Welcome to a regular, if intermittent feature: Irreverent, lighthearted question & answer sessions with some of South Florida’s best known professionals
Producer, director, fight arranger, educator, arts advocate, and artistic director, John Manzelli has been best known in recent years for wearing more behind-the-scenes hats than Pharrell Williams owns. But until recently, newcomers may not have known of his considerable talent as an actor, memorable in many productions especially those with The Naked Stage which he cofounded with Katherine and Antonio Amadeo. Those performances were remarkable for his skill at imbuing his creations with a unique but specific physicality. Fortunately, Manzelli is shoehorning in some time on the boards, a month ago as a troubled rabbi in New Theatre’s The Gospel According To Jerry, and beginning next week, the whirlwind one-man tour de force in the Broward Center’s Fully Committed as an out-of-work actor who mans the red-hot reservation line at an trendy upscale restaurant.
In his this questionnaire filled out last fall, he talks about how it’s harder to produce a night of short plays than Death of a Salesman, what colleagues starting a new theater need to know, whose songs he sings in the car, getting punched in the jaw in one show and pelted with Styrofoam boulders in another.
How long have you lived/worked in South Florida?
Lived in South Florida most of my life. Otherwise, life has taken me to a year in Washington D.C. (working for Congress), 2 years in rural Illinois (grad school), 1 in summer stock in Horse Cave Kentucky and 5 years in N.Y.C.
What school did you graduate from/what was your major?
Political Science/Theatre Double Major from Barry University. MFA Acting Illinois State University
You’re now deep into administrative duties. Did you foresee this when you were starting out in your career? How did you come into it?
No, I was going to be way too busy being a famous actor to become something so “lame” as a producer. I had a producery sounding title with The Naked Stage (Associate Artistic Director) but mostly that was just artistic work. In 2010, City Theatre’s Stephanie Norman suckered me into being a production manager for Summer Shorts and then a year later I was the Artistic Director…Yada Yada Yada…Now I’m the Producing Artistic Director of City Theatre. It is an unexpected career change but I have enjoyed the challenges.
You were one of the founders of Naked Stage. What are the specific challenges of starting up and then maintaining a new company?
MONEY! MAN-POWER! EGO! MONEY! ORGANIZATION! MONEY!
Luckily for me Antonio and Katherine really held the burden of the company’s finances and made sure we had what we needed. In general, the hardest part of starting a new company is creating a successful business model. Most people start theater companies completely wrong. The art is the easy part. It’s a complete lack of organization and manpower that is the problem. Small companies begin with a fraction of the money it takes to run a real arts’ organization. It’s always a couple of artists starting a “business,” so all the resources go into the art and they don’t build organizations or dedicate money to brand creation, marketing and audience development. People think it’s like Field of Dreams, “if you build it (put on a show) they will come!” No, they won’t! The first person to start a theatre company should be The Artistic Director. The second and third job in a theatre company should be a business manager/general manager and a marketing person. How many small companies have one?
Do you miss acting (especially when you see someone doing the kind of role that you used to excel at? Why or why not? How do you deal with that?
Ouch! This is a sore spot for me. It’s been so long since I’ve been on stage no one knows I’m an actor anymore. Luckily, I will have a chance to change that fact very soon. I get back on stage in New Theatre’s The Gospel According to Jerry and then at The Broward Center in a one man show: Fully Committed. Hurray, for me!!! For the last 4 years, life has had other plans for me than acting on stage. My role at City Theatre along with my role as Associate Professor of Theatre at Barry University doesn’t leave much time for acting anymore. I guess the way I deal with it has to do with my kids. The idea of taking more time away from my two awesome little ones so that I can be onstage seems selfish to me so I go home and “act” out storybooks for my kids. My daughter thinks I’m AMAZING, by the way! This past week alone I performed roles in Not The Hippopotomus, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and, my critically ignored opus, Llama Llama Red Pajama.
As a director, do you have any pre-show rituals?
Hiding from people I know and pacing back and forth like a caged animal in the lobby. I’m a crazy person before a show.
Do you watch every performance? If not, do you worry about it when you’re not there? Can you just let it go on its own after opening night?
It’s funny. It depends on if I’m also the producer of the show. In those cases, I wind up (brutally) being at just about every show hiding in the back of the theatre listening to the show. If I’m just directing the show, I can usually let it go after the first weekend and leave the theatre. You have to get out of the theatre after it opens because you are a useless entity. You can only really be harmful after a certain point. All the artists have looked to you for weeks for every opinion and piece of guidance and about all you can do after it opens is be a cheerleader or be damaging with criticism.
When you act, you seem to make conscious choices about the physicality and movement of a character? Is that intentional? If so, how do work on that? Can you give an example of how you work on that?
I am a physical actor and it is how I work. The physical and emotional are linked in our bodies. I don’t feel comfortable in an acting role until I understand how the character lives in its’ body. For example, when I did The Lonesome West a few years ago, at Naked Stage, I played a very angry man named Coleman who had an extreme temper, listened a lot, held in emotion, and then violently exploded. I started trying to explore what physical damage this would cause Coleman over time and how it would manifest in his body. Eventually, my Coleman had a bad leg that made sitting really difficult and his anger built into a right arm that he used like a club. It’s how I was trained in grad school. Some actors would think I’m crazy but I love it and it works for me, which is all that matters.
Many civilians see short plays and think that it’s easier to produce than Death Of A Salesman. What are the particular challenges in writing, performing directing and producing an evening of short plays?
I would rather have to produce a full-length play any day of the week. Summer Shorts is a monster of an enterprise to produce. Short plays are so often produced as cheap fundraisers by small companies that “civilians” don’t think there is anything to them. City Theatre’s Summer Shorts has always been different. It is produced with the same production values as a full-length musical. The challenge is that you have 10 different sets of costumes, sound, props, scenery, lighting, directors, characters, and playwrights to manage in a short play festival and try to mold into a cohesive and high level production. It is a bear technically to put the show together. The hardest part of a full-length play to tech is the beginning, and ending of each act and then a few key moments. Death of a Salesman has long stretches where there is no change in sound, costume, or light. Summer Shorts is nothing but beginnings and endings and key moments every 6 pages. Honestly, I think it’s a little bit lazy the way short plays get produced and “short changed” by theatres around the country. Good theatre companies would never produce a full-length as sloppily and casually as they do short play evenings.
Does City Theatre get the respect you believe it deserves in general? If not, why not?
Hahaha! Give me a second while I thumb through our 0 Carbonell nominations in the past 4 years. Sorry, had to get that out of my system. But seriously: Nationally, yes. We just had 100 artistic directors, playwrights, and publishers from across the country at our nationally-recognized Citywrights’ Conference in June. Last summer, Samuel French held a special panel to introduce City Theatre to NYC as one of the nation’s leading short play producers. Whether we get respect locally with critics and judges, I couldn’t tell you. Everyone has their opinion. However, for four years I have worked with many of the same premiere talented artist and designers in South Florida who choose to give me and City Theatre their respect and talent. That is award enough for me. Audience-wise, we’ve had two seasons of record attendance so, to quote Forrest Gump, “That’s about all I have to say about that.”
What role/play are you dying to do but no one would think of you for?
Millie in Millie! I secretly sing all her songs in my car. Shhhh! If I have to pick a pretentious actor answer then I will go with Mcbeth or Vladimir in Godot.
What show do you wish somebody down here would produce?
Mother Courage with Laura Turnbull. She would be amazing! Overall, though, I wish we did more non-traditional theatre in South Florida. We need artists and directors who interpret and create art more than simply restaging New York shows. We do a lot of good theatre in South Florida but we have no national identity because we create so little work that moves beyond our town. Last year we had two shows up for best new work? That is sad.
What show will you be happy never to see again unless it gets you a job?
The Birds by Conor McPherson. I directed the production that closed The Mosaic Theatre (sorry everyone). It seems like such a promising idea, by a great playwright, until you read the script. Richard Simon did an amazing job producing it. I had a fantastic experience with a great cast and we dressed that pig up like it was going to the prom but it was still a “pig in a dress.” For the record, I like pigs.
What do you say when someone you like is in a terrible show or does a poor job?
Sorry you were in The Birds by Conor McPherson! Haha! Otherwise, I just say “Thank You” and mean it. Art is hard to do and sometimes it doesn’t work. I know friends have lied to me when my art doesn’t pan out and I appreciate it.
How do you cope when there are more people on stage than in the audience?
This has happened a couple of times in my career. The first, was a production of Mcbeth at the old Florida Playwrights Theatre. We did a matinee for two people: Christine Dolen of the Miami Herald and Bill Von Mauer of The Sun-Sentinel. Two hours of Macbeth at 2 p.m. for 2 critics! Brutal! Their reviews were so kind, I think the word “pity” appeared twice.
What was your strangest audition story on either side of the table?
I auditioned for a drunken preacher who thought he was Elvis. Nailed it! I also had a guy pull out an 8-0inch knife at an audition and point it at me for effect during his monologue… We never called him.
What is the best/worst costume you wore or forced someone to wear?
Maybe best costume, Ellis Tillman built two fantastic costumes for Summer Shorts for a play about Dolphins riding a subway. We still have them in the office and are considering renting them for Halloween.
What is there about you that most people don’t know (and that you’ll admit publically)?
I am hooked on the TV show Naked and Afraid! It’s this amazing show about people surviving 21 days in the jungle with nothing. It’s awesome. I think it offsets the amount of NPR I listen to in my car. I would, also, like to run for Congress someday. I might need to stop watching Naked and Afraid before I run.
What’s the hardest/easiest part of what you do?
Hardest part: Remembering that what we do in the theatre is valuable in the world and that I am one of the really lucky artists who gets to make a living doing it.
Easiest part: Training actors at Barry University. I love the kids and their passion for the art.
What was the first show you were involved in and what did you do?
Professionally, I played the male lead in Yentl at the Shores Performing Arts Theatre (now MTC) directed by Joe Adler. I was so excited. I woke up at 6 a.m. and ran outside to get the Herald and read the review just so I could see my name in the paper. I am wise enough to not do that anymore. My first show of any kind was a production of The Ugly Duckling in high school. I played Duck 3 and, mostly, flirted with the other ducks.
When did you know this was what you wanted to do and why?
Finally, an easy question. I was working for Congressman William Lehman in D.C. as a staff assistant embarking on what would be the beginning of my political career (eventually leading to a congressional seat as “Mr. Manzelli Goes To Washington!”) I had studied acting in college and one lonely winter Thursday in D.C., I went to see a terrible production of Waiting for Godot in a little crappy church basement. I was so frustrated watching it that I said to myself, “I can’t believe these people get paid to do this. I could out act all of them!” Apparently, I said it out loud and wound up in a debate with one of the actor’s mothers. She cursed me under her breath for the remainder of the endless second act in which “Time had stopped!” Among the many things she said about me, as we both prayed for Godot to come and end our misery, was the phrase “if he’s so good, why isn’t he acting professionally?” A month later, I was back at Barry finishing my theatre major. The rest is history.
What do think has been your best work in the theater to date, and why?
I don’t know. I never get to watch it. I really like to collaborate on art and I think much of my best work has been in collaboration with my good friend Antonio Amadeo. As an actor, I feel real good about my portrayal in The Lonesome West at Naked Stage and as an Iraqi translator in Betrayed at Gablestage. Antonio and I put together a pretty decent No Exit at Naked Stage. And while I know this guy Bill Hirschman hated it (wink), we created a fantastic comic book world for a play called Macon City by Marco Ramirez.
What do you think was your worst, and why didn’t it work?
My worst pieces of work in the theatre happen where I don’t demand enough from my team to follow through on my vision. If I put the show on stage that I envision and believe in than I’ll live with its success or failure.
What was your best experience working in theater?
Amazingly, The Birds by Conor McPherson at Mosaic. Richard Simon ran such a top-notch company that every part of doing that show was tremendously rewarding. Secondly, I did a show at GableStage called Betrayed, where I played an Iraqi translator. It was such a challenge to bring this man to life (including learning Arabic) in an important challenging production.
What was your worst?
Everything about a tragically bad world premiere production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame at The Shores Theatre. No disrespect intended but the choreographer told me, “Steal the dance scenes so no one watches the rest of the chorus dance, please!” Mind you, I’m a very average dancer! This was only half as embarrassing as having Quasimodo throwing Styrofoam boulders down onto my head.
What one role/show would like to do over or just do again?
Fortunately, I have the opportunity. I will be performing Fully Committed at the Broward Center in The New River Room this January. I’ve performed the role twice, once at New Stage (Jackson, Miss.) and once at TriState Actors Theatre (New Jersey) and I have wanted to do it a third and final time in my home town and I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity.
What was the worst on-stage mishap you dealt with?
I got punched in the face in a production of The Lion in Winter at Hollywood Playhouse. My jaw started to swell up on stage to the point where I could hear audience members saying, “Oh, my god! He’s hurt.” I spent the next 90 minutes icing my jaw in between scenes.
What’s the weirdest/worst non-theater job you ever had?
For one week in NYC I held the following 3 jobs:
—A bike messenger without a bike.
—A guy wearing a sandwich board selling woman’s clothing samples (paid 50 bucks and a sweater)
—Verified valid memberships for Hadassah by figuring out which members were paid up and alive.
Just living the dream of an actor in NYC.
Do you have unexpected special talents and skills?
I don’t know what you expect from me but I have been a professional fight choreographer for more than 50 productions. I can choreograph violence scenes with almost any two weapons you can pick up.
What is something you’re really bad at?
What would you do if you couldn’t be in theater?
I think I am absolutely skill-less in the rest of the world so… homeless might be the answer. I love being a professor but if I could rub a genie lamp and do anything I want to do, outside the theatre, I would be a professional Italian soccer player.
What’s your most unforgettable theater experience?
A couple of years ago, I directed and produced a production of Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays at the Broward Center. We were one of the first theaters in the country to get the regional rights. It was four remarkable evenings of arts advocacy. I took a risk and put my politics forward for City Theatre and stood up for the issue of marriage equality. A wonderful duo of national performers, Bryan Batt and Bruce Vilanch, came on board and we had an amazing week of work, respect and celebration (including a wedding cake reception in the lobby). Thousands of people attended and a portion of the proceeds went to Equality Florida. It’s one of the few times I’ve been able to use my art to stand for something important in the midst of an ongoing struggle.
What show or performance did you not see now or in the past that you wish you had?
There is so much good theatre going on right now that I miss something I wanted to see every month. I would like to have seen Tom Wahl do I am My Own Wife or Karen Stephens in Fear Up Harsh at Zoetic.
What TV programs do you DVR when you’re working a show?
Walking Dead! Naked and Afraid! The Adventures of Curious George!
Whose music can you not live without?
Not a big music guy. Like old folk music from the 60’s and big band music. That just made me 60 years old of, course, but the only song I ever karaoke is Kodachrome by Simon and Garfunkel.
What performer would you do almost anything to see?
My daughter Isabella. I have never missed any of her performances! I have big crush on her too. Also, a little star-struck of my son John John.
What do you think South Florida theater will look like in five years?
Probably a lot like it is right now with a few different players. A few years back, all was doom and gloom over the state of theatre after the loss of Florida Stage, Caldwell, Mosaic and Promethean. Those fine theatres left a void and it has been quickly filled by a bunch of exciting growth: Palm Beach Dramaworks got bigger, Maltz is huge, The Wick is in the old Caldwell space and healthy, MTC is a great laboratory (and excellent home to Mad Cat), Zoetic is a top-notch regional theatre, New Theatre has found a great home, Slow Burn has developed and expanded, City Theatre is growing, Island City Stage does exciting work, Lou Tyrell is back with Arts Garage, Thinking Cap is about to be a Broward institution, the Broward Center is launching a series of locally produced theatre in a cool new venue, and we have more small solid companies than we can name. This is a boom period for our town right now. In 5 years, we will be talking about another unexpected theatre closing, what the new interesting companies are, and whether the Coconut Grove Playhouse is ever going to open again. We’ll be fine.
What could it be?
I don’t know if we can ever really rival the Chicagos of the world but that’s okay. We can get bigger and do a better job of being part of the average citizen’s entertainment choices. This is a much longer conversation, but I think the biggest weakness we have as a community in our growth is the lack of a strong umbrella theatre advocacy organization that effectively markets and lobbies for South Florida theater as a viable entertainment and civic option. I do think we can become a very viable strong regional theatre community, maybe not on par with a D.C. or Minneapolis, but not far behind. Our work is as good as anywhere in the country.
Finally, add a question (and answer) you wish I had asked.
My favorite color……It’s blue.
Fully Committed plays Jan. 8-Feb. 1 as part of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts’ Abdo New River Room Theater Series, 201 SW Fifth Avenue, Fort Lauderdale. Performances 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Drinks and dinner menu with table service available one hour prior to the performance and during intermission. Tickets for the performance only are $45 and do not include food, beverage or gratuity. Tickets online at BrowardCenter.org or Ticketmaster.com; by phone at (954) 462-0222; or in person at Ticketmaster outlets or the Broward Center’s AutoNation Box Office.