Published on December 6th, 2013 | by Greggory Moore2
RIOTstage: Building a Theatrical Rock ‘n’ Roll Future in the LBC
Photo: Josh Fischel, center, and the cast of “The Brit” (credit: Hadrian Suciu)
It was originally conceived solely as a theatre company. But founder Josh Fischel’s increasing immersion within Long Beach’s strong music scene led him to broaden RIOTstage’s mission. Still in its nascence, RIOTstage is now “an entertainment group on a mission to attract an eclectic new generation” through “high-quality, provocative, imaginative and eclectic concerts, theatre pieces, intimate evenings, and day-long festivals.”
This kind of thing costs money, of course, so RIOTstage’s first events are doubling as fundraisers to help set up RIOTstage’s first full-blown production: Tommy, slated for fall 2014.
RIOTstage’s inaugural event, “The Storyteller,” was a one-night-only affair last March. Featuring an impressive array of local music talent in ad hoc combinations performing narrative-centered material. Three hundred seats sold at $40 per ticket, with patrons walking away telling tales of wacky animal costumes and the full-blown rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that closed the show. The demand for the sort of spectacle RIOTstage is serving up was evident.
This time around Fischel thought doubling up would be twice as nice. Thus comes “The Brit,” which takes over Long Beach’s EXPO Arts Center on December 13 and 14. Tix are down to $25 per seat for a show whose first act will feature songs by The Clash, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Queen, Kate Bush, Led Zeppelin, et al.—a mere prelude to the front-to-back run-through of Abbey Road that will happen after intermission.
There will also be a more elaborate visual component this time around, with video projections ranging from footage of punk riots and Beatlemania to psychedelic atmospherics to digital fish marionettes during “Octopus’s Garden” and animation that will bring to life the tale of “Mean Mr. Mustard”.
It’s all part of RIOTstage’s mission to “bring the ruckus” to theatre in Long Beach. And even though this is a city whose institutional support traditionally goes to mainstream work. Fischel thinks a shift in Long Beach’s power centers toward a younger, hipper demographic bodes well for what RIOTstage is offering.
“There is definitely an audience in this town that will love the diversity in our art and really connect to what we’re doing,” Fischel says. “There’s so many young, up-and-coming business owners that could really be drawn to RIOTstage and the desire to bring something that enriches Long Beach. We need to build a tradition where people trust that every time they see a RIOTstage gig, it will be entertaining, different and, like, really rock.”
Ellen Warkentine, a musical mainstay in Long Beach and one of RIOTstage’s musical directors, first worked with Fischel on “The Storyteller” and was mightily impressed with both Fischel’s vision and the talent he pulled together to realize it.
“The talent and the diverse musical background of the RIOTStage performers makes this group particularly unique and exciting,” she says. “Working with this group—and particularly with Josh—has been an incredible experience. Josh had specific visions for each song in ‘The Storyteller,’ staging scenes to bring out the theatricality in each song. He brings out the theatre in the rock and the rock in the theatre.”
Fischel’s journey to RIOTstage started out with a different destination in mind: Broadway. After attending United States International University on a theatre scholarship (he roomed with Emmy-winner Thorsten Kaye, with Jamie Foxx lodged upstairs (“He taught me how to play piano and sing falsetto,” Fischel says), he moved to NYC but quickly soured on pursuing a theatre career. He started a band and took film classes, which serendipitously led to his shooting live shows music videos for Sublime, who eventually hired him as their videographer for the 1995 Warped Tour.
Two years later Fischel found himself disillusioned with the corporate aspect of the music industry. A move to Long Beach followed, as did extensive touring (48 states, plus Europe, Australia, and New Zealand) with the band Bargain Music. Suddenly it was 10 years later, and Fischel—now married and on the far side of 40—wanted a different kind of life and wondered whether he could somehow align his various desires.
Fischel and his wife took trips to NYC and London. Ingesting a heavy dose of theatre along the way, he found himself longing for a taste of something outside of the status quo.
“Some of the plays were good, some not so much,” he recalls. “In London I wanted to see something unusual, [something] I’d never seen before. And I found this songwriter/puppeteer named Matthew Robins and his show Flyboy Is Alone Again This Christmas. It was mind-blowing.”
Fischel returned with two friends “who’d never seen a play in their lives” and says they were completely blown away.
“It started to make me think about how so many people who don’t go see theatre might if they knew there was stuff like this out there,” Fischel says. “They grow up seeing, you know, Oklahoma! in high school or something. I’m not dissing all that kind of thing. There’s a time and place for it. But it’s definitely not where my head’s at.”
Fischel reasons that even many of the people who can afford to cough up $150 a ticket for a Broadway show wouldn’t want to for the likes of Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera.
“But there’s so much out there,” he says. “If you present it in a different way, incorporating something that’s already too familiar to them—like rock and roll—then maybe you bring a new audience to theatre. And it needs it, because theatre is dying. […] The idea behind RIOTstage is to create high-quality, at least semi-affordable theatrical entertainment that more people can relate to.”
Money, of course, is a harsh reality in the world of theatre, especially in a city where even established theatre companies say they cannot recoup their costs solely by way of ticket sales. Warkentine, the force behind recent live scores for The Artist and Nosferatu, knows a thing or two about the need to resort to outside fundraising.
“Last year I had the wild adventure of co-producing [the original musical] LOLPERA at the Hollywood and New York Fringe Festivals, and we couldn’t have done it without the support of the community at fundraisers,” she says. “In order to fully bring the RIOTStage vision to life, we need the support of ruckus-ready audiences.”
Fischel’s determination to pay his artists a fair wage while keeping ticket prices relatively low makes the math even trickier.
“I’ve been an artist for my entire life,” Fischel says, “[and] I’ve seen a lot of exploitation [of artists]. People I’ve worked for in the past [have said things like], ‘I know it’s eight weeks of your time, but we can only pay you $700. But it’s really a good part for you!’ You sign on, then you go to the cast party, and the producer’s living in a $5 million house!”
Not that anyone’s going to get rich from RIOTstage. But the draw for each performer is Fischel’s vision and the all-star lineup he’s assembled. Jon Zell, co-founder of the musical collaborative MOVE (featured at BuskerFest in August), typifies the talented mutual-admiration society that is RIOTstage.
“Ellen Warkentine was the one who invited me to audition [for ‘The Storyteller’], so I knew it would be a serious deal,” he says. “But when I heard about the other musicians who were there, I just really hoped I was going to make the grade. […] My experience working the RIOTstage has really been life-changing. Playing with so many amazing people has really pushed me professionally.”
“There’s a lot of untapped talent in Long Beach, a lot of people who just aren’t getting seen or heard,” says Fischel. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to create RIOTstage. […] Let’s face it: most artists are not good businessmen. I’m not saying I think I’m necessarily a good businessman, but I’m a good organizer and a good motivator. There is so much talent around here—it just needs to be harnessed. I’m not saying I’m necessarily the guy to do that, but I’m definitely going to be one of the guys.”
RIOTstage’s second production, “The Brit,” takes place at the EXPO Arts Center (4321 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach 90807) on December 13 and 14, 2013. To purchase tickets and to find out more about RIOTstage, go to riotstagelb.com.
[Note: The author has a small, non-compensated role in “The Brit.”]