Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Catching Up With.....Sean Abley

Sean Abley basically founded the Factory Theater in 1992, and although he had help, there was only one unquestioned Factory Boss in the beginning, and that was Sean.  Literally, the fledgling Factory was the perfect situation for a guy who lists his interests on Facebook as "telling people what to do, (and) people doing what I tell them to do."  

He wrote the shows, he directed the shows, he was the funniest person in the shows, he worked box office for the shows -- I mean, he pretty much did it all.  And it's not like the shows he wrote kinda scraped by (when a Reader critic is breathlessly comparing you to Sam Shepard, you're obviously doing something right).  Every production he touched turned to gold, and in time each new Sean Abley show became An Event.  

He was a singular voice within the Factory, and his shows set the bar for the rest of the ensemble to try and match.  I personally learned a ton from Sean, as did most ensemble members.  He wrote wickedly hilarious shows, and what's more he made it seem effortless and easy.  

I can remember him rushing back to his Addison St. apartment after making a ton of copies of his latest script at a nearby Kinko's, called Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.   The copies were for the cast, who had assembled at Sean's place for the cast's very first read-through.  The paper itself was still warm from going through the copy machine, and he scrawled the title page with a Magic Marker because he had basically finished the script thirty minutes before the read-thru was scheduled to begin.  And of course, that show went on to place #2 in New City's Top 5 Shows Of 1993.  Amazing.

He left for Los Angeles at the height of his powers (after writing the brilliant Nuclear Family), and worked to start Factory West in L.A.  Now a successful writer, director and producer in Hollywood, Sean graciously agreed to devote some of his time to answering this blog's hard-hitting questions:

Sean Abley


So what are you working on these days?
The most recent film I produced, PORNOGRAPHY, is starting the film fest circuit. In the meantime, I’ve been writing like a crazy madman, with the sequel to my first feature, SOCKET, called SOCKET: BRAIN CELL and SWITCHCRAFT, a supernatural gay sex comedy. We’ll be shooting those this year. I also decided I wanted to get back into theater, so I’ve been writing a play a month and am going to start sending those out and about. Oh, and I write the GAY OF THE DEAD blog for

You started the Factory Theater with a group of like-minded Second City "refugees".  What led you to undertake such a monumental project?

It’s funny – it didn’t seem so monumental at the time. In fact, everybody in town was doing the same thing. I’d produced a couple of my own plays, including REEFER MADNESS, which Jeff Rogers directed. He and I had known each other for years, gone thru Players Workshop and Second City Training Center together, tried to put a show or two together. So after REEFER, we decided it was time to form a company. He brought in Mike Meredith and Tom Purcell, and I brought in Amy Seeley. Very soon after that Bo Blackburn came on board. We all put in the grand sum of TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS apiece to pay the first month’s rent and mount the first show. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I did it because I really wanted to be a playwright as well as an actor, and I was tired of waiting for other people to let me do those things.

How did you discover 1257 W. Loyola Ave. (the Factory's very first home), and what are your memories of that space today?

Jeff and I sort of knew a few people from a company called Cardiff Giant (which, incidentally, the creators of URINETOWN were part of), and word got to us just as we were thinking about forming a company that they were looking to get out of their space in Rogers Park, but couldn’t break their lease. So they needed someone to take it over. We met with them, and they asked for thousands of dollars in payment for all the lights, props, stage, etc. They also let it slip that they needed $600 for past due rent. So we offered them $600 total for the whole thing, and they sort of had to take our offer. I have so many memories of that space, but the saddest one is of the autograph wall, started by many companies before us, and now gone forever. Every show had a space on that wall where the cast and crew signed on opening night. 

Over the years, I have heard talk about certain Factory ensemble members that goes like this:  "He/she is so dedicated to the Factory -- he/she practically lives at the space."  But you actually DID live at the 1257 W. Loyola space for a time when you were first getting the theater off the ground.  Give the readers a sense of what that was like.

Well, my “apartment” was actually a walled off space in the downstairs dressing room. Literally flats nailed together with a flimsy door to form a “room”. It was big enough for a bed, dresser, and a TV and not much else. I cooked on a hot plate in the box office, and took showers in the shower backstage. I lived there because A.) the Factory needed an additional source of rent money and B.) because I had a huge falling out with my roommate at the time and had no place to live and very little money. The problem was, our landlords were next door – we literally shared a stairway between the two spaces leading to the adjoining basements. They did NOT want someone living there, so for the 18 months I was down there, I lived in fear of them discovering me showering backstage at 8 a.m.

It was actually really cool for awhile. I loved being in the theater, and living there made it easy to be at rehearsal. But after awhile it became a real drag. There was rehearsal literally every night we didn’t have a show, and on show nights I had 50+ people in my “house”. So I never had any privacy. But I’m glad I did it. And I also did IT onstage once.

You are now in charge of Facebook.  What changes do you make (if any)?

That’s a tough one, because I usually just get used to whatever changes happen. I guess I’d make it easier to stop being notified every time someone comments on something I’ve commented on.

What's the very best part of planning a wedding?

If you mean my upcoming gay wedding, I'd say - Having planned a wedding. During the actual planning, not much is “fun”. Although I do like getting the RSVP postcards back in the mail. I’m sort of fascinated by the mail, and love sending actual letters.

My own memory is that the Factory literally became an overnight sensation with the public, even if critics such as Jack Helbig were loving the Factory pretty much from the beginning.  Is that your recollection as well?

Hmmmm, sort of? As I remember it, our first couple shows – the remount of REEFER MADNESS, a sketch comedy show called SNAFU, and a truly horrible play, SPIN DOCTORS – were all doing really poorly for the first six months or so. Then we did my show, ATTACK OF THE KILLER B’S, and suddenly we were selling out. And from then on, at least during the five years I was there, we had hits with about 90% of all the shows we mounted.

"Bitches" will forever be the show known as the Factory's first gigantic hit, and in many ways it still has never been surpassed.  Were you consciously writing with that idea in mind (i.e. "I'm going to write a huge smash hit show that people will stand in line to see") --  or were you just trying to write a funny show to make your friends laugh?

I’ll quibble with that assessment, because I really feel like KILLER B’S was the first big hit, but BITCHES did amazingly well, and had a life beyond the Factory, so it seems like it was the first biggie. And much like KILLER B’S, I wrote BITCHES out of desperation – we needed a new show. KILLER B’S I wrote in four days, BITCHES was written in about a week, with two key scenes added after we started rehearsals. I created some parts for specific people, and then just cast around for the rest of the guys.

The initial idea behind "Bitches" (13 men playing 13 women) was brilliant, but I always thought the differences in the characters' costumes really set it apart.  Some actors really took dressing up in drag seriously, while other actors were basically going out there in a wig and a visible five o'clock shadow.  In your opinion, what was the key to that show's success?

Hands down, that amazing original cast. Once the gimmick of 13 men in drag wears off, what are you left with? In the case of BITCHES, it was a bunch of guys who were all really great actors playing the truth of the characters, playing women, rather than playing “at” playing women and going for the easy jokes. I’ve never had a production of any of my plays that equaled the perfect casting of BITCHES’s opening night, and that was 15 years ago.

Is there any restaurant in LA equal to Chicago Oven Grinders?

Well, Eat A Pita is pretty great, if only for the fried cheddar cubes and Malibu Chicken Crisper.

I try to never miss a single episode of:

Currently, 30 ROCK, AMERICA’S NEXT TOP MODEL, RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE, LOST (because my husband forces me to watch it), INTERVENTION, and DAMAGES.

I've heard you talk about your Second City training experiences -- and of course, you skewered the entire process in the Factory's "Second City Didn't Want Us (Or, Is There A Spot In The Touring Company For My Girlfriend)".  What was it like to perform that show in front of Kelly Leonard and other Second City "royalty"?

On opening night, Kelly Leonard’s dad, Roy Leonard, the incredibly popular film and theater critic, sat in our theater and watched me play his son in a very unflattering way. I have to say, I’ve never been more gut-wrenchingly nervous before an opening night, or elated immediately after. I could have closed that show after opening night, because it went over 100 times better than we expected, and we got what we wanted – a ton of press for daring to poke fun at The Man, and the validation that Second City had fucked up by not hiring us because we were all too f-ing talented. I know, that sounds INCREDIBLY pretentious, but fuck it. Various Second City folks saw the show, many of whom we either played or mentioned by name, and I had many of them tell me they loved it. SPOILER: Apparently it wasn’t so much fun working at Second City.

Funny or not funny?

1. Dick jokes – frequently funny.

2. Mad Magazine – Funny. Especially up until the mid-80’s. But still funny.

3. Tina Fey – Funny. But apparently not funny enough to be cast in a Factory show. Truth. We had a general audition during one of the early years of the theater, and we asked for a “non-traditional comic monologue.” Toward the end of a VERY long day, this very mousy girl with a scar on her face came in and did “Jackie Collins’s ‘Letters from Nam’”. It was hilarious, but she was so quiet and had no “umph” when we talked to her, so we never called her in for anything. She seemed more like a writer than an actor. I wonder how she’s doing now….

4. Fart jokes – Hmmm. Fart SOUNDS? Funny. Fart jokes? Eh.

5. A kick in the crotch – Always funny, unless it’s my crotch.

6. Pee Wee Herman – Funny, and my hero.

7. An anvil dropped on the foot – Eh. Depends on whose foot. A one-legged amputee? Funny.

8. Mel Brooks – Used to be funny, but sadly, not funny now.

"Nuclear Family" was your swan song at the Factory Theater, and many still consider the show to be the finest play ever produced at the Factory.  It was pretty much a 180-degree turn from your earlier efforts -- what led to the writing of that show?  Was it just a matter of trying to do something different, or had something else happened to trigger the play's creation?

If by “many” you mean the critic Justin Hayford, I’ll agree with that. NUCLEAR FAMILY was a great note to go out on, because the show really did well. I wrote it for Amy Seeley, Nick Digilio, Marssie Mencotti, Molly Brennan and myself, and ended up with three other really great people in it as well – Wendy Tregay, Hal Kilgore and David Babbit. And of course, the late Joey Meyer, my best friend, directed it. After doing all the movie-inspired stuff, I just wanted to see if I could write a “straight” black comedy, with real people and no breaking the fourth wall, etc. It was incredibly hard to write, mainly because I couldn’t rely on schtick, and it was largely autobiographical in that I poured a ton of my personal life into each of the characters. I had no idea it would be as popular as it was, and even now I think the second act needs a complete overhaul. And strangely, I’ve never ventured into that territory again as a playwright. I guess I got it out of my system…or I’m too afraid to go back…

Best horror film no one has ever seen: 
That’s tough, because I watch so many horror flicks, and I have no perspective on what normal people have seen. But I’d say either DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT, a really nasty exploitation film from 1973 set in an insane asylum, or HORROR, this trippy, “Is this a dream?” film by Dante Tomaselli. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm incredibly flattered by that intro, but as always I have to make clear - There were six of us working our butts off to open the Factory in the beginning. The Factory wouldn't be the Factory without Jeff, Amy, Mike, Tom and Bo working as hard as I was.

Vive Le Factory!