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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Voices from the Hollyood Fringe Fest: Michael Evans Lopez and Maria Pasquarelli

I just spent seven days in Hollywood covering the Fringe Fest and I gotta say it was one helluva trip! There's so much talent and so much good work being done there. I wish it was all year long!

One of the most intriguing solo shows at this year's Fringe is The Inside Edge of the World (or Where Have All of the Good Serial Killers Gone?). It's a fascinating study of a wannabe forensics detective who communicates telepathically with his dog and is simultaneously dealing with the trauma of being brainwashed by a suicide cult.

It's an intense and complex piece, and writer/producer Michael Evans Lopez and director Maria Pasquarelli had their work cut out for them to delineate multiple characters and help audiences navigate a labyrinthian plot that's mysterious, compelling — and yes, humorous.

Michael and Maria were kind enough to answer some questions for me and provide some insight on the development and meaning of this puzzle-box of a play.

What was the genesis of the creative process here? What influenced you to write this piece?

Michael: Maria and I have been listening to a lot of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch detective series in our cars on our long commutes to work. I started with the idea of a socially isolated character that has a particular interest in forensic criminology. A guy who goes to forensic science conventions and imagines himself tracking down serial killers. I imagined him becoming fixated with a suspicious character in his neighborhood and treating his dog as his own, personal Watson.

Then I went to an enormous Catholic wedding in Pittsburgh and was overwhelmed by the ritual of it. I kind of thought how funny it would be to have inexplicable rituals that seemed comical to anyone outside of the religion and that brought about the ‘cult’, which was highly influenced by my research on the Heaven’s Gate Cult.

It takes a lot of effort to delineate characters in a one-person show, and there are quite a few of them in the piece. How did you collaborate on making each character identifiable as an individual?

Maria: During our time at our respective graduate acting programs, Michael and I both had the opportunity to create and perform solo performances. Each school had their own methodology and reasons for putting us through these processes. I had the great fortune of working with playwright Luis Alfaro and one of the greatest takeaways I got from this work was to create a gesture for each character to help delineate one from the others.

So, we worked through the various characters, one at a time, to find a voice or gesture for each that was easy enough to transition through, but different enough to provide clarity to the audience.

Michael: Maria’s suggestions were instrumental in getting me started with differentiating the characters and, as I’ve done them, I’ve learned more and more who each one is and I think it helps me to provide a more complete feelings as I understand them more completely.

You cover a lot of topics in the show, including suicide cults, serial killers and guys who can communicate telepathically with their pets. What’s the overriding theme you most want to put across?

Maria: For me, this piece is about loneliness and an overwhelming human desire to connect to people. Humans need each other and are desperate for that connection, be it through religion, obsessions or imagination.

Michael: For me, I think it’s about how a person can build a world out of loneliness, fear and grief.

There are a lot of ambiguities in the piece that are intriguing rather than frustrating. Was it your intention to give audiences a chance to draw their own conclusions?

Maria: I feel like that was my exact intention. When I go see something or even read something, I don’t like it to be wrapped up in a tidy little bow at the end. I really prefer to be challenged to think for myself and draw my own conclusions.

Michael: I’ve been thinking about this piece kind of like a short story. There isn’t the same obligation to answer all the questions. It’s a peek into the world of your story like passing an open doorway and catching what you see as you go by.

How has audience reaction been to the show so far?

Michael: Overwhelmingly positive, but lots of questions, a good bit of confusion and several requests for a sequel.

What are your future plans for the piece? Do you have other festivals scheduled? Are you adapting it for other media?

Maria: We are just beginning to considering these options. Our original intentions were just to put something up for the Hollywood Fringe.

Michael: We’re having fun with it now and learning more about it. We’re definitely keeping an open mind. Fist The Mountain was started as an outlet for us to create original video content, so we might play around with adapting it.

What other projects do you have in the works?

Maria: We have a web series that I started after graduating from my MFA program at USC, which we want to finish up this summer. We also participate in the LA 48 Hour Film Project every year, which is a fun, crazy, slightly stressful weekend of filmmaking chaos. In November, we shot a short film that we are still editing, and hoping, once things calm down this summer, to put more time into. Our film from last year’s 48 Hour Film Project is currently in the festival circuit, so we tend to keep ourselves pretty busy.

Is this your first time at the Fringe? How has your experience been?

Maria: I participated as an actor last year and I have been a Fringe patron since year one, but this is our first time producing in the Hollywood Fringe. We are having a blast — seeing as many shows as possible with our crazy schedules. We have been making a lot of new friends and since we have a piece that we are excited to show to people, we really feel like we are a part of it all.

Have the two of you collaborated on other projects?

Michael: We’ve collaborated on a six-year relationship and a one-plus year marriage. We’ve provided a home for various pets — there was an Alec Baldwin, and Buddy is an amalgamation. With our video projects it’s been almost entirely me directing Maria. This reversal has been surprisingly pleasant.

Maria: Michael is much easier to direct than I am — at least when it comes down to us directing each other — I admit to getting entirely too defensive when he directs me, but we haven’t had any issues this time around. When people find out we’re married, their first question is always about how difficult it is to work together, but that’s just what we do, so I guess we’re used to it.

Michael: Yeah, Maria can get testy. As a director, though, she’s incredibly patient, she never panders to my need for her to laugh at what I’m doing and tell me how great I am. So, I work harder to please her.

What’s your opinion of Los Angeles theater in general? Where do you see it heading in the future?

Michael: This is a really interesting time in L.A. theater. The new AEA rules requiring theaters to pay union actors minimum wage is going to have a profound effect on our theatre community. Where previously, it’s been a kind of wild west and 'anything goes' approach, now it’s hard to say. The requirements will challenge L.A. theaters to focus on quality over quantity. I empathize with the challenges that small theaters have, but I also think ‘how wonderful to potentially be able to do a play, as an actor, and it not trash your bank account with wages you aren’t going to be making.’ I’ve lost jobs because I’ve chosen to do plays.

Maria: I’ve been a part of the L.A. theater scene since 2001 and I have seen it go through many changes over the years. I do have hope for the future. I believe that events like the Fringe bring a lot of notoriety and awareness to the theatre that is happening in Los Angeles. There is an overwhelming wealth of talent in this city and it’s not often used to its full potential. I am looking forward to whatever the future brings and — like Michael — am curious to see how small theaters will deal with and rise to the challenges.

The Inside Edge of the World plays the Hollywood Fringe June 22 and 27 at Theater Asylum's Elephant Studio, 1078 Lillian Way. Tickets can be obtained on the Fringe site.

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