Tag Archives: Mark Taper Forum

Would you go to the theatre on “Nude Night”?

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The Palais de Tokyo’s “Visite Naturiste”. 

by Stephen Sachs

Every Monday night at the Fountain Theatre is Pay What You Want Night. One night each week, ticket payment is optional. We launched it last year as an offering to our community to make theatre accessible for everyone. We believe theatre should be affordable for all. We didn’t want the ticket price to keep anyone from experiencing live theatre at the Fountain. Our Pay What You Want Night has become popular and extremely successful. But what would be the public reaction if, for one night, the price of admission wasn’t the only thing optional? What if clothing was also not required?

I was jarred into contemplating this unexpected question because of an article in today’s New York Times.  A contemporary art museum in Paris conducted its first-ever tour of its galleries given only for nudists. For one night in the museum, the art wasn’t the only handiwork on exhibit. The French nudist group, Paris Naturist Association, received interest in the museum tour from 30,000 people on Facebook. “I was imagining about 100 or 200 people might want to come, not 30,000,” said the group president. The event was limited to 160 people.

The tour was enjoyed by all. According to the article, it seemed the only challenge for the flock of nudists wasn’t the contest of keeping their eyes focused only on the artwork. It was keeping their bare bodies warm in the chilly museum halls. Even so, the nudist group president is now organizing future tours at other museums.  

Ah, yes. Vive la France. Those artsy, wine-and-cheese-loving, free-living French. Would such an event ever happen in America? In a museum or a theatre? Or is America’s view of the human body too repressed, too puritanical? Would a nation outraged by seeing a First Lady’s bare arms tolerate the sight of The Mark Taper Forum filled with bare bodies? We celebrate when a play is eye-opening, not the audience. 

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Nudity is still viewed as silly at best or sinful at worst by large segments of the American public. Europe, by comparison, is much more lenient about public display of unclothed bodies.

So, will “Nude Night” one day become a popular American night out at the theatre? American audiences may no longer be astonished to see nudity on stage. But what about seeing it on the patron sitting next to you?  Think about the actors. In an intimate theatre like the Fountain, would any costume-wearing actor be able to concentrate on their own performance while playing to a full house of naked people? It’s the classic “actor’s nightmare” coming true, in reverse.  I mean, look at the poor man in this photo (above). This dedicated and fully clothed museum tour guide, elucidating on an art piece’s influence, history and visual application techniques, must be having an out-of-body experience.

Comfortable or not, I may need to start preparing our ushers at the Fountain. Social nudism is on the rise in the United States. It is one of the fastest growing recreational activities in the country. There are now thousands of nudist groups, resorts and organizations across the United States. Why?

For those who practice it, nudism represents an aspect of life that has been lost, a way to get away from the technology that permeates every aspect of modern life, to feel free in one’s natural state, more alive. When shedding clothing, some of the barriers blocking honest human interaction fall away.  Social distinctions disappear. Stereotypes can dissolve.  Self-empowerment and awareness arrives. Nudism challenges the conventional beliefs we have about each other,  ourselves and our society. It can also just be fun and help us feel good.

“It’s a sense of freedom, a sense of being one with whatever it is,” one nudist describes.

If true, then a theatre, where the soul of man is stripped and laid bare, may be the perfect home after all. 

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.

Los Angeles shines as a theatre town

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The Fountain Theatre in Hollywood

by Stephen Sachs

Hollywood is heralded around the globe as the mesmerizing “movie capital of the world,” yet more plays are produced each year in Los Angeles than major motion pictures. In fact, Los Angeles has more live theaters and creates more theatre productions per year than any other city in the world. More than New York, Chicago or London. That’s right. Los Angeles. Surprised?

Los Angeles is on the rise. You can feel it. LA is ascending to rightfully take its place as a world city. It is already ranked as one of the world’s most economically powerful cities—a center of business, international trade, entertainment, culture, media, and technology. There are 841 museums and art galleries in the area, over 1,000 performance venues. Hollywood is flourishing, undergoing a multi-billion-dollar renaissance of new commercial, residential and cultural development that is transforming the fabled district. 

Theatre in Los Angeles has never been better. It is diverse, vibrant, first-rate—and everywhere. Stretched across an immense terrain of diverse neighborhoods over 469 square miles, you can experience theatre in Los Angeles in every possible setting. From tiny converted store fronts to festive outdoor stages in city parks to Off-Broadway-style intimate houses on trendy boulevards to grand and glittering show palaces—Los Angeles has it all. 

I’ve been a theatre maker in Los Angeles for more than 30 years. Like so many, I was first an actor, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I transitioned to directing plays in 1987, leaving acting behind and never looking back. While building a career as a stage director, I became intrigued by how theatre companies operated. The business side of making art fascinated me. One day, I volunteered to work temporarily in the office at Ensemble Studio Theatre on Oxford Street in Hollywood. Soon I took over as Theatre Manager. In 1990, I worked with Joan Stein and Suzie Dietz at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills, where we launched a 16-month run of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters starring a parade of famous actors, including Ben Gazarra, Gena Rowlands, Christopher Reeve, Whoopi Goldberg, Charlton Heston, Robert Wagner, Matthew Broderick, Helen Hunt, and many more. That same year, I opened the Fountain Theatre with my colleague Deborah Lawlor and embarked on the most meaningful and rewarding journey of my artistic life.

The Fountain Theatre is a charming two-story Spanish-style building on Fountain Avenue in East Hollywood. Originally The Evergreen Stage, it had been a live theatre for more than 60 years. When Deborah and I first walked in and stood on its empty stage, we knew we had found our artistic home. There was something about the place, the cozy atmosphere, how the intimate seating warmly embraced the stage. It felt inviting and electric. We knew magic could happen there. 

The Fountain is now one of a bright constellation of intimate theatres shimmering throughout Los Angeles. This galaxy of small theatres, each singular in their programming, audience and artistic mission, is a construct utterly unique to Los Angeles. There is nothing like it anywhere in the country. LA’s Center Theatre Group, with its Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theatre, form a theatrical nucleus, yet the more than one hundred intimate theatres across the region swirl around it like spirited electrons, each carrying an electric charge that is fundamental for the survival of LA’s overall cultural organism. In Hollywood, Nederlander’s Pantages Theatre prove nightly that there is a vast audience for live performance. 

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Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles

I’ve seen the intimate theatre community in Los Angeles grow from a cluster of what was then called 99-seat “Equity Waiver” theaters in the 1980s to the vast network of hundreds of intimate theaters today. These theatres weave a rich artistic tapestry that is astounding in its range and variety, matching the cultural, racial and social diversity of this city. Los Angeles is now home to intimate theatres that serve audiences that are Black, Latino, Gay, Straight, Asian, Middle Eastern, LGBT, Deaf, Native American, and everything in between. The content on LA stages is equally wide-ranging. American classics, world premieres of new plays, Shakespeare, Chekhov, musicals, farce, adaptations, the avant garde, immersive pieces, plays staged in the round or in a black box, site specific works performed in empty warehouses, in cars or hotel rooms—an endless menu for every taste. 

hollywood-theatre-row-signLA’s intimate theatres have grown not only in number, they have increased in stature. Top-drawer actors from Broadway, TV and film are routinely seen on LA stages. And while Los Angeles remains an essential destination for acclaimed plays and musicals from New York, London and around the world, LA is now its own vibrant theatre center that creates and develops exciting new work. Much of the most satisfying and challenging new plays are being done in the intimate theaters. Actors long to act in these plays for the same reason we ache to produce them: for the sake of the art. LA’s network of smaller theatres provides a safe, fertile landscape where highly-skilled actors, directors and playwrights can bring new plays to life for audiences that are ever-growing, sophisticated and adventurous. More than 120 plays have transferred from LA’s intimate venues to regional theaters across the United Sates. Such world-class playwrights as Athol Fugard, Tarell McCraney and Robert Schenkkan have launched new plays at our modest home on Fountain Avenue that are now being enjoyed throughout the nation and around the world. 

Even with the staggering amount of high-quality activity on its numerous stages, Tinsel Town fights for the right to be called a “theatre town.” The Hollywood spotlight is blinding. The relationship between the film and television industry and the LA Theatre community is precarious. A forced marriage between two partners who share similar desires yet go about achieving them in vastly different ways and for very different reasons. LA Theatre still struggles to step out from under the shadow of The Industry and stand in its own rightful light. But its blaze is being seen and felt, locally and nationwide, more and more. 

As an artist and a citizen, it has never been a better time to live in Los Angeles. As a haven with invigorating potential and endless possibilities, LA is now peering forward and seeing its future. That vision, as a world city, looks bright. As Los Angeles shines, so does its theatre. And the radiance from our light will illuminate the nation and the world. 

This post originally appeared in Discover Hollywood magazine

The spirit that smiles on CTG’s ‘Block Party’ celebrating intimate theatre in Los Angeles

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On Wednesday, February 8th, Fountain Theatre Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs was asked to speak at the Board of Directors meeting for Center Theatre Group to share his thoughts on the Fountain’s participation in CTG’s new Block Party.  The following are his remarks:

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Stephen Sachs

I’m Stephen Sachs, the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, which I co-founded with my partner Deborah Lawlor in 1990. We are now celebrating our 27th season. Prior to that, I was an actor – a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In fact, in 1982, one of the biggest thrills of my young career as an actor was standing on stage at the Mark Taper Forum in a small role in the world premiere of Tales from Hollywood by Christopher Hampton, directed by Gordon Davidson. 

I am a playwright, a director, a producer and artistic director. I began running theatre companies in Los Angeles in 1987 – the Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills with Suzi Dietz and Joan Stein – and launched the Fountain Theatre in 1990 to create an artistic home where new plays could be developed and produced that reflect the cultural diversity of Los Angeles and dramatize important social and political issues confronting specific communities in our region and our nation. The Fountain Theatre sits in the heart of the most diverse district in the City. Thirty-two languages are spoken at the local high school.

Our brand phrase is: Intimate. Excellent.  We have artistic relationships with such noted playwrights as Athol Fugard, Tarell McCraney, Robert Schenkkan, Emily Mann, Dael Orlandersmith, Anna Ziegler, Lauren Gunderson, Zayd Dorn. We were just featured in the New York Times on Monday for opening the world premiere in March of Robert Schenkkan’s new play Building the Wall. You can guess what that’s about.

Plays launched at the Fountain Theatre are now being produced across the country, in New York, in London, have been translated into other languages and are now being seen around the world.

I’ve been a theatre maker in Los Angeles for 30 years. I’ve seen the intimate theatre community in Los Angeles grow from a cluster of what was then called “Equity Waiver” theaters in the 1980’s to the vast network of literally hundreds of intimate theaters we have today. Although we still fight for the right to call ourselves a “theatre town” because of the film and television industry – more theatre is now produced in Los Angeles every year than in any city in the world. More than New York. More than London. 

The constellation of intimate theatres in Los Angeles is utterly unique nationwide. There is nothing like it anywhere in this country.  Theaters around the country envied our 99-Seat Plan, which – for 30 years – gave Equity actors the right to hone their craft in an intimate theater without a contract — but not without payment and protections – if they so choose.  The 99-Seat Plan was created by Equity actors. It came out of that spirit of revolution, the right to volunteer your services if you so choose, to insist on the artistic freedom to create. Where budgets and bottom lines were not a factor because nobody was making any money anyway. I don’t have to tell you – there’s a reason why it’s called non-profit theatre.

As many of you may know, Actors Equity has just eliminated the 99-Seat Plan. Against the will of its own membership. LA Equity actors voted overwhelmingly against eliminating the Plan. Equity has done it anyway.  Forcing theatres to now use a very hotly-contested New Agreement impacting every intimate theatre in Los Angeles. Several small theatres are now closing.  The entire landscape of the intimate theatre community will be forever changed.

This makes what you are offering with Block Party so extraordinary. And the timing of it so essential.

With Block Party, Center Theatre Group – the flagship theatre organization in Los Angeles  – is reaching out its hand to the intimate theatre community. Not as a hand-out but as a hand in partnership. Recognizing that our work matters.  Block Party affirms that the work created in intimate theatres is alive and vibrant and an essential part of the cultural life of Los Angeles.  I can not over emphasize how important and meaningful this is. Not only to the Fountain Theatre, and Echo Theatre Company and Courage Theatre Company participating this year, but to all intimate theatres everywhere, throughout our community. 

With one program, with Block Party, you have dissolved the barrier between “big” theatre and “small”, between “us” and “them”.  With Block Party, there finally is now “we”. Together.

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CTG Artistic Director Michael Ritchie

Michael Ritchie, Lindsay Allbaugh, Ian-Julian Williams and the entire Block Party staff have been so open, so inviting, so welcoming. The beauty of Block Party is not only the magic of what’s going to happen on stage, it’s the relationship-building already happening off stage.  The setting up of meetings between our intimate theatre companies and CTG departments, to share ideas and swap strategies, is remarkable and generous and will be beneficial to both sides. 

I’m confident that the spirit of goodwill and partnership that Block Party creates will ripple out and continue, not only for the 38 days of the festival, but throughout the entire year.

I was at the memorial celebration for Gordon Davidson at the Ahmanson last month. Just a few days after that ceremony, I attended a production meeting for Block Party. The juxtaposition of those two events was not lost on me.  Gordon is smiling down on Block Party. He would have loved this. It truly carries forward his spirit of adventure, of risk, his dedication to diversity and inclusion. And I applaud and thank Michael Ritchie, and all of you on this Board, for making that spirit a reality.

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Gordon Davidson celebration at the Ahmanson Theatre.

More Info/Get Tickets for Block Party

Gordon Davidson: An inspiration

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By Stephen Sachs

If Los Angeles had a Mount Rushmore, the visage of Gordon Davidson would be on it. Such a monument to the City of the Angels would include many faces, from a variety of disciplines. Politics, the arts, architecture,  sports, business. With names like Mulholland, Chandler, Griffith, Bradley, Getty, O’Malley, Wright, Disney. And the name Gordon Davidson.

Starting in 1967 with the launching of the Music Center and the Mark Taper Forum, Gordon Davidson’s 38-year leadership of Center Theatre Group made him not only the Founding Father of Los Angeles theatre but one of the most influential artistic leaders in the city’s history. He planted the theatre flag in the sand for Los Angeles and put our city on the theatrical map.

With Gordon’s passing, and the loss of Arena Stage’s Zelda Fichandler this summer, the generation of bold visionaries who created, established and fought for the ideal of non-profit theater in this country, upon which all of us follow, are exiting.

For me, as a theatre artist growing up in Los Angeles, with a dream of some day creating my own theatre company, Gordon’s light was inspiring and his shadow monumental. But working with him and getting to know him revealed the kind, generous and supportive man he was. If you were a passionate theatre person, he was always on your side.

Gordon first influenced the course of my artistic life when he cast me in the world premiere of Tales from Hollywood, a new play by Christopher Hampton at the Mark Taper Forum in 1982 starring Paul Sorvino. I was twenty-three. It was my first acting job in the professional theater. I got my Equity card thanks to Gordon Davidson.

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The house on Mabery Road

Gordon commissioned Christopher to write the play inspired by the history of Gordon and Judi Davidson’s home on Mabery Road in Santa Monica Canyon . The 1929 house once belonged to Austrian actress and screenwriter Salka Viertel. It became a meeting place in the 1940’s for German exiles during the war, including Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas and Heinrich Mann. Greta Garbo and Albert Einstein would visit. Famous actors, writers, and filmmakers of the era would gather each week for a Sunday salon in the house to eat, drink and argue politics and art. During the run of Tales From Hollywood, Gordon and Judi hosted a company party at their home where we all enjoyed an afternoon gathering and experienced the stimulating atmosphere of the notable house firsthand. The home not only held the history of the celebrated émigrés  who met there years ago. It also displayed proof of the remarkable career of the man who lived there now. Among the family photos on the walls hung posters, playbills, and backstage photographs from Gordon’s extraordinary life in the theatre. I remember the framed drawing of Gordon by Al Hirschfeld in particular.

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Drawing by Hirschfeld

As a young actor who grew up in Los Angeles, standing on the stage of the Mark Taper Forum in my first professional production was exhilarating. Like stepping into a dream. The Mark Taper Forum was my Mecca. The epicenter of LA Theater. For me and most actors in Los Angeles, to be working at the Taper was like passing through the portal of professional and artistic arrival. It was where you wanted to be, you needed to be. And that was all because of Gordon.

I loved being there. Not just on stage. All of it. The rehearsal rooms, the offices, the circular backstage hallway that curved around the playing area. The walls decorated with posters from Taper productions, each signed by the actors, many now famous and admired. My young hand trembled when I added my simple signature to our wall poster for Tales from Hollywood.

In the Taper hallways I would stare at the framed photographs from the 1979 world premiere of Children of Lesser God, created and performed on the Taper stage just three years before my arrival there. In the photos there was Gordon, directing John Rubinstein and Phyllis Frelich in that ground-breaking production which showed the world the power and beauty of American Sign Language on stage. Though my own commitment and contribution to deaf theatre in Los Angeles would be years away, a seed had been planted.

That same 1981-82 season at the Taper, just seven months before I appeared there, the newest play by Athol Fugard, A Lesson from Aloes, had been staged. I did not meet Athol that year, but our paths would cross nearly two decades later and an artistic partnership would be formed that would change my life. By way of Gordon Davidson and the Mark Taper Forum.

I savored my time at the Taper. I would sit in the empty arena, watching Gordon direct his company in the home he had fathered, and dream of someday creating a theatre home of my own.

When I finally opened the Fountain Theatre with my colleague Deborah Lawlor in 1990, Gordon and the Taper were entering a renewed phase of artistic achievement with the premieres of Jelly’s Last Jam, The Kentucky Cycle, Angels in America, and Twilight: Los Angeles. The Taper was riding a crest of award-winning national acclaim under Gordon’s unending passion, guidance and leadership.

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Gordon Davidson, Athol Fugard, Stephen Sachs, at Fountain Theatre, 2004

Meanwhile, on Fountain Avenue, our modest theatre company was blossoming. In 2000, Athol Fugard surprised all of us by arriving one night to see our work. He offered me his new play, Exits and Entrances, in 2004 and a 12-year artistic partnership began that continues to this day. Gordon attended our world premiere production of Exits and Entrances and was beaming like a pleased uncle. So caring and supportive.

The last time I spoke with Gordon was a brief hello at the memorial service for Phyllis Frelich held at the Taper two years ago. By this time, I knew Phyllis well and had worked with her many times. She was a founding member of Deaf West Theatre, which we launched at the Fountain in 1991. Her memorial at the Taper was a gathering of the many deaf and hearing artists and friends in the community who knew and loved Phyllis. And a bittersweet reunion of the core team that had created Children of a Lesser God on that very stage: John Rubinstein, Mark Medoff, Robert Steinberg, and, of course, Gordon Davidson. Although eighty-one and moving more delicately, Gordon spoke passionately from the stage he once led about the power of theatre as a vehicle for human connection and a trigger for social change. Theatre still fervently mattered to him. Like a wise elder preaching from the pulpit, Gordon still believed.

And now he is gone. But not really. Because the hundreds of new plays he helped create, develop and produce over nearly four decades will endure forever. And the hundreds of thousands of lives he has impacted will be forever changed. Including one Artistic Director on Fountain Avenue.

The intimate Fountain Theatre is a fraction of the Taper’s size and budget. But that doesn’t matter. The words of Gordon Davidson continue to inspire and remind me that “the great thing about the theatre is that it’s dealing with the art of the possible. What’s possible is not limited by money, but by imagination, and vision.”

Gordon had the vision to see what was possible. The city, and ourselves, are forever richer for it.

Stephen Sachs is the founding Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre. 

Meet the Cast of ‘My Name is Asher Lev’ at the Fountain Theatre

3 actorsBased on the best-selling novel by Chaim Potok, the stage adaptation of My Name is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner is a fast-moving theatrical journey in which all the characters in the play are performed by three talented actors.  Playing many roles requires that each actor combine versatility with emotional depth and complexity. And a fearless sense of fun.

Meet our extraordinary cast of our upcoming Los Angeles Premiere of My Name is Asher Lev:   

Jason Karasev

Jason Karasev

Jason Karasev plays the lead role of Asher Lev.  Jason was born and raised in Chicago, where he has performed with the Tony-Award winning Victory Gardens and Steppenwolf Theatres, to name a few. In Los Angeles, Jason produced and starred in Stephen Belber’s Tape, which took Best of Fringe Honors at The Hollywood Fringe Festival. He has also been seen as Phil in A Boys’ Life (Crown City) and as Naz in Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur (Ovation Nomination). Some of his Chicago Theatre credits include Stanley in Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound (The Drury Lane), Zoran in Tesla’s Letters (Timeline Theatre Co.), Stone Cold Dead Serious (The Athenaeum), The Last Night of Ballyhoo (Merle Reskin) and References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot (Bailiwick Rep.). Jason’s film and TV credits include the hit MTV series Disaster Date, Nickelodeon’s iCarly, Improvised, Shoot The Moon, and Evidence. Jason has trained and performed at the renowned Second City, Chicago with recent SNL cast member Jason Sudeikis and is a Graduate of The Theatre School at DePaul University.

Anna Khaja

Anna Khaja

Anna Khaja plays three roles: Asher’s mother, a rich gallery owner, and a model. Anna most recently appeared in the LA Premiere of Falling at Rogue Machine Theatre. Theatre credits also include: the extended Off-Broadway run of Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto, which she also wrote, at the Culture Project in NYC (2013); the LA premiere of Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto (Ovation Award – Lead Actress in a Play / Ovation Nomination – Best Production of a Play); David Hare’s Stuff Happens at the Mark Taper Forum (US Premiere/Ovation Nomination); Judith Thompson’s Palace Of The End at NoHo Arts Center (US Premiere/LA Weekly Award/Ovation nomination), The Cosmonaut’s Last Message (LA Weekly Award) as well as several other productions at The Open Fist Theatre; No Word In Guyanese For Me (GLAAD Award). Regional credits include the Cleveland Playhouse and the Marsh Theatre in SF. Film/TV: Yes Man, Post Grad, King of California, Order of Chaos, Reunion, California Solo, The Newsroom, The Closer, NCIS:LA,  Numb3rs, House M.D., Criminal Minds, Private Practice, Bent, Sleeper Cell, Dirt, Weeds and a recurring role as Zaafira on season 5 of HBO’s True Blood.

Joel Polis

Joel Polis

Joel Polis takes on the greatest number of characters: he is Asher’s father, Asher’s Uncle, the Hasidic community’s Rebbe, and a noted artist who becomes Asher’s mentor. Joel is a native of Philadelphia. He attended the USC School of Theater and Yale Drama School before beginning a stage career in New York. He returned to Los Angeles to work in television and films but continued performing in theaters around the country, from off Broadway and Williamstown to San Diego and West LA. Theater credits include Pound of Flesh, Bach at Leipzig, Defiance, The Baby Dance, Julius Caesar, Family Business, Riga, Names, Oleanna, Richard 3, Three Travelers, The Merchant of Venice and After Crystal Night. He has appeared in over 120 episodic television shows, sitcoms, Movies of the Week, and a dozen feature films.  These include The Thing, Castle, It’s My Party, True Believer, Seinfeld, Law and Order, Northern Exposure, Cheers, Home Improvement, Picket Fences and Roseanne

My Name is Asher Lev Feb 15 – April 19 (323) 663-1525  MORE

In New Comedy/Drama ‘Heart Song’, Middle-Aged Women Find Faith and Sisterhood in Flamenco Class

Postcard front rough mockupJews doing flamenco? Instead of ‘Ole!’ the crowd shouts Oy vey?’” – Rochelle in “Heart Song”

Three friends embark on a joyous journey of sisterhood, discovering their inner ‘duende’ through a flamenco class for middle-aged women. Heart Song, the newest comedy/drama from Stephen Sachs (Bakersfield Mist, Cyrano), opens at The Fountain Theatre on May 25 with Shirley Jo Finney (In the Red and Brown Water) directing and choreography by internationally renowned flamenco dancer Maria Cha Cha Bermudez.

Pamela Dunlap stars as Rochelle, a middle aged Jewish woman struggling with a crisis of faith. When Tina (Tamlyn Tomita) convinces her to join a flamenco class for “seasoned” out of shape women, Rochelle’s life is changed forever. There, she meets Daloris (Juanita Jennings) and an unforgettable circle of women (Andrea Dantas, Mindy Krasner, Elissa Kyriacou, Sherrie Lewandowski and Norma Maldonado) who propel Rochelle on a hilarious and deeply moving course of unexpected self-discovery.

Heart Song is funny but also allows me to explore serious issues about faith, spirituality and mortality that are deeply personal to me,” says Sachs. “The play dramatizes how art, in the form of flamenco — like religion or spiritual faith — has the power to heal and transform.”

“Flamenco is a life-saver for these women,” explains Finney. “It’s about duende, finding the deeper soul, unearthing that deep inner voice that lives inside us and can heal our inner wounds.”

The Fountain Theatre, recipient of critical acclaim and multiple awards for its theater productions, is also L.A.’s foremost presenter of flamenco. The Fountain’s monthly “Forever Flamenco!” series was created by co-artistic director Deborah Lawlor, who acts as consultant on this production.

“This is the perfect opportunity to marry the Fountain’s two audiences,” says Lawlor. “With Heart Song, we celebrate both our dedication to creating and producing new plays, as well as our longtime passion and commitment to the art of flamenco.”

Tamlyn Tomita, Pamela Dunlap, and Juanita Jennings

Tamlyn Tomita, Pamela Dunlap, and Juanita Jennings

Set design for Heart Song is by Tom Buderwitz; lighting design is by Ken Booth; sound design is by Bruno Louchouarn; costume design is by Dana Woods; prop design is by Misty Carlisle; casting is by Cathy Reinking; production stage manager is Corey Womack; and assistant stage managers are Mitzi Delgado and Terri Roberts. The Fountain Theatre production marks its world premiere. A second production will take place at Florida Rep in 2014.

Stephen Sachs’ other plays include Cyrano (2012 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award), Bakersfield Mist (2012 Elliot Norton Award for Best New Play, optioned for London’s West End and New York), Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (Fountain Theatre, Vancouver Playhouse, Canadian Stage Company, LADCC and LA Weekly Award nominations), Gilgamesh (Theatre @ Boston Court), Central Avenue (PEN USA Literary Award finalist; Back Stage Garland award for Best Play), Mother’s Day, The Golden Gate (Best Play, Drama-Logue), and The Baron in the Trees. His play Sweet Nothing in my Ear (1997 PEN USA Literary Award finalist and Media Access Award winner for Theater Excellence) has been produced in theaters around the country and was made into a TV movie for CBS starring Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels. Open Window (2005 Media Access Award winner for Theater Excellence) had its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Shirley Jo Finney received the LADCC award for her direction of In the Red and Brown Water at the Fountain, where she also directed award-winning productions of From the Mississippi Delta, Central Avenue, Yellowman and The Ballad of Emmett Till. Her work has been seen at the McCarter Theater, Pasadena Playhouse, Goodman Theater, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Cleveland Playhouse, LA Theater Works, Crossroads Theater Company, Actors Theater of Louisville Humana Festival, Mark Taper Forum, American College Theatre Festival, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the State Theater in Pretoria, South Africa, where she helmed the South African opera, Winnie, based on the life of political icon Winnie Mandela. Ms. Finney has been honored with Ovation, Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, Back Stage Garland, LA Weekly and NAACP awards. For television, she directed several episodes of Moesha, and she garnered the International Black Filmmakers ‘Best Director’ Award for her short film, Remember Me. In 2007 she received the African American Film Marketplace Award of Achievement for Outstanding Performance and Achievement and leader in Entertainment.

Pamela Dunlap (Rochelle) has performed at Lincoln Center, New York Theatre Workshop, New York Stage and Film and Circle Repertory Company. On Broadway: Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, Redwood Curtain, Yerma. Off Broadway: Early Girl, Sacrifice to Eros, Green Card. L.A. theatergoers have seen her at the Mark Taper, Ahmanson, South Coast Rep and L.A. Theatre Works. Regional theater includes Theatre Raleigh, Pioneer Theatre, St. Louis Repertory, Hartford Stage, Arena Stage, Pittsburgh Public Theatre and Corpus Christi Symphony. She is the recipient of an OOBR Award, an honoree of the New York Drama League, and a three-time Drama-Logue Award recipient. Mad Men fans will recognize her as Pauline Francis, Betty Draper’s new mother-in-law with the questionable baby sitting skills. TV guest appearances include How I Met Your Mother, N.C.I.S., Law and Order SVU, and recurring as Gilda Rockwell on Commander In Chief. Pamela recently completed filming on Doll and Em for British TV, written, produced and starring Emily Mortimer. Film: The Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood; I Am Sam; War Of The Roses; The Holiday; Sixteen To Life; and Mind The Gap.

Juanita Jennings (Daloris) is known to Fountain audiences for her portrayal of Aunt Ester in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and for her versatility in From the Mississippi Delta. She recently co-starred in South Coast Repertory’s production of Fences, and has also appeared at SCR in Jar the Floor (NAACP Theatre Award for Best Actress) and Twelfth Night. Other theater credits include productions at New York Shakespeare Festival, the Negro Ensemble Company, Mark Taper Forum, The Old Globe and Westwood Playhouse. Her many TV roles include Edna on the Tyler Perry series Meet the Browns and Dorothy Bascomb on The Bold and the Beautiful. She is a Cable Ace winner for her portrayal in the HBO mini-series Laurel Avenue.

Tamlyn Tomita (Tina) starred in the Fountain’s very first production, Winter Crane (Drama-Logue Award). Other stage work include The Square and Don Juan: A Meditation (Taper, Too), Summer Moon (Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre and South Coast Repertory), Day Standing on its Head (Manhattan Theatre Club) and Nagasaki Dust (Philadelphia Theatre Company). She is best known for the films The Day After Tomorrow, The Joy Luck Club and Karate Kid 2. Other film credits include Picture Bride, Come See the Paradise, Four Rooms, Living Out Loud and Gaijin 2. Soap opera followers know her as Dr. Ellen Yu on Days of Our Lives and Glee fans have seen her as Julia Chang.

Maria Bermudez (Choreographer) is one of the foremost flamenco dancers in the world today. Born in Los Angeles, she now resides in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, the “cradle” of flamenco. Her outstanding and critically acclaimed performances include The Hollywood Bowl, The John Anson Ford Theater, The Fountain Theater, The Los Angeles Music Center, and The Bilingual Foundation of the Arts in Los Angeles, Central Park and The Joyce Theater in New York City, the Teatro  Palacio das Artes in Brazil, Pena Cernicalos, Los Gallos, and Teatro Lope de Vega in Spain, guest appearances with the Santa Cecilia California and numerous venues throughout the world. Most recently she formed Chicana Gypsy Project which draws on her Mexican-American heritage and her immersion into Gypsy culture. Her life and career has inspired the award-winning documentary film, Streets of Flamenco .

Housed in a charming two-story complex, the Fountain is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won over 200 awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Highlights include In the Red and Brown Water (“Best in Theater 2012” – Los Angeles Times); Cyrano, an adaptation of the Rostand classic for hearing and deaf actors by Stephen Sachs (LADCC Award, “Outstanding Production”), a six-month run of Bakersfield Mist, also by Sachs, optioned for London and New York; the Off-Broadway run of the Fountain’s world premiere production of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances; and the making of Sachs’ Sweet Nothing in My Ear into a TV movie. The Fountain has been honored with a Certificate of Appreciation from the Los Angeles City Council for “enhancing the cultural life of Los Angeles.” The Fountain was recently honored with seven Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle including the Polly Warfield Award for Best Season 2012.

Heart Song opens on Saturday, May 25, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm through July 14. Preview performances take place May 18-24 on the same schedule. Tickets are $34 (reserved seating), except previews which are $15. On Thursdays and Fridays only, seniors over 65 and students with ID are $25. The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. Secure, on-site parking is available for $5. The Fountain Theatre is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. For reservations and information, call 323-663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com.

Pamela Dunlap, Juanita Jennings and Tamlyn Tomita Set to Co-Star in ‘Heart Song’ at Fountain Theatre

Pamela Dunlap

Pamela Dunlap

Casting is now complete for the Fountain Theatre’s world premiere production of the new comedy/drama Heart Song by Stephen Sachs, directed by Shirley Jo Finney. The trio of TV/Film/Stage actresses leading the way are Pamela Dunlap (“Mad Men”), Juanita Jennings (“Fences” at South Coast Rep) and Tamlyn Tomita (“Glee”, “Days of Our Lives”, “Joy Luck Club”). Heart Song opens May 25th.

Heart Song is a funny and touching new play that chronicles the personal journey of Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap), a middle-aged Jewish woman in New York City struggling through a crisis of faith. Rochelle’s life is changed when she is convinced by friend Tina (Tamlyn Tomita) to join a flamenco class for middle-aged women. There she meets Daloris (Juanita Jennings) and an unforgettable circle of other women who propel Rochelle on a journey of sisterhood and self-discovery.

Pamela Dunlap (Rochelle) makes her Fountain Theatre debut in Heart Song. She is a film/TV/stage veteran who has guest-starred on dozens of TV shows including two years as Pauline Francis on TV’s Mad Men and two years as Gilda Rockwell on Commander in Chief.  Her many film credits include Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling and I Am Sam with Sean Penn. On stage, she recently co-starred with Dorothy Lyman in August: Osage County and has appeared in regional theaters across the country including South Coast Repertory, Arena Stage, Hartford Stage, the Ahmanson, Mark Taper Forum, New York Theatre Workshop and the Lonacre Theatre on Broadway.

Juanita Jennings

Juanita Jennings

Juanita Jennings (Daloris) recently co-starred in South Coast Repertory’s production of Fences. She is well known to Fountain audiences for her thrilling portrayal of Aunt Ester in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and for her versatility in From the Mississippi Delta. She has also appeared at SCR in Jar the Floor (NAACP Theatre Award for Best Actress), and Twelfth Night. Other theatre credits include productions at New York Shakespeare Festival, the Negro Ensemble Company, Mark Taper Forum,  The Old Globe and Westwood Playhouse.  Her many TV roles include Edna on the Tyler Perry series Meet the Browns,   and Dorothy Bascomb on The Bold and the Beautiful. She is also a Cable Ace winner for her portrayal in the HBO mini-series Laurel Avenue.

Tamlyn Tomita

Tamlyn Tomita

Tamlyn Tomita (Tina) is best known for the films The Day After Tomorrow, The Joy Luck Club, and Karate Kid 2.  Other film credits include Picture Bride, Come See the Paradise, Four Rooms, Living Out Loud, and Gaijin 2. Soap opera followers know her as Dr. Ellen Yu on Days of Our Lives and Glee fans have seen her as Julia Chang.  Tamlyn’s stage work include such productions as The Square and Don Juan: A Meditation (Mark Taper Forum’s Taper, Too), Summer Moon (Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre and South Coast Repertory), Day Standing on its Head (Manhattan Theatre Club), and Nagasaki Dust (Philadelphia Theatre Company). Tamlyn returns to our Fountain stage twenty-three  years after winning a Drama-Logue Award when she starred in our very first production, Winter Crane, in 1990.

Jewish women flamenco class title

Also featured in the Heart Song cast are Andrea Dantas, Alicia Dhanifu, Mindy Krasner, Sherrie Lewandowski, Norma Maldonado, and Barbara Oilar.

Stephen Sachs is the author of the recent Fountain hits Bakersfield Mist (optioned for London/Broadway) and Cyrano (LA Drama Critics Circle Award). Shirley Jo Finney won the LA Drama Critics Circle Award for her direction of the Fountain Theatre’s critically acclaimed and award-winning  In the Red and Brown Water. Internationally heralded flamenco dancer Maria Bermudez will serve as Heart Song choreographer.

Heart Song May 25 – July 14 (323) 663-1525  MORE

Next at the Fountain: The LA Premiere of a Boldly Original New Play “In the Red and Brown Water”

Oya can run faster than anyone—but not fast enough to escape her destiny. Shirley Jo Finney directs the long-awaited Los Angeles premiere of In the Red and Brown Water. Lyrically weaving together elements of urban contemporary realism with West African mysticism, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s lusciously theatrical and boldly original new play opens at The Fountain Theatre on October 20.

How far will fast, beautiful Oya go to make a mark in the world? The first of McCraney’s acclaimed “The Brother/Sister Plays,” In the Red and Brown Water is an intoxicating story that charts a young girl’s thrust into womanhood, her family struggle, the two men vying for her heart, and her subsequent fall into the murky waters of life. McCraney mixes the mundane with the mythic, drawing on Yoruban influences while setting the play in a modern urban context—a housing project in the fictional Bayou city of San Pere, Louisiana.

“This production was three years in the making,” says Fountain Theatre artistic director Stephen Sachs. “When ‘The Brother/Sister Plays’ exploded onto the theatrical scene in 2009, it was clear that Tarell was an important and rising new voice. We immediately began our fight for the rights to do this play and refused to give up. The Fountain Theatre is a theater of the heart—and this is where we want the play to live in Los Angeles.”

“I began to investigate how to use ancient myths, stories, to tell urban ones,” McCraney wrote. “I began taking old stories from the canon of the Yoruba and splicing them, placing them down in a mythological housing project in the south. This made the stories feel both old and new, as if they stood on an ancient history but were exploring the here and now.”

Tarrell Alvin McCraney

Lauded by The New York Times as “something rare in the theater, a new, authentically original voice,” and by the Chicago Tribune as “without question, the hottest young playwright in America,” 32-year-old Tarell Alvin McCraney has won numerous awards, including the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, the Whiting Writing Award, London’s Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright and the National Endowment for the Arts Outstanding New American Play Selection. His plays include Wig Out! (developed at Sundance Theatre Lab, produced in New York by the Vineyard Theatre and in London by the Royal Court) and the trilogy entitled The Brother/Sister Plays, including: The Brothers Size (simultaneously premiered in New York at the Public Theater, in association with the Foundry Theatre, and in London at the Young Vic, where it was nominated for an Olivier Award); In the Red and Brown Water; and Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet. His other plays include Without/Sin and Run, Mourner, Run (adapted from Randall Kenan’s short story), both of which premiered at Yale Cabaret. He holds a B.F.A. in acting from DePaul University, and he graduated from the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama. He is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s international writer in residence and is currently under commission at Manhattan Theatre Club and Berkeley Rep. His new play, Head of Passes, will have its world premiere in April at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, directed by Tina Landau.

In the Red and Brown Water stars Dorian Christian BaucumPeggy ABlowGilbert Glenn BrownJustin Chu CaryDiarra KilpatrickStephen MarshallSimone MissickIona MorrisTheodore Perkins and Maya Lynne Robinson. Set design is by Frederica Nascimento; lighting design is byJosé Lopez; sound design is by Peter Bayne; costume design is by Naila Aladdin Sanders; prop design is by Misty Carlisle; choreography is by Ameenah Kaplan; vocal coach is Brenda Lee Eager; dialect coach is JB Blanc; assistant director is Erinn Anova; production stage manager is Shawna Voragen; assistant stage manager is Terri Roberts; and Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor produce.

Shirley Jo Finney with NAACP Theater Award

Shirley Jo Finney previously directed award-winning productions of From the Mississippi DeltaCentral AvenueYellowman and The Ballad of Emmett Till at the Fountain Theatre. Her work has been seen at the McCarter Theater, Pasadena Playhouse, Goodman Theater, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Cleveland Playhouse, LA Theater Works, Crossroads Theater Company, Actors Theater of Louisville Humana Festival, Mark Taper Forum, American College Theatre Festival, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and, most recently, the State Theater in Pretoria, South Africa, where she helmed a critically acclaimed production of the South African opera, Winnie, based on the life of political icon Winnie Mandela. Ms. Finney has been honored with Ovation, Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, Back Stage Garland, LA Weekly and NAACP awards. For television, she directed several episodes of Moesha,and she garnered the International Black Filmmakers ‘Best Director’ Award for her short film, Remember Me. In 2007 she received the African American Film Marketplace Award of Achievement for Outstanding Performance and Achievement and leader in Entertainment.

Don’t miss this extraordinary new play at the Fountain.  From the director of our unforgettable smash hit The Ballad of Emmett Till.

In the Red and Brown Water  Oct 20 – Dec 16  (323) 663-1525  More

LA Weekly: The Timeless Voice in Fugard’s “The Blue Iris” at the Fountain

Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris”

by Steven Leigh Morris

A series of poems by Thomas Hardy, grieving after the death of his first, estranged wife, inspired Athol Fugard‘s latest play, The Blue Iris, now receiving its U.S. premiere at Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre, directed by Stephen Sachs.

Athol Fugard, the internationally renowned Causasian South African dramatist who writes in English, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of his early writing career dedicated to battling his nation’s apartheid policies (in plays such as Blood Knot, 1961; and Master Harold and the Boys, 1982). Fugard was as brave as a playwright could be, joining the ranks of Chile‘s Ariel Dorfman and Czechoslovakia‘s Václav Havel by risking prison for writing works that looked askance at the policies of their authoritarian governments. It was a baton they passed along to the likes of Russian punk band Pussy Riot.

But when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in South African prisons, and in the nation’s first multiracial elections became the nation’s first black president, the purpose of aging white liberals such as Fugard became ever more nuanced and difficult to define. After all, South Africa’s brave new future also contained a raging AIDS epidemic, and the continuation of unspeakable poverty, revenge and violence.

That transition is what Fugard has been writing about since 1994, in a series of plays set in his beloved Karoo, among them Valley Song (1996), Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001),Victory (2007) and his latest, The Blue Iris.

Invariably, they concern an aging white man and young “colored” (the South African term for mixed-race) woman. In Valley Song, presented here at the Mark Taper Forum, the young woman, Veronica, needed to come of age, to escape the confines of the Karoo for a faster life in the city. She was an innocent, and a symbol of the future.

Sorrows and Rejoicings (also premiered here at the Taper) concerned a white, male poet from South Africa who went into exile inLondon. When he returned to the Karoo, he was dying. There he met the young colored woman he left behind, Rebecca. She answered his abandonment of her by burning his early poems. The essence of Fugard’s anxiety was spoken in a single line from that play:

“For your soul’s sake, Rebecca, I hope you know that what you did was terribly wrong. What you turned to ash and smoke out there in the veldt was evidence of a man’s love, for his country, for his people — for you! Don’t reject it. … Rejoice in it! Because if you think you and your New South Africa don’t need it, you are making a terrible mistake.”

In Victory, which received its U.S. premiere at the Fountain Theatre, also directed by Sachs, the aging white man (Morlan Higgins) found himself being robbed and held hostage by the young colored woman (born on the day Mandela was released from prison, and consequently named Vickie in honor of this victory) and her boyfriend. The old man was Vickie’s educator and mentor. Her petty criminal alliance was a representation of how the innocence of Veronica and the hope for the future in Valley Song had corroded in Fugard’s eyes.

Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill

Fugard’s plays have been getting ever more despondent, and The Blue Iris contains his most austere view to date. Morlan Higgins returns as Robert Hannay, eking out an existence in the Karoo near the charred remains of a house where the colored woman, Rieta (Julanne Chidi Hill), once grew up and worked as a housekeeper. Robert still grieves for his wife, Sally (Jacqueline Schultz, appearing as a phantom), who died of a heart attack shortly after a lightning strike that burned their home. (Jeff McLaughlin‘s set depicts blackened beams and detached doors amidst piles of detritus.)

Sally begged Robert not to leave the night of that storm, but he was determined to buy a new breeding ram, and so now he lives with the agony of his decision on that night of decimation. Rieta stands by him, for reasons unveiled in the play. She endures his conjurings of Sally.

Some verses of one poem by Hardy, “The Voice,” embody Robert’s state of mind:

“Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,

Standing as when I drew near to the town

Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,

Even to the original air-blue gown!

“Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness

Traveling across the wet mead to me here,

You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,

Heard no more again far or near?”

Sally, a painter by avocation, floats through the play on the day Rieta discovers Sally’s only painting that was untouched by the fire. It’s a botanical portrait of a blue iris, which for Robert brings back the memory of when Sally found the flower on the floor of the drought-blasted veldt — a single symbol of hope in a withered landscape otherwise punctuated by the death of plants and sheep.

That particular flower, however, has poison within its beauty, enough poison to “bring down an ox,” which is why the local farmers so loath it. That’s what Sally was trying to capture. What looks pretty contains toxins. And there you have the parable for the contamination of a hope-filled future.

Sachs’ meticulously rendered production features a trio of impeccable performances. These include Schultz as Sally’s ghost, who arrives as though via tornado, chattering and desperate, before she’s sucked away by that same wind tunnel, to explain the meaning of her painting, and of how in painting it she failed to convey that meaning.

Then there’s Higgins as Robert, and his fastidious, lumbering search for his own meaning amidst the remains, his world-weary eyes, the sonorous, aching tone in his voice. Hill’s Rieta offers a spritely foil — she’s as impatient as she is pained. Their joint decision, the only decision in the play, is whether she and Robert, both tramps and Platonic lovers, should stay or go, together or apart. And there’s an allegory in that, too, about circumstantial bonds and inexorable isolation. The play is saturated in allegories.

Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins

To fully appreciate The Blue Iris, however, one might look beyond Thomas Hardy’s poems to W.B. Yeats‘ poetical drama Purgatory, also set by the remains of a charred house. Purgatory also studies a man grieving for his late wife, trying to release her from purgatory. She, too, paces between life and death, listless in her travels beyond existence. The other character in Purgatoryis the man’s son, representing a hope for the future that stands on the brink of corrosion.

Both plays wrestle with how past and future can possibly travel any road together. And yet they do, as they must, as they always have. The ensuing, combustible emotions are what provide the fire of our most timeless poems and stories, where writers such as Yeats and Fugard ache to fathom the unfathomable.

Steven Leigh Morris writes for the LA Weekly.

THE BLUE IRIS | By Athol Fugard | Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Sept. 16. |   (323) 663-1525       |fountaintheatre.com

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