by Lorie Lewis Ham
At KRL we enjoy putting the spotlight on some of the wonderful local talent we are blessed with in this Valley. Because it is Father’s Day weekend, we decided to profile someone who is not only an actor and director, but someone who has worked many times locally with his actress daughter–local actor and director Joel Abels.
Joel was born in Fresno, but his family moved away for many years. They returned to Fresno when he was in seventh grade. His first taste of acting came when he was only eight with the San Jose Children’s Musical Theatre. Joel’s first role was Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. “When I was a child, I tended to be a bit of a handful at home and around the neighborhood. It was actually a neighbor that thought theatre would be a great outlet for all of my energy.”
Jiminy Cricket was just the beginning of a life in theatre for Joel. Back in Fresno, he attended and graduated from Roosevelt School of the Arts. He was also a part of the Good Company Players Junior Company and began performing in main stage shows at Roger Rocka’s, as well as performing with other local theatre companies. Some of his many roles in regional theatre include South Pacific (Billis), Lucky Stiff (Vinnie), Forum (Pseudolus), Beauty and the Beast (Cogsworth), Anything Goes (Moonface), and Dan in Next to Normal.
Before his daughter Taylor was born, Joel began to get into directing as well. He taught a few musical theatre classes and directed a few shows for Cynthia Merrill, then decided in 1988 to start Children’s Musical Theatreworks (CMT). “In all honesty, I wanted to replicate the experiences I had growing up performing in San Jose Children’s Musical Theatre where all kids that auditioned could be a part of the show and families could be involved as well.”
His work with CMT earned him the Fresno Arts Council’s Horizon Award for his outstanding contribution to the Fresno’s arts community and was awarded Union Bank’s prestigious Salute to Small Business Award in the Best Non-Profit category.
Joel later moved to New York to pursue his theatre dreams. He has appeared as Henry Ford in APAC’s critically acclaimed production of Ragtime as well as Camelot with the New York Philharmonic broadcast Live at Lincoln Center for PBS, and New York Theatre Workshops. He was also a part of the national touring company of The Wedding Singer.
One piece of advice he has for those pursuing their dreams is never say never. “I never thought I could leave my life and move across the country to pursue my dreams. I did.”He also never thought he would move back to Fresno, but is happy that he did and he has family and the creation of his theatre company StageWorks Fresno to thank for it. “StageWorks was really created by accident. A happy accident. I was living in NY and wanted another opportunity to work with my daughter on a project. I thought I might just produce one show a year and still live my NY life. [title of show] was that show and within a week of being back in Fresno, I made the decision to move back permanently and make StageWorks Fresno a year round company…that was in 2010.”
Since then StageWorks Fresno has produced shows such as Ragtime, The Light in the Piazza, A Little Night Music, Next To Normal, A Year With Frog & Toad and others.
Joel first worked with his daughter when she was at Manchester GATE, where he came in and directed a few shows, and also worked with her while he was involved with CMT. Since beginning StageWorks, he has worked with Taylor many more times both as a director, and acting with her on stage. “It (working with Taylor) is always a fantastic experience. She is an amazingly hard worker and always exceeds my expectations.”
“Working with my dad in any capacity is an amazing experience, but working with him on stage was truly incredible,” shared Taylor, who has now moved to New York herself. “When we did Next To Normal, I got to see him on a level I had never experienced. I honestly forgot that we were performing on stage, the moments just felt so real. He is the most dedicated and powerful artist I have had the pleasure of working with, and that’s not just because he is my dad. I couldn’t be prouder of my daddy-o and I owe my love of theatre to him. He’s just incredible.”
What Joel enjoys most about acting and directing is the interaction with audiences, actors and his production team. “All three are really a team effort and I love those personal connections that you make as an actor onstage with the audience and other actors as well as being on the other side of the table and working with the team to bring a piece of theatre to life.”“I consider myself lucky to call Joel Abels a good friend,” shared local actor, Terry Lewis. “I have known him for lo, these many years now, and have had a wonderful experience every time we worked together. As a performer, he is of course incredibly gifted – his voice is one of those instruments that people are just born with, a big beautiful tenor voice that fills a hall. But I’ve also come to know him as a director and producer of theater, and he has impressed me mightily. His passion for the art, his eye for detail, and his incredible vision, have all helped him to put on some of the finest theatrical productions in Fresno. He just loves theater (and theater people) with all his heart, and I think it shows in everything he does.”
“I have known Joel since I was 16, with my first show at CMT,” said another local actor Daniel Rodriguez. “He has been one of the most influential people in my life. After my father passed away three years ago, he really became like a second father to me. Getting to work with him as both a director and performer, it has been some of the best experiences in my life.”
What Joel feels has helped him grow the most as an actor and director is learning patience in all things, though he says this is still a work in progress. “I have not conquered it, nor will I ever really, but am trying to manage it in light of some difficult circumstances. Theatre is ever changing, always evolving…sometimes in fantastic ways other times not. It is hard not to take things personally but knowing at the end of the day I have done the very best I can do helps me carry on.”
For those wanting to get into theatre, Joel says it’s important to do your research before auditioning for a role. “The better prepared you are the easier the process becomes.”
While he doesn’t really have a dream role, Joel loves challenging himself in new ways and always looks forward to the next opportunity whenever it happens to drop in. However, when it comes to directing he does have some shows he would really like to direct. “Lately I have been reading a lot and trying to challenge myself in new ways. I love the musical Caroline or Change and Parade…both deal with race relations in very different ways. Also The Mountaintop. A fantastic play by a new playwright that deals with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last day on earth. All such fantastic pieces of theatre.”
As if being the artistic director for StageWorks Fresno, acting, and directing weren’t enough, Joel is now also in charge of the drama department at Clovis North High School and coaches actors locally through his private studio Stage.Coach. He finds balancing it all to be a challenge sometimes. “I could not do it without the amazing support of family and friends. All of which are dedicated to helping me in my quest with StageWorks Fresno to grow this theatre company and produce beautiful theatre.”
“Joel wears many hats,” shared J. Daniel Herring who has directed several StageWorks Shows. “He is a producer, director, designer and actor. Joel always gives 110% no matter which hat he is wearing. I have been a guest director on four occasions for Joel at StageWorks Fresno and the support, creative working environment and level of professionalism are at the highest standards.”“Joel is one of the few directors where I really don’t care what the project is– if he’s directing it, I want to be in it,” shared local actress Ashley Taylor. “And if I can’t be in it, I want to see it– usually multiple times.”
While he never thought he would move back to Fresno, Joel is happy that he did. “I love where I am at this moment in my life and would not have it any other way.”
As to the future, Joel hopes to have a large Board of Directors that raises LOTS and LOTS of money so that StageWorks Fresno can have their very own theatre space and can keep upping the ante with the productions we put on the season.
Currently Joel is directing and acting in StageWorks Fresno’s production of Les Miserables, which only performs one weekend in July as a fundraiser for StageWorks. Learn more about Les Miserables on their website.