Tag Archives: Touched by an Angel

Coming Up Next at the Fountain: ‘On the Spectrum’ is Not Your (Neuro)Typical Love Story

SPECTRUM_postcard_front FINAL

Mac has Asperger’s. Iris is autistic. Jacqueline Schultz directs Jeanie Hackett,Virginia Newcomb and Dan Shaked in the West Coast premiere of a funny, touching and unconventional romance. On the Spectrum by Ken LaZebnik opens at The Fountain Theatre on March 16.

Quirky and unexpected, On the Spectrum is a love story with a difference. In LaZebnik’s award-winning play, an online e-chat blossoms into a heartfelt courtship between two exceptional young people with autism.

Schultz is an award-winning actress and a theater director at The Help Group’s Summit View School for students with learning differences. The Help Group is the largest and most innovative nonprofit of its kind in the U.S. serving children with autism, learning differences and other special needs. She was immediately drawn to the project.

“As with all great love stories, there are obstacles,” Schultz says. “Ken’s play is original, charming and moving.”

Many people on the autism spectrum take pride in their distinctive abilities and “atypical” ways of viewing the world. In On the Spectrum, Mac (Shaked), whose mother (Hackett) provided years of mainstreaming and therapy, passes as “typical.” He connects online with Iris (Newcomb), an activist who proudly champions her autism as a difference, not a disorder.

Dan Shaked and Virginia Newcomb in "On the Spectrum"

Dan Shaked and Virginia Newcomb

Winner of a 2012 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award citation and a 2011 Edgerton Foundation New American Play award, On the Spectrum was commissioned by Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, where artistic director Jack Reuler directed the premiere as part of the Center of the Margins Festival. Ken LaZebnik has written two other plays about autism: Vestibular Sense, which also premiered at Mixed Blood, was honored with an award from the American Theatre Critic’s Association at the Humana Festival in Louisville; and Theory of Mind, commissioned for young audiences by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, has also been produced in Minnesota, Hawaii and Michigan, and was published by Dramatic Publishing.

Ken LaZebnik’s other plays include a new book for the musical Babes in Arms, Garland Wright’s last production at the Guthrie Theater; the comedy, Sink Eating, which premiered at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles; and an adaptation of The Odyssey which the off-off-Broadway ensemble DearKnows, where he was a founding member, toured for Lincoln Center Institute. Mixed Blood Theatre premiered his baseball play League of Nations, and commissioned and produced both Harlem Renaissance Revue and the one-man play Calvinisms. For film, LaZebnik wrote the screenplay for Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage, which starred Peter O’Toole and Marcia Gay Harden, and, together with Garrison Keillor, co-wrote director Robert Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion. LaZebnik has a long history of writing for Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” radio show. For television, he has written series as varied as ProvidenceStar Trek: Enterprise, The Paula Poundstone Show and Jack’s Place, and he was a writer/producer on Touched by an Angel for eight years.

Jacqueline Schultz has worked as a theater director/educator with learning disabled students for over 12 years. As a professional actress, Schultz has been seen at the Fountain in the U.S. premiere of Athol Fugard’s The Blue Iris; the Ovation-winning After the Fall; The Road to Mecca; The Night of the Iguana; The Darker Face of the Earth; Fighting Over Beverley (L.A. Weekly Award); Duet for One (Ovation Award nomination, Best Actress); Ashes (Drama-Logue Award); The Golden Gate (Drama-Logue Award); and Orpheus Descending. She reprised her role from the Fountain’s Los Angeles premiere of Lee Blessing’s Going to St. Ives (Best Actress nomination, NAACP Theater Award) for the International Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. Other theater credits include Park Your Car in Harvard YardTo Kill a Mockingbird and Awake and Sing! at International City Theatre; the West Coast premiere of String of Pearls at both the Road Theatre Company and the Santa Barbara Theatre; the world premiere of Open Window at the Pasadena Playhouse; and Sorrows and Rejoicings at the Mark Taper Forum.

Jeanie Hackett

Jeanie Hackett

Jeanie Hackett (Elisabeth) has been seen on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire (Circle in the Square) and Ah, Wilderness (Roundabout); Off-Broadway in new plays at Soho Rep, the Promenade and the Clurman Theater; on L.A. stages in Arms and The Man, How the Other Half Loves, Present Laughter (Pasadena Playhouse); Old Times (South Coast Rep); The Vagina Monologues (Cannon); The Greeks (Odyssey); Phaedra(Getty Villa); The Seagull (Matrix); Kate Crackernuts (24th Street); Light, Pera Palas (Theatre @ Boston Court);Tonight at 8:30The Autumn Garden (Antaeus); and in a variety of roles with L.A. Theatre Works. Regional: Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre, leading roles in Richard III, Taming of the Shrew, A Winter’s Tale, Hamlet, Cyrano de Bergerac, Uncle Vanya and over a dozen plays at the Williamstown Theater Festival. Film: The Words (with Bradley Cooper and Dennis Quaid), Take Me Home Tonight (Topher Grace), King of California(Michael Douglas) and Post Grad (Michael O’Keefe and Carol Burnett.) TV: Lie to Me, Lincoln Heights, Medium, Criminal Minds, The “L” Word, Charmed, Judging Amy (recurring) and The West Wing, playing Queen Margaret from Shakespeare’s Henry VI. As artistic director of Antaeus from 2003-2011, Jeanie led the company to its multiple award-winning first full season, including the world premiere of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Cousin Bette, for which she won the Backstage/Garland Award for direction. She is also a former artistic director of The Classical Theater Lab.

Dan Shaked and Virginia Newcomb

Dan Shaked and Virginia Newcomb

Virginia Newcomb (Iris) was last seen at the Fountain Theatre in the West Coast premiere of the rarely-seen Tennessee Williams play, A House Not Meant to Stand. She recently co-starred on stage in The Grapes of Wrath at Knightsbridge Theatre, Sweet Bird of Youth at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre and This Property is Condemned at the Globe Playhouse. She has appeared on TV’s The Office and CSI, and can be seen in the new comedy webseries Bandmates. Virginia stars in the lead role in The Boogeyman, a feature film based on Stephen King’s short story.

Dan Shaked (Mac) is a graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts drama program and studied at The Lee Strasberg Film/Theater Institute and London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. New York theater credits include Saviana Stanescu’s Waxing West at La MaMa (subsequent Europe tour), the First Irish Theater Festival (PS122), Snow Angel (directed by Lola Cohen) and Stone Cold Dead Serious (Clurman Theater). In Boston, he played the lead in Naomi Wallace’s The Fever Chart for UnderGround Railway Theater. Dan can be seen in the upcoming films The Broken, How To Follow Strangers and Jobs (opposite Ashton Kutcher); the TV movie Gilded Lilys with Blythe Danner; and he was a guest star on ABC’s Body of Proof. He played the lead role in the film Storm up the Sky, which was selected for the Tribeca Film Festival

Set design for On the Spectrum is by John Iacovelli; video design is by Jeffrey Elias Teeter; lighting design is by R. Christopher Stokes; sound design is by Peter Bayne; costume design is by Naila Aladdin Sanders; prop design is by Misty Carlisle; production stage manager is Corey Womack; assistant stage manager is Terri Roberts; and Simon LevyDeborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs produce.

Housed in a charming two-story complex, the Fountain is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a nurturing, creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won over 200 awards, and is the only intimate theater to win the Ovation Award for Best Production five times. Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Highlights include In the Red and Brown Water, named “Best in Theater 2012” by the Los Angeles TimesCyrano, an adaptation of the Rostand classic for hearing and deaf actors, by Stephen Sachs; a six-month run of Bakersfield Mist, also by Sachs, optioned for London and New York; the Off-Broadway run of the Fountain’s world premiere production of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances; and the making of Sachs’ Sweet Nothing in My Ear into a TV movie. The Fountain has been honored with a Certificate of Appreciation from the Los Angeles City Council for “enhancing the cultural life of Los Angeles,” and has been named as the recipient of a special award for its “Excellent Season” in 2012 by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.

On the Spectrum opens on Saturday, March 16, with performances ThursdaysFridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm andSundays @ 2 pm through April 28. Preview performances take place March 9-15 on the same schedule. Tickets are$34 (reserved seating), except previews which are $15. On Thursdays and Fridays only, seniors over 65 and students with ID are $25The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. Secure, on-site parking is available for $5. The Fountain Theatre is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. For reservations and information, call 323-663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com.

production photos by Ed Krieger

Tracy Middendorf Looks Back on her LA Fountain Years

Tracy Middendorf and Morlan Higgins in "After the Fall" at the Fountain Theatre (2002, photo by Ed Krieger); Tommy Schrider and Tracy in "Battle of Black and Dogs" at Yale Repertory Theatre (2010)

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson

Tracy Middendorf was hailed for her “delicious mixture of beauty and raw emotional vulnerability that makes you care deeply about her” by director Stephen Sachs in the March 2002 cover article of LA STAGE magazine. She had already become an LA stage star in 1999, when, at age 29, she received the Ovation Award for leading actress in a play – against powerhouse nominees Annette Bening, Ruby Dee, Phyllis Frelich and Linda Lavin. She earned a LA Drama Critics Circle Award for the same performance, in Summer and Smoke.

A little background

In 1992, straight out of SUNY Purchase, Middendorf was tested in NY for the successful daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives. “I was quite surprised they couldn’t find a young blonde actress in LA,” she says with a light, ironic laugh. “Surprise, surprise,” as she was promptly hired and moved over 2,400 miles — but only on Middendorf’s terms, which demonstrated her mettle.

“I was worried about taking the part; doing a soap opera wasn’t my first choice. They asked me to sign a five-year contract and I told them, ‘No.’ You can imagine the reaction of my agent. How many actresses get an opportunity to be a regular on a soap? But I had high ideals right out of college. They brought the contract down (in years) to what I wanted.” And she thoroughly enjoyed the Days of Our Lives experience – without compromise.

During the next decade, following her soap stint as Carrie Brady, Middendorf was cast on a variety of TV shows including Beverly Hills 90210, Murder She Wrote, Touched by an Angel, Ally McBeal, Six Feet Under and The Practice.

Larry Poindexter and Tracy Middendorf in "Tender is the Night" at the Fountain (photo by Ed Krieger)

But she also was able to incorporate her first love – theater – by performing at the small yet mighty Fountain Theatre. The relationship between actress and theater was mutually rewarding. Middendorf wowed critics in her first LA stage outing in Simon Levy’s 1995 multi-award-winning adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and followed up a year later with an Ovation-nominated feature actress performance in Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending.

The East Coast beckoned Middendorf to return, which she did briefly in 1998, performing in Tony winner Daniel Sullivan’s Ah! Wilderness at NY’s Lincoln Center and Joanne Woodward’s The Big Knife at the Williamstown Theatre in Massachusetts. Then in 1999, Middendorf struck gold with Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke at the Fountain, under the direction of Levy. The actress and the production both received Ovation Awards. Life was good for Middendorf, but it was going to get better.

No fluke

It is early 2002. Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, directed by artistic director Sachs, has opened at the Fountain Theatre, and Middendorf is featured in LA STAGE. She almost had to pinch herself with everything happening – creatively and personally. “It was a really exciting yet exhausting time. Calvin (her son) was two, and I was a single mom. Juggling this amazing show and great part along with bills and everything life was throwing at me, it was… challenging and hard. But going through that, I was proud of myself. It’s important to always do what you love, no matter how difficult life may be. It’s something I’ll always remember.”

Sachs shares more. “Playing Maggie required Tracy to dig deep down into some very dark and scary corners of her own psyche where her own demons hide. Her performance was shattering, fragile, heartbreaking. Unforgettable.”

The recognitions Middendorf received in 1999 were no fluke. After the Fall received four Ovation awards, including best production and one of three lead actress awards that year. Middendorf also added a second LA Drama Critics Circle award for her performance. For a play that hadn’t been seen in LA for 24 years, the Fountain and Middendorf reaped the benefits of Miller’s work.

Five years passed before Middendorf returned to the LA stage. During this passage of time, she married Franz Wisner, author of the well-received book Honeymoon with My Brother, and had another child, Oscar. TV roles were plentiful, including Alias, Cold Case, House M.D., Without a Trace and Lost, as well as acting in the movie Mission: Impossible III with Tom Cruise.

Chuma Gault and Tracy in "Miss Julie" at the Fountain Theatre (2007, photos by Ed Krieger)

However, while she was at the Fountain in Miss Julie, adapted and directed by Sachs, based on the original play by August Strindberg, a canceled audition for a play flicked a switch. She felt it was time for another 2,400-mile move.

Going back

During the run of Miss Julie, Middendorf was scheduled to audition for Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque, which was set to open in London, starring Maggie Smith under the direction of Anthony Page (Tony winner for A Doll’s House). But the production team canceled its trip to LA, leaving Middendorf in the lurch. Here’s where the rubber met the road.

“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to audition for Mr. Page or the play or Mr. Albee, so I flew to NY with my two kids. Yes, it was crazy but this was important.” After booking a hotel room and auditioning, “They paid my flight fee so I could stay a few more days and attend the callbacks.” But the coastal reality hit hard. Two Ovations and LADCC Awards didn’t ultimately sway Page to cast Middendorf. “He didn’t know any of my stage work, never had seen me in anything.” That moment was critical for her. “I wanted to expand my horizons which meant moving back to the East Coast. I didn’t want to be limited.”

"The Pavilion" at Westport Country Playhouse (2008)

Soon an acting gig on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit followed, along with another opportunity to work with Joanne Woodward, who was artistic director at the Westport Country Playhouse. “I had such a wonderful time with Joanne when I performed in The Big Knife. It was a chance to get reacquainted with this fascinating woman. So I was able to do Craig Wright’s The Pavilion (2005-2006 Drama Desk Award nominee for outstanding play).”

Westport, CT, became home for one year with its quaint community, slower pace, dinners on the beach,… but Middendorf and her family realized they wanted to live in the city. To Brooklyn they moved, and they’re still there.

East/West – the active life

Since settling in Brooklyn, Middendorf’s professional resume includes two theater productions. In 2010, she performed at Yale Repertory Theatre in the haunting thriller Battle of Black and Dogs, by the late French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltes. Middendorf reflects on her time there. “It was incredible. I adored working with Robert Woodruff (the director) who has this amazing cult following. And it gave me a chance to work with Andrew Robinson (whom she had performed with in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) now at USC (professor of theatre practice and director of MFA acting).”

Holly Twyford and Tracy in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Old Times" (2011).

A year later came Harold Pinter’s Old Times at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC. Middendorf wryly says, “It was the shortest commute I’ve ever had. They put me in an apartment three steps from the entrance door.” Expounding on her experience, “This Pinter three-character play is not hugely appealing to everyone. Audiences can be frustrated. Yet the show received good reviews. The director Michael Kahn (also artistic director at the Shakespeare Theatre) was magnificent. We had four weeks of rehearsal to focus on this dense material.” Sophie Gilbert, theater critic with the Washingtonian, wrote, “Middendorf, as Kate, does a remarkable job in expressing the character’s sexuality and the power it gives her over others.”

During this three-year span, Middendorf’s TV credits have included CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Bones, The Mentalist, NCIS, Criminal Minds and she’s especially grateful for Boardwalk Empire. “I play Babbette (the owner of the series’ central nightclub). The pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese. Watching him direct was thrilling.”

Tracy Middendorf in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire"

When it came time for the wardrobe fitting, the initial decision was to put Middendorf in a beautiful dress. She thought otherwise. “When I auditioned for the part, it came across as very masculine. So I told them I saw Babbette in a suit.” Giving the design team pause, Middendorf was told she would be called back. “When I returned later, John Dunn, the extraordinary costume designer, had me meet with a tailor to make a tuxedo. And that’s when they gave me a platinum wig.”

Looking through a different lens

As she reflects  on years past and where she is today, realizations are not far behind. “The ability to do those great parts at the Fountain…. I love that theater, Simon, Stephen…. After working on Old Times, which was in a huge space, I realized I prefer the smaller stage and a smaller audience. The intimacy of it feels comfortable to me. I miss having a place where I can do that type of work. I really appreciate and love the vitality of LA theater which is focused on the work and on the play.”

Looking at the arts with a different lens, Middendorf states, “I’ve begun to change my focus toward directing. I’m more interested in the vision for an entire piece rather than just one role in a piece. That seems like a natural step for me.”

"Break", directed by Tracy Middendorf (2011).

In August 2011, Middendorf directed Louise Rozett’s Break for the FringeNYC. The material dealt with the unexpected effects of the Ground Zero recovery effort on NYC’s firemen and policemen, and their families. How she came to helm this play was happenstance. “I was in the laundry room of our building. There was a woman (Rozett) there and we started talking. She had a Young Adult book coming out. I asked if she had written any plays, as I was looking to direct something. She said she did, and gave me her plays, which were wonderful.”

Not letting a moment such as this one go to waste, Middendorf gathered together some actors and directed a reading that had great response. “We submitted it to the Fringe Festival and it got accepted. Within a month of putting it out there, I wanted to direct a play, and that’s what I was doing. We raised money through Kickstarter to mount the production. It turned out wonderful.  Now Louise is giving me another play to consider directing.”

Giving back

This past summer Middendorf read Three Cups of Tea, Stones into Schools and Half the Sky (the Skirball Cultural Center is currently hosting an exhibit entitled “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” inspired by the Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tome.) These books dealing with the plight of girls around the world touched Middendorf and made her consider ways she could make a difference in the lives of those “who don’t get an education and suffer a dismal fate.”

Middendorf rattles off a few startling facts: “Of the 104 million children aged 6-11 not in school each year, 60 million are girls; in South Asia, more than 40 percent of girls aged 15-19 from poor households never completed first grade; providing girls one extra year of education beyond the average boosts wages by 10-20 percent; educated girls are less likely to contract HIV; education can foster democracy and women’s political participation.”

“I wanted to help. My friend Laurel Holloman (an actress on The L Word), who is an abstract painter, donated one of her paintings for a charity auction. It made me think. With the digital age, what if I created a website with a gallery of photographs taken by actors, writers, musicians and directors? The limited number of photographs would be signed and sold with the money donated to charities focused on educating girls around the world.”

Her dream is near reality. The launch date for the website – www.shuttertothink.org – is scheduled for March 1, 2012, and its small collection of photography grows weekly.

Parting words

It’s fitting to close this article about the seasoned actress Middendorf with meaningful high praise from Sachs and Levy, who know her well.

“Tracy has this remarkable ability to blend both a ferocious work ethic with the ability to stay utterly alive in the moment,” states Sachs. “She possesses this other-worldly combination of skilled craft and gossamer magic. To work with her again would be a blessing I would cherish.”

Levy adds, “She’s translucent and a true artist. Absolutely one of the most gifted actors I’ve ever worked with. Her emotional well is so deep and so varied, and her moment-to-moment connection so riveting, that it’s impossible, for audiences and actors and as a director, not to be drawn into the world of her truth. Stunning. Truly stunning. She’s rare and a gift to theater.”

Mark Kinsey Stephen writes for LA Stage Times.