperbritons' based on a real jazz group?

Thank you Don, I have been very lucky in the critics’ corner! ...But I have always been my hardest critic.
The Hyperbritons is a name I invented; the band is Professor Tekyp's band since a long long time ago. I love how they play. The trombone player is amazing.  The Hyperbritons were important to incorporate on this journey; they are real, they can play and I love the music they cook. I try to combine both Science and Art from my heart and don’t hold back anything.

Science is very important in my life. It was the candle that kept me going among darkness for a long while. I needed discipline, I came from a Big Escape and I developed a strong sense of survival. Art has always been a part of me. Now decades later, I want to write histories and self-discovery. Juvenile fiction is determined by characters, those in turn determine plot. I think the same applies with Sciences and Art, and certainly in this third story. The UK has such a profound collective influence on this story that I perceived the experience as the major character in my book.

Moving from country to country combines the element of wonder, that is, getting away from your regular life, with its opposite, that is trying to establish the patterns of a new life. I enjoyed the anxiety and difficulty of settling into a new place. That thing of being a stranger in a new land has been recurrent in my life, is a fundamental aspect that has given me a great flexibility and freedom. In fiction, we encounter characters who take trips of one sort or another--physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or whatever--and who arrive as strangers in new worlds. As readers we subconsciously and consciously look for character development, for change, for chaos, for order... In going to a foreign land where different values and modes of living exist, a character is forced to examine most everything about himself or herself, and there are built-in conflicts in culture, language, and more, which make for good drama.

Euricoty is another mystery with his wonderful scent. He stays with Aye Aye as Professor Tekyp departs. I see a sequel here, another story with Aye Aye and Euricoty exploring other places and ideas. Is this whole story based on your real-life study of the cockroach that you described in 2013 when we did the last interview? Refresh our memories with that precious story.

Absolutely: there will be a sequel from Euricoty. They, I mean Euricoty and Aye Aye are going into Space in the next volume. Indeed, Euricoty became Aye Aye's pet when Professor Tekyp got back to his magic kingdom. I spoke about him in 2013 and yes Tekyp and the Hyperbrits's history is based on my life in the UK but Euricoty came from before.  I'm now recalling my Doctorate mentor; he always told me I should write books, how interesting that he loves cartoons (and chocolate!) I should send him my books. I'm sure he will laugh!
That time of my life was very special. For many reasons I recently began to understand why I stupidly walked away from a marvelous person and I ended up there, in the middle of cucarachas (laughing) but it was such a very interesting journey. After touring the world I recovered contact with that person I wrongly left and today that makes me happy, is sweet and brings me joy… when it is possible,  so much joy! Ohhh boy...all of a sudden I'm thinking of Jacques Brel...
Getting back to your question, Euricoty is a cockroach. A very special one without wings. Let me tell you something: in 
cockroaches, sexual behavior is complex involving sex pheromones, aphrodisiacs and tactile. Those are called chemical signals which are secreted by specific abdominal exocrine glandsIn Eurycotis, males produce volatile sex pheromones attracting females at a distance. The male courtship behavior by exposing the glandular areas on the anterior sides of abdominal tergites. For that, they shake their body.  Once attracted to a male, a female opens her genital atrium and climbs on the back specifically to lick the first tergite of the male, where she feeds on the glandular secretion around a little tuft of setae which act as mechanoreceptors. This behavior eventually achieves copulation. The tuft of setae is minuscule; it took me months of working with an electronic microscope to be able to go deep into that part of Euricoty.  I have interesting pics...There are specific chemical components secreted during the calling behavior, those smell like caramel and attract at a distance specific females. That's the "wonderful" scent I refer to.  Look, cockroaches are a fascinating tools in Chemical Ecology. I recall at that time some ignorant folks asking "Why should I study cucarachas' sexual behavior so hard, if it’s easier to kill them with a shoe?" If it’s a joke it’s absolutely stupid but I admit I laugh at ignorance too…dig! Science and Art are similar, both are brilliant yet immensely abstract, and we should resist and be resilient no matter what. To me Nature is magic. 

The third book with Roibeard and Sorley is my favorite. I love how Roibeard affects Sorley's decision to free himself of fear and dream his dream. It's such wonderful advice, especially when it's told via the friendship of two special creatures like Roibeard and Sorley. Is Sorley maybe you in the beginning of your career and Roibeard you special mentor/friend, who helped you to realize your great potential?

Brilliant question! Even more, it’s interesting how you see me.  Others are mirrors of what we are indeed but in this history Roibeard is still Robert. Rob you know, my Roibeard, the giraffe with wings. A big print and inspiration in my life. Sorley is my dear friend Samuel. I'm very fond of them. Sam has more than great potential! But Sorley is filled with fear and has a melancholic character, the purpose of this history between these two beautiful characters so alike is to remove them from their state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity. The way Roibeard helps Sorley is my favorite too. Roibeard's role is to present life to Sorley in the fullest way possible, to confront the serious problems he faces as a keen observer, a deep thinker, and a dynamic empathizer.  There is an artistic slant to this tandem which is fun and challenging and has a nice flow; they don’t compete but compliment as characters. Quite deep stuff...Roibeard sets forth truths in such wise as to affect the imagination and touch the heart of Sorley, so that he should turn to righteousness and be more confident.  Because of his long sojourn in the Healing Savannah, Roibeard's conviction of certain truths is no mere matter of belief; it has the ardor and certainty of faith. Both appear in all their fullness as a revelation of wisdom. In this history as in everyone I write the characters/animals are all from real life, they are men and women with their natural passions and emotions, and they are undergoing an actual experience. The allegory consists in making their characters and their fates, what all of us human characters and fates really are: types and images of spiritual law.

At the beginning of each story the quote is so lovely and vital to living. Chance, nonsense and true friendship, such great themes for kids to learn about and enjoy. Do you see the nonsense part as maybe the effect of music on the scientist? It allows him to be free, to let himself go, not to stick to the facts all the time, but open himself up to infinite possibilities?

Science and Art make a thrilling combination. Having been an academic, a Ph.D., a post-doc, European fellow scientist, and all that, one side of me certainly does respect all disciplines, as long as they don't stiffen. Science needs a broader audience and to be translating into a language that anyone can understand and enjoy, some touch of quirk too, weird and absurd could be fun.

Many of the great scientists I know are also musicians and people not only of deep feeling, serious and rational minds but also with a great sense of humor. Science preserves a part of your innocence and so does Art. Scientist and artist don’t present pretty pictures; they present a full slice of life and point the way to human solutions. Both worlds open to infinite possibilities and inner joy and enjoyment.

The drawings are beautiful, so colorful and playful. Do you see the image before the story is put down on paper or do you write and then go through and decide on what to illustrate?

Are they? Thanks! That’s sweet. My drawings are far from perfect but are mine (laughs).  Remember what Trane said: "You can play a shoestring if you are sincere". I would say both, and it pretty much depends of my inspiration. I wrote Professor Tokyo’s story a few years ago; I expected my nephew Geronimo to  work on the illustrations. However, he began to study Law and Political Sciences not having time for it which is really a pity because he's so talented with drawing.  I waited several months, well years if we get back to our last interview and given the circumstances I decided to do it myself. I wrote Licec in a terrace of Lower East Side.  I sat down and did it in one sitting. I hate computers so I grab a pencil, a piece of paper and cover the page with words.  Remember the animals move to the musical forest, they lived in a zoo. This is a useful model and it tickles my imagination. Animals are my other passion. When I'm in South Africa I always enjoy seeing the Big Five in the bush and then I enjoy my view to the Table Mountain or the river.  Communion with Nature is important to me. I very much enjoy the nights in those wild places; they are very inspiring to me.

I draw the illustration in a plane between JFK and Cape Town: 16h nonstop. With Sorley I started drawing inspired by his beautiful hair, his lake and his dark universe. Oh man… muses can trick you with such things! (Laughs). The story was written watching the lake. All those animals/characters I draw had appeared to me in all their fullness as a revelation of some kind of wisdom. I'm not going to frame it as an illustrator; it’s my work as poet, a poet with a quirky illustration commission, to make this revelation known.

I did not set out to draw spirituality per se, but the writing is always about a pivotal time in my life where I go through a great transformation, part of which is opening me up to the non-rational in life. My spiritual quest changed and has grown over the years. This quest is perpetual. I strive to stay centered, balanced and to be a good person. This work is a work of faith, its mandatory: Space and Earth have set their hands.

How would you sum up the meaning of the books?

Overall it has been a spiritual search for me–a quest to find my own soul.  My rebirth came not by rethinking my ideas, but through reconnection with nature, both the nature out in the world as well animal nature. And my connection came through the senses.  Hard for me to put this in a few sentences, hence the sequel.  I let the scenes speak for themselves, allowing spirituality to peek out from the edges. Spirituality has to do with the unknowable mystery of life and, for a writer; it can only be approached indirectly. As with emotions, you can’t really describe it as you would a physical object, or argue for it, or beg for it, but must use concrete objects and characters, sensory details and action to do so, to represent it metaphorically.  When I write, whether it is fiction or article, in different languages or all mixed together, I work to put the reader in the place of the story, so it becomes the reader’s experience as well, so the reader visits the scene in his or her imagination and feels the emotion. I want the words to disappear, for the reader to get beyond the intellectual surface of the draw and into the imaginative world of the story.  The last three years have been special because I needed to solve a very hard familiar matter, I'm proud of my strength and perseverance and what I achieved. The truth allowed me to find peace within, to appreciate small blessings, to acknowledge greater forces, to live inside my body and in the moment. I return to the spirits of my childhood pantheon, which reside in nature and insects. Then came the rebirth, now my Universe again seems new, fecund and inviting.

I love Aye Aye and her tandem with Euricoty!! The Aye Aye almost is extinction, so beautiful. The eyes are wonderful and their nails so special. And Euricoty represents resilience. Cockroaches have been here before us, this is like a mirror game.  Yeah baby "I'm a survivor, I'm like a cockroach; you just cannot get rid of me"…Madonna said it (laughing)
What is happening with the planned theatrical staging of your first books?

My first children's book is being choreographed both in NYC and Cape Town. Virginie Mecene Director of Martha Graham Academy of Dance at Bethune Street is working on it. Because I'm just recovering from a surgery, we moved the performance which was settled for last Summer. And in South Africa the choreographer is Sifiso Kweyama, Artistic Director of Jazzart Dance Theatre in Cape Town. This for a show to honor the Arch and Peace Nobel laureate Monseigneur Desmond Tutu. The music was composed by Dutch Pianist Michiel Braam. I have known Michiel for a very long time. He has composed music for my film noir series on both the wounded male and the femme fatale, important projects with big and small bands. For the children's book we have as narrator another great artist, singer and educator, someone really dear to me, Dean Bowman. You should check him out. Man...Dean really can sing! His voice in the narration is amazing; I can't help but listen to it over and over again.

Anything you care to add? The books are charming and should intrigue the minds of children of all ages.

When my characters appear on the page, I listen to what they have to say. Once a story takes off, it has an internal consistency. I think my subconscious knows where I want to go even when the rest of me is not so sure. My characters can often give me insight from inside the story.

I took my time weighing the merits of self-publishing versus moving through the steps to find an agent and then, a publisher. I had an agent, she did a great job. I found a publisher but they wanted to change many of what I wrote so I ended up going the self-publishing route because I believe Amazon has changed the publishing landscape in ways that benefit indie authors and because I wanted more control. I can't bear marketing and sales strategies, it's exhausting. Man, I'm free; nobody tells me what to do. 

I'm pleased with the way my books are received by children and adults.  I'm pleased with my life. I'm pleased with hard times and good times.