Tag Archives: new play

VIDEO: Actor Tobias Forrest urges you to experience the human connection in ‘Cost of Living’

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Playwright Martyna Majok destabilizes assumptions about disability with “Cost of Living”

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Martyna Majok

Martyna Majok  won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her original play Cost of Living. Staged at Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC) last summer, after a brief run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, the play opens at the Fountain Theatre on October 20.

Cost of Living tells two parallel, relationship-driven stories. John hires a caretaker, Jess, and the pair chip away at their judgmental personalities, slowly becoming friends; and Eddie looks to reconcile with his wife, Ani, after a prolonged period of separation. John has cerebral palsy (CP), a condition caused by abnormal brain development that is characterized by impairment or loss of motor function. Ani, because of a car accident, is a quadriplegic, meaning that all four of her limbs are paralyzed, although Majok’s script notes that “some of the fingers of one hand are partially functioning.”

Katy Sullivan

Katy Sullivan in “Cost of Living”, Manhattan Theatre Club.

Actress Katy Sullivan, who played Ani at MTC to great acclaim, is a bilateral above-the-knee amputee, a disability different from the character Ani’s quadriplegia. Sullivan will return to the role of Ani for the Fountain Theatre West Coast Premiere. Actor Tobias Forrest,  a quadriplegic, plays John.  Jess and Eddie are able-bodied characters played by Xochitl Romero and Maurice G. Smith.

The following conversation is an excerpt from a January 2018 interview with Majok conducted by Melissa Rodman, a Harvard College senior who wrote her thesis on staging disability in 21st-century American theater. Majok discussed how Cost of Living uses humor and sexuality to paint a picture of four messy, contradictory, funny, and flawed people, destabilizing assumptions about disability.

Melissa Rodman (MR): I was wondering if we could start off talking about Cost of Living and where the inspiration for the play came from, particularly the disabled characters.

Martyna Majok (MM): It started with a monologue. I was struggling economically. I always kind of have. I grew up with very little money, so for me, all the plays are about class. Cost of Living was about class; queens is about class. All these plays are in conversation with class, but America is so focused on identity. That is their lens through which they see just about every play. I don’t know if it’s the same for literature and things like that, but I think particularly for plays where you really have the bodies on stage.

So they said, “Oh, you wrote a play about disabled people or about disability.” I thought, “Well, no, it’s a play about class and loneliness, and it also happens to be told with two disabled bodies.”

So I had that monologue. I didn’t know what to do with it. What am I going to do with this 10-minute play? And, a few months later, I was asked for the 10-minute play festival to write about jobs. And so I thought about my most memorable job, and it was working with a man with CP, while I was in Chicago.

I went to the University of Chicago as an undergrad, and when I graduated, I ended up working for a graduate student at the same university. And so I wrote about that—I mean, I didn’t fall in love with him [laughs]—but I felt like this is a world that most people will not know about. And so, I went with that, and when we presented it, it was a really fascinating experience for me.

My play starts, and it’s just this woman standing onstage, speaking to someone offstage. And as soon as the character John enters in a wheelchair, everybody got so quiet. You felt them feel nervous. And it was so palpable to me. I didn’t know what it was. Were they nervous that I was about to make fun of a disabled character? Were they nervous at just the image of a disabled body?

Tobias

Tobias Forrest co-stars as John at the Fountain Theatre

I have a friend who says that disability is like a walking reminder of mortality, that when somebody looks at a disabled body, they’re thinking about the fallibility of their own body and death. I’m thinking about that, and I didn’t know, and I thought, “Oh god, my play’s gonna tank.”

And as soon as John has the first joke, the audience was like, “Okay, okay. We can laugh.” But it was like they were still kind of feeling it out. But because he had the control in the scene, and he had the jokes, and he was in charge, people felt comfortable.

And they could laugh and kind of grow with the people. So I thought, “This is fascinating. I have to make a play that put two disabled bodies onstage.”

The stories about disabled characters that I had seen tended to be one of two kinds: one was the “Oh he’s gonna run the marathon,” that sort of an inspirational story, where disabled characters just are such saints that they almost aren’t actual people. So there’s a distance already there.

And the other is the dying-with-dignity narrative, which I think is very dangerous. It makes it seem like there’s only two options. You either have to be an inspirational amazing-genius-achievement person, or you must want to kill yourself. I wanted to make sure that I countered that and offered another narrative, and also for them to have humor and sexuality.

MR: I noticed while reading the play that the stage directions and descriptions of the real physical interactions between the characters really come across. I was wondering how your experiences informed your scripting the play?

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Martyna Majok

MM: There are so many things, like how do you shift your weight to be able to accommodate a body being moved from a wheelchair? There are so many specific things, that I would just walk the actors through it. I can’t imagine writing that or trying to figure that out without having experienced it.

The first time I went in, and kind of got trained—I think it was my first day—and the guy, who I was working for with CP was clearly so used to training people how to help him, and so he walked me through it. And so onstage, I walked them through it.

And then for the quadriplegic character, Ani, I had to do more research on my own.

I never wanted to rely on an actor doing my dramaturgy, so I researched as much as I could with that, and talked to people. The two were kind of a combination of past experience and research outside.

MR: That makes sense. I’m thinking more about the playwright’s notes at the beginning, which are very extensive. What was going through your mind when saying Ani and John have to be disabled people playing these characters?

MM: I mean, it’s funny. It became such a big thing. I had just written it thinking, “Well, of course. Like, of course. Did you guys ever think that you had to cast it differently?”

It blew my mind, but then of course I remembered celebrities like Eddie Redmayne and Sam Claflin, the Me Before You actor, played disabled people.

MR: The Jake Gyllenhaals.

MM: Jake Gyllenhaal. People will look at plays and think, ‘Well, at one point he walked, so we have to cast a celebrity and CGI [computer-generated imagery] his legs.

You could CGI the legs onto someone with a disability, if you would like to, to be able to actually give these people opportunities to represent themselves onstage in their own stories. But I think a lot of people will cop out in that way, because it’s economic, like you’re saying.

It’s a risk to cast an unknown actor, disabled or able-bodied. And I understand that, but also if you continue to not let disabled actors play disabled characters—or any character, to be honest—then they’re not going to get the exposure and the experience to then become the Jake Gyllenhaal. R. J. Mitte from Breaking Bad, he’s now an offer-only actor. He’s somebody who was cast in Breaking Bad, who has CP, and now he’s a name. Now more opportunities are open to him, and people consider him for larger roles.

Because it’s not my identity, because I’m not a disabled person, I felt like it would not have been right if I had also taken—not just the identity I wasn’t—but to have it told with people for whom that it’s not their identity.

I think people have been using the excuse, “We just don’t know any disabled actors.” We did a lot of casting. I knew Gregg, who played John at MTC, from like six years before I wrote the play. I didn’t write it for him, but after I had written it, I thought, “Oh, I know somebody who can do this.”

For Ani, it was not difficult to find a disabled actor, it just was difficult to find the right actor, in the way that it is for any role. The most difficult thing was finding somebody who could be brash and have humor and be believably working class, and that was harder than it was to find a disabled actor.

Katy Sullivan wall lean

Katy Sullivan

MR: And when you had this team, what did you think about, in terms of actually staging the disability with these four bodies that were assembled? Did things change from script to stage? And then, of course, there are the two iterations, at Williamstown and at MTC.

MM: It’s interesting, ’cause when you see Katy in a wheelchair, you see that she doesn’t have legs and doesn’t have knees. Sullivan was born without knees and legs. So people kept calling the character she played, Ani, a double amputee.

There’s all these things on the Internet, “The play’s about a double-amputee.” I’ve tried so painstakingly to specify the character Ani is a quadriplegic, not a double-amputee. But they’re gonna see what they’re gonna see. From the Williamstown production to the MTC production, the rewrites that I made in between were clarifying exactly what the disability is.

I can say, ‘cerebral palsy,’ and people who don’t know anybody with cerebral palsy might not know exactly what that means. Some people think it’s like an accident versus neurological birth disability. And so, I decided, “Okay, I’m meeting the audience where we’re at.”

I want everyone to come in with a common knowledge. I want them all to feel safely taken care of, and that they’re all on the same knowledge plane. So I think I assumed more people would know more than they did about CP and would listen to more of the language versus see Katy and assume she’s in a wheelchair because she’s a double amputee.

Most of the rewrites were actually about the Jess character. The rewrites tended to be me having to explain how somebody who went to Princeton could end up sleeping in their car. ’Cause this was unbelievable to an audience. [laughs] And so I had to put in clues about how things broke in her life along the way, that she would end up being there.

At one point when I was working on the one for Williamstown, I asked Gregg to describe to me what his body felt like to him, and then asked his permission if I could use some of that language. And so that’s the part [in the play] where he’s talking about his body.

He walked me through what it would feel like to kind of walk, for him specifically, because he went through a lot of dance—physical dance—training, and things like that that enabled more mobility than for somebody who didn’t go through that kind of training. And so he walked me through what the body feels, and I thought that was interesting and important, ’cause I also didn’t know what it feels, literally what it feels like, and we’re talking about bodies. And so, in that sense, that was a really great collaboration.

And, I mean, the stages were different. Williamstown has a raised proscenium, so at one point they just realized, because the actors are in motorized wheelchairs, if they go out of control, they’re going to end up in the audience. [laughs]

You do have to kind of change things a little bit, but it’s fine. There’s ways, you know, it’s just part of it.

MR: You mentioned different kinds of audience perceptions of all of the characters. Can you talk a bit more about the audience response and how that factored into some of the staging choices?

MM: I think most of them had to do with responses to class, I guess.

There was an interesting experience Gregg had after a show.

Katy comes out, and she has her prosthetic legs on, and she doesn’t enter in the [prop] wheelchair. And Gregg enters walking, also without his prop wheelchair.

There was somebody who came up to him after the show, and said, “I’m so glad that you’re not actually disabled. Oh my God! Thank God!” And he told them he actually is disabled, that he does have CP. But this response of “Thank God! Thank God it was just pretend!” That was really interesting.

I was at some of the talkbacks, and I think people were surprised at the humor. They were expecting a certain kind of story.

With the last three plays I’ve done, which all have serious capital letters—they’re about poverty and immigration and disability—people are assuming that that’s gonna be a sad story [laughs], or it’s just gonna be a super serious story. I’ve learned to train audiences early on that they can and should laugh.

So I front-load a lot of jokes that I usually give to the person that is the “other,” that’s gonna be perceived as the “other,” so that they’re the ones who are in control of the humor and driving it, and the audiences connect with that person.

MR: Are there any other things that you wanted audiences to take away from the characters?

MM: I think the one about suicide or the idea of giving up never came into the conversation. Sexuality was a big one. I wanted to have sexy scenes and have a person taking agency with their own sexuality and pleasure. Hopefully, it’s like a widened lens that somebody has about another person’s life. It’s a wider empathy that they have.

I have a lot of friends who are disabled. I have a huge group of playwriting friends, but part of that group is people with disability. And so they will tell me about people assuming pity for them, and that gaze, that was something I did not want at all present in it.

People will say, “Oh, you poor thing,” or “That must be so hard,” and they’re assuming that they’re suffering daily and every minute and are thinking about their disability all the time. And I wanted to add more in the lives of these characters than just that.

This post originally appeared in Public Books

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Free screening of classic romantic film ‘Brief Encounter’ at Fountain Theatre on Sept 22

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Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in “Brief Encounter”

The Fountain is presenting a free screening of the 1945 classic romantic film, Brief Encounter on Saturday, September 22 at 4:30pm. The screening is in conjunction with the Fountain’s current hit production, Arrival & Departure, which was inspired by the Noel Coward screenplay of the movie. Playwright/Director Stephen Sachs will introduce the film.

The screening will be fully captioned, accessible to all audiences.

When Time Out London recently polled 101 motion picture experts to select the 100 Best Romantic Films of all time, the panel voted Brief Encounter as #1, declaring it “the most romantic film ever made.” They’re not the only ones who think so. The Film Society of Lincoln Center named it “one of the most achingly romantic films ever made.”

Directed by David Lean and starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter is a passionate film about a chance meeting, forbidden love, and finding one’s soul mate.

Brief Encounter is set during WWII in and around a London railway station. A married woman, with children, Laura (Celia Johnson), meets a stranger, a doctor (Trevor Howard) named Alec in the train station’s tea room, who kindly removes a piece of grit from her eye then leaves to catch his train. During her subsequent shopping trips every Thursday, Laura bumps into Alec and a friendship develops. Soon, the weekly meetings become an arranged rendezvous. Finally, they confess that they are deeply, overwhelmingly in love.

With its evocatively fog-enshrouded setting, swooning Rachmaninoff score, and pair of remarkable performances (Johnson was nominated for an Oscar), the film explores the thrill, pain, and tenderness of an illicit romance, and has influenced many a cinematic brief encounter since its release.

“I was looking for a love story to inspire my new play,” explains Sachs, describing the origin of Arrival & Departure. “When I thought of Brief Encounter, with its journey of two strangers travelling from friendship into love, I knew I had found what I was looking for.”

Running time: 90 mins. Limited seating. Reservations necessary.  (323) 663-1525

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VIDEO: Marlee Matlin hails ‘Arrival & Departure’ at Fountain Theatre as “magic” and “brilliant”

Academy Award winning actress Marlee Matlin enjoyed seeing the Fountain Theatre’s world premiere of Arrival & Departure, hailing the innovative romantic drama as “magic” and “brilliant.”  After the performance, Matlin congratulated the cast and company and sat down with Abby Guerra of Fountain Films to share her excitement about the new play.

Written and directed by Stephen Sachs, Arrival & Departure stars Deanne Bray and Troy Kotsur. Highlighted as Critic’s Choice in the Los Angeles Times, the acclaimed production runs to September 30th.

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Smoldering romance in classic noir film ‘Brief Encounter’ and new play ‘Arrival & Departure’

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Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard

by James Bennett

Sometimes the most important things in our lives aren’t singular, momentous events of shattering spontaneity, but instead, slow burns that steadily coalesce into an unstoppable force; such is the case in the smoldering romance depicted in Noël Coward and David Lean’s masterpiece Brief Encounter.  The film deposits us into a beautifully shot noir-esque chiaroscuro world where the contrasts painted on the silver screen mirror the push of the social norms expected of our upstanding subjects and the pull of their desperate, hopelessly contained passion.

As with Brief Encounter, our couples in the world premiere of Stephen Sachs’ new play Arrival & Departure meet in a train station, (theirs the kind that churns coal and grinds steel, ours the kind that surges below the earth.) Brief Encounter’s couple’s first rendezvous transpires in a tidy and charming tea shop, ours in a gritty Dunkin’ Donuts. Over the course of the production, fans of the classic may notice some deviations, updates, and modifications – but none of them alter the thrust of this timeless piece. The heart of yesterday beats with the same rhythm as the heart of today.

Brief Encounter, based on Coward’s one-act play Still Life, is just one of Lean and Coward’s many collaborations, and remains a beacon that has gone on to inform the genre and influence many cinematic brief encounters since. Coward, never married and secretly gay, adapted his one-act with such skill as to retain all the desire and simmering torment he felt in his heart, and that drove his protagonists toward their scintillating, but ultimately doomed affair.

Today, our world is fraught with global geopolitical distress, corruption, panic, and cruelty emanating from the highest offices in our land. Speed of light communication allows us the privilege of experiencing first hand the acute crises of people the world over. Everything is immediate, huge, and of dire importance – this is not the case with Brief Encounter. Lean, who later would become known for his epics (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago) instead delivers to us a simple, clean, purely shot film that takes us deep into the hearts of humankind, and shows us that something close, something intimate, something that slyly unfurls in our psyche can become powerful enough to overcome a lifetime of repression. Perhaps it was only someone who could see things so large, could so beautifully show us something so small.

The Fountain Theatre gives voice to a cry of sexual assault in new play ‘The Lighthouse’

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Garret Wagner, Kelley Mack, Michael D. Turner and Chops Bailey.

By Catherine Womack

“It’s beach week, baby!” A tall, handsome college athlete cracks open a cold beer as he flops onto a worn sofa. The semester is over for Shane and his friends, and the stress of final exams is quickly fading into a blur of sun, sand and mojitos served in red Solo cups.

Onstage at the Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood, six young actors fall easily into the rhythms of day drinking and banter inside the fictional rented vacation home. The set is sparse, but the inside jokes and casual flirtations between its occupants feel so real you can practically smell the salty air and taste the PBR.

But there is an elephant in this living room.

Perched on a tall director’s  chair  in  the  middle of the stage, seemingly invisible to the revelers, sits a silent female lifeguard. Only when she’s left alone with Jesse,    the    play’s    central character, does the lifeguard begin to speak.

“Are you sure you want to be wearing that?” the lifeguard asks, peering disapprovingly over her sunglasses at Jesse’s short denim shorts and tank top. “Are you trying to get laid for attention or validation?”

Hypercritical, judgmental and disparaging, the lifeguard is a constant presence throughout Amanda Kohr’s 80-minute, one-act play, “The   Lighthouse.”   As   the winner   of   the   Fountain’s competition-style Rapid Development Series, the play received two nights of free semi-staged readings last week — all part of an effort to give a louder voice to playwrights under 30.

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Jessica Broutt and James Bennett, co-creators/producers of Rapid Development Series.

One of several surrealist elements in the show, the lifeguard plays the part of Jesse’s darkest inner voice following a traumatic sexual assault at the beach house. “The Lighthouse” is Kohr’s indictment of rape culture and the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. Kohr said the play was inspired by the 2015 case of Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, and was informed by Kohr’s own experiences.

On two printed sheets of folded white office paper that served as the program for the evening, Kohr, 27, wrote candidly about her own story:

“I grew up accepting sexual assault — the act was so prevalent that it swam below the radar under the perception as normalcy. By 16 I had been manipulated into unwanted sexual situations, assaulted and catcalled.”

As an undergraduate at James Madison University in Virginia, Kohr said in an earlier phone interview, she “heard about, witnessed and experienced so much sexual assault and harassment among college-age students that it just become normal.” At times, she said, she felt like it was “harder to find had.”

Kohr  wrote  “The  Lighthouse” in summer 2016. She had read Jon Krakauer’s reported narrative, “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” and she closely followed the Stanford case as it unfolded. She was appalled by the leniency of Turner’s sentence — six months, reduced to three months for good behavior — and was inspired by the letter that his victim read at the sentencing hearing.

“I am a firm believer that entertainment can help educate,” Kohr said, “so I really strove to draw my audience in through comedy and then bash them with the truth.”

Kohr wrote the play more than a year before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, sexual assault and harassment became a national cultural conversation, and #MeToo became a movement.  That’s  one  reason Jessica Broutt, 25, the co-founder and co-producer of the Fountain’s Rapid Development Series, found Kohr’s play so compelling.

Broutt, who interned at the Fountain as a college student and worked briefly as the company’s box office manager, came up with the idea for the series with Fountain associate producer James Bennett four years ago.

“We noticed that there weren’t really a lot of young people going to the theater,” she said. “We would go to all these awesome reading series at other theaters, but it was never young people who were playwrights, and they generally weren’t  L.A.- based.”

Jessica Hailey Broutt, Kieran Medina and Amanda Marie Kohr at Fountain Theatre.

Jessica Broutt, Kieran Medina and Amanda Kohr at Fountain Theatre.

Broutt and Bennett pitched the idea to the Fountain’s management as a sort of theatrical battle of the bands. Broutt would select four plays by L.A. playwrights under 30. The theater would provide the actors and the space, and each play would receive a “snapshot” reading at which audiences vote for their favorite, drawing them more actively into the experience.

The actors and directors are volunteers, and the performances are free.

“We were trying to rule out all the reasons why people our age don’t goto plays,” Broutt said.

This year marks the series’ fourth season. Broutt says that when she read “The Lighthouse,” she knew immediately it was special.

“I just felt like, wow, this is a play that is taking on rape culture and breaking it down in a way that is educational and provides a surrealism and a humor that will engage people,” she said. “It’s very rare for me to see something that is doing all of those things effectively. And then as we were going through development last fall, the Harvey Weinstein stuff came out.”

In just a few months Kohr has been able to work with Broutt to polish the play, have it receive two short readings as it progressed through the competition, and watch it performed onstage in its entirety for the first time.

“When I was in college I had a lot of shorter things staged,” Kohn said, “but this is  my  first  thing  that’s  like borderline professional.”

Audience members on Wednesday night were racially diverse and younger than what’s typical in most

L.A. theaters. They laughed out loud as Jesse’s rapist, Shane, was presented as a hero during exaggerated, game-show-style court proceedings. And some wiped tears from their eyes when Jesse found the strength to silence her inner-critic lifeguard and rediscover her own confident voice.

At  the  end  of  the  “The Lighthouse,” the house lights came up dramatically as Jesse called for people to speak out and shine a light on sexual misconduct. In the front row, Kohr hugged her friends. Her #MeToo story had found an audience.

This post originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. 

New Video: Timely new play ‘Runaway Home’ is lyrical and powerful

Previews start this Wednesday, September 13. Opens Saturday, September 16th.

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