Las Vegas playwright tackles topics from comedic to absurd

Behind the keyboard, he’s no Neil Simon. After all, Simon never penned anything remotely resembling “Die Mother (expletive) Die.” Yet 43-year-old playwright/actor/director Ernest Hemmings has been one of the steadiest (read: persistent and creative) figures on the Vegas community theater scene since he arrived 17 years ago from Cleveland.

Once anchored at downtown’s former Social Experimentation and Absurd Theater (SEAT), today Hemmings steers his roving Test Market troupe (nicknamed “Tstmrkt”) through venues around town: host theaters, warehouses, churches, even garages — anywhere he can find a stage.

Whether he’s flame-throwing (the aforementioned “Die”); bouncing off the walls of sanity (the outrageously profane “The Shanda of Rabbi Schlemazel”); exploring dark themes (“Cancer Dog,” about a woman throwing herself an end-of-life party); decimating the capitalist ethos (“The Proletariat”); going fast and funny (sketch comedy); or attempting to keep an absurdist genius alive in our culture (overseeing Vegas’ former Samuel Beckett Festival), Hemmings’ voice is fiercely original.

What motivated your move to Vegas?

I came to Las Vegas to drink myself to death. I was having this (Charles) Bukowski-esque moment. It was my first divorce in Cleveland. I was in my 20s, my ego was super-damaged. I got rid of all my furniture, got on a Greyhound bus, and didn’t plan on going past a week here. Would you believe I’ve never seen “Leaving Las Vegas” (in which Nicolas Cage’s character does exactly that)? I’ll call it up on the Contour later tonight. But Vegas ended up saving my life. I found life in the desert.

Test Market once had its own space downtown. Does the area’s renaissance mean that could happen again?

It’s tougher now that downtown’s been redeveloped or gentrified. Now (available space) has gone up exponentially, and the availability has dropped because the Downtown Project has purchased a lot of these vacant buildings.

What do you consider some of your most “out there” plays?

Definitely “The Shanda (Yiddish for “shame”) of Rabbi Schlemazel.” I was always taking these Yiddish classes in Cleveland when I was in the process of converting. Fast forward to Vegas. (Myself and a writing partner) had the initial idea to do the whole play in Yiddish. Then somehow we came up with the premise of the play, which is this orthodox rabbi who falls deeply in love with a black-magic transvestite. I wrote that thing in a day. It was hilarious and ridiculous. The casting was the most fantastic part, because two of the kids were Palestinian, the mom was Saudi, but no one in the cast was a Jew. But the pronunciation was perfect!

Do you still consider yourself a renegade playwright?

Not anymore. Now I think in comparison to everything else I’m pretty normal and tame. There is a lot of brainy stuff that’s going on, but the shock value stuff, I don’t want to tread on those waters at this age. I’m deathly afraid now of entering into what I call wince theater. There are times where I have in the past, like when I did “Die Mother (expletive) Die.” I did it on purpose and we sold tickets, but I think now people are desensitized.

So where is your creative mindset now?

Trying to make the shock more the shock of thought than the shock of, “Hey, here we are naked on stage.” In “The Proletariat,” it’s three characters around a desk. It’s about the plight of the working class, not a sexy, exciting topic. But at the end of every single performance, at least two or three people go, “YEAAAH!” So it’s like, “OK, success.” You’re packing the house with a corporate play. Or “Cancer Dog,” which is a relatable topic, it’s funny, dark as hell, but not setting the stage on fire.

Do you think we’ll see a rise in “protest theater” in the Trump era?

There’s so much absurdity in real life now, but the only political theater I’ve seen so far has been on television. Now would seem to be the time to do something original and creative but we had more protest plays during the Obama administration than we do right now, which is weird. I don’t know if it’s because of fear, or profit reasons.

With the internet and streaming services, is it harder to get people out of their homes to see live theater?

Theater has to be more of a community gathering spot now. You’re going out not just to be entertained but getting a group experience out of it. That’s what’s pulling people in. The Test Market shows, they turn into a kind of party after the show is over. Everyone is milling about, having some beers out of the back of somebody’s car, and chitchatting, and they all got that same experience. That’s the main reason why theater is still hot. We have the cathartic moment in unison. This is what the Greeks used to do. We’re going back in time.

Ringtone: “Cola Bottle Baby” by Edwin Birdsong. “Whenever it goes off, it puts a smile on my face.”

Indulgence: Pumpkin pie. “It gives me acid reflux like a madman, a total nightmare on my esophagus, but I can eat an entire one in one sitting.”

Vacation destination: Playa del Carmen in Cancun. “It’s got the sandy beaches and you can get hospital drunk the entire time and people take care of you. It’s like Vegas, except your hands never touch your pocket because it’s all-inclusive.”

Movie: “Manhattan.” “Oh, wow, maybe I shouldn’t say that now. There are so many reasons why that’s terrible now.”

Playwright: The late Peter Shaffer (“Amadeus,” “Equus”). “He’s able to be brilliant without being stuffy or pretentious and that’s a real hard trick to pull off.”

Life motto: “Don’t let anyone watch you (screw) up.”

Phobia: “Daydreaming in traffic, because I daydream a lot. Sometimes I get to a location and I have no idea how I got there.”

Musician: Kevin Barnes, lead singer of indie rock group, of Montreal . “He can play every single instrument, kind of like the modern Prince. He is super-underrated. … I think they are the Beatles reincarnated.”

Contact Steve Bornfeld at Follow @sborn1 on Twitter.

This "Alice in Wonderland" cocktail changes colors and flavors while you sip
Take a tour of The Underground at The Mob Museum
Prince death investigation coming to an end
Prosecutors in Minnesota plan an announcement Thursday on the two-year investigation into Prince's death from a drug overdose Prince was 57 when he was found alone and unresponsive in an elevator at his Paisley Park estate on April 21, 2016. An autopsy found he died of an accidental overdose of fentanyl. Search warrants unsealed about a year after Prince died showed that authorities searched his home, cellphone records of associates and his email accounts to try to determine how he got the drug. The county attorney has scheduled a morning announcement at which time charges could be filed.
Art Bell’s Top 10 Shows
A selection of radio host Art Bell’s most popular shows.
Big Bounce America visits North Las Vegas
Billing itself as "the biggest bounce house in the world," Big Bounce America visits Craig Ranch Regional Park in Las Vegas.
David Copperfield in court after man injured during magic trick
The attorney for a British man who is suing illusionist David Copperfield said his client suffered serious injuries after being called on stage during Copperfield's show at MGM Grand.
Disneyland debuts new foods for Pixar Fest on Friday
Pixar Fest takes place ahead of California Adventure’s Pixar Pier expansion. (Janna Karel/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sneak Peek at New Decorations, Merch and Parade for Disneyland's Pixar Fest
Las Vegas Philharmonic celebrates 20th anniversary season
Orchestra’s 2018-19 season features premiere, more (Carol Cling/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Downtown Las Vegas' newest bar is a reggae lounge
Jammyland serves island-inspired cocktails. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
5 things connecting Las Vegas and Marilyn Monroe
1. Marilyn Monroe, known then as Norma Jeane, obtained her first divorce in Las Vegas at the age of 20 on September 13, 1946. 2. According to some biographers, Monroe lived at 604 S. 3rd Street for four months during the summer of 1946. The house has since been torn down and is now the site of a parking lot. 3. In 1954, Monroe almost married Joe DiMaggio in Las Vegas but the wedding was called off last minute. The wedding was to be held at the Hotel El Rancho Vegas which was located on the southwest corner of Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard. 4. Las Vegas has at least one road dedicated to the star. Marilyn Monroe Avenue is located in east Las Vegas and intersects with Betty Davis Street and Cary Grant Court. 5. There are currently more than 20 Marilyn Monroe impersonators for hire in the Las Vegas Valley.
This boozy milkshake is big enough to share with seven of your best friends
Fiddlestix makes an "8 Man Milkshake" that's packed with alcohol. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Five Chris Stapleton songs you need to hear
D. Michael Evola opened E-String to make New York style pizza
Shamrock Macarons at Morels at Palazzo
Zuma serves a sushi roll topped with 24-karat gold
La Cirque covers their quail and foie gras in real gold
Jean-Georges Steakhouse seves chocolate gold bars
3 ways you can eat gold in Las Vegas
Artist Kathleen Nathan On The Virtues Of Library Galleries
The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District’s art galleries offers artists a more relaxed vibe for showing their work. (John Przybys/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada SPCA Competes In Tournament Of Tails
The NSPCA and its mascot cat, Prince, are competing in an online voting challenge for a $5,000 grand prize.
Red carpet at MGM for Dan Reynolds Believer screening
Kats on the red carpet for the VIP screening of "Believer," the documentary by Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds about how the Mormon Church treats its LGBTQ members.
Eureka's cocktail comes with a "buzz button" that will shock your taste buds
‘The Sopranos’ Prequel Film Confirmed
‘The Sopranos’ Prequel Film Confirmed Deadline reports that New Line has purchased Chase and Lawrence Konner’s screenplay for their “Sopranos” prequel film. The working title for the prequel is “The Many Saints of Newark.” Chase created the HBO series, which ran for six seasons, and Konner served as a writer. “The Many Saints of Newark” is set during the 1960s riots in the New Jersey city between the African-American and Italian communities. Multiple characters from the series, albeit younger versions, are expected to star in the film. The Sopranos won 21 Primetime Emmy Awards and five Golden Globe Awards during its run.
The Big Bounce America is coming to the Las Vegas Valley
The Big Bounce America. (Courtesy Big Bounce America)
The 90th Oscars Were the Least Watched in History
The 90th Oscars Were the Least Watched in History According to The Hollywood Reporter, 26.5 million watched the Oscars, a 20 percent drop from last year. The 26.5 million viewers would be an all-time low for the Oscars. Overnight returns had the lengthy ABC telecast averaging a 18.9 rating among households between 8 and 11 p.m. ET. Last year, 32.9 million viewers tuned in to watch the ceremony. The previous low for viewership was 32 million viewers in 2008 when Jon Stewart was host. The Shape of Water picked up an award for Best Picture, while Gary Oldman and Frances McDormand won Best Actor and Actress, respectively.
March First Friday theme is “Think”
First Friday art, culture, music and food event takes place on the first Friday of every month in and around the studios and galleries of the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas. (K.M. Cannon)
Cirque’s One Night for One Drop gets ready for the big night
Cirque du Soleil’s “One Night for One Drop” performed a dress rehearsal for the annual benefit show. This year’s show at Mandalay Bay is based on the life of singer-songwriter Jewel. K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal
The Kosher Experience provides kosher foods to Las Vegas families
2018-19 Broadway Las Vegas at The Smith Center
Ten touring productions are on The Smith Center’s 2018-19 Broadway Las Vegas season schedule. (The Smith Center)
Art Bell’s Top 10 Shows
A selection of radio host Art Bell’s most popular shows.
Calvary Christian Learning Academy, “There was no fair warning.”
Samantha O’Brien, whose three-year-old daughter attended the Calvary Christian Learning Academy daycare, found out Monday night when her daughter’s teacher called about the school closing.
Companies bet their futures on cryptocurrency
Two Las Vegas entrepreneurs talk about finding their niche in blockchain enabled technologies and digital currency.
Solar panels reduce energy bill for CCSD
Wilbur and Theresa Faiss Middle School is one of 42 CCSD schools with solar panel installations, saving approximately $514,000 per year in energy costs.
News Headlines
Local Spotlight
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like