Category Archives: playwright

France-Luce Benson’s Showtime Blues explores Black love built by shared trauma and triumphs

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Playwright France-Luce Benson

This Saturday, June 27, at 5:00 pm The Fountain Theatre is proud to present a reading of France-Luce Benson’s one-act play Showtime Blues, originally presented at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York in 2017. Showtime Blues will be presented online as The Fountain’s final Saturday Matinee program for June and will feature Cecil Blutcher, Suzette Azariah Gunn and Matt Kirkwood. Saturday Matinees will take a break in July, returning with France-Luce in August.

France-Luce produces and hosts Saturday Matinees and has generously presented several readings of her own work for our patrons enjoyment, including our May 20th reading of  Detained,  her powerful piece commissioned by the ACLU that featured the Tony-nominated actress, Kathleen Chalfant.

We wanted to take the opportunity to discuss Showtime Blues with France-Luce as it is a powerful piece of theatre in perfect pitch with the current moment and is part of a body of work in which France-Luce explores her identity as a Black American of Haitian descent, and examines broad socio-political concepts from the perspective of intimate human relationships.

Q: When did you write Showtime Blues? Did it arise out of one particular experience or in response to a lifetime of experiences?

FLB: I wrote it in 2016. That year, Alton Sterling and Philando Castille were killed by police. Prior to that…Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Micheal Brown…the list goes on and on. I was hurting, and angry, and terrified for my community. I have three brothers, a nephew, dozens of cousins — I couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever view them as a threat. Like all the black men in my life – they are loving, gentle, hard working, family men – they care about their communities, they are human and deserve so much better than what this country gives them. We all do. All of this was stirring in my head and heart. I didn’t know what the play would end up being, but I knew I needed to explore it, work through it, and I wanted to celebrate Black love in a way that transcended romance. I wanted to celebrate the love we as Black people have for one another, based on our shared trauma and triumphs.

Q: I’m curious about the secondary theme in the play which explores the way folks judge one another on appearances and stereotypes.

FLB: As a first generation American, I’m interested in the way we (black and brown people) “Other” each other; and I always believe that as individuals we need to hold ourselves accountable. Both Ameira and Demetrius are quick to judge, and maybe they’re justified. She’s getting hit on by some dude on the train, and he’s being dismissed by someone who can’t even be bothered to look at him – literally. They have both been conditioned by a sexist, racist society. The incident that they experience together exposes their vulnerability. That vulnerability is what interests me most. It is that vulnerability that many of us, black and white, often fail to see in each other. And certainly law enforcement officers – they see black and brown bodies void of vulnerability – void of humanity.

Q: It seems that this moment provides a unique window for artists of color to be heard and seen.  What would you like your white friends and colleagues to understand about your experience as a black female artist in America?

FLB: I’d like them to truly understand how far reaching, how expansive, how insidious white supremacy is. My voice and stories matter as much as anyone else. The lack of opportunity artists of color experience is a result of  systemic institutionalized racism. White people need to understand this country’s history, and then maybe they’ll begin to understand my experience. I’ve been writing a trilogy about the Haitian Revolution, and I’ve often been told that my cultural experience is not relevant to Americans. But I challenge anyone reading this to study the Haitian Revolution and tell me it’s not part of America’s history. The problem is, Americans have been in denial about a lot of her history; I would like my white friends and colleagues to investigate the ways they have been in denial.

Q: As a Black American. What makes you hopeful?

FLB: This new generation of activists makes me hopeful; the current uprising, the fact that white people seem more willing to listen and take real action.

The Cast

Cecil Blutcher: Regional Theater: Pipeline (Actor’s Theatre of Louisville); Petrol Station (The Kennedy Center). NYC: The Hot Wing King (Signature Theatre); Tempo (Ensemble Studio Theatre); Showtime Blues (Ensemble Studio Theatre). Film: Premature (Dir. Rashad Ernesto Green); Skin (Dir. Guy Nattiv); Sketch (Dir. Mariama Diallo). Television: The Good Fight (CBS All-Access); Random Acts of Flyness (HBO). Training: M.F.A. (Penn State). Website: CecilBlutcherCreates.com

Suzette Azariah Gunn is an actress, writer, director from New York. She has a degree in acting from Howard University and Oxford University. She has recurred, starred and guest starred on television and been in film and Theater across the US. Most recently 21 Bridges film and Nya in Pipeline at Cleveland Playhouse. Honors- Los Angeles Film Award Best Ensemble, Golden Door International Film Festival Nominated Best Lead Actress, NBC Diversity Showcase,  Named Up and Coming Actress to watch, Best Supporting Actress Planet Connections,.- For more info suzettegunn.com

Matt Kirkwood has been an actor and director in Los Angeles theatre for the last 30+ years. He was last seen in The Fountain’s production of HUMAN INTEREST STORY, and in the live stream reading of DETAINED.

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Fountain Theatre announces cast and creative team for L.A. premiere ‘If I Forget’

Cast FORGET

Top: Jenna Macari, Shelly Kurtz, Roy Abramsohn. Bottom: Jonathan Fishman, Samantha Klein, Jacob Zelonky, Laura Faye Smith.

The Fountain Theatre is thrilled to announce the complete cast of the Los Angeles Premiere of  Steven Levenson’s (Dear Evan Hansen) new play, If I Forget, directed by Simon Levy. The cast includes Shelly Kurtz (Lou Fischer), Jenna Macari (Holly Fischer), Roy Abramsohn (Michael Fischer), Samantha Klein (Sharon Fischer), Laura Faye Smith (Ellen Manning), Jonathan Fishman (Howard Kilberg), Jacob Zelonky (Joey Oren).

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).

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

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by France-Luce Benson

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

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

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

March 8 @ 1pm: Meet artist Stuart Perlman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 22: Truth in American Journalism 

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

March 29 @ 5pm: Sunday Supper at The Center 

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

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

April Goddard

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

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

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

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

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

Fountain celebrates 30 years with electrifying season of premieres in 2020

FT night cars 2018Deborah Culver and Stephen Sachs founded the Fountain Theatre in an intimate, Spanish-style, East Hollywood building that belies the sizable local impact and international reach of the company’s acclaimed and award-winning productions. Now entering its 30th year as one of the most highly regarded theaters in Los Angeles, the Fountain is announcing a celebratory 2020 season of dynamic premieres and events.

“Thirty years ago, when we first entered this theater and stepped onto its stage, we knew we had found it. A place to call home,” Culver and Sachs said in a joint statement. “Since that April three decades ago, our charming haven on Fountain Avenue has been home to thousands of artists and millions of patrons. Fountain plays are now performed worldwide and seen on TV. Our flamenco concerts are first class. Our outreach programs change lives. Our legacy is noteworthy. And our future looks bigger and brighter than ever.”

The season opener, the world premiere of Human Interest Story — written and directed by Sachs who, in addition to his role as co-founder and co-artistic director of the Fountain, is an internationally acclaimed playwright — will open on Feb. 15. In this timely drama about homelessness, celebrity worship and truth in American journalism, newspaper columnist Andy Kramer (Rob Nagle) is laid off when a corporate takeover downsizes his paper. In retaliation, Andy fabricates a letter to his column from an imaginary homeless woman named “Jane Doe” who announces she will kill herself on the 4th of July because of the heartless state of the world. When the letter goes viral, Andy is forced to hire a homeless woman (Tanya Alexander) to stand-in as the fictitious Jane. She becomes an overnight internet sensation and a national women’s movement is ignited.

Slated for Spring, 2020, the Los Angeles premiere of If I Forget by Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen) will be directed by Fountain producing director Simon Levy. In this viciously funny, unflinchingly honest portrait of a Jewish family and a culture at odds with itself, a liberal Jewish studies professor reunites with his two sisters to celebrate their father’s 75th birthday. Both political and deeply personal, this play about history, responsibility, and what we’re willing to sacrifice for a new beginning was a New York Times “Critic’s Pick,” while DC Metro calls it “one of the greatest Jewish plays of this century.”

Summer brings the Los Angeles premiere of An Octoroon by 2016 MacArthur fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who won the Obie for this radical, incendiary and subversively funny riff on Dion Boucicault’s once-popular 1859 mustache-twirling melodrama set on a Louisiana plantation. A spectacular collision of the antebellum South and 21st-century cultural politics, An Octoroon twists a funhouse world of larger-than-life stereotypes into blistering social commentary to create a gasp-inducing satire that The New York Times calls “This decade’s most eloquent theatrical statement on race in America today.” Judith Moreland directs.

Another noteworthy Los Angeles premiere closes out the season in the Fall: Escaped Alone is a caustically funny and surreal afternoon of tea and calamity by celebrated British playwright Caryl Churchill. In a serene British garden three old friends are joined by a neighbor to engage in amiable chitchat — with a side of apocalyptic horror. The women’s talk of grandchildren and TV shows breezily intersperses with tales of terror in a quietly teetering world where all is not what it seems. In his Off-Broadway review for Escaped AloneNew York Times theater critic Ben Brantley hailed the play as “wondrous” and Caryl Churchill as “the most dazzlingly inventive living dramatist in the English language.”

Also coming up in 2020:

Forever Flamenco: The dancers, musicians and singers of the Fountain’s monthly series will continue to delight audiences throughout 2020. The Los Angeles Times hails Forever Flamenco as “the earth and fire of first-class flamenco,” and LA Splash says, “the way you feel when you walk out of a Forever Flamenco performance is pretty darn fabulous.”

Hollywood Dreams: CBS star and Fountain family member Simone Missick (All Rise) and Fountain board chair Dorothy Wolpert will be honored at the Fountain’s dazzling 30th Anniversary Gala at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on SaturdayJune 27.

Walking the Beat Hollywooda pioneering arts education program for inner city high school youth and police officers, will return for its second year this August.

The Candidate: The Fountain’s third annual celebrity reading at Los Angeles City Hall, a stage adaptation of the 1972 Academy Award-winning movie that starred Robert Redford as a young, straight-talking candidate for the U.S. Senate, is set for ThursdayOct. 22. One night only.

For more information about the Fountain Theatre’s 2020 30th anniversary season, call (323) 663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com

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

France-Luce Benson

France-Luce Benson

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

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

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

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

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

VIDEO: ‘Human Interest Story’ is “a beautiful story, about as current as you can get.”

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World premiere ‘Human Interest Story’ explores homelessness and truth in journalism

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Rob Nagle and Tanya Alexander in “Human Interest Story.”

“The line between where you are now and sleeping in your car is much thinner than you think.” The Fountain Theatre presents the world premiere of a timely new play, written and directed by Stephen Sachs (Arrival & Departure, Citizen: An American Lyric, Bakersfield Mist), about homelessness, celebrity worship and the assault on American journalism. Human Interest Story opens at the Fountain on Feb. 15, where performances continue through April 5.

Set in the fast-moving world of new media, Human Interest Story chronicles the journey of newspaper columnist Andy Kramer, played by award-winning actor Rob Nagle (recent credits include Apple Season at Moving Arts and The Judas Kiss at Boston Court). Suddenly laid off when a corporate takeover downsizes his paper — a print publication struggling for readers in changing times — Andy fabricates a letter to his column in retaliation. The letter, from an imaginary homeless woman named “Jane Doe” who announces she will kill herself on the 4th of July because of the heartless state of the world, goes viral, and Andy is forced to hire a homeless woman (Tanya Alexander —  Mono/Poly at the Odyssey and Future Sex Inc. at the Lounge) to stand-in as the fictitious Jane. She becomes an overnight internet sensation and a national women’s movement is ignited.

According to Sachs, the play is about how contrary and opposing impulses can hide in the same human being. “A newspaper columnist, in the course of writing a human interest story on another individual, is forced to confront truths about himself,” he explains.

The cast also includes James Harper, previously seen at the Fountain in The Accomplices, as newspaper publisher Harold Cain. Playing multiple roles are Richard Azurdia (My Mañana Comes at the Fountain), Aleisha Force (Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra at Virginia Shakes, Maggie in Dancing at Lughnasa at Barnstormers Theatre), Matt Kirkwood (Our Class at Son of Semele, The Goat or, who is Sylvia? at the LGBT Center) and Tarina Pouncy (Vendetta Chrome at Coeurage Theatre; Les Blancs at Rogue Machine; and The Old Settler at International City Theatre, for which she garnered an NAACP award).

The creative team for Human Interest Story includes scenic and video designer Matthew G. Hill; lighting designer Jennifer Edwards; composer and sound designer Peter Bayne; costume designer Shon LeBlanc; video hair and makeup designer Diahann McCrary; and prop master Michael Allen Angel. The production stage manager is Emily Lehrer, and the assistant stage manager is Nura FerdowsiSimon LevyJames Bennett and Deborah Culver produce for the Fountain Theatre. Producing underwriters include David and Mary Jo VolkLaurel and Robert SiltonLois Tandy; and Toby and Daniel Bernstein. The executive producer is Karen Kondazian.

The story was initially inspired by the 1941 Frank Capra classic film Meet John Doe.

Stephen Sachs is the co-founder and co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre and the author of 15 plays. Recent work includes his Deaf/Hearing love story, Arrival & Departure (“Critic’s Choice,” Los Angeles Times); his stage adaptation of William Goldman’s screenplay for All the President’s Men, starring Bradley Whitford and Joshua Malina at L.A. City Hall; and his stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, which premiered at the Fountain Theatre and was remounted by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. His play Bakersfield Mist is performed worldwide. Sachs’ screenplay Sweet Nothing in my Ear, based on his play, was made into a CBS TV movie starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin. As director, he is a two-time Ovation Award winner and was recently honored by the Los Angeles City Council for “his visionary contributions to the cultural life of Los Angeles.”

The Fountain Theatre is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won hundreds of awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Recent highlights include all-star readings of Ms. Smith Goes to Washington and All the President’s Men at Los Angeles City Hall. The Fountain’s 2018 productions of The Chosen and Arrival & Departure each enjoyed months-long sold out runs and was named a Los Angeles Times “Critic’s Choice.” The company’s recent West Coast premiere of Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cost of Living, was named to the Los Angeles Times’ “Best of 2018” list. This season, the Southern California premiere of Daniel’s Husband and the currently extended Los Angeles premiere of Between Riverside and Crazy were each named to multiple “Best of 2019” lists.

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PHOTOS: Actors gather at first rehearsal for world premiere of new play ‘Human Interest Story’

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Playwright/Director Stephen Sachs shares his thoughts on the new play.

Here we go! A new year. A new season. Company members assembled on Tuesday for the first rehearsal of the upcoming world premiere of Human Interest Story, written and directed by Stephen Sachs. The riveting drama opens Feb 15.

The cast includes Tanya Alexander, Richard Azurdia, Aleisha Force, James Harper, Matt Kirkwood, Rob Nagle, Tarina Pouncy.

In Human Interest Story, Newspaper columnist Andy Kramer is laid off when a corporate takeover downsizes the City Chronicle. In retaliation, Andy fabricates a letter to his column from an imaginary homeless woman named “Jane Doe” who announces she will kill herself on the 4th of July because of the heartless state of the world. When the letter goes viral, Andy is forced to hire a homeless woman to stand-in as the fictitious Jane Doe. She becomes an overnight internet sensation and a national women’s movement is ignited.

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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.

Cast announced for world premiere of timely ‘Human Interest Story’ at Fountain Theatre

HUMAN INTEREST STORY prelim image 2Actors Rob Nagle and Tanya Alexander will head the cast as newspaper columnist Andy Kramer and laid-off Elementary school teacher Betty Frazier in the world premiere of Human Interest Story at the Fountain Theatre, written and directed by Stephen Sachs. The timely drama on homelessness, celebrity worship and the assault on American journalism opens February 15.

Rob Nagle is a film/TV/stage actor and longtime Los Angeles favorite admired by local theatre audiences. His acclaimed portrayal of Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss at Boston Court Pasadena was hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “A performance not to be missed.” Tanya Alexander has been seen in a variety of film and TV roles and recently co-starred in the world premiere of Brian Reynolds’ Mono/Poly at the Odyssey Theatre.

Joining Nagle and Alexander are veterans Richard Azurdia, Aleisha Force, James Harper, Matt Kirkwood, and Tarina Pouncy.

Stephen Sachs is the co-founder and co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre and the author of fifteen plays. Recent work includes his Deaf/Hearing love story, Arrival & Departure (Critic’s Choice, LA Times), his stage adaptation of William Goldman’s screenplay for All the President’s Men at LA City Hall starring Bradley Whitford and Joshua Malina, and his stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Fountain Theatre and Kirk Douglas Theatre). His play Bakersfield Mist is performed worldwide.

In Human Interest Story, newspaper columnist Andy Kramer is laid off when a corporate takeover downsizes the City Chronicle. In retaliation, Andy fabricates a letter to his column from an imaginary homeless woman named “Jane Doe” who announces she will kill herself on the 4th of July because of the heartless state of the world. When the letter goes viral, Andy is forced to hire a homeless woman to stand-in as the fictitious Jane Doe. She becomes an overnight internet sensation and a national women’s movement is ignited.

Human Interest Story runs February 15 to April 5 at the Fountain Theatre.

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