BWW Interview: WordTheatre's Cedering Fox Blending Heart-Felt Prose With Beautiful Music
The Grammy Museum will be hosting NOTES ON LIVING: ALL-STAR JAZZ WITH TALES BY BRIAN DOYLE May 14, 2019 as a joint benefit for WordTheatre in the Schools (WITS) and the Grammy Museum. WordTheatre's artistic director Cedering Fox will be producing and directing this evening of selected stories by award-winning author Brian Doyle, read by a star-studded cast, and accompanied by an all-star jazz band led by Starr Parodi. Cedering opened up some of her early evening time to speak to me.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Cedering!
You will be directing and producing NOTES ON LIVING: ALL-STAR JAZZ WITH TALES BY BRIAN DOYLE at the Grammy Museum. How did this collaboration with the Grammy Museum come about?
We're always looking for different venues. I've been in Los Angeles, New York, London, Sarasota, Atherton. We're invited into all different spaces and places. One of my former board members lives downtown, Grammy member. She thought, "Wouldn't that be interesting... because I very often have a musical element that's quite significant in WordTheatre. Just so happens that I had created a show which was all about jazz. It debuted at the London Jazz Festival for Black History Month. That show got me interested in really exploring Langston Hughes. I created this big, beautiful show that ended up being a protest against Trump. Because everything that Langston Hughes was writing about is still true today- how little things have changed! Which is really quite shocking. I pitched it to Lynne Sheridan of the Grammy Museum. The Grammy Museum does interesting things. Lynne and I really hit it off. We sold out in no time flat with The Lowry Brothers. We kicked some butt. It was something.
How did you come to pick Brian Doyle's work for this May 14th event?
I found one of the stories being performed in the pages of The Pushcart Prize many years ago when I was doing our first WordTheatre benefit for Pushcart in East Hampton, New York. Linus Roach and I were rehearsing at his apartment in New York City. We found ourselves stopping occasionally to marvel at the beauty and originality of Doyle's writing. That piece is called Joyas Voladoras. I called Brian who gave me permission to perform it, and we had a great talk. He was an amazing human being who lived, and wrote, and taught, and edited The Portland Magazine in Oregon. After that, each year when I would receive a copy of The Pushcart Prize, I would look to see if Brian Doyle had a story included in the collection. To my delight, three more of his pieces were included, one as most recently as last year called Memorial Day. It was published posthumously as Brian died from a brain tumor on May 27, 2017. All of Brian's four Pushcart Prize-winning pieces will be included in our Tuesday, May 14th benefit. Since I got to know Brian on the phone and through correspondence, he ended up sending me many of his stories. I fell in love with many of them because so many are perfectly suited to be brought to life by a wonderful actor. Dan Lauria performed one at a WITS benefit at my home in 2015, and Tony Shalhoub and his wife Brooke Adams were here to experience it. I presented a whole show of Brian's work in London with Harriet Walter (one of England's finest actors) and her delightfully talented American husband, Guy Paul. Afterward, the sold-out audience at The St James Theatre was simply stunned by the beauty. We then did it again with Tony and his wife in Los Angeles, but Brian couldn't attend. We did other selections with four great actors in London, and people loved it. So I finally got Brian down to Los Angeles with his wife Mary in September 2016. He had a new book coming out from Red Hen press. I took them to Chapman University for a WordTheatre with one of the stars of Twilight, Jackson Rathbone, and Vanessa Lengies. They performed with a jazz band, The Lowry Brothers for a couple hundred Chapman University students, who also loved it. Then Tony and Brooke did it again in Brooklyn. These stories are such human and life-affirming pieces that everyone laughs and listens, holds their hearts and feels so happy afterward; even if they sometimes take you through life's challenges, Doyle manages to delight with humor and pathos!
Brian loved his experience at Chapman and at my house. I had sent him videos of the performances in L.A., Brooklyn and London; so he ended up giving me permission to do whatever stores I wanted. He is one of the writers that I am determined to make a household name! JK Simmons, Fred Melamed, Bellamy Young, Lesley Nicol were all involved in that reading. And they are on board for this one, as well. People just love Brian's work!
Tragically, just a month after we met in 2016, he was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, and died on May 27, 2017. His funeral in Portland was packed as he is well-known in Oregon. The rest of the world needs some of his beautiful writing, especially now!
What cosmic forces brought you and NOTES ON LIVING composers Jonathan Sacks and Starr Parodi (who's also musical director) together?
I first collaborated with Jonathan Sacks many years ago on a seven-hours of Isak Dinesen stories that I was hired to direct for KCRW. He has been the right hand guy and orchestrator for Randy Newman for 25 years, and is uniquely talented. I had met Starr Parodi a couple of times, and we really connected at a female composers event, hosted by ASCAP. I introduced her to Jonathan, and they ended up doing all the music for IN THE COSMOS: WHERE WE ARE, WHERE WE COME FROM AND WHERE WE ARE GOING at The Ford Amphitheatre on August 25, 2017; just five days after the total Eclipse. Starr and Jonathan composed incredible, original music for the event, AND it was a triumph! Last summer, when I was readying HEY DOYLE! as the summer benefit for WITS and The Pushcart Prize in East Hampton at Guild Hall, I asked Jonathan and Starr to compose original music for the show and come to New York. We had so much fun that we decided to share almost the same program with Los Angeles audiences. We have Antonique Smith (whose singing will blow your mind), Bruce Vilanch, Michael Nouri, and Bellamy Young from the East Hampton production.
You first partnered in 1989 with Darrell Larson for THE GREAT WRITERS SERIES: LITERARY EVENINGS AT THE MET. Would you describe the chain of events from that initial partnership to the origins of WordTheatre in 2003?
Darrell and I had the best time together, and we still collaborate on occasion. THE GREAT WRITERS SERIES only ended because Darrell moved to New York, and I got busy with my voiceover career and a film-producing deal at Universal. But the Isak Dinesen Project followed on the heels of the series at The Met winding down, and Ruth Seymour at KCRW was always very encouraging. Darrell came to visit and we did THE GREAT WRITERS SERIES RIDES AGAIN: WESTERN LITERATURE that he completely curated at The Met and the Autry Museum in 2004.
Darrell also brought the legendary Denis Johnson to WordTheatre a few years ago and we did two amazing productions - one at the Los Angeles downtown library for ALOUD and another in Brooklyn at the original St Anne's Church.
I collaborated on a couple of other literary salon-type projects before starting WordTheatre in 2003 in both Los Angeles and London, adding NYC in 2008. After getting sick of reading too many bad film scripts, and realizing that WordTheatre is a unique art form that I simply love on every level, I decided to commit my career to it. The universe has been good to me by giving me a voiceover career that helps me to afford this extraordinary labor of love.
Since you're been producing these WordTheatre events for over a decade, do you have a handy Rolodex/phone book of talent you can just call to participate?
Yes, I feel very lucky that once anyone works with me, they also invariably want to come back. And they tell their friends! Julianna Marguiles is responsible for bringing Jeff Goldblum and Samantha Mathis into the fold. Samantha brought Carla Gugino and you see how that goes... I think it is a combination of getting to work on the world's greatest writing - working with language and words. They enjoy the rehearsal process. It is like theatre, but they don't have to memorize anything, can still give a full-blown performance, and feel the exhilaration of doing that. That keeps them coming back. Also, they get to meet great writers and be with other great actors. They get to be of service because a huge part of our mission is going into L.A. Title 1 schools and bringing these stories to life in high schools and middle schools. But really, grown-ups need to be read to, as well, and need to hear great literature, and use their imaginations while listening. In this culture when communication is under assault - language is being truncated, vowels are being eliminated. They are the keepers of our emotions. We need to take time to do what has always been done. - hear great stories about being human! It builds empathy and compassion when you put yourself in someone else's shoes for just a moment. Remember we all have more in common than we have our differences.
Have you worked with a lot of the NOTES ON LIVING performers before?
Yes, all of them, but not these musicians whom Starr has brought to the party.
What qualifications do charitable organizations need to have for you to agree to produce a show for them?
I need to take on work for other charitable organizations that allows me to build a show with the qualifications I have stated above. To take them on, weave it together, to affect people so that they realize how important it is to see others with compassion. I was honored to be asked to create a benefit for NARSAD, a leading mental health organization. MYSTERIES OF THE MIND is all made with writings by brilliant men and women (many of letters) who suffered from bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, and extreme depression. When audiences experience the show, it de-stigmatizes these disorders by helping everyone experience the pain of them.
Because I have created so many beautiful themed shows for Autism organizations and others, I have started doing more themed shows to add to WordTheatre's repertoire. we have our staple WORDTHEATRE AUTHOR/ACTOR series where one or two actors read a story. We have doing many of the world's finest literary prizes with this format, but I am enjoying doing bigger shows. Since producing John Edgar Wideman's book Briefs in NYC in 2010, I have been committed to getting his work out to a larger audience. With the little stories from that book, we did STORYTALES at the Ford Amphitheatre in 2012 with thirty of the best African-American actors, dancers, DJ, etc.; including Sterling K Brown. Keith David and Barry Shababka Henley. I am hell-bent and determined to mount a production at The Apollo in NYC and get it filmed. Then, onto Broadway! WordTheatre raised funds to bus in over five hundred Title 1 students to that production at the Ford as we did with IN THE COSMOS (two hundred-fifty students)! We did another version of STORYTALES in Los Angeles free to the public in February 2018 - WITNESS: THE JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN EXPERIENCE with a sponsor who also sponsored our Langston Hughes show and another show I created AND ALL THAT JAZZ... which debuted at The London Jazz Festival - all free for over twelve hundred people for Black History Month.
What order in your pre-production do your creative choices place? Charity, then author of materials, then music, then casting? Or...?
I choose material, and then cast, and direct the actors. Music comes at different times. IN THE COSMOS was originally commissioned in England and performed at The Wilderness Festival with a 45-piece orchestra doing Holst and other famous composers.
You've produced and directed WordTheatre events in the U.S. and in the U.K. How would you describe the differences and similarities between the two audiences? (More reserved? More boisterous? More familiar with your choices of authors?)
In England, audiences flock to the shows. There is a much stronger literary tradition there. We can have three thousand people at a festival listening to actors read a story! It is harder to get American audiences out. But, once we get them there, they love it and want to come back. People have said that we have produced some of the best things they have ever experienced in their lives.
Do you find students of Title 1 schools a more eager audience than grown-ups?
No, but it is the most satisfying thing ever. JK Simmons, Bellamy Young, Edi Gathegi have all come into the schools, and all of these actors will, if they haven't already. They are part of the WITS Squad. Audiences are audiences. Once anyone begins to listen, they are transported. Everyone is a six-year-old, wide-eyed child experiencing WordTheatre.
What accomplishments of WordTheatre are you most proud of today?
I am proud of everything we do. We provide a place where people can feel connected.
What feels would you like the Grammy Museum audience to leave with after your NOTES ON LIVING curtain call?
The joy that is WordTheatre and the humanity at the heart of all of Brian Doyle's work. I would like them to become a WordTheatre Member for $125 dollars and support the work we do. Members will get $10 off their NOTES ON LIVING tickets, and take home a copy of the 2019 Pushcart Prize. Also, I hope they will spread the word about WordTheatre, pick up a book by Brian Doyle and share what they have experienced.
Also, most importantly, we need donors and sponsors! WordTheatre operates on a shoestring. All of the actors donate their time and it is tough to sustain. We need more financial support!
Thank you again, Cedering. Do you mind if I ask you the origins of your beautiful and unusual name?
You are so sweet! Do you write fiction as well?
Cedering is my mother's maiden name. She was born and raised in Northern Sweden thirty kilometers from the Arctic Circle. She moved to America and became a Pushcart Prize-winning poet. Siv Cedering. When I am in Sweden, there a several people in my mother's family who go by Cedering as their first name.
Thank you again!I look forward to experiencing your NOTES.