The Fountain Theatre is a member of a coalition of intimate theatres in Los Angeles that meets weekly to discuss the future of theatre in Los Angeles as we navigate COVID-19 and beyond.
Like Los Angeles, our theatre community has always been at the forefront of innovation. As an integral part of the cultural conversation, a group of 44 artistic directors from LA’s intimate theatres came together two months ago to discuss how we can move through the current COVID crisis and come out stronger. We are committed to raising the bar and pushing the boundaries of professional theatre. At weekly virtual roundtables, we continue to remind each other that theatre is a collaborative art form, in every sense of the word. We are stronger together as one community regardless of company size.
While the doors to our theatres may be shut, our artists continue to innovate and utilize new technology to serve Los Angeles and promote the importance of theatre. Our creative work has never been limited to our stages, and the boundless creativity of Los Angeles theatre artists will ensure that our theatres will reopen with a renewed sense of purpose. Los Angeles is one of the cultural capitals of the world, and together we make sure that #LALivesOnStage.
The 44 theatres are:
24th Street Theatre, Actors Co-op, After Hours Theatre Company, Ammunition Theatre Company, Antaeus Theatre Company, Boston Court Pasadena, Celebration Theatre, Chance Theater, Company of Angels, Coeurage Theater Company, Echo Theater Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA, Fountain Theatre, Ghost Road Theatre Company, Greenway Arts Alliance, IAMA Theatre Company, Impro Theatre, Latino Theatre Company, Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, Matrix Theatre Company, Moving Arts, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Open Fist Theatre Company, Ophelia’s Jump Productions, Playwrights’ Arena, Pacific Resident Theatre, Rogue Machine Theatre, Ruskin Group Theatre, Sacred Fools Theater Company, Sierra Madre Playhouse, Skylight Theatre Company, Son of Semele, Theatre of NOTE, The 6th Act, The Group Rep Theatre, The Inkwell Theater, The New American Theatre, The Road Theatre Company, The Robey Theatre Company, The Victory, United Stages, VS. Theatre Company, Theatre West, and Whitefire Theatre.
The group is taking this opportunity of a pause in their programming to consider some of the bigger issues facing Los Angeles intimate theatres. Most importantly, they have implemented action committees for creating collaborative strategies in health and safety protocols for audiences, staff, and artists. Other areas of focus include marketing, and planning an online Intimate Theatre Festival, with a Live LA Theatre Festival in the works once everyone is able to gather again. Partnering with LA Stage Alliance/onStage.LA, the group is aiming to establish a central hub for all Los Angeles theatre activities.
Acclaimed actress Kathleen Chalfant will lead the cast for the Fountain Theatre’s live-stream reading of France-Luce Benson‘s docudrama on immigration, Detained, on Wednesday, May 20th. The Tony nominated and Obie winning actress’ distinguished stage career, both on Broadway and Off-Broadway, includes Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit.
Actors joining Chalfant are Victor Anthony, France-Luce Benson, Rolando Chusan, Liza Fernandez, Aleisha Force, Dion Graham, Matt Kirkwood, Sofia Riba, Ariel Sandino, Felix A. Solis, Aldo Uribe, Karl O’Brien Williams.
Based on interviews with individuals who are facing deportation, as well as the judges, lawyers, and activists who are involved in these cases, Detained is a new documentary theater piece about immigration, deportation, and detention in the United States.
“France-Luce has incorporated the voices of all the stakeholders from immigrants to ICE officers and everyone in between, ” says Chalfant, who has been involved in the new play’s development. “The play provides a very important human perspective so that we see that the current system is neither necessary nor inevitable and is certainly not the way it has always been done.”
“The coronavirus crisis makes this already appalling system even crueler and now even murderous,’ she adds.
The live-stream reading of Detained on Wednesday, May 20, will air live at 5pm PST/8pm EST on the Fountain Theatre’s Facebook page, YouTube Channel and on Zoom.
Toward the end of the 1946 film classic It’s A Wonderful Life, when George Bailey is in the throes of an existential crisis, fearing his life has no value or meaning, the angel Clarence tells him, “You’ve been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would be like without you.”
After two months under stay-at-home orders and my theatre temporarily closed, I’m beginning to feel the same gift has been given to me by COVID-19.
Every theatre in our nation is now dark. For now, theatre as an art form performed on a stage for a live audience, does not exist. And no matter which epidemiological model you look at, theatres won’t be reopening in this country any time soon. For those of us who create theatre, the coronavirus is giving the public the chance to see what the world would be like without us.
That is why, like George Bailey haunting his hometown, I now find myself thrown into the same kind of twilight zone, an alternative reality—an upside-down world I no longer recognize, discombobulated. How did things change so quickly? One day my theatre is full, earning rave reviews, selling out. The next day it is closed. On Thursday we’re winning awards, delighting donors and board members. On Friday I am furloughing my staff and applying for unemployment.
Do you know the actor’s nightmare? Ever had it? The one where you’re suddenly thrown onstage into a play in front of an audience, but you don’t know your lines, you can’t find your script, and you don’t even know what play you’re supposed to be doing? That is how life feels to me now: a COVID nightmare. But I never wake up.
If I don’t have a theatre, who am I? Sometimes the most forceful way to discover your place in a culture or a community is to find yourself suddenly yanked from it. All I know is that a world without live theatre is a world I don’t want to live in.
Clicking on a play reading on Zoom is no substitute. Maybe you feel differently, but I personally feel glutted with Zoom meetings and online theatre events by now. My idea of well used stay-at-home time is not watching another online festival of hastily written five-minute plays streamed by a struggling theatre company. Though novel at first, the relentless onslaught of online content by terrified theatres has spread as widely and aggressively as the virus itself. Don’t get me wrong: I love National Theatre Live. Who doesn’t? But who has the millions of dollars to produce and promote at that level? Call me old-fashioned, but I still find the difference between watching a play online vs. experiencing it live in a theatre like the difference between watching porn on your laptop and actually making love.
All the Broadway tributes now streaming online during this shutdown do prove one thing: Theatre people are well-suited to rise above an emergency. Disaster is part of our DNA. Crisis is status quo in the theatre. Calamity is business as usual. We live and breathe uncertainty and panic. Philip Henslowe, the beleaguered and always-in-debt theatre owner in Shakespeare in Love (screenplay written by playwright Tom Stoppard) aptly sums up our philosophy:
Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Fennyman: So, what do we do?
Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
How will this horrific pandemic turn out well for me and my theatre? It would help to have a guardian angel. I don’t mean a corporate sponsor or a high-level donor—I mean like Clarence. My own personal celestial bodyguard to protect me from both spiritual and physical harm. Instead, I see only the Angel of Death. COVID-19 is killing people. Loss is everywhere. We are losing our jobs, our theatres, our audiences, our homes. Our loved ones. Our art form, not to mention our species, is under threat. There is a general, base-level sadness lurking inside all of us like a contagion. Laughter will come when it comes. But it just might be harder, and take a while longer, to get there.
We are all George Bailey. We have dreams unrealized. We are stressed by daily life. We don’t fully appreciate what we have or what we’ve managed to accomplish. We focus on what serves ourselves and ignore what really matters. We get caught up in achieving “great things” instead of appreciating the value of doing small things in a great way. And we are closer than we realize to a huge, catastrophic meltdown triggered by a single financial calamity.
Theatre is community, the intertwining of human lives. And community is infectious, transmitted from person to person. The ripple effect of the stories we tell in a theatre spreads from one human being to another, and then emanates outward, forever. That is why, to me, to have our theatres silenced by a virus, is like a crime against humanity. Our humanity.But, as Clarence tells George, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives.”
My hope for myself is to emerge from this pandemic with a heightened sense of purpose. The great plays have shown me that a person with a strong central purpose can overcome any obstacle. To paraphrase Nietzsche, when you have a why to live for, you can bear any how. Theatre is one of my whys.
After two months holed up at home, I am starting to experience what the ancient Greeks called anagnorisis: a sudden realization of truth about myself and the true nature of my current situation. Before the pandemic, I would sometimes complain about running a theatre: the paperwork, the endless meetings, the donor parties. The season budgets and the hustling for money to pay for them. The long hours, the low pay, the constant pressure to achieve. After 30 years I felt old, overworked, exhausted. Now I want it all back. All I want now is what I had all along.
My wake-up call is the same as George Bailey’s epiphany, as he pleads to Clarence to end his never-been-born nightmare. Like George, I just want to return to the things and the work and the people I love. Like George, I just want what I already had. I miss the magic. The truth is that even when facing catastrophe, the life that I have in the theatre is wonderful.
Like George Bailey, I want to live again.
Stephen Sachs is a playwright, director, and the artistic director of the award-winning Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles.
In recognition of providing outstanding productions of meaningful new plays and first-class performances spanning three decades, The Fountain Theatre has been honored with The Margaret Harford Award for sustained excellence in theatre, presented by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.
“It is our way of thanking you for your noteworthy contribution to theater in Los Angeles,” commented Jonas Schwartz, LADCC Vice President in an email to the Fountain Theatre. “We really are so pleased to be able to recognize your work.”
Due to the current coronavirus pandemic, and in keeping with the request of state and local officials, the LADCC has been forced to forgo its annual Awards event for the public in April. Instead, the winners will be posted on the LADCC website.
“This honor from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle means a great deal to all of us at the Fountain Theatre,” says Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “It is much-needed good news in the midst of this current crisis.”
Founded in 1969, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle (LADCC) is an organization dedicated to excellence in theatrical criticism and to the encouragement and improvement of theatre in the Greater Los Angeles Area. The LADCC presents the annual Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards.
Full list of LADCC Award nominees and Special Award winners.
As we all hunker down, I’ve been thinking a lot about home. As a playwright/performer, I’ve lived a kind of gypsy lifestyle for most of my adulthood. Home is wherever the gig happens to be. For the last year and a half, home is Los Angeles. Of course, in Los Angeles, I can’t think about home without thinking of the millions of men, women, and children who are experiencing homelessness today. As our public officials urge us all to “stay home”, rightfully so, I can’t help but wonder what that means for those who don’t have a home.
Like many theatres across the country, The Fountain made the painful decision to suspend performances of Human Interest Story, which grappled with several issues around homelessness. Sadly, this also meant cancelling all of our BID events, including a panel discussion with representatives from several homeless relief organizations in our community.
Although the show cannot go on, we’ve decided to keep the conversation going with one of our esteemed panelists, John Billingsley. As the Board President of Hollywood Food Coalition, Billingsley knows firsthand about what it means to be on the front lines of the fight to end homelessness in L.A.
FLB: First, can you please tell us about Hollywood Food Coalition’s mission and what services you provide:
Billingsley: Every night of the year we serve the most immediate needs of people in our community: we provide a healthy and nutritious five course meal to all comers, no questions asked (soup, salad, choice of vegetarian or non-vegetarian entree, fruit, bread, desserts, milk, water). We also distribute shoes, blankets, sleeping bags, clothing, bus passes, laundry vouchers, toiletry kits, and etc. We have medical, dental and vision vans from UCLA visiting our campus on a regular basis. We are secular, but we serve our meal on the campus of the Salvation Army, (in one of their two dining halls) and we also help clients access way cool stuff provided by other community social service organizations (our neighbors and buds). Additionally, insofar as we rescue approximately 7000 pounds of food a week, we aim to distribute the food we cannot use to other Not For Profits serving our community.
FLB: What led you to Hollywood Food Coalition?
Billingsley: Approximately 4 years ago, apres the disastrous 2016 election, I was looking for ways to get more involved in my community. In addition to doing some political fundraising, I started making bad fruit salads at the Hollywood Food Coalition. (I washed dishes badly, as well). I was foolish enough to shoot off my mouth a bit about ways to grow the board, raise more moolah, blah blah blah . . . and now I’m the Board President! It (almost) reaffirms my faith in America. Or, perversely, makes me question the sanity of our Executive Director, Sherry Bonanno.
FLB: What has been your focus as Board President?
Billingsley: We believe food is a medium for coalition building. My specific interest revolves around what it means to build coalitions, to make pals, to get to know our non-for-profit neighbors. We’re interested in helping to bring NFP’s in our community together to collaborate, where possible, on ‘common actions’, like we’re doing with The Fountain Theatre. We’re interested in exploring mechanisms by which we can further each other’s missions: Can we help you do what you do better? Can you help us do what we do better? How?
FLB: In Stephen Sachs’ play, Human Interest Story, the Jane Doe character offers a raw look at the realities of homelessness. She talks about being assaulted, feeling invisible, and the stigma attached to homelessness. In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge homeless men and women face?
Tanya Alexander and Rob Nagle, Human Interest Story.
Billingsley: First off, and apropos of nothing – ‘people who re experiencing homelessness’ is a more artful construction, I have been taught – when we use the term ‘homeless’, and God knows we all use it, we kinda consign people to a bit of a Dante-esque ‘circle’, a ‘home’, oddly enough . . .
People go through shit.
One can say: I am going through this time in my life, I am experiencing yada yada yada . . . it’s subtly, but legitimately, different than saying: I am a this. I am a that. People ain’t homeless. They’re living a particular kind of life, they’re experiencing homelessness at this time in their life . One hopes that they will be living a different kind of life soon.
But to answer your question:
The biggest challenge homeless people face is the biggest challenge most of us face: the folks who rule our country, and many other countries around the world, actively attempt to delegitimize, if not actively dehumanize, people who don’t agree with them, or look like them, or in any way challenge their values or their hold on power. The challenge we all face, or can’t even begin to face (or intellectually recognize) is a deep and internalized acquiescence in the face of systemic and organized political disenfranchisement; perhaps to the perpetuation of our own diminution. Continue reading →
If I Forget begins preview performances on April 22, 2020 and opens officially on April 25, 2020. This is a limited engagement through June 14, 2020.
A funny and powerful tale of a family and a culture at odds with itself. In the final months before 9/11, liberal Jewish studies professor Michael Fischer reunites with his two sisters to celebrate their father’s 75th birthday. Each committed to their own version of family history, they clash over everything from Michael’s controversial book, to whether they should sell the family business. Secrets and long-held resentments bubble to the surface as the three negotiate – with biting humor and razor-sharp insight – just what they’re willing to sacrifice for a chance at a new beginning.
The creative team of If I Forget includes Andy Hammer (Set design), Jennifer Edwards (Lighting Design), Jeff Gardner (Sound Design), Michael Allen Angel (Prop Design) and Shon LeBlanc (Costume Design).
Central to the Fountain is the impact the post had on one person: Sachs himself.
“I am blown away by the post’s popularity,” he says.
For Sachs, reading the avalanche of online comments the post triggered as it was shared around the world was overwhelming and eye-opening. “For me, the post became more than a feel-good story about young people experiencing live theatre. For me, it is a call to action.”
What action is the Fountain taking?
Starting this weekend with the current production of Human Interest Story, the Fountain Theatre launches a new program called Free Student Fridays. Any high school or college student may see a play at the Fountain on Friday for free. To reserve online, students use the promo code FreeStudent. A valid school ID card must be shown at the box office window on the night of the performance. Seats are subject to availability.
“This program is a modest start, but it’s a start,” admits Sachs. “We may not have 18,000 seats like Madison Square Garden, but if we can inspire the young minds and open the young hearts of 80 students on Fountain Avenue every Friday night, we’ll have humbly done our part to help make the world a better place.”
Who knows? A free performance for 20,000 students at L.A.’s Staples Center may one day be on the horizon. Until then? There’s a seat for any student at the Fountain.
Students prepare to see “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Madison Square Garden.
by Stephen Sachs
There hasn’t been that much rapturous cheering in Madison Square Garden since the Knicks won their last championship in 1973. But the thunderous hollering heard this Wednesday at the sold-out arena was not for a basketball game. It was for a play.
On Wednesday, 18,000 middle and high school students from Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island attended a free one-time special performance of the Broadway production of “To Kill A Mockingbird” at Madison Square Garden arranged by producer Scott Rudin, the MSG organization and the city of New York. That’s right. 18,000 kids sat and watched a 3-hour drama in the cavernous home of the Knicks. Who would have thought it possible?
The result? By all accounts, everyone there on that school-day afternoon – actors, audience, organizers – have been forever changed by the experience. And, I hope, so has our field, as the impact of this one-time event ripples nationwide for years.
Artistic Directors like me have been wringing our hands over the same question for decades. How do we get younger audiences to come to our theatre? How do we engage young people today in our ancient art form? How do we not only hold their attention but excite them enough to want to come back to our theatre?
This week, one answer came. And it showed me that maybe we’ve been asking ourselves the wrong question. Sometimes we must bring the mountain to Muhammed.
The play’s usual Broadway home is the Shubert Theatre, where it commands an average ticket price of $162. The one-time performance at The Garden was free. For many kids, they were seeing a professional play – in an unusual setting — for the first time.
“This is a one-of-a-kind event — 18,000 young people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to see a Broadway play are going to be introduced to American theater,” playwright Aaron Sorkin said.
The cast of To Kill a Mockingbird take their bows on stage after a special performance for students at Madison Square Garden in New York.
In a week of nothing but bad news for our country, this gives me hope. And shatters a few myths theater-makers may hold about young people.
The attention span of teens is too short. The myth we keep telling ourselves is that the light-speed tempo of video games have accelerated the viewing habits of young people to such a degree that they’ll never sit still for a serious play. A musical, maybe. A rock musical, certainly. Not an issue-driven drama. But the 18,000 students at Madison Square Garden not only sat still and listened to “Mockingbird”, they were riveted in their seats.
Young people are only interested in contemporary stories about themselves. It’s okay to offer them hip hop plays, urban musicals, modern teen comedies about their world today. A drama from another time period? Too risky. This week, however, a multitude of students from New York were engrossed by a fable that takes place in 1934 Alabama. Want to make it worse? It’s a play adapted from a book they are assigned to study as homework in class, for crying out loud. A theatre producer’s nightmare, right? Wrong.
Young people hate theatre. Not true. They just have fewer opportunities to see it. And when they do? “It’s so exciting,” said high school junior Michelle Hernandez. “It’s amazing,” said student Justine Jackson. “The story is very real and you can relate it to modern society,” said junior Andy Lin. “Specially racism because it’s still going on.” The 18,000 students were clearly swept up in the play and the excitement of the event. The setting of Madison Square Garden seemed to set them free to react openly in ways they would never dare in a conventional theatre. They laughed, they gasped, they shouted, and they cried. They cheered Atticus Finch like he was a rock star.
Regional theaters across the country have educational outreach programs that include bringing their productions of plays to schools for students to enjoy and benefit by seeing. It’s a failsafe strategy that is not going anywhere. A theatre importing its production to a school campus is one thing. Partnering with Madison Square Garden is another.
The conventional model of bussing students to your theatre holds its own many benefits. But I hope the “Mockingbird” event inspires theater organizations across the country to think outside the box in their own community. To explore unconventional venues and unique partnerships to help bring the power of theater to young people nationwide.
Could the “Mockingbird” event happen in Los Angeles? Can we imagine 20,000 students from across the Southland coming to Staples Center to watch a performance of “Death of A Salesman”? Why not? It takes a mayor, a theatre producer and a city believing that it’s important and willing to make it happen. As NY Mayor Bill de Blasio said: “The only way to change your world is if you decide it is your world to change.”
And you must find like-minded partners who are willing to change it.
With his stunning world premiere presentation of Human Interest Story at the Fountain Theatre, playwright and director Stephen Sachs stitches together issues deeply affecting American society, delivering them with a witty edge and kinetic punch that thrilled the audience the night we attended.
At curtain rise, long-time opinion columnist Andy Kramer (played by Rob Nagle) is about to lose his job in a cost-cutting move by his newspaper’s new owners, who are decimating the staff and moving quickly online to save the paper from folding, a fate so many print publications have suffered in recent years.
On his way out the door, as a way to give the new editors the finger, Andy concocts a letter purportedly written by an anonymous homeless woman, Jane Doe, who’s so bereft by her plight that she promises to kill herself on the approaching Fourth of July.
And, of course, in this digital age, the letter immediately goes viral, generating lots of hits on the paper’s website and saving Andy’s job. Problem is, the editors want to know more—lots more—about Jane Doe.
And, of course, in this coincidental world, Andy soon stumbles across a homeless black woman (Tanya Alexander) living in the park, who, after some negotiation, agrees to play Jane Doe. Together they use their ruse to shed a harsh light on the plight of the homeless while saving their own bacon.
But, as Jane Doe will later say, “there’s no good way to do a bad thing,” so problems ensue: rising media stardom, intruding corrupt politicians, distracting sexual escapades, and soulless publishing magnates all colliding in an engrossing stew—“ripped from the headlines,” you might say. You’ll need to see the play—and you absolutely should—to see how all this works out.
Our first irony: Hours before we saw the play, the two of us were at LA CAN (Los Angeles Community Action Network) on West 6th Street, in the heart of L.A.’s sprawling Skid Row, helping to plan the “Radical King” event planned for April 4th.
Moreover, to avoid the crush of L.A.’s highway traffic, we frequently take surface streets to activist meetings we attend downtown, a route that takes us through Skid Row. At one point, we had to stop taking this shortcut because Sharon would break down in tears at the sight of so many of her people—black people—pushing shopping carts down the street, huddling in the endless rows of tents, shaking their fists at an unforgiving sky. At one time, her former brother-in-law had been among them, a Vietnam vet devastated by his wartime experiences and brief capture by the Viet Cong.
And long ago, Dick had been executive director (some would call him “house daddy”) of a halfway house in Torrance where many homeless were among the residents, an experience that showed him that beneath the grime and tattoos and missing teeth, they were every bit as human as he—and not some kind of alien beings you might only see in news reports or passing by quickly in your car.
A second irony, of course, is that for the past 12 years we’ve published two online magazines,LA Progressive and Hollywood Progressive, which are in the mix of the shift away from print publication to digital, which has caused the loss of so many editorial jobs like Andy’s.
And again moreover, in Dick’s last job working for other people (other than Sharon), he worked on venerable print magazines at the very start of the move to the digital world, his job to figure out how to preserve revenue—and his staff’s jobs—while moving online.
While readership levels rose dramatically with the much wider reach the Internet afforded, his readers were much less willing to pay for the privilege as they had with print magazines—and the money they did pay had to first go through the Web publishing shop, which took most of the gravy, shrinking the editorial staff bit by bit. His version of Andy, walking out the front door with his belongings in a cardboard box, became an all-too-common sight.
Rob Nagle, Tanya Alexander in “Human Interest Story.”
But the third irony is perhaps the most telling. Sachs’s play has the middle-aged white “word slinging” columnist ghostwriting speeches and articles for the somewhat younger black homeless woman—who, by the way, was an award-winning fourth grade teacher before bad luck put her on the street. Point being that the white man assumed he needed to do the thinking and writing for a black woman, who, by the way she spoke and acted and carried herself, could surely have used her own words and thoughts quite nicely, thank you very much, given the chance.
Now, at the Dick & Sharon collective, Dick would never dream of putting words in Sharon’s mouth. But our parallels to the play are strong—older white man (she’ll remind you), younger black woman, joined not just with an ampersand but at the hip for years on end. Many days we spend the entire 24 hours within 30 feet of each other, talking to the same people, watching the same programs, reading many of the same things, chewing through the day’s events as one.
We’re together most of the time when the world comes at us, but how we interpret that world, especially around issues of race, can be quite different (one of us says “quite,” the other “somewhat”). If we hear news of yet another unarmed black man gunned down by police or a black mother sent to prison for enrolling her child in the wrong school or reports of a friend suspiciously denied a job or promotion, Dick hears it, hurts for it, perhaps discusses it, and moves on. But then hours later he’ll find Sharon still sunk down in despair for the endless targeting of her people, thinking of her son’s safety, her brothers’ safety, black people’s safety and well-being in general.
See, if Dick walks out our front door, pretty quick he’s just another white dude walking down the street in a mostly white neighborhood, the consequences of racism becoming increasingly intellectual. Sharon doesn’t have that luxury.
So, the heart of Human Interest Story — for us, at least — is the interplay of racism in our lives, white and black, that rot at the heart of America’s soul.