Category Archives: new plays

Stephen Hawking and the observer effect on live theatre

Stephen Hawking NGeo

Stephen Hawking

by Stephen Sachs

In quantum mechanics, the observer effect is the theory that observing a particle  changes the particle being observed. Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle determined that the act of our looking at a quantum element impacts the behavior of the thing we are watching. I believe the same can be applied to live theatre.

What first comes to your mind when Stephen Hawking is mentioned? An Einsteinian genius who theorized the mind-bending truths of the cosmos? His mechanized voice decoded by his wheelchair synthesizer? His best-selling book, A Brief History of Time? His cartoon appearance on The Simpsons?  The indelible impressions left by Hawking are as infinite as string theory. I find myself this morning reflecting on Hawking, Nick Payne’s mesmerizing two-character drama, Constellations, and the parallel universes of science and theatre.


Aria Alpert and Daniel Billet in “Photograph 51”, Fountain Theatre

Several modern plays weave science and math into their storytelling. Heisenberg by Simon Stephens, Tom Stoppard’s ArcadiaCopenhagen by Michael Frayn, and Caryl Churchill’s A Number come to mind. In 2009, we produced the West Coast Premiere of Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 at the Fountain Theatre, the story of British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin’s discovery of the DNA double-helix. I’ve directed Completeness by Itamar Moses, a love story between a computer scientist and a molecularar biologist.  These playwrights have turned to science as a source of metaphors and forms, using the language of particle physics, evolution or mathematics as ways of speaking about human experience.

In Constellations, science and romance collide. Marianne is a theoretical physicist. She meets Roland at a party.  They go for a drink. Or maybe they don’t. They fall in love, break up, get back together. Maybe they get married, or maybe death proves their time together is finite. Constellations explores the various possible outcomes of eight different situations. Through an astonishing series of vignettes, we watch as Marianne and Roland’s relationship unfold across time and space, with each variation sending their relationship on an entirely new trajectory. The play speculates roads not taken and where they might have led.  All of us who remember, re-remember and reimagine our own lives – as most of us do – see ourselves through a multi-dimensional lens.

Says Marianne: “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”

To which Roland replies: “This is genuinely turning me on.”

I know how he feels. Science in theatre turns me on, too.

‘Constellations’ by Nick Payne, TheaterWorks 

Constellations draws on the Many Worlds Interpretation, in which an infinite amount of divergent universes exist side-by-side. The theory postulates that alternate pasts and futures are not only real but unfold simultaneously. Likewise, the play presents us with a series of variations on the encounters between two lovers like a fugue of coexisting possibilities. 

Using quantum physics as a language for theatre and a dramatic structure for plays flies in the face of the linear Aristotelian principle, in which effect should follow cause. But unpredictability and causation are both true in life. The decisions we do and don’t make determine which future we actually end up experiencing.  Yet if any choice is endlessly possible, and each produces a different outcome, where do we find meaning in anything and any sign whatsoever of any evidence of free will?

I don’t know if Nick Payne thought of  essayist Walter Benjamin when naming his play. Walter Benjamin famously proposed in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), that ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars. Ideas are no more present in the world than constellations actually exist in the heavens.  The stars in the night sky are where they are regardless of how we look at them. It’s we, ourselves, who impose ideas and concepts on what we see. We call it a “constellation” and, thereby, give it meaning.

Rather than a linear plot, Payne presents us with a kaleidoscope of infinite possibility. As its title suggests, Constellations creates a space for the spectator’s view, inviting us to group his fragments together and to find new meanings in the constellations they produce and the transformations they effect upon each other.

Any actor will tell you how the presence of an audience impacts the performance of the players. An audience changes everything and affects the outcome of the evening. The very act of an audience watching impacts the observed reality of the play. Actors, like electrons, change their behavior when viewed. And no performance is ever the same twice. Each live experience is utterly unique and not repeatable.

The passing of Stephen Hawking encourages me to examine how his science and my art are related. Theatre is a laboratory for producing possible worlds. In physics and performance there can be a collapsing of time. A revelation of possible pasts, present and futures. Each play is understood differently by each observer, each moment connected to past and future moments to which we choose to relate it. Theatre and science explore the truth hidden in the possible. A great play, like an iconic scientific formula, seeks to reveal the mystery of  human experience. Both activate the viewer’s gaze toward meaningful configurations for the purpose of seeing the infinite.

As Hawking encouraged, “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”

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



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.


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.

PHOTOS: Cast and guests enjoy opening night party for ‘The Chosen’

CHOSEN Op Night 12

The company of ‘The Chosen’

A beautiful and heartfelt performance was followed by a lively party as cast and audience members celebrated the opening of The Chosen at the Fountain Theatre on Saturday night, January 20th.   The sold-out house leapt to their feet in a standing ovation, then gathered upstairs in our indoor/outdoor cafe for food, drink and festivities with the company.

Actors Jonathan Arkin, Alan Blumenfeld, Dor Gvirtsman and Sam Mandel were feted by Fountain VIP donors, invited guests and members of our Board of Directors.

Looks like the Fountain has another hit on its hands. performances for The Chosen are already selling out in advance. Get Tickets/More Info 

Ralph M. Parsons Foundation awards grant to Fountain Theatre for outreach programs

A Place Called Home

Outreach Coordinator Dionna Daniel with women from A Place Called Home.

The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation has awarded the Fountain Theatre a grant for $14,000.00 to support the theatre’s educational outreach programs.  The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation improves the well-being of the residents of Los Angeles County through grantmaking that enriches cultural experiences and active civic engagement.

The grant award is for general support of the Fountain Theatre organization, including the producing of new plays and educational outreach programs. The Fountain will be allocating funds to support Theatre as a Learning Tool and hiring a new Outreach Coordinator.

Central to the Fountain’s mission is providing youth throughout our diverse region with an equal access experience in the arts; one that encourages understanding and mutual respect. Theatre as a Learning Tool brings underserved students from across Southern California — many of whom have never been to an intimate theatre — to The Fountain Theatre to experience live theater at one of Los Angeles’ premiere venues. Known for producing work that is both artistically excellent and dedicated to strengthening attitudes of tolerance and social justice, The Fountain provides young people with a uniquely intimate educational experience. By watching a play, studying the script and accompanying study guide, and engaging in a post-show discussion with the artists, students can share their thoughts and feelings with one another, their teachers and professional theatre artists in meaningful dialogue about issues that matter.

“Serving the artistic needs of young people is at the heart of who we are and what we do,” says Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “We thank the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation for its partnership. This grant will help support the hiring of our new Outreach Coordinator, Dionna Daniel, and will broaden our reach through Theatre as a Learning Tool.  A great way to start the new year.”

Actor Sam Mandel shares how the message of ‘The Chosen’ is so timely and universal

More Info/Get Tickets

Director Simon Levy offers an antidote of tolerance with ‘The Chosen’ at Fountain Theatre

SL March 2014

Director Simon Levy

Born in Surrey, England, Simon Levy grew up in San Francisco. After a youthful foray as a jazz and rock-n-roll musician, he settled into the love of his life, theater. His professional debut as a stage director in 1980 preceded his move to Los Angeles in 1990, where he joined the staff of the Fountain Theatre in 1993. Even though the Fountain proved to be a very comfortable home for his multiple talents, he branched out into teaching playwriting in Chapman University and the renowned UCLA Writer’s Extension program. He has also been site evaluator for the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, as well as a member of numerous theater and humanitarian organizations. Somehow, squeezed between his many activities, he found time to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and The Last Tycoon to the stage, adapted the anti-Iraq War play What I Heard About Iraq, wrote several original works, and directed many Fountain Theatre award-winning productions.

Simon Levy directs Chaim Potok’s iconic play, THE CHOSEN, opening January 20 at the Fountain Theatre. He discusses his multi-faceted career and his latest Fountain Theatre production.


LEVY: I had a rock band and even played street music as a young man. When I entered college at the age of 21, I decided to study music to become a conductor. After a year of study, I found that I was ahead of most of the other students because of my experience playing on the street; and I started getting bored. To get to my music classes, I would take a short cut through the lobby of the theater, and I started to watch people on stage doing acting exercises. I was intrigued; and, at the urging of my mother, I decided to take an acting class. I found that I had a facility for it; and I loved the sense of community there was among the students in the program, where I was embraced and accepted even though I was a novice. For a while, I double tracked, even venturing into anthropology; but eventually I chose theater.


What I Heard About Iraq

What I Heard About Iraq

LEVY: I think I would have to say my adaptation of Eliot Weinberger’s prose-poem about the war in Iraq. It premiered at the Fountain Theatre in 2005/2006 and has gone on to win international awards. It was a cry of the heart for me, a way to make a statement about the idiocy of war. And, of course, my adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby. I had always loved Fitzgerald and what his novel has to say about the American dream. I pursued the rights for years, getting permission along the way to adapt Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon before the Fitzgerald estate finally gave me the rights to Gatsby. It’s an honor I cherish.


LEVY: That question always stumps me. Directing a play is like having a love affair or having a whole bunch of children. It’s hard to choose a favorite. With each project, I become obsessed with and immersed in the world of the play and what the playwright has to say through the life of the characters. I’m lucky being part of the Fountain Theatre. I get to pick and choose the plays I want to do. And I only choose projects that I’m in love with or feel I need to give life to. Although it’s hard to choose a favorite, some projects stand out for me, like Master Class and Summer and Smoke and, of course, What I Heard About Iraq. But even as I say that, I feel I’m betraying my other lovers! Every play is a marker along the path of my own life. In a way, each play is somewhat autobiographical, a need to say something specific at that particular time.


Jonathan Arkin and Sam Mandel rehearse ‘The Chosen’


LEVY: I always search for something that reflects on how I’m feeling at the moment. At this particular point in American history, I needed something that had themes of redemption and tolerance and accepting the other as an antidote to all the toxicity we’re consuming each day. I had always loved THE CHOSEN as a novel and knew about Posner’s adaptation of My Name is Asher Lev a few years ago. After reading this adaptation, I knew I’d found the project that could give voice to a lot of the things I’m feeling right now. Also, Posner has done a re-write of the earlier adaptation he did with Chaim Potok, changing the play from five characters to four. We’re honored to be doing the West Coast premiere of it.

THE CHOSEN resonates with me because I see it as a hopeful commentary. The play begins with the Hebrew for “These and these are the words of the Living God.” It’s a phrase that is deeply ingrained in Jewish thought: that two opposing ideas can be true at the same time. Today, it feels like we have lost the ability to respect someone with an opposing view without being hateful or disrespectful towards them. Potok’s story is an illustration of how we can and should be tolerant if we’re to retain our humanity. And he does it with love and humor and an exploration of fundamentally deep ideas. It may be Jewish in its context, but it focuses on bridging universal chasms between opposing worlds – between the modern and the traditional, the secular and the sacred, Zionism and Hasidism, fathers and sons, the head and the heart, and being true to yourself while embracing and respecting the other. We could use a lot more of that in today’s America.


LEVY: There are always writing and directing projects I’m toying with or trying to get the rights to, but right now I’m searching for something else that really speaks to me and how I’m feeling. I haven’t found the right one yet. But later this year I will be directing The Immigrant, another Jewish-themed play about acceptance and tolerance, at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. So I guess that’s really on my mind right now.

This post originally appeared in Splash Magazine

More Info/Get Tickets for The Chosen 

10 reasons to support the arts in 2018

Shelleys cropped

Katie McConaughy and Susan Wilder in ‘Freddy’, 2017. 

by Randy Cohen

The arts are fundamental to our humanity. They ennoble and inspire us—fostering creativity, goodness, and beauty. The arts bring us joy, help us express our values, and build bridges between cultures. The arts also are a fundamental component of healthy communities, strengthening them socially, educationally, and economically—benefits that persist even in difficult social and economic times.

  1. Arts improve individual well-being. 63 percent of the population believe the arts “lift me up beyond everyday experiences,” 64 percent feel the arts give them “pure pleasure to experience and participate in,” and 73 percent say the arts are a “positive experience in a troubled world.”
  2. Arts unify communities. 67 percent of Americans believe “the arts unify our communities regardless of age, race, and ethnicity” and 62 percent agree that the arts “help me understand other cultures better”—a perspective observed across all demographic and economic categories.
  3. Arts improve academic performance. Students engaged in arts learning have higher GPAs and standardized test scores, and lower drop-out rates. The Department of Education reports that access to arts education for students of color is significantly lower than for their white peers, and has declined for three decades. Yet, research shows that low socio-economic-status students have even greater increases in academic performance, college-going rates, college grades, and holding jobs with a future. 88 percent of Americans believe that arts are part of a well-rounded K-12 education.
  4. Arts strengthen the economy. The arts and culture sector is a $730 billion industry, which represents 4.2 percent of the nation’s GDP—a larger share of the economy than transportation, tourism, and agriculture (U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis). The nonprofit arts industry alone generates $135 billion in economic activity annually (spending by organizations and their audiences), which supports 4.1 million jobs and generates $22.3 billion in government revenue.
  5. Arts are good for local businesses. Attendees at nonprofit arts events spend $24.60 per person, per event, beyond the cost of admission on items such as meals, parking, and babysitters—valuable revenue for local commerce and the community. Attendees who live outside the county in which the arts event takes place spend twice as much as their local counterparts ($39.96 vs. $17.42).
  6. Arts drive tourism. Arts travelers are ideal tourists, staying longer and spending more to seek out authentic cultural experiences. Arts destinations grow the economy by attracting foreign visitor spending. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that, between 2003-2015, the percentage of international travelers including “art gallery and museum visits” on their trip grew from 17 to 29 percent, and the share attending “concerts, plays, and musicals” increased from 13 to 16 percent.
  7. Arts are an export industry. The arts and culture industries had a $30 billion international trade surplus in 2014, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. U.S. exports of arts goods (e.g., movies, paintings, jewelry) exceeded $60 billion.
  8. Arts spark creativity and innovation. Creativity is among the top 5 applied skills sought by business leaders—with 72 percent saying creativity is of high importance when hiring. The Conference Board’s Ready to Innovate report concludes, “The arts—music, creative writing, drawing, dance—provide skills sought by employers of the 3rd millennium.” Research on creativity shows that Nobel laureates in the sciences are 17 times more likely to be actively engaged in the arts than other scientists.
  9. Arts improve healthcare. Nearly one-half of the nation’s healthcare institutions provide arts programming for patients, families, and even staff. 78 percent deliver these programs because of their healing benefits to patients—shorter hospital stays, better pain management, and less medication.
  10. Arts and healing in the military. The arts are part of the military continuum—promoting readiness during pre-deployment as well as aiding in the successful reintegration and adjustment of Veterans and military families into community life. Service members and Veterans rank art therapies in the top 4 (out of 40) interventions and treatments.

Happy New Year!

Randy Cohen is Vice President of Research and Policy at Americans for the Arts, the nation’s advocacy organization for the arts.