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A beautiful reminder of why I chose this life

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Tech rehearsal for “The Chosen”, Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Palo Alto

by Simon Levy

Our acclaimed production of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, adapted by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok, was a wonderful success at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center Taube Koret Campus for Life/Schultz Cultural Arts Hall in Palo Alto this past weekend.

We were invited by Ronit Widmann-Levy, Director of Arts and Culture, because several members of her JCC had seen our production earlier this year in L.A., plus she’d heard about the production at a conference of JCCs in New York. She made arrangements with our Artistic Director, Stephen Sachs, to bring the original cast (Jonathan Arkin, Steven B. Green, Dor Gvirtsman, and Sam Mandel), our stage manager (Miranda Stewart), and myself to remount our production in their 300-seat theatre.

On Monday and Tuesday of last week, Miranda and the actors and I got together for brush-up rehearsals over at the Colony Theatre (the Fountain was busy getting ready for the VIP opening of Cost of Living, our current production). It had been four months since we had done the show and I wanted to make sure the actors had time to get ready. They were remarkable! – they knew all their lines and the old camaraderie immediately returned. It was as if they were still doing the show. They were ready and eager to dive back in.

After packing up and shipping most of the furniture, props, and costumes (except for the beautiful bookshelves, arches, and hundreds of books), we boarded a Southwest flight to San Francisco on Thursday, Super Shuttled to the beautiful Sheraton Palo Alto, took a quick tour of where we would be performing, gathered for dinner at the Town and Country Village near the hotel, then settled in for a good night’s rest.

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Simon Levy and actor Sam Mandell enjoy the plane ride to San Francisco.

Friday was a 12-hour tech day where we re-configured and re-sized our intimate production to the larger stage of the Arts Hall. We re-blocked a few key moments, re-designed the dozens of light cues, laid in dozens more sound cues, and re-configured the special video effect of Hebrew letters that accents a key moment in the play. Even without the bookshelves, archways and library effect, the production sat nicely on their stage, allowing the emphasis to be on the actors.

Center for Jewish Life, Palo Alto, California

Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Palo Alto

Moving a show from one space to another, especially with only one day of tech, can often be stressful and prone to all sorts of mishaps. But we were blessed! I want to give special thanks to the Center’s tech wizards, Nick and Kyle. They could not have been more professional, helpful, creative, and just downright nice! And the same for Ilanit Gal, the Events Manager, who took good care of us. Ronit Widmann-Levy was gracious and welcoming and warmly introduced us to many of the attendees and made sure we had everything we needed. It was a pleasure to work with them, and they made the transition from our intimate space to their larger one, smooth and stress-free.

On Saturday afternoon we had a tech run of the show, made a few adjustments, then prepared for our opening. Spirits were high; there was much joking among the cast as they donned costumes and makeup, re-checked their props, and waited for the 7:30 curtain. The Saturday night show was so oversold that the Center had to add three extra rows of seats to accommodate the 300+ patrons. And word-of-mouth from that performance quickly sold out the Sunday night show. Two full houses… two standing ovations!

CHOSEN LCC posterAt the Q&A after the Sunday performance nearly the entire audience stayed, applauding us, engaging us with intelligent questions, and afterwards they swarmed the actors with more questions and compliments. They loved the show. Just loved it. And they could not have been more complimentary – not only about the acting and production, but also about how relevant the story is; how much it touched them; how certain moments made them laugh or cry or nod in recognition; how Chaim’s book and Posner’s adaptation give life not only to so many Jewish themes and historical moments, but to the dynamics of family, of children finding their own path, of the need for understanding and forgiveness, and how, with empathy and compassion, we actually can hold two opposing ideas in our mind at the same time, and both can be true.

The other thing I heard over and over, both from the JCC staff and audience members, is how the immediacy and three-dimensionality of theatre brings to emotional life the richness of the novel in a visceral way that’s different from reading the book. They entered into the world we created for them, and they were moved.

We were even featured on the cover of J. The Jewish News of Northern California with a full-length article about the production and the novel. 

On Monday morning, we boarded another Southwest flight and returned home.

Theatre of the heart. To touch the heart of another and to remind them of their humanity is our highest calling as artists. Our road trip to Palo Alto was a beautiful reminder of why I chose this life.

Simon Levy is the Producing Director of the Fountain Theatre. 

3,500 technical cues in the play? No problem for this mighty pair of stage managers

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Stage Managers Deena Tovar and Emily Lehrer, “Arrival & Departure,” Fountain Theatre

You may know that the Fountain Theatre’s smash hit world premiere, Arrival & Departure, is highlighted as Critic’s Choice in the Los Angeles Times, has earned rave reviews everywhere, and has been delighting audiences in sold-out houses since it opened in July. What you don’t know is that the magical mixture of lights, video, sound, music and open captioning is operated by only two stage managers in the booth — executing the play’s 3,500 technical cues in a fast-paced running time of 90 minutes. How do they do it?

Production Stage Manager Emily Lehrer and Assistant Stage Manager Deena Tovar make an excellent team.  They share years of professional experience between them but Arrival & Departure marks the first time they have worked together. It’s also the first time they’ve managed a cast of Deaf and hearing actors. 

There was a learning curve on the American Sign Language front, for sure,” admits Emily. “That being said, everyone has been so helpful and supportive as I fumbled my way through.”   

Deena echoes the same enthusiasm. “This has been an amazing experience. Everyone involved with the show are truly remarkable and supportive. Even with my signing skills — or rather the lack thereof — everyone made sure I was learning.”

“I really want to start studying ASL more seriously,” adds Emily. “It’s a gorgeous language, and as a Stage Manager, communication is at the heart of everything I do. So having that asset in my communication toolbox would be amazing.”

Emily Lehrer is from Los Angeles and has worked as Production Stage Manager on several plays at the Fountain Theatre. She has also stage managed for The Latino Theatre CompanyThe Garry Marshall TheatreThe Odyssey TheatreSacred Fools, and at Universal Studios Hollywood.  Deena grew up in Eagle Rock. She has worked as a Stage Manager all over Los Angeles at such companies as Circle X, Open Fist, Casa0101, Shakespeare Center of LA and many more.

“The Fountain is a great place to work,” Deena beams. “It really is like a family. Anything I need is almost always available. Everyone is here to support the art and you can really feel that when you walk in every day.”

They clearly enjoy working together and make a kick-ass team in the booth and in the rehearsal room. What makes them such a dynamic duo?

“Complimentary skill sets, ” says Emily. “Honestly, a lot of it comes from Deena also being a great PSM, and because she knows how to think like a PSM, she is able to anticipate needs and fill in the gaps beautifully. It also doesn’t hurt that we enjoy each other’s company as people. Having team members you genuinely enjoy working with is a gift, and it makes every aspect of the process go more smoothly and easily.” 

Deena agrees. “We both absolutely love our jobs as Stage Managers. We don’t come to work wishing we were doing something else, we walk in knowing we are working in our dream profession. It also helps that we both have very similar styles of stage managing and from that we are able to predict exactly what is needed before it’s said out loud.”

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When Deena first read Stephen Sachs‘ script for Arrival & Departure, and its blend of both Deaf and hearing actors in a production that mixes lights, sound, music, video and open captioning, she was unsure how it would all come together.

“I originally felt it would be difficult for the audience to keep up with everything going on,” she admits. “But during the rehearsal process my concerns were very quickly extinguished. I saw exactly how each word and each scene had to be portrayed to make sure no one was missing out on any moment.”  Emily agrees. “I am so thrilled with the way it turned out.”  

Both have been blown away by the audience reaction. 

“It has been such a balm to see how audiences have responded to the show, ” says Emily. “Especially our Deaf audiences, as they realized with utter joy that this is a production created with them in mind.”

“The audiences have loved it, ” exclaims Deena. “They really enjoy the way the show captures both the Deaf and hearing experiences. I love looking at the audience during intense moments and seeing their reactions. My personal favorite was the reaction of these two women sitting in the front row. Just as the characters Sam and Emily are about to kiss, the two women grabbed each other and shook their heads like they wanted to yell out, “don’t do it!”

Both Emily and Deena feel the play — how it was conceived and the way it is performed — serves a valuable purpose.  

“This production is truly important because it incorporates elements of sign language, captioning and spoken English, ” Deena explains. “This show isn’t only for one audience. It is open for everyone. Everyone can watch and relate. That kind of inclusion is sadly lacking in the entertainment industry.”

“We live in weird, difficult, and downright terrifying times,” states Emily. “Times where hatred, bigotry, and closed mindedness are becoming the new normal. In times like these, creating art is an act of resistance. Creating art that is, by design, inclusive, a celebration of a woman coming into her own, a love story —  is nothing short of revolutionary. “

And now that the celebrated run is soon reaching its final performance? 

“I got to meet some of the funniest, most energetic, and kind-hearted  people, ” Deena confesses. “It really has been an excellent experience.”

“It has been such a beautiful, hopeful reminder of what we can be when we open our arms and our hearts to those who may on the surface appear different than us,” states Emily. “I will cherish it.” 

Emily in booth

Arrival & Departure ends September 30. 

Cast announced for West Coast Premiere of Pulitzer Prize winner ‘Cost of Living’ at Fountain Theatre

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Katy Sullivan

Katy Sullivan will reprise her off-Broadway role in the West Coast premiere of Martyna Majok‘s Pulitzer Prize winning drama Cost of Living at the Fountain Theatre. Her acclaimed 2017 performance as Ani at Manhattan Theatre Club earned Sullivan nominations for the Lucille Lortel Award, Drama League Award, and Outer Critic’s Circle Award.

Joining Sullivan in the Fountain Theatre production are Tobias Forrest  (Wisdom of the Crowd, Special Unit), Maurice G. Smith (Meet the Browns) and Xochitl Romero (Queens, La Jolla Playhouse). Eileen Grubba (Fear the Walking Dead) will understudy Ms Sullivan. John Vreeke directs.

Achingly human and surprisingly funny, Cost of Living is a haunting, rigorously unsentimental play about the forces that bring people together and the realities of facing the world with physical disabilities. Unemployed truck driver Eddie is struggling to rebuild a relationship with his estranged wife Ani, facing life in a wheelchair with a spinal cord injury. Jess, in a job that she desperately needs, is trying to navigate her duties with John, her new boss with cerebral palsy. But, who is really caring for whom? By shattering stereotypes, the play reveals how deeply we all need each other. In addition to the  2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Cost of Living won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play.

Cost of Living opens at the Fountain Theatre October 20 and runs to December 16. Tickets go on sale September 12. More Info

Video and Photos: Opening night party for romantic world premiere ‘Arrival & Departure’

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Playwright/Director Stephen Sachs celebrates with the crowd on Opening Night. 

Love was in the air on Saturday night for the opening of our world premiere of Arrival & Departure, the funny and poignant new play inspired by the classic romantic movie, Brief Encounter. Written and directed by Stephen Sachs, Arrival & Departure  focuses on a Deaf man and a hard-of-hearing woman, married to different people, who meet accidentally in a New York City subway station. Their casual friendship soon develops into deeper feelings they never expected.

Saturday’s Opening Night performance compelled a sold-out audience to leap to its feet in a standing ovation. Afterward, a catered reception was held in our cafe. The warm summer weather was perfect for our invited guests to enjoy the cafe’s cozy outdoor balcony. 

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The cast includes Jessica Jade Andres, Deanne Bray, Adam Burch, Brian Robert Burns, Shon Fuller, Kyra Kotsur, Troy Kotsur, Aurelia Myers, and Stasha Surdyke. They were celebrated at the party by Fountain staff, members of the press, members of the Fountain Theatre Board of Directors, and family and friends. The guests were impressed by the dazzling performance, many commenting on its power and poignancy.

Arrival & Departure is performed by Hearing and Deaf actors in a fully integrated, unique blend of Open Captioning, American Sign Language and Spoken English. In this short video clip, Deaf actors Troy Kotsur and Deanne Bray address the party guests.

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Fountain Theatre earns 7 Stage Raw Theater Award nominations

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Camille Spirlin and Maya Lynne Robinson, “Runaway Home”

The Fountain Theatre has earned 7 Stage Raw Theater Award nominations for our world premiere production of Runaway Home by Jeremy J. Kamps, directed by Shirley Jo Finney. The Fountain production of the funny, moving, and powerful new play about community and the power of family, set in New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina,  received the following Stage Raw Theater Award nominations:

  • Production of the Year 
  • Ensemble – Leith Burke, Jeris Poindexter, Armando Rey, Maya Lynne Robinson, Camille Spirlin, Brian Tichnell, Karen Malina White 
  • Playwriting – Jeremy J. Kamps
  • Leading Female Performance – Camille Spirlin 
  • Supporting Female Performance – Maya Lynne Robinson, Karen Malina White
  • Supporting Male Performance – Jeris Poindexter

The 2018 Stage Raw Theater Awards celebrate excellence on the Los Angeles stages in venues of 99-seats or under. This fourth annual edition includes productions that opened between January 1, 2017 and May 31, 2018.

The Awards ceremony is slated for Monday night, August 20, at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles. 

Full list of nominees

VIDEO: A behind-the-scenes peek in the rehearsal room of ‘Arrival & Departure’

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VIDEO: Watch Deaf actress and hearing actress become one character in ‘Arrival & Departure’

Our upcoming world premiere of Arrival & Departure is performed by a company of Deaf and hearing actors with an innovative blend of Spoken English, American Sign Language and open captioning. All audiences will fully understand and enjoy this funny and romantic love story set in modern-day New York City.

American Sign Language is not a mimed approximation of English. It is its own language unto itself. Complicated and nuanced, ASL has its own syntax and sentence structure and modes of expression. In Arrival & Departure, as Deaf actors sign their lines, the written dialogue is simultaneously spoken aloud by a hearing actor on stage. Two languages become one. 

Take a look at Deanne Bray and Stasha Surdyke as they work through their lines in the play, combining both their talents to become the lead character of Emily.     

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