JON LAWRENCE RIVERA is the recipient of the first Career Achievement Award from Stage Raw. Most recently, Rivera directed the following critically-acclaimed world premieres for Playwrights’ Arena: SOUTHERNMOST by Mary Lyon Kamitaki, BABY EYES by Donald Jolly, I GO SOMEWHERE ELSE by Inda Craig-Galván, LITTLE WOMEN by Velina Hasu Houston, BILLY BOY by Nick Salamone, THE HOTEL PLAY (performed in an actual hotel), BLOODLETTING by Boni B. Alvarez (also at Kirk Douglas Theatre), @THESPEEDOFJAKE by Jennifer Maisel, CIRCUS UGLY by Gabe Rivas Gomez, PAINTING IN RED by Luis Alfaro, and THE ANATOMY OF GAZELLAS by Janine Salinas Schoenberg. Other recent works include: AMERICA ADJACENT by Boni B. Alvarez, BINGO HALL by Dillon Chitto, FAIRLY TRACEABLE by Mary Kathryn Nagle, OBAMA-OLOGY by Aurin Squire, CRIERS FOR HIRE by Giovanni Ortega, STAND-OFF AT HWY #37 by Vicky Ramirez, FLIPZOIDS by Ralph B. Peña (also in Manila). Recipient of a NY Fringe Festival Award, an LA Weekly Award, and a five-time Ovation Award nominee, Rivera is the founding artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena, dedicated to discovering, nurturing and producing bold new works for the stage written exclusively by Los Angeles playwrights.
Jon’s comments on inclusion and diversity in the Los Angeles Theatre Community were recently included in this LA Times feature by Charles McNulty.
Theatre Talk is the Fountain Theatre’s livestream conversation program hosted by Artistic Director Stephen Sachs, engaging theatermakers, theatergoers and theater-thinkers. Live on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Zoom and seen here on our website.
“Hi,” chirped the boy’s voice from somewhere on Addison Street. I was on my morning walk, my coronavirus mask strapped to my face. It was just after nine in the morning, but the sun was already heating up the asphalt on the oak-lined streets of my neighborhood. I plodded along, deep in thought, agonizing over my coming week’s schedule. The Zoom meetings, the convening of the Board of Directors on Wednesday, the need to formulate spreadsheets, the financial planning, the fundraising, the digital staff meeting to lift employee morale, the pulling out of thin air the hopeful vision for a coming season that may not ever come. In my news feed, all the while, the chart of the dead daily rising, the corruption and incompetence of government ballooning as the bodies pile higher. All of this tumbling around and around in my head like an overloaded dryer of dirty laundry, when suddenly, as if from the air, the boy’s voice – “Hi.”
I stopped in the middle of the street. Looked around. To my right, the handsome landscape of a ranch-styled home, the front yard mottled with lavender sagebrush, orange hibiscus, yellow roses and a cluster of full bodied trees. Saw nothing, no boy. Where was he? “Up here.”
He was perched in the fork of a sturdy Sun Valley Maple, barely visible, hidden behind branches and leaves. I had to step a few feet to my left to catch sight of him. He looked about ten or twelve. Brown hair, a striped shirt. Barely visible. “There you are,” I said. “I didn’t see you. Couldn’t find you.”
“That’s the whole idea,” said the boy.
I chuckled through my hospital mask. “I don’t blame you.”
When I was a boy, I had a tree. Near the swing set in my backyard in San Rafael, California. I was seven. I don’t know what species of tree it was, its genus. All I knew was that it was thick at the bottom with a huge green canopy overhead. A twisted knot protruded low enough for my foot like the stirrup of a saddle and, with a grunt I could hoist myself up to the first branch and sit. And that is what I would do, where I would be, for hours. Sitting. Dreaming. The tree and I so bonding in essence, my parents called it “Stephen’s tree.” We moved away, to Los Angeles, but the tree is still there. Through the magic of Google Earth not long ago, I hovered over it like a ghost and stared down. There it was.
As a teen in the San Fernando Valley, I would climb the tree at the end of my street, climb as high as I could, to the tippy-top, and peer out across the suburban terrain like from the lookout of a ship. Up there on windy days, I’d wrap both my arms around as the tree swayed back and forth, back and forth, like a twenty-foot metronome.
I wrote and directed my first play when I was twenty-seven. I had just read Italo Calvino’s enchanting short novel, The Baron in the Trees, and instantly imagined it as a play. It told the story of a young boy who, refusing to eat his dinner one night, climbs up into the tree in his backyard, telling his parents he will never come down again. His parents laugh. “He’ll come once he gets hungry,” they scoff. But he doesn’t. He never comes down for the rest of his life. He travels across the countryside from tree to tree, builds a treehouse, fights a few pirates, falls in love. He becomes a legend as years pass, admired and ridiculed, living a unique, unfettered, and meaningful life up in the tress without his feet ever touching the earth again. When he is old and gasping his last breath, instead of falling dead to the ground, he reaches out to a rope dangling from the basket of a hot air balloon which just happens to be floating by, and he rises skyward and away into the clouds and is gone.
I walk down Addison Street, the morning heat rising in waves from the pavement. I am tired. I plod onward, masked like an outlaw, hot and sweating, legs aching. I glance skyward. No hot air balloon drifting by. No rope dangling to grasp.
I cross Laurel Canyon and head left on Hesby Street. Homeward. My wife and my son will be there. My tree-climbing days are gone, but the sycamores still spread their long branches over me, beckoning, “come.”
The Fountain Theatre community is a devoted band of folk who love theatre and often, one another. Normally The Fountain enjoys shining a light on members of our theatre family in our show programs. During this 2020 pandemic, however, with no show programs to print, The Fountain continues our tradition of honoring members of our devoted community here on the Fountain Blog.
Happy 90th Birthday Marcella Meharg!
Today we honor Marcella Meharg — on the occasion of her recent 90th birthday, and her life-long love of theatre — with two tributes. The first comes from a group of old friends who made a generous contribution in honor of Marcella’s milestone celebration:
“We are a group of former colleagues who worked for Los Angeles County as child welfare workers in the Metro North office in East Hollywood. We met Marcella in the early 70s. From colleagues to friends, we bonded over the years as we worked, raised our children, went to school and lived our lives. Lunches during the work day were a time to catch up. After retirement, lunches became monthly dinners and/or monthly lunches and have continued for over 15 years. The theater has always been an important part of Marcella’s life. Others in the group also have regular subscriptions to theaters in Los Angeles and the Fountain Theatre is one of our favorites. During this pandemic and difficult times for the arts, it seemed so appropriate that Marcella’s gift on the occasion of her 90th birthday would be a donation to the Fountain Theatre. ”
“Marcella Meharg and I did not choose one another. We were thrown together, like it or not, in a dormitory room at the Pasadena Playhouse when we were 19. And it took.
It took so well that, when she came down with a light case of the chickenpox, she eagerly passed it on to me, improved and with bells on. I was sick as a dog. That nasty little episode only drew us closer together. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re young, in “theatre school,” mutually passionate about the “art,” the success you’re certain will follow, the boy-friends and assorted other wonders. You form bonds — good and bad — that become indelible. Our post-Playhouse lives took paths that were at once divergent and not. We didn’t hit fame and fortune, but each of us married and each had two children at roughly the same time. Life went on, separating us as it often does, but not forever.
Marcella became a social worker and went on to run the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild’s Julie Harris Playwriting Contest for a number of years. She also co-produced an Ovation-nominated play and wrote one, which had a reading at Hollywood’s Samuel French Bookstore just before it went dark.
By the time we were both older and ready to take a step back, we rediscovered our friendship on a pleasant leisurely basis. By then I was writing reviews more selectively for culturalweekly.com than when I was writing them for The Los Angeles Times, and Marcella became my go-to theatre companion, chiefly because our tastes in theatre matched and our lengthy relationship made for lively conversations that we both enjoyed. What was invigorating is that we didn’t always admire the same productions and our disagreements were often more interesting than our agreements — until the pandemic hit, interrupting all the fun and the tooling around town, popping in and out of shows.
When some of Marcella’s friends smartly decided to celebrate her 90th birthday by contributing in her name to a theatre of her choice, the decision, she tells me, was easy. The Fountain is where we both spent many fascinating hours and hope to spend many more once the world returns to some kind of normal.
Happy birthday, Marcella. I’ve always known you had good judgment.”
– Sylvie Drake
I run the Fountain Theatre’s charming upstairs café. Normally, Fridays at the Fountain would be the start of a five-show weekend through Monday night. Six, if we had a Sunday evening Flamenco show as well. There would be a palpable energy in the air.
But on Friday, March 13th, LA’s growing COVID crisis had become critical. The public portions of the theatre – the stage and the café – had been shuttered. The offices were being closed as well.
I should have been working on Friday, March 13th. By 4pm, Pandora would have been rocking one of my favorite show tune stations, and I’d have been singing along with Wicked and A Chorus Line and Into the Woods behind the closed café door as I got the coffee going, bagged chips and cookies for sale, and chatted with local baker Tracy Green when she delivered her weekly order of scrumptious organic mini muffins. I would have caught up with staff when they wandered in for coffee or a snack. I would have arranged fresh flowers on the café tables. Watered the plants out on the deck. Set out food items, made sure the fridge was stocked, and ensured there was plenty of wine on the back counter.
By 6:30pm, actors would have been dropping by to say hello, and get a pre-show caffeine fix as they ate their dinner. If patrons had arrived early, I would have invited them to have a seat and get comfortable while I finished setting up. We would have talked about the show they had come to see and where they had traveled from to see it. Long distance drives from Orange County, Santa Barbara, and Long Beach are not uncommon (and on a Friday night, no less!) Patrons of the Fountain are extremely loyal, and LA’s notorious Friday night traffic has never stopped any of them from persevering to see a great show.
I’d have set out fresh creamer for coffee by 6:45pm and cut fresh lemon wedges for tea. I’d have changed the music to something more appropriate for the show, and turned on the video monitor to run the scroller of past Fountain Theatre productions. I’d have clicked on the twinkle lights draped around the café and the deck, and lit the votive candles that add such warmth and invitation to the space. The stage would have been set. Lights and sound would have been ready. I would have opened the door to let the audience in.
Opening night of Human Interest Story, Feb 15, 2020.
It would have been another Friday night at the Fountain Theatre café. Engaging with patrons. Stepping out from behind the bar to hug a friend who had come to see the show. Getting buzzed off the buzz in the room. And answering a barrage of questions about past productions:
What was that wonderful play about the painting? Either Bakersfield Mist or My Name is Asher Lev. Both featured a painting and had storylines about art.
What was the show about the Latino restaurant workers? I couldn’t stop thinking about it.My Mañana Comes. Yes, a lot of people had that reaction.
What was the one about the border wall and the guy in prison?Building the Wall.
Do you remember the show about the Black girl who was a runner? Sure! It was In the Red and Brown Water, by Tarrell Alvin McCraney. It was the first play in his Brother/Sister trilogy. We also did the second one in that series, The Brothers Size.
Theatre. History. Story-telling. Energy. Friends. Connecting the dots. And, of course, lots of coffee. These were my Friday nights at the Fountain. Until Friday, March 13th. When everything changed.
I have happily worked at the Fountain for over a decade. I’ve been part of dozens of shows in a variety of capacities: production/assistant stage manager, props designer, casting associate, costume maintenance and more. For the past two years I have also been the manager of the charming Fountain Theatre café. I must say, I absolutely love it.
I run the café as I run a show, and I am nourished by it in the process. I am fed by the support of our devoted patrons, by sharing stories of past productions, by greeting first time visitors who inevitably want to know how long we’ve been around, what kinds of shows we do, and, ultimately, how they can become a member. And then there is the question I hear all the time, from guests old and new: will the café ever be open outside of show times? (Answer: it is a long-distance dream.) I feel gratitude every time I’m asked that, because it means they’re comfortable in this charming, funky space. They tell me how much they love the rainbow tables and walls, the gallery of production photographs, the mismatched collection of couches and chairs, the open deck with the hummingbird feeder and the little garden and the view to downtown LA. They want to hang out all day long. They feel a sense of peace, of connection in the space.
Kitchens are often referred to as the heart of a home, and the café is the gathering place of the Fountain Theatre. The room where we all come together to share meals, to talk, to take meetings and to rest. The stage downstairs is the soul of the Fountain. But the café, I believe, is its ever-beating, ever-welcoming, wide-open heart.
So for now, while this pandemic reigns, my Friday nights are different. It’s been nearly four months since I didn’t work that Friday night in March – and I feel it. I miss the energy, the shows, the patrons, the actors, the laughter and the hugs, the fellowship and the connection. But in time, we will tell our stories again. In time, the theatre will open up again. In time, we will gather in the café again. That charming rainbowed place of nourishment and peace and of welcoming home. And in time, we’ll re-connect to each other, again.
The Fountain Theatre is a member of a coalition of intimate theatres in Los Angeles that meets weekly to discuss the future of theatre in Los Angeles as we navigate COVID-19 and beyond.
Like Los Angeles, our theatre community has always been at the forefront of innovation. As an integral part of the cultural conversation, a group of 44 artistic directors from LA’s intimate theatres came together two months ago to discuss how we can move through the current COVID crisis and come out stronger. We are committed to raising the bar and pushing the boundaries of professional theatre. At weekly virtual roundtables, we continue to remind each other that theatre is a collaborative art form, in every sense of the word. We are stronger together as one community regardless of company size.
While the doors to our theatres may be shut, our artists continue to innovate and utilize new technology to serve Los Angeles and promote the importance of theatre. Our creative work has never been limited to our stages, and the boundless creativity of Los Angeles theatre artists will ensure that our theatres will reopen with a renewed sense of purpose. Los Angeles is one of the cultural capitals of the world, and together we make sure that #LALivesOnStage.
The 44 theatres are:
24th Street Theatre, Actors Co-op, After Hours Theatre Company, Ammunition Theatre Company, Antaeus Theatre Company, Boston Court Pasadena, Celebration Theatre, Chance Theater, Company of Angels, Coeurage Theater Company, Echo Theater Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA, Fountain Theatre, Ghost Road Theatre Company, Greenway Arts Alliance, IAMA Theatre Company, Impro Theatre, Latino Theatre Company, Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, Matrix Theatre Company, Moving Arts, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Open Fist Theatre Company, Ophelia’s Jump Productions, Playwrights’ Arena, Pacific Resident Theatre, Rogue Machine Theatre, Ruskin Group Theatre, Sacred Fools Theater Company, Sierra Madre Playhouse, Skylight Theatre Company, Son of Semele, Theatre of NOTE, The 6th Act, The Group Rep Theatre, The Inkwell Theater, The New American Theatre, The Road Theatre Company, The Robey Theatre Company, The Victory, United Stages, VS. Theatre Company, Theatre West, and Whitefire Theatre.
The group is taking this opportunity of a pause in their programming to consider some of the bigger issues facing Los Angeles intimate theatres. Most importantly, they have implemented action committees for creating collaborative strategies in health and safety protocols for audiences, staff, and artists. Other areas of focus include marketing, and planning an online Intimate Theatre Festival, with a Live LA Theatre Festival in the works once everyone is able to gather again. Partnering with LA Stage Alliance/onStage.LA, the group is aiming to establish a central hub for all Los Angeles theatre activities.
Toward the end of the 1946 film classic It’s A Wonderful Life, when George Bailey is in the throes of an existential crisis, fearing his life has no value or meaning, the angel Clarence tells him, “You’ve been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would be like without you.”
After two months under stay-at-home orders and my theatre temporarily closed, I’m beginning to feel the same gift has been given to me by COVID-19.
Every theatre in our nation is now dark. For now, theatre as an art form performed on a stage for a live audience, does not exist. And no matter which epidemiological model you look at, theatres won’t be reopening in this country any time soon. For those of us who create theatre, the coronavirus is giving the public the chance to see what the world would be like without us.
That is why, like George Bailey haunting his hometown, I now find myself thrown into the same kind of twilight zone, an alternative reality—an upside-down world I no longer recognize, discombobulated. How did things change so quickly? One day my theatre is full, earning rave reviews, selling out. The next day it is closed. On Thursday we’re winning awards, delighting donors and board members. On Friday I am furloughing my staff and applying for unemployment.
Do you know the actor’s nightmare? Ever had it? The one where you’re suddenly thrown onstage into a play in front of an audience, but you don’t know your lines, you can’t find your script, and you don’t even know what play you’re supposed to be doing? That is how life feels to me now: a COVID nightmare. But I never wake up.
If I don’t have a theatre, who am I? Sometimes the most forceful way to discover your place in a culture or a community is to find yourself suddenly yanked from it. All I know is that a world without live theatre is a world I don’t want to live in.
Clicking on a play reading on Zoom is no substitute. Maybe you feel differently, but I personally feel glutted with Zoom meetings and online theatre events by now. My idea of well used stay-at-home time is not watching another online festival of hastily written five-minute plays streamed by a struggling theatre company. Though novel at first, the relentless onslaught of online content by terrified theatres has spread as widely and aggressively as the virus itself. Don’t get me wrong: I love National Theatre Live. Who doesn’t? But who has the millions of dollars to produce and promote at that level? Call me old-fashioned, but I still find the difference between watching a play online vs. experiencing it live in a theatre like the difference between watching porn on your laptop and actually making love.
All the Broadway tributes now streaming online during this shutdown do prove one thing: Theatre people are well-suited to rise above an emergency. Disaster is part of our DNA. Crisis is status quo in the theatre. Calamity is business as usual. We live and breathe uncertainty and panic. Philip Henslowe, the beleaguered and always-in-debt theatre owner in Shakespeare in Love (screenplay written by playwright Tom Stoppard) aptly sums up our philosophy:
Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Fennyman: So, what do we do?
Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
How will this horrific pandemic turn out well for me and my theatre? It would help to have a guardian angel. I don’t mean a corporate sponsor or a high-level donor—I mean like Clarence. My own personal celestial bodyguard to protect me from both spiritual and physical harm. Instead, I see only the Angel of Death. COVID-19 is killing people. Loss is everywhere. We are losing our jobs, our theatres, our audiences, our homes. Our loved ones. Our art form, not to mention our species, is under threat. There is a general, base-level sadness lurking inside all of us like a contagion. Laughter will come when it comes. But it just might be harder, and take a while longer, to get there.
We are all George Bailey. We have dreams unrealized. We are stressed by daily life. We don’t fully appreciate what we have or what we’ve managed to accomplish. We focus on what serves ourselves and ignore what really matters. We get caught up in achieving “great things” instead of appreciating the value of doing small things in a great way. And we are closer than we realize to a huge, catastrophic meltdown triggered by a single financial calamity.
Theatre is community, the intertwining of human lives. And community is infectious, transmitted from person to person. The ripple effect of the stories we tell in a theatre spreads from one human being to another, and then emanates outward, forever. That is why, to me, to have our theatres silenced by a virus, is like a crime against humanity. Our humanity.But, as Clarence tells George, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives.”
My hope for myself is to emerge from this pandemic with a heightened sense of purpose. The great plays have shown me that a person with a strong central purpose can overcome any obstacle. To paraphrase Nietzsche, when you have a why to live for, you can bear any how. Theatre is one of my whys.
After two months holed up at home, I am starting to experience what the ancient Greeks called anagnorisis: a sudden realization of truth about myself and the true nature of my current situation. Before the pandemic, I would sometimes complain about running a theatre: the paperwork, the endless meetings, the donor parties. The season budgets and the hustling for money to pay for them. The long hours, the low pay, the constant pressure to achieve. After 30 years I felt old, overworked, exhausted. Now I want it all back. All I want now is what I had all along.
My wake-up call is the same as George Bailey’s epiphany, as he pleads to Clarence to end his never-been-born nightmare. Like George, I just want to return to the things and the work and the people I love. Like George, I just want what I already had. I miss the magic. The truth is that even when facing catastrophe, the life that I have in the theatre is wonderful.
Like George Bailey, I want to live again.
Stephen Sachs is a playwright, director, and the artistic director of the award-winning Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles.
I have two children, two sons. Ask any parent what they wish for their child, the most common answer is happiness. “As long as they’re happy.” “I just want them to be happy.” I want my sons to be happy, have happy lives. More important to me is that they have lives that are meaningful. Happiness can be fleeting. Meaning is eternal. It’s why I chose a life in the theatre. I am in the meaning-making business.
A meaningful play tells the story of people overcoming adversity. “Theatre is conflict” is the number one rule of a well-written play. That’s because it is true in life. Buddha’s first teaching was that in life we experience struggle and change. It’s not the adversity itself that leads to meaning and growth. It’s how we respond to it.
In a play, conflict is the engine of storytelling and change is the destination. It’s why we see plays in the first place. We experience, from a safe distance, how people face a life-threatening challenge. We feel what they feel, we watch what they do, what decisions they make, and how they are changed by it. A play can show us how to grow through adversity. That makes each of you who come to the Fountain meaning-seekers.
What does this pandemic mean? I don’t know. For today, we must find the courage to live with uncertainty. And then do the same tomorrow. Soon, the Fountain will reopen, and we’ll explore and express what it means, together. On our stage.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Founding Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre
Last Saturday, I was taking a walk with my wife and son around the Hollywood Reservoir. Daily walks have become our morning routine to break out of our home isolation. We normally stroll through our neighborhood or stride the perimeter of a nearby park. Saturday, to break the monotony, we chose to walk the 3.3 miles around the Hollywood Reservoir. There, we encountered an unforgettable woman.
I spotted her as we circled Lake Hollywood. Her zeal caught my eye. She strode ahead of us, a spring in her step. Despite the surrounding catastrophe, the loneliness of physical distancing, she walked with a kind of energized elan. Spirit in her step.
Suddenly – she burst into dance. A spontaneous, improvised ballet. Right there. On the public path. She leaped into the air, arms twirling, legs flicking, an impulsive pirouette. She sashayed down the street, spinning, bounding silently to graceful music only she could hear.
I grabbed my iPhone and taped her. You can see my video above.
This stranger, this Lake Hollywood dancer, inspires me. She is the power of art. Like a flower pushing its way through cement, she is the Fountain Theatre, the Los Angeles theatre community, finding a way, against the odds, to urge itself upward toward the sun, to bloom once again.
In the midst of emergency, we keep dancing. Not to be trivial or irresponsible. Not to fiddle like Nero as Rome burned. To dance in the face of catastrophe as an act of defiance, of rebellion. Driving forward the Life force. A refusal to be defeated. Despair will not win. Art finds a way.