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‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis: “There is grace in the theatre.”

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Matthew Hancock and Marisol Miranda in Between Riverside and Crazy.

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The Fountain Theatre’s acclaimed Los Angeles Premiere of the pulitzer Prize-winning Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis has been extended to Jan 26. Vox culture writer Alissa Wilkinson recently spoke with Guirgis by phone about his characters, his writing process, empathy, religion, and why his heart will always be with theater. 

Alissa Wilkinson

The night I saw Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven in November, around Thanksgiving, John Ortiz came out and said you’d added three new scenes that day and three new scenes the night before. And I thought, Amazing. That’s what’s so magical about theater: It’s always changing.

I think the first show I saw of yours was The Little Flower of East Orange, which must have been in 2008. I remember, very distinctly, how bowled over I was by one scene. In the middle of this story about people treating one another badly, with a lot of profanity and dicey situations, Michael Shannon approaches the front of the stage and starts talking about how grace showed up in a difficult situation. I remember being startled, because I wasn’t used to seeing those things juxtaposed, and certainly not on the stage.

And obviously that element of grace, and the juxtaposition of the sacred and at times very profane, is a big part of your work. Is there something that keeps drawing you to that topic?

Stephen Adly Guirgis

I try to write about stuff that’s personal to me. I try to write about what keeps me up at night — stuff that is upsetting or disturbing or things I have questions about in my own life. Hopefully, in doing so, it’ll resonate with other people as well.

If people read or see my plays, they can sense the theme of the religious or spiritual. It’s really not intentional, other than just the fact that I grew up Catholic. It’s hard to get the Catholic out of the Catholic. Even a bad Catholic, which I’ve certainly been at times. I don’t even know what I believe now, but it stays with you.

Alissa Wilkinson

That reminds me of something I think about a lot, especially this year, when there seems to be a lot of art by and about Catholics, like The Irishman and The Two Popes and A Hidden Life. People who self-identify as “bad” Catholics, like Graham Greene for instance, seem to make the best art about religion; when I was reading a lot about Martin Scorsese earlier this fall, I realized he says the same thing. I don’t really know why that is.

Stephen Adly Guirgis

I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of guilt, and then there’s hope that you really want to try to hold onto as you get older. The religion also promises a lot. And as you get older you’re like, The likelihood that some of this is actually true is very small.

But you talk about things like grace, and that’s something I believe in.

When my mother was dying, my sister called and said, “Where are you? You need to go to the hospital right now. She has weeks to live. She doesn’t know. You have to tell her.” I went down there. There’s very little worse that I can think of. But it was fine. There was grace there, and I handled it. What I’ve learned in life is that often with the big climactic things, or the big things that require courage, we’re taken care of, and we can get through it. It’s the little things — at least with me — that I stumble with time and time and time and time again.

I don’t know. Religion is just a thing that is always around in my brain, I guess, and it comes out of my subconscious when I’m writing. And the main part is that I write about all different types of people, but often I’m writing about New Yorkers — working class, lower working class — and I just grew up really falling in love with the language and the rhythms of street and slang. It’s like music to me.

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Liza Fernandez and Montae Russell in Between Riverside and Crazy.

Alissa Wilkinson

One of the things I love most about reading your plays is that the characters really leap off the page. You can hear their voices on the page specifically because of your command of their slang. It’s not mannered speech, and it doesn’t sound forced. They sound like people I might hear on the subway or in the park. Which tells me you are always paying a lot of attention to the people around you.

Stephen Adly Guirgis

Well, it’s because it’s the job. When you’re acting, your job is to pretend that you’re someone else, and do it well, and reproduce human behavior. That’s the job of the actor. It’s to not be fake.

The job of the writer is the same. Each of the characters on the stage should feel like real people. In this play, there are 18 characters, so it’s not possible that every character can have a full arc. They start at one place, and we can track them trying to get to this next place.

It’s impossible that everybody is going to have a fully developed arc. I have already cut some scenes you probably saw, and I cut a whole storyline. I try to make it so all my characters, even if they’re just on for two seconds, they want something. They’re trying to get something. In some cases, we’re going to see if they got it. In others, we won’t. But they all want something. They’re specific, real people.

As a writer, that’s the least you can do. I didn’t go to school for writing. I went to school for acting — I’m an actor. So the other thing that I think of when I’m writing sometimes is that not every role is going to be a huge role. But I try to not write a character that I wouldn’t want to play. So that at least somebody, no matter who it is, can be like, “Okay. It’s a small part, but the character has these circumstances and is trying to do something.” I try to make it real. Everybody gets a little moment in the sun, or the rain.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do characters show up in your head fully formed? Do they talk first, and then you find out who they are?

Stephen Adly Guirgis

Usually it comes through dialogue. I might just have something that I’m feeling, an overriding feeling. Like I’m very depressed, or I’m upset about something in the world. I might just write a line of dialogue: “This is the worst day of my life. And don’t let me find a bridge, because I’m jumping.” I’ll sit there for a minute or two, and then I might hear a voice or something say, like, “Well, if you need company.” And I’m like, Oh, who’s that?

Then I let voices articulate, or debate, from what I’m feeling. And hopefully, characters and situations start to emerge. Sometimes you’ll write a scene and you’ll be like, “Oh, this is interesting, but it’s not really leading anywhere.” Other times you get a whole play.

Halfway Bitches started from … Well, at LAByrinth we have these summer retreats. There was a play that I was working on, but I had about an hour or two, so I was like, “Let me just write something that can use a lot of women. I’m not even going to worry about what it is, but let me see if I can get a couple pages just to like throw it into the mix.” I quickly started writing the beginning of that first scene of the play, that you saw.

So there’s different ways, but I usually start from what I’m feeling. That’s the main thing. Everyone has a different process, but sometimes I’ll hear someone say, “Yeah, I’m writing a play about racism.” Or, “I’m writing about the military-industrial complex.” I’m like, Cool, but I can’t. That’s never going to sustain me. That’s like school.

But if I’m writing about something that is really personal to me, issues of race or the military or whatever might fit in. I wrote a play once called Jesus Hopped the A Train that was very specific, very personal to what I was going through in my life when I wrote that play. I remember when we did it in London it was well received, but the critics were all saying, “It’s a biting assessment of the American criminal justice system.” “Guirgis is a social justice warrior.”

I was like, “No.” I mean, that might be what you got, but I didn’t start out writing the play based on I want to expose the hypocrisies of the criminal justice system. It started out as something much more personal.

Alissa Wilkinson

I wonder sometimes if people bring that expectation to theater — that it has to be about “big issues” or exposing something. That all plays ought to be about confronting something huge in society. Which some plays are, but really the good ones are about people. A play is a different thing from a sermon.

Stephen Adly Guirgis

Yeah. Yeah. But also, when you’re writing a play, it better be about something to you. Because, look, it could be good or bad. You try to do the best you can. Sometimes you succeed; sometimes you fail. But it better be about something substantive that you care about, because theater is prohibitively expensive these days. So if someone’s going to a theater, even off-Broadway, it’s a lot of money, so you better have something that you’re really wrestling with.

Sometimes people say, “Why don’t you write more plays?” And look, I have friends who are very prolific. Adam Rapp is a guy I came up with from the beginning; we were in different circles, but I really respect him. That guy writes a play — like, during the course of this interview, he would have written another play. We’re different. I think that Adam has a lot inside of him.

But there are other playwrights who just crank out these plays that feel like something you could just watch on TV, and you’re like, “What’s the point?” With plays, there has to be something really moving you to write. It’s not the same as film and television, which is a media that I totally respect and I’ve worked in. But with plays, it’s kind of a different thing. Because you’re asking people to leave their house, pay money, pay a babysitter, try to make a night of it, that whole thing.

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Liza Colón-Zayas and Andrea Syglowski in Atlantic Theater Company’s co-production with LAByrinth Theater Company, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven.

I do believe — and the reason why I’ll do theater until I’m not here anymore — that theater has the potential to be something special. That there is grace, there can be grace, found in the theater. You can be moved. You can still have an experience that you can’t have anywhere else, and certainly not in your living room eating GrubHub. I’ve seen TV shows that I adore, I worship, and I’ve seen something and been like, “That’s the best episode ever,” but it doesn’t change the way I live.

I think in the old days of our parents, and their parents before us — they had church, they had synagogues, they had temple, whatever. These days we are more secular — is that the word? But the theater, at its best, still has that spiritual component. So you better write something that cost you something to create. If people are spending money I’m going to try to give them the best that I can.

Alissa Wilkinson

It strikes me that a lot of the characters you put on stage aren’t people who would probably spend the money on the Broadway ticket themselves. Do you think about that, like who the audience is for your plays, as you’re writing them? Or is that something you try to keep out of your view?

Stephen Adly Guirgis

That’s a really good question. I think that, initially, I’m writing for myself. I’m writing trying to exorcise demons or find answers to something for myself. To a certain degree, that’s the process all the way through.

But there is also a group I call “my people.” Who are my people? My theater company, the people that go to my theater company’s stuff. It tends to be very diverse — a little bit younger than average and diverse.

The goal and the dream always is that I want to write a play that anybody could see. I want something that’s going to bring together everybody, that everybody can like or get upset by. Like when we did Motherfucker with the Hat on Broadway, that was a good example. That audience was pretty diverse by Broadway standards. We had “our people,” and then you had the typical Broadway crowd, which is older and more white. And people across those demographics all seemed to have a really good time at the show.

So, I’ve found over the years that “my people” now includes older people, all types of people. That’s always what I’m trying to do. My dream is to write a play that’s filled with every type of people, and they all laugh, and they all cry. And then when it’s over they can’t get themselves out of their seats. Saint Paul talked about the illusion that we as people are separate. And that’s something David Milch always used to talk about.

So with Halfway Bitches, we’ve got 18 characters. The majority are women of color. Of course, I want women, women of color, people of color to see the show and feel like they’re being represented. At the end of the day, if you write well, the more specific you are, the more universal are the people who come. That’s what I’m after. It’s always about, I want the audience to see themselves. The hope is that either you can see yourself in these characters, or that you can find an empathy or an understanding or a commonality that either wasn’t present before or needs to be rekindled.

One of the times that I was most moved in the theater was when I was younger. I saw a production of Kenny Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth. The first factor was that Mark Ruffalo was the lead, and he was young. And someone gave me a ticket. I didn’t even know what it was. Mark’s performance was so moving and electrifying to me — at that time I wanted to be an actor — to go and study and work even harder.

Stephen Adly Guirghis

Stephen Adly Guirgis

The other thing that really moved me in the play was Kenny grew up on the Upper West Side, and I grew up on the Upper West Side. But my family didn’t have any money. We were basically the working poor. My dad worked like 12 hours a day, six days a week in Grand Central Station. My mother stayed home and then she worked. I went to kindergarten and grammar school up in Harlem, and then we lived down on the Upper West Side. I didn’t really fit in either world. In fact, I fit in better uptown.

I grew up having a lot of resentments against kids in my neighborhood. They had more money than me, and other things. When we played, I was picked on. There was things that happened that made me have a lot of resentment toward a certain type of kid, those kids that I grew up with.

Then I saw Kenny’s play. I was so moved, because I was like, “Oh my God, those are the kids that I hated growing up. Those are the kids that picked on me. But also, those were the kids that I hated.” They were rich kids, so I was just like, “Fuck them. Whatever.” But with the play I had so much empathy for them. That’s something I learned just by going to the theater.

That’s a continued lesson, about empathy, and trying for empathy, and not stopping with your first, second, or third opinion of somebody. Particularly in this era we’re so damn divided, and things are so crazy. But I try. I actively work to … I hate who’s in the White House. I think that there is evil there. But I try not to hate Trump voters. When I fight with Trump people, I always try to find some kind of a common ground. Anyway, that’s something the theater can do.

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Montae Russell, Joshua Bitton, Lesley Fera, Marisol Miranda, Matthew Hancock in Between Riverside and Crazy at the Fountain Theatre.

Alissa Wilkinson

You said something earlier about theater being kind of like church. Church is pretty theatrical, but it’s also supposed to be for everybody who wants to be there. So what kind of responsibility is that for you, as a creator of theater?

Stephen Adly Guirgis

First of all, we can’t please everyone. That’s not going to happen. But this is how I look at it: I started out as an actor. I’m still an actor. What I love to do is acting. Writing is something that I have a lot of difficulty with. It doesn’t come easy, and it comes at a price. And that price usually feels, at least initially, that it was in excess of what the result is.

Even now, as I’m talking to you, with this play. Look, I worked in restaurants for almost 30 years, I’ve done every kind of job, and writing is not coal mining, and it never will be. It’s a privilege to be able to do this. But, it’s like, I haven’t really gone to sleep in a bed in a month, chain-smoking cigarettes, I probably put on 25 pounds, my girlfriend’s not talking to me. I have a bad back. I can’t hardly fucking walk. And it’s not fun.

But the way I look at writing is that for whatever reason, I was given — I didn’t do anything to get it, but I was given a certain aptitude for writing. That’s just a factor, a fact, as I see it. And so therefore, I have a responsibility, as long as I can still write, to try to write what is meaningful to me, which hopefully will be meaningful to other people, and to put it out there in the world. That’s what I see as a responsibility. Look, it’s also a privilege. Like I said, I’m not bartending anymore, I’m not a bike messenger anymore. But it’s a responsibility. So that’s where it starts.

And then there’s film, there’s television, there’s theater. And all are great, I love watching Netflix, and I love movies. Talk about places that can be for everyone, that can save you. I could tell you many stories about times I was so depressed and forced myself out of the house just to go to a movie at 11 pm on Tuesday, and seeing movies that weren’t even the greatest movies. But I’ll just never forget seeing As Good As It Gets, and what that did for me. Also Gilbert Grape, and Benny & Joon, these mainstream Hollywood movies that literally saved me in the moment. Or going to the old Lincoln Plaza Cinema, it’s closed now, sometimes in the summer. Just being lonely and forcing myself to go in and just see whatever is playing, some French movie at 10 pm, and having an unforgettable experience.

But theater, that’s where the heart is for me. I co-created the Netflix TV show The Get Down, and we started out in LA. I remember sitting in a room one day and they came in with all the new options for chairs, and so all the writers were sitting on three different versions of $1,000 chairs, being told to pick the chair they wanted. Every day, ordering lunch took like an hour. You’re looking through all these menus and you’re like, Oh, how’s this? How’s the fish? It just didn’t feel artistic.

Then my play was starting rehearsals in New York. So I flew back, and I went to the rehearsal room, and it was a little room with folding chairs and folding tables and a bunch of good people sitting around them. And everyone was happy that there was some water and food on the table. You know?

John Patrick Shanley was in our company, and when I first started to make some progress as a writer, I was asking him about what happens when you get to this point or that point in your career. And he said this thing that was really smart — at the time I understood it, but I understand it much more now. He said, “You know, Stephen, there’s this assumption that once your career starts, it’s just going to keep getting better, and better, and better, and greater, and greater, and greater. Then one day you wake up, and you realize that you were never better, and it was never greater, than in that little 50-seat theater with the broken chairs, doing theater with your friends.”

With Halfway Bitches, the seats aren’t broken and it’s not $5 to get in, but you know what? Those are all my friends. It made sense to me, what Shanley said. I’ve worked writing in a style that was more mercenary at times, and it leaves my soul cold. It’s not worth it. If I had kids, I would write Rugrats and be thrilled, I would write anything. But if I can support myself, I’m going to try to do things that I think are meaningful, and work with people who I think are great and out of the ordinary.

There are people in that cast that I have worked with for 30 years, and there’s people in that cast who are just starting to work as actors. There’s people in that cast who weren’t even actors. It presents challenges, for sure, but there’s something really beautiful about that.

I’m still working on the play, and how it’s going to end up, and what it’s going to be, whatever. I feel good about the effort that’s being made, and I feel good about — whether you like the play or not — you’re going to see people on that stage that don’t look like actors and actresses. You’re going to see people on the stage that look like people that you see on the street and have a lot of heart, and a lot of complexity, and a lot of experience levels and age levels. And I like it.

So hopefully it’ll work out.

This post originally appeared on Vox.com. Between Riverside and Crazy runs to Jan 26. Get tickets/More info.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: “All art is political.”

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Lin-Manuel Miranda in Chicago, 2019.

by Lin-Manuel Miranda

All art is political. In tense, fractious times—like our current moment—all art is political. But even during those times when politics and the future of our country itself are not the source of constant worry and anxiety, art is still political. Art lives in the world, and we exist in the world, and we cannot create honest work about the world in which we live without reflecting it. If the work tells the truth, it will live on.

Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke,” George Orwell’s 1984, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s whole damn catalog—all are political works that tell the truth.

Yes, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Consider The Sound of Music. It isn’t just about climbing mountains and fording streams. Look beyond the adorable von Trapp children: It’s about the looming existential threat of Nazism. No longer relevant? A GIF of Captain von Trapp tearing up a Nazi flag is something we see 10 times a day on Twitter, because all sorts of Nazis are out there again in 2019. As last spring’s searing Broadway revival of Oklahoma! revealed, lying underneath Hammerstein’s elephant-eye-high corn and chirping birds is a lawless society becoming itself, bending its rules and procedures based on who is considered part of the community (Curly) and who is marginalized (poor Jud … seriously, poor Jud). Or consider your parents’ favorite, South Pacific. At its center, our hero, Nellie Forbush, must confront her own internalized racism when she learns that the new love of her life has biracial children from a previous marriage. Let your parents know if they forgot: Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals form the spine of Broadway’s “golden age,” and they also deeply engage with the politics of their era.

In the Heights

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Broadway cast of In the Heights.

My first Broadway musical, In the Heights, is an example of how time can reveal the politics inherent within a piece of art. When I began writing this musical, as a college project at Wesleyan University, it was an 80-minute collegiate love story with a promising mix of Latin music and hip-hop, but it was pretty sophomoric (which is appropriate; I was a sophomore). After college, I started from scratch with the director Thomas Kail and the playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, and we shifted the show’s focus from the love story to Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan where everyone is from everywhere. In the 20th century, Washington Heights was often home to the latest wave of immigrants. It was an Irish neighborhood; it was a Russian Jewish neighborhood (Yeshiva University is up there). If you take the Dominican store sign down you’ll see a sign for an Irish pub underneath it, and if you take that down you’ll find Hebrew. Washington Heights was heavily Dominican when I was growing up, and it remains so, with a vibrant Mexican and Latin American immigrant community as well.

We received great reviews. If critics had a common criticism, it was that the show, its contemporary music aside, was somehow old-fashioned or “sentimental.” Gentrification, the businesses closing, the literal powerlessness as the characters face a blackout that affects only their neighborhood—these issues, always there in the material, didn’t register with most theater critics in 2008. In the Heights was considered a hit by Broadway standards. It didn’t leap off the Arts page and into the national conversation like Hamilton would, but we won some Tonys, recouped our investment, and had a wonderful three-year run at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where Hamilton now lives. We posted our Broadway closing notice at the end of 2010.

What a difference 10 years makes.

Trump+Immigration+Policy

Right now, Jon M. Chu is editing his feature-film adaptation of In the Heights, which is scheduled to be released in June. We spent a joyous summer shooting the film—on location, in our neighborhood—and issues that were always inherent in the text now stand out in bold-faced type. Gentrification has rendered Lower Manhattan, Harlem, and much of Brooklyn unrecognizable to the previous generations that called those neighborhoods home. The East Village of Jonathan Larson’s Rent is nonexistent, lettered avenues notwithstanding. And the narrative of immigrants coming to this country and making a better life for themselves—the backdrop of everything that happens in In the Heights, across three generations of stories—is somehow a radical narrative now.

Donald Trump came down the escalator to declare his presidential run, and in his first speech he demonized Mexicans: They’re rapists; they’re bringing drugs; they’re not sending their best people. We young Latinos had thought of our parents and grandparents as the latest wave making its home in this country, and we thought that we would be the next group to make this place a better place, to prove once again that the American dream wasn’t just a figment of some propagandist’s imagination. And now we’re in a different age when, for some, considering an immigrant a human being is a radical political act.

Consider this rap, written 12 years ago and delivered by Sonny, In the Heights’ youngest character, in a song called “96,000”:

Your kids are living without a good edumacation,
Change the station, teach ’em about gentrification,
The rent is escalatin’
The rich are penetratin’
We pay our corporations when we should be demonstratin’
What about immigration?
Politicians be hatin’
Racism in this nation’s gone from latent to blatant

It was always political. It was always there. Donald Trump made it even more true.

Trump uses language to destroy empathy. He criminalizes the impulse and imperative to seek asylum, to seek a place to live thousands of miles away because the alternative at home is worse. Through his lens, these seekers are not people; they’re “animals” or “bad hombres.”

What artists can do is bring stories to the table that are unshakably true—the sort of stories that, once you’ve heard them, won’t let you return to what you thought before. I think about the crisis on the border constantly. I think about the famous photograph of a little girl crying beside a Border Patrol truck. That picture went viral because it seemed to capture the horror of family separations. But it turned out that the girl wasn’t being separated from her mother—her mother had simply been ordered to put her daughter down while she was searched by agents. The family was in distress, and the border crisis was real, but people used the details of this particular incident to close themselves off from empathy. “Fake news,” they said. A child is crying for her mother, but that’s not enough to keep people from pushing empathy away. I believe great art is like bypass surgery. It allows us to go around all of the psychological distancing mechanisms that turn people cold to the most vulnerable among us.

At the end of the day, our job as artists is to tell the truth as we see it. If telling the truth is an inherently political act, so be it. Times may change and politics may change, but if we do our best to tell the truth as specifically as possible, time will reveal those truths and reverberate beyond the era in which we created them. We keep revisiting Shakespeare’s Macbeth because ruthless political ambition does not belong to any particular era. We keep listening to Public Enemy because systemic racism continues to rain tragedy on communities of color. We read Orwell’s 1984 and shiver at its diagnosis of double-think, which we see coming out of the White House at this moment. And we listen to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, as Lieutenant Cable sings about racism, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” It’s all art. It’s all political.


This article appears in the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Pulitzer Prize, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award–winning composer, lyricist, and actor.

Lesley Fera: The intimacy of the Fountain’s ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ is “magical”

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Fountain Theatre earns 18 Ovation Award nominations including Best Season

LA STAGE Alliance announced yesterday that the Fountain Theatre has been honored with 18 Ovation Award nominations, the largest number of any intimate theatre for the 2018/19 season.  The Fountain’s nominations include Best Season for overall excellence.

The Ovation Awards are the only peer-judged theatre awards in Los Angeles, created to recognize excellence in theatrical performance, production, and design in the Greater Los Angeles area.

During the 2018-29 season, there were 278 total productions registered for the Ovation Awards from 124 different producing bodies, resulting in 199 total nominations for 64 distinct productions presented by 43 organizations. These productions were voted on by 272 Ovation Awards voters — vetted individuals from the Greater Los Angeles area who are working theatre professionals.

The Fountain Theatre received the following Ovation Award nominations:

BEST SEASON
Fountain Theatre
Cost of Living
Daniel’s Husband
Hype Man: a Break Beat Play

BEST PRODUCTION OF A PLAY (Intimate Theatre)
Cost of Living
Daniel’s Husband

ACTING ENSEMBLE OF A PLAY
Cost of Living
Daniel’s Husband

DIRECTION OF A PLAY
John Vreeke – Cost of Living

LEAD ACTOR IN A PLAY
Tim Cummings – Daniel’s Husband
Felix Solis – Cost of Living

LEAD ACTRESS IN A PLAY
Katy Sullivan – Cost of Living

FEATURED ACTOR IN A PLAY
Tobias Forrest – Cost of Living

FEATURED ACTRESS IN A PLAY
Jenny O’Hara – Daniel’s Husband
Xochitl Romero – Cost of Living

LIGHTING DESIGN (Intimate Theatre)
Chu-Hsuan Chang – Hype Man: A Break Beat Play
Jennifer Edwards – Daniel’s Husband
John Garofalo – Cost of Living

SCENIC DESIGN (Intimate Theatre)
Deanne Millais – Daniel’s Husband

SOUND DESIGN (Intimate Theatre)
Malik Allen – Hype Man: A Break Beat Play

VIDEO/PROJECTION DESIGN (Intimate Theatre)
Nicholas Santiago – Cost of Living

OVATIONS HONORS RECIPIENTS MUSIC COMPOSITION FOR A PLAY
Romero Mosley
Hype Man: A Break Beat Play

This year’s ceremony will be held at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Monday, January 13th, 2020. Tickets will go on sale Tuesday, December 3rd, and full information can be found on OvationAwards.com.

The complete list of all nominees.

Actress Lesley Fera hails acclaimed play ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ as beautiful and timely

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Director Guillermo Cienfuegos finds family and forgiveness in ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’

Guillermo Cienfuegos

Director Guillermo Cienfuegos in the Fountain Cafe.

by Guillermo Cienfuegos

How the Los Angeles premiere of Between Riverside and Crazy, this great, Pulitzer Prize winning play by Stephen Adly Guirgis managed to fall into my hands, I’ll never know. But I’m grateful for it. I feel so fortunate to be given the opportunity. And to direct it with this cast, at this theatre, is an embarrassment of blessings.

First of all I’m drawn to how funny and true the play is. There’s no better way to impart to an audience some essential truths about what it is to be human than while you’re making them laugh. I find Guirgis’ gift of being able to show us these flawed and damaged people in such a funny and loving way very inspiring.

Also as a Cuban, the play puts me in mind of a lot of Catholic imagery from my youth, including Santeria traditions. It makes me think of the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God”. Those are the characters in this play. The world may see them as junkies and drunks and ex cons and other outsiders of society – but they’re just children of God.

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Matthew Hancock and Marisol Miranda.

I’m also drawn to the play because of my father, who I called Papi. My father was a lot like Pops, the main character of the play – he’s fighting wars on many fronts, the largest of which could be with his own ego. And he’s trying to hold on to whatever control over his life he still has. But it’s in the surrender that one wins and finds grace.

The play deals with a lot of big issues – grief, alcoholism, policing, gentrification. But I think it’s about family, forgiveness and redemption.

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Actor Montae Russell gets in the zone for ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ at the Fountain Theatre

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Montae Russell in “Between Riverside and Crazy” at the Fountain Theatre.

By Darlene Donloe

Montae Russell is well known throughout Los Angeles theater circles for playing meaty roles. He’s played Charlie “Bird” Parker in Bird Lives!, Memphis in Two Trains Running and Elmore in a production of King Hedley II. He also played Mister on Broadway in King Hedley II opposite Viola Davis and Leslie Uggams.

Up next for the veteran thespian is a complicated, determined man named Walter “Pops” Washington who has declared war on almost everything in the Stephen Adly Guirgis 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama Between Riverside and Crazy, opening October 19 at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.

Russell, a Pittsburgh native is ready to take on the role. While talking to him about the show and “Pops”, the 50-something, married (Tonia), father of one, walked around a local park to let the imagery of the play and the character “sink in.”  It’s a process, he said allows him to be “closer to where I need to be” when he hits the stage.

Russell’s first acting role came in the seventh grade when he played Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. His first professional play was in the off-Broadway production of Three Ways Home at the Astor Place Theater in New York.

Eventually he brought his talent to Los Angeles where he became a respected film, television and theater actor.

A highly sought after actor, Russell had to decide between doing August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and Between Riverside and Crazy. He said it was a hard decision, but he read something in the “Pops” character that spoke to him.

In Between Riverside and Crazy, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama by Stephen Adly Guirgis, ex-cop and recent widower Walter ‘Pops’ Washington has made a home for his newly paroled son in his sprawling, rent-controlled New York City apartment on Riverside Drive. But now the NYPD is demanding his signature to close an outstanding lawsuit, the landlord wants him out, the liquor store is closed, and the church is on his back — leaving Pops somewhere between Riverside… and crazy.

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Montae Russell and Victory Anthony in “Between Riverside and Crazy”

I recently caught up with Russell to discuss his role in Between Riverside and Crazy.

DD:  In your own words, describe Between Riverside and Crazy.

MR: I really can’t describe it because I’m in the midst of it. Well, from my character’s perspective,  he was a cop who was shot by a white cop eight years ago. The cop overreacted when he saw black people in a bar. My character is in a battle with NYPD. He’s living in a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. The landlord wants him out so he can charge more rent.

But my character is dug in. He’s not backing down.   His son is an ex-con. He is fighting for his son. Every father wants his son to become a man. He is also fighting a war with himself. He has war with a lot of people. He has a battle with the bottle and his body. He has stress and strife.  There are external forces and an internal battle within himself. Sometimes it’s not about annihilating your opponent. Sometimes you just have to sign a truce.

DD: In what way are you like Pop and in what way are you the furthest from Pop?

MR: I’m a fighter, but I don’t have as many wars. I have a stubborn streak. I don’t have multiple wars, though. I don’t have people coming at me as he does. But, I can understand what it would be like. I respect the character. I just fight differently. 

DD: Why did you want to play this part?

MR: When I read it, I cracked up. A lot of things about the character made me laugh. He is raging a war with God, or with his beliefs because of all the things that have happened. You can’t win that war.  It’s a very hilarious play. Pops is pulling no punches. He doesn’t care. He is the master of his domain. He’s a very funny cat. He’s not a rabble-rouser. He’s not an activist. He’s a conservative – but not in a social way – more of an interpersonal way. He’s a traditional man, an old school man. He comes from a time when you controlled your emotions.

DD: How did you go about developing Pop?

MR: It’s a day-by-day thing. We’ll be developing until the end of the play in December. Different stuff is revealed each time you crack open the script. There is constant tweaking.

He’s not funny, Ha, Ha. He’s funny concerning his perspectives. Living like that can cause problems. You have to give a fuck at some point. You have to give a fuck about something.

DD: Have you ever been between Riverside and crazy?

MR:  You would have to ask the people around me.

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Montae Russell, Joshua Bitton, Lesley Fera, Marisol Miranda, Matthew Hancock.

DD: By what criteria do you decide to do a show?

MR: It has to be a challenge. I have to think I can bring something to it. It’s about what speaks to me. I was supposed to do Gem of the Ocean. I was going to play Caesar. Both shows were going up at the same time. I opted to do this instead. It’s difficult to turn down a role like Caesar. It would have also been difficult to turn down this role.

DD: You’ve played a lot of characters. What role did you nail?

MR: I try to do that all the time. I enjoyed playing Memphis in Two Trains Running. August Wilson front-loads his characters with a lot of stuff they are dealing with. The character challenged me. It felt good that I concurred it. The stuff he has to live through. His backstory – all of that comes into the show.  You’re responsible for the backstory even if it doesn’t come up in the play.

DD:  How do you prepare to go on stage?  Any rituals?

MR: I gotta be at the theater at least 45 minutes before I’m supposed to be there. I have to have food in my stomach to power through the show. It’s just like a sporting event. You can’t keep running back to the locker room. I like to warm up my voice. I warm up my diction and I stretch.  I need to be by myself and get in my space. I like to get in my zone.

DD:  Why did you want to be an actor?

MR: A lot of people today don’t know what they want to do. I was blessed at 13 – that’s when I knew. From there, I got green lights all the way. One job led to another. August Wilson wrote my letter of recommendation to get into Rutgers. He reached back.

DD: What happens to you when you’re on stage?

MR: It allows you to go to another world. Your imagination has to buy it. It’s the same concept when doing a show. We are on stage being looked at by an audience. That to me is fun. It’s nice to get away from the real world and step into someone else’s shoes for a while.

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This post originally appeared on Donloe’s Lowdown

Video: Matthew Hancock is home at the Fountain in ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’

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‘Hannah’ playwright Jiehae Park and director Jennifer Chang making magic together

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Jiehae Park

by Carolina Xique

It’s an exciting time to be an artist. In the last few years, the arts industry has been experiencing a high production value in diverse storytelling aimed toward better representation of people of color, and more specifically, Asian and Asian American representation. With groundbreaking films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Netflix’s Always be My Maybe, The Farewell, as well as the successful theatrical production of Cambodian Rock Band, people everywhere are becoming more exposed to the nuances of the Asian/Asian-American experience.

With a cast that is made up of Koreans and Korean Americans, Jiehae Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo takes a family on a funny, heartbreaking adventure to reconnect with their roots in South and North Korea, and also into the forbidden Demilitarized Zone that divides them. Hannah premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017, and is now set to open at the Fountain Theatre in association with East West Players, directed by Jiehae’s longtime collaborator, Jennifer Chang. So we thought we’d grab the chance to talk with them about their own adventure with this play.

Carolina Xique: First, let me say that I’m thrilled to hear about this new piece and that it’s making its way into Los Angeles.

Jiehae, as playwright, can you talk about how the idea for this play came to you? Is it personal to your own experience or indicative of the holistic Korean American experience? And Jennifer, as the director, what drew you to take on this piece?

Jiehae Park: I didn’t know I was writing a play. I was primarily a performer at the time (Jen and I both went to UCSD for acting). There were quite a few big questions I was trying to figure out—and I think the unusual shape of the play reflects that. I would sit down and write down stories that came to me in that moment, not realizing it was all going to add up to something bigger.

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Jennifer Chang

Jennifer Chang: I am a huge fan of Jiehae’s and have been following her career with personal interest for some time as we share an alma mater: we both went through the MFA Acting program at UCSD and have both diversified our careers.  She is a significant talent and I am so thrilled to have this opportunity to collaborate with her on Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. The musicality of the language and the inherent theatricality that emerges from her ability to weave a multiplicity of thought and theme are all very exciting and honestly a dream to be able to dive into.  Also, I love being able to support the telling of Asian American stories in their universality and three-dimensionality.

What kind of research did both of you dive into when writing Hannah?

JP: I didn’t research much initially, but I did do quite a bit before finishing the play (that’s been a recurring pattern in my writing process these last few years). The research didn’t directly go into the play but provided a richer historical and cultural context that helped me complete it.

A follow-up to that, in terms of your other plays and writing process, was anything different for Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?

JP: Broadly, I seem to have two general types of plays—super-quick, freight-train-speed linear ones; or messier, slower-baking plays where the structure is far less predictable. Hannah is definitely in the latter category.

Jennifer, what in your directing process is helping you with Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?

JC: Regarding research, the usual dramaturgical work of researching was involved: Korea, the DMZ, politics of North and South and Kim Jong Il. I wanted to lean into the magic-realism of the play, and early on knew that I wanted to consult with an illusionist, and also started doing some research into magic (I’m currently reading Spellbound by David Kwong). It’s been so great to have a cast that is Korean American.  There are some points of commonality amongst Asian Americans, but being able to tap into specific details, nuances, and experiences that the cast has so generously shared with the company and has contributed to the making of the show has been invaluable.  It’s illuminating to discover the tiny nuances of how gestures and thinking and sounds differ for Koreans in, and those from, Korea.  I love new plays and really view myself as a locksmith in my approach to collaboration.  I want to know what the play wants to be, the playwright’s intentions, what’s resonating with the cast and how they approach the work, and how best to facilitate the conversation and “the ride” so to speak, with the audience.  Having worked on Vietgone by Qui Nguyen has really helped.  These plays are vastly different but they both have scenes that shift at a cinematic pace in widely varying tones that need to be woven together in the same play.

East West Players is a theatre company known for its work lifting up Asian-American stories. How do you feel about bringing the LA premiere of Hannah in collaboration with EWP and the Fountain Theatre?

JP: Honored. I had a reading of my very first play—which had been my college thesis—at EWP over a decade ago…in the time since I figured out I wasn’t a playwright, went to grad school for something else, then re-figured out that I was.  And Stephen Sachs at the Fountain reached out about the play very soon after the OSF premiere—I’ve long admired the scripts he brings to LA area audiences. Additionally, Jen directed an early reading of the play at EWP years ago, and I acted in a show with Jully Lee (the Shapeshifter) that Howard Ho (Sound Design/Composer) music directed when I was right out of school. I’m bummed to not have been able to be out there for rehearsals, but happy that it feels all in the family.

JC: It’s an honor to be able to helm a project with the support of two highly respected institutions in Los Angeles.  I think it’s really smart theatre making to cross-pollinate and support the universality of human experiences and good work regardless of color.  A collaboration like this signals that this isn’t just work by people of color, but that it’s good work worth supporting, period.

What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave the Fountain Theatre after seeing Hannah and the Dread Gazebo?

JC: Garlic in their pockets.

Carolina Xique, is a theatre artist and arts nonprofit administrator. She is a member of the Los Angeles Female Playwright Initiative

What the Constitution Means to intern Melina Young

Heidi-Schreck

Heidi Schreck, the writer and star of “What the Constitution Means to Me.”

by Melina Drake Young

As a kid I was vehemently unpatriotic. A weird stance for a kid to take. I was indifferent to fireworks and staunchly against country music, which is all I understood patriotism to be. That changed when I was in high school.

I take after Heidi Shreck. I was not only a theatre nerd in high school, but also a nerd nerd.

Like Shreck, I too developed a (somewhat obnoxious) penchant for the study of United States history and government. (I owe that in no small part to Mr. Roberts and Mr. Edwards of Immaculate Heart High School who shaped and encouraged the civically minded and curious woman that I am today. Behind every know-it-all is a gifted and endlessly patient teacher—or in my case a few.)

But I digress.

Some of us have had the good fortune to learn what the Constitution means to Heidi Shreck whose play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is based on her successful career competing against other high schoolers in Constitutional debates for scholarship money. As a woman in America, I know that this nation’s laws don’t often work in my favor. Heidi Shreck reminds Broadway audiences that preventing violence against women and protecting our equal rights are barely—and insufficiently—touched on in United States law. What’s more, that failure of justice is much more lethal for women of color and trans women than it is for white, cis women like Shreck and me. Concepts like patriotism and an American love of freedom are hard to stomach when one considers the prejudice that festers within our borders: from a prison system that has modernized slavery to tender age shelters and the vilification of undocumented entry into this country. Freedom stands in sharp contrast to the systemic criminalization of black and brown existence in the United States.

Patriotism is not the marginalization of and lack of legal protections available to non-white, non-cis, non-straight, non-male lives in the United States. These facts are equal parts shameful and frightening. That’s a taste of what the Constitution means to Shreck.

Another similarity between Shreck and me is that my appreciation of the Constitution extends beyond its legal bounds.

Constitution

The Constitution means being sixteen and falling in love with United States history and government instead of a boy. It means being serenaded by the Bill of Rights and beguiled by the separation of powers. It means knowing my rights and understanding them. It means civic literacy.

It means being seventeen and dressing up on the Fourth of July in overalls, an American-flag bikini and matching headband, with a copy of the Constitution in my back pocket. It means reading Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in my Nona’s backyard under the sweltering July sun.

It means being eighteen and weeping after the legalization of gay marriage and acknowledging for the first time in my life that I was proud to be an American.

It means being nineteen and getting to finally participate in the triumph of Democracy that is a fair and free election. It means voting for a candidate that resembled me more closely than a major party, presidential candidate ever had. And it means watching her lose. That defeat showed me that this country was more hateful than I had believed it to be.

But I refuse to become jaded.

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Melina Drake Young and her grandmother, Sylvie Drake, at the Mueller Report Read-A-Thon.

To me, the Constitution means being twenty-two and sitting in the front row of the Fountain Theatre as my grandmother reads from the stage at the Fountain’s  Mueller Report Read-A-Thon as an act of patriotic resistance. I watch my Nona, a native of Egypt—one of those countries that her President has shamefully referred to as a “shithole”—marry her love of theatre with her love of a country that has been hers for 70 years come August 10th. As I look toward the 70th anniversary of my grandmother’s escape from the violence of her native land, I acknowledge that this country—her refuge—resembles the land from which she fled more closely with each passing day. And I am saddened. My Nona, however, gives me hope. She is a tri-lingual refugee who raised two kids and maintained an impressive theatrical and literary career (in her third language) 7,470 miles away from the land that raised and then betrayed her. She is undoubtedly a great American.

So I guess, I was wrong.

Despite my childish convictions and everything else, I am an American Patriot. Just like my Nona.

Melina Young is the summer intern at the Fountain Theatre. We thank the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture for the support of its Arts Internship Program. 

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