Profiles in Theater: Producer Dana Leach
OnStage Los Angeles Columnist
Profiles In Theater will be a semi-regular column focusing on specific theater professionals who are both on and off the stage. It will primarily focus those working in southern California. There are multiple large theater markets in places such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco etc. However outsiders often consider those productions located in the Los Angeles/Southern California area to be of a lesser quality. This illusion comes from the stereotype that actors are killing time with theater until Hollywood comes calling. The truth is there is quality work being done. The unique environment supports a multitude of smaller, more intimate theater spaces. Theater producer Dana Leach is one of those producing quality theater with passion and extensive show business experience.
On February 1st, 2017 I interviewed Dana at her home in Long Beach. She was born in Lakewood, California which is not too far from Long Beach. In her early years she mainly focused on developing her skills as a singer, dancer and actress:
Ken: “What was your first show business memory?”
Dana: “I was a member of Evelyn Dupont’s swimming babies at age one. [Who was an Olympic swimmer.] She taught baby survival swimming… [One day] They put a microphone up to me and I thought…This is Good! I remember that very clearly.”
Over the next sixteen years Dana focused on her performance skills. She began dance lessons at age five, voice lessons by age twelve, and was singing musical theater numbers in night clubs by age thirteen. At age sixteen, after obtaining her driver’s license, she began auditioning more for Hollywood work. To make extra money she also worked delivering singing telegrams for a company called Livewire.
Dana: “By high school I was already doing things to make money…Teaching dance lessons…Doing singing telegrams... I started as a Cupid for Valentine’s Day…And a singing and tapdancing fruitcake for Christmas…”
Dana was fortunate enough to have parents who were supportive of her artistic ambitions. She and several friends were planning to spend the summer before college in New York City to audition for Broadway shows. Unfortunately, Dana fell down a flight of stairs her senior year of high school and was in a cast for six months. According to her doctors, “You are not going to dance anymore, and you should probably get a new plan.”
While some might have given up at this point or fall into some sort of depression, Dana came up with a new plan. She enrolled in Long Beach City College and then eventually transferred to California State University Long Beach. She completed her theater degree and continued to add to her skill set which included learning theater management, working in a costume shop as well lighting and other technical skills. Dana was still pursuing acting as well, landing small roles in various Hollywood projects, but found herself being more drawn to the production side.
Dana: “I had had a few acting jobs on a series and few other small things but once I got the job at the studio I started production coordinating…and I found that I really liked the behind the scenes stuff…”
Planning for a Life in Show Business
In addition to this Dana met her future husband Tim met at CSULB. He is also in show business and works as a Hollywood makeup effects artist for film and television. From the beginning of their relationship Dana was well aware of the various challenges they would face going into their careers. From early on, as a good producer does, she was problem solving.
Dana: “[The] Production side was more satisfying and I was getting ready to get married…to a guy involved in all this. I asked myself: How are we going to balance all this if we were freelance all the time? There were more opportunities as a production coordinator with a production company instead of being freelance all the time.”
Many of Dana’s experiences have involved being in the right place at the right time and having the skills required for the job. Her first full time job after college started out with her applying to be a secretary for Valley Production Center. From the beginning she showed how versatile she was:
Dana: “Right after college I got a job at a small studio [as a receptionist] and was given a tour.” She could easily identify the various lighting instruments on the grid above the studio. The man giving the tour asked, “Can you hang a light? I said sure…I hung the light and they said, So…you can have the job…”
Going Into Business For Herself:
Dana worked for several companies including Sunbreak and Dick Clark productions. In 1991 she started Pivotal Productions for which lasted for thirteen years. Their first project, and the one she is most proud of, was working with eighty six at risk Long Beach/Compton middle school students on a project called “Say Yes To Life.” Many of these students had little to no access to extracurricular activities because they were required to take remedial classes. Many of these students were bored and not engaged and, “Needed a reason to go to school.”
Their teachers wanted to do something different with them and give them a creative outlet. In 1991 Rap music was becoming more widespread and teachers were beginning to show students how it was related to poetry. This in turn could help the students make more connections to language arts and improve their reading skills. In fall of 1991 Dana and the rest of Pivotal productions began work on a documentary on the middle school kids as they developed a song called “Say Yes To Life.” She then took a number of students to a composer who worked for Hollywood pictures/Disney, and into to recording studio.
After that a music video was shot in January of 1992. Dana reached out to all her Hollywood connections and asked for them to volunteer their time. Each kid was paired up with a professional in the industry which included a director of photography, camera men, choreographers, etc. The middle schoolers were also were interviewed by the various local press.
Dana: “[For many this was] …a life changing event…Every news channel in town showed up…We had a camera go down and this was before cell phones…so I knew every phone number in my head…having those plans…knowing who you could call. Who could trust or who maybe owed you a favor…The smaller the budget the more plan plans you need.”
Click the following Youtube Link to see the “Just Say Yes To Life” documentary and music video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ktzggAsEww
Dana and Pivotal continued until 2006. They were often hired by companies for their marketing, instructional and corporate video needs. “We did everything from concept to packaging and distribution.” Dana eventually closed the company because, “[The] industry changed because Avid came out with nonlinear editing…Super VHS-people began doing production work in a different way and much cheaper.”
A New Career.
In 2005 Dana began writing curriculum as a volunteer at the school her children attended in the Long Beach Unified school system. Based on her production experience she helped to integrate technology into the core curriculum. Her son produced a short documentary around the history of the bow and arrow, with Dana’s help. “All the other kids said…That’s really cool.” Dana thought at the time that: “I should be writing this up for other teachers.” Her son was then competing with college kids in film festivals, there was no age category for a ten year old. The following year Dana worked with kids in the school’s computer lab:
Dana: “[I helped the students produce] Short iMovies... I started demoing the curriculum at the school.”
Eventually Dana did a presentation for Lakewood Christian School for a science class which was composed of 8th graders. The Principal then offered her a job with video and teaching drama because she had a degree in theater. She has been there since 2005. She continues to teach teachers on using technology and helped students integrate video into their projects. ¬¬¬
Theater Producer Who Was “Only Going to Stay Two Months”
Between 2006 and 2012 Dana was aware of a local classical theater company originally know¬n as Bard In The Yard. This eventually evolved into the current company known as The Long Beach Shakespeare Company. She would bring students to performances and over time became friends with Helen Borgers, LBSC’s artistic director and director of all the stage productions. In addition to attending performances, the theater would also visit classes and even Dana’s son’s Cub Scout troupe. The scouts were working on their showman badge. Helen arranged for several actors to work with the scouts. Dana was so impressed that she wanted to get more involved with the company. She says about the experience:
Dana: “These 3rd grade kids, I never saw them so still in all their lives…they were in awe…”
In June 2012 Dana, on her summer vacation from teaching, decided to help the company as a producer. “I was going to give them two months…[They were] Getting ready to close their doors. I decided to rewrite their marketing plan. [I had a]background in marketing and advertising from a job in college.” She also had studied on how to manage a theater company at Cal State Long Beach. She started to draft a five year plan.
Producing Theater: A Family Affair
By December 2012 LBSC was in good hands. Dana’s husband Tim eventually became more involved after he attended the company’s Christmas show. While observing a particular special effect he said, “I could do this so much better.” Dana immediately responded, “Honey maybe we should do this together.” After that Tim has been involved in various capacities including scene design, scene painting, prop making etc. Dana credits their working together as a great outlet for their marriage.
Dana: “We need something we can do together because our boys are grown…so many people we know were getting divorced because your kids grow up and your life changes. Now you are back to where you started…and after 26 years of marriage we are not necessarily the same people we were then…You have to find things that you can do together…we both met in the theater department. We should be doing theater together.”
The Producer/Director Relationship.
After five seasons together Dana and LBSC’s artistic director Helen Borgers have a well-developed producer/director relationship. They are also on board when focusing on their creative mission. All the full stage Shakespeare productions, which consists of three full shows with a four week run each, are done in a more traditional Elizabethan style. When Dana was asked about this she said:
Dana: “We consider ourselves a classic theater…its done on purpose…There are few places where…people can see Shakespeare being done in classical time period, in a classical format…It’s very expensive… We try to] have that classical feel….I’ve seen productions like Hamlet where everyone is dressed in black or with masks, and I get that. It’s a lot cheaper to do…Part of our mission is literacy…We want people to pick up the books…We have had kids come and say “We like the words.” We want them to read.”
In addition to this the producer/director relationship created at LBSC is a very solid one.
Dana: “Helen and I have a very good system. First of all she’s a great director…I trust her to do what she needs to do, and also she trusts me to do what I need to do...Helen says we don’t have principals, we have ensembles…It’s a team effort to get the show up and running and successful…”
What Makes A Good Producer?
As the interview concluded I asked Dana: What makes a good producer?
Dana: “A good producer is someone who knows who to hire…You do not have to know how to do everything about the jobs but enough so you know who to hire…and have faith in those people…The producer is a kind of umbrella overseeing stuff and making sure all the pieces of machinery are moving smoothly…Also having plan A, B, C, D, E and F for all the things that will go wrong. So that when it does go wrong half the problem solving is already done in your head…It seems so negative…Its not that you want things to go wrong, but you know they are going to. There is no such thing as a production that is flawless…stuff happens.”
After interviewing Dana I was glad to know a bit more about the history of the company and gain tips on producing my own theater in the future. A special thanks to Dana, Tim, and everyone else at the Long Beach Shakespeare Company. It is a great place for a person to grow as a performer and be a part of something special. LBSC is always looking for performers and crew. Feel free to contact them directly or keep an eye out for casting notices in Backstage.
Long Beach Shakespeare’s production of Measure For Measure opens February 24th and runs until March 18th with four weekends Friday through Saturdays at 8pm, and Sunday Matinees at 2pm. (No Friday Performance on Friday March 3rd). The company is located at 4250 Atlantic Avenue in Long Beach. Tickets can be purchased though their website: lbshakespeare.om