Our wonderful 3-month run of the world premiere of Heart Song came to a glorious conclusion yesterday with its final matinee performance followed by a joyous party. The funny and powerful new play and sold-out production earned many rave reviews and deeply affected audiences. We received many emails and Facebook comments from people expressing how deeply moved they were by the play and what the production meant to them. One patron, Heidi Singh, was so taken with the play she saw it seven times.
We thank all of the extraordinary artists, crew, production team, and — most important — audience members who made the extended 3-month run of Heart Song at the Fountain Theatre such an unforgettable and meaningful experience.
Post-show cafe chat last Sunday after the matinee of ‘Heart Song’.
By Bette Billett
On behalf of a very grateful UCLA Faculty Women’s Club, I wish to thank all who made Sunday such a rich experience.The after-show conversation and kudos for HEART SONG are still going on at the UCLA campus. A special thank you to Simon Levy and Stephen Sachs who came in on a Sunday, which we noted with gratitude. Stephen stayed for the entire get together and fielded the “insight into women” questions so agilely and , of course, because he wrote such a wonderful play. Many thanks, too, to the stellar cast. Lastly, thanks to Diana and James, who somehow make the ticketing run so smoothly.
Fond regards from Westwood,
Bette Billet, President UCLA Faculty Women’s Club
Bette Billet (left) with Deborah Lawlor, Tamlyn Tomita and Denise Blasor.
Hailed as “superb” and “magnificent” by critics and audiences alike, the Fountain Theatre’s acclaimed hit comedy/drama Heart Song has been extended to August 25th. The Hollywood Reporter cheers Heart Song as “a genuine delight”, the LA Weekly heralds it as “beautifully performed,” and Broadway World declares Heart Song “a celebration of life you won’t want to miss.”
Written byStephen Sachsand directed byShirley Jo Finney, Heart Song follows the funny and touching journey of Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap), a middle-aged Jewish woman in New York City struggling through a mid-life crisis and the recent loss of her mother. When Rochelle is convinced to take a flamenco class with other women led by a passionate Gypsy instructor (Denise Blasor), her life and world-view is changed forever.
We enjoyed a passionate and insightful chat with audience members yesterday in our cafe after the sold-out Sunday matinee ofHeart Song. The hit play has been striking a deep chord with audiences since it opened to rave reviews in May. Its funny and touching dramatization of the themes of faith, grief, loss, friendship, empowerment and the mother/daughter relationship has ignited a strong need in audiences to want to talk about it after. Yesterday, the play’s director, playwright and cast members gathered in our cafe after the matinee performance for an informal chat with audience members to share thoughts and feelings about the play they had just seen and performed.
Director Shirley Jo Finney discussed the universal chords in the play, pointing out that the intersection of cultures in the story demonstrates that “we are all one people”. Actress Elissa Kyriacou shared her own personal story describing how, after recently losing her own mother, the play has served as an extraordinary healing process. Juanita Jennings remarked on the profound affect the play has had on all the women in the cast — and even her husband, who had a cathartic experience while seeing the play. Playwright Stephen Sachs spoke about the genesis of writing the play and how the script evolved through many drafts.
The men and women who had just seen the play asked questions and made comments describing how deeply they were moved by the performance. Heart Song is a funny and powerful new play about a middle-aged woman named Rochelle (played by Pamela Dunlap) struggling through a crisis of faith and the recent loss of her mother. Rochelle’s life is changed when she is convinced to take a flamenco class with other middle-aged women.
Yesterday was also an afternoon of joyous celebration as we toasted director Shirley Jo Finney on her birthday. Cake and ice cream was shared by all. What a wonderful way to spend a Sunday: a terrific afternoon of theatre followed by a thought-provoking and heartfelt discussion topped with yummy ice cream and birthday cake! Who could ask for anything more?
As her mother’s yahrzeit approaches, a middle-aged woman undergoes a crisis of the soul in the play “Heart Song,” currently at The Fountain Theatre in Hollywood. The woman, Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap), then joins a flamenco class and experiences the transformative power of that dance form. Playwright Stephen Sachs, who co-founded the theater with Deborah Lawlor, said that, due to Lawlor’s love for the dance, the Fountain has become the foremost presenter of flamenco in Los Angeles.
“The idea came to me,” Sachs explained, “that the writing of a play where a character takes a flamenco class and is changed by it would be a really good vehicle through which to tell the story, because the audience shares the experience with our lead character and enters the new world of flamenco with her.”
Sachs described the character of Rochelle as someone disconnected from her Judaism, her culture, her religion, her faith and her God.
Playwright Stephen Sachs
“In that first scene, she talks about having forgotten the words to the Kaddish, which is something that she has known ever since she was a little girl, but now she can’t remember the words, and so she’s lost. She’s mourning the loss of her mother and struggling with some really deep philosophical questions, not only about grief and loss, but about the meaning of life and what’s our purpose.”
Rochelle’s turmoil was triggered when she went through a closet after her mother’s death and found a box with a girl’s striped dress from the concentration camp at Birkenau. At first she wasn’t sure who owned the dress.
“I think she suspected it was her mother,” Sachs said, “but, because her mother never talked about it, it was an issue that was never spoken in the home, and she never shared her true feelings.
Sachs continued, “Her mother was unable to share her pain with her own daughter.”
The challenging relationship that Rochelle had with her mother is something with which Dunlap can identify. Like Rochelle’s mother, her own mother was not very forthcoming.
Maria Bermudez and Pamela Dunlap in ‘Heart Song’.
“Of course, my mother was not harboring the gravity of a secret like Rochelle’s mother was hiding. Actually, my mother said to me, the week of her death, ‘There is something I have never told you. I have to tell you.’ And she was not well. She was frail, and she was agitated and her breath was labored, and I got concerned. I calmed her down and said, ‘Tell me tomorrow. We can talk about it later. You don’t have to tell me now.’ She died. And I don’t know what that secret was.”
Dunlap added, “Most of us have secrets; most of us have big secrets, and we take those secrets to the grave with us, like Rochelle’s mother did.”
Rochelle’s mother also took her true name to the grave. After discovering the concentration camp uniform, Rochelle found out that her mother was born with a Polish name that she had changed. She’s now beside herself because she feels the name on the gravestone is wrong.
When she joins the flamenco group, Rochelle learns from its leader, a Gypsy named Katarina (Maria Bermudez, who is also the play’s choreographer), that there is a tradition of having two names in Gypsy culture. One name is private and known only to the Gypsy community, and the other is the name used in the outside world.
“I just thought that was a really interesting idea and metaphor to use in the play too,” Sachs remarked.
Rochelle also learns about the interconnectedness of the four cultures represented in the group; besides her Judaism and Katarina’s Gypsy roots, there is the Japanese heritage of Tina (Tamlyn Tomita), the masseuse who introduced Rochelle to flamenco, and the African-American culture of Daloris (Juanita Jennings), who befriends Rochelle.
Tamlyn Tomita, Juanita Jennings, Pamela Dunlap in “Heart Song”
As Katarina illuminates the mysteries of flamenco, the dance becomes the catalyst for revealing the deep-seated pain born of suffering that is shared by all the cultures. Daloris talks of the blues and its relevance to her culture; Katarina speaks of the Nazi extermination of the Gypsies, much like the extermination of the Jews; Tina expounds on the internment camps in which the Japanese-Americans were held during World War II.
“Too often what we do, and that’s a major theme, we carry other people’s stories,” director Shirley Jo Finney stated, “and part of the letting go is to create our own story.
“I think that’s one of the things each of those ladies, all of those ladies, in fact, were having to reconcile.”
According to Gypsy tradition, flamenco leads the dancer to reach into the farthest recesses of the soul to release the pain residing there, and, ultimately, Rochelle does find release in an anguished wail, the kind of outcry known to the Gypsies as the cante jondo, a primal scream that “rends the world in two” and is common to all cultures.
“Every culture has a wound,” Finney observed, “and it’s the deep need to be seen, to be nurtured, to feel safe.
“And [for] each of the tribes, when they talked about the tribes within that piece, that’s where the cry comes from. The cry comes from not being acknowledged, and the cry comes from that deep-seated place of self-expression.”
For playwright Sachs, working on this story helped him examine issues of spirituality and mortality that are part of the human experience and are very personal to him.
“The older we get,” he mused, “the more friends we seem to be losing, and it just makes one think about one’s own time, the time that we have left and how we’re spending it. I’m very much wrestling with that, and so the play allowed me to kind of swim in that water for awhile.”
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size But when I start to tell them, They think I’m telling lies. I say, It’s in the reach of my arms The span of my hips, The stride of my step, The curl of my lips. I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
I walk into a room Just as cool as you please, And to a man, The fellows stand or Fall down on their knees. Then they swarm around me, A hive of honey bees. I say, It’s the fire in my eyes, And the flash of my teeth, The swing in my waist, And the joy in my feet. I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
Tamlyn Tomita and Juanita Jennings.
Men themselves have wondered What they see in me. They try so much But they can’t touch My inner mystery. When I try to show them They say they still can’t see. I say, It’s in the arch of my back, The sun of my smile, The ride of my breasts, The grace of my style. I’m a woman
Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
Tamlyn Tomita, Juanita Jennings, Pamela Dunlap in “Heart Song”
Now you understand Just why my head’s not bowed. I don’t shout or jump about Or have to talk real loud. When you see me passing It ought to make you proud. I say, It’s in the click of my heels, The bend of my hair, the palm of my hand, The need of my care, ‘Cause I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
“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.”
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, shehas 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).
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.
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.
Our world premiere of the new comedy/drama Heart Song opens tomorrow, May 25. Preview performances have been selling out and audience reaction has been overwhelming:
“Heart Song is Fantastic! Run to see this one! It was one of the best plays I’ve seen in years. Could see it another ten times. Didn’t want it to be over. The time just flew … really, really fantastic.” – J.P., Marina Del Rey
“This is a great play. Full of emotions, so well written, well acted and directed. I cried, I laughed. Wonderful! I can only recommend it.”
– Luzia Wolf
“Thank you for creating this beautiful piece, Heart Song. My heart is full and so will be many others.” – Carol Kline
“Heart tugging and funny! The acting was superb!” – Irene
Heart Songis the funny and touching story of a middle-aged Jewish woman in New York City in the middle of a life crisis. Her life is changed when she is convinced to take a flamenco class with other middle-aged women. A hilarious and powerful journey of faith, sisterhood and finding her inner voice.
Starring Pamela Dunlap, Tamlyn Tomita, Juanita Jennings and Maria Bermudez. Directed by Shirley Jo Finney, choreography by Maria Bermudez, written by Stephen Sachs.
Choreographed by Maria Bermudez, Stephen Sachs’ dance-theater hybrid explores the deep well of emotions that the art form can stir up.
By Susan Josephs
Two years ago Stephen Sachs began working on a play about the philosophy and practice of flamenco. He figured he had all the material he needed, having spent years in close proximity to flamenco dancers as the co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre, home of the long-running performance series “Forever Flamenco!” But after further research, he realized that the Spanish art form intertwined deeply with certain existential preoccupations that also inhabited his writer’s mind.
“The older I get, the more aware I have become of the loss of loved ones, the time in front of me and how I’m spending it. You start to wrestle more with these things,” observes the 53-year-old playwright and director.
Sachs wound up writing “Heart Song,” a uniquely theatrical hybrid that premieres May 25 at the Fountain and pays tribute to flamenco through the lens of one Jewish woman’s midlife crisis. Directed by Los Angeles theater veteran Shirley Jo Finney and choreographed by the flamenco artist Maria Bermudez, it stars Pamela Dunlap as Rochelle, a fiftysomething New York City denizen who struggles over her mother’s recent death and gets dragged to a flamenco class for nonprofessional dancers by her Japanese American masseuse Tina (Tamlyn Tomita).
Convinced that “Jews don’t do flamenco,” Rochelle receives encouragement from fellow class-taker Daloris (Juanita Jennings), an African American cancer survivor, and reluctantly encounters Katarina de la Fuente, the fierce, Gypsy flamenco teacher played by Bermudez. (Denise Blasor will take over the role after June 15.) Katarina teaches her students how to stomp their feet, flick their wrists and fully express themselves so they can experience the heightened spiritual state known as duende. She also waxes poetic about flamenco’s origins, the shared history of persecution between Gypsies and Jews and the cante jondo, the “deep song” born from suffering and oppression.
Eventually, Katarina’s teachings infiltrate Rochelle’s psyche so that she can grieve and confront the truth of her mother’s legacy.
“What interested me in this whole subject was how art, like religion or any spiritual faith, has the power to transform and heal,” says Sachs, who recently lost his mother and still “wrestles with that loss. I wanted to explore how flamenco can give voice to what is beyond the spoken word, to that deep inner well of sorrow and pain and also joy.”
Sachs’ treatment of flamenco, filled with historical and literary references, also feels distinctly educational. This should come as no surprise when considering that the Fountain’s co-artistic director Deborah Lawlor has produced the city’s preeminent flamenco series for some 20 years. “Heart Song,” however, takes the Fountain’s outreach efforts one step further with its potential to simultaneously attract the theater’s two main audiences: traditional playgoers and flamenco fans.
“I don’t think any production has yet explained flamenco as well as ‘Heart Song’ does,” says Lawlor, who served as the play’s dramaturgical consultant and will be honored on June 15 in a“Forever Flamenco!” gala performance at the Ford Theatres in Hollywood. “The play really shows the range of flamenco and its tragic dimensions, which you don’t find in other dance forms.”
Bermudez, who lives in southern Spain and travels all over the world to perform flamenco, agrees that the Fountain’s production “is very unique. In Spain, there have been mountings of flamenco story ballets, but no one has created a drama about flamenco in this way with actors,” she says.
As the show’s choreographer, Bermudez faced the challenge of crafting movement that everyone in the eight-member cast could perform while accurately reflecting flamenco’s essence. For her, casting definitely proved critical.
“One of the mistakes I’ve seen with dance-theater is to have the dancers act or have the actors dance. This is totally detrimental to both genres,” says the 51-year-old flamenco artist. “So I said, ‘Let’s get actors with movement experience and I will create a choreography for them that’s accessible, so they can be these middle-aged people who are there to connect with something interior rather than with an exterior aesthetic.”
At a recent rehearsal, Bermudez’s choreography seemed to function almost as another character in the play, especially during the scene in which Rochelle first visits the flamenco class. As Katarina, Bermudez conducts a class warm-up, instructing her students to lift their arms, “touch the stars” and twirl their wrists, a motion that becomes an effective unison phrase.
Both as choreographer and performer, Bermudez has the task of conveying the flamenco class as a sacred space where women of all backgrounds can unleash their demons as a means of liberating their spirits. “For me, flamenco is about this universal cry, whether you are Jewish or African American, it is the same,” she says in a phone conversation after the rehearsal. “Pain has no color or creed.”
Shirley Jo Finney
The notion of flamenco’s universal accessibility has always resonated with Finney, who collaborated with Bermudez a decade ago on developing a still unproduced, flamenco-based play called “Cry,” which sought parallels between flamenco and the blues. “What I love about ‘Heart Song’ is that it shows how interconnected we all are. Often women’s plays are very ethnic-specific, but in this piece, you see these different tribes and how they become a collective,” she says.
Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap) takes her first flamenco class.
For Finney and her cast, the process of practicing flamenco combined with excavating the life and death themes in Sachs’ script has made for an intensely emotional experience. “In the cast we have cancer survivors, we have people who just lost their mothers,” observes Finney. “We rehearse some of these scenes and I have to say, ‘OK ladies, we got our cry. Now we have to stop and work on the script.’ Mothers and daughters, survivors and life, these have been our discussions.”
Dunlap, for example, can fully relate to Rochelle’s reckoning with her mother’s death. “The relationship with her mother was barren and the relationship I had with my mother was difficult,” says the actress, who can also be seen on “Mad Men” as Betty Draper’s formidable mother-in-law. “It is not infrequent for a play to strike a personal chord with its actors, but in this play … we are blown away by material which touches our personal lives.”
Ultimately, Sachs hopes his play and its many layers of meaning will find a “crossover audience. It would be wonderful if all our audiences came together for a shared experience,” he says. “Hopefully, it will open people’s eyes to what flamenco really is and maybe they will want to take a class themselves.”
A sneak peek as we prepare for Tech Weekend for the world premiere of our upcoming comedy/dramaHeart Songby Stephen Sachsat the Fountain, directed by Shirley Jo Finney. It stars Pamela Dunlap, Juanita Jennings and Tamlyn Tomita. Previews begin May 18. It opens May 25th and runs to July 14th.
Heart Song is a funny and touching new play about a middle-aged Jewish woman in New York City whose life is changed when she takes a flamenco class. Set design is by Tom Buderwitz, lighting design by Ken Booth. Take a look at some snapshots as we build the set and hang lights, getting ready for Tech Weekend.