Tag Archives: American Theatre Magazine

Embrace the light. Let theatre shine.

France-Luce Benson

by France-Luce Benson

On March 12, 2020, I flew from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale to watch my 14-year-old niece, Shelby, act in her first play. The year prior we’d spent months, at her request, preparing for her audition for Dillard Performance Arts High School. Days before her audition, she desperately asked, “Auntie, do you think I have a chance?” As any loving aunt would, I replied, “Are you kidding? They’d be crazy not to accept you!”

Truth is, I was worried. Not about whether she’d get in or not—I had no doubt she would. I was actually worried about what would follow when she did get in. What would happen if she fell in love with theatre, just as I did at that age? What if it became her passion, her profession, her vocation, her life? I wanted to protect her from a life of rejection, of disappointment, of cutthroat competition, of financial instability, of heartbreak. I know, right? Project much?

Needless to say, Shelby’s school show did not go on. Like theatres all over the country, the school shut down that week and stayed closed for the remainder of 2020. What this last year without live theatre has taught me is that all the things I love and miss about theatre far outweigh the fears and anxieties I projected on to my niece. I was so focused on the ways the industry can hurt and disappoint. But 2020 reminded me of the ways the art of theatre loves. Theatre heals. Theatre connects. Theatre teaches. Theatre activates change and even revolution.

And probably most evident in this past year, no matter what, theatre survives. I am in awe of the ways my community has demonstrated this truth, and am immensely grateful for the opportunities I have had to create, connect, heal, and teach through my own work. In July 2020, I was one of four female-identifying playwrights, representing the African Diaspora, commissioned to write plays in response to the prompt “Conversations with the Ancestors.” A production of Project Y Theatre, All Hands on Deck streamed throughout the summer.

From April through December, I hosted “Saturday Matinees” with the Fountain Theatre, a virtual salon that featured theatre artists from all over the country, including Kit Yan, Antonio Lyons, Lisa Strum, Dennis A. Allen, Vanessa Garcia, and more. The weekly series celebrated BIPOC artists, while providing audiences time and space to connect with each another during a time when many of us endured incredible isolation. In November, I led a four-week workshop hosted by Global Voices Theatre in London. Participants joined from all over the world—Hong Kong, Philippines, India, the U.S.—to develop new plays aimed at correcting revisionist history.

In January of this year, my play Tigress of San Domingue streamed as part of Atlantic Theatre Company’s African Caribbean Mixfest, and last month I was among six playwrights featured in Long Distance Affair. Produced by Juggerknot Theatre and Popup Theatrics, LDA brought together playwrights and actors from six cities around the world—Los Angeles, Portland, Beirut, Lagos, Mexico City, and Mumbai—to create immersive theatre. With over 60 live performances, LDA is the closest thing to in-person theatre I experienced all year. Audience members interacted with one another in intimate Zoom rooms, and with the characters whose lives they interrupted, often at odd times depending on the city (2 a.m. in Lagos).

I had the pleasure of collaborating with L.A.-based actor Wendy Elizabeth Abraham, who bravely invited us into her home in Sherman Oaks, and into her emotional journey through grief and motherhood. I attended about six of the 60-plus performances, and no two were ever the same.

Finally, I launched Fountain Voices, a new arts education initiative I developed in my role as community engagement coordinator for the Fountain. The program promotes empathy and community building, teaching students how to write original plays based on interviews with members of their own community. The successful pilot run of Fountain Voices at Hollywood High culminated in January, with a powerful presentation of work that explored homophobia, depression, and homelessness among teenagers. This month, Fountain Voices begins a partnership with Compton Unified School District, where we will serve over 100 students, longing to be seen and heard.

My time spent with these students reaffirmed what the last year taught me. And when my niece is ready to return to school and inevitably enjoys her first moment onstage, rather than prepare her for the darkness, I will encourage her to embrace all the light and love theatre shines on us.

This post originally appeared in American Theatre Magazine.

The Surprise and Wonder of Human Connection in LA Premiere of ‘I And You’ at Fountain Theatre

Jennifer Finch and Matthew Hancock

Jennifer Finch and Matthew Hancock

“I and This Mystery, here we stand”
 Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself

On the night before a class assignment is due, Caroline and Anthony plumb the mysteries of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass — unaware that a much deeper mystery has brought them together. The Los Angeles premiere  of I and You by Lauren Gunderson, winner of the 2014 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, opens onApril 11 at the Fountain Theatre, directed by Robin Larsen.

Only in high school would two completely unconnected people — feisty, chronically ill Caroline and levelheaded basketball star Anthony — be paired to collaborate on a project to deconstruct a poem about the interconnectivity of everything. Jennifer Finch (7 Redneck Cheerleaders and Hellcab with Elephant Theatre Company) and Matthew Hancock (Oshoosi in The Brothers Size at the Fountain) star as two smart and funny teens who share an unknown and profound bond.

“Whitman says that we are all one because we are all equal, even though it might not look like it at times. There is a universal oneness,” said Gunderson in an interview.

“These two precocious teenagers and Walt Whitman’s epic poem of humanity have something to teach us all,” says Larsen. “That we are supremely connected, to each other, to the earth, to the stars, and that recognizing this connection, becoming conscious of it, is perhaps the point of our existence.”

Jennifer Finch and Matthew Hancock

Jennifer Finch and Matthew Hancock

I and You was commissioned by South Coast Repertory (which also commissioned Gunderson’s Emilie: La Marquise Du Chaltelet Defends Her Life Tonight in 2009 and Silent Sky in 2011). The play received readings at SCR’s Pacific Playwrights Festival in April 2012 and as part of Magic Theatre’s new play development Magic @ the Costume Shop program. It premiered at the Marin Theatre Company in the fall of 2013, the first production in a series of “rolling world premieres” made possible by the National New Play Network’s Continued Life of New Plays Fund; subsequent NNPN productions took place at the Olney Theatre Center in Olney, Maryland and the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, Indiana. I and You went on to win the 2014 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award and was a finalist for the 2014 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. American Theatre magazine put it on the cover of its July/August 2014 issue and featured the script in its entirety.

Playwright Lauren Gunderson

Playwright Lauren Gunderson

Lauren Gunderson studied Southern literature and drama at Emory University, and dramatic writing at NYU’s Tisch School where she was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. Her work has been commissioned, produced and developed at companies across the U.S. including South Coast Rep (Emilie, Silent Sky), the Kennedy Center (The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful And Her Dog!), the O’Neill, Denver Center, Berkeley Rep, Shotgun Players, TheatreWorks, Crowded Fire, San Francisco Playhouse, Marin Theatre, Synchronicity, Olney Theatre, Geva and more. Her work is published at Playscripts (I and You, Exit, Pursued By A Bear andToil And Trouble) and Samuel French (Emilie). She is a playwright-in-residence at the Playwrights Foundation and a member of the Dramatists Guild. Originally from Atlanta, GA, Gunderson lives in San Francisco.

Robin Larsen

Robin Larsen

Robin Larsen has been chosen to receive the 2015 Milton Katselas Award for Career Achievement in Direction by the Los Angeles Drama Critic’s Circle, to be presented at the LADCC awards ceremony on March 16, and the production of A Delicate Balance that she directed for Odyssey Theatre Ensemble is a current nominee for the circle’s McCulloh Award for Revival. Other directing credits include Mrs. Warren’s Profession at Antaeus; the L.A. premiere of David Harrower’s Blackbird for Rogue Machine (LADCC nomination, Best Production; five “Best of 2011” lists including the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly); the world premiere of Pursued By Happiness by Keith Huff at the Road Theatre Company (Los Angeles Times “Critic’s Choice”); and the West Coast premiere of The Fall To Earth by Joel Drake Johnson, starring JoBeth Williams, at the Odyssey (LADCC Nomination, Huffington Post “2012 Top Los Angeles Theater Productions”). Robin’s West Coast premiere of Four Places, also by Joel Johnson, at Rogue Machine was one of the most lauded plays of the 2010 L.A. theater season, winning Ovation, LADCC and Backstage Garland awards for Best Production. For the Black Dahlia Theatre, Robin directed the West Coast premiere of Tryst (five Ovation Award nominations including Best Production and Best Director, three LA Weekly Awards including Best Play, and two Backstage Garland Awards including Best Director) and the L.A. premiere of David Schulner’s An Infinite Ache (Los Angeles Times “Critic’s Choice”). Robin is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker whose work has screened at festivals around the world. Her web series Sex & Marriage, created with playwright John Pollono, can be seen on Justin Lin’s YouTube network YOMYOMF.

Set design for I and You is by Tom Buderwitz; lighting design is by Jeremy Pivnick; sound design is by John Zalewski; costume design is by Jocelyn Hublau Parker; production stage manager is Josephine Austin; associate producer is James Bennett; and Stephen Sachs, Deborah Lawlor and Simon Levy produce for the Fountain Theatre.

Currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, The Fountain Theatre is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won over 225 awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Recent highlights include being honored with the 2014 Ovation Award for Best Season and the 2014 BEST Award for overall excellence from the Biller Foundation; the Fountain play Bakersfield Mist in London’s West End starring Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid; the sold-out Forever Flamenco gala concert at the 1200-seat John Anson Ford Amphitheatre; and the last four Fountain productions consecutively highlighted as Critic’s Choice in the Los Angeles Times. The Fountain has been honored with six Awards of Excellence from the Los Angeles City Council for “enhancing the cultural life of Los Angeles.”

production photos by Ed Krieger

I And You April 2 – June 14 (323) 663-1525  MORE/Get Tickets