BK: Hello, Doug Haverty, Kritzerland designer, Kritzerland web guy, playwright, lyricist, occasional actor, and person. Welcome to the Unseemly Interview. As they say in The Sound of Music, let’s start at the very beginning, which is, after all, a very good place to start: Where do you hail from, what were your childhood interests, where did you attend college, and how did you get bitten by the show business bug?
DH: I am a California native, born in Sacramento. I grew up there (starting out bunking in the bottom drawer of a dresser) and in Fresno (where I shared a bunkbed with one of my three younger brothers). My first taste of applause was when I was Indian Guides with my father. One of the other fathers was a choreographer and taught us all Native American dances. We went around (in appropriate native-esque costumes) and performed these dances to audiences starved for this kind of cultural enlightenment. Music was a big part of our lives. My parents belonged to the Columbia Record club and we had a very unusual array of platters, which I loved to listen to; things ranging from Cal Tjader and Harry Belafonte to Gilbert & Sullivan and The Wizard of Oz. When my mother was in high school, she and her friends all listened to South Pacific, so that got a lot of spins on our turntable. And I always thought that girl singer said, “I’m only a cock-eyed octopus.” In middle school I played the Mayor of Munchkin City in a very ambitious production of The Wizard of Oz and that was when the showbiz bug bit the deepest; not so much for the applause and short-lived celebrity, but mostly for the camaraderie that builds in a team like that.
BK: Can you do some of that Native American choreography now? Apparently not. So, how about high school – did your show biz but continue there?
DH: In high school I pursued all manner of theatrical endeavors from acting and writing to directing. We had a very active drama department with two theaters and lots of opportunities. I couldn’t get enough, couldn’t wait for school, never wanted to leave. Our drama teacher invited me to adapt a morality play for the student Christmas assemblies and I told her I would, if I could play the lead. She accepted my bribe. And it was very successful. We got high school kids (who don’t normally see plays) to laugh. My passion and hyper-commitment was rewarded with things like the “Best Thespian” award and a Bank of America Award for Theatre. But the best acknowledgement was a drama scholarship to (what I thought was the very prestigious) University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. At UOP (whose alumni included Raymond Burr, Janet Leigh and Dave Brubeck), I studied theatre, music and journalism. Naturally in college we did a wild potpourri of plays ranging from Shakespeare to Marat/Sade and a musical written by Toni Tennille called Mother Earth. We were one of the first colleges (if not the first) to do Boys In the Band. I played Cowboy and we were the talk of the American College Theatre Festival, in fact we went to the finals with it and everyone loved it. During the summers UOP ran a summer repertory program in historic Columbia, California called The Fallon House Theatre. Columbia is like a miner’s frontierland in Disneyland (only all the buildings are real). Fallon House used to be a hotel and bar with a saloon in the back. That saloon was turned into a theater and was very popular with most shows sold out, all summer long. We did five plays in rep, rehearsing a new play every week and folding it into the rep. So, eventually, we had five plays running and they would alternate every night. Towards the end of the summer, we had our days free to explore and play. This was another adventure in camaraderie building. To sweeten the pot, Herschel Bernardi had a home in nearby Sonora and became our sort of unofficial acting coach. He loved us and “seemed” to be very impressed with our combined talents, even to the point of volunteering his girlfriend to play the piano, so one of our company members could be in the cast. One of my favorite experiences was doing Carnival that summer. I played Jacquot and worked and voiced two of the puppets: Horrible Henry and Marguerite. We had a sheer black curtain in the puppet stage, so the actor playing Paul and I could see the puppets, Lili and the audience. Those scenes and songs are so well written; they worked like gangbusters every show. Herschel’s girlfriend, Petra, played piano for us and Herschel came to see many shows. “Can you imagine that?” We stayed in a real, old, miner’s flophouse (that had been updated by the college and air-conditioned). There were two full-time cooks. We had three square meals a day and everyone dressed for dinner, no matter how tired you were or how many lines you had to learn. We would mingle with the tourists in the bar after the shows. We were celebrities. If I could do Summer Rep like that all year round, I’d be in heaven.
BK: So, what finally brought you to Los Angeles?
DH: Each year of college I did a Summer Rep in different cities. The summer after I graduated, I was in Houghton Lake, Michigan at The Pioneer Playhouse. (This was a 450 seat, 3-sided arena theatre with posters of Imogene Coca and Sid Caesar on the walls). They had recruited company members from all over the country (mostly college students, no more movie stars). We stayed in little cabins near the lake and it was during this summer where I had that ‘summer stock romance’ and fell in love with Dorathy from Cleveland, Ohio. After that summer, we decided to live together and it was either going to be in New York or Los Angeles. I had family in Southern California and Dorathy’s twin brother was living in Hollywood, so we chose tinseltown.
BK: So, there you are in L.A., how did you make the leap being a playwright?
DH: As I mentioned, I had actually written things in high school, which got produced. I continued to write in college. After we had been in L.A. a few years and I was doing part-time jobs and temp jobs, under-fives on soaps, etc., I pulled out a play I had written in college and began to polish it. We were seeing plays in Los Angeles small theaters and I was continually disappointed thinking, “I can write better than that.” So, I wrote and re-wrote and submitted and finally secured a reading at Theatre/Theatre on Fairfax. I assembled a great cast (7 young actors) and gathered together everyone I ever knew in L.A. and we all headed to the theater. I guess it was an omen, or good luck, or a sign, but the people from the theater never showed up. There we were on Fairfax Avenue, all 75 of us, waiting for the theater to open and for the new play to be heard. Eventually, Dorathy and I invited everyone to our apartment (near Beachwood & Franklin) and we read the play. Many of the audience came with us and the reading (with most everyone on the floor) went off very well. That play, Hello, This Is the Bottom Drawer, opened on May 1, 1980 at the Evergreen Stage (now The Fountain Theatre) to extremely positive reviews. It was one of the best-received and most successful plays at that theatre. I could have played any one of the three male roles (I had written them that way), but I didn’t. Wisely, I chose to sit back and just be the writer. One of the most illuminating things about this production was the casting. Imagine, we had a cast of seven, all young college students; a great ensemble piece. We had an open call. I prepared three-minute scenes for each role. I vowed that we would not stop anyone mid-scene with the curt, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” As an actor, I didn’t want to do that to anyone. Well, we had hundreds of people show up every day. They lined up outside and the line wound around the block. If you do the math, you’ll see that you can’t give everyone three minutes. Plus — this was the hard lesson learned — when people came to read, we knew within the first fifteen seconds if they were wrong for the part. And most of them were wrong. So, I felt guilty for making people wait and guiltier for cutting them off short. I think every actor should sit on the other side of a casting table at some point in their career.
The play was moved to the (then) more prestigious Callboard Theatre (on Melrose Place, near LaCienega) when John Allison snatched it up. The reviews continued to be warm and encouraging (Ah, there’s nothing like discovering a new playwright) and both ICM and the William Morris Agency wanted to represent me. The legendary Audrey Wood called from New York and told me she wanted me in her stable of new playwrights. Barry Freed, her West Coast representative wined and dined me. I chose ICM and turned down William Morris (which was kind of fun, at the time). In New York, I met with Audrey and she was very pleasant and curt and told me she loved Bottom Drawer, but didn’t care for my new play. Barry Freed took me to see Gemini on Broadway and said they wanted Bottom Drawer to be the next Gemini and they thought it could be in the same theater.
Shortly after I returned to L.A., Ms Wood had a stroke. She tried to recover for many, many months, but never did. Her stable of new playwrights was set free and all my hopes and Audrey-dreams evaporated.
BK: So, we all know it’s hard to make a living at being a playwright and certainly at acting – how did you get into design work?
DH: At UOP, I had a part-time job working for The Associated Students of UOP doing all the posters and flyers for student events: concerts, lectures, speakers, rallies, etc. I had office space (if I wanted it), a charge account at an art store (we used dry transfer letters) and I really enjoyed it. I was also working on the student newspaper and yearbook. So I got involved with layout there, too. Putting art on the stage or the page, seemed perfectly natural to me, like yin and yang.
BK: Well, that’s become a major thing for you. Obviously you’re most well known for your brilliant work for Kritzerland (insert smiley here), but tell us some of the other labels and projects you’ve worked on over the years.
DH: My first real job (a job I wanted to do, not had to do to pay rent) was at A&M Records. I actually started there as a temp — which his what you had to do if you didn’t have an “in” and I was working occasionally on the soaps. So, I’d do one or two days on a soap, and just not come in to A&M. I was a temp and it was all fine. But then I started to really get immersed in projects and A&M and the soap would call and ask the nearly rhetorical question, “Are you available next Monday?” and I said no. There were things happening at A&M, things I had laid the groundwork for that I didn’t want to miss. The soap kept calling and I kept turning them down until they finally said, “Do you want us to take you off the ‘active’ list?” And I thought about it and said yes.
I then became full-time at A&M and worked there for 13 years. I started out in the International Department working for David Hubert. David had a classical background (he brought Mason Williams of “Classical Gas” to A&M) and he was an orchestra conductor. He knew how to play almost every instrument; as he thought all conductors should. So, he ran his department in a similar fashion. We had: publicity, promotion, production, sales, marketing and administration. He wanted everyone to know every job, so they could one day run their own divisions (or be a sensitive conductor). So, every six months we would all ‘rotate.’ We would train each other, and that way if anyone was on vacation, there were lots of people who could fill in. And after you had completed all the stations, you could go out on international tours with artists or go work in our offices in Paris or London. I was like a kid in a candy store. We would have listening parties every month where David would preview new upcoming releases and many times the artists would join us. We hosted worldwide conventions and entertained and educated affiliates from fifty countries. I learned and I loved learning. It was never a chore to go to work. And the staff that worked at A&M were some of the brightest and most passionate people in the business. A&M was located on the campus of the classic Charlie Chaplin movie studios. We were surrounded by history and steeped in creativity. Herb Alpert, the ‘A’ of A&M wanted it to be an artist-oriented label. When they signed an artist, it wasn’t because they sounded like someone on Top 40 radio; it was because they didn’t sound like anything out there. He didn’t want a label of trend-followers, he wanted a cooperative of trend-setters. One of my favorite rotations was publicity because we got to work directly with the artists. And when you get to expose journalists (foreign correspondents based in the U.S. or key journalists who were coming to America to discover new things) to groundbreaking artists, it’s really a joy. Naturally, we had a lot of new artists who were extremely talented, but their unique sound was not immediately (or ever) embraced. So, we spent a lot of time trying to establish these artists and many never clicked. So, when you ask what projects did I work on, many of them would be unknowns, but as we all know that doesn’t diminish their talent or the time capsule they bequeathed to the world. But I did get to work with a lot of artists in various stages of their careers and did marketing or publicity for: (in no particular order) Herb Alpert, The Carpenters, Sergio Mendes, Barry White, Joe Jackson, Janet Jackson, Iggy Pop, David Crosby, Sting, Supertramp, Amy Grant, Sandi Patty, Suzanne Vega, John Hiatt, Bryan Adams, Brenda Russell, The Neville Brothers, Rita Coolidge, Danny Elfman (Oingo Boingo), Seawind, Joyce Kennedy, Shaunice, Vesta, just to name a few.
Some of my favorite projects were artists who came to us from overseas and began to make a noise in America: Black (a cool white guy from London); Sam Brown (a hot white girl from London); One Two Many (a trio from Sweden) and Big Pig (a seven-member, international conglomerate who formed in Melbourne, Australia). Big Pig had three drummers, two percussionists, a keyboard player and a female singer from Sri-Lanka named Sherine, who sounds like a cross between Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox. No guitars, which was practically unheard of. No one had a sound like this band. They were thrilling to watch and hear.
One of my favorite people at A&M was Chuck Beeson who worked in the art department. Chuck is immensely talented (retired now, but I saw him a few months ago and he’s still amazing) and has the patience of a saint. I would pop down to his office (sometimes with actual things that needed discussing) and he would fill me in on the various album packages in progress so I could, in turn, update our affiliates. I learned so much from Chuck, both directly and indirectly. He was my self-imposed mentor; he never volunteered for the job, but there was a repressed teacher in him and “watch and learn, grasshopper” was ever present in his sub-text.
BK: Wow, that’s a lot of projects. Let’s talk a little about how you approach your design work. For example, let’s say I bring you a project like the Juliana Hansen album. Since that was a fairly contentious affair, let’s dissect the process. The idea was to record her live show – at the time we did it I really didn’t know if it would be a Kritzerland project, but we made the decision and it became one. As I recall, she wanted us to use a photo from a recent photo shoot she’d done. Tell us about that.
DH: Juliana is a beautiful person, inside and out. She has a gorgeous voice. I was at the performance that was recorded for this live album and she was stunning, luminous. It seemed effortless for her and she’s very comfortable onstage and singing. This is definitely where she is meant to thrive. At the time the decision was reached to go ahead with the release of the live recording, Juliana had recently done some new headshots. Her friends had all raved to her about how beautiful they were, so she offered them up for our use. The camera loves Juliana and, as headshots go, there were lots of adorable headshots, but nothing that captured that luminosity I witnessed onstage. But there were time constraints and budget constraints, so I set to work to try to make one of the headshots into a viable cover.
When you first saw the commercial-headshot-masquerading-as-a-wannabe-album-cover, you screamed, “No!” You added, “that’s terrible, not worthy.” You furthered that you’d rather put it out with a solid black cover or not at all than put it out with an inferior cover.
BK: As Maurice Chevalier and Hermoine Gingold once said, ah, yes, I remember it well. I believe at that point you and I were on the same page and I told her that we were insisting that new photos should be taken immediately. You recommended a terrific photographer – where did you know him from?
DH: Johnny Buzzerio and I go back to about 1991, I think. He and I have done a lot of photo sessions here in California and in New York. He is an amazing photographer and a wonderful person. Over the years, I have gotten to know his family and he mine. Where do I know him from …
Let’s see. When I was working for A&M, it was very successful. So successful, in fact, that it was sold, near the peak of their success. At the time, I was working for Chuck Gullo in the domestic sales and marketing division. I was Director of Sales & Marketing/Distributed Labels. Chuck had been selected to head the record division over at All American Communications/Scotti Bros and asked me to come with him and head up his creative services department. He was offering me a Chuck Beeson position. I would be in charge of all visuals; packaging, advertising, video, etc. A&M had been sold, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss (the ‘M’ of A&M) would be leaving. I had no idea what PolyGram (the new owner) would do with us, so I went with Chuck. There, I had to amass an army of graphic designers and photographers and video directors very quickly. One of our artists at All American was David Hallyday, the son of French superstars Johnny Hallyday and Sylvie Vartan. David had a new album coming out and I inherited packaging, which had already been started and a photo session that had already been completed. We were going with one song as a single in America, but France was going with a different single. So, a video was being shot for the French video and a photo agency had sent Johnny Buzzerio to cover the video and grab some stills of David and his equally-famous French wife, the gorgeous model, Estelle. He was there more on a quest to capture publicity photos. I met Johnny on that set. We hung around together during the shoot, and I had him grab shots of David when they were re-setting lights or setting up new backgrounds. The photos Johnny took during that video were stunners. Granted, David looks like a movie star, but these photos were so much better than what I had inherited. I got Johnny’s contact info and commissioned him to do many photo sessions for us for all kinds of different artists.
When you talk about the process of coming up with packaging for an artist, I always approach it from the music’s point of view. I let the music be my guide.
When I was growing up, I used to love to buy new LPs and absorb them. I would starve and save my lunch money, or babysit or mow lawns, so I could buy LPs. I would ride my bike and buy an LP and then get home and do my ritual. I would put on headphones, so I could only hear the music and I would sit with the LP sleeve or gatefold jacket and look at the packaging while I was listening to the music. I would study everything, lyric sheets, publishing, credits, thank yous, etc. I would just “absorb” the visuals while I was encountering the music.
So, then when I was given the chance to create the visuals, I took my cue from the music. I would listen to the music and think of how I thought the visuals should be, sort of the reverse of my ritual.
I worked for All American for nine years. During that time I worked with many great designers and directors (many of whom went on to direct films and I gave them their first video). Project-wise, we worked with a lot of new artists and some already established artists, ranging from “Weird Al” Yankovic and James Brown, to Michael Damien and The Nylons, to David Cassidy and Petula Clark. I would farm out some projects, but sometimes to save time and money, I would design some myself. One of All American’s key assets was “Baywatch.” They picked it up its second year after NBC cancelled it and co-produced it with David Hasselhof. They also acquired a library of old game shows that no one wanted, but once the hungry cable market materialized, the Game Show Network had an appetite for material that had been sitting in cans for years. And, All American was so successful that it was sold. So, then I determined that if I was going to pour my heart and soul into my work and contribute to the success of a company and then have it sold again, I would start my own company; so that I would profit directly from that blood, sweat and tears. So, I became a freelancer in 1998.
And as far as the process goes, the best is when they give me free reign. I received a call from a manager out of Philadelphia who had a new artist on a Sony label. The artist, named Bob Lowery, was kind of a rock-alternative-folk-pop guy. The manager said, “You call it, Doug. You pick the photographer, the location and tell me where to have Bob show up.” So, I chose Lacey Street Production Center (near downtown L.A.) and Johnny Buzzerio to shoot it. Bob flew in and Johnny shot. I did they layouts and everyone flipped. The manager said, “Homerun! Orgasm!”
BK: Juliana finally agreed to do it and the session was set up – all I asked for was that the photo have “joy” because that’s what she’s really about. Tell us what you think a cover photo on a singer album should be about, what it needs to reflect, what it needs to say.
DH: Oh, right. Back to Juliana. Yes, Juliana came to the party and took some great shots with Johnny, which he did as a huge favor for me. She brought all kinds of clothes and the session went much longer than it was supposed to because it was working really well. We have tons of photos from that session. We could probably do another package with some of the setups we didn’t use.
It’s hard to say exactly what a cover should be for a singer. It will vary from project to project. It’s hard to go wrong with a killer portrait. But I look for a couple of things; is the image intriguing, is it iconic? Does the image reflect the cumulative feel of the album? There are some that say, the artist should be looking right smack dab at the camera, so that when the album is in the store, the artist is staring right into the eyes of the consumer. That works many times. But what I try to find, is that photo where the artist has let down their guard, where it looks like they’ve forgotten they are in the middle of a photo session with lights and gels and meters and umbrellas and make-up people and stylists. I seek the photo where it looks like the camera managed to capture a private moment where we almost see the artist’s soul. Usually, this photo will appear near the end of the session, when the artist has stopped trying to look some particular way for the camera and has allowed the photographer to snap a real moment. Of course, other things come into play, too, like color and vibrancy and structure.
BK: After the photo shoot, then what happens?
DH: Then we all pick favorites. The artist will invariably enlist the aid of several friends (who are all experts, of course) and they will come up with a list. I’ll come up with a list, possibly the producer, manager, label will have lists and we’ll look for matches. I’ll mock up several possibilities using the most popular choices and one or two of my own choices. Usually, everyone will be in agreement; though not always.
BK: What if you and the singer (and maybe the label person) all disagree? How does one come to a meeting of the minds when the minds are in different places, without having to compromise – is that even possible?
DH: Label people are usually flexible. They know they have to keep their artists happy. If they insist on an image that the artist doesn’t like, then the artist is going to resent it throughout the entire campaign (and probably beyond).
The hard thing, most times, is that artists have a different self-image of themselves. And some of them don’t like the way they look on film. Period. Some people have studied their face to ruination, so when they look at photos, all they see is some aspect of their face they already loathe. Ironically, I’ve found that really beautiful people are very hard on themselves and can be very particular about what’s acceptable. Most people will look at a session and see 300 stunning photos. And the beautiful artist will only see 2 or 3 barely passable images from that very same session. Many times we have to become therapists and convince the artists to trust us and to let go of their image issues.
I worked with a brilliant singer/songwriter at A&M named Toni Childs. She has a glorious, large voice and writes really unusual material and became an immediate critic’s darling. She was very uncomfortable with the way she looked and she didn’t want her music judged by they way she looked. So, for her first two or three albums, the cover was art without any imagery of her. There were some small, modest photos buried inside the package. But for international press, we needed photos. So, I commissioned a session with William Hames, a very popular photographer with Japanese magazines. We did a session in his studio (nestled in between the Cinerama Dome and what is now Amoeba Records). We had an amazing stylist name Césare, great make-up and hair and glorious lighting. Césare brought all kinds of exotic clothes and jewelry, a lot of African accessories and we had a great session. I can remember about a week later several of us were in my office. Toni was looking at the contact sheets with a magnifying glass and crying. Everyone agreed that she looked stunning and that the photos had a totally unique quality. No artist ever looked like this (as no one ever sounded like Toni). We were all in agreement that these shots were perfect. But Toni was crying, saying, “That girl is not me. I don’t wear that much make-up. I never curl my hair. Those aren’t my clothes. It’s fake. It’s Hollywood. It’s not me.” We eventually ganged up on her and convinced her that we needed that eye-candy to get people to, at least, open the CD. Once they were listening, then the music would take over, but the photo was just bait to get them to listen. I suspect that now, years (decades) later, she still thinks we sold her out. But we did get her on the charts around the world and part of that has to be attributed to the photos and the video. The music speaks for itself, it stands on its own merits. But the imagery invites the listen.
BK: And how do you approach the tray card and the booklet design?
DH: I want the whole thing to look good. I want the artist to look good. Ideally, we’d have a variety of looks, to match the variety in the music. Typically, I like the tray card to complement the cover, so it’s a casing, like a book cover or a dust jacket. When you hold the CD in your hand and you turn it over to look at the track listing, it should feel “of one.” Then you can mix it up inside. Personally, I love to find photos of people laughing, really cracking up. When people laugh, they let their guard down and you really get a glimpse of them. Sometimes, it may not be the most flattering, but it also shows them as human beings and we want to see that side.
BK: Tell us a little about how we do our soundtrack releases. Sometimes your first attempts at a cover are great, but sometimes I get very nitpicky about things and sometimes I don’t like something at all – in the end, we always find the right thing. So, talk about collaboration and how you deal with all that.
DH: With soundtracks, the starting off point is usually the main movie poster. Many times (over time) there are different posters. Ideally, the cover of the soundtrack should match the most well known movie poster. When we’re dealing with older films, there are not as many options available to us. We are relying on posters that have been folded and scanned; with big dots and heavy linescreens and faded colors.
As far as our process goes, that’s usually what I’ll start with. I will try and find a good, high res image of the movie poster and mold that into a CD cover. This is not always easy because we’re going from a tall (or wide) movie poster to a square CD cover. And usually the movie posters have loglines, or star’s names and we tend to not feature those things.
BK: Now let’s talk about your playwriting. What was the first play you wrote and was it produced? If so, what was it like seeing your own play in an actual production? Did it meet your expectations? Did you feel the actors and director “got” the play?
DH: Oh. I kind of read your mind and answered this earlier.
BK: I hate when that happens.
DH: But to answer your follow up questions, yes the play did meet my expectations. It was well directed, had a great set, nice technical effects and the actors and director “got” the play. In fact, some of the actors got the play so well, I think they actually improved it. I was very fortunate to have some really, genuinely funny people. They mined the script and the characters for all they were worth. I don’t know if the play would be as funny in less capable hands. And my favorite moment in the play was not even a scripted moment. Late in the second act, when things have hit an emotional peak, one character starts to slap another and the other actor caught her hand before it struck and he just held it there and they looked into each other’s eyes, and they both cried because they realized they were not really angry with each other, they were just angry at fate. It was a wonderful moment fraught with humanity and understanding without a work spoken.
BK: Is it painful to see a production of one of your plays that doesn’t hit the mark? Where everyone just goes off in the wrong direction or emphasizes the wrong things?
DH: In a word, yes. I will say that when a play works and the audience responds to the dialogue and the characters, it’s really great. There’s no other feeling like it. And conversely, when it doesn’t work, it’s a pain like no other. I had a play done at The Cast in Hollywood (the old Charlie Chaplin acting studio) on El Centro and Waring, which is within shouting distance of Paramount Studios. We were in the Cast-in-the-Circle space, which was a three-sided arena. In a six week run, this play only worked one night when a bus-load of drunk people showed up who were ready to laugh at anything. The other 17 performances featured a lot of frowning audience members staring across at each other (small arena theatre lights up the audience sections opposite each other). This was the play that Audrey Wood didn’t like, but I let it be produced anyway, figuring that I’d show her. She was right.
I’ve been fairly lucky with turning up at productions I had nothing to do with (wasn’t involved with the casting or direction). One time, I went to see a full Equity production of my play, Aftershocks, at the Theatre-in-the-Square in Atlanta, Georgia. This is a beautiful, charming, old theater and they had done a lot of audience development for this production. The play deals with adoption and an adopted character seeks out her natural mother. This theatre had acquired quilts that were composed of triangle pieces. Each triangle represented a child, a natural mother and the adoptive mother. Each triangle signified a connection of these three forces. They were huge, maybe sixty feet wide and five feet high, each triangle being nine inches. The theater had a beautiful set, a gorgeous poster and full houses. The play has three women in it, the daughter who has sought out her natural mother, the natural mother (who doesn’t want to own up to being the natural mother) and the mother’s pragmatic friend. The key dynamic of the piece is the friendship between the mother and her friend. They are polar opposites, personality-wise, but have been friends a long time and have supported each other through all kinds of trials and tribulations. They’re a little like Lucy and Ethel, later in life.
Well, the performance started and it didn’t work. I couldn’t’ figure out why … at first. They were saying the lines right. Their speech was clear. Then, it dawned on me; they had two Ethels. There was no friction. The play sort of worked, in spite of this. But when you have a three-character play and one actor is wrong, it means that 33% of the cast is not working.
After the play, I went out for an already scheduled late supper with the producers and the director. The director was just so proud. She asked me what I thought and I found many real positive things to compliment. Hardly able to contain herself, she finally burst out with, “You know what my secret is? I cast by sign!” She further effused, “both actresses are Capricorn!” Amazing.
Casting is critical. It really and truly is. After my first play was produced (and I loved my cast, all seven of them — and they were all critically praised) several people mentioned to me that I might want to look at two of the characters which were perceived as a little under-developed, perhaps a little under-written. Shortly after the play closed, a theater in Long Beach produced the play. Many of my friends from Los Angeles went down to see that production. Those friends who were concerned about the two “under-developed” characters were astonished with the re-writes and felt that now those characters were fully-fleshed out and motivated and clear. And, of course, you know where I’m going here … I didn’t re-write a thing. Those actors just filled in the cracks I left open, I guess.
BK: Tell us about your plays and where they’ve been produced and some of the awards you’ve won.
DH: Hello, This Is the Bottom Drawer was produced at the Evergreen (now Fountain), then moved to the Callboard; then was done in Long Beach. Interestingly, this play was based on seven people I knew when I was in Summer Stock in Eugene, Oregon. They all lived together in one house and we used to go there and hang-out because it was so fun and lively. So, I did change the character’s last names, but kept their first names. While the play was running someone saw the play and thought they recognized two of the characters. And those two real people had just moved down from Eugene to Los Angeles. And they were told, “you guys have to go see this play, you’re in it. I swear, it’s you two.” So, they did and they were thrilled and it was wonderfully weird for all of us. They were having constant deja vu’s. They marveled that we even had two of the same posters on the wall that they had in their house.
Tenants Anyone? Played the Cast and is about Miss America, forty years and forty pounds later. She is managing an apartment house and no one knows she was Miss America, until someone from her past tracks her down. A week before we opened, after our first preview, the leading lady and I were car-jacked outside the theater; long before car-jacking was in vogue. They tried to take the young, female stage manager as a hostage, but her mother taught her that you should never go as a hostage, you’ll be raped, tortured and killed, so it’s better to get fight them and risk getting killed sooner. So, she fought them; tried to kick them in the groin, step on their insteps. I thought it was going to be just too much trouble and they were going to shoot us all, but they just dumped us in the middle of the street and drove off in my car, which still had one more payment to go. They took our keys, any cash we had, their purses, my brief case and — most importantly — the stage manager’s script which had all the cues written down.
My next play In My Mind’s Eye was based on a teacher I had in middle school. After the fiasco of Tenants Anyone? (a comedy where no one laughed), I was bound and determined to not write a comedy again, so I set out to make an inspirational drama based on my teacher who was legally blind, but somehow managed to teach classes in middle school where the students were cruel to her. We had a reading at The Los Angeles Performance Unit downtown with a great cast. In the two hour reading, there was a solid 90 minutes of laughter. I learned that when you try to write funny, it isn’t always funny. But when you write real people, who might just have a funny bone, it can be funny. This was eventually produced at Lonny Chapman’s The Group Rep, directed by Lilyan Chauvin. This play won a Drama-Logue award for Playwriting and because the extremely positive critical response to this production and a Bay Area production at Berkeley’s West End Rep, it was published by Samuel French.
Death Defying Acts received its world premiere at The Long Island Stage which was directed by the artistic director, Clinton J. Atkinson. LIS is a regional theater that casts and rehearses in Manhattan and then performs in Long Island. (We rehearsed at the Nola Studios in mid-town and that was fun for me because it’s my mother’s name). In our cast we had: Marilyn Chris, Pamela Burrell, John C. Vennema, John Wylie and Christopher Collet. This was a profound experience. They flew me out for casting (we had a lot of movie people audition) and then for the final week rehearsal and the opening. The stage manager called me every day in Los Angeles, with requested line changes. There was one request even to remove a comma. They did everything by the book and it was a stupendous production. It received a very encouraging review in the NY Times (Long Island Edition).
The Legend of the Crystal Waters (Music by Mark Henderson, Lyrics by David M. Strauss, Book by Doug Haverty) was commissioned by Santa Barbara’s Access Theatre, which was a pioneer in creating theatre accessible for all audiences very similar to Deaf West. I started working with the artistic director, Rod Lathim, a year in advance of the production coming up with the story and weaving in the complicated requirements for a cast made up from their company. Some performers were hearing challenged, some were visually challenged, some had mobility issues, some were unchallenged. The ‘quest’ was to create a full musical where all these challenges (what some people might call handicaps) would disappear. I created a kind of fable where people spoke in any one of three languages: mindspeak (telepathy), limbspeak (ASL) or mouthspeak (voiced language). In Access productions, all actors sign all their dialogue or lyrics. So, we had some deaf actors who would sign their lines and the audience would hear a voiceover, which was their mindspeak. So, the story progressed and the audience never knew which actors (if any) had any challenges to overcome. We did have one actress, a wonderful singer/comedienne who was crippled from her chest down and was in a wheelchair. We made her a mermaid and they fashioned a costume to go over her body and chair and she practically stole the show. This was a fascinating group of people to work with. And while many of the actors did speak their lines while simultaneously signing them, the two languages were not always in synch. ASL (American Sign Language) is comprised of a kind of short hand, so the actor may be voicing one thing, but signing something else, which is close in content, but not literally the same. I can remember being at one rehearsal and one of the actors said, “Dammit. I know what the line is, but my hands are blank.” (In other words he’d forgotten the ASL signs for that line). One of the more beautiful aspects of this production (or any that is signed) is that the sign language, when “voiced” in tandem with others, because a languid, lovely choreography and helps everyone understand the intent of the lyrics. This musical opened at the gorgeous Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara and after its initial run there, toured up and down California. It was also included in the Dallas Theatre Center’s Festival and won the “Deaf Drama Award.”
When I was trying to get a regional theater to do Death Defying Acts, I heard back from one very prestigious theater in Philadelphia. They liked the play very much, but told me the cast was too large (5 actors) to be considered for their one “original play” slot. I had to phone them and learn more about this. They told me the maximum size they could accommodate for an original play (one that their audiences didn’t know) is three actors. This is because they import their actors from Manhattan and they house them, insure them per diem them and without a known play, they can only have three actors. So, I set out to write some three character plays, because undoubtedly other regional theaters would be faced with the same challenges.
My first three character play was Aftershocks (3 women). I started sending it out and it won the Margo Jones International Playwriting Competition, which included a cash prize and a full production at Texas Woman’s University in Texas. That was a hoot and a half. I was flown to Dallas and driven to Denton. I stayed in a guest tower and watched the last ten days of rehearsal, leading up to the opening. They did a very good production with a glorious set and a great cast (considering it was college aged students playing two 50-year old women). Although this was a full-production, it was a college production. The official World Premiere was at the Long Island Stage, where they had me back for another adventure. We had Marilyn Chris again in the lead and although Kathleen Chalfant couldn’t do the run, she did understudy and go on and also participate in some of the developmental readings, opposite Marilyn. This play was also very well received.
I wrote another three-character play called Twisted Hearts. We did readings all over Southern California and it was optioned for an Off Broadway production. I was flown out to New York for auditions and a reading and then a subsequent workshop. It was great. We had a fantastic cast, very funny and very sexy and right before the next step (of booking the theater and setting dates) one of the main producers backed out. It was very disappointing and it took a long time before I could even begin to pull that play out again and work on it, which I am still doing.
I saw a segment on “60 Minutes” about testing young people to determine if they would inherit deadly diseases in their bloodlines. It was very moving and I was surprised to learn that of all the hundreds of thousands of people at risk, very few had elected to take these tests. Modern science has provided us a “medical” crystal ball, but people would rather not know. The program followed one particular family; where one sister wanted to take the blood test and one sister did not. I thought, “Uh oh, this sounds like a play.” So, I did research and I was in England with Richard Carpenter and on the way back, I pretty much wrote this play called Could I Have This Dance? We did a workshop of the play at The Group Rep. Barbara Beckley, from the Colony Theatre, came to workshop and said after the performance, “We want this play at The Colony.” So, I let them do it. And, I would have to say, that this production; the rehearsal process, the dramaturgy, the creative staff assembled and the actors cast all contributed to a near perfect experience. It was very much everyone-on-the-same page, professional, courteous and creative. Even the scene changes were theatrical and eerie, which balanced perfectly with the serious drama and deliberate humor in the text. Jules Aaron directed and Jessica Kubzansky (just finishing her education at Cal/Arts) was our college intern/assistant director. Susan Gratch (head of scene design at Occidental College) designed our exquisite set. Michael Gilliam designed the gorgeous, evocative lights and in the cast we had: John Bluto, Bonita Friedericy, Susan Norment (replaced early in the run by Jodi Carlisle), Gil Robert, Toni Sawyer and Robert Stoeckle; a dream cast if there ever was one. This was a gorgeous production and in the years the followed I saw many other productions in larger, possibly more prestigious theaters, but none of them matched the overall experience that audiences received when they encountered this evening in the theater. The play and production won all kinds of awards, numerous Drama-logue awards and as one of the actors put it, “Valentine” reviews — they were all love letters. Personally, one of the most amazing things that happened was that the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle nominated this play as the Best New Play produced in Los Angeles THAT year. And as a result, copies of the play were sent to other key cities that had Drama Critics’ Circles and they all read the play. And Could I Have This Dance? was voted the Best New Play of the year by American Theatre Critics Association. This award carried with it a cash prize and inclusion in the annual Best Play anthology released every year. On top of that, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle took me out to lunch and presented me with the prize money. They actually convened for the sole purpose of honoring me. And they paid. How many playwrights can say they were taken to lunch by an entire Drama Critics Circle? It was pretty trippy. And they were very nice. (Although I wonder if I was being set up for a fall, because almost every review I received for subsequent plays from these critics was not positive. Perhaps I had disappointed them. Or maybe the lunch was too expensive.) This play was eventually published by Samuel French.
I was invited back to Access Theatre with another commission, this was for a musical based on the life of the internationally favorite illustrator and author Flavia Weedn. She had written a short, illustrated book about her coming of age called “Flavia & The Dream Maker.” Flavia is a resident now of Santa Barbara and a supporter of Access Theatre, so it all made sense. I was familiar with her illustrative style, had read the book and was chosen to write the book (libretto) for this musical. I went to Santa Barbara several times and met with Flavia. She is a wonderful, creative, eccentric bundle of lovable energy. She is very successful with her designs and collateral pieces sold throughout the world. Yet, to spend time with her, she seems like that effervescent artist who lives up the street and takes everything in in a child’s wonderment. Shelly Markham was brought in to do the music and Bob Garrett was brought in to do lyrics. We had a delightful show, a truly identifiable story for anyone who’s ever felt like they didn’t fit in. The show illustrates (in scene and song) how her young uncle encouraged her to embrace her individuality and follow her dreams. His nurturing enabled Flavia to go forward and create this artistic empire of hers. He was the “dream maker.” The show did very well. There was lots of talk about taking it on the road or trying to do a Broadway show (it’s a perfect lead role for every “Annie” who’s outgrown Annie). But nothing had materialized so we submitted it for publication and the good folks at Dramatic Publishing Company snatched it up.
Some friends of mine had to make a very difficult life choice, probably one of the hardest choices a couple would have to make. They got through it and went on with their lives, but the agony of their decision and the aftermath could, I felt, make for a very powerful play. After, what I thought was a suitable amount of time, I asked them if I could try and write about it (changing the names, of course). They agreed and I wrote Come Baby, Cradle and All. We did readings of it at Theatre West and the Artistic Director told me he wanted to produce and direct it at Theatre West, further, that he thought it was a brave, dark play and would spark a lot of debate. So, they did it. It was a very good production, with Lee Meriwether, Arden Lewis and Kevin Symons. The main critical response to the play was that it was trying to be a movie, which I never intended. But I guess if you right something fairly straightforward and linear, that’s what critics assume you’re doing. The play did spark a lot of controversy and even sometimes, in the middle of performances, audience members were so agitated by what characters said and did that they (the audience) actually yelled to the actors up on stage, “Don’t do it. Don’t go through with it. You’re wrong!” They became so worked up, they became vocal. There were some wonderful performances, laughs and controversy, just not critical raves.
The most recent new play (at the time of this interview) was a play called Next Window, Please. Wise advisors have always said, “write what you know,” so that’s what this was. This play takes place in a bank. I worked in a bank. And although this is a bank, it was a job, and as many working people know, many of us spend the majority of our waking hours with a family we didn’t choose, there at work. So, this was my attempt at trying to paint that family dynamic. At this bank, when the play starts, they learn that a merger is about to take place and that the staff will have to be cut in half. This is happening everywhere, in every industry (banks are not exempt), but what I hoped audiences would latch on to was how these people dealt with that pending doom. The play was done at The Group Rep (which is a membership company and generally the plays are cast from their members). But we had two roles we couldn’t fill, so we went outside the company. And somehow, by some strange twist of fate, we wound up with seven personalities that just jelled exquisitely. The seven actors became so tight, so supportive of each other, that they were a family. This continued long after the play ran it’s scheduled six week run. It’s been two years now, and they’re still all close. It’s nice to have created that. Audiences and critics responded very well to the play (and the cast). This was one of Group Rep’s most financially successful shows in many years. And a lot of people from the banking industry came and they all marveled at how frighteningly accurate it was. While I was working at the bank, I was robbed, at gunpoint. And no one noticed. So, of course, I had to put that in the play. In the end, seven characters are changed and their lives are richer for having known and supported one another.
BK: We’ve released the cast album from your musical Inside Out, which you wrote with Adryan Russ. That show had an incredibly long gestation period, a different title, many incarnations and productions – so tell us about that journey – how did it start, how did it change over the years, and what was it like having the show go to New York to a nice, off-Broadway theater?
DH: What a wild mouse ride Inside Out has been and continues to be; full of curves, ups and downs and neck-breaking unexpected jerky turns. Yes, it did have a long gestation period. And, according to you, Bruce, isn’t it still gestating?
BK: I do believe I’ve said that more than three times, yes, perhaps even seventeen.
DH: It all began when Adryan Russ and I were taking the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in Los Angeles. This was the West Coast wannabe equivalent of the BMI Workshop in New York, where they developed A Chorus Line, Nine, Little Shop of Horrors and more. Adryan and I were inducted at the same time and did all of Lehman’s exercises together. Oh, and he tried — as hard as he could — to dissuade any of us from trying to write a musical (especially tried to get us hoping-to-be-bookwriters from writing a book musical). He told us to go outside and buy a lottery ticket that we’d have a better chance of winning the lottery than of writing a hit musical. That kind of logic never worked on me, it almost made me want to do the complete opposite illogical thing and write a hundred musicals.
Several of us would meet in the bar after workshop and re-hash the workshop and update each other on our like-minded endeavors. Adryan had recently been through group therapy and had had a good experience there and subsequently wanted to try and write a musical about it. She would present songs or scenes in the workshop and I would give her suggestions or notes in the bar afterwards. She always liked my comments and at one point asked me to write it with her. I told her I’d think about it. Eventually, I agreed to; provided we start from scratch. I wanted to be able to conceive the characters and plot (in essence, write the book). She agreed. And I quizzed her in the months following about things they did in her group and we created this musical. Initially, we had the all-female group in a center ring and then an outer ring with actors who would jump in and become people in their lives as they dramatized or musicalized these events in their lives they felt needed airing. We did a reading and it seemed to work. However, it was a little cumbersome with all these actors, so I got the idea that it would be fun to have the six women “roleplay” the people in their lives. So, we tweaked it and it was called Roleplay. We workshopped it at The Group Rep in North Hollywood and they decided to mount it as a full production. It was originally scheduled for a five week run (paying the piano player and drummer was a major expense for them). In fact, a week before we opened, the artistic director, Lonny Chapman, came up to me and said, “Doug, I don’t know if we’re going to be able to open the show. We don’t have enough money to pay the band.” Somehow, they came up with the money, the play opened and had to be extended several times, finally running five months (which was unheard of at this company because the next play is always ready to go on). We managed to get some very nice reviews, but more importantly, audiences loved this show. They even did an article on Adryan and me in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar, talking about how successful the show was.
Wanting that New York validation, we sent the script and “cassette” to every theatre we could find that had a zip code close to anything in New York. Every single one came back. “No thanks.”
Meanwhile, they did the show at The Colony as a bonus show to Could I Have This Dance. (This was not planned, they solicited scripts from the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and the director fell in love with Roleplay.) Well, “it just so happened” that Barbara Beckley was in New York for a class reunion (she rarely leaves The Colony Theatre) and some friends who ran a little theater in Chelsea mentioned that they had planned an all-girl musical, but the rights fell out. Barbara said the magic words, “Oh, we just did an all-girl musical and our audiences loved it.” That was all it took. We were told to send a script and cassette to the theater and we didn’t hear from them … until a few weeks before they were to start rehearsals, they called and asked when we were going to send the score.
Again, scheduled for a typical Off off Broadway run of four weeks, Roleplay opened at The Village Theatre Company in Chelsea and, somehow, they managed to get a reviewer from the New York Times there the first week. We had flown out for the opening and it was great. Audiences really responded to it. I had business in NYC and stayed on for the second week. I was at the Paramount Hotel near Times Square. I knew the review was coming out on Friday. I went down to a newsstand at about 10pm on Thursday, to see when they get the next day’s paper and it was already there. I found the review. It was short. There was no photo. It was not a rave, but it was not unkind. I phoned Adryan in California and read it to her, both of us kind of disappointed that we didn’t get a rave. The next morning, I went by the theater and there was a line around the block. Apparently, a “not unkind” review in the New York Times for a new musical was a good thing. Everyone wanted to check it out. And they did. And they did. The four week run (70 seats) sold out immediately. The Village Theatre Company had to figure out what to do. The only way they could extend would be to upgrade the contract and make it an Off Broadway contract (in the 70 seat Chelsea theater). Luckily, Village Theatre Company member Randy Kelly, had a successful moving company and he stepped up to the plate and formally optioned the play and the production was extended. It was extended several times and eventually came to the attention of Marc Routh and Richard Frankel who joined Randy as producers and started to raise money for a real Off Broadway run.
We had changed the show slightly between Group Rep and the Colony. And we made a few changes for Village Theatre Company (mostly simplifications). But when the new producers came in, they brought shopping lists of changes they wanted; primary among them was a new opening number. They wanted a “Comedy Tonight” solution (similar to the legend where once this number was written and installed, the then troubled A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum ignited).
So, we wrote a new opening number. The girls at the Village Theatre Company (VTC) learned it and put it into the show. Two weeks later, we got word that the new number wasn’t working and they wanted a new, new opening number. We wrote. They implemented and this went on for five new opening numbers. So, those poor actresses at VTC had to learn new numbers during the day, while performing an old opening number at night they knew wasn’t working. Finally, in the end none of the new numbers worked. The show closed after five months and the Cherry Lane had been booked as well as an out of town tryout in Sarasota, Florida.
We did lots of script changes prior to Florida and we wrote a sixth new opening number that everyone finally liked. It was called “Inside Out” and the producers wanted to change the title of the play to that, but the local producers in Sarasota (Florida Studio Theatre) had already started advertising it as Roleplay, so it had to remain that way for Florida. This was December. And the New York producers brought down lots of money people from New York (to Florida, happily, in December) and they finished raising the money.
Then we were flown into New York again for auditions for The Cherry Lane Theatre production. What fun that was. All of these incredible actresses wanted to do a show in town, so we had tons of talented people come and sing for us. They all did two full songs and we felt like we should have paid a cover charge, they were all so good. We could have cast the production three times over. We got an amazing cast and luckily, they all remained with the production, there were no changes. I was able to attend some rehearsals because I had business in New York and then Adryan and I were there for the last weeks of rehearsals and previews. It was all very exciting; to be listed in the New York Times ABC Theatrical directory and have posters sniped all up and down Broadway from the Upper West side down to the Village. We had a star-studded opening, including one of my heroes, Al Hirschfeld.
Marc Routh, our main producer, explained to us about the Gala Opening night party which was going to be held at a fabulous two-story restaurant within walking distance of the theater. It was to be a full open bar, tons of food and lots of merriment. Marc also explained about the New York Times review (and the other reviews). It was not like in the olden days when the reviewers quickly left the theater and hammered out their reviews for the next day’s edition. They had all already come to a preview; scattered actually among several previews and they were just holding their reviews until we actually opened. So Marc explained that near midnight they would send an assistant over to the Times to pick up and advance copy. He would bring it to Marc and Marc would look it over. He would then come inside the restaurant and — depending on the review — read some of it out loud. If the review was good, he would read out loud the entire review. If it was a mixed review, he would read out loud the good parts. If the review was bad, he would not read anything and that subliminal signal would be sent and the part would quickly disseminate. Well, needless to say, we were on pins and needles the entire night. The performance was stellar, the crowd “seemed” to love it and then we walked over to the restaurant. I couldn’t eat or drink anything, my stomach was full of butterflies. At one point, in all the hubbub, we could see that Marc’s assistant had returned from the Times. There was a double, glass door vestibule entrance to the restaurant, so we could see their meeting through the glass. Marc looked over the review … for a very long time, a very long time. Everyone was trying to act nonchalant, like there was nothing going on outside the restaurant. Then Marc came in, completely poker-faced and walked right up to me and Adryan and said in a hushed-voice, “I am going to read the entire review.” So, a hush fell over the room and Marc read the review. It was a rave. In the New York Times. After every sentence the crowd cheered. It was fun to watch Marc read this because, technically, it was his discovery. He was the one who believed in the play and made the Off Broadway production actually happen. Then the party erupted into a huge celebration (where, up to that point, it had been fairly polite or cordial) and I was finally able to drink and eat and breathe a sigh of relief.
BK: So, the show gets a very nice review from the New York Times – so why wasn’t that more helpful do you suppose? Because the show didn’t last there, despite a pretty amazing cast of women.
DH: A nice review and a huge photo. To this day, we’re not sure why it didn’t take off. A lot of people saw it during its few months at The Cherry Lane. The producers thought it might have been the location. Tourists in town looking for shows in Times Square are not inclined to venture down to the Village, so the producers hired a bus to take people from Times Square down to the Village. We had a fabulous cast, all well-known in the theatrical community, just no household names. The play had run for five months in Chelsea at the Village Theatre Company and had generated a lot of press, including Joy Behar, who loved it and talked about it on her ABC radio show. We had one of the best publicists in town, good word of mouth, just not enough oomph to make it through the winter months. The play was done again a few years later at the Here Performing Arts Center in SoHo, where The Vagina Monologues originated. We saw that production as well and it was great and innovative.
BK: Speaking of critics, let’s do. What do you think of critics? What do you think of LA critics, where most of them, save for only one or two now, routinely give great reviews to everything, which theaters and actors then tout like crazy. And if one of the handful that don’t do that happens to write a bad review of something, then all the actors and theaters immediately Facebook how awful that is, as if everything everywhere should get a pass or a good review. How do you feel about all that? Hold nothing back.
DH: I have a fairly love/hate relationships with critics. When they love my plays and say nice things about them, I love them. When they say bad stuff, well … you know the drill. When I was in college, I was a critic for the UOP student newspaper, The Pacifican. And I reviewed concerts and plays. So, I’ve been on that side of the “pen.”
When my very first play was produced, my director (the late Louise Bliss) told me about some of her experiences with critics. She did a lot of theater up in San Francisco and maintained social relationships with many critics. She was involved with a production in Sweden where, at the time, the critic was a part of the production from the start. The critic would be there at the first readthrough, and visit rehearsals and then a performance. The critic’s review would be about the entire process (especially with new plays) and many times the review was not just based on seeing the play one time and giving a knee-jerk reaction, it was more balanced and focused on how the entire production did at serving the play. The critic would offer opinions, but would be careful to also allow for the fact that other people might find the play of interest, so their opinion of the play, was only a minor feature in the “review.” I love that notion, that the critic would be involved.
I think when my first play opened in 1980, it was fun for critics to discover this new playwright. There were a lot of “promising” adjectives in most reviews. A reviewer from the long-gone Los Angeles Herald-Examiner called me the “Frank Capra of the ‘Me’ Generation” and I loved that. (The dearly departed) Bill Edwards from Daily Variety called me after the opening (and his wonderful, glowing review had run). He said, “I’d like to speak with Doug Haverty,” and I said, “This is Doug.” Then he said, “The Doug Haverty? Really?” He was lovely and told me he was sending someone to see the play who had produced plays on Broadway. (The recently departed) Lee Melville, then editor of Drama-logue, came to see the play and set up an interview with me to run in Drama-logue, which was rare as most of their articles featured actors or casting directors. He also came to see the play again at the Callboard AND he believed in the play. He set up a meeting with producers, director and Brian Kerwin (who was a regular on a television show) to head the cast. This production did not materialize, but it was astounding to me that a reviewer/publisher would not just rave about a play, but would actually take steps to further it. This was also thirty years ago.
Tom McCullogh wrote for several publications, mostly Drama-logue, and I was surprised to learn that he was familiar with a lot of my plays, plays he had not been assigned to review — he just wanted to see them. Tom was the one who nominated Could I Have this Dance? for the American Theatre Critics Award, and when it won first place, he was very proud of his having helped bring it national attention.
So, in 1981 when my second play came out, I guess I disappointed those critics who had labeled me “promising.” I had, somehow, let them down and they took umbrage. When our rave review of Inside Out was published in the New York Times, I think I may have used up all the good review juice that had been allocated to me for a lifetime. The raves have been few and far between since then.
Lately, there seems to be less space devoted to theater reviews, as well as just fewer publications. Backstage has discontinued reviewing plays. Papers are shutting down, getting smaller and the reviewer pool seems to be shrinking to include “reviewers” who have blog-sites with a lot of followers. So, while everyone involved with a theatrical production wants a good review (and good press), we seem to be willing to take hype from wherever we can. There is a fairly new website in Los Angeles called “Bitter Lemons” and it collects reviews and computes an average based on the good and/or bad reviews out there and comes up with a number; like for instance: 87% positive. And Bitter Lemons evidently gives equal weight to bloggers and newspapers and local papers and websites (where if you buy an ad they will review your play and it will generally focus on positive aspects).
So, you’re asking how I feel about critics; obviously I am mixed. I have often joked that critics should be required to list what they had for dinner prior to the play and how it agreed with them gastronomcially, because many times I’ll read a very negative review about a play that was met with uproarious laughter and positive audience reaction and wonder why the reviewer’s viewpoint was so skewed. A bad burrito might explain the negativity. But reviewers are people, too. And I’ve been to opening night parties where the reviewers stayed and mingled and seemed to enjoy themselves. They are social animals, and I imagine sometimes it gets lonely or eerie being ostracized. A lot of reviewers are extremely critical of new plays and my hunch is that they are also writers. And it is only human to sit and watch a play and wonder how this play was chosen for production when the reviewer’s own play is obviously better literature. Maybe reviewers should also be required to list their other interests so we could balance our reaction to their review based on their aspirations.
One time a reviewer from the Los Angeles Times had come to see our initial production of Roleplay at the Group Rep. He insisted on sitting in the front row. That’s fine, they should be able to sit wherever they want. But then he asleep during Act One of the matinee. This particular production was beautifully backlit by Keith Endo, so a lot of lovely pink-gelled light spilled on to the audience in the front rows. So, there was the reviewer, clutching his little press kit, head thrown back and feet-outstretched for the cast to see in full light. He woke up at intermission. We thought he’d leave out of fairness. He stayed. We thought we wouldn’t write a review (out of fairness because he missed a great deal of the play), but he did. It was a mixed review (what else would you expect from someone who only saw part of the play) saying nice things like “clever legerdemain of the role-playing device” to jabbing things like the play is too long. We assumed he was just basing this on a running time. Fortunately, his mixed review did not impede the forward motion of the play’s growing reception, although we always wondered what would have happened if we’d had a reviewer who saw the entire play and liked it? How much more successful could we have been?
I’ve never been one of those people who engaged in a written debate with reviewers. To me that is just a losing proposition. Although I was tempted to write (not so that it would be published, but just as an inquiry) to the reviewer from Daily Variety who reviewed my musical with Adryan Russ, iGhost. He spent the bulk of his review taking us to task for not following the short story closer. iGhost is “inspired” by Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost.” There already is a musical version of the short story called, oddly enough The Canterville Ghost: The Musical and it follows the short story faithfully. We were drawn to the source material, but definitely used it as a jumping off point; updating it to contemporary times, adjusting the size and age of the visiting American(s) and adding two romances. In all our materials, we listed it as “inspired by …” I was tempted to write to this reviewer and ask him what we should have said in our press materials, so it would not mislead anyone into thinking that we were trying to do an outright musicalization. But I didn’t. I let it go.
BK: What has been your greatest moment in regards to all your projects and why was it the greatest?
DH: Having that first play be a hit, right at the start was pretty great. And having a musical Off Broadway felt pretty affirming. But looking back, I think one of the greatest moments was witnessing the audience reaction to Inside Out in Zurich, Switzerland. Through a connection with one of our original cast members, (how else does anything get done, but with connections) The English Theatre of Zug decided to produce Inside Out. This theater is based in Zurich and they do all their plays in English. My wife and I were planning a trip to London around the same time, so we orchestrated a little side trip to Zurich. As we approached Zurich, I wondered if this was really a good idea. Most people in Zurich speak French or German first and English third. How will they understand this play? And a lot of the humorous dialogue is based on word play, will they “get it?” Plus, this musical is about group therapy and we learned they don’t have group therapy in Switzerland; only private therapy and no one talks about. It’s not like here in America where we are all open books and a weekly visit to a shrink is just an errand like getting gas or mani-pedicures. When we arrived at the theater (which was really cool, in an old industrial area where everything had been converted into entertainment businesses) the producers asked if they could introduce me before the play started. I thought about it for a minute, but then declined. I told them I wanted to watch the audience’s reaction and I didn’t want them to know that one of the writers was here from America, because I didn’t want them to feel obligated to laugh or react a certain way. I told them that if they wanted to introduce me afterwards, that would be fine.
There was a bar in the lobby and they were selling standing room along the rail. Many performances were sold out and we were seeing it in its third or fourth week. Additionally, they were selling “pillow” seats where cushions were placed on the steps leading down to the stage. The first three rows of the audience were tables and the band, almost like a cabaret.
I was very apprehensive. Usually, in any performance of a play I’ve written, there are people in the audience I know and so I know there’s someone rooting for me. Here, there was no one. Complete strangers; speaking not only in German and French, but multitudes of other languages. Then the play started and the cast came out. They were all very dynamic performers culled from every corner of Europe; most with thick accents. We had accents that seemed to be German, Polish, French, Russian, British and American. I could barely understand what they were saying because their accents were so thick. But the audience was laughing anyway. In fact, they were laughing at anything that had ever been remotely funny in the dozen productions I had seen prior to that. The audience was rapt. What I had come to discover was, everyone was “listening really hard.” Because the play was in English they were extremely attentive. And they did not miss anything. They laughed, they cried, they cheered, they roared. At the end of the play, they would not stop applauding, waiting for some kind of encore. But this was a play and there were no encores planned.
Later, I spoke to the producer and director and I asked if it’s always like this. “Every night,” was their response. I accused them of bringing in people that night who would laugh and cheer exuberantly. They again said this was a standard reaction. We were there in Spring and they decided to do the play again in winter during the even more popular ski season.
But as I was re-living the evening, I was struck by the notion that these strangers were responding to my art. What other artist gets that kind of attention and reaction? A painter could spend six months working on a painting and a person could see it on display in a museum and spend perhaps ten seconds of silence studying the painting and then move on. These people were responding to things we created. Granted there are other elements that impact their reaction; direction, acting, etc. but it was a truly great moment. (And we went back the next night and saw another show with equally positive audience reaction.)
BK: And what was your greatest disappointment in regards to all your projects and why was it the most disappointing?
DH: I guess it would have to be the stillbirths of projects; three in particular and one definitely the greatest disappointment because of the time and creative energy invested in it.
Disappointment #1: At the very beginning of my time here in L.A., before I had had anything professionally produced as a writer, I answered an ad in Daily Variety: Writer Sought. Someone was actually looking for a playwright and they were willing to pay to have something written. This production facility didn’t care about credits, just a writing sample. Well, lo and behold, I was selected. This was all very above board. We met at an attorney’s office in Beverly Hills, contracts were signed and money was given over. This was a very top-secret story and could not be divulged until I had signed everything. Beware of people who advertise in Variety for writers. They are usually eccentric; which was definitely the case here. Nonetheless I started to write. I wrote an outline, it was approved and then I figured I’d go away and “color in” the rest. No. The main producer wanted to sit with me and haggle over every word. There were lots of meetings, lots of lunches and eventually the script was determined to be completed. Pre-production began, another ad in Variety and a cracker-jack creative team was assembled, casting commenced and eventually rehearsals commenced. It was a very elaborate production with a large cast and a sci-fi set. The play was set in the future on a space station orbiting Earth. It was no longer illegal to commit suicide, because they had figured out ways to resurrect people (and it was just a different category on the hospital bill). In fact, if someone did kill themselves, the machines and robots on the space station were duty-bound to resurrect the person. The play was called, Good Morning Mr. Zales 26. Everytime the robots resurrected Mr. Zales, they’d say, “Good Morning, Mr. Zales,” even though there was no ‘morning’ on the space station. This happened 26 times, hence the title.
Rehearsals were underway, sets were being built, advertising had gone out. Posters were put up. It was all very exciting. And this was to be my debut as a playwright (even though it wasn’t a story I would have ever written).
I brought some people to one of the final dress rehearsals (invited audience) and was surprised to see no one at the box office. We went into the theater and they were taking the set down. I asked what was going on and they said, “They’re closing it before it opened. The main producer then came up to me and said he had thought about it for several days now and it did not seem like the production was matching the level of the script. So, rather than expose the play unfairly and submit Los Angeles audiences to another bad theater production, he was shutting it down. Everyone was paid in full. He sent out a press release to this effect and actually got a lot of press. Many theatrical journalists thought more producers should do this. It was very disappointing to me.
Disappointment #2: A producer contacted the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, looking for a bookwriter to write the book for a jukebox musical for a rock ‘n’ roll group. My name was submitted in a fairly short list; writing materials were submitted, and again, I was selected. I met with producers, press agents, lawyers and signed agreements, top secret. It’s all over now, so I’ll gladly reveal the name of the rock ‘n’ roll group was Earth, Wind & Fire (not really R&R in my book, but they definitely were not Air Supply). I worked with one main producer and was told I could use any EWF song I wanted, but that there were some specific hits that had to be used and some were even suggested for opening, closing, end of Act 1 and beginning of Act 2. I could deal with all that. I actually liked it. It was like solving a puzzle. It was fun, too, because most of their songs are on the internet (lyrics, too), so I could just about find any kind of song I wanted to fit any scene. I came up with an outline and the producers flipped. They loved it. There were some tweaks. I tweaked. I placed songs and before I went to flesh it out, they sent it to the band. And we waited. And we waited. Silence. Naturally, I assumed they hated it and they couldn’t figure out how to tell me. It turns out they hadn’t read it yet. Hard to get them to focus, many things going on, etc. Finally, I pushed and pushed and got an answer. The band started to read the outline, but it was too complicated. They decided they didn’t want a book musical; they just wanted a party; where everyone dances and “we’re gonna have a good time.” Bye, Doug. I figured this would never happen. But, it did. A Broadway theater was booked. A director was signed. The first thing the director did was meet with the band to try and figure out what kind of show they wanted. He told them, you can’t have a two hour party on a Broadway stage and charge $125 for it. You gotta have a story. So, the director said he knew someone who could put a story together. And so, that person (and the director, I assume) adapted “The Red Shoes” into a musical featuring the hits of Earth, Wind & Fire. It may have been a brilliant, out-of-left-field idea, way ahead of its time, but it did not work and opened and closed almost immediately. The early closure was little compensation. I had such high hopes and they were dashed.
Disappointment #3: This is probably the greatest disappointment. While we were in the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, one of Lehman’s homework assignments was to select three known plays and (in a paragraph) explain how we would musicalize it. He cautioned us that there should probably be romance involved and a major character should make a significant change. My three plays were: The Cactus Flower, Berkeley Square and The Women. Lehman’s eyes lit up when I showed him my list. He thought they were all good choices. He suggested I work on Cactus or The Women. The very next day, I swear, in Daily Variety, there was a short article that rehearsals were about to begin for the Broadway bound Neil Simon musical adaptation of The Cactus Flower with music by Bacharach and David to star Ann-Margaret. I was disappointed, but encouraged that I was undeniably on the right track. By the way, I wonder what ever happened to that script? As far as I know, it never got done.
So, I started to work on adapting The Women. Lehman actually took a keen interest in it and would ask me about its progress. He cautioned me this, “I know Clare Boothe Luce. She will only look at it once. She won’t look at re-writes. So, workshop it, workshop it, workshop it, re-write, refine, then send it to her.” And I did. We (my collaborator on this was David M. Strauss) presented songs in workshop and they went over extremely well. We did workshop readings.
And this was not a minor undertaking. We called our musical, Badgirls, and it took place in two time periods simultaneously; 1935 and 1985. It was as if there was a Doug and Bruce living and working in New York in 1935 and a Doug and Bruce living in Los Angeles in 1985. The main story would progress but we’d have scenes in 1935 (black, white, silver, art deco) and then the next scene would be in Century City 1985 (with the bright wild colors of the 80s where instead of a bridge club, the girls ran a magazine called, “Badgirl.”) So, we took the already large cast of The Women and doubled it. I wanted something that every college and community theater and high school could do with all the many talented girls they have. And we got fantastic reactions. People love the movie and they loved this stage version of it. The opening number was called “Jungle Red.” A curtain of butcher paper starts getting shredded as long, red, fingernails slice it to ribbons and out pop 36 women singing and dancing and ready to kill.
We spent money and did demos. We made a killer presentation package and sent it off to New York. Oddly, Luce was repped by ICM, although a different agent than I had, but I was sure that would help. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, we prepared ourselves for the long wait for her response. A FedEx box arrived shortly after we sent it to New York. It was from ICM, Luce’s agent. It was a very short, curt letter accompanying our returned materials. It said something like this, “Several writers — better known to us than you — have approached us and we have turned them all down. Ms Luce does not want a musical version of this play now or ever. Go no further.” Devastation. Disappointment. I told Lehman about it and he smiled, patted me on the shoulder and said, “That’s all right, young man. It’s good practice for you.” Two years out of my life … for practice. Sometimes, I’m tempted to just put it out there and call it “The unauthorized, totally illegal, forbidden musical version of The Women.” But I don’t have the guts or I don’t want to compound my disappointment with expensive lawsuits.
BK: Let’s talk about iGhost for a minute – it’s a musical I still feel stubbornly refuses to work. Again, it has had several titles, many versions, many readings, and one production. How frustrating does it get when you do all this rewriting and restructuring and it still doesn’t quite get there? Do you give up? Do you keep hammering away at it? And obviously a lot of people are giving a lot of different comments – who do you listen to, who do you ignore and why?
DH: I still believe in our musical inspired by the Oscar Wilde short story “The Canterville Ghost.” It has a female protagonist who is fearless, creative, talented and wants to help others. She comes from the heartland of America and personifies a strong-willed young woman. She’s a great role model. She has sworn off love, and so, naturally, she falls in love with the most unlikely candidate in England. It’s got ghosts and servants and deals with long lost love (the ghosts). I also explore the world of ghosts and make it more uncertain and unwieldy than we’ve come to know in our ghost stories. Just as we are uncertain of our origins and what happens to us after we cease to breathe, so it is for the ghosts. Why would they have all the answers? Are there training manuals for ghosts? Are there structured orientations? And so, against insurmountable odds, the young heroine strives to re-unite the “separated” ghosts and does so.
Oddly, when Adryan and I decided to work on this story, we assumed the source material (in public domain) had cache. It’s been made into a movie several times. The short story is in anthologies all over the world and it was even a published short story with illustrations for children (which is how Adryan first encountered it). But what we found out is that no one really knows the story (except some learned critics). Inside Out was not based on anything that anyone knew, so we assumed that’s why it didn’t ignite. So, now we were going to work with something that’s been around for over a century and would have some Equity. People got it confused with the Canterbury Tales. When we found out there was another musical version (the faithful one mentioned earlier), we decided to take a radical departure and make our own story “inspired” by the original.
During its brief run here in Los Angeles, people seemed to enjoy it. Reviews were mixed. I maintain that it could still work. Yes, we could re-write it, but those re-writes would not guarantee that it would suddenly click and soar. At this point, we’re thinking of re-titling it, Spirits Soar, (which is the title of one of our big “up” numbers) and it has a double meaning and seems like fun. We’re going to market it and see if someone else might be interested in it. If someone wants to produce it and wants some changes, we’re willing to do that. It seems that every producer wants changes (perhaps it’s in their job description), so I’d rather invest the re-writing time in an actual production, rather than while we’re in limbo.
I am not opposed to re-writes and it’s hard to know which suggestions to listen to. Fortunately (or unfortunately) we have a lot of very wise friends who are more than happy to offer suggestions. And they are all logical and all make sense. But, in the end, we cannot make all the changes to please all the people, because then we’d have a mish-mash. We have to please ourselves first. But if there’s a theater and a director who wants to do it, we’re open.
BK: You still like to keep your actor hat on occasionally. Why?
DH: I started out as an actor. I still enjoy that challenge, that camaraderie that you get from being in a cast. You’re part of a team and the opponent is time and fate. I like the bonds that get formed from the experience. Yes, it’s similar when you’re the writer, but actors are out there in the trenches fighting the war. And I also enjoy exploring the text; trying different approaches to well-known scripts and characters and seeing how elastic they are. I especially like doing comedies and surfing in the waves of laughter. I think these acting experiences inform my writing. Actors always tell me that they love saying my words because they seem very natural and true. And I think being an actor shapes the things I write because, at the heart of it, I’m always wanting to create parts that would be fulfilling for actors to do; stringing together words that are fun to say or appropriate.
BK: Tell us about some of the shows you’ve acted in here in LA.
DH: The first play I did in Los Angeles was Dulcie at the Burbank Little Theare (now The Grove). It was a citywide audition where all the auditionees were in the theater. So, you could watch and observe what others were doing. I was not auditioning for any particular part, but I could see that everyone was getting this one character wrong. He was obnoxious, aggressive and a bore. So, I went up and read him that way and the audience burst into hysterical laughter. I got the part. Following that we did Where’s Charley? there with Rick Stockwell, Mindy Sterling, Dorathy Goley (Haverty), Joe Garcia and Lisa Medway. Boy! Was that fun.
I did some Dinner Theater in Culver City for Joy Healey Productions. We did On the Town there with Lorna Patterson. I played Chip and we had a five piece band and the room looked like a little Vegas casino with big, deep red-leather booths. Following that we did The Pajama Game with Ann Peck.
I did Jimmy Shine with Peter Zapp in Hollywood and a bunch of plays at The Group Rep: Max in Lend Me a Tenor, Cratchit in a new musical version of A Christmas Carol, Wargrave in And Then There Were None, Felix in My Three Angels, Wayne in Inspecting Carol, Holmes in Sherlock’s Last Case, and Mortimer in Arsenic and Old Lace (which pokes a lot of fun at critics, “Do you have an extra sheet of paper? I think I’ll save time and write my review on the way to the theater.”)
BK: Finally, let’s talk about the fun we had trying to get this here damn website updated and current and with it and happening. I believe I first approached you about the makeover three years ago. Why the HELL has it taken so long to effect the changes here. Hold nothing back.
DH: YOU are the one with the perfect memory. So if you say it was three years ago, I assume it was three years ago. Although when you initially broached the subject, it was just to facilitate the move from an independent hosting facility to some place more reputable with 24-hour on-call I.T. assistance. We were trying to preserve the discussion board and not lose any postings and not interrupt anyone’s ability to sign in or continue. It was like taking one huge beehive out of a petrified tree and re-locating it to another tree without disturbing one bee or collapsing one cell of the hive. Everyone I approached about making this technical transfer ran screaming away (or just did not return calls or e-mails). I would get leads and contact them and wait and then have to move on. Also, this was happening concurrently to our regular schedule of releasing CDs and constantly updating the Kritzerland site. So, there was not a lot of time to devote to this techno-quest. Finally, I thought I would approach the “server” people we use at the school where I teach graphic design, The Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. These people are “server” experts and if we can trust them with all our server needs at a private college, perhaps they could be trusted with this transfer. It took a while for them to actually see that we were serious, but once we met with them; they took the reigns and did everything right.
Somewhere, in this process, you made evident to me that you wanted to re-tool the look of HainesHisWay.com and improve the methodology of the Broadway Radio Hour.
BK: So, after three years of my griping you finally find us our tech guy. Tell us about the process of finally getting all of this done – from the slight redesign to the cleaner look to saving everything from the old version – all of it.
DH: Well, there was a lot of tender experimentation. First, Island Technologies made a copy of the entire site and placed it on their server, so that they could poke and prod and test and try without ever damaging anything currently working on the Internet. We were using very old technology for the discussion board and there were several options to try to enable an update. So, Island did that testing on the cloned site and it was determined that the best method would be WordPress. WordPress works generally with templates and I could not find a template that exactly matched the format we had. (If you’re starting from scratch, and you don’t mind it looking cookie-cuttery, templates can be great.) So, the technical staff at Island told me to just create what I wanted in Photoshop and they would implement it in WordPress and all would be well. That’s what I did and that’s what they did. It was not instant, but all things considered, it was pretty fast. And it works. And it was safe, thorough and clean.
BK: Well, the effort has been worth it, because here we are doing the first Unseemly Interview in probably seven or eight years. So, thank you Doug Haverty for sticking with it because now I feel we will soon be the most popular site on all the Internet. So, what next’s for Doug Haverty?
DH: More of the same. Pushing what’s already out there and available; I’m working on a brochure for Samuel French to send out that features my plays that they’ve published (including that show that’s near and dear to your heart, Inside Out) and some they haven’t. We’re going to re-market iGhost/Spirits Soar. Writing (Adryan and I are trying to complete an evening of three musical one-acts we started under Betty Garrett’s guidance) and probably some more acting. I really enjoyed working on the EWF musical, so I’d like to attempt a jukebox musical. Teaching, traveling and designing. I like to please people and somehow, my graphic design does please people. Some have even cried … because they were so happy. I know I’ve made you cry several times, and scream … and yell. You’re very hard to please, so my quest is never-ending.
BK: Thank you Doug Haverty for this sparkling Unseemly Interview. Now, get back to work on the next Kritzerland project!