Robert and Jenna have been faithful members of The Fountain Family since the 1990s. What’s kept them coming back? Robert says, “…the quality of the acting, the diversity of plays, you always get the best”.
A native of Detroit, Robert moved to Los Angeles in 1975, and never looked back. Coming from Detroit, the weather was an obvious draw. But what he really loved was the cultural diversity, and the ever-evolving music and theatre scene. In the last four decades, he’s watched the Los Angeles theatre scene evolve into an exciting place to see innovative new voices, with Fountain at the center of it all. “Back when I first moved here, many of the intimate theatres mostly produced vanity productions. But in the late 80s/90s, more and more theatres were producing plays that were challenging…cutting edge.”
Some of his favorite Fountain productions over the years are Tarrel McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water; Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman, and Exits and Entrances by Athol Fugard. The latter is one of his all-time favorites. “Morlan Higgins was amazing, and the play spoke to people who love the theatre. And I love the theatre.” A fan of Fugard, one of Robert and Jenna’s fondest memories is of a fundraiser for The Fountain in which Fugard talked about how he created the play, The Train Driver. That remains a special memory for the both of them.
Married 37 years, Robert and Jenna don’t always see eye to eye on every show – but The Fountain productions always give them plenty to talk about. “After the Fall was especially juicy…lots of loose ends to discuss”
Robert has also remained busy as a Board member of Boston Court Theatre, and with his work as a Superior Court Commissioner, hearing Juvenile Court cases. His occupation may have prepared him to endure the challenging times we are in. He continues to find hope and joy in the world. When I asked what’s been giving him hope in these last few months, he replied “All of you; all you theatre folks out there continuing to create, keeping the art form alive”.
We are so lucky to have these two lovers of theatre as a part of our family. Thank you, Robert and Jenna, for all your support over the years.
France-Luce Benson is a playwright and the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Fountain Theatre.
Robert Schenkkan’s powerful new political thriller Building the Wall, now playing to sold-out houses at the Fountain Theatre, will open Off-Broadway at New World Stages for a limited run May 12 to July 9th. The New York production will feature Tamara Tunie (“Law & Order: SVU”) and James Badge Dale (“13 hours”, “The Departed”), directed by Ari Edelson.
“We are thrilled Robert’s play will increase the national conversation on these issues by making its New York debut, ” says Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “I am very proud that the Fountain Theatre has lead the charge by launching the world premiere of this urgent new play.”
The Fountain Theatre opened the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of Building the Wall on March 18, directed by Michael Michetti and starring Bo Foxworth and Judith Moreland. The production has earned rave reviews and is still playing to sold-out houses. The current run continues to May 21.
Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth in “Building the Wall”, Fountain Theatre
“This announcement comes from the core of our artistic mission at the Fountain,” says Sachs. “We are dedicated to developing and producing new plays that are later seen in theaters across the country and around the world.” Examples include Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances, which premiered at the Fountain and opened Off-Broadway at Primary Stages, Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, and Sachs’ own Bakersfield Mist, now being produced worldwide after a 3-month run on London’s West End.
If Los Angeles had a Mount Rushmore, the visage of Gordon Davidson would be on it. Such a monument to the City of the Angels would include many faces, from a variety of disciplines. Politics, the arts, architecture, sports, business. With names like Mulholland, Chandler, Griffith, Bradley, Getty, O’Malley, Wright, Disney. And the name Gordon Davidson.
Starting in 1967 with the launching of the Music Center and the Mark Taper Forum, Gordon Davidson’s 38-year leadership of Center Theatre Group made him not only the Founding Father of Los Angeles theatre but one of the most influential artistic leaders in the city’s history. He planted the theatre flag in the sand for Los Angeles and put our city on the theatrical map.
With Gordon’s passing, and the loss of Arena Stage’s Zelda Fichandler this summer, the generation of bold visionaries who created, established and fought for the ideal of non-profit theater in this country, upon which all of us follow, are exiting.
For me, as a theatre artist growing up in Los Angeles, with a dream of some day creating my own theatre company, Gordon’s light was inspiring and his shadow monumental. But working with him and getting to know him revealed the kind, generous and supportive man he was. If you were a passionate theatre person, he was always on your side.
Gordon first influenced the course of my artistic life when he cast me in the world premiere of Tales from Hollywood, a new play by Christopher Hampton at the Mark Taper Forum in 1982 starring Paul Sorvino. I was twenty-three. It was my first acting job in the professional theater. I got my Equity card thanks to Gordon Davidson.
The house on Mabery Road
Gordon commissioned Christopher to write the play inspired by the history of Gordon and Judi Davidson’s home on Mabery Road in Santa Monica Canyon . The 1929 house once belonged to Austrian actress and screenwriter Salka Viertel. It becamea meeting place in the 1940’s for German exiles during the war, including Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas and Heinrich Mann. Greta Garbo and Albert Einstein would visit. Famous actors, writers, and filmmakers of the era would gather each week for a Sunday salon in the house to eat, drink and argue politics and art. During the run of Tales From Hollywood, Gordon and Judi hosted a company party at their home where we all enjoyed an afternoon gathering and experienced the stimulating atmosphere of the notable house firsthand. The home not only held the history of the celebrated émigrés who met there years ago. It also displayed proof of the remarkable career of the man who lived there now. Among the family photos on the walls hung posters, playbills, and backstage photographs from Gordon’s extraordinary life in the theatre. I remember the framed drawing of Gordon by Al Hirschfeld in particular.
Drawing by Hirschfeld
As a young actor who grew up in Los Angeles, standing on the stage of the Mark Taper Forum in my first professional production was exhilarating. Like stepping into a dream. The Mark Taper Forum was my Mecca. The epicenter of LA Theater. For me and most actors in Los Angeles, to be working at the Taper was like passing through the portal of professional and artistic arrival. It was where you wanted to be, you needed to be. And that was all because of Gordon.
I loved being there. Not just on stage. All of it. The rehearsal rooms, the offices, the circular backstage hallway that curved around the playing area. The walls decorated with posters from Taper productions, each signed by the actors, many now famous and admired. My young hand trembled when I added my simple signature to our wall poster for Tales from Hollywood.
In the Taper hallways I would stare at the framed photographs from the 1979 world premiere of Children of Lesser God, created and performed on the Taper stage just three years before my arrival there. In the photos there was Gordon, directing John Rubinstein and Phyllis Frelich in that ground-breaking production which showed the world the power and beauty of American Sign Language on stage. Though my own commitment and contribution to deaf theatre in Los Angeles would be years away, a seed had been planted.
That same 1981-82 season at the Taper, just seven months before I appeared there, the newest play by Athol Fugard, A Lesson from Aloes, had been staged. I did not meet Athol that year, but our paths would cross nearly two decades later and an artistic partnership would be formed that would change my life. By way of Gordon Davidson and the Mark Taper Forum.
I savored my time at the Taper. I would sit in the empty arena, watching Gordon direct his company in the home he had fathered, and dream of someday creating a theatre home of my own.
When I finally opened the Fountain Theatre with my colleague Deborah Lawlor in 1990, Gordon and the Taper were entering a renewed phase of artistic achievement with the premieres of Jelly’s Last Jam, The Kentucky Cycle, Angels in America, and Twilight: Los Angeles. The Taper was riding a crest of award-winning national acclaim under Gordon’s unending passion, guidance and leadership.
Gordon Davidson, Athol Fugard, Stephen Sachs, at Fountain Theatre, 2004
Meanwhile, on Fountain Avenue, our modest theatre company was blossoming. In 2000, Athol Fugard surprised all of us by arriving one night to see our work. He offered me his new play, Exits and Entrances, in 2004 and a 12-year artistic partnership began that continues to this day. Gordon attended our world premiere production of Exits and Entrances and was beaming like a pleased uncle. So caring and supportive.
The last time I spoke with Gordon was a brief hello at the memorial service for Phyllis Frelich held at the Taper two years ago. By this time, I knew Phyllis well and had worked with her many times. She was a founding member of Deaf West Theatre, which we launched at the Fountain in 1991. Her memorial at the Taper was a gathering of the many deaf and hearing artists and friends in the community who knew and loved Phyllis. And a bittersweet reunion of the core team that had created Children of a Lesser God on that very stage: John Rubinstein, Mark Medoff, Robert Steinberg, and, of course, Gordon Davidson. Although eighty-one and moving more delicately, Gordon spoke passionately from the stage he once led about the power of theatre as a vehicle for human connection and a trigger for social change. Theatre still fervently mattered to him. Like a wise elder preaching from the pulpit, Gordon still believed.
And now he is gone. But not really. Because the hundreds of new plays he helped create, develop and produce over nearly four decades will endure forever. And the hundreds of thousands of lives he has impacted will be forever changed. Including one Artistic Director on Fountain Avenue.
The intimate Fountain Theatre is a fraction of the Taper’s size and budget. But that doesn’t matter. The words of Gordon Davidson continue to inspire and remind me that “the great thing about the theatre is that it’s dealing with the art of the possible. What’s possible is not limited by money, but by imagination, and vision.”
Gordon had the vision to see what was possible. The city, and ourselves, are forever richer for it.
Stephen Sachs is the founding Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.
‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre
by Josh Gershick
Citizen: An American Lyric, the play, takes its title and text from a book of prose poetry by Claudia Rankine, finalist for 2014 National Book Award in Poetry and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, among other plaudits. Writing in the New York Times last June, after six black women and three black men were shot to death by a self-avowed white supremacist at a Bible-study meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, Ms. Rankine said, “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black .”
The play – “a fast-moving collage of colliding events, fragments, vignettes and streams of consciousness”-is deeply compelling. Here, a chat with Stephen Sachs, co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre and the playwright who brought Citizen to the stage.
JOSH GERSHICK:Citizen is a beautiful piece of theatre, addressing persistent racism head on. Talk about theatre’s (and this play’s) ability to move, transform, agitate and uplift an audience.
STEPHEN SACHS: In 2014, when Claudia’s book was being published, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO. I had been looking for a theatre protect that would add a unique voice to the national conversation about race in America. Racism is embedded in the fabric of our country and its founding.
We may all be created equal, but we certainly are not perceived that way by each other. I wanted to make a statement that would open the eyes, minds and hearts of audiences in unexpected ways. Quite by accident, I was caught by a review of Citizen in a national newspaper. The title immediately grabbed me. When I actually got the book, it flashed in my mind that this was the voice I was looking for. What makes the book-and the theatre piece – unique is that they expose and illuminate the sometimes unintended and unconscious acts of everyday racism. Subtle, insidious, soul crushing-the little murders we commit daily. Micro-aggressions between friends and co-workers at the market, in the office and on the subway. What we say, how we think, what we do. White privilege and dominance have been so deeply [ingrained] in this country. The play makes you see it, feel it, and think about it. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?
JOSH GERSHICK: You’ve said you’d like theatre-goers to come away with a new awareness of how they themselves might perpetuate racism. A white theatre-goer cannot, in my view, see this piece without confronting his or her own attitudes: ideas. But what is the takeaway for audiences of color, who are on the receiving end of racism?
STEPHEN SACHS: A dramatization of white dominance. A truth-telling. We had a full mix of white and black audience members throughout the run at the Fountain Theatre. Black patrons had a wide range of reactions to the play: the laughter of recognition, gasps, silence, tears. The unease of, “I can’t believe you’re really saying that,” and the delight of “I’m so glad you are.” And because it’s all about exposing and revealing hidden (and not so hidden) racism, the piece carries the call of giving voice and speaking out.
JOSH GERSHICK: The run was clearly a success. (Mazel Tov on your Stage Raw Award!) What’s next for the play?
‘Citizen’ at Pure Theatre in Charleston, SC.
STEPHEN SACHS: The play now is beginning its future life around the country. I’m proud that Citizen is beingperformed in Charleston this June, in a theatre just four blocks away from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, to mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting there. On June 17, when we reflect on that national tragedy, the play will be there. This is deeply meaningful to me. This is why we do what we do. This is who we are. A New York production is also in the works.
JOSH GERSHICK: I think of LA theatre, 99-seat theatre, as an incubator, a cradle, a hothouse and a glorious lab for bringing forth new, compelling work-Citizen, for example and revisiting work that remains seldom produced, such as the work of Alice Childress. What percentage of new work launched at the Fountain Theatre goes on to regional stages and to NY?
STEPHEN SACHS: The Fountain Theatre is a home for artists and audiences to gather together in an intimate setting to share stories that illuminate what it means to be a human being, with the goal that new plays are then seen in theatres across the country and around the world. We may be small in size, but we’re large in heart and dedication and purpose.
Kathleen Turner in ‘Bakersfield Mist’, West End, London.
Quite a number of new plays created, developed and launched at the Fountain have now been produced across the U.S.and around the world. Sweet Nothing in Ear has been performed around the country and was made into a TV movie starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin. What I Heard About Iraq has been performed internationally, winning the Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Our world premiere of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances was produced around the country, then opened Off-Broadway at Primary Stages in NYC, then went overseas to the Edinburgh Festival. Bakersfield Mist, performed in theatres across the country, ran for three months on the West End in London, starring Kathleen Turner, and is now being produced in regional theatres throughout the country and translated into other languages and performed worldwide. The list goes on and on.
JOSH GERSHICK: Recently a New Yorker said to me, “Oh, is there theater in Los Angeles?” True, actors, writers & directors typically make their living here in TV, film & digital platforms, but we have amazing theatre-and most abundantly and energetically, intimate theater.
STEPHEN SACHS: Los Angeles still fights for its right to be called a “theatre town,” even though-and this may surprise you-more theatre is produced in LA than any other city in the world. More than New York or London.And according to a recent report, Los Angeles is also home to more working artists than any other city in the United States. The national profile of theatre in Los Angeles has never been higher. More and more new plays created here are being produced nationwide. Still, the myth is that LA theatre is somehow less serious and that LA actors do theatre only to be seen by casting directors in “the industry,” and not for the art of the work. This simply is not true. It’s a lie. And much of the most satisfying work and the most challenging new plays are being done in LA’s intimate theaters. Larger theaters can no longer afford to take artistic risks, so all that adventurous, artistic energy is humming in the intimate theatre community. The spirit behind it, the force to create, has transformed the cultural landscape of Los Angeles.
Josh Gershick is a playwright, filmmaker and author. This post originally appeared in The Dramatist, the national magazine for The Dramatist Guild.
Citizen: An American Lyric, adapted for the stage from Claudia Rankine’s award-winning book of poetry by Rankine and Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs, will headline Primary Stages’ 2016-17 season at Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre. Citizen premiered at the Fountain Theatre last summer to critical acclaim.
“We are thrilled that yet another Fountain project has succeeded in moving onward and upward,” says Sachs. “In 2007, our world premiere production of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances was presented Off-Broadway by Primary Stages, so this continues our relationship with them. Claudia and I are working together on a new draft for the New York premiere.” An announcement for the NY opening was featured in The New York Times.
‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre
An intensely provocative and unapologetic rumination on racial aggression in America, Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric has been heralded as one of the best books of the past decade and received the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. In this new stage adaptation by Rankine and Sachs, seemingly everyday acts of racism are scrutinized as part of an uncompromising testimony of “living while Black” in America, from the shooting of Trayvon Martin, to the tennis career of Serena Williams and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his “critic’s choice” review of the Fountain production, Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty wrote, “Claudia Rankine’s powerful writings about the trauma of racism make for a staging and message that resonate,” and Stage raw critic Myron Meisel called it “a transcendent experience.”
“We are particularly pleased that this piece will have a life in theaters across the country,” added Sachs. “By enlivening Claudia’s powerful book to the stage, we add our theatrical voice to the national conversation on race in America.”
Other plays written by Sachs that were created and launched at the Fountain’s intimate venue in Hollywood include Bakersfield Mist, now produced worldwide including London’s West End starring Kathleen Turner; Heart Song, produced at Florida Repertory Theatre; Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (adapted from August Strindberg’s Miss Julie) at Vancouver Playhouse and Canadian Stage Company in Toronto; and Sweet Nothing in My Ear which has been produced nationwide and was adapted into a TV movie starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin.
The world premiere production of Citizen: An American Lyric at the Fountain Theatre was directed by Shirley Jo Finney and starred Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Simone Missick and Lisa Pescia. The director and cast for the Primary Stages production have not been announced.
For more information about the Primary Stages production of Citizen: An American Lyric, visitwww.primarystages.org.
When Stephen Sachs was a student at Agoura High, he won a national high school writing award and was offered several writing scholarships. He turned them all down. Why? “I wanted to be an actor,” he answered a bit sheepishly.
He became one in the 1980s, but it’s the old story. As reality set in, he began to direct, write plays and help run theatre companies. He was a manager at Ensemble Studio Theatre, worked behind the scenes at Stages in Hollywood, and with Joan Stein and Suzie Dietz at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. Until he got a phone call “out of the blue” from Deborah Lawlor, another independent theatre producer.
Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs
Lawlor had met Sachs at Stages when she rented space there, and was impressed by him. While recuperating from a serious auto accident in New York, she decided that, if she survived, she would do what she’d always wanted: have her own theatre. She called Sachs and asked him to run it with her. That was 1990. You might say that the rest is history, but not so fast…
“I was just starting to develop as a playwright and director,” Sachs said. “Deborah had a dance background. She was part of the avant-garde dance scene in New York in the 1960s and 70s. The Judson Dance Theater, Café Cino, the whole thing. Her idea was to create an artistic home for theatre and dance artists.”
As a wise friend once told me, we tend to enter our lives through the back door. Looking around for a suitable space, Lawlor and Sachs were shown a funky building at 5060 Fountain Avenue in Hollywood and fell in love with it. They named it the Fountain for the street it sat on, but also, Lawlor said, “I liked the idea of a fountain of work…”
“We opened our doors on April Fool’s Day 1990—the perfect day to start a theatre company,” said Sachs, “and we’ve been there ever since. Los Angeles being such a diverse city, we wanted to do work that would give voice to a variety of communities.”
Which is how the theatre’s association with Flamenco dance began.
Flamenco dancer Maria Bermudez
“Through Deborah,” specified Sachs. “Shortly after we opened she asked, ‘Have you ever seen a Flamenco concert?’ I said no and she said, ‘Come with me.’ We got in the car, drove up to Santa Barbara and she introduced me to Roberto Amaral, a well respected Flamenco teacher and choreographer. I saw my first Flamenco concert and was blown away. ‘We’re going to do that at The Fountain,’ Deborah said. And now we’re the foremost regular presenters of Flamenco in Los Angeles.
“When we started it was just Deborah, me and the building. We plugged in a couple of phones, drove down Western Avenue and bought a couple of desks. We had to assemble them ourselves. We made our own programs on a manual typewriter. It was all very small, very modest.”
In many ways, it still is. “But from the beginning,” added Sachs, “we felt we were on to something. We did The Golden Gate, a play I had adapted from a charming novel by Vikram Seth about yuppies, gays and straights living in San Francisco—romantic and fun, beautifully written, and entirely in verse. It was like 30-somethings meet Shakespeare. We did it up in San Francisco, so right out of the gate, our work was being noticed. It’s just been a slow kind of gentle growth ever since.”
While next year will mark their 25th year in business at the same address in a virtually unchanged environment, and they have a lot to show artistically for the past quarter century, big profit is not one of them. Lawlor has delivered financial support when needed, while Sachs has delivered a stream of noteworthy plays, becoming that unusual creature: a playwright and director with his own sandbox. Together, they’ve built a loyal audience and done work that has brought them recognition and has traveled pretty far afield.
Sachs has had 11 of his plays produced during that time, many of them at the Fountain, quite a few elsewhere—from The Pasadena Playhouse to Toronto, from Chicago’s Victory Gardens to Vancouver. A quick Google search offers an impressive list of directing and playwriting credits.
Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap) finds release through dance in ‘Heart Song’.
Currently, his play Heart Song, which recently premiered at the Fountain and is about the transformation of a middle-aged Jewish woman “separated from her tribe and very much alone,” is filling up houses at Florida Rep. His 2012 two-hander, Bakersfield Mist, about the encounter of a celebrated art dealer with a woman in a Bakersfield trailer convinced she owns a major work of art, opens in June at The Duchess Theatre in London’s West End. It features Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid.
“There’s been something special about this play from the start,” said Sachs. “I directed the world premiere at the Fountain and was on the 101 freeway driving to my first production meeting, when I had a call from my agent telling me the script had been optioned for New York. I had to pull over!”
Bakersfield Mist received three other productions around the country as part of the National New Play Network (NNPN), an organization of theaters of which The Fountain is a member. It was founded in 1998 with the intent of giving new plays more than one production.
“They do this thing called ‘rolling world premieres,’ ” Sachs explained, “guaranteeing at least three productions of a new play. Sweet Nothing In My Ear, another play of mine that premiered at the Fountain, went around the country through NNPN and then was made into a Hallmark movie with Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels. A new version of Strinberg’s Miss Julie that I wrote was produced that way as well. We want to continue doing more of that.”
Bakersfield Mist had productions at Wellfleet Harbor Theatre in Cape Cod, New Rep in Boston, the New Jersey Rep and was optioned by Sonia Friedman, a major New York and London producer. “They’d never seen a production of it,” said Sachs. “They read that script sent by my agent and optioned it for London and New York. Now they control the U.S. rights.”
Ian McDiarmid and Kathleen Turner in the London production of “Bakersfield Mist”
In 2004, the Fountain drew the attention of no less a playwright than South Africa’s Athol Fugard, who chose the tiny Fountain for the world premiere of an exquisite and very personal two-character play: Exits and Entrances. It was followed by the U.S. premiere of Fugard’s The Blue Iris, The Train Driver, Victory and the West coast premiere of Coming Home.
When asked how many productions the Fountain puts on per year, Sachs answered: “Trick question. We’ll announce four, but actually do two or three. Our productions tend to extend and run for a while which is a nice problem to have. So we announce four and see how it goes.”
Productions are no longer pegged to specific dates, but to seasons — Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter — allowing for greater flexibility. Sachs and Lawlor threw out the old model of rigid slots when they found themselves closing hits because they had committed to a new show on a given date. With just 80 seats to sell, they had to think more creatively. “We changed everyone to a flexible pass and we’ve never looked back. This allows us to keep a hit going. It also allows our subscribers the flexibility to come at their convenience—a good thing when decisions today tend to be so last-minute.”
So is the small physical plant a plus or a minus?
“It’s a question we’ve been wrestling with for years,” Sachs acknowledged, “a tug between ambition and what is right for the company. We even explored Hollywood quite a bit, looking to find maybe a second space or larger building, thinking, boy, how much bigger we could be. Yet talking with Fugard about this, he said, ‘Don’t. Don’t do it.’ Maybe he’s right…”
“The Train Driver” by Athol Fugard
So here’s the dilemma: Awards and recognition are certainly not lacking, but breaking even—let alone making money—is a perennial struggle. The staff has ballooned to six people: Lawlor and Sachs, producing director Simon Levy, tech director Scott Tuomey, associate producer James Bennett and head of subscriptions Diana Gibson. The budget has “a little more than doubled” since they opened their doors. It does not easily enable profit.
“There are times when I wish we had more seats, a bigger stage,” said Sachs, “but there are plenty of examples out there of smaller theatres that have gone on to larger buildings and have regretted it or have lost something in the move; suddenly the focus becomes the real estate and maintaining the overhead.
“I don’t ever want to lose the magic of this intimate space. It makes for such a visceral experience. But after almost 25 years, there’s also a question of growth. We can’t become stagnant or complacent and we do want to continue building forward. You don’t want to sell your soul and you don’t want to lose what makes this theatre special.”
Lawlor concurred. She’s writing a play for which she’s received a grant and acknowledged that “our losses have decreased; we may even show a tiny profit this year.”
“Expanding fund-raising; exploring the possibility of adding 19 seats to our existing space. Not easy,” said Sachs, “but we can do that under the 99-seat Equity Waiver and 19 seats could make a difference. Other than that, we’re looking to expand our exposure across the country and having more of our work done at other theatres.”
So the funky Fountain remains the-little-theatre-that-could, on its funky street with its broken sidewalk, its postage-stamp parking lot, and widely enjoyed by many people who apparently have found out that they really, really like what it has to offer.
Victoria and I have been residents of Los Feliz for more than 25 years. We love theatre and we fell in love with The Fountain Theatre the first time we saw a play there about ten years ago. We immediately became subscribers even though we subscribe to other theatres in the greater Los Angeles area. We are continually impressed by the originality and quality of the plays at the Fountain, as well as the intimate environment. As such, The Fountain is a great place to see the plays of great writers like August Wilson and Athol Fugard; and we have seen them all, – Gem of the Ocean, The Train Driver, Coming Home, Exits and Entrances, and the most recent classic, The Blue Iris. We will be remiss if we do not mention the professionalism and friendliness of The Fountain staff. They have always been gracious in accommodating us since our business requires frequent travel out of town.
Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris”
Back in the year 2000, legendary South African playwright Athol Fugard was residing in Del Mar, teaching playwriting, acting and directing at UC San Diego — while continuing to turn out the prolific body of work that had earned him worldwide acclaim.
He heard from friends of his, whose opinions he respected, that the Fountain Theatre in LA had mounted a very good production of his 1984 play, The Road to Mecca. With trepidation, Fugard traveled to the Fountain to see what this director named Stephen Sachs had done to his work.
Six Fugard/Fountain Theatre collaborations later, the Fountain is now presenting the US premiere of Fugard’s latest work. The Blue Iris, helmed by Sachs, opens Friday, in celebration of the master playwright’s 80th birthday and his ongoing collaboration with the Fountain.
In a telephone interview from New York, Fugard admits, “I’ve always been wary of seeing plays of mine that I myself hadn’t directed. Eventually I went to the Fountain and saw this marvelous production, staged by Stephen. I met Stephen and I met the cast of that production and found myself saying to Stephen, ‘I want my next play to be done in your theater.’ I loved the feel of it. Everything about it felt right — the theater, the size of the space, the atmosphere. It was perfect for my sorts of plays. So, when my next play was ready, I brought it to Stephen.”
Sachs has his own memory of his first encounter with Fugard in 2000. “I was told he never goes to see productions of his plays that other people do. Well, I learned he was coming. Of course, I was excited and terrified. I didn’t tell the actors that Athol was there. After the performance, during the applause, I want backstage quickly and told the actors, ‘There’s someone I want you to meet.’ The actors came out and I said, ‘I would like you all to meet Athol Fugard.’ And they all screamed. Of course, we were all so happy when he told us he loved our production. We all went out afterwards. And we just kept corresponding after that. When Fugard was directing Sorrows and Rejoicings at the Mark Taper [in 2002], I kept saying to him, ‘If you’re ever looking for a small, intimate, artistic home to develop a new work, away from a larger theatrical institution, where you can just work quietly in a nurturing environment, the Fountain is yours’.”
One day in 2004, Fugard sent Sachs an e-mail with a file attached to it. The e-mail message read, “Attached to this file is my new play and I want you to direct it.” The play was Exits and Entrances, which went on to garner three Ovation Awards and a slew of LADCC, LA Weekly and Backstage honors.
Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins
Fugard’s newest work, The Blue Iris, recently premiered in Cape Town and has since moved to Johannesburg. It is a three-character play in one act, which Fugard takes time to carefully explain.
“The inspiration for this play came from two directions. It is set in the Karoo, a semi-desert area in the heart of South Africa, where several of my plays have been set. One of the features of this rather small area is a very beautiful mountain. I’ve climbed that mountain several times, often with a friend. It is quite a stiff climb but a good one, not dangerous really. We always used to park our car at the foot of the mountain at a lovely old farmhouse, which was owned by a very cordial farmer. He became a friend of ours. When we would come down from our climb, he was always there waiting for us with something to drink or to eat. It was a great relationship. But on this one occasion when I went with my friend to climb the mountain, we arrived at this farmhouse to find it had been totally destroyed by a fire, which was started by a lightning strike. This wonderful man and his wife were living in a little tent outside the house, just trying to salvage what they could.
Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill
“The second image which inspired this play came from a farmer’s wife, totally unrelated to the first farmer I mentioned. She was a wonderful painter of wild flowers, of botanically accurate wild flowers. These weren’t only pretty paintings, these were botanical drawings that helped you identify the flower — the seed capsule, the root structure, everything. It was a fusion of those two images that finally brought me to writing The Blue Iris. There were a lot of complex personal issues that came into the play as well. I had a sense of how we men can get so absorbed in our own egos, our own personalities, never fully realizing what damage we do to others on the way.”
Fugard pauses in his discourse and chuckles. “I don’t think I properly understand the play yet, myself. I mean that. We writers quite often don’t know what we’ve written about. There have been many times that I haven’t known what the full resonances are of the story that I’ve told. It has often been only when I have been in the rehearsal room directing actors, helping them to understand the characters that they in turn helped me to understand what I had written.”
Stephen Sachs and Morlan Higgins.
“I received The Blue Iris a few months ago,” Sachs continues. “I knew about the play for a few years. I know that Athol was working on it, developing it. I knew that he was going to present the world premiere in South Africa, which is pretty much his way of working now. They’ve named a theater after him, the Fugard Theatre. I am honored to be doing it here at the Fountain. My cast includes two Fugard regulars here at the Fountain, Morlan Higgins and Jacqueline Schultz. Julanne Chidi Hill is new to the Fountain. She’s a discovery.
“This work has some classic Fugard themes in it – the search for hope, the struggle with loss and the fight for dignity. It is a love story and very much about finding the courage and strength to move forward in what sometimes can seem like bleak and painful circumstances. It is a profoundly human story about these three individuals who live together in this house: this man Robert, who was a farmer, his wife Sally, who is deceased, and their housekeeper Rita.
“The play begins after the house has been burned to the ground by a fire and Robert and Rita are sifting through the debris. She wants to move on and take Robert with her. While going through the debris, they discover a painting of a blue iris that his wife Sally had done. Finding that painting triggers memory and forces Robert to look at the truth of the reality of his marriage to Sally.”
Fugard will not be at the Fountain for its debut. “I’ve been here in New York for a whole year directing plays, currently The Train Driver. This is also a play that Stephen Sachs has done. This is its New York premiere. I will be coming to see Blue Iris. I am leaving New York this coming Sunday and flying down to San Diego. I’m going to give myself a bit of a rest first and then come up to Los Angeles to see Stephen’s production. I am not going to tell him the date because I don’t want any fuss or bother when I come to see it. I am just going to quietly slip into the theater.”
Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins
As for the future, Fugard wants to keep it simple. “I do not multi-track. I work on one play at a time, like a good alcoholic goes one day at a time. My home now is in Del Mar. My plans for the immediate future are to go back to South Africa in September to direct a new play that I haven’t got a title for yet, because I am still putting the finishing touches to it. I’ll decide on a title a little bit later on. I will always premiere my work in South Africa. And I’ll probably always think of the Fountain as the next possibility.”
Continuing its 12-year relationship with Athol Fugard, The Fountain Theatre celebrates the master playwright’s 80th birthday with theU.S. premiere of his newest play. Directed by Stephen Sachs and starring Morlan Higgins, Julanne Chidi Hill and Jacqueline Schultz, The Blue Iris opens at the Fountain on August 24, with low-priced previews beginning August 18.
Described by Time magazine as “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world,” Athol Fugard celebrated his 80th birthday on June 11, but the prolific writer shows no signs of slowing down. On June 28, The Blue Iris premiered at The National Arts Festival in his native South Africa to rave reviews. “Vintage Fugard… riveting theatre that will evoke whispering echoes in the heart long after the show has ended,” wrote Cue magazine.
The Blue Iris is set in Fugard’s beloved and desolate South African desert, the Karoo. In a burnt-out farmhouse, a widowed farmer, Robert Hannay (Higgins) and his housekeeper, Rieta (Hill) sort through the fire-ravaged debris of their lives. The discovery of a miraculously undamaged painting of a flower – a blue iris – created by Hannay’s deceased wife (Schultz) unlocks long-forgotten memories and hidden secrets. Fugard digs deep into the human heart, and the result is a love story full of tender, soul-touching and surprising revelations.
“We should be going into people`s lives, their souls, their ways of life. Everything I have written is an attempt to share secrets with you,” says the playwright.
“The Blue Iris is achingly beautiful, a heartfelt play that brings to life the tender honesty and deep complexity of human relationships,” avers Sachs. “We cherish Athol’s 12-year friendship and artistic association at the Fountain, and we’re thrilled to celebrate his 80th birthday with this remarkable work.”
The author of over 30 plays and recipient of countless accolades including the Academy Award, Obie Award, and Tony Award, Athol Fugard is best known for his plays about the frustrations of life in contemporary South Africa and the psychological barriers created by apartheid. Widely acclaimed around the world, his plays include Boesman and Lena (Obie Award, Best Foreign Play), Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (Tony Award, Best Play), A Lesson from Aloes (New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Best Play), the semiautobiographical Master Harold…and the Boys (Writers Guild Award, Outstanding Achievement) and The Road to Mecca (New York Drama Critics Circle Citation, Best Foreign Play, London Evening Standard Award, Best Play). The first white South African playwright to collaborate with black actors and workers, some of his works, such as Blood Knot, were initially banned in South Africa. In his first two post-apartheid plays, Valley Song (1995) and The Captain’s Tiger (1998), Fugard addressed more personal concerns, but in Sorrows and Rejoicings(2001) he focused on the complex racial dynamics of South Africa’s new era. In 2005 his novel, Tsotsi (1980), was adapted for the screen, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In 2011, Mr. Fugard was honored with a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. Even though this prolific playwright, novelist, actor, director and teacher now lives and works in San Diego, he continues to be inspired by the dynamics in his land of birth.
Athol Fugard’s ‘The Road to Mecca’ (LA Premiere, Fountain Theatre, 2000) starring Priscilla Pointer and Jacqueline Schultz
The Fountain Theatre’s special relationship with Fugard began when co-founder/co-artistic director Stephen Sachs directed the L.A. premiere of Fugard’s The Road to Mecca in 2000. Fugard was so impressed that he offered the company world premiere rights to an as-yet-unwritten new work. When Sachs directed the world premiere of Exits and Entrances in 2004, it received recognition for Best Production and Best Director from both the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle (garnering a total of five awards) and the Ovations (receiving a total of three awards). Mr. Sachs went on to direct acclaimed regional productions of Exits and Entrances around the country, an Off-Broadway production at Primary Stages, and the UK premiere at the 2007 International Edinburgh Festival. Since then, he has directed premieres of Fugard’s plays at the Fountain including the American premiere of Victory (two LADCC awards and four LA Weeklynominations, and named “Best of 2008” by the Los Angeles Times); the West Coast premiere of Coming Home (three LA Weeklyawards including “Ensemble” and “Direction,” LADCC award for “Lead Performance”); and the U.S. premiere of The Train Driver (three LA Weekly awards). Athol Fugard has stated that he “considers The Fountain Theatre his artistic home on the West Coast.”
Set design for The Blue Iris is by Jeff McLaughlin; sound design is by Peter Bayne; prop design is by Misty Carlisle; the dialect coach is JB Blanc; the production stage manager is Terri Roberts; and Simon Levy and Deborah Lawlor produce.
Morlan Higgins starred in Fountain Theatre productions of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances, Victory and The Train Driver, as well as inShining City by Conor McPherson (LA Weekly Award), After the Fall (Ovation award for Best Production) and The Boys in the Band. Other credits: Forgiveness (Black Dahlia Theatre), King Lear (Antaeus), Dealing with Clair, Water Children, Mad Forest, The Birthday Party (The Matrix Theatre Company); Dylan (Skylight Theatre); Equus (Pasadena Playhouse), A Skull in Connemara (Theatre Tribe),Hughie (Eugene O’Neill Foundation at Tao House); and numerous other plays on local stages. Morlan has received multiple Ovation, LADCC, LA Weekly,Back Stage Garland, Drama-Logue, and Ticketholders Awards. He was nominated for the Lucille Lortell Off-Broadway Actor of the Year Award for his performance in Exits and Entrances at Primary Stages in NYC, He was nominated for a Carbonell Award for E and E at Florida Stage and received a New Jersey Tony for E and E at New Jersey Rep. He is also the recipient of Santa Barbara Indie Awards for Hughie and Victory at SBT. Morlan also plays Celtic music in the local band Staggering Jack.
Julanne Chidi Hill
Julanne Chidi Hill is a graduate of the prestigious SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Theatre Arts and Film and was classically trained at Oxford University where she studied extensively with John Barton (Royal Shakespeare Company) and Katie Mitchell (Royal National Theatre). She has worked at the McCarter Theatre, Seattle Rep, Mark Taper Forum, Stages 52, McCadden Stages Theatre, Ebony Rep and Kirk Douglas Theatre, and she most recently appeared at the Celebration Theatre in the Ovation award-winning Women of Brewster Place. Television credits include guest-starring on the Jerry Bruckheimer drama The Whole Truth (ABC) and FX series The Shield, and recurring roles on NBC’s My Name is Earl and Showtime’s Weeds. Feature films: Crank: High Voltage (as “Dark Chocolate”), Barbershop 2, and alongside Tom Everett Scott and Lee Tergesen in 2nd Take, directed by John Suits.
Jacqueline Schultz was last seen in the critically acclaimed production of Park Your Car in Harvard Yard at International City Theatre. She costarred in the West Coast premiere of String of Pearls at both North Hollywood’s Road Theatre Company and the Santa Barbara Theatre, appeared at the Pasadena Playhouse in the world premiere of Open Window, and starred in the critically acclaimed L.A. premiere of Lee Blessing’s Going to St. Ives at the Fountain (Best Actress nomination, NAACP Theatre Award), later reprising her role for the International Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. Other leading roles at the Fountain: After the Fall (Ovation Award for Best Production),The Road to Mecca; The Night of the Iguana;The Darker Face of the Earth; Fighting Over Beverley (LA Weekly Award); Duet for One(Ovation Award nomination, Best Actress); Ashes (Drama-Logue Award); The Golden Gate (Drama-Logue Award); and Orpheus Descending. Other theater credits include To Kill a Mockingbird and Awake and Sing! (International City Theatre) and Sorrows and Rejoicings (Mark Taper Forum). She has appeared at the Kennedy Center, Ensemble Studio Theatre (NY) and the Mark Taper Forum’s New Works Festival. TV credits include The Practice, ER, My Wife and Kids,7th Heaven, Crossing Jordan, Judging Amy, the HBO movie Tyson, and many more.
Housed in a charming two-story complex, the Fountain is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a nurturing, creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. Fountain productions have won more than 200 awards for production, performance and design, with more Ovation nominations and awards than any other intimate theater in the history of the awards—and the only intimate theater to win the Ovation for Best Production five times. Fountain projects have been seen in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Florida, New Jersey, Minneapolis and Edinburgh. Highlights include a six-month run of Bakersfield Mist, written by Stephen Sachs, set to open in London this fall and optioned for New York; the Off-Broadway run of the Fountain’s world premiere production of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances; and the making of Sweet Nothing in My Ear, also by Sachs, into a TV movie. The Fountain has been honored with a Certificate of Appreciation from the Los Angeles City Council for demonstrating years of artistic excellence and “enhancing the cultural life of Los Angeles.”
NNPN is an alliance of 26 leading nonprofit theaters that champion the development, production and continued life of new plays.
One of NNPN’s signature programs is the Continued Life of New Plays Fund which funds and promotes “Rolling World Premieres” that allow playwrights to participate in a minimum of 3 productions of their play over an 18 month period.
Planning NNPN’s 15th anniversary next year, to be held at the InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia, who will be celebrating their 25th anniversary
Approving the 2013-2014 budget
Revamping the submission process for NNPN’s other flagship program, the National Showcase of New Plays
Revamping the Smith Prize, which is awarded to a new play that tackles politics in America
Creating an international exchange/partnership with PlayWriting Australia
Planning for a future Virtual Script Library and revamped website
And electing the new Officers for the Board of NNPN
“Everyday Rapture” at the Unicorn Theatre
Along with all of that, we were treated to:
the Unicorn’s current production of Dick Scanlan’s and Sherie Rene Scott’s Everyday Rapture – the first production allowed outside of New York – about a Mennonite woman’s dream of performing on Broadway
a staged reading of the 2012 Smith Prize winner,Grounded by George Brant, about a female drone pilot
and presentations by this year’s Playwrights-in-Residence – Christina Anderson, Gabrielle Fulton and Steve Moulds.
And then, of course, there was all the personal schmoozing, lunch and dinner chats, and talk/walks to and from the theatre and hotel.
By the way, if you’re ever staying in Kansas City, check out The Q Hotel. Very nice. And they’re “green”!