About Michael Fritzen

Michael Fritzen has worked in the informal education field for over ten years, including at the Natural History Museum of L.A. County, Los Angeles Zoo, Autry Museum, Wildlife on Wheels, and KidSpace Museum. Currently, he is Head of Family Programs at the Skirball. In his spare time, he serves on the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots committee and the L.A. environmental education fair board, teaches art programs around Los Angeles, docents at the Los Angeles Zoo, and is on the Board of the California Association for the Education of Young Children.

Step by Step: An Interview with Lula Washington

The 2014 Summer Amphitheater series at the Skirball is in full swing. One of the new acts this season is the internationally renowned dance company Lula Washington Dance Theatre, performing on Saturday, August 23. For the first time, the company will be performing at the Skirball for families, so I thought we should take some time to get to know Lula and hear about her thirty-year career as a dancer, choreographer, and mentor on the LA dance scene.

How did you get started in dance?
When I was in high school I enrolled in a class where the teacher played music and we danced and exercised to the music. It was a dancercise class, not a real dance class, but I got the dance bug there. I only took the class because I wanted to get out of Physical Education. Later, when I went to Harbor Community College to study nursing, I walked past a dance class. I had never seen anything like it before. I had only seen dance on television. I kept watching and I eventually went in and asked if I could take the class. The teacher told me to show her what I could do. It was obvious that I did not know how to do anything. She said, “You’ve never had a dance class, have you?” I said, “No, but if you let me in this class, I will work real hard and I will do my best to catch on.” She let me in. That’s how I got my start. I had no dance training. I did my first dance concert with my teacher at Harbor Community College. She is also the one who took me to my first dance performance. She drove me and her other students to Royce Hall at UCLA to see Alvin Ailey. Seeing the Ailey company sealed it for me. I decided to dance.


The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing “Wade in the Water” from Revelations.


What part of performing for live audiences do you enjoy the most?
I believe that the art of dance has the power to change people’s lives. Dance can inspire people and uplift people. Every time we perform for live audiences, I know that someone will be moved in a deeply personal and powerful way. That gives me joy. The direct feedback from our audiences is what I enjoy most. After our shows, people come up to me and they tell me how much they were touched by our performance. I also enjoy it when I see a dancer reach a new level of excellence. When I see the dancers step up and hit it, and when I see them grow and surpass where they had been before, I get so excited. It gives me great joy.


The Lula Washington Dance Theater performing Spontaneous Combustion in China.


Dance has remained popular on television and in films. What do you think is the difference between seeing dance on a screen versus seeing it live in a performance space?
You can feel dance when it is live. There is something intangible that does not come through on the flat screen. Dance is more powerful when it is live. You can hear the feet on the floor, the breathing of the dancers. You see them flying through space and have a truer sense of how high they are leaping, or falling, or sailing across the room. There is no comparison to seeing dance live and seeing it on screen. Live is better.


What is one memorable moment from your performing or choreography career that stands out?
My work with James Cameron on the movie Avatar is what stands out most in my mind. I choreographed movement, rituals, and the Na’vi greetings to each other for the film.  My dancers had to wear these motion capture suits Continue reading

Marionettes: An Interview with René Zendejas

renes_marionettes The third annual Puppet Festival is this Sunday, April 13. From hand to shadow, marionette to pageant-size, all your favorites will be there! The Skirball is especially happy to welcome back puppeteer, storyteller, and puppet maker René Zendejas. René returns to wow families with a special animal puppet revue and performance, showcasing some of his best handmade animal puppets. I sat down with René as he was preparing for his appearance to ask him about his long career in the world of puppetry.

How did you get started in puppetry?
I started when I was in junior high school. My mother took me to see as many puppet shows as possible that were playing in L.A.

Which puppeteer captured your imagination when you were young?
I had already started in show business when I was five years old, so this wasn’t something totally new for me. One of the puppeteering teams that caught my eye was Walton and O’Rourke—the most fantastic puppeteers that I have ever seen. From then on, I was smitten. They’re long gone by now. They had the most beautiful marionettes and their manipulation was unsurpassable—except by me, of course.

How do you make your puppets?
First, the clay is sculpted using water-based or grease clay. Second, a plaster mold is made of the clay sculpture. Then you pour your final material into the mold, either plastic or latex. Then comes the finishing of the figure by sanding. Lastly, you animate it—if there is to be any animation in the eyes and the mouth—and paint it. Meanwhile, the body must be constructed and costumed. Continue reading

Rockin’ Out with Kids

Seeing a child arrive at the Skirball for his or her first rock concert is a perk of my job; knowing they’re getting that jittery feeling you get when you’re about to be in the presence of those voices you’ve spent hours with, at home or in the car, memorizing every word and drumbeat.

In my experience, the people in these amazing bands are always just as excited as the kids to rock out together in person. In just a few weeks, our special Winter Family Concerts bring two creative, kid-friendly acts to the Skirball: two-time Parent’s Choice Award winner Jambo on Saturday, December 28, and 2013 Grammy nominee for Best Children’s Album The Pop Ups on Sunday, December 29. I thought it would be interesting to find out more about these groups as they prepare for their upcoming performances, and they were kind enough to oblige.

Jambo 1

The mission of musical group Jambo has always been to get people of all ages up and dancing. For years, husband-and-wife team Steve Pierson and Melinda Leigh have been using their imaginative performance style to transport audiences through the roots of American music. They’ve made several appearances at the Skirball’s Family Amphitheater Performances series, and they’ve always been a big hit. I spoke with Steve Pierson about Jambo’s beginnings and what inspires him to keep performing.

How did you get started in performance?
I always played music and performed as a kid. I studied piano when I was young, but when my older brother taught me some chords on the guitar, I never looked back. I started out playing acoustic guitar in coffee houses and small venues; playing James Taylor, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers, as well as my original songs. I was always heavily into blues music and played in a few different local blues bands till I put together my own band, Steve Pierson & Blues Head, and started touring around the country playing large blues festivals and small roadhouse bars.

What is one memorable moment from your performing career that stands out?
There have been a few shows that have really stuck with me over my career as a performer, but as it relates to Jambo, one of my first shows was very memorable. I wrote these songs for my own daughter and had no intention of performing them outside of our own home. We played a show at a local elementary school and the experience blew me away. The kids had such unbridled enthusiasm for the music and everyone was having so much fun. The kids were so loud that we couldn’t hear ourselves on stage! jambo2I had a blast and it clicked for me that I could play the music I love for these families and it didn’t have to be “dumbed down.” It became my mission to present young kids with really great musical experiences.

What music inspires you?
Dan Zanes was the first person I heard playing “real” music for kids, and I also really loved the Jack Johnson Curious George record. These were songs for kids that adults really liked listening to as well, and that’s what I wanted to make. After that, my music borrows from my musical heroes: The Band, The Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder, anything Stax or Muscle Shoals, and of course the blues greats including, but not limited to, the three Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddie), Taj Mahal, Albert Collins … the list goes on.

How did you come up with your group’s name?
I was trying to come up with something that would sound fun, groovy, and inviting. “Jambo” is a combination of “jam,” as in a jam session or party, and “gumbo,” a delicious Louisiana dish that is a combination of rich flavors and ingredients. I felt like the name was kind of like a “roots music stew” where I could stir in influences from Chicago, New Orleans, Texas, and the Mississippi Delta. Of course, Jambo also means “hello” in Swahili, which I love because it is so welcoming and evocative of the cultural diversity that I try to bring to the music.

What influence has your family had on your art?
My family has been a huge influence on my art. I never would have written these songs for children if it hadn’t been for the inspiration my own daughter brings me. I have always tried to write from her perspective and about things that she likes or issues she has struggled with. I wanted these songs to be helpful to her as she is growing up, and it has been a blessing to be able to pass that along to all the kids and families that hear my music. It’s been so great to be able to share this project and perform with my wife as well, making it a true family affair! It’s our mission now to bring “real roots music” to kids and do a little part to fill the void left by diminished school budgets and dwindling music programs.


dsc_0098THE POP UPS

The Pop Ups are not your typical children’s band. The duo’s incorporation of puppets, props, and colorful sets into their show has garnered praise from the Wall Street Journal and a Grammy nomination for Best Children’s Album. We’re excited for The Pop Ups to bring their high energy and wildly inventive tunes to the Skirball. I spoke with Jason Rabinowitz and Jacob Stein about their influences and what we should expect from their upcoming performance.

How did you get started in performance?
We both started very young. Jacob’s father had a kids band called Dino Rock, Continue reading

Rhythm Is Gonna Get You

The mission of music group Rhythm Child has always been to get people of all ages up and moving. For the past six years Rhythm Child founder, Norm Jones, has been inspiring young drummers and their families to get up and move as part of the Skirball’s Family Amphitheater Performances series. If you’ve been to any of the group’s last six performances, you know that once Jones passes out his instruments and lays down a beat, the Amphitheater comes thumping to life! I’ve always loved the energy and enthusiasm of Rhythm Child, so I thought it would be interesting to find out more about this fun and feisty musical collective as they plan for their Amphitheater performance on July 21st.

How did you get started in performance?
I grew up being inspired by the performance of others (my brother’s band, choirs in church, supper club shows that my mom took me to). I watched how these singers moved the audience with style, humor, and emotion. For years I practiced at the mirror in my basement before I ever took the stage and performed for people.

What part of performing for live audiences do you enjoy the most?
I love the immediate feedback that you get from a live audience. There is an exchange of energy that is unquestionable. There is a feeling of being out there on the edge without much of a safety net and usually the audience is open and willing to go for the ride. What I hope for is that everyone walks away feeling connected and inspired.

What is the most memorable moment from your career?
I must say that performing at the White House was pretty cool. I got to have my family with me on stage for one of the greatest days of my career.

What music or artist inspires you? Continue reading

Hello, Gorillas

Azalea-and-gorillasIf you have not met the new mountain gorilla family on Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, I highly recommend a visit! Welcoming these new members of the Noah’s Ark family has been very exciting for all of us at the Skirball. We have had many questions from staff and visitors about the gorillas and how they fit into the harmony we have established on the Ark. So, I thought it would be nice to check-in with my old friend Jennifer Chatfield. We consulted with Jennifer, former gorilla keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo for over twenty-five years and, in my opinion, the undisputed queen of gorillas, during the design process for the gorillas. Now, as the family settles in, I thought it was time to call her up again to see if she would share more of her in-depth knowledge of these wonderful creatures.

What have you learned from the gorillas you worked with?
I’ve learned a lot from gorillas! First, I think that when working with any animal you must be quiet inside. Leave the stress of your commute, an argument with a co-worker, and all your other issues at the door. The gorillas have taught me to be more aware and to pay close attention to body language. Since their vocalizations are limited, they communicate with their actions. This has made me more aware of their desires and moods, and has made me a better reader of people, too.

What is something about gorillas that most people don’t know?
A lot of them are very ticklish and will laugh or giggle when you tickle their belly.

single-gorillaPeople often think of gorillas in a negative way because of films like King Kong. What would you like to change in people’s minds about gorillas?
In spite of their size and some impressive teeth, gorillas are very gentle. They tend to shy away from confrontation rather than fight. Even silverback gorillas (the lead male in a family group)—who get into territorial disputes—fight in a ritualistic manner and there usually aren’t too many serious injuries. Part of the beauty of being a gorilla is that if you stand up, charge, and beat your chest, it scares most interlopers off.

In what ways do gorilla families behave like human families?
While the makeup of a gorilla family is different than a usual human family—with one silverback, several females, and their offspring—there are strong bonds in the group. The silverbacks play a role in child-rearing, often playing gently with infants barely the size of the palm of their hand. Continue reading

Destined to Puppeteer: An Interview with Elizabeth Luce

Elizabeth's "Moon Lady."

Elizabeth’s Moon Lady.

Elizabeth Luce is a puppeteer, storyteller, writer. Her puppet performance “The Emperor and the Nightingale,” based on one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most beloved tales, will be performed at the Skirball’s second annual Family Puppet Festival on Sunday, April 7. I sat down with Elizabeth as she was preparing for the show to ask her about the magical world of puppetry.

How did you get started in puppetry?
I think puppetry and I were destined for each other, and would have come together no matter what, but my first important puppet experiences were because of my kindergarten art teacher, Mr. Blake. He would bring puppets out to talk to us. We were enthralled, sitting in a circle around his chair. There was a puppet show of his with puppets that lit up under black light, which made quite an impression on me. He also was responsible for guiding me to build my first real rod puppet (see below). Pretty funny puppet, right? That’s actually the “improved” version; a year later, I ripped off his hair and taped on smaller eyes.

Elizabeth's first puppet.

Elizabeth’s first puppet.

Also, the local library—hurray for libraries!—had a half dozen books on puppets and puppetry in the adult section. I checked them all out multiple times as a child. In particular, I loved the look of the Czechoslovakian puppets, and that has been a visual influence that’s stayed with me always: clean simple lines with nice stylization.

Which puppet or puppeteer captured your imagination when you were younger?
I loved, loved, LOVED “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” and to this day I think they are special. The show played during the early days of television (1947–1957) and Burr Tillstrom, the puppeteer, would arrive at the TV studio with only a loose plan in his head for the show, but mostly he just improvised, even though the show was broadcast live! This would never happen nowadays, of course. There was a set of puppet characters and also Fran Allison, a warm and gracious lady who often stood out in front of the stage and talked with the puppets. Although Fran served as “straight man,” she was what made all the funny puppet characters and their special world work so well. Because she believed in them, we did too.

Watch a scene from “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie”—Fran, Madame Ooglepuss, and Buelah Witch rehearse a song from The Mikado:

Where do you get inspiration for your shows?
Continue reading