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BWW Interview: NEA Four Artist John Fleck Is So ALIVE & Still Kicking Up A Storm

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Performance artist John Fleck will present his work-in-progress performances of it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE! at the Odyssey Theatre starting September 18th

BWW Interview: NEA Four Artist John Fleck Is So ALIVE & Still Kicking Up A Storm

Performance artist John Fleck will present four live, work-in-progress performances of his musical cabaret/special event it's alive, IT'S ALIVE! at the Odyssey Theatre starting September 18th. Had the chance to chat up this infamous NEA FOUR artist on his creativity, his patience in the makeup chair and his creative history with David Schweizer.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, John!

Oh, Gil! What have you wrought?

Any particular incident in your pandemic lockdown trigger the embryo of it's alive, IT'S ALIVE!?

I blame it all on David Schweizer. He pitched the idea to Beth Hogan at the Odyssey Theater about creating a SPECIAL EVENT to be performed in August 2020, outside on a newly built stage in the parking lot (because indoor theaters were shut down). We wanted to create an event that would celebrate the resiliency of theater, which was on life-support back then. Beth Hogan said there were "live" musicians who were interested in working with us - so I blame Beth as well for giving me the impetus to create a musical cabaret performance. And Gil, I'm a smart-ass, if you don't already know that, so I say "blame" in a loving way. I actually credit David and Beth for making this all happen.


Long story short, I started writing this back in June of 2020. I had no title for the piece - only fragments of ideas that seemed relevant with The Virus and the political vitriol spreading around. After all, we'd just gone through two impeachment proceedings and the election was looming. But the show kept getting postponed due to the LOCKDOWN, and then there was the killing of George Floyd - Black Lives Matter - the backlash - Blue Lives Matter - the election - the Big Lie - the Insurrection - Proud Boys - Oath Keepers - Trump banned from Twitter - tweet tweet - Facebook - Instagram - Lindsey Graham - Tik Tok tik tok - Snap Chat - SNAP-CRACKLE-POP.

So those were some of the "triggers," the fodder if you will, that fed the creation of this hysterically funny musical performance cabaret... it's alive, IT'S ALIVE!

How long did it take you to flesh out this embryo onto a rough draft on paper?

I'd Zoom with David Schweizer about ideas - write them down and repeat the process, and the piece kept growing - often in ways that I had no idea would happen when I first started. It's amazing, the writing process. It truly is a living entity. And I'm still re-writing two weeks before we're set to open on September 18 It's alive, IT'S ALIVE!

How long does it usually take for you to create and complete a 'final draft'?

This was an unusual way of creating for me. My process is very performance based, so I like to do small workshop performances along the way. I write on my feet - usually record it and then transcribe and edit on my computer. For instance, (in normal times) my preference would be to do a 10-minute presentation in front of an audience, and then go back to the drawing board so to speak, to expand on what worked and eliminate what didn't.

I'd then hopefully get another chance to process it with another "live" workshop performance. I usually need about three of them before I feel secure enough to present it as a finished piece. However, these are not normal times, so this has been the most written text-based piece I've ever created. By that I mean I sit at my computer and type - and rewrite - David S being my Zoom "audience" - and then I edit and present again. Funny how adaptive we all are. At first, I hated having to sit down and type, but now I see the benefits and the depth that results from writing and re-writing.

And yes, I'm itching to perform this work-in-progress in front of a "live" audience - even though, ha,ha, we now have the INDOOR MASKING MANDATE to deal with. Remember that sliver of a month or so when we could gather indoors without masks as long as we could prove we were vaccinated? That's why we dropped the outdoor parking lot concept and decided to move into Theater 3 at the Odyssey. But then the ball dropped shortly thereafter, and the City mandated that MASKS would have to be worn by audience members. My first reaction was to postpone the August opening, which we did. It just sounded like a performer's worst nightmare. Here I am with no mask, staring out at a sea of MASKS. As a performer, how do you gauge how the audience is feeling under the mask? Are they smiling - or - grimacing?

But I really need to perform this show on my feet to see if it truly does have legs to stand on and the strength to run in a full production sometime next year. I remember a wise acting coach of mine, Greg Sims, once saying, "That which hinders the task IS the task." I'm embracing that theory and re-imagining the scenario - that I'll cast the "masked' audience as another character(s) in the piece. It is a very dream-like piece, and it would be great to create another alternative reality as if I'm performing in a HOSPITAL WARD - or - maybe an asylum of sorts.? I think its rich with possibilities.

BWW Interview: NEA Four Artist John Fleck Is So ALIVE & Still Kicking Up A Storm When did you and David Schweizer first collaborate?

David and my creative DNA are linked. We first worked together on my self-scripted piece called BLESSED ARE ALL THE LITTLE FISHES (1990 - the show that got me in trouble with the NEA). We workshopped at the Taper Two and later performed at the (now defunct) Tiffany Theater, and we toured it around the country.

David's not merely a director but a true collaborator in that he encourages me to utilize theatrical ideas and techniques that could happen in a situation - sort of like the San Francisco Mime Troupe of long ago. I was always the one who created the characters and wrote the scenes, but David challenged those ideas, and with the ease of being long-time creative partners, we honed in on the show.

We thought the whole idea of outdoors was fun, plus we liked the idea of being one of the first live performance events to return to the fray. But the Odyssey had trouble getting a permit from the City, and then The Fountain Theatre across town opened their elaborate parking lot theater, and then came last June - remember that window of a month or two after everyone was getting vaccinated and we thought, ah ha, we beat it - so we decided that we could move indoors. And that's where we are now, in Theater 3 of the Odyssey.

Have you developed your Zooming expertise during these quarantined months?

Damn, I wish I'd invested in Zoom before this all happened! I think it's gone up $300 a share. But hey, what a blessing it's been - that and Facetime for all us isolated folks during lockdown. Now the trick is to go back to meeting "live" in person. It's so easy to turn on your computer and only worry about your clothes from the waist up. We don't have to drive anywhere. It's an amazing technological miracle.

However, I'll speak only for myself, but I feel like I've been CUT OFF from the live communal HUMAN experience. And I'll say it again, that's why LIVE THEATER is so important. I love video - I love all the screens we have here in our house. But I need to tap into that COMMUNITY that feeds my soul.

Did you start rehearsals with your band and two singers/dancers on Zoom? Or in person?

I got together a couple of weeks ago with a bass player named John Snow. He's been performing with his band at the Odyssey for a couple of months now. I love working with him on bass and with Scott Roberts on piano. There's nothing like live music, just like there's nuttin' like live theater.

(Per David: The kind of SPONTANIETY and IMPROVISATORY SPIRIT we need in-person onstage needs IN PERSON rehearsal. ZOOM is a great tool but has its LIMITS.)

What would your three-line pitch for IT'S ALIVE! be?

This was the hardest question for me that you asked. But David nailed it. This is what he wrote: "IT'S ALIVE! makes live theater LIVE ANEW, skewering the harrowing tension and fear around the pandemic - both its politics and its circumstances - and creating a provocative and unique theatrical musical vaudeville that aims to HEAL and clear the slate for the new and challenging times ahead of us."

Besides IT'S ALIVE!, what else did you do during lockdown to keep creatively sane?

I journal every morning about what's happening in my life which actively influences what I might create - I also painted our entire house inside and out. I garden. I also worked on a couple of web series for other people and did a lot of Zoom play readings. Funny - looking back, I was so freaked out about having to isolate and not go out to theater or movies or parties. But after about four months, my partner and I really got into the swing of things and actually cherished having an excuse NOT to have to go out. We started taking 3-5 mile hikes every day which we still do. That was a great thing to come out of it. And things are starting to pick up in Hollywood again. I just finished working on a feature film called Tina Town.

BWW Interview: NEA Four Artist John Fleck Is So ALIVE & Still Kicking Up A Storm Does John Fleck the actor always stick to the script that John Fleck the playwright wrote? I've seen you on stage and it seems more improvisational than scripted at times (and that's a good thing!)

Good question. I script my pieces, but always allow for a free form of delivery which makes it appear to be improvised. I know there are certain lines that have to be delivered as written (mainly for light/sound cues) - but then there are other areas that allow for free-forming in the moment. I LOVE when unscripted real-life stuff happens on stage - like a light goes out - or the mic dies, as in my last show BLACKTOP HIGHWAY, when I was talking about the political quagmire and the erratic Commander in Chief we had at that particular moment in time. Suddenly a man and woman in the audience got up and walked towards the exit door and before walking out shouted "YOU'RE INSANE." And I responded in the moment, off the cuff, with "Of course I'm INSANE, I'm doing 'live' theater here in L.A. You gotta be nuts to do that." I cherished that moment and actually worked it into the show - I learned how to carry on in a show when "live" stuff happens. As I already said, "That which hinders the TASK is the TASK."

Do you wear your distinction as one of the NEA Four as a badge of honor?

It is a badge of honor to some degree. It was so long ago (1990) that most people don't remember. But die-hard theater/performance folks still remember. I think of the four of us as Freedom Fighters during the Culture Wars of the '90s, and our case ended up at the Supreme Court. It created a national conversation about what is "obscene." Let's not forget Harry Truman once said, "One man's obscenity is another man's philosophy." Or am I making that up? Someone said it or maybe I just made it up. It sounds good. Our lawyers stated point blank that "The First Amendment protects a great deal of offensive expression." No less an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court has said that "the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." Further, it has said "the fact that protected speech may be offensive to some does not justify its suppression."

To set up that time period, my performance work incubated during the '80s when the human body was the canvas upon which I painted metaphorically, reflecting the cultural zeitgeist of homophobia - the fear of AIDS and the government's lack of response under Ronald Regan.

Can you describe the rollercoaster of emotions that you experienced with your follow NEA Four Karen Finley, Tim Miller and Holly Hughes in 1990?

I remember commiserating with Holly Hughes about a year after the NEA shit storm hit the fan in 1990, lamenting that we could not create new work because we were so busy defending ourselves and trying to DEFINE what our work was about, and always having to correct the false labels the right-wing media and political pundits were attaching to us. How many times I had to write to newspapers and magazines that I did NOT masturbate on stage. I did NOT urinate on a picture of Jesus. They took our work out of context and made us look like obscene freaks.

Did being called one of the NEA Four spur you onto push the artistic envelope even more?

I think one of my best shows happened in 1992, developed at the Taper 2. Remember the Taper 2, when the Center Theatre Group actually devoted resources to the development of new work? Alas, that's no longer happening. But back in '92 I created A SNOWBALL'S CHANCE IN HELL directed by Randee Trabitz. In a nutshell, it was all about a man (me) who believed everything that was written and televised. He had no identity other than what he was told by others he was and what he needed to buy to be. He became a commodity. It was a critical success and we travelled all over the country with it.

Your screen credits date back to 1982. What was your first outing as a performance artist? What details do you remember about it?

Hmmm, my first outing as a performance artist. I've considered myself a performance artist since I was five years old, when I desperately tried to pretend I was someone other than who I truly was. But in a professional setting, I'd have to say I took on the role, the label of performance artist in 1983 when I was asked by Jim Van Tyne who curated a monthly performance art happening called THEORETICAL featuring punk bands and out-there performance artists at the One Way Bar in Silverlake (a gay punk leather bar). Jim asked me to be the opening act for Edie Massey (remember her as the Egg Lady in John's Water's Pink Flamingos?).

I knew I had to rise to the occasion. After all, this audience was hardcore - pierced and tattooed (before it became trendy), and if they didn't like a show would often throw bottles at the stage. Anyway, scared shitless as I was, I climbed on top of the bar wearing a cardboard cake I'd made out of pliable cardboard. I think it was the one-year anniversary of THEORETICAL and all I remember is dropping the cake (and of course I was nude, it was the '80's after all), and I sang "There's no penis like show penis, like no penis I know."

BWW Interview: NEA Four Artist John Fleck Is So ALIVE & Still Kicking Up A Storm I remember looking out at all the crazed men and women in the bar and they were actually smiling - not a beer bottle thrown by anyone. And then I broke into a Puccini aria from Madam Butterfly. I had a four-octave voice and could sing like an angel - My idols at the time were Maria Calas, Yma Sumac and Klaus Nomi.

I also have to thank Jean Pierre Bocarro at the Lhasa Club in Hollywood for nurturing my early work - as well as Scott Kelman and Jack Marquette at the Anti Club.

You are one of only three actors who has starred in all incarnations of the modern Star Trek TV series. Can you name all your characters?

Oh dear, No I can't remember them all. I recall a character called Koval - he was Romulan from the Next Generation, or was it Deep Space Nine? And I of course remember Silik from Star Trek Enterprise with Scott Bakula. I played so many species. I made a nice living playing NON-human beings. I called it "torture pay," sitting in the makeup chair for hours getting glued and painted and then hours taking it off. But hey, I'm grateful Rick Berman kept calling me back to play different characters on all the Star Trek series - it segued into me playing Gecko on HBO's Carnivalle - and I'm forever grateful for the residuals that still trickle in from all the streaming still going on.

Is there a proposed date for the finished production of it's alive, IT'S ALIVE!?

The plan is for a full production "sometime" in 2022.

What else is in the near future for John Fleck?

DEATH is lurking out there-somewhere, hopefully not too near in the future. However, this past year in lockdown has made me much more aware of how finite my (our) time is on this planet, and I'm focusing on what's important and, most importantly, what's NOT important. I'm much more politically aware and fighting for just causes. Democracy is a living, breathing being, and we can't take it for granted that what we had will still be here for the next generation unless we're all willing to take a stand and fight the good fight.

And I'm grateful, even at this ripe old age, that I'm still being creative, working on shows as well as some film and TV. I just shot an indie film called Tina Town where I played an old, crazy crystal meth head. And I have a recurring role on Orville with Seth MacFarlane, playing - surprise - another alien from outer space. MAKE-UP!!

Thank you again, John! I look forward to experiencing you ALIVE!

Thanks for your interest. Cheers!

For tickets for the four live work-in-progress performances of it's alive, IT'S ALIVE! @ the Odyssey Theatre September 18th & 25th, and October 2nd & 9th, log onto www.OdysseyTheatre.com


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