Filmmakers and theater artists in KC find symbiosis

This story originally appeared Sept. 23, 2013 on kansascity.com.

By Robert Trussell

Forrest Attaway had nobody but himself to blame.

One day the actor found himself on a remote country road somewhere out in Kansas, where filmmakers Mitch Brian and Todd Norris were shooting him from various angles and distances to put together a 60-second trailer promoting the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of “The Rainmaker.”

“There was not a QuikTrip or anything within 30 miles of this place,” Attaway said.

469385283_640In the play Attaway plays a character named Starbuck, a confidence man who blows into a drought-stricken rural community selling his services as someone who can bring rain.

“Originally my idea was Starbuck’s just standing out in the field and the camera pans in and moves in on one eye and you see a lightning bolt in his eye,” Attaway said.

Brian and Norris didn’t have the equipment to do it in one shot the way Attaway envisioned it. But they accomplished the same thing in a series of cuts that go from an extreme long shot of Attaway coming down a dirt road to an extreme close-up of his eye where, indeed, a lightning bolt flashes.

It wasn’t a particularly hot day, but they were able to shoot Attaway from far enough away that heat waves can be seen rising from the dirt. And in the editing process they turned the lush greenery on the roadsides parched and brown.

“They made it a better idea,” Attaway said. “I love those cats.”

A still from the Jetpack trailer for "The Rainmaker."

A still from the Jetpack trailer for “The Rainmaker.”

The slick trailer for “The Rainmaker,” shot in muted colors, is one of several Brian and Norris have made over the last year or two for local theater companies. Their first effort was a short promotional film for the Living Room’s 2012 production of “Bucket of Blood,” a play Brian wrote based on the 1959 Roger Corman cult film, in which interviews with artists involved were intercut with scenes from the public-domain film.

Since then they’ve shot trailers for “Burn This,” “Fool for Love” and “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” at the Living Room; “The Rainmaker,” their first for the MET; and “The Mountaintop” and “Venus in Fur” for the Unicorn. Their latest is a promo for “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” which opens at the Fishtank Peformance Studio this weekend.

Visit a theater company’s website and you find videos, but often they fall into two categories: yakking talking heads and performance footage shot from a stationary camera. Brian and Norris are offering a third option: Deftly edited little movies meant to stimulate the viewer’s curiosity.

“We’ve all seen those bad local TV commercials with bad lighting,” Brian said. “And it never makes me want to see the play.”

Norris put it this way: “What’s more fun as a filmmaker? To shoot a rehearsal? Or make a minimovie?”

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in a still from the "Venus in Fur" trailer

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in a still from the “Venus in Fur” trailer

Not so long ago, filmmakers in Kansas City did their thing, and theater folk did theirs. There wasn’t much overlap between the two communities. But that’s changing. When Attaway directed “Fool for Love” for the Living Room earlier this year, he cast one experienced stage actor — Robert Elliott — but for the other roles turned to performers who had mainly worked in film — Amy Kelly, Jason Miller and Curtis Smith.

“I like the more real, gritty kind of film acting,” Attaway said. He added that the trailers Brian and Norris are shooting might be one way to achieve what every theater company wants: Finding a younger audience.

“Anything we can do to bring that younger audience in has to have that familiar feel to it,” he sad. “We were all raised on television and movies.”

Brian, who had supported himself as a screenwriter for years, had never considered writing a play until sitting through rehearsals and performances of the Coterie Theatre’s second production of “Night of the Living Dead,” in which his daughter played a zombie.

“After watching ‘Night of the Living Dead’ for 10 performances, I realized I knew how I could do this,” he said.

Jeff Church, the Coterie’s artistic director, approached him about writing a “Living Dead” sequel. The result was a 2009 production of “Maul of the Dead,” a comedic gorefest directed by Ron Megee, which began with zombies chasing security officers into the lobby of the Off Center Theatre before the audience had been seated.

“For me it was great,” Brian said. “I didn’t want any blackouts. I wanted to write sustained action, which you don’t get to do when you’re writing a movie.”

Subsequently, Brian wrote “Sorority House of the Dead,” an homage to 1980s slasher movies, which was staged by Megee at the Living Room. Then came “Bucket of Blood,” also performed at the Living Room. Now he’s firmly in the Living Room orbit. All three plays have been published and have been produced elsewhere, including two productions in Australia.

The cross-pollination between art disciplines in Kansas City is at an all-time high, Brian said.

“There’s a lot of creative synergy right now,” he said. “There’s a lot more crossover. There’s just a creative vibe going on in Kansas City.”

Norris said shooting the trailers has introduced him to a community of artists he hadn’t known.

“Mitch is much more familiar with the theater scene than I am,” Norris said. “I am very new to this so one of the fun things for me doing these promos is meeting all these terrific actors. So for me it’s like networking.”

An image from the "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll'" trailer for the Living Room.

An image from the “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll'” trailer for the Living Room.

Shooting the trailers has fundamentally changed the way Norris thinks about actors and playwrights.

“It went from a zero to a thousand for me,” Norris said. “I was one of those guys who had never seen good theater. My perception of theater was: ‘This is kind of lame, sort of stupid.’ But when I started seeing good theater at the Living Room and other places, I was like, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ I’m kind of a born-again theatergoer right now.”

When Attaway approached Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, and pitched the idea for shooting a “Rainmaker” trailer, she didn’t hesitate.

“I said, let’s go for it,” Paisley said. “It’s interesting when you’re working with a modern audience. We can’t make theater be a medium that it isn’t, but helping people access something in their imagination in a mode of communication that is acceptable to them is not a bad idea. I love the whole look of it.”

Cynthia Levin, the artistic director of the Unicorn, said she first saw some of Brian and Norris’ work at a fundraiser for the Living Room. She invited them to shoot a promo for “The Mountaintop,” the final show of the previous season, which resulted in a moody black-and-white piece showing actors Walter Coppage and Chioma Anyanwu performing short clips of dialogue.

Levin said she was pleased with their work and wanted them back.

“The quality is fantastic,” she said. “They’re filmmakers. They do really great work, and I just knew I wanted them to do something for ‘Venus in Fur’ to open the season.”

Brian and Norris first worked together when Brian directed “Stay Clean,” a short film based on a James Ellroy story. Norris was the director of photography. They’ve worked independently and in partnership with others, but the work they do together falls under the umbrella of their company, Jetpack Pictures.

Where can they be seen? There’s no central forum for that. Some of Brian and Norris’s work can be seen on the Unicorn and Living Room websites. Videos cannot be embedded on the MET’s website at the moment. But the minimovies get shared widely on Facebook and Jetpack Pictures has its own Vimeo channel.

Brian said he and Norris hope to expand their client list and make trailers for other theater companies in town.

“No one has been disappointed yet,” he said. “A lot of it is getting people to trust you. We’ve both been making films since we were kids. So we have got a combined 70 years of filmmaking experience. It sounds awful but it’s true. We live and breathe this stuff.”

© 2013 Kansas City Star

KC theater companies big and small prove there’s room onstage for all

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Funny thing about alternative theater — there comes a time when the word “alternative” begins to lose its meaning.

You might have read about the 2012-13 season announced recently by Kansas City Repertory Theatre. But if you failed to pick up on the historic, precedent-setting nature of what the Rep has planned, allow me to put it in perspective.

On paper the Rep season looks solid. But it’s noteworthy for artistic director Eric Rosen’s continued willingness to roll the dice and push boundaries. Consider:

• Ron Megee — actor, director, playwright, producer, prop designer, parodist — will make his Kansas City Rep debut alongside Rep veteran Mark Robbins in the crazed, cross-dressing comedy “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”

For years Megee was the guy who made things happen on the fringes of the local theater scene. The co-founder of Late Night Theatre staged elaborate send-ups of vintage films — “Valley of the Dolls,” “The Birds” — and became known as a comic actor who was willing to try virtually anything onstage.

Through the years he has gained increasing respectability — performing tour-de-force multiple roles in Coterie Theatre productions, for example — and he was memorable in a Unicorn Theatre production of “La Cage aux Folles.”

But for Megee to appear at the Rep means that nothing less than a seismic shift has taken place in local theater. A man whose career was the very embodiment of “alternative,” Megee is now mainstream.

Ron Megee as fat Elvis in "The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge" at the Unicorn. (Cynthia Levin)

• The Rep season also includes “American Buffalo,” an early David Mamet play about three small-time criminals planning a heist in Chicago.

In the 2004-05 season the Rep presented a production of “The Voysey Inheritance,” an Edwardian play about financial corruption that Mamet adapted, and several years earlier it staged his blistering two-character essay on sexual politics, “Oleanna.”

But “American Buffalo” is what we might call “pure” Mamet — a staccato drama about characters on the margins. For the first time Rep audiences will be peppered by a barrage of Mamet f-bombs in all their poetic glory.

The last time local audiences saw “American Buffalo” was in 2007, when the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre staged it in its previous downtown space on Walnut Street. It was a good choice for the MET, a fringy theater that has slowly but surely made itself an estimable cultural force in town.

But “American Buffalo” at the Rep? Until now, that possibility seemed as remote as, say, frogs raining from the sky, or Ron Megee appearing on its stage.

Kyle Hatley (Kansas City Star)

• The Rep will also present Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” but not in its venerable, familiar form. This will be a re-staging by Rep associate artistic director Kyle Hatley of a stripped-down, raw-essentials production he first put up at the Living Room, a truly alternative theater company (and bar) near 18th and McGee streets that came into existence only two years ago.

For the Rep to lend its imprimatur to a local theater company — especially one that doesn’t always play by conventional rules — is more than a big deal. It says volumes about the quality of talent in this town and the creative firmament that produces memorable work.

I’ve written often about the growth of professional theater in Kansas City in both quality and quantity. I try to restrain myself from using words like “phenomenal,” but the fact remains that theater arts in Kansas City are functioning at an all-time high.

People sometimes ask why this is — Why Kansas City? Why now? — and there’s no simple explanation. But the basic reasons are these: The population of theater professionals — actors, designers, directors among them — in Kansas City has grown steadily in the last 10 to 15 years. Sometimes young theater graduates from area colleges decide to settle in Kansas City, at least for a while, while other artists have actually moved here from such far-flung locations as New York, California and the upper Midwest.

But the real key to the growth I’ve witnessed is artistic cross-pollination. When Hatley was new to town, one of the first things he did was to start writing and directing original material that he staged for the Kansas City Fringe Festival. These weren’t officially Rep productions, but his status with the organization indirectly lent the festival a virtual stamp of approval.

The same is true for the Living Room — first, because Hatley was involved in “Carousel” there, and now because the Rep is inviting the Living Room production into the hallowed Spencer Theatre.

Other alternative groups, such as the Fishtank Performance Studio, are producing new material and Kansas City premieres. But as alternative theater companies go, the Living Room is in a class by itself.

The poster for "Bucket of Blood" (The Living Room)

Just recently I was there to see “A Bucket of Blood,” an amusing stage adaptation of an old Roger Corman movie, and the combination of theater, arch comedy and live jazz was like nothing you’d encounter anywhere else. The Living Room, in the virtual blink of an eye, has established itself as an incubator for talent, where artists can reinvent themselves repeatedly.

Musicians, visual artists and stage designers might appear as actors. Actors may collaborate with photographers to create visual arts exhibits. Musicians might try their hand at directing. It’s a place where playwrights can act and actors can direct. You might see an actress or actor you know from a memorable Living Room production tending bar.

But the Living Room isn’t just an isolated iconoclastic pocket. Actor Rusty Sneary, a co-founder, appears often at other companies, including the Rep, the Unicorn and the American Heartland Theatre. And other respected local actors — Scott Cordes, David Fritts and Vanessa Severo, among them — have performed at the Living Room.

Nobody sees as much theater as a theater critic, so the occasional theatergoer may not realize what’s cooking in Kansas City. But take a look: The city’s theatrical life is a constantly surging, swirling stew of audacious ideas and creative dialogue.

In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s Kansas City become known internationally as a jazz town because musicians came here from across the country and fed on one another’s creativity. I think we’re seeing something like that again — only this time the surging art form isn’t jazz. It’s theater.

Read more theater coverage at kansascity.com.

David Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’ is a fight to the finish

Posted on Fri, Feb. 03, 2012
By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Somewhere along the line, boxing became an old man’s sport, a fastidious style of combat designed to follow rules about where and when you could hit the other guy and reduce the level of carnage.

It was supplanted by cage fighting, where looser rules allow a much higher level of mayhem inside the octagon.

And in cage fighting we happen to find the perfect metaphor for David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” a two-character duel in a book-lined office that remains within the emotional-psychological realm until the last moments, when it gets physical with a vengeance.

Lauren Friedlander and David Fritts (Paul Andrews Photography/The Living Room)

Recently I dug out my review of the 1992 off-Broadway production with William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon to revisit my first impression of the piece. I, like many others, was struck by the intensity of the conflict, the desperate battle for dominance that played itself out against the still-churning wake of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, in which Anita Hill accused a nominee to the Supreme Court of sexual harassment.

“Mamet’s artistic home turf is the gray zone of moral ambiguity,” I wrote at the time, “and in this two-character examination of sexual enmity he offers complicated conflicts for which there are no easy answers or painless resolutions. Buttons will be pushed, and some people, by virtue of their gender, may instinctively take sides in the white-hot struggle for dominance unfolding onstage.”

The Living Room, after reshuffling its spring lineup of shows, is now about to open a new production of the piece, featuring the estimable David Fritts as John, a college professor who runs afoul of his own arrogant assumptions and sense of entitlement, and relative newcomer Lauren Friedlander as Carol, a student who discovers that it’s within her power to engineer his downfall. Read the full review at kansascity.com.

Skin deep: Is it art or exploitation? KC playwright and photographer attempt art with the female form

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

All roads seem to lead to the Living Room these days, especially when it comes to cross-pollination between art forms.

The multi-level performance space near 18th and McGee is where you see plays turned on their heads, musicals pulled inside out, musicians doing theater and actors doing music.

This week we find an actor/playwright teaming up with a photographer to create unique visual art.

From the "Templates/Relationships" exhibit (Brian Stubler)

Forrest Attaway, who has appeared in productions at the Living Room and Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre (and will be seen in the MET’s upcoming staging of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”), writes plays. Now he and photographer Brian Stubler have assembled a photo exhibition that combines unconventional visuals with what might be called impressionistic writing

And here’s the thing — the writing hasn’t been committed to paper. The medium of choice is the bodies of models.

“Templates/Relationships” is the name of the exhibit, which opens in the mezzanine gallery at the Living Room this week as part of First Friday. On the event’s Facebook page, Attaway and Stubler describe the exhibition as an “enigmatic exploration of female relationships” that “reconnoiters the deeply personal inner narrative of seven unique women.”

What that means in plain English is that Attaway sits down with a model, asks her a few questions, finds out something about her life experiences, and then, using a black marker, proceeds to write his impressions on her body. Then Stubler shoots hundreds of images of the model in different poses and settings. Using computer software, Stubler manipulates the color and lighting to create the finished photograph.

“Initially, Forrest approached me with the idea,” Stubler said. “We sort of met out of the blue. … We just hit it off. It wasn’t like anything I’ve done before. In fact, I hadn’t photographed that many people. I mainly shoot inanimate objects.”

The exhibition will include about 30 prints. Most will be 8-by-10 inches and a few will be 15-by-20. The models, who come from the ranks of burlesque troupes and the acting community, will get a percentage of any sales.

Legitimate artistic expression? Shameless exploitation? Soft-core titillation? All of the above?

Forrest Attaway and Brian Stubler

The exhibition inevitably brings to mind an enduring tongue-in-cheek quote attributed to art critic Gelett Burgess. It’s a phrase often invoked sarcastically when it comes to artistic representations of human (especially female) sexuality: “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.”

Attaway waxed enthusiastic about the bonding between writer and model after hours of printing on skin. It was, he said, therapeutic for all involved.

“There’s not one of the models that I do not now have a real close relationship with. (They) are going to be friends of mine for life,” Attaway said.

Attaway said it was about 11 years ago that he hit on the idea of writing on women. His first model was his girlfriend at the time.

“I combined the two things I love best: writing and women,” he said. “All the plays I’ve written probably started off on the back of a woman I knew.”

Local audiences have had only one chance so far to see one of Attaway’s plays. Last year, a one-hour version of his full-length drama “Worth” — a study of a middle-class family affected by organized crime — was performed at the Kansas City Fringe Festival. The abbreviated version was impressive enough that some people — including this critic — wanted to see the whole play.

Until then, we’ll have to content ourselves with studying the writing fragments visible in the photographs, all of which were shot at the Living Room. The photographs don’t reveal all the writing, so the viewer has to speculate on its meaning.

Forrest Attaway with model (Brian Stubler)

“We had run of the space,” Stubler said. “We’ve shot in the freight elevator, we’ve shot upstairs, we’ve shot all over the building. The building itself has such architectural intrigue. There’s brick walls, beautiful windows. There’s texture ingrained into every aspect of the building.”

Attaway said the models were understandably skeptical, and one backed out at the last minute.

“They approached me about it, and I asked a couple of models before I did it because I didn’t know exactly what ‘writing on your body’ meant,” said actress Mandy Morris.

But Morris decided the project was worth doing.

“It was seven hours of being written on,” she said. “And then another two or three hours of shooting. So that was a long day. And cold. But they turned out great.”

And, Morris agreed, the experience seemed to have some therapeutic value.

In the initial conversation with Attaway, they talked about her emotional life and her career.

“He was just asking questions about past relationships and working on cruise ships, just going through my past, and I guess he got inspired because he just wrote away,” she said. “To actually see those words on your body made you face inner feelings you had but didn’t know you had. And he put it in words better than I could.”

Most performers are exhibitionists by nature, but even so, Morris said she felt vulnerable. That was the challenge.

“Just being OK with baring it all,” she said. “Letting everybody see who I am inside and out. You know, I felt very exposed. As an actor you face that, but not in that way. You have to take your mentality to that level and know you’re doing it for the art and to be part of a great project.”

Aurelie Roque, another model, recalled how she was invited to participate.

“I got a call from Forrest in the middle of the night, and he asked me if I’d have any interest in being drawn on,” she said. “I was like, ‘Sure!’ I do burlesque, so whatever. He’s a cool dude, and it sounded like fun.”

The models had to be re-inked once Attaway was done writing, and Roque said that posed an unforeseen problem.

“It took me a week to get that stuff off,” she said. “I was able to get it off my arms and legs really quickly. But my (rear) and torso took forever.”

Model Ashley Otis said the photographs were “beautiful,” “tasteful” and were in no way “inappropriate.”

From "Templates/Relationships" (Brian Stubler)

Still, the nature of the project raises some basic questions. Stubler and Attaway, both males of the species, are interpreting women’s lives through their own lens, which naturally invites skepticism. Both insist this is not an exercise in male chauvinism.

“The worst thing that could happen is if this comes off as sexist,” Attaway said.

To gain a feminist’s perspective, we turned to playwright and spoken-word performer Lisa Cordes, a keen observer of the KC arts scene. She made it clear she wasn’t commenting on the work because she hadn’t seen it yet.

But, after seeing one of the photos on the exhibition’s Facebook page and reading the artists’ statement, she expressed reservations.

“There seems to be a lot of acting upon the women,” she said. “If they’re really trying to capture female experience, it’s being filtered through two males. The women are being objectified twice, once by the photographer and also by the text, which they didn’t write. That female figure (in the Facebook photo) did not have a face and did not have a name. It wasn’t her photograph and it wasn’t her writing.”

Attaway insists the project in fact celebrates the women who agreed to be models. But at the end of the day, it’s about what he does as a writer.

“The way I write, it’s not like I’m very formulaic as far as how the play moves,” he said. “I know my characters. So I just put them in a room and listen. This is an intense character study. So in the future, if I need a girl (in a play), I can just drop one of these in.”

Still, we had to ask, wouldn’t there be at least as much value if he and Stubler applied the same approach to middle-aged men — or anyone beyond young female dancers and actresses?

Attaway said he and Stubler want this to be the opening installment of a series. In the future, he hopes to use a pregnant model. And he said he could imagine inviting cancer survivors to participate.

“I mean, I’ll write on a burn victim if there’s a story there,” he said. “There’s nothing lecherous or chauvinistic about this. We really are trying to attain this high-art principle with the work.”

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2012 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

‘Betrayal’ is an affair to remember: Living Room presents Pinter’s powerful drama with a fine cast and unusual staging.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” arguably his most accessible play, can be read one of two ways: as a cleverly constructed dissection of a clandestine love affair and all the levels of betrayal that come with it, or as an indulgent autobiographical work by a self-obsessed writer.

There’s no rule that says it can’t be both, of course. This play spans nine years and allows us to see the exuberant beginning and sad end of a seven-year love affair between a literary agent and his best friend’s wife. Based in part on Pinter’s own affair with television presenter Joan Bakewell while he was married to actress Vivien Merchant, he lays out the major events in “Betrayal” in reverse chronology.

Katie Gilchrist and Forrest Attaway in "Betrayal" (John Sleezer/Kansas City Star)

Thus, in the opening scene we see the final, bittersweet meeting between Jerry and Emma two years after their affair ended. In the final scene we see its passionate beginning.

There’s no denying that Pinter’s tight, economical dialogue draws us in. And his knack for conveying information about his characters as much by what they don’t say as what they do is compelling. In a strange way, “Betrayal” is put together like a thriller — although it doesn’t deliver much in the way of thrills.

The production at the Living Room, directed by Bryan Moses and featuring a talented cast, finds clever ways to distract us from the play’s fundamental emptiness. The love triangle presented in this play is remarkably cold and joyless, and how we feel about it all when it’s over seems curiously beside the point.

Moses has chosen to take advantage of the Living Room’s flexible and cavernous performance space to present the play in “promenade style,” meaning the audience follows the actors from room to room as they perform the show. The earliest scenes — set in a pub and a living room — are set downstairs, but most of the play is performed in the big second-floor loft where we see another living room scene as well as episodes in a Venice hotel room, a London restaurant and the flat where Emma and Jerry carry on their affair.

At the Monday night opening, the audience was literally left in the dark at times during the scene transitions and was unsure just where the next scene would be played, but in each case guides were on hand to direct viewers to the proper location.

Forrest Attaway dominates the production with a finely crafted, nuanced performance as Jerry. There are moments of potent humor in his deadpan reactions to an increasingly tense and soul-battering situation. Few actors can do as much as Attaway while saying nothing, and when he speaks, every word counts. Indeed, Attaway gives the piece some actual emotional resonance. In the final scene, when we see a drunken Jerry professing his passion for the surprised Emma, the poignancy is palpable because we’ve already seen the train wreck.

Katie Gilchrist brings her customary charisma to the stage as Emma, ably negotiating transitions between love, passion and, ultimately, an emotional void. And Rick Williamson, an actor I’d never seen before, delivers an impressive less-is-more performance as Robert, Emma’s husband. His work is subtle and controlled.

Williamson is particularly good when enunciating the script’s understated but withering commentary on the London writing and publishing scene, circa the 1970s.

The play has valid things to say about the different manifestations of betrayal — how each character emotionally betrays the others and how both Robert, who is a book publisher, and Jerry betray their own literary ideals.

But ultimately this play seems straitjacketed by the era it evokes. It invites us into the prop wash of London’s “swinging ’60s,” which in retrospect isn’t terribly interesting.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved