An ultra-buff, steely, graphic hero reaches out for you””the broken chain of his shackles hanging from his wrist, bloody red eyes staring you down. He wants to grab you by the soul.
This is Ben Matsuya’s artwork used on the publicity materials for Furious Theatre Company’s No Good Deed by Los Angeles playwright Matt Pelfrey. It opens this week as the second show of [Inside] the Ford’s 2011/2012 Winter Season.
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Furious re-emerges after officially losing its longtime creative home in the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse in February 2011.Â The financial difficulties of the Playhouse may have created a gap in Furious programming, but they haven’t stopped this tribe of hungry, thoughtful artists from continuing a steady development process leading toward this premiere of Pelfrey’s graphic novel/theater mash-up.
It’s the biggest, baddest, most technically challenging production to date for a company that’s known for tackling rugged, sometimes viscerally violent theater with a technical ease worthy of Quentin Tarantino.
Home is where the work is
Pelfrey is the Furious writer-in residence. No Good Deed marks his second full-production collaboration with the company and its first commission of new work from a living playwright. Furious’ successful production of Pelfrey’s Impending Rupture of the Belly (2007) began the writer/ensemble relationship.
The close ties between company and Pelfrey give the playwright the confidence to say “It’s all taken care of” as he sits back, looking relaxed during tech week. “I know whatever they might come up with””it’s always going to be great.”
The idea for Deed’s larger-than-life story arose shortly after the close of Rupture. Pelfrey is fascinated with the “regular average citizen suddenly made hero” who is then intentionally, or sometimes unintentionally, maligned by the same fevered, insatiable media that placed him or her on that hero’s pedestal. He describes one example of this (and a model for one of Deed’s main characters) as Richard Jewell, the security guard who was first hailed as a hero for discovering a pipe bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, then investigated as a suspect, then exonerated.
Pelfrey asks the question”¦Can Americans handle everyday heroes without eventually destroying them?
The first pieces of developing the script began in 2008 with Furious actors staging scenes as Pelfrey refined the story. Deed connects the stories of three heroes: a Jewell-like security guard; a firefighter who has rescued a toddler; and Josh Jaxon, a teenage graphic novelist whose “Hellbound Hero” comes to life as his alter ego.
In order to create the graphic novel component of the story (which is projected throughout the production), Furious found another creative soul-mate in talented illustrator Ben Matsuya. “I’ve been pretty involved with the whole process from very early on,” Matsuya says. “But mostly just with design, character concepts”¦.We wanted that world to be dirty and disgusting, they let me run with that idea.”
Across the design and production team, Pelfrey’s writing inspires creativity. Simple stage directions call for “boiling eye balls,” and characters are described as literally “flying.”
“His words just leap off the page,” Matsuya continues. “He is so good at describing the most subtle details that I get an immediate gauge of the action and mood that is appropriate for the panel I’m drawing.”
The play fits Furious in that neither writer nor company ever shies from the levels of violence that humans sometimes inflict. Pelfrey describes how he uses violence dramatically. “The sharp contrast between the comic book world and the real physical world is important. The consequences of violence are important to understanding the real dangers of the world. The graphic novel elements also help us define what’s real and what’s in [the main character’s] head. It’s all about the tools of story-telling.”
Matsuya and Pelfrey have already begun work on a companion comic featuring Hellbound Hero’s next adventure.
Act 1: 23 hours of tech = 57 minutes of theater
The production’s effects drive the visually complex storytelling, but all that graphic novel magic takes time to create. Live feed images, multiple projections, robotic cameras, intricate stage fights, a cast of 12 coordinating with lights, sound, navigating a fireman’s pole and a multi-leveled set”¦there’s a reason Furious has taken nearly four years to deliver this project. The planning has been meticulous.
Costume designer Christy Hauptman comments on creating multiple costumes for the cast. “It’s not just the usual multiple roles for each actor, where I’m planning how the actor will make the quick changes backstage”¦I’m also designing costumes that already exist in the graphic drawings as the template.” And don’t forget the fake blood and practical costumes that allow for extensive fight choreography.
DÃ¡maso Rodriguez, Furious co-founder who currently serves as one of three producing artistic directors, has taken the reins on the Deed beast and finds the technical challenges part of the Furious mission to offer “the very best theatrical experience” and to serve Pelfrey’s vision for the script.
An important part of the technical challenge lies in creating the important fight sequences. Rodriguez strategized with longtime collaborator and professional fight choreographer Brian Danner from LA-based Sword Fights, Inc. and cast Danner along with two more primarily trained fight/stunt performers Adam Critchlow and David C. Hernandez. Adding these trained stunt professionals to the supporting cast raised the bar for the actors in the fight choreography and kept more keen eyes present in rehearsals.
Like most fight choreographers, Danner keeps his primary eye on safety. His previous fight work on Furious productions includes Impending Rupture of the Belly and Fair Maid of the West Parts I and II (garnering a 2005 LA Weekly award for fight choreography).
A veteran of television and film fight choreography and stunt work, Danner returns to the theater for one major reason. “Theater puts us back in touch with each other,” he explains. “We live in this great time of 2012″¦but everything at our fingertips — texting, computers, social networks, ipads — it’s all designed to take us out of the room we are in and put our focus somewhere else. We work hard to convince you to stay in the room with us for two hours.”
Adds cast member Troy Metcalf, “If something needs attention [in the fights]”¦Brian and DÃ¡maso make sure things are served.”
“And it’s not just brutal,” interjects veteran company member Dana Kelly, Jr. “It’s entertaining violence. There’s a difference.”
Making it work at [Inside] the Ford
Much of the Los Angeles theater world felt mild tremors when the Pasadena Playhouse announced its looming closure in January 2010, but those tremors were much stronger for the Furious ensemble, who had grown up together and built an award-winning company during their six years in the cozy Carrie Hamilton Theatre just above the Playhouse’s courtyard.
Losing the stability of a home base could have easily nudged any small theater to pack up its tent and disappear into a Pasadena sunset. In fact, Furious has not produced a full production in more than a year. But Rodriguez and co-artistic directors/producers Nick Cernoch and Shawn Lee have maintained smaller company projects to keep the membership connected.
“The transition was extremely difficult,” Rodriguez explains.Â “The closure of the Playhouse had an enormous impact because several of us held staff positions working there full- or part-time.Â Not only did the company have to re-assess its future, but so did we as individuals.”
Launched in 2008, [Inside] the Ford’s Winter Partnership Program provides Los Angeles County-based theater companies with the opportunity to produce one project in the 87-seat theater at a reduced rental cost and with significant marketing, box office and house management support. Described as a “curated series of new works from three L.A.-based theater companies supported by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and the Ford Theatre Foundation“, the program has played host to such eclectic Los Angeles theater companies as Circle X, Rogue Artists Ensemble and Moving Arts.
The Ford’s 2011 application process brought Furious into a final heat with four other projects””and only three slots were available for the coveted residency. Furious created a detailed presentation incorporating the graphic design elements and responding to prompts from the Ford, employing the usual tag-teaming of Furious leadership to make things happen.
“The [Inside] the Ford program is extremely affordable,” Rodriguez explains. “Which is just one of the reasons we were so thrilled to win the residency.”
With no money charged up front and the $1,000 per week rental taken out of the box office for the well-kept, spacious venue complete with a lobby and ample parking, it’s enough to make any small theater budget green with envy. Add the tech support, box office support, a publicist and marketing provided by the Ford program — and the producing company simply needs to deliver a great show and come up with its own production costs.
For Furious, the undertaking of such a technically demanding play also made the partnership with the Ford a much-needed producing boost for its first show after the long hiatus.
“Matt wrote something too special to not get it right,” Cernoch adds. “One thing Furious has always been good at is bringing in what’s needed to make something happen. We took the time to make this happen in the right way.”
Once the proposal was accepted, the Furious team set its production cost funding in place to make the show a reality””leaning heavily on loyal supporters from the last 10 years.
Rodriguez elaborates on the financial reality. “The production was funded entirely by our donors, with the majority of the funds coming from our board of directors. One of the best things we did in the past several years was to develop a strong board.”
Company member Robert Pescovitz joins the bubbling conversation about how Furious makes it all work. “It’s not ego-less, because we all have our egos, but the ego takes second, third place to what’s most important in the moment.”
Non-company members say they feel just as included as the company members. “Everyone pitches in at all times,” says cast member Johanna McKay. “If you have to clean toilets”¦you’re cleaning toilets. And everyone is happy about it.”
“I feel like I’ve been invited to someone’s family dinner for the first time,” adds Danny Lacy. “This is an incredible first play to do in Los Angeles.”
“It may not change the world,” states Danner. “But it changes my world.”
No Good Deed, Furious Theatre Company at [Inside] the Ford, Ford Theatres complex, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. Opens Jan. 21. Plays Thur”“ Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Through Feb. 26. Tickets: $25; Opening Night $34 (with post-performance reception). No performances Feb. 5. 323-461-3673. www.FordTheatres.org.
Please check the website for more detailed show schedule and information.
***AllÂ No Good Deed production photos by Anthony Masters