Rider Strong is a lot of things. A screenwriter. A producer. A director. A dad. A poker champion (who won the recent Theatre Unleashed Poker Classic!) At times, a he’s even a generous supplier of delicious tacos. And, yes… back in the 90s, he was a child star. Now he joins forces with Theatre Unleashed for his first production as a playwright.
Don’t sleep on this multitalented wordsmith, because his play is about to awaken some serious contemplation — and genuine emotion — in the audience for the world premiere of Never Ever Land. Rider dug in with the Theatre Unleashed team to discuss his play, his time in the spotlight, and how the latter affected the former.
Theatre Unleashed: What compelled you to pursue your writing career? Does it stoke your creative fires any differently than your other work?
Rider Strong: I actually started writing as a kid, right around the same time I started acting. In third grade, my teacher asked me to help her find a play for the class to perform, and I just went ahead and wrote my own — the epic, A Fish Story. It involved a talking fish, an evil king, and enough speaking parts for 30 eight year-olds. I think if acting hadn’t turned into a career that took over my teens, I would’ve pursued writing much more aggressively earlier. Acting is an incredible art, but a lot of my adulthood has been coming to terms with the fact that I prefer writing and directing. I don’t want to say “acting derailed my writing” but uh, acting derailed my writing.
Playwright Rider Strong with Never Ever Land director Michael A. Shepperd. Photo by Shiloh Strong.
TU: What draws you to the subject matter? You never name “the white whale” celebrity at the core of this family’s conflict, but… are you a fan?
RS: I don’t think it’s a surprise that Hollywood and the entertainment industry is one of my favorite subjects. My life made that pretty much inevitable. But I gravitate towards the forgotten, unsung, or unseen. So yes, you can say this play is about “a celebrity,” but he’s unnamed because it actually centers the family that was ruined by encounters with him. Walking to my car from rehearsals tonight, I passed about 15 homeless people on Hollywood Blvd. Those are the actual humans who, right now, are trodding the “walk of fame.” That fact interests me way more than say, the biography of a given star.
I have a complicated relationship with the unnamed star: as a kid, I was swept up like everyone else. I appreciate his talent, obviously, but I think “idols” are dangerous, in general. I’ve never understood Elvis, The Beatles, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe — artists where the persona begins to eclipse the work itself. That’s strange to me. Not to say they’re not talented, or people don’t genuinely appreciate their work, but when they’re elevated to iconography, I believe it reduces them, and the fans. A windblown skirt has meaning? Sparkling shoes on point say what, exactly? A small mustache under the nose, an orange face with a combover — human iconography is all about the erasure of nuance and interpretation.
TU: Has your own experience with celebrity informed the play? Did you discover anything about that during the process of developing Never Ever Land?
RS: Definitely. I set out to write a play that didn’t have anything to do with me, personally, but then, dammit, I found myself quoting conversations from my childhood, and soon the whole process turned into mining memories and feelings. If you’re a successful kid actor, there’s a huge shift in power balance: maybe you suddenly make more money than your parents, maybe your fame means girls pay more attention to you than your friends. That can give you a warped view of the world, or hopefully, it can offer its own kind of wisdom. I always knew I wanted Never Ever Land to be about the two values America cherishes most — fame, money — and how they can be sources of trauma. They can tear a family apart, turn them against one another, and turn decent folks into monsters.
When people ask, “Why would any parent let their child spend the night alone with a rich, famous person?” — to me the answer is obvious: because by the standards of our culture, that’s the BEST person! That’s a person who’s won, who’s proven themselves. Of course we should trust them, because if we don’t, then we have to question our entire culture, not to mention sacrifice our own access to their power.
TU: Tell us about the production process for the show. How did this collaboration with your team come about? Has anything surprised you?
RS: I’ve been friends with (producer) Andrew Carlberg for a decade, and when I saw his production of Rotterdam I knew he and that show’s director, Michael Shepperd, were my dream team. Luckily, they both responded to the play, and it’s elevated everything. Shep is incredible with actors, and he creates a flow that keeps the audience engaged at all times. I’ve burdened him, and the actors, with an ungodly amount of words and scene changes, and he’s made it seem effortless. Well, almost effortless.
Andrew brought the script to Theatre Unleashed and it was a perfect match. When Jenn and Greg Crafts decide to do something, it gets DONE — they are tireless and supportive. I can’t believe how quickly this show became a reality. And once this was a Theatre Unleashed project, that meant we were part of a community, not only of great actors, but people were suddenly available and willing to help with everything from finding props to operating a boom mic on our video shoots. In an industry that can be cutthroat and self-obsessed, this whole experience has been a jolt to my heart of the kind of kinship theater can create.
Rider Strong with Theatre Unleashed Managing Director Gregory Crafts at rehearsal for Never Ever Land.
TU: What else would you like us to know?
RS: I’m fine! My family’s fine! Seriously, this is dark subject matter, and yes, as a kid, I definitely tiptoed some pitfalls. I never fell in. Never Ever Land was a chance to peer over the edges, and tremble.
Tell us a bit about your character. What have you learned about them in this process? What’s most fascinating about their personalities? What makes them tick?
Charles Babbage is fascinating! He was brilliant and famous in his time, and yet he struggled to finish many of his greatest inventions (such as the Analytical Engine). I’ve been interested in what caused that – was it fear of seeing how his creations would fare once they were actually put to use? Or was he simply too ahead of his time? I also love the letters he exchanged with Ada Lovelace. You can really see how much he cares about her in the way he writes.
Jessie Sherman as Ada Lovelace and Alex Knox as Charles Babbage in Ada and the Engine by Lauren Gunderson. Photo by Matt Kamimura.
Talk a bit about your favorite parts of the process, both in terms of your character work and the production in general. Give us a sneak peek behind the scenes.
I adore working with this team. Heidi Powers creates a rehearsal room that is playful and encourages us to take risks. It’s the best kind of environment for making art! The cast is amazing, and it’s especially fun to work with Jessie Sherman who’s a dear friend from my college theater program (UC Santa Barbara).
Jessie Sherman as Ada Lovelace and Alex Knox as Charles Babbage in Ada and the Engine by Lauren Gunderson. Photo by Matt Kamimura.
Who are some of your personal heroes and why?
Alex Knox as Lord Byron in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real
I’ve been fascinated for a while with Lord Byron. I played Byron in a production of Tennessee Williams’ <i>Camino Real</i>, and found it amazing that he became famous for his poetry. I love imagining a time when poets were famous like rock stars. Byron was the quintessential Romantic, indulging in his passions and lusts, and yet his poem “She Walks in Beauty” is about a very deep, almost reverent love for a mysterious woman he saw at a funeral. I think that poem reveals a different side of Byron. I love how that poem is so central to our play, too – to me, it sums up Babbage’s love for Ada.
Why is this story so important to tell? What do you most hope audiences get from this production?
Aside from being a gripping, funny, heartbreaking tale, I think our show is important because it gives the spotlight to an incredible woman, Ada Lovelace, who is finally getting her due as a visionary and pioneer in the field of computer science. She’s an inspiration to me, not only because she was a female in a field (and time) dominated by men, but because she looked at things in a unique way. She saw possibilities where other geniuses (like Babbage) couldn’t. We can all be inspired by her ability to look for ways to make the impossible possible.
This week, we sat down with Roger Fojas, choreographer for Ada and the Engineand asked him the 5 Questions! Here’s what he had to say:
*So, tell us a little about yourself. What is your artistic background?
Ringmaster Roger with Lucent Dossier
As a performer, choreographer and clown, I’m a founding member of circus troupe Lucent Dossier Experience, as well as company members with Astra Dance Theater, L’Unkles Boink, Silayan Dance Company, Sypher Arts Studio, and the Alien Fight Club. In 2005 I toured as Ringmaster Roger with the band Panic! at the Disco, and I’ve performed and choreographed in circus productions at festivals around the world (Coachella, EDC, LIB, Boom!, Symbiosis, Lollapalooza, Electric Picnic, etc.). I was Dr. Caligari in Astra Dance Theater’s production of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I’m also known for creating interactive theatrical productions (The Goblin Cabaret as part of the annual Labyrinth Masquerade, Forest FurriesShow, The Yellow Suit Society, and The Curious Kukuricoos at the Electric Forest Festival).
*Who are some of your influences?
My influences in movement can vary in range of areas like the world of clowning to contemporary dance as I often enjoy movement and work that that can explore the many levels of emotion and story in the human experience. I work professionally as a clown but I don’t like the thought that I have to create big laughs in order to clown. I can make people just feel as a clown as well. I also don’t think dance has to be about who has the best extensions and turns as I’m not that kind of choreographer or dancer anyways. I tend to be more about the human experience in the art of whatever I’m discovering. And I like how it affects emotion and visual patterns for me. Here are a few that help influence me in that regard: Stefan Haves, Bill Irwin, Slavas Polunin, Sonya Tayeh, Ryan Heffington, DV8 Physical Theatre, Pina Bausch, to name a few.
*So, what is your concept for the movement in Ada and the Engine?
When collaborating with director Heidi Powers I wanted to create specifically with the concept of The Engine in mind and making that the additional texture to the play. When thinking about the various characters and the certain situations and scenes and interactions they have, I’d think about the mechanics of the individual human relationships they’d have to one another and how that might relate to the mechanics of a machine. I’d allow that to inspire any of the stylized movement and dance conceptualized within the show.
*Amazing. And what has the process been like working with the actors thus far?
This particular show has been about discovering, through workshop, the process of what it’s like to be a part of a theoretical machine. Even if we are a human element in that engine, together we can make it work. Conceptualizing how each character fits within it in order for it to work helped us workshop the movement of the actors that went into the work. In any movement and/or dance I put into the show, I decided to incorporate the concept and feel of how an Engine works (or in today’s terms, a computer). For instance, The play itself could be a conceptual engine, the theater, its monitor, the seats, its keyboard, and the actors are its internal parts. When thinking along these lines, we play with the structure and patterns in which the characters would create and then find the textures and movement that could arise from that.
*What is something you’ve learned about Ada or any of the characters during this process that you didn’t know before?
I didn’t know much about Ada Lovelace or Charles Babbage before getting involved in this production so diving into this history has been an incredible wealth of information for me from the very beginning. As for the true historical aspect of all the characters in this play, I’ve gotten to realize that the heart of the life experiences and all its varied raw sensitive triumphs and flaws, beauty and emotions can be a timeless and relatable journey in any decade anywhere in the world and history just by being human.
We recently sat down with Heidi Powers, director of our first 2019 main stage production, Ada and the Engine, to get to know her a little better. Here’s what she had to say!
*Tell us a bit about yourself and your involvement in the local theatre scene. Where have we seen your work?
I wear a lot of different hats in the Los Angeles theatre community. I’m most known for co-writing musicals (like Bronies: The Musical) as well as producing and marketing (including Fancy: Secrets from my Bootydoir) but my longest-running passion for the medium is as a director. I hold a BFA in directing from the University of Michigan.
*Tell us about this script; what impressed you and made you want to do this show?
Heidi Powers, director of Ada and the Engine
From the moment I opened Lauren Gunderson‘s script, I knew it was something special. Her language just… dances off the page. One thing that dazzles me in particular is how she captures the way each person’s rhythm changes from relationship to relationship. Thematically, Gunderson hits a really cathartic spot for me, as well; I’m always hunting for the balance between the artistic and the analytical, and I love the way this play embraces both.
*Give us a sneak peek at the production. What are you excited to show audiences with Ada and the Engine?
Ada was passionate about music and its power to transport, and Gunderson’s play whisks us swiftly through decades and experiences (and even planes of existence!). So our production uses music and movement to weave it all together. Our exceptional cast is working with our choreographer, Roger Fojas, to workshop pieces inspired by the machines that Babbage and Lovelace dreamed up, and I can’t wait to share those visions with our audience.
*Share your thoughts on Ada herself. What were you surprised to learn about her?
I had certainly heard about Ada before reading the play, but I was genuinely shocked to discover that she was born Ada Byron. Yes, THAT Lord Byron was her father! I was also stunned that her mother, embittered by Byron’s… Byron-ness… pushed Ada into mathematics as a means of controlling her daughter’s wild side. While much of that “wild” side was her creativity and her fiery personal agency, Ada really did have a fiery streak… whether she was attempting to elope with a tutor, racking up horse-racing debts, even (gasp!) secretly writing poetry. She certainly was her father’s child, no matter how her mother tried to prevent it.
*Speaking of surprises, what don’t we know about you? Any hobbies, skills, obsessions you’d care to share?
When I’m not directing or writing (or doing marketing and publicity for the studios) I’m usually indulging in a new creative hobby. I find that the best way to keep my artistic juices coursing is to learn to make something else entirely. I’ve dabbled in graphic design, embroidery, lifestyle blogging and zentangle doodling, but this year I’m mastering the art of royal icing. There’s something soothing about watching a jumbled drizzle smooth itself into a perfectly smooth surface. If you visit concessions at the show, perhaps you’ll even get to try the fruits of my labor!