Note: This is the second in a series of articles in which Buzz theater columnist and critic Laura Foti Cohen explores the creation of her Zoom play Neighborhood Newsy. (You can read Part 1 here.) She’s documenting its development process for the Buzz.
About a year after the COVID-19 lockdown, several members of Neo Ensemble Theatre were reminiscing about how much fun it had been to create Neighborhood Newsy Zoom Edition, an online theatrical production I wrote. The show’s director, Rachel Winfree, suggested a sequel and it immediately felt inevitable.
We gathered a core group from the first time around: besides Rachel, there was her husband and Neo’s co-artistic director Michael Caldwell, plus actors David St. James (who played the “troll” Joe S.) and Debra Kay Lee (sweet cat lady Debra P.). Together, we brainstormed storylines, goosed along by hilarious and heinous greater Hancock Park-area NextDoor postings from the past year.
Big topics included homelessness, anti-mask propaganda and suspicious strangers. Among the quality of life issues were complaints about noise from fireworks, leaf blowers, construction of the Wilshire Blvd. subway, and random unexplained booms. Oh, and we added a dash of dog poop, coyotes, and local politics to round things out.
The nine-person Zoom grid worked well the first time and I wanted to keep it. But I also wanted to expand the cast. Almost all of the original actors were returning; two, Rachel and Michael, wanted to play different roles this time around. We also wanted to add a real estate agent and someone to represent the dog-lovers. And we needed some romance to balance the prickly relationships that dominated the original Neighborhood Newsy.
We decided on a rotating cast. This presented some organizational issues for me—developing the original five episodes had been organic, but this time around I needed to plan for characters’ entrances and exits, their arcs, a denouement to tie up all the loose ends, and maybe a cliffhanger.
I debated index cards on a bulletin board, but it felt too much like 1970s SNL planning. I went with an Excel spreadsheet, itself pretty old school. The spreadsheet allowed me to create a grid showing characters’ episodic appearances and what they were doing in each. Not quite the seat-of-the-pants approach of Spring 2020, but appropriate to our new-old normal.
Because the cast had contributed so much to improving my script for Neighborhood Newsy Zoom Edition, Rachel suggested we reverse the order this time around, workshopping the concept before I wrote the script. We reached out to the actors who had accepted roles and explained the challenge. They showed up to play.
Character descriptions and the show’s topics were fed to the actors, who jumped into their roles. During three uproarious Zoom gatherings between March 22 and April 2, 2021, we experimented and brainstormed. New characters met legacy characters in warm embraces and angry clashes that grew logically out of the actors’ understanding of their characters. We went deep on the planned topics and veered into a few additional ones.
The new additions to the cast stepped up and inhabited their characters. Many set up backgrounds and props.
- AnnaLisa Erickson, playing a flamboyant actress, renamed herself GiGi and gave herself a pet poodle named FiFi. When the age of Aquarius was mentioned, she burst into song.
- Dee Freeman, playing activist and martial arts studio owner Pearl W., launched into a passionate diatribe against defunding the police that helped shape her character’s arc.
- Rebecca O’Brien, playing Jenn Q., was just as passionate when defending her dog against allegations of pooping on a neighbor’s lawn.
- New ager Lotus, played by Alexis Martino, soothed the waters and occasionally tossed in a rock.
- Sophia LaPaglia and Steve Oreste (Marti and Richie D.), both playing young and single, went with the “meet cute” and flirted comically.
- Tammy Mora (Hailey B.), whose character delivers PostMates, joined a workshop between her own deliveries.
And the returning characters continued to evolve:
- David St. James (Joe S.), who’d had a Pfizer vaccination earlier the day of a workshop, remained true to his character’s ingrained nastiness while reclining on a sofa.
- Debra Kay Lee (Debra P.), whose cat Topper had played a role last year, cradled his urn and mourned his loss, then introduced her PTSD service puppet.
- Kimmy K (Marla Cotovsky) revealed she’d had therapy after losing it in the original Neighborhood Newsy get-together—then promptly relapsed.
- Smug Lisa N., played by Tracey Rooney, gave chillingly elitist (and spot on) responses to all topics and speakers.
- Weed entrepreneur Captain Outrageous, played by Jerry Weil, marketed his business and fended off nay-sayers.
- One of those naysayers, Mrs. Helen M. (Janet Hoskins), suggested building a wall around the neighborhood.
And the original cast members who decided to change up who they played went deep on their new personas.
Trystan (Michael Caldwell) anointed himself head aesthetician of the neighborhood, while Babs B., (Rachel Winfree) embraced her inner funtime gal.
Armed with the fruits of the workshops, my spreadsheet, and years of reading NextDoor posts, I got to work on the scripts.
You can read part 3 of this series here.