Category Archives: Social justice

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‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis: “There is grace in the theatre.”

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Matthew Hancock and Marisol Miranda in Between Riverside and Crazy.

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The Fountain Theatre’s acclaimed Los Angeles Premiere of the pulitzer Prize-winning Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis has been extended to Jan 26. Vox culture writer Alissa Wilkinson recently spoke with Guirgis by phone about his characters, his writing process, empathy, religion, and why his heart will always be with theater. 

Alissa Wilkinson

The night I saw Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven in November, around Thanksgiving, John Ortiz came out and said you’d added three new scenes that day and three new scenes the night before. And I thought, Amazing. That’s what’s so magical about theater: It’s always changing.

I think the first show I saw of yours was The Little Flower of East Orange, which must have been in 2008. I remember, very distinctly, how bowled over I was by one scene. In the middle of this story about people treating one another badly, with a lot of profanity and dicey situations, Michael Shannon approaches the front of the stage and starts talking about how grace showed up in a difficult situation. I remember being startled, because I wasn’t used to seeing those things juxtaposed, and certainly not on the stage.

And obviously that element of grace, and the juxtaposition of the sacred and at times very profane, is a big part of your work. Is there something that keeps drawing you to that topic?

Stephen Adly Guirgis

I try to write about stuff that’s personal to me. I try to write about what keeps me up at night — stuff that is upsetting or disturbing or things I have questions about in my own life. Hopefully, in doing so, it’ll resonate with other people as well.

If people read or see my plays, they can sense the theme of the religious or spiritual. It’s really not intentional, other than just the fact that I grew up Catholic. It’s hard to get the Catholic out of the Catholic. Even a bad Catholic, which I’ve certainly been at times. I don’t even know what I believe now, but it stays with you.

Alissa Wilkinson

That reminds me of something I think about a lot, especially this year, when there seems to be a lot of art by and about Catholics, like The Irishman and The Two Popes and A Hidden Life. People who self-identify as “bad” Catholics, like Graham Greene for instance, seem to make the best art about religion; when I was reading a lot about Martin Scorsese earlier this fall, I realized he says the same thing. I don’t really know why that is.

Stephen Adly Guirgis

I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of guilt, and then there’s hope that you really want to try to hold onto as you get older. The religion also promises a lot. And as you get older you’re like, The likelihood that some of this is actually true is very small.

But you talk about things like grace, and that’s something I believe in.

When my mother was dying, my sister called and said, “Where are you? You need to go to the hospital right now. She has weeks to live. She doesn’t know. You have to tell her.” I went down there. There’s very little worse that I can think of. But it was fine. There was grace there, and I handled it. What I’ve learned in life is that often with the big climactic things, or the big things that require courage, we’re taken care of, and we can get through it. It’s the little things — at least with me — that I stumble with time and time and time and time again.

I don’t know. Religion is just a thing that is always around in my brain, I guess, and it comes out of my subconscious when I’m writing. And the main part is that I write about all different types of people, but often I’m writing about New Yorkers — working class, lower working class — and I just grew up really falling in love with the language and the rhythms of street and slang. It’s like music to me.

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Liza Fernandez and Montae Russell in Between Riverside and Crazy.

Alissa Wilkinson

One of the things I love most about reading your plays is that the characters really leap off the page. You can hear their voices on the page specifically because of your command of their slang. It’s not mannered speech, and it doesn’t sound forced. They sound like people I might hear on the subway or in the park. Which tells me you are always paying a lot of attention to the people around you.

Stephen Adly Guirgis

Well, it’s because it’s the job. When you’re acting, your job is to pretend that you’re someone else, and do it well, and reproduce human behavior. That’s the job of the actor. It’s to not be fake.

The job of the writer is the same. Each of the characters on the stage should feel like real people. In this play, there are 18 characters, so it’s not possible that every character can have a full arc. They start at one place, and we can track them trying to get to this next place.

It’s impossible that everybody is going to have a fully developed arc. I have already cut some scenes you probably saw, and I cut a whole storyline. I try to make it so all my characters, even if they’re just on for two seconds, they want something. They’re trying to get something. In some cases, we’re going to see if they got it. In others, we won’t. But they all want something. They’re specific, real people.

As a writer, that’s the least you can do. I didn’t go to school for writing. I went to school for acting — I’m an actor. So the other thing that I think of when I’m writing sometimes is that not every role is going to be a huge role. But I try to not write a character that I wouldn’t want to play. So that at least somebody, no matter who it is, can be like, “Okay. It’s a small part, but the character has these circumstances and is trying to do something.” I try to make it real. Everybody gets a little moment in the sun, or the rain.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do characters show up in your head fully formed? Do they talk first, and then you find out who they are?

Stephen Adly Guirgis

Usually it comes through dialogue. I might just have something that I’m feeling, an overriding feeling. Like I’m very depressed, or I’m upset about something in the world. I might just write a line of dialogue: “This is the worst day of my life. And don’t let me find a bridge, because I’m jumping.” I’ll sit there for a minute or two, and then I might hear a voice or something say, like, “Well, if you need company.” And I’m like, Oh, who’s that?

Then I let voices articulate, or debate, from what I’m feeling. And hopefully, characters and situations start to emerge. Sometimes you’ll write a scene and you’ll be like, “Oh, this is interesting, but it’s not really leading anywhere.” Other times you get a whole play.

Halfway Bitches started from … Well, at LAByrinth we have these summer retreats. There was a play that I was working on, but I had about an hour or two, so I was like, “Let me just write something that can use a lot of women. I’m not even going to worry about what it is, but let me see if I can get a couple pages just to like throw it into the mix.” I quickly started writing the beginning of that first scene of the play, that you saw.

So there’s different ways, but I usually start from what I’m feeling. That’s the main thing. Everyone has a different process, but sometimes I’ll hear someone say, “Yeah, I’m writing a play about racism.” Or, “I’m writing about the military-industrial complex.” I’m like, Cool, but I can’t. That’s never going to sustain me. That’s like school.

But if I’m writing about something that is really personal to me, issues of race or the military or whatever might fit in. I wrote a play once called Jesus Hopped the A Train that was very specific, very personal to what I was going through in my life when I wrote that play. I remember when we did it in London it was well received, but the critics were all saying, “It’s a biting assessment of the American criminal justice system.” “Guirgis is a social justice warrior.”

I was like, “No.” I mean, that might be what you got, but I didn’t start out writing the play based on I want to expose the hypocrisies of the criminal justice system. It started out as something much more personal.

Alissa Wilkinson

I wonder sometimes if people bring that expectation to theater — that it has to be about “big issues” or exposing something. That all plays ought to be about confronting something huge in society. Which some plays are, but really the good ones are about people. A play is a different thing from a sermon.

Stephen Adly Guirgis

Yeah. Yeah. But also, when you’re writing a play, it better be about something to you. Because, look, it could be good or bad. You try to do the best you can. Sometimes you succeed; sometimes you fail. But it better be about something substantive that you care about, because theater is prohibitively expensive these days. So if someone’s going to a theater, even off-Broadway, it’s a lot of money, so you better have something that you’re really wrestling with.

Sometimes people say, “Why don’t you write more plays?” And look, I have friends who are very prolific. Adam Rapp is a guy I came up with from the beginning; we were in different circles, but I really respect him. That guy writes a play — like, during the course of this interview, he would have written another play. We’re different. I think that Adam has a lot inside of him.

But there are other playwrights who just crank out these plays that feel like something you could just watch on TV, and you’re like, “What’s the point?” With plays, there has to be something really moving you to write. It’s not the same as film and television, which is a media that I totally respect and I’ve worked in. But with plays, it’s kind of a different thing. Because you’re asking people to leave their house, pay money, pay a babysitter, try to make a night of it, that whole thing.

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Liza Colón-Zayas and Andrea Syglowski in Atlantic Theater Company’s co-production with LAByrinth Theater Company, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven.

I do believe — and the reason why I’ll do theater until I’m not here anymore — that theater has the potential to be something special. That there is grace, there can be grace, found in the theater. You can be moved. You can still have an experience that you can’t have anywhere else, and certainly not in your living room eating GrubHub. I’ve seen TV shows that I adore, I worship, and I’ve seen something and been like, “That’s the best episode ever,” but it doesn’t change the way I live.

I think in the old days of our parents, and their parents before us — they had church, they had synagogues, they had temple, whatever. These days we are more secular — is that the word? But the theater, at its best, still has that spiritual component. So you better write something that cost you something to create. If people are spending money I’m going to try to give them the best that I can.

Alissa Wilkinson

It strikes me that a lot of the characters you put on stage aren’t people who would probably spend the money on the Broadway ticket themselves. Do you think about that, like who the audience is for your plays, as you’re writing them? Or is that something you try to keep out of your view?

Stephen Adly Guirgis

That’s a really good question. I think that, initially, I’m writing for myself. I’m writing trying to exorcise demons or find answers to something for myself. To a certain degree, that’s the process all the way through.

But there is also a group I call “my people.” Who are my people? My theater company, the people that go to my theater company’s stuff. It tends to be very diverse — a little bit younger than average and diverse.

The goal and the dream always is that I want to write a play that anybody could see. I want something that’s going to bring together everybody, that everybody can like or get upset by. Like when we did Motherfucker with the Hat on Broadway, that was a good example. That audience was pretty diverse by Broadway standards. We had “our people,” and then you had the typical Broadway crowd, which is older and more white. And people across those demographics all seemed to have a really good time at the show.

So, I’ve found over the years that “my people” now includes older people, all types of people. That’s always what I’m trying to do. My dream is to write a play that’s filled with every type of people, and they all laugh, and they all cry. And then when it’s over they can’t get themselves out of their seats. Saint Paul talked about the illusion that we as people are separate. And that’s something David Milch always used to talk about.

So with Halfway Bitches, we’ve got 18 characters. The majority are women of color. Of course, I want women, women of color, people of color to see the show and feel like they’re being represented. At the end of the day, if you write well, the more specific you are, the more universal are the people who come. That’s what I’m after. It’s always about, I want the audience to see themselves. The hope is that either you can see yourself in these characters, or that you can find an empathy or an understanding or a commonality that either wasn’t present before or needs to be rekindled.

One of the times that I was most moved in the theater was when I was younger. I saw a production of Kenny Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth. The first factor was that Mark Ruffalo was the lead, and he was young. And someone gave me a ticket. I didn’t even know what it was. Mark’s performance was so moving and electrifying to me — at that time I wanted to be an actor — to go and study and work even harder.

Stephen Adly Guirghis

Stephen Adly Guirgis

The other thing that really moved me in the play was Kenny grew up on the Upper West Side, and I grew up on the Upper West Side. But my family didn’t have any money. We were basically the working poor. My dad worked like 12 hours a day, six days a week in Grand Central Station. My mother stayed home and then she worked. I went to kindergarten and grammar school up in Harlem, and then we lived down on the Upper West Side. I didn’t really fit in either world. In fact, I fit in better uptown.

I grew up having a lot of resentments against kids in my neighborhood. They had more money than me, and other things. When we played, I was picked on. There was things that happened that made me have a lot of resentment toward a certain type of kid, those kids that I grew up with.

Then I saw Kenny’s play. I was so moved, because I was like, “Oh my God, those are the kids that I hated growing up. Those are the kids that picked on me. But also, those were the kids that I hated.” They were rich kids, so I was just like, “Fuck them. Whatever.” But with the play I had so much empathy for them. That’s something I learned just by going to the theater.

That’s a continued lesson, about empathy, and trying for empathy, and not stopping with your first, second, or third opinion of somebody. Particularly in this era we’re so damn divided, and things are so crazy. But I try. I actively work to … I hate who’s in the White House. I think that there is evil there. But I try not to hate Trump voters. When I fight with Trump people, I always try to find some kind of a common ground. Anyway, that’s something the theater can do.

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Montae Russell, Joshua Bitton, Lesley Fera, Marisol Miranda, Matthew Hancock in Between Riverside and Crazy at the Fountain Theatre.

Alissa Wilkinson

You said something earlier about theater being kind of like church. Church is pretty theatrical, but it’s also supposed to be for everybody who wants to be there. So what kind of responsibility is that for you, as a creator of theater?

Stephen Adly Guirgis

First of all, we can’t please everyone. That’s not going to happen. But this is how I look at it: I started out as an actor. I’m still an actor. What I love to do is acting. Writing is something that I have a lot of difficulty with. It doesn’t come easy, and it comes at a price. And that price usually feels, at least initially, that it was in excess of what the result is.

Even now, as I’m talking to you, with this play. Look, I worked in restaurants for almost 30 years, I’ve done every kind of job, and writing is not coal mining, and it never will be. It’s a privilege to be able to do this. But, it’s like, I haven’t really gone to sleep in a bed in a month, chain-smoking cigarettes, I probably put on 25 pounds, my girlfriend’s not talking to me. I have a bad back. I can’t hardly fucking walk. And it’s not fun.

But the way I look at writing is that for whatever reason, I was given — I didn’t do anything to get it, but I was given a certain aptitude for writing. That’s just a factor, a fact, as I see it. And so therefore, I have a responsibility, as long as I can still write, to try to write what is meaningful to me, which hopefully will be meaningful to other people, and to put it out there in the world. That’s what I see as a responsibility. Look, it’s also a privilege. Like I said, I’m not bartending anymore, I’m not a bike messenger anymore. But it’s a responsibility. So that’s where it starts.

And then there’s film, there’s television, there’s theater. And all are great, I love watching Netflix, and I love movies. Talk about places that can be for everyone, that can save you. I could tell you many stories about times I was so depressed and forced myself out of the house just to go to a movie at 11 pm on Tuesday, and seeing movies that weren’t even the greatest movies. But I’ll just never forget seeing As Good As It Gets, and what that did for me. Also Gilbert Grape, and Benny & Joon, these mainstream Hollywood movies that literally saved me in the moment. Or going to the old Lincoln Plaza Cinema, it’s closed now, sometimes in the summer. Just being lonely and forcing myself to go in and just see whatever is playing, some French movie at 10 pm, and having an unforgettable experience.

But theater, that’s where the heart is for me. I co-created the Netflix TV show The Get Down, and we started out in LA. I remember sitting in a room one day and they came in with all the new options for chairs, and so all the writers were sitting on three different versions of $1,000 chairs, being told to pick the chair they wanted. Every day, ordering lunch took like an hour. You’re looking through all these menus and you’re like, Oh, how’s this? How’s the fish? It just didn’t feel artistic.

Then my play was starting rehearsals in New York. So I flew back, and I went to the rehearsal room, and it was a little room with folding chairs and folding tables and a bunch of good people sitting around them. And everyone was happy that there was some water and food on the table. You know?

John Patrick Shanley was in our company, and when I first started to make some progress as a writer, I was asking him about what happens when you get to this point or that point in your career. And he said this thing that was really smart — at the time I understood it, but I understand it much more now. He said, “You know, Stephen, there’s this assumption that once your career starts, it’s just going to keep getting better, and better, and better, and greater, and greater, and greater. Then one day you wake up, and you realize that you were never better, and it was never greater, than in that little 50-seat theater with the broken chairs, doing theater with your friends.”

With Halfway Bitches, the seats aren’t broken and it’s not $5 to get in, but you know what? Those are all my friends. It made sense to me, what Shanley said. I’ve worked writing in a style that was more mercenary at times, and it leaves my soul cold. It’s not worth it. If I had kids, I would write Rugrats and be thrilled, I would write anything. But if I can support myself, I’m going to try to do things that I think are meaningful, and work with people who I think are great and out of the ordinary.

There are people in that cast that I have worked with for 30 years, and there’s people in that cast who are just starting to work as actors. There’s people in that cast who weren’t even actors. It presents challenges, for sure, but there’s something really beautiful about that.

I’m still working on the play, and how it’s going to end up, and what it’s going to be, whatever. I feel good about the effort that’s being made, and I feel good about — whether you like the play or not — you’re going to see people on that stage that don’t look like actors and actresses. You’re going to see people on the stage that look like people that you see on the street and have a lot of heart, and a lot of complexity, and a lot of experience levels and age levels. And I like it.

So hopefully it’ll work out.

This post originally appeared on Vox.com. Between Riverside and Crazy runs to Jan 26. Get tickets/More info.

VIDEO: World Premiere ‘Human Interest Story’ to launch Fountain Theatre 2020 season on Feb 15

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PHOTOS: First rehearsal for Pulitzer Prize winner ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ at Fountain Theatre

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Liza Fernandez, Joshua Bitton, Guillermo Cienfuegos, Victor Anthony, Lesley Fera, Montae Russell and Marisol Miranda

What happens when you mix a Pulitzer Prize winning script, a company of phenomenal actors and a skilled director together in one room? You get magic.  From the moment the first lines of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ funny and powerful Between Riverside and Crazy were spoken at Wednesday night’s first rehearsal, all knew they were in for a wild and joyous ride.

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In Gurigis’ profane and tender tale, ex-cop and recent widower Walter “Pops” Washington and his newly paroled son Junior have spent a lifetime living between Riverside and crazy. But now, the NYPD is demanding his signature to close an outstanding lawsuit, the landlord wants him out, the liquor store is closed—and the church won’t leave him alone. When the struggle to keep one of New York City’s last great rent-stabilized apartments collides with old wounds, sketchy new houseguests, and a final ultimatum, it seems that the old days may be dead and gone.

Directed by award-winning Guillermo Cienfuegos, the cast includes Victor Anthony, Joshua Bitton, Lesley Fera, Liza Fernandez, Matthew Hancock, Marisol Miranda, and Montae Russell.

At the first meet-and-greet, the company was joined by Fountain staff, Board members and donors.  The group enjoyed a brief welcoming reception and then gathered on the Fountain stage for the reading of the script. Director Cienfuegos commented that he was struck by the support of the Fountain Theatre Family. Never, he said, had he witnessed such a show of community at a first rehearsal, with such a large number of dedicated people so eagerly present. “This is wonderful,” he grinned. “Because the play, in addition to being about racism and class and police work, is really about family.”

Between Riverside and Crazy opens October 19. More Info/Get Tickets

Post-Show Blues

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by Melina Young

Post-show blues. It’s a common phrase among theatre folk.

As we close the final performance of the Fountain Theatre’s arts education program, Walking the Beat Hollywood, as panels are struck and lights come down, as kids head safely home to their families, and cops return to patrolling the streets, the phrase takes on new meaning. In the context of Walking the Beat Hollywood, the phrase alludes not only to the malaise that accompanies the end of an affecting production, but also to the image of an LAPD uniform.

Post-show blues.

Walking the Beat Hollywood is a theatrical residency for high school students across Los Angeles and the police officers who patrol their neighborhoods. Together, students and officers devised a piece of theatre they titled “A Wall is Just Another Door,” about community policing informed by their personal experiences. During the show, performers begged the question in a rap battle, “When you see me in my uniform what do you see?” The question asks us all to challenge the assumptions we make and to acknowledge our biases, disadvantages, and privileges.

I have often been told that if I want to make a change in the world, I’m in the wrong business. I’ve heard that political theatre preaches to an audience that is already in agreement. This assumes that the audience attending theatre is of the same ilk. And yet, after Walking the Beat Hollywood I have never been more convinced that theatre changes lives.

Perhaps that is because the theatrical community that created and witnessed Walking the Beat Hollywood was not typical. (Walking the Beat Hollywood challenged convention as soon as the doors opened.) Development offices at theatres all over the world work hard to gather demographic information about their audiences. As a result, we know that theatrical audiences are largely white, liberal, affluent, and over 50. Working for a theatre festival during college, I was tasked with reviewing and digitizing hard-copies of audience surveys. One respondent answered the race and ethnicity question: “Really white.”

This respondent’s answer still makes me laugh. However, it’s also true and has far-reaching and troubling consequences. The ambition to democratize theatre can paradoxically become pretentious and self-serving. This is when theatre-makers become white-saviors. “Democratizing” can often look more like condescending to a group of people those in power ostensibly want to “uplift.” This is tokenism. The antidote to this kind of practice is recognizing that individuals are individuals and not representatives of a group. They are people of worth and power. Walking the Beat Hollywood succeeded in democratizing theatre precisely by self-consciously circumventing that goal.

It would be untrue to claim that the regular homogeneity of most theatrical audiences was unrepresented at Walking the Beat Hollywood. But largely this audience and this cast were unconventional. In fact, the ensemble worked hard to disrupt and challenge convention. Their tools in dismantling systems of oppression were their own stories. The ensemble gave generously of themselves and as a result moved their audience.

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Melina Young and Barbara Goodhill welcome guests to “Walking the Beat” at LACC.

Angela Kariotis, a visionary theatre-maker, teaching artist, and WTBH playwright writes, “Telling a story is simple, but not easy. Easy and simple are not the same thing… We never think we have any stories. But then all of a sudden, they come tumbling out because we cracked open the door a little. And here they are all demanding, demanding to be told.” That demand imbued Walking the Beat Hollywood with honest urgency. Sitting inside the Caminito Theatre, the call for truth was palpable and stirring. My father wept as he listened to each student’s identity poem and so did I. I already knew and loved these kids and by the end of the performance I think he did too.

When I handed one of the students her final pay check, she looked at me with a telling pout and said, “I don’t want this one.” When I asked her why, she said “because it means it’s the end. And I don’t want to say goodbye to everyone.” Her reluctance was evidence of love. Sixteen strangers—ten kids and six cops—became friends.

Theatre. Changes. Lives.

I saw these kids change. I saw them grow. Many students started this process shy. Many didn’t. Some are still shy and some still aren’t. But I know that they know their worth. I know that they proclaimed their worth in front of an audience eager to bear witness to it. That is genuinely important.

Sure, this was a production focused on cops and kids coming together to discuss the problems of community policing. But the final performance did not offer a solution. Rather, it highlighted human beings of different experience coming together to listen to one another.

I return to the idea of post-show blues. How did Walking the Beat Hollywood change our proverbial uniforms? If only for an evening, we have been armed with an open mind and with the impulse to listen.

I want to challenge theatre-going audiences to continue the legacy of this performance. Be silent and be moved. Listen. After all, “Listening is an act of love.”

Melina Young is the 2019 summer intern at the Fountain Theatre. We thanks the LA Department of Arts and Culture for the support of its Arts Internship Program. 

“Hope you close your faggot show.”

Pride Flag

The Pride flag flies over the Fountain Theatre.

by Stephen Sachs

Some days, our building is tagged by graffiti. That’s life in East Hollywood. Some mornings, I arrive at the Fountain front door and discover a freshly sprayed scribbling on our beige stucco facade. It happens. The scrawling is usually small and, most often, gang related. A badass in the hood staking territory. A banger bearing witness. Once inside my office, I let my Technical Director know we’ve been hit.  Then I make myself coffee. The graffiti is soon wiped away. No big deal. 

I rarely decipher the message. Gang slogans are a code I can’t break. And though the phrase is sometimes personal, about “Diablo” or “Beast”, it never directly targets the Fountain. The statement could have been sprayed anywhere, anytime. It has nothing to do with us.

This time, it did. This time, the message was personal. And it wasn’t graffiti.

Last weekend, we were forced to reschedule a performance of our hit play, Daniel’s Husband. A cast member had booked a TV gig and needed to fly up to Vancouver. This is Tinseltown, right? We’ve been to this rodeo before, many times. We know what to do. Our box office staff contacted our audience for that night and set them up for other performances.  As a precaution, we posted a sign on our front door stating that the night’s show had been cancelled. In case someone walked up.

Someone did.

The next morning, we found that a person had scrawled on our sign in black ink: “Hope you close your faggot show.”

Daniel’s Husband is a play about gay marriage. The men in the cast are gay. This hate-note was inscribed on our front wall the final weekend of Pride month, when our city and our nation celebrate equality and inclusion.

Let’s be real. This written slur from an anonymous homophobe is insignificant compared to the gay men and women beaten and killed in this country. I know that. Our nation has a savage history of discriminating “others.” Ask Native Americans.  Blacks. Mexicans. Asians. Jews. Women. Compared to the systemic prejudice our nation has inflicted on these groups, the note is a small thing, a trifle. No question. Still, it hurts, is upsetting. More so because though tiny, what larger truth does it tell? Like in a well-written play, the more specific a thing is the more universal it becomes.  

In thirty years, I can’t remember the Fountain Theatre ever being hit with a message of hate like this. Sure, every so often we’ll get a heated email of complaint from an unhappy theatergoer. The political and socially conscious nature of the plays we produce often trigger passionate responses from our patrons. That’s the point. Our artistic goal is to engage our audiences in the difficult issues of our time. A free exchange of conflicting ideas is what makes a good play and a free democracy.   

This is different. In today’s incendiary political and cultural climate, it’s not too far a leap to imagine that the individual who scrawled that vile message with a pen next time might bring a bomb or a gun.  

“Something rotten is afoot in America,” posts a gay friend of mine on his Facebook page.  In the last month alone, the word “faggot” has been hurled at him three times. “The word no longer has the power to make me want to erase myself, to spare those associated with me embarrassment. But I can’t help worrying how this climate must be affecting those who are younger and more vulnerable, especially transgender Americans who face far more dangerous threats than a nasty cliché.  Is this the America we want?”

No, it is not. But this is who we are.

Others on my friend’s Facebook page chimed in. “This happened to my son,’ says one. “It’s unbelievable what is going on. A disgrace and a return to ignorance and vile barbarism.” Another states simply, “I literally get called a faggot on the streets of LA at least once or twice a week.”

The mournful words of Paul Simon call to me in his achingly beautiful “American Tune.”

“When I think of the
Road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what has gone wrong.”

The number of hate crimes in this country are on the rise. Los Angeles, in particular, reported a decade-high increase in hate crime from 2017 to 2018. Hate crimes targeting Jews and Latinos increased in California in 2018. The trigger for this bigoted hostility is no mystery. Our country’s moral leadership comes from the top.

“Things are polarized in ways we haven’t seen in recent memory,” says Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director and chief executive. “People are on edge in part because they are following their leaders. When leaders at the highest levels use incredibly intemperate language and repeat the rhetoric of extremists, we shouldn’t be surprised when young people — let alone others — imitate what they see.”

Hate crimes are defined as “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, gender or gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity,” according to the Hate Crime Statistics Act passed by Congress in 1990. Hate crimes can be committed against people, property or society, and can include vandalism. Minor as it may be, is this gay-slurring note scrawled on our Fountain sign a hate crime? Before scoffing: What if it were a swastika?

For three decades, The Fountain Theatre has produced new plays about racism, women’s rights, gay rights, anti-Semitism, immigration. Whatever the issue, it has sometimes been lamented to us that we’re preaching to the choir. The claim is that issue-driven plays are produced for like-minded people, and those who most need to be changed by our work never see it at all. Clearly, the perpetrator of that homophobic hate-note will never step inside our theatre walls. But beyond our walls, he is out there. Somewhere. In our world, on the street, in our city, he exists. With thousands, maybe millions, like him. We, as artists, must see the world as it is before we can dream of what it can be. 

In the theater, we know what our job is. Our job “… is to hold up, as ’twere, a mirror to nature; to show scorn her image, to show virtue her appearance, and the very age its form and pressure.” Our job is to hold up a vision to America of who we are as a country. The good, the bad, and – yes – the ugly.  That’s what theater is supposed to do. That’s what the Fountain Theatre will continue to do for another thirty years.

And the Pride flag still flies over the Fountain. 

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

Fountain Theatre to host Los Angeles ‘Mueller Report Read-A-Thon’ on July 18

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We’ve been told what it is, what it isn’t. What’s in it, what’s not. But how many have actually read it for themselves? Even some members of Congress haven’t read it.

Robert Mueller told us the report speaks for itself. But who can give voice to the report? Our Los Angeles theatre community, that’s who.

The Fountain Theatre will host a single, 15-hour Mueller Report Read-A-Thon, offering citizens of Los Angeles the opportunity to hear the Mueller Report read aloud, on Thursday, July 18 from 9 a.m. to midnight.

On Tuesday, it was announced that former special counsel Robert Mueller will testify before Congress on July 17, the day before the Fountain Read-A-Thon.

Earlier this month, a reading was hosted by NY theater companies, and a marathon reading is scheduled for July at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. This week, an all-star celebrity reading of a new play, adapted from the Mueller Report by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, was streamed live on social media.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election” is the official report documenting the findings and conclusions of investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 United States presidential election, allegations of conspiracy or coordination between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia, and allegations of obstruction of justice.

“The Fountain has a long history of using theater as a trigger for political and social action,” says Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs. “My larger purpose for the Read-a-thon is not to disseminate details about the report — although that is important. The greater goal is to give the public and our Los Angeles theatre community the opportunity to engage, to take some kind of expressive action. I see it as similar to a protest march. But all of us are marching from our stages.”

Readers at the Fountain will include over 90 readers representing the diversity of Los Angeles, including actors, artistic leaders, community leaders and business people. Confirmed to read so far: Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell; actors Alfred Molina, Jeff PerryRichard SchiffRob NagleFrances FisherHarry Groener, Karen KondazianBill Brochtrup and Jenny O’Hara; artistic directors Daniel Henning (Blank Theatre) and John Flynn (Rogue Machine); playwright Justin Tanner; and theater journalist Steven Leigh Morris. A complete list of readers is available at www.fountaintheatre.com/event/mueller, where anyone interested in participating can also sign up for a 10-minute reading slot. The Fountain Theatre Read-A-Thon will be streamed live on the Fountain’s Facebook and Twitter pages. The Fountain Theatre Café will be open throughout the event.

Los Angeles Theatres supporting the Read-A-Thon include: 24th Street Theatre, Blank Theatre Company, Boston Court Pasadena, Celebration Theatre, Company of Angels, Cornerstone Theater Company, Echo Theatre Company, Hero Theatre Company, The Inkwell Theatre, Latino Theatre Company, The Los Angeles LGBT Center, Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, The Matrix Theatre Company, Moving Arts, New American Theatre, Open Fist, Playwrights Arena, Road Theatre Company, Rogue Machine, Skylight Theatre, Stacie Chaiken and What’s the Story?, The Victory Theatre Center, Vs. Theatre Company, Whitefire Theatre, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in West L.A. will hold a separate marathon reading, breaking it up into two 8-hour sessions on MondayJuly 22 and Tuesday, July 23, each from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.

According to Odyssey Theatre artistic director Ron Sossi, “Political projects like Chicago Conspiracy Trial, Tracers, McCarthy and Rapmaster Ronnie have always been a large part of the Odyssey’s 50-year history. Sadly politically-oriented work has been missing from American stages of late. This live reading of the Mueller Report at two different L.A. theaters is a refreshing and exciting reminder of the heady days of ‘60s/’70s activism, and, hopefully, a sign that the local theater scene is becoming re-engaged.”

The Odyssey event, curated by Not Man Apart artistic director John Farmanesh-Bocca, will include 20-minute readings by long-standing company members, friends and celebrities including Councilmember Paul Koretz; film and stage actors Alfred MolinaFrances FisherBrenda StrongNorbert WeisserMichael NouriRay Abruzzo, Darrell Larson and Gregg HenryRichard Montoya of Culture Clash; spoken word artist Steve Connell; Cornerstone Theater Company members Shishirand Bahni Kurup; Padua Playwrights founding artistic director Murray Mednick; plus many more. A complete list of readers will be available at www.odysseytheatre.com.

Admission to both Read-A-thons is free and open to the public. Audience members may come and go throughout each event.

For more information:

VIDEO: Watch rehearsal for celebrity reading ‘Ms. Smith Goes to Washington’ at LA City Hall

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Celebrity reading of ‘MS. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON’ at LA City Hall is “awe-inspiring”

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“Ms. Smith Goes to Washington” at Los Angeles City Hall

by Christine Deitner

On Thursday, January 24th a lucky group of citizens in Los Angeles was treated to a unique experience–The Fountain Theatre’s reading of a gender-switched adaptation of Sidney Buchman’s screenplay, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  The Fountain’s Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs adapted the work that was hosted by Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell.  An impressively talented ensemble of tv, film, and theatre veterans gathered in the John Ferraro Council Chamber in Los Angeles City Hall and though the original work is 79 years old the gender switch makes it feel like yesterday’s tweetstorm or this morning’s news.

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Sponsored, in part, by the Feminist Majority Foundation and in association with the League of Women Voters, the event’s cast included Joshua Malina, Jeff PerryBellamy Young, Sam Waterston, Alan Blumenfeld, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Leith Burke, Tim Cummings, Cameron Dye, Spencer Garrett, Chet Grissom, Morlan Higgins, Aurelia Myers, Jenny O’Hara, Felix Solis, Jack Stehlin, Mark Taylor, and Sal Viscuso.

Councilmember O’Farrell introduced Mr. Sachs with a moving speech about the importance of the arts in society. 

“Politics falls short of completely illuminating the complexity of issues,” he stated, “this is where the arts come in.”

In 2017, Mr. O’Farrell hosted the Fountain’s reading of All The Presidents Men and he noted that he hopes this will become an annual event.  Reflecting on the record number of women who now hold public office, O’Farrell also spoke about the role that local artists play as public servants, illuminating issues in unique ways.

In Sachs’ version, an idealistic, newly elected female senator finds herself fighting corruption in male-dominated Washington. Bellamy Young’s take on the movingly patriotic Jennifer Smith [originally Jefferson played by James Stewart] is endearing and as successful as a figure of naive nobility as Mr. Stewart was in the film.  It doesn’t seem like Mr. Sachs had to change very much beyond references to gender [Girl Rangers here instead of Boy Rangers] and one reference to “fake news” that worked very well in context, but boy does Jennifer Smith’s predicament feel familiar.

It’s Governor Hopper’s daughter [it was a son in the film] who encourages her father to choose Jennifer with the line “It’s 1939, not the dark ages, pop.” and a list of women who have held office before.  It shouldn’t have been surprising to hear it but we can thank Mr. Sachs for educating us about these women that included Senators Rebecca Latimer Felton [1922] and Hattie Caraway [1932].  Sam Waterston has the role of one of two villains, Senator Joseph Paine; a man who knew Jennifer’s father yet openly wonders whether they can “control a woman” in Congress.  The other is Jim Taylor, a nefarious businessman/mob figure played by Jeff Perry.

Fans of the film will know that Smith speaks fondly of his father a number of times, recalling that he often said, “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” As Jennifer learns that a swath of land in her state is going to be turned into a useless dam that is only an avenue for graft, she becomes determined to fight for that land where she was hoping to create a girls camp for young women across the nation.  Joshua Malina is her charmingly cynical assistant Chester Saunders [Jean Arthur in the film] who begrudgingly assists her in writing a bill for that girl’s camp.  As they work together, Jennifer’s enthusiasm for the bill starts to wear down Saunders’ certainty it will fail and when she becomes aware of the relief bill that includes the dam, she decides to filibuster with his help.

Paine and his pro-dam cohorts do all they can to attack Jennifer’s character as they angrily state any blocking of the relief bill will lead to starving the people.  Paine likens her attempt to hold the floor to holding the people hostage.  There was an audible gasp in the audience followed by a few laughs for this reading took place near the end of Trump’s wall-inspired government shutdown.  All of the pain that shutdown was inflicting on government workers was present in the room at that moment.

Jennifer stands firm in her convictions, even when Paine reads telegrams purportedly from her home state asking her to stop. She reads the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and goes on till her voice is hoarse and even Paine can’t take her suffering anymore.  He breaks down and admits everything – and when Waterston embodied that moment, he tore the roof off the place, it was awe-inspiring.  Jennifer and Saunders have one last moment of celebration before the ends that felt a little rushed but that might have been due to the fact that the TVs behind the cast popped on. 

In lieu of credits, images of every woman who has held a seat in Congress appeared in succession on the screens. Members of the audience stood to applaud them, with more standing when California’s own Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein appeared.  But it wasn’t till the video closed on a split screen image featuring Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren that the whole house got to their feet shouting.  It was a memorable, moving moment that reminded this reviewer of all the things that can be good and honorable and right in this country.  It also seemed like a hell of an idea for a presidential ticket in 2020 but that just shows how easy it was to get swept up in Jennifer Smith’s patriotic fervor.  Ms. Smith may seem naive and inexperienced, but that character’s faith in what is good in the country is honorable and constant – and those are traits we could all stand to develop in our own lives today.

This post originally appeared in The Theatre Times.

 

VIDEO: Catch the beat of our west coast premiere of ‘Hype Man’ at Fountain Theatre

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