Everybody has a story.
And so, to celebrate the 15th anniversary season of the Ojai Playwrights Conference and its Summer New Works Festival, women storytellers — playwrights, actors, screenwriters, and singers — composed presentations about specific milestones in the lives of women.
The Milestones celebration will take place on Thursday, August 9, at 7:30 pm at Matilija Auditorium in Ojai.
Here are four of these women’s stories.
Although Michelle Joyner has been a successful working actress and screenwriter since she graduated from Hunter College in New York and the graduate acting program at Oxford, she has had a singular string of bad experiences on screen.
In Cliffhanger, after her harness breaks and Sylvester Stallone fails to save her, she falls 4,000 feet to her death in the Rocky Mountains. In the first season of the television crime series Millennium, she plays a girl who is sexually abused by her father. In The X-Files “Chimera” episode, she plays a demon with a multiple personality disorder.
It goes on. In the Dustin Hoffman-Renee Russo-Morgan Freeman disaster film Outbreak, she is threatened by a deadly Ebola-like virus. And as Sarah, the daughter of Patti Tate and one of her four husbands on the soap opera Search for Tomorrow, she dies.
But these aren’t the “milestones” she’ll discuss at the Ojai Conference.
Instead, in a solo performance she has titled “Becoming Mom,” she will focus on the birth of her twin boys, who are now 13 years old.
“With that pregnancy, everything that could go wrong, did,” she says.
“First of all, I was a single mom,” she explains. “And so, to keep myself going while I was pregnant, I began my writing career.” She wrote eight screenplays in the next 10 years. “None of them got made,” she says, “but I was paid well.” However, “it was like being pregnant and never giving birth,” she says.
She wrote small parts for herself. “I didn’t want to play the lead, and I didn’t want to write a part for myself that was so good that the producers would say ‘this is great! Let’s get Meg Ryan to do it’!”
Fortunately, she says, she never needed to have a day job, as most actresses do. “In the late ‘80s I had 17 national commercials on the air,” she says. One of her current ones is for Humira, a medicine for several kinds of arthritis and Crohn’s disease.
Then, when the twins were eight months old, Joyner landed the demon role on The X-Files. The boys were dressed in girls’ clothes to take turns playing her baby daughter. And then, a year later she was introduced to Robert Egan by a neighbor who worked with him at the Mark Taper Forum.
Joyner and Egan have been together for 11 years, and this year, in addition to the 15th anniversary celebration, Egan will be celebrating his 10th year as artistic director and producer of the Ojai Playwrights Conference. This intensive two-week in-residence workshop allows invited playwrights to develop and rework their new plays, many of which go on to full productions on Broadway and around the nation. The festival runs August 8-12.
If you want to know something about Amanda McBroom, go to YouTube and listen to her singing her beautiful song “The Rose.”
Although McBroom wrote it, Bette Midler sang it in the film that marked her acting debut. And each of them won a Golden Globe for it in 1980.
McBroom is a celebrated songwriter, singer, and cabaret star, and she is one of the women who will be helping the Ojai Playwrights Conference celebrate its 15th anniversary.
Amanda McBroom. Photo by Bob Barry/Jazzography
“The Rose” was written for the movie of the same name, which was loosely based on the life of Janis Joplin. The song, McBroom admits, was rejected by the producers. “They hated it,” she says. But Midler loved it. And so did the public, who elevated it to #3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, to #1 on the adult contemporary chart, and bought half a million copies of the record.
“The song was written in response to a song called ‘Magdalena,’ which was written by Danny O’Keefe and sung by Leo Sayer,” she explains. “Danny’s lyrics included the line ‘Your love is like a razor; My heart is just a scar,’ and I said, ‘No, love isn’t like that at all.’ My immediate response was ‘The Rose’.”
McBroom herself is perhaps best known for her renditions of the songs of Jacques Brel. “He was my inspiration,” she says. Her performances in the revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris include a revival at Pasadena Playhouse in 1988 (when the title was reduced to Jacques Brel Is…) and at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura in 2002, for which the show’s ensemble was Ovation-nominated.
She also sang in Seesaw on Broadway, as well as Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, and Mame. Her Heartbeats opened as a revue based on her own songs at LA’s Matrix Theatre in 1986. Later it was expanded into a book musical, which was produced at several theaters, including the Pasadena Playhouse in 1994.
McBroom wrote 11 songs for Universal cartoon videos, including The Land Before Time, and has performed at Carnegie Hall and Los Angeles’ Ford Amphitheatre, among many other venues. In 1995 the DRG label produced the concert recording Amanda McBroom Live at Rainbow and Stars.
In addition, she has conducted a 10-day master class in musical performance at Yale for the past seven years. In fact, she was in New Haven when I contacted her for this interview.
Her husband, George Ball, to whom she has been married for 40 years, is an actor who recently appeared in Hello! My Baby at the Rubicon. The couple lives in Ojai (where McBroom is “an avid gardener and a bad cook,” she says) with their three dogs and three cats. “They count as kids,” she says, “but we don’t have to put them through school.”
Because the Milestones evening is dedicated to the memory of Lynn Taylor, “one of Ojai’s most committed citizens and generous volunteers,” who died in May, McBroom plans to sing “two or three songs that Lynn especially loved.” Michele Brourman will accompany her.
On another personal note, she confides that August 9, the night of the Milestones event, is her birthday.
You may remember Linda Gehringer from her roles at South Coast Repertory. Or in the recurring role of Helen Givens on the FX television series Justified. Or as Fontana Beausoleil on Evening Shade. Or, surely, as Attorney General Janet Reno on Ally McBeal.
“The only thing I had in common with Reno is that I’m tall,” Gehringer says, “but they made me up in layers of latex and changed the structure of my face. It took six hours to get all the makeup on and three hours to get it off. And then one day, after they’d gotten me all made up, the shoot was rained out, and I said ‘This is so not for me!’”
Gehringer, who was born in Detroit, received her MFA from the University of Minnesota and then moved on to the Dallas Theater Center, where she worked for seven seasons. She married Ken Bryant, who was the theater’s artistic director in 1989-90.
When she was cast in a role on the CBS series Evening Shade that eventually resulted in 18 appearances, one of the producers reportedly said “but she doesn’t have big tits.” Burt Reynolds — who was the top-billed star of the series and a frequent director on it — was said to have replied, “Yes, but she’s got great legs, We can always give her big tits.”
Just a few days after the September 1990 broadcast of her initial appearance on Evening Shade, her husband died after a freak car accident — less than a year after he had begun running the theater company.
A few years later, while staying at her former in-laws’ beach house in Laguna, she met the man next door, a real estate attorney named Chris Farley. When she later married him, she felt that her first husband and his parents had led her to the match.
And so, living in Laguna, she began her 15-year relationship with South Coast Repertory, which continues to this day. For them she played Helen Gahagan Douglas in But Not For Me, Sister Aloysius in Doubt, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, The Piano Teacher, Getting Frankie Married –Afterwards, and The Naked Girl on the Appian Way. More than 20 plays in all.
“I love doing TV and movies,” she says, “but theater has really been my life.”
In the fall of 2011 she opened in Bill Cain’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It was a play he had developed earlier at the Ojai Playwrights Conference. From Berkeley she took it, with the same cast, to the Seattle Rep. And now it’s headed, with Gehringer again, to South Coast Rep, where the show will open on October 26.
For Ojai’s upcoming Milestones evening she will turn again to Bill Cain. He has written a story of a family member in crisis — his mother and her battle with cancer. And Gehringer will round off her performance with a monologue from another South Coast Rep regular, playwright Julia Cho.
No matter how well Gehringer performs in Ojai, she probably won’t be in a position to repeat one of her most memorable performances in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, when she inadvertently set a couch on fire onstage. “Somebody handed me a glass of water and I dumped it on the couch and kept on talking,” she says.
“LA is pretty segregated compared to my life in Manhattan,” Charlayne Woodard declares. “In Manhattan I had access to the world, while in LA I found that everyone stuck to their own [ethnic] groups.”
But there were compensations. “In LA film actors were off on weekends. I could have a life.”
And a big part of that life was her family’s storytelling tradition. Her grandparents would tell stories to illustrate behavior they wanted to teach, “and we would all chime in,” she says.
Charlayne Woodard performing “The Night Watcher.” Photo by Chris Bennion.
She continued telling stories, and friends would say, “That’s a great story. You should make it into a movie,” she says. “But theater was what I knew. I was busy doing plays and musicals, doing what actors do.
“I never wrote anything down,” she continues. “Writing, for me, was a very foreign thing—like walking in the dark, step by step, until a light comes on.”
Further, “I was snobbish — I thought that actors should be paid.”
So when the Fountainhead Theatre Company invited her to do a 99-Seat Theater Plan play, she made a counter-offer. “I’ll do your play if you’ll do mine,” she said.
“I had no play, and I was taken by surprise when they told me, ‘You’re up next.’
“Give me a week,” she said, and she cobbled together three stories. “I literally created it on my feet,” she says, “and they said ‘Okay, you’re on!’”
The first story she created was called Birth, about her own birth. “I remember it!” she says with a laugh. She will perform it once again as her contribution to the Milestones evening.
It became part of Pretty Fire, a collection of five individual stories that sold out for five weeks at the Fountainhead. “Then the Odyssey picked it up and it ran for another three weeks,” she says. From there it went to the Manhattan Theatre Club, where it ran in rep.
In New York she won an Obie for her role in The Witch of Edmonton, and another for the world premiere of In the Blood. Other notable performances included Sorrows and Rejoicings by Athol Fugard, Stunning at Lincoln Center, Fabulation by Lynn Nottage, The Good Person of Setzuan, adapted by Tony Kushner, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, directed by George C. Wolfe.
In addition, she was nominated for a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for her role in the original Broadway company of Ain’t Misbehavin’.
She also continued her film appearances, in John Sayles’ Sunshine State, M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, Wim Wenders’ Million Dollar Hotel, and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, while continuing with her solo performances onstage.
In addition to Pretty Fire, her solo plays include Neat, In Real Life, and The Night Watcher. This last production, which was developed at the Ojai Playwrights Festival and ran at the Kirk Douglas Theatre last fall, is about to be published by the Dramatists Play Service.
The story deals with her “mothering” of 13 godchildren and 23 nieces and nephews. Go here for more on The Night Watcher.
“It’s much tougher growing up now,” Woodard says. “In earlier times families all lived together and had a part in everyone else’s life. Now the kids have issues and I’m the auntie that lives 3,000 miles away. But they still knock on my door and tell me ‘I need help.’ They think I’m a play date.“
Milestones, part of the Ojai Playwrights Conference Summer New Works Festival, Thursday, August 9, 7:30 p.m. at Matilija Auditorium, 703 El Paseo Rd. in Ojai. Besides the four interviewed women and accompanist Brourman, the other participants include Julia Cho, Kim Maxwell, T.D. Mitchell, Nikkole Salter, Agapi Stassinopoulos, Sarah Treem and Annie Weisman. Tickets for the entire Festival: $190. Single tickets available online at www.ojaiplays.org.
Reprinted from the LA Stage Times published Aug. 2, 2012