by Stephen Sachs
Los Angeles is hailed as The City of Dreams. But our one-night reading of William Goldman’s screenplay for All the President’s Men at City Hall inspired me in one way that I could never imagine.
We knew we had a good idea. The right project at the right time delivering the right message for the right reason. We knew inviting celebrity actors to participate would heighten public interest. We knew we had the ideal location in the Los Angeles City Council Chamber at City Hall. What I didn’t know, what caught me by surprise, were the men and women who work there.
The Fountain Theatre has enjoyed a longtime friendship with the City of Los Angeles. We have benefited from the generous grant support of the Department of Cultural Affairs for more than twenty-five years.
Eric Garcetti was our City Councilmember in District 13. His parents, Gil Garcetti and Sukey Roth Garcetti, are longstanding Fountain Theatre members. Eric was more than our Councilmember for twelve years. He was our friend. I am forever grateful to Eric and his staff for coming to our side at the Fountain Theatre’s moment of darkest tragedy.
Our beloved Fountain colleague Ben Bradley was savagely murdered in his apartment on New Year’s Day, 2010. We were inundated with calls and emails of condolence from the LA theatre community. Eric’s staff at Council District 13 came by our office, in person, asking, “What can we do to help?” I was blown away. We sat down together, shared memories of Ben, and planned his memorial service at the Gallery Theatre in Barnsdall Park. Eric’s office arranged for us to have access to the venue at no charge. Eric attended the memorial and spoke at the service. He showed up for us. He was there.
Eric was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 2013. My wife and I happily attended his reelection swearing-in ceremony last year on the steps of City Hall. For five years, The Fountain’s City Councilmember has been Garcetti’s former District Director and senior advisor, Mitch O’Farrell.
Mitch has always been a strong advocate for the arts in Los Angeles. For years, Mitch has championed the significance of the network of intimate theatres throughout our city. He took a stand and spoke out publicly on our behalf when we battled with Actors Equity Association over the 99-Seat Plan. He was instrumental in designating a section of Santa Monica Blvd in Hollywood as Theatre Row. He knows intimate theatres enhance the cultural landscape of Los Angeles. Once an actor and dancer himself, he is one of us. He gets it.
I placed a call to Mitch’s Field Deputy, Dan Halden, last year about our reading of All the President’s Men. I was adamant that the reading happen close to January 20th, the one-year anniversary of the Trump administration. I was looking for the appropriate location. It needed it to be some place symbolic. I wanted the building itself to hold meaning, make a statement. I called Dan thinking a room at City Hall would be good. Dan agreed. I was then floored when he suggested, “You know, the City Council Chamber might be available. Your actors could sit in the Councilmembers’ chairs …” It was then that the event crystalized from an idea in my mind into something I could see.
Months of planning quickly followed. We had to move fast. The Fountain staff leaped into action. A casting director was hired. A consulting firm was brought on. Most remarkably, Dan Halden and his team at Council District 13 were hands-on, all the way. When using a City building for a public event, every detail must be worked out. Security, parking, access, maintenance, the LAPD, the Fire Department, the press, catering, the offices that oversee use of equipment. All of this was handled through a blizzard of emails, phone calls and in-person meetings with Fountain staff and CD13 personnel. Everything overseen by Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell.
Receiving a grant award from the City of Los Angeles is a wonderful thing. Financial support from the city is essential and the Fountain is deeply grateful each year. All the President’s Men demanded a different kind of support from the city. It was more than just signing contracts and receiving a check in the mail. This was the rare, exhilarating experience of two teams working together, of Fountain staff and City staff rolling up their sleeves and getting the nuts-and-bolts items done. We were truly partners. Fully invested personally, professionally and ideologically. All of it executed with efficiency, good humor, and energized by knowing that we were pulling off something that had never been done before in that building.
I am so proud of our city. What other major city in the country would hand over City Hall to its artists? Would have its Councilmembers allow artists to literally sit in their seats for one night to express an urgent fundamental truth about our country through their art?
As Washington wallows mired in stagnant gridlock, the city of Los Angeles offers a lesson in public partnership to the nation. When I first called Mitch O’Farrell’s office with the idea to use City Hall as a civic performance space for this reading, the expected government response would have been “no”. Instead, carrying forward the heartfelt spirt of his predecessor, Mitch O’Farrell answered, “What can we do to help?”
I believe last Saturday night’s reading of All the President’s Men at City Hall was a watershed moment in our city’s engagement with local arts organizations. We should not let it end there, on that evening. Our hope is that we use the lessons and rewards earned from this experience to discuss more partnerships like this in the future. When local artists and city government officials work together, all citizens of our city benefit.
“Art can highlight things that need to change,” Mitch O’Farrell pointed out to the City Hall crowd in his opening remarks for All the President’s Men. “And draw parallels to historical lessons that can propel humanity forward.”
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.