Little Charlotte is getting a bit of L.A., Hollywood taste with the opening of “AmerWrecka,” the first production of the gay-owned, recently-relocated Actor’s Lab. The play, which opened on Feb. 12, follows the story of the four students killed at Kent State University in the 1970s. Nearly 40 years after their death, they return to earth with a vitally important message for humanity. We spoke with Actor’s Lab director J.D. Lewis via email in advance of his show’s Charlotte opening.
J.D., 50, a Birmingham, Ala.-native, has been met with good fortune in life, operating acting coaching classes for everyone from A-List stars to TV series cast members. He lives in Charlotte with his two adopted sons, Jack, 11, and Buck, 6, and commutes to L.A. for coaching work.
Matt Comer: Tell us a bit about The Actor’s Lab. You’ve been in operation for almost two decades now. How did it start? Where did you get the inspiration to establish it?
J.D.: I started The Actor’s Lab in 1990. I was a working actor on an NBC series called, “Midnight Caller,” and all of my friends were constantly asking me to coach them for auditions. An actor suggested that I should teach a class. We got eight people together and the rest is history. I feel really fortunate that I’m able to live my life as an artist. It has been really gratifying to see my students go on to have amazing careers in television, film and stage. I’ve had the good fortune of working with some great casts like “Suddenly Susan” with Brooke Shields and the cast of “Friends.” I’ve worked with actors from Jennifer Anniston to Debra Winger.
What are some of your most memorable moments as director of The Actor’s Lab?
I think the most memorable moments have been encouraging original works at The Actor’s Lab. A film, “Memron” was developed out of The Actor’s Lab. It ended up winning at Slamdance film festival and my students received a development deal with Sony Television and got their first series on TV, “10 Items or Less.” Also last year, a web series developed from Lab members, won the first Emmy for Internet Drama.
You recently moved to Charlotte. How was the move for you personally, as well as for The Actor’s Lab?
I recently moved to Charlotte with my sons. My kids have been raised in Los Angeles on TV and film sets. I wanted them to be brought up in a “real” environment.
I love Charlotte. It has been an easy transition. I love that Charlotte has the charm of the South and the feel of a metropolitan city. The people are wonderful and, as far as my kids are concerned, it’s “rad.” They love their school and friends and being around a lot of green… oh, and their first snow! Wow. I appreciate it because it’s a safe, healthy and nurturing environment.
I am in love with Charlotte. I feel like I have arrived at an exciting time. It feels like the art and theater scene is really exploding. The South End and NoDa feel like really cool places to be right now. I had no idea Charlotte had such an amazing artistic community. The level of talent in this city is extraordinary!
What is “AmerWrecka?” Tell me a bit about its inception and your vision for it.
“AmerWrecka” was originally inspired by the 2004 election. I was upset that Bush got re-elected and so I put my angst on paper. I wrote “AmerWrecka” because I felt like Americans had become apathetic and I wanted to do my part to wake them up. I decided to have it’s premiere at The International Edinburgh Festival in Scotland so that I could “try it on” with an international audience. It was shockingly well received. From there, we have toured internationally, headlining the Unfringed Festival in Limerick, Ireland and opening to sold out houses in Los Angeles at Highway’s Performance Space. I’m really proud of this particular show. It is close to my heart, being a child of the ’60s.
Tell us a bit about the plot.
It’s about the four students who died at Kent State University in 1970 at a peace rally. The story begins with the shooting and then follows them as they go to heaven to get an assignment to return to present-day earth to wake up the politically apathetic. The music is all from the ’60s. There is some harsh language and nudity. Overall it is laced with humor and a fast pace. We managed to get Cher Ferreyra (from “Veronica Mars”) and Kevin Patrick Murphy (artistic director of Echo Arts Project), both from the original cast to do this show in Charlotte. Also, Kellin Watson (www.KellinWatson.com), a recording artist from Asheville, joins the cast as well.
What does the audience stand to really learn from “AmerWrecka’s” message?
I hope audiences will walk away with the idea that mankind will always be oppressed, but rise up when necessary. That wanting to “Get Back to The Garden” is a beautiful thing…and War? What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Most importantly, I hope they will have fun and be entertained and leave the Charlotte Art League with a spring in their step.
— “AmerWrecka” opened in Charlotte on Feb. 12 at the Charlotte Art League. It will run through Feb. 28. For more information and for tickets visit www.charlotteartleague.org. For more on The Actor’s Lab visit www.theactorslab.com.