Tag Archives: New York

With Samuel French Bookshop’s fatal end, the tragic flaw is our own

Samuel French Bookshop LA

by Stephen Sachs

If our beloved Samuel French bookstore were a play, its shocking violent demise this week makes the ending a tragedy. A tragic drama not wrought by a fatal flaw of the store’s own making. The tragic flaw exposed here is our own. The fate of Samuel French bookstore reveals a deeply disturbing character defect of our city, our country and our culture.

According to police, the store was broken into and seriously vandalized on Monday night, March 4th following a confrontation with several unidentified male customers who tried to intimidate one of the store employees. The police have closed the store pending their investigation and to protect the staff’s safety. The shop will not reopen. Ever.

Samuel French bookstore had already announced it was closing at the end of this month. Yet another casualty of e-commerce, book sales at the store have been steadily declining. Over 80% of Samuel French’s retail sales are now made online. Still, the sudden announcement of the store’s imminent closure caught us all by surprise and shook our LA theatre community to its core. News of Monday night’s vandalism drives a dagger into our heart. The loss of Samuel French bookshop is a death in the family.

For decades, as a once-upon-a-time actor and now a director/playwright and overseer of a theatre company, each time I walked into the bookstore on Sunset Blvd I breathed a deep sigh of reverence and gratitude, like stepping into a sanctuary. I experienced a spiritual and physical healing when I walked into Samuel French bookstore. The smell of its books was aromatherapy. The brick walls, the catacomb of shelves, the stacks of books, large and small, piled in corners like paper pillars. One enters Samuel French bookstore to be lost and found. To lose oneself reading a script on a calm afternoon, to find oneself as an artist through what one found in its pages. The vandalism of Samuel French bookshop, to me, is a desecration of a sacred place.     

The Studio City bookshop on Ventura Boulevard closed in 2012. Now, our beloved store on Sunset Boulevard is gone forever. Closed early. Due to violence.

We have no one to blame but ourselves.

Like the art form it celebrated, Samuel French bookstore engaged in a daily battle for its own survival against online technology.  Why leave your home when you can download a book? A bookstore is much like a theatre. A live experience. Physically walking into a book store, interconnecting with fellow human beings, holding an actual book in your hand, turning its pages – these are visceral sensations no e-book can duplicate. A book store and a local theatre create community. A place to meet, to gather, to interact. Both a theatre and a book store are places of worship, both serving an art form greater than themselves.

In my opinion, the Samuel French bookstore didn’t just die in the war against online retailing, we killed it. We made our choice. Eight out of ten plays are now bought online. We choose digital over paper. This is the Amazon-era. We click-shop. Our goods are now delivered to our door. We barely need to get up off the couch. The fault, dear consumer, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.       

Once again, Los Angeles has proved we are not New York. Last October, Drama Book Shop, the legendary 100-year old independent bookstore in Manhattan that has one of the largest selections of plays in the country, announced it was closing. The rent was too high. It didn’t take long for the city and its artists to leap into action. By January, it was announced that Lin-Manuel Miranda and three of his “Hamilton” collaborators purchased the Drama Book Shop. The quartet is currently working with the City of New York to find an affordable space for the store.

“The store is a gem and a cultural institution in New York, and we want to make sure it’s saved,” said Julie Menin, the mayor’s media and entertainment commissioner.

Where is the public statement from the mayor’s office in Los Angeles advocating to save or relocate Samuel French bookshop? Aye, there’s the rub. In Los Angeles, there is no Lin-Manuel Miranda.

We do have Nicki Monet. A platoon of local theatre artists led by actress/producer Nicki Monet launched a petition campaign to protest the store’s closing. The petition collected more than 7,000 signatures. Now violence has struck. Who knows what now will happen? Music conglomerate Concord Music, which purchased the store, said it would be willing to support a new L.A. store “with favorable pricing and payment terms.” We shall see.

In the bookshop’s final hours, Monday night’s vandalism exposes perhaps the most disturbing truth of all. An unsettling truth about ourselves and the temperature of today. The boiling social and political bile of this nation, fanning the flames of hatred and racism and division, ignited on Sunset Boulevard Monday night. Abuse and intimidation in the bookshop by day led to violence and physical destruction in the darkness of night. A depressing reminder of who we are as a people and where we are plummeting as a nation. This is who we have become. Of course, the defacing of a theatre book store in Los Angeles pales when compared to the uncountable acts of fatal violence and hatred executed every day nationwide. Yet Monday night’s act hurts me deeply because it is a symptom of a larger hurt, a greater ill in our country. Shakespeare warned us not to drink the Kool-Aid of anger and hatred. As he warns in Measure for Measure, “Our natures do pursue a thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.”

In any tragic story, anagnorisis is the moment when the main character discovers his/her true nature, recognizes the truth about his or her true self. I am willing to stay for the Third Act of this play, if there is one. Hopefully, this dramatic story ends with a cathartic spiritual renewal of resurrection.

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

Fountain Theatre awarded $32,000 grant for deaf/hearing new play ‘Arrival & Departure’

ARRIVAL & DEPARTURE 2

Deanne Bray and Troy Kotsur

The Fountain Theatre is very pleased to announce that it has been awarded a grant from the David Lee Foundation in the amount of $32,000 to support and enhance the budget of the world premiere of its new deaf/hearing production, Arrival & Departure, which will combine American Sign Language and Spoken English. Written and directed by Stephen Sachs and starring Deaf actors Deanne Bray and Troy Kotsur, the new play opens July 14. 

The David Lee Foundation aims to support, enhance and promote Los Angeles area professional theater. It offers monetary grants to encourage the production of plays and musicals that might otherwise be overlooked because of financial considerations. Grants are given to supplement cast sizes, set and costume budgets, orchestras and rehearsal time.

“This magnificent award will allow The Fountain to bring Arrival & Departure to our stage with the full vision intact,” affirms Fountain Theatre Director of Development Barbara Goodhill. “It is also a beautiful affirmation of the merit of this beautiful play and the importance of the community it serves and illuminates.”

With ever increasing costs accompanied by decreasing aid to the arts, theater companies large and small are being forced to work with fewer and fewer resources. As a result the live theater appears to be shrinking before our eyes. Few theaters can consider a play with over four actors and anything more than the most rudimentary of sets and costumes. More often than not we are greeted upon entering the theater with a bare stage, a chair and a program that lists one or two actors. While this may well be artistically satisfying in some cases, it has resulted in the neglect of many great works simply because of their size. The David Lee Foundation seeks to change that.

David Lee regularly directs and writes for major regional theaters, including the L.A. Opera, Pasadena Playhouse, Two River Theater CompanyPapermill Playhouse, Williamstown Theater Festival, Encores, Reprise and the Hollywood Bowl. A nine-time Emmy Award winning director, writer and producer for television, David was co-creator/director of “Wings”and “Frasier”, a writer and producer for “Cheers” and a director for “Everybody Loves Raymond.”  19 Emmy nominations, Directors Guild Award, Golden Globe, Producers Guild Award, Ovation Award, British Comedy Award, Television Critics Association Award (three times), the Humanitas Prize (twice) and the Peabody.

ARRIVAL & DEPARTURE 1

Set in New York City, Arrival & Departure is a re-imagined modern-day deaf/hearing stage adaptation of the classic 1945 British film, Brief Encounter. A deaf man and a hard-of-hearing woman, married to different people, meet accidentally in a NY city subway station. A friendship develops over time, escalating into a passionate love affair that both deny themselves to consummate. An unforgettable love story inspired by one of the most beloved romantic movies of all time. A fast-moving innovative new production blending sign language, spoken English, open captioning and cinematic video imagery. 

Get Tickets/More Info

‘Building the Wall’ to open Off-Broadway

BUILDING THE WALL NYCRobert Schenkkan’s powerful new political thriller Building the Wall, now playing to sold-out houses at the Fountain Theatre, will open Off-Broadway at New World Stages for a limited run May 12 to July 9th.  The New York production will feature Tamara Tunie (“Law & Order: SVU”) and James Badge Dale (“13 hours”, “The Departed”),  directed by Ari Edelson.

“We are thrilled Robert’s play will increase the national conversation on these issues by making its New York debut, ” says Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “I am very proud that the Fountain Theatre has lead the charge by launching the world premiere of this urgent new play.” 

The Fountain Theatre opened the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of Building the Wall on March 18, directed by Michael Michetti and starring Bo Foxworth and Judith Moreland. The production has earned rave reviews and is still playing to sold-out houses. The current run continues to May 21. 

BTW_0238

Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth in “Building the Wall”, Fountain Theatre

“This announcement comes from the core of our artistic mission at the Fountain,” says Sachs. “We are dedicated to developing and producing new plays that are later seen in theaters across the country and around the world.” Examples include Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances, which premiered at the Fountain and opened Off-Broadway at Primary Stages, Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, and Sachs’ own Bakersfield Mist, now being produced worldwide after a 3-month run on London’s West End.

Building the Wall at Fountain Theatre

Still feeling the power of ‘My Mañana Comes’ at Fountain Theatre

MY MAÑANA COMES

Lawrence Stallings, Pablo Castelblanco, Richard Azurdia, Peter Pasco

by Victoria Montecillo

Last weekend, I got to watch our production of My Mañana Comes on its closing weekend. It’s three days later, and I’m still thinking about it. After hearing about the show and the kind of work that the Fountain produces from Stephen Sachs and Barbara Goodhill, I was eager to see the work in action. I knew that the show was about four busboys in a high-end restaurant, and that the show would touch on issues surrounding immigration and fair pay, but I was otherwise walking in with no expectations of what I was about to see. 

Elizabeth Irwin cropped

Playwright Elizabeth Irwin

One of the first things that captured me within the first couple of scenes was the reality of it all. I knew the playwright was a woman, and I was stunned at her ability to capture the conversations between these young men so well. I could feel each unique voice and personality from the four characters, which only made the story even more riveting. 

I felt like this play really sneaks up on you, in the best way possible. For a while, it’s just four guys working in a kitchen trying to make ends meet, teasing each other, and sharing their lives with one another. And in the next moment, you’re suddenly aware of how much you care about each of these men. They’re each dealing with their own set of challenges, and you can feel yourself rooting for them. And suddenly you’re watching these characters you care about struggling to fight for equal pay, providing for their families, and maintaining their friendships with each other. 

As a theatre geek, I have to say that I have a soft spot for powerful pieces of theatre that don’t have a happy ending. They end, instead, by giving the audience something to think about, and with the gut-wrenching realization that theatre is, in fact, an avenue for real stories about real people. Perhaps after the show that I saw, the actors all came out smiling and ready to answer all of our questions and discuss the piece in an illuminating and inspiring talkback, but stories like that don’t always end that way. This piece, and the incredible actors in the cast, were telling a much bigger story of real struggle. 

JB 1

On top of all of that, the audience gets to witness all of this unfold in the Fountain’s cozy, 78-seat theatre. Their space made us feel like we were all apart of this story, and part of the action. Seeing this particular piece in such a small space helped me realize how effective it can be to tell stories in a smaller space, where there seems to be no separation or distance between the performers and the audience. Everything is shared, and that makes the experience all the more powerful. 

SS pix 024

Pablo Castelblanco and Peter Pasco

Another thing I really appreciated about this production was how well it brought to light very specific perspectives within cultural identity. In the talkback with the cast after the show, which was moderated by Stephen Sachs, an audience member praised actor Peter Pasco for his portrayal of Whalid, a young Mexican-American man with no claim to his own heritage. Pasco responded to the audience member, expressing the difficulty that many first-generation and second-generation Americans have with the culture of their families, especially when visiting their “home countries”. As I clearly remember him explaining his own experiences in relation to Whalid’s in the talkback, “When I’m here in the United States, everyone sees me as Peruvian, even though I feel that I’m American. But when I’m in Peru visiting my family, I don’t feel like a Peruvian at all.” His words deeply resonated with me, as a first-generation Filipino-American. Getting to see a character like that onstage, as well as hearing the actor speak about it so eloquently afterwards, was a very special feeling. 

Victoria Montecillo at desk June 2016 cropped

Victoria Montecillo

It was sad to see such a beautiful piece as My Mañana Comes in its closing weekend, but I felt lucky to be apart of one of the many audiences that got to see such a powerful piece at the Fountain, with an unbelievable cast bringing such an important story to life. One of the most inspiring things to see after the show was all of the people in the audience who were clearly so moved by the performance; there was one woman behind me who clearly wanted to express her gratitude to the actors for sharing such an important story, but she was far too overcome with emotion. There were countless people around me who made a point of thanking the actors and the Fountain Theatre for bringing such an important and relevant piece to audiences in this community, and I was again reminded of the magic and power of live theatre, and all it can do to bring communities together through art and storytelling.

Fountain Theatre: Creating theatre in Los Angeles that is seen around the world

CITIZEN Fountain Theatre feel most colored

‘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?

stephen-sachs-ft-stairway-2015-final

Stephen Sachs

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-Pure-Theatre-1_opt

‘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 being performed 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

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

Playwright Elizabeth Irwin: putting a human face on timely issues with ‘My Mañana Comes’

 

Irwin_Elizabeth

Elizabeth Irwin

The funny and powerful new play, My Mañana Comes brings to colorful life the friendship and competition between 4 busboys working in the kitchen of an upscale New York restaurant. The play was hailed “Terrific” by the NY Daily News. The Los Angeles Premiere opens at the Fountain Theatre on April 16.   

Playwright Elizabeth Irwin worked for years alongside these overworked and under-appreciated foundations of the service industry. Here in her own words, Elizabeth Irwin shares why she decided to tell their story, and her inspirations and aspirations for My Mañana Comes and the rest of her writing.

What was the initial inspiration behind My Mañana Comes?

I was inspired to write this play to put the question of what a political issue like undocumented immigration actually means to people who are directly affected it, both those who are undocumented and those who work alongside and have relationships with them. I worked in the restaurant industry for a long time and am fortunate to be able to chronicle this story.

What makes this story important? What makes these characters so interesting to you, even though their backgrounds are so different from your own?

Instead of looking at the interests of someone like a politician around the issue of immigration, this story looks at the people it actually affects and explores the complications and nuances of their lives. These characters and this story are interesting to me because they’re human – none of them are perfect and none of the conflicts exist in a clearly black and white way.

You’ve been a teacher in both New York City and Mexico. What attracted you to teaching?

It’s not so much an attraction as a propulsion. I believe deeply in the power of education and the relationships between teachers and students to expand the choices of students and to remove limitations. Education as a tool to erase inequality is something the keeps me up at night. (Though I’m currently working on a play about this which fortunately is giving me a healthy outlet so I can sleep more!)

The play is set in New York, but it feels very relevant to California. Is the story of undocumented immigrants in America different in different parts of the country? What does your play say about the American Dream?

I think there is a common thread which is that when one is willing to make a change as drastic as leaving behind one’s country, one’s family, everything one knows, the stakes of success are much higher. That being said, “success” can mean different things to different people and this play looks at those differences because there is no one immigrant story. I hope this play sheds light on just how challenging it is to simply survive in the U.S. We can talk about the American Dream as something that you can achieve through hard work but we must also acknowledge the enormous amount of luck it involves and that the circumstances that one is born into has an enormous effect on whether it can be realistically achieved.

postcard front

The cast of ‘My Manana Comes’ at Fountain Theatre

Who did you write this play for and why?

Like everything I write, this was something I couldn’t stop thinking about or talking about and eventually you get tired of just having conversations about something and you sit down and try to make some art that can reach an audience and get people to think about things beyond their own everyday experience. This play is for everyone who cares about their fellow human and wants to understand them better. I hope this play inspires conversation, compassion, action, and/or acknowledgement of one’s privilege, depending on how it relates to an audience member.

The Los Angeles Premiere of My Mañana Comes runs April 16 – June 16.  MORE/Get Tickets 

This post originally appeared: Marin Theatre Company

Fountain Theatre’s ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ to get Off-Broadway production

CITIZEN color logoCitizen: 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 Fountain Theatre in Memory 2

‘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, visit www.primarystages.org.

Deborah Lawlor in NY at Festival Celebrating 1960’s Legendary Dancer and Friend Fred Herko

Deborah Lawlor reads a poem at the Freddy conference.

Deborah Lawlor reads a poem at the Freddy conference.

Fountain Producing Co-Artistic Director Deborah Lawlor is in New York this week attending a week-long festival of events celebrating the life of Fred Herko, a dancer and legendary figure in New York’s 1960s avant-garde.  The program is curated by Herko biographer Gerard Forde to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Herko’s death on October 27th, 1964. Herko was a founding member of the experimental Judson Dance Theater and a figure in the Andy Warhol underground scene. When the 28-year-old dancer,  high on speed, leaped naked out a friend’s fifth-floor apartment window dancing to Mozart and fell to his death in 1964, his life and death became legend.

Deborah Lawlor knew Fred Herko well. As a young dancer newly arrived in New York City in the 1960’s, she entered the East Village avant-garde dance scene and grew to know and love the charismatic Herko, sharing an apartment with him. Lawlor is now creating a theatre/dance piece called Freddie, dramatizing his blazing Icarus-like trajectory. Funded with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, Freddie is scheduled to be presented by the Fountain Theatre in the fall 2015.

Fred Herko biographer Gerard Forde and Deborah Lawlor

Fred Herko biographer Gerard Forde and Deborah Lawlor

Even today, no one is sure if Fred Herko intended to kill himself when he jumped out of the window of his friend Johnny Dodd’s Greenwich Village apartment in 1964.

In the coming days there will be a memorial tribute at Judson Memorial Church, featuring contemporaries like the poet John Giorno, and the dancer Gus Solomons Jr who will perform a dance poem in Herko’s memory. A separate symposium will correct, says Forde, “the mythology and misreadings” around the dark-haired, handsome Herko. There will be an exhibition of pictures of Herko performing, and three of Warhol’s films that starred Herko will also be shown.  Continue reading

Why LA Actors Do Theatre in Los Angeles

Blue silhouetteby Stephen Sachs

When Joseph Campbell spoke of the power of myth he didn’t have LA stage actors in mind. Yet a powerful and prevailing myth has spread for years in theater centers throughout the country about why actors do theater in Los Angeles. The legend claims that LA actors are somehow less serious and do theater only to be seen by casting directors in “the Industry” and not for the art of the work. This is simply not true. The idea that actors in Los Angeles only do theater for the purpose of showcasing themselves with the hope of being cast in television or film is not only an insulting and disrespectful myth, it is a lie.

As the Artistic Director of a leading theater in Los Angeles for 24 years and a longtime theater director, I have an insider view of the truth. It has been my experience over more than two decades that the hundreds, maybe thousands, of LA actors I have worked with do a play for one fundamental reason: they are passionate and committed to the work. The LA actors I’ve worked with have been fiercely dedicated, hard-working, highly-skilled, deeply impassioned and utterly professional.

I believe actors are extraordinary creatures. And actors who do theater in Los Angeles, even more so. They tackle challenges unique to this region, not faced in other cities. Particularly those acting in productions in one of LA’s many intimate theaters like mine where the pay is next-to-nothing and the reward is decidedly artistic.

The LA actor navigates a theater landscape in Los Angeles unlike any other in the United States. There are a handful of large production houses and a collection of mid-sized venues. These, however, are dominated by a network of more than 100 intimate theaters (99 seats or less) webbed throughout the region. And that’s what LA is: a region stretched over 469 square miles, not a city. An immense terrain of diverse neighborhoods too vast and spread-out to be walkable, connected only by freeways. No centralized Theater District.

Skyline-Los-Angeles-Night

Intimate theaters in Los Angeles operate under the AEA 99-Seat Plan. This one-of-kind agreement was created years ago to address the unique plight of the stage actor in Los Angeles. Overseen by Actors Equity, the Plan permits Equity actors to work in intimate theaters in LA without the benefit or salary of a formal contract. Actors are paid a ridiculously low stipend. In pure dollars-and-cents, factoring in expenses and wages lost elsewhere over the course of rehearsals and a run, it can actually cost an actor money to do a play in Los Angeles. So why do it? Because much of the most satisfying work and most challenging new plays are being done in these intimate theaters. Actors long to act in these plays for the same reason we ache to produce them: for the sake of the art. Nobody makes any money.

Debunking the myth, the LA actor often commits to a play under tremendous self-sacrifice, not self-promotion. They reschedule or give up Film & TV auditions, change their day-job schedules, cancel shifts as waiters, rearrange travel plans, postpone weddings, fail to attend funerals, miss family events – all to be in weeks of rehearsals  and then months running a play, all for next-to-nothing money in a theater that holds only a few dozen people. Why? Because they are dedicated to their craft.

I’ve seen LA stage actors turn down high-paying roles in movies and TV shows because it conflicted with a play they were doing at my theater. If “getting seen” by The Industry were their true motive for being with us, why would they do such a thing?

Actors may move to Los Angeles with the hope to make money in movies and television. What they find, however, may surprise them and save their artistic lives: a thriving Los Angeles theater scene of generous, talented artists. Actors may book an episodic to feed themselves and pay their bills, but they do a play to feed their souls and pay their dues as an artist. They come to LA to break into The Industry. They stay to be part of a Community.

Hollywood still heralds itself as “the movie capital of the world” despite the fact that fewer movies are actually shot here anymore. More plays are now produced each year in Los Angeles than major motion pictures. Yet LA still fights for its right to be called a “theater town.” The fact is: Los Angeles has more theaters and creates more theater productions than any other city in the world. More than New York or Chicago. More than London. That’s right. Los Angeles. How’s that for irony?

Los Angeles is also home to more working artists than any other major city in the United States, including New York. According to a report commissioned by the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI), Los Angeles employs the largest pool of artists of any metropolis in the nation. Surprised? Los Angeles supports more than five times as many artists in the performing arts than any other US city, substantially exceeding New York.

Stephen Sachs

Stephen Sachs

I’ve directed actors in cities around the country, in Canada and the United Kingdom. The Los Angeles stage actor is as trained and as talented, as intelligent and inventive as any actor anywhere. A good actor is a good actor, no matter the coast. Sure, I’ve seen bad theater and bad actors in Los Angeles. I’ve also seen bad theater and bad actors in Chicago, New York and London. I’ve also seen truly extraordinary performances by actors in Los Angeles. In this respect, LA is no different than any other major city. If only it were perceived that way by the rest of the country.

The myth is that acting in a play in Los Angeles is only beneficial as a vehicle or stepping stone to something else more important. But LA theater actors, the ones in the trenches, the ones on the stages, don’t see it that way. To them there is nothing more important. They work too hard and surrender too much to do theater for any purpose other than perfecting their craft. Actors are artistic athletes. They need to work out, stretch their muscles, push themselves, and be challenged.

Actors don’t do theater in LA to be seen. They’re not on stage to serve themselves. They are here, like actors everywhere, to serve their art.

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre. This post originally appeared in HowlRound.

 

Director Stephen Sachs Finds Passion in ‘My Name Is Asher Lev’ at the Fountain Theatre

Jason Karasev, Anna Khaja and Joel Polis in 'My Name Is Asher Lev'.

Jason Karasev, Anna Khaja and Joel Polis in ‘My Name Is Asher Lev’.

by Renisha Marie

I recently caught Stephen Sachs’ thought-provoking, profound and riveting production of the play, My Name Is Asher Lev, taken from Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel of the same name, adapted for the stage by Aaron Posner.

The play is set in the 1950s, in the Brooklyn home of a Hasidic Jewish family, where a six-year-old boy named Asher Lev discovers an amazing gift bubbling within him. At a young age, the precocious Asher developed within him a strong fixation for art along with a focused, relentless, and positive can-do attitude.

Asher’s gift sends him on an amazing expedition of self-discovery and self-worth. The journey puts him at odds with his family’s expectations and religion, all for the sake of his passion for art.

My Name Is Asher Lev is a moving, challenging and thought-provoking play that crosses the lines of organized religion, ethnicity, and color, presenting for examination, on a universal level, readily identifiable social – human – conflicts. Follow me as we journey though the world of director and playwright Stephen Sachs:

Renisha Marie: Were there any personal parallels that brought you to the story?

Stephen Sachs

Stephen Sachs

Stephen Sachs: My parents were always very supportive of me wanting to be a theatre artist, so I never faced the intense parental conflicts that Asher battles in the play. For me personally, the closest parallel to Asher’s need to be an artist lies with my 18-year-old son, Daniel. He’s an artist. Like Asher, he’s been drawing since he was a little boy and it’s very clear that art is the path he is meant to follow.

Daniel reminds me of Asher in that he, too, has a gift and is passionate and determined to become who he is meant to be.

I wanted to do this play for my son.

Renisha Marie: What mindset did you have to possess in order to come out winning over your adversities?

Stephen Sachs: Whether guiding the Fountain Theatre for twenty-four years or simply surviving as an artist, the mindset that has served me best is when I trust my own artistic instincts and follow my heart. The more one does that, the more you develop an inner voice that speaks the truth to you and the more you learn to listen to it. The times when I’ve gotten myself into artistic trouble are the times when I refused to listen to what that inner voice was whispering.

Renisha Marie: What qualities were you probing for during casting?

Anna Khaja, Joel Polis, Jason Karasev.

Anna Khaja, Joel Polis, Jason Karasev.

Stephen Sachs: The play requires three exceptionally talented actors who must possess a very unique set of acting skills. Two of the actors play a variety of roles and must change character quickly, so you need actors with the technical skill to do that and who also possess the professional craft to be specific with each character and also have a deep emotional well that is truthful and honest. The actor playing Asher has the challenge of serving both as narrator and participant in the story. He must lead us on this journey and hold our attention, all the while being engaging and charming while wrestling with these very deep, profoundly personal struggles over family and self-identity. We must care about him deeply and want him to find his true way.

I’m blessed to have Jason, Joel and Anna — three gifted actors who worked very hard and are utterly dedicated to serving the play at the highest level possible.

Jason Karasev as Asher Lev.

Jason Karasev as Asher Lev.

Renisha Marie: What individual qualities did you see in Jason Karasev, Anna Khaja, and Joel Polis that made them stand out above the rest?

Stephen Sachs: I prefer working with actors I already know and trust. Jason was new to me; I had never seen him before. But, when Jason auditioned, there was no question in my mind that he was my Asher. He naturally had everything I was looking for: the right look, the intelligence, humor, charm, the ability to hold the stage as a storyteller, and the complexity and emotional depth as an actor. Anna and Joel are both actors I’ve known and respected for years, although this is the first project we’ve actually worked on together. Anna has a remarkable authenticity as an actress; her river runs deep. Joel has tremendous versatility and a fierce dedication mixed with a delicious sense of humor. Together, the three of them blend marvelously and have developed into an extraordinary, seamless ensemble.

Renisha Marie: What do you love about your work?

Stephen Sachs: What I love most about theatre is when I see how the work we create changes lives. The moments of artistic expression that have given me the most satisfaction are the ones when I see audiences profoundly moved — and somehow changed — by what we’ve just experienced together. It’s hard to pinpoint but you know it, you feel it, when it happens.

A connection happens between the actors on stage and the people in the audience, and between audience members themselves, when we all share in this deeply human experience and are somehow lifted and exalted by it. Moments like that make everything else worthwhile.

If you have a passion of any kind, then My Name Is Asher Lev is the play for you.

Production photos by Ed Krieger. Renisha Marie is a feature writer for Examiner

My Name Is Asher Lev Now – April 19 (323) 663-1525  MORE