Wednesday, April 3, 2013

UglyRhino Productions

UglyRhino's Nicole Rosner and Bryce Norbitz at the Red Loft


At The Red Loft

605 E. 4th St., Los Angeles (Downtown)

When New York-based theater company UglyRhino Productions began searching for a venue for the debut of their premiere full-length production in Los Angeles, they had no idea that the ideal space for the party play would be found in the very heart of Downtown.

"We have a friend who was scoping out places for us while we were still back in New York. She looked at some of the more traditional theaters and a few gigantic warehouses in the middle of nowhere and was unimpressed," begins UglyRhino Executive Producer Bryce Norbitz. "Then, she walked into the Red Loft. It was the last place she looked at, and she said, 'Well, the street's covered in trash and I tripped over a bum on the way in, but I think it's the one.' We were like, 'What?!' She sent us the pictures, and we saw that it was perfect."

You really can't ever judge a book from its cover. Downtown can be a harsh, dark and depressing place, but at the same time, there is so much beauty in the eclectic mix of people and businesses that inhabit the neighborhood's buildings abundant in history and architectural design. The Red Loft – an open loft space with vibrant vermilion walls that houses music and art events – and its owner, photographer Steve "Paynie" Payne, are clear-cut examples of the rich artistic spirit that can be found in the area.

"We love Downtown. A lot of people told us to check out the Downtown arts scene since it's really happening, so when we found this space we were like, 'Cool,'" shares Nicole Rosner, UglyRhino Co-Artistic Director. "Even though it's a little off the beaten path, we feel like you can just feel it when you're Downtown."

"It's such a nice surprise to drive up and wonder where to park, where the door is and then walk inside and it looks like this," adds Bryce. "It looks cool, and there are drinks, music and people. It's worth the surprise factor."

The inspiration for Bath Bubble Punch
Just like the Red Loft, what you find in UglyRhino's "Mindspin" is so much more than you might expect at first glance. The interactive play, written by Bryce and Nicole, provides so much more than your average night at the theater. As soon as you walk up the stairs into the Red Loft, you're led to the far corner of the room where fortune cookies dangle in the air, suspended by a clothespin on a string. An aspiring clairvoyant interprets your future, and then you're free to mingle with other audience members, play an array of games and examine the custom art pieces by Harley Pretchel-Cortez, Payne and other artists who have done gallery shows at the Red Loft hung along the walls. There's even a canvas for you to contribute your own artful messages and drawings.

"The whole space, everything you see along all the walls, is an installation. The actors, who are also party guests or hosts, take the audience around and show them different things, whether it be the fortune cookies, the games area, the tub installation. We have a dress-up box that invites people to put on a tie for the night and make them feel extra fancy as they enjoy the cocktails," describes Nicole. "It just feels like a really open and warm party where people are engaging with one another. Then, when we've got them having a nice time—"

"We've got the music going so people kind of mingle around looking at the art, dancing, doing the puzzle wall. At one point our DJ [Laurette Goldfish] gets on the mic and says, 'Everyone, welcome to the party. C'mon and head to the dance floor.' Everyone makes their way over, and we do a special dance with everybody," interjects Bryce. "Then the show goes from there. The lights pull up in one corner for our first scene, music muffles out and transfers behind you, and you realize you're stepping into a private moment between the two girls that host the party. The scenes travel throughout the space from there: We do one behind the bar, in the corner at the piano they do a performance, one at the tub and the last one is in the tent. It's very clear where to go based on actor movement, light and sound."

The story revolves around two friends, Tahnee and Auren, and the ladies' circle of artist friends, which is thrown off balance when a new man enters their lives and sends them into a "mindspin" of self-doubt about their identities and desires. I ask the pair of female playwrights if any of "Mindspin"'s scenes are pulled from their own experiences as friends and professional collaborators.

Nicole immediately replies: "Ninety-eight percent."

They both laugh, and Bryce adds, "The two actresses who play the girls have a friendship as well, so the four of us did a lot of work together. There is some dialogue that's pulled from diary entries of ours and the actresses. A lot of lines are true to someone's life."

Nicole with bowls of "Mindspin" symbols
Since "Mindspin" is site specific to the Red Loft, the space itself lent a lot to the script and staging, too.

"We rehearsed for five weeks, but our rehearsal process had a lot of improvisation where we would be writing the scenes as we went. We had at least once a week, an all-day rehearsal in the space, so that really helped," shares Nicole. "That's what we do in New York as well: Even if we have the storyline already, we want to make it fit the space so it really feels like it was meant to be there."

Nicole grew up in Florida, but her parents were from New York City and often took her to see Broadway plays. She studied drama, voice, piano and dance as a child and eventually embarked on a career of directing, programming and producing for companies like the Royal Court Theatre, Arcola Theatre and Assembly Rooms at Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Bryce – who has worked with Chicago Shakespeare, the Second City and Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment – spent her childhood in Long Island, and theater has always been a big part of life for her as well.

"Growing up outside of New York, it's just in the culture, so it was something that I always did. I thought I wanted to be an actor until I turned 18. Then, it was just a matter of finding where I fit in and what kind of role I could have in theater," she recalls. "I thought it had to be something really specific, and it doesn't. That's something that we've developed as a company, all having a hand artistically, administratively, as well as production and design wise. It's kind of a collective in that sense actually."

"It feels like there are a lot of rules when you live in New York. At this age, you start a theater company, or as a director, you assist major directors on Broadway for years and years," tells Nicole. "Having the company means we can do anything we want. It's still difficult at times, but it means we can say, 'Let's do a weird, site-specific show in L.A. this month' and do it."

The duo formed the company with UglyRhino's other Co-Artistic Director, Danny Sharron, after they all met at the Public Theater in New York.

"Danny and I wanted to put up a festival of shows. We had never self-produced in New York, but we were like, 'Let's put a bunch of things up, with bands and parties!' That's really all we knew," Nicole confesses with a laugh. "Someone at the Public asked, 'Have you talked to Bryce? She's a producer, and I think you guys would connect.' We met with her, and the first time we sat down the three of us just went together really well and we had sorted the whole schedule for the festival, all the areas where we wanted to look for a venue and just kept producing together."

They launched the first micro-season in November of 2010 with numerous bands, DJs and specialty acts surrounding the mainstage plays, and two of the the season's titles formed the name for the company.

The "dress-up" area
"We were doing Eugene Ionesco's 'Rhinoceros' and a play called 'The Ugly One,' so the working title for the festival was UglyRhino. We ended up doing Harold Pinter's 'Celebration' instead of 'The Ugly One,' but we had said the name UglyRhino so many times and everybody knew it, so it just stuck," Bryce remembers. "After our first season, we decided that we were only going to do new work from then on, so we started asking for submissions. After we picked our two plays, we realized that we had read 200 others, and a lot of them were great. We wanted people to see their work, so we thought of doing a short play thing, but no one really wants to go see a super dry, 10-minute play night. Plus we wanted to include the social factor of UglyRhino. We were drinking some beers, wondering how do we do this [mimes drinking a beer] and watch a play at the same time, and TinyRhino spiraled from there."

TinyRhino is a monthly event that mixes a drinking game with a short-play festival.

"It's become this really cool network for our generation of theater-makers that a lot of spinoff companies and collaborations have came from," says Nicole. "It was something we didn't even know we were missing in New York, but it feels really great to have that network of people supporting each other, which L.A. could use as well."

So, the company decided to bring TinyRhino to Los Angeles last month.

"We were at the Lyric-Hyperion when we did it out here, and we ended up on the patio until 2 a.m.," comments Bryce. "The shows sold out super fast."

Nicole adds, "People want a night out in L.A."

UglyRhino continues to provide Angelenos with a thoroughly unique and entertaining night out with "Mindspin." Your $20 ticket includes the interactive experience and two cocktails that were specially concocted for the show. Bryce stands behind the Red Loft's vintage wood bar and tells me about Bath Bubble Punch (champagne, whisky and fruit), as she ladles me a taste of Afternoon Tea, spiked sweet tea with a twist of orange, from a glass punch bowl. It's the perfect thirst quencher on this hot L.A. afternoon.

"We call this our Afternoon Tea because we tell a little story in the play about being on a porch in the sunshine of the afternoon listening to some friends play music," she offers.

Since "Mindspin'"s main characters are musicians, music is a key element of the production.

"Most of the music in the show is what we and the sound designer [Jesse Flower-Ambroch] had been listening to for a few months," admits Nicole.

Bryce and Nicole in the "tent" area
"We do a cover of Dirty Projectors in the show, and I would say they are a big favorite of ours. Frank Ocean is also featured," states Bryce. "['Breezeblocks' by] Alt-J is the theme song; we play it more than once in the show."

Although music, strong cocktails and fun party games are usually enough to loosen most crowd's inhibitions, this is Los Angeles, after all, and I wonder how audiences here vary from UglyRhino's typical patrons back home.

"There's a lot of trepidation; they're like what do you do in a show like this? In New York, if a scene started somewhere, people would be rushing and running, wanting to see," explains Nicole.

"It's a microcosm, the perfect example of the exact difference between New York and L.A. people. Someone has to get from here to here, and the L.A. audience strolls, takes their time, stops and has a sit, checks in with the bar, smells the roses. The New York audience is like, 'Where is she going? What is she doing? I have to get to the front of the line!' Really, it's insane how clear it is," giggles Bryce.

Since they've had a few months to get used to the rest of what makes our city tick and explore their respective temporary digs in Echo Park (Bryce) and Franklin Village (Nicole), the New Yorkers have found several things they love here.

"There's a lot around here in Downtown, great stuff over on 3rd Street like the bratwurst place Wurstküche. We've been there a lot," begins Bryce. "The area looks just like Brooklyn with all the street art and everything's real close together. You see a big wooden door and imagine what's behind it. You open it, and there's a massive bratwurst restaurant – that, for example, feels like home to us. It's just like Bushwick."

"There's nature," exclaims Nicole. "There's nature in New York but not in the winter as far as I'm concerned. We walk the Griffith Park trails and the Bat Caves."

"We were at Runyon Canyon today. It's amazing that there are mountains, beaches, hiking trails and parks that are so close and easy to get to and enjoy yourself in," adds Bryce. "We didn't rush as much here as we would in New York. We took our time finding the right people for the project, the right materials to get the set. … Everything in L.A. is kind of unexpected, too."

"We went to a pool in Eagle Rock the other day. It was just 10 minutes from Echo Park," says Nicole.

 "Our French DJ said, 'We go to dee pool and get dee tacos at dee Indian restaurant.' We said, 'What? Are you sure that you're getting that right?' But she was right, and it was good!"

All in all, UglyRhino's experiences with their inaugural L.A. TinyRhino and "Mindspin" have been so positive, that they definitely have plans to return.

"We're going to have TinyRhino here in Los Angeles regularly. A lot of people want to get involved, and we're really excited," shares Bryce. "In New York, we have a show opening on April 25, 'What It Means to Disappear Here,' which is a drama and is also site-specific. We found a place called Port Royal which is under a very popular coffee shop in Park Slope called Tea Lounge. It's a secret bar that hasn't been open in 25 years. It was a speakeasy in the early '80s, and it's very complicated to find. You have to go down an alley, through this gate and a bike shop, down the stairs. Then, when you get in, the environment looks like a bar/café in Colombia. It's going to be a lot of fun."

Catch the final two performances of "Mindspin" at 9 p.m. on April 5 and 6 at The Red Loft. For tickets and more information, visit

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