Tag Archives: Los Angeles Times

From Schenkkan to Shakespeare, the same urgent warning

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Victoria Platt and Bo Foxworth in ‘Building the Wall’

By Stephen Sachs

One play was written more than 400 years ago, the other last October. Both written by playwrights worried about the future of their countries. One author took months to pen his work, the other took one week.  One writer has been dead 400 years, one is very much alive, chronicling the current political crisis of his time with a dire new play now playing on our Fountain stage. Both authors and their plays have been in the news in recent weeks, igniting a firestorm of national conversation on the role of theatre to express political outrage, and its fundamental right and responsibility to do so. The Fountain Theatre is a voice in that debate. 

As many know, The Public Theater’s production this month in New York of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar drew fire from Right-Wing Conservatives for its depiction of the ruler as a petulant Trump-like politician with blondish hair and a sullen Slavic wife.  Outrage from Conservatives targeted the play’s depiction of Caesar’s assassination, missing the larger meaning of the play, as if director Oskar Eustis was advocating the killing of the current president. Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrew their corporate sponsorship. Right-Wing groups hired demonstrators to picket the venue and harass theatergoers. Protesters heckled the live performances and wildly stormed the stage to stop the play mid-show. The demonstrators’ feeble attempts may have halted a performance momentarily but, in each instance, the show went on. If anything, it drew national focus to the very thing it schemed to suppress. Art cannot be stopped.

Most discouraging to me, the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that hails itself as providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation, distanced itself from the production by releasing a statement declaring that NEA funds were not used to support this staging of Julius Caesar. An ironic stance for a federal arts agency whose very existence Trump has vowed to destroy.

Julius CaesarBy William Shakespeare Directed by Oskar Eustis Featuring Tina Benko (Calpurnia); Teagle F. Bougere (Casca); Yusef Bulos (Cinna the Poet); Eisa Davis (Decius Brutus); Robert Gilbert (Octavius); Gregg Henry (Caesar); Edward James Hyland (Lep

‘Julius Caesar’ at The Public Theater, NY

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Fountain Theatre has been running our sold-out world premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s new play, Building the Wall. It is a riveting drama set in the near future exposing the vulnerability of one man caught up in the horrific unraveling of Trump’s anti-immigration policies.  Robert and I knew the play would generate some interest from the press. Neither of us anticipated the avalanche that has ensued. We’ve been bombarded by interview requests from everywhere. The play and the Fountain production were featured in national news outlets across the country, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and TIME magazine. Plus international coverage in the UK and France. “Theatre in the Age of Trump” is now suddenly a hot topic.

untitledThe Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar and the Fountain Theatre’s production of Building the Wall coincided this month.  Newspapers on both coasts featured stories on both productions, with Oskar Eustis and Robert Schenkkan speaking out boldly for not only the right, but the necessity of freedom of speech and unrestricted artistic expression in this country.  The subject of ‘The Politics of Theater’ became a significant Arts cover feature in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.     

The Right-Wing protesters who stormed the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park no doubt never read Julius Caesar and certainly knew little about it. They focused on the killing of the king, unaware of the greater warning the tale foretells: Beware when you get what you want. A tyrant in power mandated to save the republic can lead to the destruction of the very republic he vows to protect. Shakespeare demands us to recognize that more than a ruler is assassinated in this tragedy. It is democracy itself that is murdered.

Julius Caesar and Breaking the Wall expose the same fatal wound within ourselves. Our susceptibility to become what we hate. Rick’s slow and seamless transformation in Building the Wall, from well-meaning Trump follower to death camp superintendent is so nightmarish and appalling because it seems somehow plausible. This is how Schenkkan and Shakespeare caution us. This dark truth is perfectly crystalized by Shakespeare when Cassius warns, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” It is not fate, but weakness of character that forces a person to act against his will.

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Playwright Robert Schenkkan in rehearsal, Fountain Theatre

“The danger is always giving over your moral calculus to the state,” Robert Schenkkan has said. Fighting a tyrant does not mean imitating him. Julius Caesar no more advocates the killing of a king than Building the Wall promotes the mass detention and extermination of immigrants. Neither play is about genocide or the murder of a tyrant. Each is about the killing of social and political order, played out in the souls of specific human beings. Building the Wall is a razor-sharp two-character play that takes place in one room. Two people in extreme close up.  

Shakespeare based his play Julius Caesar (some say he stole entire sections of it) from Plutarch’s biography of the ruler. Of his examination Plutarch said, “It is not histories I am writing, but lives.”

Plays, too, are about lives, not ideas. Good plays, plays that matter and live forever, have compelling themes and thought-provoking viewpoints and concepts but they are told through the dramatization of human lives. The power of Building the Wall lies in how it puts a human face on the inhuman. It reveals the dichotomy of opposites alive in one man: the wish to do what is right versus the inability to see, and speak out against, what is wrong.   

For all of us at the Fountain Theatre, Building the Wall is more than a play. It is a defining moment, one of many that help set our compass as a company and as artists. Who are we? Why do we do what we do? What is our service, our responsibility, to the community, to our nation?   

This administration fears artists for the same reason it has banned TV cameras from live press briefings. It is terrified that the American people will see the truth. Our role as theatre artists, like that of a free press, is to be truth-tellers.  And to fight for the freedom to speak it, through art.

I am so proud that the Fountain Theatre took the stand of leadership in launching Robert’s new work, and that it continues to ignite this firestorm of conversation, artistic soul-searching and journalistic examination.  That our world premiere production is not only still running after four sold out months but has been extended through August is a testament to its urgent necessity and the overwhelming will expressed by our audiences to engage. 

When art and politics collide like this on a local and national level, theaters like ours, and the art we create, become indispensable not only to our city, but our nation. 

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre, Los Angeles.

‘Bakersfield Mist’ holiday party donates toys for homeless children

bm-holiday-party-3Holiday theatre-goers enjoyed a special treat last night at our smash hit production of Bakersfield Mist. After leaping to their feet in a standing ovation for the funny and thought-provoking performance, the crowd gathered upstairs in our festively-decorated cafe for a holiday party with the cast and company. Patrons brought unwrapped toys and gifts to be donated by Fountain staff to homeless children at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles.

Party revelers enjoyed tasty holiday foods and yummy drinks. Guests included Fountain patrons, Fountain staff, the company of Bakersfield Mist, and members of the LA theatre community. 

Bakersfield Mist continues its extended run through January 30th. The hit comedy/drama starring Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett has earned rave reviews everywhere and is highlighted as Critic’s Choice in the Los Angeles Times, hailed as a “delightful and provocative comedy.” 

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Wishing you a safe and joyous holiday season, from our Fountain Family to yours.

Bakersfield Mist extended to Jan 30th 

Claudia Rankine, author of ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’, wins 2016 MacArthur ‘genius’ Award

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‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre

by Carolyn Kellogg

Poet Claudia Rankine was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship grant for her work that engages with contemporary American culture, particularly issues of race. Her most recent book, 2014’s  “Citizen,” racked up stacks of awards for its searing take on the personal and political, including the death of Trayvon Martin. Rankine, who taught for many years at Pomona College, is now on the faculty at Yale University. We talked to her about the MacArthur grant and what it means for her work.

What was it like hearing about the award?

It’s very exciting, very surprising, which makes it more exciting.

I’m in my mid-50s. This is an incredible honor, but I’ve been lucky enough to get my work done with or without it. So I feel like having this award given to me at this point in my career, I think in my own imagination, what else? It makes me want to do even more in terms of the subject of my work.

The subject of “Citizen” is, in part, the death of black men in America. And that subject is renewed again as we’re talking. I wonder if you could address that.

To me, the getting of this honor is a kind of recognition, obviously a monetary recognition, which is helpful. But it’s also for me the culture saying: We have an investment in dismantling white dominance in our culture. If you’re trying to do that, we’re going to help you. And that, to me, is encouraging. The MacArthur is given to my subject through me. The subject of trying to change the discourse of black people being equated with criminality and murdered inside a culture where white fear has justified the continued incarceration, murder of blacks and other people of color. I do feel like I am just incidental in a certain way to the prize, and that the prize is being given to the subject — that I am completely invested in.

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Claudia Rankine at Fountain Theatre

Could you talk about your ongoing creative project?

Before I was notified about the MacArthur I had been in the process of putting together with Casey Llewellyn,  and a number of writers and artists, the Racial Imaginary Institute. Which for us is an interdisciplinary arts and cultural laboratory for the dismantling of white dominance. One of the things I think the culture needs is an actual location where writers and artists and thinkers can come together and put pressure on the language that makes apparent white supremacy and white dominance. I think a lot of us are working separately on these subjects, but it would be nice to have a Racial Imaginary Institute that really has as its goal the dismantling of white supremacy. That each of us can go at it inside of our fields. If you’re a writer, you have the benefit of talking to other artists who are interested in the subject. What are we missing? What isn’t getting said? What are the narratives of white greatness that disallow other things to be brought to the surface? I’m very excited about the creation of the institute, the making of the space, the notion that culturally we’ll know where to go to have these discussions, to actively look at the absences and the erasures around the construction of race, especially the construction of whiteness in America.

Where will it be?

Right now we’re looking for a space, but I assume it will be in New York City. Right now we exist as people with a mission and a name. And with work [the essay collection “The Racial Imaginary” was published by Fence Books in 2015].

When you heard about this award, did you think, I’m buying an island and we’ll have our institute!

No, I think that it’s the kind of thing we’ll have to work toward getting funding for. Not even the MacArthur money can put something into the world like that. I really believe that the culture can change the way we think. Right now we have a media culture, television culture, pop culture that still moves forward on many assumptions around whiteness that we all know to be erroneous and hurtful. I think that this institute could begin to make products — books, give talks, present readings, make art — that shifts the understanding into a place that reflects an actual reality rather than the constructed realities around whiteness.

Tell me a little about the aesthetics underlying your work.

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Stephen Sachs, Claudia Rankine, Shirley Jo Finney

I’m committed to an interdisciplinary investigation of cultural dynamics. The reason I will forever identify as a poet is because I think poetry is the one genre that privileges feelings. And so no matter what I’m working on, I’m also interested in the impact of the reality with the human psyche. So for me, the work has to bring the reality up against the experience of the reality. And all of my work is how do you get that to be apparent, and apparent in language? The felt experience. For example, right now we know that 60% of African Americans and Latinos live in communities where you have toxic-waste sites. Now that’s a fact. But how do I get that to be a lived experience inside a work of art? That’s the challenge as a writer and as an art-maker. How do you get the piece of art to enact a discussion that feels plausible inside your own living room? Right now I’m working on a play that draws from “Citizen.” The real challenge is how do you bring the kinds of conversations around race that happen at 7 o’clock over the dinner table onto the stage? So that when you go to the theater to see it, you know you’ve had that conversation.

So that there’s a kind of recognition.

There has to be recognition. One has to step into the moment as a lived experience. Even if the circumstances seem foreign, the experience needs to connect as a known realm on the emotional level.

Adapted by Stephen Sachs and directed by Shirley Jo Finney, The Fountain Theatre’s acclaimed 2015 stage adaptation of Citizen: An American Lyric was heralded Critic’s Choice in the LA Times, and won the Stage Raw Award for Best Stage Adaptation.

Carolyn Kellogg lives in Los Angeles and is an award-winning LA Times staff writer who covers books and authors and publishing. This post originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. 

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Actors’ Equity Association vs. Los Angeles Theater

 

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris, Executive Director of LA Stage Alliance

by Steven Leigh Morris

PART I:
The National Stage Union is Sued (Yet Again) by Its Own Members

If the showdown between the New York-based actors/stage managers union, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA, or Equity), and the L.A. theater community were a soap opera, I’d have changed the channel long ago. This show has been on the air since 1986, and these guys really need to come up with some fresh storylines.

For the uninitiated, last year, AEA announced that it was terminating the 99-Seat Theater Plan, an agreement between the union and its L.A. County membership that’s been in place since 1989, though it’s been regularly modified since then.

The Plan governed the way most of L.A. theater was performed for almost 30 years. It permitted its 7,000-8,000 union actors to volunteer in L.A. County theaters of no more than 99-seats, should they wish to do so, for reasons of artistic fulfillment and/or professional advancement. Examples of the latter include multiple examples of shows produced under the 99-Seat Plan transferring — often with the actors who created those roles — to larger theaters under contract within Los Angeles as well as to other cities, including Chicago and New York.

The Plan also presented a boon of opportunity to playwrights, whose new works wouldn’t stand a chance in theaters with higher production budgets. But that’s another story.

As volunteers under the Plan, union actors had the right to leave at any time. The actors were guaranteed minimal expense stipends per performance from the producers along with union health and safety protections. The 99-seat cap was designed to ensure that producers wouldn’t exploit the actors financially. A ticket price cap was also built in, for exactly the same reason, along with a cap on the number of performances for all such productions. This was all agreed to in the 1989 out-of-court settlement of a contentious lawsuit filed by a number of actors against their union in September, 1988. Those plaintiffs, led by actress Salome Jens and including some of the same plaintiffs who returned for another round in 2015 (Tom Ormeny, Maria Gobetti, Joseph Stern and Gary Grossman), believed that in a field (the theater) with such pervasive unemployment, the union had been unreasonably restricting their right to work under conditions and for reasons that they (the actors) found useful.

Among the litany of complaints in the current lawsuit is that Equity refused to meet for an entire year with the L.A.-based “Review Committee” that was created in the 1989 out-of-court settlement. Among the purposes of the Review Committee was to advise the union on its proposed changes to the Plan. On learning in November, 2013, that the union intended to end the Plan, the Review Committee requested a meeting with Equity to discuss these rumblings. Equity’s 99-Seat Plan Administrator, Michael Van Duzer, granted that meeting eight months later, in July, 2014. But shortly before that meeting, Equity’s Executive Director Mary McColl fired Van Duzer, cancelled the meeting, and never scheduled another.

Now let’s flash back for a moment, to the mid 1980s. You’ll find the complaints on both sides to be almost identical to today’s. This failure of the union to meet with representatives of L.A.’s small theaters, for example, was a pattern that had unfolded about 30 years prior.  Continue reading

‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ wins Stage Raw Theatre Award for Best Adaptation

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Lucy Pollak, Stephen Sachs, Deborah Lawlor, Simon Levy, Karen Kondazian, William Sachs

Stephen Sachs’ stage adaption of Citizen: An American Lyric won the Stage Raw Theatre Award for Best Adaptation at last night’s ceremony at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Created, developed and produced by the Fountain Theatre, Citizen earned rave reviews in an extended run in 2015.

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The Stage Raw Awards at the Los Angeles Theatre Center

Launched in March 2014, by Los Angeles theater critic and playwright Steven Leigh Morris, Stage Raw is a digital journal dedicated to discovering, discussing and honoring L.A.-based arts and culture. The 2016 Stage Raw Theatre Awards recognize the artistic accomplishments of intimate theatres in Los Angeles for the 2015 calendar year.

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Stephen Sachs

Adapted from the internationally acclaimed and  award-winning book of poetry by Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric is a lyrical and provocative dramatization of everyday racism in this country. Stage Raw declared it “a transcendent theatrical experienceand the Los Angeles Times hailed it as “powerful”, highlighting it as Critic’s Choice.

 

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre and the author of thirteen plays.  His plays are produced in regional theatres across the country, have been made into a CBS TV movie, and are translated into other languages and produced worldwide.  

Sachs’ adaptation of Citizen: An American Lyric will open June 3rd at the Pure Theatre in Charleston, SC, just four blocks from Mother Emanuel Church, as the city and the nation marks the one-year commemoration of the tragic shootings there. Future productions of the play are planned nationwide.   

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.  

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‘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.