Tag Archives: The Baby play

Headshot_2014_Blocker_Frank_Photo_by_Amelia_Gotham

“THE BABY” opens in Toronto Oct. 15th – Meet the man who plays Mama

Starting October 15th,  writer/director Dan Spurgeon brings his award-winning hit play THE BABY to Toronto audiences and leading the cast on stage is NY Drama Desk Award nominee FRANK BLOCKER (pictured above)  The multi-talented New York-based actor is making his Toronto theatre debut reprising his celebrated tour-de-force portrayal of Mama Wadsworth, the family matriarch of the play who keeps many secrets. Frank’s off-Broadway appearances include the Drama Desk-nominated Southern Gothic Novel, The Deep Throat Sex Scandal, Fall of the House of Usher, and Obie-winning West/East Village Fragments.  Frank is also a playwright (Southern Gothic Novel; Stabilized Not Controlled; Eula Mae’s Beauty, Bait & Tackle; Patient Number; Suite Atlanta; The Wisconsinners; Good Jew; The Call of Cthulhu).

I recently spoke with Frank who shared his thoughts on reprising his now-famous role of Mama for Toronto audiences, as well as his career on stage and screen.

Frank, you played Mama Wadsworth in the award-winning L.A. production of The Baby – are you eager to present Mama to Toronto audiences?
Excited and yet cautious.  She’s terribly misunderstood. To be honest, I do not want my first role in any town to be “drag” – and it’s really not…so there’s that.  You get labeled for such roles.  Fortunately, I am so unrecognizable in the poster, when my sister saw it on Facebook, she asked if I was involved in the show in some way. mama-wailing-smYou’re also a playwright yourself, so how collaborative was the process for creating this larger-than-life character – how closely did you work with writer/director Dan Spurgeon?
Well, there wasn’t a lot of time – we were in a bit of a rush and there’s 11 people on stage – doing a LOT.  But his direction was pretty clear: that we had to fit into the style and world he wanted.  We’re a B-movie on stage.  You want “bad acting” so to speak, but you don’t want it to BE bad.  To put on the proper veneer for the role – I decided I wasn’t playing the role.  Someone else was.  I play an actress who is playing a part:  a b-movie, has-been, aging actress had found herself cast in a tiny theatrical role amidst actors with varying experience levels.  My “actress” would try to put a positive spin on it – if she didn’t have a positive attitude she wouldn’t have survived in this biz… She had a great role in this “Mama Wadsworth”, one of Shakespearean magnitude.  A tragedy!!  This story (to the “actress) is all about Mama…willing to do anything to save her family and yet, like an Elizabethan play, must die trying.  Suddenly, I had the veneer, but the performance was still real and passionate.  And yes, I use every Shakespearean ‘thing’ I ever learned—more so in this than actual Shakespeare.  Enunciation, projection, dissecting each sentence for pace …it sure wasn’t just throwing on 10 outfits for laughs.  Although that’s pretty dang funny.charlies-angels-smAs an actor, there was the same collaboration as normal but as a playwright, well, there wasn’t much to do, say or help Dan with…When Dan asked me to read it, it worked well, in my opinion.  I had seen the movie many years earlier, and I have worked with lots and lots of playwrights, but in this case all I could offer Dan was, “Don’t change anything—maybe punch up a line here or there but you’ll know when you need that.”  It was a smart and fun adaptation in its first draft.  You don’t mess with someone if you think they found gold…I have seen WAY too many people jump into that type of situation, want so bad to be an affecting part of the art, and they ruin the stew.   The best thing I could do for Dan as a fellow playwright was encourage, then shut up.

You’ve enjoyed much success in comedic roles, in particular edgy outrageous characters – do you prefer more serious dramatic roles or do you relish the more outlandish characters?
When I was working in NYC, I found that my “street cred” friends—the ones I literally did street theatre with—thought it disturbing that my off-Broadway playwriting debut was for something like Eula Mae’s Beauty, Bait & Tackle…in their eyes, it lessened me.   And of course, the street performers and the comedy folk had a hard time understanding that I was classically trained and even like to do that sort of stuff (sometimes).  Then, when I would go to work and do all that smarty-pants-computer-stuff, they would express shock that I got up on stage at all.  What I prefer is a deep, rich character that I think I can bring something to—particularly the “evil” ones.  Again, horribly misunderstood.  In the evil one’s mind, he/she is desperately trying to make what they think is important change—they are a hero.  Outlandish can be fun—chewing scenery is fun—but it always has to be real in the end or you don’t get a single laugh, a single tear, nor a single care from the audience.  I love this role because unlike many comedic parts, it can become rote and/or just plain easy.  This one requires the utmost attention because with 11 people on stage, things just happen.  Truly, I relish the most impossible roles—or whatever someone thinks cannot be done.  Dan and I talked about this role before he put up the audition notice the first time—we were pretty sure it would work this way, but I know we both had some concerns.SNC_JPAbsolute favorite roles of all time – Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher (absolutely nothing funny in that one) and it was incredibly presentational and artsy; Don Quixote going insane in the Don Quixote Project; and all the characters in Southern Gothic Novel…which is funny, outlandish, and very very physically exhausting.  But yes, Mama is probably up there with them…when will I ever get to say, “You’ve got your fucking tit in his mouth and you call that nothing?” again?

You have also appeared in films and on episodic TV (please feel free to share which ones) – how do approach on-camera roles as opposed to live stage performances? 
Not much on-camera, unless you count all those darned short films.  I was in a Law & Order: SVU episode, I’m at the 3:00 mark in a movie called Thanks for Sharing—at a sex addiction meeting, and I show up in the middle of Tales of Halloween (opens in a few weeks) looking devilish and creepy…as if Satan showed up to watch a nasty fight.  I approached that role like most—had the director tell me what he wanted me to do and did what I could to fit the vision.  Worked well in that case—after editing, the role came out differently on film than what the day’s goal was when we filmed it.  But because I trusted the director, he knew what to do in the editing room and actually made my part shine more than it would have originally.  Also, make your director happy in film or you will end up on the cutting room floor.
But on-camera being different?  Only in that you are being photographed instead of watched by live persons, daily.  In film, show up knowing those lines like the back of your hand because EVERYTHING will distract you.  Plus, when it comes time to actually speak them, it takes all of 2 seconds and a crew of a gazillion people are waiting for you…to do it right and with as little extra takes as possible…because they spent all day and night setting up all that shit! AND you have to be able to do it again, exactly, several times over in case multi-shots are needed, or Murphy’s Law is proving itself with the technical aspects.  You do not want to be the actor who F-ed up the consistency or caused the crew to go home even later to their families.  Efficiency and preparedness makes them all much happier.Cthulhu photo verticalAs you played Mama before, how does this run differ from the LA production – do you plan on bringing anything new, special, crazier to your characterization?
I’m not bringing it…Dan is … He wants me to do a song…
That’s the only change.  Of course, the rehearsal process is needed so I can rebuild familial relationships with each of my “children”—they are all very different and it’s very important for the final product…but changing things or ratcheting up the performance would be selfish and would be a disservice to the show.  I get plenty of focus wearing those outfits and saying what I (get to) say—trying to get more would be criminal—and boring as heck to the audience.  We’re a team on this show and have to be one—and every part is truly a lead, down to the single-line party guest asking a simple question.

The only newness I would like to bring is that of already having done it … the “new” thing would be my previous experience with it and that I can back up Dan should anyone wonder, “does this or that work.”  Cuz trust me, it’s sometimes hard to believe we’re doing this show…it is WHACKED.Baby-in-crib-sm judith-axe-smIs this your first time in Toronto? And if so, any touristy sites or extra-curricular activities you plan to experience?
I plan to take a ferry to Toronto Island tomorrow.  I want to see Lake Ontario in person instead of from the plane (though that was nice).  Dan & Drew aren’t much the nature types and I love that stuff…and without a car, that seems like something I can easily get to and transport myself on foot, bus, train, streetcar and/or boat—a simple yet pleasant adventure.  No, I’ve never been to Canada at all.  Have great friends FROM Canada.  And boy, am I still freakin’ PISSED about Sale and Pelltier and it’s been … what?…. 13 years.  There should have been one gold medal team and it sure wasn’t the Russians!  DAMMIT.  Sorry but that one just gets to me….

Any other comments/funny stories or anecdotes you’d like to share?
I’m 50 and I’ve been doing theatre since I was in high school, so yes, plenty of stories: star run-ins, crazy audience members, totally insane theatre producers, certifiably insane artists…BUT specific to this show:  a full year after we closed it, we were at a party thrown by the Ann character.  One of her friends started talking about THE BABY and asked me if I’d seen it.  I said, “You know, actually, I never did get a chance to see it.”  And they went on and on about it—praising Jana Wimer’s (Ann) performance and ‘that guy’ who played the mother.  They quoted a few lines, and then I said one of the lines.  Took ‘em a few minutes, but finally one went, “Wait.  OMIGOD IT’S YOU! (pokes his friend) it’s him…Her…I mean, Mama.  It’s him…her…shit!  … YOU played Mama, didn’t you?”
After the first few rehearsals here for me the sense of joy and passion from the Toronto cast is very exciting.  That makes this show soar.  And these guys are taking to it like ducks to water.Baby-logo-web-banner

About the Show:
A love letter to the sleazy grindhouse cinema of the ’70s, THE BABY follows social worker Ann Gentry as she finds herself with a very unusual case – the Wadsworth family, whose youngest member, Baby, is an adult man who sleeps in a crib and acts like an infant.  Is Ann on the case to help the disabled Baby escape his abusive mother and sisters, or is her interest in him more… special?  Part bizarre love story, part twisted fairy tale, part mystery thriller and all outrageous and offensive, the ’70s cult film comes to the stage with a story so strange and shocking, you won’t believe it’s happening right in front of you!

What the LA Critics said about The Baby:
“Gleefully perverse with a delicious campiness!”  Paul Birchall, LA Weekly
“The most fun I’ve had at a play in a long time!”  Andrew Moore, Mad Theatrics
and our favourite….. “That was fuckin’ funny!”  Ron Jeremy, adult film legend

THE BABY   http://thebabyliveonstage.com/
Show runs: Oct. 15 to Nov. 1, 2015
The Storefront Theatre, 955 Bloor Street West, Toronto
Showtimes: Tues. thru Sat. @ 8pm & Sun. @ 2pm
Tickets: $20-$25 available from http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2253620logo

The Baby - LA production

AWARD-WINNING WRITER/DIRECTOR DAN SPURGEON BRINGS THEATRICAL THRILLS, CHILLS & GRINDHOUSE CAMP TO TORONTO!

Back in the late 70’s, I was cast in the stage version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show here in Toronto – I made a great Magenta – but due to some differences of opinion between the director and myself (he thought I should be pulling an extra after-show shift…and I didn’t) I withdrew from the show, dignity and virtue in tact! BUT…that first taste of high camp and horror/humour has fueled my appreciation of grindhouse movies and stage shows. A few years back, I saw the production of  Bat Boy at the Bathurst St Theatre and was just as entranced by the audience’s reaction to the play as the actors themselves. All the ooo’s, aaah’s and yikes from the seats were as funny as the action on stage.

I now have the pleasure of working with the new master of said “genre” live theatre, DAN SPURGEON, who arrived in Toronto last month after years of helming critically acclaimed productions in LA and New York. He has a wicked glint in his eye, a wry sense of the absurd and he recently sat down with me to share his love of live theatre, his award-winning camp send-ups of 70’s classic cult films and plans for his upcoming production of THE BABY at Toronto’s Storefront Theatre (see end of story for details).

Writer/Director DAN SPURGEON

DAN SPURGEON, writer/director

Welcome to Toronto, Dan. What prompted this move from LA to Toronto?
Actually, I’ve visited many times and had Canadian citizenship since 1989 via my mom. My husband, Drew Blakeman (Exec. Producer of The Baby) and I were considering moving to Toronto from New York a decade ago, but after the US dollar collapsed against the Canadian it wasn’t an option. LA was second choice… it turned out to be a great second choice based on what I was able to accomplish there, but we’ve had our eyes on moving here for a while. As far as why we left LA and the US… well, both are facing enormous problems that appear to be getting worse rather than better, and we decided that it was time to revisit the idea of moving up north. A year later, here we are!

Over the past 5 years, you built a successful theatre company, The Visceral Company, in LA – what challenges did you experience working with stage actors in a film town?
In LA, everyone’s an actor. Or at least, they think they are, despite many having no craft, discipline, training, or talent. There’s a general feeling in that city that theatre is no more than just a film without a camera pointed at it – many people don’t understand that under the surface, they’re very different mediums. I’ve dealt with actors who whispered on stage, who didn’t understand they couldn’t paraphrase a playwright’s words, and one performer who was very upset that her character costume wasn’t something she’d personally wear. If you request a monologue audition, you’d have to specify that it be memorized, and if you don’t mention “previous stage experience required” your inbox will be flooded with folks who may not know what a play even is. Plus it’s a given that if you’re working with pros, you always run the risk of losing them to a better-paying project with higher exposure at any time, and often with little to no notice. Thankfully, we seldom ran into that issue, and were only caught fully off guard by one exit – we were lucky enough to get the real pros most of the time, I guess.

You also worked for some time in New York, a real theatre town. What did you learn from your time working with the Shubert Organization and directing for Cobblestone Productions?
In theatre terms, I’m from the street. I don’t hold a drama degree, I took several years of classes but ultimately got sick of performing before I was allowed to study directing. So I just kind of did it myself. In the final semester of my film degree in San Francisco, I was strongly drawn back towards wanting to create theatre, so my final project was in fact producing and directing a play. We moved to New York shortly after I graduated. My time at Shubert provided me as much guidance as school ever did, both practical and artistic. I got to see the inner business workings of the highest professional level of theatre, and even more importantly, I got to see all kinds of shows – Broadway, off-Broadway, Off-off-Broadway, readings. I also did script coverage for creative projects. Getting to see what worked and what didn’t, what stirred me and other audience members and what left us cold, was absolutely invaluable in figuring out the standards I would set for myself and my work. In the same way, Cobblestone, a tiny nonprofit company, simultaneously taught me practicality, and how to apply these professional standards within time, space and budgetary constraints.

As an artistic director and writer, you specialize in the horror, thriller and sci-fi genres, especially plays with a comedic edge and a touch of the absurd. What attracts you to those dark, macabre and bizarre themes?
I’m drawn towards big, operatic emotions and an intensely heightened sense of reality. After horror and thriller stuff, I’m most fond of musicals and futuristic sci-fi – all these genres share that sensibility. Comedies tend not to share it to the same degree, so the ones I like tend to have a darker, sharper edge that brings out bigger performances. I have a real soft spot for cheaply made, shoddy, “exploitation” films that have a lot of heart. The Baby (LA stage stills, below) is a love letter to the sleazy, grindhouse cinema I devoured on VHS as a teenager. Beyond that, it’s kind of tough to explain my personal aesthetics – it’s like someone asking me why I like sushi more than pizza. I just do, it’s part of what makes me me.mama-wailing-sm charlies-angels-sm judith-axe-smIn Toronto, there is a huge underground “goth” and horror genre cult following – do you anticipate your upcoming production of The Baby (based on the 70’s cult movie classic) will attract these audiences?
The Baby is certainly designed with a certain sensibility, but I’d say it’s less “goth” than “punk rock.” The original film is generally labeled as “horror,” but I think it defies such simple categorization. While the show has elements of horror, drama, and comedy, it’s primarily “camp” – albeit camp done with excellent actors. My biggest inspiration for this project have been the films of John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble), Russ Meyer (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) and Herschell Gordon Lewis (2000 Maniacs, The Gruesome Twosome) – so any fans of those kinds of “midnight movies” should find plenty to like about The Baby!FasterYou’ve won numerous awards for your stage adaptation and direction of The Baby including the Encore Producers Award/Best of Fringe selection (Hollywood Fringe Festival 2013) and LA Bitter Lemons named The Baby one of the Top 10 LA Theatre productions for 2013 & Best LA Premiere of a Play (honorable mention). Having done research into Toronto’s theatre scene, how do you feel (or hope) the critics as well as the public will receive The Baby?
This show began as an experiment, and I wasn’t even fully convinced it worked until I started seeing the audience reaction. Many of our fans in LA thought it was the best show our company ever did. So, hopefully Canadians aren’t radically different in taste and they enjoy it just as much! As far as critics go, I’ve learned not to listen to them. I hope they like the show, as much as I hope every patron enjoys the show… but I also know that opinions are opinions, no matter how informed they might be, and it’s very rare that you can please everyone. I’ve seen a few reviews that hated Book of Mormon, and even more that hated Kinky Boots. What I’m hoping is that everyone, critics and public audience alike, at least enjoy the uniqueness of The Baby, the general weirdness of the story (including a truly surprising twist ending), and a performance and design aesthetic that one very pleased and enthusiastic Hollywood Fringe attendee referred to as “Technicolor vomit.”
At one of our shows a few years ago, a young woman came up to us afterward and told us that she had never  seen a play before (not uncommon in the US, sadly), and that she liked it so much she had to go see more plays. That’s a better review than any critic could ever give us.Baby-logo-web-bannerYou’re working with the Storefront Theatre (pictured below) who will be staging this latest production of your award-winning play. Do you already have plans for your next production, and if so, can you give us any hints as to what that play will be?
Oh, I always have a bunch of ideas in my pocket – probably more than I’d ever be able to bring to fruition in my lifetime. My original show Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite – a puppetry-laden anthology from the short stories of H.P. Lovecraft – has enjoyed successful runs in New York and LA, and is being produced this October by the Molotov Theatre Group in Washington DC (concurrently with The Baby, so I unfortunately won’t be able to attend). I’ve found some people that are very interested in the idea of that show, so I think Toronto might see it in the next year or two. Beyond that, I try to keep myself open for whatever interesting notion screams to be picked up and run with.

storefront 2I’ll be posting more news on The Baby and it’s cast over the coming weeks but in the interim, please mark your calendars for the run Oct. 15 thru Nov. 1 at Storefront Theatre, 955 Bloor St West (between Ossington & Dovercourt). You can buy tickets now from http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2253620
Showtimes: Tuesdays – Saturdays @ 8pm, Sundays @ 2pm
The Baby website will be launched shortly: www.TheBabyLiveOnStage.com