The weather outside may be frightful, but inside Burbank’s Falcon Theatre, the atmosphere couldn’t be more delightful. In the aftermath of their 16 nominations and five wins in this year’s Ovation Awards,Â Matt Walker and his Troubadour Theater Company (affectionately known as the Troubies) are back to their usual zaniness, getting ready to open their latest holiday creation, A Christmas Westside Story, on December 9.
A former student of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Troubadour artistic director Walker is no stranger to juggling, although these days his plates include movie premieres, award ceremonies, performing to sold-out crowds, and helming a large company of characters. Right there on the tightrope with him is Walker’s longtime comedic partner-in-crime, fellow Ovation Award winner, and Troubadour Theater producing director Beth Kennedy. The third member of the Troubie troika is executive producer Mike Sulprizio.
The rare and respected partnership between Walker and Kennedy has become widely recognized as a cornerstone of the Troubies’ success.
Only two days into previews for A Christmas Westside Story, a musical parody mash-up of the classic holiday film A Christmas Story and the iconic musical West Side Story, Walker betrays some slight anxiety. “Now is kind of the crazy part where we take what we think is funny and throw it at the audience and let them decide. It’s always a little bit rough for previews, but hopefully it’ll congeal. I always get a little bit antsy and nervous when it’s still rough around the edges””you want it to be rough in the “˜Troubie way’, you sort of expect it to be off the cuff and fall apart in spots, but we’d like it to fall apart where we’d like it to fall apart, not where we don’t.”
Kennedy, however, sounds confident that the show and the company are right on track. “I think previews are going well. Matt is usually cutting and pasting and way more at this point during the previews, and he’s not doing it as much this show. The feedback has been pretty good so far. I think it’s just a matter of running it. Like it usually is with the holiday shows, we don’t have as many chances to rehearse because of Thanksgiving and people being out of town. It always gets crazy, but I’m always impressed how we manage to pull it together. It’s probably because we’ve all been working together for so long, so everybody just makes sure they know those lyrics by the first time we’re in front of an audience. Matt was teaching me the lyrics to one song at like 10 minutes until the first show. That’s kind of what we do, and it’s a machine now.”
Thanks to the Troubies’ improvised and self-reflexive style, the more things that go wrong during the show, the more things go right. Whether it’s stopping the show to heckle latecomers, throwing a penalty flag when technical malfunctions occur on set, or answering audience members’ cell phones when they go off during the performance, the Troubies don’t just break down the fourth wall, they take a sledgehammer to it, usually to the audience’s delight.
For Walker, who founded the company in 1995, a lack of pretense is a matter of pride. “The biggest thing for us has been getting the right people together. If you get the right people together and sort of get the basic idea, then you can just have fun. That’s most of the battle. There’s so much “˜showcase theater’ and people doing theater for their own sake, that what gets lost is that community. That’s what we’ve kind of built at the Falcon over the years — a community. It’s nice to get a group of actors together who can just play and have fun and entertain rather than be out for themselves or be there to be showcased.”
That communal spirit instilled by Walker is palpably infectious and has inspired an almost cult-like following among fans and company members alike. Christine Lakin, a Troubie since 2006 and a veteran of more than a dozen Troubie shows, testifies to this. “Being a part of this company has been an amazing experience for me. They are very much my theater family, and I feel very honored to be a part of it. I’ve choreographed shows for them that I haven’t starred in, I’ve starred in shows that I have choreographed, I’ve just performed in shows””it’s something different every time. It’s where I go to play, where I go to have my soul served…It’s definitely a place I can go where I can be silly and have fun during the high times in my life, and when I’ve had rough times, they’ve been there to support me. “
A tight Troubie twosome
For Lakin and the rest of the Troubies, the relationship between Walker and Kennedy is a tremendous source of inspiration and motivation. They’ve got each other down to an art form. According to Kennedy, the connection was immediate. They first performed together in 1993 in “my first show out of school [at CalArts]. We were cast as boyfriend and girlfriend in a play called Meet the Wilsons at the Victory Theatre. Ever since then, we’ve just hit it off. Matt just always gave me a lot of shit, and I gave it right back to him because I have a lot of brothers. We find each other’s funny bone. I would always stutter on words that start with the letter “˜R’ and he still to this day makes fun of it.” Walker laughs as she says this. “Right out of the gate, we had this rapport. I don’t even think between Matt and I it was ever like that whole “˜man and woman chemistry/tension’. It’s more that we are such good colleagues and comics together. It’s like this brother/sister/friend working relationship””we just like each other. I think that we’ve had that from the beginning. I dunno, Matt could totally have a different take on this.”
“Yeah, you need to speak for yourself,” Walker replies dryly.
Kennedy laughs. “See what I mean? He’s an asshole.”
Walker comments on how long their relationship has lasted. “I think if you could find the program [for Meet the Wilsons], it would be written on parchment paper, and was written by quill.”
“It’s just really cool to have a working relationship with someone that has lasted this long and that still brings us so much joy.” Kennedy continues. “I joined the Troubies in ’98, so there was this chunk of time in there where Matt was doing his thing and I was doing mine. I was doing a lot of shows with straight Shakespeare companies. Once he started with the Troubies in ’95, he kept saying “˜I would love for you to sign on,’ and finally the schedules worked out. Since ’98 we’ve basically been nonstop. For the most part, every single show I’ve done””with a few exceptions””has been with Matt.”
As a company member looking on, Lakin re-affirms the sentiment that the Walker/Kennedy dynamic infuses that spirit of freedom and trust that is so imperative to the Troubie style. “There is definitely a colleague/student/teacher relationship between Matt and Beth that is so interesting and amazing to watch. They are very much in simpatico. They know each other so well and they’ve been working together for so long, that Matt lets Beth do her thing and they just build off each other. They have complete trust in one other. [That’s] so much of what ‘Troubie’ is — that when things go awry, we have that trust in each other that everyone is going to pick up the ball and keep going.”
Kennedy’s can-do attitude
For Walker, it was Kennedy’s lack of inhibition and her selflessness that struck him from the get-go. “The first production that I asked Beth to do was our production of 12th Dog Night, and I asked her if she wanted to play a pirate who walked on stilts. She’d never done that before””play a pirate or walk on stilts””but her reaction was “˜Sure!’. I taught her stilts in an afternoon, and eventually she ended up having giant shoulder pads and ended up being 7 and a half feet tall. She played “˜Antonio the Pirate’, and she only had a couple of scenes, but from that very first show, she said yes to everything and it was clear that nobody could compare to her in terms of risk-taking. She never cared about how she looked or what anybody thought. It was just part of her process and her journey to do everything as big as and fun as she can do it.
“That kind of attack on the work is pretty rare. Here in LA, we’re all bound up in our insecurities and overly concerned with what our headshots look like, so to find the woman who will make herself look ugly in any way possible for a role or for a chance to be funny is rare. As we’ve gone through the Troubie process, there have been years when I’ve gone up to Beth and said “˜Well, what do you think you’d like to play in this show?’ and she’d say “˜Put me in something where I can be a man, or a bear, or something.’ She always wanted to play the part that was off the beaten path, something that was as far away from her own personal givings as she could get.Â So now, for me, it’s sort of become this game of “˜what can we do to Beth this year? What can we put her in, where can we hide her? What mustache or beard hasn’t she worn yet?’ Really, if you looked at her career with the Troubies over the years, she’s probably played men more than she’s played women.”
“Yeah, really!” Kennedy exclaims. “It’s like what weird warlock/animal thing do I get to play this year?” She laughs.
“Or otherworldly characters.” Walker adds. “It’s really because no one else that we have can find that level that Beth has. Now she’s really become a writer and a creator of material and grown outside of the actor box, so she develops a lot of her material for the shows, as well as writing bits and coming up with jokes for other people. That’s really what the real joy of Troubie has been for me, is watching everybody kind of come into their own that way.”
Lakin too cites Kennedy’s talent and generosity as a source of personal inspiration. “There is nobody like Beth Kennedy. I learn from her every day. I think that her brain works in a way that most people’s don’t. I think she is very much the anchor of Troubadour. No one works harder than that woman. Not only is she brilliant and funny and irreverent, but she is also the most giving comedic actress that I have ever met in my life. If you have a better joke and she can set you up for it, she will, which is really incredible, because most comedic actors aren’t like that.”
Walker writes the blueprint
Kennedy, in turn, is equally as quick to relinquish the credit and deflect it back on Walker, who not only directs and stars in all of the Troubies shows, but who’s also responsible for putting together most of the material. When asked where the ideas for the Troubies’ signature style of mixing classic theater with pop culture and music come from, Walker still maintains that it’s a communal process. “Picking the material really started with asking ourselves “˜Well, what’s a funny title?’ Once we had gotten through our first couple of shows, when we were starting to find our style, somebody suggested that we use pop music, and I think 12th Dog Night was the first show where we kind of mashed it up that way. As Beth can attest to, we get titles now from audience members who’ll email us or come up to us after the show.
“The process starts with myself picking the source material and music and trying to fuse those and come up with a bare bones blueprint. Then we’ll let the company collaborate around that and build up from there. The analogy that I like to use is that I sort of come up with the blueprint for the house and then the company comes in and makes it a home. We really count on our actors to make it richer and get into their own characters and develop that stuff…What attracts a lot of good actors to the company is that they know that their voice is going to be heard and they’re going to be asked to be creative in a way that’s something other than just learning their lines and hitting their mark.”
“Matt has everything to do with creating that atmosphere.” Kennedy adds. “You know, a lot of times the director will come in having this huge ego, where it has to be his way or the highway””“
“Well, that’s definitely still true! I can actually see my Ovations from where I’m sitting right now.”
“Oh this poor guy, he has so many awards!” Kennedy laughs. “No really, he’s actually pretty humble. Oh my gosh, funny sidestory! I ran into this guy at an audition, he asked me where my Ovation is in my house right now, and he suggested that I use it as a toilet paper holder in my bathroom. So I’m actually in the process of trying to see if I can fit a roll of toilet paper on those outstretched arms and try and get some use out of it! But anyways”¦
“So what I was saying is that Matt really encourages and creates the environment where everyone feels comfortable. If something pops into your head, we just go with it. We’re all so ready to let our impulses come out. Sometimes if you have a joke in your head, you want to say it before you forget it, so he creates that environment where it’s okay for people to interject. If they’re working on a scene that you’re not even in, everyone is watching and we’re all thinking about how we can add to the tapestry of the scene. Everybody is open to that and Matt encourages us. I’ve never had a process before where that’s okay. The Troubie process is so, so different in that way. There’s such a pecking order in a lot of other theaters, but I don’t think you get the same product, and here it’s just a testament to what that kind of openness and access to the actual script and the creative process can give you in the final product. I think that’s a large part of why our stuff is so fresh, because people are allowed to put in their two cents.”
Walker chuckles. “I like to say that we’ll take a good idea from anywhere”¦as long as I get the credit.”
“Yeah, except he doesn’t really take the credit. There is no writer listed on our shows. We all contribute, but what Matt does and puts together before we come into the first rehearsal is really hard and that’s 70-80% of the work. He somehow knows which band to marry with which story and where to put those songs. He does all of that. So if there is a “˜writer’, Matt should have the credit, but he’s just being cool and gives the credit to everybody.”
Ever humble, Walker adds, “Sometimes our method is much more successful than others. You go based off of a title like Much ADoobie Brothers About Nothing or A Midsummer’s Saturday Night Fever Dream, and some of the titles are really great, but then you find out in putting a show together that maybe the music doesn’t go as well as you hoped it would. Then sometimes you get really lucky and it’s a dovetail fit””shows like Hamlet: The Artist Formerly Known as the Prince of Demark. You wouldn’t think it, but a song like “˜Purple Rain’ underscoring Hamlet’s final soliloquy before his death really works in evoking emotion and it just seems to fit right. We don’t always get lucky like that, but I think with A Christmas Westside Story, a lot of the stuff works. Sometimes it’s a happy accident.”
Dance, Troubies, dance
One of the most complicated and anticipated elements in A Christmas Westside Story for the Troubies is dance. Jerome Robbins’ choreography was a distinguishing feature of the original Westside Story, and Walker says “I wanted it to be a heavy dance show. That’s sort of the expectation with West Side Story. So we had our choreographer Molly Alvarez [who was recently nominated for her work on the Troubies’ The Last Jo-el], who lives in New York, come out for the first two weeks of the process, and all we did for those two weeks was learn dances.
“I knew that I wanted the structure of the show to maintain its integrity whenever we were doing choreography, and then the scene work could be a little bit more lugubrious and free-form. If the dancing is solid, then the scene work can be a little more malleable and we can have fun improvising stuff. So the trick was to get it as iconic as we could to Westside Story without actually cutting and pasting Jerome Robbins’ choreography. Molly did a great job with trying to capture the style and the intensity of the choreography and bring that to the show without actually lifting anything from the original work. We like to make sure that we’re original and not necessarily derivative when it comes to using the material. We want it to be our own brand and our own stuff, we don’t want to just cut and paste.
“The actors really committed to two weeks, six days a week, of showing up, putting their dance pants on and getting it done. Once we were done with those two weeks, we really had a show even before we’d looked at the book or done any kind of scene work. The dances were all so solid, that from then on it was kind of easy to build the rest of the show around it.
“Right now we’re still kind of figuring out the book work and what those scenes are going to be, but once we get to those dances, the show is solid and we just have to execute well. I think everybody is so comfortable with the dances now that we can really have fun doing the movement. That kind of energy is infectious and I think audiences want to put themselves up there with us and do those snaps, jumps and turns. I see a lot of people snapping and clapping along in the audience, which is great.”
Lakin, a formidable dancer/choreographer in her own right, believes the dance element will add an element of legitimacy to the work. “I think it’s awesome, especially since Troubies are usually thought of as this thing where we get up on stage and goof around. It is definitely one of the best shows we’ve ever done in that aspect. I think this show will definitely cast us in a new light, as we’re trying to take the company to the next level, whatever that may be.”
Mashed potatoes and hot dogs on sticks
Speaking of taking things to the next level, as prep started for A Christmas Westside Story, the pivotal question had to be asked — what part was Kennedy going to play? Replies Walker, “When Beth asked me “˜What am I playing in this show?’ and I very excitedly said “˜You’re gonna play Randy!’, she smiled and said “˜Great!…Who’s Randy?’. Then she told me that she’s never seen the movie.”
“I’m culturally deprived!” she explains.
“So she had to see the movie, and then she got why I was so excited to cast her in that part, because who else in our company could do that?”
“For me, each new show is like opening up a Christmas present and saying “˜What is Matt going to cast me as?’. A lot of people are like “˜I wonder what my part is”¦’ but I don’t even ask because I don’t ever care. He could give me “˜Third Soldier to the Left’”¦”
“Well I’m glad you said that, because Two Gentlemen of Verona is coming up, and I need you to play “˜The Third Soldier from the Left’,” Walker jokes.
“Matt gives me so much freedom. When we did The First Jo-el, he was quickly choreographing a street scene and told us “˜Okay, everybody pick a stock character, like a baker or a postman, walk by to create the illusion that we’re in a street scene and then we move on to the primary plotline’. He told me “˜BK, maybe you can pop out of a window and be stirring some batter or something with a bowl and a wooden spoon.’ I was just thinking to myself, “˜What? Stirring batter? That’s just ridiculous.’ While Matt was working with one of our leads, I pulled him aside and said “˜Matty, when you have a sec, can I talk to you?’ “˜Yeah, BK, what’s up?’ “˜Okay, I’m thinking, how about if I’m a Hot Dog on a Stick girl?’ He just sort of looked at me and then said”¦ “˜Best one yet!’ He just let me fly with it. Next thing you know, I decided that my character was the lead character’s sister, and she became this huge part of the play. We had a through line, a love interest, and by the end she wasn’t just this stock character person.”
“Well, you can’t leave out the fact that the hardest part about that was getting the costume!” Walker chimes in.
“Oh jeez. I had to go to Alhambra! I was bound and determined to get an authentic outfit. Finally I just went on Craigslist and I found this 17-year-old girl from Alhambra who was selling her Hot Dog on a Stick uniform. The only thing she didn’t have was the hat. So I drove all the way out to Alhambra, and I swear this girl was like a movie star to me. I told her “˜I can’t believe you worked there! Please let me have your costume, I’ll give you whatever you want! Why don’t you work there anymore?’ And she said, “˜I didn’t smile enough.’ And it fit me! I’m so proud of that costume, I still have it, and I’ll wear it on Halloween and stuff like that. Our costume designer made an authentic hat, and my husband, who is a carpenter, used PVC and made a pumper. It was ridiculous. We had a little sign that said “˜Order Here’. It became this whole huge thing.”
Randy, the infamous little brother in A Christmas Story (Walker, appropriately enough, plays the central character Ralphie) presents a whole new set of challenges for Kennedy, both costume and otherwise. “Randy is super physical, which I like. I don’t even care if I have a lot of lines, but I love when the comedy is physical. Randy is a challenge, but that’s the fun part. I’m still finding Randy, so I haven’t fully reined him in yet. There’s a lot of little kids in my life, so I try to watch them and incorporate that, but mostly I’m just going off the funny parts in the movie, like him in the big snowsuit, the mashed potatoes, the “˜everything is mine!’ under the Christmas tree. I’m finding all of that classic kid stuff where they’re just not really censoring themselves.”
Of course, no A Christmas Story rendition would be complete without Randy’s infamous mashed potato trough, which left Kennedy shooting spuds out of her nostrils during the first preview. “I’m actually thinking of maybe putting little baby carrots on the plate and shoving them in my nose first as corks before I dive into the plate of potatoes. I literally neti pot [uses a sinus rinse] as soon as I get home, because I don’t want to get potatoes stuck in my sinuses or I’m going to get some weird infection! But, like Matt said, if it’s getting a laugh, I’ll take one for the team.”
“You should have that on a T-shirt!” exclaims Walker.
Ovation voters and other fans
The fearless teamwork, wit, and dedication that the Troubies bring to their work is continually recognized by critics and Ovation voters alike. Along with their individual accolades, the Troubadour ensemble walked away with its second Ovation Award for Best Season (having been nominated the past three years), as well as best acting ensemble in a musical for last year’s A Wither’s Tale. For Lakin, the awards provide a sense of validation to the work. “We’re very honored to be recognized by the Ovation community. For so long, I kept thinking to myself “˜this isn’t like real theater because we do parody, and most of the time it’s this sort of brilliant low brow humor’, but it’s definitely unique. I’ve always felt like it’s the type of theater that if you love theater, you’ll love us, and if you hate theater, you’d love us too.”
No one is more surprised by all the attention than Walker himself. “The thing I’ve heard lately is “˜How are they rigging the system? What voters do they have in their pocket?’ That’s always kind of funny to me because for the longest time we were so far out of the system. We were sort of in this grey area as far as LA Stage and the Ovations were concerned. I think once we did get recognized, people were open to a new brand of theater, in a way. Something that existed just to be entertaining. We take away the pretense of theater, and the audience gets the idea that it’s really for them. It’s a shared experience, and they are as much a part of the experience as the production and the performers. I think that’s really what people have responded to.
“On a simple level, devices like latecomers, the foul flag, and us answering cell phones during the show if they go off in the audience, stopping the production if sirens go by”¦its stuff that I don’t think people in LA have seen in theater too much. That and the sheer brilliance of the people we’ve been able to collect over the years and the willingness of those people to give it all they got have created something with this whimsy that people respond to. It’s interesting to me that the Ovation honeymoon has lasted for a couple of years, because there is so much diversity in LA and it’s a beautiful thing to be able to go and see so much different work in town from year to year. I’m actually still really surprised that we’re still getting the recognition and notoriety that we’re getting because there is so much other great work in town. Overall, I really attribute it to the fun that we have in the room each night and knowing that it’s never going to be the same show twice. That kind of electricity is infectious, I think.”
For Kennedy, the Troubies’ success is a blessing not to be taken for granted in these economic times.Â “What’s really great about these shows is that you get to escape into some hardcore belly laughing. It’s a fantastic night of theater, and we really want to keep theater alive and keep people coming, because we know that theater is a dying art. It’s rough times out there with the economy, so the fact that people are even finding money to buy theater tickets is amazing, and I really want them to be able to escape and enjoy themselves. I want people’s faces to hurt. I love it when people come up to me after the show and tell me their cheeks hurt from laughing so much. That makes me feel so good.”
Although usually the funny man, when it comes to his patrons and his work, Walker is a man on a serious mission. “We have devoted followers at the Falcon, some of whom are older. Last year a gentlemen who’d been coming for probably over five years to see us found me in the lobby after a show, and he said “˜I just wanted you to know that my wife passed away earlier this year, and she wanted me to make sure that I told you guys that I would keep coming to shows and supporting because we love the theater and we love you guys so much.’
“You don’t really realize that you can touch people. Even though you’re doing a show for the masses, the audience is made up of individuals. Everybody has their own story and you never know why somebody is in that audience. They might be having the worst day ever, they might have lost their wife a month before, but for whatever reason, they’re there, and it’s our responsibility, like Beth said, to help them escape and really entertain them. I take that responsibility seriously, and it really does move you closer to thinking that what you do makes a difference. That’s a good responsibility to have.”
A Christmas Westside Story, Falcon Theatre, 4252 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank. Opens Friday, 8 pm. Wed-Fri 8 pm, Sat 4 and 8 pm, Sun 4 and 7 pm. Dark Dec. 24-25, 31, Jan 1. Closes Jan 15. Tickets after opening night: $27-$42. www.FalconTheatre.com. 818-955-8101.
***All A Christmas Westside Story production photos by Chelsea Sutton