Category Archives: performing arts

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.

Oscar Weekend: ‘The Chosen’ was a movie before it was a play. So, nu?

CHOSEN movie

Barry Miller and Robbie Benson in “The Chosen” (1981)

It’s Oscar Weekend. The Academy Awards are this Sunday night. Critics and fans are placing their bets, handicapping the nominees, calculating the winners. Fancy gowns and tuxedos have been rented, limousines are standing by. While the movie elite converge on the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Blvd, the rest of America plops down on the couch to watch it all on TV.

Except for the Fountain faithful who go to the theatre. 

We have a 2pm matinée of The Chosen this Oscar Sunday. It’s been sold out for weeks.  There’s even a waiting list for people standing by, desperate to get in. How can this be possible? Don’t they know that the most-watched non-sporting event in the United States will be dazzling their TV screens that night?

They know. They don’t care. They are theatre people. And, God Bless them.    

The Chosen was actually a movie before it was a play. Before Chaim Potok’s 1967 best-selling novel was adapted for the stage, The Chosen was a 1981 film directed by Jeremy Kagan. It starred Maximilian Schell, Rod Steiger, Robbie Benson and Barry Miller. Author Chaim Potok himself makes a cameo appearance as the Talmud Teacher. 

Chaim in THE CHOSN movie

Chaim Potok, Robbie Benson and Barry Miller (1981)

Like the homes of the two Brooklyn boys in The Chosen, The Fountain Theatre is a short drive from The Dolby Theatre but it might as well be a world away. It’s hard to imagine two venues more different. The glamorous Dolby seats 3,400 people. Our homey theatre on Fountain Avenue holds 78.  The Dolby has the world-famous red carpet holding an avalanche of international press. The only time the Fountain attracted any swarm of paparazzi was when Elizabeth Taylor arrived here to see a play in 1993.   

But the Fountain has one thing the Dolby does not. Diehard theatre people who still feel that experiencing a live performance exceeds watching one on a screen. They are the loyal Fountain Family, highly intelligent and culturally sophisticated connoisseurs of a glorious art form dating back centuries before the first electric light bulb was switched on in Thomas Edison’s first Kinetoscope movie projector.   

Besides, they can always dash home after our Sunday matinée and still get home in time for Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue. As a character in The Chosen might say, “What can you do? Azoy gait es!”  

Are you surprised that the young leaders of the Never Again movement are theatre kids? I’m not.

Parklandby Stephen Sachs

They are young. They are bold and self-confident. They are articulate. They are passionate. They are leading a national movement.  And they are theatre kids.

A fiercely dedicated band of teen survivors of the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, this week are earning international attention through social media for speaking out on gun control in a movement they call Never Again. This grass-roots uprising launched by young people is highly organized and gathering national momentum.  The fiery speech by student Emma Gonzalez at a Florida rally is a viral sensation. Students grilled NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch and Senator Marco Rubio at a CNN town hall.   It drew three million viewers. The nationwide protest the group is leading on March 24 in Washington, D.C., is now expected to draw more than five hundred thousand participants to the nation’s capital. Sister marches are being planned in cities around the country.  The Never Again Twitter page already has eighty-one thousand followers.

All of this from a small troupe of teenage drama kids at a Florida high school who’s only worry last week rose from the stress of trying to memorize their lines.  This week, they all have much larger roles to play.

Several of the Never Again leaders are members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama club. “All these kids are drama kids, and I’m a dramatic kid, so it really meshes well,” says leader Emma González.

Being “dramatic” doesn’t make any of these young people insincere. They are furiously committed. Even so, a dark fringe of “Fake News” conspiracy wackos on the internet are already accusing some of the kids of not being real students at all, but professional “crisis actors” paid to cause trouble. Asked about this charge, student Cameron Kasky told CNN that anyone who had seen him in the school’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” knows that “nobody would pay me to act for anything.”

Are you surprised that these teenage drama nerds are now taking the international stage by storm? I’m not.

A theatre class is more than an artistic distraction for students. It can serve as a lightning rod of empowerment for young people. For many teens, the experience of standing in a spotlight on a stage in a play or musical,  galvanizing the attention of adults in the  audience, is the first time a young person discovers that what they say matters.  They learn that words have power, that their voice can move and inspire others.

Rehearsing a play teaches young people team work, collaboration, tolerance, the importance of listening to and following direction. They learn about problem solving, discipline, goal-setting and time management. And they discover that getting something significant accomplished can also be fun.

Drama club

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama club.

The engine for all dramatic plays is conflict. Rehearsing a play thrusts students into roles attacking and defending both sides of an issue.  Therefore, the play teaches that no matter how dire the circumstances may seem, it remains valuable to understand and overcome opposing points of view to reach a satisfying ending.

Something magical happens to students when rehearsing a play or musical. They become a company. Adolescence can be painfully isolating. But in those brief hours of after-school drama practice, young people are forced to put down their cell phones and look each other in the eye.  They find human connection.  Friendships are formed, crushes blossom,  and leaders step forward. Perhaps most important,  kids learn that a group, working together, can deliver something meaningful and life-changing that is greater than themselves, for the benefit of the community.

When the CNN Town Hall on gun control came to a close, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama club sang to the crowd. The song was written by survivors Sawyer Garrity and Andrea Peña to honor the 17 victims of the mass shooting. Their main message? “You’re not going to knock us down” and the standout line, “You may have brought the dark, but together we will shine the light.” At this moment,  those in the audiences turned the lights on their phones and stretched them above the crowd to shine their own light.

As one student asserted during a spoken word section of the performance, the students vow to “Be the voice for those who don’t have one.” A voice is a powerful thing, and theatre can be a formidable stage from which to find one’s own song.

As the Never Again mission statement declares, “Change is coming. And it starts now, inspired by and led by the kids who are our hope for the future. Their young voices will be heard. ”

If art is a reflection of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going, then whatever the students are learning in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama club is a lesson for us all.

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

Fountain Theatre welcomes attorney Lois R. Fishman to its Board of Directors

Lois R. Fishman 1

Lois R. Fishman

The Fountain Theatre is delighted to welcome attorney Lois R. Fishman to its Board of Directors. Lois brings her sharp intelligence, wealth of experience, and passion for theatre to our growing Fountain Board.

“The energy at the Fountain is contagious,” says Lois. “The intimate setting involves the audience in a way impossible in a large space. I was drawn to the evident humanity of the directors and cast. How did a small theater in Hollywood become a favorite home for Athol Fugard? This was worth looking into! And then I was seduced by the intelligent mix of programming, speaking to audiences about our times through the voices of established and new playwrights. From Tennessee Williams Night of the Iguana, to Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Brother/Sister plays, I love how the Fountain reflects the rich and complex composition of LA and invites us to share our stories and experiences. And then to meet the casts afterward in a cozy café setting is always such a thrill. On top of it all, I have been a fan of flamenco dance since my high school days and love that the Fountain has created a home for this art form.”

Lois is a lifelong theater goer with a collection of playbills dating back to the 1970s. A child of suburban New York, she grew up attending Broadway musicals, plays at Lincoln Center and downtown, and opera at City Center. While a college student at Yale, she studied drama history with Richard Gilman, ushered at the Yale Dramatic Association and shared subscriptions to  Yale Rep and Long Wharf Theater. Favorite Yale theater experiences: the August Wilson plays directed by Lloyd Richards, the early plays of Wendy Wasserstein, anything by Athol Fugard. 

Lois began her career in Washington D.C. at the National Endowment for the Arts and later worked as a writer and consultant to many arts and humanities organizations in the capital, before plunging into independent film and radio production, contributing free-lance pieces to NPR and working on the 13-part dramatic series “Faces Mirrors Masks.” She was the Executive Director of Americas Film Festival, the first DC-area festival of films from Latin America and served on the program committee for Women Make Movies and the DC Film Fest. 

After moving to Los Angeles to start a new career as a lawyer in 1993, Lois completed the training program of the Arts Leadership Initiative and joined the Board of Odyssey Theater, her first introduction to the exciting small theater scene in LA. Highlights of that period include productions of The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Rose Tattoo, among others.  To lend support to an old friend, she also served for a few years on the Board of Santa Barbara Theatre where she first met Stephen Sachs.

Lois Fishman and Barbara Goodhill

Lois R. Fishman with Barbara Goodhill at ‘The Chosen’, Fountain Theatre

After marrying her husband Henry Fetter and moving from west LA to Hollywood in 2001, Lois eagerly sought out the small theatre scene in her new neighborhood and found Fountain Theatre through friends, including Diana Gibson who formerly ran the box office. 

Lois is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale University (B.A., magna cum laude, honors with exceptional distinction in psychology) and holds a J.D. degree from Georgetown University Law Center and a Master of City Planning degree from the University of California, Berkeley where she was a Regents Fellow.  Lois retired from The Walt Disney Company as Assistant General Counsel where she advised on distribution of films and TV programs via new media platforms. Lois currently has a solo law practice in mid-Wilshire area serving clients in the creative sector and non-profit organizations. She also teaches as adjunct professor at the Fowler School of Law, Chapman University, Orange, CA and has experience as a guest instructor at Loyola Law School, San Andreas University of Buenos Aires, Argentina and Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius, Lithuania, among other institutions. 

For six years she was a member of the Board of Trustees of Inner City Law Center, a legal services organization in Los Angeles, and was previously President of the Los Angeles Copyright Society, on whose board she served for eight years. Lois is active with the Yale Alumni Schools Committee, interviewing applicants for admission to Yale College, with Los Angeles Giving Circle, and with MOSTe, a mentoring and college access organization working with middle and high school girls from various LA public schools.

“Lois is not only expertly qualified to help guide the Fountain as a board member,” says Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “She is also a wonderful person. We are fortunate to have her expertise and goodwill.”   

Smash hit play ‘The Chosen’ extends to May 7th at Fountain Theatre

TC_A0482In the wake of nearly two-dozen rave reviews and six weeks of sold-out houses, the Fountain Theatre has extended its run of The Chosen and increased performances from three to four per week. Adapted by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok from Potok’s bestselling novel of the same name, The Chosen will now continue through May 7.

A moving coming-of-age story set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn against the backdrop of World War II, the revelation of the Holocaust and the desperate struggle of Zionism, The Chosen is the story of two observant Jewish boys who live only five blocks, yet seemingly worlds, apart. Danny (Dor Gvirtsman) is the son of the charismatic but forbidding Reb Saunders (Steven B. Green, stepping in for the extension), an ultra Orthodox  tzaddik who has raised his son in strict silence. Reuven (Sam Mandel) is the son of the more traditionally Orthodox scholar and fervent Zionist David Malter (Jonathan Arkin). When Danny injures Reuven during a baseball game between their rival yeshivas, their two universes collide and a unique friendship is born.

In its “Critic’s Choice” review, the Los Angeles Times calls the play “deeply emotional,” noting that the Fountain production “reminds us to reach across divides.” L.A. Splash writes that The Chosen is “a universal story of relationships in their multitude of forms, mak[ing] this play something for everyone – Jewish or not.” Stage Scene LA says, “’The Chosen’ is a must-see for audiences of any age, ethnicity, or religious affiliation.” BroadwayWorld hailsThe Chosen as “a moving coming-of-age story… funny, poignant, timely and timeless,” and Stage and Cinema declares it to be “vital, alive, and important.”

“We are thrilled that this production is resonating with so many people, and that we are touching so many hearts,” says director Simon Levy.

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Theater producer and consultant Diana Buckhantz joins Fountain Theatre Board of Directors

Diana Buckhantz cropped

The Fountain Theatre is pleased to welcome veteran theater producer and public relations consultant Diana Buckhantz to its Board of Directors.

Diana Buckhantz recently produced the critically acclaimed new musical Songbird in New York City which is about to have a second production at Two Rivers Theatre this June before an eventual return to New York. She was part of the producing team that brought the Tony-nominated musical Leap of Faith from the Ahmanson Theatre to Broadway. Her producing credits also include Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York and The Last Goodbye at the Old Globe.

“I have been seeing shows at the Fountain for many years and have always been so impressed by the quality of the work,” says Buckhantz. “Excellent writing, beautifully staged productions and wonderful acting – all wrapped around and illuminating the important social and moral issues of the day. I believe that theatre should entertain but also that it should stimulate audiences to challenge their values and belief systems.  The Fountain does this in engaging and thoughtful ways. I am excited to join the board to help support this important work and help the theatre to grow and expand its reach. “

Diana began her professional career producing award-winning documentaries including “Dying with Dignity,” “Hunger in the Promised Land, and “Not A Question of Courage,” all for KTLA. Her documentaries have also received two National EMMY awards, two local EMMY Awards, the Scripps Howard Award for Broadcast Journalism, the State Bar of California Public Service Award, the NAPTE National Iris Award, the National Education Award, three Angel Awards, and the Kenny Rogers World Hunger Media Award.

While a producer at ITC Productions, she received an Associate Producer credit for the feature film “Without A Clue,” starring Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley.

Currently, she also runs her family foundation which focuses on issues around runaway and homeless youth, arts education in the schools, aging, reproductive rights, and combating genocides and mass atrocities in Africa.

She proudly serves on the boards of Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles Youth Network, Jewish World Watch and Capital and Main.

Her greatest production, however, is her son Sam.

“Diana has been a fan of the Fountain for some time, ” says Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “Her professional experience as a theater producer and her dedicated service on notable non-profit boards makes her a very strong asset to our Fountain Family. We are thrilled to have her on our Board of Directors. “