RIOTstage Singing a New Song in Local Theatre

 Josh Fischel and friends performing at  The Storyteller  event

Josh Fischel and friends performing at “The Storyteller” event. Photo by Hadrian Suciu.

It’s a sad truism that there are far more artists than arts opportunities in the world. And you might not find a better case in point that Long Beach, a city crowded with serious arts talent—particularly of the musical variety—but with few venues where it can be displayed properly.

It’s a problem, and Josh Fischel wants to be part of the solution. That’s why he founded RIOTstage: to give that talent a few more chances each year to shine, with a focus on musical theatre.

“I think there’s a lot of untapped talent [in Long Beach]. I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this,” he says. “[…] I do see that there are a lot of people who just aren’t getting heard or seen. […] Let’s face it: most artists are not good businessmen. They’re good artists; that’s what they do. Most businessmen can’t play guitar. I’m not saying I think I’m a good businessman, [but] I think I’m a good organizer, I’m a good motivator. […] There is so much talent out there; it just needs to be harnessed. I’m not saying I’m necessarily the guy to do that, but I’m definitely going to be a guy that’s going to try do it.”

Long Beach got a taste of Fishcel’s motivational/organizational skills with “The Storyteller,” a multi-artist concert event focusing on story songs that was held in March at the EXPO Arts Center, which will serve as Riot Stage’s home base. Three hundred people came out for the $40-per-ticket fundraiser, and they did not go home disappointed.

“I knew it was going to be good,” Fischel says. “I didn’t know it was going to be that good.”

Considering that RIOTstage was far from having all its pieces in place prior to “The Storyteller” (“It was really just me and Jonelle [Holden, a co-producer of the event], and she came on the last three weeks,” he says), one can’t help but expect great things from RIOTstage’s future productions. First up, in October, will be another “Storyteller”-type concert event entitled “The Brit,” with a first act featuring songs by The Clash, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, Queen, The Kinks, and E.L.O., followed by a second act that is The Beatles’ entire Abbey Road album. Then in 2014 come the musicals: The Who’s Tommy in March/April, followed by Sweeney Todd in October/November.

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Photo by Greggory Moore

“I want them to be on a semi-grand scale,” he says. “I don’t want them to be spectacles, but I want them to be big, visible productions. […] We want to do well-known plays the first couple of years, then start working in originals. We’re actually working on two original musicals right now. What I’d like to eventually do is have two originals and two classics every years.”

Fischel arrived at his role of budding impresario of musical theatre by way of rock ‘n’ roll after disillusion with the audition process waylaid him from pursuing a Broadway career. After attending United States International University on a theatre scholarship, where he roomed with Emmy-winner Thorsten Kaye, while Jamie Foxx lived in the room above theirs (“He taught me how to play piano and sing falsetto,” Fischel says), he moved to New York. While he soured on pursuing a career in theatre, he started a band and took a few film classes, a combination that circuitously led to his shooting live shows for bands, including Long Beach’s Sublime, who hired him to direct some of their music videos and then to come along with him as a videographer on the 1995 Warped Tour.

But disillusionment set in again—this time with the corporate aspect of the music industry. So Fischel moved to Long Beach in 1997 and started the band Bargain Music, with whom he spent 10 years touring—”every state in the U.S. at least 10 times, except for South Dakota and Alaska,” plus Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

“[But] touring became harder and harder,” he recounts. “I was getting older; I was 40 years old. […] It kind of gets hard on your body; it kind of gets hard on your sleep.”

Fischel met the woman who in 2011 would become his wife, and he “spent a couple of years wondering how I could make all of this [work together],” he says. Then three years ago came a trip back to NYC and a heavy dose of what the theatre capital of the world had to offer, followed by a trip to London and more of the same. What he noticed most was an absence.

“Some of the [plays he and his wife saw] were good; some were not,” he recalls. “[In London] I wanted to see something…odd. I didn’t want to go see Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera, or even a straight play. I wanted to see something I’d never seen before. And I found this guy named Matthew Robins, who’s a songwriter and puppeteer, and he had a show called Flyboy Is Alone Again This Christmas.

The Storytellerclosed with a raucous versino of QueensBohemian Rhapsody

“The Storyteller” closed with a raucous version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo by Greggory Moore

Mightily impressed, Fischel returned with two friends “who’d never seen a play in their lives, and they were completely blown away. […] And it started to make me think [that] there are so many people that would go to theatre, but they just don’t know. They grow up, and maybe they see Oklahoma! in high school. I’m not discounting any of that stuff; there’s a time and place for that. [But] it’s definitely not where my head’s at, and I know a lot of people who’d be really turned off by stuff like that. But there’s so much out there. And if you present it in a different way, [incorporating] something that’s already to familiar to them, then maybe theatre can be strengthened. Because theatre is a dying art. I think everyone knows that. It used to be the main entertainment in America. Now if you go see a Broadway play, you’re paying 150 bucks for a ticket. How many people can do that? So the idea [behind RIOTstage] is to create high-quality, at least semi-affordable entertainment that people can relate to, and bring in a new audience.”

Fischel understands that money is an unavoidable reality for both artist and audience, and so he plans to keep ticket prices as low as possible, while paying his artists a fair wage.

“I’ve been an artist my entire life,” he says. “I’ve had very few regular jobs, comparatively speaking. And it gets really depressing when you work so hard and don’t get paid for it. […] I’ve seen a lot of [exploitation of artists by producers]. People that I’ve worked for in the past [have said things like], ‘I know it’s eight weeks of your time, but we can only pay you $700. But it’s really a good part for you.’ Then you agree and you go to the cast party, and [the producer is] living in a $4.5 million house. It’s frustrating. It’s why most people leave the arts. Most people don’t leave the arts because they don’t have a passion for it—it’s because they have to pay their mortgage or their dental bill.”

This is Fishcel’s vision, and he believes Long Beach is just the place for it to become reality.

“I think that Long Beach, more than most cities (aside from New York), is doing stuff that’s a little bit more stretching out and doing something a little different,” he says. “You know, you’ve got the Garage and Alive Theatres combined, which is a beautiful thing, and they’re doing very experimental stuff. I want to lay kind of somewhere in the middle between the experimental and the grandeur of theatre—but have it all revolve around music, and do it with a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility, you know? A little more hard-hitting, a little more edgy.”

If that’s music to your ears, you’re not alone.

Go to RIOTstagelb.com (still under development) to get on the RIOTstage mailing list and stay informed about how RIOTstage is “bringing the ruckus to Long Beach theatre.”

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