Robert and Jenna have been faithful members of The Fountain Family since the 1990s. What’s kept them coming back? Robert says, “…the quality of the acting, the diversity of plays, you always get the best”.
A native of Detroit, Robert moved to Los Angeles in 1975, and never looked back. Coming from Detroit, the weather was an obvious draw. But what he really loved was the cultural diversity, and the ever-evolving music and theatre scene. In the last four decades, he’s watched the Los Angeles theatre scene evolve into an exciting place to see innovative new voices, with Fountain at the center of it all. “Back when I first moved here, many of the intimate theatres mostly produced vanity productions. But in the late 80s/90s, more and more theatres were producing plays that were challenging…cutting edge.”
Some of his favorite Fountain productions over the years are Tarrel McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water; Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman, and Exits and Entrances by Athol Fugard. The latter is one of his all-time favorites. “Morlan Higgins was amazing, and the play spoke to people who love the theatre. And I love the theatre.” A fan of Fugard, one of Robert and Jenna’s fondest memories is of a fundraiser for The Fountain in which Fugard talked about how he created the play, The Train Driver. That remains a special memory for the both of them.
Married 37 years, Robert and Jenna don’t always see eye to eye on every show – but The Fountain productions always give them plenty to talk about. “After the Fall was especially juicy…lots of loose ends to discuss”
Robert has also remained busy as a Board member of Boston Court Theatre, and with his work as a Superior Court Commissioner, hearing Juvenile Court cases. His occupation may have prepared him to endure the challenging times we are in. He continues to find hope and joy in the world. When I asked what’s been giving him hope in these last few months, he replied “All of you; all you theatre folks out there continuing to create, keeping the art form alive”.
We are so lucky to have these two lovers of theatre as a part of our family. Thank you, Robert and Jenna, for all your support over the years.
France-Luce Benson is a playwright and the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Fountain Theatre.
When Stephen Sachs was a student at Agoura High, he won a national high school writing award and was offered several writing scholarships. He turned them all down. Why? “I wanted to be an actor,” he answered a bit sheepishly.
He became one in the 1980s, but it’s the old story. As reality set in, he began to direct, write plays and help run theatre companies. He was a manager at Ensemble Studio Theatre, worked behind the scenes at Stages in Hollywood, and with Joan Stein and Suzie Dietz at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. Until he got a phone call “out of the blue” from Deborah Lawlor, another independent theatre producer.
Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs
Lawlor had met Sachs at Stages when she rented space there, and was impressed by him. While recuperating from a serious auto accident in New York, she decided that, if she survived, she would do what she’d always wanted: have her own theatre. She called Sachs and asked him to run it with her. That was 1990. You might say that the rest is history, but not so fast…
“I was just starting to develop as a playwright and director,” Sachs said. “Deborah had a dance background. She was part of the avant-garde dance scene in New York in the 1960s and 70s. The Judson Dance Theater, Café Cino, the whole thing. Her idea was to create an artistic home for theatre and dance artists.”
As a wise friend once told me, we tend to enter our lives through the back door. Looking around for a suitable space, Lawlor and Sachs were shown a funky building at 5060 Fountain Avenue in Hollywood and fell in love with it. They named it the Fountain for the street it sat on, but also, Lawlor said, “I liked the idea of a fountain of work…”
“We opened our doors on April Fool’s Day 1990—the perfect day to start a theatre company,” said Sachs, “and we’ve been there ever since. Los Angeles being such a diverse city, we wanted to do work that would give voice to a variety of communities.”
Which is how the theatre’s association with Flamenco dance began.
Flamenco dancer Maria Bermudez
“Through Deborah,” specified Sachs. “Shortly after we opened she asked, ‘Have you ever seen a Flamenco concert?’ I said no and she said, ‘Come with me.’ We got in the car, drove up to Santa Barbara and she introduced me to Roberto Amaral, a well respected Flamenco teacher and choreographer. I saw my first Flamenco concert and was blown away. ‘We’re going to do that at The Fountain,’ Deborah said. And now we’re the foremost regular presenters of Flamenco in Los Angeles.
“When we started it was just Deborah, me and the building. We plugged in a couple of phones, drove down Western Avenue and bought a couple of desks. We had to assemble them ourselves. We made our own programs on a manual typewriter. It was all very small, very modest.”
In many ways, it still is. “But from the beginning,” added Sachs, “we felt we were on to something. We did The Golden Gate, a play I had adapted from a charming novel by Vikram Seth about yuppies, gays and straights living in San Francisco—romantic and fun, beautifully written, and entirely in verse. It was like 30-somethings meet Shakespeare. We did it up in San Francisco, so right out of the gate, our work was being noticed. It’s just been a slow kind of gentle growth ever since.”
While next year will mark their 25th year in business at the same address in a virtually unchanged environment, and they have a lot to show artistically for the past quarter century, big profit is not one of them. Lawlor has delivered financial support when needed, while Sachs has delivered a stream of noteworthy plays, becoming that unusual creature: a playwright and director with his own sandbox. Together, they’ve built a loyal audience and done work that has brought them recognition and has traveled pretty far afield.
Sachs has had 11 of his plays produced during that time, many of them at the Fountain, quite a few elsewhere—from The Pasadena Playhouse to Toronto, from Chicago’s Victory Gardens to Vancouver. A quick Google search offers an impressive list of directing and playwriting credits.
Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap) finds release through dance in ‘Heart Song’.
Currently, his play Heart Song, which recently premiered at the Fountain and is about the transformation of a middle-aged Jewish woman “separated from her tribe and very much alone,” is filling up houses at Florida Rep. His 2012 two-hander, Bakersfield Mist, about the encounter of a celebrated art dealer with a woman in a Bakersfield trailer convinced she owns a major work of art, opens in June at The Duchess Theatre in London’s West End. It features Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid.
“There’s been something special about this play from the start,” said Sachs. “I directed the world premiere at the Fountain and was on the 101 freeway driving to my first production meeting, when I had a call from my agent telling me the script had been optioned for New York. I had to pull over!”
Bakersfield Mist received three other productions around the country as part of the National New Play Network (NNPN), an organization of theaters of which The Fountain is a member. It was founded in 1998 with the intent of giving new plays more than one production.
“They do this thing called ‘rolling world premieres,’ ” Sachs explained, “guaranteeing at least three productions of a new play. Sweet Nothing In My Ear, another play of mine that premiered at the Fountain, went around the country through NNPN and then was made into a Hallmark movie with Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels. A new version of Strinberg’s Miss Julie that I wrote was produced that way as well. We want to continue doing more of that.”
Bakersfield Mist had productions at Wellfleet Harbor Theatre in Cape Cod, New Rep in Boston, the New Jersey Rep and was optioned by Sonia Friedman, a major New York and London producer. “They’d never seen a production of it,” said Sachs. “They read that script sent by my agent and optioned it for London and New York. Now they control the U.S. rights.”
Ian McDiarmid and Kathleen Turner in the London production of “Bakersfield Mist”
In 2004, the Fountain drew the attention of no less a playwright than South Africa’s Athol Fugard, who chose the tiny Fountain for the world premiere of an exquisite and very personal two-character play: Exits and Entrances. It was followed by the U.S. premiere of Fugard’s The Blue Iris, The Train Driver, Victory and the West coast premiere of Coming Home.
When asked how many productions the Fountain puts on per year, Sachs answered: “Trick question. We’ll announce four, but actually do two or three. Our productions tend to extend and run for a while which is a nice problem to have. So we announce four and see how it goes.”
Productions are no longer pegged to specific dates, but to seasons — Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter — allowing for greater flexibility. Sachs and Lawlor threw out the old model of rigid slots when they found themselves closing hits because they had committed to a new show on a given date. With just 80 seats to sell, they had to think more creatively. “We changed everyone to a flexible pass and we’ve never looked back. This allows us to keep a hit going. It also allows our subscribers the flexibility to come at their convenience—a good thing when decisions today tend to be so last-minute.”
So is the small physical plant a plus or a minus?
“It’s a question we’ve been wrestling with for years,” Sachs acknowledged, “a tug between ambition and what is right for the company. We even explored Hollywood quite a bit, looking to find maybe a second space or larger building, thinking, boy, how much bigger we could be. Yet talking with Fugard about this, he said, ‘Don’t. Don’t do it.’ Maybe he’s right…”
“The Train Driver” by Athol Fugard
So here’s the dilemma: Awards and recognition are certainly not lacking, but breaking even—let alone making money—is a perennial struggle. The staff has ballooned to six people: Lawlor and Sachs, producing director Simon Levy, tech director Scott Tuomey, associate producer James Bennett and head of subscriptions Diana Gibson. The budget has “a little more than doubled” since they opened their doors. It does not easily enable profit.
“There are times when I wish we had more seats, a bigger stage,” said Sachs, “but there are plenty of examples out there of smaller theatres that have gone on to larger buildings and have regretted it or have lost something in the move; suddenly the focus becomes the real estate and maintaining the overhead.
“I don’t ever want to lose the magic of this intimate space. It makes for such a visceral experience. But after almost 25 years, there’s also a question of growth. We can’t become stagnant or complacent and we do want to continue building forward. You don’t want to sell your soul and you don’t want to lose what makes this theatre special.”
Lawlor concurred. She’s writing a play for which she’s received a grant and acknowledged that “our losses have decreased; we may even show a tiny profit this year.”
“Expanding fund-raising; exploring the possibility of adding 19 seats to our existing space. Not easy,” said Sachs, “but we can do that under the 99-seat Equity Waiver and 19 seats could make a difference. Other than that, we’re looking to expand our exposure across the country and having more of our work done at other theatres.”
So the funky Fountain remains the-little-theatre-that-could, on its funky street with its broken sidewalk, its postage-stamp parking lot, and widely enjoyed by many people who apparently have found out that they really, really like what it has to offer.
Victoria and I have been residents of Los Feliz for more than 25 years. We love theatre and we fell in love with The Fountain Theatre the first time we saw a play there about ten years ago. We immediately became subscribers even though we subscribe to other theatres in the greater Los Angeles area. We are continually impressed by the originality and quality of the plays at the Fountain, as well as the intimate environment. As such, The Fountain is a great place to see the plays of great writers like August Wilson and Athol Fugard; and we have seen them all, – Gem of the Ocean, The Train Driver, Coming Home, Exits and Entrances, and the most recent classic, The Blue Iris. We will be remiss if we do not mention the professionalism and friendliness of The Fountain staff. They have always been gracious in accommodating us since our business requires frequent travel out of town.
Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris”
by Steven Leigh Morris
A series of poems by Thomas Hardy, grieving after the death of his first, estranged wife, inspired Athol Fugard‘s latest play, The Blue Iris, now receiving its U.S. premiere at Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre, directed by Stephen Sachs.
Athol Fugard, the internationally renowned Causasian South African dramatist who writes in English, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of his early writing career dedicated to battling his nation’s apartheid policies (in plays such as Blood Knot, 1961; and Master Harold and the Boys, 1982). Fugard was as brave as a playwright could be, joining the ranks of Chile‘s Ariel Dorfman and Czechoslovakia‘s Václav Havel by risking prison for writing works that looked askance at the policies of their authoritarian governments. It was a baton they passed along to the likes of Russian punk band Pussy Riot.
But when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in South African prisons, and in the nation’s first multiracial elections became the nation’s first black president, the purpose of aging white liberals such as Fugard became ever more nuanced and difficult to define. After all, South Africa’s brave new future also contained a raging AIDS epidemic, and the continuation of unspeakable poverty, revenge and violence.
That transition is what Fugard has been writing about since 1994, in a series of plays set in his beloved Karoo, among them Valley Song (1996), Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001),Victory (2007) and his latest, The Blue Iris.
Invariably, they concern an aging white man and young “colored” (the South African term for mixed-race) woman. In Valley Song, presented here at the Mark Taper Forum, the young woman, Veronica, needed to come of age, to escape the confines of the Karoo for a faster life in the city. She was an innocent, and a symbol of the future.
Sorrows and Rejoicings (also premiered here at the Taper) concerned a white, male poet from South Africa who went into exile inLondon. When he returned to the Karoo, he was dying. There he met the young colored woman he left behind, Rebecca. She answered his abandonment of her by burning his early poems. The essence of Fugard’s anxiety was spoken in a single line from that play:
“For your soul’s sake, Rebecca, I hope you know that what you did was terribly wrong. What you turned to ash and smoke out there in the veldt was evidence of a man’s love, for his country, for his people — for you! Don’t reject it. … Rejoice in it! Because if you think you and your New South Africa don’t need it, you are making a terrible mistake.”
In Victory, which received its U.S. premiere at the Fountain Theatre, also directed by Sachs, the aging white man (Morlan Higgins) found himself being robbed and held hostage by the young colored woman (born on the day Mandela was released from prison, and consequently named Vickie in honor of this victory) and her boyfriend. The old man was Vickie’s educator and mentor. Her petty criminal alliance was a representation of how the innocence of Veronica and the hope for the future in Valley Song had corroded in Fugard’s eyes.
Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill
Fugard’s plays have been getting ever more despondent, and The Blue Iris contains his most austere view to date. Morlan Higgins returns as Robert Hannay, eking out an existence in the Karoo near the charred remains of a house where the colored woman, Rieta (Julanne Chidi Hill), once grew up and worked as a housekeeper. Robert still grieves for his wife, Sally (Jacqueline Schultz, appearing as a phantom), who died of a heart attack shortly after a lightning strike that burned their home. (Jeff McLaughlin‘s set depicts blackened beams and detached doors amidst piles of detritus.)
Sally begged Robert not to leave the night of that storm, but he was determined to buy a new breeding ram, and so now he lives with the agony of his decision on that night of decimation. Rieta stands by him, for reasons unveiled in the play. She endures his conjurings of Sally.
Some verses of one poem by Hardy, “The Voice,” embody Robert’s state of mind:
“Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
“Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Traveling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?”
Sally, a painter by avocation, floats through the play on the day Rieta discovers Sally’s only painting that was untouched by the fire. It’s a botanical portrait of a blue iris, which for Robert brings back the memory of when Sally found the flower on the floor of the drought-blasted veldt — a single symbol of hope in a withered landscape otherwise punctuated by the death of plants and sheep.
That particular flower, however, has poison within its beauty, enough poison to “bring down an ox,” which is why the local farmers so loath it. That’s what Sally was trying to capture. What looks pretty contains toxins. And there you have the parable for the contamination of a hope-filled future.
Sachs’ meticulously rendered production features a trio of impeccable performances. These include Schultz as Sally’s ghost, who arrives as though via tornado, chattering and desperate, before she’s sucked away by that same wind tunnel, to explain the meaning of her painting, and of how in painting it she failed to convey that meaning.
Then there’s Higgins as Robert, and his fastidious, lumbering search for his own meaning amidst the remains, his world-weary eyes, the sonorous, aching tone in his voice. Hill’s Rieta offers a spritely foil — she’s as impatient as she is pained. Their joint decision, the only decision in the play, is whether she and Robert, both tramps and Platonic lovers, should stay or go, together or apart. And there’s an allegory in that, too, about circumstantial bonds and inexorable isolation. The play is saturated in allegories.
Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins
To fully appreciate The Blue Iris, however, one might look beyond Thomas Hardy’s poems to W.B. Yeats‘ poetical drama Purgatory, also set by the remains of a charred house. Purgatory also studies a man grieving for his late wife, trying to release her from purgatory. She, too, paces between life and death, listless in her travels beyond existence. The other character in Purgatoryis the man’s son, representing a hope for the future that stands on the brink of corrosion.
Both plays wrestle with how past and future can possibly travel any road together. And yet they do, as they must, as they always have. The ensuing, combustible emotions are what provide the fire of our most timeless poems and stories, where writers such as Yeats and Fugard ache to fathom the unfathomable.
After opening the US Premiere of Athol Fugard’s new play The Blue Iris at the Fountain last Friday, I flew to New York on personal and professional business. As it turns out, Athol had just left New York on Sunday after directing the NY debut of his play The Train Driver at the Signature Theatre. Athol and I had just missed each other, our two east/west flights crossing each other as we switched coasts.
Monday, I was taking one of those New York City walks. You know the kind. A fast-paced trek on foot through the city. To sort the mind, ease the heart, sifting and sorting through mental debris. I traveled dozens of blocks, miles it seems. Pushing through crowds, I walked everywhere and nowhere. No destination, no ending point, thinking about everything and nothing.
The Signature Theatre
Pushing east on 42nd Street, lost in thought, I crossed 10th Avenue, oblivious to where I was. I happened to glance up. And there was Athol Fugard, peering down at me. From a big poster advertising The Train Driver. Without knowing it or meaning to, I had stumbled upon the Signature Theatre. How did this happen?
Manhattan is two miles wide and thirteen miles long. How is it my rudderless course through a city containing twenty-three square miles led me to the doorstep where Athol’s play was now opening? What mysterious GPS had magically navigated me there? How could this possibly be? It was impossible to believe. And then —
My cell phone rang. I glanced at the name displayed as the caller. I was stunned. Of all people, guess who?
“Stephen!” cheered the familiar South African voice, calling from across the country in Los Angeles.
“Athol!” I shouted. “I can’t believe it’s you calling! You’ll never guess where I am right now. In New York! Standing outside the Signature Theatre at this very moment, staring at you and the Train Driver poster!”
Athol was delighted. I was astounded. What the hell is going on? Standing at the door of the Signature with Athol on the phone from the west coast, I felt like a note-bottle that had somehow miraculously washed up on shore at exactly the spot of shoreline where it needed to be to deliver the message inside. But the Signature lobby was empty, with only the box office gentleman telling me that the building was closed on Monday.
Athol made a quick phone call. The door opened. Soon I was inside. A surprise to everyone and completely unannounced. Jim Houghton, the Founder and Artistic Director, was there to meet me and I was given a tour of their glorious new 3-theatre complex that also includes a spacious lobby, bookstore, cafe, warrens of office cubicles, pristine rehearsal rooms and a maze of dressing rooms backstage.
Set for “The Train Driver”, Signature Theatre
Their production of The Train Driver (directed by Athol) was currently in previews on The Linney stage. Their set was similar in feel to ours at the Fountain last year, but much wider and included the rusted relic of a demolished old car in the corner. The Linney seats approximately 200 people and has a wonderful catwalk above that wraps around the entire space which can be used as an elevated acting area or for audience seating.
The magnificent new multi-million dollar venue for the Signature Theatre is big, glorious and state-of-the-art. Whenever I visit new theatres like these I envy the size, the pristine open space, the eye-popping technology and design. In addition to The Train Driver, the world premiere of Sam Shepard’s new play, Heartless was opening that night on the larger Diamond stage. A buzz of excitement in the building.
It was a pleasure meeting Jim Houghton as he shared his pride in the dazzling new building and his deep enthusiasm for Athol’s work and legacy as a playwright.
My visit done, I stepped back outside onto the bustling New York City street. After a quick glance of warm goodbye to Athol on the front poster outside, I ambled up 10th Avenue shaking my head in bemusement at my good fortune and grateful to the forces — seen and unseen — that guided my steps and brought me here.
Sometimes the uncharted course, the path without purpose, leads you exactly where you’re meant to be.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.
Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris”
Back in the year 2000, legendary South African playwright Athol Fugard was residing in Del Mar, teaching playwriting, acting and directing at UC San Diego — while continuing to turn out the prolific body of work that had earned him worldwide acclaim.
He heard from friends of his, whose opinions he respected, that the Fountain Theatre in LA had mounted a very good production of his 1984 play, The Road to Mecca. With trepidation, Fugard traveled to the Fountain to see what this director named Stephen Sachs had done to his work.
Six Fugard/Fountain Theatre collaborations later, the Fountain is now presenting the US premiere of Fugard’s latest work. The Blue Iris, helmed by Sachs, opens Friday, in celebration of the master playwright’s 80th birthday and his ongoing collaboration with the Fountain.
In a telephone interview from New York, Fugard admits, “I’ve always been wary of seeing plays of mine that I myself hadn’t directed. Eventually I went to the Fountain and saw this marvelous production, staged by Stephen. I met Stephen and I met the cast of that production and found myself saying to Stephen, ‘I want my next play to be done in your theater.’ I loved the feel of it. Everything about it felt right — the theater, the size of the space, the atmosphere. It was perfect for my sorts of plays. So, when my next play was ready, I brought it to Stephen.”
Sachs has his own memory of his first encounter with Fugard in 2000. “I was told he never goes to see productions of his plays that other people do. Well, I learned he was coming. Of course, I was excited and terrified. I didn’t tell the actors that Athol was there. After the performance, during the applause, I want backstage quickly and told the actors, ‘There’s someone I want you to meet.’ The actors came out and I said, ‘I would like you all to meet Athol Fugard.’ And they all screamed. Of course, we were all so happy when he told us he loved our production. We all went out afterwards. And we just kept corresponding after that. When Fugard was directing Sorrows and Rejoicings at the Mark Taper [in 2002], I kept saying to him, ‘If you’re ever looking for a small, intimate, artistic home to develop a new work, away from a larger theatrical institution, where you can just work quietly in a nurturing environment, the Fountain is yours’.”
One day in 2004, Fugard sent Sachs an e-mail with a file attached to it. The e-mail message read, “Attached to this file is my new play and I want you to direct it.” The play was Exits and Entrances, which went on to garner three Ovation Awards and a slew of LADCC, LA Weekly and Backstage honors.
Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins
Fugard’s newest work, The Blue Iris, recently premiered in Cape Town and has since moved to Johannesburg. It is a three-character play in one act, which Fugard takes time to carefully explain.
“The inspiration for this play came from two directions. It is set in the Karoo, a semi-desert area in the heart of South Africa, where several of my plays have been set. One of the features of this rather small area is a very beautiful mountain. I’ve climbed that mountain several times, often with a friend. It is quite a stiff climb but a good one, not dangerous really. We always used to park our car at the foot of the mountain at a lovely old farmhouse, which was owned by a very cordial farmer. He became a friend of ours. When we would come down from our climb, he was always there waiting for us with something to drink or to eat. It was a great relationship. But on this one occasion when I went with my friend to climb the mountain, we arrived at this farmhouse to find it had been totally destroyed by a fire, which was started by a lightning strike. This wonderful man and his wife were living in a little tent outside the house, just trying to salvage what they could.
Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill
“The second image which inspired this play came from a farmer’s wife, totally unrelated to the first farmer I mentioned. She was a wonderful painter of wild flowers, of botanically accurate wild flowers. These weren’t only pretty paintings, these were botanical drawings that helped you identify the flower — the seed capsule, the root structure, everything. It was a fusion of those two images that finally brought me to writing The Blue Iris. There were a lot of complex personal issues that came into the play as well. I had a sense of how we men can get so absorbed in our own egos, our own personalities, never fully realizing what damage we do to others on the way.”
Fugard pauses in his discourse and chuckles. “I don’t think I properly understand the play yet, myself. I mean that. We writers quite often don’t know what we’ve written about. There have been many times that I haven’t known what the full resonances are of the story that I’ve told. It has often been only when I have been in the rehearsal room directing actors, helping them to understand the characters that they in turn helped me to understand what I had written.”
Stephen Sachs and Morlan Higgins.
“I received The Blue Iris a few months ago,” Sachs continues. “I knew about the play for a few years. I know that Athol was working on it, developing it. I knew that he was going to present the world premiere in South Africa, which is pretty much his way of working now. They’ve named a theater after him, the Fugard Theatre. I am honored to be doing it here at the Fountain. My cast includes two Fugard regulars here at the Fountain, Morlan Higgins and Jacqueline Schultz. Julanne Chidi Hill is new to the Fountain. She’s a discovery.
“This work has some classic Fugard themes in it – the search for hope, the struggle with loss and the fight for dignity. It is a love story and very much about finding the courage and strength to move forward in what sometimes can seem like bleak and painful circumstances. It is a profoundly human story about these three individuals who live together in this house: this man Robert, who was a farmer, his wife Sally, who is deceased, and their housekeeper Rita.
“The play begins after the house has been burned to the ground by a fire and Robert and Rita are sifting through the debris. She wants to move on and take Robert with her. While going through the debris, they discover a painting of a blue iris that his wife Sally had done. Finding that painting triggers memory and forces Robert to look at the truth of the reality of his marriage to Sally.”
Fugard will not be at the Fountain for its debut. “I’ve been here in New York for a whole year directing plays, currently The Train Driver. This is also a play that Stephen Sachs has done. This is its New York premiere. I will be coming to see Blue Iris. I am leaving New York this coming Sunday and flying down to San Diego. I’m going to give myself a bit of a rest first and then come up to Los Angeles to see Stephen’s production. I am not going to tell him the date because I don’t want any fuss or bother when I come to see it. I am just going to quietly slip into the theater.”
Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins
As for the future, Fugard wants to keep it simple. “I do not multi-track. I work on one play at a time, like a good alcoholic goes one day at a time. My home now is in Del Mar. My plans for the immediate future are to go back to South Africa in September to direct a new play that I haven’t got a title for yet, because I am still putting the finishing touches to it. I’ll decide on a title a little bit later on. I will always premiere my work in South Africa. And I’ll probably always think of the Fountain as the next possibility.”
South African playwright, actor and director Athol Fugard describes the time Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 as “a period of euphoria that was the most extraordinary experience of my life.”
He says he was also convinced he would be the country’s “first literary redundancy.”
“My life had been defined by the apartheid years,” he says. “Now we were going into an era of democracy … and I believed that I didn’t really have a function as a useful artist in that anymore.”
But as President Mandela gave way to Thabo Mbeki and later Jacob Zuma, Fugard’s disappointment set in, and it did not take him long to realize his voice was still needed. He says he isn’t sure his comments will be welcomed though, “because amongst armchair liberals, the notion that South Africa is now a happy democracy and that Nelson Mandela did it all, is very widespread.”
On his plays:
Continuing its 12-year relationship with Athol Fugard, The Fountain Theatre celebrates the master playwright’s 80th birthday with the U.S. premiere of his newest play. Directed by Stephen Sachs and starring Morlan Higgins, Julanne Chidi Hill and Jacqueline Schultz, The Blue Iris opens at the Fountain on August 24.
“The Blue Iris” (US Premiere, 2012, Fountain Theatre)
The Blue Irisis set in Fugard’s beloved and desolate South African desert, the Karoo. In a burnt-out farmhouse, a widowed farmer, Robert Hannay (Higgins) and his housekeeper, Rieta (Hill) sort through the fire-ravaged debris of their lives. The discovery of a miraculously undamaged painting of a flower – a blue iris – created by Hannay’s deceased wife (Schultz) unlocks long-forgotten memories and hidden secrets. Fugard digs deep into the human heart, and the result is a love story full of tender, soul-touching and surprising revelations.
Fugard started writing plays in his mid-20s, and this year, five decades later, at least six are being performed in the U.S. and U.K. He says he’s surprised to see there’s still so much interest in his work.
Described by Time magazine as “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world,” Athol Fugard celebrated his 80th birthday on June 11, but the prolific writer shows no signs of slowing down.
“The Train Driver” (US Premiere, Fountain Theatre, 2010)
This year, the Signature Theatre in New York is hosting Fugard as its first international residency playwright and showing three plays from various periods of his career. He says it’s given him a chance to look back over the 50 years that span the writing of the first play he directed, Blood Knot, and the last play he says he will direct, The Train Driver, which had its US Premiere at the Fountain in 2010 and just opened in NY Aug. 14.
Fugard describes the two plays as “the bookends of an arc that essentially defines myself as a playwright,” though he assures his fans this does not mean he’s stopped writing.
On the people who shaped him:
As a child, Fugard says that “society was trying to make me conform to a set of very rigid, racist ideas,” and he credits his mother for making him challenge them. He says she was “endowed with a natural sense of justice and decency” and was “a simple Afrikaans woman (who) gave me my soul.” He thanks her for prompting him to “break the conditioning that was taking place on school playgrounds, in classrooms, everywhere.”
He describes his father as “a gentle man and a very beautiful man,” and also, like himself for a period of time, an alcoholic. This family dynamic shaped his plays.
“You’ll see that the strong, the affirmative, the positive voice in any of the plays I’ve written is that of a woman,” he says. “My men are, well not quite worthless, but they are certainly weak, and that reflects the reality I grew up with and what I think has in a sense shaped me.”
Athol Fugard (center) with actors John Kani (left) and Winston Ntshona at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1973.
On working with a multiracial theater group:
In the 1950s, when so much of South African life was regulated to keep the races separate, Fugard worked with a multiracial group of actors.
“It was foolhardy and we paid prices, but it was a gesture of defiance,” he says.
He learned enough about the laws to work out situations that would allow him to work with his black colleagues.
“It raised a very, very serious issue of conscience,” he explains as he acknowledges that his punishments were relatively minor compared to what those colleagues would eventually endure at Robben Island with Mandela.
On racial prejudice:
As an observer from outside looking at the American scene, Fugard says he believes that racial prejudice and profiling is flourishing, and that underlying all the opposition that President Obama is encountering is actually “the problem is that there’s a black man in the White House.”
He says South Africa has also not overcome its apartheid legacy, and explains that the real intention of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up after the end of the apartheid regime, was not achieved.
“You can’t legislate into existence an act of forgiveness and a true confession, those are mysteries of the human heart and they occur between one individual and another individual, not a panel of judges sitting asking questions, trying to test your truth,” he says.
On wisdom at 80:
When asked what wisdom he would like to impart to listeners, Fugard directed his comments to fellow 80-year-olds. He says “it’s supposed to be the age when you stop, but that is such nonsense. … I have a greater sense of adventure at this moment in my life than I ever had in the past.
“There are most probably five or six more years left in my case, but I’m going to live them up to the hilt.”
And does that mean he’ll keep writing? Of course.
“The act of witnessing is important to me, somebody’s got to tell the truth, you know what I mean?” he says.
Continuing its 12-year relationship with Athol Fugard, The Fountain Theatre celebrates the master playwright’s 80th birthday with theU.S. premiere of his newest play. Directed by Stephen Sachs and starring Morlan Higgins, Julanne Chidi Hill and Jacqueline Schultz, The Blue Iris opens at the Fountain on August 24, with low-priced previews beginning August 18.
Described by Time magazine as “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world,” Athol Fugard celebrated his 80th birthday on June 11, but the prolific writer shows no signs of slowing down. On June 28, The Blue Iris premiered at The National Arts Festival in his native South Africa to rave reviews. “Vintage Fugard… riveting theatre that will evoke whispering echoes in the heart long after the show has ended,” wrote Cue magazine.
The Blue Iris is set in Fugard’s beloved and desolate South African desert, the Karoo. In a burnt-out farmhouse, a widowed farmer, Robert Hannay (Higgins) and his housekeeper, Rieta (Hill) sort through the fire-ravaged debris of their lives. The discovery of a miraculously undamaged painting of a flower – a blue iris – created by Hannay’s deceased wife (Schultz) unlocks long-forgotten memories and hidden secrets. Fugard digs deep into the human heart, and the result is a love story full of tender, soul-touching and surprising revelations.
“We should be going into people`s lives, their souls, their ways of life. Everything I have written is an attempt to share secrets with you,” says the playwright.
“The Blue Iris is achingly beautiful, a heartfelt play that brings to life the tender honesty and deep complexity of human relationships,” avers Sachs. “We cherish Athol’s 12-year friendship and artistic association at the Fountain, and we’re thrilled to celebrate his 80th birthday with this remarkable work.”
The author of over 30 plays and recipient of countless accolades including the Academy Award, Obie Award, and Tony Award, Athol Fugard is best known for his plays about the frustrations of life in contemporary South Africa and the psychological barriers created by apartheid. Widely acclaimed around the world, his plays include Boesman and Lena (Obie Award, Best Foreign Play), Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (Tony Award, Best Play), A Lesson from Aloes (New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Best Play), the semiautobiographical Master Harold…and the Boys (Writers Guild Award, Outstanding Achievement) and The Road to Mecca (New York Drama Critics Circle Citation, Best Foreign Play, London Evening Standard Award, Best Play). The first white South African playwright to collaborate with black actors and workers, some of his works, such as Blood Knot, were initially banned in South Africa. In his first two post-apartheid plays, Valley Song (1995) and The Captain’s Tiger (1998), Fugard addressed more personal concerns, but in Sorrows and Rejoicings(2001) he focused on the complex racial dynamics of South Africa’s new era. In 2005 his novel, Tsotsi (1980), was adapted for the screen, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In 2011, Mr. Fugard was honored with a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. Even though this prolific playwright, novelist, actor, director and teacher now lives and works in San Diego, he continues to be inspired by the dynamics in his land of birth.
Athol Fugard’s ‘The Road to Mecca’ (LA Premiere, Fountain Theatre, 2000) starring Priscilla Pointer and Jacqueline Schultz
The Fountain Theatre’s special relationship with Fugard began when co-founder/co-artistic director Stephen Sachs directed the L.A. premiere of Fugard’s The Road to Mecca in 2000. Fugard was so impressed that he offered the company world premiere rights to an as-yet-unwritten new work. When Sachs directed the world premiere of Exits and Entrances in 2004, it received recognition for Best Production and Best Director from both the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle (garnering a total of five awards) and the Ovations (receiving a total of three awards). Mr. Sachs went on to direct acclaimed regional productions of Exits and Entrances around the country, an Off-Broadway production at Primary Stages, and the UK premiere at the 2007 International Edinburgh Festival. Since then, he has directed premieres of Fugard’s plays at the Fountain including the American premiere of Victory (two LADCC awards and four LA Weeklynominations, and named “Best of 2008” by the Los Angeles Times); the West Coast premiere of Coming Home (three LA Weeklyawards including “Ensemble” and “Direction,” LADCC award for “Lead Performance”); and the U.S. premiere of The Train Driver (three LA Weekly awards). Athol Fugard has stated that he “considers The Fountain Theatre his artistic home on the West Coast.”
Set design for The Blue Iris is by Jeff McLaughlin; sound design is by Peter Bayne; prop design is by Misty Carlisle; the dialect coach is JB Blanc; the production stage manager is Terri Roberts; and Simon Levy and Deborah Lawlor produce.
Morlan Higgins starred in Fountain Theatre productions of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances, Victory and The Train Driver, as well as inShining City by Conor McPherson (LA Weekly Award), After the Fall (Ovation award for Best Production) and The Boys in the Band. Other credits: Forgiveness (Black Dahlia Theatre), King Lear (Antaeus), Dealing with Clair, Water Children, Mad Forest, The Birthday Party (The Matrix Theatre Company); Dylan (Skylight Theatre); Equus (Pasadena Playhouse), A Skull in Connemara (Theatre Tribe),Hughie (Eugene O’Neill Foundation at Tao House); and numerous other plays on local stages. Morlan has received multiple Ovation, LADCC, LA Weekly,Back Stage Garland, Drama-Logue, and Ticketholders Awards. He was nominated for the Lucille Lortell Off-Broadway Actor of the Year Award for his performance in Exits and Entrances at Primary Stages in NYC, He was nominated for a Carbonell Award for E and E at Florida Stage and received a New Jersey Tony for E and E at New Jersey Rep. He is also the recipient of Santa Barbara Indie Awards for Hughie and Victory at SBT. Morlan also plays Celtic music in the local band Staggering Jack.
Julanne Chidi Hill
Julanne Chidi Hill is a graduate of the prestigious SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Theatre Arts and Film and was classically trained at Oxford University where she studied extensively with John Barton (Royal Shakespeare Company) and Katie Mitchell (Royal National Theatre). She has worked at the McCarter Theatre, Seattle Rep, Mark Taper Forum, Stages 52, McCadden Stages Theatre, Ebony Rep and Kirk Douglas Theatre, and she most recently appeared at the Celebration Theatre in the Ovation award-winning Women of Brewster Place. Television credits include guest-starring on the Jerry Bruckheimer drama The Whole Truth (ABC) and FX series The Shield, and recurring roles on NBC’s My Name is Earl and Showtime’s Weeds. Feature films: Crank: High Voltage (as “Dark Chocolate”), Barbershop 2, and alongside Tom Everett Scott and Lee Tergesen in 2nd Take, directed by John Suits.
Jacqueline Schultz was last seen in the critically acclaimed production of Park Your Car in Harvard Yard at International City Theatre. She costarred in the West Coast premiere of String of Pearls at both North Hollywood’s Road Theatre Company and the Santa Barbara Theatre, appeared at the Pasadena Playhouse in the world premiere of Open Window, and starred in the critically acclaimed L.A. premiere of Lee Blessing’s Going to St. Ives at the Fountain (Best Actress nomination, NAACP Theatre Award), later reprising her role for the International Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. Other leading roles at the Fountain: After the Fall (Ovation Award for Best Production),The Road to Mecca; The Night of the Iguana;The Darker Face of the Earth; Fighting Over Beverley (LA Weekly Award); Duet for One(Ovation Award nomination, Best Actress); Ashes (Drama-Logue Award); The Golden Gate (Drama-Logue Award); and Orpheus Descending. Other theater credits include To Kill a Mockingbird and Awake and Sing! (International City Theatre) and Sorrows and Rejoicings (Mark Taper Forum). She has appeared at the Kennedy Center, Ensemble Studio Theatre (NY) and the Mark Taper Forum’s New Works Festival. TV credits include The Practice, ER, My Wife and Kids,7th Heaven, Crossing Jordan, Judging Amy, the HBO movie Tyson, and many more.
Housed in a charming two-story complex, the Fountain is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a nurturing, creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. Fountain productions have won more than 200 awards for production, performance and design, with more Ovation nominations and awards than any other intimate theater in the history of the awards—and the only intimate theater to win the Ovation for Best Production five times. Fountain projects have been seen in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Florida, New Jersey, Minneapolis and Edinburgh. Highlights include a six-month run of Bakersfield Mist, written by Stephen Sachs, set to open in London this fall and optioned for New York; the Off-Broadway run of the Fountain’s world premiere production of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances; and the making of Sweet Nothing in My Ear, also by Sachs, into a TV movie. The Fountain has been honored with a Certificate of Appreciation from the Los Angeles City Council for demonstrating years of artistic excellence and “enhancing the cultural life of Los Angeles.”
TO CELEBRATE his 80th birthday on Monday, June 11th, , much lauded South African playwright Athol Fugard wants nothing more than a family braai.
Speaking on the weekend by telephone from San Diego, California where he lives with his wife, poet Sheila Fugard, close to their novelist daughter Lisa Fugard, he said he wanted a quiet occasion. This is a far cry from the 80th birthday he imagined for himself thirty years ago when he plotted a birthday party to which he’d invite all the characters in his plays.
“When I was 50 years old there was a manageable gang of people,” he joked. To date he has written more than 20 plays, four film scripts, two memoirs and two books and received awards and nominations including the Tony, Obie, Evening Standard, Drama Desk, and Audie Awards.
US premiere of Fugard’s “The Train Driver” (Fountain Theatre, 2010) starring Adolphus Ward and Morlan Higgins.
He was honoured with the 2005 South African Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for his “excellent contribution and achievement in theatre” and is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He scoffs at descriptions such as “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world” saying it is the worst possible thing to call a writer. “I’m always trying to make people write and think and feel and use their hearts,” he said, describing his life’s work.
Fugard has never considered retiring, writing it is simply what he does.
“I have a great abiding passion for theatre, it’s consumed my whole life. I’m as passionate about theatre as I talk to you now as I was 50 years ago.” Born in Port Elizabeth in 1932, Fugard studied Philosophy and Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town in 1952, but dropped out in 1953 to hitchhike around North Africa and then travel around east Asia in a steamer ship.
“Exits and Entrances” (World Premiere, Fountain Theatre, 2004) starring Morlan Higgins and William Dennis Hurley
His writing has ranged from stories about specific people to protest theatre, but he has always draws inspiration from real South Africans. He helped to form the Serpent Players in Port Elizabeth in the early 1960s specifically because he was asked to use his voice by black residents of New Brighton: “In working with them I realised that they didn’t want to do plays for entertainment, they wanted to do plays because they were suffocating with silence. The silence in the country was awful.”
“It was with Blood Knot that I discovered my own voice and I knew that I could tell certain stories in a way that nobody else could do it. Once a writer has discovered that, there’s no holding them back.”
It was the 1967 BBC TV production of Blood Knot that led to the confiscation of Fugard’s passport and partially due to international protest on his behalf this was lifted in 1971 when he flew to England to direct Boesman and Lena. The bulk his work since then was performed outside of South Africa, but his post-apartheid work has seen him return home more frequently.
While he spends a great deal of time not living in this country he still regards it as his spiritual home. He has just returned to San Diego after several months in Cape Town working on his latest play, The Blue Iris, which will debut at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown later this month and then return to The Fugard Theatre. Fugard describes himself as deeply incensed by the recent controversy surround Bret Murray’s The Spear painting.
“What really worries me is that I don’t think people recognise it for what it was. They know it was a big controversy for the day, but it’s past. We are going to look back on the moment as a warning that we were given about the future we’re going into if we don’t do something radical.
“We have to realise that we have a government in power that is prepared to assault our most cherished freedom. They’re trying to do it to the arts and to the media. The bully tactics they used, the whole demonstration of brute force that they displayed, that they [government] were going to shut them [Goodman Gallery] down regardless of what… that you will not use your voice, you will not speak up, you will not speak out. That moment, we will look back on and recognise as significant.”
“The Road to Mecca” (LA Premiere, Fountain Theatre, 2000) with Priscilla Pointer and Robert Symonds
While he sees similarities with the situation under apartheid, Fugard says a significant difference is that back then there was a sense of community amongst artist that all were in opposition to apartheid. This is in contrast to the fragmented response from the contemporary artistic community.
“It’s so false, almost as if there’s a perception that we’re being disloyal to the ANC if we speak up. You mustn’t be careful about what you say, have the freedom to say anything you like. That sense should never be constricted by loyalty to a political party.”
When questioned about what he would do next Fugard mused aloud in Afrikaans, “Wat is my verpligting?” (What is my duty?). The final word for me is that my country has taught me two of the biggest debts you can have. My country has taught me how to hate and how to love.”
“How do you repay your country for your soul? Met trane of met woorde? (With tears or words?).”
Note: The Fountain Theatre enjoys a long term friendship and collaboration with Athol Fugard, producing the premieres of his new plays since 2000. To celebrate and honor Athol’s 80th birthday, The Fountain Theatre will present the US Premiere of his newest play, The Blue Iris, this August, 2012. Stay tuned for details!
College students from Fashion Institute for Design and Merchandising attended a recent performance of Cyrano. The students are in their first or second year of college and are mostly 18 to 22 years old. Their teacher is Alan Goodson, who is also an actor who has appeared on our Fountain stage.
“The class is called Seminar in the Arts,” explains Goodson. ” The students are generally visual artists of one kind or another, but have had little or no exposure to other artistic media – so I try to broaden their artistic horizons by taking them to theatre, classical music, and architectural walks. ”
“My students really enjoyed the show, as did I. Simon Levy did a great job bringing all the various elements together and maintaining the clarity of the piece, as well as creating the emotional impact. Stephen Sachs’ adaptation is very clever, and Troy Kotsur was wonderful.”
After seeing Cyrano at the Fountain, the students were required to write a critique of their play-going experience. Here are a few excerpts from some of the things the students wrote:
“The play moved me because, like most girls my age, I struggle with insecurities and feeling different than anyone else, and it was empowering and a reassuring reminder to not let my insecurities and differences stop me from being myself and living out my life. I would definitely tell other people to see the play, especially younger people who haven’t accepted who they are yet, because it will change people’s views on not only the deaf community, but their views about themselves and inspire them to overcome any challenges in their lives.”
“I highly recommend everyone to see this play because it was very interesting and a tearjerker. The play also taught me to appreciate my hearing and not take it for granted.”
“My interpretation of this play is that it was adapted for a specific reason: to include deaf people in a joyous event that hearing people get to enjoy all the time without constraint. As a hearing person, I watch television, movies, and listen to music all the time, but deaf people do not get that luxury. Therefore, the play was worth doing because it included both parties and successfully captured an audience not used to that type of performance. Cyrano by Stephen Sachs made the audience more aware that technology is ever-present in this generation, what deaf people suffer, and how heartbreak and joy are emotions felt by all people.”
“Seeing the way that Cyrano was all bad and bold when he was in front of others, but hurting on the inside was very moving. Because it seems as though it’s what a lot of people go through every day. I would love to pass this play on to many other friends to show them that you may be surprised when you judge a book by its cover because what lies inside could be eye opening.”
“Ultimately I thought the entire performance was an overwhelming success that moved me and inspired me to not only look at the deaf community with a warm and accepting heart but also to look within myself, and to love what is there, the good and the bad.”
Erinn Anova (Roxy) and Troy Kotsur (Cyrano) in “Cyrano”.
Over the years, Goodsonhas brought several of his Arts classes to the Fountain. Most of the students had never been to live theatre before.
“Bakersfield Mist was a past class favorite, ” says Goodson. “And The Train Driver absolutely knocked their socks off – and many others during the last several years. For most of them, their first experience in a small theatre was at the Fountain, and it always moves them more than the shows in larger venues – both the intimacy of it and the quality and nature of the work.”