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Fri10192018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The Hi-Desert Cultural Center is a mere 35 miles from downtown Palm Springs. It’s a place where artists from around the world have come to express themselves while being surrounded by nature.

The center hosts a theater and a philharmonic. It’s been around since 1964. Red Skelton even performed there—and there’s a good chance you’ve never even heard of it. Therefore, you may want to consider one of the center’s most popular events, a twice-a-year evening that will return for its seventh edition on Saturday, Aug. 18.

Desert Stories is a one-night event that offers … local, high desert artists the chance to tell their stories,” said Michael McCall, the art curator for the brand-new Yucca Valley Visual and Performing Arts Center, an “annex” of the Hi-Desert Cultural Center. “It’s an interesting event. I went to the one in January. The event is amazing; you’ll have 10 to 12 people doing a presentation, and it usually is a sold-out full house. Each presentation is done differently; somebody will do stand-up comedy; some of it is a musical presentation, or a visual presentation with imagery on the displayed on the wall behind the person.”

McCall has been busy; he’s also working on Desert Icons, a show at the new Yucca Valley Visual and Performing Arts Center. It’s slated to open on Aug. 25; the current, inaugural exhibition, Ground to Sky, will be on display through Aug. 11.

“The show centers around the desert in art, and how artists interpret it,” he said. “It is extending what an idea of an icon is. I wanted to do a show that is about the desert and its icons.”

McCall moved to the high desert around the start of the year after living in Los Angeles for more than 35 years, so he has a fresh take on how the desert influences art.

“It’s amazing to see the talent that comes from both the high and the low desert—to see what’s going on creatively and how people are creating here,” he said.

While McCall is a new high desert resident, he did visit the area often before his move.

“I was always looking for a place that I thought was close enough in case I needed to go back to L.A. for anything—like to see art shows, or see museums,” he said. “I started coming up here a few years ago. I really dug it, and I liked the people, so when I was offered this job, I thought it was kind of an amazing golden nugget. I have had the opportunity to build a (new center) from the foundation to the sky.”

The Hi-Desert Cultural Center developed the Yucca Valley Visual and Performing Arts Center in a 15,000-square-foot building that used to be a motorcycle dealership. The space, at 58325 Twentynine Palms Highway, gave the Hi-Desert Cultural Center the chance to expand more into the visual arts.

McCall said the high desert allows artists to have experiences they can’t have elsewhere—but it doesn’t come without its drawbacks.

“The desert extremes or the weather extremes can beat the crap out of materials,” he said. “… But in the Coachella Valley you still have a lot of light pollution. We don’t have that, so you can see the night sky in a way that you’ve never seen before. It’s quite an experience.”

On Aug. 18, Desert Stories XIII will showcase some of the high desert’s best artists and storytellers. Come and see why the event usually sells out.

Desert Stories XIII, hosted by Cheryl Montelle, takes place from 6 to 10 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 18, at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center, 61231 Twentynine Palms Highway, in Joshua Tree. Tickets are $32 to $40; this is an R-rated event due to adult themes and strong language. For tickets or more information, call 760-366-3777, or visit hidesertculturalcenter.org. For more information on the Yucca Valley Visual and Performing Arts Center, visit yvarts.org.

Published in Visual Arts

Joshua Tree is known for eclectic festivals. The high-desert community hosts gatherings centering on everything from yoga to UFOs to music.

Now Joshua Tree can add improv/comedy to that list.

The Joshua Tree International Improv/Comedy Festival will take place Friday through Sunday, July 8-10, at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center. The performer list includes both local names and people from recognizable comedy institutions including Second City and Last Comic Standing.

Jeanette Knight, the director of the festival, said that although the venue is new (to the event), the festival itself is not.

“It’s the first one in Joshua Tree,” Knight said. “The first one was actually called the Coachella Valley Improv/Comedy Festival, and that was in 2014. There was a change in management at our (original) venue, the Indio Performing Arts Center (IPAC). They didn’t really support the idea or the festival, and the Hi-Desert Cultural Center found out that we needed a new home.

Knight, who was the artistic coordinator at IPAC, said the first festival was an amazing experience.

“There are improv/comedy festivals held throughout the world, and I … had the idea to do an improv festival,” she said.

Knight said she’s encouraged about the buzz the 2016 edition of the festival is receiving.

“We’ve already sold tickets, so we’re very optimistic. We’re hoping for a great turnout. We sold quite a few early-bird tickets during early June,” she said. “We have performers coming from as far away as New York and Chicago. We really want the community to turn up and support them. We have a selection company that viewed video submissions and determined the best. We had 70 submissions, and there are 38 performers. These are the best, and they’re up-and-coming.

“Some of them, like (Los Angeles comedy group) the Fireturtles—I’ve become a fan of them after I found all these videos they have on YouTube. They have hundreds of thousands of views.”

Tom Dreesen, a well-known actor and standup comic, is coming to the festival to share a very important message.

“He opened for Frank Sinatra for 14 years,” Knight said. “He also used to perform on The Late Show With David Letterman and also guest-hosted for him. He’s actually donating his time to us. He has a real important message to get out: He’s doing an hour-long seminar for us on Sunday. He’s had a lot of friends who are standup comics, and a couple of them committed suicide. Not to make it sound like his seminar is going to be depressing, but it is about standup comedy and enjoying the journey. It’s open to performers and the general public. It’s for anyone who wants to learn how to enjoy life a lot more.”

The festival should not be considered “fun for the whole family.”

“Some material might be R-rated and not suitable for children,” Knight said. “Parents these days are pretty diverse with what they want to expose their kids to, but we’re not encouraging kids to come, because we don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, with these different tickets, you can come and go as you please. … With improv comedy, you don’t really know where the story is going to go.”

What can attendees expect?

“Expect to have a lot of fun,” Knight said. “The audience will also be voting on the overall winner. The overall winner, the top-scoring sketch group, improv group or standup comic, will be offered a paid engagement to return as part of the Hi-Desert Cultural Center’s next season. That’s what they’re competing for. The audience will have a little say.”

The Joshua Tree International Improv/Comedy Festival takes place Friday, June 8, through Sunday, June 10, at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center, 61231 Highway 62, in Joshua Tree. Tickets are $45 for a one-day pass, or $120 for an all-access pass. For tickets or more information, visit jtimprovfestival.org.

Published in Comedy

Playwright Charles Evered is sick of Christmas.

“There’s so little choice for theater!” he exclaimed. “There’s It’s a Wonderful Life, The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol—and that’s about it.”

So Evered decided to do something about it. The result is his 90-minute one-act play called An Actor’s Carol—a take on Charles Dickens’ famous A Christmas Carol. It will have its world premiere at Joshua Tree’s Hi-Desert Cultural Center on the first two weekends of December. Emmy Award-winning actor Hal Linden (Barney Miller) and veteran TV and film actor Barry Cutler will star in the first and second weekends of the play, respectively.

“Someone HAD to write it!” Evered declared.

Evered is no stranger to the High Desert. His play Adopt a Sailor was presented at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center a few years ago, and his work Class was a fundraiser for the theater, which is still trying to rebuild after a devastating blow from Mother Nature: An unprecedented freeze in January 2007.

“What a wonderful venue this theater is,” he said. “There’s no pressure about money or audience size or reviews. The timing fits my schedule perfectly. And Jarrod Radnich and his fiancée, Anne, are marvelous to work with.”

Producer Radnich, the impresario of the Hi-Desert Cultural Center, is equally enthusiastic about An Actor’s Carol.

“We all have a great relationship,” he said. “Our theater is a place where we can experiment with nontraditional staging. I instantly loved the script for An Actor’s Carol, and I love working with great, talented people. This play is really different.”

Charles Evered, here for the production from his home in Princeton, N.J., fully expects these six performances will result in re-writes of his script. I was lucky enough to be invited to a staged reading of the very first version of An Actor’s Carol, hosted in Palm Springs by serene brunette beauty Kim Waltrip, whose company produced Evered’s first two movies. She told me she and Evered had known each other “for years. Our kids went to the same school!” At the reading, four actors introduced us to the multiple-role script—an actor’s delight.

The story is about a bitter, nasty actor who plays bitter, nasty Scrooge in some little theater’s production of A Christmas Carol. Like the character he’s playing, he experiences visitations from the beyond when he passes out backstage. (Yeah, he drinks.) It’s a modernized version of the classic tale, with cell phones, texting and some hilarious references to the 21st century life we know.

Like many who have faced tragedy, Evered chose to deal with life through comedy.

“Art saved my life,” he confided. “I might have gone to Yale … or to jail!”

We race through his resume: Raised in Rutherford, N.J., he lost both his parents early in life. His four siblings have all faced serious challenges, and frankly, some didn’t make it. A deathbed promise to his mother to never start drinking has been the foundation of his success—along with some fantastic luck.

He aspired to a career in baseball, of all things, but sadly found he was not sufficiently mega-talented in the sport. Oddly enough, it was a job as a janitor while still in high school, which included cleaning up the William Carlos Williams Center for the Performing Arts, that started the wheels turning. It was a shock to find out there were serious rental fees for the script—so he decided to write the plays himself. He was 18.

He experienced instant approval and success—and then he really did get to study playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.

After graduating in 1991, he received a fellowship that allowed him to work in a Hollywood program sponsored by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. Spielberg advised him, “Don’t try to please us with your writing. Write from your own heart.”

“Great advice! It made my career!” Evered said.

He eventually went on to teach what he had learned, as a founding faculty member at our own little University of Riverside Palm Desert Center, before moving on to a full professorship at the main campus in Riverside.

So what’s the future for An Actor’s Carol? After the six high desert performances, the final draft will be printed as a book in January by Broadway Play Publishing, Inc.—and then it will be available for productions everywhere for Christmas of 2016.

“Christmas needs some fun,” he said. “… I hope An Actor’s Carol will exist forever. I’d like to see it done as repertory theater, so the audience can actually come to see Dickens’ play first, and then the next night, return to see An Actor’s Carol with the same actors, same stage and same set! Wouldn’t that be amazing?”

An Actor’s Carol will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, from Friday, Dec. 4, through Saturday, Dec. 12, at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center’s Blak Box Theater, located at 61231 Twentynine Palms Highway, in Joshua Tree. Tickets are $15 to $24. For tickets or more information, call 760-366-3777, or visit hidesertculturalcenter.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Pecans! Who doesn’t love ‘em?

Playwright Stephen Bittrich, on a chatty program page, admits to being born in a pecan environment: Seguin, Texas, the setting for his two-act Home of the Great Pecan, now being performed in Joshua Tree. The Hi-Desert Cultural Center is hosting the play through Saturday, July 13.

The publicity hints at UFO sightings and other weirdness, and, of course, the play takes place in the South, whence come pecans. The play echoes Sordid Lives, Trailer Trash, and other wildly colorful spoofs of the South’s characters … in the 1980s, no less. Was there ever another time like that?

Huge kudos to director Wendy Cohen for even attempting this show—the cast contains 15 actors. Casting this, in a small town? I can’t even imagine the logistics of scheduling rehearsals, let alone wrangling such a mob. And the show is in a “black box” setting! The theater seats about 90 people (with preferred seating in the first two rows, which usually sells out) and is cozily edged in thick black curtains on three sides, surrounding the raked seating and facing an almost-bare stage with a giant screen upstage. The screen cleverly provides instant backgrounds of everything from a beauty parlor, to a starry outdoor country night, to a bathroom where a beauty contestant pitches hysterics and attempts hunger strikes. The actual physical scenery is conveniently minimized, making the quick setting changes a snap.

I kept thinking: Charming. From the warm greetings at the door from Anne and Carol, to the friendly audience welcome by center president Jarrod Radnich before the show, to the delightful servings of actual pecans at the intermission (plus gratis nonalcoholic refreshments in the lobby throughout), the theater exudes comfort and ease. The chairs relax you; the country-Western mood music makes you smile and tap your toes; the audience chats and hugs. The play is rated PG-13. Pleasant.

The basic plot swirls around the mysterious theft of the Great Pecan, a huge and heavy statue honoring the nut. The crime occurs on the cusp of Seguin's annual celebration and pecan harvest. We are treated to a look inside the minds of a homicidal bride, a sheriff who sleeps in his office, the town’s only gay guy (who almost steals the show), a Baptist preacher with more sins than his entire congregation, a Yankee juvenile delinquent, and on and on. And, of course, UFOs! Could it get any more strange?

It’s really all about the friendships, relationships, the community—and everyone’s emotional investments in each other.

So, the cast: They were surprisingly well fitted to their physical types, which include several decades of age difference, with the exception of Kathleen Anderson, whose great smile and pretty face were wasted unconvincingly on her playing a teenage boy. The women—Velma Demaray, Marge Doyle, Toni Molano, Becky Renish, Anja Homburg and especially Lorraine Williamson as “Rosy,” and Michaela Chambers as “Priscilla Rotweiler” (don’t tell me you don’t love that name)—were very believable in their casting. The men—Scott Cutler, Dave Jessup, Tim Kelly, Dennis Priest, Karl Weimer and especially Richie Sande—all bore good physical resemblances to their characters. Jack Kennedy contributes “The Voice of Johnny Johns,” the radio announcer, and is well-cast because of his fine voice.

Most of the cast could benefit from vocal training. Last syllables of words were dropped; some actors never mustered the volume to be heard by the entire room; accents were wildly varied. Too often in regional theater, voice is the last consideration. What a shame, because voice problems compromise the audience’s understanding of the play. And we have to smack the wrists of those who bobbled their lines—but give stars to the actors who kindly jumped in to save each other's bacon.

Yeah, there were a few debatable directorial choices, but in the end, that script shines through, thanks to plenty of laugh lines, bizarre predicaments and wild characters. You can learn more about the playwright at www.stephenbittrich.com.

It’s a one-hour drive from nearly anywhere in our Low Desert to get to Joshua Tree, but it’ll be at least 10 degrees cooler there! After all, it is the Home of the Great Pecan.

The Home of the Great Pecan takes place at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, through Saturday, July 13, with an additional matinee at 2 p.m., Sunday, July 7. The show is performed at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center, 61231 Highway 62, in Joshua Tree. Tickets are $15 or $20. For tickets or more information, call (760) 366-3777, or visit www.hidesertculturalcenter.com.

Published in Theater and Dance