interview: Daniel Benzali and Jonah Weston – THEATRE NOW

For the first in a new series of weekly interviews, Portland Theatre Scene talks with Daniel Benzali and Jonah Weston, co-founders of THEATRE NOW, a new professional Portland theatre company.

THEATRE NOW’s first production, ART by Yasmina Reza, opens Friday, September 14 and plays in a different Pearl District art gallery every weekend for six weeks. The show is directed by the cast and also features Sam A. Mowry.

Jonah Weston and Daniel Benzali in rehearsal.

First, some background on Benzali and Weston.

Daniel Benzali
Daniel received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the starring role of Ted Hoffman in the acclaimed television drama series MURDER ONE. He also played a recurring role in NYPD BLUE as the attorney James Sinclair (Detective Sipowitz’s nemesis) and co-starred in the CIA series THE AGENCY. Mr. Benzali’s film work includes co-starring with Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi and Mira Sorvino in THE GREY ZONE; with Christian Bale and John Hurt in ALL THE LITTLE ANIMALS; and with Wesley Snipes and Diane Lane in MURDER AT 1600. Mr. Benzali is one of the few American actors to become a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, fulfilling a boyhood dream. He co-starred with Patti Lupone in the world premiere production of SUNSET BOULEVARD in London. He also starred as Juan Peron in EVITA in London. Mr. Benzali has worked at leading regional theaters throughout the U.S., including Yale Repertory Theater, Arena Stage and the McCarter Theater. He also feels privileged to have worked on the stage of the famed Old Vic Theater in London with Malcolm McDowell in HOLIDAY, and to have recently played the role of Willy Loman in DEATH OF A SALESMAN.

Jonah Weston
Jonah Weston made his professional stage debut at the age of 17 and has been living and working in Portland for the past seven years. His many Portland credits include THE BROTHER/SISTER PLAYS at Portland Playhouse, ALCESTIS, WHAT MAD PURSUIT, ORESTES, OEDIPUS THE KING (Classic Greek Theatre), ARCADIA, AS YOU LIKE IT (Lakewood Theatre), BY THE BOG OF CATS, LIVE GIRLS! (CoHo Productions), AN EVENING AT STONEHENGE WITH W.B. YEATS for Maryhill Museum, BILOXI BLUES, THE SUNSHINE BOYS, VALENTINES DAY, THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA and FORTINBRAS (Profile Theatre Company). For the past two years Jonah has been touring his successful rendition of Shel Silverstein’s THE DEVIL AND BILLY MARKHAM. Jonah has performed regionally with Spokane Interplayers Ensemble, Opera House Theatre Co., The Merc Playhouse and Idaho Repertory Theatre as well as playing leading roles in the short films I LOVE YOU TOO, EAT YOUR HEART OUT, TAFT, and MEMORABILIA as well as the feature film HOME AND HOW TO BREAK IT. He can be seen in the IFC hit show PORTLANDIA, commercials for Blue Moon Beer, and in co-starring roles in TNT’s LEVERAGE and NBC’s GRIMM.

Could you tell us how you met and when you got the idea to start a new theatre company in Portland?

(Jonah) Daniel and I met when he was cast as Mark Rothko in Portland Center Stage’s production of RED. Daniel hired me to help him learn his lines before rehearsals started. We spent about a month together working on the script, not only reading but taking it apart and really getting into the nuance of the dialogue. It turned out that we worked very similarly and had many common interests in what theatre should be and what we wanted to do in the future. The idea to start a company together formed out that relationship.

What are some of those “common interests in what theatre should be” that you share?

(Daniel) We believe that theatre should be bold. Theatre should not only entertain but should also address important issues in our society and our culture. As in the theatre of ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, where theatre was a communal event that was not a place for escapism, but a place for the public to gather to reflect and comment on the issues of their society.

What has the experience of starting a new company been like? Have you done this before? Have there been aspects to it you did not expect?

(Jonah) Two years ago I produced, designed and performed a one man show THE DEVIL AND BILLY MARKHAM in collaboration with Curious Comedy Theatre, so I had done many of the producer aspects before. Producing ART presented unique challenges in the fact that we are performing in 6 different venues and none of them are traditional theatre settings. There have definitely been aspects we did not anticipate. The nuances of putting together a non-profit corporation among others. Thankfully we have a lot of friends in the business who have been extremely helpful and supportive of our endeavor.

When it comes to marketing and publicity, what is your approach to getting the word out about a new company and first show?

Social Media is one of our strongest marketing tools. We always say in the theatre that word of mouth is our best advertising, but now with Facebook and blogs there is a whole new way of looking at word of mouth, a great many people can be reached through social media outlets and I believe that it will continue to trend that way.

The concept of doing your first show in six different art galleries around the Pearl District and Northwest is rather brilliant. Did you start with the play and then develop the multiple art gallery concept, or did you start with the galleries and look for a play that would work?

They both kind of happened together. We were discussing different plays and what our first season should be and especially our first play. We thought that beginning with small cast plays would be ideal, Daniel brought up ART at one point and we were both enthusiastic. Daniel had in fact been offered the role of Marc in the ongoing London production, the role that Albert Finney had originated, but could not accept the offer because of his prior commitment to a film called THE GREY ZONE. Daniel had always hoped he would get another opportunity to play Marc and I had always wanted to do the play as well so this was fortuitous.

One issue was performance space. Originally we were looking all around the city for a place we could build into a theatre but at the same time we knew that that was a long term endeavor and would require massive fundraising to accomplish, a difficult task when we hadn’t even put on a show yet. ART came up several times as a possibility for our first show but where to perform? One day we were having coffee and talking about all this and Daniel said something about how much room all these art galleries had and how many of those spaces would be ideal performance spaces. We kind of stopped and looked at each other and realized that performing ART in an art gallery, or six art galleries rather was a excellent idea. The next day Daniel stopped by Gallery 903 which is going to be our first gallery, and walked out with a commitment from them to host us. Then we started going around to other galleries and were met with great enthusiasm from everyone we approached.

On the issue of performance space, it seems like more and more theatres, even if they have the money, are forgoing a traditional fixed, bricks and mortar location. It certainly seems easier in some ways. Do you aspire to some day have your own building and space?

(Jonah and Daniel) Yes we do want to have our own space at some point, but it will certainly not be a traditional setting. We have grand long term plans for a Theatre Center, that will be inclusive to all performers and all artists, and not just theatre artists. One of the ideas behind doing a production of ART in art galleries is to attract a new theatre audience and create a crossover of patronage so we can build a more inclusive community, not just a theatre community, or a visual arts community, but an art community in general. The space we envision will have at least two theatres, a drama bookshop, a cafe/cabaret performance venue, and classroom space to facilitate the training and development of artists. These are of course long term goals and we will need a great deal of funding and public support, that is one of our goals with this production of ART. We are a brand new 501c3 Non-profit, we need to build a board of directors, and a foundation of donors who can help us achieve our vision. That is something we hope to find from our audiences, people who want to dedicate time and financial support for an endeavor of this magnitude.

As actors and producers, how is Portland these days in terms of performance space? Does it need more of certain kinds of spaces, or is it pretty well outfitted as is?

(Jonah) We are sorely lacking quality venues in Portland. Almost every venue has issues of some kind, whether it be lack of dressing areas for actors, lack of fly space, bad sound quality, etc. There is always a challenge to overcome. The high quality venues that we do have are so far out of the budget range for most small theatres, which is the majority of theatres in Portland, that we end up settling for less more often than not. A lot of venues are working to improve themselves, CoHo has just done a remodel to give their patrons more leg room, and Profile Theatre has just had a bit of a makeover as well and I am excited to see what they have done, but we could really use a few more state of the art venues that are not priced out of the rental market for small theatres.

Is the multiple venue concept specific to this show, or is this type of performance style at the core of what Theatre NOW productions will be like in the future?

This particular show is site specific theatre which is something I have wanted to do for a long time. Each production will have its own unique system. If future productions lend themselves to being performed in site specific venues, than that may be something we do again. Moving from venue to venue is also specific to this play. We may do something like this again in the future, but we are not doing it for the novelty of it, but because it works very well with this piece.

Daniel Benzali.

What about this play grabbed you?

On its surface this play is about modern art, but more than that it is a play about friendship, about relationships, how fragile they are, and the difficulty encountered when friendship is tested conflicting values. It’s damn funny too.

You are directing yourselves in this three person show. Can you talk a bit about how this works collaboratively and why you chose to go this route vs. having a traditional director?

The decision was made because we felt this play presents an opportunity to engage in a collaborative directing process. We have enjoyed experimenting in this fashion. We hope the audience will appreciate the result of this unique collaboration.

In your press release you mentioned putting on theatre around the US as a goal. Are you thinking of touring shows – or of doing different shows in different locales?

We intend for our productions to inspire interest and excitement nationally and internationally. We like to think of theatre on global scale.

How many shows a year would you like to produce? Do you have any plans yet for your next production?

We certainly do have plans for our next production, but cannot get into specifics yet. We can tell you that we hope it will be something we can tour nationally and internationally. Small steps first though, we’re just getting our inaugural production off the ground.

Thanks very much and good luck with the new company. Sounds like we’ll be hearing lots more from THEATRE NOW in the future.

THEATRE NOW’s production of ART by Yasmina Reza runs September 14 – October 21 in a different Pearl District art gallery each weekend. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays* at 4:00pm. Venue sizes range from 50 to 100 seats, so get your tickets early.

Gallery 903
903 NW Davis St.
September 14th, 15th, 16th*
Capacity: 100

Victory Gallery
733 NW Everett St.
September 21st, 22nd, 23rd*
Capacity: 50

Bullseye Gallery
300 NW 13th Ave.
September 28th, 29th, 30th*
Capacity: 100

Graeter Art Gallery
131 NW 2nd Ave.
October 5th, 6th, 7th*
Capacity: 70

Gallery 114
1100 NW Glisan St.
October 12th, 13th, 14th*
Capacity: 50

Laura Russo Gallery
805 NW 21st Ave
October 19th, 20th, 21st*
Capacity: 100