JON LAWRENCE RIVERA is the recipient of the first Career Achievement Award from Stage Raw. Most recently, Rivera directed the following critically-acclaimed world premieres for Playwrights’ Arena: SOUTHERNMOST by Mary Lyon Kamitaki, BABY EYES by Donald Jolly, I GO SOMEWHERE ELSE by Inda Craig-Galván, LITTLE WOMEN by Velina Hasu Houston, BILLY BOY by Nick Salamone, THE HOTEL PLAY (performed in an actual hotel), BLOODLETTING by Boni B. Alvarez (also at Kirk Douglas Theatre), @THESPEEDOFJAKE by Jennifer Maisel, CIRCUS UGLY by Gabe Rivas Gomez, PAINTING IN RED by Luis Alfaro, and THE ANATOMY OF GAZELLAS by Janine Salinas Schoenberg. Other recent works include: AMERICA ADJACENT by Boni B. Alvarez, BINGO HALL by Dillon Chitto, FAIRLY TRACEABLE by Mary Kathryn Nagle, OBAMA-OLOGY by Aurin Squire, CRIERS FOR HIRE by Giovanni Ortega, STAND-OFF AT HWY #37 by Vicky Ramirez, FLIPZOIDS by Ralph B. Peña (also in Manila). Recipient of a NY Fringe Festival Award, an LA Weekly Award, and a five-time Ovation Award nominee, Rivera is the founding artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena, dedicated to discovering, nurturing and producing bold new works for the stage written exclusively by Los Angeles playwrights.
Jon’s comments on inclusion and diversity in the Los Angeles Theatre Community were recently included in this LA Times feature by Charles McNulty.
Theatre Talk is the Fountain Theatre’s livestream conversation program hosted by Artistic Director Stephen Sachs, engaging theatermakers, theatergoers and theater-thinkers. Live on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Zoom and seen here on our website.
The Fountain Theatre community is a devoted band of folk who love theatre and often, one another. Normally The Fountain enjoys shining a light on members of our theatre family in our show programs. During this 2020 pandemic, however, with no show programs to print, The Fountain continues our tradition of honoring members of our devoted community here on the Fountain Blog.
Happy 90th Birthday Marcella Meharg!
Today we honor Marcella Meharg — on the occasion of her recent 90th birthday, and her life-long love of theatre — with two tributes. The first comes from a group of old friends who made a generous contribution in honor of Marcella’s milestone celebration:
“We are a group of former colleagues who worked for Los Angeles County as child welfare workers in the Metro North office in East Hollywood. We met Marcella in the early 70s. From colleagues to friends, we bonded over the years as we worked, raised our children, went to school and lived our lives. Lunches during the work day were a time to catch up. After retirement, lunches became monthly dinners and/or monthly lunches and have continued for over 15 years. The theater has always been an important part of Marcella’s life. Others in the group also have regular subscriptions to theaters in Los Angeles and the Fountain Theatre is one of our favorites. During this pandemic and difficult times for the arts, it seemed so appropriate that Marcella’s gift on the occasion of her 90th birthday would be a donation to the Fountain Theatre. ”
“Marcella Meharg and I did not choose one another. We were thrown together, like it or not, in a dormitory room at the Pasadena Playhouse when we were 19. And it took.
It took so well that, when she came down with a light case of the chickenpox, she eagerly passed it on to me, improved and with bells on. I was sick as a dog. That nasty little episode only drew us closer together. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re young, in “theatre school,” mutually passionate about the “art,” the success you’re certain will follow, the boy-friends and assorted other wonders. You form bonds — good and bad — that become indelible. Our post-Playhouse lives took paths that were at once divergent and not. We didn’t hit fame and fortune, but each of us married and each had two children at roughly the same time. Life went on, separating us as it often does, but not forever.
Marcella became a social worker and went on to run the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild’s Julie Harris Playwriting Contest for a number of years. She also co-produced an Ovation-nominated play and wrote one, which had a reading at Hollywood’s Samuel French Bookstore just before it went dark.
By the time we were both older and ready to take a step back, we rediscovered our friendship on a pleasant leisurely basis. By then I was writing reviews more selectively for culturalweekly.com than when I was writing them for The Los Angeles Times, and Marcella became my go-to theatre companion, chiefly because our tastes in theatre matched and our lengthy relationship made for lively conversations that we both enjoyed. What was invigorating is that we didn’t always admire the same productions and our disagreements were often more interesting than our agreements — until the pandemic hit, interrupting all the fun and the tooling around town, popping in and out of shows.
When some of Marcella’s friends smartly decided to celebrate her 90th birthday by contributing in her name to a theatre of her choice, the decision, she tells me, was easy. The Fountain is where we both spent many fascinating hours and hope to spend many more once the world returns to some kind of normal.
Happy birthday, Marcella. I’ve always known you had good judgment.”
– Sylvie Drake
June is Pride month, a time of Mardi Gras-like celebration for the LGBTQ+ community that’s highlighted locally by the annual L.A. Pride Festival and Parade. The first Pride march, held June 28, 1970, was established to mark the one-year anniversary of the now infamous Stonewall uprising – an event widely seen as the launch pad for the modern gay rights movement. Fifty years later, it has become an annual, exuberant, not-to-be-missed event. (Note: The highly anticipated 50th anniversary celebration has been postponed due to COVID-19 concerns. More info)
The trouble that ignited a revolution started at 1:20am on June 28, 1969, when NYPD officers raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Such raids were all too common at the Mafia-owned bar. But this night was different. On this night, the chronically marginalized, too-often dehumanized gay population who were drinking inside had had enough. On this night, they stood up and fought back. On this night, and in the nights and days and years that followed, gay men and women not only found their pride, they wore it boldly and shouted it out loudly for all the world to hear.
Today at 4pm, the Fountain is gathering together the casts of two of its most highly acclaimed productions – Daniel’s Husband (2018) and The Normal Heart (2013) – for a celebration not only of Pride month, but of the recent historic Supreme Court ruling that protects the civil rights of gay and transgender workers, and to honor the life of writer/activist/Normal Heart playwright Larry Kramer. Viewers can watch live on Zoom, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and on our website at http://www.fountaintheatre.com. The recording will also be posted and can be watched at a later date.
Fountain producing director Simon Levy directed both productions, and cast veteran actors Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup as lovers in both stories, each of which was centered on a different pivotal moment in the gay rights movement. The Normal Heart is Kramer’s clarion call to action against the emerging AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s. In it, Ned Weeks (Cummings) is a gay journalist and activist whose fight against the mysterious unnamed scourge running rampant through the gay community turns deeply personal when his lover, Felix (Brochtrup), a New York Times fashion writer, contracts the deadly disease. In Daniel’s Husband, Brochtrup is the eponymous Daniel, a successful architect who longs to be married to his partner of seven years, Mitchell, a marriage-phobic writer of gay romance novels that make him, as he says, “the 21st century gay equivalent of Barbara Cartland.”
Said Levy of the two actors, “After working with, and loving the work of, Bill Brochtrup and Tim Cummings in The Normal Heart, I consciously searched for another project for us. And when I read Daniel’s Husband, I knew I’d found our play and that they would be perfect for it.”
Both shows held a personal appeal to Levy, who spent many years living in San Francisco and working on the long-running, kitschy musical revue, Beach Blanket Babylon.
“When I had the opportunity to get the rights to The Normal Heart I grabbed them,” he explained, “because I wanted to pay a personal tribute to all the friends and colleagues I lost in San Francisco during the heyday of the AIDS crisis. Especially (performer) Bill Kendall of Beach Blanket Babylon, who was a good friend and co-worker, and someone I took the entire journey with. The show was a dedication to his memory, as well as (creator) Steve Silver, and so many others.
“When I read Daniel’s Husband I fell in love with it and knew it was right for the Fountain and L.A.’s gay community. Not only because it dealt with gay marriage, but because of its universal theme of loving and caring for one another. I wanted the production to be a reminder to hold on tight to each other, especially in these toxic political times, because we never know how long someone will be in our life. To live with regret is horrible, so love NOW!”
Both productions received passionate, widespread critical acclaim and extended runs. Audience reaction to both shows was deep and visceral. Many patrons saw both, and there were many who saw each play multiple times. It was also not uncommon for them to come back with friends and family members who they felt compelled to have experience the show.
The teeming post-show gatherings are something Levy remembers fondly.
“(I loved) seeing how deeply moved audiences were by both shows, and how they would congregate outside on the sidewalk afterwards to talk with the actors and share their stories of losing loved ones, or fighting to make gay marriage legal. I also loved the ‘love board’ that allowed people to pay tribute to the memory of loved ones and those they love now.”
The ‘love board’ was a giant, paper-covered plywood board that stood at the theatre’s double doors during The Normal Heart. On it, people would write love notes to, and about, the men and women who were no longer here with them. There were also expressions of gratitude and love for those who were still by their side. It was a powerful, cathartic act, and the paper was oft replaced during the extended run of the show.
In a LA Times interview from October 2, 2013, Levy made a comment about The Normal Heart and the AIDS crisis that now seems prophetic when taken in context of today’s COVID pandemic.
“People have fallen asleep again…Millions of people are dying from AIDS every year. But no one’s talking about it anymore. We’re all pretending that it’s yesterday’s illness.”
His resulting message to the public? “Don’t politicize pandemics! Be kind to each other. Love each other. We’re all in this together.”
Celebrate Pride with us and join us for the cast reunions of Daniel’s Husband and The Normal Heart today at 4pm. Watch on Zoom, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or on our website.
I run the Fountain Theatre’s charming upstairs café. Normally, Fridays at the Fountain would be the start of a five-show weekend through Monday night. Six, if we had a Sunday evening Flamenco show as well. There would be a palpable energy in the air.
But on Friday, March 13th, LA’s growing COVID crisis had become critical. The public portions of the theatre – the stage and the café – had been shuttered. The offices were being closed as well.
I should have been working on Friday, March 13th. By 4pm, Pandora would have been rocking one of my favorite show tune stations, and I’d have been singing along with Wicked and A Chorus Line and Into the Woods behind the closed café door as I got the coffee going, bagged chips and cookies for sale, and chatted with local baker Tracy Green when she delivered her weekly order of scrumptious organic mini muffins. I would have caught up with staff when they wandered in for coffee or a snack. I would have arranged fresh flowers on the café tables. Watered the plants out on the deck. Set out food items, made sure the fridge was stocked, and ensured there was plenty of wine on the back counter.
By 6:30pm, actors would have been dropping by to say hello, and get a pre-show caffeine fix as they ate their dinner. If patrons had arrived early, I would have invited them to have a seat and get comfortable while I finished setting up. We would have talked about the show they had come to see and where they had traveled from to see it. Long distance drives from Orange County, Santa Barbara, and Long Beach are not uncommon (and on a Friday night, no less!) Patrons of the Fountain are extremely loyal, and LA’s notorious Friday night traffic has never stopped any of them from persevering to see a great show.
I’d have set out fresh creamer for coffee by 6:45pm and cut fresh lemon wedges for tea. I’d have changed the music to something more appropriate for the show, and turned on the video monitor to run the scroller of past Fountain Theatre productions. I’d have clicked on the twinkle lights draped around the café and the deck, and lit the votive candles that add such warmth and invitation to the space. The stage would have been set. Lights and sound would have been ready. I would have opened the door to let the audience in.
Opening night of Human Interest Story, Feb 15, 2020.
It would have been another Friday night at the Fountain Theatre café. Engaging with patrons. Stepping out from behind the bar to hug a friend who had come to see the show. Getting buzzed off the buzz in the room. And answering a barrage of questions about past productions:
What was that wonderful play about the painting? Either Bakersfield Mist or My Name is Asher Lev. Both featured a painting and had storylines about art.
What was the show about the Latino restaurant workers? I couldn’t stop thinking about it.My Mañana Comes. Yes, a lot of people had that reaction.
What was the one about the border wall and the guy in prison?Building the Wall.
Do you remember the show about the Black girl who was a runner? Sure! It was In the Red and Brown Water, by Tarrell Alvin McCraney. It was the first play in his Brother/Sister trilogy. We also did the second one in that series, The Brothers Size.
Theatre. History. Story-telling. Energy. Friends. Connecting the dots. And, of course, lots of coffee. These were my Friday nights at the Fountain. Until Friday, March 13th. When everything changed.
I have happily worked at the Fountain for over a decade. I’ve been part of dozens of shows in a variety of capacities: production/assistant stage manager, props designer, casting associate, costume maintenance and more. For the past two years I have also been the manager of the charming Fountain Theatre café. I must say, I absolutely love it.
I run the café as I run a show, and I am nourished by it in the process. I am fed by the support of our devoted patrons, by sharing stories of past productions, by greeting first time visitors who inevitably want to know how long we’ve been around, what kinds of shows we do, and, ultimately, how they can become a member. And then there is the question I hear all the time, from guests old and new: will the café ever be open outside of show times? (Answer: it is a long-distance dream.) I feel gratitude every time I’m asked that, because it means they’re comfortable in this charming, funky space. They tell me how much they love the rainbow tables and walls, the gallery of production photographs, the mismatched collection of couches and chairs, the open deck with the hummingbird feeder and the little garden and the view to downtown LA. They want to hang out all day long. They feel a sense of peace, of connection in the space.
Kitchens are often referred to as the heart of a home, and the café is the gathering place of the Fountain Theatre. The room where we all come together to share meals, to talk, to take meetings and to rest. The stage downstairs is the soul of the Fountain. But the café, I believe, is its ever-beating, ever-welcoming, wide-open heart.
So for now, while this pandemic reigns, my Friday nights are different. It’s been nearly four months since I didn’t work that Friday night in March – and I feel it. I miss the energy, the shows, the patrons, the actors, the laughter and the hugs, the fellowship and the connection. But in time, we will tell our stories again. In time, the theatre will open up again. In time, we will gather in the café again. That charming rainbowed place of nourishment and peace and of welcoming home. And in time, we’ll re-connect to each other, again.
This Saturday, June 27, at 5:00 pm The Fountain Theatre is proud to present a reading of France-Luce Benson’s one-act play Showtime Blues, originally presented at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York in 2017. Showtime Blues will be presented online as The Fountain’s final Saturday Matinee program for June and will feature Cecil Blutcher, Suzette Azariah Gunn and Matt Kirkwood. Saturday Matinees will take a break in July, returning with France-Luce in August.
France-Luce produces and hosts Saturday Matinees and has generously presented several readings of her own work for our patrons enjoyment, including our May 20th reading of Detained, her powerful piece commissioned by the ACLU that featured the Tony-nominated actress, Kathleen Chalfant.
We wanted to take the opportunity to discuss Showtime Blues with France-Luce as it is a powerful piece of theatre in perfect pitch with the current moment and is part of a body of work in which France-Luce explores her identity as a Black American of Haitian descent, and examines broad socio-political concepts from the perspective of intimate human relationships.
Q: When did you write Showtime Blues? Did it arise out of one particular experience or in response to a lifetime of experiences?
FLB: I wrote it in 2016. That year, Alton Sterling and Philando Castille were killed by police. Prior to that…Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Micheal Brown…the list goes on and on. I was hurting, and angry, and terrified for my community. I have three brothers, a nephew, dozens of cousins — I couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever view them as a threat. Like all the black men in my life – they are loving, gentle, hard working, family men – they care about their communities, they are human and deserve so much better than what this country gives them. We all do. All of this was stirring in my head and heart. I didn’t know what the play would end up being, but I knew I needed to explore it, work through it, and I wanted to celebrate Black love in a way that transcended romance. I wanted to celebrate the love we as Black people have for one another, based on our shared trauma and triumphs.
Q: I’m curious about the secondary theme in the play which explores the way folks judge one another on appearances and stereotypes.
FLB: As a first generation American, I’m interested in the way we (black and brown people) “Other” each other; and I always believe that as individuals we need to hold ourselves accountable. Both Ameira and Demetrius are quick to judge, and maybe they’re justified. She’s getting hit on by some dude on the train, and he’s being dismissed by someone who can’t even be bothered to look at him – literally. They have both been conditioned by a sexist, racist society. The incident that they experience together exposes their vulnerability. That vulnerability is what interests me most. It is that vulnerability that many of us, black and white, often fail to see in each other. And certainly law enforcement officers – they see black and brown bodies void of vulnerability – void of humanity.
Q: It seems that this moment provides a unique window for artists of color to be heard and seen. What would you like your white friends and colleagues to understand about your experience as a black female artist in America?
FLB: I’d like them to truly understand how far reaching, how expansive, how insidious white supremacy is. My voice and stories matter as much as anyone else. The lack of opportunity artists of color experience is a result of systemic institutionalized racism. White people need to understand this country’s history, and then maybe they’ll begin to understand my experience. I’ve been writing a trilogy about the Haitian Revolution, and I’ve often been told that my cultural experience is not relevant to Americans. But I challenge anyone reading this to study the Haitian Revolution and tell me it’s not part of America’s history. The problem is, Americans have been in denial about a lot of her history; I would like my white friends and colleagues to investigate the ways they have been in denial.
Q: As a Black American. What makes you hopeful?
FLB: This new generation of activists makes me hopeful; the current uprising, the fact that white people seem more willing to listen and take real action.
Suzette Azariah Gunn
Cecil Blutcher: Regional Theater: Pipeline (Actor’s Theatre of Louisville); Petrol Station (The Kennedy Center). NYC: The Hot Wing King (Signature Theatre); Tempo (Ensemble Studio Theatre); Showtime Blues (Ensemble Studio Theatre). Film: Premature (Dir. Rashad Ernesto Green); Skin (Dir. Guy Nattiv); Sketch (Dir. Mariama Diallo). Television: The Good Fight (CBS All-Access); Random Acts of Flyness (HBO). Training: M.F.A. (Penn State). Website: CecilBlutcherCreates.com
Suzette Azariah Gunn is an actress, writer, director from New York. She has a degree in acting from Howard University and Oxford University. She has recurred, starred and guest starred on television and been in film and Theater across the US. Most recently 21 Bridges film and Nya in Pipeline at Cleveland Playhouse. Honors- Los Angeles Film Award Best Ensemble, Golden Door International Film Festival Nominated Best Lead Actress, NBC Diversity Showcase, Named Up and Coming Actress to watch, Best Supporting Actress Planet Connections,.- For more info suzettegunn.com
Matt Kirkwood has been an actor and director in Los Angeles theatre for the last 30+ years. He was last seen in The Fountain’s production of HUMAN INTEREST STORY, and in the live stream reading of DETAINED.
The Fountain Theatre is a member of a coalition of intimate theatres in Los Angeles that meets weekly to discuss the future of theatre in Los Angeles as we navigate COVID-19 and beyond.
Like Los Angeles, our theatre community has always been at the forefront of innovation. As an integral part of the cultural conversation, a group of 44 artistic directors from LA’s intimate theatres came together two months ago to discuss how we can move through the current COVID crisis and come out stronger. We are committed to raising the bar and pushing the boundaries of professional theatre. At weekly virtual roundtables, we continue to remind each other that theatre is a collaborative art form, in every sense of the word. We are stronger together as one community regardless of company size.
While the doors to our theatres may be shut, our artists continue to innovate and utilize new technology to serve Los Angeles and promote the importance of theatre. Our creative work has never been limited to our stages, and the boundless creativity of Los Angeles theatre artists will ensure that our theatres will reopen with a renewed sense of purpose. Los Angeles is one of the cultural capitals of the world, and together we make sure that #LALivesOnStage.
The 44 theatres are:
24th Street Theatre, Actors Co-op, After Hours Theatre Company, Ammunition Theatre Company, Antaeus Theatre Company, Boston Court Pasadena, Celebration Theatre, Chance Theater, Company of Angels, Coeurage Theater Company, Echo Theater Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA, Fountain Theatre, Ghost Road Theatre Company, Greenway Arts Alliance, IAMA Theatre Company, Impro Theatre, Latino Theatre Company, Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, Matrix Theatre Company, Moving Arts, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Open Fist Theatre Company, Ophelia’s Jump Productions, Playwrights’ Arena, Pacific Resident Theatre, Rogue Machine Theatre, Ruskin Group Theatre, Sacred Fools Theater Company, Sierra Madre Playhouse, Skylight Theatre Company, Son of Semele, Theatre of NOTE, The 6th Act, The Group Rep Theatre, The Inkwell Theater, The New American Theatre, The Road Theatre Company, The Robey Theatre Company, The Victory, United Stages, VS. Theatre Company, Theatre West, and Whitefire Theatre.
The group is taking this opportunity of a pause in their programming to consider some of the bigger issues facing Los Angeles intimate theatres. Most importantly, they have implemented action committees for creating collaborative strategies in health and safety protocols for audiences, staff, and artists. Other areas of focus include marketing, and planning an online Intimate Theatre Festival, with a Live LA Theatre Festival in the works once everyone is able to gather again. Partnering with LA Stage Alliance/onStage.LA, the group is aiming to establish a central hub for all Los Angeles theatre activities.
Acclaimed actress Kathleen Chalfant will lead the cast for the Fountain Theatre’s live-stream reading of France-Luce Benson‘s docudrama on immigration, Detained, on Wednesday, May 20th. The Tony nominated and Obie winning actress’ distinguished stage career, both on Broadway and Off-Broadway, includes Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit.
Actors joining Chalfant are Victor Anthony, France-Luce Benson, Rolando Chusan, Liza Fernandez, Aleisha Force, Dion Graham, Matt Kirkwood, Sofia Riba, Ariel Sandino, Felix A. Solis, Aldo Uribe, Karl O’Brien Williams.
Based on interviews with individuals who are facing deportation, as well as the judges, lawyers, and activists who are involved in these cases, Detained is a new documentary theater piece about immigration, deportation, and detention in the United States.
“France-Luce has incorporated the voices of all the stakeholders from immigrants to ICE officers and everyone in between, ” says Chalfant, who has been involved in the new play’s development. “The play provides a very important human perspective so that we see that the current system is neither necessary nor inevitable and is certainly not the way it has always been done.”
“The coronavirus crisis makes this already appalling system even crueler and now even murderous,’ she adds.
The live-stream reading of Detained on Wednesday, May 20, will air live at 5pm PST/8pm EST on the Fountain Theatre’s Facebook page, YouTube Channel and on Zoom.
Toward the end of the 1946 film classic It’s A Wonderful Life, when George Bailey is in the throes of an existential crisis, fearing his life has no value or meaning, the angel Clarence tells him, “You’ve been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would be like without you.”
After two months under stay-at-home orders and my theatre temporarily closed, I’m beginning to feel the same gift has been given to me by COVID-19.
Every theatre in our nation is now dark. For now, theatre as an art form performed on a stage for a live audience, does not exist. And no matter which epidemiological model you look at, theatres won’t be reopening in this country any time soon. For those of us who create theatre, the coronavirus is giving the public the chance to see what the world would be like without us.
That is why, like George Bailey haunting his hometown, I now find myself thrown into the same kind of twilight zone, an alternative reality—an upside-down world I no longer recognize, discombobulated. How did things change so quickly? One day my theatre is full, earning rave reviews, selling out. The next day it is closed. On Thursday we’re winning awards, delighting donors and board members. On Friday I am furloughing my staff and applying for unemployment.
Do you know the actor’s nightmare? Ever had it? The one where you’re suddenly thrown onstage into a play in front of an audience, but you don’t know your lines, you can’t find your script, and you don’t even know what play you’re supposed to be doing? That is how life feels to me now: a COVID nightmare. But I never wake up.
If I don’t have a theatre, who am I? Sometimes the most forceful way to discover your place in a culture or a community is to find yourself suddenly yanked from it. All I know is that a world without live theatre is a world I don’t want to live in.
Clicking on a play reading on Zoom is no substitute. Maybe you feel differently, but I personally feel glutted with Zoom meetings and online theatre events by now. My idea of well used stay-at-home time is not watching another online festival of hastily written five-minute plays streamed by a struggling theatre company. Though novel at first, the relentless onslaught of online content by terrified theatres has spread as widely and aggressively as the virus itself. Don’t get me wrong: I love National Theatre Live. Who doesn’t? But who has the millions of dollars to produce and promote at that level? Call me old-fashioned, but I still find the difference between watching a play online vs. experiencing it live in a theatre like the difference between watching porn on your laptop and actually making love.
All the Broadway tributes now streaming online during this shutdown do prove one thing: Theatre people are well-suited to rise above an emergency. Disaster is part of our DNA. Crisis is status quo in the theatre. Calamity is business as usual. We live and breathe uncertainty and panic. Philip Henslowe, the beleaguered and always-in-debt theatre owner in Shakespeare in Love (screenplay written by playwright Tom Stoppard) aptly sums up our philosophy:
Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Fennyman: So, what do we do?
Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
How will this horrific pandemic turn out well for me and my theatre? It would help to have a guardian angel. I don’t mean a corporate sponsor or a high-level donor—I mean like Clarence. My own personal celestial bodyguard to protect me from both spiritual and physical harm. Instead, I see only the Angel of Death. COVID-19 is killing people. Loss is everywhere. We are losing our jobs, our theatres, our audiences, our homes. Our loved ones. Our art form, not to mention our species, is under threat. There is a general, base-level sadness lurking inside all of us like a contagion. Laughter will come when it comes. But it just might be harder, and take a while longer, to get there.
We are all George Bailey. We have dreams unrealized. We are stressed by daily life. We don’t fully appreciate what we have or what we’ve managed to accomplish. We focus on what serves ourselves and ignore what really matters. We get caught up in achieving “great things” instead of appreciating the value of doing small things in a great way. And we are closer than we realize to a huge, catastrophic meltdown triggered by a single financial calamity.
Theatre is community, the intertwining of human lives. And community is infectious, transmitted from person to person. The ripple effect of the stories we tell in a theatre spreads from one human being to another, and then emanates outward, forever. That is why, to me, to have our theatres silenced by a virus, is like a crime against humanity. Our humanity.But, as Clarence tells George, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives.”
My hope for myself is to emerge from this pandemic with a heightened sense of purpose. The great plays have shown me that a person with a strong central purpose can overcome any obstacle. To paraphrase Nietzsche, when you have a why to live for, you can bear any how. Theatre is one of my whys.
After two months holed up at home, I am starting to experience what the ancient Greeks called anagnorisis: a sudden realization of truth about myself and the true nature of my current situation. Before the pandemic, I would sometimes complain about running a theatre: the paperwork, the endless meetings, the donor parties. The season budgets and the hustling for money to pay for them. The long hours, the low pay, the constant pressure to achieve. After 30 years I felt old, overworked, exhausted. Now I want it all back. All I want now is what I had all along.
My wake-up call is the same as George Bailey’s epiphany, as he pleads to Clarence to end his never-been-born nightmare. Like George, I just want to return to the things and the work and the people I love. Like George, I just want what I already had. I miss the magic. The truth is that even when facing catastrophe, the life that I have in the theatre is wonderful.
Like George Bailey, I want to live again.
Stephen Sachs is a playwright, director, and the artistic director of the award-winning Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles.