Today we’d like to introduce you to Joelene Crnogorac, Kelly Frye and Mika Gonda.
Joelene, Kelly and Mika, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
JOELENE [Writer & Director of ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP]: I started out working in the film industry as a 13-year-old child actor in the very popular Australian kids show called “Round the Twist”. And it was such a positive experience for me. From that point on, I really fell in love with story-telling. I mean, acting and filmmaking is exhilarating and intoxicating. Who else gets to tell stories about stinky fart muffins, being in love with a merman, or saving the world from an evil doctor with ancient oceanic power … and get paid for it!
It’s a wild, absurd, unique ride. However, it’s one that is full of highs and lows and gets progressively more competitive.
In 2007, when I was in my 20s and pursuing my acting career in Australia, I was getting exasperated by the constant hustle and the knockbacks and really craved some creative control. I heard about a one-act play festival called “Short & Sweet” that was looking for submissions, and it was the perfect motivation for me to put pen to paper and write ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP. Nothing like a deadline to help get the creative juices flowing! So that’s where it all started. I wanted to put a comedic spin on all the absurd things actors get asked to do in auditions, and I wanted to work with my friends. And so ATWTTT as a female comedy, one-act play, was born. It has been staged in Melbourne, Sydney and Los Angeles multiple times.
Since then, it’s just continued to grow and evolve over the years. It has always been such a joy of a project and it has always attracted the best, funniest, nicest group of female actors. We’ve always had such an enthusiastic response to the material that it seemed foolish not to pursue it further.
Which brings us to now – ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP web series. Kelly and I both have friends who have had great success going the web series route – and that seemed like an achievable way to continue the story of these characters, to have control over the brand of comedy I like to write, and for it to be seen by a larger audience without waiting for someone to give us permission.
KELLY [Producer & Actor of ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP]: My mother says I came out of the womb performing. The top three most influential events in my youth would be my years as a competitive figure skater, shooting a national commercial for Titleist golf with Sergio Garcia that earned me my SAG card when I was 16, and playing Rusty in my senior musical production of FOOTLOOSE. Growing up in a family of storytellers, having the experience of performing for audiences at such a young age, getting to experience a professional set in high school, and feeling an audience react to my comedic moments on stage my senior year of high school were all contributing factors to where I have ended up as an adult. I’ve always said that I would pay people to let me work. Being a part of the magic of Hollywood is such a dream come true and I pinch myself every time I have the privilege of heading to set.
I originally moved to Los Angeles for college, shout out to the business school at Loyola Marymount University! The summer between freshman and sophomore year of college, I was living in Hawaii and had a serious talk with myself about what I wanted my life to look like post-graduation. I always received so much joy from performing and I thought, heck if I don’t try my hand at this now, I never will. So, I graduated college a year early and started my path down Hollywood lane. When I first started out in the industry, I didn’t know a soul who worked in it. In true business student fashion, I asked around and took everyone I could get introduced to out to coffee to pick their brains about the industry. Most of the feedback I received was that I should have started ten years ago. Since time machines were not in existence, I did the best thing I could do and started right where I was. It’s been years of learning, evolving, growing, and doing my best to be patient with myself and with our industry.
In 2016, I met Joelene and was cast in ATWTTT when it was first staged at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood, and I’ve been with the project and its evolution ever since. Thanks to my journey with ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP, I’m able to add producer to my resume.
MIKA [Producer of ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP]: In fall of 2017, I began working at The Pico, formerly known as The Pico Playhouse. It was a 99 seat theatre and we took out all of the seats and made it a multipurpose arts space. Kelly did one of our first shows ever at The Pico once our renovation was complete and I began working there. It was a benefit for Texas after a hurricane and Kelly both produced the event as well as performed in it. I was blown away by Kelly’s drive. We bumped into each we about a year or so later and I mentioned I was interested in learning about producing. She called me a few days later and said she had something she wanted to chat about. I met with Joelene and Kelly soon after and they asked me to come on board their web series project as a producer. That was the start of the most extraordinary ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP journey.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
JOELENE [Writer & Director]: Hahaha nothing is ever smooth when you’re shooting on a shoestring budget! There were many small fires so-to-speak that we needed to put out along the way. Losing locations at the 11th hour and having to find new ones, one of our cast members snapping their ankle in half only days before filming started, schedule conflicts and equipment malfunctioning to name just a few!
However, in saying that, so many things fell into place for us. We ran such a successful crowdfunding campaign and achieved our funding goal within the first week. We couldn’t believe it! It really propelled us forward with a great deal of energy and momentum. And we are eternally grateful to the cast and crew that came on board, they were all brilliant and committed professionals and kind and funny human beings. We couldn’t have asked for a better team to bring this project to life.
KELLY [Producer & Actor]: I try to think of every setback as a blessing in disguise. Losing our location, as Joelene mentions above, was harrowing, but it ended up giving us wonderful, varied locations that Mika secured for the production. Every bump along the way was a great learning lesson in the end.
MIKA [Producer]: We for sure had a couple of bumps but they all lead to meeting wonderful people and learning something new. I think the bumps made the experience even better and brought us all closer together. From day one there was the most inviting and inclusive feeling between everyone involved.
Please tell us about All The Way To The Top.
JOELENE [Writer & Director]: It’s no secret that female lead ensemble comedies are under represented are on our screens, big and small.
With ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP we really wanted to grab the bold female comedy baton and run a hard and fast mile with it. There is a great feeling of empowerment to be making our own content and in control of the narrative, driving the storytelling process from beginning to end.
ATWTTT is fueled by serious lady power, and it’s something that we are very proud of. We were very mindful in our choices with cast and crew and wanted to create opportunities for women both in front of and behind the camera. The show is female created, written, directed, DP’d produced and performed – and continues to fill that gap, bringing irreverent, female driven comedy to our small screens.
KELLY [Producer & Actor]: You know the 10,000 hour rule? If we aren’t given the opportunities to get our 10,000 hours then how are we supposed to become masters of our craft? I think it’s really important to find opportunities to empower women in front of and behind the camera. Thankfully there’s a major shift in our industry as a whole to help give women the chances we haven’t had in the past. And we’re very happy that we were able to do our part with a fantastic group of women.
MIKA [Producer]: I am super proud of the teamwork that went into this project. From the producers to the extras to the amazing local restaurants that helped out with food, everyone who gave their time wanted to be a part of it, celebrating women in the arts and make something fun. I have no other project to compare it to, but this experience certainly makes me excited for my next one.
Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
JOELENE [Writer & Director]: Well, one of my favorite and most formative experiences was working on the Australian kid’s TV show “Round the Twist”. It was my first ever professional acting job, I was 13 years old at the time, and it was such a wonderful and joyous experience full of new and exciting firsts. The show was famous for its wild and outrageously imaginative storylines, which were all based on author Paul Jennings’ short stories.
Here we were, a cast of young kids working in a grown-up world, whilst our childhood and youth were being celebrated and supported. For many of us, it was our first time on a film set leading a show, and there was a real sense of camaraderie and that we were all in it together. Not to mention we were all living away from home by the beach together (our characters lived in a lighthouse). So, it was just like being on one big, prolonged school camp! We got to spend each day laughing our asses off telling these crazy and hilarious stories. It didn’t get much better than that.
KELLY [Producer & Actor]: I’d say seeing SNOW WHITE 13 times in the theater with my Mom, watching WHAT ABOUT BOB on repeat with my little brother, Patrick, and pretending I was Ariel from THE LITTLE MERMAID in our pool. So much imagination, play, and laughter in those memories.
MIKA [Producer]: I was a junior in high school at The Palm Beach County School of the Arts in the theatre department. At the time, we would often go to local events and a group of students would be the entertainment during breaks from the event. I was performing a monologue from Romeo and Juliet and forgot all of my lines. I started making up the words. All of them!!! I just remember saying, “oh pawn, oh pawn”. I walked off stage and I was so scared. My amazing teacher, Mrs. Blanchette, looked at me and smiled, hugged me and giggled. To this day, we still laugh about it. She made me feel so safe and like no one knew the difference. Although I’m sure everyone did!
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Jennifer Tanksley Coss – photo #1, with the camera; Roman Zenz – photo # 4, with the clapper board