Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Interview: At Home at the Garry Marshall Theatre with Joseph Leo Bwarie

Theatres have a way of becoming an artist’s second home. It doesn’t matter if you are a director, designer, actor, or volunteer – the countless hours you invest and the close proximity in which you do your work often create friendships that last a lifetime. And each time you step back through those doors you feel like you’re coming home. No one knows this to be true more than Joseph Leo Bwarie, whose current home away from home is the Garry Marshall Theatre in Toluca Lake. Bwarie has been connected with the theatre (known formerly as The Falcon) and the Marshall family for many years, and he recently stepped into a co-artistic directorship of the newly-rechristened theatre, along with another longtime Marshall associate, Dimitri Toscas.

Also on his dance card is directing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which opens later this month. It’s no wonder he’s spending almost every waking minute at the theatre. Joe talks about his relationship with Garry and also about the company’s plans for the new theatre that bears his name below.

Joseph Leo Bwarie

Joe, Forum is a lot of fun but an interesting choice for 2017. Why did you and Dimitri decide to include it in your first season?

All of the shows in our first season speak to Garry in some way but they also center around art and the making of art. This show reflects the very broad comedy side of Garry with punch lines that deserve a rim shot. It is also the production that speaks to the art of “putting on a show.” It’s vaudeville, it’s burlesque. It’s a fun, raucous farce that has great music and lyrics. We are staying true to the essence of the piece but we’ve given the women more of a say and more power. They’re not just beautiful eye candy (and this cast is beautiful – inside and out). One of our designers said it best: “This is not your father’s Forum!” It’s still set in ancient Rome. It’s still the characters we love. They just have more to say. 

Garry loved comedy and he was a funny guy, wasn’t he?

Oh man, he was so funny. He would have given us a lot of pointers on what we could do to be funny with this show. 

I understand he was a bit of a practical joker too.

Garry wanted everything to be fun. He loved it if there was a way to play a practical joke on someone, or to throw a party, or celebrate a birthday, or have a parade, or dress up in a costume, or have a surprise visitor come to the theater or on set. He would always say it’s just a show, it’s just a movie.

If broad comedy is his connection to Forum, how do the rest of the shows in the season fit in?

Master Class and Forum and Occupant and Laughter on the 23rd Floor all speak to different disciplines of art and to exploring the way we experience art, whether it be the high classical form of opera or the broad stroke appeal of vaudeville, the visual art of sculpting or the craft of writing.

Garry was a lover of opera. He worked with Terrence McNally on the screenplay and film adaptation of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and there was a strong connection between the two. They were like family. That’s why we wanted to open the season with Master Class. Also, it was one of Garry’s favorite modern plays, period.

Occupant is about Louise Nevelson, the famous sculptor and outsider who changed the rules of the game – a theme that Garry always championed. And then the most direct tie to Garry is the writers’ room and the art of writing in Laughter on the 23rd Floor. They’re also all shows that break the fourth wall and direct address to the audience, which is a really cool layer for us to add – a true conversation with the audience.

So your whole first season is really an extension of Garry.

It is an extension and even an expansion of what he wanted to do. He loved that people would think of him and think of Happy Days and fun and jokes but he also loved anything that was really dramatic, really artful, and really playing with all the facets of the human condition. You can see that in his films, especially some of the earlier films like Beaches or Pretty Woman or even The Flamingo Kid. Relationships. It’s always relationships.

Speaking of relationships, you’ve known Garry a long time, haven’t you?

Long time, almost twenty years.

You’ve been involved with the family program at the theatre for a long time as well. Is that one of the reasons you’re expanding it now?

We wanted to bring it back in a bigger way. Garry used to always say he wanted something for kids. He wanted something at night that was maybe a little risqué that adults could handle and he wanted something on the weekend afternoons where all ages could come and enjoy a storytelling experience.

It also helps build your audience.

It does, but more importantly, it introduces the new generation to theatre. If we start when they’re young, really young, and they see there are live people telling a story, not a screen, and they like it, they’ll start to want to come. That’s how we want to develop new audience.

What made you decide to say yes to being an artistic director at this time?

I have had the great opportunity of being a performer for so many years and I’ve also had the great opportunity to write and direct and produce and record studio albums and each one of them is actually just an extension of me. Garry would always say to me, you’re not just a performer, you’re not just a singer or an actor. You need to write. You need to produce. You need to direct. If you can do all of it, you need to do all of it. That’s what he did and that’s what he would always say to me.

As for why I said yes to being an artistic director now, that’s easy. I wanted to do this for Garry, I wanted to do this for the Marshall family, and I wanted to do it for the Burbank-Toluca Lake community that grew up in the last twenty years with Garry’s theatre. I wanted to make sure we were setting it up for the next more-than-twenty years. And I thought, well, if I’m going to take a few years of my life to do that, that’s a great investment because it’s not about me, it’s about something much bigger. We’re here because Garry brought us all together and that’s important to a community. It’s fun to be working with Dimitri too because we’re very like-minded and yet we’re very different, so we make a great complementary duo.

How did the partnership come together?

It happened at Joan’s on Third. It came from Kathleen Marshall LaGambina after many discussions she had with her siblings and with her mom. I had told them I would be here for whatever they needed as a consultant or to help point them in the right direction but we had never discussed artistic director. Then, at Joan’s on Third, she said to us (Dimitri and me): I decided I want you two together. You both bring so much to the table and will balance out everything we need to do. Garry respected you both as creative minds.

I think I really understood Garry. I can say that confidently. We worked on many projects in a very collaborative way. I was his associate director on Billy & Ray that we produced at the Falcon and then at the Vineyard Theatre in New York. I learned Garry’s philosophy directly from Garry firsthand. No one had to tell me, well, Garry once said this. I lived it. So we’re keeping that alive.

Paul Vogt (center) and the cast of Forum. Photo by Chelsea Sutton

Forum has been a hit ever since it first opened on Broadway, with Pseudolus being a Tony Award-winning role for Zero Mostel in 1963, Phil Silvers in 1972, and Nathan Lane in 1995. Now funny man Paul Vogt is taking on the role. Was casting him a no-brainer?

It didn’t even cross my mind that there were other people for the role because I knew he could jump in and be everything this part requires and then bring so much more freshness to it. He constantly makes me laugh. They all do. Paul is supported by a great cast, and figuring out how it all fits together in the rehearsal process with the whole company is exciting. We’re not trying to be other productions. We’re retooling what the show is for our specific space and this specific year with these specific actors.

Is yours a traditional staging and design?

I think what we’re presenting is a deconstructed and then reconstructed Roman cityscape. All of our designers agreed they didn’t want to create a cartoon. Funny doesn’t need to be shown in a cartoon. We wanted to give the actors the funny, not dress them as funny, and it will evolve as we get further into rehearsals. The sets are being installed right now, the costumes are being fitted as we speak, there are so many layers that are still going to be surprises for all of us and we will continue tweaking until the show opens.

There is nothing like exploring a show like this in rehearsals.

It’s great. We get to walk different lines. We get to say, okay this moment here, this is vaudeville ha-cha-cha, and this moment over here is like a subtle take we might see in a TV show, and this right over here takes the show somewhere totally unexpected. We get to play with all of that.

Director Joe Bwarie and the cast in rehearsal

It sounds like a fun way to lead into the holidays.

It’s a perfect show for the holiday season. It’s so fun.

So even though the Troubies aren’t part of your first season it’s still ‘comedy tonight’ at the Garry Marshall Theatre.

Absolutely. The way everything rolled out has been beautiful for everyone. Garry himself often said, “Matt [Walker], you need to take the show somewhere bigger. You need to do a show in a bigger venue. It needs to grow and go and move on.” But how are you going to move on from this great little place, right? We’re starting something new and we have to give the “new” some attention while we work on finding new ways of collaborating with the many talented companies who were part of the first chapter.

Does that mean we may see them back at the theatre in the future?

At certain crossroads, there is often a WWGD moment. What would Garry do? From where I stand, I see future collaborations with my friends and I see great opportunity for growth. I know change is sometimes perplexing to people because it seems to mean something went wrong. Change doesn’t mean anything went wrong. Change is change. I’ll be honest, it’s been a really emotional journey to embark on building a brand new legacy theatre honoring an epic visionary man. Taking down the Falcon sign letters and making way for the next leg of the journey has been more emotional for those of us who are on the inside perhaps than it is to the public. Nothing has happened without great consideration and great thought. 

And, as you expand, youll keep coming up with new ideas.

It’s going to be a work in progress, as theatre always is. In the past we would not have done Master Class at this venue. It is sort of fascinating to watch the new programming. We had Norman Lear here last month to do our first Modern Masters series. We had the second screening of the Garry Marshall Movies at the Marshall series. We launched the Storybook Pages Saturday morning kids program, which isn’t even the full productions for families yet. We had a Caldecott Award-winning artist (Marla Frazee) here and it was beautiful. The kids got to ask her questions. Barbara said, “This is why Garry built this place.” So our family programming is opening up many avenues for kids to come and experience what a theatre is.

How does Wood Boy Dog Fish fit into the season?

Oh man, that is one awesome show. Carrying on that idea of different disciplines of art, this goes into that idea of the physical maneuvering of art live on stage. It has puppetry and original music and it is very story driven. It’s also a collaboration with another theatre company, which is something we’d like to do more of. We want to collaborate with all sorts of theatre companies – Rogue Artists Ensemble, Troubadour, whoever wants to explore a new idea or has a story that should be told. 

What else do you have in the works?

We have our first annual Founders Gala on November 13th. This is the first time we’ll host a gala because it’s the first year we’ve been a non-profit. We’re also doing a New Works Festival for new plays next spring that is open for submissions now. This is an idea that goes back to when the Falcon first arrived in 1997. There are so many talented creative people in Los Angeles who have not had a chance to have their work put up in front of an audience. We’re excited about bringing new material to the space, and we’re also looking forward to putting a new perspective on great existing material.

We can’t wait to see what’s next. Even theatre as an art form evolves and adapts over time.

It does. And the neighborhood is changing too. The streets, Riverside Drive, the restaurants, different types of families are leaving the neighborhood and new families are joining the neighborhood. It’s an evolution and we want to be part of that. I do know the other reality is, like any museum or restaurant, anyplace that offers a lot of different things that fit in that building, you’re going to like some things and you’re not going to like others but that’s the beauty of it. It’s all art. You’ll love some of it and, what you don’t, you’ll talk about and figure out why you don’t love it.

Hector Elizondo sat down with me and he said, the best theatre makes you feel uncomfortable because you end up having to figure out why you felt something. That feeling is what art is supposed to do. There is great entertainment where you just laugh, laugh, laugh and it’s fun. But really, the idea that you can sit in a room with a bunch of strangers and all have different feelings at the same time is what theatre is. 

There is a special kind of joy that comes from creating theatre.

It is a joy. It was Garry’s passion. You know, he built this theatre from the ground up. A person would have to be fully committed to spend that kind of money and choose that kind of structure to build, and he did that. He was so passionate about it that he basically funded it his entire life. Now, in this new incarnation, it has become our passion project. I mean, I’m living here. I’m here twelve or more hours a day.

But as a home away from home, it’s a pretty good place to be isn’t it?

It’s so great, and honestly when people say, don’t you want to go do a Broadway show I say, yes I do, but not now. I also say that what I’m doing here is equally as important and has as much, if not more, of an impact on my life as performing. This is home.

*      *      *      *      *

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs Nov. 17 – Dec. 31, 2017 at the Garry Marshall Theatre in Toluca Lake. Tickets are on sale now at

More from rehearsals of Forum
Photo credit: Michaelyn Straub

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