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.
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.
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” (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.
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.
The 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
My name is Melina Drake Young and I’m the new Development Intern at the Fountain Theatre. This is supposed to be a chatty-get-to-know-me kind of piece, so let’s chat and get to know—well—me. I would say each other, but since this isn’t a real conversation I can’t, so I didn’t.
Relax. Take off your shoes.
Pour yourself a glass of Rosé.
Did you do it?
Me neither. I’m at work. But it’s nice to pretend.
That’s what I like to spend my time doing—playing pretend. Since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to be a pretend-player—a storyteller—so naturally I wound up in The Theatre. (I hope you read that to yourself in the voice of Katherine Hepburn because that’s exactly how I hear it in my head.)
I’m an actress and writer (a rare bird in Los Angeles, California?) and a (VERY) recent graduate of Bard College’s Theatre & Performance and Literature programs. I was born in Silver Lake just before it became Silver Lake. And I think I liked it a little bit more when the neighborhood wasn’t italicized. What I mean is, LA is my home. Oh mother LA, how I love you. When I was studying in the Hudson Valley, I would often identify LA in movies (as one does) by its light. It’s golden, warm, heavenly, distinctly-LA light.
I’m thrilled to return to it and to re-discover LA’s artistic vibrancy as a young adult. How lucky am I to be starting my theatrical career at the Fountain?
A typical day in the life at the Fountain Theatre for this Development Intern includes time spent discussing theatre, organizing, crafting surveys, writing, chatting with co-workers, and being dazzled and moved by the students participating in Walking the Beat . Created and led by Angie Karoitis and Theo Perkins in Elizabethville, New Jersey, Walking the Beat is new to the Fountain and new to me. The program seeks to create a discourse between and eventually a performance devised by and starring ten remarkable students from LA high schools and LAPD officers.
Melina guides students through paperwork at the orientation for Walking the Beat.
Before my time at the Fountain, I would like to say that you’d have found me traipsing around the beautiful Hudson Valley, but the truth is more likely than not I was in rehearsal. If I wasn’t, I was writing at my desk.
This is still true.
The setting, however, has changed.
TIME: The present.
LOCATION: 5060 Fountain Ave, Los Angeles, CA.
CAST OF CHARACTERS: A blonde 20-something who doesn’t like to be identified as such. She wears glasses sometimes. Her eyes are myopic, but she isn’t. She’s grateful to be where she is and she hopes that you can tell.
The Fountain Theatre is pleased to announce a grant award from the Shubert Foundation in the amount of $25,000 for general operating support to the organization. The Shubert Foundation provides grants only to organizations that have an established artistic and administrative track record, as well as a history of fiscal responsibility.
The award marks the fourth consecutive year that the Fountain Theatre has received support from the Shubert Fountain. Each year the award amount has increased.
“We are very pleased and proud of our association with the Shubert Foundation,” commented Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “The Shubert name is synonymous with excellence in the American Theatre. We sincerely thank the Shubert Foundation for its ongoing support.”
The Shubert Foundation is especially interested in providing support to professional resident theatre companies that develop and produce new American work.
“We want to help lift some of the financial burden,” said Foundation Chairman, Philip J. Smith. “So that the companies we support are able to focus on producing thought-provoking, relevant work for the widest possible audience.”
This year, The Shubert Foundation has awarded a record total of $30 million to 533 not-for-profit performing arts organizations across the nation. This marks the 38th consecutive year that the Foundation has increased its giving. The Shubert Foundation, Inc., was established in 1945 by Lee and J.J. Shubert, in memory of their brother Sam. Since the establishment of the Shubert Foundation grants program in 1977, over $443 million has been awarded to not-for-profit arts organizations throughout the United States.