Tag Archives: Deborah Lawlor

Meet Barbara Herman and Susan Stockel, Executive Producers for An Octroon

Barbara Herman (L) and Susan Stockel (R)

by Barbara Goodhill

Philanthropists who dedicate their giving to arts organizations like the Fountain Theatre are a special breed.  They are people who understand the value of the arts, love live theatre, and believe in its ability to open hearts and elevate our understanding of the world.  Barbara Herman and Susan Stockel, Executive Producers of An Octoroon, are two such philanthropists. They are extraordinary people who are dedicated to giving back, and it is the Fountain’s great good fortune that they choose to support our work.

Barbara Herman is an enthusiastic member of LA’s philanthropic community. She has many passions. Like her mother before her, Barbara is passionate about supporting ground-breaking medical research. Having been a member of The Cedars-Sinai Women’s Guild for over 50 years, Barbara is proud of her many accomplishments. She is, however, particularly proud to have helped launch The Cedars-Sinai’s Neurology Project, created to support innovative research and education for the understanding and treatment of complex neurological disorders. The Women’s Guild is honoring Barbara this September at their annual gala. Barbara is also passionate about the arts, and she is a pillar of support to both the Fountain Theatre and The Broad Stage, on whose board she serves. 

Barbara Herman enjoys opening night of Citizen: An American Lyric at the Fountain Theatre in 2015.

“I have always loved going to the theatre. One of my most treasured memories is going to the theatre with my parents when I was a little girl. Several years ago, I was thrilled to discover the Fountain, a little gem of a theatre in Los Angeles. One of my favorite things to do is gather a group of friends and take them to the Fountain. We have so much fun! We have dinner at Marouch and then go to the Fountain to enjoy whatever is on the stage. It’s always memorable.”

“To me, the Fountain Theatre offers one of the best cultural experiences in Los Angeles. There are just so many reasons. The first, of course, is the excellence of the productions. Everything is done beautifully. Total artistry. The directing, acting, and sets are consistently excellent. I’ve never seen a show that I didn’t either love or like. Now that’s quite a track record! But what’s equally remarkable is the consistent sensitivity and timeliness of the plays presented. Every play the Fountain mounts is relevant and thought-provoking. My friends and I love to discuss the plays after the show, whether we do it on the sidewalk or up in the cafe.”

“But for me, the Fountain is more than a theatre. It is a community. Everyone — from Joe in the parking lot to Simon, Stephen, Barbara and James— greets me by name and makes me feel welcome. It’s a very personal place, not an institution. And that warmth, that personal connection is very unique, and refreshing. Everything at the Fountain seems to come from the heart.”

Barbara’s philanthropy is guided by a simple principle that she learned from her parents: “I’m a firm believer in leaving the world a better place than I found it. If I see a need, I try to fill it. If I see a problem, I try to fix it. And I always encourage people to join me.”

A passionate theatre lover, Susan Stockel becomes filled with excitement when she speaks about theatre — especially when she is describing a play that has truly touched her. Susan’s love for theatre finds her frequently traveling to New York, London and beyond to experience the magic. A wonderful supporter of the Fountain, Susan has executive produced several plays with us, including Cost of Living and Citizen: An American Lyric. Her family foundation funds a variety of organizations: some grants aid low income families who have children with special needs, other grants aid organizations that are working in innovative ways to slow global warming and help indigenous people protect their lands from deforestation and illegal mining. The foundation also supports children’s theatre programs that introduce theatre to youngsters who have never seen live theatre.

Playwright Martyna Majok and Susan Stockel at the Fountain Theatre’s VIP dinner in celebration of Cost of Living, 2018. 

“The magic happens when the children take out their notebooks and read a scene that they have prepared and rehearsed!” Susan beams with pride when she remembers this, and talks about how she first learned to give back from her parents.

“I learned about how important it was to share what I had with others who were in need by watching my father. He was a first-generation American — one of six children, and the only one to finish college. He had to work to help his family and went to night high school. Thankfully, in those days, New York had tuition-free city college that opened up learning to an entire generation of students. He worked days in a clothing factory. My father always provided for his siblings when they needed help, and would pull out his checkbook and loan money to friends with never a due date on the loans. And, of course, he took care of his mother when he lost his father the month before his graduation from dental school. My husband and I also believed in continuing that tradition. We worked as a team when deciding what donations to make, and taught our values to our children. In my husband’s honor, I established a family foundation, and I feel great joy working on the foundation’s projects with my children and grandchildren, knowing that the work will continue, and the family will always be there for each other and for others.”

Susan’s love of theatre began when she was a young girl, and she has a keen eye for great theatre.

“When I was a little girl I loved to perform. I loved telling stories, and I still do! I am a passionate lover of the spoken word. The Fountain Theatre was introduced to me many years ago. An intimate space on a tight budget — the Fountain was an unexpected surprise. Excellent plays, always well-cast and directed, with a loyal diverse audience from all over the city, who brave the traffic to attend!” 

“I chose to produce An Octoroon because I saw the play when it was first produced in Brooklyn at Theatre for a New Audience. I loved it. An Octoroon is a unique play.  It is funny, sad, clever, quirky and wonderful. Just like any piece of great historical fiction, An Octoroon peels back the layers of civilization to reveal the cruelty and hypocrisy often hidden beneath the facade. An Octoroon shows us powerful men behaving ‘civilly,’ but cruelly. They are willing to do anything to further their own self-interest. Narcissism is revealed as a cruel but powerful driver of history. I am particularly drawn to the depiction of Zoe, our heroine. Despite being beautiful and admirable in every way, she becomes an outcast because she is an Octoroon. I love the story and I knew the Fountain would do a tremendous job with this play, so was happy to join the team.”

“Thank you all for your interest and support of the Fountain, Our Magic Place!  May we grow and thrive.”

Barbara Goodhill is the Director of Development for the Fountain Theatre.

Conversations with Black Artists, Part II

By Terri Roberts

Here, in the second part of our series of conversations with Black artists who have frequently worked with the Fountain Theatre, we talk with actor and director’s assistant Erinn Anova, as well as actors Karen Malina White and Victoria Platt. More conversations to come. Stay tuned!

Erinn Anova

Actor: Central Avenue, Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys, Cyrano. Assistant to the Director: The Ballad of Emmett Till, In the Red and Brown Water

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

I first came to the Fountain as the understudy for “Angel” in Central Avenue. Shirley Jo Finney had just directed me in Blues for an Alabama Sky in Northern California, and I’d recently moved to LA. She knew I was a huge jazz fan, and suggested I audition for the new play she was directing: Central Avenue. That play was so good! It went on for six months, so even as an understudy I had plenty of shows.

2. How has your experience been working here?

Great! I gained amazing friendships, and I’ve learned so much! I’ve had the opportunity to work with world-class playwrights, actors and designers. When I moved to New York, the Fountain was one of the few LA theatres that people have actually heard of. Overall, the Fountain feels like home – the quirks, the magic, the consistency. I just love it.

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why? 

They have all been great, but I’m going to have to go with two, for very different reasons.

First, Cyrano. It was such a gift for me, as a hearing person, to be immersed in the deaf community. In this whole new world, I learned about deafness and its power, about language and somatics, and about life. It changed me.

As far as acting goes the whole cast was amazing, but sharing scenes with Troy Kotsur (Cyrano) was something-other-else. It’s what I imagine working with another genius, Charlie Chaplin, would be like, and I’m not exaggerating. I also have to shout out Stephen Sachs for casting me – a dark brown, short-haired black woman (someone not always so “visible” in Hollywood) as the love interest, Roxy. The fact that there was never even a conversation about it was even sweeter. 

Finally – very few people know this, but now’s as good a time as ever to share – a few years after Cyrano closed, and after some mysterious symptoms appeared, I was diagnosed with both hearing loss and an auditory processing disorder. It made so much of my life make sense, and now I wear hearing aids in both ears. That was a very scary time, and folks have no idea how badly regulated the hearing aid business is (that’s another story.) But because of Cyrano, I had people to reach out to. Maleni Chaitoo, one of the deaf actors, helped me tremendously with her knowledge and resources to navigate that journey, and I will always be grateful for her warm welcome into the hard of hearing/deaf community. Cyrano was a blessing.

Next, In the Red and Brown Water. For that show there was no “official” casting person – it was me! I was assisting Shirley Jo, and I believe James Bennett or Stephen gave me a general rundown of how to work the casting websites, and I was off and running. Of course, Shirley Jo gave me parameters of what to look for, but I am very proud of the amazing actors that I personally picked to come in for auditions. There were a few I even fought for: Diarra Kilpatrick, Maya Lynne Robinson, Stephen Marshall, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Justin Chu Cary and Simone Missick. Along with Iona Morris, Theo Perkins, Peggy Blow, and Dorian Baucum, this was one of the most phenomenal casts I’ve ever seen. They, along with Shirley Jo’s brilliant and elevating direction, made Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play fly. And they all turned out to be wonderful people, too! It’s been a joy to see everyone continue to shine bright in theatre, television, and film, and it’s even more of a blessing to be a part of the IRBW “family.”

One more: Direct From Death Row: Scottsboro Boys. This show has special meaning for me because Ben Bradley cast me in it. Rest in peace, Ben. Also, Mark Stein, who wrote it, and my brother, Harley White, Jr., who wrote the music, were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  They lost out to some musical called Hamilton.

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre?  

My work has been impacted by the fact that that these conversations about racism are just now happening in the theatre world. At some point I stopped investing time and interest in pursuing work in “mainstream” theatres. As my grandmother would say, “Go where you’re wanted, honey.” I started in theatre very young (age 12) and in my naivete, I think I mistook the magic and camaraderie of theatre as a place where kindness and respect for humanity were built in. Often they are not. Some of my worst racial experiences have happened at theatres.  No place is perfect, but I appreciate that the Fountain has always been interested in producing plays, supporting playwrights, and hiring actors from various cultures, with different abilities, and with numerous points of view — including BIPOC. It’s unique.

5. Why is Black History Month important?

It’s American history.

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

I’m currently producing a documentary based on a study done by the University of California. It’s about racial disparities in marijuana arrests and the cannabis industry, and it’s called When The Smoke Clears. I’ve ot two national commercials that should start airing this spring. And I found a fantastic illustrator, so my children’s book, Pretty Bun, will finally be published this summer!   

Karen Malina White

Actor: The Ballad of Emmett Till, Citizen: An American Lyric, Runaway Home

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

I had auditioned for The Ballad of Emmet Till when it was being produced by The Goodman Theatre in Chicago. I was beat out by the one and only Deidrie Henry (Yellowman, Coming Home at the Fountain.) But a friend called me out of the blue to invite me to a reading of it at the Fountain. I was so excited! I hadn’t heard of the Fountain at that time but rushed and hoped I could get inside to hear the reading. I so loved the play and felt an enormous attachment to it. When I got there I saw both the playwright, Ifa Bayeza, and Oz Scott, who directed the Goodman production. I loved the new configuration with five actors playing all the parts, which was not the case in the Chicago production. Oz introduced me to Ben Bradley. Time moved on and that same friend, John McDonald. reached out to say that Ben Bradley was scrambling to find me to audition. So grateful and honored to have been a part of that life changing and bonding production.

2. How has your experience been working here?

Working at the Fountain is wonderful. It’s home now, and Stephen, Simon and Debra, the designers , (technical director) Scott Tuomey, and you, Terri, make every experience a joy!

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why?

The Ballad of Emmett Till, because it was my first and because of the tragic circumstances surrounding it as well as the eternal friendships that came out of that experience. Finally working with Shirley Jo Finney, too.

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre?  

I’m a company member of Antaeus, and we have been having some amazing conversations and taking major actions to be inclusive and reflect the most accurate picture of the best of America. It’s now a conscious decision to have our productions reflect inclusiveness and racial equity. We are looking forward to the work.

5. Why is Black History Month important?

Because it’s American History. African American History. So much of us know about the history of the dominant culture but not enough of other cultures. We have to remedy that.

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

I have been fortunate enough to be working on The Proud Family reboot with Disney Plus Channel. Coming soon to the streaming service.

Victoria Platt           

Actor: Cyrano, Building the Wall, Natural Shocks (staged reading)

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

I can’t recall the very first production I saw. It was waaay back. But it was late ‘90s that I started coming to see productions there. Victory, In the Red and Brown Water, Emmet Till, The Brothers Size to name a few. The first production I was in was Cyrano.

2. How has your experience been working here?

It’s always wonderful. Simon Levy and Stephen Sachs hold this work with great care and respect. Every production I see at the Fountain is inspiring, thought provoking, and well produced. Hard to find all those elements simultaneously.

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why?

Everything I’ve done at the Fountain has been important. That’s what they do there – important, meaningful work. Natural Shocks brought gun violence and violence against women to the stage. I love that Stephen chose to give the play four voices instead of the one it was written as. Cyrano was an incredible experience because I was reunited with Troy Kotsur (we performed together in Pippin at the Mark Taper Forum) and it was a co-production with Deaf West (as was Pippin.) I learned ASL for Pippin and kept it up, so the opportunity to use ASL on the stage again, to bring theatre to hearing and deaf audience members, and to work again with Troy was a trifecta of awesomeness for me. Building the Wall though was probably the most poignant for me because of the content. Seeing how it all played out in the real world was a testament to the prophetic words of Robert Schenkkan. It was an honor to tell that story at that time. After each show I spoke with audience members who were not just impacted by the work but were compelled to action. That is one of the blessings of all the productions at the Fountain. They not only educate, and enlighten but inspire. Good theatre is supposed to do that.

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre?  

The issues that have emerged for some recently, have always been present within the BIBOC (Black Indigenous Bodies of Culture) community. I’m grateful to George Floyd and the countless others who shed their blood to shine a light on the injustices BIBOC have been experiencing for centuries. I’ve encountered more people willing to have real conversations about race, socio-economics and frankly all the ‘isms. And finally, the hard conversations are being had. I was accepted into Communal Consultations – a program created and run by My Grandmother’s Hands author Resmaa Menakem, which will deal with healing ancestral and racialized trauma. This training will allow me more insight into how I can use my work as an artist to bring more awareness and healing to people of all bodies.

5. Why is Black History Month important?

Unfortunately, Black History month is important because there is still grave inequality and oppression. People in Black bodies are still being murdered for no reason except being Black, and with no consequences. Black History Month is one of the necessary actions that highlight how people in Black bodies have contributed to the fabric of this nation; not just the fringe of it. In too many arenas, Black History Month is used as a performative practice, but sometimes even performative practices make their way past the ego and into the soul.

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

For the past year I’ve been blessed to have recurring guest star work on NCIS, Good Trouble and Days of Our Lives. I’ve also been working as a motion capture (mocap) performer on a video game by 2K productions, which has yet to be named but due for release later this year. I can also be seen in A Cold Hard Truth, a film by Charles Murray (Luke Cage, Sons of Anarchy), now streaming on multiple platforms, and A Hard Problem, a film I also co-starred in, will release this March.

Terri Roberts is a freelance writer and the Coordinator of Fountain Friends, the Fountain Theatre’s volunteer program. She also manages the Fountain Theatre Café.

Happy Birthday, Fountain Theatre

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Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor

When my parents met and fell in love, their favorite book was Eric Sevareid’s “Not So Wild a Dream.” They felt the phrase captured the promise of their bond, and had the words inscribed inside their wedding rings. For me, the Fountain Theatre is also not so wild a dream. Twenty-nine years ago today, Deborah Lawlor and I opened our doors. Our desire was to create a home. A sanctuary on Fountain Avenue where artists and audiences can gather to engage in the life-enhancing rhapsody of live art. Nearly three decades later, after hundreds of productions, thousands of artists and hundreds of thousands of patrons, that desire has proven itself to be not so wild a dream.

Serving Los Angeles for twenty-nine years and still going strong. Changing the world seventy-eight seats a time.

Onward

Stephen Sachs

Photos: Fountain Family brunch gives thanks to VIP donors for supporting ‘Arrival & Departure’

A&D Donor Brunch 1B

The backyard of Carrie Chassin & Jochen Haber

On a beautiful Sunday morning at the lovely Encino home of Fountain board member Carrie Chassin and husband Jochen Haber, members of the Fountain Family and supporters of Arrival & Departure gathered for a delicious brunch to salute our upcoming world premiere opening July 14. 

Arrival & Departure is the most innovative and ambitious production in our 28-year history, ” said Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs, in his remarks to the group. “We are deeply grateful to our extraordinary donors who make it possible for the Fountain to keep raising its bar of excellence.” 

Actors Deanne Bray and Troy Kotsur joined Fountain staff members Sachs and his wife Jacqueline Schultz, Deborah Lawlor, Barbara Goodhill and James Bennett at the festive backyard get-together. Hosts Chassin and Haber welcomed board member and donor Karen Kondazian, donors Debbi and Ashley Posner, board president and donors Dorothy Wolpert and husband Stanley Wolpert, and board member and donor Don Zachary. Andrew Leyva provided ASL interpretation. 

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The savory spread included salmon, salad, fruit, roasted vegetables and bagels. It was a glorious afternoon enjoyed in a beautiful outdoor setting, celebrating some of the remarkable donors who have nurtured the creation, development and soon-to-be opening of this highly anticipated new play at the Fountain. 

Enjoy the photos! And get your tickets soon for Arrival & Departure.    

Happy 28th Birthday, Fountain Theatre!

FT April 1 2016Twenty-eight years ago today, on April 1st, 1990, co-founders Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs opened the doors of the Fountain Theatre. What began as a dream and an empty building on Fountain Avenue has blossomed into one of the most successful and highly regarded intimate theatres in Los Angeles. 

The Fountain Theatre provides a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won over 225 awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Recent highlights include being honored for its acclaimed 25th Anniversary Season in 2015 by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council; the inclusion of the Fountain’s Citizen: An American Lyric in Center Theatre Group’s Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The Fountain’s most recent production, the world premiere of Building the Wall by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, ran for five months and was named “L.A. hottest ticket” by the Los Angeles Times.

Enjoy this video, created three years ago to celebrate our 25th Anniversary. It shares who we are, what we do, and why.  

Fountain opens 2018 season with newly revised stage version of Chaim Potok’s ‘The Chosen’

THE CHOSEN 5

The cast of ‘The Chosen’ in rehearsal.

Friendship, faith and fatherhood. Jonathan ArkinAlan BlumenfeldDor Gvirtsman and Sam Mandel star in The Chosen, the award-winning stage adaptation by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok of Potok’s beloved novel. Simon Levy directs for a January 20 opening at the Fountain Theatre, where performances continue through March 25. The Fountain celebrates the novel’s 50th anniversary (last April) with the West Coast premiere of Posner’s new, streamlined version.

Set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn against the backdrop of World War II, the revelation of the Holocaust and the desperate struggle of Zionism, The Chosen is a moving coming-of-age story about two observant Jewish boys who live only five blocks, yet seemingly worlds, apart. When Danny, son of an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic tzaddik, injures the more traditionally Orthodox Reuven during a baseball game between their rival yeshivas, their two universes collide and a unique friendship is born.

“This powerful story shows how essential it is to consider the views of those who are different from us,” says Levy. “It’s an antidote to the toxicity of our times. Potok beautifully depicts what it means to bridge chasms — between modernity and tradition, the secular and the sacred, Zionism and Hasidism, adolescence and adulthood, friendship and family, fathers and sons, the head and the heart, and the struggle to choose for ourselves, to fight for what we believe in and who we want to be.”

According to Posner, “Through the story of two remarkable boys and their remarkable fathers, Potok asks us to contemplate a world where we chose to fill our lives with greater meaning… and where complexity, understanding, compassion and reconciliation are among our highest values.”

In 1967, Potok burst upon the literary scene with The Chosen, his first novel, sometimes referred to as a “Jewish Catcher in the Rye.” A best-seller, it was nominated for the National Book Award and through the years has become a must-read both in and out of the classroom. In 1992, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, it was republished as a young reader’s classic. A film starring Rod Steiger was released in 1981, and a short-lived off-Broadway musical debuted in 1988. Before his death in 2002, Potok collaborated with Posner on the stage version, which debuted in 1999 at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia, where Posner was a co-founder and resident director. Now, nearly 20 years later, Posner has rewritten the script to create a new version, which premiered last month at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT.

In an interview with the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, Posner explained that he has made a number of changes to the script. “I think it’s now a more dynamic, more streamlined play,” he said. “I’m really very excited about this new version. I think it’s going to be stronger in every way. I love the old version, too but I’m hoping this is even better.”

The creative team for The Chosen includes scenic and props designer DeAnne Millais, lighting designer Donny Jackson, video designer Yee Eun Nam; composer and sound designer Peter Bayne, costume designer Michele Young, hair and makeup designer Linda Michaels and dialect coach Andrea CabanRabbi Jim  Kaufmanconsults. The production stage manager is Miranda Stewart; technical director is Scott Tuomey; associate producer is James Bennett; and Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor produce for the Fountain Theatre.

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 for its acclaimed 25th Anniversary Season in 2015 by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council; the inclusion of the Fountain’s Citizen: An American Lyric in Center Theatre Group’s Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The Fountain’s most recent production, the world premiere of Building the Wall by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, ran for five months and was named “L.A. hottest ticket” by the Los Angeles Times.

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Fountain folk celebrate the triumpant finale of world premiere ‘Runaway Home’

RUNAWAY HOME Closing Party 10

The company of Runaway Home celebrates after final performance 

There was a moment yesterday during the final curtain call of our acclaimed world premiere of Runaway Home that crystalized our expeirience throughout the entire eight-week run.  The audience leaped to their feet in an exuberent standing ovation, stomping and clapping, while the actors lovingly tossed colorful mardi gras beads from the stage. Both sides of the stage shared a joyful moment of festive celebration that captured the spirit of this funny, endearing and poignant new play. 

Following Sunday’s final performance, a lively reception was held in our upstairs cafe. The rain forcasted for the afternoon never appeared as the cast joined friends and patrons for a warm-hearted reception that included bowls of hot chili and plates of sweet potato pie. 

Enjoy these photos from the post-show party. Another splendid Fountain Theatre production completes its successful run.

 

Q&A with Fred Herko biographer following ‘Freddy’ performance Thursday Sept 28th

FREDDIE image 1 copy

Fred Herko

Audiences seeing the world premiere of the new theatre/dance work Freddy on Thursday night, September 28th, will enjoy an added treat when Fred Herko biographer Gerard Forde engages in a Q&A discussion immediately following the performance at 8pm in the Caminito Theatre at LA City College.  Freddy is written by Herko friend Deborah Lawlor, directed by Frances Loy, with dance/movement direction by Cate Caplin.

Set in 1964 Greenwich Village and based on a true story, Freddy blends theatre, dance, music and projected images to tell the tale of a naïve young woman who falls under the spell of Fred Herko, a brilliant ballet dancer of extraordinary charisma and talent and a fiery denizen of Andy Warhol’s Factory.

Deb Gerard

Fred Herko biographer Gerard Forde and Deborah Lawlor

Gerard Forde is a curator, writer and translator. Over the past eight years he has been researching a biography of Fred Herko and a history of the New York Poets Theatre, founded in 1961 by Herko, Diane di Prima, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Alan Marlowe and James Waring.

In 2014, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Herko’s death, he curated a week long program of events in New York, including an exhibition of photographs of Herko at the Emily Harvey Foundation Gallery and a symposium at NYU.

His recently published essays include ‘Plus or Minus 1961 – A Chronology 1959-1963’ in ± 1961: Founding the Expanded Arts, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2013; ‘Poet’s Vaudeville – The Collages of James Waring’, in James Waring, Galerie 1900-2000, Paris, 2013; and ‘Dramatis Personæ: The Theatrical Collaborations of Kenneth Koch, Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle’, in Niki de Saint Phalle: At Last I Found the Treasure, Kunst- und Kulturstiftung Opelvillen, Rüsselheim, 2016.

Fred Herko (1936-1964) was a central figure in New York’s downtown avant-garde. A musical prodigy, he studied piano at the Juilliard School of Music before switching to ballet at the age of twenty. In 1956 he won a scholarship to study at American Ballet Theatre School and within a few years was dancing with established choreographers including John Butler, Katherine Litz, Buzz Miller, Glen Tetley and James Waring. He was a founding member of Judson Dance Theater, presenting six of his own works in the group’s concerts between 1962 and 1964 and dancing in works by Al Hansen, Deborah Hay, Arlene Rothlein and Elaine Summers. He was a co-founder of the New York Poets Theatre, which staged one-act plays by poets and provided a podium for happenings by Ray Johnson, Allan Kaprow and Robert Whitman; dances by Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown; music by La Monte Young, John Herbert McDowell and Philip Corner; and films by Brian De Palma, Stan VanDerBeek and Andy Warhol. Herko starred in seven of Warhol’s earliest cinematic experiments in 1963, including Jill and Freddy Dancing, Rollerskate/Dance Movie and Salome and Delilah. His untimely death in 1964, at the age of 28, robbed New York’s underground scene of one of its most exuberant and versatile performers who was equally at home performing Comb Music by Fluxus composer George Brecht or camping it up in Rosalyn Drexler’s musical comedy Home Movies.

 

Reserve Now for Freddy, Thursday, Sept 28 followed by Q&A with Gerard Forde

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College students and professional actors share struggle and truth, declare “I am Freddy”

FREDDY company

The company of “Freddy”. 

The passionate life and self-destructive death of 1960’s dancer Fred Herko inspired friend Deborah Lawlor to write her play, Freddy, opening Wednesday at LACC Theatre Academy as a co-production with the Fountain Theatre. Her new theatre/dance work has, in turn, motivated the students and professional artists involved. 

In this honest, poignant and empowering video, the company from Freddy share their thoughts and feelings on the often challenging journey of being an artist, the inner demons they face, and the wings they develop to enable them to soar.

Freddy Sept 27 – Oct 14 More Info/Tickets  

Iconic 1960’s dancer Fred Herko leaps to life in Deborah Lawlor’s ‘Freddy’ at LACC

herko

Fred Herko

She knew him in the final years of his life. He shared her apartment months before he died. His memory, and the inspiration his passionate spirit ignited, has firmly gripped her for fifty-three years. Next week, Fountain Co-Artistic Director Deborah Lawlor pays tribute to her gifted and troubled friend with Freddy, her new theatre/dance work opening as a co-production between the Fountain Theatre and Los Angeles City College Theatre Academy.  It runs September 27 – October 14 at the Caminito Theatre.

Even today, no one is sure if Fred Herko intended to kill himself when he jumped out of the window of his friend Johnny Dodd’s Greenwich Village apartment in 1964. The 28-year-old dancer and performer – one of the central figures of New York’s 60s avant-garde and a star of Andy Warhol’s first movies – was high on speed, and possibly LSD.

He was a founder member of the experimental Judson Dance Theater and co-founder of the New York Poets Theater, both famed for their unconventional work, “happenings” and productions, and the manner of Herko’s strange death – leaping naked from a fifth floor window, Mozart on full blast – merely added to his mythology.

Fred Herko leaped from the top floor of this apartment building in NYC.

Herko was born and raised in a blue-collar home. His first two years were spent on the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, before the family settled in Ossining, north of New York, the location of the notorious Sing Sing maximum security prison. His father ran a diner. His mother was a housewife. Herko showed early proficiency in piano and was also a great flautist. He was groomed to be a concert pianist, and attended Juilliard, the prestigious performing arts conservatory.

Forde is amassing material for his biography through those who knew him and memoirs of figures like the poet Diane di Prima, Herko’s great friend; Herko himself left no diaries or letters.

Within a year of starting ballet training, Herko performed with established choreographers like his mentor, the dancer, artist and designer James Waring. In 1962, with figures like David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, and Yvonne Rainer, Herko co-founded Judson Dance Theater, which defined what became known as modern dance – elliptical, pared-back sound and movement with a deliberate lack of linear narrative.

Fred Herko
Herko and Aileen Passloff in James Waring’s In the Mist, 1960. Photograph: Vladimir Sladon/Public domain

“Just as pop artists were proposing that cartoons and trucks could be art,” says Forde, “at Judson they showed dance could be combing your hair, rubbing your thighs together, running on the spot, or barking like a dog. It completely rejected Martha Graham’s narrative dance, and Merce Cunningham’s pure dance.” Herko performed in 16 performances between 1962 and 1964, and six original pieces of his own choreography. He also appeared on Ed Sullivan’s TV show, supporting stars like Rosemary Clooney and Pearl Bailey as a backing dancer.

Away from the stage, Herko was having lots of sex. One of Di Prima’s poems was called, For Freddie, Fucking Again, a diatribe which followed him being late for a restaurant date with her. “He liked hanging out at sleazy bars,” says Forde. “He was extremely aware of his sexual power.”

In 1963-4, Herko hung out with the Warhold Factory posse, “an extremely flamboyant crowd who were unashamed of their sexuality”, says Forde. He had relationships with the son of a wealthy Hollywood family, and was rumored to have been kept by a wealthy member of the De Rothschild family in an Upper West Side apartment. He had a relationship with the poet Alan Marlowe, who was then married to and had children with Di Prima.

Herko was very close to Warhol, and performed in some of the artist’s earliest cinematic experiments. One 40-minute film, Roller Skate, is entirely devoted to Herko, dancing all over New York on one rollerskate. The films features him bleeding and hobbling, but smiling and wearing a YMCA Good Guys sweatshirt.

Fred Herko
Herko as Icarus in James Waring’s At the Hallelujah Gardens with costume by Robert Indiana, February 1963. Photograph: Judith Searle

In his memoir Popism, Warhol said Herko had been taking more and more amphetamines. “He destroyed himself: speed, LSD and marijuana,” says Forde. “Everyone was taking speed at that time. Doctors were prescribing it for slimming pills, kids were using it to cram for exams. People snorted it, mainlined it. Drugs became a problem with Freddie at the end of 1962. He was injecting it.”

Herko was reaching a point where he couldn’t perform. “He was choreographing and teaching, but he realised he had fucked his career up,” says Forde. “Doors were closing for him: he was unreliable, strung out, unpredictable; a once sweet boy had become aggressive and had started disappointing people. He’d also become homeless.”

Warhol said that Herko had let himself into Dodd’s home on 27 October 1964. A former lover of Herko’s, Dodd also did the Judson Memorial Church lighting for performances.

However, Forde says Dodd found Herko dancing on the counter of a diner, out of control. “Freddy was covered with filth, and he was dancing on the counter,” Dodd recalled to Warhol biographer David Bourdon. “He said he hadn’t had any drugs for three days, but he was wacked out and his body was quivering.”

Dodd took Herko to his fifth-floor Cornelia Street apartment. Forde says Herko had a shower, and put on the Coronation Mass by Mozart. Warhol told Bourdon that Herko said he had a new ballet to do “and he needed to be alone. He herded the people there out of the room.”

“He danced naked around the living room. The window was open and at the moment of the Sanctus,” says Forde, “Herko leapt out of the window to his death.”

In Bourdon’s version: “Freddy poured a bottle of Dodd’s perfume into a tub of steaming hot water and took a long bubble bath” – Forde says the tub was too squat for this. “He seemed to cheer up as Dodd, who knew that ‘Freddy was a Mozart freak,’ put a recording of the composer’s Coronation Mass on the phonograph. Herko dried himself, then started dancing naked around the living room, whirling round and round, periodically making a long run toward the front windows. Dodd couldn’t help but wonder whether this was going to be the ‘suicide performance’ that Freddy had been promising his friends for so many weeks. ‘It was obvious that Freddy had to do it now: the time and the place were right, the decor was right, the music was right.’

“Herko made another long run and, like Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose, leaped out an open window, his momentum carrying him almost to the opposite side of the street. He was 29 years old. Several of Andy’s friends heard him lament on various occasions that he had not been there to film it.”

Fred Herko
Herko as Peter Peterouter in Rosalyn Drexler’s musical comedy Home Movies with Charlotte Bellamy as Sister Thalia and Al Carmines as Father Shenanigan, 1964. Photograph: Van Williams/New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

However, Forde doesn’t believe Herko’s was a performed death. As part of a piece he was preparing, he would routinely go up to the gallery of Judson Memorial Church (which has helped organize the 50th anniversary events) and leap off a 20-foot ledge, landing perfectly. “Every ballet dancer has the sense they can fly, and for seconds suspended in mid-air, they do.”

Had he lived, Forde thinks Herko may have formed his own company, a forerunner of the kind of dance Michael Clark became famous for 20 years later. “There wasn’t any figure taking Freddy’s direction in the 60s and 70s. But people said he didn’t have much discipline. One report from Juilliard said he had problems making up his mind. He was making costumes, collage and painting; he was interested in too many things. In combination with the drugs, it led to his downfall.”

Warhol later said, “For the 26 nights following Freddy’s death, the group at Diane di Prima’s apartment met formally to read the Tibetan Book of the Dead … There was a memorial service for him at Judson Church, but so many people showed up that there was another one for him, at the Factory. We showed the three films.”

Now, 50 years later, for Herko’s surviving loved ones, friends and downtown obsessives, the celebratory events in his name aim to accord him his rightful place in the avant-garde pantheon, in what was a too short – but dramatic – life.

Freddy at LACC Theatre Academy More Info/Get Tickets

This post originally appeared in The Guardian