(Originally published in LA STAGE Times)
After 30 years as a theater performer, choreographer, director and producer, Janet Miller is finally graduating.
At least, that’s how Miller’s longtime friend and new business partner Kimberly Fox puts it. Piggybacking off the production of Miller’s latest directorial effort, the Hollywood Fringe Festival’s A Man of No Importance, the two have teamed up with some of Miller’s favorite collaborators to launch Good People Theater Company — Miller’s first attempt at heading up her own company.
The company will be nonprofit and will most likely utilize a core group of administrators and creative directors. Miller will cast actors she’s worked with in the past and hold open auditions to fill roles as needed for each production.
Miller has directed or choreographed more than 30 musicals and plays in Southern California and across the country. Her choreography for twoWonderettes shows won her Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards two years in a row (first forMarvelous Wonderettes, then forWinter Wonderettes). Other credits include The Bluest Eye, The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill A Mockingbird for Phantom Projects Theatre Group in La Mirada, and The Sound of Music, Anything Goes, South Pacific and Jesus Christ Superstar for Torrance Theatre Company. Miller is also an adjunct faculty member at CSU Northridge, CSU Los Angeles and Cerritos College.
Miller and Fox, a public relations and communications consultant, met through a mutual friend at CSU Long Beach in the mid-1980s and have been close friends ever since. When Miller mentioned to Fox that she wanted to direct the first Los Angeles production of the 2002 musical A Man of No Importance at the 2013 Hollywood Fringe Festival, it was Fox who suggested she take it a step further.
Instead of simply putting on one show, Fox said, why not found your own theater company along with it?
“I felt like it was crazy to put that much money into a project and not start a company,” Fox says. “[I thought] there’s no way this won’t create momentum and we’ll all be crying in our beer after closing night if we didn’t capture that and do something with it.”
Miller agreed that at this point in her career, it was time to create a home where she could unite all her favorite collaborators to work on projects that she cared about.
“I’d always thought about a company, but I never knew how that could come about,” Miller says. “But Kim has a way of saying things to me that I hear.”
Miller and Fox’s desire to work with actors and designers who are serious about their craft and appreciate Miller’s rigorous rehearsal process (without demanding a large paycheck) inspired the company’s name, Good People. To fund Good People’s production of A Man of No Importance, Miller and Fox, who is the company’s board president and marketing director, raised $15,000 in six weeks through an Indiegogo campaign. Donations came from hundreds of Miller’s colleagues, students, former cast members and friends. Miller and Fox were touched and surprised by the overwhelming response.
“It was kind of amazing. We had people giving us money who couldn’t quite afford to give us anything,” Miller says. “They gave until it hurt.”
Fox attributes such generosity to the supportive atmosphere Miller cultivates in each one of her shows. “[Donating] gave people a chance to do something very concrete in return for the artistic opportunity they had with Janet,” she says.
A Man of No Importance, a musical by Ragtime creators Terrence McNally (book), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), is based on the 1994 film of the same name starring Albert Finney. It tells the story of a closeted gay bus ticket-taker in 1964 Dublin who attempts to put on a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome with his church theater troupe. It had never been fully produced in LA.
Miller says its theme of being one’s authentic self, plus its relatively small scale, fit with her vision for the kind of work Good People will produce. She prefers “chamber musicals” to large, extravaganza-type shows, and she wants to do plays that theatergoers may not have seen — with a focus on solid, deep storytelling.
Miller dug into her Rolodex of countless former collaborators to hire costume, lighting and set designers and stage managers, get equipment and cast the show. Little White Chapel in Burbank served as a rehearsal space, a friend of Miller’s is helping with accounting, and students from Cerritos College are the crew.
“You do everything yourself and you arm-twist everyone you know,” Fox says of building a theater company from the ground up.
But Good People hasn’t had to twist any arms too hard. Dominic McChesney, whom Miller has known for years, came from Mexico City on a two-month sabbatical to play lead role Alfie Byrne. In fact, about half the cast has previously worked with Miller — who enjoys working with the same actors in multiple shows, she says, because they are accustomed to her directing style.
“I’m precise,” Miller acknowledges good-naturedly. “I’m particular when I direct and I have very high standards, so it’s good for me to work with people who understand that and know what I’m expecting and are okay with the work ethic.”
Good People’s next production isn’t decided. Miller isn’t ready to produce an entire season yet, she admits. But Fox is confident that Miller’s “subtle, detailed, authentic” style of storytelling will lead to great work that will find an audience in Los Angeles.
Miller says she wants Good People to give her actors a place to grow and be happy. And, after years of always being hired by others and moving from company to company, she’s looking forward to having a “home” that she and her collaborators can always return to in between traveling and other projects.
“I told Kim, as we were leaving the church one night after a very fun rehearsal, ‘If I just did this, if I stayed here and this is what I did, I’d be so happy,’” Miller says. “To have a base here I could call my home theater company — that would be great.”
A Man of No Importance, Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way at Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 p.m. Tickets $20. www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1093. 323-455-4585.
**All A Man of No Importance production photos by Shirley Hatton.