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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.

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.

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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.

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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!”

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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 buy brand name Premarin and listen to the trailer with your eyes closed. The company sounds amazing!)

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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 buy cheap uk Premarin online doctors.

 

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

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. 😉

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 #‎DanceintheDark‬ ‪#‎OnPointDance‬ ‪#‎Dance4you‬, and Do your thing, honey!

 

 

 

Actor Spotlight: Tom Shane

We first met talented Tom Shane when he came to audition for Merce at the Players Theatre studios. “I remember walking up to this dingy upstairs theatre in the West Village and wondering what I had got myself involved in! But you know,” Tom said, “you can always walk out a door after you walk in, so I walked in.”

Charming Actor Tom Shane

Charming Actor Tom Shane

And we’re so glad he did! In Merce, Tom plays the eccentric and dogmatic Bible Guy, who assaults innocent subway riders with his warped views on Jesus and the bible. We were looking for an actor with just the right balance of kookiness and likability, and Tom hit the nail on the head with his hilarious audition.

We shot his scenes gorilla-style on the subway, without official permission from the city (although we checked it out; it’s not illegal to film on the subway). “It was very exciting,” Tom said, “we’d jump on train cars, shoot a quick scene and jump off at the next stop. My favorite part was when a business man came up to us after we shot a scene and said to me, ‘I was gonna sock you one until I realized what was going on!’ I figured we were doing some good work!”

Tom grew up in Scarsdale. He claims it’s pretty there. (I worked a bar mitzvah there once, but I blocked it out.) Then he moved to Colorado to go to college, and ended up staying there for twenty-ish years, pursuing the life of a mountain bum. “That’s where I started performing. I auditioned for  Richard III for the local community theatre company, and I did not get cast. Fortunately, someone dropped out and I was brought on.”

He was bit by the acting bug, and came back to New York to study improv at UCB. He spent a little time shuttling back and forth between NY and CO before deciding to study acting seriously in NY. “I went to a conservatory program at The Studio/New York, which was my greatest life-changing event, an education as to how to be a human being.”

Tom counts among his career highlights a show he performed called Squids Live! which was totally ridiculous, took place underwater, all the actors played cephalopods (look it up, kids), and performed at the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride, CO. He also performed in a clown show called WAKE UP! in the small town, and felt embarrassed seeing all his friends and acquaintances around town after making an ass out of himself on stage. But, Tom said, “I knew then I was onto something good.”

Tom Shane as the Bible Guy, damning sinners to hell!

Tom Shane as the Bible Guy, damning subway sinners to hell!

Tom also considers his work on Merce a highlight. “I’m so glad that the show is fun and campy. The world is filled with horror and the greatest challenge is to take a heavy subject and make it fun. There is not enough laughter and joy in the world, and if Merce is psyched, you should be, too!

Tom is now living it up in Hollywood, CA. I hope he doesn’t become too big a star, daaling, in case we produce a season 2!

Besos,

Charles