Q&A with Tony Abatemarco & Elizabeth Swain by Dan Berkowitz

I’ve discovered I kinda like doing a Q&A session instead of a review every once in a while. I send a bunch of questions to an actor, or a director, or a writer – or some combination thereof – and they send me back answers. I cut the answers from their emails and attempt to paste them after the proper questions. I don’t have to stir from my house, I don’t have to drive anywhere, I don’t have to think much, and I can drink a cosmo or two while I do all that cutting and pasting. Hell, I don’t even have to put any clothes on: I can be naked and drunk just like I am now.

Yeah, I know. Too much information.

Anyway, Tony Abatemarco acts, directs, and writes. As an actor, he’s won an Ovation Award and three nominations for the LA Drama Critics Circle Award. He’s directed on Broadway, in London’s West End, in Paris, and regionally in the United States. And as a playwright, he’s won several awards for his work, and his new play Forever House opened on January 23 at the Skylight Theatre.
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The play’s director, Elizabeth Swain, directs for Antaeus Theatre Company, where her work includes The Malcontent and a number of Classicsfest shows such as Medea, The Lucky Chance, Our Country’s Good, King John, and The Master Builder, and has directed on the east coast as well. She’s appeared in several Broadway and Off Broadway productions, regional theaters, and tours.

Elizabeth Swain

Elizabeth Swain

Recently, I asked them both a few questions…

Dan Berkowitz: In thirty seconds, can you tell us what Forever House is about?

Elizabeth Swain: It is a comedy about gay men buying a house together in suburbia, moving in, considering parenthood, and dealing with the emotional turmoil all of this provokes. Other problems are caused by nosy neighbors, wacky realtors and LA’s seismic activities.

Tony Abatemarco: The play is about commitment. Running with the first flush of enthusiasm over a new relationship, or a house, or bringing a child into the world, is all well and good, but the unexpected complications that are sure to follow are the true test of anyone’s character. Especially significant when personal issues remain unresolved. And that’s the quicksand Jack and Ben find themselves swimming in once they’ve signed their deed.
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DB: Tony, what made you write it – and Elizabeth, how did you get involved with it?

TA: Personal experience in love and home-owning. Being in a relationship for 37 years and the same house for 30 have provided grounding to my life, and having a sense of humor about all the travails that come with the maintenance of each seemed worthy enough and universal enough for a lively comedy.

ES: I met Tony about 5 years ago at a Skylight production. He had seen The Malcontent that I had directed for Antaeus and he, Gary Grossman, and I talked about my doing something with them at some time. Tony was in a play at Antaeus (we are both members of the company) and our paths crossed again, and then he asked me to direct a reading of his play for Skylight. That happened a little over two years ago. Since then we did another reading of a revised script and met several times to do further work on the script. And now here we are.

DB: Tony, you’re a well-known actor and director as well as a playwright: how easy (or hard) is it to sit in the rehearsal room while other people are acting and directing your work – and not jump in?

TA: It’s a matter of professional discipline, and I wish I could say I’ve adhered to that throughout, but I have to admit there are strong personal opinions, experiences, and feelings underpinning this play, and sometimes they spilled out of my mouth. But I’ve always tried to defer to Liz, or at least request permission to air my thoughts before blurting. That’s the standard I expect from others, though I think Liz will attest to the fact that it’s hard to suppress a loud-mouth like me.

DB: Elizabeth, what kind of collaboration has this been? Does Tony sit in on all rehearsals? Does he participate actively, or do you two wait and discuss strategy afterward? Have you agreed on everything, or have there been any knock-down-drag-out fights? And is he really a loud-mouth?

ES: Tony has been at about half of the rehearsals I think. Usually we talk afterwards and disagree about half of the time, but always in a supportive and friendly way. Tony is far too nice a man for a knock down drag out. Tony has always been willing to consider re-writes and edits and we are still doing that in previews. It has been a happy collaboration but working on a new play is a very challenging experience. I am not a writer so have to figure out what it is that needs a fix and try not to propose the words. I usually work with the classics (dead playwrights) and that has caused some wisecracks between Tony and me. I cannot imagine a better working relationship with any living playwright!

TA: RE: the last part of your question and agreeing, we’ve conferenced together on the text and direction for about 3 years while developing the play, and Liz has been hugely influential in her dramaturgy. But after years of putting more credence in my collaborators’ opinions than my own, I’ve finally learned to push back instantly when I’m of a different mind. So… I’ve suffered a few black eyes (never tussle with an English woman), but I think the work has gotten better as a result. Consequently, I wear sunglasses.
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DB: You’ve both done Broadway, Off-Broadway, regionals and the like: what’s the biggest difference between New York and LA theatre? What about London? Good things and bad things about each city?

ES: When I arrived here seven years ago I came with the common NY prejudices about LA Theatre being quite inferior, and when I learned there were these many small theaters where actors didn’t get paid I was appalled. Soon I was directing and teaching at Antaeus and realized that the LA theatre scene is a very special creature. I became an Ovation voter so now have seen many productions in many venues all over. It is a vibrant scene, peopled by the best of talent in all fields of theatre. Because a passion to do the work is at the core of the waiver theatre scene, there is a supportiveness among artists that is very special. In NY there is much more paid theatre work, of course, and the showcase work (unpaid) is mainly done by less experienced actors, whereas in LA seasoned actors of note can be found working in the 99 seat theatre scene because they need to do theatre as well as TV and film. Also in NY audiences are perhaps more supportive of theatre because they don’t have to drive miles, deal with traffic and parking and few nearby eateries and I think it is also better supported by grants and other patronage. Also, tourists support theatre in NY, mainly Broadway I admit, but it isn’t part of LA’s attraction. The actual struggle to do theatre and get audiences in LA is perhaps what makes it so vibrant. London is different in that there is a stronger tradition of theatre-going that keeps the theatre alive. Also, actors work in all media, moving from stage to TV to film and back to stage, much more than happens here. The acting community is obviously smaller nationwide and people know each other’s work more than here.

TA: Theater is theater. Making it requires the same tools wherever the construction happens to be. But I’ve found that making theater in London is more akin to what I’ve always been focused on in LA than making theater in New York is today. The Big Business side of NYC – which is Broadway – is so focused today on the fiduciary gamble and dividends it drains some of the joy from the act of creating. As an artist, I like digging deeply into the process, sharing sweat with my collaborators, getting dirty together. When all that falls under control of managers and corporations, the metaphorical “house of carpenters and electricians and plumbers” – in other words, the theater artists that build a play – tend to get winnowed into their specialized areas. Here in LA, I’m a playwright who also builds props, I’m an actor who also directs, I’m a student of my craft who also teaches, and that’s the most fecund ground for growing theater I know. Plus we can still make it and see it at affordable prices here. What a godsend.

DB: What’s a fun thing about each of you that no one else knows? (And we guarantee not to tell…)

ES: Never meant to go into the theatre and went to London School of Economics (but then Mick Jagger was the same year as I was so there must have been something in the air).

TA: I talk to my dogs. All day. And they listen. Unlike many others.

DB: A classmate of Mick Jagger’s, and a dog whisperer. Don’t you need to meet these two and see what they’ve created?!? Heading to the kitchen to make another cosmo…

Forever House
Written by Tony Abatemarco
Directed by Elizabeth Swain

Through March 13

Skylight Theatre
1816 ½ N. Vermont Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027
Tickets: 213-761-7061 or http://skylighttix.com


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