BWW Interview: Joel Zwick Navigating $5 SHAKESPEARE & Countless Sitcoms
Prolific episodic director Joel Zwick's next theatrical foray on the Los Angeles theatre boards will be helming the world premiere of Matthew Leavitt's THE $5 SHAKESPEARE COMPANY, beginning February 7, 2020 at The 6th Act's Theatre 68. This homage to 99-seat theatre in Los Angeles features: Kenajuan Bentley, Emerson Collins, Carolina Espiro, Luke McClure, Cindy Nguyen, Andy Robinson, Liza Seneca, Adam J. Smith and Jamie Zwick.
Joel managed to take some time out of his multi-tasking to answer a few of my queries.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Joel!
What initially brought you and Matthew Leavitt together for this world premiere of THE $5 SHAKESPEARE COMPANY?
I have known Matthew Leavitt for thirty years, and I've been following very carefully the work he's been doing with The 6th Act. And one of those things I went to see was a reading of his play THE $5 SHAKESPEARE COMPANY, and I went up to him right after and said "I want to direct this." And I've been having a wonderful time doing just that.
What would your three-line pitch for THE $5 SHAKESPEARE COMPANY be?
"A hilarious backstage comedy with actors in the off-off-Broadway L.A. Theatre market, doing their work as hard as they can with the hopes that someday they may achieve stardom, or just relevance."
You're a prolific director in all three mediums of television, film and theatre. Who of this cast and creatives have you worked with before?
Not that many. Jamie Zwick, who plays Noel, is my son, and I've directed one play with him before this. And then there's Andy Robinson, which is a whole story all by itself. And then there's a strange thing that happened - we cast a lovely, young actress Natalie Lander to play the role of Spencer, and it turns out I directed her father for two years on Laverne and Shirley. Her father is David Lander, Squiggy.
You met Andy back in 1967 when you were both acting in MACBIRD at the Village Gate. Did you hit it off right away? Or were you two like water and oil?
I'm afraid we hit it off right away. We were two lost souls in the 1960s trying to find out who we were as people, and as artists. And it was Andy who basically led me through the path - he was the one who brought me from MACBIRD where we first met, into La Mama. He was the first one who then gave me a play to direct at La Mama, something he wrote called THE LAST CHANCE SALOON. So Andy was very critical in terms of my development as an artist and as a person, and that bond never gets broken.
You started performing and directing at the La MaMa Plexus company in the late 1960s. Was theatre your first love?
Yes, theatre was definitely my first love, because being brought up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn you had no belief whatsoever in the 1940s that you were going to be involved in film, or TV, or even theatre for that matter. But it was through MACBIRD, through Andy Robinson, through La Mama, that theatre became my great passion.
After directing over 650 episodes, do you have any preference at present for directing in a particular medium?
I enjoy doing what I'm doing while I'm doing it. Right now, I'm directing theatre so that's what I enjoy the most. However, in terms of efficiency and speed, perhaps directing sitcoms was the easiest because it's one week - either the best episode you ever directed or the worst piece of garbage, it was only one week of your life.
Your choreography in DANCE WITH ME was nominated for a Tony Award in 1976. What dance styles were your specialty then?
My specialties were the dances of the 50s - the Lindy Hop, the Locomotion, then also the kinds of routines that were being done by Motown in the 60s, or Doowop routines.
Do your dancing feets still hit the dance floor?
Not really, no, no, no. I can get up there and boogie for a while, but the feet won't take it.
Last year I had interviewed your third cousin whom you've directed a number of times. Do you remember how and when you first met piano virtuoso Hershey Felder?
Yes, I had met Hershey when he had written the music for a musical that a friend of mine was trying to proffer. As it turned out the musical wasn't very good, but I was struck by the energy and passion of this piano player Hershey Felder, so I struck up a relationship, we found out we were cousins, and it's twenty-two years now we're still working together. We've now completed eight different composers that we've written and he has performed.
How do you juggle your directing gigs with your teaching commitments?
Very easily. I quit teaching.
How would you explain the differences of directing TV vs. film vs. theatre to a budding directing student?
There are three truths in any medium - the first is the story tells all. The second is the actors that you hire have to embody the characters that tell the story, and third you have to learn the craft and the skills necessary to manipulate cameras to best tell the story.
What hard-earned advice would you give to a directing novice?
Well, they start to learn their craft and their skill, they start to learn how to try to work with actors, not an easy task, but the thing they really must learn is the politics. You have to understand politically what the pecking order is, and you better be careful not to breach that unless you don't want to be working much in the industry.
What response from The 6th Act audience after THE $5 SHAKESPEARE COMPANY curtain call would be most satisfying to you?
I expect this to be a hysterical evening of theatre, and I'm hoping that many of the people who come to it come again because they couldn't quite get everything in one sitting. The other thing that they have to see is the talent level of Matthew Leavitt, the writer, Liza Seneca, the producer, and all the actors. I'm hoping that somewhere in our production, somebody, a casting director, an agent, or producer, comes to see the show and starts to realize the talent pool that's in the show and starts to utilize them.
Thank you again, Joel! I look forward to experiencing your $5 SHAKESPEARE COMPANY.
For ticket availability and show schedule through March 8, 2020; log onto www.the6thact.com