Tag Archives: Orpheus Descending

BroadwayWorld: Fountain and Deaf West Theaters present Premiere of Signed “Cyrano”

Paul Raci (Chris), Erinn Anova (Roxy), and Troy Kotsur (Cyrano).

The Fountain Theatre and Deaf West Theatre present the world premiere of a modern day classic romance, a re-imagined signed/spoken version of “Cyrano de Bergerac.” CYRANO, written by Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs (Bakersfield Mist) and directed by Simon Levy, opens at The Fountain Theatre on April 28, with previews beginning April 20.

In Sachs’ new adaptation, Cyrano is a deaf poet hopelessly in love with Roxy, a beautiful hearing woman. But she doesn’t understand sign language and instead loves Chris, his hearing brother. Can Cyrano express his love to Roxy with his hands? Or must he teach Chris to woo her, to “speak his words” for him? ASL (American Sign Language) becomes the language of love in this new spin on a classic love story.

Troy Kotsur (Cyrano).

“In the original classic, Cyrano feels self-conscious and over-glorifies his enormous nose, but in this modern deaf version, it’s his hands that are the focus,” explains Sachs. “Cyrano’s deafness is channeled through his hands, which swirl and soar to express the most complex human concepts, his inner-most thoughts and feelings, through the beauty of sign language.”

“It’s a mythic story about our hunger for love, the pangs for it,” says Levy. “But the deeper theme is how we communicate with one another. Stephen has written a beautiful adaptation that’s contemporary and fresh, set in a modern city where people communicate via text, Facebook and Twitter. It’s a world of iPhones, Blackberries and tablets. The production marries three forms of communication: ASL, English, and e-language.”

American Sign Language is not English, but a unique language unto itself with its own syntax, sentence structure, slang, humor, subtlety and complexity. It’s the job of ASL masters Tyrone Giordano and Shoshannah Stern to work with the deaf actors to translate the script into ASL, and director Simon Levy works with ASL interpreters in rehearsals. Fight choreographers Brian Danner and Abby Walla must not only create a fight scene between actors Troy Kotsur (Cyrano) and James Royce Edwards, but incorporate the simultaneous sign language with the help of Giordano, Stern and Levy.

A new project such as this has attracted deaf actors from all over the world. Six of the 13-member ensemble are deaf, and many of them have traveled great distances to make their Los Angeles debuts in Cyrano. Auditions were completed using Skype and video submissions.

“Deaf West is the only established theater company in the U.S. that regularly stages new works featuring deaf actors,” notes newly appointed Deaf West Theatre artistic director David Kurs. “Deaf actors from all over the country and the world were anxious to participate.”

Troy Kotsur is Cyrano.

Troy Kotsur (Cyrano), a veteran of Deaf West Theatre (Big River, Pippin, A Streetcar Named Desire, Of Mice and Men), traveled to Los Angeles from his current home in Arizona; Daniel Durant majored in theater at Gallaudet University and comes to L.A. from Maryland; Eddie Buck, who has acted in productions ranging from A Christmas Carol to Romeo and Juliet to Hamlet, joins the cast from Pennsylvania; Maleni Chaitoo (Switched at Birth) recently arrived from New York; and stage, film and TV actress Ipek D. Mehlum comes all the way from Oslo, Norway. Completing the deaf cast is Los Angeles-based actor Bob Hiltermann, who appeared in the Academy Award winning film version of Children of a Lesser God and recurred on All My Children. The cast also includes hearing actors Erinn Anova (Blues For An Alabama Sky, For Colored Girls…, Doubt) as Roxy and Paul Raci (Joseph Jefferson “Best Actor” nomination for Children of a Lesser God in Chicago) as Cyrano’s brother Chris. Hearing ensemble members Al Bernstein, James Babbin, James Royce Edwards, Victor Warren, and Martica De Cardenas also “voice” for the deaf actors.

The set designer for Cyrano is Jeff McLaughlin; lighting designer is Jeremy Pivnick; sound designer is Peter Bayne; video designer is Jeff Teeter; multimedia tech is by Media Fabricators, Inc.; costume designer is Naila Aladdin Sanders; prop designer is Misty Carlisle; fight choreographers are Brian Danner and Abby Walla; production stage manager is Sue Karutz; assistant stage manager is Terri RobertsLaura Hill and Deborah Lawlor produce for The Fountain Theatre, and David Kurs produces for Deaf West Theatre. Cyrano is funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Paul Raci (Chris) and Troy Kotsur (Cyrano).

The relationship between The Fountain Theatre and Deaf West Theatre dates back 21 years to the early beginnings of both companies. Excited by the visual theatricality of ASL, Stephen Sachs had already been conducting workshops with deaf actors for a number of years. He and Fountain co-artistic director Deborah Lawlor offered office space in their newly founded theater facility to Ed Waterstreet, an actor with National Theatre of the Deaf who envisioned starting a theater company for deaf actors in Los Angeles. Deaf West Theatre produced its first two productions, The Gin Game and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the latter directed by Sachs) in the Fountain space. Deaf West Theatre went on to produce 40 plays and four musicals in their own venue and around the country, including the Tony-nominated Big River on Broadway, and to win more than 80 theater awards. The Fountain Theatre is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles with over 200 awards for all areas of production, performance, and design. Fountain projects have been seen in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Florida, New Jersey, Minneapolis and Edinburgh.

Cyrano marks Stephen Sachs’ ninth new play, his third incorporating deaf culture and illuminating the deaf world. His play Sweet Nothing in my Ear (1997, PEN USA Literary Award finalist, Media Access Award winner for Theater Excellence) has been produced in theaters around the country and in 2008 was made into a TV movie for CBS starring Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin and Jeff DanielsOpen Window (2005, Media Access Award winner for Theater Excellence) had its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, directed by Eric Simonson. His other plays include Bakersfield Mist (recently optioned for London’s West End and New York), Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (Fountain Theatre, Vancouver Playhouse,Canadian Stage Company, LA Drama Critics Circle award and LA Weekly award nominations for Best Adaptation), Gilgamesh (Theatre @ Boston Court), Central Avenue (PEN USA Literary Award finalist, Back Stage Garland award, Best Play), Mother’s Day, The Golden Gate (Best Play, Drama-Logue), and The Baron in the Trees. Sachs co-founded The Fountain Theatre with Deborah Lawlor in 1990.

Simon Levy was honored with the 2011 Milton Katselas Award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Directing credits at the Fountain include A House Not Meant to Stand; Opus; Photograph 51;The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore; The Gimmick with Dael Orlandersmith (Ovation Award-Solo Performance); Master Class (Ovation Award-Best Production); Daisy in the Dreamtime; Going to St. Ives; The Night of the Iguana; Summer & Smoke (Ovation Award-Best Production); The Last Tycoon, which he wrote and directed, (5 Back Stage West awards, including Best Adaptation and Direction); and Orpheus Descending (6 Drama-Logue awards, including Best Production and Direction). What I Heard About Iraq, which he wrote and directed, was produced worldwide including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Fringe First Award) and the Adelaide Fringe Festival (Fringe Award), was produced by BBC Radio, and received a 30-city UK tour culminating in London.

Troy Kotsur (Cyrano) and Erinn Anova (Roxy).

Cyrano opens on Saturday, April 28, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm through June 10. Preview performances take place April 20-27 on the same schedule with an additional preview performance on Wednesday, April 25 @ 8 pm. Tickets are $30 on Thursdays and Fridays and $34 on Saturdays and Sundays, except previews which are $15. On Thursdays and Fridays only, students with ID are $20 and seniors are $25. The 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.

Photo Credit: Ed Kreiger 

Fountain Actress Karen Kondazian at Book Soup

Karen will Discuss and Sign her  Novel, “The Whip”

Karen Kondazian

Fountain actress Karen Kondazian (The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, Master Class, Night of the Iguana, Orpheus Descending, and more) will present a reading and Q&A of her critically acclaimed historical novel, The Whip, at Book Soup in West Hollywood on Saturday, February 11 from 4pm – 5:30pm.   Enjoy the book signing and indulge yourself in some cowboy food, beer, wine, sarsaparilla and banjo music!

The Whip is inspired by the true story of a woman, Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst (1812-1879) who lived most of her extraordinary life as a man. As a young woman in Rhode Island, she fell in love and had a child. Her husband was lynched and her baby killed. The destruction of her family drove her west to California, dressed as a man, to track the murder. Charley became a renowned stagecoach driver. She killed a famous outlaw, had a secret love affair, and lived with a housekeeper who, unaware of her true sex, fell in love with her. Charley was the first woman to vote in America (as a man). Her grave lies in Watsonville, California.

SAT FEB 11 4:00-5:30 pm Book Soup 8818 Sunset Blvd   West Hollywood

More on Book Soup event           Buy the Book!

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.