Category Archives: playwriting

Cast announced for special reading of Lauren Gunderson’s ‘Natural Shocks’ at Fountain Theatre

Actresses Amy Pietz, Victoria Platt, Suanne Spoke, and Sabina Zuniga Varela will combine their versatile talents to play the same lead character in a special reading of Natural Shocks, Lauren Gunderson’s funny and powerful new play on gun violence and gun control, at the Fountain Theatre on Friday, April 20th at 11:19am. Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs directs.

The timing is intentional: April 20 is the 19th anniversary of Columbine and the day of the National School Walkout, organized by the student activists in Parkland, Florida. The reading at the Fountain Theatre starts on April 20th at 11:19am, the date and exact time of the Columbine shooting.

“The Fountain Theatre has a long history of social and political activism,” explains Sachs. “Our celebrity reading of All the President’s Men at LA City Hall and our world premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall are recent examples. With Lauren’s play, I believe we need to add our voice,  as theatre artists and citizens, to the national outcry of young people across the country against gun violence and advocate for gun control in this country.”

Amy PietzAmy Pietz has appeared in over 300 episodes of television, most recently starring opposite Jason Alexander on Hit The Road.  She was a series regular on No Tomorrow, The Nine Lives of Chloe King, Aliens in America, Rodney, The Weber Show, Muscle and Caroline in the City (SAG Award Nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy).  She has had recurring or guest starring roles on: You’re The Worst, The Magicians, The Office, Trust Me, Maron, How To Get Away With Murder, Dexter, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and many others.  Film roles include those in The Year of Spectacular Men, Halfway, Prom, The Pact II, Autumn Leaves, Rudy, Jingle All the Way, Dysenchanted, Jell-Oh Lady, The Whole Ten Yards, and others. Her favorite theatre credits include: Stupid Fucking Bird at the Theatre @ Boston Court (Ovation Award, LA Drama Critics Circle Award), The Boswell Sisters at The Old Globe Theatre, Christmas In Naples at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Lobby Hero at the Odyssey Theatre (Ovation nominated), Fiorello and Company (Ovation Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical).  Currently producing a film on gun control called Bodyman, Amy is passionate about getting guns off of our streets.

Victoria PlattVictoria Platt is currently in Antaeus Theatre Company’s production of Native Son. THEATRE: Jelly’s Last Jam (BROADWAY), Building the Wall and Roxy in Cyrano (Fountain Theatre), Venice (Public Theater & Kirk Douglas Theatre – Ovation Award Nom), Sammy (Old Globe), Pippin (Mark Taper Forum, Asphalt (Red Cat), Atlanta (Geffen).  Select TV/FILM: Major Crimes, Bones, The Mentalist, Castle, Criminal Minds and contract roles on both All My Children & Guiding LightH4 (adaptation of Henry IV which she co-produced with Harry Lennix & Terrell Tilford) and as Josephine Baker in HBO’s Winchell. Upcoming film:  #Truth (Charles Murray dir.), The Gleaner (opp. Angus MacFadyen, Harry Lennix dir.), InterferenceFramed and CW’s Lucifer.

Suanne SpokeSuanne Spoke has an extensive career in theatre, television & film, appearing in the critically acclaimed film Whiplash and starring in the feature film Wild Prairie Rose,  winning multiple awards on the festival circuit. On television Suanne recurred on Switched at Birth, Famous in Love and has guest-starred on many others. She can currently be seen recurring on General Hospital. She has performed at numerous theatres and has won every major acting & producing award in Los Angeles including three-time recipient of the Ovation Award/Lead Performance by an Actress. She was most recently seen in the West Coast premiere of Athol Fugard’s Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek  at the Fountain Theatre. Suanne serves on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts, teaching acting in the Graduate Film Directing program.

Sabina Zuniga VeraleSabina Zuniga Varela, a native New Mexican based in Los Angeles, is an artist, educator and organizer committed to the path of social justice, authentic representation and storytelling.  She is an award winning theatre actor with an MFA from the University of Southern. California. She also holds an MA in Special Education with a focus on twice-exceptional/gifted learning. She is currently a producing director for the LA based theatre company: By The Souls of Our Feet. Most recently she was seen on stage at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival & Portland Center Stage in the title role of Luis Alfaro’s Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles and was seen in Season 3, Episode 3 of ABC’s American Crime.

Based on Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” Natural Shocks is a classic Gunderson play: a 60-minute tour-de-force that bursts to life when we meet a woman waiting out an imminent tornado in her basement. She overflows with quirks, stories, and a final secret that puts the reality of domestic violence and guns in America in your very lap. The play is part confessional, part stand up, and part reckoning.

“The play is written as a solo play for one actress,” explains Sachs. “I have Lauren’s permission to have four actresses read the role, as one voice. Together, they are one woman — and all women. I think having the play read by four women adds diversity, theatricality and a stylized musicality that is worth exploring.”

“I wrote the story to continue to push the narrative away from the perpetrators of gun violence and toward the people whose lives are lost, shattered, and shadowed because of it. So many of these people are women. And there is such a tight connection between violence against women and gun violence,” insisted Gunderson.

Gunderson is right: the connection between domestic violence and gun violence is well documented. More than half of the mass shootings from 2009-2016 involved a partner or family member. Nearly half of American women who are murdered are killed by their intimate partners. American women are 16 times more likely to be killed by a gun than women in other developed nations. The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that the woman will be killed. In short, domestic violence and grievances against women are the “canary in the coalmine” for gun violence. Any effort to end gun violence must address domestic violence as well.

Lauren GundersonLauren M. Gunderson is the most produced playwright in America of 2017, the winner of the Lanford Wilson Award, the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award and the Otis Guernsey New Voices Award, she is also a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and John Gassner Award for Playwriting, a recipient of the Mellon Foundation’s 3-Year Residency with Marin Theatre Company, and a commissioned playwright by Audible. She studied Southern Literature and Drama at Emory University, and Dramatic Writing at NYU’s Tisch School where she was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. Her work has been commissioned, produced and developed at companies across the US including South Cost Rep (Emilie, Silent Sky), The Kennedy Center (The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful And Her Dog!), Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The O’Neill, The Denver Center, San Francisco Playhouse, Marin Theatre, Synchronicity, Berkeley Rep, Shotgun Players, TheatreWorks, Crowded Fire and more. She co-authored Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley with Margot Melcon, which was one of the most produced plays in America in 2017. Her work is published at Playscripts (I and You, Exit Pursued By A Bear, The Taming, and Toil And Trouble), Dramatists (The Revolutionists, The Book of Will, Silent Sky, Bauer, Miss Bennet) and Samuel French (Emilie). Her picture book Dr Wonderful: Blast Off to the Moon was released from Two Lions / Amazon in May 2017.

Reserve Seats to Natural Shocks at Fountain Theatre. National website

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Happy 28th Birthday, Fountain Theatre!

FT April 1 2016Twenty-eight years ago today, on April 1st, 1990, co-founders Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs opened the doors of the Fountain Theatre. What began as a dream and an empty building on Fountain Avenue has blossomed into one of the most successful and highly regarded intimate theatres in Los Angeles. 

The Fountain Theatre provides 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.

Enjoy this video, created three years ago to celebrate our 25th Anniversary. It shares who we are, what we do, and why.  

From rejection pile to Pulitzer Prize: Women of color rise to take stage as playwrights nationwide

 

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Vickie Ramirez, unidentified, Nikkole Salter, Roberta Uno, Dionna Michelle Daniel, Marissa Chibas, Lynn Nottage (photo: ArtsChangeUs)

by Dionna Michelle Daniel

On March 6th, I had the pleasure of participating in the book launch at The Public Theater for the anthology Contemporary Plays by Women of Color edited by Roberta Uno. Not only was a scene from my play, Gunshot Medley, performed that afternoon but I also performed onstage with my actors Derek Jackson & Morgan Camper. 

Gunshot Medley stretches across the Antebellum American south through present day to weave a rich history of the Black-American experience, responding to the historical expendability of Black bodies and the lives lost to hatred, racism, and police brutality. I first wrote the play in response to the Charleston church shootings and the debate surrounding the insensitive usage of the Confederate flag. The play, combining spoken word and live music, sheds new light on the American slave narrative while paying homage to the real Betty, Alvis, and George, three historically documented slaves that died in North Carolina before the emancipation proclamation was signed.

After the selected scene performances, such playwrights included in the anthology as Lynn Nottage, Marissa Chibas, Nikkole Salter, Vickie Ramirez and I signed books in The Public Theater’s lobby. The energy in the room was magnetic and powerful with so many women taking up that kind of space. 

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Vickie Ramirez, Dionna Michelle Daniel, Marissa Chibas, Oskar Eustis (photo: ArtsChangeUs)

None of this would have been possible without the genius of Roberta Uno (Director of Arts in a Changing America). Roberta edited the 1st and 2nd editions of the anthology, the 1st edition being published a little over 20 years ago with such playwrights as Anna Deavere Smith and Elizabeth Wong. I even remember discovering the 1st edition in my undergraduate library while perusing the shelves, hoping to find work that represented me. As a young undergraduate actress at the California Institute of the Arts, I was thankful to have instructors such as Nataki Garrett and Marissa Chibas who aided in helping me find material I could relate to.

However, I know this is not the case for every young person of color (POC) actor and actress who is currently seeking a degree in acting. So often, I’ve heard my fellow black actors at other institutions talk about not knowing any contemporary black material they can do scene work from. They say that their instructor is usually giving them material from August Wilson’s body of work. Although August Wilson’s work is beautiful and presents the African-American experience in such a deep and profound way, it appears we have forgotten there are other great black writers out there. And, of these overlooked black playwrights, it is the women who are most forgotten.

At the book launch, Roberta Uno spoke about how she acquired a lot of the material for this current anthology. She said she spoke to many theaters and artistic directors asking for their rejection piles. It was clear to her that in this rejection pile was where most of the work submitted by women playwrights resided.

On the bright side, it seems that the theater world is embracing more female playwrights and stories. While I was in NYC that week, I witnessed Soho Rep’s production of Aleshea Harris’s play Is God Is. Not only did I have a mind-blowing experience, but I was in awe and so proud of this all-black cast telling such an epic tale by a young black female playwright. 

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“Is God Is” at Soho Rep.

Is God Is is a fascinating piece of theater because it mixes so many genres: Afro-Punk, Spaghetti Westerns, and experimental theatre all into one cohesive piece. I read the play on my flight to NYC and Harris’s use and experimentation with language completely breaks new ground. Even the way that the actors embodied this text was refreshing and eye-opening. It really inspired me as a young playwright to see other black female writers getting recognition for pushing the boundaries of what a play “can” or “should” be. Harris was actually the first winner of The Relentless Award, which was established to honor actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. The American Playwriting Foundation’s website says, “The Relentless Award is the largest annual cash prize in the American Theater awarded to a playwright in recognition of a new play.”

Also, in the past year, women of color playwrights have been killing the game in other avenues. Dominique Morisseau’s Ain’t Too Proud broke Berkeley Rep’s house record in 2017 and currently, CTG and LATC have produced all three plays in Quiara Alegeria Hudes’s Elliot trilogy. It is quite evident that times are changing.  And in the words of Maxine Waters, it appears women of color playwrights are indeed, #ReclaimingOurTime!

Dionna Michelle Daniel is a playwright and the Outreach Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre.

 

 

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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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 Miranda

by 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