California Living in Kensington: an interview with John Rosenberg of Hella Fresh Theatre

I got a chance to catch up with playwright/director John Rosenberg of Hella Fresh Theatre whose show California Redemption Value is in the middle of its run at The Papermill Theatre in Kensington (Sats and Suns at 2pm till Feb. 6). The play is based on John’s experiences growing up in Los Angeles with his sister, his drama teacher mother, and the random, emotionally damaged drama students his mother would care for and let live in their tiny home.

John Rosenberg of Hella Fresh Theater in Kensignton Philadelphia
John Rosenberg

Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority: You’re in the middle of your run right now, how’s it going, and what’s the audience reaction been? Any interesting post-show feedback?

John Rosenberg: It’s going somewhere . . . haha. I think it is going well. Good crowds, audience reactions have varied, some crowds are live, others are quiet. As for post-show feedback, my mom absolutely hands-down fucking hated it. Hate hate hate hate hated it.

PPAA: This is the first full-length you’ve produced in Philly, having previously produced stuff in San Francisco. Is it a different experience doing it here than in San Fran, besides the shitty weather?

JR: It is definitely same and different. My ladyfriend works the box office, so that is the wonderful constant from San Francisco. She is the brains behind what I do and can’t do it without her love, brains, looks, and support. Theater in San Francisco was good training. In San Francisco we rented a theater in the Tenderloin, which is a distant cousin of Kensington. I haven’t had to kick anyone out of the audience, which I had to do a few times in San Fran. Running a theater has a whole different set of problems than just renting one, but it is a learning process for us.

We are surprised by the press we have gotten in Philly, it was a battle in San Francisco to get reviewed. Let’s hope I didn’t fuck it up by mentioning it.

PPAA: Your show runs Saturdays and Sundays only—how do you keep your actors in shape between weekends?

JR: I leave them alone so they show up to the performances. I work them very hard in rehearsal; we went nearly two months six days a week. When a run hits, they are so happy they don’t have to see me. I send them notes during the week, but they put in all the hard work and the shows are their time to play on stage.

PPAA: Have your ideas about the play changed during the run as you’ve watched it—what the play means for you and what themes have become more striking that perhaps you hadn’t thought about before?

JR: I really don’t know yet.  The emotional core of the play has shown itself in flashes, but there is a savagery and sweetness that we haven’t fully found yet.  And I don’t mean that negatively towards the actors at all. It is a puzzle that we keep trying to put together. I sent some notes to tweak it to see what they come up with this weekend.

PPAA: When I saw the play, I could help but feel the anxiety of such a crazy home life. But one of the things I’ve always found interesting is the normalization of crazy—that insanity becomes the norm when it’s your daily life, and somehow basic functioning persists. Does it seem crazier to you now, or when you lived through it? Or does it not seem crazy to you at all?

JR: One of the actors asked my sister if it was this crazy in real life and she said in real life we were way crazier. There were more than five people living there. My mom was teaching, and at the same time [she was] feeding and sheltering a bunch of kids, there was structure and homework done and chores. It was an apartment filled with love and happiness. My sister was the valedictorian. I always think of “Love and Squalor” from Nine Stories.

However, there was a crazy side to the place. Lots of personal problems and attempts to shape identity. It’s not like there were knock-down drag out fights and suicide attempts every single day.  I personally was out of my mind. There was the time my mom’s dog got hit by a car and she threw up when it happened and I couldn’t stop laughing. I put the dead dog in my backpack and walked around the neighborhood and found a trash can to dump it in. I will always remember how warm the dead dog was on my back. It seems very crazy to me now.

PPAA: You have some great young talent in your cast. I often see young actors, in their quest to be taken seriously, act so earnestly that they never realistically portray a 20-year-old, even if that’s how old they are.  In California Redemption Value, their performances are painfully real. Did they need much coaching to get there? And is it weird being in your 30s telling a college student how to act like a college student?

JR: The actors are just fantastic. I loved working with them and love what they bring to the show each time. What you saw was their unblemished natural talent. What coaching they got was telling them what they didn’t need to do.

PPAA: Having grown up in L.A., what are some of the weirdest misconceptions people may have about the city, and what it’s like to live there?

JR: I dunno, I probably have more weird misconceptions about the place and I grew up there.  Living in Los Angeles is great. No one has a job, everyone drives drunk, the sky is always dodger blue and the Lakers are god.

PPAA: Hella Fresh Theatre has a full season for 2011, can you tell us what’s in store?

JR: We got Jericho Road Improvement Association in April. It is a play about race, law enforcement and how nothing in the world is more dangerous than well-intentioned white people. Queen of All Weapons in July. It deals with the brutal end of the black power movement, Cointelpro and the birth of a Fourth Reich in 1970s San Francisco.

We finish the season with Cheap Guy HOF, Blaze of Glory which we will run during the Fringe.  It will be a series of short plays about Cheap Guys that go out in a Blaze of Glory. I am gonna play that bon jovi song hella.

PPAA: What’s the best thing you’ve gotten out of putting up California Redemption Value?

JR: The beautiful, truthful moments the actors create. I sit in the light booth and cry.

Published by the Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority.

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