Producer Nicole Disson takes theater out of the ‘theater’ and drops it out of the sky into places like the rooftop of the Standard Downtown, where confused and bemused businesspeople wonder at the dancers in the pool and the actors in the fire pits. Her March performance of her one-night-only THE SERIES put L.A. RECORD alumni like Julia Holter in strange new performing environments—even for them! This interview by Drew Denny.
You’ve got a thing for rock operas, eh?
I was talking to Rachel Kolar. She and her partner in crime, Lauren Brown, were reviving a script that she wrote called NEW. Those past two years I was working at a brand-marketing firm as my second or third job. I thought I’d come on board as director of marketing so I could apply all this knowledge I’d gained in my day job to something I cared about. I succeeded in finding corporate sponsorship which was my first money deal—you know, not a trade. I brought the Standard on. Got Million Dollar Theater—a 2,500-seat house. We worked endlessly for months. There were only two shows but it was so special. It featured different musicians. I performed in it as well—a minor role but super fun. Around that time—April of 2010—I felt it was time for me to spearhead my own independent project. I was starting to see what my friends were doing and join their team and help build up the projects but not feel like I was taking on enough risk. … I had been doing cover shows, like I would do an entire show dedicated to Gershwin or Ella Fitzgerald. Becky Stark inspired me—she did a show at Largo and asked me to sing the opening and closing songs. I realized I had found my niche. Instead of show tunes, it was standards. That’s what I enjoy singing. All the while I was finding opportunities to perform. I wanted something bigger. I was shooting independent shorts for friends but it seemed like live events was where it was going on for me. The Standard approached me about really wanting to work on something else together—they liked my work and said they’d continue with me. From a marketing standpoint I realized I could really leverage this. I thought of this as an opportunity to help build their image by doing what I really wanted to do, which was more curating and producing than promoting. By making a show that was site-specific and avant-garde. It was an experiment to see how we could merge the nightlife-social element of L.A. that people flock to endlessly with the performing arts. Basically, I wanted to use the space and the budget to give the performing arts a new platform in L.A. to be produced and to be seen more aggressively than how they are at a theater or a dance hall or a museum. Not that those places aren’t frequented but … sometimes it’s hard to get people to come. So I launched THE SERIES, and that was just a really crazy wild experiment. August of 2010 was the first one and it was so exciting and so fun and so nerve-wracking. I didn’t know if anyone would come. We were taking people on this ride on the rooftop through all these performances.
No dancers drowned in the pool?
No! There were glitches, but we learned from everything. The second one featured a sixteen-piece orchestra. The talent has continued to grow, and I’m really excited about the people who have come on board. It’s a great concept, but at this point I want to further develop it. Refine it. The cast is huge for this next one! It’s gone from ten names to … I don’t even know! I don’t know if there’s anything like this going on in L.A.
Like a recurring group show for performance?
It’s more like a great party where everyone who’s involved invites their friends to enjoy pieces they’ve created with artists that they’ve never worked with before presenting it for the first and only time on a rooftop in the middle of Downtown L.A.!
Has the hotel ever gotten scared?
They totally think I’m crazy, but they’ve been great. They all love me and laugh at me but that’s part of my job. I really present to them what I want to do. I don’t try to brush anything under the rug. I respect their space. This is our theater. And we‘ve really been working together to use the space in a way that is seriously unorthodox.
What’s gonna happen at The Series in March?
D’arcy French-Myerson is directing this one. Our theme is ‘Sound Off’—the relationship that sound has with social interactions, exploring the different dynamics of sound in a social space through musical performance, sound installations, and some intriguing multimedia performances. We’ve got an amazing cast! Julia Holter, Aaron Drake, Jason Grier, Tearist … two clowns, there is a sign language performance, some movement …
Have any hotel guests accidentally stumbled into any of your performances?
The show caters to art enthusiasts, but the hotel welcomes and is open to guests, businessmen, people looking for a good time, the general public … The businessmen have been—not problematic but funny. They love the dancers in the pool. You hear women talking in the bathroom about ‘that weird thing with the people talking over there!’ I have people planted, listening to audience reaction. People were coming back again and showing their friends where to go. People are picking up on it. But each one is its own show that’s never gonna be done again.
What’s different about producing an ‘art’ event in a commercial space versus an art institution?
I have zero interest in promoting a party for a brand launch or something. They want people to come to the space. They need some energy up in there. I thought, ‘How can we use this quirky rooftop Downtown with this beautiful view? Let’s get a dancer in the pool, a performer in the elevator, an actor in the fire pit!’ When I lived in London, I saw a wide variety of theater, and the stuff that moved me the most wasn’t in the theater—like a play in an old abandoned tube station. Or this Argentine troupe with acrobats performing in an old bank. I really respect, love and enjoy traditional theater, of course. People don’t regard this city as a theater hub but there are so many performing artists here who are innovating and who are hungry to work!
You’re a theater girl at heart?
I want to work in the theater again at some point. I like to make people laugh, to give them the opportunity to be self-reflexive and if it can be a cathartic experience, even better! But I also just like to make people laugh. … While THE SERIES was going I started NOMERICA with Ana Calderon—which was really fun. No American music Thursday nights at El Cid. Then I did this show at the Soho house in West Hollywood—I brought Mandy Kahn on as my trusty writer and Mecca Andrews came on as my choreographer/director. We created this character Susan, and it was our opportunity to test this in front of a live audience. I got a standing ovation which I was pretty surprised by. I did this long melodramatic classical monologue then I did a zany dialogue with the audience and I had a three-piece band and I jumped on the bar and sang ‘Love for Sale’ and did a full dance piece in four-inch heels. Totally unique. … I like to make a good moment. It’s a bit of a drug in itself. To have an audience. To navigate their emotions, take them from really quiet to really loud. It’s an incredible gift and it’s what I love to do. Part of why I produce is because I can give myself an opportunity to perform! I don’t deny that. I’m super-driven. It’s hard for me to sit and wait for someone else to give me an opportunity. I find ways to create my own stage. In turn, it’s led me to giving a stage to a lot of others.
Do you learn from studying or from trying?
I think there’s value in both. I learn from watching people every day—both mistakes and achievements. It’s trial-by-error, but I’m young and I have a lot to learn. There are things I’ve done—even in the past two years—that I’m like, ‘What?’ But it’s all good. I’ve created this opportunity for myself and I’m learning all the time. I’m just now growing in to my own skin. I’m not a veteran! I think I’m up-and-coming.
L.A. RECORD AND NICOLE DISSON PRESENT THE SERIES WITH TEARIST, EMILY LACY, JULIA HOLTER, DREW DENNY, SOPHIA MORTE AND MORE ON TUE., MAR. 8, ON THE ROOFTOP OF THE STANDARD DOWNTOWN, 550 S. FLOWER ST., DOWNTOWN. 8 PM / FREE / 21+ / RSVP AT DTLA@STANDARDHOTEL.COM. VISIT NICOLE DISSON AT NICOLEDISSON.BLOGSPOT.COM.