Making his Fringe debut this year is Thomas Wortham, the writer, producer and director of An American Video Store, set in one of the titular establishments that barely exist anymore.
In the midst of beginning a new job and preparing his show for the Fringe, Mr. Wortham still found the time to talk to ArtsBeat LA.
ArtsBeat LA: What was the inspiration behind this piece? Personal experience?
Thomas Wortham: I don’t know how it works now, but in the ‘90s kids would just hang out at various retail locations, whether it be the mall, an arcade or — in my case — a video store. I got hooked at a young age by my mom’s VHS collection and it just never stopped. There was a Blockbuster up the street from my house that I practically grew up in. I also worked at a Hollywood Video Store in college, which was an awesome and terrible experience all at the same time.
I always wanted to write some form of this story and the mistake I always made was trying to make the plot about the actual downfall of the video store business. Something in the vein of Empire Records, where it was all about saving the store. I finally felt I had unlocked the idea when I realized the story had to be about the characters and allow the business aspects to simply act as a foundation for what was happening.
ABLA: Any parallels with Clerks — which, of course, would be a perfect connection?
TW: It is so funny you ask this. OF COURSE Clerks and Kevin Smith are a massive influence on myself and the play. In fact, just two nights ago I attended his Fatman Beyond podcast taping in Hollywood. They do a Q&A at the end and I was able to get up and ask a question wearing a shirt that had my play’s logo on it.
Kevin is so generous with folks promoting their stuff, and with his connection to video stores, he immediately asked me about my shirt and insisted I plug all aspects of my play before and after me asking my question. It was incredible. He also had some nice things to say about Fringe, which was cool.
But in terms of the mechanics of the play, it was crucial that the script had scenes that allowed the characters to wax intellectual about movies. Very similar to how Dante and Randal talk about Star Wars in Clerks, or how Brodie and T.S. talk about Superman in Mallrats. And you know, just how shitty jobs when we are young can really have an impact on how our lives play out, whether we recognize it or not in the moment.
ABLA: What does (or did) the video store symbolize in American culture?
TW: I think that more than anything the video store era just represented a communal experience that sadly is the biggest thing missing when you select something through a streaming service. I’m sure the algorithms that Netflix uses are very sophisticated, but the way an organic conversation with customers and clerks could lead you down such interesting and unexpected paths was something I think is impossible to replicate.
ABLA: Briefly, what’s the show about? How will it resonate with audiences?
TW: Taking place over three pivotal moments in the history of the American video store, our intimate story of clerks and customers examines the rise and fall of a cultural phenomenon that defined a generation. The show is an hour long — with the goal being a funny, emotional and nostalgic trip down memory lane for anyone who has ever enjoyed the experience of going to a video store to pick out a movie.
ABLA: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
TW: My girlfriend Aidan Rees is our lead and is also a producer. She is an incredibly talented actor who is a regular at Second City. I’m always blown away by her ability to be such a versatile performer. Going from improv to sketch to everything scripted can be challenging for anyone to execute. We found our second lead, Jeff Coppage, through a self-tape. He has the uncanny ability to add flavor to dialogue that wasn’t intended as a joke, and all of the sudden I’m laughing my ass off. So damn unique and funny.
Kristin Morris is a close friend of mine and an extremely accomplished actor. I saw her in West Side Story at Musical Theatre West in Long Beach and I always knew I would love to write a part that would be brought to life by her amazing talents. Antoine Dillard, Misao McGregor and Angelique Maurnaé were all actors that Aidan had worked with before. While I was not familiar with their work, they have all knocked it out of the park and made their characters jump off the page in a way I never could have imagined.
ABLA: Is this your first Fringe experience? Or have you attended in previous years, either as an audience member or talent?
TW: First time Fringer in every capacity. I am so excited and thankful to be exposed to this brand new weird world.
ABLA: What other shows intrigue you at #hff19?
TW: Lots of shows that are also at Stephanie Feury look great. I have had the chance to meet the creators of George and Treason so I look forward to seeing those. The ladies who are putting on 2 for 1 seem to be cooking up something unique. An Excuse to Behave Badly sounds like a really smart and fun concept. I am intrigued by the ambitious premise of She Kills Monsters. I am sure there are plenty more I would love but honestly those are some of the folks who I have met at office hours that caught my eye.
I look forward to a Fringe year when I can be just an attendee and have more time to learn about other shows instead of focusing so much on ours.
ABLA: Finally, have you made the trek to the last remaining Blockbuster in Bend, Oregon?
TW: I have not. I would love to. Fortunately, there are a handful of video stores still operating in the LA area that I have gone to recently to help inspire the show. In particular, Cinefile Video in Santa Monica made me feel at home, so if any of this conversation makes you miss the experience, go check ‘em out and show them some love!
An American Video Store plays June 9-29 at the Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre, 5636 Melrose Avenue. Specific dates, show times and ticketing information can be found on the Fringe site.