Category Archives: artist

You Have Changed Me Forever: Remembering ‘The Normal Heart’

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Tim Cummings, Bill Brochtrup, “The Normal Heart”, Fountain Theatre, 2013.

by Tim Cummings

“Hello, you don’t know me. I hope you get this message. Sometimes, when you try to send a message to someone you’re not ‘friends’ with on Facebook, it gets blocked, or you have to ‘approve’ it. I hope you’ll approve this message if it gets to you.

 I saw The Normal Heart on Saturday night, and haven’t slept well since. My father died of AIDS in 1995. I was 15. Except he didn’t die of AIDS, he died of ‘cancer.’ Except we all knew it was AIDS because he was gay and had been sleeping around with men for years. We were a Catholic family, and so shame was tantamount to pretty much everything, especially my dad’s secret life. There were a lot of years after he died where Thanksgiving and Christmas and birthdays and anniversaries were lonely days, hollow days where not much was said and my sister and I would sit with our mom around the table and stare at our food.

Watching you on stage, the frustration and rage, it was so palpable it cracked me open, like an egg, and I feel like I can feel again. Except now I feel a lot of rage too. I feel like the rage is taking its revenge, saying, “You ignored me for 20 years and now I own you.” I feel like you brought it into my life. It was like you were breaking barriers up there. I could feel how uncomfortable the audience was at times. Like they were afraid of you. I was too, I guess, but also relieved. I don’t know what you are doing up there, or how you manage to live the role several times a week, but I want you to know that you have changed me forever. More than the play. More than the production. YOU.

I didn’t know who Larry Kramer was before the other night, but I’ve been reading up on him and watching videos on YouTube. He wanted to change things and wake people up and he could only do it by shattering everyone around him that wouldn’t listen. He’s lucky someone like you can interpret his intentions. I will probably see the show again before it closes. For now, I’m figuring out what to do with these feelings. Like, how do I forgive my dad? How do I talk to my mom, after all these years, about what really happened? How many more people out there are just like me, waiting for something to come along and break them open? Too many innocent men died. For nothing. I think I might take boxing lessons.”

In the summer of 2013, I was 40 (and a half) years old and really taking stock of my life, as one is wont to do at 40 (and a half). I had been in Los Angeles exactly a decade at that point, and reflecting on my career as an actor: roles won, roles lost, characters deeply inhabited, their skins later shed like a snake once a show ended, reviews, awards, pounds gained and dropped again, friends made and later lost, the worry over male pattern baldness. That summer, I contemplated the possibility that the ‘acting thing’ was more of a hobby than a profession. Things had changed drastically after I moved from New York to LA. In NY, I was working on Broadway, making a living acting. I was on a good trajectory there.

Where I grew up, and in my time, theater had always felt like a great act of rebellion, a middle-finger held up high to everything normal and expected and accepted. Thespians were teased and bullied, but I prided myself on being subversive, anathema to their pack mentality and bougie normality. Theater was punk af. In LA, however, acting suddenly felt like trying to be part of the popular kids again. Clique mentality. I wanted no part of it. How will I succeed if I have no interest in playing by the rules? I’ve always hated rules. I didn’t want to be hot or muscular or skinny or alpha or tan or…commercially viable in any way. I didn’t want to do things the way they were supposed to be done. I desired to shave my head, ring my eyes with racoon-black eyeliner, cover my body in tattoos, pierce every part of me, paint like Pollock, join a band. I contemplated whomever managed to pull off “LA success” with bitter disdain and a kind of squishy envy. That’s okay—I’m not above being human. Actors are not superheroes, despite the way the media depict them and fame & fortune define them.

I happened to be perusing the labyrinthian interwebs that summer when I discovered a breakdown for The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s seminal 1985 agit-prop manifesto about AIDS in the early-to-mid 1980s and how he and his friends banded together to create GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis). The Fountain Theatre in Hollywood was set to produce, overseen by one of the theatre’s founders and Co-Artistic Director, the outstanding Stephen Sachs. The play hadn’t been done in LA in about twenty years, and though it had been given a slick, starry revival on Broadway a few years prior, it felt, perhaps, like something that sunny, surfery Southern California had no right to consider. It’s my (arguably harsh) opinion that LA has always felt too granola (read: passive) for the righteous anger of stories birthed in New York City by New Yorkers.

Nonetheless, The Fountain had a reputation for mounting plays with a social justice bend, and Kramer’s behemoth was certainly no exception. I drafted a cordial email to the casting director asking to be seen. (I’m a firm believer that if you want something done, you do it yourself, and immediately. In other words, I wasn’t going to ask the manager to ask the agent if I had been submitted and then wait around, to neither receive a response nor an appointment time.) When casting responded to my inquiry I assumed the team would want to see me for the role of Bruce Niles, the strapping gay ex-marine. At 6’2” , broad-shouldered, and north of 200lbs, I figured it was the only role they’d consider me for. Instead, they asked me to prepare the role of Ned Weeks, the play’s antagonistic protagonist. Ned is molded out of the playwright himself, the pejorative Larry Kramer. It was the true story of him and his friends, after all, and he was going to tell it his way. It’s a colossal script, with a role as immense as Hamlet, and on nearly every page it elucidates Ned’s pushiness, outspokenness, and righteous anger.

How does an audience go on a journey, and root for, a disagreeable character?  Continue reading

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Walking the walk: Art for art’s sake is simply not enough anymore

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by Bobby Steggert

About two years ago, I completely turned my back on an acting career that I had spent twenty years building. I found myself increasingly discontented by the lack of control that every artist must submit to, and I found myself nauseatingly self-concerned in a job that threw me off balance enough to never quite feel stable. That, and as the world spiraled into the surreal chaos that continues to swirl around us today, I found it harder and harder to justify my contribution as enough to make a significant difference.

The classic argument for the necessity of art (and a deeply legitimate one) is that is holds a mirror up to the human condition. It asks the important questions and gives voice to the voiceless. I suppose my goal in leaving the theater was to make a difference that felt more practical, or somehow quantifiable — instead of giving metaphoric voice to the voiceless, why not up the ante and work to give them a voice directly? And so I have spent the last two years pursuing a master’s degree in social work. I’ve been given a crash course in anti-black racism, in the horror of our immigration and criminal justice systems, in the forces behind gender and sexual discrimination. I’ve met some incredible social justice warriors — people putting all of their heroic energies into fighting to inspire essential shifts in the cultural fabric.

And may I unequivocally stress, I still believe that artists of all kind — playwrights, painters, musicians, and actors — wield equally powerful heroism in the same aim. In fact, the irony of walking away from the arts is that I am now more convinced than ever as to the necessity of you, the artist. But here is my ultimate argument, and hear me out– you are more powerful than the work you do under the proverbial lights. In fact, it’s only a part of why we need you.

Let’s face it — it is too late and the world is too far gone to celebrate art for art’s sake. It’s simply not enough anymore. We as a collective culture have forgotten what true greatness is, as the paradigm shifts and we are bombarded with the most toxic and pathetic expressions of selfishness masquerading as strength. But here’s the good news — all humans are outfitted with potential greatness, and yours far outstrips your craft. It is a superpower in this ever isolated and polarized world, and it is your responsibility to use it. Many of you already do.

The greatness I speak of is your bravery in offering authentic compassion in the flesh — a space of physical, emotional, and ideological vulnerability that, though out of fashion in our current climate, is the only thing that can save us. Lots of people practice empathy, and every human is endowed with it, but fewer have the experience you have in using it so flexibly.

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Bobby Steggert

At the risk of getting too personal, this is another reason I felt I had to leave acting — it was easy for me to bare my soul under the safety of the blinding lights and a two-hour time limit. What was far more challenging for me was to translate that freedom of expression into daily life. The most distilled version of my disappointment was that, in my deepest knowledge, I wasn’t walking the walk. I was proclaiming an artist’s social responsibility whilst hiding everywhere but onstage. I was vulnerable and brave at work and I was stuck and afraid elsewhere.

Ultimately, I did what felt necessary to create a chance at more sustainable balance in my own life, and I don’t have any regrets today as I work towards something happier. And in no way do I argue that anyone in an artistic life should change course. Instead, I am simply urging you to look at what you have in the moments when you feel frustrated and powerless — the enormous opportunity in every moment of your waking life, regardless of the audition you just aced, the job you just booked, or the brilliant performance you just gave. And equally important, the higher purpose you have despite the audition you just bombed, the job you just lost, or the brilliant performance you wish you had the opportunity to offer the world. You (like all of us) are bigger than your job, but it just so happens that your job has prepared you for the war ahead.

You are trained through your exceptional sensitivity to be generous of heart. You are more comfortable with the vulnerability of emotional expression than most anyone else on Earth. You can look deeply into the eyes of another human without flinching from the terror of being exposed. You understand that silence and stillness are not passive, but radical acts in the digital world of never ending status updates. You realize, even beneath the tidal wave of “self expression” that powers our culture of narcissism, that to listen is the only way to truly honor another’s humanity.

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These qualities are not unique to actors, but they are ones that you have spent a lifetime cultivating. You are also in an industry that threatens the very qualities that brought you here. It surely did mine.

Whether your work reaches dozens or millions, it can only represent life. It cannot stand in for it. I have to believe, from experience, that a “tortured artist” is someone who is unable to integrate their work and their life, so that the only place they feel understood is in the privacy of their work. But I have come to realize that the work is just as much to understand as it is to be understood. And as the world becomes increasingly disembodied and dehumanized by fear and greed, it is your flesh and blood — your eyes and breath and heart — that can bring change to every space you enter. You must remind others, whose gods are money or fear or status or fame, that their worship is futile.

Do not compromise in using the gifts that make you special. Do not allow an industry that asks you to be selfish to take away your generosity. Create no boundary between the stage and the street. Look up from your screens and feel the power you already contain. There are people fighting the good fight at every turn, but it just so happens that your special skills are applicable anywhere you go. When it comes to professional contribution alone, a surgeon is limited to saving lives in the operating room. You are not.

Strange, that I had to completely reroute the entire trajectory of my life to learn that I already had everything I needed to make a difference. My master’s degree will be a piece of paper, but my life as an artist will make me a great social worker, this I know. And if I ever return to acting, it will be with this knowledge (and I hope it reminds you of of your own possibilities) — that the work does not stop when unemployed — that you are an artist every day, if you so choose — that art is an obligation, and that it must be lived, not simply offered to those who have paid the price of admission.

‘Arrival & Departure’ was unlike anything I have experienced before

by Saif Saigol

As a theatre lover, I have often struggled to qualify the artistic value of a show. What, for example, separates a great, large-scale Broadway musical from a great, smaller, experimental work? When it comes to art, does more money equal more success? I received my answer last Saturday, at the designer run-through rehearsal of the Fountain’s Arrival & Departure: a successful play is one that leaves its audience thinking.

Art has the power to leave a lasting impact and change the way we think. That is exactly what I experienced after watching Arrival & Departure.

The play, at its core, follows the classic, impossible love-story of two star-crossed soul mates who have the universe standing between them. The 90-minute play is filled with heart-wrenchingly beautiful acting on the part of the ensemble and a fantastic script by Stephen Sachs. The artists invite us into their most intimate and vulnerable thoughts, thoughts that were born in a reality that they created out of nothing. It seemed impossible that such genuineness had been bred in only a few weeks of rehearsal – it is beyond inspiring to see what the Fountain team is capable of.

Personally, it was especially moving to experience the power and beauty of Deaf theatre for the first time. The show’s interwoven and unique mélange of ASL and Spoken English creates a dynamic and multi-dimensional artistic medium in which authenticity prevails. Deanne Bray and Troy Kotsur conveyed a degree of beauty, truth, and honesty in their signing that cannot be expressed in other forms of communication – it was almost like watching a dance. Especially moving was Bray’s ability to convey her character’s struggles with identity as a hard-of-hearing woman, switching back and forth between ASL and Spoken English.

The play struck me as a type of ‘deconstructed theatre’. The various forms of art involved – from ASL, to Spoken English, to movement, to staging – are separated but harmoniously married, each holding its own and conveying breath-taking emotion, but also supporting one another to create one beautiful piece. I left the rehearsal pondering the very nature of art, and the ways in which society often creates pigeon-holes for artists. Arrival & Departure was unlike anything I have experienced before – it is novel and unique, and conveys emotion in ways that don’t conform to exclusive norms. This, I believe, is the point of theatre, and I cannot wait for others to experience the magic of Arrival & Departure.

More Info/Get Tickets

Saif Saigol is the Development Intern at the Fountain Theatre.  

One sentence that seared a book, highlighted a play, and inspired a young playwright

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Darius R. Booker, Morgan Camper, and Derek Jackson in “Gunshot Medley”

by Dionna Michelle Daniel

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

This sentence has stuck with me since the first time I read Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric. That sentence has been a jumping-off point and inspiration for the current play that I am currently developing.

I feel most colored

I first encountered Claudia Rankine’s Citizen while a BFA at the California Institute of the Arts. That year, I was taking a class on hybrid writing with a bunch of MFA creative writers. Although I felt slightly out of place from my comfort of theater knowledge, I was determined to get my minor in creative writing. Even though Rankine’s Citizen functions as a hybrid text, at the time it wasn’t on the course reading materials. However, that didn’t stop it from being spoken about almost every other class. This was also around the time when there were the headlines of the black woman reading Citizen at a Trump rally.  In the video, you see angry Trump supporters tap the woman on the shoulder, signaling that it is rude for her to not be complicit in Trump’s nonsense. It is rude for her to read. The woman’s response is one of the most epic things you will every see. She shrugs of the bitter rally attendees and continues to read her book. From that point on, it was clear to me that this book was a symbol of resistance and strength. I had to get my hands on a copy.

It’s funny how life happens. I began working at the Fountain Theatre in the Fall of 2017 and had no idea that Stephen Sachs had adapted a stage adaptation of the book. As a fan of this brilliant book and also a theatre nerd, I was excited to see this work brought to life and inhabited in the bodies of actors. I got my chance to see the performance at Grand Park on April 29th and needless to say, I was beyond moved. There is something about hearing those words spoken and coming from a black body that makes the text sink in that much deeper. The actors, all giving a beautiful performance, showed the pain & confusion that happens when constantly faced with microaggressions and systemic oppression. And when the lines, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” were spoken, I was overwhelmed by the weight of this sentence. Felt the weight right in my chest.

This message of this book and the stage adaptation correlates to the work that I am trying to flesh out in my own writing. Currently, I am developing a Part 2 to my play Gunshot Medley. The second part will take place in the present day and I’ m most interested in the idea of what happens to the black psyche after being faced with the trauma of seeing so many killings of black men on our phone screens. When does it stop? When can we heal? And if we look at the black body as a vessel, how much can it hold before it snaps and breaks?

Dionna Michelle Daniel is the Outreach Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre

New Video! Behind the scenes of ‘Citizen’ at Grand Park’s new LA Arts Festival

The Fountain Theatre gives voice to a cry of sexual assault in new play ‘The Lighthouse’

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Garret Wagner, Kelley Mack, Michael D. Turner and Chops Bailey.

By Catherine Womack

“It’s beach week, baby!” A tall, handsome college athlete cracks open a cold beer as he flops onto a worn sofa. The semester is over for Shane and his friends, and the stress of final exams is quickly fading into a blur of sun, sand and mojitos served in red Solo cups.

Onstage at the Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood, six young actors fall easily into the rhythms of day drinking and banter inside the fictional rented vacation home. The set is sparse, but the inside jokes and casual flirtations between its occupants feel so real you can practically smell the salty air and taste the PBR.

But there is an elephant in this living room.

Perched on a tall director’s  chair  in  the  middle of the stage, seemingly invisible to the revelers, sits a silent female lifeguard. Only when she’s left alone with Jesse,    the    play’s    central character, does the lifeguard begin to speak.

“Are you sure you want to be wearing that?” the lifeguard asks, peering disapprovingly over her sunglasses at Jesse’s short denim shorts and tank top. “Are you trying to get laid for attention or validation?”

Hypercritical, judgmental and disparaging, the lifeguard is a constant presence throughout Amanda Kohr’s 80-minute, one-act play, “The   Lighthouse.”   As   the winner   of   the   Fountain’s competition-style Rapid Development Series, the play received two nights of free semi-staged readings last week — all part of an effort to give a louder voice to playwrights under 30.

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Jessica Broutt and James Bennett, co-creators/producers of Rapid Development Series.

One of several surrealist elements in the show, the lifeguard plays the part of Jesse’s darkest inner voice following a traumatic sexual assault at the beach house. “The Lighthouse” is Kohr’s indictment of rape culture and the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. Kohr said the play was inspired by the 2015 case of Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, and was informed by Kohr’s own experiences.

On two printed sheets of folded white office paper that served as the program for the evening, Kohr, 27, wrote candidly about her own story:

“I grew up accepting sexual assault — the act was so prevalent that it swam below the radar under the perception as normalcy. By 16 I had been manipulated into unwanted sexual situations, assaulted and catcalled.”

As an undergraduate at James Madison University in Virginia, Kohr said in an earlier phone interview, she “heard about, witnessed and experienced so much sexual assault and harassment among college-age students that it just become normal.” At times, she said, she felt like it was “harder to find had.”

Kohr  wrote  “The  Lighthouse” in summer 2016. She had read Jon Krakauer’s reported narrative, “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” and she closely followed the Stanford case as it unfolded. She was appalled by the leniency of Turner’s sentence — six months, reduced to three months for good behavior — and was inspired by the letter that his victim read at the sentencing hearing.

“I am a firm believer that entertainment can help educate,” Kohr said, “so I really strove to draw my audience in through comedy and then bash them with the truth.”

Kohr wrote the play more than a year before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, sexual assault and harassment became a national cultural conversation, and #MeToo became a movement.  That’s  one  reason Jessica Broutt, 25, the co-founder and co-producer of the Fountain’s Rapid Development Series, found Kohr’s play so compelling.

Broutt, who interned at the Fountain as a college student and worked briefly as the company’s box office manager, came up with the idea for the series with Fountain associate producer James Bennett four years ago.

“We noticed that there weren’t really a lot of young people going to the theater,” she said. “We would go to all these awesome reading series at other theaters, but it was never young people who were playwrights, and they generally weren’t  L.A.- based.”

Jessica Hailey Broutt, Kieran Medina and Amanda Marie Kohr at Fountain Theatre.

Jessica Broutt, Kieran Medina and Amanda Kohr at Fountain Theatre.

Broutt and Bennett pitched the idea to the Fountain’s management as a sort of theatrical battle of the bands. Broutt would select four plays by L.A. playwrights under 30. The theater would provide the actors and the space, and each play would receive a “snapshot” reading at which audiences vote for their favorite, drawing them more actively into the experience.

The actors and directors are volunteers, and the performances are free.

“We were trying to rule out all the reasons why people our age don’t goto plays,” Broutt said.

This year marks the series’ fourth season. Broutt says that when she read “The Lighthouse,” she knew immediately it was special.

“I just felt like, wow, this is a play that is taking on rape culture and breaking it down in a way that is educational and provides a surrealism and a humor that will engage people,” she said. “It’s very rare for me to see something that is doing all of those things effectively. And then as we were going through development last fall, the Harvey Weinstein stuff came out.”

In just a few months Kohr has been able to work with Broutt to polish the play, have it receive two short readings as it progressed through the competition, and watch it performed onstage in its entirety for the first time.

“When I was in college I had a lot of shorter things staged,” Kohn said, “but this is  my  first  thing  that’s  like borderline professional.”

Audience members on Wednesday night were racially diverse and younger than what’s typical in most

L.A. theaters. They laughed out loud as Jesse’s rapist, Shane, was presented as a hero during exaggerated, game-show-style court proceedings. And some wiped tears from their eyes when Jesse found the strength to silence her inner-critic lifeguard and rediscover her own confident voice.

At  the  end  of  the  “The Lighthouse,” the house lights came up dramatically as Jesse called for people to speak out and shine a light on sexual misconduct. In the front row, Kohr hugged her friends. Her #MeToo story had found an audience.

This post originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. 

New LA Arts Festival downtown at Grand Park asks: “What does it mean to be a citizen?”

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The cast of ‘Citizen: An American Lyric”

by Sean P. Thomas

The stage is set for a collection of Los Angeles’ creative minds to get a moment in the spotlight. Even better, those moments will take place in Downtown, and the performances will be free.

On Friday-Sunday, April 27-29, the inaugural Our L.A. Voices: Spring Arts Festival will fill Grand Park. The happening will bring more than 30 artists and groups to the 12-acre space, where there will be live theater, dance, music and more. There will be performances as well as opportunities to buy art.

Julia Diamond, Grand Park’s interim director, said that the festival was created through a joint venture with the Music Center. The goal is to showcase a wide spectrum of the L.A. art scene, with everything from sculptors to digital artists in a family-friendly environment.

“We’re really trying to tell a big story about L.A. as a center of massive amounts of creative energy,” Diamond said.

Grand Park opened in 2012 and has played host to numerous community events, everything from the annual New Year’s Eve celebration to a book festival. Frequently local artists have been involved, but were not the focus.

This weekend, Diamond said, the artists will be thrust front and center. Festivities run from 6-10 p.m. on Friday, 1-10 p.m. on Saturday and 1-6 p.m. on Sunday.

“We’re trying to tell the biggest story that we can,” Diamond said. “It’s about making a big splash for an important part of L.A.’s identity and giving the audience a chance to come see art in one place.”

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‘Citizen: An American Lyric’

Festival organizers have partnered with a number of artists and groups, among them the Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood. The theme of the festival is, “What does it mean to be a citizen?”

Aptly, the Fountain Theatre will perform Citizen: An American Lyric, an adaption of poet Claudia Rankine’s book of the same name that explores race relations and questions of citizenship in the United States. The novel was adapted by Stephen Sachs, artistic director of the Fountain, after coming across a book review in the New York Times. In the wake of the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Sachs said that he wanted the theater to make a statement on race relations in America, and that Rankine’s words provided the proper avenue.

He described the book and the ensuing play as less of a sledgehammer and more of a scalpel, precisely dissecting racial narratives in American society to get to the core of what a citizen’s experience is like in the country. Citizen will be mounted on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; each hour-long performance will be followed by a community discussion about the play and the festival.

Diamond said the play, which was previously on stage at the Fountain and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, resonates with audiences and fits the theme of what she is trying to do with the Spring Arts Festival.

“It really became the core question of this year’s festival,” Diamond said. “Who belongs? Who is on the inside? Who is on the outside?”

Sachs said it is gratifying to have the work appear at the festival. However, he said he is disheartened that the issues that prompted the play are still relevant almost four years after Brown’s death.

“It’s very meaningful to me to have this work shared with as many people as possible,” Sachs said. “I love the idea of doing it in Grand Park in front of City Hall. I can’t think of anything more appropriate.”

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The stage at Grand Park, downtown Los Angeles.

“We encourage people to come out in full force and to bring the whole family,” Diamond said. “Art is meant to bring us together and get us thinking, and there is no better way to do that than across generations.”

The Our L.A. Voices: Spring Arts Festival runs Friday-Sunday, April 27-29, at Grand Park, 200 N. Grand Ave. or grandparkla.org/event/ourlavoices2018.

This post originally appeared in Downtown News