Interview: FAMOUS Returns to The 11:11 as a Tighter, More Visually Stunning Play Addressing the Cost of Fame
As you walk the red carpet to enter The 11:11 space in West Hollywood to see Michael Leoni's FAMOUS, be prepared to enter the world of media glitz surrounding an actor receiving his first Academy Award nomination as Best Actor. After being escorted in by the bouncer, you join in the party in the reception area bar, enjoy a few drinks with other guests, and watch the actors arrive ready to party at Jason Mast's Hollywood Hills home as they breeze past you. Then, when the doors open, get ready to walk into Jason's home where you will experience exactly what price everyone is willing to pay to attain fame - but at what cost?
FAMOUS re-opened in April after a successful run in 2018. And since I reviewed the original (read my original review at the very end of this article) and this time noticed some cast changes and upgrades to the staging, I decided to speak with the show's Creator/Director Michael Leoni (ML) and producers Michelle Kaufer (MK) and Cassidy Pepper (CP), about how the new production uses stylized movements by the characters, enhanced lighting and sound designs, to bring the play flow so much more fluid than last year's version. The result grabs the audience's attention to the point of being able to hear a pin drop, making the entire experience even more stunning and breathtaking than before. And, of course, its relevance to the #MeToo movement is immediately recognizable as power players move in and out of Jason's life during the party.
Michael, let's talk about the reasons for the changes made since you first brought FAMOUS to The 11:11 stage last year.
(ML) When you're doing a show for the first time and are adapting your own film script into a play, as I did with FAMOUS, you don't know if this scene or movement will work. But I think after watching it run for seven months, I got ideas on what could be done better, how I could make the characters stronger, and increase the depth of their stories. Once I knew the show worked, I had more confidence in how to make the transitions from room-to-room flow better. I spent a month re-writing the play between staging it, figuring out how to make it more effective for our audiences, and spoke with my designers on my new vision for the show to see if we could actually do it. And we have!
SB) After I met you last year when I saw the original production, you had mentioned that part of the impetus for writing it was stories shared with you about parties that took place at the home of certain Hollywood stars, re-imaging of what possibly could have happened. So much of the #MeToo movement has exploded now, which I am sure was already going on when you first wrote the play. Has hearing the truth much more often further enabled you to address the issue of sexual harassment in the Entertainment industry?
ML) When I first moved to L.A., I heard so many actors' and artists' stories about what happened to them and they all had such a huge impact on me. FAMOUS is most definitely inspired by the stories I heard personally and true stories that I read. Corey Feldman's story was also part of the inspiration. The predators in this industry have been here for a very long time. This is not new and knowing this was something people are afraid to talk about was a huge part of the inspiration as well. I put everything in a film script and it got sold to people who were not the greatest people, and are, in fact, part of the problem. The result was I lost my original script, which was very painful because the FAMOUS characters were part of me.
SB) It sounds to me like you wrote something which hit too close to home for them and they wanted to keep it from being made while telling you that is what they wanted to do.
ML) Absolutely. So when I got my script back, I wanted to find the quickest way to get it out there. Then the stories hit about how major Hollywood players were abusing young men and women, which lead to the end of many careers. And it was perfect timing since I had also known this from first-hand accounts from people who had been seduced by these same media stars and moguls. In fact, six years ago when I was doing ELEVATOR (an earlier hit play by Leoni), some of the actors in the play told me about all the 15-year-old boys they had personally seen running around at Hollywood parties, catering to the host or hostess.
SB) And now the "real" story with what was going on at Neverland with Michael Jackson and his young boys has come to light. When I was working in Hollywood studios before I started reviewing live theatre, I certainly saw lots of examples of young women moving up in the ranks via the casting couch. But I was one of the women who said, "No," even though I knew it would mean never getting promoted. But I have always had enough self-respect and professional work ethic to make choices based on what I knew was right for me. I think everyone knows if you want to get ahead and don't have the skills needed, you have a choice to make whether or not to play along - and many still do.
CP) Not being an industry person, there are predators out there in every part of life, not just entertainment. It happens with anyone in a power situation who thinks they can get away with it.
ML) It's happening all over the place, certainly in sports and politics to name a few other major industries filled with power-hungry people.
SB) Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the saying goes. And that is exactly how FAMOUS spoke to me. The more power you think you have, the more you attempt to prove it to yourself by making others follow your demands in order to keep or advance in your career.
Michelle is there anything you want to add about the whole #MeToo aspect of the play?
MK) I think as a producer, the thing I like best about working with Michael is that every one of his projects speaks to something that is really important in the world. Even if it is a comedy, people leave being affected by what they have seen and start looking at their own lives in a new perspective. In fact, so many people come up and hug us after seeing FAMOUS, as they did during ELEVATOR, sharing how what we have presented spoke to them so deeply. And that is why I do it, to be able to have an impact and create change in the world thru art; to have people think or feel differently, to open up. So, this play couldn't be more timely. As such, we're planning after-show panel discussions with survivors because I think people have a lot to say about the issue and it's important that the conversation continue and that people are given the resources they need to speak out.
ML) I was walking down the street with one of the actors and a young man stopped us and said after seeing FAMOUS, he spoke with his therapist about what happened to him and he started to heal. That is why we do what we do; to make a difference in people's lives for the better. I once had a woman sob in my arms after seeing one of my plays, telling me what happened to her. I am so pleased I can create a safe place where people can tell their stories and get their voices out there.
MK) I also want to attract more influential people to see this show because it is a good tool to re-connect people with what happened to them and also provides an opportunity to keep people engaged with the issue. We don't have to use real names in the show. You can watch these characters and think you know who it is, but it doesn't matter who these characters are based on really. What matters is to talk about it and hope the discussion will lead to real change.
ML) And it happens, the predator state, to everyone. Men and women. Men doing it to women, women to men, men to men, and women to women. It's a human problem.
MK) I think now that we have all these powerful women standing up, men are more willing to speak up, although men seem to be more ashamed to admit what happened to them.
ML) Men certainly are more reluctant to speak out than women are, no matter the circumstance. Even stories of what celebrity photographers expect in exchange for their "imaging" have shocked me, both to men and women.
SB) Men who claim to be straight have much more to lose, it seems, in the power structure if they admit to what happened with another man. As if that makes them less of "a man."
ML) Exactly. I work with the actors on their vulnerability, which is a very challenging thing for most men who think that makes them weak or too sensitive. Those things that get thrown at you as a child make it hard for a man to admit what happened to him.
SB) Jacqi Vene, the young actress who plays 16-year old billboard model Caley Miller in FAMOUS, who is willing to do almost anything to break into the movies, exemplifies the vulnerability of youth who have no idea how to play the game and get caught up in something from which they cannot escape.
And Josh Pafchek, the actor now playing the lead character Jason Mast, seems to be much more vulnerable, an everyday sort of person who would be more at home at the beach hanging out with friends than on the big screen. And this time, you have enhanced the scenes between the two Jasons, with Derick Breezee, who has always played the Young Jason role, now seeming to go along with his older self quite often on his journey to get revenge against the person who harmed his psyche at a young age. The two actors really work well together and your new staging has made Young Jason a more "present" character throughout the play.
MK) It's Jason's vulnerability that drives the audience to side with him. What happened to him has been going on for a long time with lots of complicit people around looking the other way, and not one story came out because everyone was too afraid to damage their career by saying anything. Now I think it is so interesting that the people blowing the cover off others are some of the most complicit ones who saw it all happening. And that power goes up to the highest ranks who will fall the farthest when the truth comes out. It's still petrifying for people to think they will lose everything if they speak up or if someone else speaks up against what they have done to others. As such, I am really proud of the women and men who are speaking up and hope their stories will embrace young women and men to let them know there is a safe space for them to take a stand now.
CP) I certainly want people from all walks of life to know we are taking a stand and want them to feel we have created a safe place for them to share their stories and encourage others to do the same. And because we address sexual abuse in so many different ways, I think FAMOUS speaks to every audience member personally. Even with the characters who are complicit and hate that they were, yet they then turn around and do the same to someone else who needs something from them. It's a vicious cycle still happening today.
SB) It's difficult for me to believe anyone in charge of a studio or company still thinks they can get away with this kind of treatment of their co-workers and subordinates. I guess as long as people are willing to go along with the abuse of power, the problem will persist. But because so many are speaking up, we can only hope that society is changing. I am not saying anything will just eradicate the problem because real change takes time. But it has started. And like the three of you, I am proud to be a spokesperson for that change and applaud you for promoting personal survival and real transformation, both within ourselves and out in the world.
I encourage everyone to see FAMOUS and begin important conversations in your own life, and then encourage others to speak the truth, heal, and in turn, pay it forward. It the way real change begins. And for anyone out there who can make it happen, Michael Leoni's masterpiece is ready to be seen in an intimate theater Off Broadway before heading to London and attaining international fame!
And now, here is my original review: FAMOUS Examines the Cost of Being a Celebrity. Written by Shari Barrett, published as her Stage Page column in the Culver City News on 9-21-18.
In the world premiere of FAMOUS, a new play written and directed by the incredibly creative Michael Leoni, we are invited into the 1994 world of a media celebrity through the eyes of Hollywood's biggest star, Jason Mast. Through a hot party that takes place at his Hollywood Hills home the night after his first Oscar nomination, we see Mast filled with all the trappings of celebrity royalty, offering the star and his growing entourage a world fueled by sex, money, and power where image is everything. One need only think of the rising #MeToo movement to realize how Leoni has chosen to put the world in which creating the reasons for that public outcry were born.
From the moment you walk into the new 11:11 performance space on Kings Road in West Hollywood, you will find yourself immersed in scenic designer David Offner's multi-level, three-bedroom home any of us would love to own, no doubt born in the outrageously detailed imagination of Leoni. Add in Ovation Award-nominee Martha Carter's brilliant stage lighting, which colorfully highlights the black and white set as downward, spiraling moods or overwhelming anger explode as the night unfolds at an adrenaline-rushed pace, ultimately revealing one of Jason's darkest secrets. His attempt to control the party's outcome ignites a chain of events that pushes the boundaries of real friendship and reveals the true cost of fame.
Perhaps those of you who have personal experience working in the Los Angeles studio system will recognize much of the testosterone-fueled behavior so prevalent in the days before those perceived as "underlings" could ever hope to speak up about the infamous "casting couch" days of movie making when young attractive men and women. FAMOUS looks at what giving in to those demands really costs a person, and how dulling those memories with drugs and alcohol can turn deadly.
Featured in the 2019 cast are Josh Pafchek as Jason Mast, the emotionally challenged new celebrity who was never ready to step into the media glare which fame offers him, Derick Breezee as Young Jason, bravely taking us into the traumatic events which took his self-worth from him at the hands of his overbearing mother (Erica Katzin), cigar-smoking manager Paulie (Kenny Johnston), and powerful producer Jack Rossi (Gregory DePetro). I could not help but see Harvey Weinstein every time this despicable character was onstage, although he doesn't resemble him.
Jason's entourage hanging out to bask in his new-found celebrity fame includes his just-out-of-rehab (but still dealing drugs) brother Dylan (Kyle Mac), best friend and fellow actor Ryan Logan (Landon Tavernier) and his girlfriend Alyssa Rossi (Megan Davis) who happens to be the boss' spoiled and coke-addicted daughter as well as a fading TV actress.
His ballsy blonde manager Celeste Whitney (Rosanna De Cania added a true sense of power to the business suit wardrobe designed by Elena Flores) who, after an unwelcome pat on the backside turns the tables to create her next "boy toy."
Struggling screenwriter Brody James (Thomas McNamara) seems little prepared for what the night has in store for him, with Mara McCaffray as his girlfriend and upcoming actress Heather Hayes who knows how the game is played and attempts to guide newbie 16-year old model Caley Miller (Jacqi Vene) away from the exploitation traps she is bound to face as she attempts to move up the media ladder to stardom beyond her billboard on Sunset.
With several scenes going on at the same time in each of the rooms, Leoni allows Jason to follow all the action everywhere via hidden closed-circuit cameras from his desk where his drug-fueled anger builds against those being filmed for evidence he hopes to use to end the emotional torment from which he suffers. Blending in perfectly throughout the show thanks to sound designers Andrea Allmond and Scott Casillas is the music of international artist Conner Youngblood.
Leoni's direction brilliantly calls attention to each featured scene per room with mood-appropriate lighting, while actors not lit freeze in place in the other rooms until their scene continues. It's like being a voyeur at a Hollywood Party and learning all the secrets going on behind closed doors before hearing about them from the latest media blogger!
Perhaps the most universal message in Leoni's play is the desire to be able to go back and comfort your younger self as Jason does, offering assurance that everything will get better despite the pain you are going through at that time. If only we could live out that fantasy of making our lives better today by changing the past.
An 11:11 Experience is excited for FAMOUS to return to The 11:11 every Friday & Saturday 8PM & Sunday 7PM. Purchase tickets online at www.famoustheplay.com. The theater is located at 1107 N. Kings Rd. in West Hollywood. For more information call 323-378-6969.
Photo credits: Abel Armas Photography and Max Feldman