Category Archives: Art

From Schenkkan to Shakespeare, the same urgent warning

BUILDING THE WALL prod photo VP 2

Victoria Platt and Bo Foxworth in ‘Building the Wall’

By Stephen Sachs

One play was written more than 400 years ago, the other last October. Both written by playwrights worried about the future of their countries. One author took months to pen his work, the other took one week.  One writer has been dead 400 years, one is very much alive, chronicling the current political crisis of his time with a dire new play now playing on our Fountain stage. Both authors and their plays have been in the news in recent weeks, igniting a firestorm of national conversation on the role of theatre to express political outrage, and its fundamental right and responsibility to do so. The Fountain Theatre is a voice in that debate. 

As many know, The Public Theater’s production this month in New York of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar drew fire from Right-Wing Conservatives for its depiction of the ruler as a petulant Trump-like politician with blondish hair and a sullen Slavic wife.  Outrage from Conservatives targeted the play’s depiction of Caesar’s assassination, missing the larger meaning of the play, as if director Oskar Eustis was advocating the killing of the current president. Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrew their corporate sponsorship. Right-Wing groups hired demonstrators to picket the venue and harass theatergoers. Protesters heckled the live performances and wildly stormed the stage to stop the play mid-show. The demonstrators’ feeble attempts may have halted a performance momentarily but, in each instance, the show went on. If anything, it drew national focus to the very thing it schemed to suppress. Art cannot be stopped.

Most discouraging to me, the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that hails itself as providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation, distanced itself from the production by releasing a statement declaring that NEA funds were not used to support this staging of Julius Caesar. An ironic stance for a federal arts agency whose very existence Trump has vowed to destroy.

Julius CaesarBy William Shakespeare Directed by Oskar Eustis Featuring Tina Benko (Calpurnia); Teagle F. Bougere (Casca); Yusef Bulos (Cinna the Poet); Eisa Davis (Decius Brutus); Robert Gilbert (Octavius); Gregg Henry (Caesar); Edward James Hyland (Lep

‘Julius Caesar’ at The Public Theater, NY

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Fountain Theatre has been running our sold-out world premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s new play, Building the Wall. It is a riveting drama set in the near future exposing the vulnerability of one man caught up in the horrific unraveling of Trump’s anti-immigration policies.  Robert and I knew the play would generate some interest from the press. Neither of us anticipated the avalanche that has ensued. We’ve been bombarded by interview requests from everywhere. The play and the Fountain production were featured in national news outlets across the country, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and TIME magazine. Plus international coverage in the UK and France. “Theatre in the Age of Trump” is now suddenly a hot topic.

untitledThe Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar and the Fountain Theatre’s production of Building the Wall coincided this month.  Newspapers on both coasts featured stories on both productions, with Oskar Eustis and Robert Schenkkan speaking out boldly for not only the right, but the necessity of freedom of speech and unrestricted artistic expression in this country.  The subject of ‘The Politics of Theater’ became a significant Arts cover feature in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.     

The Right-Wing protesters who stormed the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park no doubt never read Julius Caesar and certainly knew little about it. They focused on the killing of the king, unaware of the greater warning the tale foretells: Beware when you get what you want. A tyrant in power mandated to save the republic can lead to the destruction of the very republic he vows to protect. Shakespeare demands us to recognize that more than a ruler is assassinated in this tragedy. It is democracy itself that is murdered.

Julius Caesar and Breaking the Wall expose the same fatal wound within ourselves. Our susceptibility to become what we hate. Rick’s slow and seamless transformation in Building the Wall, from well-meaning Trump follower to death camp superintendent is so nightmarish and appalling because it seems somehow plausible. This is how Schenkkan and Shakespeare caution us. This dark truth is perfectly crystalized by Shakespeare when Cassius warns, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” It is not fate, but weakness of character that forces a person to act against his will.

RS in FT rehearsal March 2017

Playwright Robert Schenkkan in rehearsal, Fountain Theatre

“The danger is always giving over your moral calculus to the state,” Robert Schenkkan has said. Fighting a tyrant does not mean imitating him. Julius Caesar no more advocates the killing of a king than Building the Wall promotes the mass detention and extermination of immigrants. Neither play is about genocide or the murder of a tyrant. Each is about the killing of social and political order, played out in the souls of specific human beings. Building the Wall is a razor-sharp two-character play that takes place in one room. Two people in extreme close up.  

Shakespeare based his play Julius Caesar (some say he stole entire sections of it) from Plutarch’s biography of the ruler. Of his examination Plutarch said, “It is not histories I am writing, but lives.”

Plays, too, are about lives, not ideas. Good plays, plays that matter and live forever, have compelling themes and thought-provoking viewpoints and concepts but they are told through the dramatization of human lives. The power of Building the Wall lies in how it puts a human face on the inhuman. It reveals the dichotomy of opposites alive in one man: the wish to do what is right versus the inability to see, and speak out against, what is wrong.   

For all of us at the Fountain Theatre, Building the Wall is more than a play. It is a defining moment, one of many that help set our compass as a company and as artists. Who are we? Why do we do what we do? What is our service, our responsibility, to the community, to our nation?   

This administration fears artists for the same reason it has banned TV cameras from live press briefings. It is terrified that the American people will see the truth. Our role as theatre artists, like that of a free press, is to be truth-tellers.  And to fight for the freedom to speak it, through art.

I am so proud that the Fountain Theatre took the stand of leadership in launching Robert’s new work, and that it continues to ignite this firestorm of conversation, artistic soul-searching and journalistic examination.  That our world premiere production is not only still running after four sold out months but has been extended through August is a testament to its urgent necessity and the overwhelming will expressed by our audiences to engage. 

When art and politics collide like this on a local and national level, theaters like ours, and the art we create, become indispensable not only to our city, but our nation. 

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

Watch 5th graders fling paint like Jackson Pollock at Fountain Theatre

youtube-coverIs she crazy or a hero? In our hit production of Bakersfield Mist now playing at the Fountain, Maude Gutman owns a spattered painting that she bought at a thrift store which she now believes is a masterpiece by Jackson Pollock worth millions. Is it real or a forgery? Last Friday, thirty-two 5th grade students from Ramona Elementary School around the corner visited the Fountain Theatre to try their hands at creating their own abstract expressionist paintings in the style of Jackson Pollock. Says teacher Eric Arboleda, the experience was “priceless”.  

The students gathered in the theatre for a lesson on modern art from Sarah Boulton, educator and coordinator of the day’s event for the Fountain. The group then moved upstairs, where a long table waited with paper, paints and brushes. The students were instructed to freely paint what the feel, to think of images that express their inner selves, not literal pictures. The students  leapt into action. Grabbing brushes, the kids spattered and swirled their paints in a wild flurry of colors. Paint landed not only on paper. It ended up on the floor, on the walls, and peppered the kids themselves with bright colored freckles.  Everyone had a blast. 

After the paint session, the kids moved into the cafe for donuts and drinks. They relaxed on our outdoor balcony and enjoyed the beautiful afternoon sun. All agreed it was an extraordinary day.

Friday’s event was the third visit by Ramona Elementary School students in two years, part of an ongoing educational partnership between the school and the Fountain Theatre to offer an enhanced art experience for young people in our community.  The event was made possible through Theatre as a Learning Tool, the Fountain’s educational outreach program making art available to underserved students. 

Photos: Delighted audience and donors enjoy opening night party for ‘Bakersfield Mist’

img_20161119_214019A fabulous performance, an exuberant standing ovation, and a lively party afterward highlighted the opening night of our remounting of the hit comedy/drama, Bakersfield Mist. The relaunch Saturday night was enjoyed by a full house of happy patrons, Fountain Friends and Family, and exclusively invited VIP Donors. 

Written and directed by Stephen Sachs and performed by the splendid original cast of Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett, Bakersfield Mist tells the story of trailer trash dumpster diver Maude Gutman, who is convinced the painting she bought at a thrift for $3 is actually a long-lost masterpiece by Jackson Pollock worth millions. The hit play was created and developed at the Fountain Theatre in 2011, earning rave reviews and a 7-month sold-out run. The play is now performed across the United States and around the world.

At Saturday’s re-opening night, delighted audience members joined the company upstairs in our cafe for a catered reception with the actors and Fountain production and creative team. Fountain VIP Donors in attendance included Carol Ardura, Rabbi Anne Brener, Anita Lorber, Edike and Victoria Ndefo, Harold Shabo, Abner and Roz Goldstine, Fran and Arnie Stengel, Patty Paul, Carol Kline, Karen Kondazian, Ester Lee Alpern, Hugh and Marleen Scheffy.

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Bakersfield Mist Now Playing! (323) 663-1525 More Info/Get Tickets 

New Video: Funny and thought-provoking ‘Bakersfield Mist’ is back at the Fountain

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Stop. Look. In wonder.

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Northern lights in Iceland

by Stephen Sachs

A wondrous event happened last month in Reykjavik, Iceland. The glorious mind-blowing spectacle of the northern lights refracted a kaleidoscope of color across the night sky. But that wasn’t the only astounding event occurring that evening.

In a remarkable demonstration of forced reverence, the Icelandic city government ordered the power of all public lights be switched off at 1opm local time for one hour so the citizens of Reykjavik would be compelled to look up into the heavens to experience the otherworldly splendor.

Reykjavík is the capital and largest city of Iceland.

Think about that. The city government ordered — as a mandate of civic policy — that all public streetlights throughout Iceland’s capital be turned off so its people would be forced to experience the otherworldly glow of the aurora borealis dancing in the sky above them.

 

Can you imagine such a thing happening in our country? Can you envision politicians in Washington DC, agreeing to switch off all public lighting throughout the district to compel its citizens to step outside, look up, and witness, say, the cosmic majesty of a lunar eclipse? The dazzling array of a meteor shower? Neither can I.

Fortunately, awe doesn’t have to be government ordered. We can sanction it for ourselves. If we only would.

I don’t know about you, but I am often so locked into my own wheel-spinning routine that I seldom take a moment to stop and absorb the overwhelming miracle of the world around me. Or take time to marvel at the astonishing, the mind-boggling, in daily life.

I scream and curse at the GPS on the dashboard of my Honda, bellowing over being late to a meeting, never considering the technological miracle of this tiny device sending signals up into outer space to four different satellites simultaneously orbiting 22,000 miles above the earth, each racing through the galaxy at 17,000 miles per hour, then sharpshooting signals back down to the exact location of my tiny car as I drive on a planet that is spinning at 1,040 miles per hour, so I can turn left on Ventura Blvd. I use NASA technology to find the next In-N-Out Burger and don’t give it a second thought.

But more than just being dazzled by the wizardry of our own self-serving inventions. There are times when we must switch off our devices, set them down. Step outside. And look up. To give ourselves permission to gaze upward — and inward.

The natural world around us offers limitless opportunities to peer upon and ponder beauty, majesty and wonder. A lush forest, a glowing sunset, the meditative ocean, a breathtaking mountain or canyon.

I believe, at its best, a good play can do that. It can gift us with the chance to view the wonder within ourselves.  Reveal the glorious mystery of being alive.

Seeing a meaningful play is more challenging than going to a movie. It requires more of us, demands a deeper concentration and emotional investment. Sometimes we drag ourselves to the theatre like we go to the doctor, not because we want to but because we know it’s good for us. That’s okay. I don’t mind. Whatever it takes. Even if the city government has to switch off your lights at home to get you outside, that’s all right. As long as you come, sit in a chair, and view wonder.

As futurist and philosopher Jason Silva says, “We have a responsibility to awe.”

Before a play begins, we are instructed to turn off our digital devices. Not only because of the distraction to others. We must also switch off the distraction to ourselves. And savor the opportunity to experience something miraculous.

Viewing a powerful play — like gazing on the heavens — requires us to stop. And look. In wonder.

The reward is there. When we look. When we give ourselves permission — or are forced — to do so.

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

 

It’s back! ‘Bakersfield Mist’ returns to Fountain Theatre starring Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett

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Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett in “Bakersfield Mist” at the Fountain Theatre

It has travelled around the world and it is now coming home. Just in time for the holidays.

Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs, the Fountain’s smash hit comedy that went on to see productions around the world including London’s West End, will return to the Fountain for a limited 4-week engagement beginning Nov. 19. Sachs will again direct, with Jenny O’Hara (Transparent, The Mindy Project) and Nick Ullett (As the World Turns) reprising the roles they created.

Inspired by true events, Bakersfield Mist is the story of Maude Gutman, an unemployed, chain-smoking ex-bartender living in a run-down California trailer park, who believes the painting she bought in a thrift store for $3 is really an undiscovered masterpiece worth millions. When stuffy New York art expert Lionel Percy arrives to evaluate the work, the result is a fiery and often hilarious debate over class, truth, value and the meaning of art.

“Stephen’s play has enjoyed success around the country and the world, so when Jenny and Nick became available, we jumped at the chance to bring it back,” says producer Simon Levy. “We live in such stressful times, and this play offers the perfect antidote — it’s very funny, yet also thought-provoking. Just in time for the holidays.”

Bakersfield Mist premiered at the Fountain in June, 2011, garnering glowing notices including a “Critic’s Choice” review in the Los Angeles Times which exclaimed “It’s exhilarating in the extreme when a world premiere play strikes rich on every conceivable level.” The production was hailed a “Go!” in the LA Weekly and a “Critic’s Pick” in Backstage. It played to sold-out houses for more than six months, rivaling only Sachs’ own Central Avenue as the most successful world premiere of a new play in the Fountain’s 26-year history. Bakersfield Mist opened on London’s West End starring Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid for a 3-month run.Vanity Fair called Sachs’ play “Not to be missed… tackles large creative questions with well-timed zingers,” The Times of London found it to be “thoroughly entertaining… put a smile on my face and kept my brain buzzing for a good while afterward,” The New York Times labeled it “clever… a battle of wits,” and it received the 2012 Elliot Norton Award for Best New Play. In the U.S., Bakersfield Mist has been produced by Orlando Shakespeare Theater in Florida and in an extended run at the Olney Theatre in Maryland, where it is Helen Hayes Award-recommended and was lauded “5 Stars… provocative, fast-paced and cleverly funny” by DCMetro. The play is currently running in Chicago in a Jeff Award-recommended production at the Timeline Theatre which has been praised as “Highly Recommended” by the Chicago Sun-Times and “the perfect evening of theatre” by Chicago Theatre Review. Bakersfield Mist  is now being produced in regional theaters across the country; it has been translated into other languages and is being performed around the world, including in Iceland, Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Scotland, Australia and Canada.

Set design for Bakersfield Mist is by Jeffrey McLaughlin; sound design is by Peter Bayne; props and set dressing are by Terri Roberts; and the fight director is Edgar Landa. The production stage manager is Emily Lehrer; associate producer is James Bennett; and Simon Levy and Deborah Lawlor produce for the Fountain Theatre.

Stephen Sachs FT stairway 2015

Stephen Sachs

Stephen Sachs’ other plays include Dream CatcherCitizen: An American Lyric (adapted from the internationally acclaimed book by Claudia Rankine), Heart Song (Fountain Theatre, Florida Stage), Cyrano (LA Drama Critics Circle Award, Best Adaptation), Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (Fountain Theatre, Vancouver Playhouse, Canadian Stage Company, LA Drama Critics Circle award and LA Weekly award nomination for Best Adaptation), Gilgamesh (Theatre @ Boston Court), Open Window (Pasadena Playhouse, Media Access Award for Excellence), Central Avenue (PEN USA Literary Award finalist, Back Stage Garland award, Best Play), Sweet Nothing in My Ear(PEN USA Literary Award finalist, Media Access award, NEA grant award), Mother’s Day, The Golden Gate (Best Play, Drama-Logue) and The Baron in the Trees. He wrote the teleplay for Sweet Nothing in My Ear for Hallmark Hall of Fame which aired on CBS starring Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels. Sachs co-founded The Fountain Theatre with Deborah Lawlor in 1990.

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Theatre: Entertainment or art? Can it be both and still be challenging and relevant?

zelda-fichandler

Zelda Fichandler (1924-2016)

by Howard Shalwitz

The loss of my friend and colleague Zelda Fichandler, the legendary founder of Arena Stage, has got me thinking about the role of theatre in our society.

Over the past decade, I had a few cherished opportunities to compare notes with Zelda about the founding of our respective theatres. As different as Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth are, there’s one word that always came up for both of us: art. Here’s a quote from Bob Levey’s obituary of Zelda in the Washington Post:

“From the start, Mrs. Fichandler wanted… to reverse what she called, with characteristic dramatic flourish, ‘the contraction and imminent death of the art of the theater.”

And here’s a quote from Woolly Mammoth’s founding manifesto that I wrote with Roger Brady in 1978:

“Among all the art forms, theatre is the one which is least often taken seriously as a form of art… [and] it should be so taken. That is the long and short of what we propose.”

What do we mean when we proclaim that theatre is “art” rather than “entertainment?” We certainly don’t mean that theatre shouldn’t entertain, shouldn’t captivate audiences with diversion and delight and amazement. The survival of our theatres depends on this. The difference lies in what we ask our audiences to do when they’re in our theatres.

When we set out to entertain, we ask our audiences to sit back, relax, and enjoy themselves on terms they already understand. When we set out to make art, we ask our audiences to sit forward, to encounter something different, and to meet the artists halfway in figuring out how it works and what it means. Entertainment nestles us comfortably inside the lives we already lead. Art challenges us to stand outside our own experience and look at our lives and our world in new ways.

Art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. Every play, every production, has elements of both. But in our conversations, Zelda was concerned that theatres across America were tipping too far toward entertainment and away from art. Some of the reasons are obvious: competition for ticket sales, pressure from new forms of diversion, loss of arts education in our schools, shrinking government support.

However, Zelda saw a potentially deeper problem. A couple of years ago, she asked a question I’ll never forget: “What’s happened to the arrogance of the artist in our country?” She talked about path-breaking playwrights like Arthur Miller, Caryl Churchill, and August Wilson, who boldly expanded the stylistic framework and political range of our theatre, and European stage directors like Liviu Ciulei and Lucien Pintilie, whose experimental approaches completely changed the way we look at classic works.

The forward motion of theatre as an art form depends on playwrights, directors, designers, and actors with the arrogance, the chutzpah, to try things that are different. It also depends on audiences who have the confidence to meet them with openness, empathy, and a spirit of inquiry. When we wrestle with the play itself, then we’re led to wrestle with what the play is about, what it’s saying, why it matters. This is what gives the art form of theatre its relevance in relation to the pressing questions our society is facing.

Howard Shalwitz is the Artistic Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC.