BWW Interview: Meet the Producers of DOG SEES GOD

BWW Interview: Meet the Producers of DOG SEES GOD
L to R: Charlotte Weinman, Judy Durkin, Gabriel Nunag, Zoe D'Andrea, Chandler David, James Sanger, Joey Maya Safchik, and Corey Fogelmanis. Photo by Erin Flannery

There have always been questions around the idea that actual teenagers can or should play teen roles in productions, but for the co-founders of Worst First Kiss and the executive producers of Bert Royal's DOG SEES GOD: CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE BLOCKHEAD in Hollywood, there is no question. There, teenagers can play teen roles, and they fearlessly do. Fresh off their run at the Hollywood Fringe Festival and directed by Jonah Platt, these incredible teens and their cast have one last weekend of Encore performances at The Blank Theater in LA.

Executive producers Joey Maya Safchik, Chandler David, Judy Durkin, and Charlotte Weinman are proud to present DOG SEES GOD as their first show. As actors and theater lovers, these four producers are ecstatic to be bringing this story to the stage, told through a teenage perspective. In this interview, they discuss their theatrical backgrounds, their journey with DOG SEES GOD, and what they hope other teens can take away from this production.

Becoming Involved with Theater

Joey Maya Safchik (Executive Producer, WFK Co-Founder, CB's Sister)

I started doing theatre when I was three. My breakout role was as Cotton Candy the Oompa Loompa in Willy Wonka (I came up with the name and was very proud!). I have show-biz blood. But I used to watch Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz every single night before I went to bed, which I think instilled a deep love of this art form in my young and impressionable brain. I've been involved ever since, but every time I see a brilliant show or performance I feel that this passion is re-invigorated. Storytelling, whether fiction or nonfiction, is really what I live for, and I truly believe that it is the key to improving the world we live in.

Chandler David (Executive Producer, WFK Co-Founder, CB)

As is the case for many kids my age, I was absolutely obsessed with the High School Musical movies in elementary school and when I learned that a local theater group, The Adderley School, was putting it on, I begged my parents to sign me up. After a grueling audition process of singing "Happy Birthday" in front of the instructors, I was cast in the lead role of Troy Bolton! Ever since that experience, I have been addicted to performance.

Judy Durkin (Executive Producer, WFK Co-Founder, Marcy)

My father took me to see a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum theater in Topanga when I was four years old. That was when I fell in love with theater and knew that I needed to be a part of it. Fortunately, for the past seven years I have been a proud member of the Theatricum's professional theater company. There I learned to appreciate the courage it takes to be completely honest onstage, and I have been spoiled with the kindest and most passionate directors and cast members. Theater is truly special-I am reminded of that so often in my life-and I am so happy that I am a part of this community.

Charlotte Weinman (Executive Producer, WFK Co-Founder, Tricia)

I started doing theater at the age of four when I was Belle in the Adderley School's production of Beauty and the Beast, and even though I cried from stage fright halfway through the performance, my family urged me to stick with it, and, thanks to them, I haven't stopped yet! My family has instilled in me a deep love for the arts, particularly music, theater, and film, so I've been extremely lucky to have gotten tons of exposure to these from very early on. When I was in sixth grade, I saw a production of Pippin at Harvard-Westlake School, where I would be attending that next fall. The production was a perfect example of all the hard work it takes to appear effortless; I was awestruck seeing my future peers accomplishing such 'extraordinary' things. Additionally, the theater was sold out, and that was really exciting for me; seeing the whole school come together so passionately to celebrate the hard work of the students and faculty who put the piece together made me feel like there was a space for me not only at this school, but in this field. I have been so lucky to have had the opportunity and encouragement to carve out that space for myself, not only as a performer, but as a producer as well!

On the Importance of DOG SEES GOD

Safchik: Bert V. Royal (the playwright of DSG) debuted this play in the early 2000s at the New York Fringe Festival, and it has been performed nationally in the decade-and-a-half since. I'm not sure what his inspiration was, but I know that we are all eternally grateful that he had that stroke of brilliance! As for us, our adoration of this play was actually Worst First Kiss' groundwork. We were so astonished that there was this boundary-crossing, unapologetic play that has a cast of ONLY teenagers! And it is such a small ensemble that each and every role is fleshed out and pivotal to the story. Beyond that, it touches upon a variety of social issues that we, as real teenagers, witnessed on a daily basis, and we wanted to be able to stage a story that had a real, relevant impact on audiences.

Durkin: Before our very first run of Dog Sees God back in February of 2017, I had the opportunity to go to a talkback and hear Bert V. Royal discuss his show. What really stuck out to me was that all these years later (more than a decade), he was still rewriting the play. The version that we are performing now is slightly different from the original version. I think we were all so attracted to the changes in the already wonderful script-changes that made the characters more raw, real, and relatable. After all these years of searching for real teens to play, we were lucky to work with this new version that spoke so directly to all of us. We knew we had to perform it.

Weinman: Absolutely! We all firmly believe that theater has always had an incredible power to present a mirror to society, and leave the audience questioning their own lives. Dog Sees God, as Joey said, is an honest and unapologetic documentation of adolescence. The Peanuts characters make deeply impactful vehicles for this message because we now feel like we have grown up with them after having identified with them for so long as young kids. We connect so deeply with this portrayal of what it means to grow up, and we hope audiences empathize as well.

Drawing from Inspiration

Safchik: I must mention Queen Meryl Streep. But most of my idols are contemporary stage performers- Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher Jr (the latter of whom was in one of the very first readings of Dog Sees God!), Lea Salonga, Cynthia Erivo and, of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda! They are all forces of nature on stage, and use their respective platforms to advocate for what they believe in, which is positively inspiring.

David: The composer of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy, is one of my largest artistic inspirations right now. I am also in awe of Deaf West's productions. As an actor who loves ASL, I find that the combination of my two passions produces something absolutely wonderful and groundbreaking. It's a dream of mine to be involved in a Deaf West show! I adore Cynthia Erivo, Jessie Mueller, Grace McLean, Phillipa Soo, and of course the wickedly talented Idina Menzel!

Durkin: An all-time idol of mine will always be Viola Davis-her poise, power, range, and fearlessness in literally everything she does provide such a masterclass in acting. Other actors that I admire deeply include Judi Dench, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter, Kenneth Branagh, and Uzo Aduba.

Weinman: Viola Davis truly has the kind of grace and quiet strength that commands and deserves attention and respect, and always leaves me gaping and leaning into every word. I am also very lucky to be currently learning from Tim Kaine this summer at the Northwestern High School Institute for Theater at Northwestern University. He is an intense force onstage; his ability to inhabit a character so completely is awe-inspiring.

Friends at Work

Safchik: These talented people are my best friends and sharing the stage with them is an absolute privilege, and the most fun "work" we will likely ever have. We laugh non-stop but all take the work very seriously, and the blend we have found is miraculous. And Jonah (Platt) is like a big brother to each and every one of us, and has taught us an immeasurable amount about performing and connecting over the past two runs. There's really just an insane amount of love!

David: Seeing this pipe dream come to life has been such an incredible experience and it has been amazing to be able to bring it to life surrounded by the people I love and love to be around!

Durkin: It has been a wonderful learning experience, and I think that all of us producers realize how much more there is to theater than what is on the stage. I have loved being a part of the behind-the-scenes process.

Weinman: It is inspiring to work with these forces of nature that are my three best friends. Their continuous support, dedication, and talent has been the driving force behind this production.

Taking the Show to The Hollywood Fringe Festival

Safchik: This was such a thrill! It's always an honor to have your work validated, which in this sense came with the extension. But we also had the opportunity to attach Jonah, who guided us in digging our teeth way deeper into the meat of this incredible and honest text, and as producers, we were simply treated like the other (adult) producers involved in the festival, and it was really an exercise in being responsible and on top of our game. The festival experience is chaotic, but we had the best time being involved in such a respected celebration of the theatre arts. The fact that it sold out was just unbelievably exciting and beyond rewarding, though we all love doing this show so much that we'd be happy to perform it for a sack of potatoes.

David: Fringe is not for the faint of heart! It is basically a month of organized chaos. Luckily, however, that is the environment in which I work best! So, I jumped straight in and started working! Being surrounded by passionate artists in the midst of their creative process was an invaluable experience for me!

Durkin: The Fringe Festival was such a great experience! I think we all felt like we were a part of something bigger than just our company. The festival does such a good job of bringing together the LA theater community. Dog Sees God premiered at the New York Fringe Festival in 2004, so this play felt right at home at the fast-paced Hollywood Fringe.

Weinman: Fringe was one of the best experiences of my life! To be surrounded by such creative and passionate adults was incredibly moving. Their dedication to their craft is contagious, and makes for an awesome celebration of live theater. It was an honor and a delight to participate this year. I feel so lucky!

Their DOG SEES GOD Message

Safchik: We hope that everyone who sees our play will recognize two feelings: We want people, especially the hordes of teenagers and young people who see our show to feel inspired, and that they are capable of achieving any goal they set for themselves. We really hope to prove that age is just a number, and that with true dedication and passion, and the ability to ask for guidance when it's needed, a teen is capable of making their own dreams come true! Secondly, we want to influence an understanding that people may not have upon entering the theatre's door. Our show touches upon a lot of stigmatized subjects, and we have taken it upon ourselves to educate our audiences and make these topics (which range from sexuality to substance abuse to suicide) a little less taboo. If we can help anyone, of any age, be a bit more compassionate, we have done our job.

David: I truly hope that the show's powerful message about self-acceptance stays with the audience and inspires them to take action to make this world a place where everyone can be accepted not in spite of, but because of their differences!

Durkin: For me, the most appealing part of doing this show is hearing the audience responses-especially from teenagers. The characters in Dog Sees God all have insecurities regarding their identities and they struggle with the pressure that society puts on them to conform, but the beautiful message that the audience is left with at the end is that there is no single way to be a human being. It makes me happy to hear candid reactions and stories from fellow teens after the shows regarding their own life experiences because it means that we have created a safe space to facilitate real discussions about sexuality, mental illness, and relationships. Our hope is that people leave the show feeling that their lives and the lives of everyone around them are important, lasting, and valued.

Weinman: It is always difficult to represent mental illness on stage or screen because it takes many different forms for different people, and one's experience with it may look different from the experience shown. We hope to fuel conversations about these topics without claiming to have the sole answer for recognizing mental illness. Our show is heart-wrenching, and we hope we can elicit empathy and self-analysis from audience members of all ages.

Words of Inspiration for Other Teens

Safchik: Do something about which you are passionate. Maybe that's one specific field, or maybe you are a natural multi-hyphenate. But put your everything into whatever it is you love and do the work. Make opportunities for yourself! If you love writing but don't have anything to be working on, start a blog about life at your school. If you love theatre but aren't cast in a show, get some friends to come read a play in your living room (that is, after all, how Worst First Kiss began!). Just stay active and make sure you always adore what you are doing. Don't be tricked into believing that you have to wait until you are "grown up" to start doing what you love!

David: Making opportunities for yourself is one of the best ways to strengthen your passion! It's very rare that people just hand you exactly what you need, you have to go and make things happen for yourself. Always believe in your ability to create, and don't let the negative voices inside and outside your head get you down. But most of all, never underestimate the power of good collaboration! Having someone to work alongside you and cheer you on is an indispensable resource whether you're working in the arts or just living life!

Durkin: It may seem like theater is something you have to wait to grow into because there aren't many teenage roles out there. I hope that what we have proven through the creation of our production company is that teenagers everywhere can start now, and that they don't have to wait until they are older. Grab some friends, read through a play, and who knows, you might find yourselves performing at the Fringe festival. Teenagers are more than capable of pursuing theater in the present. Sure, we might have to work a bit harder to prove ourselves, but once we've done that, there's no stopping us. You are important, your message is important, and your story is worthy of being shared. Be well-informed of how teenagers are being represented and choose projects that speak to you. And most importantly, please support your fellow teens because the artistic community is so crucial and we need to make sure that our voices are heard.

Weinman: This applies not just to theater, but to all things artistic: Create, create, create! You don't have to have lived a long time to have valuable things to say- as long as you are truthful and vulnerable, your art is worthwhile, and it will prove to be immensely rewarding. Surround yourself with people who challenge and inspire you, and hold them tightly. Take care of yourself, push yourself, reward yourself, and don't forget to give back! Stay kind, curious, and open-minded! Now especially, the world needs youthful voices speaking out for what's right-be a voice!

Worst First Kiss Productions Present DOG SEES GOD: CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE BLOCKHEAD at The Blank Theater in Hollywood, CA as part of their Fringe Encores Awards run. Tickets for their special encore performance on Saturday, July 22 at 2pm can be purchased here: Tickets for performances on Sunday, July 23 can be purchased here: Don't miss the LAST WEEKEND of their Encore run at The Blank Theater, 6500 California Route 2, Los Angeles, CA 90038.

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From This Author Erica Garcia

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