Tag Archives: Exits and Entrances

‘Building the Wall’ to open Off-Broadway

BUILDING THE WALL NYCRobert Schenkkan’s powerful new political thriller Building the Wall, now playing to sold-out houses at the Fountain Theatre, will open Off-Broadway at New World Stages for a limited run May 12 to July 9th.  The New York production will feature Tamara Tunie (“Law & Order: SVU”) and James Badge Dale (“13 hours”, “The Departed”),  directed by Ari Edelson.

“We are thrilled Robert’s play will increase the national conversation on these issues by making its New York debut, ” says Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “I am very proud that the Fountain Theatre has lead the charge by launching the world premiere of this urgent new play.” 

The Fountain Theatre opened the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of Building the Wall on March 18, directed by Michael Michetti and starring Bo Foxworth and Judith Moreland. The production has earned rave reviews and is still playing to sold-out houses. The current run continues to May 21. 

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Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth in “Building the Wall”, Fountain Theatre

“This announcement comes from the core of our artistic mission at the Fountain,” says Sachs. “We are dedicated to developing and producing new plays that are later seen in theaters across the country and around the world.” Examples include Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances, which premiered at the Fountain and opened Off-Broadway at Primary Stages, Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, and Sachs’ own Bakersfield Mist, now being produced worldwide after a 3-month run on London’s West End.

Building the Wall at Fountain Theatre

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. 

Fountain Theatre: Creating theatre in Los Angeles that is seen around the world

CITIZEN Fountain Theatre feel most colored

‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre

by Josh Gershick

Citizen: An American Lyric, the play, takes its title and text from a book of prose poetry by Claudia Rankine, finalist for 2014 National Book Award in Poetry and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, among other plaudits. Writing in the New York Times last June, after six black women and three black men were shot to death by a self-avowed white supremacist at a Bible-study meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, Ms. Rankine said, “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black .”

The play – “a fast-moving collage of colliding events, fragments, vignettes and streams of consciousness”-is deeply compelling. Here, a chat with Stephen Sachs, co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre and the playwright who brought Citizen to the stage.

JOSH GERSHICK: Citizen is a beautiful piece of theatre, addressing persistent racism head on.  Talk about theatre’s (and this play’s) ability to move, transform, agitate and uplift an  audience.

STEPHEN SACHS: In 2014, when Claudia’s book was being published, Michael Brown was killed in Fer­guson, MO. I had been looking for a theatre protect that would add a unique voice to the national conversation about race in America. Racism is embedded in the fabric of our  country and its founding.

We may all be created equal, but we certainly are not perceived that way by each other. I wanted to make a statement that would open the eyes, minds and hearts of audiences in unexpected ways. Quite by accident, I was caught by a review of Citizen in a national newspaper. The title immediately grabbed me. When I actually got the book, it flashed in my mind that this was the voice I was looking for. What makes the book-and the theatre piece – unique is that they expose and illuminate the sometimes unintended and unconscious acts of everyday racism. Subtle, insidious, soul crushing-the little murders we commit daily. Micro-aggressions between friends and co-workers at the market, in the office and on the subway. What we say, how we think, what we do. White privilege and dominance have been so deeply [ingrained] in this country. The play makes you see it, feel it, and think about it. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?

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Stephen Sachs

JOSH GERSHICK: You’ve said you’d like theatre-goers to come away with a new awareness of how they themselves might perpetuate racism. A white theatre-goer cannot, in my view, see this piece without confronting his or her own attitudes: ideas. But what is the takeaway for audiences of color, who are on the receiving end of  racism?

STEPHEN SACHS: A dramatization of white domi­nance. A truth-telling. We had a full mix of white and  black  audience  members  throughout  the run at the Fountain Theatre. Black  patrons  had  a wide range of reactions to the play: the laughter of recognition, gasps, silence, tears. The unease of, “I can’t believe you’re really saying that,” and the delight of “I’m so glad you are.” And because it’s all about exposing and revealing hidden (and not so hidden) racism, the piece carries the call of giving voice and speaking out.

JOSH GERSHICK: The run was clearly a success. (Mazel Tov on your Stage Raw Award!) What’s next for the play?

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‘Citizen’ at Pure Theatre in Charleston, SC. 

STEPHEN SACHS: The play now is beginning its fu­ture life around the country. I’m proud that Citizen is being performed in Charleston this June, in a the­atre just four blocks away from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, to mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting there. On June 17, when we reflect on that national tragedy, the play will be there. This is deeply meaningful to me. This is why we do what we do. This is who we are. A New York production is also in the works.

JOSH GERSHICK: I think of LA theatre, 99-seat theatre, as an incubator, a cradle, a hothouse and a glorious lab for bringing forth new, compelling work-Citizen, for example and revisiting work that remains seldom pro­duced, such as the work of Alice Childress. What per­centage of new work launched at the Fountain Theatre goes on to regional stages and to NY?

STEPHEN SACHS: The Fountain Theatre is a home for artists and audiences to gather together in an inti­mate setting to share stories that illuminate what it means to be a human being, with the goal that new plays are then seen in theatres across the country and around the world. We may be small in size, but we’re large in heart and dedication and purpose.

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Kathleen Turner in ‘Bakersfield Mist’, West End, London.

Quite a number of new plays created, developed and launched at the Fountain have now been produced across the U.S.and around the world. Sweet Nothing in Ear has been performed  around the country and was made into a TV movie starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin. What I Heard About Iraq has been performed internationally, winning the Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Our world premiere of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances was produced around the country, then opened Off-Broadway at Primary Stages in NYC, then went overseas to the Edinburgh Festival. Bakersfield Mist, per­formed in theatres across the country, ran for three months on the West End in London, starring Kath­leen Turner, and is now being produced in regional theatres throughout the country and translated into other languages and performed worldwide. The list goes on and on.

JOSH GERSHICK: Recently a New Yorker said to me, “Oh, is there theater in Los Angeles?” True, actors, writers & directors typically make their living here in TV, film & digital platforms, but we have amazing theatre-and most abundantly and energetically, intimate theater.

STEPHEN SACHS: Los Angeles still fights for its right to be called a “theatre town,” even though-and this may surprise you-more theatre is produced in LA than any other city in the world. More than New York or London.And according to a recent report, Los Angeles is also home to more working artists than any other city in the United States. The national profile of theatre in Los Angeles has never been higher. More and more new plays cre­ated here are being produced nationwide. Still, the myth is that LA theatre is somehow less serious and that LA actors do theatre only to be seen by casting directors in “the industry,” and not for the art of the work. This simply is not true. It’s a lie. And much of the most satisfying work and the most challenging new plays are being done in LA’s intimate theaters. Larger theaters can no longer afford to take artistic risks, so all that adventurous, artistic energy is humming in the intimate theatre community. The spirit behind it, the force to create, has transformed the cultural landscape of Los Angeles.

Josh Gershick is a playwright, filmmaker and author. This post originally appeared in The Dramatist, the national magazine for The Dramatist Guild

Fountain Theatre’s ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ to get Off-Broadway production

CITIZEN color logoCitizen: An American Lyric, adapted for the stage from Claudia Rankine’s award-winning book of poetry by Rankine and Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs, will headline Primary Stages’ 2016-17 season at Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre. Citizen premiered at the Fountain Theatre last summer to critical acclaim.

“We are thrilled that yet another Fountain project has succeeded in moving onward and upward,” says Sachs. “In 2007, our world premiere production of  Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances was presented Off-Broadway by Primary Stages, so this continues our relationship with them. Claudia and I are working together on a new draft for the New York premiere.” An announcement for the NY opening was featured in The New York Times.  

CITIZEN Fountain Theatre in Memory 2

‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre

An intensely provocative and unapologetic rumination on racial aggression in America, Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric has been heralded as one of the best books of the past decade and received the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. In this new stage adaptation by Rankine and Sachs, seemingly everyday acts of racism are scrutinized as part of an uncompromising testimony of “living while Black” in America, from the shooting of Trayvon Martin, to the tennis career of Serena Williams and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his “critic’s choice” review of the Fountain production, Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty wrote, “Claudia Rankine’s powerful writings about the trauma of racism make for a staging and message that resonate,” and Stage raw critic Myron Meisel called it “a transcendent experience.”

“We are particularly pleased that this piece will have a life in theaters across the country,” added Sachs. “By enlivening Claudia’s powerful book to the stage, we add our theatrical voice to the national conversation on race in America.”

Other plays written by Sachs that were created and launched at the Fountain’s intimate venue in Hollywood include Bakersfield Mist, now produced worldwide including London’s West End starring Kathleen Turner; Heart Song, produced at Florida Repertory Theatre; Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (adapted from August Strindberg’s Miss Julie) at Vancouver Playhouse and Canadian Stage Company in Toronto; and Sweet Nothing in My Ear which has been produced nationwide and was adapted into a TV movie starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin.

The world premiere production of Citizen: An American Lyric at the Fountain Theatre was directed by Shirley Jo Finney and starred Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Simone Missick and Lisa Pescia. The director and cast for the Primary Stages production have not been announced.  

For more information about the Primary Stages production of Citizen: An American Lyric, visit www.primarystages.org.

‘A Fountain of Work’ at the Acclaimed and Award-Winning Fountain Theatre

FT angel building JT photoby Sylvie Drake

When Stephen Sachs was a student at Agoura High, he won a national high school writing award and was offered several writing scholarships. He turned them all down. Why? “I wanted to be an actor,” he answered a bit sheepishly.

He became one in the 1980s, but it’s the old story. As reality set in, he began to direct, write plays and help run theatre companies. He was a manager at Ensemble Studio Theatre, worked behind the scenes at Stages in Hollywood, and with Joan Stein and Suzie Dietz at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. Until he got a phone call “out of the blue” from Deborah Lawlor, another independent theatre producer.

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Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs

Lawlor had met Sachs at Stages when she rented space there, and was impressed by him. While recuperating from a serious auto accident in New York, she decided that, if she survived, she would do what she’d always wanted: have her own theatre. She called Sachs and asked him to run it with her. That was 1990. You might say that the rest is history, but not so fast…

“I was just starting to develop as a playwright and director,” Sachs said. “Deborah had a dance background. She was part of the avant-garde dance scene in New York in the 1960s and 70s. The Judson Dance Theater, Café Cino, the whole thing. Her idea was to create an artistic home for theatre and dance artists.”

As a wise friend once told me, we tend to enter our lives through the back door. Looking around for a suitable space, Lawlor and Sachs were shown a funky building at 5060 Fountain Avenue in Hollywood and fell in love with it. They named it the Fountain for the street it sat on, but also, Lawlor said, “I liked the idea of a fountain of work…”

“We opened our doors on April Fool’s Day 1990—the perfect day to start a theatre company,” said Sachs, “and we’ve been there ever since. Los Angeles being such a diverse city, we wanted to do work that would give voice to a variety of communities.”

Which is how the theatre’s association with Flamenco dance began.

Flamenco dancer Maria Bermudez

Flamenco dancer Maria Bermudez

“Through Deborah,” specified Sachs. “Shortly after we opened she asked, ‘Have you ever seen a Flamenco concert?’ I said no and she said, ‘Come with me.’ We got in the car, drove up to Santa Barbara and she introduced me to Roberto Amaral, a well respected Flamenco teacher and choreographer. I saw my first Flamenco concert and was blown away. ‘We’re going to do that at The Fountain,’ Deborah said. And now we’re the foremost regular presenters of Flamenco in Los Angeles.

“When we started it was just Deborah, me and the building. We plugged in a couple of phones, drove down Western Avenue and bought a couple of desks. We had to assemble them ourselves. We made our own programs on a manual typewriter. It was all very small, very modest.”

In many ways, it still is. “But from the beginning,” added Sachs, “we felt we were on to something. We did The Golden Gate, a play I had adapted from a charming novel by Vikram Seth about yuppies, gays and straights living in San Francisco—romantic and fun, beautifully written, and entirely in verse. It was like 30-somethings meet Shakespeare. We did it up in San Francisco, so right out of the gate, our work was being noticed. It’s just been a slow kind of gentle growth ever since.”

Key words: Slow. Gentle. Growth. Add: Challenging.

While next year will mark their 25th year in business at the same address in a virtually unchanged environment, and they have a lot to show artistically for the past quarter century, big profit is not one of them. Lawlor has delivered financial support when needed, while Sachs has delivered a stream of noteworthy plays, becoming that unusual creature: a playwright and director with his own sandbox. Together, they’ve built a loyal audience and done work that has brought them recognition and has traveled pretty far afield.

Sachs has had 11 of his plays produced during that time, many of them at the Fountain, quite a few elsewhere—from The Pasadena Playhouse to Toronto, from Chicago’s Victory Gardens to Vancouver. A quick Google search offers an impressive list of directing and playwriting credits.

Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap) finds release through dance in 'Heart Song'.

Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap) finds release through dance in ‘Heart Song’.

Currently, his play Heart Song, which recently premiered at the Fountain and is about the transformation of a middle-aged Jewish woman “separated from her tribe and very much alone,” is filling up houses at Florida Rep. His 2012 two-hander, Bakersfield Mist, about the encounter of a celebrated art dealer with a woman in a Bakersfield trailer convinced she owns a major work of art, opens in June at The Duchess Theatre in London’s West End. It features Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid.

“There’s been something special about this play from the start,” said Sachs. “I directed the world premiere at the Fountain and was on the 101 freeway driving to my first production meeting, when I had a call from my agent telling me the script had been optioned for New York. I had to pull over!”

Bakersfield Mist received three other productions around the country as part of the National New Play Network (NNPN), an organization of theaters of which The Fountain is a member. It was founded in 1998 with the intent of giving new plays more than one production.

“They do this thing called ‘rolling world premieres,’ ” Sachs explained, “guaranteeing at least three productions of a new play. Sweet Nothing In My Ear, another play of mine that premiered at the Fountain, went around the country through NNPN and then was made into a Hallmark movie with Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels. A new version of Strinberg’s Miss Julie that I wrote was produced that way as well. We want to continue doing more of that.”

Bakersfield Mist had productions at Wellfleet Harbor Theatre in Cape Cod, New Rep in Boston, the New Jersey Rep and was optioned by Sonia Friedman, a major New York and London producer. “They’d never seen a production of it,” said Sachs. “They read that script sent by my agent and optioned it for London and New York. Now they control the U.S. rights.”

Ian McDiarmid and Kathleen Turner in the London production of "Bakersfield Mist"

Ian McDiarmid and Kathleen Turner in the London production of “Bakersfield Mist”

In 2004, the Fountain drew the attention of no less a playwright than South Africa’s Athol Fugard, who chose the tiny Fountain for the world premiere of an exquisite and very personal two-character play: Exits and Entrances. It was followed by the U.S. premiere of Fugard’s The Blue Iris, The Train Driver, Victory and the West coast premiere of Coming Home.

When asked how many productions the Fountain puts on per year, Sachs answered: “Trick question. We’ll announce four, but actually do two or three. Our productions tend to extend and run for a while which is a nice problem to have. So we announce four and see how it goes.”

Productions are no longer pegged to specific dates, but to seasons — Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter — allowing for greater flexibility. Sachs and Lawlor threw out the old model of rigid slots when they found themselves closing hits because they had committed to a new show on a given date. With just 80 seats to sell, they had to think more creatively. “We changed everyone to a flexible pass and we’ve never looked back. This allows us to keep a hit going. It also allows our subscribers the flexibility to come at their convenience—a good thing when decisions today tend to be so last-minute.”

So is the small physical plant a plus or a minus?

“It’s a question we’ve been wrestling with for years,” Sachs acknowledged, “a tug between ambition and what is right for the company. We even explored Hollywood quite a bit, looking to find maybe a second space or larger building, thinking, boy, how much bigger we could be. Yet talking with Fugard about this, he said, ‘Don’t. Don’t do it.’ Maybe he’s right…”

"The Train Driver" by Athol Fugard

“The Train Driver” by Athol Fugard

So here’s the dilemma: Awards and recognition are certainly not lacking, but breaking even—let alone making money—is a perennial struggle. The staff has ballooned to six people: Lawlor and Sachs, producing director Simon Levy, tech director Scott Tuomey, associate producer James Bennett and head of subscriptions Diana Gibson. The budget has “a little more than doubled” since they opened their doors. It does not easily enable profit.

“There are times when I wish we had more seats, a bigger stage,” said Sachs, “but there are plenty of examples out there of smaller theatres that have gone on to larger buildings and have regretted it or have lost something in the move; suddenly the focus becomes the real estate and maintaining the overhead.

“I don’t ever want to lose the magic of this intimate space. It makes for such a visceral experience. But after almost 25 years, there’s also a question of growth. We can’t become stagnant or complacent and we do want to continue building forward. You don’t want to sell your soul and you don’t want to lose what makes this theatre special.”

Lawlor concurred. She’s writing a play for which she’s received a grant and acknowledged that “our losses have decreased; we may even show a tiny profit this year.”

The future?

“Expanding fund-raising; exploring the possibility of adding 19 seats to our existing space. Not easy,” said Sachs, “but we can do that under the 99-seat Equity Waiver and 19 seats could make a difference. Other than that, we’re looking to expand our exposure across the country and having more of our work done at other theatres.”

So the funky Fountain remains the-little-theatre-that-could, on its funky street with its broken sidewalk, its postage-stamp parking lot, and widely enjoyed by many people who apparently have found out that they really, really like what it has to offer.

 

Fountain Member Spotlight: Ejike and Victoria Ndefo

Victoria and I have been residents of Los Feliz for more than 25 years. We love theatre and we fell in love with The Fountain Theatre the first time we saw a play there about ten years ago. We immediately became subscribers even though we subscribe to other theatres in the greater Los Angeles area. We are continually impressed by the originality and quality of the plays at the Fountain, as well as the intimate environment. As such, The Fountain is a great place to see the plays of great writers like August Wilson and Athol Fugard; and we have seen them all, – Gem of the Ocean, The Train Driver, Coming Home, Exits and Entrances, and the most recent classic, The Blue Iris. We will be remiss if we do not mention the professionalism and friendliness of The Fountain staff. They have always been gracious in accommodating us since our business requires frequent travel out of town. 

– Dr. and Mrs. Ejike Mdefo

 

Fugard and the Fountain

Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris”

Back in the year 2000, legendary South African playwright Athol Fugard was residing in Del Mar, teaching playwriting, acting and directing at UC San Diego — while continuing to turn out the prolific body of work that had earned him worldwide acclaim.

He heard from friends of his, whose opinions he respected, that the Fountain Theatre in LA had mounted a very good production of his 1984 play, The Road to Mecca. With trepidation, Fugard traveled to the Fountain to see what this director named Stephen Sachs had done to his work.

Six Fugard/Fountain Theatre collaborations later, the Fountain is now presenting the US premiere of Fugard’s latest work. The Blue Iris, helmed by Sachs, opens Friday, in celebration of the master playwright’s 80th birthday and his ongoing collaboration with the Fountain.

Athol Fugard

In a telephone interview from New York, Fugard admits, “I’ve always been wary of seeing plays of mine that I myself hadn’t directed.  Eventually I went to the Fountain and saw this marvelous production, staged by Stephen.  I met Stephen and I met the cast of that production and found myself saying to Stephen, ‘I want my next play to be done in your theater.’  I loved the feel of it.  Everything about it felt right — the theater, the size of the space, the atmosphere.  It was perfect for my sorts of plays.  So, when my next play was ready, I brought it to Stephen.”

Sachs has his own memory of his first encounter with Fugard in 2000. “I was told he never goes to see productions of his plays that other people do.  Well, I learned he was coming. Of course, I was excited and terrified. I didn’t tell the actors that Athol was there.  After the performance, during the applause, I want backstage quickly and told the actors, ‘There’s someone I want you to meet.’ The actors came out and I said, ‘I would like you all to meet Athol Fugard.’ And they all screamed. Of course, we were all so happy when he told us he loved our production.  We all went out afterwards. And we just kept corresponding after that. When Fugard was directing Sorrows and Rejoicings at the Mark Taper [in 2002], I kept saying to him, ‘If you’re ever looking for a small, intimate, artistic home to develop a new work, away from a larger theatrical institution, where you can just work quietly in a nurturing environment, the Fountain is yours’.”

One day in 2004, Fugard sent Sachs an e-mail with a file attached to it. The e-mail message read, “Attached to this file is my new play and I want you to direct it.”  The play was Exits and Entrances, which went on to garner three Ovation Awards and a slew of LADCC, LA Weekly and Backstage honors.

Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins

Fugard’s newest work, The Blue Iris, recently premiered in Cape Town and has since moved to Johannesburg.  It is a three-character play in one act, which Fugard takes time to carefully explain.

“The inspiration for this play came from two directions. It is set in the Karoo, a semi-desert area in the heart of South Africa, where several of my plays have been set. One of the features of this rather small area is a very beautiful mountain.  I’ve climbed that mountain several times, often with a friend. It is quite a stiff climb but a good one, not dangerous really. We always used to park our car at the foot of the mountain at a lovely old farmhouse, which was owned by a very cordial farmer. He became a friend of ours.  When we would come down from our climb, he was always  there waiting for us with something to drink or to eat.  It was a great relationship. But on this one occasion when I went with my friend to climb the mountain, we arrived at this farmhouse to find it had been totally destroyed by a fire, which was started by a lightning strike. This wonderful man and his wife were living in a little tent outside the house, just trying to salvage what they could.

Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill

“The second image which inspired this play came from a farmer’s wife, totally unrelated to the first farmer I mentioned. She was a wonderful painter of wild flowers, of botanically accurate wild flowers. These weren’t only pretty paintings, these were botanical drawings that helped you identify the flower — the seed capsule, the root structure, everything. It was a fusion of those two images that finally brought me to writing The Blue Iris.  There were a lot of complex personal issues that came into the play as well. I had a sense of how we men can get so absorbed in our own egos, our own personalities, never fully realizing what damage we do to others on the way.”

Fugard pauses in his discourse and chuckles. “I don’t think I properly understand the play yet, myself. I mean that. We writers quite often don’t know what we’ve written about.  There have been many times that I haven’t known what the full resonances are of the story that I’ve told.   It has often been only when I have been in the rehearsal room directing actors, helping them to understand the characters that they in turn helped me to understand what I had written.”

Stephen Sachs and Morlan Higgins.

“I received The Blue Iris a few months ago,” Sachs continues. “I knew about the play for a few years.  I know that Athol was working on it, developing it. I knew that he was going to present the world premiere in South Africa, which is pretty much his way of working now. They’ve named a theater after him, the Fugard Theatre.  I am honored to be doing it here at the Fountain.  My cast includes two Fugard regulars here at the Fountain, Morlan Higgins and Jacqueline Schultz.  Julanne Chidi Hill is new to the Fountain.  She’s a discovery.

“This work has some classic Fugard themes in it – the search for hope, the struggle with loss and the fight for dignity.  It is a love story and very much about finding the courage and strength to move forward in what sometimes can seem like bleak and painful circumstances. It is a profoundly human story about these three individuals who live together in this house: this man Robert, who was a farmer, his wife Sally, who is deceased, and their housekeeper Rita.

“The play begins after the house has been burned to the ground by a fire and Robert and Rita are sifting through the debris. She wants to move on and take Robert with her. While going through the debris, they discover a painting of a blue iris that his wife Sally had done. Finding that painting triggers memory and forces Robert to look at the truth of the reality of his marriage to Sally.”

Fugard will not be at the Fountain for its debut. “I’ve been here in New York for a whole year directing plays, currently The Train Driver. This is also a play that Stephen Sachs has done. This is its New York premiere. I will be coming to see Blue Iris.  I am leaving New York this coming Sunday and flying down to San Diego.  I’m going to give myself a bit of a rest first and then come up to Los Angeles to see Stephen’s production.  I am not going to tell him the date because I don’t want any fuss or bother when I come to see it. I am just going to quietly slip into the theater.”

Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins

As for the future, Fugard wants to keep it simple. “I do not multi-track. I work on one play at a time, like a good alcoholic goes one day at a time. My home now is in Del Mar.  My plans for the immediate future are to go back to South Africa in September to direct a new play that I haven’t got a title for yet, because I am still putting the finishing touches to it.  I’ll decide on a title a little bit later on. I will always premiere my work in South Africa. And I’ll probably always think of the Fountain as the next possibility.”

— Julio Martinez, writes for LA Stage Times

The Blue IrisFountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave, LA 90029. Opens Aug 24. Plays Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Sep 16.   323-663-1525.www.fountaintheatre.com/perform.html

***All photos by Ed Krieger