Lisa Strum, a Philadelphia native living and working in the New York area is a director, an educator, actress, playwright, producer, casting director, singer and a certified wedding officiant! I’d add to that list truth teller, world traveler, and cherished friend. Her soulful voice and infectious laugh make her a powerful presence on stage and off, and her sharp wit, insightful observations, and wicked sense of humor are what makes her work so compelling. An award-winning actor, she’s starred in some of American theatre’s most celebrated plays, including Wilson’s Fences, Morriseau’s Pipleline, and Nottage’s Sweat. But lately, it is her work as a director that is getting everyone’s attention. I am lucky enough to have had her direct two of my own plays – Fall at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, and Nanã for the All Hands on Deck Virtual play Festival. She also directed a Kennedy Center Award winning production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough, and is currently directing Flyin West at Five Towns College. On this week’s installment of “Saturday Matinees”, Strum will perform from her original works She Gon Learn, An Actor Prepares, and Poetic Tirades. I sat down with her to discuss her journey from actor to director, and the beauty of acceptance.
F.L.B. What led you to directing?
L.S. I dabbled in directing while I was in undergrad; directing one acts and short scenes. But it wasn’t until I was hired by Carl Johnson to act as the Theatre Specialist for the Abrons Arts Center Summer Program at Henry Street Settlement that my directing skills really began to take shape. I discovered that I had a strong visual eye to tell stories on the stage and to get great performances out of the actors I was working with – regardless of their experience or their age. There was always a mainstage show at the end of the 5 weeks of the summer program of an original devised theatre piece created by the students. The show also included dance, singing and a set, so there was constant collaboration between the voice, dance and visual arts instructors throughout the summer and year after year we generated some incredible work together. It was exciting being the conductor of all of this collaborative work. I became hooked. And I just liked telling people what to do! LOL!
F.L.B. – What has been keeping you sane?
Staying connected with friends and family. Preparing and cooking home cooked meals. Laughter. Lots of laughter! Movies from my teenage years. And simply accepting the reality of the situation we are living in right now. Adaption and going with the flow are key. Many people realized during the quarantine how much they needed a break from the constant hustle and rat race. I didn’t realize how much I needed to be still. With all the constraints we’ve been under because of COVID-19, I’ve found peace within the boundaries. It’s been an amazing way to stay focused and to stay in the moment.
FLB. – What gives you hope?
L.S. The will of the human spirit and the ability to adapt and find joy regardless of the circumstances.
France-Luce Benson is a playwright and the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Fountain Theatre.
Acclaimed actress Kathleen Chalfant will lead the cast for the Fountain Theatre’s live-stream reading of France-Luce Benson‘s docudrama on immigration, Detained, on Wednesday, May 20th. The Tony nominated and Obie winning actress’ distinguished stage career, both on Broadway and Off-Broadway, includes Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit.
Actors joining Chalfant are Victor Anthony, France-Luce Benson, Rolando Chusan, Liza Fernandez, Aleisha Force, Dion Graham, Matt Kirkwood, Sofia Riba, Ariel Sandino, Felix A. Solis, Aldo Uribe, Karl O’Brien Williams.
Based on interviews with individuals who are facing deportation, as well as the judges, lawyers, and activists who are involved in these cases, Detained is a new documentary theater piece about immigration, deportation, and detention in the United States.
“France-Luce has incorporated the voices of all the stakeholders from immigrants to ICE officers and everyone in between, ” says Chalfant, who has been involved in the new play’s development. “The play provides a very important human perspective so that we see that the current system is neither necessary nor inevitable and is certainly not the way it has always been done.”
“The coronavirus crisis makes this already appalling system even crueler and now even murderous,’ she adds.
The live-stream reading of Detained on Wednesday, May 20, will air live at 5pm PST/8pm EST on the Fountain Theatre’s Facebook page, YouTube Channel and on Zoom.
As we all hunker down, I’ve been thinking a lot about home. As a playwright/performer, I’ve lived a kind of gypsy lifestyle for most of my adulthood. Home is wherever the gig happens to be. For the last year and a half, home is Los Angeles. Of course, in Los Angeles, I can’t think about home without thinking of the millions of men, women, and children who are experiencing homelessness today. As our public officials urge us all to “stay home”, rightfully so, I can’t help but wonder what that means for those who don’t have a home.
Like many theatres across the country, The Fountain made the painful decision to suspend performances of Human Interest Story, which grappled with several issues around homelessness. Sadly, this also meant cancelling all of our BID events, including a panel discussion with representatives from several homeless relief organizations in our community.
Although the show cannot go on, we’ve decided to keep the conversation going with one of our esteemed panelists, John Billingsley. As the Board President of Hollywood Food Coalition, Billingsley knows firsthand about what it means to be on the front lines of the fight to end homelessness in L.A.
FLB: First, can you please tell us about Hollywood Food Coalition’s mission and what services you provide:
Billingsley: Every night of the year we serve the most immediate needs of people in our community: we provide a healthy and nutritious five course meal to all comers, no questions asked (soup, salad, choice of vegetarian or non-vegetarian entree, fruit, bread, desserts, milk, water). We also distribute shoes, blankets, sleeping bags, clothing, bus passes, laundry vouchers, toiletry kits, and etc. We have medical, dental and vision vans from UCLA visiting our campus on a regular basis. We are secular, but we serve our meal on the campus of the Salvation Army, (in one of their two dining halls) and we also help clients access way cool stuff provided by other community social service organizations (our neighbors and buds). Additionally, insofar as we rescue approximately 7000 pounds of food a week, we aim to distribute the food we cannot use to other Not For Profits serving our community.
FLB: What led you to Hollywood Food Coalition?
Billingsley: Approximately 4 years ago, apres the disastrous 2016 election, I was looking for ways to get more involved in my community. In addition to doing some political fundraising, I started making bad fruit salads at the Hollywood Food Coalition. (I washed dishes badly, as well). I was foolish enough to shoot off my mouth a bit about ways to grow the board, raise more moolah, blah blah blah . . . and now I’m the Board President! It (almost) reaffirms my faith in America. Or, perversely, makes me question the sanity of our Executive Director, Sherry Bonanno.
FLB: What has been your focus as Board President?
Billingsley: We believe food is a medium for coalition building. My specific interest revolves around what it means to build coalitions, to make pals, to get to know our non-for-profit neighbors. We’re interested in helping to bring NFP’s in our community together to collaborate, where possible, on ‘common actions’, like we’re doing with The Fountain Theatre. We’re interested in exploring mechanisms by which we can further each other’s missions: Can we help you do what you do better? Can you help us do what we do better? How?
FLB: In Stephen Sachs’ play, Human Interest Story, the Jane Doe character offers a raw look at the realities of homelessness. She talks about being assaulted, feeling invisible, and the stigma attached to homelessness. In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge homeless men and women face?
Tanya Alexander and Rob Nagle, Human Interest Story.
Billingsley: First off, and apropos of nothing – ‘people who re experiencing homelessness’ is a more artful construction, I have been taught – when we use the term ‘homeless’, and God knows we all use it, we kinda consign people to a bit of a Dante-esque ‘circle’, a ‘home’, oddly enough . . .
People go through shit.
One can say: I am going through this time in my life, I am experiencing yada yada yada . . . it’s subtly, but legitimately, different than saying: I am a this. I am a that. People ain’t homeless. They’re living a particular kind of life, they’re experiencing homelessness at this time in their life . One hopes that they will be living a different kind of life soon.
But to answer your question:
The biggest challenge homeless people face is the biggest challenge most of us face: the folks who rule our country, and many other countries around the world, actively attempt to delegitimize, if not actively dehumanize, people who don’t agree with them, or look like them, or in any way challenge their values or their hold on power. The challenge we all face, or can’t even begin to face (or intellectually recognize) is a deep and internalized acquiescence in the face of systemic and organized political disenfranchisement; perhaps to the perpetuation of our own diminution. Continue reading →
The company of Human Interest Story celebrate Opening Night.
The opening night of the world premiere of a new play at the Fountain Theatre is always an event to celebrate. Such was the case on Saturday, February 15, with the official launch of Human Interest Story, written and directed by Stephen Sachs. A sold-out house gave the powerful and timely new play a standing ovation, and then gathered upstairs in our charming cafe for a catered reception with the company.
In the play, newspaper columnist Andy Kramer is laid off when a corporate takeover downsizes the City Chronicle. In retaliation, Andy fabricates a letter to his column from an imaginary homeless woman named “Jane Doe” who announces she will kill herself on the 4th of July because of the heartless state of the world. When the letter goes viral, Andy is forced to hire a homeless woman to stand-in as the fictitious Jane Doe. She becomes an overnight internet sensation and a national women’s movement is ignited.
early reviews have been laudatory. Theatre Notes has hailed the Fountain production as “Astonishing” and On Stage Los Angeles declares it “A Must See.”
Rob Nagle and Tanya Alexander in Human Interest Story.
by Gil Kaan
A stalwart member of the Los Angeles Theatre community, the multi-award-winning Rob Nagle will next be appearing on The Fountain Theatre stage in the world premiere of Stephen Sachs‘ HUMAN INTEREST STORY, opening February 15, 2020. Rob essays Andy Kramer, who just having been laid off, fabricates a letter to the editor; then, has to mastermind an elaborate charade to justify it. Rob’s HUMAN INTEREST STORY onstage accomplices include: Tanya Alexander, Richard Azurdia, Aleisha Force, James Harper, Matt Kirkwood and Tarina Pouncy.
The ever-busy Rob managed to find some time to answer a few of my queries.
What criteria do you look for in taking on a new role/character?
I try to keep a very open mind when I am first looking at a new role. I read the script, trying to keep my mind a tabula rasa, a blank slate, so that I do not have any preconceptions about what I am reading, and I can simply respond to the material. I want to see if it is a story that I would like to tell, and then I more closely examine if the character says things that I would like to say. It does not matter whether or not I agree with the character’s point of view; the story and the words just need to resonate for me. Once the part and the script have passed muster for me, I then consider the people involved in the project and the place where it will be performed. After that, I take a look at the pay. But it’s never really about the pay for me, it’s about the story.
What cosmic forces of creativity first brought you together with this new world premiere by Stephen Sachs?
The cosmic forces of creativity seem to work when you stay involved in the Los Angeles theatre community. I have admired Stephen’s work for many years now, and apparently he mine, as well. In January of 2018, he invited me to take part in a one-night-only reading of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MENin the Council Chambers at Los Angeles City Hall. I believe that was our first creative foray together. In July of 2019, he asked me take part in an early read of HUMAN INTEREST STORY, then titled JANE DOE. I was reading a different role, but I loved what he was doing with this script.
If you were writing a letter of recommendation for Andy, what qualities of his would you emphasize?
His tenacity and strength of purpose. His empathy and his heart. His curiosity and searching nature. And his passion for telling stories.
What character flaws would you sugarcoat?
His pride. His ego. And the little boy who is still seeking his father’s approval.
What for you, Rob Nagle, would be the most satisfying thoughts/emotions audience leave The Fountain Theatre with after your HUMAN INTEREST STORY curtain call?
I hope all of our hearts grow a little bit while we’re all together experiencing this play. Maybe we’ll think a little differently about all those ideas we were so certain of when we walked in and sat down together, all the things we think we know about the world. I hope audiences feel an enlarged sense of compassion, greater understanding and deeper concern for their fellow human beings, no matter the color or gender or creed. We all tend to take care of our own circles of family and friends – but there are people out there who have been kicked out of their circles, or who have wandered out of them, or who have lost their connections to them. They are worthy of our care, of our attention, and even of our love. There are eight million stories in this naked city, and every homeless person you encounter can tell you one of them. I hope we start talking less, and listening a little more.
Rob Nagle and Tanya Alexander in “Human Interest Story.”
“The line between where you are now and sleeping in your car is much thinner than you think.” The Fountain Theatre presents the world premiere of a timely new play, written and directed by Stephen Sachs(Arrival & Departure, Citizen: An American Lyric, Bakersfield Mist), about homelessness, celebrity worship and the assault on American journalism. Human Interest Story opens at the Fountain on Feb. 15, where performances continue through April 5.
Set in the fast-moving world of new media, Human Interest Story chronicles the journey of newspaper columnist Andy Kramer, played by award-winning actor Rob Nagle (recent credits include Apple Season at Moving Arts andThe Judas Kiss at Boston Court). Suddenly laid off when a corporate takeover downsizes his paper — a print publication struggling for readers in changing times — Andy fabricates a letter to his column in retaliation. The letter, from an imaginary homeless woman named “Jane Doe” who announces she will kill herself on the 4th of July because of the heartless state of the world, goes viral, and Andy is forced to hire a homeless woman (Tanya Alexander — Mono/Poly at the Odyssey and Future Sex Inc. at the Lounge) to stand-in as the fictitious Jane. She becomes an overnight internet sensation and a national women’s movement is ignited.
According to Sachs, the play is about how contrary and opposing impulses can hide in the same human being. “A newspaper columnist, in the course of writing a human interest story on another individual, is forced to confront truths about himself,” he explains.
The cast also includes James Harper, previously seen at the Fountain in The Accomplices, as newspaper publisher Harold Cain. Playing multiple roles are Richard Azurdia(My Mañana Comes at the Fountain), Aleisha Force(Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra at Virginia Shakes, Maggie in Dancing at Lughnasa at Barnstormers Theatre), Matt Kirkwood (Our Class at Son of Semele, The Goat or, who is Sylvia? at the LGBT Center) and Tarina Pouncy (Vendetta Chrome at Coeurage Theatre; Les Blancs at Rogue Machine; and The Old Settler at International City Theatre, for which she garnered an NAACP award).
The creative team for Human Interest Story includes scenic and video designer Matthew G. Hill; lighting designer Jennifer Edwards; composer and sound designer Peter Bayne; costume designer Shon LeBlanc; video hair and makeup designer Diahann McCrary; and prop master Michael Allen Angel. The production stage manager is Emily Lehrer,and the assistant stage manager is Nura Ferdowsi. Simon Levy, James Bennett and Deborah Culver produce for the Fountain Theatre. Producing underwriters include David and Mary Jo Volk; Laurel and Robert Silton; Lois Tandy; and Toby and Daniel Bernstein. The executive producer is Karen Kondazian.
The story was initially inspired by the 1941 Frank Capra classic filmMeet John Doe.
Stephen Sachs is the co-founder and co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre and the author of 15 plays. Recent work includes his Deaf/Hearing love story, Arrival & Departure (“Critic’s Choice,” Los Angeles Times); his stage adaptation of William Goldman’s screenplay for All the President’s Men, starring Bradley Whitford and Joshua Malina at L.A. City Hall; and his stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, which premiered at the Fountain Theatre and was remounted by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. His play Bakersfield Mist is performed worldwide. Sachs’ screenplay Sweet Nothing in my Ear, based on his play, was made into a CBS TV movie starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin. As director, he is a two-time Ovation Award winner and was recently honored by the Los Angeles City Council for “his visionary contributions to the cultural life of Los Angeles.”
The Fountain Theatre 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 hundreds of awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Recent highlights include all-star readings of Ms. Smith Goes to Washington and All the President’s Men at Los Angeles City Hall. The Fountain’s 2018 productions of The Chosen and Arrival & Departure each enjoyed months-long sold out runs and was named a Los Angeles Times “Critic’s Choice.” The company’s recent West Coast premiere of Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cost of Living, was named to the Los Angeles Times’ “Best of 2018” list. This season, the Southern California premiere of Daniel’sHusband and the currently extended Los Angeles premiere of Between Riverside and Crazy were each named to multiple “Best of 2019” lists.
Playwright/Director Stephen Sachs shares his thoughts on the new play.
Here we go! A new year. A new season. Company members assembled on Tuesday for the first rehearsal of the upcoming world premiere of Human Interest Story, written and directed by Stephen Sachs. The riveting drama opens Feb 15.
In Human Interest Story, Newspaper columnist Andy Kramer is laid off when a corporate takeover downsizes the City Chronicle. In retaliation, Andy fabricates a letter to his column from an imaginary homeless woman named “Jane Doe” who announces she will kill herself on the 4th of July because of the heartless state of the world. When the letter goes viral, Andy is forced to hire a homeless woman to stand-in as the fictitious Jane Doe. She becomes an overnight internet sensation and a national women’s movement is ignited.