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BWW Interview: Tara Donovan Elatedly Producing Her POV At Little Fish

Little Fish Theatre's annual short play festival PICK OF THE VINE, premiering March 5, has smoothly morphed into a hybrid stage-to-film online.

BWW Interview: Tara Donovan Elatedly Producing Her POV At Little Fish

Little Fish Theatre's annual short play festival PICK OF THE VINE, premiering March 5, has smoothly morphed into a hybrid stage-to-film online. The filming of this year's final seven plays, chosen out of 800+ submissions, have been overseen by producer Tara Donovan, as well as producing artistic director Lisa Coffi. Tara graciously made some time to answer a few of my queries, inviting Lisa to fill in with more specific answers as needed.

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

Is PICK OF THE VINE a result of collective pandemic brainstorming?

Tara Donovan: PICK OF THE VINE is a nearly two-decade-old short play festival at Little Fish Theatre. Not knowing when the pandemic would end, the reading committee kept moving forward in the selection process throughout 2020. In December, we did an experiment to put out a fun Holiday Show of short plays done virtually through green screens and a program called OBS that allows us to put the actors together on screen. We couldn't imagine a year without PICK OF THE VINE, and the holiday show was well received, so we decided to go virtual for this year's POV.

What originally sparked the concept of POV?

TD: This is a question beyond my time at LFT. I believe it was conceived by Lisa Coffi, Suzanne Dean, and Mark Piatelli in the earliest years of Little Fish Theatre. I am probably the 5th or 6th producer to be at the helm. Little Fish Theatre's mission is to produce "Classic, Contemporary, and New Works," so PICK OF THE VINE allows us to read a ton of playwrights each year. Many of our POV selects have gone on to have full lengths produced at LFT as well as their shorts. Lisa?

Lisa Coffi: Mark Piatelli was a director, actor, playwright that I'd worked with for several years - he's one of the co-founders of LFT. He really wanted to focus on presenting some new work. He had some shorts, had friends that had shorts, and knew friends with friends that had shorts that would be interested in having us look at their pieces for presentation. So that's what we did. And it took off from there. We put out a call for scripts the next year, formed reading committees to read through them, and did out loud readings to "test drive" them and get additional response on which eight-to-ten to present. This tradition continues.

What submission criteria did you put in place? (solos?, shorter than half an hour?)

TD: The main criteria are: plays will require no more than eight actors; Plays will run no more than fifteen minutes; Plays will have minimal set, costume, prop, and special effect requirements. After that, the plays are divided up among reading committee members and each play is scored by at least two people. We move into a semi-final round where the top sixtyish plays are read out loud by actors for a group of company members, board members, and theatre volunteers; and scored again with notes on anything that may be difficult to produce (and this time around, we added a tab to denote if it works via Zoom or virtually staged).

BWW Interview: Tara Donovan Elatedly Producing Her POV At Little Fish You had a committee of fifty - twenty-four pre-reading and twenty-six reading out loud. How did you divvy up the 800+ submissions to be pre-read?

TD: There are reading teams, each with a leader. Lisa passes on scripts to each team leader, who then disseminates them down to their teams and is responsible for collecting the scores by a certain deadline. Lisa might answer this better.

LC: Yep, we ask our company members and volunteers if they'd like to part of the POV Reading Committee. We have four-to-five Committee Chairs that I issue scripts to. They in-turn assign them to readers. Everyone reads and scores until we get through all of the submissions.

What were your incremental deadlines in your selection process? (submission deadline, semi-finalist cut, etc.)

TD: Typically submissions are open for one month (usually April or May). After that we take the summer to read and schedule our semi-final out loud readings in the fall. We selected our plays a little late this year, like everything, due to the pandemic. In a normal year, they'll be selected and in the casting process by October. We finalized scripts in early January this year.

Can you describe the aspects your rated in your committee's blind scoring?

LC: They score them this way - keeping in mind LFT, our patron base, our acting company etc.

- Best length of script in minutes

- One-sentence description

- Rating 1-5 (1= very bad, 2=bad, 3= average, 4= good, 5=very good)

- Is there any difficult staging/props/effects/etc. - please list

We're trying to determine: 1) if the piece is fabulous, and 2) if it's a good fit for LFT.

We have a giant Google sheet where all this info is compiled, so we can sort by top scorers, etc.

What filming set-ups did Little Fish provide the various actors?

BWW Interview: Tara Donovan Elatedly Producing Her POV At Little Fish TD: We did a contactless, appointment-based pick-up day where the actors came to the theatre and were given a bag or box of their materials - props, costumes, and green screens - for those that needed them. Our TD/editor, Sara Haddadin has a great hack to use simple, cheap, plastic green table cloths for the green screen, and walks the actors through their lighting set up via Zoom. She and I work together to assist actors (over Zoom) in where to place their computers/webcams and try to troubleshoot any technical issues so that the directors can just focus on the play itself. Sara is really the Wizard behind the curtain with all of the technical elements (and she'll probably hate that I'm telling you so).

Did some of the twenty-six who participated in the out loud readings end up as the actor filmed in their respective pieces?

TD: I think only one person ended up in the respective piece, but all of the actors from the out loud that wanted to be in the fully filmed PICK OF THE VINE are.

Was is a conscious choice to have all women directors for the final seven plays chosen? Had you worked with them before?

TD: Our shows almost always go out to our company members first - directing and performing. Being virtual this year opened us up to using more directors and more performers. The two company members who wanted to direct were given plays and then we went outside to fill in. I personally always try to promote and put women into creative roles, so when it came to looking for directors; that is simply who I happen to know or keep my eyes on in the L.A. Theatre scene. Samantha, Mirai and Jennifer are all working around town, and their names have either been on my mind to work with or came highly referred. Esther and I have worked together numerous times in numerous theatre capacities, but never with her as a director. I took note she had started directing films and thought she would be great at marrying her theatre knowledge and film experience for this project.

What deciding factors influenced you to take on the managing director position for Little Fish in 2013?

BWW Interview: Tara Donovan Elatedly Producing Her POV At Little Fish TD: I had been producing theatre on my own, which is really hard. I saw the listing and applied because the idea of growing into an established and reputable company was exciting to me. I learned a lot from Lisa and Suzanne about running a company, utilizing a team, and loved the amazing community of creatives and patrons they had cultivated. Plus, producing eleven productions a year was a challenge, and I needed a new challenge.

I actually left in 2018 and have been in graduate school for film and TV producing. Lisa reached out to me just as I was graduating and offered to bring me back. It honestly felt like a weird Kismet that my exact knowledge and skill sets (theatre and newly film) were perfectly combined for this weird in-between theatre and film process. (I completed my M.F.A. in Producing from the American Film Institute Conservatory; my undergraduate is a dual B.A. in Theatre with an emphasis in performance, and Political Science)

What was the most challenging project you helped produced on the Little Fish stage that you're most proud of?

TD: Each production has its own unique challenges - but I'll say anything with food the actors have to eat is always a challenge! And one year it felt like our entire slate had food -heavy shows. But the real challenge is the quantity. When you're putting out as many plays per year as Little Fish does, the difficulty is more being able to find the perfect routine for managing the work load as a part time employee. You're typically working on 4-5 shows in different stages at once!

As far as pride - I think I am always most proud when we're able to put up a world or west coast premiere. It's an honor to work with the playwright, directors, and actors to fine tune a piece for the stage and really see it come to life for the first time. I got to produce (and perform in) a world premiere of THE ITHACA LADIES READ MEDEA that I brought in through my friends, a husband/wife playwright/directing duo. And although it was produced after I left, having taken part in a couple initial readings, I was really proud to see our own company member Kathryn Farren's play EMBRIDGE take the stage and be so well received by critics and audiences.

What gives you more gratification - acting or producing?

BWW Interview: Tara Donovan Elatedly Producing Her POV At Little Fish TD: This feels like a deeper question than I was prepared to answer! I have always said I am an actor first, and I produced as a means to an end. I fell into producing and happened to be good at it, so I kept doing it. But after more than a decade of producing, I find myself needing to be an actor less. I definitely need to be on the stage a couple of times a year - it's like going home (and thanks to our parent company Shakespeare by the Sea, I did get on a stage in 2020!); but I am finding that I am seeking out producing for the love of a story over my original intent of "can I be in this" and leaning in that direction across mediums. I am so fortunate to get paid to spend my life playing make believe, and I'll take that any way I can - actor, producer, director, writer, cheerleader and champion of other people's art...

What tentative plans do you have for safely opening up Little Fish's 65-seat theatre when allowable?

LC: we have plans, contingency plans and so forth. It's really too tough to try and guess when we can reopen, what restrictions will be in place, etc. Right now, we're focusing our efforts on digital content. We're just taking it one day at a time as planning when everything is unknown is an exercise in futility. When things change, we'll plot and plan and devise ways to keep creating theatre safely.

Is Little Fish starting to look for potential shows for Zooming that can easily pivot into live staging? Or only shows for Zooming?

TD: We acknowledge that after a year of COVID, people are getting Zoomed out, so we planned this year with that in mind. We set a slate for the first half of this year that we felt could give audiences a variety of virtual experiences, but have held off a bit on beyond the summer. LOVES ME LOVES ME NOT just ran and showcased actors who lived together and filmed their plays in their own homes. PICK OF THE VINE will use the OBS/green screen technology to allow the actors to work remotely and appear in the same space. We have a comedy night hosted by Brian O'Sullivan and a stage reading of BLEACHER BUMS that are both live event in which your ticket puts you in the Zoom with the performers (not on screen, but very much live!) Lastly, we're going to produce a live -to-film version of PYGMALION that will be similar in feel to Shakespeare By The Sea's TITUS ANDRONICUS. The actors will follow filming COVID safety protocols and appear on stage together to be filmed and that will be streamed. Shakespeare by the Sea will be producing a slate of their own readings and live-to-film stagings to stream as well. Fingers crossed we can return to our real, indoor stage at Little Fish in the fall/early winter.

Thank you again, Tara (and Lisa)! I look forward to seeing your POV!

TD: Thank you so much, Gil! It's an honor to be interviewed and we really appreciate the support. It's been a huge challenge for Lisa to keep Little Fish alive during this time. Thanks to our wonderful company members producing content, our audience supporting the virtual programming, donors still contributing we've been squeaking by. Your article will really help us get the word out and we're very thankful for it.

For viewing tickets for PICK OF THE VINE March 5 through March 31, 2021; log onto www.littlefishtheatre.org


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