From Screen to Stage – Interview with Charlotte Dean

By: Liza Cranis

June 16, 2016

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From screen to stage: Blog posts come to life

by Kylie Ora Lobell

Posted on Jun. 9, 2016 at 8:30 am

Entertainment runs in the Newman family’s blood.

Tracy Newman was the co-creator and executive producer of the TV sitcom “According to Jim,” a writer on Ellen DeGeneres’ ’90s sitcom “Ellen” and a founding member of The Groundlings improv group. Her sister, Laraine Newman, was an original cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” Now, Tracy’s daughter Charlotte Dean is making her first appearance at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

Dean, 33, wrote “Charlotte’s Shorts,” a show running through June 26 that features fictional humorous tales, some of which are based on her life. There are 25 stories in the show, and they will be read by Laraine, Lynne Marie Stewart of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” Tim Bagley of “Grace and Frankie,” and Mindy Sterling, who played Frau Farbissina in the “Austin Powers” franchise.

Though the stories were funny in their original form on Dean’s blog (charlottesshorts.com), the writer said that having them read out loud by talented actors transformed them. “It’s amazing, and it’s almost like magic,” she said. “Someone like Laraine or Lynne or another one of the actors will read them and I’ll say, ‘Wait, how did that happen? How did my story become this whole other thing that’s been totally brought to life?’ It’s pretty incredible.”

In one story that actually happened to Dean, for example, she was teaching art to children in a preschool. When she went to change a diaper for a student, she lifted it up the wrong way and the contents went all over the floor, leaving her to clean up the mess. When Stewart started reading the story, she performed it in a Russian accent.

“It was unreal to see her do that,” Dean said.

Another story that Stewart reads is called “7-Eleven.” In it, a hungry woman is in the convenience store when a robber bursts in and holds up everyone. The woman is hungry, and she doesn’t want to die on an empty stomach, so she sneaks some Power Bars.

“It’s very funny,” Stewart said. “I love doing that piece because I’m the same way. I get hungry at awards ceremonies, so I sneak food into my purse. ‘7-Eleven.’ was right up my alley.”

Laraine plays a number of roles in the show, including a 5-year-old girl and a woman who is in the habit of murdering her husbands. “It was the perfect show for me because I have a limited attention span,” she said. “A lot of these characters are so unaware of themselves, but they’re charming and funny.”

Dean lives in Seattle, but she was raised in L.A. She started writing at age 5 with the encouragement of her father, James Dean, who also was an actor (no, not that actor). “My dad would actually make me write a story before I could go play Nintendo as a kid,” she said.

Along with going to auditions with her dad, Dean went to tapings of shows her mom wrote for. After sitting in the live studio audience for the coming-out episode of “Ellen,” aka “The Puppy Episode,” she said she “turned off the radio and said ‘Wow, Mom, you’re a really good writer.’ That’s a big deal because I was 14 and not usually very nice to my mom.”

As a teenager, Dean enrolled in the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and then went to Bard College in New York. Instead of completing her time in college, however, she dropped out and worked as an artist in Mexico for five years.

“I was traveling and meeting so many different people,” she said. “I was becoming fluent in another language. I got into situations that were so challenging and new and funny. It’s all in the characters and the pieces in ‘Charlotte’s Shorts’ now.”

In 2009, Dean’s husband, Ro Reyes, suggested that she write a blog. Then, her mother told her that she should have actors read these stories out loud, which later turned into “Charlotte’s Shorts.”

Now, Tracy Newman is co-directing the show with her daughter, with whom she’s worked in the past. When Tracy, who is also a musician, put out a children’s CD, Dean created a coloring book to go along with it.

Tracy said she is really proud of her daughter’s latest creation. “None of us knew she could write,” she said. “We knew she could write a blog and letters but this was just a big shock.”

“Charlotte’s Shorts” first debuted in Los Angeles in 2014, and was part of the San Francisco Sketchfest the following year. Locally, it’s been put up at theaters including the Actors Company and The Groundlings. It plays through the end of June at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

During a typical show, six to eight actors will do the readings. At the Fringe, Hannah Einbinder — Dean’s cousin and Laraine’s daughter — will be performing in the show for the first time. Dean said that after she sees the actors present her stories and come up with their own interpretations of her characters, she gains a whole new perspective on her work.

“The show keeps turning into much more than I ever could have thought,” she said. “I read a story in the voice of a little kid and then I see Laraine really turn into a little kid. I start writing for that character. It inspires more from me.”

Stewart, who is Dean’s godmother, said that in the future, she hopes that acting students will study “Charlotte’s Shorts.” “The pieces are so good, and the sky is the limit with this. It could be made into a scene study book for colleges.”

The performances are being filmed in hopes of selling the show to a network such as Comedy Central or HBO, according to Dean. “I think it would be amazing to see it animated,” she said. “I just want to say yes to everything and see where it takes us.”

“Charlotte’s Shorts” will play at the Hollywood Fringe Festival through June 26.

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