James Elden is producer, director, actor, and self-publisher of the PL.A.Y Noir series staged annually in North Hollywood by his company, Punk Monkey Productions. James can be seen sporadically on television as reoccurring characters on both CONAN and General Hospital and has performed Off-Broadway in the critically acclaimed Santasia: A Holiday Comedy. He is currently working on two full-length screenplays and hopes to produce his two short films, Bobo and Two Kids, a Clown and a Babysitter. He also recently launched the Los Angeles Collegiate Playwrights Festival, a national festival geared solely towards bringing up-and-coming college playwrights together with working Hollywood industry professionals.
I’ve known James for several years and have had the opportunity to work with him in the past. My play Silencing Silas was included in PL.A.Y Noir in 2012, as was Ann Convery’s play Shoofly. The plays were also included in the premiere volume of the PL.A.Y Noir book series. A consummate professional, James is known for his passion and creativity. I caught up with James to discuss theatre, acting, writing, directing, and noir in the City of Angels.
PL.A.Y Noir is rapidly becoming an LA institution, how did it initially come about?
I almost hate to use the word, but PL.A.Y Noir was sort of a fluke. My wife at the time, Sarah Kelly, and I had just come off producing our second full-length play, The Maiden’s Prayer by Nicky Silver, and were discussing our interest in staging a series of one-act plays. I had just directed a tongue-in-cheek Noir piece the previous year called The Zone Ranger written by then high school students, Ben Goldstein and Mac Taylor, as part of the Young Playwrights Festival at Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood, and starred Tony Award-winner Ben Platt and singer/songwriter Kathryn Gallagher. I mentioned my interest in revisiting and staging The Zone Ranger, and Sarah followed up with the suggestion of just doing a series of all Noir plays. From there we announced our first “call for entries” and in 2012 staged our first year of PL.A.Y Noir. We had such a great time, we decided to do it again the following year.
The series is produced by your production company, Punk Monkey. What is the genesis of the name?
Sort of another fluke, I suppose. Maybe fate. We had been producing plays under the name Epiphany Productions for our first three years. As our interest in production expanded, we began looking into domain names in order to establish a web presence. Unfortunately, Epiphany Productions was already taken. We went with what would later become a dedication to our dog, Leo, a rescue mutt we found wandering the I-5 freeway in 2008. Leo’s personality was that of stubborn independence, a bit of a punk. That combined with our other “pet name” for him, Monkey, led us to Punk Monkey. Unfortunately, due to rapidly deteriorating health, we had to say goodbye to Leo shortly before the opening of inaugural year. I think Sarah said it best in the origin story from our website, “as a tribute to him, our aim is to produce this show (and all future Punk Monkey shows) with the same independent spirit that he embodied. We aspire to produce theater that is original, courageous, playful, and of course, full of heart. Just like Leo.”
How would you describe PL.A.Y Noir?
Simply put, a series of Film Noir styled one-act plays set in the City of Angels (hence the emphasis of L.A. in PL.A.Y) and revolving around the classic themes of murder, greed and betrayal, involving the classic stock characters of the hard-boiled detective, the seductive femme fatale, and the unscrupulous heavy. That said, we’ve produced many plays that do not have all of the above criteria. Some pieces may have none of the characters but all of the themes, after all, Noir is a genre that even the critics cannot agree on what qualifies.
Why did you decide to make it a series of one-act short plays as opposed to one full-length noir play?
There are so many facets of Noir, I don’t think a full-length play would, or even could, represent them all. PL.A.Y Noir is homage to the genre and staging multiple one-act allows us to give an of evening of variety that touches upon those facets, including classic and neo Noir, as well as comedy and drama. We always try to present an evening that is well balanced in all aspects. A series of one-acts also allows us to give voice and opportunity to multiple playwrights opposed to just spotlighting one.
How many years has the series been running now?
Six. We will be presenting our seventh year of PL.A.Y Noir in the fall of 2018.
How has it changed throughout the years?
We’re always changing. The content. The cast. Overall, though, I think we’ve matured. I think PL.A.Y Noir has become a well-polished machine from a production stand point. We’ve gotten to a point where we know what works and what doesn’t, but I think we played it a little safer in the beginning. We’ve certainly taken more chances, especially with content. You read something that works well on the page, but when it comes to actually staging the play, it may not translate as well as you would have liked, or the audience just doesn’t connect with it to the extent you would have hoped. We’ve learned a lot in that regard. I’ve learned a lot. Noir is an anomaly. Not everybody is familiar with it. They’ve heard the term Noir or Film Noir, but they couldn’t tell you what it is. I think even in trying to find our definition of Noir, we’ve changed and will continue to do so.
You produce PL.A.Y Noir. You also direct and act in many of the plays. Is it difficult to wear that many hats?
There’s definitely a hierarchy; producer, director, performer. Nonetheless, the show comes first. It’s only difficult when the unexpected occurs, but you have to roll with it. Sometimes you lose a director or an actor, and that definitely throws a monkey wrench into the plan. I have a very supportive core group of people, some who have been along for the ride since the beginning, and if something goes awry they step up to the plate. I certainly couldn’t do it without their help.
Which of those (producing, acting, directing) would you say is nearest and dearest to you?
I love to act and direct, but when it comes to PL.A.Y Noir, I’d have to say producing, from the first submission to the closing performance. The wonderment that goes along with the entirety of the production is fascinating, the number of plays we’ll receive that year followed by where in the world they’ll come from. Our most responsive year we received over 250 plays, and we haven’t received less than 100 since our third year. We’ve received plays from England, Ireland, Wales, Spain, France, Italy, Israel, New Zealand, and Australia, and routinely from our friends in Canada and, of course, the United States. To sit and read them all, make the selections, bring them from page to stage, and hopefully have the opportunity to meet the playwrights should they make the trek from afar; the whole process is gratifying.
You are now also publishing the plays. Tell me a bit about that.
It’s a bit of building and expanding the brand, but most of all, it’s about creating opportunities, and I hope publishing the plays will provide that. I researched publishing through Dramatists and Samuel French, but the obstacles seemed too laborious and daunting. It always comes down to getting someone else to say “yes.” We live in a world of accessibility. Now more than ever we can become our own gatekeepers, and that’s why I took the self-publishing route. There is some great content out there, and it’s come across our stage, but our stage is one of many. I hope by publishing the plays we’ve produced, we can open other doors for those playwrights.
What is next for PL.A.Y Noir?
I’d like to think we’ve got four more years in us, at least to hit 10 years. I have three more years of books to publish (2015, 2016, and 2017), and I’d like to do two larger volumes, PL.A.Y Noir Volume 1 (2012-2016) and PL.A.Y Noir Volume 2 (2017-2021). I’ve also been talking a bit with the Film Noir Foundation. They’ve been big supporters of ours and promote our calls for entry and productions. I’ve been corresponding with their PR rep, Anne Hockens, in hopes have having her write the introduction for PL.A.Y Noir Volume 1, and if we can get him onboard in the next few years, Eddie Muller for Volume 2, but we’ve got some time to build to that.
Learn more about James and PL.A.Y Noir at: http://www.punkmonkeyproductions.com/pl.a.y-noir.html