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Director Shirley Jo Finney: The healing power of ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’

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Lisa Pescia, Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, Monnae Michaell, Tony Maggio  in The Fountain Theatre production of “Citizen: An American Lyric” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The journey of veteran director Shirley Jo Finney to the Kirk Douglas Theatre’s Block Party with The Fountain Theatre’s Citizen: An American Lyric began two and a half years ago, when Fountain co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs called to ask her if she had read Claudia Rankine’s New York Times bestseller Citizen. Or maybe it began in 1997, when Finney directed her first of eight works at the Fountain. Or perhaps decades earlier when, as a recent MFA graduate of UCLA, Finney participated in Center Theatre Group’s New Work Festival at the Mark Taper Forum. Or really long before that, when Finney grew up in a segregated neighborhood and attended all-white schools where she was the only person of color.

In 2015, Sachs told Finney he was considering adapting Citizen for the stage, and that she was the right director for the project. “I read it, and I went, ‘Oh, this is my life,'” said Finney, recognizing her own experiences of “walking through and navigating those torrential waters of mainstream America when you are a person of color or ‘other,’ and what you have to swallow in order to survive.”

Citizen premiered at the Fountain in August 2015; last summer, Finney directed it again at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, just one year after the city was devastated by a deadly assault that took the lives of nine African-Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Every performance was followed by a discussion with the audience. “We felt it was necessary while that community was still healing and that wound was oozing,” said Finney.

There will also be Stage & Audience Talks after every performance at the Douglas, where Citizen is onstage April 28 – May 7, 2017. Citizen touched audiences deeply in Los Angeles in 2015, but much has changed since then—for the cast and crew and for the audience.

The Fountain Theatre production of "Citizen: An American Lyric," at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City, America - 30 April 2017

Shirley Jo Finney

“As human beings we’ve been living our lives…we all evolve,” said Finney of herself and the company. “At the same time, in those two years, there has been a transformation in the collective. I’m interested to see, now, how it’s going to land with our audiences. Because what was maybe specific to a tribe has now expanded…something has been awakened, because ‘the other,’ now, is everyone.” The election, said Finney, “fractured what our belief system is about being an American and being a citizen, and what that culpability and responsibility is.” She added, “Not only do you have to say, ‘What does it mean to be a citizen?’ But also, ‘What does it mean to be a human being?'”

The re-staging at the Douglas offers an opportunity for the show to make a bigger impact in other ways as well. “My designer is excited because we have the height now onstage that we didn’t have in the [Fountain]. Our projections are going to have the impact that we wanted to have,” said Finney.

“I think it’s a healing piece with a historical narrative, and we need it at this point in time,” she concluded. “When you look at what we need as human beings, the three things, if you cut everything away, are: we need to be seen, we need to feel nurtured, and we need to feel safe. Citizen, I think, makes us aware and opens that space for that healing to begin.”

Citizen: An American Lyric is now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre to May 7th.

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This post originally appeared in CTG News & Blogs

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First preview tonight for Fountain’s ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at Kirk Douglas Theatre

2 horizontal B&WCenter Theatre Group‘s Block Party continues with the opening of The Fountain Theatre production of “Citizen: An American Lyric” this Sunday, April 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Based on a book of poetry by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs and directed by Shirley Jo Finney, “Citizen: An American Lyric” will begin previews tonight April 28 and continue for 11 performances only through May 7, 2017.

Block Party highlights some of the remarkable work being done in other, more intimate theatres throughout Los Angeles by fully producing three previously staged productions. The three productions receive the full support of Center Theatre Group and its staff in order to fund, stage and market each production. Block Party began with the Coeurage Theatre production of “Failure: A Love Story” April 14 through 23 and will continue with The Echo Theater Company’s production of “Dry Land” running May 12 through 21.

“Citizen: An American Lyric” fuses poetry, prose, movement, music and the video image in a provocative stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s internationally acclaimed book of poetry about everyday acts of racism in America. Of Rankine’s “Citizen,” The New Yorker wrote that it was “brilliant… [and] explores the kinds of injustice that thrive when the illusion of justice is perfected.” The New York Times wrote that “Rankine brilliantly pushes poetry’s forms to disarm readers and circumvent our carefully constructed defense mechanisms against the hint of possibly being racist ourselves.”

The cast of “Citizen: An American Lyric” includes Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tony Maggio, Monnae Michaell, Simone Missick and Lisa Pescia. Scenic and projection design is by Yee Eun Nam, costume design is by Naila Aladdin-Sanders, lighting design is by Pablo Santiago and original music and sound design is by Peter Bayne. Anastasia Coon is the movement director and Shawna Voragen is the production stage manager.

Audiences are also invited to engage in discussion with the “Citizen” cast and company following each performance during moderated Stage Talks. There will be no Stage Talk held on opening night.

PHOTOS: ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ prepares to join the party at Kirk Douglas Theatre

castWeek one of rehearsal started Tuesday for our upcoming remount of Citizen: An American Lyric, the centerpiece of Center Theatre Group’s Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Originally created and produced in 2015 at the Fountain Theatre, last week was a happy reunion for original cast members, designers , production crew and director Shirley Jo Finney.  

Citizen: An American Lyric is a searing and poetic riff on race in America written by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs. The cast features Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tony Maggio, Monnae Michael, Simone Missick, and Lisa Pescia. 

The company met in the rehearsal room at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and immediately got to work. Day one began with a table reading of the script. As the week progressed, the actors were soon up on their feet pacing through the blocking. Citizen opens at the Kirk Douglas Theatre for a limited run April 30 – May 7.   

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The spirit that smiles on CTG’s ‘Block Party’ celebrating intimate theatre in Los Angeles

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On Wednesday, February 8th, Fountain Theatre Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs was asked to speak at the Board of Directors meeting for Center Theatre Group to share his thoughts on the Fountain’s participation in CTG’s new Block Party.  The following are his remarks:

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Stephen Sachs

I’m Stephen Sachs, the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, which I co-founded with my partner Deborah Lawlor in 1990. We are now celebrating our 27th season. Prior to that, I was an actor – a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In fact, in 1982, one of the biggest thrills of my young career as an actor was standing on stage at the Mark Taper Forum in a small role in the world premiere of Tales from Hollywood by Christopher Hampton, directed by Gordon Davidson. 

I am a playwright, a director, a producer and artistic director. I began running theatre companies in Los Angeles in 1987 – the Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills with Suzi Dietz and Joan Stein – and launched the Fountain Theatre in 1990 to create an artistic home where new plays could be developed and produced that reflect the cultural diversity of Los Angeles and dramatize important social and political issues confronting specific communities in our region and our nation. The Fountain Theatre sits in the heart of the most diverse district in the City. Thirty-two languages are spoken at the local high school.

Our brand phrase is: Intimate. Excellent.  We have artistic relationships with such noted playwrights as Athol Fugard, Tarell McCraney, Robert Schenkkan, Emily Mann, Dael Orlandersmith, Anna Ziegler, Lauren Gunderson, Zayd Dorn. We were just featured in the New York Times on Monday for opening the world premiere in March of Robert Schenkkan’s new play Building the Wall. You can guess what that’s about.

Plays launched at the Fountain Theatre are now being produced across the country, in New York, in London, have been translated into other languages and are now being seen around the world.

I’ve been a theatre maker in Los Angeles for 30 years. I’ve seen the intimate theatre community in Los Angeles grow from a cluster of what was then called “Equity Waiver” theaters in the 1980’s to the vast network of literally hundreds of intimate theaters we have today. Although we still fight for the right to call ourselves a “theatre town” because of the film and television industry – more theatre is now produced in Los Angeles every year than in any city in the world. More than New York. More than London. 

The constellation of intimate theatres in Los Angeles is utterly unique nationwide. There is nothing like it anywhere in this country.  Theaters around the country envied our 99-Seat Plan, which – for 30 years – gave Equity actors the right to hone their craft in an intimate theater without a contract — but not without payment and protections – if they so choose.  The 99-Seat Plan was created by Equity actors. It came out of that spirit of revolution, the right to volunteer your services if you so choose, to insist on the artistic freedom to create. Where budgets and bottom lines were not a factor because nobody was making any money anyway. I don’t have to tell you – there’s a reason why it’s called non-profit theatre.

As many of you may know, Actors Equity has just eliminated the 99-Seat Plan. Against the will of its own membership. LA Equity actors voted overwhelmingly against eliminating the Plan. Equity has done it anyway.  Forcing theatres to now use a very hotly-contested New Agreement impacting every intimate theatre in Los Angeles. Several small theatres are now closing.  The entire landscape of the intimate theatre community will be forever changed.

This makes what you are offering with Block Party so extraordinary. And the timing of it so essential.

With Block Party, Center Theatre Group – the flagship theatre organization in Los Angeles  – is reaching out its hand to the intimate theatre community. Not as a hand-out but as a hand in partnership. Recognizing that our work matters.  Block Party affirms that the work created in intimate theatres is alive and vibrant and an essential part of the cultural life of Los Angeles.  I can not over emphasize how important and meaningful this is. Not only to the Fountain Theatre, and Echo Theatre Company and Courage Theatre Company participating this year, but to all intimate theatres everywhere, throughout our community. 

With one program, with Block Party, you have dissolved the barrier between “big” theatre and “small”, between “us” and “them”.  With Block Party, there finally is now “we”. Together.

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CTG Artistic Director Michael Ritchie

Michael Ritchie, Lindsay Allbaugh, Ian-Julian Williams and the entire Block Party staff have been so open, so inviting, so welcoming. The beauty of Block Party is not only the magic of what’s going to happen on stage, it’s the relationship-building already happening off stage.  The setting up of meetings between our intimate theatre companies and CTG departments, to share ideas and swap strategies, is remarkable and generous and will be beneficial to both sides. 

I’m confident that the spirit of goodwill and partnership that Block Party creates will ripple out and continue, not only for the 38 days of the festival, but throughout the entire year.

I was at the memorial celebration for Gordon Davidson at the Ahmanson last month. Just a few days after that ceremony, I attended a production meeting for Block Party. The juxtaposition of those two events was not lost on me.  Gordon is smiling down on Block Party. He would have loved this. It truly carries forward his spirit of adventure, of risk, his dedication to diversity and inclusion. And I applaud and thank Michael Ritchie, and all of you on this Board, for making that spirit a reality.

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Gordon Davidson celebration at the Ahmanson Theatre.

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Fountain Celebrates CTG’s Block Party and ‘Citizen’ at Kirk Douglas Theatre

party-logosWe came to the Kirk Douglas Theatre on Monday night to express our gratitude to Center Theatre Group, we came to congratulate three local companies and their productions, we came to celebrate intimate theatre in Los Angeles. And, most of all, we came to PARTY!

Approximately 300 theatre folk from all over the LA area gathered for a night of camaraderie, cocktails, live music and tacos as CTG launched its Kick Off soiree for Block Party, its pilot program remounting three intimate theatre productions selected from 2015. The Fountain production of Citizen: An American Lyric joins Coeurage Theatre Company’s production of Failure: A Love Story and Echo Theater Company’s production of Dry Land in this first-ever festival running April 14 – May 21, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. 

CTG Artistic Director Michael Ritchie welcomed the crowd of party-goers on Monday night in the lobby, stressing the importance and value of intimate theatre in Los Angeles and the need to support the high quality of work it creates. After his brief remarks, Ritchie declared, “Time to party!” The happy crowd then moved into the theatre. 

Inside the Kirk Douglas Theatre, each seat was labeled with the name of an intimate theatre company in Los Angeles. It was a meaningful demonstration of the size and variety of the community.

Live music soared from a local high school jazz band. A DJ then kept the party pounding with dance tunes. Free tacos were served to hungry guests. An open bar offered specialty cocktails named for each Block Party company. Our cocktail was named “Fountain Passion,” a tangy mixture of vodka and fruit juices over ice.  

More than anything else, Monday night’s party was an evening for local theatre folk to get together, network, and simply have a good time. It also marked a turning point in the relationship between the city’s largest and most influential theatre organization and the network of smaller companies that populate Southern California.

Center Theatre Group’s goal with Block Party is to acknowledge the high quality of work being created in the intimate theatre community, and to welcome these artists and new audiences in a partnership that celebrates the vibrancy and diversity of Los Angeles.

Let’s get this party started.   

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Fountain Theatre’s ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ chosen for CTG’s Block Party at Kirk Douglas Theatre

CITIZEN Fountain Theatre in Memory 2

‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre

The Fountain Theatre’s acclaimed and award-winning world stage premiere of Citizen: An American Lyric  by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs, has been chosen by Center Theatre Group for the inaugural Block Party: Celebrating Los Angeles Theatre at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Directed by Shirley Jo Finney,  Citizen will begin previews on April 28, open April 30 and close May 7.

“We’re thrilled to be partnering with CTG on its first-ever Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre,” said Sachs. “It’s particularly meaningful to us that ‘Citizen’ was chosen because racism and white dominance in America is as timely now, since the election, as it ever was. The project also reflects the diversity of our work at the Fountain Theatre.”

The Fountain Theatre’s world stage premiere of Citizen earned rave reviews and an extended run in 2015. The Los Angeles Times heralded it as “Powerful” and highlighted it Critic’s Choice. Stage Raw declared it “a transcendent theatrical experience,” later honoring Stephen Sachs with the Stage Raw Theatre Award for Best Adaptation.

The original cast featured Bernard K. Addison, Leith Burke, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Simone Missick, Lisa Pescia. The extended run included Monnae Michaell, Karen Malina White, and Nikki Crawford.

A meditation on race that fuses poetry, prose, movement, music and the video image,  Citizen: An American Lyric is a provocative stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s internationally acclaimed book of poetry about everyday acts of racism in America. Of Rankine’s Citizen, The New Yorker wrote that it was “brilliant… explores the kinds of injustice that thrive when the illusion of justice is perfected.” The New York Times wrote that “Rankine brilliantly pushes poetry’s forms to disarm readers and circumvent our carefully constructed defense mechanisms against the hint of possibly being racist ourselves.”

Center Theatre Group received seventy-six submissions for its new Block Party program and selected three local intimate theatre productions. It will also remount Coeurage Theatre Company’s production of Failure: A Love Story by Philip Dawkins, and Echo Theater Company’s production of Dry Land by Ruby Rae Spiegel.  Each production will have a two-week run presented April 14 through May 21, 2017.

The selected shows will receive the full support of Center Theatre Group and its staff in order to fund, stage and market each production. Full casting will be announced at a later date. Tickets will go on sale to the general public in February.

Gordon Davidson: An inspiration

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By Stephen Sachs

If Los Angeles had a Mount Rushmore, the visage of Gordon Davidson would be on it. Such a monument to the City of the Angels would include many faces, from a variety of disciplines. Politics, the arts, architecture,  sports, business. With names like Mulholland, Chandler, Griffith, Bradley, Getty, O’Malley, Wright, Disney. And the name Gordon Davidson.

Starting in 1967 with the launching of the Music Center and the Mark Taper Forum, Gordon Davidson’s 38-year leadership of Center Theatre Group made him not only the Founding Father of Los Angeles theatre but one of the most influential artistic leaders in the city’s history. He planted the theatre flag in the sand for Los Angeles and put our city on the theatrical map.

With Gordon’s passing, and the loss of Arena Stage’s Zelda Fichandler this summer, the generation of bold visionaries who created, established and fought for the ideal of non-profit theater in this country, upon which all of us follow, are exiting.

For me, as a theatre artist growing up in Los Angeles, with a dream of some day creating my own theatre company, Gordon’s light was inspiring and his shadow monumental. But working with him and getting to know him revealed the kind, generous and supportive man he was. If you were a passionate theatre person, he was always on your side.

Gordon first influenced the course of my artistic life when he cast me in the world premiere of Tales from Hollywood, a new play by Christopher Hampton at the Mark Taper Forum in 1982 starring Paul Sorvino. I was twenty-three. It was my first acting job in the professional theater. I got my Equity card thanks to Gordon Davidson.

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The house on Mabery Road

Gordon commissioned Christopher to write the play inspired by the history of Gordon and Judi Davidson’s home on Mabery Road in Santa Monica Canyon . The 1929 house once belonged to Austrian actress and screenwriter Salka Viertel. It became a meeting place in the 1940’s for German exiles during the war, including Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas and Heinrich Mann. Greta Garbo and Albert Einstein would visit. Famous actors, writers, and filmmakers of the era would gather each week for a Sunday salon in the house to eat, drink and argue politics and art. During the run of Tales From Hollywood, Gordon and Judi hosted a company party at their home where we all enjoyed an afternoon gathering and experienced the stimulating atmosphere of the notable house firsthand. The home not only held the history of the celebrated émigrés  who met there years ago. It also displayed proof of the remarkable career of the man who lived there now. Among the family photos on the walls hung posters, playbills, and backstage photographs from Gordon’s extraordinary life in the theatre. I remember the framed drawing of Gordon by Al Hirschfeld in particular.

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Drawing by Hirschfeld

As a young actor who grew up in Los Angeles, standing on the stage of the Mark Taper Forum in my first professional production was exhilarating. Like stepping into a dream. The Mark Taper Forum was my Mecca. The epicenter of LA Theater. For me and most actors in Los Angeles, to be working at the Taper was like passing through the portal of professional and artistic arrival. It was where you wanted to be, you needed to be. And that was all because of Gordon.

I loved being there. Not just on stage. All of it. The rehearsal rooms, the offices, the circular backstage hallway that curved around the playing area. The walls decorated with posters from Taper productions, each signed by the actors, many now famous and admired. My young hand trembled when I added my simple signature to our wall poster for Tales from Hollywood.

In the Taper hallways I would stare at the framed photographs from the 1979 world premiere of Children of Lesser God, created and performed on the Taper stage just three years before my arrival there. In the photos there was Gordon, directing John Rubinstein and Phyllis Frelich in that ground-breaking production which showed the world the power and beauty of American Sign Language on stage. Though my own commitment and contribution to deaf theatre in Los Angeles would be years away, a seed had been planted.

That same 1981-82 season at the Taper, just seven months before I appeared there, the newest play by Athol Fugard, A Lesson from Aloes, had been staged. I did not meet Athol that year, but our paths would cross nearly two decades later and an artistic partnership would be formed that would change my life. By way of Gordon Davidson and the Mark Taper Forum.

I savored my time at the Taper. I would sit in the empty arena, watching Gordon direct his company in the home he had fathered, and dream of someday creating a theatre home of my own.

When I finally opened the Fountain Theatre with my colleague Deborah Lawlor in 1990, Gordon and the Taper were entering a renewed phase of artistic achievement with the premieres of Jelly’s Last Jam, The Kentucky Cycle, Angels in America, and Twilight: Los Angeles. The Taper was riding a crest of award-winning national acclaim under Gordon’s unending passion, guidance and leadership.

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Gordon Davidson, Athol Fugard, Stephen Sachs, at Fountain Theatre, 2004

Meanwhile, on Fountain Avenue, our modest theatre company was blossoming. In 2000, Athol Fugard surprised all of us by arriving one night to see our work. He offered me his new play, Exits and Entrances, in 2004 and a 12-year artistic partnership began that continues to this day. Gordon attended our world premiere production of Exits and Entrances and was beaming like a pleased uncle. So caring and supportive.

The last time I spoke with Gordon was a brief hello at the memorial service for Phyllis Frelich held at the Taper two years ago. By this time, I knew Phyllis well and had worked with her many times. She was a founding member of Deaf West Theatre, which we launched at the Fountain in 1991. Her memorial at the Taper was a gathering of the many deaf and hearing artists and friends in the community who knew and loved Phyllis. And a bittersweet reunion of the core team that had created Children of a Lesser God on that very stage: John Rubinstein, Mark Medoff, Robert Steinberg, and, of course, Gordon Davidson. Although eighty-one and moving more delicately, Gordon spoke passionately from the stage he once led about the power of theatre as a vehicle for human connection and a trigger for social change. Theatre still fervently mattered to him. Like a wise elder preaching from the pulpit, Gordon still believed.

And now he is gone. But not really. Because the hundreds of new plays he helped create, develop and produce over nearly four decades will endure forever. And the hundreds of thousands of lives he has impacted will be forever changed. Including one Artistic Director on Fountain Avenue.

The intimate Fountain Theatre is a fraction of the Taper’s size and budget. But that doesn’t matter. The words of Gordon Davidson continue to inspire and remind me that “the great thing about the theatre is that it’s dealing with the art of the possible. What’s possible is not limited by money, but by imagination, and vision.”

Gordon had the vision to see what was possible. The city, and ourselves, are forever richer for it.

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