VANESSA BELL CALLOWAY
Always In Good Company
By Belinda Trotter-James
Vanessa Bell Calloway is a veteran and actress/dancer who has been in the entertainment industry since 1985. You may recognize her from film and TV roles such as, " All My Children", "Falcon Crest", "A Different World", "The Parkers", "CSI Miami", "Coming To America" and "What's Love Got To Do With It" just to name a few. Her Broadway and off-Broadway credits include “Dream Girls", "Bring Back Birdie" with her latest project being a one woman show called, "Letters From Zora… In Her Own Words”.
Vanessa is so spectacular in “Letters From Zora” that it has already received two NAACP theater awards. It's a piece that Vanessa is very excited about doing. "I'm trying to get it to an off-Broadway stage in the very near future and I have been very fortunate and blessed to be invited to Crossroads Theater Company to open the fall season”, says Vanessa. “Letters From Zora” opens in New Jersey from October 9 – 26. She will be flying back and forth between New Jersey and Hollywood to do the play and appear on an episode of “Husbands Of Hollywood”.
It must be a little scary to do these types of plays because you're the only one on stage. Vanessa didn't agree at all and said, "Oh no it’s not scary at all; it's very exciting and exhilarating”, explains Vanessa. “You have to love the material that you're doing and be very planted in what you are doing. It's not scary at all. It's so exciting and I cannot wait to get on stage. Gabrielle Denise Pina, the playwright wrote such a beautiful piece. It's like an hour and a half of poetry; it's a monologue. It's just me for an hour and a half and it's just delicious.”
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As Vanessa recalls how wonderful it is to make the words of Zora come to life, you can tell from her voice how excited she is to be able to bring this type of material to her audience. The original music, which also brings this journey to life, was composed by Ron McCurdy. I'm sure fans cannot wait to see her on stage performing at her best. It is this type of love for what you do that earned Vanessa two NAACP Theater Award nominations for best actress for “Letters From Zora”.
“In The Company Of Friends” is a wonderful celebrity web series hosted by Vanessa in her home. Her celebrity friends come to either an afternoon tea or dinner and talk about various topics. Sometimes I will sit in front of the TV with my dinner and pretend that I'm right there with them for a wonderful, lively evening of conversations. "I hope I would have that type of affect on people where they feel they are right there," says Vanessa. "We also had a contest where our audience had to pick a question from the first season and sit down with their friends, food was option and send in a tape of their version of “In The Company Of Friends”. I had one grand prize winner, but I sent something to everyone who participated.” The grand prize winner was submitted by Global Lipstick sisters Ebony, Onyx and Jeta who giggled through a topic on ‘Guilty Pleasures’.
“In The Company Of Friends” actually started eight years ago and it aired on TV1 as a special called “In The Company Of Friends” the same name. “I got the idea because I love party planning, I love to have dinner parties, I love to cook and I'm a gourmet cook”, says Vanessa. “I do a lot of parties for myself, family and friends. I help put the parties together and friends have said that I should do this for a business. However, I told them ‘no’ because the moment I do that for a business and someone gives me $50,000 to do a party, they get to cuss me out”, laughs Vanessa. “This way I get to do it because I love it and I just want to do it. I felt I wanted to do it in such a way where everyone can experience what I love to do. So I came up with the idea about eight or nine years ago and I shot a pilot and Bernie Mack was in my pilot; that’s how long ago I had this idea. I shot the pilot, shopped it and TV1 bought the pilot.” In the pilot guests included James Pickens, Sinbad and Kym Whitley. It aired on TV1 as a special and after six months they didn't pick it up”, says Vanessa. The show bounced back to Vanessa who had to figure out what to do with the show. “I kind of sat on it”, remembers Vanessa. “Finally, a couple years ago I decided to do something with it. I invested my own money and made it a web series."
The web series has been airing for one year. The second season was just released. You can stream all of them on demand. There are a total of 18 shows, which you can get by going to www.inthecompanyoffriends.tv. You can watch season one which is a dinner party with Salli Richardson-Whitfield, her husband Dondr'e Whitfield, Vanessa Williams, Wendy Raquel Robinson, Vanessa's husband, Dr. Anchony Calloway, playwright Donald Welch and Shawn Champman Holley. Season two which is now streaming is a tea party which includes Vivica A. Fox, Loretta Devine, Robi Reed and of course, Vanessa who says it's a lot of fun.
Coming up with topics can be very tricky depending on the personalities in the room. You never know what will be said at the parties. However, Vanessa said she never intended the parties to have serious topics. "The questions were pretty random because I didn't want it to be too heavy’, says Vanessa. “People want to be entertained and when I shot this, I knew it would be coming out later. You don't want to talk about topics of the day and when you're ready to air it, the topic is old news. It's best to ask things that are general and still entertaining no matter when people see it. Another reason Vanessa did the show is because she can take her time talking with her guests. Vanessa adds, “When we go on these talk shows as entertainers, you’re rushed. You only have seconds to get your information across before the segment is over. Most of the time you only have two minutes to talk about yourself or any project you're working on and then they bring the next person out”.
Well, on “In The Company Of Friends” guests will have more than 15 seconds to get their point across and have a good time eating Vanessa’s delicious meals. By the time the show is over viewers will know what makes her guests tick. We get to see their personality and not just a character playing a role at the dinner table. We will know what they like, what scares them along with their hopes and dreams. Vanessa's web series was an effort to get interesting people to just talk and open up so you can really see more about them. “What's interesting is that these are people I’ve known for years and every time I do this I learn more about them”, reveals Vanessa. “We just sit around the table open to a general conversation. The stories just come out and you learn things about people and realize, ‘Oh my God, I've known you all these years, but I didn't know that about you’. I really think that's interesting to people.”
Most of us regular folk only get to see entertainers on television or the big screen at the movie theater. We rarely see them outside of their work. It’s just like a child seeing their teacher at the grocery store. It looks so strange and you wonder what is she doing here. To see interesting people such as celebrities sitting at Vanessa’s table in an intimate setting almost feels the same way. We get to see them as real individuals who are having a conversation over dinner. Vanessa adds, "Yes, that’s right. My audience becomes the fly on the wall at my dinner parties. They get to see us drinking, eating and cutting up. My guests forget about the camera and start laughing, talking and having a good time”.
As Vanessa mentioned earlier, she loves to throw dinner parties and that includes cooking. She is a gourmet cook and loves being in the kitchen whipping up some very tasty treats for her guest. I smell a cooking spinoff show in the air. "Actually when I did the pilot, there were two parts to it," says Vanessa. "The first part of the special was me in the kitchen preparing the food with Kym Whitley. I'm teaching her how to prepare a lobster dish." Vanessa goes on to say that when she starts shooting the show again, she's definitely going to include some cooking segments. Don't worry she does not want to be the next Rachael Ray. However, most people do want to see Vanessa in action in the kitchen. She cannot keep those scrumptious secret recipes all to herself forever. Actually Vanessa has a lot of shows in that brain of hers that she wouldn't reveal because there are too many people stealing ideas and running to the bank with them.
With the play and web show, Vanessa’s schedule has become so crazy that she had to stop taping her popular blog talk radio show. There are 101 shows that you can listen to on demand at www.inthecompanyoffriends.tv. When her schedule slows down a little bit, she will regroup and figure out how she can fit everything in for the fans. For those who are listening for the first time along with regular listeners Vanessa would love to hear from you to know what you think about the radio show. I'm sure if you let her know how much you enjoy the interviews, she would get back to doing the show a lot sooner.
Another reason Vanessa is so busy is because she just directed her first pilot. She is starring in it and she directed it. The concept was created by her producing partner. "I didn't write it, but it's a beautiful piece”, explains Vanessa. “Basically, I called it Thelma and Louise on steroids trying to get their neighborhood on track one brick at a time. It's called, ‘BRICK’. It's about these two women who are a hot mess and it should be out by the end of the year”.
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