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: