Art imitates life when the Fountain Theatre presents Talking Peace, a new 10-minute, site-specific “Zoom-within-a-Zoom” by acclaimed playwright France-Luce Benson. Talking Peace will premiere on day one of Alternative Theatre L.A.’s Together LA: A Virtual Theatre Festival, one of six short plays presented by Los Angeles-based theater companies on Thursday, Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. PT / 10 p.m. ET. In total, 34 companies will participate in the festival over the course of three weeks. Tickets are free, but reservations are required: RSVP at www.togetherlafestival.com.
Benson’s wittily observant take on today’s hot-button issues is set during a virtual Zoom get-together: a healing circle comes undone when an outsider finds her way in, forcing the five women to deconstruct what it means to be Black, BIPOC and bound by sisterhood.
The cast includes Paule Aboite, Miriam Ani, Janelle Lawrence, Celestine Rae and Lisa Rosetta Strum. Dr. Daphnie Sicre, who teaches directing and theater for social change at Loyola Marymount University, directs.
Benson, a Haitian-American playwright based in Los Angeles, was named “Someone to Watch” in 2019 by American Theatre magazine and is the community engagement coordinator for the Fountain.
Together LA: A Virtual Theatre Festival is presented by Alternative Theatre L.A. in association with the L.A. Stage Alliance. In addition to the Fountain Theatre, participating companies include24th Street Theatre, Actors Co-op, Ammunition Theatre Company, Celebration Theatre, Chance Theater, Coin and Ghost, Company of Angels, Echo Theater Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA, IAMA Theatre Company, Impro Theatre, Independent Shakespeare Company, Interact Theatre Company, Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, Macha Theatre, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Open Fist Theatre Company, Ophelia’s Jump Productions, Pacific Resident Theatre, Playwrights Arena, Rogue Machine Theatre, Sacred Fools Theater Company, Sierra Madre Playhouse, Skylight Theatre Company, The 6th Act, The Group Rep Theatre, The Inkwell Theater, The New American Theatre, , The Road Theatre Company, The Victory Theatre Center, Theatre of NOTE, Theatre West and Whitefire Theatre.
The Fountain Theatre is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won hundreds of awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally.
Alternative Theatre Los Angeles is a community of 64 professional intimate theaters, all based in the greater Los Angeles area, that came together five months ago through weekly virtual roundtables to discuss how to move through the current COVID crisis and come out stronger.
The L.A. Stage Alliance works with the theater community to expand awareness, appreciation and support of performance arts.
Together LA: A Virtual Theatre Festival will stream Oct. 1 through Oct. 17 via Twitch.tv. For more information, a full schedule and to RSVP, go to www.togetherlafestival.com
I first met Dennis A. Allen II back in 2016 when we met to talk about our experiences as Playwrights in Residence at Djerassi’s Resident Artist program. Although I was familiar with his work long before then, particularly his contribution to HANDS UP, a collection of monologues by seven black playwrights in response to the police shootings of Mike Brown, John Crawford the III, among others. His work is raw, gorgeously poetic, and brutally honest. In the past five months, Dennis and I have participated in a weekly virtual gathering of other like minded Black theatre artists, and I have gotten to know the depth of his sensitivity, and the expanse of his enlightenment. He is a truly special artist and man, and I am so thrilled hell be joining us for the return of Saturday Matinees, this Saturday – Aug 22 5pm PST.
Earlier this week, I chatted with Dennis about the work he plans to share with us, his process, and how he’s been processing the events of the last few months:
FLB: What will you be presenting on Saturday?
D.A.A.: I’d like to present three monologues from three different plays of mine. Manhood, The Wretched Begin to Rise and When We Wake Up Dead. Manhood explores the perils or toxic masculinity, The Wretched Begin to Rise is a play set in 1834 Five Points New York and interrogates identity and race relations, and When We Wake Up Dead examines mental health and the effects of untreated trauma within an African American family.
FLB: I believe you started as an actor, right? How did you find way to writing and directing?
D.A.A.: Writing was actually the first passion. My mother has shared that I wrote a short story about a leprechaun when I was four years old. I don’t remember writing it but I’m sure it was inspired by the Disney movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People, a VHS that was in heavy rotation on my television at the time. Anyway, I always loved writing, I used to perform poetry at open mic nights my undergrad days at Hampton University and for a while had dreams of being a hip hop artist. I won’t bore you with reading my journey to acting and theatre but once I did get into acting I knew that eventually I’d want to write plays. My thinking was I’d be better at creating characters for the stage if I was intimate with the actor’s process. I took a directing class in undergrad and really enjoyed it. My preference is writing, I think because it’s the craft I’ve dedicated the most hours to, so it’s the one I’m most confident executing. For me. acting, writing and directing are just three different styles of storytelling and I love being able to create a good story.
FLB: How has the last 3 months changed your creative process? (or has it)
D.A.A.: The last three months has not changed my creative process but it has provided me time to ruminate on what stories I think are imperative for me to create. Capitalism is a helluva drug and there have been times where I’ve focused more on the strategy of making money at the craft than the craft itself. And it’s been those times that I’ve had the least amount of joy ( if any) in my creative process. This “pause” has allowed me to tap back into why I do this; why I love this.
FLB: What has been keeping you sane?
D.A.A.: Exercise; I’ve been reading specifically Black female sci-fi and fantasy writers this summer (Octavia Butler, Justina Ireland, Tomi Adeyemi, Nnedi Okorafor); and every Friday night for the last five months I’ve participated in a Zoom meet up with friends I consider my creative family- which has provided us all with a catharsis- we laugh, cry, pontificate, talk shit, love on each other and laugh some more.
FLB: What has been giving you hope?
D.A.A.: With everything going on I am hyper conscious of how privileged I am. My wife is loving and supportive, both of my parents are alive and currently healthy, I have a roof over my head and am blessed to have classes to teach as an adjunct professor; so it’s easy for me to have hope because of my privilege. As bad as it is out in these streets my immediate life ain’t too bad. That said, being able to teach and work with the younger generation has been a constant source of hope because these kids have an emotional intelligence, are politically informed and active, and have an unapologetic exploration around identity that is light years ahead of anything my generation had access to.
France-Luce Benson is a playwright and the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre.
Playwright France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre, and host of the online gathering, “Saturday Matinees.”
by France-Luce Benson
A few days ago, a friend and I were discussing the concept of Liminal space, moments in life where you experience the pain and discomfort of being on the threshold of change. We are all feeling it right now; in our communities, in our cities, as a country, and in the world. As we navigate this liminal space collectively, some of us, myself included, are also feeling our way through the challenges of personal transition. Uncomfortable, yes. But ripe with the promise of inspiration, enlightenment, and growth.
After three and a half months quarantining in Florida with my Mom, I’m relieved to be back in L.A. I hesitate to say back home, because I’ve been in a kind of holding space. I moved out of my old apartment, and have been house sitting in Arcadia while waiting to move into my new West Hollywood apartment. Not to mention, nothing in Los Angeles is as I left it. Most everything remains shut down – from beaches to bars, movie theatres, museums, and worst of all for us, theatres. Closed. Indefinitely. Meanwhile, uprisings, small and large, fill the space in between. Artistic directors, producers, playwrights, actors and directors are having difficult conversations about the future of theatre. No one really has the answers. But I believe whatever the future is, already exists in this space in between.
I’ve spent much of these last few weeks listening to the neighbors’ children play in imaginary worlds, absorbing every last bit of their summer, unburdened by financial pressures, political anxieties, and this unrelenting fear Covid-19. While I envy the freedom of innocence and ignorance, the urgency that accompanies our collective awakening is oddly comforting. I am reminded that as artists, our voices are powerful and as a black, female artist – my voice is necessary. Now more than ever.
During my hiatus from Saturday Matinees, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this power, and the many ways I have felt powerless in a country, and industry, tainted by white supremacy. I have been asked by many of my colleagues, on the front lines of demanding radical change in the theatre, to recollect and testify about the many ways I have been oppressed in the theatre. The University professors who were unable or unwilling to expose me to artists representative of my identity, the artistic directors who implied that the cultural specificity of my work lessened its value, the directors and producers who failed to honor my vision simply out of laziness and ego. I thought about how powerless I felt at the time. But in this liminal space, I am reminded of how powerful my voice actually is, and how choosing to tell stories that challenge stereotypes and amplify marginalized voices is a powerful act of rebellion. And I’ve been thinking about the ways I might wield this power, peacefully, creatively, urgently. One of those ways is as curator, co-producer, and host of “Saturday Matinees” with The Fountain Theatre.
Saturday Matinees began with a simple premise: A virtual community gathering with live performances. It was an opportunity to break the isolation of quarantine, and to satisfy our hunger for creative expression and live entertainment. It was such a joy getting to know The Fountain audience, and allowing myself to be seen and heard through my own work, and on an intimate level that was completely unexpected. But the greatest gift, by far, was introducing theatrical artists I love and admire to our Fountain family. Once the uprisings began, it occurred to me how powerful this platform could be.
So when Saturday Matinees returns on August 22, I intend to joyfully honor the many voices representative of this powerful liminal space. I hope you will join me in my celebration of resistance, equality, global and social justice, and positive change. Our first guest on August 22 will be Dennis A. Allen II, writer, actor, director, activist. Allen will share from his work and discuss what the current uprisings means to black artists who have been vocal about these issues for decades.
Many of us have desperately attempted to ease the discomfort of this liminal space with catch phrases like “reset” or “pivoting”. But the hard truth is that liminality is defined by the ambiguity, disorientation, and uncertainty one experiences in the middle stage of a rite of passage. However, when the rite of passage is complete, we emerge with greater clarity and strength. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Progress is impossible without change.”
France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre, and the host of the online gathering, Saturday Matinees.
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.