Pop culture, entertainment & all things Fresno

Final musings on the Kennedy Center


A roundup of news tidbits, random musings and sleep-deprived observations as I sit at LAX waiting for my fight to Fresno:

Saturday results: Mohammad Shehata, the Fresno City College student participating in the national critics competition at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, didn’t win his division. (The final technical awards were given at noon Saturday at the Kennedy Center, just before everyone scooted off to the airport.) But even though he didn’t take home the top honor, I think Shehata had an enriching experience at the Kennedy Center. He really seemed to thrive in the intellectual vigor of his sessions as he worked with top-notch mentors Bob Nelson (Washington Post) and Mark Charney (the O’Neill Critics Institute), along with Bob Mondello of National Public Radio. Shehata was the only actor in the critics group, and from what he tells me, he brought an intriguing perspective to a table full of writers (who were, of course, vastly outnumbered by actors and designers throughout the event).

The Kennedy Center itself: It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it before — it’s always impressive. With its huge marble walls and sweeping views of the Potomac, you feel a “capital of the empire” vibe emanating from the building’s imposing magnitude. The chandeliers inside are bigger than my car. The Terrace Theatre, where the Irene Ryan finals were held, has a big stage, and when it’s bare — except for a tight square delineated by piercing white light — it seemed even more officious.

The “Beverly Hillbilles” connection: The Irene Ryan scholarships are named for the veteran actress who played Granny on the TV series. She gave enough money to establish the program in perpetuity. Throughout the evening, during down times, photographs of Ryan were projected on the backdrop. But it was just so weird to see her not looking like Granny.

The “competition”: Officially, it’s a scholarship audition. The “C” word must not be uttered within the presence of KCATCF organizers. Get this: the judges are called “auditors,” because if they were judges, it would be a competition, right? What-ever.

The Irene Ryan winners: One scholarship went to Ethan Leaverton of the University of Nevada-Reno, who wowed the audience with an outstanding package that included a Shakespeare monologue performed in the vernacular and pronunciation of Elizabethan England. The other scholarship went to Oya Bangura of Suffolk County Community College. What I remember most about Bangura is that she was poppingly pregnant. She performed a nice package, but the overall results just reinforce what everyone knows about auditions: They’re always subjective, whether the decisions are being made by judges (oops, auditors, please forgive me, KCACTF aficionados) or casting directors. I honestly thought Woods was going to win. There was an intensity in his scenes with the excellent Abels, an electricity on stage between them, that filled the Terrace Theatre when the pair performed.

Worst moment of the Irene Ryans: When one finalist in a comic scene flipped her oddly cropped hair all the way over her face to punctuate a line. It got a big laugh from some of the audience, but the Fresno State affiliated onlookers I was sitting with didn’t crack a grin. We’re a tough crowd.

Favorite Ryan Woods/Taylor Abels moment: In their scene from “The Rainmaker” when Woods as the seductive Starbuck urged Abels as the unconfident Lizzie to say to the mirror, “I’m pretty,” then kissed her. Even though I’d seen the dress rehearsal just a couple of hours before, I just melted. It was that good.

Favorite Myles Bullock/Molly Kelly moment: Their excellent scene from “The Mother … With the Hat,” including a Zorro-swish across the stage from Bullock. Both Bullock and Kelly nailed that scene.

Sweetest moment: Getting to meet Kelly’s family. Her mother, Maureen, father, Adrian, and sister, Grace, flew in from San Francisco for the evening. They were so proud! “It’s so exciting to be able to sit here and watch your child perform,” her mother told me.

Best off-the-record moment: My dinner at the Luna Grill and Diner on Connecticut Avenue  with the Fresno State contingent. Ah, the backstage stories I heard. I am sworn to secrecy.

It’s in his bones: The students went to lots of workshops (and met some very famous theater people), but by Thursday night, Woods just wanted to get on stage. “I’m just antsy,” he told me. “I need to act.”

The stamina award goes to: Shehata, who pulled a couple of near all-nighters writing his reviews. But on Thursday night, he just decided to go to bed after his final show, woke up about 6 a.m. and pounded out his last two assignments before the 9 a.m. cut-off. Sometimes forcing yourself to write on deadline is the way to go.

The stroller-in-chief award goes to: Brad Myers, who loves ambling the streets of D.C. One morning when I called him, he was hanging out in front of the White House.

Funniest moment: I’ve posted this already, but I can’t resist: There we all were, walking back to the hotel from dinner along Rhode Island Avenue, when Bullock and Kelly started reciting their scene from “The Mother … With the Hat.” (And you can easily guess what the “…” stands for.) Several pedestrians were startled right out of their capital-city nonchalance, openly gaping at the two. Fresno State not only left its theater mark on the Kennedy Center, but even on the streets of Washington.

Go Gumby: I hung out with the Fresno State actors in a workshop taught by the renowned Kari Margalis, who waxed eloquent about the pliable claymation figure. If you cut Gumby open — which seems a heinous proposal, but evidently within the prerogative of a noted acting authority — you’d find solid green. When not-so-good actors act, they’re like Gumby: the same on the inside as the outside. OK, a little New Agey, but I get the point.

Weirdest place for an interview, Part 1: We crashed a conference room at the Marriott Courtyard Embassy Row, where everyone was staying, that had one wall covered with an illuminated scene of Washington cherry blossoms. I shot my video interviews with the Fresno State students there, and the strangely vibrant, cheesy-romantic backdrop made the scene feel like a cross between an infomercial set and a boudoir photography studio.

Weirdest place for an interview, Part 2: The only time I could find to interview Jennifer Hasty, a Fresno State alum who competed in the Irene Ryans in 1993, was when I was at Penn Station in Manhattan waiting for my train to D.C. So that’s where I talked to her. She was gracious about the periodic outbursts of “All Aboard” over the p.a. system. I almost missed my train, by the way.

Moment of despair, Part 1: I worked for a couple of hours Friday afternoon putting together my two videos, and then I couldn’t get the blessed things to post. This is what I learned: Not all wireless is equal. In fact, wireless at the Foggy Bottom Whole Foods is as slow as the kind and creaky older gentleman who drove my rental car shuttle (and insisted on cranking the door open at each stop and tentatively hoisting each passenger’s luggage aboard the bus, causing me to go nearly apoplectic with airport anxiety). My last-ditch effort was perching myself on the stoop of a swanky hotel near the Kennedy Center and picking up the free wireless, only to have YouTube spit back a terse “Failed to Publish” pop-up after 20 minutes of uploading. Oh, and it was raining.

Moment of despair, Part 2: My own hotel was many miles out in the Maryland ‘burbs, alas, and I rented a car for the final day because I knew I’d be coming back so late. (On the other nights I took the Metro.) After the competition I became so thoroughly lost on the infamous Beltway — the spaghetti-like series of highways and toll roads that ring Washington — that I performed my own award-winning angry monologue at 1:30 a.m. while driving 50 mph AND trying to guess if my iPhone’s instructions to veer left on I-270 N meant I should take the express or local version of that infuriating thoroughfare. (Never say I can’t multitask.) When I was finally able to get off the evil highway, picture me lurching a half mile at a time through deserted office parks and roundabouts, stopping each time to recalculate my position and directions on my iPhone, whose battery power was dropping alarmingly. I sang each refreshed set of directions at the top of my lungs, and in a state near delirium, I finally made it to my bed. I do not have fond memories of Rockville.

Standout moment of the trip: After getting tossed out of the Kennedy Center at midnight, I parked myself under the building’s magnificent awning on a marble slab just outside the main entrance. After filing my story, I loaded the photos I’d taken of the night’s events onto my iPad and emailed them to the Beehive’s Kathy Mahan, my most excellent editor, who was working late back in Fresno to get the story into the paper. After my final phone call with her, I sat for a moment of stillness: just me and the lighted building, the rain making the marble slick and bright, the soft glow of streetlights in the downpour. Just beyond, I took in the darkness of the Potomac River and marveled at the tranquility of it all. What a night.



For the Bee’s photo gallery of the Kennedy Center experience, click here.

And, finally, a couple of photos of beautiful Washington to leave you with:

photo (5)


photo (6)


photo (7)



Fresno State theater students compete on big stage (preview story)
Fresno State actors earn national prizes (results story)
Fresno State at the Kennedy Center (photo gallery)
Video interview: Mohammad Shehata
Video interview: Six Minutes at the Kennedy Center


Responses to "Final musings on the Kennedy Center"

Ashley Taylor says:

This is fantastic. Thank you so much for bringing all of us along with you for the ride. :)

Leslie Cunning says:

What a night, indeed. You are such a joyous observer of the arts, Donald. Love looking at the theatre festival through your eyes.

Janet says:

You did an over-the-top, fabulous job during the Washington adventure. I looked forward to your wonderful reporting, and all of the keen side line observations, each day. What would the arts community do without you and all of your dedication, Donald? I was reminded many times of years ago when you took that “sabbatical” in New York, and also traveled to Europe. I read your “blog” (BEFORE BLOGS REALLY EXISTED ON THE INTERNET), and waited for you to faithfully return to the Bee. You are the number one reason I still subscribe to the paper version to this day!

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