Category Archives: Art

Artist paints portraits of the homeless to restore their humanity and ours

Perlman LA Times

Stuart Perlman, shown surrounded by his portraits of homeless people.

by France-Luce Benson

Stuart Perlman never considered himself an artist. A psychologist and psychoanalyst for over 30 years, he leaned into the arts following the death of his father fifteen years ago. But he found the “bored white models” in his art classes uninspiring and void of the soulfulness he searched for in his time of grief. He found that transformative humanity in the unlikeliest of places.

“I had a beautiful office in West Hollywood, back when there were very few signs of homelessness.” But then Perlman discovered a man who’d been living outside of his office. He slowly got to know the man, Bill. “He became both a friend and a responsibility”.

After painting Bill’s portrait and hearing his story, Perlman realized just how much they had in common. “There but for the grace of god go I”, he repeats; “Most of the men and women I paint are good people that had bad things happen to them”.

Perlman LA Times 2

Stuart Perlman paints a portrait of “traveler” Aftin Combs, left, 20, hanging out with fellow travelers on the Venice Beach boardwalk.

Over the last 10 years, Perlman has painted over 250 portraits of homeless men and women living on the streets of Venice Beach and on Skid Row; and he’s watched L.A.’s homeless population rise astronomically. “The number of camps on skid row increased by 86% in one year”.

His voice cracks and quivers over the phone as he becomes more and more impassioned. “How did we let this happen?” he asks. It seems his many years as a psychologist has prepared him for what may be his life’s calling.

“In every interaction I have in my life, I think about the person’s well being and try to help,” says Perlman. While his portraits initially served as the catalyst for his own healing, they have had a profound impact on his muses. As he paints, he listens to their stories. One portrait may take hours, and in that time, the two hold a sacred space of artistic intimacy. “People cry, hug me, and say they finally feel seen and heard.”

Although he does compensate them for their time and provide supplies, the personal connection they share is invaluable, not to mention the esteem and import associated with a portrait. Historically reserved for aristocrats, dignitaries, and the wealthiest members of society, Perlman decidedly paints the members of our community who are often forgotten and neglected. Each portrait is both breathtaking and heartbreaking, with a powerful focus on the eyes. “You cannot look into their eyes and not be gripped,” he confesses.

“These are good people that we have just thrown away,” explains Perlman. His hope is that his portraits will encourage us to see their humanity, while inspiring us to do our part in ending the cycle of homelessness.

Lobby painting

Perlman’s painting “Denice” greets Fountain patrons in the lobby.

One of the main characters in the current Fountain Theatre world premiere of Human Interest Story is homeless. Several of Perlman’s paintings are currently on display at The Fountain throughout the run of the play to April 5, and signed copies of Perlman’s book Struggles in Paradise are available for sale in the café. Perlman will also join us on March 8 at 1pm for a free pre-show discussion with the public. His film by the same title will have a special screening at The Fountain on March 19 at 7pm.

It’s hard to believe that what started as a hobby he picked up in his 50s has become his life’s mission. It’s not just about the portraits. It’s about promoting the well being and humanity of all people – whether it be through his practice or his art.

“This project has brought me tremendous satisfaction and happiness, and yet I often feel guilty when I return home after painting a portrait,” he admits. Still, he believes that something greater is working through him, and so he will remain devoted to this mission – a mission to reveal the beauty of all human beings, housed or unhoused.

“It’s time for us to reclaim our humanity.”

France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre. 

See the play. Stay for ‘Breaking It Down.’

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by France-Luce Benson

The Fountain’s Breaking It Down program is designed to build community and deepen the impact of a play through a variety of events before and after performances. Our preshow events may include art exhibitions and talks that invite audiences into the world of the play. Our post show discussions create a space for our audiences to gather with the artistic teams, scholars, journalists, and community leaders to unpack the themes explored, and provide a platform to share personal connections to the work.

March 1: Q&A with the cast of Human Interest Story

HIS_0123Engage in a post-show conversation with actors Tanya Alexander, Richard Azurdia, Aleisha Force, James Harper, Matt Kirkwood, Rob Nagle, and Tarina Pouncy. Get Tickets

March 8 @ 1pm: Meet artist Stuart Perlman

PerlmanStuart Perlman’s Faces Of Homelessness portrait project has been exhibited throughout Los Angeles, covered on Public Radio (KPCC), featured in print in Column One of the front page of the Los Angeles Times, and in other national and international publications including The Guardian (London), Taipei Times (Taiwan), Vanity Fair Italia and a cover story in the Jewish Journal. It will be on display at The Fountain for the duration of the run.

Perlman will talk about what inspired the project, and how his connections with these individuals have impacted his life in ways he never imagined. Get tickets now.

Stuart Perlman has been a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in West Los Angeles for 40 years. He received a Ph.D. from UCLA in clinical psychology, and a second Ph.D. in psychoanalysis.  He has published many articles in psychoanalytic journals, and authored the book, The Therapist’s Emotional Survival: Dealing with the Pain of Exploring Trauma. His new book, Struggle in Paradise, is about homeless individuals, featuring moving oil-on-canvas portraits, life stories and follow-ups. This painting project has been nominated for the Best Art of the Year Award by the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis. After a hiatus of over 25 years, Dr. Perlman returned to one of his early passions, painting. He has devoted thousands of hours to painting the experiences of the homeless and illuminating their humanity and pain. Through portraiture, a style traditionally used to immortalize the rich, famous and powerful, Dr. Perlman reminds us that these homeless individuals, too, are to be valued: “If we can see into their faces and learn their stories — their hopes, dreams, accomplishments and fears — we can no longer pretend that they don’t exist…we can no longer look the other way.” www.stuartperlmanartist.com

March 15:  Inside L.A.’s Homeless Crisis

homeless manYou see them everywhere. At freeway off-ramps, under bridges, in tents. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has declared homelessness “the great humanitarian crisis of our time.” What are we doing about it? A post-show discussion with panelists Anthony Conley (Covenant House) and John Billingsley (Hollywood Food Coalition).  Get tickets now. 

March 19 @ 7p.m: Screening of Stuart Perlman’s Struggle in Paradise

Struggle in Paradise“Best Movie of the Year” National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis.
Nominated Best Documentary- Pasadena International Film Festival. Honorable Mention- American Psychological Association Film Festival. Struggle in Paradise is the gripping story of the skyrocketing number of homeless people living and dying on the streets of Los Angeles. I have been shocked at the amount of trauma that people have sustained that contributed to their homelessness and, once on the streets, are repetitively traumatized. View the Trailer

March 22: Truth in American Journalism 

man-hands-reading-boyHow do you get your news? The print edition delivered at your door? Online? Join the post-show conversation with local journalists as we examine how the internet has impacted print newspapers around the country. How has the invention of “fake news” influenced ethics in reporting? What is the truth? Who decides? Get tickets

March 29 @ 5pm: Sunday Supper at The Center 

russell-westbrook-why-not-foundation-8th-annual-thanksgiving-dinnerJoin us at The Center in Hollywood where the Fountain will host one of their monthly “Supper Sunday” dinners. Following the performance, we will head to The Center where we will prepare (or purchase), serve, set up, and clean up after a meal. The most important aspect of Supper Sunday is that WE will dine WITH the individuals we are serving. Sharing a meal is a beautiful opportunity for the housed and unhoused members of our community to gain greater understanding, empathy, and connection. Order now

Feb 15 – April 5: Donation Drive for our homeless community 

April Goddard

Fountain patron April Goddard donates items to the homeless at tonight’s preview of Human Interest Story. 

Throughout the run of Human Interest Story The Fountain will accept donations to be distributed to various Homeless organizations in our community.  Items most needed are:

  • Toiletries (toilet paper; wet wipes; toothpaste/toothbrushes; mouthwash; body wash) Feminine products (sanitary pads, tampons)
  • Gently Used Clothing (especially winter clothing, socks, shoes)
  • Men’s and Women’s Underwear (New, all sizes)
  • Blankets

Bins will be set up in front of the theatre before each performance and all items will be distributed to various organizations on a weekly basis. You need not have a ticket to the show to bring donations. All are welcome!

France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Fountain Theatre. Contact her: franceluce@fountaintheatre.com 

France-Luce Benson joins Fountain Theatre staff as Community Engagement Coordinator

France-Luce Benson

France-Luce Benson

The Fountain Theatre is pleased to announce that playwright/teaching artist France-Luce Benson has joined the staff as Community Engagement Coordinator. Her duties will include overseeing the Fountain’s educational outreach programs and expanding the theatre’s interaction with audiences and local communities.

“As an artist committed to equanimity in representation and creating art that affects change, it is an honor to be a part of The Fountain Theatre, a company that is truly walking the walk, ” says Benson. “The many theatrical giants who The Fountain has produced over the years have not only influenced my work as a playwright, but they are representative of Los Angeles’ diverse cultural landscape. I am confident that my own cultural background will contribute to the important work The Fountain is doing to promote and inspire social justice.”

France-Luce Benson was named “Someone to Watch ” in 2019 by American Theatre magazine. As a playwright, she is a recipient of a Miranda Foundation grant (DETAINED), Alfred P. Sloan Foundation New Play Commission (DEVIL’S SALT), and a Princess Grace Award runner up (BOAT PEOPLE).   Additional honors include: Zoetrope Grand Prize (CAROLINE’S WEDDING); Dramatists Guild Fellow 2016-17, Sam French OOB Festival Winner, NNPN Award for Best Play, and  three time Kilroy List Honorable Mention.  Residencies include  Djerassi, the Camargo Foundation in France, and Instituto Sacatar in Bahia, Brazil. Her plays have had productions, workshops, and readings at Crossroads Theatre New Jersey, City Theatre of Miami, The Playwrights Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, City Theatre of Miami, Loyola Marymount University, Global Black Voices in London, and in New York The Lark, The Billy Holiday Theatre, and the Ensemble Studio Theatre where she is a company member. She’s been published by Samuel French and Routledge Press. She earned an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon University and a BA in Theatre from Florida International University. Teaching appointments include UCLA Extension, St. Johns University, Columbia University, Girl Be Heard, and P.S. Arts/Inside Out in L.A. She is a proud member of The Dramatists Guild, Inc.

France-Luce teaches Story Analysis for Film and Television at UCLA Extension School. As a Dramatist Guild Fund teaching artist, she launched the Traveling Masters Program for NY Public Schools and was a guest lecturer at Columbia University, where she facilitated a playwriting intensive designed for the International Student Fellows of Columbia’s esteemed Human Rights Advocacy Program.

“We’re excited to welcome France-Luce to our Fountain Family,” says Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “She brings expertise, passion and insight to our community programming as the Fountain broadens its services into the future.”

Need some medicine for the spirit? A prescription for the soul?

A personal message from Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs.

Donate Now

VIDEO: Devised Theatre Lab encourages future theater-makers to express themselves

 

What’s so special about theater?

Brendan Kiley

What’s so special about theater? I’ve been asked that last question so many times, and asked it in return, never getting further than the theater enthusiast’s shopworn answer: “There’s something magical about seeing it live.”

Sure, sure. But why? What’s so damn magical?

This summer, I thought I caught the glimmer of an answer in a billboard for the food-delivery service DoorDash. A well-groomed man reclined on a couch, phone in hand, neon diner sign above his head. Below him, the pitch: “Order burgers without moving your buns.”

Theater, I realized, is the opposite of that. It’s everything our watch-at-home, extra-pepperoni-hold-the-olives culture of comfort, distraction and pseudo-control (in which we get to play with inches of difference, but never yardage) has been engineered to avoid.

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Audiences arrive at The Fountain Theatre.

Theater is inconvenient (you must move your buns); it’s uncomfortable (at least airplanes have flight attendants you can flag down for pretzels); it’s puny for cultural capital (not the street cred of graffiti, nor the sophistication of symphonies); it’s economically silly (there are better ways to make money); it can be intensely claustrophobic and boring (can’t get up, can’t change the channel); and so on.

Compared to an evening of Netflix and Uber Eats, theater is downright risky: going somewhere strange to be a human, sitting with other humans, sharing nothing but air, space and a story. You might have to look at (and reckon with) things that make you squirm.

These discomforts can produce bizarre effects, and I’m enlisting two philosophers to help explore why. (My mother was a reader — I think she’d approve.)

The first, famed conservative Edmund Burke, who wrote a 1757 essay about the sublime.

“Sublime” is an exhausted word these hyper-accentuated days, when even mundane exchanges get exclamation marks (“hello!” thanks!” “bye!”) and superlatives (“he’s the worst,” “you’re the best,” “all the feels”). But it was a newish and special idea to 18th-century Europeans newly interested in the difference between the merely beautiful and the sublime.

Beautiful things, Burke argued in his essay, are safe and subordinate: a violet, a vase, a tamed landscape. (Think the pleasing colors and lines of a French vineyard.) But vast deserts? Storms at sea? Eerie ruins? Things we can’t control and aren’t useful, but still move us, are sublime.

Film is safe and subordinate — it cannot be sublime. Its camera work, even when “awesome,” is all manipulated arrangement of color and line. It is economically useful (Hollywood, Bollywood). And no matter how big the explosion or expensive the actor, it’s all tamed, disembodied representation — carefully edited shadows on the wall, infinitely reproducible, never adjustable. There’s no immediacy, no risk.

The immediacy, the event-ness of theater makes it more potent: I laugh harder in theaters than I do at movies. I bet I’ve logged more teary minutes (probably hours) in theaters than anywhere else — weddings and funerals included. And, as theatergoers are well aware, its potential for boredom is acute, serious business. It’s so real, some skillful artists use it as a tool, an audience tenderizer, lulling us and making us more sensitive for shocks to come.

actor spotlight

Why the potency of live-ness? Enter philosopher No. 2, Walter Benjamin, who had a word for this: aura.

His 1936 essay with a cumbersome title (“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) thought through how the new technology of photography would change art. Super-simple distillation: Notre-Dame is unique, embodied. It has its own “aura … its unique existence at the place it happens to be.” If it burns, it’s gone. But a photograph of Notre-Dame is infinitely reproducible, a disembodied image you can pin to your favorite wall. Burn all the photos you like — there will be copies, aura-free, floating around.

“That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art,” Benjamin wrote. His big example: The difference between theater and film.

Pulp Fiction

“Pulp Fiction” (Miramax)

Theater oozes aura and is irreproducible — not just from one “Hamlet” to another, but from night to night. “Pulp Fiction” will always be “Pulp Fiction” no matter where in the world you go, the camera an absolute dictator of your attention. (Benjamin points out that watching a movie isn’t watching acting — it’s watching editing.) Film is an object; theater is an event.

And while theater restricts your mind’s menu of distractions (no phones, no fast forward), it also provides a kind of liberation: an invitation to focus on the immediate present, free to move your attention wherever, from a gesture on stage to the lighting grid above your head. It’s like the strange relief you might feel on an airplane when you can’t use your phone but before the movies start. In one way, you’re stuck. In another, you’re finally unstuck.

Philosophical games aside, loving something like theater in the age of Netflix requires an element of visceral, irrational amour fou. Some people love the precision of a good script, others are in love with certain actors.

Here’s mine: I am incurably attracted to that moment when the house lights dim on a roomful of strangers, just before the stage lights flare up on other strangers who are about to become characters.

There’s a radical possibility in that dark interval, that gap. Doesn’t matter whether I’m in a cramped basement or razzle-dazzle show palace. Doesn’t matter what exciting 7 p.m. situation I’ve torn myself from to trudge to another damned play. The promise of that interval is the same. We’re all there together, for a common purpose: to let the rest of the world drift into the background like mental wallpaper, to see what’ll happen next to these people in this room. That is, to us.

You can only find that level of heightened group communion in a few places: theater, sports and church. People have been gathering to do those three things for thousands of years — and they aren’t going to stop. Even if the regional theaters go bankrupt, nation-states collapse and Broadway becomes a barely remembered relic sunk beneath the rising Atlantic Ocean, people will still gather to stop time and perform stories. It suspends the aloneness.

In January of 2010, my mother was dying. She wasn’t totally-bedridden-dying, not yet — but she was getting there. We didn’t know it then, of course, but she had exactly one year of life left.

Electra

Marya Sea Kaminski as Electra, Seattle Shakespeare.

That month, I also saw a gut-churning, bone-achingly sorrowful performance of Electra. I was baffled, had to see it again and, for reasons I only dimly understood, bought my parents tickets to join me, to watch this live, raw, blistering expression of a grief we all privately carried and could barely comprehend, much less express. But in Electra, it was there. We could behold it — examine it. Why, in that particular moment, did I find such solace, such emotional solidarity, onstage?

It was something only theater could do.

Brendan Kiley is a Seattle Times arts and culture reporter. This post originally appeared in the Seattle Times.

Fountain Theatre awarded $50,000 grant from Ahmanson Foundation

FT night flags August 2019The Fountain Theatre is pleased to announce that it has been awarded an Arts and Humanities grant from the Ahmanson Foundation in the amount of $50,000, doubling the amount awarded to the Fountain by the Foundation last year.  The Ahmanson Foundation strives to enhance the quality of life and cultural legacy of the Los Angeles community by supporting non-profit organizations that demonstrate sound fiscal management, efficient operation, and program integrity.

“We are deeply grateful to the Ahmanson Foundation for its continued partnership and support,” states Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “This grant will allow us to enhance our ability to serve the Los Angeles community.”

The Ahmanson Foundation directs its giving toward the areas of the arts and humanities, education, human services, and health and medicine. The foundation’s grants in these areas are largely dedicated toward capital projects that support the nuts-and-bolts-type needs of non-profits.  The vast majority of the foundation’s philanthropy is directed toward organizations and institutions based in and serving the greater Los Angeles area.

The grant award reflects the success of The Fountain Theatre’s ongoing campaign under the guidance of Director of Development Barbara Goodhill to increase the levels and broaden the sources of contributed giving to the organization.  Today’s announcement follows last month’s news of a $40,000 award  from The Wallis Annenberg Foundation to the Fountain for general operating support.

“This generous award from the Ahmanson Foundation is another extraordinary endorsement and affirmation of The Fountain’s continued growth and prestige within Southern California’s cultural landscape and the funding community, ” states Goodhill.

FOUNTAIN THEATRE AWARDED $40,000 GRANT FROM THE ANNENBERG FOUNDATION

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The Wallis Annenberg Foundation has awarded The Fountain Theatre a $40,000 grant for general operating support.  The Annenberg Foundation is one of the top private philanthropies in the country, and is dedicated to using its resources to support organizations that are fostering positive change in the world.  As Wallis Annenberg stated in an article in CSQ Magazine, “To me, the future of philanthropy – the true value of philanthropy in a world of massive needs—comes down to a single, simple word: innovation. Finding it, supporting it, growing as much of it as possible.”

 
“This generous unrestricted award from The Annenberg Foundation is a profound validation of the innovation that The Fountain Theatre has brought to the Los Angeles community for 29 years.  From our MainStage productions, to our arts education and outreach programs, The Fountain strives — through art — to illuminate and uplift the diverse communities of Los Angeles,” says Director of Development, Barbara Goodhill. “We are deeply grateful to The Annenberg Foundation for its generosity and partnership.”

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The Annenberg Foundation’s Mission, Values & Vision:

The Annenberg Foundation is a family foundation that provides funding and support to nonprofit organizations in the United States and globally. The Foundation and its Board of Directors are also directly involved in the community with innovative projects that further its mission to advance the public well-being through improved communication. The Foundation encourages the development of effective ways to share ideas and knowledge. The Foundation is committed to core values of responsiveness, accessibility, fairness and involvement.

 
The Foundation believes in funding organizations that have a deep level of community involvement, are led by effective leaders and tackle challenging and timely problems. Specific organizational attributes valued by the Foundation are: visionary leadership, impact, sustainability, innovation, organizational strength, network of partnerships plus the population being served.

Our nation’s future depends on moments like this

Mueller Reading 51

Fountain Board member Miles Benickes and Zoey Rosenzweig at Mueller Read-A-Thon.

by Stephen Sachs

First, she said no. She would not do it. When her grandfather asked her again in the Fountain Theatre lobby, she awkwardly took a step back in retreat, shy and embarrassed.  

“No,” she said, in a blushing 14-year old half-grin.

She would not join her grandfather, Miles Benickes, on stage to read a ten-minute section of the Mueller Report in front of a gathered audience of LA professionals and unseen viewers watching online via a simultaneous live stream on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. No way.

Then Zoey Rosenzweig changed her mind. I was thrilled and surprised when she strode out onto our Fountain stage with Miles and diligently read through the Mueller legalese with her grandfather. She may not have understood much of the gobbledygook she was reading. Who did? That didn’t matter. Something vital for the future of our nation was happening. Zoey Rosenzweig was getting involved.

Thursday’s 15-hour Mueller Report Read-A-Thon at the Fountain Theatre held dozens of unforgettable moments like this for me. The marathon event was emotionally overwhelming. The Fountain hummed with ecstatic energy all day and all night. A parade of politicians, actors, writers, and community leaders read from the podium as if declaring from a public square, each person high-charged by their call to duty.

I thought of the day as an Open House. The Fountain Theatre opening its doors – all day and all night — to democracy. At an Open House, all visitors are welcome. At an Open House, anyone who wishes may visit. An Open House is a gathering that’s open to anyone who wants to come by, any time. 

An atmosphere of community was everywhere. In the lobby, in the audience, out front on the sidewalk, in our upstairs café.  Theatre provides community. Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in this country, and our LA theatre network is large and widespread. But on Thursday our Mueller Report Read-A-Thon proved that, like the motto of our nation, Los Angeles and the LA Theatre Community is “out of many, one.”

For our nation to survive, engaging young people in the arts and politics of this country is essential. I studied closely as our twenty-two-year-old Fountain intern, Melina Young, sat in the front row watching respected LA theatre critic Sylvie Drake read from our stage. A proud grin spreading across Melina’s face. Sylvie Drake is Melina’s grandmother. Now Melina seeks a career in the theatre. Her grandmother, by example, reminding her how the arts and social action can intersect.    

An endless stream of memorable instants that day/night flood through me now, two days later. Images of celebrities, LA Theatre icons, government officials. But it was Zoey Rosenzweig, perhaps, who remains the most indelible. A fourteen-year-old girl reading this urgent government document from the podium while her grandfather somberly leans over her shoulder like a rabbi guiding her through the Torah.

Moments like this are the reason we hosted the reading of the Mueller Report in the first place. It gives me hope. We need Zoey Rosenzweig and Melina Young and millions more like them.

Our nation, and our art form, depend on them.     

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre. 

“Hope you close your faggot show.”

Pride Flag

The Pride flag flies over the Fountain Theatre.

by Stephen Sachs

Some days, our building is tagged by graffiti. That’s life in East Hollywood. Some mornings, I arrive at the Fountain front door and discover a freshly sprayed scribbling on our beige stucco facade. It happens. The scrawling is usually small and, most often, gang related. A badass in the hood staking territory. A banger bearing witness. Once inside my office, I let my Technical Director know we’ve been hit.  Then I make myself coffee. The graffiti is soon wiped away. No big deal. 

I rarely decipher the message. Gang slogans are a code I can’t break. And though the phrase is sometimes personal, about “Diablo” or “Beast”, it never directly targets the Fountain. The statement could have been sprayed anywhere, anytime. It has nothing to do with us.

This time, it did. This time, the message was personal. And it wasn’t graffiti.

Last weekend, we were forced to reschedule a performance of our hit play, Daniel’s Husband. A cast member had booked a TV gig and needed to fly up to Vancouver. This is Tinseltown, right? We’ve been to this rodeo before, many times. We know what to do. Our box office staff contacted our audience for that night and set them up for other performances.  As a precaution, we posted a sign on our front door stating that the night’s show had been cancelled. In case someone walked up.

Someone did.

The next morning, we found that a person had scrawled on our sign in black ink: “Hope you close your faggot show.”

Daniel’s Husband is a play about gay marriage. The men in the cast are gay. This hate-note was inscribed on our front wall the final weekend of Pride month, when our city and our nation celebrate equality and inclusion.

Let’s be real. This written slur from an anonymous homophobe is insignificant compared to the gay men and women beaten and killed in this country. I know that. Our nation has a savage history of discriminating “others.” Ask Native Americans.  Blacks. Mexicans. Asians. Jews. Women. Compared to the systemic prejudice our nation has inflicted on these groups, the note is a small thing, a trifle. No question. Still, it hurts, is upsetting. More so because though tiny, what larger truth does it tell? Like in a well-written play, the more specific a thing is the more universal it becomes.  

In thirty years, I can’t remember the Fountain Theatre ever being hit with a message of hate like this. Sure, every so often we’ll get a heated email of complaint from an unhappy theatergoer. The political and socially conscious nature of the plays we produce often trigger passionate responses from our patrons. That’s the point. Our artistic goal is to engage our audiences in the difficult issues of our time. A free exchange of conflicting ideas is what makes a good play and a free democracy.   

This is different. In today’s incendiary political and cultural climate, it’s not too far a leap to imagine that the individual who scrawled that vile message with a pen next time might bring a bomb or a gun.  

“Something rotten is afoot in America,” posts a gay friend of mine on his Facebook page.  In the last month alone, the word “faggot” has been hurled at him three times. “The word no longer has the power to make me want to erase myself, to spare those associated with me embarrassment. But I can’t help worrying how this climate must be affecting those who are younger and more vulnerable, especially transgender Americans who face far more dangerous threats than a nasty cliché.  Is this the America we want?”

No, it is not. But this is who we are.

Others on my friend’s Facebook page chimed in. “This happened to my son,’ says one. “It’s unbelievable what is going on. A disgrace and a return to ignorance and vile barbarism.” Another states simply, “I literally get called a faggot on the streets of LA at least once or twice a week.”

The mournful words of Paul Simon call to me in his achingly beautiful “American Tune.”

“When I think of the
Road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what has gone wrong.”

The number of hate crimes in this country are on the rise. Los Angeles, in particular, reported a decade-high increase in hate crime from 2017 to 2018. Hate crimes targeting Jews and Latinos increased in California in 2018. The trigger for this bigoted hostility is no mystery. Our country’s moral leadership comes from the top.

“Things are polarized in ways we haven’t seen in recent memory,” says Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director and chief executive. “People are on edge in part because they are following their leaders. When leaders at the highest levels use incredibly intemperate language and repeat the rhetoric of extremists, we shouldn’t be surprised when young people — let alone others — imitate what they see.”

Hate crimes are defined as “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, gender or gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity,” according to the Hate Crime Statistics Act passed by Congress in 1990. Hate crimes can be committed against people, property or society, and can include vandalism. Minor as it may be, is this gay-slurring note scrawled on our Fountain sign a hate crime? Before scoffing: What if it were a swastika?

For three decades, The Fountain Theatre has produced new plays about racism, women’s rights, gay rights, anti-Semitism, immigration. Whatever the issue, it has sometimes been lamented to us that we’re preaching to the choir. The claim is that issue-driven plays are produced for like-minded people, and those who most need to be changed by our work never see it at all. Clearly, the perpetrator of that homophobic hate-note will never step inside our theatre walls. But beyond our walls, he is out there. Somewhere. In our world, on the street, in our city, he exists. With thousands, maybe millions, like him. We, as artists, must see the world as it is before we can dream of what it can be. 

In the theater, we know what our job is. Our job “… is to hold up, as ’twere, a mirror to nature; to show scorn her image, to show virtue her appearance, and the very age its form and pressure.” Our job is to hold up a vision to America of who we are as a country. The good, the bad, and – yes – the ugly.  That’s what theater is supposed to do. That’s what the Fountain Theatre will continue to do for another thirty years.

And the Pride flag still flies over the Fountain. 

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.