UC Berkeley alum and founding Artistic Director of BareStage Productions Ben Rimalower will be stopping by Berkeley next week for his original show, “Patti Issues” — a deeply personal monologue about the hardship of family, the majesty of musical theater and the power of Broadway extraordinaire Patti Lupone. The Daily Californian phoned Rimalower to talk about his time at Berkeley, his transition to the New York theater scene and the process of developing “Patti Issues.”
The Daily Californian: You were the founding artistic director of BareStage, what was that experience like? How did you first get involved and what has been the takeaway from your time with BareStage and at Cal?
Ben Rimalower: When I got to Berkeley as a freshman in 1994, I knew that I wanted to be a Drama major and I knew that I wanted to be a theater director. At the time, there was no musical theater at Cal except for a DeCal called “Musical Theater Workshop” which was just performing. They didn’t do shows, they just did songs. So, I performed in that. But, the Drama Dept. (now, Theater, Dance and Performance Studies) would not let me direct anything. There were better schools. But, I wanted to be in Berkeley. I felt that so much of being an artist is looking at the world and saying something about it, being part of a culture and speaking to a community. I felt that Berkeley was the community that I wanted to be doing that in.
DC: How has your experience with BareStage and your time at Cal influenced you professionally?
BR: I’m so grateful in retrospect that I went to Berkeley. Because, the reality I’ve had in this business in New York City is that I’ve had to think outside the box. Anything I’ve done that’s had any success I’ve had to initiate myself and build myself and support. I’d see peers of mine who were just as talented as me, even more so, try to do things and just be frustrated, have the door slammed in their face and give up. That never occurred to me because I went to Berkeley. Now, when I have the door slammed in my face, I don’t think “Oh shit. I’m screwed.” I think this is a chance for triumph.
DC: Coming from that environment of being a big fish in a small pond, what was the transition to New York like?
BR: Well, it’s taken a long time. In a way, Berkeley is a microcosm of the real world. I remember, during my freshman and sophomore year, trying to build my name and I’ve seen the same process in real life. I would say I’m the equivalent of a first semester junior right now.
DC: After working as a director and producer for several years, what made you decide to transition into writing and performing with “Patti Issues”?
BR: What I talk about in my show a little bit is how frustrating it was going from being an assistant director to a director. I just kept feeling my career being stalled because of the material I was directing. It’s very hard for directors because an actor can audition and a playwright has their work on paper. A director really has no way of putting themselves out there. So, I directed this show that I conceived called “Leslie Kritzer is Patti Lupone at Les Mouches” where we recreated Patti Lupone’s famed 1980 cabaret act. But then I thought, what else am I going to do? I felt like I want to start writing and that’s when I began blogging. I really enjoyed the experience and so, the next thing was to develop a full-length piece that was in my own narrative voice. The thing that was obvious for me to talk about was Patti Lupone, but then when I actually started writing, I ended up with a show that was much more about me than it was about her.
DC: You mention blogging as a way to get yourself out there. How do you think social media and the internet in general has changed the theater business?
BR: I think that YouTube especially and the fact that we are all on social networks, where everyone is starring in their own reality show all the time, is wonderful. It puts the means of production into someone’s hands. When I was in school, if you wanted to do a radio show or a TV show, there were so many channels and red tape you had to go through. And now, anybody with a computer has access to the whole world.
DC: Because “Patti Issues” is so personal, how did you go about structuring the show?
BR: Well, I started off just writing about Patti and I knew that my show needed to have a theatrical finale. What felt like a very natural moment to end the show on was a real life experience I had that was kind of insane. I hadn’t seen my father in years and he was sitting directly behind me at “Gypsy” on Broadway. It felt very full circle for me, but then I had a show that was an hour about Patti Lupone and ended with a thing about my father. So, I had to have that make sense.
DC: What would you say you’ve learned about yourself during the development and run of this show?
BR: I’ve certainly learned that I can say I’m a performer. I didn’t perform at UC Berkeley. I knew I just wanted to be a director. I was wrong because I love performing. I don’t think my father ever saw this show — I don’t even think that he would like it — but, in my experience, what struck me about giving him voice is that I actually found a lot of sympathy for him.
DC: Finally, what would you say to those students coming to see “Patti Issues” who want to make it in show business?
BR: Just that, behind every “No,” there’s an opportunity to do things a different way. And, if they really want it, then nothing can stop them. It might take one year, it might take fifty years. But, if you believe in it and are in it for just the pure love of it, nothing can stop you.