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A Conversation with Playwright/Actress Tanna Frederick, "Lion Eyes", The Whitefire Theatre, by James Scarborough

Tanna Frederick’s “Lion Eyes,” premiering at the Whitefire Theatre, looks at a young actress navigating the treacherous waters of Hollywood. Directed by Levy Lee Simon, this one-woman show uncovers the dark and often exploitative underbelly of the entertainment industry, portraying the stark realities behind the glitz and glamour.

Frederick, known for her work in indie arthouse films and notable stage productions, channels this experience into the creation of a character whose life mirrors the chaotic and often destructive path to stardom. The narrative follows a young actress from Iowa whose meteoric rise in Hollywood comes at the cost of personal disintegration, substance abuse, and a deeply problematic relationship with an older director. The plot, while fictional, draws heavily from real-life events.

Under Simon’s direction, “Lion Eyes” showcases Frederick’s versatility and depth as an actress and interrogates the broader cultural and societal issues that plague the entertainment industry. Simon brings his unique vision and narrative prowess to the production, ensuring that it resonates on both an emotional and intellectual level.

The production addresses the dichotomy of fame—its seductive allure and its capacity to destroy. It examines the exploitative dynamics that underpin the relationships between young talent and powerful industry figures. Frederick’s portrayal of the protagonist’s descent into addiction and her subsequent quest for redemption is both harrowing and inspiring, offering a stark reminder of the personal costs of public adulation.

“Lion Eyes” is both a story of personal struggle and triumph as well as a critical commentary on the systemic issues within Hollywood. Frederick’s performance, coupled with Simon’s direction, offers a thought-provoking experience that challenges us to consider the true nature of success and the sacrifices it demands.

JS: “Lion Eyes” shines a light on the darker aspects of Hollywood. What inspired you to create this narrative? How much of it is drawn from personal or observed experiences?

TF: I began writing Lion Eyes during the pandemic.  It is an adaptation of experiences of an actress stepping through the looking glass of Hollywood and facing the Jabberwocky of the entertainment industry.  I think there are dark moments, exhilarating successes, hilarity, and many of them are like a diary entry that could most likely be ripped from the pages of any artist in the business.

JS: Your character faces severe consequences and struggles with substance abuse. How did you prepare to portray these intense and challenging themes?

TF: The only preparation I needed was to be as honest in sharing my truth as possible so that hopefully others feel less alone and feel hope, strength, and inspiration.  That is the gift people give others in recovery - sharing their experience because it may keep someone else from picking up that day.

JS: The protagonist’s relationship with an older director plays a significant role. What message do you hope to convey about power dynamics and exploitation in the entertainment industry?

TF: I hope that people will walk away with their own interpretation of exploitation and power perhaps a bit muted and instead more engaged in a particular story in which there are no clear antagonists and protagonists – only people trying to get their needs met in a very human way where the lines are not always clear as to a ‘fault’ or Machiavellian plan.  I think life is very complicated and often takes twists and turns we don’t expect – falling in love with someone much older for example – and we do the best we can adjusting to those wild rides we’re thrown into.

JS: You’ve worked in both film and theater. How does your experience in these media influence your performance in “Lion Eyes”?

TF: I wrote ‘Lion Eyes’ as a screenplay before adapting it into a one-woman show.  The fluidity of transitioning it from a film script to a play was the only way I think I could have made it into a theatre piece.  I’m not quite sure why except I think that had I started it as a play it would have been much heavier and lumbering.  I was able to make the humor and characters more bouncy and clear-cut starting it in a script format.  I am grateful to have these different mediums to move between when trying to reach a final product.

JS: Levy Lee Simon directs this production. How has his approach and vision shaped the show’s presentation?

TF:  Levy Lee and I have known each other for over two decades now…We graduated from the University of Iowa together.  We’ve worked on several productions together – THE DUTCHMAN – which was selected for the National Black Theatre Festival and his trilogy Toussaint:  For the Love of Freedom.  We have a shorthand that is really lovely and a trust that has been developed from so many years of friendship and collaboration.  I believe in him with my whole heart and it is a joy to create with him.  He’s had so much experience interpreting other people’s lives on stage, doing his own one person shows, and knowing how to get results.  I’m grateful, so grateful to be doing another show with him.

JS: The narrative includes themes of redemption and survival. What is the most important takeaway for the audience regarding these themes?

TF: Keep moving on.  Adversity and challenges are the defining points of life.  They are our successes.  It’s easy to be on top and win.  Being on the ‘bottom’ is what shapes one’s spirit.

JS: Given your career in indie arthouse films and stage productions, what unique challenges and rewards have you encountered in creating and performing a one-woman show like this?

TF: I love the process of workshopping and shaping and seeing what works and doesn’t work in front of different audiences.  It’s a delicious process.  It’s freeing, exacting, time consuming, and a gorgeous process. There’s an authenticity involved to doing something over and over until you know something hits.  There’s also an insanity to it, but keeping the piece open to be shaped until I know it’s right…it’s that divine dissatisfaction that results in an indescribably satisfactory finish line at some point.

JS: How does the play reflect or comment on the current state of the Hollywood entertainment industry, especially concerning young and emerging talent?

TF: It was a much, much different atmosphere when I first moved to LA than it is now.  I was asked to take my shirt of in reputable offices in Beverly Hills where a woman partner was sitting at the desk across from where the male agent was sitting.  I’m so glad that young women don’t have to deal with the same things that went on then.

JS: What role does your Midwestern background and your experiences in Iowa play in the development of your character and her story?

TF: Well, there are thousands of Midwestern actors out here following their career choice.  My particular strength and weakness was that I was ‘Iowa Nice’.  I wanted to be liked, I didn’t like confrontation, had trouble saying no, and was a huge people pleaser.  Sometimes that worked for me professionally, but in a lot of situations it got me into trouble.  I’ve learned to say ‘no’ a lot more and put boundaries down.  And that’s a large part of the hero’s journey in the show.  Standing up for herself.

JS: Looking ahead, what are your hopes for “Lion Eyes” in terms of its impact on audiences and its contribution to the ongoing conversation about the realities of the entertainment industry?

TF: I hope it’s a piece of entertainment, relatable, a cautionary tale, and just an opportunity for people to sit back and soak in someone else’s screw-ups and share some laughs and familiarity in a Hollywood tale.  Most of all I hope it’s fun.

The single performance is Friday, June 7, 2024, at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $25. The Whitefire Theatre is located at 13500 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks, 91423. For more information, click here.

Tanna Frederick