The Fountain Theatre’s West Coast Premiere of On the Spectrum has been named a Highlight of 2013 Theater by writer Don Shirley in LA Stage Times. Written by Ken LaZebnik and directed by Jacqueline Schultz, the funny and poignant play dramatized the relationship between two young people with autism.
Enjoy this new video created from our critically acclaimed sold-out 2012 production of Cyrano. This world premiere of a new play, a re-imagined sign language spin on the romantic classic Cyrano de Bergerac reset in a modern city, has been named a Theater Highlight of 2012 by LA Stage Times.
Fountain Co-Production with Deaf West Inaugurates New Artistic Directorfor 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.
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.”
If Anton Chekhov were Latino, playwright Tanya Saracho would have him covered. El Nogalar, her Mexico-set spin on the Russian classic The Cherry Orchard, comes to the Fountain Theatre by way of Chicago.
Saracho wrote the play in 2004 while performing as an actor in Luis Alfaro’s Electricidad, at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The LA-based Alfaro was then in the last year of his co-direction of Center Theatre Group’s Latino Theatre Initiative. At his urging, Saracho took the story she had in mind and went to work.
“I feel like when I met Luis, that’s when everything happened,” says Saracho. “He actually took me aside and said, ‘If you’re going to do this, you need to get serious about this writing thing.’ Because it’s not that I wasn’t serious. I had my own company [Teatro Luna] and we devised work, so we did ensemble-built performance. But as a playwright, I hadn’t written any plays by myself. But he was like, ‘You can do this.’”
With Alfaro on her side, Saracho told herself: “If El Maestro can do it, let me try it.” Alfaro has continued his guidance on the play, serving as the dramaturg for the Fountain production.
As an actor, director, and playwright, Saracho was able to remain hands-on throughout the development of her play. “All my three passions – they let me do all three things, which is very Chicago” — where theater artists tend to be hyphenates, she says. “They’re not one thing or another and it’s respected. It [prevents] pigeonholing yourself.”
The small Chicago company Teatro Vista commissioned El Nogalarin 2005. But Teatro Vista and the Goodman have a history of collaborations, and soon the Goodman expressed interest in it.
Saracho felt somewhat intimidated by the Goodman label. “I was like, ‘No, no. It’s the Goodman. The Goodman should not read my play.’” But at the same time, “it was really more than encouraging. It was like the seal. ‘Here you go.’ I mean people read plays and that doesn’t happen. Nice things like that keep happening. It just opened a lot of doors.”
The Goodman, which produces Latino Theatre Festivals every two or three years, “totally watched me and let me kind of do anything and just provided a stage. [That] was the biggest thing.”
Despite the encouragement Saracho received, she originally held back some of the play’s content. That was made clear at a reading of the first draft.
“I thought it was terrible. In the first version, I was really afraid of the crime element. I just adjusted it. It wasn’t as overt as it is now,” says Saracho. “I was like – when I first heard it – ‘What am I doing? Why am I a coward right now? I’m being a coward.’ ”
After some much needed character development and a little soul searching, El Nogalar was on its way. It received a staged reading at the 2010 Latino Theatre Festival, with the premiere following in spring 2011, produced by Teatro Vista and presented by the Goodman, at the Goodman.
“When I started Teatro Luna in 2000, our [Latino] audience was not used to going to the theater. We went to concerts, we went to dance, but theater was not where we put our disposable income as Latinos and the Mexican community,” says Saracho. “They would go see comedy but not theater. So, it took us a while to kind of nurture [them], and now they follow me to stuff and they also watch out for other [playwrights]. The movement took about 10 years and now we’ve trained the audience, [saying] ‘Look, this could be awesome.’”
Sabina Zuniga Varela, Justin Huen
Saracho was born in Sinaloa, Mexico, but moved with her family to McAllen, Texas — near the Rio Grande — in 1989. She majored in theater studies at Boston University. El Nogalar traces its roots to Chekhov, whom Saracho named as one of the few writers she identified with while in college.
“I’ve always talked about at cocktail parties and to anyone who would listen – ‘You know, Chekhov is basically Latino.’ In college, he was the most Latino playwright I came across, which is a bad thing — that I didn’t get exposed to Latino playwrights in college, because I was just identifying with any old Russian,” says Saracho. “The women, I identified [with them]. They resonated. They seemed familiar. They seemed Latin American. They’re full, rich, passionate, confident, flawed, complicated and they’re highly emotional. Highly flawed but really deep.”
El Nogalar tells the story of the Galvan family in northern Mexico, who have come home to claim their pecan orchard (“el nogalar”) after 15 years. Maite, the family’s matriarch, and her daughters return after squandering the family’s savings only to find the orchard overgrown, only two servants, and the land taken over by local drug cartels.
Director Laurie Woolery, who is also associate artistic director of Cornerstone Theater, speaks up. “How easy the land can be taken from people in Mexico and Central America is really, for me, what resonated because I know my tia and mother as immigrants – when they came her to the United States – it was all about [buying] land. Buy land. Own land here. Because in Mexico [and] Central America, it can be taken away from you. Even if you own it, it can be taken away. For me, what resonated about this piece is investment in the land, in the earth, where you plan yourself, where your family can grow up out of.”
The play also has present-day implications, especially in light of current conditions in Mexico and the large Latino population in Southern California. According to Saracho, characters like Dunia, the female servant desperately trying to help the Galvan women, represent people currently surviving in Mexico.
But the play as a whole makes a political statement, she adds. “It is always a political act to put brown bodies on stage. And we don’t think about it because we [Latino playwrights] are used to putting brown bodies on stage. I’m so excited that we’re putting five brown bodies on the stage.”
“I’m going to call the Fountain a mainstream theater because it’s not a Latino space or a [African-American] space,” Saracho says. “To have us here, I feel like it’s representing more than just these people. It’s representing a community, obviously not speaking for, but to have those actors. And Latina females – Latina director, Latina writer, a Latina stage manager. There’s something political about that, without seeing the play, but because of that I think it’s important.”
The all-Latino cast consists of Sabina Suniga Varela (Dunia), Yetta Gottesman (Maite Galvan), Isabelle Ortega (Valeria Galvan), Diana Romo (Anita Galvan), and Justin Huen (Lopez) with Frederica Nascimento designing sets and Lonnie Rafael Alcarez designing lighting.
Diana Romo, Yeyya Gottesman, Isabelle Ortega
“I think our Latino community here in Los Angeles is really diverse,” says Woolery, “and one thing that I really applaud the Fountain for is wanting to expand the diversity of their season by putting El Nogalarin. I’m excited for the Fountain audience to be able to experience something different. Even within that Latino cast there’s diversity in it. I know that the play is very specifically placed in Mexico, but I love that the casting was inclusive and I’m just hopeful that people are going to come out and see it and support it. I think it’s an incredibly beautiful play.”
Woolery adds that “what’s exciting about playwriting specifically right now is the new voices that are coming out. I mean, who would have ever thought wrestling would make it onto the stages of the theater world [in Kristoffer Diaz’sThe Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity] and be up for one of the top prizes in the country? And I think that gives me great hope for theater in general because so much of what you hear [is] it’s such a struggle to keep a theater open and running and people coming because movie tickets are $15. So, you’ll spend that but will you spend $15 on a play?…How do we encourage people to keep coming back and having that experience?”
In LA, more than in many cities, notes Woolery, “Geography is a challenge, because “for us to go out and support each other’s work…sometimes just getting across town will take an hour. But I think there is a spirit of people wanting Latino theater to be successful. So, I’m hoping not the just the regular Latino audience but others who don’t necessarily feel that theater is for them will come and see El Nogalar and that there’s an accessibility for audiences to be able to come and feel like their story’s on stage. That there is a place for them in the theater world, that their stories can exist and have value.”
Saracho points out the growing struggle between the theater experience and the virtual experience.
“We just don’t sit and witness and experience the full experience [outside theaters],” she says. “The person coughing – that is part of the experience. The person unwrapping the [wrapper], the actor that kind of flubbed a line. All that is live theater. [Film] is so perfect for you on the screens. It’s all cut up for you – cut, paste, and done for you, all the thinking. But in this, you’re going to see some cellulite, you’re going see some split ends. Do you know what I mean? It’s real people up there.”
El Nogalar Jan 28 – March 11 (323) 663-1525 More Info