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West September 25, 2002

Late Night Laughter
Sacred Fools' unique Crime Scene
gears up for fifth season.

By Jenelle Riley

Carla-Jo Bailey, Haven Hartman and
Tabatha Hall in Golden Grrlz,
part of Crime Scene.
 (Photo By: Desi Doyen)

A stoic FBI agent comes to small-town America to investigate the murder of the local prom queen. Everything appears "cherry-pie perfect" on the surface, but closer investigation reveals a seamy and surreal underbelly to the city. The quirky townsfolk, including such colorful characters as Johnny Date Rape, The Leg Lady, and a giant albino midget who only speaks backwards, offer only bizarre riddles as clues. Welcome to David Lynch's Cherry Hills, a part homage and part parody show that is just one of three short programs brought to you by the Sacred Fools Theater's weekly Crime Scene show.

Producers Brad Friedman and Paul Byrne have been presenting Crime Scene for four seasons on Saturday nights at 11 p.m., following mainstage shows at the 99-Seat Sacred Fools Theater. The fifth season premiere opens on Sept. 28 with the same format: Host Henry Dittman introduces three programs, each containing three intercut scenes. Some shows may run only one week, and the episode is resolved by the end of the evening. But most shows run between two and five weeks, requiring audience members to return the following week to see how the story plays out. According to Friedman, "The objective is to keep things silly and fun and to always try to make it more insane than it was the week before."

With so many shows going up so quickly, actors usually don't see a script until the week of the show. Friedman said a cast is lucky if it gets more than one rehearsal during the week. Saturdays are set aside for tech rehearsals, in which the three shows are given scant time to perfect sound and lighting cues. It's a hurried and nail-biting format that Scott Rabinowitz and the late Danielle Surrette brought from their New York theatre days, when Rabinowitz participated in a weekly late-night soap opera with a similar format. Originally the show featured only crime-related storylines, but Friedman said, "Over the years it sort of evolved into whatever the heck it is now."

What it is now, according to Dittman, is the best bash in town. "I say this over and over again when trying to get people to come to the show: It's a giant party. This can be an exhausting business, so these nights are all about just having a good time." The party doesn't stop after the show; people have been known to stick around until 6 a.m., following a performance. Friedman said the goal is to keep the atmosphere welcoming, and that extends to new actors interested in appearing in shows. "It seems like so many people in this town want you to go away," said Friedman, "but we want you to come here. We love having new actors, and we'll average five new performers a week." Friedman added that there is no real audition process; it's just a matter of talking to actors long enough to get an idea of where they would fit in.

Perhaps the individuals who benefit most from the Crime Scene shows are the authors, who are given an opportunity to see their work performed. "For writers who so often spend so much of their time writing and then things end up sitting on the shelf, this is a chance to actually get it up," said Friedman. "And it may be slapped together in a week, but it's some pretty clever and committed actors playing to a tremendous house." Dittman agreed that it's excellent practice for writers, considering how similar the format is to a half-hour sitcom. Cherry Hills author Jaime L. Robledo praised Crime Scene for giving him the opportunity to take risks without having to worry about box office. "I got to try things and was able to fail or succeed in a safe environment," said Robledo.

Because of what Friedman calls "the show's zero budget," Crime Scene is relegated to working around whatever set is used for the mainstage show. In some cases, this creates endless opportunities. Cherry Hills was able to use trap doors and a flying harness that had been installed for the mainstage production; it only added to the strange fantasy aspects of the script. Friedman also said that being so limited by set and budget can be an advantage to the writer. "Having no money lets people write as big as they want. They can set a story on the deck of the Titanic, and if it ends up looking cheap and cheesy, that's half the fun."

A large part of the fun for the audience is watching all the things that can and do go wrong. "The disaster stories are usually the best things that can happen to a show," said Friedman. Dittman might disagree after recently being trapped in an extremely uncomfortable harness 6 feet off the stage floor, but he admitted it's one of the most-talked about moments from the shows. "People love the excitement that anything can happen, and it creates a great energy in the room," said Dittman.

With 20 to 40 actors performing a show that was put together in less than a week, you might not expect to see a quality show. But past productions won raves for their sharp satirizing of a variety of genres. These have included: The Toys From Brazil, what Friedman affectionately terms "a heil-larious Hitlerpalooza" that ended with a row of Hitler clones goose-stepping to "One" from A Chorus Line; a Dr. Seuss parody titled Who Slew Simon Thaddeus Mulberry Pew? written entirely in verse, and 1987, a tale of buyouts, big bucks, and breakdancing that starred Ahmed Best, the voice of Jar Jar Binks.

Crime Scene's ambitious schedule will include 12 shows over the next 13 weeks (the show is dark Nov. 9), and Friedman said a wide variety of programs are planned. Season Five kicks off with three new series: Maximum Goldie, the tale of a magician's assistant/porn star/assassin from the future; a cartoon mafia satire The Smurfanos, and Dick Denslow, about a private detective with an extensive internal monologue. But don't try to predict the success of any of the shows. As Friedman said, "We won't even see it until 11 o'clock that night."

"Crime Scene," presented by and at Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., L.A. Sat. 11p.m., Sept. 28-Dec. 21. $10. (310) 281-8337 or book online at

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