Director Guillermo Cienfuegos in the Fountain Cafe.
by Guillermo Cienfuegos
How the Los Angeles premiere of Between Riverside and Crazy, this great, Pulitzer Prize winning play by Stephen Adly Guirgis managed to fall into my hands, I’ll never know. But I’m grateful for it. I feel so fortunate to be given the opportunity. And to direct it with this cast, at this theatre, is an embarrassment of blessings.
First of all I’m drawn to how funny and true the play is. There’s no better way to impart to an audience some essential truths about what it is to be human than while you’re making them laugh. I find Guirgis’ gift of being able to show us these flawed and damaged people in such a funny and loving way very inspiring.
Also as a Cuban, the play puts me in mind of a lot of Catholic imagery from my youth, including Santeria traditions. It makes me think of the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God”. Those are the characters in this play. The world may see them as junkies and drunks and ex cons and other outsiders of society – but they’re just children of God.
Matthew Hancock and Marisol Miranda.
I’m also drawn to the play because of my father, who I called Papi. My father was a lot like Pops, the main character of the play – he’s fighting wars on many fronts, the largest of which could be with his own ego. And he’s trying to hold on to whatever control over his life he still has. But it’s in the surrender that one wins and finds grace.
The play deals with a lot of big issues – grief, alcoholism, policing, gentrification. But I think it’s about family, forgiveness and redemption.
Montae Russell in “Between Riverside and Crazy” at the Fountain Theatre.
By Darlene Donloe
Montae Russell is well known throughout Los Angeles theater circles for playing meaty roles. He’s played Charlie “Bird” Parker in Bird Lives!, Memphis in Two Trains Running andElmore in a production of King Hedley II. He also played Mister on Broadway in King Hedley II opposite Viola Davis and Leslie Uggams.
Up next for the veteran thespian is a complicated, determined man named Walter “Pops” Washington who has declared war on almost everything in the Stephen Adly Guirgis 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama Between Riverside and Crazy, opening October 19 at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.
Russell, a Pittsburgh native is ready to take on the role. While talking to him about the show and “Pops”, the 50-something, married (Tonia), father of one, walked around a local park to let the imagery of the play and the character “sink in.” It’s a process, he said allows him to be “closer to where I need to be” when he hits the stage.
Russell’s first acting role came in the seventh grade when he played Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. His first professional play was in the off-Broadway production of Three Ways Home at the Astor Place Theater in New York.
Eventually he brought his talent to Los Angeles where he became a respected film, television and theater actor.
A highly sought after actor, Russell had to decide between doing August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and Between Riverside and Crazy. He said it was a hard decision, but he read something in the “Pops” character that spoke to him.
In Between Riverside and Crazy, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama by Stephen Adly Guirgis, ex-cop and recent widower Walter ‘Pops’ Washington has made a home for his newly paroled son in his sprawling, rent-controlled New York City apartment on Riverside Drive. But now the NYPD is demanding his signature to close an outstanding lawsuit, the landlord wants him out, the liquor store is closed, and the church is on his back — leaving Pops somewhere between Riverside… and crazy.
Montae Russell and Victory Anthony in “Between Riverside and Crazy”
I recently caught up with Russell to discuss his role in Between Riverside and Crazy.
DD: In your own words, describe Between Riverside and Crazy.
MR: I really can’t describe it because I’m in the midst of it. Well, from my character’s perspective, he was a cop who was shot by a white cop eight years ago. The cop overreacted when he saw black people in a bar. My character is in a battle with NYPD. He’s living in a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. The landlord wants him out so he can charge more rent.
But my character is dug in. He’s not backing down. His son is an ex-con. He is fighting for his son. Every father wants his son to become a man. He is also fighting a war with himself. He has war with a lot of people. He has a battle with the bottle and his body. He has stress and strife. There are external forces and an internal battle within himself. Sometimes it’s not about annihilating your opponent. Sometimes you just have to sign a truce.
DD: In what way are you like Pop and in what way are you the furthest from Pop?
MR: I’m a fighter, but I don’t have as many wars. I have a stubborn streak. I don’t have multiple wars, though. I don’t have people coming at me as he does. But, I can understand what it would be like. I respect the character. I just fight differently.
DD: Why did you want to play this part?
MR: When I read it, I cracked up. A lot of things about the character made me laugh. He is raging a war with God, or with his beliefs because of all the things that have happened. You can’t win that war. It’s a very hilarious play. Pops is pulling no punches. He doesn’t care. He is the master of his domain. He’s a very funny cat. He’s not a rabble-rouser. He’s not an activist. He’s a conservative – but not in a social way – more of an interpersonal way. He’s a traditional man, an old school man. He comes from a time when you controlled your emotions.
DD: How did you go about developing Pop?
MR: It’s a day-by-day thing. We’ll be developing until the end of the play in December. Different stuff is revealed each time you crack open the script. There is constant tweaking.
He’s not funny, Ha, Ha. He’s funny concerning his perspectives. Living like that can cause problems. You have to give a fuck at some point. You have to give a fuck about something.
DD: Have you ever been between Riverside and crazy?
MR: You would have to ask the people around me.
Montae Russell, Joshua Bitton, Lesley Fera, Marisol Miranda, Matthew Hancock.
DD: By what criteria do you decide to do a show?
MR: It has to be a challenge. I have to think I can bring something to it. It’s about what speaks to me. I was supposed to do Gem of the Ocean. I was going to play Caesar. Both shows were going up at the same time. I opted to do this instead. It’s difficult to turn down a role like Caesar. It would have also been difficult to turn down this role.
DD: You’ve played a lot of characters. What role did you nail?
MR: I try to do that all the time. I enjoyed playing Memphis in Two Trains Running. August Wilson front-loads his characters with a lot of stuff they are dealing with. The character challenged me. It felt good that I concurred it. The stuff he has to live through. His backstory – all of that comes into the show. You’re responsible for the backstory even if it doesn’t come up in the play.
DD: How do you prepare to go on stage? Any rituals?
MR: I gotta be at the theater at least 45 minutes before I’m supposed to be there. I have to have food in my stomach to power through the show. It’s just like a sporting event. You can’t keep running back to the locker room. I like to warm up my voice. I warm up my diction and I stretch. I need to be by myself and get in my space. I like to get in my zone.
DD: Why did you want to be an actor?
MR: A lot of people today don’t know what they want to do. I was blessed at 13 – that’s when I knew. From there, I got green lights all the way. One job led to another. August Wilson wrote my letter of recommendation to get into Rutgers. He reached back.
DD: What happens to you when you’re on stage?
MR: It allows you to go to another world. Your imagination has to buy it. It’s the same concept when doing a show. We are on stage being looked at by an audience. That to me is fun. It’s nice to get away from the real world and step into someone else’s shoes for a while.
It’s an exciting time to be an artist. In the last few years, the arts industry has been experiencing a high production value in diverse storytelling aimed toward better representation of people of color, and more specifically, Asian and Asian American representation. With groundbreaking films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Netflix’s Always be My Maybe, The Farewell, as well as the successful theatrical production of Cambodian Rock Band, people everywhere are becoming more exposed to the nuances of the Asian/Asian-American experience.
With a cast that is made up of Koreans and Korean Americans, Jiehae Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo takes a family on a funny, heartbreaking adventure to reconnect with their roots in South and North Korea, and also into the forbidden Demilitarized Zone that divides them. Hannah premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017, and is now set to open at the Fountain Theatre in association with East West Players, directed by Jiehae’s longtime collaborator, Jennifer Chang. So we thought we’d grab the chance to talk with them about their own adventure with this play.
Carolina Xique:First, let me say that I’m thrilled to hear about this new piece and that it’s making its way into Los Angeles.
Jiehae, as playwright, can you talk about how the idea for this play came to you? Is it personal to your own experience or indicative of the holistic Korean American experience? And Jennifer, as the director, what drew you to take on this piece?
Jiehae Park: I didn’t know I was writing a play. I was primarily a performer at the time (Jen and I both went to UCSD for acting). There were quite a few big questions I was trying to figure out—and I think the unusual shape of the play reflects that. I would sit down and write down stories that came to me in that moment, not realizing it was all going to add up to something bigger.
Jennifer Chang: I am a huge fan of Jiehae’s and have been following her career with personal interest for some time as we share an alma mater: we both went through the MFA Acting program at UCSD and have both diversified our careers. She is a significant talent and I am so thrilled to have this opportunity to collaborate with her on Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. The musicality of the language and the inherent theatricality that emerges from her ability to weave a multiplicity of thought and theme are all very exciting and honestly a dream to be able to dive into. Also, I love being able to support the telling of Asian American stories in their universality and three-dimensionality.
What kind of research did both of you dive into when writing Hannah?
JP: I didn’t research much initially, but I did do quite a bit before finishing the play (that’s been a recurring pattern in my writing process these last few years). The research didn’t directly go into the play but provided a richer historical and cultural context that helped me complete it.
A follow-up to that, in terms of your other plays and writing process, was anything different for Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?
JP: Broadly, I seem to have two general types of plays—super-quick, freight-train-speed linear ones; or messier, slower-baking plays where the structure is far less predictable. Hannah is definitely in the latter category.
Jennifer, what in your directing process is helping you with Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?
JC: Regarding research, the usual dramaturgical work of researching was involved: Korea, the DMZ, politics of North and South and Kim Jong Il. I wanted to lean into the magic-realism of the play, and early on knew that I wanted to consult with an illusionist, and also started doing some research into magic (I’m currently reading Spellbound by David Kwong). It’s been so great to have a cast that is Korean American. There are some points of commonality amongst Asian Americans, but being able to tap into specific details, nuances, and experiences that the cast has so generously shared with the company and has contributed to the making of the show has been invaluable. It’s illuminating to discover the tiny nuances of how gestures and thinking and sounds differ for Koreans in, and those from, Korea. I love new plays and really view myself as a locksmith in my approach to collaboration. I want to know what the play wants to be, the playwright’s intentions, what’s resonating with the cast and how they approach the work, and how best to facilitate the conversation and “the ride” so to speak, with the audience. Having worked on Vietgone by Qui Nguyen has really helped. These plays are vastly different but they both have scenes that shift at a cinematic pace in widely varying tones that need to be woven together in the same play.
East West Players is a theatre company known for its work lifting up Asian-American stories. How do you feel about bringing the LA premiere of Hannah in collaboration with EWP and the Fountain Theatre?
JP: Honored. I had a reading of my very first play—which had been my college thesis—at EWP over a decade ago…in the time since I figured out I wasn’t a playwright, went to grad school for something else, then re-figured out that I was. And Stephen Sachs at the Fountain reached out about the play very soon after the OSF premiere—I’ve long admired the scripts he brings to LA area audiences. Additionally, Jen directed an early reading of the play at EWP years ago, and I acted in a show with Jully Lee (the Shapeshifter) that Howard Ho (Sound Design/Composer) music directed when I was right out of school. I’m bummed to not have been able to be out there for rehearsals, but happy that it feels all in the family.
JC: It’s an honor to be able to helm a project with the support of two highly respected institutions in Los Angeles. I think it’s really smart theatre making to cross-pollinate and support the universality of human experiences and good work regardless of color. A collaboration like this signals that this isn’t just work by people of color, but that it’s good work worth supporting, period.
What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave the Fountain Theatre after seeing Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?
Heidi Schreck, the writer and star of “What the Constitution Means to Me.”
by Melina Drake Young
As a kid I was vehemently unpatriotic. A weird stance for a kid to take. I was indifferent to fireworks and staunchly against country music, which is all I understood patriotism to be. That changed when I was in high school.
I take after Heidi Shreck. I was not only a theatre nerd in high school, but also a nerd nerd.
Like Shreck, I too developed a (somewhat obnoxious) penchant for the study of United States history and government. (I owe that in no small part to Mr. Roberts and Mr. Edwards of Immaculate Heart High School who shaped and encouraged the civically minded and curious woman that I am today. Behind every know-it-all is a gifted and endlessly patient teacher—or in my case a few.)
But I digress.
Some of us have had the good fortune to learn what the Constitution means to Heidi Shreck whose play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is based on her successful career competing against other high schoolers in Constitutional debates for scholarship money. As a woman in America, I know that this nation’s laws don’t often work in my favor. Heidi Shreck reminds Broadway audiences that preventing violence against women and protecting our equal rights are barely—and insufficiently—touched on in United States law. What’s more, that failure of justice is much more lethal for women of color and trans women than it is for white, cis women like Shreck and me. Concepts like patriotism and an American love of freedom are hard to stomach when one considers the prejudice that festers within our borders: from a prison system that has modernized slavery to tender age shelters and the vilification of undocumented entry into this country. Freedom stands in sharp contrast to the systemic criminalization of black and brown existence in the United States.
Patriotism is not the marginalization of and lack of legal protections available to non-white, non-cis, non-straight, non-male lives in the United States. These facts are equal parts shameful and frightening. That’s a taste of what the Constitution means to Shreck.
Another similarity between Shreck and me is that my appreciation of the Constitution extends beyond its legal bounds.
The Constitution means being sixteen and falling in love with United States history and government instead of a boy. It means being serenaded by the Bill of Rights and beguiled by the separation of powers. It means knowing my rights and understanding them. It means civic literacy.
It means being seventeen and dressing up on the Fourth of July in overalls, an American-flag bikini and matching headband, with a copy of the Constitution in my back pocket. It means reading Thomas Paine’s Common Sensein my Nona’s backyard under the sweltering July sun.
It means being eighteen and weeping after the legalization of gay marriage and acknowledging for the first time in my life that I was proud to be an American.
It means being nineteen and getting to finally participate in the triumph of Democracy that is a fair and free election. It means voting for a candidate that resembled me more closely than a major party, presidential candidate ever had. And it means watching her lose. That defeat showed me that this country was more hateful than I had believed it to be.
But I refuse to become jaded.
Melina Drake Young and her grandmother, Sylvie Drake, at the Mueller Report Read-A-Thon.
To me, the Constitution means being twenty-two and sitting in the front row of the Fountain Theatre as my grandmother reads from the stage at the Fountain’s Mueller Report Read-A-Thon as an act of patriotic resistance. I watch my Nona, a native of Egypt—one of those countries that her President has shamefully referred to as a “shithole”—marry her love of theatre with her love of a country that has been hers for 70 years come August 10th. As I look toward the 70th anniversary of my grandmother’s escape from the violence of her native land, I acknowledge that this country—her refuge—resembles the land from which she fled more closely with each passing day. And I am saddened. My Nona, however, gives me hope. She is a tri-lingual refugee who raised two kids and maintained an impressive theatrical and literary career (in her third language) 7,470 miles away from the land that raised and then betrayed her. She is undoubtedly a great American.
So I guess, I was wrong.
Despite my childish convictions and everything else, I am an American Patriot. Just like my Nona.
Rave reviews for our acclaimed current production of Daniel’s Husband have included hails for the beautiful living room set, designed by DeAnne Millais. The LA Times swooned over the “stylish panache of scenic designer DeAnne Millais’ Architectural Digest-ready spread.” A key element to the scenic design are the framed photographs adorning the walls. These were provided by award winning fine art photographer Sarah Hadley.
To fulfill director Simon Levy’s wish to have the set filled with beautiful high-end elements, scenic designer Millais remembered being struck by Sarah‘s ethereal photography recently seen at LA’s Brewery Art Walk. DeAnne thought it would be the perfect complement to the play and its scenic environment.
Sarah Hadley was named one of the “jeunes talents” by Paris’ Le Monde at the Fotofever Art Fair in 2015. In recent years, Hadley has been invited to exhibit at Fotofever in Paris, France, the Porto Photo Fest in Porto, Portugal, the Lishui Photo Festival in China; the Worldwide Photography Biennial in Buenos Aires, and the Ballarat Festival in Australia. She has had solo exhibitions at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Boston, the Loyola Museum of Art in Chicago, Afterimage Gallery in Dallas, and Fabrik Gallery in Los Angeles. Hadley’s work is held in many public and private collections around the world, and has been shown in many museums and galleries including the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts in Tampa, FL, the Robin Rice Gallery in NY and Building Bridges Gallery in Santa Monica.
Hadley’s work has also been featured in publications and online blogs including ELLE Italia, B+W Magazine (UK), PDN, L’Oeil de la Photographie, ArtTribune, Shots Magazine, Don’t Take Pictures, and Lenscratch.com. She has received grants from the California Center for Cultural Innovation, the Illinois Arts Council, and several fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation.
Sarah was flattered to be asked to provide her photographic artwork for the production. “I am excited to see the play,” she beams.
You can explore Sarah Hadley’s work on her website. And view it live on the set of Daniel’s Husband, now playing to June 23.
In Japanese tea ceremonies, the term Ichi-go ichi-e describes the concept of treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment. Translated as “for this time only” or “one opportunity, one encounter,” the phrase reminds us to cherish any gathering that we may take part in, citing the fact that any moment in life cannot be repeated; even when the same group of people get together in the same place again, a particular gathering will never be replicated, and thus each moment is always a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Treasure every encounter, for it will never recur again.
Such is also the ephemeral nature of theatre.
Each performance is alive, in that instant, never to be repeated. Like a tea ceremony and life itself, theatre is experienced in ‘each moment, only once’ and the value of each stage performance is that it happens only once in a lifetime. There is no other opportunity. Only this time.
The duality of the “one moment” reality of theatre is that it comes after endless repetition. Actors labor through weeks of rehearsal, reworking scenes dozens of times, with countless hours drilling the same lines over and over. In rehearsal, the director’s mantra is “Do it again. ” Basketball great Larry Bird said that in high school he would shoot 500 free throws every morning before his first class. Actors, like athletes, rehearse the same scene repeatedly so the mechanics of the lines and the blocking become second nature. They no longer have to think about what they’re saying and doing, so they can be “in the moment.” Repetition brings freedom. Release. As Prince once sang, “There’s joy in repetition, there’s joy in repetition.”
In film-making, it is the norm to perform a task dozens of times before you get it right. Some movie directors are notorious for shooting multiple takes. Stanley Kubrick was famous for it. He reportedly made Tom Cruise walk through a door 90 times while filming Eyes Wide Shut, and had Shelley Duvall repeat a scene 127 times for The Shining. On the set of David Fincher’s Gone Girl, each scene averaged approximately 50 takes. One scene in the first Spider Man movie with Tobey McGuire took 156 takes to get right.
In the theatre, however, there is no such thing as “getting it right.” Not ever. That film concept is foreign to theatre people because the essential essence of live performance is that it is never right, never the same, never perfect. Even in the long run of a play or musical over hundreds, even thousands of performances. Not only is each performance unique, so is each scene, each line within each scene, each moment within each line. A word, a phrase will never be uttered that same way again. A light cue, a swell of sound, the flurry of dazzling costumes, affects each audience member differently night to night. Each moment is unrepeatable and special in its own right.
The routine of theatre — the drilling of lines, the daily rehearsals, the nightly performances — are essential to its devotional life. Devotional life is deepened by repetition. A true practice is a repeated activity with no expectation of result. It’s the doing of it that matters. We do it over and over again, but it’s really not so much because we think we are going to get it perfect, or even exactly right. We do it for experiencing truth in the moment. A daily meditation practice, for example. If your purpose for meditating is “to become enlightened,” you will never achieve it. If that is your destination, you’ll be lost. There is no destination. There is only the present moment. It’s only when seeing the present moment that enlightenment may come. The origin for the word “routine” comes from route, or “way, path, course.” Therefore, routine, practice, rehearsal is a journey.
For my twenty-nine years at the Fountain Theatre, the “one opportunity, one encounter” concept of ichigo ichie is proven true over and over again with our audiences. After seeing a play in our theatre, our patrons spill out onto Fountain Avenue changed, not the same people they were going in. An alchemy happens. In that moment. That can not be repeated. For tomorrow night’s audience, it will be something else.
I have learned to embrace the truth of “one moment” as a way to understand and celebrate the impermanence of life and the art form I practice. My other art-love is jazz, and a line from a famous jazz ballad from 1949 called “Again” lays bare the same message. There is nothing Zen about the lyrics or their origins, of course, but the words remind me that life, love and theatre are all ecstasies of the moment, each instant unique and unrepeatable.
Again, this couldn’t happen again This is that once in a lifetime This is the thrill divine
What’s more, this never happened before … We’ll have this moment forever But never, never again.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.