Academy Award winning actress Marlee Matlin enjoyed seeing the Fountain Theatre’s world premiere of Arrival & Departure, hailing the innovative romantic drama as “magic” and “brilliant.” After the performance, Matlin congratulated the cast and company and sat down with Abby Guerra of Fountain Films to share her excitement about the new play.
Written and directed by Stephen Sachs, Arrival & Departure stars Deanne Bray and Troy Kotsur. Highlighted as Critic’s Choice in the Los Angeles Times, the acclaimed production runs to September 30th.
Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett in “Bakersfield Mist” at the Fountain Theatre
It has travelled around the world and it is now coming home. Just in time for the holidays.
Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs, the Fountain’s smash hit comedy that went on to see productions around the world including London’s West End, will return to the Fountain for a limited 4-week engagement beginning Nov. 19. Sachs will again direct, with Jenny O’Hara (Transparent, The Mindy Project) and Nick Ullett(As the World Turns) reprising the roles they created.
Inspired by true events, Bakersfield Mist is the story of Maude Gutman, an unemployed, chain-smoking ex-bartender living in a run-down California trailer park, who believes the painting she bought in a thrift store for $3 is really an undiscovered masterpiece worth millions. When stuffy New York art expert Lionel Percy arrives to evaluate the work, the result is a fiery and often hilarious debate over class, truth, value and the meaning of art.
“Stephen’s play has enjoyed success around the country and the world, so when Jenny and Nick became available, we jumped at the chance to bring it back,” says producer Simon Levy. “We live in such stressful times, and this play offers the perfect antidote — it’s very funny, yet also thought-provoking. Just in time for the holidays.”
Bakersfield Mist premiered at the Fountain in June, 2011, garnering glowing notices including a “Critic’s Choice” review in the Los Angeles Times which exclaimed “It’s exhilarating in the extreme when a world premiere play strikes rich on every conceivable level.” The production was hailed a “Go!” in the LA Weekly and a “Critic’s Pick” in Backstage. It played to sold-out houses for more than six months, rivaling only Sachs’ own Central Avenue as the most successful world premiere of a new play in the Fountain’s 26-year history. Bakersfield Mist opened on London’s West End starring Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid for a 3-month run.Vanity Fair called Sachs’ play “Not to be missed… tackles large creative questions with well-timed zingers,” The Times of London found it to be “thoroughly entertaining… put a smile on my face and kept my brain buzzing for a good while afterward,” The New York Times labeled it “clever… a battle of wits,” and it received the 2012 Elliot Norton Award for Best New Play. In the U.S., Bakersfield Mist has been produced by Orlando Shakespeare Theater in Florida and in an extended run at the Olney Theatre in Maryland, where it is Helen Hayes Award-recommended and was lauded “5 Stars… provocative, fast-paced and cleverly funny” by DCMetro. The play is currently running in Chicago in a Jeff Award-recommended production at the Timeline Theatre which has been praised as “Highly Recommended” by the Chicago Sun-Times and “the perfect evening of theatre” by Chicago Theatre Review. Bakersfield Mist is now being produced in regional theaters across the country; it has been translated into other languages and is being performed around the world, including in Iceland, Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Scotland, Australia and Canada.
Set design for Bakersfield Mist is by Jeffrey McLaughlin; sound design is by Peter Bayne; props and set dressing are by Terri Roberts; and the fight director is Edgar Landa. The production stage manager is Emily Lehrer; associate producer is James Bennett; and Simon Levy and Deborah Lawlor produce for the Fountain Theatre.
Stephen Sachs’ other plays include Dream Catcher, Citizen: An American Lyric (adapted from the internationally acclaimed book by Claudia Rankine), Heart Song (Fountain Theatre, Florida Stage), Cyrano (LA Drama Critics Circle Award, Best Adaptation), Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (Fountain Theatre, Vancouver Playhouse, Canadian Stage Company, LA Drama Critics Circle award and LA Weekly award nomination for Best Adaptation), Gilgamesh (Theatre @ Boston Court), Open Window (Pasadena Playhouse, Media Access Award for Excellence), Central Avenue (PEN USA Literary Award finalist, Back Stage Garland award, Best Play), Sweet Nothing in My Ear(PEN USA Literary Award finalist, Media Access award, NEA grant award), Mother’s Day, The Golden Gate (Best Play, Drama-Logue) and The Baron in the Trees. He wrote the teleplay for Sweet Nothing in My Ear for Hallmark Hall of Fame which aired on CBS starring Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels. Sachs co-founded The Fountain Theatre with Deborah Lawlor in 1990.
‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre
by Josh Gershick
Citizen: An American Lyric, the play, takes its title and text from a book of prose poetry by Claudia Rankine, finalist for 2014 National Book Award in Poetry and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, among other plaudits. Writing in the New York Times last June, after six black women and three black men were shot to death by a self-avowed white supremacist at a Bible-study meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, Ms. Rankine said, “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black .”
The play – “a fast-moving collage of colliding events, fragments, vignettes and streams of consciousness”-is deeply compelling. Here, a chat with Stephen Sachs, co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre and the playwright who brought Citizen to the stage.
JOSH GERSHICK:Citizen is a beautiful piece of theatre, addressing persistent racism head on. Talk about theatre’s (and this play’s) ability to move, transform, agitate and uplift an audience.
STEPHEN SACHS: In 2014, when Claudia’s book was being published, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO. I had been looking for a theatre protect that would add a unique voice to the national conversation about race in America. Racism is embedded in the fabric of our country and its founding.
We may all be created equal, but we certainly are not perceived that way by each other. I wanted to make a statement that would open the eyes, minds and hearts of audiences in unexpected ways. Quite by accident, I was caught by a review of Citizen in a national newspaper. The title immediately grabbed me. When I actually got the book, it flashed in my mind that this was the voice I was looking for. What makes the book-and the theatre piece – unique is that they expose and illuminate the sometimes unintended and unconscious acts of everyday racism. Subtle, insidious, soul crushing-the little murders we commit daily. Micro-aggressions between friends and co-workers at the market, in the office and on the subway. What we say, how we think, what we do. White privilege and dominance have been so deeply [ingrained] in this country. The play makes you see it, feel it, and think about it. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?
JOSH GERSHICK: You’ve said you’d like theatre-goers to come away with a new awareness of how they themselves might perpetuate racism. A white theatre-goer cannot, in my view, see this piece without confronting his or her own attitudes: ideas. But what is the takeaway for audiences of color, who are on the receiving end of racism?
STEPHEN SACHS: A dramatization of white dominance. A truth-telling. We had a full mix of white and black audience members throughout the run at the Fountain Theatre. Black patrons had a wide range of reactions to the play: the laughter of recognition, gasps, silence, tears. The unease of, “I can’t believe you’re really saying that,” and the delight of “I’m so glad you are.” And because it’s all about exposing and revealing hidden (and not so hidden) racism, the piece carries the call of giving voice and speaking out.
JOSH GERSHICK: The run was clearly a success. (Mazel Tov on your Stage Raw Award!) What’s next for the play?
‘Citizen’ at Pure Theatre in Charleston, SC.
STEPHEN SACHS: The play now is beginning its future life around the country. I’m proud that Citizen is beingperformed in Charleston this June, in a theatre just four blocks away from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, to mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting there. On June 17, when we reflect on that national tragedy, the play will be there. This is deeply meaningful to me. This is why we do what we do. This is who we are. A New York production is also in the works.
JOSH GERSHICK: I think of LA theatre, 99-seat theatre, as an incubator, a cradle, a hothouse and a glorious lab for bringing forth new, compelling work-Citizen, for example and revisiting work that remains seldom produced, such as the work of Alice Childress. What percentage of new work launched at the Fountain Theatre goes on to regional stages and to NY?
STEPHEN SACHS: The Fountain Theatre is a home for artists and audiences to gather together in an intimate setting to share stories that illuminate what it means to be a human being, with the goal that new plays are then seen in theatres across the country and around the world. We may be small in size, but we’re large in heart and dedication and purpose.
Kathleen Turner in ‘Bakersfield Mist’, West End, London.
Quite a number of new plays created, developed and launched at the Fountain have now been produced across the U.S.and around the world. Sweet Nothing in Ear has been performed around the country and was made into a TV movie starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin. What I Heard About Iraq has been performed internationally, winning the Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Our world premiere of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances was produced around the country, then opened Off-Broadway at Primary Stages in NYC, then went overseas to the Edinburgh Festival. Bakersfield Mist, performed in theatres across the country, ran for three months on the West End in London, starring Kathleen Turner, and is now being produced in regional theatres throughout the country and translated into other languages and performed worldwide. The list goes on and on.
JOSH GERSHICK: Recently a New Yorker said to me, “Oh, is there theater in Los Angeles?” True, actors, writers & directors typically make their living here in TV, film & digital platforms, but we have amazing theatre-and most abundantly and energetically, intimate theater.
STEPHEN SACHS: Los Angeles still fights for its right to be called a “theatre town,” even though-and this may surprise you-more theatre is produced in LA than any other city in the world. More than New York or London.And according to a recent report, Los Angeles is also home to more working artists than any other city in the United States. The national profile of theatre in Los Angeles has never been higher. More and more new plays created here are being produced nationwide. Still, the myth is that LA theatre is somehow less serious and that LA actors do theatre only to be seen by casting directors in “the industry,” and not for the art of the work. This simply is not true. It’s a lie. And much of the most satisfying work and the most challenging new plays are being done in LA’s intimate theaters. Larger theaters can no longer afford to take artistic risks, so all that adventurous, artistic energy is humming in the intimate theatre community. The spirit behind it, the force to create, has transformed the cultural landscape of Los Angeles.
Josh Gershick is a playwright, filmmaker and author. This post originally appeared in The Dramatist, the national magazine for The Dramatist Guild.
Citizen: An American Lyric, adapted for the stage from Claudia Rankine’s award-winning book of poetry by Rankine and Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs, will headline Primary Stages’ 2016-17 season at Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre. Citizen premiered at the Fountain Theatre last summer to critical acclaim.
“We are thrilled that yet another Fountain project has succeeded in moving onward and upward,” says Sachs. “In 2007, our world premiere production of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances was presented Off-Broadway by Primary Stages, so this continues our relationship with them. Claudia and I are working together on a new draft for the New York premiere.” An announcement for the NY opening was featured in The New York Times.
‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre
An intensely provocative and unapologetic rumination on racial aggression in America, Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric has been heralded as one of the best books of the past decade and received the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. In this new stage adaptation by Rankine and Sachs, seemingly everyday acts of racism are scrutinized as part of an uncompromising testimony of “living while Black” in America, from the shooting of Trayvon Martin, to the tennis career of Serena Williams and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his “critic’s choice” review of the Fountain production, Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty wrote, “Claudia Rankine’s powerful writings about the trauma of racism make for a staging and message that resonate,” and Stage raw critic Myron Meisel called it “a transcendent experience.”
“We are particularly pleased that this piece will have a life in theaters across the country,” added Sachs. “By enlivening Claudia’s powerful book to the stage, we add our theatrical voice to the national conversation on race in America.”
Other plays written by Sachs that were created and launched at the Fountain’s intimate venue in Hollywood include Bakersfield Mist, now produced worldwide including London’s West End starring Kathleen Turner; Heart Song, produced at Florida Repertory Theatre; Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (adapted from August Strindberg’s Miss Julie) at Vancouver Playhouse and Canadian Stage Company in Toronto; and Sweet Nothing in My Ear which has been produced nationwide and was adapted into a TV movie starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin.
The world premiere production of Citizen: An American Lyric at the Fountain Theatre was directed by Shirley Jo Finney and starred Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Simone Missick and Lisa Pescia. The director and cast for the Primary Stages production have not been announced.
For more information about the Primary Stages production of Citizen: An American Lyric, visitwww.primarystages.org.
When Stephen Sachs was a student at Agoura High, he won a national high school writing award and was offered several writing scholarships. He turned them all down. Why? “I wanted to be an actor,” he answered a bit sheepishly.
He became one in the 1980s, but it’s the old story. As reality set in, he began to direct, write plays and help run theatre companies. He was a manager at Ensemble Studio Theatre, worked behind the scenes at Stages in Hollywood, and with Joan Stein and Suzie Dietz at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. Until he got a phone call “out of the blue” from Deborah Lawlor, another independent theatre producer.
Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs
Lawlor had met Sachs at Stages when she rented space there, and was impressed by him. While recuperating from a serious auto accident in New York, she decided that, if she survived, she would do what she’d always wanted: have her own theatre. She called Sachs and asked him to run it with her. That was 1990. You might say that the rest is history, but not so fast…
“I was just starting to develop as a playwright and director,” Sachs said. “Deborah had a dance background. She was part of the avant-garde dance scene in New York in the 1960s and 70s. The Judson Dance Theater, Café Cino, the whole thing. Her idea was to create an artistic home for theatre and dance artists.”
As a wise friend once told me, we tend to enter our lives through the back door. Looking around for a suitable space, Lawlor and Sachs were shown a funky building at 5060 Fountain Avenue in Hollywood and fell in love with it. They named it the Fountain for the street it sat on, but also, Lawlor said, “I liked the idea of a fountain of work…”
“We opened our doors on April Fool’s Day 1990—the perfect day to start a theatre company,” said Sachs, “and we’ve been there ever since. Los Angeles being such a diverse city, we wanted to do work that would give voice to a variety of communities.”
Which is how the theatre’s association with Flamenco dance began.
Flamenco dancer Maria Bermudez
“Through Deborah,” specified Sachs. “Shortly after we opened she asked, ‘Have you ever seen a Flamenco concert?’ I said no and she said, ‘Come with me.’ We got in the car, drove up to Santa Barbara and she introduced me to Roberto Amaral, a well respected Flamenco teacher and choreographer. I saw my first Flamenco concert and was blown away. ‘We’re going to do that at The Fountain,’ Deborah said. And now we’re the foremost regular presenters of Flamenco in Los Angeles.
“When we started it was just Deborah, me and the building. We plugged in a couple of phones, drove down Western Avenue and bought a couple of desks. We had to assemble them ourselves. We made our own programs on a manual typewriter. It was all very small, very modest.”
In many ways, it still is. “But from the beginning,” added Sachs, “we felt we were on to something. We did The Golden Gate, a play I had adapted from a charming novel by Vikram Seth about yuppies, gays and straights living in San Francisco—romantic and fun, beautifully written, and entirely in verse. It was like 30-somethings meet Shakespeare. We did it up in San Francisco, so right out of the gate, our work was being noticed. It’s just been a slow kind of gentle growth ever since.”
While next year will mark their 25th year in business at the same address in a virtually unchanged environment, and they have a lot to show artistically for the past quarter century, big profit is not one of them. Lawlor has delivered financial support when needed, while Sachs has delivered a stream of noteworthy plays, becoming that unusual creature: a playwright and director with his own sandbox. Together, they’ve built a loyal audience and done work that has brought them recognition and has traveled pretty far afield.
Sachs has had 11 of his plays produced during that time, many of them at the Fountain, quite a few elsewhere—from The Pasadena Playhouse to Toronto, from Chicago’s Victory Gardens to Vancouver. A quick Google search offers an impressive list of directing and playwriting credits.
Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap) finds release through dance in ‘Heart Song’.
Currently, his play Heart Song, which recently premiered at the Fountain and is about the transformation of a middle-aged Jewish woman “separated from her tribe and very much alone,” is filling up houses at Florida Rep. His 2012 two-hander, Bakersfield Mist, about the encounter of a celebrated art dealer with a woman in a Bakersfield trailer convinced she owns a major work of art, opens in June at The Duchess Theatre in London’s West End. It features Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid.
“There’s been something special about this play from the start,” said Sachs. “I directed the world premiere at the Fountain and was on the 101 freeway driving to my first production meeting, when I had a call from my agent telling me the script had been optioned for New York. I had to pull over!”
Bakersfield Mist received three other productions around the country as part of the National New Play Network (NNPN), an organization of theaters of which The Fountain is a member. It was founded in 1998 with the intent of giving new plays more than one production.
“They do this thing called ‘rolling world premieres,’ ” Sachs explained, “guaranteeing at least three productions of a new play. Sweet Nothing In My Ear, another play of mine that premiered at the Fountain, went around the country through NNPN and then was made into a Hallmark movie with Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels. A new version of Strinberg’s Miss Julie that I wrote was produced that way as well. We want to continue doing more of that.”
Bakersfield Mist had productions at Wellfleet Harbor Theatre in Cape Cod, New Rep in Boston, the New Jersey Rep and was optioned by Sonia Friedman, a major New York and London producer. “They’d never seen a production of it,” said Sachs. “They read that script sent by my agent and optioned it for London and New York. Now they control the U.S. rights.”
Ian McDiarmid and Kathleen Turner in the London production of “Bakersfield Mist”
In 2004, the Fountain drew the attention of no less a playwright than South Africa’s Athol Fugard, who chose the tiny Fountain for the world premiere of an exquisite and very personal two-character play: Exits and Entrances. It was followed by the U.S. premiere of Fugard’s The Blue Iris, The Train Driver, Victory and the West coast premiere of Coming Home.
When asked how many productions the Fountain puts on per year, Sachs answered: “Trick question. We’ll announce four, but actually do two or three. Our productions tend to extend and run for a while which is a nice problem to have. So we announce four and see how it goes.”
Productions are no longer pegged to specific dates, but to seasons — Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter — allowing for greater flexibility. Sachs and Lawlor threw out the old model of rigid slots when they found themselves closing hits because they had committed to a new show on a given date. With just 80 seats to sell, they had to think more creatively. “We changed everyone to a flexible pass and we’ve never looked back. This allows us to keep a hit going. It also allows our subscribers the flexibility to come at their convenience—a good thing when decisions today tend to be so last-minute.”
So is the small physical plant a plus or a minus?
“It’s a question we’ve been wrestling with for years,” Sachs acknowledged, “a tug between ambition and what is right for the company. We even explored Hollywood quite a bit, looking to find maybe a second space or larger building, thinking, boy, how much bigger we could be. Yet talking with Fugard about this, he said, ‘Don’t. Don’t do it.’ Maybe he’s right…”
“The Train Driver” by Athol Fugard
So here’s the dilemma: Awards and recognition are certainly not lacking, but breaking even—let alone making money—is a perennial struggle. The staff has ballooned to six people: Lawlor and Sachs, producing director Simon Levy, tech director Scott Tuomey, associate producer James Bennett and head of subscriptions Diana Gibson. The budget has “a little more than doubled” since they opened their doors. It does not easily enable profit.
“There are times when I wish we had more seats, a bigger stage,” said Sachs, “but there are plenty of examples out there of smaller theatres that have gone on to larger buildings and have regretted it or have lost something in the move; suddenly the focus becomes the real estate and maintaining the overhead.
“I don’t ever want to lose the magic of this intimate space. It makes for such a visceral experience. But after almost 25 years, there’s also a question of growth. We can’t become stagnant or complacent and we do want to continue building forward. You don’t want to sell your soul and you don’t want to lose what makes this theatre special.”
Lawlor concurred. She’s writing a play for which she’s received a grant and acknowledged that “our losses have decreased; we may even show a tiny profit this year.”
“Expanding fund-raising; exploring the possibility of adding 19 seats to our existing space. Not easy,” said Sachs, “but we can do that under the 99-seat Equity Waiver and 19 seats could make a difference. Other than that, we’re looking to expand our exposure across the country and having more of our work done at other theatres.”
So the funky Fountain remains the-little-theatre-that-could, on its funky street with its broken sidewalk, its postage-stamp parking lot, and widely enjoyed by many people who apparently have found out that they really, really like what it has to offer.
The funny and charming ‘balcony scene’ from Cyrano was performed by cast members Troy Kotsur, Paul Raci and Erinn Anova. The gala evening also included remarks by actresses Marlee Matlin and Deanne Bray, former Mark Taper Forum Artistic Director Gordon Davidson, Broadway director Jeff Calhoun, and Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs.
The excitement of Opening Night on Saturday of our world premiere of Cyrano was given an added thrill by the attendance of Film/TV actress Marlee Matlin. Marlee is a longtime supporter of both Deaf West and the Fountain Theatre. She is a member of the Advisory Board at Deaf West, and she starred in the CBS TV-movie version of the Fountain Theatre play, Sweet Nothing in my Ear, written by Cyrano playwright Stephen Sachs.
The Cyrano cast was delighted to have Marlee with them on Opening Night. “She’s a sweetheart,” says cast member Eddie Buck. “I got compliments from her. She absolutely looks gorgeous.”
Actor Daniel Durant describes the encounter with Marlee as “a very big moment to meet and talk with such a great role model.”
Marlee Matlin at the Opening Night of "Cyrano" at the Fountain Theatre.
Cast members Eddie Buck, Ipek Mehlum, Maleni Chaitoo, and Daniel Durant enjoy the support of Marlee Matlin on Opening Night.
Marlee and Daniel Durant.
Actress Ipek Mehlum and Marlee Matlin share a laugh.
Fountain Theatre’s Stephen Sachs (co-artistic director) and Simon Levy (producing director) are zeroing in on the premiere Saturday of the Fountain’s latest collaboration with Deaf West Theatre — a re-imagined, signed/spoken word adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, scripted by Sachs, helmed by Levy.
The Fountain has a long history with Deaf West, so Sachs and Levy are not exploring totally new territory. But they are quick to make clear that this production is not just a straightforward ASL translation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 rhymed-verse chronicle of the 17th century duelist and poet with an oversized proboscis.
“First of all, Stephen has set this in modern times in LA, where people communicate through all sorts of electronic gadgets, on Facebook and Twitter,” explains Levy. “This production uses spoken word, ASL and e-language. This provides for myriad possibilities but also a whole lot of complications.”
“In the original, Cyrano’s barrier is his enormous nose and his perceived ugliness,” Sachs elaborates. “In this new version, it’s Cyrano’s deafness. He is a brilliant deaf poet, who signs magnificently. But he is not fully able to express his love for a hearing woman because she does not know sign language. So, while Rostand’s Cyrano was a man of his nose, this is a man of his hands.
“This is also the journey of a man who is at once proud of his deafness and of his hands, which is how he speaks; but he is also at war with himself, as any great tragic hero is, in terms of his pride. In this case, one of the major parts of his journey is to find a kind of peace with that, within and outside his deaf community. Like the original Cyrano, who stands alone, distant from his comrades in arms, our Cyrano stands alone within his deaf community and that gets him into trouble.”
“He also is at odds along the way with insensitive hearing people,” adds Levy.
“But at the end, he is able to make peace and find forgiveness within himself, his community and the outer world,” continues Sachs.
The histories of Fountain Theatre and Deaf West have been entwined for 21 years, when Sachs and co-artistic director Deborah Lawlor provided office space to Ed Waterstreet, an actor with National Theatre of the Deaf, who envisioned founding a theater company for deaf actors in LA, which became Deaf West. The Fountain was the site of Deaf West’s first productions The Gin Game (1991), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1991) and Shirley Valentine (1992).
In 1993, Deaf West moved to the first of its own facilities, on Heliotrope Drive (in what is now Sacred Fools Theater). But Sachs, who already had a history of conducting workshops with deaf actors for a number of years, continued his commitment by writing Sweet Nothing in My Ear (1997) for a Fountain production and Open Window (2005) for a Deaf West/Pasadena Playhouse collaboration at the playhouse. Both of these incorporated deaf culture and illuminated the deaf world.
Cyrano is a project that has been percolating in the years since Deaf West settled in its later NoHo home (which recently has been used primarily by Antaeus Company and is currently rented for the production of The Bridge Club).
Sachs recalls, “About nine years ago, Deaf West had the idea of doing a musical version of Cyrano. It was just after they had a huge success adapting the musical, Big River (2001-02). I remember reading about it at the time and thought it was a great idea.
Troy Kotsur and Paul Raci
“Then, just a couple of years ago, Ed called me, wanting me to write a new play for Deaf West. We kicked around some ideas and then I asked about his plans for Cyrano. Ed said it was an idea that never came to fruition. Well, I told him I would love to do that, but I wanted to turn it into a play and have it be about Cyrano’s hands, not his nose, making it about his deafness and language. And that’s how this project came about.”
Levy adds, “Part of the journey in mounting this production has been the marriage of these three languages. This is a new world we live in with e-language and how important that language is to both the hearing and the deaf communities. That has created some interesting dilemmas in the staging. There are a lot of things we haven’t anticipated that we discovered in process of doing it. For instance, how do you relate text messages among the characters to an audience? We had a lot of wonderful ideas that we had to figure out how to actualize, none of which we could anticipate until we got into them.”
At the center of the action is actor Troy Kotsur, whose performance history with Deaf West includes Big River, Pippin, A Streetcar Named Desire and Of Mice and Men. “Troy is a wonderfully gifted and inventive actor who is a joy to watch as he has been creating this role,” affirms Levy. “So much of the creation of the ASL translation is intense, hard work. Part of it is done in advance with script work and an ASL translator. But a majority of it is done in rehearsal with the actor improvising different ways to sign a certain line or phrase. When you have someone as skilled as Troy doing it, it is an amazing experience to watch. And a wonderful actor, Victor Warren, provides Cyrano’s voice when needed.”
Complementing Kotsur in principal roles are Erinn Anova as the much-adored Roxy and Paul Raci as Chris, the handsome signing/speaking brother of Cyrano, with whom Roxy is smitten. Levy admits to being very aware that communicating with this cast has been a whole new learning curve for him.
“This is my first time staging a spoken word/ASL signed production. I’ve produced several speaking/ASL shows here at the Fountain, but this is a new experience. I could not do this at all without the immense contribution of the ASL interpreters [Elizabeth Greene and Jennifer Snipstad Vega]. A director has to be able to communicate with his actors and make sure everything is communicated correctly to the audience. I just can’t get up there and start talking about ‘feeling it’ and the actors’ ‘motivation.’ This has been a whole new adventure in using all the elements of communication possible to make sure everyone and everything involved in this is moving in the same direction.”
Sachs just smiles benignly at his cohort. “You’re doing just fine.”
In 1990, Stephen Sachs and Ed Waterstreet shared a dream. Stephen had just launched the Fountain Theatre with Deborah Lawlor. He had worked sporadically with deaf actors and writers in Los Angeles for five years prior and was now eager to start a deaf theatre company at the newly-formed Fountain. Ed was a respected actor and director trained at the National Theatre for the Deaf. He, too, was yearning to create something new in Los Angeles: a professional deaf theatre company led and run by deaf artists. Someone suggested that Stephen and Ed meet. Upon meeting, it was clear they were both united by the same exhilarating vision. Ed was immediately invited into the Fountain Family. He was given office space and support. And Deaf West was born. The first professional resident Sign Language Theatre west of the Mississippi.
Ed Waterstreet with actors Patrick Graybill and Phyllis Frelich. "The Gin Game" (1991)
By May, 1991, Deaf West opened its first production at the Fountain, The Gin Game, starring Phyllis Frelich and Patrick Graybill. It was followed by Shirley Valentine in 1992, starring Freda Norman and directed by Waterstreet. In 1993, Sachs directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in which the hospital staff was hearing and the patients deaf.
It was always the goal that Deaf West would become autonomous and operate its own venue. In 1993, Deaf West “left home” and leased the Heliotrope Theatre in Hollywood where Sachs directed ‘Night Mother, costarring Freda Norman and Elena Blue in 1994. Under Ed’s leadership, Deaf West blossomed and grew. Back at the Fountain, the development of new plays with deaf themes continued with the world premiere of Sachs’ Sweet Nothing in my Ear in 1997, tackling the controversial issue of cochlear implants. The play was made into a CBS TV movie in 2008 starring Marlee Matlin, Jeff Daniels, and featuring Ed Waterstreet.
Stephen Sachs directs "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1993)
After a brief stay at the Ventura Court theater in North Hollywood, Deaf West acquired its venue on Lankershim Blvd in the NoHo Arts District. Deaf West and Sachs joined forces again in 2005 with the world premiere of Sachs’ play, Open Window, starring Linda Bove and Shoshannah Stern, at the Pasadena Playhouse.
The Fountain Theatre and Deaf West Theatre are now two of the most successful and highly respected intimate theater companies in Los Angeles, both honored with hundreds of awards and earning national recognition for excellence. Twenty-two years after first joining hands, the two companies are together again co-producing the world premiere of their new signed/spoken version of Cyrano, starring Troy Kotsur, at the Fountain Theatre. Back where it all began. Where a dream became reality.