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Actor Spotlight: Bess Eckstein

Last summer, when Tyne and I were thinking about the casting of Merce, we knew that the role of Merce’s roommate Corvette was going to be a tough role to fill. We wanted a girl who was pretty, smart, funny, and unafraid. And maybe a little trashy.

One day I saw the adorable Bess Eckstein across a crowded room (just like the song!), and she was sitting with her legs crossed, in a miniskirt, chomping gum and playing with her hair. I thought, ‘now that looks like the kind of floozy that might have a different boyfriend every week! That looks like Merce’s roommate Corvette!’ So I asked her to audition. She came in, sang and read, and my instinct had been correct: Bess was a floozy! Or at least she could act like one. We cast her.

Beautiful Bess Eckstein

Beautiful Bess Eckstein

Bess is a Jersey girl, born and raised. And she’s proud of that. She was bitten by the theater bug at 3 years old, when her mom took her to see her first play, Mary Poppins. “I was completely enamored with the show! From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a performer.”

Bess got her BFA in acting from Montclair State University (In New Jersey!) She’s performed in summer stock and regional theater, eventually earning her Equity card. “My love for the theater and continuing to pursue a career in performing brought me to NYC!” (Which is right next to New Jersey.)

Bess in the recording studio, singing her little Jersey heart out!

Bess in the recording studio, singing her little Jersey heart out!

“Working on Merce gave me the wonderful experience to combine all things I love: acting singing, dancing and working with enormously creatively talented people,” Bess said. “One of my favorite parts was going into the recording studio to record the musical numbers for the show. Also, living the dream of having a different boyfriend in each episode who doted on me wasn’t too shabby either!”

Bess Eckstein as Corvette, making this week's boyfriend play Twister

Bess Eckstein as Corvette, making this week’s boyfriend play Twister

Bess also shared her thoughts on HIV as a subject for Merce. “Having a number of friends who are HIV+, I am happy to be a part of a project that discusses this issue. Many of my friends struggled at first with the shame of their diagnosis, and had trouble sharing about it because of the stigma that’s still attached. I have watched them work towards not letting their diagnosis define them and continue to live full and happy lives. I’m thrilled to be part of a project that depicts someone living with HIV who continues to live life to the fullest.

And we’re thrilled to have her in the cast. Even if she’s from Jersey. ūüėČ

For more things Bess, visit her website here.

Besos,

Charles

P.S. My good friend Eric Mann recently challenged me to make a video, kind of a dance-like-nobody’s-watching deal. He and his friends Gina Duci and Jeffrey Nunez¬† have a company, On Point Dance, creating a community of people that encourage, inspire and support each other through the love dance (“it is not about being a dancer,” Gina says, “it is about allowing music to move you in whatever way your body is telling you to”). Dancing can always change my mood and bring a smile to my face, so here’s my short vid.¬† Feel free to make one of your own! Use the hashtags #‚ÄéDanceintheDark‚Ĩ¬†‚Ä™#‚ÄéOnPointDance‚Ĩ¬†‚Ä™#‚ÄéDance4you‚Ĩ, and Do your thing, honey!

 

 

 

Actor Spotlight: Colleen Hawks-Pierce

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be featuring some of the amazing and talented actors involved in Merce.

The divine Colleen Hawks-Pierce

The divine Colleen Hawks-Pierce

The first is Colleen Hawks-Pierce, who plays Texas darling Holly-Lynn-Jo-Rae Culpepper-Boudreaux, a role I wrote especially for her. I met Colleen and her husband, the devilishly handsome Jeff, a few years ago when we were involved in a sadly short-lived theatre company. The three of us got along famously, and when I started creating Merce, I knew I wanted both of them involved. (Jeff plays a bartender in Episodes 1 and 2.)

Colleen comes from an amazing family. Her father was a professional singer/pianist and her mom studied at the Goodman School of Drama. Here’s her story, in her own words, about her life, career, Disney, Broadway, her humpy husband and more!

“I started ballroom dance lessons in 2nd grade because my big sister was a competitive ballroom dancer. In 4th grade, mys sister decided she needed ballet to improve her technique, and enrolled us in a class. I quickly talked mom into letting me enroll in the dance school in tap. jazz and ballet. Then I started flute lessons and also took piano. One more thing to drive my mom crazy carting me to lessons was gymnastics! All these lessons continued until junior high¬† when my mom had had enough driving (!), so I whittled it down to gymnastics and piano by 7th grade. I promptly dropped gymnastic when I hit high school and insisted picking back up dancing instead. I still played flute through high school, as well as choir and of course I was in every musical. At 16, halfway through my junior year, I began taking voice lessons. That’s my real love, singing.

“My senior year, I tried out for my home town’s Junior Miss competition: a scholarship program that consisted of a judges’ interview on current events and personal goals, an academic category, performing arts, poise (similar to evening gown) and physical fitness (basically, a ten minute dance . I won, and went on to the state competition! I remember waking up in the morning for the rest of the year, pinching myself to believe it was real. that scholarship money paid the majority of my college tuition for four years, including books and dorm rooms for the first year.

“I started college as an opera performance major, but halfway through my freshman year, changed to the musical theatre BFA program. The program at BYU was extremely intense, almost like a triple major.

“Straight out of college, I moved to LA where I worked as Snow White at Disneyland in the summer show, “Singin’, Dancin’, Heigh Ho.” I got to sing “With a Smile and a Song,” “Whistle While You Work,” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” and ride out on a white horse at the end while doves were released over the huge outdoor audience! It was a dream come true.

Watch Colleen as Snow White! “With a Smile and a Song”

“After that, I booked a gig as the lead female singer in a show starring Hinton Battle in Japan, then a series of cruise ship jobs doing several book musicals as well as reviews. Eventually, I made my way to NYC, where my first booking was as Polly Baker in the Second National Tour of Crazy for You. I subsequently got my Equity card playing the title role in Sugar at Stages St. Louis.

“My most notable credits are my Broadway debut as 1st standby for DeLee and standby for Brenda and Patti in Smokey Joe’s Cafe. I did my final audition on the show’s Broadway stage (then the Virginia Theatre, now called The August Wilson) which was incredibly exciting. Director Jerry Zaks came up to me as I walked off the stage and offered me the job. I tried to be very charming and cool and accept it like it was an everyday occurrence. On the inside I was doing somersaults and back-flips, and I ran right out the door afterwards screaming and jumping around like a lunatic! Later, I was one of two swings for Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party at Manhattan Theatre Club with Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Julia Murney and Brian D’Arcy James. I then played Erma in Anything Goes with Chita Rivera at the Paper Mill Playhouse. That job landed me in an article in Dance Spirit magazine’s rising Start section, because Chita had said some nice things bout me when they interviewed her.

“My dance teacher from home noticed that article, where I mentioned wanting to play Laurie in Oklahoma! She said they were doing that at the theatre near my home town that summer, and would I like to be submitted? Of course I said yes! I got the job.¬† My Curley and I had instant chemistry and he is now my husband, hunky and talented Jeff Pierce.

“Other big shows to date are The Boy From Oz with Hugh Jackman on Broadway, where I played one of his backup singers, and Shrek the Musical, where I played the Fairy Godmother and Voice of the Bluebird (now available on Netflix and Amazon!). My most fulfilling role and dream creative team was a production of Blood Brothers at Astoria Performing Arts Center, where I played Mrs. Johnstone.

“I now do a great deal of teaching, along with some directing and choreography thrown in. My greatest pride is my voice studio where I have a number of incredibly talented students. I have a knack at developing voices with strong classical and belt training, including stylizations in pop, rock, country, gospel, and R&B.

On Set: Colleen as Holly-Lynn-Jo-Rae, with Rob Laqui, Sean Griffin, Tyne Firmin, B. Alexandra, and Bess Eckstein

On Set: Colleen as Holly-Lynn-Jo-Rae, with Alexander Tomas, Rob Laqui, Sean Griffin, Tyne Firmin, B. Alexandra Little, and Bess Eckstein

“I don’t think I’ll every outgrow my love of performing. I have two very close friends who are HIV positive. I hope Merce becomes a HUGE hit, as it should with the talented and funny Charles Sanchez.”

I didn’t ask Colleen for that last compliment. Really, I didn’t. But it shows you how sweet and fabulous she is. If you’re dying for more things Colleen, including more videos, personal pages, and a link that tells you more about her voice studio, visit her website at www.ColleenHawks.com.

Besos,

Charles

 

Feeling Topsy-Turvy

Things is crazy in my world right now, y’all. Upside down, inside out and round and round.

I’m fitfully sleeping about 5 or 6 hours per night, when normally I’m a hard snorin’, solid 7 or 8 hour boy. I’m totally a coffee dude, but lately I’ve taken to having a civilized cup of¬†decaffeinated Lady Grey Tea in the evenings. Yes, I said Lady Grey. I feel a little like I’m in a fog all the time. I’ve lost a little weight, too. It’s all due to mourning my Father’s death. Turns out, grief is a great diet (better than TrimSpa, baby!), but I don’t recommend it.

Merce in a pensive moment.

Merce in a pensive moment.

Don’t worry, Mom. I’m eating, I’m just not craving burgers, french fries, pizza, brownies, buttercream and the like. Basically, I’m not eating anything delicious. Nothing sounds good, so I’m basically eating chicken and veggies. Salad. Yogurt. Fruit. Tragic, right?

The grief’s also kicked up emotions around other losses in my life– my pitiful¬†career; the comedy of errors that’s been my love life; the black molly fishies who started eating each other in my fish tank when I was 10. They were eating each other! It was horrifying. All of it has made me feel helpless, hopeless and useless. It’s awful.

And it’s colored how I’ve been feeling about Merce. It seems like we’re never going to get the show out. It’s never going to be done. And what’s the use, anyway? Who the fuck cares?

But we’ve made a commitment, and must see it through. There are other people involved, donors, cast, crew, a few fans all wanting to see the show. So I take a deep breath, and shoulder on.

It’s been making me crazy how long the editing has been taking. After consulting with our consultant, the ever-patient Tyne Firmin and I decided to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with editor Johnny Coughlin about the state of the editing and the fact that we didn’t have an ending to the project in sight. Tyne and I strategized about the best possible way to have the conversation, coming up with plans A, B, and C, trying to figure out the best ways to approach Johnny, valuing as we do his talent and time, but being firm on the need to have a deadline. Producer problem solving.

What the magic of editing can do: Mama (Tyne Firmin) Skyping to Merce.

What the magic of editing can do: Mama (Tyne Firmin) Skyping with Merce.

We had a meeting of the three of us, and when Tyne and I approached the topic and told Johnny that we were unhappy with the timing of things and needed to implement an editing schedule, he without hesitation agreed. AGREED! And when I pulled out the schedule I’d already made up (sometimes I’m sneaky), he said it looked totally reasonable for him and the other two editors he’s brought on to the project to adhere to. The meeting was shockingly un-dramatic. Sometimes when you have a come-to-Jesus meeting, Jesus shows up first.¬†

Fabulous Amanda Bruton as the bumbling Veda Masters

Fabulous Amanda Bruton as the bumbling Veda Masters

We have about 98% of Episode 1 completed, and have 2 other episodes at about 85% completion. And guess what? They’re totally fresh, exciting and AMAZING. Kenny Kruper, who we were already in love with from the songs he’s composed, added scoring to Ep. 1 that is perfect! Amanda Bruton is hilarious and heroic as Mistress Veda/Veda Masters. Ed Davis as Ms. Nutella Spread is so freakin’ glamorous and smashing, you won’t believe it. And the rest of the cast! Corvette, the Joes, my darling Fairies! Oh! It’s all being brought to life by Johnny and his team of Max Nitch and Billy Coughlin (Johnny’s bro), under Tyne’s guidance, putting everything together with such care, humor, and panache, getting every silly joke just right. It’s really wonderful, and makes me cry to think of how fabulous the whole show is going to be.

Ed Davis as Ms. Nutella Spread with my fairies (Rob Laqui, Alex Tomas and Sean Griffin)

Ed Davis as Ms. Nutella Spread with my fairies (Rob Laqui, Alex Tomas and Sean Griffin)

Our schedule right now has us finishing editing by mid-June. Hopefully before that, we’ll be able to figure out a marketing plan and decide on a release date.

As for my grief, well, the turvy’s not so easily re-topsy’d. I’ve never grieved anyone like this before, and it’s hard. My Dad was an amazing man with a great sense of humor, and a huge heart. I’m in therapy, attending a grieving group, even using crystals. ¬†(Natures jewelry, darling, and they have powers!)

Merce has been helping. Every naughty, bawdy episode has a message of hope, joy, love, and believing in yourself. Turns out, Merce is a very positive influence on me. 

And I’m starting to feel a tad bit better. Who knows? I may even have a burger this weekend.

Besos,

Charles

P.S.¬† I¬†was on the Laff Tracks Radio Show on Feb. 28, hosted by the fabulous Joanna Briley and the hilarious Steve C. King. If you missed it, you can watch the recorded stream here (with a few commercials): http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/59368068, or listen to the podcast at http://floempireradio.com/lafftrackspodcast/. I’m on for about a half hour starting at around 34-ish minutes in. I talk about Merce, HIV, life, love, sex even! Oh, and burritos. Check it out!

Sometimes God’s Sense of Humor Pisses Me Off

“Hey, Charles, How’s your web series thing going?”

“Seems like you’ve been working on Merce forever! What’s up with the show?”

“That trailer was a hoot; I can’t wait to see the series. When’s it coming out?”

Well, kids. Hmm. Hate to break it to ya, but this isn’t going to be the sunny happy joy-joy blog post from me that you’re used to. Here are my answers to the above questions.:

The web series thing? It’s going very frustratingly.

It totally feels like we’ve been working on Merce forever. Not much is up with the show.¬†

And here’s the hardest answer to give: I have no idea when the series will be out. None. Seriously.

It’s totally making me crazy, angry, frustrated, suicidal (except not really suicidal, because I’m not like that, but something dramatic and emotional, with a hair flip and a cigarette). We said that we’d have the show out in Spring of 2015, and here we are in mid-Feb with little to show for it. I pride myself on being a man of my word, and this is freaking my shit out.

God.laughing.at.our.plans

When we completed shooting, our DP/Editor Johnny Coughlin assured us that he could edit about one episode per week. On that schedule (plus some grace time, give or take a week), we figured we’d be completely done editing by now, and half way through composer Ken Kruper’s scoring of each episode. At that rate,¬†being out by Spring sounded like cake, baby!

Well, that’s not how it’s happening.

Johnny didn’t realize how complicated the editing would be, and it’s taking A LOT longer than we anticipated. Syncing all the sound files, color correcting, movie magic, it’s all a complex operation! Apparently, the idiot writer created ideas that weren’t just 1-2-3. And poor Johnny has to eat and pay rent ‘n’ all, so he has to work other jobs that take him away from Merce. AND¬†every now and again he has to go home to bang his girl and sleep a bit. We all understand that. He has enlisted the aid of 2 assistants to help (with the editing, not the banging), but even with their help, the editing is just going to take the time it takes.

I’d much rather it happened at my schedule. I want it when I want it! ¬†But God says, “HA!” I’ve said all along that it seems like this project is happening without me. It was easy to believe that there was some glorious kumbaya hocus pocus happening when things were going amazingly smooth. I have to trust that the same blessed mojo is still guiding the project, that the Divine Wow has it all under control. I have to believe that Merce will come out when it’s supposed to.

(OMYGOD, I just said that Merce would come out! As if he were ever in!!)

So far, episode one is¬†pretty magical. With Tyne Firmin’s guidance, ¬†Johnny is editing the show to be energetic and fun, and the musical number is bright and hilarious. Bess Eckstein as Corvette is a natural for the sit-com genre, and Randy Taylor as Remington is dreamy and charming. Tyne’s Mama is going to run away with the show, and even the funny-looking guy playing the lead has some really nice moments. I just can’t stand to look at his face.

In coolness news, I’m going to be on the Laff Tracks Radio Show on Saturday, February 28th. The show is on www.FLOEmpireradio.com from 1-3pm EST, hosted by the fabulous Joanna Briley. I think I’ll be on around 1:30, talking about Merce and trying to be funny. So tune in!

Coming Soon

I’m sorry that I’m not doing split jumps and cartwheels in this blog. I have a really shitty attitude. Hard for me to have faith that things are happening the way they should. But they are. And I still think that it’s going to be an amazing show.

Someday.

Besos,

Charles

P.S. Merce‘s Line Producer Samantha Slater¬†and Art Director Darian Brenner¬†are working on a fabulous short film project, SIBS. Follow the link to the info, and donate if’n ya can to help them make this a reality! I did. http://tinyurl.com/pkqgrs8

 

Raunchy is in the Eye of the Beholder

In the last blog (October 28), Merce‘s art director called the show raunchy. “The script has its raunchy moments,” Darian Brenner said.

As if! Raunchy? I mean, really?

OK, sure, there’s a few light enema jokes in the show, but they’re tasteful. And sure, Merce at one point sips coffee out of penis straws, but it’s not like they’re actual penises. ¬†And there’s a song lyric by Ken Kruper where Merce talks about everyone in the whole room sucking his dick, but it’s a musical! What do you expect?!!?

Sexy Ryan Daniel Pater and goofy Charles

Steamy Ryan Daniel Pater as Billy and goofy Charles

I needed another opinion, so I asked Director of Photography Johnny Coughlin if he thought the show was raunchy. “No,” he said, “not really.” He took a moment, then a ¬†huge smile came across his face, and he changed his answer with an emphatic, “YES, Charles. It’s totally raunchy!”

Well, Hmm. I never thought of Merce as raunchy. Truly.

I will admit that there were several times in the creative process that co-producer Tyne Firmin and I would talk about the proctology jokes in a scene or look at the boob paintings on the wall and shake our heads. We knew we were taking things pretty far. I’d tell him, “my parents are going to hate this,” and Tyne would respond, “my mother will say, ‘oh, dear. Did you have to?'” This kind of conversation happened often.

My goal when I started writing Merce was not to be particularly raunchy or shocking. I wanted to write a show that presented¬†a modern HIV story, but my main goal was to be funny. Also, I think, to be unashamedly gay. For a lot in my life, I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to kind of keep my own flame on the back burner. To try not to act so gay (whatever that means). Basically, to hide the parts of myself that may be too faggie for some people.

I wasn’t fooling anyone. I mean, I’ve been singing showtunes since I was 9. But I never wanted anyone to be uncomfortable around me. Some people just don’t understand.

Wait. Who are these ‘some people?’ And why are their feelings more important than my own?

See? It's a family show!! Holly, Mama and the choir: Rob Laqui, Sean Griffin, Tyne Firmin, Colleen Hawks-Pierce, B. Alexandra Little, Bess Eckstein

See? It’s a family show!! Holly, Mama and the choir: Alex Tomas, Rob Laqui, Sean Griffin, Tyne Firmin, Colleen Hawks-Pierce, B. Alexandra Little, Bess Eckstein

I’m almost 47 years old. I mean, geez, at what point am I going to just be who I am, regardless of what the world or my momma thinks? So in writing Merce, I decided to let him be unapologetic about his flamboyance, to let him celebrate his life, and let the entire show be silly and campy and even a bit risque. And as Tyne and I got other artists involved, we decided that we wanted to be 100%, bold and unafraid.¬†Once we brought Ken Kruper on board, who wrote amazing songs with clever and funny lyrics that at times are¬†more than a bit blue, we knew there was no turning back.

“More is more” was our rallying cry on set, so if there was a question as to how much cleavage a character should show, the answer was “a lot!” (For both the women and the men!) There wasn’t just some tasteful glitter on the Fairies’ cheeks, it was a ton on their whole faces. And if a joke seemed a little off color, it was always better to go all the way and make it dirty.

All the artists were only too happy to join in! No one ever said no to my requests, no matter how ridiculous. When I asked the Fairies to don S&M gear and crawl on the ground and shake their asses, they said “okay!” When I asked Ryan Daniel Pater (playing Billy the therapist) to take off his shirt and pants (but leave the boots on) and lie on the couch like a porn star, he said “okay!” The costumes, the set decorating, the make-up and hair, every performer in every scene was willing to be daring and mischievous¬†and hilarious.

The always willing Fairies: Rab Laqui, Alex Tomas and Sean Griffin. Those boys are my favorite!

The always willing Fairies ready to cheer Merce on: Rab Laqui, Alex Tomas and Sean Griffin. Those boys are my favorite!

The show is going to be amazing. We’ve just barely started the editing process, so it will be a while before the show is ready for the world. Johnny is organizing all the raw footage (doesn’t that sound naughty?). He’s also working on a trailer, so that will be helpful for when we start thinking about getting a publicist and/or marketing person on board.

Perhaps I took the word raunchy in the wrong way at first, but now I embrace it. Merce is campy, funny, ridiculous, raunchy fabulousness. I’m so proud of all its humor, heart, cheesiness, and moments of lasciviousness.

And you know what? In allowing Merce be bold and unashamed, I think he taught me to be more bold and unashamed too.

Besos,

Charles