Luke Yankee - One on One with this Versatile Artist

Luke Yankee



Luke Yankee
has collaborated with the likes of Harold Prince, Ben Vereen, Annette Bening and Neil Simon.  He has worked on Broadway, been the artistic director of the Civic Light Opera in Long Beach and has lectured and given workshops at numerous universities across the country. Having toured internationally as an actor, he is also the author of “Outside the Spotlight,” a biography on his mother (Academy award winner Eileen Heckart).  As a writer he has also worked in television and his new play “The Jesus Hickey” is the winner of the Joel and Phyllis Ehrlich Award as well as being the recipient of New Works Festivals at three different regional theatres.  I had the opportunity to sit down with this multi-faceted man and hear his ruminations on both his work and the ever-intriguing life of an artist.

Luke's award winning new play "The Jesus Hickey"



What are you currently working on?

I’ve adapted my new play “The Jesus Hickey” into a screenplay and I’m currently in the process of moving that forward with several producers.

Discuss writing for the stage versus for television and film?

I would say the biggest difference for me is that I was a theatre director for twenty years, so I probably feel more comfortable as playwright.  I’ve had to train myself to think more visually when writing for the camera.

You also have a touring one-man show called “Diva Dish.” Tell us about the show and the experience of being the only performer in a production?

Well, “Diva Dish” is very personal for me.  It’ s based on the stories and experiences that my mother shared with me as a child about the various celebrities she knew including Paul Newman, Ethel Merman etc…  In a one-man show your scene partner is the audience, so that coupled with the history of the piece has made the experience of performing it even more personal than other productions, I think.

Diva Dish is his touring one-man show



Speaking of celebrities, having collaborated with major stars and growing up the son of a famous mother, what are your thoughts on celebrity as whole? How is working with name actors/artists different than one’s that aren’t?


As I’ve joked to friends over the years, I had in-house “diva training” due to my childhood.  Often times, whether it’s a major star or even a community theatre diva, personalities can be exceptionally large and it’s a skill to communicate effectively with that kind of person.  That said, I don’t mind working with demanding people as long as it’s truly about the work.  If the demands are about the color of a dressing room then that’s a different story.

Who has had the strongest influence on your work?

Along with my mother, I would have to also say Harold Prince and my father.  Hal Prince has this aura about him that just breeds optimism and confidence in a group of people, which inspired me.  As for my father, his patience and just being an amazing listener left a huge mark. The ability to listen is extraordinary thing.  Often I’ll be in a session with an actor and find myself channeling my father for that purpose.

Mother and son- Eileen Heckart and Luke Yankee



You also do quite a bit of teaching.  Can you talk about that and what it gives you?


Well, we always teach what we need to learn. I’ve been blessed being around some extraordinary people and there is just a sense of responsibility to pass on what I’ve picked up to others.  It’s that passing on of experiences which has led to “Conversations on Craft,” a series which will be held at the Stella Adler Theatre starting February 16th.  I’ll be interviewing several prominent artists who will be sharing their thoughts and experiences.

It’s Sunday afternoon and raining, what are you doing?


I should be working on a script, but I’m probably on Facebook trying to network with famous people. (Laughs.)

Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood, which will be hosting "Conversations on Craft"



You’ve worked in many different venues and have also run theatres for years at a time.  Do you prefer having a “base” to work out of, or would you rather be constantly working in new environments?


Having a base provides a great sense of security but it can also handcuff you with responsibility, particularly in terms of administrative duties.  So, I suppose it’s always a trade off.

Having worn virtually every different artistic hat you can, do you feel drawn to one artistic discipline more than the others?

I’ve always seen myself as a director but I feel as if that’s changing.  My evolution seems to be going more and more towards writing.  As a director it’s great to say, “Oh they got that laugh.”  Though it’s even better as a writer to feel  “I created that laugh. "

Have you worked in another culture? What was it like and do you feel any kinship with a culture outside of the one you were raised in?


I went through a period where FOLKWANG HOCHSHULE, a leading conservatory for the arts in GERMANY was courting me.  It didn’t work out on a permanent basis due to the length of the commitment they wanted but being over there and directing scenes in other culture really made me realize that good theatre is good theatre, regardless of language.

What’s the last piece of theatre you saw that blew you away?

I would have to say August Osage County.  The pure emotion of the play just knocked me out.  Interestingly enough, my mother’s ashes are scattered outside of the Music Box Theatre where it ran in New York.

Biography of his mother, Academy Award winner Eileen Heckart



How do you find the balance between spontaneous moments of inspiration and adhering to pre-existing ideas or the conventions of a piece you’re working on?


You always have to leave room for spontaneity, whatever your function should be.  As a director I find that you throw out 80% of the ideas you come in with.  With writing, I’ve often re-written or cut things after seeing an actor bring a character to life.  At the end of the day it just comes down to trusting yourself.

In the past, periods of social transitions have had profound effects on movements of art.  How is your work being affected by our current times?

For one thing, “The Jesus Hickey” was inspired by the curiosity to examine religious fanaticism and the nature of celebrity in our current culture.  I’m also acutely aware of economics when I write plays.  It’s very hard to get a play produced if you have more than six characters and multiple sets.

Tell me one of the biggest surprises you career has brought to your life?

Oh my.  As a kid I was sure that I’d be on Broadway and a star by the time I was twenty-five.   Though things work out in ways that you don’t plan. To be able to be constantly evolving and surviving which has lead me into many different realms outside of acting, has been a unique road to travel which is still surprising me.

Polishing his mother's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame



Cinema is constantly breaking new ground (Avatar), are there any new forms left in the theatre? Or is the future a continuation and expansion of existing styles?


People have been calling the theatre an invalid as far back as I can remember.  There will always be a place in the theatre for a great story.  As far as forms or movements go, who knows? Though a great story will be always find a home.

If your typical theatrical production had the budget or freedom that many studio films enjoy, how would that enhance or detract productions in the theatre?

There would certainly be more plays produced, we’d have more volume. Hopefully that would enable our writers to be able go back and forth more from television/film to theatre.  It might make things more like the West End where theatre is given a higher priority.

And last, it’s Monday and it’s still raining, what are you doing?


(Laughs.)  After pounding out a few emails trying to find that next job in whatever medium that might be, I think I’d be trying to adhere to the advice of a quote on the wall of my office, “Don’t get it right, get it written.


To learn more about Luke Yankee go to www.lukeyankee.com.  For more information on “Conversations on Craft,” go to www.conversationsoncraft.com.


Obren Milanovic


Obren Milanovic is a Los-Angeles based actor/writer/director.



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