Tag Archives: Julio Martinez

Fugard and the Fountain

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.

Athol Fugard

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.”

— Julio Martinez, writes for LA Stage Times

The Blue IrisFountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave, LA 90029. Opens Aug 24. Plays Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Sep 16.   323-663-1525.www.fountaintheatre.com/perform.html

***All photos by Ed Krieger

Video: Interview with Troy Kotsur and Erinn Anova from ‘Cyrano’

Cyrano actors Troy Kotsur (Cyrano) and Erinn Anova (Roxy) on the arts interview program Creative Current.

Cyrano  Final Extension! Must End July 29  (323) 663-1525  More Info

David Kurs: A New Leader for Deaf West

Fountain Co-Production with Deaf West Inaugurates  New Artistic Director for Celebrated Deaf Company

by Julio Martinez

Director Simon Levy addresses the deaf/hearing cast of "Cyrano", interpreted by Elizabeth Greene.

Since its birth in 1991, Deaf West Theatre (DWT) has known one leader — Ed Waterstreet, the first deaf artistic director of an American theater company.  During his tenure, DWT established itself as a vital, contributing member of the stage community both locally and nationally, producing 40 plays and four musicals, including the 2001 staging of Big River, which went on to the Mark Taper Forum and then to Broadway, receiving a Tony nomination for best musical.

David Kurs

On March 2, DWT board president Mark Freund simultaneously announced the retirement of Waterstreet and the appointment of David J. Kurs as the new artistic director, just in time to oversee the company’s collaboration with Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre in the premiere of Cyrano, written by Stephen Sachs. It’s a modern, re-imagined staging of Cyrano de Bergerac, performed in a synergistic intermingling of spoken word and ASL signing.

“This is a perfect partnership for us, ” Kurs affirms. “Stephen Sachs [as co-artistic director of the Fountain] was a key player in the early days of Deaf West Theatre. The theater gave Ed [Waterstreet] his first office space. Stephen directed a couple of our productions; and Stephen, Fountain producing director Simon Levy, and Fountain co-artistic director Deborah [Lawlor] have been very supportive of the mission of Deaf West over the years. Stephen also wrote Open Window, which was a Deaf West co-production at the Pasadena Playhouse, and he has remained good friends with Ed throughout the years. So it was natural for Ed to reach out to him about adapting Cyrano.”

Troy Kotsur plays the title role in "Cyrano".

Cyrano, helmed by Levy, is scheduled to open at the Fountain on April 28, with Kurs serving as co-producer, along with the Fountain’s Laura Hill.  “This production model seems to work well for us,” says Kurs.  “We maintain good relationships with many theater companies. We’ve done three co-productions with CTG (Center Theatre Group). Of course, we plan to return to our home base eventually.”  Home base is Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood (NoHo), which is currently being leased by Antaeus Theatre Company.

Previously, Kurs served as Deaf West’s artistic associate.  He was an associate producer and ASL master on Deaf West productions of Pinocchio (2011), My Sister in This House (2010) and Children of a Lesser God (2009), and he wrote and produced the multimedia young audience show, Aesop Who? (2008). A graduate of Gallaudet University, Kurs has worked as a freelance writer, producer and filmmaker. He has also been active in the local and national deaf community, serving as the president of the board of directors at GLAD (the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness).

A strong advocate for arts education, Kurs believes that the deaf children of today don’t enjoy the same cultural opportunities that he enjoyed as a child. “I grew up in Riverside. My parents are deaf. They would take me to social and cultural events in the deaf community all the time, including the theater. When CTG started offering interpreted performances at the Mark Taper Forum, my parents took me to those performances regularly as well. These opportunities are not as prevalent today.

Although Kurs enjoyed a culturally rich childhood, he was not so sure it would offer him a livelihood as an adult. “I had a passion for the arts for many years, but I didn’t think there would be too many job possibilities for a deaf person like myself in the arts. So at Gallaudet I majored in marketing. One year after graduation, I moved to LA and decided to find a job in the creative industry. I ended up as a script reader. This job was a gateway for me, and it was at this time that I became passionate about the power of the arts and the media in changing the public perception of the deaf community.

"Big River" (2001)

“I saw what Deaf West Theatre had achieved with Big River – not only artistic success, but they had also shown audiences that deaf people were part of a colorful, vivid culture and their language was something that they took pride in.”

As Kurs moves into his new position at Deaf West, Kurs understands his administrative duties will equal if not surpass his creative responsibilities.  And high on his list of priorities is underwriting.  “I have two specific agenda items for 2012: to explore and obtain new sources of funding while continuing to retain our existing funding sources, and to plan our development slate so that we may focus on relevant, engaging work. Ultimately, we’d love to be where art and commerce meet — stretching the boundaries of sign language theater while also achieving success that will sustain our future.”

As for the future, Kurs’ wish list could possibly utilize his filmmaking skills. “Deaf West is a local theater for a good reason — LA is a great home base for many of our actors. We have a wonderful community of deaf actors, writers, and artists. But at the same time, I’d love to serve the nationwide deaf community. Many of our theater fans are unable to travel to LA for every production.

"Cyrano" ASL Masters. Ty Giordano and Shoshannah Stern.

“I want to find ways to bring theater into their homes, to expose deaf children to the potential of the stage so that they may begin to explore it on their own. It’s a very accessible art with deep roots in our community, and it saddens me that sign language theater is not nearly as prevalent as it once was. I was so fortunate to be exposed to so much sign language theater while growing up: community and high school productions, international deaf culture festivals, touring productions of the National Theatre of the Deaf, and most of all, Deaf West’s many productions. And video is one possibility of achieving that exposure.

“Deaf West has had a great impact on me in my artistic development, and I can only hope to spread this passion on to others and to create opportunities for them so that we all can achieve a shared goal of artistic growth.”

Julio Martinez writes for LA Stage Times.

Cyrano April 20 – June 10 (323) 663-1525   More Info   Get Tickets