Sure, year in and year out, the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson, the Geffen Playhouse, and venues like the Pantages Theater stage quality productions with above average talent. But it’s the smaller theatre scene (or “99 Seat Plan” once called “Equity waiver”) in Hollywood that ebbs and flows. From North Hollywood to Toluca Lake, from Pasadena to Sierra Madre, and up and down Santa Monica Boulevard’s famed Theatre Row, you just never know what you’re gonna get when you step out on a friday night to take in a stage show. And for the fickle L.A. theatre goer who has myriad options pulling at their “disposable” income, it only takes one or maybe two dismal nights at one of the smaller theatres to keep them away for years.
But such is not the climate today as the renaissance is in full bloom.
I sat down recently with three Los Angeles stage actors at a coffee shop in Atwater Village to discuss their present shows, their philosophy on their work, and their joy of doing what they love to do most: perform live.
Derek Manson is currently starring in the 1930s screwball comedy Room Service (L.A. Times Critic’s Choice) at the Open Fist Theatre; Annika Marks is dazzling audiences as ‘Lulu’ every weekend in Atwater Village at the brand new Ensemble Studio Theatre in Nick Kazan’s Mlle. God; and Kevin McCorkle is in rehearsal to play the gargantuan role of ‘Weston’ in Sam Shepard’s Obie award-winning American classic Curse of the Starving Class, scheduled to open April 15 at the Open Fist.
Lars Beckerman: Let’s start with the obvious question, taking as a fact that each of you came to Los Angeles to pursue film/tv careers, also taking as fact that there is no money to be made in non-equity theatre – so why are you doing it?
Group laughter. Group hug.
Lars B: You go first, Derek. In the vernacular of your play, Room Service, “what gives?”
Derek Manson: For the love!!!! (group chuckle) Well, the funny thing is I’ve only been out here seven, eight months (originally from Atlanta and then NY). When I came out here I wanted to do stage and voiceover work, hoping that work would lead to tv and film. I’ve been able to do three stage shows, and, amazingly, each one has topped the last. Working with some really great people. But you know, stage is what I’ve done my entire career, so…
Kevin McCorkle: Theatre is the heart of it. Of everything else we’re trying to do. It keeps the muscle strong, you know. Keeps me ready, keeps the chops sharp. It’s the collaborative process that is so powerful. That’s what I say to young actors, take care of each other – listen to each other – focus on each other – that’s the collaborative process. I get very inspired in the theatre.
Annika Marks: When I came here from New York all of my friends were telling me L.A. would be a drought in terms of stage work – and nothing could be further from the truth. The talent and caliber of people I’ve been able to surround myself with and work with has been amazing. I feel so blessed. Absolutely loving it here.
LB: Annika, your play Mlle. God was written by Nick Kazan and directed by Scott Paulin, two very established artists in this industry. How did they find you?
AM: They came to see me in Behind the Gates at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre (Lee Strasberg Creative Center) last year. There is a wonderful, intense monologue at the beginning of the play. I think that was what got their attention.
LB: Were you familiar at the time with Nick Kazan’s work (Oscar nominated for Reversal of Fortune, Frances, Fallen)?
AM: I had a pedestrian knowledge of who he was and his dad and everything, but the real answer is “no,” I wasn’t that familiar with him. But I must say, he has been so incredibly generous and just…great. He is always available. As is Scott (director Scott Paulin). The two of them have just been so wonderful in helping me with this role. I mean, to work with two men who have accomplished so much in this business – it’s just been amazing. They have been so collaborative and supportive every step of the way.
Mlle. God (or Mademoiselle God) pays homage to 19th Century German writer Frank Wedekind and his ‘Lulu’ plays (Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box). His muse, ‘Lulu,’ was an insatiable free spirit who used her feminine talents and charm to create a world free of sexual boundaries or inhibitions.
Variety’s Bob Verini said of Marks: “The actress is wholly comfortable in her own, that is to say Lulu’s, sizzling skin. Balls out courage.”
LB: How did you approach the character, ‘Lulu,’ and was the nudity required an obstacle?
AM: The nudity was actually the easiest part of the show!
We all suddenly realized some of the coffee patrons surrounding us were more interested in our conversation than their own. So, like well-trained actors, we spoke up.
AM: The nudity was about freedom for ‘Lulu.’ I had to wrap my head around that. That it was her way of achieving liberty. For me, I don’t know, I don’t struggle with vanity in my work. So the nudity was really easy. It would be totally different if it was gratuitous. You know, there’s nothing worse than watching an actor on stage, having to work nude, who is self-conscious – you feel so bad for them.
KM: It’s about telling the story. What Annika just said about whether or not it’s “gratuitous” is everything. It has to be about serving the story.
LB: There is nudity required in Curse of the Starving Class as well, right?
KM: Big time. But again, when you’re working on Sam Shepard, you know, Sam freakin’ Shepard, on a piece as significant as Curse of the Starving Class, you know it’s all about story – so it’s like – jump on in the water! Let’s get wet.
LB: Easy for you to say, you’re not the one gettin’ butt naked.
KM: You got that right!
Big laugh – it’s beginning to almost feel like happy hour.
KM: And consider yourself all lucky.
Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class tells the story of an American family struggling to keep their California farm out of hock while everything around it seemingly conspires against them. The central character, ‘Weston,’ struggles with booze and his World War II memories, searching for something outside of his property line to restore his sense of purpose. Director Scott Paulin has described the role as a cross between Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ and the Irish poet Brendan Behan.
A tall order.
Advanced word is that Kevin McCorkle, an accomplished actor (and actual Calif. native!) with over 60 tv/film credits on his resume alongside a substantial stage career, is digging in for what he calls…
KM: The role of a lifetime. I just feel so…fortunate. And truly blessed.
LB: Speaking of ‘roles of a lifetime.’ Derek, you get to play the down and out producer ‘Gordon Miller’ in Room Service. One critic said in his glowing review of the play that he “…could not think of another actor in Los Angeles who could play this role but Derek Manson.” How’d that feel?
DM: Yeah, that was, uh… (Kevin pats Derek on the back and reassures him it’s ok). That was pretty nice. Room Service is a fantastic story – there’s a lot of slapstick and screwball scenarios, but these are characters that are living during the depression, trying to be artists, starving for their art – literally – and it’s all being played for comedy. But once you sort of get in to that, and focus on the story, the laughs just kind of come.
KM: My experience watching Room Service was, I felt like I was part of the show – eavesdropping on what’s going on – like I was a guest at the hotel. It was really a wonderful feeling. Great show.
LB: You worked with two directors on Room Service, Ron Orbach and Bjorn Johnson. How was that?
DM: A period piece like this, in the wrong hands, with the wrong performers, will feel as dusty as that worst couch in your apartment. I worked with Ronny (Orbach) on Laughter on the 23rd Floor (Neil Simon) ages ago up in Sacramento. Bjorn I did not know, but I’d heard nothing but great things. The way it worked out was that Bjorn worked on the choreography of the piece, the movement. The needs of the characters. And Ron focused on finding the funny. Finding the heart in specific moments. Bjorn was very thorough about “taking the air out” and picking up cues for the pacing. Finding the rhythm and pace on a play like this is everything. Ron would swoop in and give us an idea about something we’d forgotten. The two of them were great, never had any disagreements, always on the same page.
LB: As far as you know.
DM: True. As far as I know.
LB: How do you three prepare for these roles, any secrets, any music?
AM: I always make playlists for my characters. For my ipod. For ‘Lulu’ I had all this great sexy French music. Crazy music. And then backstage, the only prep I wanted to do was just love everyone I was about to go onstage with. So, I spend an hour before each show hugging everyone and telling them how funny they are, laughing at jokes, telling them how gorgeous they are – sitting on people’s laps. It’s fantastic.
KM: That’s so great. That’s the collaborative spirit I’m talking about. Supporting each other.
DM: With a piece like this, trying to jump into the style, the comedy, depression-era, what’s amazing about the music of that time was nobody had any money. And the lyrics from all these great tunes were like “I’m out of money…but I got plenty of love” or “Pennies From Heaven.” How people were making due with not very much, how they were getting by. Romantic stuff. And now we’ve been extended. So that’s pretty gratifying.
LB: Any music informing your prep, Kevin?
KM: Listening to old rock n’ roll. I like to go more for the imagery. I love to paint the picture, close my eyes and visualize the picture of what’s happening.
LB: Well, what’s happening is you three are rockin’ it up on the boards, and I want to thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your exceptional work.
Final group hug. Actors are big huggers.