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Writer/historian: Eric Marchese
Because of his now 16 years (and counting) as theater critic-in-chief of the OC Weekly, casual observers mistakenly peg Joel Beers as a “theater person” – that is, someone who studied and majored in theater and participates in local productions.
And while Beers admittedly loves being a part of the theater scene, as both critic and playwright, it was writing – and, specifically, print journalism – that sparked his interest upon enrolling at Fullerton College.
So, where does Beers’ interest in theater fit in? He says he had never even seen a play until a Fullerton College production of “Tracers” in 1989. And, he admits, he was equally unfamiliar with the texts of plays, not reading his first play script until he was in his early 20s.
Joel Beers was born in Garden Grove on August 8, 1966. Three years later, the family moved to Riverside, where Beers attended elementary and junior high schools, graduating from Rubidoux High in 1984.
From there, he enrolled at Fullerton College, which he says was “a sleepy commuter campus at the time,” and attended classes from fall 1984 through spring 1988. It was during this time that his interest in print journalism began to foster his first serious career goals.
Up until that time, his “dream,” he admits,“was to be the next announcer for The Dodgers.” But his love of words, he said, had been a constant throughout school, and enrolling in Journalism 101 at Fullerton College “lit a fire under me.”
In fact, with each of his favorite courses and instructors, he realized how college was “demonstrably better than high school.” How so? “For the first time ever, I was in school because I wanted to be.”
Professor Larry Taylor taught the Journalism 101 course that got Beers going while also working as the student newspaper’s faculty adviser. Taylor, Beers said, “really taught through the love of newspapers. When I started, all I wanted to do was write sports, and at one point he said ‘If you’re going to do this, you’ve got to try to write as much news and features and entertainment as you can.’ Without him, I might have just stuck with sports – but because of him, now I can write on just about any subject.”
For Beers, Taylor was also “the closest thing I had to a mentor. He was very laid-back, a great adviser who let us be creative. We ran the paper with just a little bit of guidance (from Taylor), and it was great.”
Beers’ preference had always been for “teachers who weren’t too heavy on structure” – something he said he found in abundance at Fullerton College. Taylor, history professor Steven Ibsen, English Department professor John Orr (“kind of a lefty from the ’60s”) and psychology professor Robert Byde are among the instructors who left their mark upon Beers.
He labels Byde, for example, “the most colorful and dynamic teacher I ever had. He was the type of teacher that didn’t need to demand attendance; I looked forward to hearing him lecture. He had complete command of the subject but was also so engaging and funny. He took a very dense subject and made it vibrant and accessible.”
In terms of course-work, Beers says he took “a little bit of everything,” from economics to oceanography, and counted himself fortunate that he was able to satisfy his requirement for math (not his favorite subject) through an intermediate algebra course.
A rare instance of a career-related course that turned out to be a letdown was a key literature class of which Beers says he just could not relate to because its instructor showed a marked inability to connect with his students. Not surprisingly, a disappointed Beers dropped the class.
In fact, as Beers relates, despite enjoying many of his classes and instructors, he would frequently drop classes so he could spend more time working on the student newspaper, The Hornet. “Doing the paper was my main thing. I just ate, lived and breathed that paper when I was there.”
During the 1987-’88 school year, Beers worked as the paper’s managing editor in the fall under editor-in-chief Rob Lyon; the two switched jobs for spring semester. Also during this time, The Hornet earned Columbia College’s Gold Crown Award, with Beers, Lyon and a few other Hornet colleagues flying to New York City in 1987.
Beers’ fourth year at Fullerton College (1988) was also the school’s 75th anniversary, and Beers was instrumental in working on a special anniversary edition of the student yearbook, The Torch, as both a writer and editor.
He praises the hands-on environment of the school’s newspaper course, saying that “90% of what I’ve learned in journalism was at Fullerton College.”
Beers also lauds the versatility that the environment of the student newspaper engendered within him and others: “We were encouraged to learn how to design pages and lay out stories” – something he sees as absent in some contemporary college journalism courses. “It was a true laboratory, and I really took advantage of it.”
Beers says most everyone he knew had some sort of affiliation with The Hornet, many of whom, he says, “came in kind of very green, didn’t know if they wanted to really pursue it (journalism),” and though Beers has continued along the path of reportage, he formed “lifelong relationships with several of them” that exist to this day.
Among these close ties are Rob Lyon and Eric Marson, both of whom Beers took under his wing during their time at Fullerton College and who launched Southland Golf in 1995, running it for 16 years; and Cathy Yarnovich, now the student newspaper adviser at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
Beers doesn’t deny his strong connection with Fullerton College’s theater department and those students who are products of it. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, after Beers’ first stint with Fullerton College, that he first read a play (“Death of a Salesman”). He had taken a year of classes at San Jose State, but found he liked the academic and creative climate of Fullerton better, so he returned to Fullerton.
By coincidence, Beers found that Steve Spehar, his friend and first roommate, had also just come back to Fullerton. Spehar had begun working on a new play with several Fullerton College theater people. Beers was intrigued. He wanted to meet Spehar’s theater friends and see what they were up to.
“That’s really how I got into theater,” Beers later said. The play, “Root of Chaos,” the product of this group’s efforts, was staged in 1992 at a small coffeehouse, the Winged Heart Cafe.
Later that year, Beers began working with Michael Mollo and Steven Lamprinos on “Visions Play.” From there it was only a short hop to begin writing plays of his own. He finished his first two scripts, “Visions: Portrait of a Beat Generation” and “Hold Back The Dawn,” in 1993. Both were staged in Fullerton that year: “Visions” at the Winged Heart Cafe and the Fullerton Museum Center, “Hold Back The Dawn” at Tribune Theater.
Beers recognized a kinship between journalism and theater that many others may have perhaps overlooked: “I think one of the reasons I started writing plays is that plays are so dialogue-driven, and as a journalist you’re always talking to people and recording their quotes.” He has penned more than a dozen original plays as well as numerous adaptations of classic plays by the likes of Molière and Ibsen.
Beers also notes that the collective influence of three major forces in Fullerton College’s Theatre Arts Department – Bob Jensen, Gary Krinke and Tom Blank – has left a major imprint on dozens of their disciples – students who, in turn, have gone on to notch noteworthy work in the Orange County theater community at large and beyond.
Beers notes that the influence the Jensen-Krinke-Blank troika has had on Orange County theater “is incalculable – not just in terms of guys like Matt Lillard and Cress Williams, who have gone on to enjoy real success” (in numerous network television series), “but just engendering that nuts-and-bolts, hands-on love of theater.”
Among the latter? Stages Theatre (Brian Kojac and company), Maverick Theater (Brian Newell and company) and the short-lived yet admirably daring Revolving Door Productions, a Fullerton-based theater company founded and run by Beers, Steve Spehar, Steven Lamprinos, Jennifer Bishton and Bradley Whitfield. (Of the company, Beers says “Our 10 minutes of fame was when Robert Koehler, in a December 1994 article in the Los Angeles Times, called us ‘Newt Gingrich’s worst nightmare.’”)
During the next dozen or so years – 1988 through 2000 – Beers juggled his budding career as a journalist, his desire to be a productive member of the theater community and his academic endeavors. He left Fullerton College in 1988 and transferred to San Jose State, but stayed for just one year (1988-’89). Years later, he enrolled at California State University, Fullerton, where he eventually received a bachelor’s degree in political science (in 2000).
While supporting himself and widening his academic horizons, Beers continued to churn out one script after another, then found homes for them at theaters not just in Fullerton but throughout the county and the region. Not just a playwright, Beers has also tried his hand as a director, helming, among others, a 2002 Stages Theatre production of Sam Shepard’s “True West.” He has even penned a pilot (called “Glory Days”) for an HBO-like series about baseball (a pet subject he covered in “Rube!”) at the turn of the 20th century.
Also during this period, Beers took an internship with the Anaheim Bulletin, then applied for and received a reporting job with that paper, staying until 1991. After traveling to Europe, Beers returned home to reporting jobs with the Riverside Press-Enterprise (in 1992) and the Costa Mesa-based Daily Pilot.
His career as a general assignment reporter with the Pilot, which ended in late 1993, brought on a startling revelation – “that I kind of hated, not newspapers, but just daily newspaper stuff like having to interview mothers whose toddlers were just killed by motorists, or three-hour-long planning commission meetings, or dealing with city officials who always had their spin on things.”
Despite this seeming incompatibility, what ultimately led Beers to leave the Pilot was “the desire to write creatively, in theater. I chose to leave the career path of newspapers to pursue my creative interests.”
First off after leaving the Pilot, Beers began to freelance for Jill Lloyd, the Orange County Fair’s public relations director. He says he “wrote a great deal for her” – although the subject wasn’t theater.
Very soon, though, another Fullerton College alum was instrumental in helping Beers connect with the field (theater) and the niche (theater critic) for which he’s best known today: Cathy Yarnovich had been doing newspaper layout for the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and told Beers the paper was looking for a freelance reporter to cover theater.
He took the job, which didn’t entail reviews so much as “interviews of anybody big coming to L.A.” For roughly 18 months, Beers enjoyed numerous bylines in the paper’s sizable weekly entertainment section. The experience was Beers’ “first real exposure” to some of the industry’s biggest names, playwright August Wilson among them.
These assignments, circa 1993 and ’94, are when Beers “seriously started writing about theater,” setting him firmly on the path of covering theater for the OC Weekly when that paper opened its doors in late 1995.
Throughout this period, Beers’ constant networking with various fellow Fullerton College alums helped him land most of his Southern California newspaper jobs, and he, in turn, extended a helping hand to other Fullerton College alumni whenever he could.
Beers heard about the OC Weekly’s launch in October 1995 through Matt Coker, one of his former Pilot associates. He promptly applied as a sportswriter, but when publisher Will Swaim heard about Beers’ theater background, “he asked if I’d be interested in writing about theater, rather than sports. I was happy to pursue this, even if I didn’t feel I was eminently qualified to review theater, since I’d previously only written preview stories.”
His first theater piece, an interview with Shakespeare Orange County’s Tom Bradac, appeared in the inaugural issue of the Weekly, and Beers was on his way. He believes he’s one of just two people who have been with the Weekly continuously “from Day One.” All of his work for the Weekly, he notes, has been as a freelancer – including a stint as theater editor. And during his tenure with OC Weekly, Beers has freelanced for a variety of publications, including advertorial sections of The Los Angeles Times.
Around 2007, to help generate extra income, Beers began bartending a couple of nights per week. To his chagrin, he found that he could earn as much tending bar as working as a reporter – “not only a reflection of the dying journalism industry, but also how lucrative being a bartender can be.”
More recently (in 2010), Beers became an adjunct professor at Cal State University Dominguez Hills, teaching feature writing in the communications department. He refers to this teaching position as “a total Hornet connection” because he learned of the opening through former fellow classmate and Hornet staffer Yarnovich, who is now journalism adviser at CSUDH. When she heard that so many students had signed up for feature writing that a second class had to be offered and that an instructor was needed for it, she encouraged Beers to apply for the job of instructing the overflow.
Less than a week before the semester began, Beers interviewed with the dean of the communications department and was hired “on the spot.” Since starting, he has taught more than one feature writing course per semester and also had a hand in working as journalism adviser. Beers notes, with a touch of dismay, that “none of (the students)” in his feature writing class “want to be journalists. They want to go into advertising or p.r. or similar fields” – areas for which the course is an elective.
Though he teaches in Torrance, Beers lives only a few blocks from the campus where it all began. He advises up-and-coming Fullerton College students to “take advantage” of the school’s affordability and the wealth of subjects available.
“Start networking,” he says, not only for the present but for the benefits it can bring many years down the road. “Spread your intellectual wings and take as many classes as possible.”
That latter guideline, he notes, can aid immensely for those students still struggling to identify possible directions and goals for their careers and lives. “Take a number of different subjects, because something might click.”