JON LAWRENCE RIVERA is the recipient of the first Career Achievement Award from Stage Raw. Most recently, Rivera directed the following critically-acclaimed world premieres for Playwrights’ Arena: SOUTHERNMOST by Mary Lyon Kamitaki, BABY EYES by Donald Jolly, I GO SOMEWHERE ELSE by Inda Craig-Galván, LITTLE WOMEN by Velina Hasu Houston, BILLY BOY by Nick Salamone, THE HOTEL PLAY (performed in an actual hotel), BLOODLETTING by Boni B. Alvarez (also at Kirk Douglas Theatre), @THESPEEDOFJAKE by Jennifer Maisel, CIRCUS UGLY by Gabe Rivas Gomez, PAINTING IN RED by Luis Alfaro, and THE ANATOMY OF GAZELLAS by Janine Salinas Schoenberg. Other recent works include: AMERICA ADJACENT by Boni B. Alvarez, BINGO HALL by Dillon Chitto, FAIRLY TRACEABLE by Mary Kathryn Nagle, OBAMA-OLOGY by Aurin Squire, CRIERS FOR HIRE by Giovanni Ortega, STAND-OFF AT HWY #37 by Vicky Ramirez, FLIPZOIDS by Ralph B. Peña (also in Manila). Recipient of a NY Fringe Festival Award, an LA Weekly Award, and a five-time Ovation Award nominee, Rivera is the founding artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena, dedicated to discovering, nurturing and producing bold new works for the stage written exclusively by Los Angeles playwrights.
Jon’s comments on inclusion and diversity in the Los Angeles Theatre Community were recently included in this LA Times feature by Charles McNulty.
Theatre Talk is the Fountain Theatre’s livestream conversation program hosted by Artistic Director Stephen Sachs, engaging theatermakers, theatergoers and theater-thinkers. Live on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Zoom and seen here on our website.
“Hi,” chirped the boy’s voice from somewhere on Addison Street. I was on my morning walk, my coronavirus mask strapped to my face. It was just after nine in the morning, but the sun was already heating up the asphalt on the oak-lined streets of my neighborhood. I plodded along, deep in thought, agonizing over my coming week’s schedule. The Zoom meetings, the convening of the Board of Directors on Wednesday, the need to formulate spreadsheets, the financial planning, the fundraising, the digital staff meeting to lift employee morale, the pulling out of thin air the hopeful vision for a coming season that may not ever come. In my news feed, all the while, the chart of the dead daily rising, the corruption and incompetence of government ballooning as the bodies pile higher. All of this tumbling around and around in my head like an overloaded dryer of dirty laundry, when suddenly, as if from the air, the boy’s voice – “Hi.”
I stopped in the middle of the street. Looked around. To my right, the handsome landscape of a ranch-styled home, the front yard mottled with lavender sagebrush, orange hibiscus, yellow roses and a cluster of full bodied trees. Saw nothing, no boy. Where was he? “Up here.”
He was perched in the fork of a sturdy Sun Valley Maple, barely visible, hidden behind branches and leaves. I had to step a few feet to my left to catch sight of him. He looked about ten or twelve. Brown hair, a striped shirt. Barely visible. “There you are,” I said. “I didn’t see you. Couldn’t find you.”
“That’s the whole idea,” said the boy.
I chuckled through my hospital mask. “I don’t blame you.”
When I was a boy, I had a tree. Near the swing set in my backyard in San Rafael, California. I was seven. I don’t know what species of tree it was, its genus. All I knew was that it was thick at the bottom with a huge green canopy overhead. A twisted knot protruded low enough for my foot like the stirrup of a saddle and, with a grunt I could hoist myself up to the first branch and sit. And that is what I would do, where I would be, for hours. Sitting. Dreaming. The tree and I so bonding in essence, my parents called it “Stephen’s tree.” We moved away, to Los Angeles, but the tree is still there. Through the magic of Google Earth not long ago, I hovered over it like a ghost and stared down. There it was.
As a teen in the San Fernando Valley, I would climb the tree at the end of my street, climb as high as I could, to the tippy-top, and peer out across the suburban terrain like from the lookout of a ship. Up there on windy days, I’d wrap both my arms around as the tree swayed back and forth, back and forth, like a twenty-foot metronome.
I wrote and directed my first play when I was twenty-seven. I had just read Italo Calvino’s enchanting short novel, The Baron in the Trees, and instantly imagined it as a play. It told the story of a young boy who, refusing to eat his dinner one night, climbs up into the tree in his backyard, telling his parents he will never come down again. His parents laugh. “He’ll come once he gets hungry,” they scoff. But he doesn’t. He never comes down for the rest of his life. He travels across the countryside from tree to tree, builds a treehouse, fights a few pirates, falls in love. He becomes a legend as years pass, admired and ridiculed, living a unique, unfettered, and meaningful life up in the tress without his feet ever touching the earth again. When he is old and gasping his last breath, instead of falling dead to the ground, he reaches out to a rope dangling from the basket of a hot air balloon which just happens to be floating by, and he rises skyward and away into the clouds and is gone.
I walk down Addison Street, the morning heat rising in waves from the pavement. I am tired. I plod onward, masked like an outlaw, hot and sweating, legs aching. I glance skyward. No hot air balloon drifting by. No rope dangling to grasp.
I cross Laurel Canyon and head left on Hesby Street. Homeward. My wife and my son will be there. My tree-climbing days are gone, but the sycamores still spread their long branches over me, beckoning, “come.”
Toward the end of the 1946 film classic It’s A Wonderful Life, when George Bailey is in the throes of an existential crisis, fearing his life has no value or meaning, the angel Clarence tells him, “You’ve been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would be like without you.”
After two months under stay-at-home orders and my theatre temporarily closed, I’m beginning to feel the same gift has been given to me by COVID-19.
Every theatre in our nation is now dark. For now, theatre as an art form performed on a stage for a live audience, does not exist. And no matter which epidemiological model you look at, theatres won’t be reopening in this country any time soon. For those of us who create theatre, the coronavirus is giving the public the chance to see what the world would be like without us.
That is why, like George Bailey haunting his hometown, I now find myself thrown into the same kind of twilight zone, an alternative reality—an upside-down world I no longer recognize, discombobulated. How did things change so quickly? One day my theatre is full, earning rave reviews, selling out. The next day it is closed. On Thursday we’re winning awards, delighting donors and board members. On Friday I am furloughing my staff and applying for unemployment.
Do you know the actor’s nightmare? Ever had it? The one where you’re suddenly thrown onstage into a play in front of an audience, but you don’t know your lines, you can’t find your script, and you don’t even know what play you’re supposed to be doing? That is how life feels to me now: a COVID nightmare. But I never wake up.
If I don’t have a theatre, who am I? Sometimes the most forceful way to discover your place in a culture or a community is to find yourself suddenly yanked from it. All I know is that a world without live theatre is a world I don’t want to live in.
Clicking on a play reading on Zoom is no substitute. Maybe you feel differently, but I personally feel glutted with Zoom meetings and online theatre events by now. My idea of well used stay-at-home time is not watching another online festival of hastily written five-minute plays streamed by a struggling theatre company. Though novel at first, the relentless onslaught of online content by terrified theatres has spread as widely and aggressively as the virus itself. Don’t get me wrong: I love National Theatre Live. Who doesn’t? But who has the millions of dollars to produce and promote at that level? Call me old-fashioned, but I still find the difference between watching a play online vs. experiencing it live in a theatre like the difference between watching porn on your laptop and actually making love.
All the Broadway tributes now streaming online during this shutdown do prove one thing: Theatre people are well-suited to rise above an emergency. Disaster is part of our DNA. Crisis is status quo in the theatre. Calamity is business as usual. We live and breathe uncertainty and panic. Philip Henslowe, the beleaguered and always-in-debt theatre owner in Shakespeare in Love (screenplay written by playwright Tom Stoppard) aptly sums up our philosophy:
Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Fennyman: So, what do we do?
Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
How will this horrific pandemic turn out well for me and my theatre? It would help to have a guardian angel. I don’t mean a corporate sponsor or a high-level donor—I mean like Clarence. My own personal celestial bodyguard to protect me from both spiritual and physical harm. Instead, I see only the Angel of Death. COVID-19 is killing people. Loss is everywhere. We are losing our jobs, our theatres, our audiences, our homes. Our loved ones. Our art form, not to mention our species, is under threat. There is a general, base-level sadness lurking inside all of us like a contagion. Laughter will come when it comes. But it just might be harder, and take a while longer, to get there.
We are all George Bailey. We have dreams unrealized. We are stressed by daily life. We don’t fully appreciate what we have or what we’ve managed to accomplish. We focus on what serves ourselves and ignore what really matters. We get caught up in achieving “great things” instead of appreciating the value of doing small things in a great way. And we are closer than we realize to a huge, catastrophic meltdown triggered by a single financial calamity.
Theatre is community, the intertwining of human lives. And community is infectious, transmitted from person to person. The ripple effect of the stories we tell in a theatre spreads from one human being to another, and then emanates outward, forever. That is why, to me, to have our theatres silenced by a virus, is like a crime against humanity. Our humanity.But, as Clarence tells George, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives.”
My hope for myself is to emerge from this pandemic with a heightened sense of purpose. The great plays have shown me that a person with a strong central purpose can overcome any obstacle. To paraphrase Nietzsche, when you have a why to live for, you can bear any how. Theatre is one of my whys.
After two months holed up at home, I am starting to experience what the ancient Greeks called anagnorisis: a sudden realization of truth about myself and the true nature of my current situation. Before the pandemic, I would sometimes complain about running a theatre: the paperwork, the endless meetings, the donor parties. The season budgets and the hustling for money to pay for them. The long hours, the low pay, the constant pressure to achieve. After 30 years I felt old, overworked, exhausted. Now I want it all back. All I want now is what I had all along.
My wake-up call is the same as George Bailey’s epiphany, as he pleads to Clarence to end his never-been-born nightmare. Like George, I just want to return to the things and the work and the people I love. Like George, I just want what I already had. I miss the magic. The truth is that even when facing catastrophe, the life that I have in the theatre is wonderful.
Like George Bailey, I want to live again.
Stephen Sachs is a playwright, director, and the artistic director of the award-winning Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles.
I have two children, two sons. Ask any parent what they wish for their child, the most common answer is happiness. “As long as they’re happy.” “I just want them to be happy.” I want my sons to be happy, have happy lives. More important to me is that they have lives that are meaningful. Happiness can be fleeting. Meaning is eternal. It’s why I chose a life in the theatre. I am in the meaning-making business.
A meaningful play tells the story of people overcoming adversity. “Theatre is conflict” is the number one rule of a well-written play. That’s because it is true in life. Buddha’s first teaching was that in life we experience struggle and change. It’s not the adversity itself that leads to meaning and growth. It’s how we respond to it.
In a play, conflict is the engine of storytelling and change is the destination. It’s why we see plays in the first place. We experience, from a safe distance, how people face a life-threatening challenge. We feel what they feel, we watch what they do, what decisions they make, and how they are changed by it. A play can show us how to grow through adversity. That makes each of you who come to the Fountain meaning-seekers.
What does this pandemic mean? I don’t know. For today, we must find the courage to live with uncertainty. And then do the same tomorrow. Soon, the Fountain will reopen, and we’ll explore and express what it means, together. On our stage.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Founding Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre
Last Saturday, I was taking a walk with my wife and son around the Hollywood Reservoir. Daily walks have become our morning routine to break out of our home isolation. We normally stroll through our neighborhood or stride the perimeter of a nearby park. Saturday, to break the monotony, we chose to walk the 3.3 miles around the Hollywood Reservoir. There, we encountered an unforgettable woman.
I spotted her as we circled Lake Hollywood. Her zeal caught my eye. She strode ahead of us, a spring in her step. Despite the surrounding catastrophe, the loneliness of physical distancing, she walked with a kind of energized elan. Spirit in her step.
Suddenly – she burst into dance. A spontaneous, improvised ballet. Right there. On the public path. She leaped into the air, arms twirling, legs flicking, an impulsive pirouette. She sashayed down the street, spinning, bounding silently to graceful music only she could hear.
I grabbed my iPhone and taped her. You can see my video above.
This stranger, this Lake Hollywood dancer, inspires me. She is the power of art. Like a flower pushing its way through cement, she is the Fountain Theatre, the Los Angeles theatre community, finding a way, against the odds, to urge itself upward toward the sun, to bloom once again.
In the midst of emergency, we keep dancing. Not to be trivial or irresponsible. Not to fiddle like Nero as Rome burned. To dance in the face of catastrophe as an act of defiance, of rebellion. Driving forward the Life force. A refusal to be defeated. Despair will not win. Art finds a way.
In recognition of providing outstanding productions of meaningful new plays and first-class performances spanning three decades, The Fountain Theatre has been honored with The Margaret Harford Award for sustained excellence in theatre, presented by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.
“It is our way of thanking you for your noteworthy contribution to theater in Los Angeles,” commented Jonas Schwartz, LADCC Vice President in an email to the Fountain Theatre. “We really are so pleased to be able to recognize your work.”
Due to the current coronavirus pandemic, and in keeping with the request of state and local officials, the LADCC has been forced to forgo its annual Awards event for the public in April. Instead, the winners will be posted on the LADCC website.
“This honor from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle means a great deal to all of us at the Fountain Theatre,” says Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “It is much-needed good news in the midst of this current crisis.”
Founded in 1969, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle (LADCC) is an organization dedicated to excellence in theatrical criticism and to the encouragement and improvement of theatre in the Greater Los Angeles Area. The LADCC presents the annual Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards.
Full list of LADCC Award nominees and Special Award winners.
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 →
Central to the Fountain is the impact the post had on one person: Sachs himself.
“I am blown away by the post’s popularity,” he says.
For Sachs, reading the avalanche of online comments the post triggered as it was shared around the world was overwhelming and eye-opening. “For me, the post became more than a feel-good story about young people experiencing live theatre. For me, it is a call to action.”
What action is the Fountain taking?
Starting this weekend with the current production of Human Interest Story, the Fountain Theatre launches a new program called Free Student Fridays. Any high school or college student may see a play at the Fountain on Friday for free. To reserve online, students use the promo code FreeStudent. A valid school ID card must be shown at the box office window on the night of the performance. Seats are subject to availability.
“This program is a modest start, but it’s a start,” admits Sachs. “We may not have 18,000 seats like Madison Square Garden, but if we can inspire the young minds and open the young hearts of 80 students on Fountain Avenue every Friday night, we’ll have humbly done our part to help make the world a better place.”
Who knows? A free performance for 20,000 students at L.A.’s Staples Center may one day be on the horizon. Until then? There’s a seat for any student at the Fountain.
Students prepare to see “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Madison Square Garden.
by Stephen Sachs
There hasn’t been that much rapturous cheering in Madison Square Garden since the Knicks won their last championship in 1973. But the thunderous hollering heard this Wednesday at the sold-out arena was not for a basketball game. It was for a play.
On Wednesday, 18,000 middle and high school students from Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island attended a free one-time special performance of the Broadway production of “To Kill A Mockingbird” at Madison Square Garden arranged by producer Scott Rudin, the MSG organization and the city of New York. That’s right. 18,000 kids sat and watched a 3-hour drama in the cavernous home of the Knicks. Who would have thought it possible?
The result? By all accounts, everyone there on that school-day afternoon – actors, audience, organizers – have been forever changed by the experience. And, I hope, so has our field, as the impact of this one-time event ripples nationwide for years.
Artistic Directors like me have been wringing our hands over the same question for decades. How do we get younger audiences to come to our theatre? How do we engage young people today in our ancient art form? How do we not only hold their attention but excite them enough to want to come back to our theatre?
This week, one answer came. And it showed me that maybe we’ve been asking ourselves the wrong question. Sometimes we must bring the mountain to Muhammed.
The play’s usual Broadway home is the Shubert Theatre, where it commands an average ticket price of $162. The one-time performance at The Garden was free. For many kids, they were seeing a professional play – in an unusual setting — for the first time.
“This is a one-of-a-kind event — 18,000 young people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to see a Broadway play are going to be introduced to American theater,” playwright Aaron Sorkin said.
The cast of To Kill a Mockingbird take their bows on stage after a special performance for students at Madison Square Garden in New York.
In a week of nothing but bad news for our country, this gives me hope. And shatters a few myths theater-makers may hold about young people.
The attention span of teens is too short. The myth we keep telling ourselves is that the light-speed tempo of video games have accelerated the viewing habits of young people to such a degree that they’ll never sit still for a serious play. A musical, maybe. A rock musical, certainly. Not an issue-driven drama. But the 18,000 students at Madison Square Garden not only sat still and listened to “Mockingbird”, they were riveted in their seats.
Young people are only interested in contemporary stories about themselves. It’s okay to offer them hip hop plays, urban musicals, modern teen comedies about their world today. A drama from another time period? Too risky. This week, however, a multitude of students from New York were engrossed by a fable that takes place in 1934 Alabama. Want to make it worse? It’s a play adapted from a book they are assigned to study as homework in class, for crying out loud. A theatre producer’s nightmare, right? Wrong.
Young people hate theatre. Not true. They just have fewer opportunities to see it. And when they do? “It’s so exciting,” said high school junior Michelle Hernandez. “It’s amazing,” said student Justine Jackson. “The story is very real and you can relate it to modern society,” said junior Andy Lin. “Specially racism because it’s still going on.” The 18,000 students were clearly swept up in the play and the excitement of the event. The setting of Madison Square Garden seemed to set them free to react openly in ways they would never dare in a conventional theatre. They laughed, they gasped, they shouted, and they cried. They cheered Atticus Finch like he was a rock star.
Regional theaters across the country have educational outreach programs that include bringing their productions of plays to schools for students to enjoy and benefit by seeing. It’s a failsafe strategy that is not going anywhere. A theatre importing its production to a school campus is one thing. Partnering with Madison Square Garden is another.
The conventional model of bussing students to your theatre holds its own many benefits. But I hope the “Mockingbird” event inspires theater organizations across the country to think outside the box in their own community. To explore unconventional venues and unique partnerships to help bring the power of theater to young people nationwide.
Could the “Mockingbird” event happen in Los Angeles? Can we imagine 20,000 students from across the Southland coming to Staples Center to watch a performance of “Death of A Salesman”? Why not? It takes a mayor, a theatre producer and a city believing that it’s important and willing to make it happen. As NY Mayor Bill de Blasio said: “The only way to change your world is if you decide it is your world to change.”
And you must find like-minded partners who are willing to change it.