Actors Jenny O’Hara and Tim Cummings after a performance of ‘Broomstick’ at the Fountain.
3 Critic’s Choice Selections, Sold-Out Flamenco, London Opening, and Best Season Award Highlight Year
2014 was truly another unforgettable year for the Fountain Theatre. It was a year of extraordinary growth and achievement.
All three 2014 productions were honored as Critic’s Choice in the Los Angeles Times, our Forever Flamenco at the Ford gala was a sold-out success, and The Fountain was once again awarded the preeminent Ovation Award for Best Season in 2014. And the London production of Bakersfield Mist on the West End starring Kathleen Turner brought us international attention.
The year also brought the shadow of sadness with the loss of our longtime Subscriptions Director Diana Gibson. Her legacy lives on in the vivid memories she leaves behind, and in the Diana Gibson Subscriber Fund we created.
Here are some of the highlights:
My Name is Asher Lev – Los Angeles Premiere. ‘Critic’s Choice’ Los Angeles Times. Extended sold out run.
Forever Flamenco @ The Ford– Sold-out gala concert at the 1200-seat Ford Theatre.
The Brothers Size – Los Angeles Premiere. ‘Critic’s Choice’ Los Angeles Times. Extended run.
Playwright Tarell McCraney – Discusses his play, The Brothers Size, at the Fountain Theatre.
Tarell McCraney and the company of The Brothers Size.
Bakersfield Mist– opens on the West End in London starring Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid.
Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor outside The Duchess Theatre, London.
Gabby Lamm and Alice Kors – our two fabulous summer interns were terrific and helpful and launched our first Student Night at the Fountain.
Gabby Lamm and Alice Kors
Diana Gibson – The Fountain grieved the loss of our longtime Subscriptions Director, who passed away after a long illness.
The Stephen Sachs hit play Bakersfield Mist, which enjoyed a 7-month sold-out run in its world premiere at the Fountain in 2011, is now earning marvelous reviews in Sweden as ‘Ingen Konst’ (“No Art”) starring Peter Flack and Marie Kuhler Flack. Sachs has been invited to Sweden to attend a performance of his play in the city of Orebro, outside Stockholm. He will be there November 5 – 10.
“I’m thrilled to be going to Sweden,” exclaimed Sachs. “Of course, the play is being performed there in Swedish so I’m eager and curious to see how audiences in another country are responding to these characters and the material.”
Marie Kuhler Flack and Peter Flack (Sweden)
After first opening at the Fountain Theatre starring Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett, Bakersfield Mist was produced in a select number of theaters around the US as part of an exclusive Rolling World Premiere with the National New Play Network (NNPN). The UK production recently ran for 3 months this summer in London on the West End starring Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid. The play is now being translated into other languages and being produced around the world. It will soon be published in the United States by Dramatists Play Service and be produced in regional theaters nationwide.
Stephen Sachs with Peter Flack and Marie Kühler Flack at the Duchess Theatre, London.
The Orebro production in Sweden is a hit and getting wonderful reviews: “The acting is dynamic and the lines bounce with a vitality that is next to perfect. An entertaining comedy with a serious undertone. A wonderfully human comedy …”
Sachs met the two Swedish actors, who are also husband and wife, when they came to see the London production of the play on the West End.
“It’s the dream of every playwright to have a play that is enjoyed in countries around the world,” says Sachs. “I’m delighted to see that now happening with Bakersfield Mist.”
“And it all started here at the Fountain Theatre.”
‘Bakersfield Mist’ at the Fountain Theatre (2011)
Rehearsal/Trailer of ‘Ingen Konst’ in Sweden (2014)
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.
Bakersfield Mist was created and produced at the Fountain Theatrein Los Angeles where Sachs is co-artistic director. The Fountain production, the first in a rolling world premiere supported by the National New Play Network‘s Continued Life of New Plays Fund, was a smash hit, earning rave reviews and running seven months including three extensions.
Inspired by true events the play asks vital questions about what makes art and people truly authentic. It won the 2012 Elliot Norton Award for Best New Play.
In the play, Maude (Turner), a fifty-something unemployed bartender, has bought a painting for a few bucks from the thrift store. Despite almost trashing it, she is now convinced it’s a Jackson Pollock worth millions. But when world-class art expert, Lionel Percy (McDiarmid), flies over from New York and arrives at her trailer park home in Bakersfield to authenticate the painting, he has no idea what he is about to discover.
In a press statement, Turner commented, “The shock and humor of diametrically opposed cultures with the transformative power of art – pure joy.” McDiarmid added, “I liked the idea and comic potential of two passionately opinionated cultural opposites engaged in a life-changing battle for the soul of a great painter.”
Nica Burns, co-producer of the play with Sonia Friedman Productions, Darren Bagert/Martin Massman and Chris & Kelbe Bensinger, added, “When we were lucky enough to hear Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid read the play for us, the chemistry between these two great stage actors was thrilling. It has been eight years since Kathleen stunned London audiences with her extraordinary award winning performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This is a fantastic role for her return to the London stage.”
Turner, who is currently appearing in the title role of Mother Courage at Washington DC’s Arena Stage (through March 9), has previously appeared onstage on Broadway in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Indiscretions, The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and High. Other stage credits include The Killing of Sister George (Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven) andRed Hot Patriot: The Kick Ass Wit of Molly Ivins (Philadelphia Theater Center, LA’s Geffen, and DC’s Arena Stage).
McDiarmid, who is best known for his role as Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine in the “Star Wars” film series, has worked extensively in the theatre, including an 11-year stint when he was joint artistic director of London’s Almeida Theatre. He appeared there in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, subsequently winning a Tony Award for reprising the role on Broadway in 2006. Other theatre acting credits include Life of Galileo for the RSC, Timon of Athens at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, The Emperor and Galilean at the National Theatre and Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse.
The play will be directed by Polly Teale, joint artistic director of Shared Experience, for whom she has directed Jane Eyre, Brontë, After Mrs. Rochester, Bracken Moor, Mary Shelley and Speechless, amongst others. She co-directed War and Peace in a co-production for the National Theatre and Mill on the Floss. “Brontë” has been adapted as a feature film for Film Squared/Pathé.
Playwright Stephen Sachs
Playwright Stephen Sachs is co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. His other plays include Heart Song (Los Angeles 2013, Florida Rep 2014), Cyrano (LA Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Play, Ovation Award nomination), Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (LADCC and LA Weekly Award nominations), Gilgamesh (Theater@Boston Court), Open Window (Pasadena Playhouse, Media Access Award), Central Avenue(PEN USA Literary Award Finalist), Sweet Nothing in my Ear (PEN USA Literary Award Finalist, Media Access Award), Mother’s Day, The Golden Gate (Best Play Award, Dramalogue) and The Baron in the Trees. He wrote the teleplay for “Sweet Nothing in my Ear” for Hallmark Hall of Fame which aired on CBS, starring Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels.
The London production will run at the Duchess Theatre, May 10through August 30. The design team includes scenic designer Tom Piper, lighting designer Oliver Fenwick and sound designer Jon Nicholls. Bakersfield Mist is produced in the West End by Nica Burns, Sonia Friedman Productions, Darren Bagert/Martin Massman and Chris & Kelbe Bensinger.
Bakersfield Mist is a work of fiction. Although based on actual events, the characters and events in the play are fictionalized and are not intended to accurately depict or resemble any actual person or event, living or dead. Names, characters, places and incidents have been changed for dramatic purposes.