Category Archives: plays

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

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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.

HOW DID IT HAPPEN THAT YOU BEGAN YOUR ADULT LIFE AS A MUSICIAN AND ENDED UP CHANGING TO THEATER IN COLLEGE?

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.

AS A WRITER, WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR PROUDEST MOMENTS?

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.

AS A DIRECTOR, WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE PROJECTS?

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.

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Jonathan Arkin and Sam Mandel rehearse ‘The Chosen’

WHY DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED WITH “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.

WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PLANS?

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

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10 reasons to support the arts in 2018

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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.

Fountain opens 2018 season with newly revised stage version of Chaim Potok’s ‘The Chosen’

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The cast of ‘The Chosen’ in rehearsal.

Friendship, faith and fatherhood. Jonathan ArkinAlan BlumenfeldDor Gvirtsman and Sam Mandel star in The Chosen, the award-winning stage adaptation by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok of Potok’s beloved novel. Simon Levy directs for a January 20 opening at the Fountain Theatre, where performances continue through March 25. The Fountain celebrates the novel’s 50th anniversary (last April) with the West Coast premiere of Posner’s new, streamlined version.

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 a moving coming-of-age story about two observant Jewish boys who live only five blocks, yet seemingly worlds, apart. When Danny, son of an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic tzaddik, injures the more traditionally Orthodox Reuven during a baseball game between their rival yeshivas, their two universes collide and a unique friendship is born.

“This powerful story shows how essential it is to consider the views of those who are different from us,” says Levy. “It’s an antidote to the toxicity of our times. Potok beautifully depicts what it means to bridge chasms — between modernity and tradition, the secular and the sacred, Zionism and Hasidism, adolescence and adulthood, friendship and family, fathers and sons, the head and the heart, and the struggle to choose for ourselves, to fight for what we believe in and who we want to be.”

According to Posner, “Through the story of two remarkable boys and their remarkable fathers, Potok asks us to contemplate a world where we chose to fill our lives with greater meaning… and where complexity, understanding, compassion and reconciliation are among our highest values.”

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In 1967, Potok burst upon the literary scene with The Chosen, his first novel, sometimes referred to as a “Jewish Catcher in the Rye.” A best-seller, it was nominated for the National Book Award and through the years has become a must-read both in and out of the classroom. In 1992, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, it was republished as a young reader’s classic. A film starring Rod Steiger was released in 1981, and a short-lived off-Broadway musical debuted in 1988. Before his death in 2002, Potok collaborated with Posner on the stage version, which debuted in 1999 at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia, where Posner was a co-founder and resident director. Now, nearly 20 years later, Posner has rewritten the script to create a new version, which premiered last month at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT.

In an interview with the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, Posner explained that he has made a number of changes to the script. “I think it’s now a more dynamic, more streamlined play,” he said. “I’m really very excited about this new version. I think it’s going to be stronger in every way. I love the old version, too but I’m hoping this is even better.”

The creative team for The Chosen includes scenic and props designer DeAnne Millais, lighting designer Donny Jackson, video designer Yee Eun Nam; composer and sound designer Peter Bayne, costume designer Michele Young, hair and makeup designer Linda Michaels and dialect coach Andrea CabanRabbi Jim  Kaufmanconsults. The production stage manager is Miranda Stewart; technical director is Scott Tuomey; associate producer is James Bennett; and Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor produce for the Fountain Theatre.

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 over 225 awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Recent highlights include being honored for its acclaimed 25th Anniversary Season in 2015 by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council; the inclusion of the Fountain’s Citizen: An American Lyric in Center Theatre Group’s Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The Fountain’s most recent production, the world premiere of Building the Wall by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, ran for five months and was named “L.A. hottest ticket” by the Los Angeles Times.

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Playwright Lauren Gunderson offers theatre as an antidote to social media

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Lauren Gunderson’s “I and You”, Fountain Theatre, 2015.

By Lauren Gunderson

Think of this pitch to a room of venture capitalists: “What we’re proposing is a scalable, repeatable product that makes vital intellectual and emotional wisdom portable, communicable, and adaptable and memorable. Everyone will use it and keep using it for millennia. We call it: storytelling.”

But unlike most social media technologies, live storytelling actually is social. And perhaps that’s why it’s still around, never having been truly eclipsed by radio, TV or the Internet. In defiance of each generation’s claim that theater is dying, both “Hamlet” and “Hamilton” would beg to differ. Yes, online social media offers us on-demand communication, information and all manner of opinion articulated and shared to the world. But is there congregation?

I use that word deliberately because, though I grew up going to church in Georgia, I find most of my philosophical and humanitarian meaning coming from theater. Theater is my church. And what it offers in the way of congregation, catharsis and wisdom is not just entertainment or art, but might also be an antidote to stress related to social media.

That stress can be the fatigue that comes with nonstop screens that can disrupt sleep patterns, change our breathing (“email apnea” as coined by Linda Stone), hamstring live interpersonal communication with all ages, and lead some to become addicted to the dopamine of pings and alerts. The stress for some might feel like the constant search for information or connection, but isn’t it really the search for meaning that comes up short?

Theater offers resolution. While social media is often a nearly endless scroll of information and opinion, it often doesn’t lead to any ending, any answer to the question “so what?” But theater answers that question by taking the audience all the way through a hero’s odyssey of struggle and revelation. Being witness to a complete story, instead of the bits and bytes we find online, offers a more satisfying and thoughtful resolution. Meaning is made not from pieces of information but from journeys and fellow journeyers.

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Lauren Gunderson

Theater is right here, right now. Theater is not on demand. Rather it asks you to show up on time and focus in order to experience the intimate intensity of its medium. Screens cannot replicate the feeling of being in a shared space and time with other humans. Theater is one of the most intense artistic experiences because the fiction is happening to real people who are right in front of you. You can hear it, smell it, see their passion and pain only feet away from your seat. This viscerality is unlike what you can experience through a posted video on your smartphone or even a TV show at home. The emotionally and physically distinct power of being present for art is hard to document or measure, but it’s apparent to everyone who has witnessed live performance’s arias, embraces and thunderous ovations.

The Bay Area is not only a hub of innovation but for art, too. Silicon Valley lives right next to the “city by the play,” with an abundance of theaters that rivals even Chicago. Bay Area theater companies have transferred shows to Broadway, incubated prize-winning plays and playwrights, and drawn world-famous actors to our stages. The wisest of us (and thankfully not just the wealthiest with a new push for affordable tickets for all) should take advantage of the digital relief, inspiration and empathetic reboot theater has to offer.

For a hotbed of tech that we are, it might be a good time to go old school and let live performance open your mind in a way social media can’t. Who knows what pattern-breaking ideas might occur to you once you leave your bubble (and your phone), focus on someone else’s story with a group of strangers, and see what wisdom alights on you at the theater.

Lauren Gunderson is the author of I and You (Fountain Theatre, 2015). She is a nationlly acclaimed award-winning playwright and the resident playwright of Marin Theatre Company. This essay originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. . 

Lin-Manuel Miranda tells how Chaim Potok’s ‘The Chosen’ changed his life

Lin Manuel Mirandaby Lin-Manuel Miranda

The trajectory of my life changed in 8th grade, when I got the following note back on the back of an English essay. My teacher’s name was Dr. Rembert Herbert. This is what he wrote:

“Lin-Manuel—This is an excellent, well-crafted essay. It confirms what I have suspected for some time—that you have been ‘hibernating’ in the back of my class, emerging only occasionally—as when you wrote ‘The Chosen’ musical for class earlier this year. It’s a new semester, almost spring—join us!”

The “Chosen” musical he references was a class project I created as a part of a class assignment. The assignment was to teach three chapters of The Chosen by Chaim Potok, as part of a group. I decided it would be easier to write a song based on each chapter and have our group perform it. Actually, I recorded myself singing all the songs and made my group mates lip-synch my voice, as I had no trust in their musical ability and no way of teaching it to them. Why did I do this? Well, I loved the book. And I loved the way Dr. Herbert taught the book, encouraging us to find the connections and themes for ourselves. I had, in fact, spent most of 8th grade scribbling song lyrics and poems in the back of my classes, earning grades just good enough to get by. I never saw any reason to share these with anyone else.

With this note, Dr. Herbert essentially called me out. He told me, “That creative energy you are burning in the back of the class is what we need IN the class. You can USE that here.” He was also the first person outside of my family to say to me, “You’re a good writer.” He encouraged me to audition and submit my writing to Brick Prison, a student-run theater group at my high school. It was there that I found the energy source that would power the rest of my life.

His encouragement extended far beyond that 8th grade English class. When I began making films in high school, Dr. Herbert would sign permission slips allowing me to film in classrooms, or after school. I began writing short, 20-musicals for Brick Prison, buoyed by my “Chosen” experience in his classroom. My senior year, I earned course credit as his intern, helping him with his 8th grade students. I gained a whole new respect for how much he invested in every student, stepping in if he sensed a drop-off in the quality of their writing, or quietly encouraging the shyest class members with leadership roles.

I still have that 8th grade essay, and Dr. Herbert’s attached note. He is still teaching 8th grade English at Hunter. I am so grateful to him for paying such close attention, for seeing something in me, and urging me to share it. That’s what the best teachers can do. I hope I have made him proud.

See The Chosen at the Fountain Theatre

American Theatre Wing releases new documentary film on Fountain Theatre’s ‘Building the Wall’

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Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth, ‘Building the Wall’, Fountain Theatre

You know them as the New York-based organization that presents the Tony Awards and the Obies each year. But the American Theatre Wing provides a myriad of other remarkable services nationwide. It provides grants and scholarships, connect talents at all stages with educational and professional opportunities, and creates content that illuminates and preserves theatre. Founded in 1917 on the eve of America’s entry into World War I by seven suffragettes, American Theatre Wing has spent a century using theatre to advance human experience, empathy and cultural growth by providing a platform for strong and fearless voices in the American theatre.

This week, American Theatre Wing released a new short documentary film it commissioned on the creation and development of the Fountain Theatre’s world premiere production of Building the Wall by Robert Schenkkan.  The riveting new play opened at the Fountain Theatre on March 18, 2017 and was extended to sold-out houses to August 27th. It earned international attention and launched the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere.

The documentary film, Working in the Theatre: Building the Wall, is an episode in The Wing’s Emmy® Nominated series produced to entertain audiences by revealing theatre’s inner-workings, profiling industry luminaries, and taking a closer look at unique stories that surround important work.

“We’re very proud and honored to have our production chronicled by the American Theatre Wing, ” says Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “Robert’s play is triggering a national conversation. It’s a privilege to have our process at the Fountain Theatre documented and permanently archived by The Wing for the field of the American Theatre.”

For playwright Robert Schenkkan, the documentary carries forward the crusade that began when he first wrote the play in a fury of outrage over the 2016 presidential campaign. For Schenkkan and the Fountain, theatre can serve as a spark for social action.

“Theatre, of course, is about bringing together very disparate groups of people, during which they share a story, ” says Schenkkan. “A story about themselves, about their society, about their culture. And in the sharing of that story, hopefully they learn something about themselves, they are provoked to think more deeply about themselves, to ask better questions, and to leave in some fundamental ways, altered and perhaps more open to the possibility of change.”