Category Archives: creativity

Zen and the Art of Theatre

tea ceremonyby Stephen Sachs

In Japanese tea ceremonies, the term Ichi-go ichi-e describes the concept of treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment. Translated as “for this time only” or “one opportunity, one encounter,”  the phrase reminds us to cherish any gathering that we may take part in, citing the fact that any moment in life cannot be repeated; even when the same group of people get together in the same place again, a particular gathering will never be replicated, and thus each moment is always a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Treasure every encounter, for it will never recur again.

Such is also the ephemeral nature of theatre. 

Each performance is alive, in that instant, never to be repeated.  Like a tea ceremony and life itself, theatre is experienced in ‘each moment, only once’ and the value of each stage performance is that it happens only once in a lifetime. There is no other opportunity. Only this time.

The duality of the “one moment” reality of theatre is that it comes after endless repetition. Actors labor through weeks of rehearsal, reworking scenes dozens of times, with countless hours drilling the same lines over and over. In rehearsal, the director’s mantra is “Do it again. ” Basketball great Larry Bird said that in high school he would shoot 500 free throws every morning before his first class. Actors, like athletes, rehearse the same scene repeatedly so the mechanics of the lines and the blocking become second nature. They no longer have to think about what they’re saying and doing, so they can be “in the moment.” Repetition brings freedom. Release.  As Prince once sang, “There’s joy in repetition, there’s joy in repetition.”

In film-making, it is the norm to perform a task dozens of times before you get it right. Some movie directors are notorious for shooting multiple takes. Stanley Kubrick was famous for it. He reportedly made Tom Cruise walk through a door 90 times while filming Eyes Wide Shut, and had Shelley Duvall repeat a scene 127 times for The Shining. On the set of David Fincher’s Gone Girl, each scene averaged approximately 50 takes. One scene in the first Spider Man movie with Tobey McGuire took 156 takes to get right.

In the theatre, however, there is no such thing as “getting it right.” Not ever.  That film concept is foreign to theatre people because the essential essence of live performance is that it is never right, never the same, never perfect. Even in the long run of a play or musical over hundreds, even thousands of performances. Not only is each performance unique, so is each scene, each line within each scene, each moment within each line. A word, a phrase will never be uttered that same way again. A light cue, a swell of sound, the flurry of dazzling costumes, affects each audience member differently night to night. Each moment is unrepeatable and special in its own right.

The routine of theatre — the drilling of lines, the daily rehearsals, the nightly performances — are essential to its devotional life.  Devotional life is deepened by repetition. A true practice is a repeated activity with no expectation of result. It’s the doing of it that matters. We do it over and over again, but it’s really not so much because we think we are going to get it perfect, or even exactly right. We do it for experiencing truth in the moment. A daily meditation practice, for example. If your purpose for meditating is “to become enlightened,” you will never achieve it. If that is your destination, you’ll be lost. There is no destination. There is only the present moment.  It’s only when seeing the present moment that enlightenment may come.  The origin for the word “routine” comes from route, or “way, path, course.” Therefore, routine, practice, rehearsal is a journey. 

For my twenty-nine years at the Fountain Theatre, the “one opportunity, one encounter” concept of ichigo ichie is proven true over and over again with our audiences. After seeing a play in our theatre, our patrons spill out onto Fountain Avenue changed, not the same people they were going in. An alchemy happens. In that moment. That can not be repeated. For tomorrow night’s audience, it will be something else. 

I have learned to embrace the truth of “one moment” as a way to understand and celebrate the impermanence of life and the art form I practice. My other art-love is jazz, and a line from a famous jazz ballad from 1949 called “Again” lays bare the same message. There is nothing Zen about the lyrics or their origins, of course, but the words remind me that life, love and theatre are all ecstasies of the moment, each instant unique and unrepeatable.  

Again, this couldn’t happen again
This is that once in a lifetime
This is the thrill divine

What’s more, this never happened before …
We’ll have this moment forever
But never, never again.

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

Take a pill or see a play?

doctor writing prescriptionby Stephen Sachs

Need a cure for what ails you? Next time you see your doctor, the prescription he or she scribbles may surprise you: see a play.

Research is now proving that gathering with other people to see a play, listen to music or watch a dance concert not only heals the soul. It mends the body, as well.

Doctors generally prescribe pills to make people feel better. Yet the medical benefits of engaging with the arts are well-recorded. A first-of-its-kind study last year found that the social engagement of art is an effective way to improve the health and well-being of patients with such long-term conditions as asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, epilepsy, and osteoporosis—which often exacerbate symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.

Going to the theatre and being part of an audience, joining other human beings in a shared live experience, has medical benefits. Countless studies have found that social isolation takes a heavy toll on our well-being over time. One of the advantages of joining other theater-goers to see a play is that it reduces feelings of loneliness. Our daily lives in front of computer screens can be isolating. Attending live theatre boosts a sense of belonging and face-to-face human connectedness.

In January this year, the U.K. appointed Tracey Crouch to serve as its first “minister of loneliness” to explore how to combat the “sad reality of modern life”. According to a report last year from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, more than 9 million people in Britain—around 14% of the population—often or always feel lonely. The numbers are even higher in the United States. Cigna’s recent survey revealed 46% of Americans — nearly half the population.– report sometimes or always feeling alone.

“We should value the arts because they’re essential to our health and wellbeing,” says British Health Secretary Matt Hancock. “Access to the arts improves people’s mental and physical health. It makes us happier and healthier.”

The larger question we must ask ourselves is: What sort of society do we want? One that generates physical and emotional illness and then thrives on pharmaceuticals to put it right? Or a society that embraces a more holistic approach to public health through social responsibility and artistic engagement? Given the toxic state of our politics and the poisonous nature of our society and environment today, it is remarkable that we manage to keep going as we are. But for how long? The dilemma was raised by Samuel Beckett, once again, at the theatre, “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Witnessing a powerful play can illuminate what it means to be a human being and connect us to a larger and higher vision of ourselves. In his powerful account of his own holocaust experience, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl concludes that the ‘search for meaning is the primary motivation in life’. He describes lack of meaning as an ‘existential vacuum’, often manifesting as boredom, and invaded by numerous neurotic and addictive problems. He quotes Nietzsche:

‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.’

This echoes, of course, the eternal question posed by Hamlet: “To be, or not to be …”  This is how theatre triggers self-treatment. A theater-goer witnessing Hamlet’s struggle on stage is himself, from the audience, thrown into questioning the purpose of his or her own life. A great play, seen in the most public of settings, generates intimate self-examination and, at the same time, connects us to our fellow beings. Theatre is a journey inward and outward.

The arts play a critical role in the better health of our nation.  Not only spiritually and aesthetically — but physically, medically.  The arts, like health care, not only make life better — they make it livable. Congress seems to agree. Despite Trump’s call to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, Congress passed a 2019 budget increase of more than $2 million to the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Even with this modest 2019 budget increase in arts funding, the United States is writing a doctor’s prescription to itself. Politicians must learn to protect the NEA as fervently as they defend the Second Amendment.

More than guns, Americans have the right to bear arts.

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

A White House without art

Gloomy-White-House-678x381By Dave Eggers

This White House has been, and is likely to remain, home to the first presidency in American history that is almost completely devoid of culture. In the 17 months that Donald Trump has been in office, he has hosted only a few artists of any kind. One was the gun fetishist Ted Nugent. Another was Kid Rock. They went together (and with Sarah Palin). Neither performed.

Since his inauguration in January 2017, there have been no official concerts at the White House (the Reagans had one every few weeks). No poetry readings (the Obamas regularly celebrated young poets). The Carters began a televised series, “In Performance at the White House,” which last aired in 2016, where artists as varied as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride performed in the East Room. The Clintons continued the series with Aretha Franklin and B. B. King, Alison Krauss and Linda Ronstadt.

But aside from occasional performances by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, the White House is now virtually free of music. Never have we had a president not just indifferent to the arts, but actively oppositional to artists. Mr. Trump disparaged the play “Hamilton” and a few weeks later attacked Meryl Streep. He has said he does not have time to read books (“I read passages, I read areas, I read chapters”). Outside of recommending books by his acolytes, Mr. Trump has tweeted about only one work of literature since the beginning of his presidency: Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury.” It was not an endorsement.

Every great civilization has fostered great art, while authoritarian regimes customarily see artists as either nuisances, enemies of the state or tools for the creation of propaganda. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev asserted that “the highest duty of the Soviet writer, artist and composer, of every creative worker” is to “fight for the triumph of the ideas of Marxism-Leninism.”

When John Kennedy took office, his policies reacted against both the Soviet Union’s approach to the arts and that of Joseph McCarthy, who had worked hard to create in the United States an atmosphere where artists were required to be allegiant and where dissent was called treason. Pivoting hard, Kennedy’s White House made support of the avant-garde a priority. The artists Franz Kline and Mark Rothko came to the inauguration, and at a state dinner for France’s minister of cultural affairs, André Malraux, the guests included Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Robert Lowell, Geraldine Page and George Balanchine. Kennedy gave the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who had exiled himself to France and then Puerto Rico to protest Franco’s fascism, a forum in the East Room. Casals had performed in the White House once before, at the young age of 27. Now 84, and a man without a country, he played a mournful version of “The Song of the Birds.”

Casals-at-the-White-House

Pablo Casals at the Kennedy White House.

It’s crucial to note that the White House’s support of the arts has never been partisan. No matter their political differences, presidents and artists have been able to find common ground in the celebration of American art and in the artists’ respect for the office of the presidency. This mutual respect, even if measured, made for the occasional odd photo-op. George H. W. Bush met Michael Jackson, who wore faux-military garb, including two medals he seemed to have given himself. Richard Nixon heartily shook the hand of Elvis Presley, whose jacket hung over his shoulders like a cape.

George W. Bush widened the partisan rift, but culturally, Mr. Bush — the future figurative painter — was open-minded and active. He met Bono in the Oval Office. He hosted a wide range of musicians, from Itzhak Perlman to Destiny’s Child. He was an avid reader — he maintained a long-running contest with Karl Rove to see who could read more books in a year. Laura Bush has long been a crucial figure in the book world, having co-founded the Texas Book Festival and the National Book Festival in Washington, now one of the country’s largest literary gatherings.

But perhaps no Republican could match the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose guest list was a relentless celebration of the diversity of American culture. He and Nancy Reagan hosted Lionel Hampton. Then the Statler Brothers. Then Ella Fitzgerald. Then Benny Goodman. Then a night with Beverly Sills, Rudolf Serkin and Ida Levin. That was all in the fall of 1981. The Reagans did much to highlight uniquely American forms, especially jazz. One night in 1982, the White House hosted Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea and Stan Getz. When Reagan visited Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1988, he brought along the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

But that kind of thing is inconceivable now. Admittedly, at a time when Mr. Trump’s policies have forcibly separated children from their asylum-seeking parents — taking the most vulnerable children from the most vulnerable adults — the White House’s attitude toward the arts seems relatively unimportant. But with art comes empathy. It allows us to look through someone else’s eyes and know their strivings and struggles. It expands the moral imagination and makes it impossible to accept the dehumanization of others. When we are without art, we are a diminished people — myopic, unlearned and cruel.

This post originally appeared in the NY Times. Dave Eggers is the author, most recently, of “The Monk of Mokha” and co-founder of The International Congress of Youth Voices

VIDEO: A behind-the-scenes peek in the rehearsal room of ‘Arrival & Departure’

More Info/Get Tickets

10 reasons to support the arts in 2018

Shelleys cropped

Katie McConaughy and Susan Wilder in ‘Freddy’, 2017. 

by Randy Cohen

The arts are fundamental to our humanity. They ennoble and inspire us—fostering creativity, goodness, and beauty. The arts bring us joy, help us express our values, and build bridges between cultures. The arts also are a fundamental component of healthy communities, strengthening them socially, educationally, and economically—benefits that persist even in difficult social and economic times.

  1. Arts improve individual well-being. 63 percent of the population believe the arts “lift me up beyond everyday experiences,” 64 percent feel the arts give them “pure pleasure to experience and participate in,” and 73 percent say the arts are a “positive experience in a troubled world.”
  2. Arts unify communities. 67 percent of Americans believe “the arts unify our communities regardless of age, race, and ethnicity” and 62 percent agree that the arts “help me understand other cultures better”—a perspective observed across all demographic and economic categories.
  3. Arts improve academic performance. Students engaged in arts learning have higher GPAs and standardized test scores, and lower drop-out rates. The Department of Education reports that access to arts education for students of color is significantly lower than for their white peers, and has declined for three decades. Yet, research shows that low socio-economic-status students have even greater increases in academic performance, college-going rates, college grades, and holding jobs with a future. 88 percent of Americans believe that arts are part of a well-rounded K-12 education.
  4. Arts strengthen the economy. The arts and culture sector is a $730 billion industry, which represents 4.2 percent of the nation’s GDP—a larger share of the economy than transportation, tourism, and agriculture (U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis). The nonprofit arts industry alone generates $135 billion in economic activity annually (spending by organizations and their audiences), which supports 4.1 million jobs and generates $22.3 billion in government revenue.
  5. Arts are good for local businesses. Attendees at nonprofit arts events spend $24.60 per person, per event, beyond the cost of admission on items such as meals, parking, and babysitters—valuable revenue for local commerce and the community. Attendees who live outside the county in which the arts event takes place spend twice as much as their local counterparts ($39.96 vs. $17.42).
  6. Arts drive tourism. Arts travelers are ideal tourists, staying longer and spending more to seek out authentic cultural experiences. Arts destinations grow the economy by attracting foreign visitor spending. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that, between 2003-2015, the percentage of international travelers including “art gallery and museum visits” on their trip grew from 17 to 29 percent, and the share attending “concerts, plays, and musicals” increased from 13 to 16 percent.
  7. Arts are an export industry. The arts and culture industries had a $30 billion international trade surplus in 2014, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. U.S. exports of arts goods (e.g., movies, paintings, jewelry) exceeded $60 billion.
  8. Arts spark creativity and innovation. Creativity is among the top 5 applied skills sought by business leaders—with 72 percent saying creativity is of high importance when hiring. The Conference Board’s Ready to Innovate report concludes, “The arts—music, creative writing, drawing, dance—provide skills sought by employers of the 3rd millennium.” Research on creativity shows that Nobel laureates in the sciences are 17 times more likely to be actively engaged in the arts than other scientists.
  9. Arts improve healthcare. Nearly one-half of the nation’s healthcare institutions provide arts programming for patients, families, and even staff. 78 percent deliver these programs because of their healing benefits to patients—shorter hospital stays, better pain management, and less medication.
  10. Arts and healing in the military. The arts are part of the military continuum—promoting readiness during pre-deployment as well as aiding in the successful reintegration and adjustment of Veterans and military families into community life. Service members and Veterans rank art therapies in the top 4 (out of 40) interventions and treatments.

Happy New Year!

Randy Cohen is Vice President of Research and Policy at Americans for the Arts, the nation’s advocacy organization for the arts.

New study proves that our hearts beat together at the theatre

Runaway-Home_6 (1)Neuroscientists have now proven what theatre folk have felt for years. The heart beats of audience members actually synchronize and beat together in unison when watching a live performance of a play or musical. 

The research was conducted by the University College London Division of Psychological and Language Sciences.  The team studied the heart rates and skin responses of  twelve participants as they watched a live performance of Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre on the West End. 

The scientists found that as well as individuals’ emotional responses, the audience members’ hearts were also responding in unison, with their pulses speeding up and slowing down at the same rate,  regardless of if they knew each other or not.

Dr Joe Devlin, who led the study, said: “Usually, a group of individuals will each have their own heart rates and rhythms, with little relationship to each other. But romantic couples or highly effective teammates will actually synchronize their hearts so that they beat in time with each other, which in itself is astounding.”

According to Encore Tickets, 59% of people say they have felt emotionally affected by a live performance, and 46% say they enjoy the theatre experience because of the atmosphere that comes with being in the audience. 

FT audience

Fountain Theatre

Dr Devlin said, “Experiencing the live theatre performance was extraordinary enough to overcome group differences and produce a common physiological experience in the audience members.”

The study went on to find that couples and friends continue to have synchronized heart beats during the intermission.  Dr Devlin explained: “Our hypothesis is that it’s at this point, the intermission, that the audience members are engaged with each other, discussing the show within their social groups. During this social interaction with each other, we can see that their in-group arousal synchronizes with each other but not with the audience members as a whole.”

Past studies have shown that in environments that cause bodies to synchronize in this way, people are more likely to bond and like each other. 

“This clearly demonstrates, ” says Devlin, “that the physiological synchronicity observed during the performance was strong enough to overcome social group differences and engage the audience as a whole.”

In other words, this unified beating of hearts when experiencing live theatre can help break social differences and bring people together. 

Can there be a higher calling? We don’t think so. We believe theater’s fundamental and most sacred purpose is to bring a diverse variety of individuals to a common place where they share a meaningful human experience together, as one. This new study proves it, physiologically. Our hearts actually beat together. 

This beautiful information comes as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. It reaffirms, for all of us at the Fountain Theatre and to you, how much we are thankful for. 

Dionna Michelle Daniel joins Fountain Theatre to plant seeds for social change

Dionna Michelle Daniel

Dionna Michelle Daniel

Greetings! I am Dionna Michelle Daniel and I am excited to announce that I have joined The Fountain Theatre as the new Outreach Coordinator. At The Fountain, I will be focusing on educational programming and community engagement.

In May, I graduated from the California Institute of the Arts with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting and a minor in Creative Writing. I am coming to the Fountain after a month-long run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival of my new play Gunshot MedleyGunshot Medley stretches across the Antebellum American south through present day to weave a rich history of the Black-American experience, blending poetry and song to respond to the historical expendability of Black bodies and the lives lost to hatred, racism, and police brutality. At the Fringe it received four 5 out of 5 star reviews and ultimately became a crowd favorite.

While at The Fountain, I will also be working as a youth instructor teaching creative writing at the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory through CAP. Building a nurturing community for young artists and educating students is one of my personal missions, so I am excited to embark on helping expand The Fountain’s educational program, Theatre as a Learning Tool.

Theater that is rooted in social activism has always been a passion of mine. I believe that art, especially live performance, has the potential to dramatically change hearts and minds. Theater has the ability to plant the seeds of empathy, inquiry, and discussion. From those seeds, real social change begins.

College students and professional actors share struggle and truth, declare “I am Freddy”

FREDDY company

The company of “Freddy”. 

The passionate life and self-destructive death of 1960’s dancer Fred Herko inspired friend Deborah Lawlor to write her play, Freddy, opening Wednesday at LACC Theatre Academy as a co-production with the Fountain Theatre. Her new theatre/dance work has, in turn, motivated the students and professional artists involved. 

In this honest, poignant and empowering video, the company from Freddy share their thoughts and feelings on the often challenging journey of being an artist, the inner demons they face, and the wings they develop to enable them to soar.

Freddy Sept 27 – Oct 14 More Info/Tickets  

Watch 5th graders fling paint like Jackson Pollock at Fountain Theatre

youtube-coverIs she crazy or a hero? In our hit production of Bakersfield Mist now playing at the Fountain, Maude Gutman owns a spattered painting that she bought at a thrift store which she now believes is a masterpiece by Jackson Pollock worth millions. Is it real or a forgery? Last Friday, thirty-two 5th grade students from Ramona Elementary School around the corner visited the Fountain Theatre to try their hands at creating their own abstract expressionist paintings in the style of Jackson Pollock. Says teacher Eric Arboleda, the experience was “priceless”.  

The students gathered in the theatre for a lesson on modern art from Sarah Boulton, educator and coordinator of the day’s event for the Fountain. The group then moved upstairs, where a long table waited with paper, paints and brushes. The students were instructed to freely paint what the feel, to think of images that express their inner selves, not literal pictures. The students  leapt into action. Grabbing brushes, the kids spattered and swirled their paints in a wild flurry of colors. Paint landed not only on paper. It ended up on the floor, on the walls, and peppered the kids themselves with bright colored freckles.  Everyone had a blast. 

After the paint session, the kids moved into the cafe for donuts and drinks. They relaxed on our outdoor balcony and enjoyed the beautiful afternoon sun. All agreed it was an extraordinary day.

Friday’s event was the third visit by Ramona Elementary School students in two years, part of an ongoing educational partnership between the school and the Fountain Theatre to offer an enhanced art experience for young people in our community.  The event was made possible through Theatre as a Learning Tool, the Fountain’s educational outreach program making art available to underserved students. 

Stop. Look. In wonder.

iceland-reykjanes-peninsula-northern-lights-rth

Northern lights in Iceland

by Stephen Sachs

A wondrous event happened last month in Reykjavik, Iceland. The glorious mind-blowing spectacle of the northern lights refracted a kaleidoscope of color across the night sky. But that wasn’t the only astounding event occurring that evening.

In a remarkable demonstration of forced reverence, the Icelandic city government ordered the power of all public lights be switched off at 1opm local time for one hour so the citizens of Reykjavik would be compelled to look up into the heavens to experience the otherworldly splendor.

Reykjavík is the capital and largest city of Iceland.

Think about that. The city government ordered — as a mandate of civic policy — that all public streetlights throughout Iceland’s capital be turned off so its people would be forced to experience the otherworldly glow of the aurora borealis dancing in the sky above them.

 

Can you imagine such a thing happening in our country? Can you envision politicians in Washington DC, agreeing to switch off all public lighting throughout the district to compel its citizens to step outside, look up, and witness, say, the cosmic majesty of a lunar eclipse? The dazzling array of a meteor shower? Neither can I.

Fortunately, awe doesn’t have to be government ordered. We can sanction it for ourselves. If we only would.

I don’t know about you, but I am often so locked into my own wheel-spinning routine that I seldom take a moment to stop and absorb the overwhelming miracle of the world around me. Or take time to marvel at the astonishing, the mind-boggling, in daily life.

I scream and curse at the GPS on the dashboard of my Honda, bellowing over being late to a meeting, never considering the technological miracle of this tiny device sending signals up into outer space to four different satellites simultaneously orbiting 22,000 miles above the earth, each racing through the galaxy at 17,000 miles per hour, then sharpshooting signals back down to the exact location of my tiny car as I drive on a planet that is spinning at 1,040 miles per hour, so I can turn left on Ventura Blvd. I use NASA technology to find the next In-N-Out Burger and don’t give it a second thought.

But more than just being dazzled by the wizardry of our own self-serving inventions. There are times when we must switch off our devices, set them down. Step outside. And look up. To give ourselves permission to gaze upward — and inward.

The natural world around us offers limitless opportunities to peer upon and ponder beauty, majesty and wonder. A lush forest, a glowing sunset, the meditative ocean, a breathtaking mountain or canyon.

I believe, at its best, a good play can do that. It can gift us with the chance to view the wonder within ourselves.  Reveal the glorious mystery of being alive.

Seeing a meaningful play is more challenging than going to a movie. It requires more of us, demands a deeper concentration and emotional investment. Sometimes we drag ourselves to the theatre like we go to the doctor, not because we want to but because we know it’s good for us. That’s okay. I don’t mind. Whatever it takes. Even if the city government has to switch off your lights at home to get you outside, that’s all right. As long as you come, sit in a chair, and view wonder.

As futurist and philosopher Jason Silva says, “We have a responsibility to awe.”

Before a play begins, we are instructed to turn off our digital devices. Not only because of the distraction to others. We must also switch off the distraction to ourselves. And savor the opportunity to experience something miraculous.

Viewing a powerful play — like gazing on the heavens — requires us to stop. And look. In wonder.

The reward is there. When we look. When we give ourselves permission — or are forced — to do so.

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