In the hour before the LA Stage Alliance Ovations ceremony Monday night at the Orpheum Theatre, you may have caught glimpses of a man and woman separately dodging the coiffed and very well-dressed, not making eye contact with anyone, darting to a spot of trouble or a question asked with dread.
On their shoulders rested the visual and aural success of the evening.
They were the producers.
“It’s a million people saying my name and my turning to the right person at the right time to answer,” recalls Dan Friedman, speaking by phone two days after the event. “It’s being an air traffic controller, landing all the right sequences at the right time. It’s really my own masochistic challenge, and I enjoyed every minute of it.” His producing partner, Jessica Hanna, is on the conference call and quips, “I was running the floor asking people how they’re doing and do you need anything? Do you need anything?”
“We lived at this theater for 48 hours,” says Friedman, who has been a producer of two previous Ovations ceremonies. It was Hanna’s first experience as an Ovations producer.
“An hour before the show begins,” recounts Friedman, “a huge crack appears in one of our gobos” — one of the light fixtures that projected multiple Os on the screen. He asks Hanna, “Did we actually get it changed?”
“Yes!” she exclaims. “They brought that whole line of lights down and we had a spare on hand.”
“I didn’t know whether we would have time to pull this off,” sighs Friedman. “The actual running of the show itself went pretty smoothly,” he adds. “There are always challenges like getting a different light board than we anticipated but nothing that would’ve affected the experience of the audience or presenters.”
Friedman, the producing director at Greenway Arts Alliance, is known to many in the theater community as Danny Fresh. Hanna is the producing and managing director of Bootleg Theater. Their paths have crossed many times. When asked by his old friend from CalArts, LA Stage Alliance CEO Terence McFarland, if he would produce this year’s show, Friedman agreed with a caveat. “I wanted Jess to help.”
The two have collaborated on a number of shows around town, including Norman’s Ark at [Inside] the Ford in 2008 and various shows at the Bootleg, “But I’m full-time now at Greenway and just couldn’t fly solo this year,” he says. Hanna adds, “We always tend to consult with each other on producing questions anyway, so pairing up was easy.”
For Friedman, their responsibilities can be summed up as simply making sure all the pieces come together. “The flow, the pacing. It all happens really quick. Here’s our 48-hour window from getting in to getting out. So Jess and I would talk through the sequence of events to make sure we were on the same page.”
“We also were coordinating the reception and red carpet, working with the videographers at Bakers Man and making sure it all comes off at the right time. There were so many little details,” adds Hanna.
One of those little details got dropped shortly before the program. While students from USC’s MFA program served as statuette presenters, some other volunteers failed to appear. “Right before the show started,” recalls Friedman, “we realized the volunteers that were supposed to help people up and down the stairs when they won weren’t there. We had no one to do it.”
Then Friedman spotted “one of our helpers, Jonny Rodgers, wearing a suit. I asked him if he would do it and, in the spirit of theater, he did.”
One hand behind his back and offering women his other arm, Rodgers escorted Ovation recipients up the center stairs all evening. When the Troubadours’ Matt Walker won his first award, he too took Rodgers’ arm. When he won his second award, Walker walked up the stairs with one hand on Rodgers’ buttock.
“Honestly, I was really okay with it,” says Rodgers, a recent graduate of theater studies at Occidental College who led the school’s frisbee team to the national championships and now performs stand-up with ComedySportz in Los Angeles. “I didn’t know who Matt was until that night, but I enjoyed his playful attitude. The one thing I didn’t go along with was going onstage with him his third time up. I knew that would be inappropriate.”
Friedman and Hanna tried to work some comedy into the night’s script. “Our technical director, Arny Cano, built the podium our host [Carolyn Hennesy] and presenters used. We knew there would be a young presenter, Alaman Diadhiou (Twist), so we had a small platform, a stool, built for him and wrote it in as a gag, having someone bring it out for him. Then it turned into a running gag.”
Friedman and Hanna spent most of their time during the show backstage, Hanna wrangling presenters and working on timing cues stage right with Hennesy, and Friedman hovering between the stage manager and the two announcers at stage left. “You have to ride the show live because you don’t know how long people will go and what they’ll say. It was my first experience being backstage during the whole show.”
With so many friends in LA theater, Friedman found himself swarmed by excited and sometimes raucous winners leaving the limelight. “It was fantastic being backstage with a collection of winners who have reached the pinnacle of this experience. They’re boisterous and celebratory and want to talk and connect. But at the same time,” he adds, “I’ve got to keep the show going. So we need to acknowledge it for a second and then get back to work.”
The pair credits production designer (and previous Ovation winner) Dan Weingarten and first-time Ovations lighting designer Elizabeth Harper for creating the ambiance and working with McFarland on the visual themes, most notably the recurring Os.
It’s early for Friedman to be asked to return for 2012. “That might be an assumption,” he admits. “After the first year I did it, it just kept on happening. We’ll probably debrief in the next couple weeks and talk about next year.” Hanna says, if asked, she’s in.
Hennessy came late to the event. Original host French Stewart departed for a television gig — a job that subsequently went on hiatus until December. Hennesy impressed Hanna. “Carolyn did a great job. And I thought [musical director and keyboardist] David O was amazing. The musicians had one outside rehearsal that I know of plus 3-4 hours on Sunday, then worked the day-of, making sure the timing was right with the video montage.”
“The key,” notes Friedman, “is to put aces in every position we can.” He credits Diana Wyenn (REDCAT Media Relations and Promotions Manager) for coordinating the volunteers. Wyenn says, “The USC folks were awesome! And the Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse did all the ushering. It definitely takes a village. And I really do love the LA theater village.” She says a few volunteers were sick, however, leading to Rodgers’ happenstance ushering the winners to the stage.
Friedman and Hanna got out of the theater by around midnight. “We were not the last to leave,” he says, noting the crew remained until about 1:30 to strike the set.
“In fact, we thought we might never leave,” says Hanna, “because Dan couldn’t find his glasses. We looked everywhere.”
“I couldn’t leave without them,” Friedman pointedly said.
“So who comes up out of the blue? Jonny Rodgers! He said ‘I know where your glasses are.’ He walked away and came back a minute later and handed Dan his glasses.”
That is when the producers knew the last little detail was covered.
Behind the Cameras at the Ovations
Rachael and David Kartsonis are 20-something siblings, armed with a love of video, theater and technology that runs in the family. They helmed live streaming and on-camera interview duties at Monday’s LA Stage Alliance Ovations Awards.
Their father, Paul, moved the family west from Kansas City, Missouri two decades ago to pursue screenwriting opportunities in Los Angeles. Rachael says the studios liked his scripts but were looking for hit-oriented family movies to which they could add a lot of cussing and end up with something she describes as unrecognizable. “That wasn’t for him.”
Her father instead decided to wait until he could produce his own works. But the studios liked what they heard and saw in Kartsonis enough to hire him to turn their film assets into digital archives. “He started with Disney,” says Rachael, who was then a toddler, “building content management systems. So today, anyone who works at Disney uses our internal systems as well as our streaming. We work with all the major studios now and help with their work flow.”
Paul Kartsonis dubbed the company Bakers Man after his wife’s maiden name. The company has offices in Torrance, Burbank and Kansas City. It also does HD production and provides supply systems and security to game developers, major labels and publishers, employing two dozen people.
David graduated from UC Santa Barbara five years ago. “We believe in LA theater and donate our time and resources to LA Stage Alliance for the Ovations, shooting on the red carpet and interviewing people as they arrive. We also shot the show for YouTube and did the live Internet stream and conducted interviews backstage.” Bakers Man inaugurated Internet streaming last year at the Ovations ceremony at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.
Rachael, who took her undergrad degree at UCLA three years ago, thought about attending film school but realized, as did her brother, it would be ridiculous not to work for the family business. “We have a lot of freedom to start new business lines as long as they are profitable,” she says. “We do things we believe in for groups that we feel are doing important work.”
She points to the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles as an example. “We like how they use Shakespeare to teach kids their challenges are nothing new.”
David was amused by the emotional states of the Ovations ceremony participants. “Some don’t have any idea how to express what they’re going through. Some are so overcome with emotion, you just get a lot of screaming. Then people you wouldn’t expect to be able to fully explain their feelings can be really great.”
Once the pair was done darting between setting up inside the theater and greeting attendees on the red carpet, Rachael positioned herself backstage, where winners were greeted by a still photographer and then brought into her room for on-camera interviews.
“What I most remember about Monday night,” she says, “is when the artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse [Randall Arney] came through. He had just told a very moving story about the death of his artistic partner and longtime friend [Gil Cates]. He walked past my door toward the stairs and I ran out, grabbed him, and brought him back in. He said ‘I didn’t win anything!’ and I told him that was okay, we still wanted to talk to him.”
Rachael also recounts her conversation at the January 2010 Ovations ceremony with the Fountain Theatre’s Stephen Sachs and Simon Levy, shortly after the Fountain’s director and producer Ben Bradley was murdered. “That was very touching, very moving. And I talked to a couple who met and got engaged while doing Divorce! The Musical a couple of years ago.
“But what I love most is that people have a chance to thank their co-workers, friends and loved ones they didn’t get to thank on stage. We give them an opportunity to thank them profusely on YouTube.”
This was the second year Bakers Man provided a live stream for the Ovations, and the fourth year that it posted videos from the ceremony on YouTube. You’ll be able to watch it here (once it’s up).