Category Archives: Social justice

Stay Home: Fountain Theatre builds community alliances during time of crisis

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Hollywood Food Coalition

by France-Luce Benson

As we all hunker down, I’ve been thinking a lot about home. As a playwright/performer, I’ve lived a kind of gypsy lifestyle for most of my adulthood. Home is wherever the gig happens to be.  For the last year and a half, home is Los Angeles.  Of course, in Los Angeles, I can’t think about home without thinking of the millions of men, women, and children who are experiencing homelessness today. As our public officials urge us all to “stay home”, rightfully so, I can’t help but wonder what that means for those who don’t have a home.

Like many theatres across the country, The Fountain made the painful decision to suspend performances of Human Interest Story, which grappled with several issues around homelessness. Sadly, this also meant cancelling all of our BID events, including a panel discussion with representatives from several homeless relief organizations in our community.

Although the show cannot go on, we’ve decided to keep the conversation going with one of our esteemed panelists, John Billingsley. As the Board President of Hollywood Food Coalition, Billingsley knows firsthand about what it means to be on the front lines of the fight to end homelessness in L.A.

FLB: First, can you please tell us about Hollywood Food Coalition’s mission and what services you provide:

Billingsley: Every night of the year we serve the most immediate needs of people in our community: we provide a healthy and nutritious five course meal to all comers, no questions asked (soup, salad, choice of vegetarian or non-vegetarian entree, fruit, bread, desserts, milk, water).  We also distribute shoes, blankets, sleeping bags, clothing, bus passes, laundry vouchers, toiletry kits, and etc. We  have medical, dental and vision vans from UCLA visiting our campus on a regular basis. We are secular, but we serve our meal on the campus of the Salvation Army, (in one of their two dining halls) and we also help clients access way cool stuff provided by other community social service organizations (our neighbors and buds).  Additionally, insofar as we rescue approximately 7000 pounds of food a week, we aim to distribute the food we cannot use to other Not For Profits serving our community.

FLB: What led you to Hollywood Food Coalition?

Billingsley: Approximately 4 years ago, apres the disastrous 2016 election, I was looking for ways to get more involved in my community. In addition to doing some political fundraising, I started making bad fruit salads at the Hollywood Food Coalition. (I washed dishes badly, as well). I was foolish enough to shoot off my mouth a bit about ways to grow the board, raise more moolah, blah blah blah . . .  and now I’m the Board President!  It (almost) reaffirms my faith in America. Or, perversely, makes me question the sanity of our Executive Director, Sherry Bonanno.

FLB: What has been your focus as Board President?

Billingsley: We believe food is a medium for coalition building.  My specific interest revolves around what it means to build coalitions, to make pals, to get to know our non-for-profit neighbors. We’re interested in helping to bring NFP’s in our community together to collaborate, where possible, on ‘common actions’, like we’re doing with The Fountain Theatre. We’re interested in exploring mechanisms by which we can further each other’s missions: Can we help you do what you do better? Can you help us do what we do better? How?

FLB: In Stephen Sachs’ play, Human Interest Story, the Jane Doe character offers a raw look at the realities of homelessness. She talks about being assaulted, feeling invisible, and the stigma attached to homelessness. In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge homeless men and women face?

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Tanya Alexander and Rob Nagle, Human Interest Story.

Billingsley: First off, and apropos of nothing – ‘people who re experiencing homelessness’ is a more artful construction, I have been taught  – when we use the term ‘homeless’, and God knows we all use it, we kinda consign people to a bit of a Dante-esque ‘circle’, a ‘home’, oddly enough . . .

 People go through shit.

One can say: I am going through this time in my life, I am experiencing yada yada yada . . . it’s subtly, but legitimately, different than saying: I am a this.  I am a that.  People ain’t homeless.  They’re living a particular kind of life, they’re experiencing homelessness at this time in their life .  One hopes that they will be living a different kind of life soon.

But to answer your question:

The biggest challenge homeless people face is the biggest challenge most of us face: the folks who rule our country, and many other countries around the world, actively attempt to delegitimize, if not actively dehumanize, people who don’t agree with them, or look like them, or in any way challenge their values or their hold on power. The challenge we all face, or can’t even begin to face (or intellectually recognize) is a deep and internalized acquiescence in the face of systemic and organized political disenfranchisement; perhaps to the perpetuation of our own diminution.   Continue reading

VIDEO: Fountain Theatre delivers donated clothes to Covenant House

Artist paints portraits of the homeless to restore their humanity and ours

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Stuart Perlman, shown surrounded by his portraits of homeless people.

by France-Luce Benson

Stuart Perlman never considered himself an artist. A psychologist and psychoanalyst for over 30 years, he leaned into the arts following the death of his father fifteen years ago. But he found the “bored white models” in his art classes uninspiring and void of the soulfulness he searched for in his time of grief. He found that transformative humanity in the unlikeliest of places.

“I had a beautiful office in West Hollywood, back when there were very few signs of homelessness.” But then Perlman discovered a man who’d been living outside of his office. He slowly got to know the man, Bill. “He became both a friend and a responsibility”.

After painting Bill’s portrait and hearing his story, Perlman realized just how much they had in common. “There but for the grace of god go I”, he repeats; “Most of the men and women I paint are good people that had bad things happen to them”.

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Stuart Perlman paints a portrait of “traveler” Aftin Combs, left, 20, hanging out with fellow travelers on the Venice Beach boardwalk.

Over the last 10 years, Perlman has painted over 250 portraits of homeless men and women living on the streets of Venice Beach and on Skid Row; and he’s watched L.A.’s homeless population rise astronomically. “The number of camps on skid row increased by 86% in one year”.

His voice cracks and quivers over the phone as he becomes more and more impassioned. “How did we let this happen?” he asks. It seems his many years as a psychologist has prepared him for what may be his life’s calling.

“In every interaction I have in my life, I think about the person’s well being and try to help,” says Perlman. While his portraits initially served as the catalyst for his own healing, they have had a profound impact on his muses. As he paints, he listens to their stories. One portrait may take hours, and in that time, the two hold a sacred space of artistic intimacy. “People cry, hug me, and say they finally feel seen and heard.”

Although he does compensate them for their time and provide supplies, the personal connection they share is invaluable, not to mention the esteem and import associated with a portrait. Historically reserved for aristocrats, dignitaries, and the wealthiest members of society, Perlman decidedly paints the members of our community who are often forgotten and neglected. Each portrait is both breathtaking and heartbreaking, with a powerful focus on the eyes. “You cannot look into their eyes and not be gripped,” he confesses.

“These are good people that we have just thrown away,” explains Perlman. His hope is that his portraits will encourage us to see their humanity, while inspiring us to do our part in ending the cycle of homelessness.

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Perlman’s painting “Denice” greets Fountain patrons in the lobby.

One of the main characters in the current Fountain Theatre world premiere of Human Interest Story is homeless. Several of Perlman’s paintings are currently on display at The Fountain throughout the run of the play to April 5, and signed copies of Perlman’s book Struggles in Paradise are available for sale in the café. Perlman will also join us on March 8 at 1pm for a free pre-show discussion with the public. His film by the same title will have a special screening at The Fountain on March 19 at 7pm.

It’s hard to believe that what started as a hobby he picked up in his 50s has become his life’s mission. It’s not just about the portraits. It’s about promoting the well being and humanity of all people – whether it be through his practice or his art.

“This project has brought me tremendous satisfaction and happiness, and yet I often feel guilty when I return home after painting a portrait,” he admits. Still, he believes that something greater is working through him, and so he will remain devoted to this mission – a mission to reveal the beauty of all human beings, housed or unhoused.

“It’s time for us to reclaim our humanity.”

France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre. 

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.”

“Cosmic forces” brought actor Rob Nagle to ‘Human Interest Story’ at Fountain Theatre

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Rob Nagle and Tanya Alexander in Human Interest Story.

by Gil Kaan

A stalwart member of the Los Angeles Theatre community, the multi-award-winning Rob Nagle will next be appearing on The Fountain Theatre stage in the world premiere of Stephen Sachs‘ HUMAN INTEREST STORY, opening February 15, 2020. Rob essays Andy Kramer, who just having been laid off, fabricates a letter to the editor; then, has to mastermind an elaborate charade to justify it. Rob’s HUMAN INTEREST STORY onstage accomplices include: Tanya AlexanderRichard AzurdiaAleisha ForceJames Harper, Matt Kirkwood and Tarina Pouncy.

The ever-busy Rob managed to find some time to answer a few of my queries.

What criteria do you look for in taking on a new role/character?

I try to keep a very open mind when I am first looking at a new role. I read the script, trying to keep my mind a tabula rasa, a blank slate, so that I do not have any preconceptions about what I am reading, and I can simply respond to the material. I want to see if it is a story that I would like to tell, and then I more closely examine if the character says things that I would like to say. It does not matter whether or not I agree with the character’s point of view; the story and the words just need to resonate for me. Once the part and the script have passed muster for me, I then consider the people involved in the project and the place where it will be performed. After that, I take a look at the pay. But it’s never really about the pay for me, it’s about the story.

What cosmic forces of creativity first brought you together with this new world premiere by Stephen Sachs?

The cosmic forces of creativity seem to work when you stay involved in the Los Angeles theatre community. I have admired Stephen’s work for many years now, and apparently he mine, as well. In January of 2018, he invited me to take part in a one-night-only reading of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN in the Council Chambers at Los Angeles City Hall. I believe that was our first creative foray together. In July of 2019, he asked me take part in an early read of HUMAN INTEREST STORY, then titled JANE DOE. I was reading a different role, but I loved what he was doing with this script.

If you were writing a letter of recommendation for Andy, what qualities of his would you emphasize?

His tenacity and strength of purpose. His empathy and his heart. His curiosity and searching nature. And his passion for telling stories.

What character flaws would you sugarcoat?

His pride. His ego. And the little boy who is still seeking his father’s approval.

What for you, Rob Nagle, would be the most satisfying thoughts/emotions audience leave The Fountain Theatre with after your HUMAN INTEREST STORY curtain call?

I hope all of our hearts grow a little bit while we’re all together experiencing this play. Maybe we’ll think a little differently about all those ideas we were so certain of when we walked in and sat down together, all the things we think we know about the world. I hope audiences feel an enlarged sense of compassion, greater understanding and deeper concern for their fellow human beings, no matter the color or gender or creed. We all tend to take care of our own circles of family and friends – but there are people out there who have been kicked out of their circles, or who have wandered out of them, or who have lost their connections to them. They are worthy of our care, of our attention, and even of our love. There are eight million stories in this naked city, and every homeless person you encounter can tell you one of them. I hope we start talking less, and listening a little more.

Get tickets to HUMAN INTEREST STORY

This post originally appeared on BroadwayWorld.com. 

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

More Info/Get Tickets

‘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.

By 

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.

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