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STAGE & SCREEN: Taking "No" for an Inspiration Los Angeles performers turn closed doors into opportunities to do it themselves.

If at first you don't succeed... try something even harder. This is the philosophy that has kept actor/comedian/writer/ director/distributor Bill Kalmenson tightly connected to the entertainment industry, even when all outward signs seemed to be telling him to get out. Instead of listening to naysayers, this artist pressed forward, and the result is his highly personal film The Souler Opposite opening tomorrow at the Laemmle Monica.

The charming autobiographical film follows faltering comedian Barry Singer (Christopher Meloni) into a relationship with an earnest, politically active young woman (Janel Moloney), who first enjoys his jokes but ultimately tires of his inability to take life seriously. The script came from Kalmenson's heart in 1991 just as his once highly active standup career seemed to be skidding and a love affair was quickly going south.

So heartfelt and funny was the material that it attracted several agents but never got beyond the interest level. Suddenly Kalmenson flashed on his days as a second-string ball player in high school, spending game time warming the bench. He vowed he would never allow others to keep him down because they misjudged his talents. He decided he would no longer wait for green lights from industry powers, and he set off to create his own fortune. He joked, "Where success leads most people to their opportunities, frustration leads me to mine. I am failing my way to the top."

But the joke is also a description of the tenacity that pushed Kalmenson from an occasionally working television actor in the 1980s to a successful independent film producer/director by 1998. "Failure has always led to the next door," he said. "I didn't quite make it as an actor, but really got into standup comedy because I could do some writing. I didn't quite get famous as a comedian, though I worked and had some success and really enjoyed it, so I thought I needed to write scripts. I didn't quite sell my screenplays, though they were really good and got agents and I got enough encouragement to know they were of value, so I decided I had to make a movie. I put that together and made the movie and spent a year trying to get it released. That didn't quite happen, so I am doing that myself."

Finally a releasing agency got the film to open here at the Laemmle and in New York the following week at City Cinema's Village East. That releasing entity is MSA, an acronym that stands for Movie Studio Apartment. Literally. Kalmenson smiled, "It is the ultimate Hollywood efficiency. It is a movie studio and my little apartment."

When Kalmenson wrote the script, he had no plan to produce, direct, and sell the project, but he loved it so much he couldn't bear to see it die. He came to the conclusion that he must do the work himself. Every cent he had went into the project, and that convinced enough friends, family, and acquaintances that he was serious enough to deserve their help. Once he had the money (a budget under a million), he put the project onto a fast track. Suddenly he found that having a "go" picture brought attention and respect. "When it got a start date, everybody in town wanted to read it," said Kalmenson. "All of a sudden I am a genius!"

Actors loved the script. Not only the two romantic leads, but a best friend character grabbed the attention of Timothy Busfield, who happily auditioned for the role. Once he had a fine cast for his script, Kalmenson pressed on with the help of producer Tani Cohen and cinematographer Amit Bhattacharya. "If you are prepared and have good organization, you have it made," he said. "It doesn't take a genius to know where to point the camera. It is about trying to get to the acting values, so the emotional experience happens while the film is in the friggin' camera. That's the work. It goes back to scene study in acting class: You have to capture it, so you have to create an environment to be creative."

As it turned out, finishing the project was the easy part‹it was getting it shown that proved nearly impossible. By necessity Kalmenson turned into Super Salesman. Audiences enjoyed the picture, but the major festivals were not interested. Sundance passed. "I went to Sundance and screened it anyway at what I called 'Soul-Dance,' the most exclusive festival in Park City‹just one film," he laughed. "I got video projection in Park City and fliered the town like a maniac, every single line [waiting for a show] and bulletin board. I took over a conference room in a hotel. I called it 'Soul-Dance' but for me it was really 'Scam-Dance,' I couldn't let my title disappear with the avalanche of titles that were there."

He did get some attention. Ultimately, he was able to raise money through sales to foreign markets, but no North American sales were forthcoming. Still Kalmenson would not give up. "I always knew I would find a way to get the picture played," he said. "All I ever wanted as an actor, a comedian, a writer, was a shot, the opportunity to let the public decide. Get to the audience, the final arbiter. Hollywood is a gate-keeper business. I am not twenty-something with a million opportunities ahead. This is my shot."

So he took a deep breath and ran for the final touchdown. He formulated a strategy to co-opt the function of distributor. He created a trailer that played for a week on E! Television and convinced two theatres to give him his shot. Every minute of his day is spent trying to reach audiences, and this week will determine whether the film flies with the public. In any case, Kalmenson is already a success at pure steadfastness and refusal to stop at Hollywood red lights.

A Whole Neo World

As in the case of Bill Kalmenson, artists in Los Angeles are steadily proving that it is not simply economic prospects that drive them, but real commitment to the artistry itself. For years Theatre Geo, the dreamchild of theatrical angel Geo Hartley, consistently presented some of the best 99-seat productions in town. About 200 actors and other theatre artists peopled a non-dues-paying company, acting and producing scores of plays that received strong critical attention and unusually high popularity. When Hartley lost his lease last year on the La Brea Avenue theatre he had so lovingly designed, the company closed‹with some hope of reviving. Unfortunately, Hartley could not find a new right location, so he pulled out of the organization.

The company Hartley built, however, had no intention of disappearing. If he was not to lead them to their next destination, they would take what they'd learned from his expertise and create their own work. With Hartley's best wishes and emotional support, the company was recreated as Theatre Neo. Based now at the Hudson Avenue Theatre, Theatre Neo is currently in the midst of its fourth successful and critically acclaimed production: a series of one-acts under the umbrella title Neo Confidentials, which has been extended through October.

At the helm of Theatre Geo is Wendy Worthington, whom most will recognize as Jack's sadistic masseur in a clever Jack-in-the-Box commercial. For Worthington, who had escaped her duties as a theatre administrator in Philadelphia to try her luck as an actor in Hollywood, Theatre Geo was a way in. The company afforded her great opportunities onstage as well as jump-starting her television career when casting directors saw her in a monologue night. Against her better judgement, but with great heart, Worthington is applying her administrative skills to keep Theatre Neo running with very small dues from the 210 members. By all accounts it is working.

As for Geo Hartley, he is thrilled that the actors he inspired have taken to drive their own destiny. He is always supportive and fills their house for at least one performance of each show. Knowing how important theatre has been in his life, he is happy to see the art form and institution helping create new and younger artists. "Acting shaped me into the man I am more than anything else," said Hartley. "I wanted to give back somehow. I didn't realize how hard it would be, but I enjoyed every minute of it and created yet another layer of family for myself."

How does he feel about the new company making a play on his name? "They can benefit from it, it is not the same name, yet it is derivative and has some value," he said. "I thought it was clever. My first thought was I hope they want to make their own mark. When I realized they were doing that, I was very flattered." BSW/D-L

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