Kansas Band-Speaking with New Lead Vocalist Ronnie Platt

DSC_0961-2 photo credit Mark Schierholz

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(left to right.Rich Williams, Billy Greer, David Ragsdale, Ronnie Platt, Phil Ehart, Dave Manion)

Kansas Band- Speaking with New Lead Vocalist Ronnie Platt

Kansas is a progressive rock band that’s recently had it’s 40th anniversary in 2013. Songs like “Carry on My Wayward Son” “Dust in the Wind” and “Point of No Return” are a few of their most influential songs. They have produced “8 gold albums, 3 sextuple-platinum albums , 1 platinum live album and a million-selling single.” A documentary came out in early 2015 (Miracles Out of Nowhere), chronicling Kansas from its origins in Topeka, Kansas.

In the fall of 2014, Ronnie Platt replaced lead singer Steve Walsh. Ronnie Platt grew up in Bellwood and still lives in the suburbs of Chicago today. We sat down with Ronnie to talk about how he came to be a part of the legendary band “Kansas”. (Kansas performed on July 7, 2015 in  Elk Grove, IL)

How long have you been a musician and what was an early influence?

RP: My sister brought home a guitar; I was about 10 or 11. I can remember singing and being part of a musical family. Both of my grandmothers were gifted musicians, grandfather played professionally, and most of my family was musically inclined. When I was young that’s what everybody did, music. In grade school, they asked who wanted to be the band. This is when I started playing the trombone, guitar, bass guitar and more singing. In high school, I was in a rock band and totally consumed; focusing on listening to music and vocals. I felt most comfortable playing the keyboard-accompaniment with filling in the parts. I still play a lot of bass guitar. When I’m having a bad day, I’ll pick it up and play.

Who inspired you as a musician growing up in the Chicago suburbs?

RP: I was always into progressive rock especially in the 70’s, Kansas, Genesis, Styx, Rush. On the radio, there was a different variety of music, Jackson 5, Led Zepplin, Rare Earth..etc. I was a freshman in high school ‘76, ’77. I’d always been a huge fan of Kansas: LeftOverture…”Carry On My Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind”. I had a turntable. There was a great feel and depth to the music in which I connected and gravitated towards. In the 80’s the hair got even bigger, and rock changed (Motley Crue and Poison)What did you do before singing in “Kansas”?

RP: I played in the bands, ARRA and Shooting Star. My musical ambition was just to get better. I did a wide variety of singing, performing over the years. I did drive a truck for 25 years..it helped to pay the bills. But I never deviated from what I wanted…my progressive style of music and playing. One day while performing with Shooting Star, I had the chance to meet Kansas, Cheryl Crow, and Journey. We opened for them. Steve Walsh was planning to retire as the Lead Singer. Rich Williams and Phil Ehart were watching Shooting Star. I friended Rich on FB. Ironically I heard about the retirement of Steve about this time. I set up a meeting and flew to Atlanta. After few meetings and deliberations, I became the new lead singer for Kansas! It seemed like a good fit and the guys welcomed me in. Dave Manion came in around the same time as I did.

What were you thinking your first time on stage with Kansas? What was running through your mind?

RP: My very first show was Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in Fall 2014. I remember thinking “Where’s my heater?” It was cold and windy, not what I had expected. It made me preoccupied with warming up and keeping my fingers moving. It was exhilarating! My first show in Chicago was Nov. 1 of 2014. My sister, mother, and other family members were able to come. The rehearsals were intense and we practiced like every day long hours. I had been practicing for something like this my whole life. I was ready when the opportunity came. This year has flown by quickly….we’ve done Brazil 3 times, Chile and Mexico and many other cities.

What are some differences between groups from the “60’s to the 90’s” and “millennium bands”?

RP: The marketing structure has changed drastically. From LP’s to Itunes, Spotify, Sound Hound, etc. Professional acts (touring) are more refined and precise. Every move and note is calculated/choreographed. Back in the day, there was more room for improvisation. Now everything is pre-recorded, this restricts the artist from venturing into the unknown. I miss bands having room to breathe on stage….more of a live feel when no 2 shows are exactly the same. It enabled artists to hone their craft more by discovery. It was more authentic and more organic.

Who are you in the group?

RP:One day…this big dude came up and wanted autographs from the group. Unexpectedly, he called me a “Beast” after the concert the next day. After that, the guys joked about this. It felt great to be part of a group of guys that knows what is important. Great friends, good times, and laughter. We are cut from the same cloth. We are family. No one is above the other.

What can the fans expect from the next album from Kansas? The last record was 2000!

RP: This is so surreal for me! We started back in the studio within the last couple of weeks. Performing new material will be an awesome experience for all of us. It’s mind blowing. I never would have conceived of this. I can’t compare this to anything in my life!

Any last comments?

RP: I feel like I won the “Rock and Roll Lottery.” I’m blessed and honored for this great opportunity to be a part of a legendary band called “Kansas”. You have to be worthy and really have a passion for what you do. Recently, I watched America’s got Talent. There was a little girl that played beautifully, but she got nervous and stopped. Howie Mandel encouraged her to continue because she was gifted. My point is that if you love something so much, you can’t stop. Desire to get better. I’ve had this mindset my entire life. Sing better, hit the next highest note. Play guitar better. Never stop. Not picking up where you left off..because you’re actually going backwards  and losing ground. Be productive and never stop moving forward. Be persistent and Don’t be complacent. If you love what you do, hone your craft and do it to the best of your ability.

Hollywood’s Best kept Secret, Screenwriter Jeff Schimmel

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by Okema “Seven” Gunn

Jeff Schimmel is one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets. The fact that he’s an expert at research makes him a remarkable writer. He’s written and developed many projects over the years, but he started out in comedy. Let’s take a look at what he has to say about his peculiar path to Hollywood!

1.When did you discover that you wanted to be a screenwriter?

JS: The truth is, I didn’t. My case is very unique, and probably one of the strangest you’ll ever hear about when it comes to screenwriting. I pretty much fell into the business after writing two screenplays – while I was supposed to be studying for the bar exam. I was hired to write the first script, with absolutely no experience whatsoever, and I sold the second one based on a studio’s reaction to the first one. It’s unlikely that it will happen to anyone else, and I have Rodney Dangerfield and Harold Ramis to thank for introducing me to screenwriting and working with me at the kitchen table every day. In a way, I’m envious of the people who know they want to be writers. Knowing the ropes is key, and I learned most of it the very hard way.

2.Who inspired you to become a writer with your first manuscript?

JS: Let me back up from the last question. I’m the biggest movie fan around, but especially those films from the 1930’s through the 1980’s. I love movies to the point of nausea – in other people. When I was a kid, I got caught sneaking into a theater in New York. I wanted to see “Marooned,” but my father wouldn’t give me fifty cents for the ticket. When the usher asked me why I snuck in, I told him that my favorite thing in the world was movies. He smiled and said, “Me, too. That’s why I work here.” He let me in. The funny this is, “Marooned” wasn’t all that fantastic. Oh, yeah. The question. Who inspired me? It wasn’t a who, it was a what. One night, while I was in law school, I dreamed a spy movie. I woke up, wrote down as much as I could remember, and when I was bored in class, I would daydream and fill in the blanks in the story. Through a series of ridiculous events, I ended up selling that idea to Jerry Abrams and Jerry Eisenberg. The first Jerry is J.J. Abrams’ father. When I got the check for my story, I thought to myself, “Hey, this is easy! Why do people always say it’s hard to get a break in Hollywood?”

3. What 3 things did you learn about writing that shocked you?

JS: When I was just starting out in the 80’s, nothing shocked me. Working in the entertainment industry was all so new to me, I never knew what to expect. For that reason, I just took it as it came. But now that I’ve been writing and producing for several years – nothing shocks me! Of course, that’s because I’ve come to understand that this business has to be the toughest around. So, if I hear about something happening with a project, good or bad, I’m not surprised. Hollywood is a place where great things happen to good people, good things happen to horrible people, bad things happen to awesome people, well, you understand. Just when you think you have it figured out, you’re immediately, and perhaps cosmically, reminded that you don’t. Still, working in TV and film is so exciting, so rewarding, I get excited every time I set foot on a studio lot or inside a soundstage. I’m like a child, and I think that’s a good thing. The longer you can stay young at heart, the longer you’ll last.

4. Why is comedy difficult to write and how is it different from other genres?

JS: Yes, comedy is hard. However, in my experience, everything is equally hard. I always marvel at someone like Burt Bacharach, a man who wrote literally hundreds of songs. I can’t even imagine how he does it. It must be amazing to hear music in your head and be able to arrange the notes and put them down on paper. Then, someone like Burt Bacharach walks on the set, meets a screenwriter and says, “How the hell do you come up with stories and the words people say?” It’s all work, but when I’m writing, and I’m in my zone, it’s no longer a chore. I get lost in it, and before I know it, hours have passed – and hopefully, I’m not still on the same page! Comedy isn’t easier or harder than anything else. What scares me is when people who just aren’t funny are convinced they should be writing the next Seth Rogan movie.

5: What projects have you written/produced that turned out different than expected?

JS: Wow. I feel like every one of my answers is off target. I’m not trying to be evasive, or come at this from a weird angle, but I look at things as being all kinds of grey, and not so much black and white. The rules in screenwriting might be set in stone, but the experience is fluid, almost alive and ever changing. I’m too smart to mention anything by name, so let’s just say I’ve written some TV shows that were funny at the first draft stage, but were downright tragic by the time they were taped. It’s usually a symptom of too many rewrites, which you can’t control. Then again, I produced some stuff I thought was so awful, I opened a bottle of Chinaco tequila at the taping and had a few shots during audience warm-up. That project, a comedy special, went on to get high ratings and make the network $20 million in DVD sales. As a rule, it’s the scripts you think are the best that turn out receiving the most notes, and it’s the work you did while stopped at a red light, on the way to a meeting, that is often accepted as nearly flawless. It’s essential for writers to have a sense of humor.

6.How did you get the nickname the “Doc”?

JS: When I was a kid, I used to think I wanted to be a doctor. I saw myself on that big, white medical ship, Project Hope, traveling the world to help those less fortunate. Okay, first of all, I get seasick watching “Love Boat” reruns. I’m not kidding. I’m so sensitive, I can’t watch anything that’s shot on anything other than a locked down camera or Steadicam. So, in school, my friends started calling me Dr. Schimmel. Later, when I was a pre-teen, and a huge Steve McQueen fan, I preferred that “Doc” be associated with Doc McCoy, the ultra-cool bank robber in “The Getaway.” Years later, when I earned a Doctorate in Law, the “Doc” thing resurfaced. But enough about me. If we ever meet, be sure to ask me about my devotion to Steve McQueen, and why remaking his movies is a sin.

7: How is your military duty, CIA interest, and martial arts all connected? How have they helped your writing?

JS: The military stuff is kind of an obsession with me. When I have a few months off, I like to volunteer with the Israel Defense Force, but not in a combat role. I provide logistical support. Hmm. Whatever that is. But there’s nothing quite like living on base, in crappy barracks, with really bad food, no TV, no computer or internet, no phone, no nothing, and just a few dozen paratroopers to keep you company. As for the CIA, they offered me a job when I graduated from law school, but I was too paranoid to take it. When I asked if they would ever send a fellow agent to assassinate me if I screwed up, their response was, “You watch too many movies.” They’re right, I do. The martial arts era in my early life was just catching lightning in a bottle. I persisted until I was accepted into one of the most sought after schools in the world, and I’ll always be grateful. The way all of this has helped my writing is the way anyone’s life experiences, good or bad, happy or sad, find their way onto their pages. You write what you know, and the more you experience, the more you can relate to – and the more your characters can live through you. I look at it this way. If I never got kicked in the groin by a girl I liked in junior high, I wouldn’t really be able to describe it accurately. Then again, if I had my way, I’d go back in time and skip the part where I learn how to write about being in the worst pain ever. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re writing about something you’ve never actually seen, heard, tasted, felt, or experienced, there’s an easy fix for that. It’s called research. You can never do enough.

8: How have you been able to maintain your career as a writer? Does your brother (comedian) help with some of your writing/jokes?

JS: Writing careers are like the proverbial rollercoaster. You’re up, then down, then up. If you’re lucky, you can have more ups than downs. Sadly, the longevity of a writer’s career isn’t up to the writer. No matter how hard you work, or how prolific you are, someone has to hire you or buy your work. It isn’t a 9 to 5 job, it isn’t a salaried position. Aside from talent and energy, the most important thing a writer can have is a means of dealing with the hurt of rejection. Some people laugh it off, but others, like a good friend of mine, quit. One of the best writers I’ve ever known is living in Alabama and no longer writing because he was tired of having his heart broken. If you think I’m being negative, I’m not. Just keeping it real. But you should be encouraged by this. If you’re tough and your work has merit, and you don’t give up, it can happen for you. Trust me, if a guy with no education in writing movies can have a nearly 30 year career, you can definitely do it. As for my brother, Robert, he passed away in 2010. He was a very well known comedian, and a brilliant joke writer. His talent was to come up with jokes in an instant, organically, based on what he was going through at that moment. But when it came down to sitting at a desk and working on a script, that’s where he fell off. We worked together on a few projects, but they always resulted in fights. I’m extremely OCD when it comes to my work, and he was the opposite.

9: Where is your “secret” writing place?

JS: I’ve written in libraries, I’ve had many production offices, I’ve tried it in the local Starbucks, etc. Like everyone else. Lately, I’ve been working almost exclusively in my home office. It’s a loft near the laundry room, so I know that when I put in a load of dark, I have at least 45 minutes to type. Then, when the washer stops, and I transfer the clothes to the dryer, I know I have another 45. For every load I do, I get 90 minutes of work done. It’s not the ideal system, but my wife loves it. My advice to anyone trying to focus on writing a script is to give yourself every advantage. Sitting in a loud coffee shop with fifty other people isn’t going to help with your concentration. Blasting music in my earbuds while I write isn’t something I can do, and I don’t know how others do it. Music in the room is awesome, but I need a certain amount of distance from it. Another way to get more work done is to log off Facebook, email, and have someone hide your phone. If you’re smiling at any of this, it means you know you aren’t being as productive as you could be.

10.What advice would you give an aspiring screenwriter?
JS: The best advice I could give an aspiring screenwriter, especially in Chicago, is to come to my two day seminar on July 25th and 26th. I’m not kidding. I put together a unique, completely original curriculum that will teach writers all the crucial stuff they won’t find in books, and expose them to the inside information they won’t hear from other writers or producers. People who want to be successful screenwriters need to ask themselves if their career is worth the investment of two days. I wish this class would’ve existed when I was starting out. I would’ve cried a lot less!

For more info about Jeff Schimmel and Maximum Screenwriting

Go to http://www.maximumscreenwriting.com

Commentary With Writer/Director Kimberly Townes

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by Okema “Seven” Gunn

Kim Townes chooses her subjects carefully. So, far… she has been right on point. The films that she creates and directs paint vivid pictures, while telling complex stories. Here’s what she has to say about it.

Why did you want to become a director?
KT: Something I’ve always wanted to do is tell stories. Because I wanted to communicate, wanted to be in entertainment, sharing my craft in an adventurous form of story-telling. Where you go to school does not determine the outcome of your life. I settled on Hampton University for my college education, which became inspiring and comfortable place to be creative… “My home by the sea”. I liked Hampton University and cherished the experience of being there. During my stay, I made short films, developed/ honed my screenwriting, and experimented with camera equipment that was available from the Communications/Marketing Department. My passion already existed; it just began budding. It didn’t matter that Hampton didn’t have the latest technology or film equipment. I still learned a great deal. I like the fact that I didn’t have to compete with others. We set our own pace of learning/experimentation. There were no boundaries that existed, which allowed individual creative control and gave artists a sense of ownership of their work.

When did your love for film begin?
KT: I figured I would try at something that I loved to do. Taking mini-classes on topics of interest. I wanted to make films that were unique. I kept telling myself “ I could do this!” In this industry, one definitely has to have a pocketful of tricks. Do more than one thing. Be a Jill of All Trades. Play Multiple Hats. Act upon Multiple Talents. When I was in primary school, I wanted to tell stories. Watching television helped to encourage/feed my creative juices. Story-telling just seemed natural. It always has been a natural desire for me to express my imagination through various art forms of media.

Who inspired you?
KT: In the beginning Julie Dash and Spike Lee. Daughters of the Dust is a beautiful and poignant part of African American experience. Spike Lee is a trailblazer and a master as far as intricate storytelling is concerned. By producing his films, he has chronicles the history of Americans, cultivates a unique perspective, and generates an on-going awareness in our culture.

How do you go about the process of creating your films and bringing together cast/crew?
KT: The cast/crew makeup is different for every project. I try to pull people in that will work well with the current agenda of the project. It’s about sitting with the casting director, looking at chemistry, and seeing how each character supports one another, based on the elements of the newly-created world. You gotta get the best out of what you are working with, by selecting what can and will be the most productive, effective, and believable. Every production has its own ebb and flow.

How does Los Angeles give a background and support for what you want to accomplish?
KT: Hollywood is where it’s at. You can come out here and create your own. Many people network and grow from their move. Some people have been raised around the business. It is beneficial when your professors are in the industry. Equipment is easily accessible. L.A. is a strong marketplace and a Hub for entertainment, like sound design, special effects, etc. You have to immerse yourself into the industry and atmosphere. The weather is a positive, too. Nice and sunny most of the time.
What kind of films do you like to make or would you like to make?
KT: I like narrative driven films that are meaty. Topiary, Science-based, Science-fiction. I want every new film project to be a different level of artistry and mastery. I want to look back at each film project and see how I grew in the process.

What projects are you most proud of?
KT: The last 3 have been most impactful. “Zero” (short narrative), “Hands to the Sky” (short narrative), and “Planting Hope” (short documentary). I got “Planting Hope” on Student Grant. I could go back home, grab some wisdom, and give voice to the main sites in South Carolina. Pearl Fryar was a topiary artist. His yard was like a magical fairyland, where he sculpts bears, birds, chess pieces and messages. He also creates art from discarded objects. Love pieces-wisdom that he carries. He’s 70 and is amazing. He gave me $100 to take pictures of trees with 35mm film. He has also used his donations for Scholarships for college students. Kids don’t have resources to do these things they need to. He felt like in school that he was the kid. He put some people through school with his donations. This was most special to me.

What do you want young girls of color to know?
KT:Don’t worry about how hard or easy the work is. Life in general is hard. Do what you have to do to make things work for you. Master your craft. Keep doing what you are doing, keep working, and don’t give up or give in. Figure out how YOU are going to navigate through this life.

Tell me about your latest film “Hands to the Sky”.
KT: I wanted to direct this film because it had never been done before. A role where an African American person with Autism tells their story in a unique way. My classmate in UCLA produced and acted in this film. It was personal for him because it was about a family member. He invited me back with this family. So many stories that are needed to be told. People are always looking for heroes. You always gotta reach back. Talking to relatives and friends. Understanding that 1st diagnosis with children and adults. Going deeper into understanding. Everybody is different in how they take in information. Challenge myself from those eyes. It was a challenge and helped to grow. Desire to understand the truth. New Jersey has the highest rate of Autism.

It is such a blessing to work with such amazing actors on the project. The actors were fully invested in their roles and took the wheel on trying the make it their best. Telling such an intimate and moving story and taking charge. Campaigning, driving, and pushing to be seen. Understanding different response and opening yourself up to a different language. Opening up your heart is being vulnerable, being true to yourself can be a fulfilling experience.
List of projects and Awards:
AWARDS & RECOGNITIONS
• 2015 Black Women In Film Network
Audience Buzz Award Winner

• 2015 Pan African Film Festival
Best Narrative Short Film Nomination

• 2014 Reel Sisters of the Diaspora
Best Screenplay and Best Director Award

• 2012 HBO/ABFF Short Film Competition
Top 5 Finalist

• 2011 TIME WARNER CABLE, IFC and YOUTUBE
Short Film Contest Winner

• 2010 UCLA/BILL & MELINDA GATES
UCLA Inspiring Action Filmmaker Grant

• 2009 THE ALFRED P. SLOAN FOUNDATION
UCLA Student Film Production Fellowship

• 2009 FELICIA HENDERSON
UCLA Screenwriting Award

• 2009 EDDIE & LEW WASSERMAN
UCLA Student Film Production Fellowship – Thesis Grant

• 2008 UCLA FOUR SISTERS
UCLA Fellowship in Screenwriting, Directing and Animation

• 2006 MPAA/ UCLA
Production Grant