Saturday, September 27, 2014

Q-and-A with Paul Stein of The Solo Collective

Paul Stein
I met Paul Stein in Chicago during the summer of 2009. We were both participants in the Chicago Directors Lab. We both spoke a little about solo performance, but not enough to anticipate where we would be half a decade later. Paul now runs The Solo Collective in Los Angeles (and I produce the Dallas Solo Fest). Anyway, we were at the Directors Lab and you know how it is at these kinds of things. You meet a lot of people. It seems really intense over several days. But then everyone kind of goes back to thier own cities and back to their own careers. But you don't actually stay in contact with a lot of the people, you know. 

When Paul and I parted ways on the last day of the Lab, I rememeber saying "stay in touch," and Paul shook my hand and said "Oh, I won't be a stranger." And you know what? He hasn't. Which is awesome, because I finally got ahold of him to do a brief interview for this website.

So, here we go...

Q: Give us a little background on yourself. Where'd you grow up?

A: I was born in New York City, but I grew up in Los Angeles, primarily in the San Fernando Valley.  I’ve been a resident of Los Angeles for over 30 years.  My parents were in the theater and entertainment business – so I experienced the many roller coaster highs and lows as a child when my father and mother were in and out of work.  Even though, I live in L.A., which is a TV and Film town, I’ve always loved the theatre and wanted to make my living in that specific field.

Q: Were you "in the arts" when you were younger? Did you take arts classes at school?

A: Yes, I went to college to pursue theatre.  At 18, I went to L.A. City College’s Theatre Academy.  It was an acting conservatory, 2-3 year program.  I did it ‘ass-backwards.’  At the time, it was a finishing school, a program for the college graduate. I auditioned twice, got in on the second try. I was one of the youngest students there, my fellow classmates were in their early/mid/late 20’s.  For three years, it was all drama classes, theatre history, tech courses, character analysis and play production. I grew up quickly and learned plenty because I was around older, mature student actors. I proceeded from there to Cal State University Los Angeles for my Bachelor’s in Theatre.

Q: How did you first get started in the professional theatre?

A: After graduating CSULA, I started stage-managing at Equity-waiver Theaters around town.  Most of my college teachers told me, “If you want to get paid in theater, do tech.” Problem with that, you get pigeonholed as just that – tech only.  At the same time, I was studying acting with Charles Nelson Reilly, a family friend and probably the biggest influence and mentor in my life. 

I was also part of the ensemble at the MET Theater, where I participated in a weekly scene-study taught by A-list actors that were part of and ran the MET Theater Company at the time: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Holly Hunter, Beth Henley, Arliss Howard, James Gammon, and many others.  It was during that period, I realized how hard it was to be an actor – that desire to allow yourself to put it ALL out there every time--, so I gave it up and started playwriting and directing (which I came to realize, are just as hard.)

Q: You seem drawn to new/original work. What appeals to you about it?

A: To me, Theater is an imperfect art form. There are hundreds and hundreds of beats in a play. 

It is so rare to hit each rehearsed beat with specified clarity at every single performance. That’s how I feel about new and original work.  You can have a wonderfully written play and somehow the production falls flat or is executed poorly.  Other occasions, some mediocre/kind-of-good script transforms into a fantastic production that elevates the text.  Because new work is truly untested, it offers great risks and great rewards.

Q: What drew you specifically to solo performance, particularly from the directing side of things?

A: I saw a lot of BAD one-person shows.  Los Angeles gets a terrible rap for solo work (and sometimes deservedly so) -- it is primarily viewed as a showcase vehicle for an actor. That’s the association – it’s self-indulgent.  I know that is a generalization and there are so many great solo artists here, but because of the volume of shows, individual goals and intentions for the art form are sometimes blurred.  As I witnessed (and stage managed) many solo shows and showcases, I started taking notes about the writing and performing choices.  (Good or bad choices – that’s subjective.)  I kept asking myself “why are they making the ‘obvious’ choice that has been done countless times?” So, that started my route into directing, wanting to find a more interesting approach when working on a solo show. 

On a more positive note, for me it is such a personal, intimate experience directing one-person shows.  Performer and director, in a rehearsal room, working together on a project. It’s very unique. I don’t find that similar working experience with full-cast on a multi-character play.

Q: You have worked at HBO. What brought you there? 

A: I had just finished stage-managing a one-act festival produced by Ensemble Studio Theater LA, sponsored by the cable channel Showtime.  HBO also was planning a similar type of one-act festival. Those producers called me, I was interviewed, hired me on the spot and I went to work the next day teching 17 one acts. 

The month-long HBO New Writers’ Project Festival was successful, so they opened their own theater called the HBO Workspace in Hollywood.  Development venue, over 200+ shows a year.  A lot of great performers, countless numbers, came through that space – Tenacious D, Paul F. Tompkins, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Mr. Show with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, would try out their material and sketches there.  And, I stage managed one of the very first performances of Nia Vardalos’ solo show, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  I began as an SM, then became Production Coordinator and until I moved up to Associate Producer.  So, an original four-week festival turned into a 7-year gig.

In addition,  I worked as a Venue Producer for over ten years at HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen and Venue Supervisor at all five TCF: Comedy Festivals in Las Vegas produced by HBO, TBS & AEG.  One year, I was the Festival’s Los Angeles Talent Scout and Coordinator for the Aspen Festival.  Lots of solo performers and comedians at those festivals: Eddie Izzard, Sandra Shamas, Will Power, Sarah Jones, Julia, Sweeney, Colin Quinn, Tommy Tiernan, to name a few.

Q: And Comedy Central?

A: I am the Executive Producer of the Comedy Central Stage, a development venue sponsored by the cable network.  It is a first-look development space – we do about 100 shows per year, everything from sketch, Improv, pilot presentations, stand-up comedy, one-person show, etc.

Q: Tell us about the Solo Collective. Where'd that idea come from?

A: I had been an Artistic Director of a small local theater ensemble (Moving Arts) and I created a very popular show that was a hit with audiences and critics (The Car Plays), but I had some silly notion to be a founder of a theatre company.  That was my want – “creating something from the ground up.”  Well, the idea basically germinated while working as a freelance director on previous shows.  I would observe the performer juggling too many hats – writer, actor, fundraiser, promoter, and producer.  It’s hard—do it yourself, finances possibly being an issue, cutting corners, a lot of responsibilities seem to fall solely onto one person.  Sometimes, my directing jobs would meld into producing duties, not by choice but out of necessity. 

So, I thought, why not find a way to build a support system.  Start a theater company with a group of really talented solo artists that I admire.  Introduce a brand that audiences can trust. Change the negative perception / connotation of solo shows for those non-fans and doubters. Display my directing aesthetic and mindset towards solo work, the art form and craft.  Give a home to the individual, and roots to grow new material.  Those were some of my first thoughts.

Q: What are some of your influences? Who inspires you?

A: As I mentioned, Charles Nelson Reilly was a big influence, his approach and love for the theater continues to resonate with me even though he is no longer with us.  Besides his generosity and humorous stories, he passed down to me the simplicity and practicality of directing—‘find the truth in the scene and moment’.  It’s funny, when I think about it now, my parents were the Production Stage Managers for a seminal solo show, “The Belle of Amherst” starring Julie Harris. They did the 40-city tour, Broadway run, my dad even went to London with it.  I was very young, but I wonder if that show influenced me in any possible way or all just coincidence? 

For inspiration, I don’t have one favorite performer or show, but so many actors, plays and performances have left an indelible mark.  Just a few: Spalding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia”, Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me”, Mike Daisey’s “How Theater Failed America”, anything by Antonio Sacre, “Bust” by Lauren Weedman, Michael Kearns, Danny Hoch, Charlayne Woodard.

Q: Any advice for solo performers just starting out?

A: Ask yourself very specific questions – why are you doing this?  What are your creative, personal and financial goals for mounting a solo show?  What is the specific reason why you are doing this – solo writing and performing versus crafting a play or short story?  Find shows, scripts and performers that you admire.  What kind of piece do you want to do?  Characters – showing your range as an actor?  Storytelling?  Do you have a one-of-a-kind story that is truly your own and you need to voice it and share it with others?  My very first directed solo show was by Juston McKinney.  He’s a professional comedian, but before that he was a State Trooper/Cop in a small town in Maine.  His father was homeless by choice, living on the street.

And, his father would get in trouble on purpose so he could see his son.  One-of-a-kind story, and Juston told it with jokes and material from his stand-up act.  He “needed “to tell that story.  What story do you need to tell and be heard? Get a supportive fan club – director, good listener, someone to handle box office for you, anything and anyone that can help you reach your goal. Finally – be dedicated!  Commit to it.  And, it takes time to develop.  It’s a marathon not a sprint.

Q: What do you see for the future of solo performance? 

A: I’m not sure.  Solo plays are a hard sell, even though, financially more affordable producing one actor as opposed to five.  Audiences, however, like to see ‘Stars’ in One-Person Shows versus an unknown performer with a fantastic story.  Solo Festivals seem to be popping up more and more frequently.  Getting one or two nights makes it more of an event, but it doesn’t allow you to develop the show in front of an audience over time with multiple reps.  In L.A., there are so many weekly and monthly Storytelling shows all around town.  People getting up on stage,
being heard by interested audiences – that’s encouraging.

Q: And for you personally and the Solo Collective?

A: We’ve added two members to the group – we are now 7 strong (Carla Cackowski, Drew Droege, Brendan Hunt, Elizabeth Liang, Molly Prather, R. Ernie Silva and Antonio Sacre.) I’m very excited about that. Each new person offers new life, performance and professional points-of-view that we all gain from.  Our Season 2 just began – three shows in this fall, two in winter and three in spring.  Might change, but that’s the plan, for now.  As Artistic Director, I am asking all the of performers to create a new, full-length show.  I think it’s a important for a performer to have a repertoire and not just one story/show that they do for years.  However, that didn’t seem to hurt Hal Holbrook with his Mark Twain Tonight!

I also think The Solo Collective is a work-in-progress and will continue to evolve over time.  How does a group of individual actors (who are all used to working independently) collectively help, assist, root for, promote and produce their fellow members’ work?  That’s an ongoing challenge, especially with work/life/family schedules getting in the way.  We hired a full-time publicist for Season 2, so I’ll be curious to see what transpires with that investment.  Personally, I want to write a “How-To Solo Writing and Performance Book” but I need to do it!  Come on, when I am ever going to finally write it?!?  It’s been years --Do it already!

Q: What's next for you, personally, in the world of solo performance?

A: I just finished directing Antonio Sacre’s newest solo piece, “The Storyteller” for The Solo Collective.  It closes on September 28th.   This was our fourth collaboration together. He’s such a wonderful performer, he makes it easy to ‘direct’.  I’m very excited about my continued involvement with the solo play, “Vincent” written by Leonard Nimoy and starring Jean-Michel Richaud.  Based on the Van Gogh’s letters between the two brothers, I directed the production in October 2012.  Since then, the show has travelled to New York City, San Diego, Reno, NV, and Kansas.  Next year, the play will be performed (in French) at Cine XIII Theatre in Paris, France throughout March and then premieres at UCLA’s Center of the Art of Performance in April 2015.

Q: Links

A: The Solo Collective -

Solo Collective SEASON 2 trailer from Paul Stein on Vimeo.

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