The Fountain Theatre is readying Raise Your Voice – Vote!, a guerrilla style, immersive theater event set to take place over the course of two days at six locations throughout the City of Los Angeles. Watch the live-stream every hour on the hour beginning at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, Oct. 24 and Sunday, Oct. 25 at www.FountainTheatre.com.
Conceived by acclaimed playwright and Fountain Theatre community engagement coordinator France-Luce Benson and co-directed by Benson and Lily Ockwell, Raise Your Voice – Vote!aims to build momentum and awareness about the upcoming election while bringing theater for the people to the people. The five-member acting ensemble (Victor Anthony, Jessica Emmanuel, Wonjung Kim, Theo Perkins and Rayne J. Raney) will present a series of pop up performances in six public spaces, each representative of L.A.’s cultural landscape. Each performance will feature America’s most iconic speeches about voting rights, plus dance and song. Volunteers will be stationed at every location to offer assistance with voter registration and voter education.
“We want to create an event that is inspirational, but never didactic,” explains Benson. “The performers will be in conversation with each other and with the people around them, blending in, respecting and embracing whichever community we’re in.”
Each of the performances will be live-streamed and will also be augmented by a series of surprise appearances, posts and performances on the Fountain Theatre’s social media pages in support of voter awareness.
Send Us Your Selfie on Voting
Want to engage in the Fountain’s newest project? We want you to upload a short selfie video (2 mins or less) of yourself expressing how important it is to vote. Nothing fancy. Can literally be taken on a smartphone. Just speak from your heart. Be passionate. What does voting mean to you? Why does voting matter? Do you have a personal story about voting? These video selfies will air at the top of each hour, from 10am to 6pm, on all Fountain social platforms and website.
You (we) cannot endorse a specific candidate.
Do not mention Trump or Biden by name.
Shoot your selfie horizontal, not vertical.
The purpose of the event is to use theatre as a trigger to activate the public to vote, to emphasize the responsibility of voting, to remind each other of the price some have paid to vote, to express the urgency to participate in this election and in our democracy.
Raise Your Voice – Vote! is produced by Stephen Sachs and Simon Levy for the Fountain Theatre. James Bennett is live-stream editor, and Terri Roberts is volunteer coordinator. The event is underwritten by Miles and Joni Benickes, Diana Buckhantz, Karen Kondazian, Maggi Phillips, Susan Stockel, Dorothy Wolpert, and Don and Suzanne Zachary. Event partners include volunteer organizations The Social Ripple Effect and Big Sunday.
For more information, to find out how you can volunteer and to live-stream Raise Your Voice –Vote! on Oct. 24 and Oct. 25, go to www.fountaintheatre.com.
If ever there was a time – and an election – to raise your voice and be heard, this is it. An unprecedented pandemic. Healthcare and welfare. Unemployment and a stalled economy. Racial reckoning. States burning or drowning under water. A country bitterly divided. The presidential contest this November 3rd may be the most consequential election of our lifetime. And every voice everywhere must be heard.
First, you have to be registered to vote. Today, September 22nd, is National Voter Registration Day. In this year of chaos and confusion, nothing could be more vital than making sure that you are able to safely cast your ballot for those individuals who you feel are the strongest representatives for your values and beliefs.
If you are not registered to vote, your voice will be silenced.
Are you registered? Are you sure? Some things to consider: have you moved? Gotten married? Want to change political parties? Any of these things affect your registration status. The good news is that checking it out is easy. So is actually registering.
Offers: Voter registration/pre-registration (at age 16 or 17)/current registration status. There’s also info on upcoming elections, elections site maps, voting technology, statewide election results, and more.
Offers:Check registration/register to vote, polling place locators, info on how to become a poll worker, and COVID-19/election information. They also have a guide that outlines your voting rights, and an Election Protection Hotline to call for help if anyone tries to prevent you from voting: 1-866/687-8683 (866/OUR-VOTE).
Offers: COVID-19 alerts and personalized voter info that includes registration, status check, poll location, ballot info, upcoming area debates, and more. Sponsored by the League of Women Voters Education Fund.
Offers:Voting resources, a Vote by Mail FAQ, and actions you can take
Vote By Mail
Beginning with the November 3, 2020 General Election all registered voters will be mailed a Vote by Mail ballot to ensure a safe and accessible voting option during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mailing of Vote by Mail ballots in all elections begins 29 days prior to Election Day. For more information, click here.
Raise Your Voice: Vote!
The Fountain Theatre believes voting is so important that we will be going directly to the people to spread the word. Keep a watchful eye out in late October. The Fountain will be launching a citywide immersive theatre project, Raise Your Voice: Vote to highlight the issues of voting rights and raise awareness in unexpected ways.
“The cultural landscape of Los Angeles personifies why voting is so imperative,” explained Community Engagement Coordinator France-Luce Benson, who conceived of the project. “There is so much history here, so much incredible cuisine, and so many amazing and varied artistic voices. Every one of those voices matters, and every voice must be counted. If we want our city, and our country, to continue to grow and thrive – we must vote!”
“Raise Your Voice: Vote continues the Fountain Theatre’s long history of creating and producing new work that we hope will inspire social action,” agreed artistic director Stephen Sachs. “With the public forbidden to come to our theatre right now, we are taking our theatre to the streets. I believe we can use this period of forced closure as an opportunity to break free from the four walls of our building. To engage the public in dynamic new experiences which encourage each citizen to vote.”
Friday, August 28th, marked the 65th anniversary of the vicious murder of an innocent 14-year-old black youth named Emmett Till. His cold-blooded, colder-hearted killing, and the events surrounding and following his funeral, became the kick-starter events of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in 1955. The Fountain Theatre recognized that landmark anniversary in two ways: with the reunion of the original director and cast of our award-winning 2010 production of The Ballad of Emmett Till, by poetic playwright Ifa Bayeza, and by navigating this new COVID-19 world of virtual theatre by presenting the show in a unique, forward-thinking beyond-the-Zoom-Room format.
Three hundred and forty-eight people bought $20 tickets for the livestream premiere of this re-imagined digital model of theatre. The five actors – Bernard K. Addison, Rico Anderson, Lorenz Arnell, Adenrele Ojo, and Karen Malina White – performed from their own individual, safely distanced locations, and coordinated with director Shirley Jo Finney and each other via Zoom on their computer screens. But gone was the normally pedestrian cyberscape of living room stages with bookcase backdrops. This fresh digital production of Emmett Till was dramatically enhanced with the use of props, costumes, music, sound, visual effects and cinematic techniques. The resulting hybrid of stage and digital filmmaking made for an exciting and invigorating step forward into the new frontier of virtual theatre.
If you were not able to catch the premiere, you needn’t worry. The livestream premiere was video recorded. The Ballad of Emmett Till is available for a pay-per-view rental of $20 at www.fountaintheatre.com until December 1st.
“What a stunning presentation!” wrote playwright Bayeza after Friday’s premiere. “The commitment and creative investment so enlivened the digital performance, introducing whole new dimensions and possibilities.Shirley Jo, the way you angled the car scenes, Emmett’s dancing in the water, the integration of sound and environments–all were exquisite surprises. The ensemble was marvelous again. Karen’s magical shifts of character are so seamless, you don’t even notice it’s the same actor! All in all, simply superb!”
Other viewers agreed:
“Shirley Jo Finney exceeded the medium and brought new meaning to each of the characters. Bravo! Bravo!” – Steven Williams
“Thank you for such an AMAZING virtual presentation! It was PHENOMENAL!!!! BRAVO!!!” – Cynthia Kitt
“Wonderful work in this crazy world!” – Taylor Bryce.
“Powerful production!” – Shawn Kennedy
“I was initially a bit cautious about watching on my computer but the direction drew me right in. I loved the use of photos and other visuals to create a sense of place. And the acting was superb. Very moving.” – Lois Fishman
“It was very powerful and beautifully done. The cast was amazing. Please convey my appreciation to all of them as well as to Shirley Jo Finney for the beautiful direction.” – Diana Buckhantz
“I’m so proud of what we created,” said Fountain Theatre artistic director Stephen Sachs. “I’m thrilled that the Fountain is leading the way in developing new ways to tell stories and keep the connection with our community alive.” The pay-per-view event is a budgetary victory as well. Online ticket sales and generous contributions from longtime Fountain donors Susan Stockel and Barbara Herman ensured that Emmett Till was fully funded by its first airing.
The success of Emmett Till hashttps://www.fountaintheatre.com/fountain-digital/the-ballad-of-emmett-till-2020 demonstrated that this form of digital theatre is both viable and profitable, and can help the Fountain keep its doors metaphorically open while we are still in pandemic mode. And while we will certainly continue to present free digital content via the bi-monthly installments of Saturday Matinees and Theatre Talk, as well as other programming and readings as they present themselves, you can also expect to see more livestream/digital pay-per-view productions to come.
Is there something special you would like to see in this new format? A past Fountain production with a small cast you think should be rebooted? We’d love to know what you’d love to see. Email me at email@example.com and share your thoughts.
On August 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was abducted from the home of his great uncle, Mose “Preacher” Wright, in the still-dark hours of a Mississippi morning. The two abductors were white; one of them carried a flashlight and a gun. Together, they forced the black teenager into the back of a pick-up truck and drove off. Three days later, Emmett’s naked, bloated body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River. He had been savagely beaten, shot in the head, and his face mutilated beyond recognition. A heavy, metal cotton gin fan had also been tied around his neck – with barbed wire.
The boy’s body was so disfigured that Mose Wright could only identify him by the distinctive ring he was wearing. It was silver, square-shaped, and had belonged to Emmett’s deceased father. It was engraved with the initials L.T.: Louis Till.
This Friday, August 28, marks the 65th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till. His death, and its aftermath, are largely credited with sparking the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks had Emmett Till on her mind when she refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger. She thought about going to the back of the bus. But then she thought about Emmett Till and couldn’t do it.
To honor him, and in recognition of all the challenges for racial equality that have followed from then till now, the original cast and director of the Fountain Theatre’s widely acclaimed, multiple award-winning 2010 production of The Ballad of Emmett Tillby Ifa Bayeza will reunite for a live-streamed reading of the play. This highly produced presentation, which includes music, sound, and visual imagery, will take place at 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET and be available this year for on-demand viewing at www.fountaintheatre.com/fountain-digital/the-ballad-of-emmett-till-2020. Pay-per-view tickets are $20.00. Shirley Jo Finney again directs Bernard K. Addison, Rico E. Anderson, Lorenz Arnell, Adenrele Ojo and Karen Malina White, all reprising their original roles in Bayeza’s powerfully theatrical intermingling of history, mystery and legend, punctuated with music and poetry.
And on Thursday, August 27, Fountain Theatre artistic director Stephen Sachs will chat with playwright Bayeza during his bi-monthly installment of Theatre Talk at 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET. That conversation will air live on Zoom, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the Fountain website at http://www.fountaintheatre.com.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie, had warned her son before he left their Chicago home that the Mississippi Delta was a whole different world than he was used to when it came to race relations. Segregation was a stricter practice down in the Delta. She worried that her fun-loving son, who was known for telling jokes and pulling pranks, and who used whistling to help control a stutter, could easily find himself in trouble in the unforgiving Jim Crowe south without realizing it.
She was right.
When Mamie was told of the terrible news, she insisted that the body of her only child – who she fondly called Bobo – be returned to Chicago. According to a January 11, 2003 article in The Washington Post following her death on January 6th, Mamie collapsed at the train station when she saw what was left of her son and cried out, “Lord, take my soul.”
Mamie became determined that her son would be seen, exactly as death left him. He would not disappear, like driftwood floating down the Tallahatchie River, to be remembered only by friends and family and then, finally, to be forgotten altogether. No, she wanted his killers, and indeed the whole world, to see what racial hatred, ignorance and bigotry was doing everyday, without regret, to black people everywhere, and what it had done to one particularly cherished life. A young black life that mattered.
“Let the people see what they did to my boy,” Mamie Till famously said. And they have, for 65 years. Today, a simple Google search easily pulls up a plethora of photos, articles, and books about the life and death of Emmett Till, including historian Elliot J. Gorn’s 2018 book, Let the People See, and Timothy B. Tyson’s 2017 book, The Blood of Emmett Till.
Till’s brutal death was already making headlines, and Mamie invited even more media to cover the funeral and the viewings, including the well-known black publication, Jet magazine (which created The Emmett Till Project to commemorate the 60-year anniversary of his death and the trail that followed.) She insisted on an open casket – albeit, one with a glass top because the stench from the decaying body in the Illinois summer sun was overwhelming. She invited the public to attend. And they did, by the thousands. The viewing of Emmett Till’s body went on for four days.
From the same TWP article: “Thousands lined the streets outside the Chicago funeral home. Thousands more walked past the open casket. They wept. They wailed. They seethed.
Photographers snapped close-ups of a boy’s body so disfigured that the human eye instinctively turns away. Those hideous pictures galvanized a nation.
All but two of Bobo’s teeth were missing. His ear was gone, an eye detached, his face and body horribly swollen after 72 hours in the Tallahatchie River.
His crime? This young black boy from Chicago spending the summer with relatives didn’t really understand Jim Crow. To impress friends, it is alleged that he talked fresh or whistled at a married white woman in Money, Miss.
That’s all it took to end a life.
A couple of weeks later, a trial was held for 24-year old Roy Bryant and his half-brother, 36-year-old John William “J.W.” Milam, in a segregated courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi. Bryant was the husband of Carolyn Byrant, the woman who had accused Till of “ugly remarks” and vague improprieties. The Bryant’s also owned the small store that Till and his friends had stopped at to buy some bubble gum. (The site of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market is now memorialized with a Mississippi Freedom Trail Marker.)
Mose Wright chose to appear at the trial. This short-statured black man stood tall that day in court when he pointed to his nephew’s accused white killers, Bryant and Milam, and positively identified them. Then, after less than an hour of deliberation, the all-white jury declared the men “not guilty.” The state, the jury claimed, had failed to prove the identity of the body. A separate kidnapping charge was also filed against the pair, but they never were indicted.
Both men eventually died of cancer: Milam in 1980 and Bryant in 1994. In 2017, Carolyn Bryant confessed to The Blood of Emmett Till author Timothy B. Tyson that the 14-year-old-boy from Chicago had never accosted her, or touched her, in any way. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she said.
In the more than five decades that have passed since August 28, 1955, thousands of other black men, women and children have needlessly died as the result of racial violence and divisiveness. They breathe no more, but the Civil Rights Movement continues. We march for the fallen, and we say their names: Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. And so many more.
The original director and cast of the Fountain Theatre’s 2010, multiple award-winning production of The Ballad of Emmett Tillby Ifa Bayeza will reunite for a live-streamed reading of the play on Friday, Aug. 28, which marks the 65th anniversary of Till’s murder. The reading will take place at 4.p.m. PT. / 7 p.m. ET and be available for viewing at www.fountaintheatre.com/fountain-digital/the-ballad-of-emmett-till-2020. Tickets are $20.00.
More than a typical Zoom reading, The Ballad of Emmett Till will be a highly produced presentation with music, sound and visual imagery.
In August, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi when he was accused of whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who was a cashier at a grocery store. Four days later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till, beat him and shot him in the head. The men were tried for murder, but an all-white, male jury acquitted them. Till’s murder and open casket funeral galvanized the emerging Civil Rights movement. Bryant recanted her story in 2017, admitting that the court testimony she gave more than six decades prior was false and stating “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
“As America is now being challenged to face its racist history, I can think of no project more worthy,” says Fountain artistic director Stephen Sachs. “In addition to being the 65th anniversary of the murder, Aug. 28 also marks the 57th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington in 1963, and a 2020 march on Washington is being planned this year, on that date, as well.”
Part history, part mystery and part ghost story, Bayeza’s lyrical integration of past, present, fact and legend turns Emmett’s story into a soaring work of music, poetic language and riveting theatricality. The Fountain’s 2010 West Coast premiere was twice extended and won a combined total of 14 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, Ovation, Backstage and NAACP awards for production, direction, playwriting and ensemble. Bernard K. Addison, Rico E. Anderson, Lorenz Arnell, Adenrele Ojo and Karen Malina White willreprise their roles for the online reading, with Shirley Jo Finney again at the helm.
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