Terrylene and Freda Norman. Sweet Nothing in my Ear, Fountain Theatre, 1997.
By Stephen Sachs
Whatever happened to empathy in this country?
A candidate for President mocks a person with physical disabilities on national television — and still gets elected. Undocumented children are pulled from their parents and locked into cages. Hateful tweets fly between rich celebrities. Insulting attacks are vomited on TV talk shows. Demeaning personal smears splatter across the blogosphere. Women are shamed, minorities are assaulted. Those with the power to do good seem indifferent to the suffering of others. Fewer care to consider what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes, to entertain the notion that others may feel the way they do for reasons that are understandable and valid from their point of view. Common respect for another human being seems as rare today in public life as a sighting of Bigfoot.
What can you do? How can you counteract today’s lack of empathy?
Turn off cable news. Switch off your smartphone. And go to the theatre.
Not because the display of human behavior from the stage will be any prettier. Don’t forget, the fundamental element of drama is conflict. Even so, no matter how tragic, a good play is a pathway to empathy. That’s because theatre doesn’t just manufacture empathy, it depends on it. Without empathy, theatre not only fails, it doesn’t exist. Here’s why:
Every play that has ever been written asks the same fundamental human question:
“What is it like to be someone else?”
During a recent Sunday panel discussion on NBC’s Meet the Press, political columnist Matt Bai stated, “This is a presidency entirely without empathy.” Trump, he added, “seems to be a person who is entirely without empathy. Whatever his strong suits or weak suits, he does not have the ability to feel personally and deeply the suffering of others.”
Empathy is a skill that everyone could do well to develop and maintain whether President or not, and theatre, an art where the purpose is to explore what it means to be human, is an excellent teacher. Its in-the-moment human interaction makes theatre one-stop shopping for empathy.
In the performance of a play, the current of empathy runs two-fold. The actors pretend they are somebody else while the audience imagines what it must be like to be them. This remarkable double-shot of empathy brings mutual benefit: the attention of both actor and audience is focused on someone other than themselves. The fears, passions and needs of another human being become their own. Performers achieve this skill through years of training. Audiences have empathy thrust upon them.
In a 2012 study, researchers Thalia Goldstein and Ellen Winner assessed empathy levels in elementary and high school students who had received one year of theatre. They found that those who had studied acting for the year showed the most significant growth in empathy scores.
In the past 20 years, psychologists and neurologists have started to look at how empathy actually works, in our brains and our hearts. Fritz Breithaupt, a professor at Indiana University who studies empathy, says one thing he found is that “one of the strongest triggers for human empathy is observing some kind of conflict between two other parties.”
Sound familiar? Conflict is the essence of drama?
All of the hateful me-first narcissistic rhetoric of today doesn’t just give empathy a back seat, it tosses it out of the car entirely. The feeling now seems to be: Why should I put myself in the shoes of someone who is not me? Why waste my empathy on those not deserving? On someone older or younger? More rich or poorer? From another country? Another color? Gender? Sexual preference? The new rule seems to be: Reserve your empathy only for those who are like you which, by definition, isn’t empathy at all. In this twisted thinking, a lack of empathy is a show of power, self-reliance, a way to make a stand against the imagined danger of “the other.”
I believe our humanity is enhanced if we can learn to see the world through the eyes of a migrant child. A homeless woman. A person of a color not our own. And we are blessed with the opportunity to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling by going to the theatre.
People often confuse the words “sympathy” and “empathy”. Sympathy describes feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Empathy puts you in their shoes. Which is also the difference between a good play and a great play. A good play makes you feel sorry for a character. A great play makes you see life through their eyes.
On day one of first rehearsal of any play, in any city in any state in this nation, an actor or actress of any age, gender, race or sexual identity will open the first page of their script for the first time, find the role they are playing, and ask themself the same question: Who is this person?
And the door of empathy opens.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.
Have you ever met and talked with a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright? Now’s your chance. New York-based playwright Martyna Majok, author of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning drama Cost of Living now playing at the Fountain Theatre, visits this weekend to host two special events at the Fountain to engage audiences and interact with local theatre artists and professionals.
SAT NOV 10 • 8pm
Post-Show Q&A with Audience – Join Martyna and the cast of Cost of Living in a lively discussion immediately following the performance. Buy Tickets
MON NOV 12 • 5pm
An Insider Meeting – Engage in a open dialogue with the Pulitzer Prize winner. Discuss playwriting and the business of working in the theater. LA theatre artists, professionals and general theater-lovers welcome. FREE. Must RSVP here. Followed by the Pay What You Want performance of Cost of Living at 8pm.
Xochitl Romero and Tobias Forrest in “Cost of Living”
Achingly human and surprisingly funny, Cost of Living is about the forces that bring people together and the realities of facing the world with physical disabilities.
In a Nov 2 feature in the Los Angeles Times, theatre journalist Kathleen Foley states, “Defying easy sentiment and conventional expectations, Majok shatters stereotypes with her characters, who are drawn with such truth and specificity that they evoke a frisson of voyeuristic unease. Showered with awards and accolades over the decades, the Fountain has become the West Coast home to world-class playwrights. Scoring the West Coast premiere of Majok’s extraordinary drama is yet another in a long line of coups for this venerable company, while veteran director John Vreeke’s involvement also bodes well for this production.”
To buy tickets to the Q&A performance SAT Nov 10click here.
To RSVP to the Insider Meeting MON Nov 12 at 5pm click here or call (323) 663-1525
Cost of Living tells two parallel, relationship-driven stories. John hires a caretaker, Jess, and the pair chip away at their judgmental personalities, slowly becoming friends; and Eddie looks to reconcile with his wife, Ani, after a prolonged period of separation. John has cerebral palsy (CP), a condition caused by abnormal brain development that is characterized by impairment or loss of motor function. Ani, because of a car accident, is a quadriplegic, meaning that all four of her limbs are paralyzed, although Majok’s script notes that “some of the fingers of one hand are partially functioning.”
Katy Sullivan in “Cost of Living”, Manhattan Theatre Club.
Actress Katy Sullivan, who played Ani at MTC to great acclaim, is a bilateral above-the-knee amputee, a disability different from the character Ani’s quadriplegia. Sullivan will return to the role of Ani for the Fountain Theatre West Coast Premiere. Actor Tobias Forrest, a quadriplegic, plays John. Jess and Eddie are able-bodied characters played by Xochitl Romero and Maurice G. Smith.
The following conversation is an excerpt from a January 2018 interview with Majok conducted by Melissa Rodman, a Harvard College senior who wrote her thesis on staging disability in 21st-century American theater. Majok discussed how Cost of Living uses humor and sexuality to paint a picture of four messy, contradictory, funny, and flawed people, destabilizing assumptions about disability.
Melissa Rodman (MR): I was wondering if we could start off talking about Cost of Living and where the inspiration for the play came from, particularly the disabled characters.
Martyna Majok (MM): It started with a monologue. I was struggling economically. I always kind of have. I grew up with very little money, so for me, all the plays are about class. Cost of Living was about class; queens is about class. All these plays are in conversation with class, but America is so focused on identity. That is their lens through which they see just about every play. I don’t know if it’s the same for literature and things like that, but I think particularly for plays where you really have the bodies on stage.
So they said, “Oh, you wrote a play about disabled people or about disability.” I thought, “Well, no, it’s a play about class and loneliness, and it also happens to be told with two disabled bodies.”
So I had that monologue. I didn’t know what to do with it. What am I going to do with this 10-minute play? And, a few months later, I was asked for the 10-minute play festival to write about jobs. And so I thought about my most memorable job, and it was working with a man with CP, while I was in Chicago.
I went to the University of Chicago as an undergrad, and when I graduated, I ended up working for a graduate student at the same university. And so I wrote about that—I mean, I didn’t fall in love with him [laughs]—but I felt like this is a world that most people will not know about. And so, I went with that, and when we presented it, it was a really fascinating experience for me.
My play starts, and it’s just this woman standing onstage, speaking to someone offstage. And as soon as the character John enters in a wheelchair, everybody got so quiet. You felt them feel nervous. And it was so palpable to me. I didn’t know what it was. Were they nervous that I was about to make fun of a disabled character? Were they nervous at just the image of a disabled body?
Tobias Forrest co-stars as John at the Fountain Theatre
I have a friend who says that disability is like a walking reminder of mortality, that when somebody looks at a disabled body, they’re thinking about the fallibility of their own body and death. I’m thinking about that, and I didn’t know, and I thought, “Oh god, my play’s gonna tank.”
And as soon as John has the first joke, the audience was like, “Okay, okay. We can laugh.” But it was like they were still kind of feeling it out. But because he had the control in the scene, and he had the jokes, and he was in charge, people felt comfortable.
And they could laugh and kind of grow with the people. So I thought, “This is fascinating. I have to make a play that put two disabled bodies onstage.”
The stories about disabled characters that I had seen tended to be one of two kinds: one was the “Oh he’s gonna run the marathon,” that sort of an inspirational story, where disabled characters just are such saints that they almost aren’t actual people. So there’s a distance already there.
And the other is the dying-with-dignity narrative, which I think is very dangerous. It makes it seem like there’s only two options. You either have to be an inspirational amazing-genius-achievement person, or you must want to kill yourself. I wanted to make sure that I countered that and offered another narrative, and also for them to have humor and sexuality.
MR: I noticed while reading the play that the stage directions and descriptions of the real physical interactions between the characters really come across. I was wondering how your experiences informed your scripting the play?
MM: There are so many things, like how do you shift your weight to be able to accommodate a body being moved from a wheelchair? There are so many specific things, that I would just walk the actors through it. I can’t imagine writing that or trying to figure that out without having experienced it.
The first time I went in, and kind of got trained—I think it was my first day—and the guy, who I was working for with CP was clearly so used to training people how to help him, and so he walked me through it. And so onstage, I walked them through it.
And then for the quadriplegic character, Ani, I had to do more research on my own.
I never wanted to rely on an actor doing my dramaturgy, so I researched as much as I could with that, and talked to people. The two were kind of a combination of past experience and research outside.
MR: That makes sense. I’m thinking more about the playwright’s notes at the beginning, which are very extensive. What was going through your mind when saying Ani and John have to be disabled people playing these characters?
MM: I mean, it’s funny. It became such a big thing. I had just written it thinking, “Well, of course. Like, of course. Did you guys ever think that you had to cast it differently?”
It blew my mind, but then of course I remembered celebrities like Eddie Redmayne and Sam Claflin, the Me Before You actor, played disabled people.
MR: The Jake Gyllenhaals.
MM: Jake Gyllenhaal. People will look at plays and think, ‘Well, at one point he walked, so we have to cast a celebrity and CGI [computer-generated imagery] his legs.
You could CGI the legs onto someone with a disability, if you would like to, to be able to actually give these people opportunities to represent themselves onstage in their own stories. But I think a lot of people will cop out in that way, because it’s economic, like you’re saying.
It’s a risk to cast an unknown actor, disabled or able-bodied. And I understand that, but also if you continue to not let disabled actors play disabled characters—or any character, to be honest—then they’re not going to get the exposure and the experience to then become the Jake Gyllenhaal. R. J. Mitte from Breaking Bad, he’s now an offer-only actor. He’s somebody who was cast in Breaking Bad, who has CP, and now he’s a name. Now more opportunities are open to him, and people consider him for larger roles.
Because it’s not my identity, because I’m not a disabled person, I felt like it would not have been right if I had also taken—not just the identity I wasn’t—but to have it told with people for whom that it’s not their identity.
I think people have been using the excuse, “We just don’t know any disabled actors.” We did a lot of casting. I knew Gregg, who played John at MTC, from like six years before I wrote the play. I didn’t write it for him, but after I had written it, I thought, “Oh, I know somebody who can do this.”
For Ani, it was not difficult to find a disabled actor, it just was difficult to find the right actor, in the way that it is for any role. The most difficult thing was finding somebody who could be brash and have humor and be believably working class, and that was harder than it was to find a disabled actor.
MR: And when you had this team, what did you think about, in terms of actually staging the disability with these four bodies that were assembled? Did things change from script to stage? And then, of course, there are the two iterations, at Williamstown and at MTC.
MM: It’s interesting, ’cause when you see Katy in a wheelchair, you see that she doesn’t have legs and doesn’t have knees. Sullivan was born without knees and legs. So people kept calling the character she played, Ani, a double amputee.
There’s all these things on the Internet, “The play’s about a double-amputee.” I’ve tried so painstakingly to specify the character Ani is a quadriplegic, not a double-amputee. But they’re gonna see what they’re gonna see. From the Williamstown production to the MTC production, the rewrites that I made in between were clarifying exactly what the disability is.
I can say, ‘cerebral palsy,’ and people who don’t know anybody with cerebral palsy might not know exactly what that means. Some people think it’s like an accident versus neurological birth disability. And so, I decided, “Okay, I’m meeting the audience where we’re at.”
I want everyone to come in with a common knowledge. I want them all to feel safely taken care of, and that they’re all on the same knowledge plane. So I think I assumed more people would know more than they did about CP and would listen to more of the language versus see Katy and assume she’s in a wheelchair because she’s a double amputee.
Most of the rewrites were actually about the Jess character. The rewrites tended to be me having to explain how somebody who went to Princeton could end up sleeping in their car. ’Cause this was unbelievable to an audience. [laughs] And so I had to put in clues about how things broke in her life along the way, that she would end up being there.
At one point when I was working on the one for Williamstown, I asked Gregg to describe to me what his body felt like to him, and then asked his permission if I could use some of that language. And so that’s the part [in the play] where he’s talking about his body.
He walked me through what it would feel like to kind of walk, for him specifically, because he went through a lot of dance—physical dance—training, and things like that that enabled more mobility than for somebody who didn’t go through that kind of training. And so he walked me through what the body feels, and I thought that was interesting and important, ’cause I also didn’t know what it feels, literally what it feels like, and we’re talking about bodies. And so, in that sense, that was a really great collaboration.
And, I mean, the stages were different. Williamstown has a raised proscenium, so at one point they just realized, because the actors are in motorized wheelchairs, if they go out of control, they’re going to end up in the audience. [laughs]
You do have to kind of change things a little bit, but it’s fine. There’s ways, you know, it’s just part of it.
MR: You mentioned different kinds of audience perceptions of all of the characters. Can you talk a bit more about the audience response and how that factored into some of the staging choices?
MM: I think most of them had to do with responses to class, I guess.
There was an interesting experience Gregg had after a show.
Katy comes out, and she has her prosthetic legs on, and she doesn’t enter in the [prop] wheelchair. And Gregg enters walking, also without his prop wheelchair.
There was somebody who came up to him after the show, and said, “I’m so glad that you’re not actually disabled. Oh my God! Thank God!” And he told them he actually is disabled, that he does have CP. But this response of “Thank God! Thank God it was just pretend!” That was really interesting.
I was at some of the talkbacks, and I think people were surprised at the humor. They were expecting a certain kind of story.
With the last three plays I’ve done, which all have serious capital letters—they’re about poverty and immigration and disability—people are assuming that that’s gonna be a sad story [laughs], or it’s just gonna be a super serious story. I’ve learned to train audiences early on that they can and should laugh.
So I front-load a lot of jokes that I usually give to the person that is the “other,” that’s gonna be perceived as the “other,” so that they’re the ones who are in control of the humor and driving it, and the audiences connect with that person.
MR: Are there any other things that you wanted audiences to take away from the characters?
MM: I think the one about suicide or the idea of giving up never came into the conversation. Sexuality was a big one. I wanted to have sexy scenes and have a person taking agency with their own sexuality and pleasure. Hopefully, it’s like a widened lens that somebody has about another person’s life. It’s a wider empathy that they have.
I have a lot of friends who are disabled. I have a huge group of playwriting friends, but part of that group is people with disability. And so they will tell me about people assuming pity for them, and that gaze, that was something I did not want at all present in it.
People will say, “Oh, you poor thing,” or “That must be so hard,” and they’re assuming that they’re suffering daily and every minute and are thinking about their disability all the time. And I wanted to add more in the lives of these characters than just that.
The timing is intentional: April 20 is the 19th anniversary of Columbine and the day of the National School Walkout, organized by the student activists in Parkland, Florida. The reading at the Fountain Theatre starts on April 20th at 11:19am, the date and exact time of the Columbine shooting.
“The Fountain Theatre has a long history of social and political activism,” explains Sachs. “Our celebrity reading of All the President’s Men at LA City Hall and our world premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wallare recent examples. With Lauren’s play, I believe we need to add our voice, as theatre artists and citizens, to the national outcry of young people across the country against gun violence and advocate for gun control in this country.”
Amy Pietz has appeared in over 300 episodes of television, most recently starring opposite Jason Alexander on Hit The Road. She was a series regular on No Tomorrow, The Nine Lives of Chloe King, Aliens in America, Rodney, The Weber Show, Muscle and Caroline in the City (SAG Award Nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy). She has had recurring or guest starring roles on: You’re The Worst, The Magicians, The Office, Trust Me, Maron, How To Get Away With Murder, Dexter, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and many others. Film roles include those in The Year of Spectacular Men, Halfway, Prom, The Pact II, Autumn Leaves, Rudy, Jingle All the Way, Dysenchanted, Jell-Oh Lady, The Whole Ten Yards, and others. Her favorite theatre credits include: Stupid Fucking Bird at the Theatre @ Boston Court (Ovation Award, LA Drama Critics Circle Award), The Boswell Sisters at The Old Globe Theatre, Christmas In Naples at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Lobby Hero at the Odyssey Theatre (Ovation nominated), Fiorello and Company (Ovation Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical). Currently producing a film on gun control called Bodyman, Amy is passionate about getting guns off of our streets.
Victoria Platt is currently in Antaeus Theatre Company’s production of Native Son. THEATRE: Jelly’s Last Jam (BROADWAY), Building the Wall and Roxy in Cyrano (Fountain Theatre), Venice (Public Theater & Kirk Douglas Theatre – Ovation Award Nom), Sammy (Old Globe), Pippin (Mark Taper Forum, Asphalt (Red Cat), Atlanta (Geffen). Select TV/FILM: Major Crimes, Bones, The Mentalist, Castle, Criminal Minds and contract roles on both All My Children & Guiding Light; H4 (adaptation of Henry IV which she co-produced with Harry Lennix & Terrell Tilford) and as Josephine Baker in HBO’s Winchell. Upcoming film: #Truth (Charles Murray dir.), The Gleaner (opp. Angus MacFadyen, Harry Lennix dir.), Interference, Framed and CW’s Lucifer.
Suanne Spoke has an extensive career in theatre, television & film, appearing in the critically acclaimed film Whiplash and starring in the feature film Wild Prairie Rose, winning multiple awards on the festival circuit. On television Suanne recurred on Switched at Birth, Famous in Love and has guest-starred on many others. She can currently be seen recurring on General Hospital. She has performed at numerous theatres and has won every major acting & producing award in Los Angeles including three-time recipient of the Ovation Award/Lead Performance by an Actress. She was most recently seen in the West Coast premiere of Athol Fugard’s Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek at the Fountain Theatre. Suanne serves on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts, teaching acting in the Graduate Film Directing program.
Sabina Zuniga Varela, a native New Mexican based in Los Angeles, is an artist, educator and organizer committed to the path of social justice, authentic representation and storytelling. She is an award winning theatre actor with an MFA from the University of Southern. California. She also holds an MA in Special Education with a focus on twice-exceptional/gifted learning. She is currently a producing director for the LA based theatre company: By The Souls of Our Feet. Most recently she was seen on stage at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival & Portland Center Stage in the title role of Luis Alfaro’s Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles and was seen in Season 3, Episode 3 of ABC’s American Crime.
Based on Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” Natural Shocks is a classic Gunderson play: a 60-minute tour-de-force that bursts to life when we meet a woman waiting out an imminent tornado in her basement. She overflows with quirks, stories, and a final secret that puts the reality of domestic violence and guns in America in your very lap. The play is part confessional, part stand up, and part reckoning.
“The play is written as a solo play for one actress,” explains Sachs. “I have Lauren’s permission to have four actresses read the role, as one voice. Together, they are one woman — and all women. I think having the play read by four women adds diversity, theatricality and a stylized musicality that is worth exploring.”
“I wrote the story to continue to push the narrative away from the perpetrators of gun violence and toward the people whose lives are lost, shattered, and shadowed because of it. So many of these people are women. And there is such a tight connection between violence against women and gun violence,” insisted Gunderson.
Gunderson is right: the connection between domestic violence and gun violence is well documented. More than half of the mass shootings from 2009-2016 involved a partner or family member. Nearly half of American women who are murdered are killed by their intimate partners. American women are 16 times more likely to be killed by a gun than women in other developed nations. The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that the woman will be killed. In short, domestic violence and grievances against women are the “canary in the coalmine” for gun violence. Any effort to end gun violence must address domestic violence as well.
Lauren M. Gunderson is the most produced playwright in America of 2017, the winner of the Lanford Wilson Award, the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award and the Otis Guernsey New Voices Award, she is also a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and John Gassner Award for Playwriting, a recipient of the Mellon Foundation’s 3-Year Residency with Marin Theatre Company, and a commissioned playwright by Audible. She studied Southern Literature and Drama at Emory University, and Dramatic Writing at NYU’s Tisch School where she was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. Her work has been commissioned, produced and developed at companies across the US including South Cost Rep (Emilie, Silent Sky), The Kennedy Center (The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful And Her Dog!), Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The O’Neill, The Denver Center, San Francisco Playhouse, Marin Theatre, Synchronicity, Berkeley Rep, Shotgun Players, TheatreWorks, Crowded Fire and more. She co-authored Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley with Margot Melcon, which was one of the most produced plays in America in 2017. Her work is published at Playscripts (I and You, Exit Pursued By A Bear, The Taming, and Toil And Trouble), Dramatists (The Revolutionists, The Book of Will, Silent Sky, Bauer, Miss Bennet) and Samuel French (Emilie). Her picture book Dr Wonderful: Blast Off to the Moon was released from Two Lions / Amazon in May 2017.
Twenty-eight years ago today, on April 1st, 1990, co-founders Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs opened the doors of the Fountain Theatre. What began as a dream and an empty building on Fountain Avenue has blossomed into one of the most successful and highly regarded intimate theatres in Los Angeles.
The Fountain Theatre provides a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won over 225 awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Recent highlights include being honored for its acclaimed 25th Anniversary Season in 2015 by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council; the inclusion of the Fountain’s Citizen: An American Lyric in Center Theatre Group’s Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The Fountain’s most recent production, the world premiere of Building the Wall by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, ran for five months and was named “L.A. hottest ticket” by the Los Angeles Times.
Enjoy this video, created three years ago to celebrate our 25th Anniversary. It shares who we are, what we do, and why.
Gunshot Medley stretches across the Antebellum American south through present day to weave a rich history of the Black-American experience, responding to the historical expendability of Black bodies and the lives lost to hatred, racism, and police brutality. I first wrote the play in response to the Charleston church shootings and the debate surrounding the insensitive usage of the Confederate flag. The play, combining spoken word and live music, sheds new light on the American slave narrative while paying homage to the real Betty, Alvis, and George, three historically documented slaves that died in North Carolina before the emancipation proclamation was signed.
After the selected scene performances, such playwrights included in the anthology as Lynn Nottage, Marissa Chibas, Nikkole Salter, Vickie Ramirez and I signed books in The Public Theater’s lobby. The energy in the room was magnetic and powerful with so many women taking up that kind of space.
None of this would have been possible without the genius of Roberta Uno (Director of Arts in a Changing America). Roberta edited the 1st and 2nd editions of the anthology, the 1st edition being published a little over 20 years ago with such playwrights as Anna Deavere Smith and Elizabeth Wong. I even remember discovering the 1st edition in my undergraduate library while perusing the shelves, hoping to find work that represented me. As a young undergraduate actress at the California Institute of the Arts, I was thankful to have instructors such as Nataki Garrett and Marissa Chibas who aided in helping me find material I could relate to.
However, I know this is not the case for every young person of color (POC) actor and actress who is currently seeking a degree in acting. So often, I’ve heard my fellow black actors at other institutions talk about not knowing any contemporary black material they can do scene work from. They say that their instructor is usually giving them material from August Wilson’s body of work. Although August Wilson’s work is beautiful and presents the African-American experience in such a deep and profound way, it appears we have forgotten there are other great black writers out there. And, of these overlooked black playwrights, it is the women who are most forgotten.
At the book launch, Roberta Uno spoke about how she acquired a lot of the material for this current anthology. She said she spoke to many theaters and artistic directors asking for their rejection piles. It was clear to her that in this rejection pile was where most of the work submitted by women playwrights resided.
On the bright side, it seems that the theater world is embracing more female playwrights and stories. While I was in NYC that week, I witnessed Soho Rep’s production of Aleshea Harris’s play Is God Is. Not only did I have a mind-blowing experience, but I was in awe and so proud of this all-black cast telling such an epic tale by a young black female playwright.
“Is God Is” at Soho Rep.
Is God Is is a fascinating piece of theater because it mixes so many genres: Afro-Punk, Spaghetti Westerns, and experimental theatre all into one cohesive piece. I read the play on my flight to NYC and Harris’s use and experimentation with language completely breaks new ground. Even the way that the actors embodied this text was refreshing and eye-opening. It really inspired me as a young playwright to see other black female writers getting recognition for pushing the boundaries of what a play “can” or “should” be. Harris was actually the first winner of The Relentless Award, which was established to honor actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. The American Playwriting Foundation’s website says, “The Relentless Award is the largest annual cash prize in the American Theater awarded to a playwright in recognition of a new play.”
Also, in the past year, women of color playwrights have been killing the game in other avenues. Dominique Morisseau’s Ain’t Too Proud broke Berkeley Rep’s house record in 2017 and currently, CTG and LATC have produced all three plays in Quiara Alegeria Hudes’s Elliot trilogy. It is quite evident that times are changing. And in the words of Maxine Waters, it appears women of color playwrights are indeed, #ReclaimingOurTime!
Dionna Michelle Daniel is a playwright and the Outreach Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre.
In quantum mechanics, the observer effect is the theory that observing a particle changes the particle being observed. Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle determined that the act of our looking at a quantum element impacts the behavior of the thing we are watching. I believe the same can be applied to live theatre.
What first comes to your mind when Stephen Hawking is mentioned? An Einsteinian genius who theorized the mind-bending truths of the cosmos? His mechanized voice decoded by his wheelchair synthesizer? His best-selling book, A Brief History of Time? His cartoon appearance on The Simpsons? The indelible impressions left by Hawking are as infinite as string theory. I find myself this morning reflecting on Hawking, Nick Payne’s mesmerizing two-character drama, Constellations, and the parallel universes of science and theatre.
Aria Alpert and Daniel Billet in “Photograph 51”, Fountain Theatre
Several modern plays weave science and math into their storytelling. Heisenberg by Simon Stephens, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Copenhagen by Michael Frayn, and Caryl Churchill’s A Number come to mind. In 2009, we produced the West Coast Premiere of Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 at the Fountain Theatre, the story of British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin’s discovery of the DNA double-helix. I’ve directed Completeness by Itamar Moses, a love story between a computer scientist and a molecularar biologist. These playwrights have turned to science as a source of metaphors and forms, using the language of particle physics, evolution or mathematics as ways of speaking about human experience.
In Constellations, science and romance collide. Marianne is a theoretical physicist. She meets Roland at a party. They go for a drink. Or maybe they don’t. They fall in love, break up, get back together. Maybe they get married, or maybe death proves their time together is finite. Constellations explores the various possible outcomes of eight different situations. Through an astonishing series of vignettes, we watch as Marianne and Roland’s relationship unfold across time and space, with each variation sending their relationship on an entirely new trajectory. The play speculates roads not taken and where they might have led. All of us who remember, re-remember and reimagine our own lives – as most of us do – see ourselves through a multi-dimensional lens.
Says Marianne: “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”
To which Roland replies: “This is genuinely turning me on.”
I know how he feels. Science in theatre turns me on, too.
‘Constellations’ by Nick Payne, TheaterWorks
Constellations draws on the Many Worlds Interpretation, in which an infinite amount of divergent universes exist side-by-side. The theory postulates that alternate pasts and futures are not only real but unfold simultaneously. Likewise, the play presents us with a series of variations on the encounters between two lovers like a fugue of coexisting possibilities.
Using quantum physics as a language for theatre and a dramatic structure for plays flies in the face of the linear Aristotelian principle, in which effect should follow cause. But unpredictability and causation are both true in life. The decisions we do and don’t make determine which future we actually end up experiencing. Yet if any choice is endlessly possible, and each produces a different outcome, where do we find meaning in anything and any sign whatsoever of any evidence of free will?
I don’t know if Nick Payne thought of essayist Walter Benjamin when naming his play. Walter Benjamin famously proposed in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), that ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars. Ideas are no more present in the world than constellations actually exist in the heavens. The stars in the night sky are where they are regardless of how we look at them. It’s we, ourselves, who impose ideas and concepts on what we see. We call it a “constellation” and, thereby, give it meaning.
Rather than a linear plot, Payne presents us with a kaleidoscope of infinite possibility. As its title suggests, Constellations creates a space for the spectator’s view, inviting us to group his fragments together and to find new meanings in the constellations they produce and the transformations they effect upon each other.
Any actor will tell you how the presence of an audience impacts the performance of the players. An audience changes everything and affects the outcome of the evening. The very act of an audience watching impacts the observed reality of the play. Actors, like electrons, change their behavior when viewed. And no performance is ever the same twice. Each live experience is utterly unique and not repeatable.
The passing of Stephen Hawking encourages me to examine how his science and my art are related. Theatre is a laboratory for producing possible worlds. In physics and performance there can be a collapsing of time. A revelation of possible pasts, present and futures. Each play is understood differently by each observer, each moment connected to past and future moments to which we choose to relate it. Theatre and science explore the truth hidden in the possible. A great play, like an iconic scientific formula, seeks to reveal the mystery of human experience. Both activate the viewer’s gaze toward meaningful configurations for the purpose of seeing the infinite.
As Hawking encouraged, “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”
Eight words. A statement declared in eight simple words jumped out at me in a feature story on playwright Tony Kushner in today’s New York Times. The eight words were stated by playwright and Kushner friend Larry Kramer, author of TheNormal Heart, which we produced at the Fountain Theatre in 2015. Commenting on Kushner’s shift from playwriting to screenwriting, Kramer says, “I wish he’d go back to writing plays.”
So, why doesn’t he?
Kushner answered that question himself in 2011 when he shocked many in the arts community by revealing in an interview in Time Out New York that not even the author of Angeles in America can make a living as a playwright.
“I make my living now as a screenwriter. Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does.”
Kushner is right. American playwrights — not even one of his stature — do not earn the bulk of their living writing plays. Many teach. An ever-growing number write for film or cable television. The tsunami of playwrights today surging into television is so large that it now has become a writer’s career model: A playwright earns notoriety and success writing plays — or even one successful play, he/she “takes meetings” with Industry producers then quickly jumps to movies and/or television to make real money. The well-meaning intent being that a big-bucks TV salary will financially support the writer, allowing him/her to keep writing plays. What often happens? They write fewer plays. Some never return to the stage.
“I don’t particularly want to do it,” Kushner said in 2011. “I think that it’s a mistake to do it. So, yes, I’m very worried about it. ” The last play by Kushner premiered in 2009.
The classic tale of playwrights writing for Hollywood is as old as celluloid itself. An avalanche is now underway. Playwrights are flocking to cable TV and streaming networks in record numbers. TV showrunners are aggressively recruiting writers from regional theaters like crazed baseball team owners scouting for hot rookie talent. One major talent agency in Hollywood has opened a department specifically targeting playwrights for film and televsion. The roster of playwrights now writing for film and TV today is too long to list. Is that such a bad thing?
Many playwrights I know, and have produced at the Fountain Theatre, also write for film and television. My pal Robert Schenkkan (Building the Wall) is writing a new project for Amazon. Tanya Saracho (El Nogalar) is now creator and showrunner of the Starz drama “Vida” and just signed a three-year deal with the network. Tarell Alvin McCraney (In the Red and Brown Water/Brothers Size) has signed to create, write, and executive produce a new hour-long television drama for the Oprah Winfrey Network. I’m confidant that all three will continue writing plays.
Stephen Sachs, Shirley Jo Finney, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Fountain Theatre (2014)
I had my own Hollywood crossover by writing the teleplay for Sweet Nothing in my Ear for CBS, based on my play that premiered at the Fountain. The sale of that one TV script paid me more than I would make running an 80-seat theatre for years. I am currently writing a screenplay based on my comedy/drama Bakersfield Mist. Does this make me a traitor to my art form? I don’t think so. It makes me a man with a family and a mortgage.
Let’s be honest. There’s a reason why it’s called non-profit theatre. One enters the non-profit arts sector like one enters the priesthood — to serve a higher power. Even so, it would be nice to make a good living doing what you feel is important. To be frank, non-profit theatre-making is an inherently shitty business model. The economics of the art form stack the odds against those who actually make the art happen. So, why do we do it? Here, we cue the piano and launch into “What I Did for Love”
Of course, it’s not only playwrights who give their hearts to the theatre at the expense of their wallets. Actors, directors and designers often work for love, and little money. The average member of Actors Equity Association, the professional stage union for actors and stage managers, made an annual salary in 2016 of only $7,700 per year. Like corporate America, it’s the folks at the top in this country’s major regional theaters who are earning large salaries. A few of the larger LORT companies have added playwrights to their theatre’s staff, but they are rare. The model of a permanent repertory company, where artists are paid a yearly salary, is a dying concept, a fossilized relic from an earlier age.
Today, the odds of making a living as a playwright are as remote and precarious as making a living as a poet. Our finest example of excelling at both is, of course, the greatest playwright/poet of them all. Shakespeare wrote multiple plays a year, dozens of sonnets, was a partner in the company, and a co-owner of the theatre building. He was also a ruthless businessman and wealthy grain merchant and property owner. Unlike the character he created in King Lear, Shakespeare was no fool.
I have dedicated my career to the intimate Fountain Theatre and the non-profit arts community in Los Angeles. I knew twenty-eight years ago when I co-founded this theatre that I would never make a lot of money. I’m okay with that. Most days. I’d be lying if I claimed I haven’t envied men and women my age or younger in the entertainment industry making a huge amount of money more than me.
This is the life I have chosen. Two things keep me going. The impact our work has on others, and the example I am setting for my two sons. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with making money. I just want my two boys to know that their father dedicated his life working at something that he loved and knew was important, that he was committed to making the world a better place in the one way he knew how, by exploring and illuminating the human condition, not striving to make himself wealthy. Can one do both? Of course. I just haven’t yet figured out how to do that.
An artist’s life offers riches not found in a bank ledger. In that, I am the wealthiest man in the world.
Lauren Gunderson’s “I and You”, Fountain Theatre, 2015.
By Lauren Gunderson
Think of this pitch to a room of venture capitalists: “What we’re proposing is a scalable, repeatable product that makes vital intellectual and emotional wisdom portable, communicable, and adaptable and memorable. Everyone will use it and keep using it for millennia. We call it: storytelling.”
The trajectory of my life changed in 8th grade, when I got the following note back on the back of an English essay. My teacher’s name was Dr. Rembert Herbert. This is what he wrote:
“Lin-Manuel—This is an excellent, well-crafted essay. It confirms what I have suspected for some time—that you have been ‘hibernating’ in the back of my class, emerging only occasionally—as when you wrote ‘The Chosen’ musical for class earlier this year. It’s a new semester, almost spring—join us!”
The “Chosen” musical he references was a class project I created as a part of a class assignment. The assignment was to teach three chapters of The Chosen by Chaim Potok, as part of a group. I decided it would be easier to write a song based on each chapter and have our group perform it. Actually, I recorded myself singing all the songs and made my group mates lip-synch my voice, as I had no trust in their musical ability and no way of teaching it to them. Why did I do this? Well, I loved the book. And I loved the way Dr. Herbert taught the book, encouraging us to find the connections and themes for ourselves. I had, in fact, spent most of 8th grade scribbling song lyrics and poems in the back of my classes, earning grades just good enough to get by. I never saw any reason to share these with anyone else.
With this note, Dr. Herbert essentially called me out. He told me, “That creative energy you are burning in the back of the class is what we need IN the class. You can USE that here.” He was also the first person outside of my family to say to me, “You’re a good writer.” He encouraged me to audition and submit my writing to Brick Prison, a student-run theater group at my high school. It was there that I found the energy source that would power the rest of my life.
His encouragement extended far beyond that 8th grade English class. When I began making films in high school, Dr. Herbert would sign permission slips allowing me to film in classrooms, or after school. I began writing short, 20-musicals for Brick Prison, buoyed by my “Chosen” experience in his classroom. My senior year, I earned course credit as his intern, helping him with his 8th grade students. I gained a whole new respect for how much he invested in every student, stepping in if he sensed a drop-off in the quality of their writing, or quietly encouraging the shyest class members with leadership roles.
I still have that 8th grade essay, and Dr. Herbert’s attached note. He is still teaching 8th grade English at Hunter. I am so grateful to him for paying such close attention, for seeing something in me, and urging me to share it. That’s what the best teachers can do. I hope I have made him proud.