Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again!

From the day of the premiere of Merce last July, people have been asking when season 2 was coming out. The nerve! We’d barely put the show out, with all the creativity, guts and sweat that producing a musical comedy web series takes, and people were already demanding more. I guess that’s a good thing, right? I mean, better than the opposite, for sure. But Mama might say, Shoot, son! I went ‘n’ fixed you up a squirrel mousse pie, which you devoured like a li’l piglet, and now yer askin’ fer another!”

You know Mama's squirrel mousse pie is award winnin'!

You know Mama’s squirrel mousse pie is award winnin’!

When my producing partner Tyne Firmin and I started this Merce adventure, we had no idea what was in store or how we’d get the show even done. We were innocent in all things web series. Since then, we’ve not only produced an amazing show, but we were written up in a lot of publications, official selections in the Brooklyn Web Fest and the Austin Web Fest, and licensed for OUTtv in Europe. AND we’re in negotiations to have Merce licensed on a new LGBTQ app here in the states called REVRY. All amazing stuff.

When it came time to write the new season, I had a bit of writer’s block.  The truth is, I wasn’t sure where to take Merce next.  Dorothy Parker once wrote that “writing is the art of putting the ass to the seat,” but my ass wasn’t feeling it. 

Somewhere around February or March, my friend Cathy was in town, and we were at my favorite Chinese place, the Szechuan Gourmet on 39th Street, eating potstickers. We were talking about HIV, since she works in the medical field, and she brought up a cure.

A cure for HIV. Hard to admit, but the notion never even occurred to me. At least, not in a realistic way. I mean, Charlie Sheen may be cured with his Mexican goat milk injections, but no sane person’s buying it. As a person living with HIV, I’ve just gotten used to the fact that I’ll be on meds the rest of my life with what is now (miraculously) a chronic, manageable condition. The concept that I may some day be free of the virus is not an idea I’ve even entertained. Isn’t that awful? And sad? And that’s when I realized: a cure for AIDS/HIV is exactly the inspiration for Merce in season 2! Now, I’m not going to give away any plot points, but that idea is what got me writing, and we have scripts for 8 new fabulous episodes! Thanks, Cathy!

We’re also going to tackle such topics in season 2 as secondary conditions to HIV, serodiscordant relationships, PrEP, slut shaming, and gay marriage. It’s gonna be chock full, I tell ya! And a lot of favorite characters will be back for season 2, including (of course) Mama, Corvette, Remington, and the Fairies! And new characters, Merce’s Aunt Bless, Cousin Todd (the whore), and many more surprises along the way.

But life is not all rosey. It’s with a heavy heart that I tell you that composer/lyricist Kenny Kruper has parted ways with us for season 2. Sad news indeed. No hard feelings; we simply had some creative differences. We are totally grateful for the amazing work he did for season 1. Truly, Merce would not have had the magic and shine that is has without Kenny’s creativity, humor, hard work and fantastic skill. He will always be a valued member of our Merce family. Much love and luck to you, Kenny!

But when God closes a door…

We are happy to tell you that the amazing Rob Hartmann is coming on board as our new composer/lyricist. Rob is a super-creative, funny, sophisticated composer/lyricist, and someone that we were interested in working with for season 1. He was unavailable at the time, because he was moving to London (like ya do). He’s still there, but settled, and is happily joining our team from across the pond. Right now he’s teaching at the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts (fancy), so we’ll be doing all the collaborating via internet and cell phone (we’re so modern, yo). You can find out more about Rob on his website: www.robhartmann.com. Welcome, Rob!

Rob Hartman and Charles

I was recently in Washington DC on some HIV advocacy business for the CDC (I’m fancy too), and Rob Hartmann happened to be in town at the same time–Miracle!

Our timeline for season 2 (tentatively) is to raise funds this summer, go into pre-production and rehearsals in August, record the music and solidify the team in September, and shoot in October. We’ll edit through the winter, and hopefully have a premiere in spring of 2017.

New logo with a subtle but important change.

New logo with a subtle but important change. (Thanks to Walter Harper for his design work!)

One last thing: we’ve changed the tag line for season 2. The former tag line, “Life can be positive even when you’re positive,” is good, but something about it was starting to bug me: the “even.” Sounds like an apology, and there’s nothing to apologize for. So, The new tag line is

“Life can be positive when you’re positive!”

Onward we go. Fresh squirrel pie not quite in the oven yet, but we do have a new recipe.
Besos,
Charles
P.S. We recently produced a short, fun video that we sent out to all our season 1 donors.
You can check it out here.  (Thanks to Rich Aronovich and Lucas Van Engen for helping us create the vid!)
P.P.S. I recently had an article about LGBTQ Pride published in the Huffington Post. It’s called I’ve Got My Pride, and if you missed it, please check that out, too.

I Need To Be More Like Merce

I have a bad attitude. Seriously.

When I was in the seventh grade, my teacher Mrs. Montgomery was all about the good attitude. She made us memorize the poems, “The Man Who Thinks He Can” and “Don’t Quit.” Lately I’ve wanted to go into the way-back machine and punch Mrs. M right in her dirty mouth.

I know that’s not really in line with the sunshiny, rainbow sprinkly Merce brand, but although Merce and I look a lot alike, we are not the same person. I kinda want to punch him, too. (But not in the kisser–wouldn’t want to mar that fabulous face!)

Am I blue?

Am I blue?

It’s not that I feel the glass is half-empty, it’s more that I’m pissed at the glass itself, unsatisfied with it’s size and shape.

Here’s what’s up: Before Merce came out, I thought I was prepared for anything, for any reaction or result of the show. A very smart friend reminded me before we started releasing the episodes, that none of it is going to happen the way I imagine it, good or bad, and that totally made sense to me.

The show itself, I’m thrilled with. I think we’ve created what we set out to: a funny, smart, original show with a heck of a lot of pizzaz, that actually has something to say. The entire team went above and beyond, and Merce is sensational.

It just hasn’t created the sensation I’d hoped.

“Whats your damage, Heather?” you may ask. “Merce was written about by major publications. You’ve gained audience three-fold over the first show you put out, Manhattan Man-Travels. And personally, people are respecting the hell out of you, as a writer and creator, and even as an activist! That’s amazing, Charles!”

Yeah.

I’m disappointed, and here’s why: even though I thought I was prepared for anything, (and this is humiliating to admit) I still, in the dreamy MGM part of my brain, thought that everything in my life was going to be fixed once Merce came out. Cray cray! I know! But somewhere in my wee head, I really thought that I’d have, for example, agents calling, that some network or company would want to hire our team to do Merce on a bigger scale or create something new (and they’d pay for it!), I imagined offers for other creative projects, that someone would ask me to act in something that I didn’t have to write, that I’d get to write something that I didn’t act in, that money would start pouring in, that I’d get to quit my survival job, all this would happen in a matter of weeks, and that I’d be well on the way to being ….(oh no! Did I really believe this??? Yes, somewhere in my sick, childish brain, I really did)…A Big BROADWAY STAR! Turns out, there’s still a part of me that’s 15.

And people are asking me about a season 2! Holy fuckballs, are you kidding me?! Tyne and I just barely survived getting these eight episodes out, and you want us to dive in again??? Are you mad???

BUT.

But if I take a moment, and take a breath, and maybe look at the world through Merce-colored glasses, I can get some perspective.

Because here’s the absolute truth: OMG, Merce was written about in extraordinarily favorable ways by every major HIV publication in the country, including POZ (several times!), HIVPlus, A&U, and TheBody.com, and a few around the world: PositiveLite.com in Canada and EstoyBailando.com in Spain! And we were also written about in Broadway World, The Big Gay Picture Show, Frontiers Media and much more! (To see all our fabulous write ups, visit the media page on our website.)  We have over 1,000 views on the first episode alone on Vimeo, not to even count YouTube, and Merce has been viewed as far away as Thailand and Columbia! I was a guest on the Invitation to Love podcast recently, where hosts Alicia Camden and Nate Waggoner plugged the hell out of Merce. And most excitingly, Merce is an official selection to the inaugeral Brooklyn Web Fest next month, and Tyne and I have been asked to speak as part of the panel on Emerging Voices. (For details, visit the BKWF website.)

BKWF official selection

Also (and this is a biggie), we’ve been approached by a gay European channel that wants to broadcast Merce across all their platforms including their website and app. OMG! That’s a possibility of our show being seen in a much bigger way around the world! Amazing. (Stay tuned for an official announcement when we have more details.)

Oh, and along the way, I had an article published in the Huffington Post! “Remember that, Charles??”

And all of this is just SO FAR, because we have other stuff coming up! Co-producer and Mama Tyne Firmin and I were interviewed by HIVHero.org‘s Michael Cavnaugh last week, and that should be coming out soon. Also CJ Stryker of MNN’s StrykeZone show is a big fan, and plans on doing an entire episode about Merce in January! (He also plugs the show on his Episode 35, and I have a cameo promo in the episode as well.) Plus Tyne and I are looking into other festivals to enter and other ways to get the show seen.

Since I’ve been looking through these Merce-colored glasses and  trying to wear my gratitude hat (tiara?), things are feeling pretty freaking great.

Yesterday, at the gym, I had a spark of an idea of how the first episode of Merce, Season 2 might start. and I’m starting to get more ideas for season 2: What happens between Merce and Remington? Do Corvette and Jo stay together, or does she go back to seeing Joes? And of course, what the hell kind of shenanigans could Mama be up to?

Damn. Maybe Mrs. Montgomery was right:  a good attitude makes all the difference. Maybe it doesn’t matter if the glass is half-empty or half-full. I need to remember to be grateful that I have a glass at all.

Besos,

Charles

 

Artist Spotlight: Tyne Firmin

It’s hard for me to write about Tyne Firmin. He’s so dear to me. He’s an amazing friend, a fantastically talented actor, a teacher, a director. We’ve been friends for half a lifetime, and creative collaborators for almost as long. Our relationship is kind of like a marriage, in that we bicker, we push each others buttons, we help each other, we celebrate each other. We understand each other’s creative sensibility, and our talents compliment one another’s. Tyne is also kind and amazingly patient, and puts up with my (only sometimes!) temperamental snippy attitude.

The fabulous Tyne Firmin

The fabulous Tyne Firmin

I first met Tyne while working as a cater waiter in a mid-town hotel around 1991. Throughout the years, many boyfriends, health problems, moves, our friendship has remained. And Tyne and I found ourselves often working  creatively together, and usually on some crazy how-the-hell-did-we-end-up-in-this-crazy-show kind of situation. I don’t remember what the first show we did together was, perhaps it was the episodic late night theatrical soap opera that we were both in, Ailanthus Grove? Or was it the madcap musical revue Out of the Trunk? (In that one, Tyne was the stage manager, and heroically stepped in to the final performance when another actor had to leave town on a family emergency.) Well, let’s just say we’ve never done Shakespeare.

Tyne was born in southern Lousiana in Cajun country, and lived in a lot of the places you hear about on the news when there’s a big hurricane. “My parents split up when I was around 10 or 11, and my  mom moved my sisters and I up to southern Missouri.” Tyne was a shy child, so his Ma tried putting him in art classes, private French horn lessons and getting him involved in church to get him to come out of his shell. (Geez, was she grooming him to be a homo?)

In high school, while his sisters were cheerleading (why didn’t you try that, Tyne?!), his mom sent him to volunteer at the community theater, and he was bit by the acting bug. He threw himself into acting at the theater and joined the drama club at school. His senior year, he was cast as the lead in the school play, Flowers for Algernon.

A young Tyne, working his Barrymore profile

A young Tyne, working his Barrymore profile

In college and grad school, he continued performing, playing such roles as Jacquot in Carnival, the Emcee in Cabaret, Philip II in The Lion in Winter and his favorite, the ten Arles roles in Greater Tuna. He also did summer stock, getting roles like Linus in Snoopy, Eugene in Brighton Beach Memoirs and Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. 

He then moved to New York, where he did a few touring theater jobs before landing the role of Seymour in the European Tour of Little Shop of Horrors.

“When I returned to the U.S. from touring, I got a job catering at a Times Square hotel where I first met Charles,” Tyne said. If that wasn’t tragic enough, things were about to get really hard for Tyne. “Within a few months of working there, I had an unexplainable stroke that had all the doctors stymied. No cause was ever found. I left the Big Apple for eight months and went back to Louisiana where I had to relearn to read, write, and create sentences. I had lost all ability to say more than three words at a time. Who am I kidding? It’s still rough, and that was 25 years ago!”

Tyne came back to New York, back to waiting tables and his passion for theater. Tyne studied acting with the master teacher Fred Kareman and worked with Fred’s wife Pamela Moller-Kareman for many years at The Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls, NY. He has performed in Off Broadway productions of NoraThe Crucible, and Biography as well as the Kafkaesque musical Ministry of Progress. He’s also had great roles in plays by Tennessee Williams.

Besides his fantastic acting talents, one of Tyne’s most admirable traits is that he always says yes to creative things, whether it be being part of a show or painting an apartment. That’s how I conned him into being a part of our first video adventure together, Manhattan Man-Travels. “Hey, Tyne,” I said, “how’d you like to shoot some video of these little sketches I wrote?” Poor thing didn’t know what he was getting into. Here it is years later, and those sketches have become Merce.

Tyne as Mama. Check out that rack!

Tyne as Mama. Check out that rack!

When writing the scripts for Merce, I knew that he needed to play Mama. Tyne wasn’t thrilled about having to get into the make-up, wig and bra (although methinks he didth protest too much), but truly, his performance is hilarious and touching. Tyne’s going to be the breakout star.

Besides his fantastic performance, Tyne also directs the eight episodes of Merce, making sure that my crazy vision is fleshed out. He was great on set, communicating with the actors and crew. He’s also been the guiding hand in the editing process, working with the team to make each episode come to life. Tyne has a wonderful sense of storytelling, and understands the rhythm of comedy. He’s also very detail oriented, and can see where a camera move or a close up can make the story more clear or the joke funnier. Brilliant.

Tyne recently had another minor stroke. He’s recovering from this one much more quickly than the one 25 years ago, and this time he didn’t lose his speech or reading and writing abilities. It’s still pretty scary, but he’s doing amazingly well, and it hasn’t stopped his work on our series.

I truly feel that it is time for the world to get to know Merce,” Tyne says. “He is a great guy. He has courage and loves unabashedly, if sometimes rashly. He makes his world work for him and that’s something that I want to try to do everyday. I’d like to be more like him.”

Funny. With his talent, kindness, patience and perseverence,  I want to be more like Tyne.

Besos,

Charles

P.S. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t make a stroke joke. This is a song I often sing to myself when I’m talking to Tyne. “STROKE ME, STROKE ME!”

Actor Spotlight: Andre Daquigan

I remember the first time I saw Andre Daquigan (who plays Marvello, one of Merce’s love interests). It was the sticky summer of 1987. I’d just moved to New York to go to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and there was a party on the roof of the Beacon Hotel, where some of the students lived. I was 19, illegally sipping on a cheap beer (or possibly a wine cooler?), and there was this mullet-haired Filipino dude sitting in the corner by himself with a guitar, playing “Is It Okay If I Call You Mine” from Fame. Well! I adored Fame at the time (still do–ask me to do my Coco Hernandez impersonation sometime), so I went over and sang with him a bit. In the next four semesters of school, Andre was often in his own world, juggling in the corner when we were supposed to be rehearsing. We nicknamed him, “The Weird One.” By the last semester of school, Dre and I were great friends and roommates. All these years later, he’s still my pal, and one of my favorite people to watch musicals with. A straight dude who loves Sondheim!

Andre Daquigan and me in front of GMHC for Merce

Andre Daquigan and me in front of GMHC for Merce

Meet this terrific guy, in his own words:

“I’m from the town of Milpitas, Ca. It is currently in the middle of Silicon Valley, but when I was growing up, it was still a sleepy little suburb surrounded by dusty green hills and orchards. I got my first taste of the stage performing a junior high school melodrama whose title escapes me. The one thing I remember clearly was that I spent the whole play disguised as an old woman, only to reveal myself as the long lost hero in the second act. Thunderous applause and hilarity ensued. Having brought the house down, its’ a wonder that was my only foray into drag.

“I arrived in New York City in 1987 to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, or ‘SCAMDA’ as we students sometimes referred to it.

After graduation I had every intention of earning my chops performing on the classical stage. Wednesday mornings arrived and I circled every Shakespearean audition in Backstage. If a script had thee, thou or a wonton harlot in it, I vowed to be seen. Needless to say, I couldn’t get arrested.

Luckily, my skill set included being able to sing sixteen bars and do a semi-passable double pirouette. So began a decade of performing in the musical theatre.

“My twenties were spent traveling Europe and the U.S. in every combination of bus, truck and van that you can imagine. Performing in the European tour of HAIR was probably my favorite, but playing a Chinese railroad worker, a Mexican drug dealer and a mentally challenged scarecrow were just a few of the roles that paid the bills and kept me living out of a suitcase.

Andre in HAIR with hair.

Andre in HAIR with hair.

There comes a time in most performer’s lives when the siren song of stability calls. Fortunately when I decided to hang up my lucky audition mock-turtleneck and trade it in for another career, I had another life long passion waiting in the wings. Ever since I was a latch key kid starting dinner for my working mother, cooking good food had always been an obsession. This obsession became my second career as I learned to cook professionally and eventually graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.

“I did stints as diverse as working behind the scenes at the Food Network, working the line at the Four Seasons Hotel in NYC, being the personal chef for Harrison Ford’s family and teaching cooking classes in brownstone Brooklyn. As a chef I finally found my culinary home at God’s Love We Deliver.

Andre goofin' at God's Love

Andre goofin’ at God’s Love

“Charles asked those of us involved in Merce what our connection to HIV was. As a straight male actor working in the theatre I often felt like a minority in a bigger, more fabulous minority. In so many ways, it was through my gay friends and fellow performers that my ideas of humor, art and creativity were shaped. Many of them also taught me what it was to survive in the face of adversity. In the theatre world the specter of epidemic was never hypothetical. The front lines of the crisis were inherited by my generation, and its effects have been felt for my entire adult life. Friends have been lost, mourned and given tribute.

I started my involvement with God’s Love We Deliver as a volunteer between acting gigs. I told friends that no matter what kind of mood I was in, I always felt better after working my shift in the kitchen. God’s Love started in the mid 80’s feeding people suffering from HIV/AIDS. The organization has grown dramatically over the years. Its mission now is to improve the health of men, women and children living with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses by alleviating hunger and malnutrition. We prepare over a million meals a year to clients who are too sick to cook for themselves. Our services are provided free of charge. We believe that food is medicine, and that food prepared with love is essential in that healing. The volunteers I’ve worked with for almost fifteen years have helped teach me these lessons. Ask many of them their reasons for giving so much time and effort, and the echoes of lost loved ones ring clarion. Tribute is given through the making of food by many hands.

When Charles asked me to be a part of this project I balked a little at first. I hadn’t performed in years. There had to be younger, more handsome boys to play the role of Marvello. But then Charles said I’d always been his first choice and I could play it as big as I dared. He’d tell me when to rein it in. I immediately began channeling a combination of my mother and a gold digging chorus boy.

“As an actor, what’s more appealing than working with someone you trust and respect? Charles’ vision of Merce is at once timely and gut-bustingly funny, and his artistic life as a person with HIV has been an inspiration.

Andre with his wife Sarah and daughter Lily

Andre with his wife Sarah and daughter Lily (2012)

“The other night my wife and I were following our daughter’s co-ed and inclusive scout troop down Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue. The troop was marching for the third year in Brooklyn’s Gay Pride Parade. As the crowd cheered for the children in their uniforms, I felt in touch with a different sense of “pride.” It is my hope that my daughter’s generation will look at the bigotry of the past as a relic of history. It is my wish that they grow up to accept that love has many shapes, many voices, many faces and colors. It is in their acceptance for each other that we will find what’s best in our humanity.

Thanks, Chuck, for giving me acceptance and opportunity, and for allowing me to share in your creative vision.”

Thank you, Dre, for being a big-hearted man, a wonderful actor and a great  friend.

Besos,

Charles

Holy Headshots! Or, This SH*# is Setting My Therapy Back, Yo.

The first episode of Merce is coming out in about a month: July 16th.

And by the by, we’re featured in the June issue of A&U magazine! Fabulous! Check out page 52.

I’m nervous. Not about the show, I think Merce is going to be wonderful. But the show and the possibilities of it all is shaking me.

Here’s the thing: when I was young, I really believed in my  acting “talent.” I was kind of a big deal in AZ. I had my first agent when I was still in high school: L’Image Model and Talent Agency in Scottsdale. I remember when I got my very first headshots taken. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” was on the stereo, my hair was tragically parted down the middle (everyone’s was back then), and I was put into Nazi yoga-like poses with my body twisted this way and that, and told to look like I just landed in the chair that way! I was so uncomfortable. The shots were not great. I wasn’t much of a looker in high school, but still, I hope that photographer was fired.

L'Image Headshot

Headshot for L’Image Model and Talent Agency. Models even!

I moved in to New York in 1987 at 19 (“Three bucks! Two bags! One me!”), and wholly presumed that I had what it took to be a successful New York actor. Most of my success was as a waiter. Looking back, I had some triumphs: I had an agent and a manager, I booked a smattering of work, a little this-n-that theater. I even did a commercial for Western Beef Stores where they dumped raw meat on my head! It’s a glamorous life.

Throughout my time as a young actor, I had many, many headshots taken. I had bargain shots, I had artsy shots, I had shots taken by the “it” celeb photographer, spending thousands of dollars as time ticked by, hoping to get the one photo that would magically get me that job that would change my life. Spending money on headshots was an investment in hope, in the belief in the dream, that I really was talented and special.

Circa 1994 or 1995-ish

Circa 1994 or 1995-ish

After eleven years of pursuing a career as a professional actor, tons of auditions, chorus calls, callbacks, keeping up the belief that I was going to make it as a performer, I quit the business of show. It was pretty traumatic.

Looking back, there was one incident that sealed the deal for me. I’d auditioned for this movie, and I knew I’d done well. The casting director told my agent that they wanted me, but couldn’t hire me because I wasn’t SAG. Then the guy they offered the part to wasn’t available, so they offered it to me. Then they took it away to hire someone SAG. Then they were going to give me the part and make me SAG. Then no, and they’re going to hire someone else. This yes and no crap went on for about a week, when finally my agent called to tell me that they wish they’d used me in the film, since I was so much better than the guy they hired. That’s when it hit me: it doesn’t matter what I do, or how hard I work, or how good I am. I’m just not the guy who gets hired. My heart broke. The dream was over.  I left New York in 1998.

Across the years, I’ve clawed my way to rediscovering my artist self. I found work as a theater teacher in L.A., as a musical director for a dinner theater in Little Rock, AR, I did community theater, I took writing classes. I made my way back to New York eight years ago, and I’ve realized that I’m a performer whether the industry cares or not. I’m a writer, I’m a director, I’m a musician.

So here we are, all these years later, and I’ve written this web series, Merce. And Tyne and I are producing it. And people are starting to take notice about it. there’s fantastic possibility about what might happen when the show is released. It’s wonderful. I have great hopes for Merce. I believe in him.

If Merce is successful, there’s potential that something terrific could happen for me as a result of the show, as an actor, as a writer, who knows? But putting faith in that potential, in that possibility, is really difficult. Hard to go back to the lover that kicked you out of bed.

As part of putting together a press pack, we need to include photos of Tyne and me. Professional headshots and editorial photos. Ugh. The idea of getting pictures taken made me feel vomitous. I kept thinking about all those headshots across all those years, and the death of the dream of that young actor that I used to be. I had to dig really deep to find the hope that it’s worth the money to have these things taken.

DSC_0436

Rick Stockwell is a genius.

This week, I bit the bullet, and did it: I got pictures taken. The fabulous and charming Rick Stockwell took the shots on the roof of my building, and they’re wonderful. No Nazi yoga-esque poses this time! He completely put me at ease, and we laughed a lot. And so many of the pics came out great. I look at these new shots, and I think I look like a hopeful New York actor. That’s pretty terrific.

I don’t know what the future holds. It could be that I get famous. It could be that nothing happens. But I have to choose to have optimism about it all, to believe that no matter what happens, I’m still an artist.

And I think that the 17 year old me in those L’Image shots would think 47 year old me is kinda awesome.

Besos,

Charles

Artist Spotlight: Musical Director Michael Forman

I’ve said often that Merce is a family. Some people in the company are like my favorite cousins, some more like crazy Aunt Melba who forgets to take her medicine. Bless her heart.

While most family members are new, I’ve been friends with co-producer and Merce’s Mama Tyne Firmin for 25 years. We met as cater waiters. (Tragic, to be sure, but I have a host of friends I met that way. And Tyne still works there!) I’ve been friends with Andre Daquigan, who plays the scheming Marvello, for 28 years. Andre and I met when we were students together at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. That’s some long-ass family, yo!

But Michael wins. Michael Forman has been a member of my family the longest of anyone in the company of Merce. We’ve been friends for 29 years, since we first met as chorus boys in a production of Guys and Dolls at Musical Theater of Arizona. In one scene, I distinctly remember Michael as a dancing Cuban waiter. It’s burned in my memory.

The Guys and Dolls guys. I'm kneeling in the front (r), and Michael is standing far right, next to the guy doing Fiddler on the Roof.

The Guys and Dolls guys. I’m kneeling in the front (left), and Michael Forman is standing behind me, third row, far left, next to the guy doing Fiddler on the Roof.

Actually, Michael and I didn’t really get along when we first met. We had a prickly relationship, and not in the fun way. It wasn’t until we were both in New York that our friendship really began. I was directing this little cabaret revue (which Tyne happened to be involved in) and needed a musical director. An adorable co-worker, Paul McCullough, recommended his boyfriend, “but you don’t like him,” he said. It was Michael. The show was in desperate need of a musical director, so I swallowed my pride and gave him a call. Michael and I had a coffee and put our prickly feelings behind us. He musical directed the show and we’ve been dear friends ever since.

Michael Forman was bit by the musical theater bug (The venomous Merman flea, I call it), when he was in the 7th grade in Wilmette, IL. “It was called Silver Screen and my starring moment was as Inspector Jacques Clouseau.” He went on to a fantastic high school which had an amazing theater program, and Michael played piano for his first production, Anything Goes, at 15.

His family then moved to Scottsdale, AZ (lucky for me, otherwise we might never have met). “I was too big for my britches living in AZ.” After his life-changing experience of meeting me in G & D (and going to Arizona State for two years), he had to move to NY.

He studied musical theater performance at AMDA, then decided to move away from performing, and studied composition at the Mannes College of Music of The New School. He then was offered a musical direction job, which led to a lot of regional theater and the national tour of Annie and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

Michael went on to have a successful music studio, coaching professional singer/actors, both celebrities and aspiring young artists. He also took jobs in academia including being a musical theater performance teacher at The Yale Graduate School of Drama. “Watching my students/clients go on to achieve their dreams, do the Broadway thing, and find their way to the red carpet at the Tony Awards still gives me happy tears.”

And then Merce. Michael likes to say that he was honored to be asked to be involved in the project. The truth is, I kidnapped him. I didn’t even ask if he’d be interested in musical directing, I just said, “oh by the way, rehearsals start Monday and here’s the score.” Poor guy didn’t know what he was in for. Drag queens, Dominatrix/Life coaches and fairies, oh my!

But he’s a pro. Truth is, the Merce music recordings wouldn’t have any of the sparkle or panache they have without Michael’s guiding hand. He took Kenny Kruper’s amazing songs and made each singer in the cast sound like a million bucks. Even me. (For proof, just go to www.MerceTV.com and listen to the trailer with your eyes closed. The company sounds amazing!)

The fantastically talented and dear Michael Forman, conducting Merce in the recording studio.

The fantastically talented and dear Michael Forman, conducting Merce in the recording studio.

“I’m incredibly pleased with the work all of the artists in the project that I got to collaborate with,” Michael said. “Merce is a remarkable combination of intelligent writing and includes drama, comedy, musical theater fantasies and romance. It’s never been done before, and I believe people will flock to it.”

Michael went on, “I’m am thrilled to help kick the AIDS stigma by being involved in Merce. I believe that whether it’s theater or film or TV, there is a duty to educate people about society and the world. Love should not be hindered by stigma.

You said it, Michael. So grateful to have you as part of Merce‘s family, and part of my own.

And just to be clear: Michael is part awesome cousin, part crazy Aunt Melba. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Besos,

Charles

P.S. Michael is not just anti-HIV stigma, he’s also against stigma for other conditions, most importantly depression and mental illness. Much work yet needs to be done to fully understand the breadth and scope of prejudice against people with mental illnesses. For more information, visit Project Helping.

 

Dr. Biederhof (Rich Graff)’s a Star!

Congratulations to Rich Graff, who’s starring as Lucky Luciano in the upcoming AMC mini-series The Making of the Mob!

Rich Graff

Rich Graff

Yummy Rich, a native New Yorker, plays Merce’s yummy doctor, Dr. Biederhof. We were so fortunate that Rich auditioned for Merce, and he’s ideal as the smart and handsome physician.

Yummy Dr. Biederhof!

Rich Graff as Yummy Dr. Biederhof!

Rich Graff as Dr. Biederhof and Merce

Dr. Biederhof and Merce

“I auditioned for Merce and fell in love with the idea of a show about someone’s dealing with HIV,” Rich said. “We all come such a long way with HIV and AIDS, and making sure everyone better understands the disease is very important.”

Thanks, Rich. Your earnest performance in Merce is tops, and we’re so proud of your success!

Rich Graff as Lucky Luciano (center)

Rich Graff as Lucky Luciano (center) in The Making of the Mob

For information on AMC’s The Making of the Mob, click here.

Besos,

Charles

Actor Spotlight: Randy Taylor

When Randy Taylor came in to audition for the role of Remington (one of Merce’s love interests), Tyne and I were so happy! He can sing, he can act, and he’s certainly swoon-worthy. We were pretty much sold on him right away.

Randy headshot

The almost-too-handsome Randy Taylor

Randy remembers the experience a little differently: “I was put through a grueling set of auditions by Tyne and Charles. They made me do all this crazy stuff! Did everyone have to run naked around the block screaming ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina?'”

Well, however it happened, Randy was the perfect choice to play Remington, a cute guy from Long Island who went to high school with Amy Fisher.

Randy grew up on a cattle ranch in the Southern California desert, just miles from the Mexican border. “Everything there is beige,” Randy said, “It is very, very conservative as well. Just imagine a slice of Texas transplanted to California.” Beige was too, well, beige for Randy, so as soon as he could, he packed up and moved to Los Angeles to fail out of managerial accounting at USC. He wisely switched majors to acting, “and I’ve been having fun ever since!”

Randy moved to New York twenty years ago, and he’s been seen in musicals and cabarets in the city as well as regionally. Like a lot of performers, he also slings drinks. “I am a bartender at the (in)famous Marie’s Crisis, ‘where showtunes go to die,'” Randy said. “It’s such a fun place and I am often astounded that I get paid to be there.”

Randy Taylor as Reminton, cannoli in hand

Randy Taylor as Remington, cannoli in hand

The first day Randy was on set for Merce, the scene was a date between Merce and Remington. “I was so nervous on my first day of shooting,” Randy said, “but within minutes I was having a wonderful time pretending to eat pasta and clowning around with Charles. I thought to myself that I would happily do this for the rest of my life. Plus the crew was just amazing!”

Besides being fantastically talented, Randy is a genuinely nice guy, and he’s one dreamy fella to boot. One of the fun things for me was that I got to make googly-eyes at him for the camera. Trust me, it was easy. I kept my cool, though, since Randy’s got a super-cute, super-nice boyfriend named David. Ain’t that always the way.

Randy Taylor as Remington with Merce at Washington Square Park

Randy Taylor as Remington with Merce at Washington Square Park

Randy talked about his connection to HIV and Merce: “I have a number of friends who are poz. I remember the fear that was instilled into us about AIDS in the 80’s and how gays were bringing this plague to the nation. We’ve come a long way, baby. Still have a ways to go too! I feel so thrilled to be a part of a show involving HIV characters. I think this kind of show is needed to break through the stigma of having HIV. So, so proud to be a part of it all.”

And we’re proud that you are a part of the Merce family. Now would you mind getting naked again? I’d love to hear another chorus of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina!”

[Note about the name Remington: The character was originally named Parker. When Tyne and I were fundraising for the project, one of our donors, Gayle Slifka, made a donation in the memory of her dear brother, Remington. In his honor, we decided to re-name the character after him.]

The Real Remington

The Real Remington

Besos,

Charles

Actor Spotlight: Ryan Daniel Pater

I have some bad news for you. Criminally handsome and terrifically talented Ryan Daniel Pater is…okay, he’s…..it pains me to say it, but….he’s not gay. I KNOW! Isn’t that awful? I’m disappointed, too. And don’t you straight gals start lining up, because he’s taken. “I’ve got a lovely lady who could easily leave me in the dust,” he says. “That’s what I love about her.” Blighted hope, all the way around.

Yummy Ryan Daniel Pater

Yummy Ryan Daniel Pater

We all can find solace in watching him partially dressed (sometimes) as the he’s-not-a-porn-star-but-he-totally-looks-like-one therapist Billy in Merce. We were lucky to find Ryan, after another talented actor had to drop out because of a personal emergency. Gonzalo Rodriguez (who plays Dr. Biederhof’s receptionist in Episode 2) recommended Ryan, and he was just what we were looking for: handsome, warm, talented, and with a willingness to get partially naked. “Shooting Merce was an amazing time,” Ryan said, “the story is important, fun, and 100% original.”

Ryan Daniel Pater as the therapist, Billy

Ryan Daniel Pater as Merce’s therapist, Billy

Ryan grew up in Chapel Hill, NC, and started performing in middle school. “I played Robin Starveling in  A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Things really picked up from there.” He said that “a pack of lies” brought him to New York (join the club!), but he didn’t say what the lies were or who told them to him. That’s okay: I like a little mystery.

I did a little digging, and found out that after graduating from University of North Carolina School of the Arts, he scurried up to NYC to begin the Kenan Fellowship at Lincoln Center Education. As a Kenan Fellow he conceived and directed The Wizard of Odd that solidified his desire to create a company with those that are brimming full of love, inspiration, and the desire to create what has never been.

Ryan is Co-Artistic Director of the Oh Force! Theatre Co., a brand new Brooklyn based theatre company striving to produce new and entirely original work. They are dedicated to being a safe haven for artists who value collaboration above all else.  (I recently saw their production of Daisies. Called “a sickly sweet comedy about death,” it was one of the most creative, fresh, modern and funny shows I’ve seen in quite a while. And it had a TON of music in it, which you know I adored.)

Ryan Daniel Pater: he does look like a porn star, no?

Ryan Daniel Pater: he does look like a porn star, no?

Ryan is also a teaching artist with two lovely organizations, ENACT and S.A.Y. (The Stuttering Association for the Young), where, he says “the youth of NYC are a nonstop inspiration.” If that weren’t enough to keep him busy, Ryan also plays with the band Lion and Spaniel. (Listen here: https://soundcloud.com/lionandspaniel)

Prior to joining the Merce family, Ryan had no direct connection to the HIV community. “Now that I do, ” he said, “I want the world to know that positive or negative, they are positively beautiful.”

Well, Ryan, you’re beautiful. Both inside and out.

To find out more information about the Oh Force! Theatre Company, check out the website at www.ohforcetheatreco.com.

Besos,

Charles

 

Actor Spotlight: Amanda Bruton

What is there to say about the delightful and lovely Amanda Bruton? She’s an amazingly talented and fearless performer. She’s wickedly funny. She’s got a great rack. Qualities that we were looking for in an actress to play the part-time life coach, part-time dominatrix Veda Masters/Mistress Veda, to be sure. But with Amanda, we got all that and a whole lot more. When Amanda came in to try out for Merce, she bowled Tyne and me over with her hilarious audition. “I really just wanted to play with whips and chains,” Amanda said, “lucky for me, Charles and Tyne agreed and I booked the role.”

Fabulous and Boobalicious Amanda Bruton

Fabulous and Boobalicious Amanda Bruton

Like Bess Eckstein (who plays Merce’s roommate Corvette), Amanda is a Jersey girl (another one? sheesh!). “I grew up there, and to this day I’m a Jersey girl through and through,” she said. “I still drive stick and comb my hair with a pick, as Jersey girls do.” (I’m not sure what ‘driving stick’ is, but it sounds like something I’ve tried once or twice.)

She caught the acting bug early on. “From a young age I was incredibly melodramatic, but also a total ham.” She was in her first show at age 5, and, as she puts it, “a diva was born.” (I can relate, honey!) She also got to see a lot of Broadway shows and did a lot of community theater, which got her into a high school with an incredible arts program, leading her to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and New York.

Amanda as the bumbling life coach, Veda Masters

Amanda as the bumbling life coach, Veda Masters

“I’ve been living and working as an actor in NYC for over a decade now. My career has run the gamut: straight plays, musicals, Shakespeare, experimental work, voice-overs, film, television, sketch comedy and improv,” Amanda said. “Recently, I tap danced in a mullet and a tutu, and it wasn’t even ironic.” (That’s my kind of actress!)

For Amanda, the highlight of her career so far was playing Grandma Addams on the international tour of The Addams Family Musical. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said, “how could this young spring chicken play a 102-year-old Grandma? And the answer is: a lot of heavy make-up and a lot of late nights!”

Fierce Amanda as Mistress Veda (with Mike Dewhirst and Bess Eckstein)

Fierce Amanda as Mistress Veda (with fellow Jersey-ites Mike Dewhirst and  Bess Eckstein)

“Working on Merce was ridiculously fun. Everyone from the cast to the crew to the creators were fabulous,” Amanda said. “They all had the perfect combination of professionalism, humor, and BAWDINESS. Not to mention talent.”

Amanda as Veda, singing her soul out

Amanda as Veda, singing her soul out

She went on, “I was thrilled to be working on a show about HIV. I believe that one of the best ways to address serious issues is with humor and laughter. A lot of Americans forget that AIDS is still a problem, as if it were a trend that died in the 90’s. While it’s true that HIV is no longer a death sentence and many people with HIV are living happy and full lives, it is imperative that we find a cure. We need to bring it back to the forefront of the American public’s consciousness.”

And as for the future of Merce? “I hope that Merce can give a new face to HIV,” Amanda said. “I hope that with humor and laughter and maybe a couple of dildos and penis straws we can make this issue relatable. And I hope it makes us all really rich and famous.”

FROM YOUR MOUTH TO GOD’S EARS, AMANDA.

For more things Amanda, including video clips of her work, visit her website at www.amandabruton.com.

Besos,

Charles