Hershey Felder launches year-round ‘Live from Florence’ theater season

A scene from "Hershey Felder: Beethoven"
Hershey Felder seen in San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 2019 production of “Hershey Felder: Beethoven,” which the actor, playwright and pianist will reprise in a live performance July 12 from his home in Florence, Italy.
(Courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents)

Proceeds of July 12 kick-off performance of ‘Beethoven’ play will benefit San Diego Rep and several other theaters


On Mother’s Day, veteran San Diego performer Hershey Felder undertook a bold experiment in online theater programming.

The actor, playwright and pianist hired a film camera crew to livestream his performance as Irving Berlin in a solo play from his home in Florence, Italy, to thousands of theater-goers across the United States.

The event, which came off without a hitch, was designed as a fundraiser for San Diego Repertory Theatre and a dozen other American theater companies where he performs frequently. But it was also a test run for the new arts broadcasting company that he recently launched called Hershey Felder Presents: Live from Florence.

The new global livestreaming company is a collaboration between Felder, the Florentine cinema group Montagni Audiovisivi, the English language magazine “The Florentine” and American teleconference broadcaster Rich Flier.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of theaters around the world have canceled their summer and fall seasons. And some, like L.A.’s Center Theatre Group, have recently announced they won’t return until April 2021. That’s a big problem for Felder, who spends up to 10 months of the year on the road performing and producing his music-filled one-man plays about famous composers, including Frédéric Chopin, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein.

This spring, he was scheduled to be onstage at San Diego Rep performing his play about composer Claude Debussy. Instead he spent the past three months in isolation at the homes he shares in Florence and Paris with his wife, former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell. Worried that he wouldn’t be able to appear live onstage again for up to a year, he began looking for a new way to tell his stories in a virtual way.

“I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked. There’s so much to do, so much preparation when you start a new company,” Felder said in a recent phone interview from Florence. “While people are not able to gather in big groups they still want some form of entertainment so I want to offer them something.”

A video still from the "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin" livecast from Florence, Italy on May 10.
A video still from the “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” livecast from Florence, Italy on May 10.
(Courtesy photo)

Hershey Felder Presents: Live from Florence will launch its inaugural season on July 12 with a performance of “Hershey Felder: Beethoven,” a solo play he presented last year at San Diego Rep about the tempestuous German composer, as seen through the eyes of his lifelong friend and memoirist Dr. Gerhard von Breuning. With text by Felder based on an original stage play by Joel Zwick, it features selections from the Fifth and Ninth symphonies, the Moonlight and Pathétique sonatas and the Emperor Concerto. Tickets are $55 per household.

As before, a portion of proceeds will benefit San Diego Rep and 12 other regional theaters. Felder will also make a donation to the Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minn., to support the work of local black theater artists. Instead of Felder’s customary post-performance Q&A session — which he did by email last month, answering texted questions from 612 viewers — he’s planning a post-show arts prize competition for the July 12 performance.

All “Beethoven” ticket-buyers, ages 13 and up and residents of the U.S., are invited to submit by July 6 a creative five-minute video about how Beethoven has inspired them. Felder and his San Diego-based production team will choose five finalists. Those five films will be shown following his live performance July 12. The winner, chosen by audience vote, will receive a $25,000 cash prize. Details are at hersheyfelder.net/contest-page.

Felder said the Beethoven performance will be even more elaborate than last month’s show about Irving Berlin. He and his San Diego-based director Trevor Hay and sound designer/co-producer Erik Carstensen are collaborating via Zoom with a team of European designers to re-create Beethoven’s home and family graveyard in Vienna. The live performance will take place in three locations inside and outside Felder’s house. He’ll begin his performance in the middle of the night, Florence time, so it can be seen live on the East Coast at 8 p.m. and in San Diego at 5 p.m.

Felder said he has a full season of as-yet unannounced shows planned, including a special performance of his Debussy-inspired show “Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story” in a live broadcast from Paris. Some shows will be performed only once. Others may be presented on multiple evenings. Also, because Felder has gotten such positive feedback from fans about the stories he shares regularly on Facebook about his life in Italy, he’s also considering making some filmed shows about Florentine art, food, history and lifestyle.

The online season Felder has mapped out is flexible, depending on when theaters can reopen and he is able to hit the road again, after which he plans to do both online and in-person shows.

“It’s energizing for me in a way that I feel connected to people. All of this is about how we can share with each other,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out a way that we can keep some form of community going in a world that is unbelievably challenged.”

To learn more about the new company, visit hersheyfelder.net. San Diego Repertory Theatre is now selling tickets to the July 12 performance on its website at www.sdrep.org. They can also be ordered by calling the Rep box office at (619) 544-1000.

-- Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune