Tag Archives: August: Osage County

Pamela Dunlap Dances to a Flamenco Beat in ‘Heart Song’ at the Fountain Theatre

Dance in a graveyard

“Heart Song” at the Fountain Theatre

by Cynthia Citron

“I have a long history of flamenco,” Pamela Dunlap says — her tongue firmly in her cheek.  And thereby hangs the tale.

“Actually, I’m not a dancer,” she continues.  “I’m dragged kicking and screaming into flamenco class” as the lead in Stephen Sachs’ new play Heart Song, now having its premiere at the Fountain Theatre.

Playing Rochelle — a middle-aged, out-of-shape Jewish woman who’s undergoing a crisis of faith — Dunlap is persuaded to join a flamenco class for other middle-aged, out-of-shape women. The production unites two of the Fountain’s specialties — plays and the subject of flamenco (the Fountain is presenting Forever Flamenco at the Ford on June 15).

“It’s an all-female cast,” Dunlap says, “and the camaraderie is great.  It’s a wonderful journey.” Shirley Jo Finney is directing.

When I suggest that it sounds a bit like Steel Magnolias, a perennial favorite, she says, “Oh no, it’s not anything like Steel Magnolias!  In this play nobody has diabetes, nobody’s getting their hair done, and there are no cranky old women.”

Pamela Dunlap

Pamela Dunlap

She should know. She was in a Salt Lake City production of Steel Magnolias, playing the role of the former mayor’s widow, who describes the new mayor’s wife as looking, while dancing, “like two pigs fightin’ under a blanket.”

Dunlap confesses that early in her career she taught Latin dances — the cha-cha, the merengue, the samba — at a Xavier Cugat Dance Studio in New York.  “Cugat was the Arthur Murray of Latin dancing,” she says.  “He had dance studios all over.”

Dunlap is herself a New York woman from Flushing and Jackson Heights.  Currently she considers herself bicoastal, with a home in Manhattan and another in Van Nuys.  In Southern California, she has performed at the Ahmanson, South Coast Rep, and LA Theatre Works, but this is her first appearance at the Fountain.

In New York  she has been seen on Broadway in Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, Redwood Curtain, and Yerma, and in several Off-Broadway roles. Recently, she appeared at Theater Raleigh in North Carolina as Mattie Fae, the nagging sister of Violet and mother of Little Charles in August Osage County.

On TV she has been featured on How I Met Your Mother, NCIS, Law and Order SVU andCommander in Chief, but her most visible role currently is as Betty Draper’s new mother-in-law and abominable baby-sitter for Betty’s daughter Sally on AMC’s Mad Men.

About her role as “Sally’s fiendish baby sitter,” she calls her “a woman with a great sense of entitlement, exactly the opposite of the woman I’m playing in Heart Song — a woman who is struggling to find her sense of entitlement.”

In Heart Song, Rochelle is “a woman who never married, whose mother recently died, and who has very little support.  She’s in a painful place of transition, dealing with mortality and trying to find her own identity,” Dunlap explains.

Flamenco teacher Katarina (Maria Bermudez) and Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap).

Flamenco teacher Katarina (Maria Bermudez) and Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap).

Questioned about her identification with the characters she plays, she says, “acting allows us to play so many different characters, but we can always find something in ourselves that is like the character. The play mirrors the struggles we all go through, and we find a common history that we didn’t suspect we have in common.  A common history or something that connects us to that character.”

On the adventure level, though, she has had a few experiences that aren’t reflected in any play she has appeared in.  For example, when her son, Trevor Morgan Doyle, an anthropologist doing research in Finland, decided to marry a Finnish woman, she traveled to the wedding, driving a car for 10 hours above the Arctic Circle.  “The car was chugging along because the fuel was freezing in the tank,” she says.

She also reports that the bride’s family, “obviously testing my mettle,” invited her to swim with them in weather that was 70 degrees below freezing.  They dug a hole through the ice and then kept scraping the ice off the top of the hole as it froze on contact with the air.

Did she do it?  You bet she did!

“Actually, they claim it’s a cure for depression,” she says.  “You’re shocking your whole system.  I’ve never felt so alive in my life!”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, she has ties with Ethiopia.  She is an active member of the Salt Lake City-based Children of Ethiopia Education Fund, a non-governmental organization that provides schooling for girls in that country.

Tamlyn Tomita, Juanita Jennings and Pamela Dunlap.

Tamlyn Tomita, Juanita Jennings and Pamela Dunlap.

When not rolling naked in ice holes and visiting schools in Ethiopia, however, she has taken a few moments to accept awards.  She has received three Drama-Logue awards, has been an honoree of the New York Drama League, and has won an OOBR (Off-Off Broadway Review) award.

As for the future, she has very definite ideas about whom she would like to work with.  Before the question is completely posed, she answers enthusiastically, “Philip Seymour Hoffman.  He’s the real deal.”

But for the present, she is delighted to be working with director Finney, choreographer Maria “Cha Cha” Bermudez, and a cast consisting of Juanita Jennings, Tamlyn Tomita, Bermudez (through June 14), Denise Blasor (beginning June 15), Andrea Dantas, Mindy Krasner, Elissa Kyriacou and Sherrie Lewandowski.

Photos by Ed Krieger. Cynthia Citron writes for LA Stage Times.  

Heart Song Now to July 14 (323) 663-1525  MORE

Pamela Dunlap, Juanita Jennings and Tamlyn Tomita Set to Co-Star in ‘Heart Song’ at Fountain Theatre

Pamela Dunlap

Pamela Dunlap

Casting is now complete for the Fountain Theatre’s world premiere production of the new comedy/drama Heart Song by Stephen Sachs, directed by Shirley Jo Finney. The trio of TV/Film/Stage actresses leading the way are Pamela Dunlap (“Mad Men”), Juanita Jennings (“Fences” at South Coast Rep) and Tamlyn Tomita (“Glee”, “Days of Our Lives”, “Joy Luck Club”). Heart Song opens May 25th.

Heart Song is a funny and touching new play that chronicles the personal journey of Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap), a middle-aged Jewish woman in New York City struggling through a crisis of faith. Rochelle’s life is changed when she is convinced by friend Tina (Tamlyn Tomita) to join a flamenco class for middle-aged women. There she meets Daloris (Juanita Jennings) and an unforgettable circle of other women who propel Rochelle on a journey of sisterhood and self-discovery.

Pamela Dunlap (Rochelle) makes her Fountain Theatre debut in Heart Song. She is a film/TV/stage veteran who has guest-starred on dozens of TV shows including two years as Pauline Francis on TV’s Mad Men and two years as Gilda Rockwell on Commander in Chief.  Her many film credits include Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling and I Am Sam with Sean Penn. On stage, she recently co-starred with Dorothy Lyman in August: Osage County and has appeared in regional theaters across the country including South Coast Repertory, Arena Stage, Hartford Stage, the Ahmanson, Mark Taper Forum, New York Theatre Workshop and the Lonacre Theatre on Broadway.

Juanita Jennings

Juanita Jennings

Juanita Jennings (Daloris) recently co-starred in South Coast Repertory’s production of Fences. She is well known to Fountain audiences for her thrilling portrayal of Aunt Ester in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and for her versatility in From the Mississippi Delta. She has also appeared at SCR in Jar the Floor (NAACP Theatre Award for Best Actress), and Twelfth Night. Other theatre credits include productions at New York Shakespeare Festival, the Negro Ensemble Company, Mark Taper Forum,  The Old Globe and Westwood Playhouse.  Her many TV roles include Edna on the Tyler Perry series Meet the Browns,   and Dorothy Bascomb on The Bold and the Beautiful. She is also a Cable Ace winner for her portrayal in the HBO mini-series Laurel Avenue.

Tamlyn Tomita

Tamlyn Tomita

Tamlyn Tomita (Tina) is best known for the films The Day After Tomorrow, The Joy Luck Club, and Karate Kid 2.  Other film credits include Picture Bride, Come See the Paradise, Four Rooms, Living Out Loud, and Gaijin 2. Soap opera followers know her as Dr. Ellen Yu on Days of Our Lives and Glee fans have seen her as Julia Chang.  Tamlyn’s stage work include such productions as The Square and Don Juan: A Meditation (Mark Taper Forum’s Taper, Too), Summer Moon (Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre and South Coast Repertory), Day Standing on its Head (Manhattan Theatre Club), and Nagasaki Dust (Philadelphia Theatre Company). Tamlyn returns to our Fountain stage twenty-three  years after winning a Drama-Logue Award when she starred in our very first production, Winter Crane, in 1990.

Jewish women flamenco class title

Also featured in the Heart Song cast are Andrea Dantas, Alicia Dhanifu, Mindy Krasner, Sherrie Lewandowski, Norma Maldonado, and Barbara Oilar.

Stephen Sachs is the author of the recent Fountain hits Bakersfield Mist (optioned for London/Broadway) and Cyrano (LA Drama Critics Circle Award). Shirley Jo Finney won the LA Drama Critics Circle Award for her direction of the Fountain Theatre’s critically acclaimed and award-winning  In the Red and Brown Water. Internationally heralded flamenco dancer Maria Bermudez will serve as Heart Song choreographer.

Heart Song May 25 – July 14 (323) 663-1525  MORE

New Plays, like Sex: Is Faster Better?

by Barry Martin

Two recent distressing experiences compel me shout from the rooftops to producing companies and directors – “Take your foot off the gas!” But since shouting from the rooftops would probably only get attention from SWAT teams, I think I’m better off posting it here.

“Venus in Fur”

In both of these situations I came to the theater excited, looking forward to seeing a play that I had read and loved. Case #1 was Annie Baker’s Body Awareness at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Case #2 took place on Broadway—David Ives’ Venus in Fur at the Lyceum. I loved these plays on the page because of their enticing tensions, the interplay of characters with conflicting desires, their peak moments of humor and drama. I couldn’t wait to watch great actors make this text even more compelling for me. In both cases, I left the theater feeling cheated. It reminded me of my dad’s story of when he made a special trip to see Ted Williams play in a doubleheader and they walked him every time he came to the plate. Delicious anticipation without the payoff.

I will save several people the trouble of saying, “But wait, both of these productions have been highly successful, with large audiences, great reviews, and nominations for awards! These are top professionals at the peak of their talents!” All undeniably true. And yet these playgoing experiences were disappointing for me. Why? These plays failed due to the breakneck pace at which they were presented, especially in the first twenty to thirty minutes.

Allow me to digress long enough to say that when I am directing, I am obsessive about pace and rhythm. These are the two areas where I feel a director, working with skilled actors, can do the most to make the show sing. I am thinking about pace and rhythm from the first read through and I get demanding about it as soon as actors are off book. Most of us would agree that a good play is tight, there’s no flab. No one wants to see a play that drags, right?

At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, is a play that plunges forward so relentlessly that all sense of believability is lost. How can these people on stage possibly draw me into their characters and their story when they don’t seem to be listening to each other? Shouldn’t I be feeling that their words are born out of a natural human thinking process, rather than just pouring out in unblinking torrents?

I have formulated two theories in an attempt to explain this phenomenon:

  1. As old hands of stage work, we all know the best, juiciest stuff comes later in the play, so we’re eager to get past the boring first third that we’ve become overly familiar with while working up the production. We get lazy from that over familiarity and forget that most of the audience members will be hearing this for the first time, and they need to hear the words, absorb the meaning, and get into the flow of the story.
  2. We have become obsessed with the eighty to ninety minute play with no intermission because it’s hard enough to get people to buy a tickets in the first place and you won’t want them leaving thinking, “Wow, that was too long,” and we keep producing this way even though we know that’s really too long to make people sit without a break, and we worry that people’s bladders will explode so we race through the dialogue so the audience can see we’re moving it along as fast as we can. Besides, people really don’t want to be in the theater in the first place when they could be comfy at home watching reality television

What is the cure for this franticness?

  1. Put yourself in the shoes of the person seeing this play for the first time. Is the exposition being given the right amount of weight, so that the viewer will care when important things happen later? Are there natural pauses and silences in the dialogue where they belong when you’re “holding the mirror up to nature?”
  2. Get over the fear of boring the audience, or the fear of intermission—whatever it is that is causing the speed-of-light style. These people have paid a lot of money for a night at the theater. Do they loathe your play so much they just want it to be over as soon as possible? Most of the audience will not sneak out! Some plays are written as long one-acts and there is no natural act break—fine. Do it that way but give each scene, each moment the time it’s due. In each of the productions I described above, allowing for the proper amount of natural pauses and silences could not have added more than five minutes to the overall length of the play. Five more minutes might cause them to pee their pants, true— so maybe that old-fashioned intermission is not such a bad idea after all. There is no correlation between the number of acts, the number of intermissions, or the length of a play and its quality. I’ve looked at my watch five times during a ten-minute play, and been mesmerized for three-and-a-half hours by August: Osage County. Conversely, there may be a correlation between the length of time an audience can sit at one stretch and their ability to enjoy the play. Give these people a break! Literally!

I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t say I’ve been in more than one dressing room where the most enthusiastic post-show compliment shared between the actors was “We took three minutes off of it tonight.” If every meaningful moment was given its due, that’s sweet. But I wonder about our level of self-respect as theater-makers when we present our work as if it is something painful, to be done with as quickly as possible, rather than something to be savored.

And besides, if there’s no intermission how can I get a drink?

Barry Martin is a writer, actor and director in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Women Attend More Theatre Than Men: Why Not More Roles?

by Lauren Gunderson

"El Nogalar" at the Fountain Theatre.

It appears that in many major theaters across the country, men’s roles out number women’s by half. One out of every three roles go to women. (An informal survey of 10 theatrical seasons from across the country that I did put women in only 35% of the total roles). This means that men’s stories out number women’s by the same amount.

Those of us noticing this could be considered big old whiners if it weren’t for some solid business-y sounding facts:

  • Women buy 70% of theater tickets sold
  • Women make up 60%-70% of its audience (see here and here)
  • On Broadway, shows written by women (who statistically write more female roles than men) actually pull in more at the box office than plays by men

In any other market the majority of consumers would significantly define the product or experience. Why not theater?

Raushanah Simmons in "In the Red and Brown Water"

I will disclaim right away that this is not about women playwrights, though plays by women represent less than 20% of the works on and off-Broadway and in regional theaters (and also in the UK, as The Guardian illuminates). I consider August: Osage County and In The Red And Brown Water plays about women though men wrote both.

This is about modern theater telling its predominantly female audiences that the human experience deserving of dramatic imagination is still the male one. In TV, this might be a top-down insistence. In politics or business we see it all the time. But in theater?

Sean Daniels, Artist-At-Large/Director of Artistic Engagement at Geva Theater, says:

“In addition to it being inconceivable in 2012 to not program any female playwrights (or really any year past 1913), it’s also just bad business. Just from a business model, look at Menopause: The Musical. Though we may take it to task for not hitting all of Aristotle’s Six Elements, it’s a show that looked at who the main people buying tickets were, and allowed them to see themselves on stage — thus making millions and not only preaching and loving the choir, but getting tons of new patrons into the theater.”

But what would it be like if this were more common? What if American theater equally reflected and projected its own audience (at least 60% women) and their audience’s wallets (which are in their purses) in their season choices?

Estelle Parsons on Broadway in "August: Osage County"

Theaters might make more money. A friend and artistic leader at a major regional theater remarked on the marked success of Molly Smith Metzler’s plays Elemeno Pea, a play about sisters. Or what about Tracy Letts runaway hit August: Osage County (a play with incredible parts for women including three sisters), or Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, or Margaret Edson’s Wit, or John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt or Steve Yockey’s Bellwether (with seven parts for women)?

Cate Blanchett in "Streetcar Named Desire".

We wouldn’t lose our classics. Shakespeare’s plays are notoriously under-femmed, but not all of them are. Give me Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night or wacky Midsummer. Or re-imagine the Bard for us. I saw a truly fresh and powerful production of Julius Caesar at Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year in which Caesar was unapologetically played by a woman (it might have been the best show I saw all year, including my own). I didn’t think “Oh look at that woman playing a man’s part.” I thought, “Oh my god she’s channeling Benazir Bhutto.”

Ibsen also gave us stunning women’s stories. So did Shaw, Chekov, Williams, Miller. And don’t forget the female playwrights of those same eras. Complex parts for more than one token women are there for the planning.

We might inspire new classics. I’m not telling playwrights what to write.Wait. Hell yes I am. And I’m hoping they get commissions to do so. Please write those complex and shocking and profound parts for our great female actors. Lead roles, supporting roles, lots of roles. Imagine writing for Stockard Channing or Viola Davis or Amy Morton or Meryl Streep. How about putting all of them in the same play. Oh my god, I just died a little thinking about it.

However, the now famous study by social scientist Emily Glassberg Sands about gender bias in theater says that though female playwrights write more roles for women, they are aware that plays with female protagonists aren’t as likely to be produced as plays with male protagonists. “One way women have compensated for writing female stories is to write fewer [female] roles, which make their plays accessible to more theaters,” the study finds.

So American theater might need a theatrical version of the The Bechdel Test for movies which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.

There are bright spots however. Chloe Bronzan and Robert Parsons of Symmetry Theater in San Francisco have already put into practice their own version of the Bechdel Test. They built their company around the precepts: “We will never produce a play with more male than female characters,” they said, “We will never have more male than female union actors on our stage and we will produce plays that tell stories which include full, fleshed out and complex women that serve as propellants to the human story being told.”

"Menopause: The Musical"

We won’t lose our audiences, but we might just gain new ones. Another Artistic Director colleague noted that if theater companies counted Menopause: The Musical as part of their actual season (as opposed to the touring or rental production it usually is) it would be the best-selling show in their histories. Why? Women go to the theater and they bring their friends if they have shows that reflect their experiences. A dear friend connected with August: Osage County‘s fierce females so much that she flew from Atlanta to New York three times just to see it as many times on Broadway.

As Hanna Rosen has pointed out in her articles and lectures — there is a definitive rise in women as breadwinners and moneymakers in this country. I live in the Bay Area and am delightfully surrounded by brilliant women running major intuitions, businesses, and government orgs. Smart institutions will notice this and deliver. Women are already your majority, and women share experiences with other women, so it shouldn’t be hard to bring new women into the theater patronizing community.

Sean Daniels again:

“I think there’s a hidden thinking in here that men won’t watch women centric plays, but women will watch men centric plays — which really just sells everyone in that equation short. There are men watching The Hunger Games, but eventually there won’t be ladies watching dude filled plays and seasons.”

Viola Davis in "Fences".

We might help the world. Women are always underrepresented in positions of money, power, and personal safety. This comes, as most inherent biases do, from a lack of understanding and empathy. If we see more stories of women on stages across the country and the world we can change that.

Maybe what we really dream of is the day when plays by and about women would stop being “women’s plays” and start being — oh, y’know — really successful, moneymaking, audience-supported, universal, true, bold, smart plays. Everyone wants those plays, no matter what your gender.

Theater audiences want the designers of theatrical seasons to pay attention to the women onstage. Count them (as Valerie Week is doing in The Bay). The women in your audiences will.

Joy Meads of Center Theater Group in LA says:

“It’s frustrating that we have to have this conversation in 2012. But I’ve experienced this in my conversations about plays with colleagues across the country. Colleagues dismissing a play because its female protagonist was ‘unlikable.’ Producers should recognize that ‘we just choose the best plays’ is no longer an adequate defense: no one believes that there’s a shadowy cabal of avowed misogynists determined to keep women offstage. We need to be brave and rigorous in examining the shadowy, unconscious ways gender bias influences our decision making.”

Theater should be in the complex and necessary business of illuminating the human condition, of inspiring empathy and community, of provoking understanding, of entertaining and surprising and exposing and making beautiful the complete world of our time.

You know what helps that?

Telling everyone’s stories.

Lauren Gunderson is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and short story author living in The Bay Area. She received her MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU Tisch, her BA from Emory University, is an NYU a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. Her work has received national praise and awards. She writes for The Huffington Post.