We had the good fortune of connecting with Josh Ravetch and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Josh, so before we jump into specifics about your story and work, let’s start higher level. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned along your journey?
That is starting at a high level. There are many, but maybe this above all: Very few careers are linear. Some people graduate high school, go to college for pre-law or pre-med, go to law school or med school and climb a very defined ladder where the rules and demands are clear. But if you start your own business, or if you are a writer as I am, there is no roadmap, no established way to get from here to there, so you’re on your own. There’s no career counselor to book office hours with, no handbook, no rules. The most important thing to remember is that you can’t wholly look outside yourself for answers. They don’t really exist. You have to plot your own course, make your own choices, find your own way and marshal all your qualities to contribute to your own success. There should be the sense of a great adventure unfolding, but with that adventure can come uncertainty. That doesn’t mean you’re alone, but you have to launch without an academic infrastructure to assist you. It’s like you’re looking for what to do, but you’re standing alone in a valley and there is no trail to the top of the mountain. But here’s what you can do: Find three of the most accomplished people in the field you have chosen. Research their journey, find out how they did it, see if those three stories have anything in common. And then contact one of them if doable. Ask to interview them, take them to lunch, get any wisdom they may have to offer. And if at all possible, find the best of the best and make them your mentor. They know things you can’t possibly know because they know which dots connected. In the beginning you can’t know which dots will be your journey, there’s no connecting them until you look back, so you have to say yes to as many things as you can and you’ll find that most people want to help if they feel you’re serious. My mentor was the great Stella Adler. She was consider the world-wide authority on plays and acting and I found her in Los Angeles teaching a summer course. I did everything possible to place myself on her radar and at the end of that summer, she invited me to New York to be in her two year program. She was eighty-one at the time and there is no way I’d be the writer I am today without her influence. In my life, she was the biggest “Shout Out.” (There’s a photo of us below from the opening night of my first play). She was ninety that particular night. I said, “Stella you look gorgeous tonight.” Without missing a beat and as dry as you can imagine she said, “It’s the diamonds.” Hilarious. She was indeed dripping in them. It’s crucial to place yourself in the company of those who are excelling at what you are trying to accomplish and you want to be exposed to the best. Some people may say ‘no’ to you, perhaps many will, but perseverance and tenacity can be your best friends. And the most important thing is to never-give-up. I can promise without hesitation that it will be harder than you think it should be. You will face failure more often than you ever thought possible, that is simply the reality for all of us. You don’t know it, but everyone faces that, they just don’t talk about it, so there is an illusion that you are the only one struggling.
That’s really comforting, it makes struggle just part of the paradigm. So let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
As a playwright, I think what sets me aside is perhaps where I start my process. As soon as the ink is drying, I go after the best possible actors and ask them for a one night commitment to just read the play at my house. Often that night produces momentum and the actors say, “What’s next?” And we’re on our way. I also recall the night the great Stella Adler and I went to four Broadway plays in a row and each one was set in a living room. She turned to me and made me promise never to write a play that takes place in a living room. She said, “The audience comes from their living room, they spend over a hundred dollars and end up back in a living room. Where’s the creativity in that?” I love the idea of being as imaginative as possible and I have yet to set a play in a living room. My last play was a full-sized piper-cub airplane crashed dramatically on stage and starred TV icons, Stefanie Powers and Harry Hamlin (picture below). Girders was all set on a solitary girder high above New York City and based on that iconic photo of the men at lunch in 1923, building the steel infrastructure of Radio City Music Hall. I’ve set plays at the top of a lighthouse, the top of Hoover Dam, in a dusty attic (Tyne Daly and Robert Forster starring in Chasing Mem’ries – A Different Kind of Musical, with lyrics by the legendary Alan and Marilyn Bergman and music by Marvin Hamlisch and Michel Legrand at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse. Also at The Geffen, I collaborated with Dick Van Dyke on his one man show. I put him on the rooftops of London with pigeons and a deep blue sky and smoke coming from the chimneys. When he appeared in silhouette in the beginning, it was magical. So I’ve been lucky enough to have had some plays that really broke through the ’noise’. I collaborated with Carrie Fisher and co-created and directed her one woman show, Wishful Drinking. We were working on the sequel to that show at the sad time of her death. But the truth is that it’s the smaller productions that have been the most personally gratifying. There are actors you’ve never heard of who are simply extraordinary in ways that are hard to describe. John Sofge, John Acosta, Scot Kradolfer are brilliant and prove that the cream does not always rise. We did a production of my play, Off Sides with the great Robert Forster and with the actors I just mentioned, and they were breathtaking. In the end, the most important thing is to do the best work you can possible do at every moment. Keep writing, every day, even a page. There are no finals or midterms, so you have to invent the deadlines. And you never know who may be watching from the sidelines. I try to have several plays in some stage of completion. You never know which will catch fire and for what reasons. If you have three plays in the works, usually one will find its way and just maybe go the distance.
So to transition to Los Angeles more specifically where you grew up, after one of your plays, what are the great places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I love this question, so I’m going to answer as though Covid-19 weren’t a factor. Let’s start at the top. The highest open air terrace west of the Mississippi is SkySpace Los Angeles at the top of the U.S.Bank Tower. On a clear day it gives you 360 degrees of unobstructed views of the entire city. You can see Catalina twenty miles across the ocean in one direction, and the snow covered mountains up the Angeles Crest Highway. And remarkably, there’s a glass slide that allows you to literally slide around the outside of the building with nothing but plexiglass beneath you! My fourteen year old nephew loved that more than Disneyland. Then there are the usual suspects: The Venice Boardwalk, Santa Monica Pier, The Third Street Promenade, all not to be missed, iconic and fun and great for kids. Within walking distance, for the more sophisticated, there’s Abbot Kinney, an artsy street in Venice with galleries and restaurants and people-watching and more. It’s eclectic and unexpected and a genuine discovery. But let’s get more ambitious. If you happen to sail, you can rent small sailboats at reasonable prices form Marina Del Rey and head out past the breakwater and sail the coast past Santa Monica to the “seal-buoy” where there are almost always barking seals announcing your arrival. The Del Ray is a particularly terrific restaurant overlooking the marina with a substantial wine cellar. So now that we’ve seen the city from the top of a skyscraper before the afternoon sail and shops and dinner on Abbot Kinney, you get to sleep because that’s just day one! Day two would be Olvera Street where Los Angeles began – the oldest Mexican Marketplace in Los Angeles, more than 150 years old and full of original Los Angeles, Mexican-American culture and outdoor cafes. Then we’d hop the metro – yes New Yorker’s, we have a subway. There are some spectacular art sculptures in the subway stations of Los Angeles and a few that are architectural wonders on their own. That train would eventually get us to Long Beach and The Aquarium of the Pacific which is one of the most impressive aquatic experiences on the west coast. You can also hit The Queen Mary which is its own miracle and end the day with the sun sinking into the Pacific from one of the myriad water-side restaurants. We have a whole week? I think day three would be hanging out by the pool and doing less than nothing! Day four, we’d board the boat to Catalina Island just 26 miles across the sea. The charming bed and breakfast hotels climb the hill at the only town there, Avalon. You can rent a boat for the day and go snorkeling and cruising all afternoon. There’s even an underwater aquatic park for gorgeous scuba diving. And the final day, the most unexpected journey is kayaking through the caves of Anacapa. The journey starts early in the morning from Channel Islands Harbor. A large boat motors a group of twenty to the remote and uninhabited island. Everyone is given a kayak and there’s tour guide with you and you begin the most mythical journey through spectacular caves. I guess I’m leaning toward the water here, but it’s an unforgettable and mythical day.
You certainly cast a wide net. So This Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I’d go as far to say that it’s not just ‘somewhat’ thanks to their efforts, it’s largely due to their contributions. For me the most important Shoutout would be to the great Stella Adler who I mentioned earlier. She was the most important mentor for me as a writer. She knew more about plays than anyone and I spent close to ten years learning from and working with her. Alas, she is no longer living, but her script-interpretation books are genius and available. I’d like to also give a Shoutout to The Geffen Playhouse here in Los Angeles. They’ve produced four of my plays and several workshop productions. The late, great, Carrie Fisher and I approached Gil Cates who ran the playhouse with the idea of a one-woman-show for Carrie, who was, as we know, Princess Leia in Star Wars, the daughter of Hollywood royalty, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher and perhaps the funniest person on the planet. All of her books had a semi-autobiographical quality, and I thought she’d be remarkable in her own one woman show. So, we pitched it to The Geffen Playhouse and they said ‘yes’ to us and “Wishful Drinking” was born and became an unexpected hit, toured the world, and ended up on Broadway. before becoming an HBO special. Then The Geffen Playhouse put me together with the legendary Dick Van Dyke and his enthusiasm and joy and support made that show possible. A few more and very important Shoutouts if I may, go to the great Robert Forster who acted in five of my plays and was always available for the next play with such love and enthusiasm. We lost him last year. He and I spoke on the last day of his life. He was reading Shakespeare and quoting, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Heartbreaking loss. And Evan Greene who produced my first play, Girders, the play which essentially launched my career, and finally, my dear aunt, Harriet Frank Jr., who, with my uncle, Irving Ravetch wrote fifteen unforgettable movies including Norma Rae, The Dark at the Top of The Stairs, Hud, Murphy’s Romance and more. She was the one who said to me on a random Tuesday afternoon, “If you want to write plays, you must find Stella Adler.” If not for her, I’m not sure I would have found my way.
Linkedin: Josh Ravetch