|Eric Rudnick at M Street Coffee & Gallery
13251 Moorpark St., Sherman Oaks 818-907-1400
"Every bit of writing that I've done is meant to be spoken by actors. I've never written a novel or essays. It's all been for actors to say because that's what fascinates me, what an actor can do with what you write, whether it's a screenplay or TV pilot. My first responsibility as a writer is: An actor has to pick a script up and want to say those words. I'm not even talking to the audience, I'm talking to the actors through the words. So, if an actor picks it up and says, 'I want to do this,' then I've done my job. Then, it just doesn't belong to me, it belongs to the actor and director, and they take it to the audience," shares Eric Rudnick. "Carlos Santana once said something like, 'The music is the water, the band is the hose and the flowers are the audience. We're just a delivery system to get that music to that audience.' It's all a very collaborative process, which is another part that I like, you're not working in a vacuum."
The passion the playwright, screenwriter, actor and producer has for all forms of entertainment is evident throughout our conversation at his favorite place in Los Angeles, M Street Coffee & Gallery. It's impossible for Eric to stifle his enthusiasm and staunch the flow of his words whether we are discussing theater, film, television or music. This is a love that runs deep, and has for a long time. Growing up on Long Island, just an hour's train ride to the marquees of Broadway and music venues of the city, Eric's life has always been filled with art.
"My dad would take me to see music, really amazing artists, like saxophonist Phil Woods who is most known for renown playing on 'Just The Way You Are' by Billy Joel. I was 14 or 15, and somehow my dad got me into this nightclub where he was playing. He was very adamant about exposing us to what he liked so we would have an appreciation for it, from opera to a ton of baseball games," Eric remembers. "My mom and I would go see plays. After I moved into the city we would go to matinees on Wednesdays, then go out after and talk. She would pick the show one week, then the next week I would pick."
"New York is the most welcoming world you can step into because nobody's doing it for any other reason than because they love it. It's a place where you're allowed to experiment, which I did with writing, directing and acting," he says. "The acting training that I had in New York really helped my writing. If you've been on stage acting, reading somebody else's words and trying to figure them out, it really helps your writing because you understand it from an actor's point of view."
The strong foundation built from his experiences as an actor have definitely influenced Eric's writing and also came in handy when he had to step into the leading role of his play "Day Trader" for two shows during its premiere L.A. run at Bootleg Theater at the beginning of this year.
"I wasn't nervous, I was excited. I just had to remember my training from the Atlantic Theater Company and Neighborhood Playhouse, particularly from Richard Pinter, whom I studied with for two years," he recalls. "I didn't realize until getting on stage the first night how deep and far-reaching that training goes."
After perusing M Street Coffee's menu of organic, locally roasted coffee and display case full of scrumptious pastries, we decide on a couple of iced teas (Ginger Peach for me, and English Breakfast for Eric) and a peanut butter bar before grabbing a table at the back of the café. Our seats are next to a window, which fills the area with light so that we can admire all of the art pieces on the wall while we talk about "Day Trader," which was recently chosen for a live broadcast reading by UBN's Interweb Playhouse taking place March 29 at 2 p.m.
Since 2008, owner Andrea McClain has strived to create an inviting space for all in the neighborhood, especially writers and artists. Each month a different artist's work adorns M Street's walls; currently colorful paintings by Outi Harma decorate the space. There is also an area where you can purchase branded T-shirts, mugs and bags of their house blend.
"There's always something to appreciate about live performance, you're always getting some type of energy from the performer whether you're watching stand-up, a play or spoken word. There's a Jerry Seinfeld quote that goes something like, 'It's not a monologue. I'm not talking to the audience. It's a dialogue with the audience.' That's why he's so good at what he does, because he understands it's a conversation. It's not a play if an audience isn't there, it's just actors talking. What makes it a play is the audience, what gives the room that energy is the electricity, the tension or empathy between the audience and the performer," he informs. "Every night of our 'Day Trader' run at Bootleg Theater was different. We had every response you can imagine. There are some surprises in the play, and one night the actors were backstage after the show saying, 'There were gasps tonight.' That made me so happy because a gasp is something you can't plan on. When you get one, it's a visceral response from an audience."
Eric continued to write, act in and mount his own productions in New York before deciding to pursue a writing career in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, he chose to make the leap out here right when reality television was blowing up and networks were scaling down on original programming.
"Not only was I looking for work, but all these writers who had credits were looking for work, too. But I got my first job writing out here on 'Hollywood Squares,' and in some ways it was my best job. It was a thrill to work on a show that I grew up watching," he confesses. "Then, I got into producing reality and this was how I made a living for 12 years."
But during this time, Eric was still working on his own original plays, teleplays and screenplays. His work has been presented by Playwrights Horizons, the Harold Clurman Theatre, the Met Theatre and Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA. His screenplay for Hot Potato was a finalist at Slamdance Film Festival, his script for Me the People was a second rounder at the Austin Film Festival and his sitcom pilot, "Circus/Maximus," was optioned by Fox.
Eric also developed one of his stage plays into a hilarious web series on FunnyOrDie.com, "The Edge of Allegiance," about the Mount Rushmore landmark moving to Los Angeles and anchoring a news show.
"You can wait for somebody to say yes to your idea, or you can just go do it. The web series is almost too weird but so fun to do and something that I'm really looking forward to getting back to. It comes from what started out as a midnight show at the Met Theatre that we would update according to what was going on politically at the time. I had 15 actors playing 47 different roles. One person played the Statue of Liberty, as well as Maya Angelou, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. The audience would get a little boozed up before the show, and one time a guy in the front row stood up and pointed at something happening on stage. That's what I want, for people to be engaged! There's no formula for it. You can't appeal to everybody, you just have to be as truthful as you can. And, in that truth, somebody's going to recognize himself, and you're going to take his heart out."
The characters of Eric's latest play, the comic thriller "Day Trader," are incredibly real and recognizable, specifically for Angelenos.
"The play was a finalist at a festival in St. Louis where I had a dramaturg named Liz Engelman help with it so much. We put it up in front of 100 people, but hardly anybody in the room was in the entertainment business, and that's one of the themes of this play. They enjoyed it from an outside-looking-in perspective, whereas the audience in Hollywood was laughing at certain spots because it was a laughter of recognition," he describes.
As far as bringing "Day Trader" to the stage in Los Angeles, Eric attributes much of it happening to fellow writer/producer Gary Lennon ("The Shield," "Justified," "Orange Is the New Black")
"I've known Gary since I was in New York, and when I went to see a play of his ["A Family Thing"] at the Echo he asked what was going on with my play. He told me to send it to the Echo and Bootleg, telling them he sent me, and that's what got them to say yes because Gary has a relationship with folks at Bootleg, and that goes a long way," he says.
After five years, "Day Trader" finally premiered at Bootleg Theater in January of this year. The story focuses on a comedy writer named Ron Barlow, who schemes to get his wealthy wife to divorce him while finding a way around their prenup, involving his best friend Phil, daughter Juliana and a cocktail waitress named Bridget in on the plan.
The director for "Day Trader"'s debut L.A. run was someone that Eric feels to be incredibly instrumental to its development, Steven Williford. While Williford had directed over 70 plays, the four-time Emmy nominee hadn't directed theater in six years, but as soon as he read Eric's script, he knew he wanted to do it. Eric felt especially grateful for his expertise when he had to assume the role of Ron in those two performances.
"I would go up to him after a rehearsal and ask him what I could do to make my performance better, and one time he said, 'Don't recite.' In my experience working with directors, the ones that I have worked with that have been effective will say a phrase or a sentence and it opens up a whole world for you to find the rest of the performance. Whereas a director might say a whole paragraph, and, at the end, you are more confused than you were when you started. It's too much information, and it's nothing that's actionable. You need actionable intelligence."
In addition to Williford and a stellar design team, including Jared A. Sayeg (lighting), Ivan Robles (sound) and Adam Flemming (projections), Eric feels that the venue was an integral key to the run's success.
"People go there and don't even realize that there's a theater in back because sometimes the bands are in the front. I saw Roger Guenveur Smith do his one-man show 'Rodney King' twice. They do Write Club there one Monday a month, which is a battle between writers. I always feel welcome at the Bootleg, like I'm in good hands, so when they said yes to the show, I was thrilled," he gushes. "As the presenters of the show, they did so in such a way that people felt taken care of. There are theaters that really take care of you where you walk in and just know they're happy to have you. Boston Court is like that, too."
Tuning Fork, Black Market Liquor and Sushi Dan. The copy shop where he has all of his programs and postcards made, Copyhub, is just across the street from M Street Coffee. And while he loves being outside, hiking in Fryman Canyon for instance, and going to the movies, if Eric has a free afternoon or evening, you will probably find him at the theater.
"I'm a movie fan, but I'll always go see a play because the play won't be there in six weeks. A play is there, and then it's gone. You'll probably never see that cast on that stage doing that material again. You either saw Elaine Stritch in 'A Delicate Balance' like I did, or you didn't. You saw Zoe Caldwell in 'Master Class,' or you didn't. You saw Eric Bogosian do one of his shows in New York when he was doing them, or not. I'm grateful that I got to see all that stuff. The movies that came out then, I can still see them somehow, but those performances are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities," he says. "In particular, Zoe Caldwell in Terrence McNally's 'Master Class.' It was one of those things where you don't even see it coming, it's like someone hits you on the head with a hammer, and I was crying at the end of Act I. If you're willing to meet what a play is on its terms, then it can blow you away. There have been times where I'm sitting there with my arms crossed watching a show, waiting for something to affect me instead of being open to the possibility of something affecting me. It's the difference between fully being immersed in the experience and just sticking your toe in the water."
Eric looks back on another production, "The Glass Menagerie" at Mark Taper Forum, as one that taught him a valuable lesson as well.
"I had never seen the play, I had only seen some of its scenes done in acting classes where people were not ready to dive into the material and never got a sense of what the play was. With Tennessee Williams plays in particular, you can't just jump into the middle of them and cut five minutes out. Judith Ivey was in it when I went and it was a strong presentation that made me glad I went because whatever preconceived notion I had of it from acting class, when people say 'The Glass Menagerie' to me now, I think about this show that I saw at the Taper," he admits. "It's another signpost in my experience where it's not just the material, it's the way you do the material."
Most of Eric's time lately is spent writing, though, and he is able to find inspiration in almost any place.
As much as he loves New York, Los Angeles has proved to be exactly the right environment for Eric to be able to tell his own stories.
"Los Angeles is the kind of place that if you accept it on its terms, it's so much easier. It's a crazy group of little towns, each one has its own identity. It's like being in Europe, only instead of driving three hours to go from one culture to another, you drive 20 minutes. You go from Studio City to Echo Park or you go from Downtown to Culver City, and it's completely different. Each neighborhood has its own kind of flavor and vibe. I love how much outdoor art there is here and I still don't even mind driving, it's the parking that I don't like. It's nice to have your own car the freedom to just go to Palm Springs or San Francisco," he says. "Everyone has a way to express himself, whether it's through food, theater or music. Where I grew up in Long Island, most of the houses in my neighborhood looked the same. Driving down the street in Los Angeles, there's a Spanish-style house next to a Craftsman-style house next to a some kind of New Mexico-looking thing. It's fun that people express themselves through everything. The city allows for that more than people give it credit for. I like the ambition of this place that's constantly evolving and of the people that I meet here. Sometimes it can be exhausting because everybody wants that next big thing, but at least that next thing is possible."
The next thing up for "Day Trader" is a live reading of the play being broadcast by UBN Radio's Interweb Playhouse on March 29 at 2 p.m, with a cast that includes Eric as Ron and Ovation Award winner for "The Nether," Brighid Fleming, reprising the role of Juliana from the Bootleg Theater run.
"Brighid did such a great job, and I am so grateful that she's available again because she just knocked it out of the park. I would work with her doing anything because of her work ethic and the way that she approaches things. She's really intuitive. I wrote this part of a 15-year-old girl, and I've never been a 15-year-old girl and don't know many 15-year-old girls quite frankly, so I trusted Brighid. I said, 'If any of this sounds bogus, you've got to tell me.' She said, 'I don't know if I curse this much, but it's all working," he laughs. "It's hard, because you can find a 25-year-old to play a 15-year-old, but it's not the same. Kevin Kline said, 'Acting is being completely self-conscious and completely unconscious at exactly the same time' in an interview with Village Voice. You're aware of everything you're doing, but it's not you. To be able to do that with any kind of frequency, that's what I'm looking for. I got really lucky with the cast that I had and with the cast for the radio reading."
Eric is currently working on a screenplay for "Day Trader," and as he continues to write he keeps the words of an artist that he looks up to in mind.
"Andy Warhol once said something like, 'Don't worry if it's art, that's not your call to make. Just make stuff, put it out there then make some more stuff and put it out.' I never want to be the guy with a novel in the drawer who is just perfecting and perfecting it, then 40 years later, 'Here it is.' Make it, and you can only make it as good as you are right now, but then the next thing you make will be a little bit better because you've learned from that last experience," he concludes. "Hopefully you make 10, 20, 30 things, and that 30th thing you make might just be what people really respond to. You can't get there without putting your stuff out there and letting the public have its way with it whether you're a band, juggler or whatever. There's never going to be a 'right time.'"
The live reading of "Day Trader" will be broadcast at UBN Radio's Interweb Playhouse March 29 at 2 p.m. For more information, visit daytraderplay.com.