Sunday, 17 July 2011 10:38

Fitting the Role - A Profile on Judith E. Taranto of J.E.T Studios

Written by  Chavonny Tillotson
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Judith E. TarantoFor those of you charmed enough to live in North Hollywood, yet another theater in the NoHo Arts District may seem redundant. But imagine a venue that acts not only as a space for theatrical productions, but also as a forum for acting teachers, actors, casting directors, producers, independent film makers and directors to use. On Saturday, July 23, at the intersection of Lankershim and Magnolia Blvd, J.E.T Studios will rise above the smog and traffic with an impressive opening that will include a tour of this polished facility, consisting of three studios, a TV/camera room and a 60-seat theater that will provide professional soundproof space for theatrical productions, film screenings, rehearsals, acting classes, and film/video shoots.

Guests will likely be moved by the space itself with its sleek, industrial décor and a sunken lounge harboring a concession area, but what’s bound to really send them over the moon is the strategic implementation and demonstration of a little well-kept secret known as virtual casting, or real-time streaming of casting over the web.

“Actors are encouraged to bring material to read on camera during our opening,” says Judith E. Taranto during our phone interview. She is the founder and unabashed genius behind J.E.T Studios, but make no mistake, entrepreneur sounds great- but she is an actress first, not actor, but actress. “I hate when they use actor to describe both men and women, I like the distinction,” she admits. And it’s because of the many years Judith has spent in the business as an actress that she understands the important role casting plays, hence why her facility will be the only one in all of the NoHo Arts District offering virtual casting.

“Being an actress myself, I belong to a few casting websites, and I started noticing that they were asking for videos to be uploaded for auditions,” she remembers, “and I thought, ‘How great would it be if a client (producer/director) in New York could cast here in LA without having to leave their office. I should offer this in North Hollywood,’” she says, although, she admits she did not invent this concept. Yes, with so many weapons of mass inspiration in her arsenal, J.E.T Studios is bound for success. But if this is true, it is only at the hands of Judith, its unstoppable founder, whose many lessons of struggle and disappointment have made her smarter, stronger and ultimately a survivor.

Her journey began over thirty years ago in Massachusetts shortly after graduating from nursing school. A divorced, single mother originally from the South Bronx, she worked nights as a trauma nurse while taking care of her daughter during the day. But even with an exhausting schedule where most women would’ve been happy just napping in between play-dates and roaring ambulances, Judith knew she had more to offer. “I still felt like there was something missing in my life,” she admits. “I just didn’t feel fulfilled.” Then, before the discontentment had a chance to spread, she came across an ad in the paper about an audition the local community theater was holding for a production of Dracula. Judith auditioned for the role of Professor Van Hesling and nailed the part. “Finally, in 1976, I started feeling the desire to perform, and after two years in Massachusetts, I packed up and moved back to New York.” Shortly after reintroducing herself to the cabs and concrete, she quickly enrolled in the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute as well as the Herbert Berghof (HB) Studios, which she credits with making her a better performer. “When you study there, they really teach you how to fend for yourself as an actor, and how to be a director in the sense that you really scrutinize a script,” she says, “so you’ve been taught that when you go into an audition, you always go prepared.”

Nothing validated this more than when Judith auditioned for the role of the slightly-crippled Laura Wingfield in the production of The Glass Menagerie. “Being ethnic, I knew I would have difficulty getting this role,” she recalls, “so I stripped myself down physically; I took everything off, all the make-up, all the nail polish- made my hair straight, memorized Laura’s entire part completely, dressed as the character, walked into the audition with a limp and nailed the role!” But her jubilation was short-lived after she was dismissed from the production only three weeks into rehearsals. “During the course of rehearsals, I would go in as myself. I would have my T-shirt, my jeans, my curly hair, my red nails, and the director kept looking at me and eventually said to me, ‘You don’t really fit this role,’” she says. “They cast me in the role based on my talent, and then took it away from me because of my appearance.”

To her credit, though, Judith took this setback in stride. She realized if she would not be given opportunity, she’d simply have to make her own. And as a result, in 1988, Judith- along with nine other fellow actors, also from Herbert Berghof Studios- founded Nine Plus Theatre Company in New York City. “I decided that I would produce, direct and perform in my own pieces so that no one could ever tell me I didn’t fit a role again,” she says- and shortly after, their first production of Lovers and Other Strangers, written by Renee and Joseph Bologna, was up and running. “We had a cabaret space below street level in the Bowery on the Lower East Side,” she recalls, “and we stayed up all night cleaning, painting murals on the walls and making sure we had enough Rolling Rock beer to serve on opening night.”

Unfortunately, this would be the first and last production produced by Nine Plus Theatre Company as the group split shortly after, leaving Judith to run the ship on her own, which she gladly did, changing the name this time to J.E.T Productions. But with little money and no physical theater space, Judith had to get creative. “I used to find props and set pieces on the streets of New York City,” she says, “and I would hoard them in my apartment, or rent a storage space in Queens and keep them there so that when I had a production coming up, I could bring it over to use in whatever I was doing.”

One might speculate that it was this unyielding passion for her art that kept Judith from flaming out when things got tough, but they would only be half right as Judith knew she was also setting an example for her daughter. And determined to make the time spent away from her child count for something, she was not about to give up now. In fact, she amped up their quality time by including her daughter in many of her productions. “One of my first productions, I had my daughter back stage running a light board and sound without being able to see what was happening on stage while I’m in the audience with a walkie-talkie directing her,” she says. “I think keeping a balance between my passion and my relationship with my daughter, and trying to include her in it as much as possible is what I’m most proud of.”

Meanwhile, after running her own gypsy theater company for years with no physical space, in 1996, she was finally able to pull together the money needed to lease her own venue in Chelsea Manhattan. It was here where she directed and performed in a number of shows like Neil Simon’s Rumors and Larry Cadman’s World Enough and Time. She was doing exactly what she had set out to do, and eventually moved out of Queens into Manhattan to be closer to her new space- but with an overhead of eight grand per month and a surge in rent, this all proved to be an enormous challenge. “I had a 60-seat theater in mid-town Manhattan and I wasn’t making enough revenue to keep my business going,” she says. “Eventually I decided that I had to give something up, and it couldn’t be my daughter or my job, so I had to give the theater up.”

Then in 1999, after four years of dreaming big and making good on those dreams, Judith closed J.E.T Theater. But this was far from an ending as she quickly started strategizing her next move. “I had already been thinking about moving to Los Angeles where there’s television and film, so I started planning.” And in 2001, with her daughter now a woman, Judith switched coasts with the confidence and peace-of-mind needed to navigate the crowded streets of Hollywood.

“I came to Los Angeles as a traveling nurse,” she says. “They got me an apartment and for the first two years, I was basically figuring out the place I was in and adapting to the requirements of nursing here in LA.” During this introductory period, Judith was still diligent in her quest to perform and joined the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood, a company famous for the productions of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and The City by Clyde Fitch. Judith was grateful for this creative outlet, but the attitude in Hollywood was very similar to what she’d experienced in New York. “I had taken some commercial classes and I would go on auditions, but I would still hear the same thing, ‘You’re talented, but you don’t fit the role,’” she admits. But with the sweet aftertaste of producing and directing her own work still lingering, she forged ahead unscathed and produced and performed in a festival of plays and vignettes where she pulled together the talent, scheduled all the rehearsals, and ultimately oversaw the entire project.

Once the festival was complete, however, she was now ready to focus on finding another venue here in Los Angeles. “I needed to be in this crazy field of acting, but I realized in order to do that, I had to have my own place again,” she says. “I couldn’t just depend on others to hire me, so in 2005, I bought the NoHo Actors’ Studio on Lankershim Blvd.” It was at the NoHo Actors’ Studio where she wrote, produced and performed in The Menopause Crack-up, a solo comedy-drama about a woman struggling through menopause. It had a successful run for two months.

Yes, Judith had made a name for herself within the four years since her arrival, but after having worked within the theater community in New York and L.A., alongside pioneers like Anne Jackson and Michael Beckett, she knew it wasn’t just about her. Much like her gifted mentors Lee Strasberg and Herbert Berghof, she wanted to contribute to the community as a whole, which prompted her to sell the NoHo Actors’ Studio this past February, after a slew of popular productions, in order to reinvest her money into the opening of the full-service J.E.T Studios. “We’ve been in construction for 5 months, and now my overhead is four times what it used to be, so I’m hoping that things work out okay,” she says. “But my mission with J.E.T Studios is to allow anyone in the creative field to create and give them the opportunity to do something that they probably wouldn’t be allowed to do in the commercial world.”

J.E.T. Studios - www.nohoartsdistrict.comAnd on Saturday, July 23, the NoHo Arts community will finally have the opportunity to network, create and be inspired by all the happenings at J.E.T Studios, which will also include a year-round art gallery with receptions every first Thursday of the month, in conjunction with art curator Daniel DeBevoise. It’s true, Judith E. Taranto’s journey has not been easy, but it is what has brought her to a place where she can be an asset to her community as well as an inspiration to anyone who has ever had a dream. She confides, “I have this saying that I’ve kept with me for the past 25 years: ‘It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.’ That means we can do whatever we want if we dare to; we just have to keep going.” And make no mistake, Judith will do just that.

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