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'Clowns Like Me' returns to FSU's Cook Theatre before heading to NYC

The one-man show tells the story of Sarasota actor Scott Ehrenpreis' struggle with mental illness.

Scott Ehrenpreis stars in "Clowns Like Me," a one-man show about the actor's struggle with mental illness.
Scott Ehrenpreis stars in "Clowns Like Me," a one-man show about the actor's struggle with mental illness.
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A year ago, when actor Scott Ehrenpreis and writer/director Jason Cannon staged the one-man play "Clowns Like Me" at FSU Center for the Performing Arts' Cook Theatre, New York was the last thing on their minds.

True, Scott's father Joel Ehrenpreis, producer of the show, had a successful career in marketing, and is known for thinking big. But a year ago, Joel's plans included a video production and possible out-of-town engagements in places like Tampa for the scripted play about Scott's struggle with mental illness.

What a difference a year makes. An updated version of "Clowns Like Me" is headed back to the Cook Theatre from May 23- 26. The run is a "sneak peek" of the show that will play June 21 to August 18 at DR2, a 99-seat Off Broadway theater in New York.

The New York production follows a film version of "Clowns Like Me" made by Sarasota videographer Brad Bryan that unspooled in April at the Sarasota Film Festival. The video of the play has been a calling card to help Lifeline Productions, the nonprofit behind the show, raise money and make connections. 

One of those connections is Tom Kirdahy, the successful Broadway producer who has a house in Longboat Key. Kirdahy was recently in Sarasota for the run of "Hadestown" at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall from Jan. 30 to Feb. 4. 

Kirdahy is the producer of the Broadway, West End (London) and touring productions of "Hadestown," among other shows. Not a bad guy to know if you're trying to open doors in the world of legit theater. 

Joel Ehrenpreis doesn't know Kirdahy personally, but one of his former neighbors does. Explains Ehrenpreis: "I used to live on Longboat Key. One of my former neighbors asked me if I knew Tom Kirdahy. I didn't. He wrote to Tom, who put us in touch with Jonathan Demar." 

Scott Ehrenpreis and his father, Joel Ehrenpreis, who helped him mount his one-man show, "Clowns Like Me," which is heading to New York City.
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After watching the video for "Clowns Like Me," Demar, who is part of the producing team for "Hadestown" and the revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along," came on board as executive producer. Demar got the show booked in New York. (Note to self: You never know who you're going to meet on Longboat Key.)

This is a tale of a Sarasota father-and-son team who made good, but it's also the story of a dedicated writer and director. To write the show, Cannon worked closely with Scott Ehrenpreis for nine months while he gathered material for the show and wrote several drafts of the script.

Before the debut of the first "Clowns Like Me," the two also attended a Comedy Boot Camp run by McCurdy's Comedy Theatre, at Cannon's behest. Ehrenpreis had stage credits under his belt such as a high-strung TV technician in “Network” and a hardboiled police reporter in “The Front Page," but Cannon felt like he needed to learn how to do stand-up comedy and comfortably banter with audiences in order to convey his life story in a humorous fashion. 

Scott Ehrenpreis wasn't available to talk about his New York debut. If we had the chance to interview him, we would have asked about his recent performance in FST’s production of “The Lehman Trilogy,” directed by Richard Hopkins.

Until recently, Joel Ehrenpreis was the exclusive publicist for “Clowns Like Me,” but he’s hired a professional to assist with the New York premiere.

To prepare for the New York run, Cannon says "we did a fine-toothed comb rewrite and made some changes to the set. We've updated the clinical language." In the time since the show was first written, the term "Asperger's Syndrome," part of Scott's diagnosis (along with OCD, bipolar disorder, social anxiety and depression) has been replaced with "Autistic Spectrum Disorder."

Florida Studio Theatre veteran Jason Cannon wrote and directs "Clowns Like Me," a one-man show starring Scott Ehrenpreis.
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For Cannon, going to New York with "Clowns Like Me" is a "lifelong dream come true for career theater people. It feels surreal. We went into this with zero expectations."

But Cannon has been preparing for this moment for a long time. According to his official bio, he has more than 100 credits as an actor, more than 120 as a director and has had 10 plays produced that he's written. 

Some of those were at Florida Studio Theatre, where he spent about a decade. Cannon was the lead developer on the FST cabaret "A Place in the Sun: A Tribute to Stevie Wonder" and created "Old Enough to Know Better," a documentary theater piece based on 100 interviews with Sarasota residents between the ages of 55 and 101. He continued the project with "Last Rights," a work that explored end-of-life issues.

Clearly, Cannon is no stranger to crafting stories about disabilities and heartache into something audiences want to see and are willing to pay for.

It may appear that "Clowns Like Me" is the product of three hard-working individuals with a vision. That's not a lie. But the journey from the Cook Theatre to DR2 wouldn't have been possible without local benefactors and champions of the production.

Joel Ehrenpreis credits his "amazing board," including Rose Chapman, the former executive director of Jewish Family and Children's Service, for helping Lifeline Productions take "Clowns Like Me" from an idea to a New York run in just two years. "We owe Rose so much," he says. "She got Scott the right diagnosis."

Another lifeline was Colleen Thayer, executive director of the National Alliance for Mental Illness of Sarasota and Manatee Counties. "She was all in," Ehrenpreis recalls. "I created a nonprofit, but we weren't a 501(c)3 right away and couldn't accept donations directly. NAMI accepted contributions on our behalf and channeled them to us. We wouldn't be here without NAMI's love and support."

"Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Community Foundation of Sarasota have been kind to us," notes Ehrenpreis. Their support will enable Lifeline do a college tour of "Clowns Like Me" once the dust settles after the New York run. Other invaluable donors include Michael Saunders & Co. and Aviva Senior Living, to name just two, Ehrenpreis says.

Pressed for other names, Ehrenpreis demurs. "Some of the major benefactors don’t want notoriety. One of my biggest donors lost her son to suicide more than 15 years ago. When she came to the first of five readings and said, 'You have given me closure,' I knew we had something," he says.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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