Category Archives: film

Celebrity reading of ‘MS. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON’ at LA City Hall is “awe-inspiring”

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“Ms. Smith Goes to Washington” at Los Angeles City Hall

by Christine Deitner

On Thursday, January 24th a lucky group of citizens in Los Angeles was treated to a unique experience–The Fountain Theatre’s reading of a gender-switched adaptation of Sidney Buchman’s screenplay, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  The Fountain’s Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs adapted the work that was hosted by Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell.  An impressively talented ensemble of tv, film, and theatre veterans gathered in the John Ferraro Council Chamber in Los Angeles City Hall and though the original work is 79 years old the gender switch makes it feel like yesterday’s tweetstorm or this morning’s news.

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Sponsored, in part, by the Feminist Majority Foundation and in association with the League of Women Voters, the event’s cast included Joshua Malina, Jeff PerryBellamy Young, Sam Waterston, Alan Blumenfeld, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Leith Burke, Tim Cummings, Cameron Dye, Spencer Garrett, Chet Grissom, Morlan Higgins, Aurelia Myers, Jenny O’Hara, Felix Solis, Jack Stehlin, Mark Taylor, and Sal Viscuso.

Councilmember O’Farrell introduced Mr. Sachs with a moving speech about the importance of the arts in society. 

“Politics falls short of completely illuminating the complexity of issues,” he stated, “this is where the arts come in.”

In 2017, Mr. O’Farrell hosted the Fountain’s reading of All The Presidents Men and he noted that he hopes this will become an annual event.  Reflecting on the record number of women who now hold public office, O’Farrell also spoke about the role that local artists play as public servants, illuminating issues in unique ways.

In Sachs’ version, an idealistic, newly elected female senator finds herself fighting corruption in male-dominated Washington. Bellamy Young’s take on the movingly patriotic Jennifer Smith [originally Jefferson played by James Stewart] is endearing and as successful as a figure of naive nobility as Mr. Stewart was in the film.  It doesn’t seem like Mr. Sachs had to change very much beyond references to gender [Girl Rangers here instead of Boy Rangers] and one reference to “fake news” that worked very well in context, but boy does Jennifer Smith’s predicament feel familiar.

It’s Governor Hopper’s daughter [it was a son in the film] who encourages her father to choose Jennifer with the line “It’s 1939, not the dark ages, pop.” and a list of women who have held office before.  It shouldn’t have been surprising to hear it but we can thank Mr. Sachs for educating us about these women that included Senators Rebecca Latimer Felton [1922] and Hattie Caraway [1932].  Sam Waterston has the role of one of two villains, Senator Joseph Paine; a man who knew Jennifer’s father yet openly wonders whether they can “control a woman” in Congress.  The other is Jim Taylor, a nefarious businessman/mob figure played by Jeff Perry.

Fans of the film will know that Smith speaks fondly of his father a number of times, recalling that he often said, “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” As Jennifer learns that a swath of land in her state is going to be turned into a useless dam that is only an avenue for graft, she becomes determined to fight for that land where she was hoping to create a girls camp for young women across the nation.  Joshua Malina is her charmingly cynical assistant Chester Saunders [Jean Arthur in the film] who begrudgingly assists her in writing a bill for that girl’s camp.  As they work together, Jennifer’s enthusiasm for the bill starts to wear down Saunders’ certainty it will fail and when she becomes aware of the relief bill that includes the dam, she decides to filibuster with his help.

Paine and his pro-dam cohorts do all they can to attack Jennifer’s character as they angrily state any blocking of the relief bill will lead to starving the people.  Paine likens her attempt to hold the floor to holding the people hostage.  There was an audible gasp in the audience followed by a few laughs for this reading took place near the end of Trump’s wall-inspired government shutdown.  All of the pain that shutdown was inflicting on government workers was present in the room at that moment.

Jennifer stands firm in her convictions, even when Paine reads telegrams purportedly from her home state asking her to stop. She reads the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and goes on till her voice is hoarse and even Paine can’t take her suffering anymore.  He breaks down and admits everything – and when Waterston embodied that moment, he tore the roof off the place, it was awe-inspiring.  Jennifer and Saunders have one last moment of celebration before the ends that felt a little rushed but that might have been due to the fact that the TVs behind the cast popped on. 

In lieu of credits, images of every woman who has held a seat in Congress appeared in succession on the screens. Members of the audience stood to applaud them, with more standing when California’s own Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein appeared.  But it wasn’t till the video closed on a split screen image featuring Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren that the whole house got to their feet shouting.  It was a memorable, moving moment that reminded this reviewer of all the things that can be good and honorable and right in this country.  It also seemed like a hell of an idea for a presidential ticket in 2020 but that just shows how easy it was to get swept up in Jennifer Smith’s patriotic fervor.  Ms. Smith may seem naive and inexperienced, but that character’s faith in what is good in the country is honorable and constant – and those are traits we could all stand to develop in our own lives today.

This post originally appeared in The Theatre Times.

 

‘Scandal’ cast reunites for ‘Ms. Smith Goes to Washington’ at Fountain Theatre’s City Hall event

smith celeb cast trioThe Fountain Theatre follows its hugely successful 2018 celebrity reading of All the President’s Men with a one-night only, all-star reading of Ms. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Bellamy Young (ABC’s Scandal) in the title role, along with her Scandal co-stars Joshua Malina and Jeff Perry, with more to be announced. 

Adapted and directed by Fountain co-artistic director Stephen Sachs, presented by the award-winning Fountain Theatre in partnership with the City of Los Angeles and with exclusive permission from SONY Pictures, this free event will be hosted by Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell and will take place in the John Ferraro Council Chamber of Los Angeles City Hall on Thursday, January 24 at 7:30 p.m. A catered reception will follow in the City Hall Rotunda.

In this gender-switched adaptation of Sidney Buchman’s screenplay for the 1939 Jimmy Stewart classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washingtonan idealistic, newly elected female senator finds herself fighting corruption in male-dominated Washington.

“With more than one hundred women newly elected to Congress, this classic movie reimagined with Smith as a woman could not be more timely and urgent,” says Sachs. “I’m excited for the opportunity to build on the overwhelming success of last year’s event at City Hall. Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell is a longtime friend of the Fountain Theatre and an advocate for the arts in Los Angeles. What other major city in the country would hand over City Hall to its artists for one night? When local artists and city government officials work together, all citizens of Los Angeles benefit.”

According to Councilmember O’Farrell, “With change in the air in Washington after an unprecedented number of diverse women were just sworn into Congress to counter the corrupt, divisive, and destructive agenda of the Trump administration, I am thrilled to announce a staged reading of a beloved Hollywood classic film at Los Angeles City Hall, but with a modern twist that will no doubt prove more illuminating and poignant than it would have otherwise: Ms. Smith Goes to Washington! I am proud to continue what is now an annual artistic tradition at City Hall. The City of Los Angeles must exhibit a commitment to inspire and uplift communities — and sometimes the best way to make that point is through the arts. I want to thank The Fountain Theatre and the artists for volunteering their time and resources to this project.”

The event is sponsored, in part, by the Feminist Majority Foundation, and in association with the League of Women Voters. The FMF is a cutting-edge organization dedicated to women’s equality, reproductive health and non-violence. In all spheres, FMF utilizes research and action to empower women economically, socially and politically. FMF also publishes Ms. magazine, the oldest national feminist publication in the world, and will be distributing copies of their special Inauguration issue — featuring profiles of the new feminists elected to political offices across the country — to all attendees. The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan political organization, encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy.

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. Recent highlights include the inclusion of the Fountain’s Citizen: An American Lyric in the Music Center’s Our L.A. Voices festival at Grand Park, and an all-star reading of All the President’s Men at Los Angeles City Hall. The Fountain’s 2018 productions of The Chosen and Arrival & Departure each enjoyed months-long sold out runs and was named a Los Angeles Times “Critic’s Choice.” The company’s most recent production, the West Coast premiere of Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cost of Living, was named to the Los Angeles Times’ “Best of 2018” list.

Ms. Smith Goes to Washington takes place on Thursday, Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m. in the John Ferraro Council ChamberRoom 340 of Los Angeles City Hall200 N Spring St.Los Angeles, CA 90012. Doors open at 6 p.m.

Admission is free; however, seating is extremely limited. For more information, and to enter the ticket lottery, go to www.mssmith.org. Due to high security at the venue, no walk-ups will be permitted.

Free screening of classic romantic film ‘Brief Encounter’ at Fountain Theatre on Sept 22

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Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in “Brief Encounter”

The Fountain is presenting a free screening of the 1945 classic romantic film, Brief Encounter on Saturday, September 22 at 4:30pm. The screening is in conjunction with the Fountain’s current hit production, Arrival & Departure, which was inspired by the Noel Coward screenplay of the movie. Playwright/Director Stephen Sachs will introduce the film.

The screening will be fully captioned, accessible to all audiences.

When Time Out London recently polled 101 motion picture experts to select the 100 Best Romantic Films of all time, the panel voted Brief Encounter as #1, declaring it “the most romantic film ever made.” They’re not the only ones who think so. The Film Society of Lincoln Center named it “one of the most achingly romantic films ever made.”

Directed by David Lean and starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter is a passionate film about a chance meeting, forbidden love, and finding one’s soul mate.

Brief Encounter is set during WWII in and around a London railway station. A married woman, with children, Laura (Celia Johnson), meets a stranger, a doctor (Trevor Howard) named Alec in the train station’s tea room, who kindly removes a piece of grit from her eye then leaves to catch his train. During her subsequent shopping trips every Thursday, Laura bumps into Alec and a friendship develops. Soon, the weekly meetings become an arranged rendezvous. Finally, they confess that they are deeply, overwhelmingly in love.

With its evocatively fog-enshrouded setting, swooning Rachmaninoff score, and pair of remarkable performances (Johnson was nominated for an Oscar), the film explores the thrill, pain, and tenderness of an illicit romance, and has influenced many a cinematic brief encounter since its release.

“I was looking for a love story to inspire my new play,” explains Sachs, describing the origin of Arrival & Departure. “When I thought of Brief Encounter, with its journey of two strangers travelling from friendship into love, I knew I had found what I was looking for.”

Running time: 90 mins. Limited seating. Reservations necessary.  (323) 663-1525

Reserve Seats Now

New play ‘Arrival & Departure’ inspired by “the most romantic film ever made”

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Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in ‘Brief Encounter.’

Everyone has their most-cherished romantic movie. Even the professionals who make movies. When Time Out London recently polled 101 motion picture experts to select the 100 Best Romantic Films of all time, the panel voted the 1945 classic film Brief Encounter as #1, declaring it “the most romantic film ever made.” They’re not the only ones who think so. The Film Society of Lincoln Center named it “one of the most achingly romantic films ever made.”

What makes Brief Encounter so beloved and unforgettable? Have you seen it? No?  

Directed by David Lean with a screenplay by Noël Coward and starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter is a passionate film about a chance meeting, forbidden love, and finding one’s soul mate.

Now, seventy-three years after the release of the romantic masterpiece, Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs has been awarded exclusive permission by the Noel Coward Estate to transform the film Brief Encounter into his innovative new play, Arrival & Departure, opening July 14.  

Brief Encounter is a classic romantic drama set in 1945 during WWII in and around a London railway station. A married woman, with children, Laura (Celia Johnson), meets a stranger, a doctor (Trevor Howard) named Alec in the train station’s tea room, who kindly removes a piece of grit from her eye then leaves to catch his train. During her subsequent shopping trips every Thursday, Laura bumps into Alec and a friendship develops. Soon, the weekly meetings become an arranged rendezvous. Finally, they confess that they are deeply, overwhelmingly in love.

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With its evocatively fog-enshrouded setting, swooning Rachmaninoff score, and pair of remarkable performances (Johnson was nominated for an Oscar), the film explores the thrill, pain, and tenderness of an illicit romance, and has influenced many a cinematic brief encounter since its release.

The screenplay was adapted and based on playwright Noel Coward’s 1935 short one-act (half-hour) stage play Still Life. It was expanded from five short scenes in a train station to include action in other settings (Laura’s house, the apartment of the married man’s friend, restaurants, parks, train compartments, shops, a car, a boating lake and at the cinema).

The central action of the film, the romance, takes place entirely in flashback, confessed via Laura’s voice-over narration, within Laura’s mind. She simultaneously recounts the story and lives it.

Brief Encounter is unlike other films of this era in its treatment of love and adultery. The honest portrayal of Laura and Alec make them both sympathetic. The two characters, both well-meaning commuters thrown into the rush of wrongful temptation,  remain unpunished for their sins. Although Brief Encounter has been labeled as “the British Casablanca”, the two masterpieces have different views of adultery. Casablanca carefully sides against it, the two lovers acknowledging that in times of war the needs of two people “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Brief Encounter is far more ambiguous, offering both empathy to the characters’ plight and no clear conclusion on the morality of love and passion. They are just two ordinary people who live ordinary lives, but for a brief span of Thursdays, stand on the edge of something extraordinary.

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Deanne Bray and Troy Kotsur in ‘Arrival & Departure.’

In Sachs’ new theatrical spin, Arrival & Departure, a Deaf man and a hard-of-hearing woman, two married strangers, meet accidentally in a New York City subway station. As their casual friendship develops into something deeper, each is forced to confront how their simmering relationship could forever change their lives and the lives of those they love.

The play is performed simultaneously in spoken English and American Sign Language with additional use of open captioning, so that both Deaf and hearing audiences can enjoy the production. Proving that whether it’s a movie transformed into a stage play, a screenplay adapted into a theatre script, or spoken English translated into American Sign Language, in matters of the heart, love is a universal language.

To watch David Lean’s classic romantic film, Brief Encounter, click here. To experience Stephen Sachs’ funny and heart-rending stage adaptation, Arrival & Departure, click here and come to the Fountain Theatre.

For both, bring a box of tissues and someone you love.   

Cast announced for world premiere of romantic ‘Arrival & Departure’ at Fountain Theatre

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Deanne Bray and Troy Kotsur

Love is in the air this summer with the world premiere of Stephen Sachs’ new play, Arrival & Departure, inspired by the screenplay for Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter. Sachs directs his new romantic comedy/drama, opening July 14.

In this re-imagined modern-day stage adaptation of Coward’s classic 1945 film, a Deaf man and a hard-of-hearing woman, married to different people, meet accidentally in a New York City subway station. Their casual friendship soon develops into deeper feelings they never expected, forcing both to confront how their simmering relationship will change their lives the lives of those they love forever. An unforgettable love story inspired by one of the most beloved romantic movies of all time.

The play is performed simultaneously in American Sign Language, Spoken English, and open captioning so that all audiences can enjoy the production.

Joining the previously announced Deanne Bray (“Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye”, “Heroes”) and Troy Kotsur (“Cyrano”) are Jessica Jade Andres, Adam Burch, Brian Robert Burns, Shon Fuller, Kyra Kotsur, Aurelia Myers, and Stasha Surdyke.

This innovative production is supported, in part, by the David Lee Foundation and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.   

Arrival & Departure runs July 14 – September 30 at the Fountain Theatre. More Info/Get Tickets

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

Do you really think a life in the theatre means making a living? Think again.

Tony Kushner

Tony Kushner

by Stephen Sachs

Eight words. A statement declared in eight simple words jumped out at me in a feature story on playwright Tony Kushner in today’s New York Times. The eight words were stated by playwright and Kushner friend Larry Kramer, author of The Normal Heart, which we produced at the Fountain Theatre in 2015.  Commenting on Kushner’s shift from playwriting to screenwriting, Kramer says, “I wish he’d go back to writing plays.”

So, why doesn’t he?

Kushner answered that question himself in 2011 when he shocked many in the arts community by revealing in an interview in Time Out New York that not even the author of Angeles in America can make a living as a playwright.

“I make my living now as a screenwriter. Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does.”

Kushner is right. American playwrights — not even one of his stature — do not earn the bulk of their living writing plays. Many teach. An ever-growing number write for film or cable television.  The tsunami of playwrights today surging into television is so large that it now has become a writer’s career model:  A playwright earns notoriety and success writing plays — or even one successful play, he/she “takes meetings” with Industry producers then quickly jumps to movies and/or television to make real money. The well-meaning intent being that a big-bucks TV salary will financially support the writer, allowing him/her to keep writing plays. What often happens? They write fewer plays.  Some never return to the stage.

“I don’t particularly want to do it,” Kushner said in 2011. “I think that it’s a mistake to do it. So, yes, I’m very worried about it. ” The last play by Kushner premiered in 2009.

The classic tale of playwrights writing for Hollywood is as old as celluloid itself. An avalanche is now underway. Playwrights are flocking to cable TV and streaming networks in record numbers. TV showrunners are aggressively recruiting writers from regional theaters like crazed baseball team owners scouting for hot rookie talent.  One major talent agency in Hollywood has opened a department specifically targeting playwrights for film and televsion. The roster of playwrights now writing for film and TV today is too long to list.  Is that such a bad thing?

Many playwrights I know, and have produced at the Fountain Theatre, also write for film and television. My pal Robert Schenkkan (Building the Wall) is writing a new project for Amazon. Tanya Saracho (El Nogalar) is now creator and showrunner of the Starz drama “Vida” and just signed a three-year deal with the network. Tarell Alvin McCraney (In the Red and Brown Water/Brothers Size) has signed to create, write, and executive produce a new hour-long television drama for the Oprah Winfrey Network. I’m confidant that all three will continue writing plays.

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Stephen Sachs, Shirley Jo Finney, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Fountain Theatre (2014)

I had my own Hollywood crossover by writing the teleplay for Sweet Nothing in my Ear for CBS, based on my play that premiered at the Fountain.  The sale of that one TV script paid me more than I would make running an 80-seat theatre for years.  I am currently writing a screenplay based on my comedy/drama Bakersfield Mist. Does this make me a traitor to my art form? I don’t think so. It makes me a man with a family and a mortgage.

Let’s be honest. There’s a reason why it’s called non-profit theatre. One enters the non-profit arts sector like one enters the priesthood — to serve a higher power. Even so, it would be nice to make a good living doing what you feel is important. To be frank, non-profit theatre-making is an inherently shitty business model. The economics of the art form stack the odds against those who actually make the art happen. So, why do we do it? Here, we cue the piano and launch into “What I Did for Love

Of course, it’s not only playwrights who give their hearts to the theatre at the expense of their wallets. Actors, directors and designers often work for love, and little money. The average member of Actors Equity Association, the professional stage union for actors and stage managers, made an annual salary in 2016 of only $7,700 per year. Like corporate America, it’s the folks at the top in this country’s major regional theaters who are earning large salaries. A few of the larger LORT companies have added playwrights to their theatre’s staff, but they are rare. The model of a permanent repertory company, where artists are paid a yearly salary, is a dying concept, a fossilized relic from an earlier age.

Today, the odds of making a living as a playwright are as remote and precarious as making a living as a poet. Our finest example of excelling at both is, of course, the greatest playwright/poet of them all. Shakespeare wrote multiple plays a year, dozens of sonnets, was a partner in the company, and a co-owner of the theatre building. He was also a ruthless businessman and wealthy grain merchant and property owner.  Unlike the character he created in King Lear, Shakespeare was no fool.

I have dedicated my career to the intimate Fountain Theatre and the non-profit arts community in Los Angeles. I knew twenty-eight years ago when I co-founded this theatre that I would never make a lot of money. I’m okay with that. Most days. I’d be lying if I claimed I haven’t envied men and women my age or younger in the entertainment industry making a huge amount of money more than me.

This is the life I have chosen. Two things keep me going. The impact our work has on others, and the example I am setting for my two sons. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with making money. I just want my two boys to know that their father dedicated his life working at something that he loved and knew was important, that he was committed to making the world a better place in the one way he knew how, by exploring and illuminating the human condition, not striving to make himself wealthy. Can one do both? Of course. I just haven’t yet figured out how to do that.

An artist’s life offers riches not found in a bank ledger. In that, I am the wealthiest man in the world.

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