Tag Archives: Robert Schenkkan

Cast announced for special reading of Lauren Gunderson’s ‘Natural Shocks’ at Fountain Theatre

Actresses Amy Pietz, Victoria Platt, Suanne Spoke, and Sabina Zuniga Varela will combine their versatile talents to play the same lead character in a special reading of Natural Shocks, Lauren Gunderson’s funny and powerful new play on gun violence and gun control, at the Fountain Theatre on Friday, April 20th at 11:19am. Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs directs.

The timing is intentional: April 20 is the 19th anniversary of Columbine and the day of the National School Walkout, organized by the student activists in Parkland, Florida. The reading at the Fountain Theatre starts on April 20th at 11:19am, the date and exact time of the Columbine shooting.

“The Fountain Theatre has a long history of social and political activism,” explains Sachs. “Our celebrity reading of All the President’s Men at LA City Hall and our world premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall are recent examples. With Lauren’s play, I believe we need to add our voice,  as theatre artists and citizens, to the national outcry of young people across the country against gun violence and advocate for gun control in this country.”

Amy PietzAmy Pietz has appeared in over 300 episodes of television, most recently starring opposite Jason Alexander on Hit The Road.  She was a series regular on No Tomorrow, The Nine Lives of Chloe King, Aliens in America, Rodney, The Weber Show, Muscle and Caroline in the City (SAG Award Nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy).  She has had recurring or guest starring roles on: You’re The Worst, The Magicians, The Office, Trust Me, Maron, How To Get Away With Murder, Dexter, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and many others.  Film roles include those in The Year of Spectacular Men, Halfway, Prom, The Pact II, Autumn Leaves, Rudy, Jingle All the Way, Dysenchanted, Jell-Oh Lady, The Whole Ten Yards, and others. Her favorite theatre credits include: Stupid Fucking Bird at the Theatre @ Boston Court (Ovation Award, LA Drama Critics Circle Award), The Boswell Sisters at The Old Globe Theatre, Christmas In Naples at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Lobby Hero at the Odyssey Theatre (Ovation nominated), Fiorello and Company (Ovation Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical).  Currently producing a film on gun control called Bodyman, Amy is passionate about getting guns off of our streets.

Victoria PlattVictoria Platt is currently in Antaeus Theatre Company’s production of Native Son. THEATRE: Jelly’s Last Jam (BROADWAY), Building the Wall and Roxy in Cyrano (Fountain Theatre), Venice (Public Theater & Kirk Douglas Theatre – Ovation Award Nom), Sammy (Old Globe), Pippin (Mark Taper Forum, Asphalt (Red Cat), Atlanta (Geffen).  Select TV/FILM: Major Crimes, Bones, The Mentalist, Castle, Criminal Minds and contract roles on both All My Children & Guiding LightH4 (adaptation of Henry IV which she co-produced with Harry Lennix & Terrell Tilford) and as Josephine Baker in HBO’s Winchell. Upcoming film:  #Truth (Charles Murray dir.), The Gleaner (opp. Angus MacFadyen, Harry Lennix dir.), InterferenceFramed and CW’s Lucifer.

Suanne SpokeSuanne Spoke has an extensive career in theatre, television & film, appearing in the critically acclaimed film Whiplash and starring in the feature film Wild Prairie Rose,  winning multiple awards on the festival circuit. On television Suanne recurred on Switched at Birth, Famous in Love and has guest-starred on many others. She can currently be seen recurring on General Hospital. She has performed at numerous theatres and has won every major acting & producing award in Los Angeles including three-time recipient of the Ovation Award/Lead Performance by an Actress. She was most recently seen in the West Coast premiere of Athol Fugard’s Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek  at the Fountain Theatre. Suanne serves on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts, teaching acting in the Graduate Film Directing program.

Sabina Zuniga VeraleSabina Zuniga Varela, a native New Mexican based in Los Angeles, is an artist, educator and organizer committed to the path of social justice, authentic representation and storytelling.  She is an award winning theatre actor with an MFA from the University of Southern. California. She also holds an MA in Special Education with a focus on twice-exceptional/gifted learning. She is currently a producing director for the LA based theatre company: By The Souls of Our Feet. Most recently she was seen on stage at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival & Portland Center Stage in the title role of Luis Alfaro’s Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles and was seen in Season 3, Episode 3 of ABC’s American Crime.

Based on Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” Natural Shocks is a classic Gunderson play: a 60-minute tour-de-force that bursts to life when we meet a woman waiting out an imminent tornado in her basement. She overflows with quirks, stories, and a final secret that puts the reality of domestic violence and guns in America in your very lap. The play is part confessional, part stand up, and part reckoning.

“The play is written as a solo play for one actress,” explains Sachs. “I have Lauren’s permission to have four actresses read the role, as one voice. Together, they are one woman — and all women. I think having the play read by four women adds diversity, theatricality and a stylized musicality that is worth exploring.”

“I wrote the story to continue to push the narrative away from the perpetrators of gun violence and toward the people whose lives are lost, shattered, and shadowed because of it. So many of these people are women. And there is such a tight connection between violence against women and gun violence,” insisted Gunderson.

Gunderson is right: the connection between domestic violence and gun violence is well documented. More than half of the mass shootings from 2009-2016 involved a partner or family member. Nearly half of American women who are murdered are killed by their intimate partners. American women are 16 times more likely to be killed by a gun than women in other developed nations. The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that the woman will be killed. In short, domestic violence and grievances against women are the “canary in the coalmine” for gun violence. Any effort to end gun violence must address domestic violence as well.

Lauren GundersonLauren M. Gunderson is the most produced playwright in America of 2017, the winner of the Lanford Wilson Award, the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award and the Otis Guernsey New Voices Award, she is also a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and John Gassner Award for Playwriting, a recipient of the Mellon Foundation’s 3-Year Residency with Marin Theatre Company, and a commissioned playwright by Audible. She studied Southern Literature and Drama at Emory University, and Dramatic Writing at NYU’s Tisch School where she was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. Her work has been commissioned, produced and developed at companies across the US including South Cost Rep (Emilie, Silent Sky), The Kennedy Center (The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful And Her Dog!), Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The O’Neill, The Denver Center, San Francisco Playhouse, Marin Theatre, Synchronicity, Berkeley Rep, Shotgun Players, TheatreWorks, Crowded Fire and more. She co-authored Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley with Margot Melcon, which was one of the most produced plays in America in 2017. Her work is published at Playscripts (I and You, Exit Pursued By A Bear, The Taming, and Toil And Trouble), Dramatists (The Revolutionists, The Book of Will, Silent Sky, Bauer, Miss Bennet) and Samuel French (Emilie). Her picture book Dr Wonderful: Blast Off to the Moon was released from Two Lions / Amazon in May 2017.

Reserve Seats to Natural Shocks at Fountain Theatre. National website

Do you really think a life in the theatre means making a living? Think again.

Tony Kushner

Tony Kushner

by Stephen Sachs

Eight words. A statement declared in eight simple words jumped out at me in a feature story on playwright Tony Kushner in today’s New York Times. The eight words were stated by playwright and Kushner friend Larry Kramer, author of The Normal Heart, which we produced at the Fountain Theatre in 2015.  Commenting on Kushner’s shift from playwriting to screenwriting, Kramer says, “I wish he’d go back to writing plays.”

So, why doesn’t he?

Kushner answered that question himself in 2011 when he shocked many in the arts community by revealing in an interview in Time Out New York that not even the author of Angeles in America can make a living as a playwright.

“I make my living now as a screenwriter. Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does.”

Kushner is right. American playwrights — not even one of his stature — do not earn the bulk of their living writing plays. Many teach. An ever-growing number write for film or cable television.  The tsunami of playwrights today surging into television is so large that it now has become a writer’s career model:  A playwright earns notoriety and success writing plays — or even one successful play, he/she “takes meetings” with Industry producers then quickly jumps to movies and/or television to make real money. The well-meaning intent being that a big-bucks TV salary will financially support the writer, allowing him/her to keep writing plays. What often happens? They write fewer plays.  Some never return to the stage.

“I don’t particularly want to do it,” Kushner said in 2011. “I think that it’s a mistake to do it. So, yes, I’m very worried about it. ” The last play by Kushner premiered in 2009.

The classic tale of playwrights writing for Hollywood is as old as celluloid itself. An avalanche is now underway. Playwrights are flocking to cable TV and streaming networks in record numbers. TV showrunners are aggressively recruiting writers from regional theaters like crazed baseball team owners scouting for hot rookie talent.  One major talent agency in Hollywood has opened a department specifically targeting playwrights for film and televsion. The roster of playwrights now writing for film and TV today is too long to list.  Is that such a bad thing?

Many playwrights I know, and have produced at the Fountain Theatre, also write for film and television. My pal Robert Schenkkan (Building the Wall) is writing a new project for Amazon. Tanya Saracho (El Nogalar) is now creator and showrunner of the Starz drama “Vida” and just signed a three-year deal with the network. Tarell Alvin McCraney (In the Red and Brown Water/Brothers Size) has signed to create, write, and executive produce a new hour-long television drama for the Oprah Winfrey Network. I’m confidant that all three will continue writing plays.

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Stephen Sachs, Shirley Jo Finney, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Fountain Theatre (2014)

I had my own Hollywood crossover by writing the teleplay for Sweet Nothing in my Ear for CBS, based on my play that premiered at the Fountain.  The sale of that one TV script paid me more than I would make running an 80-seat theatre for years.  I am currently writing a screenplay based on my comedy/drama Bakersfield Mist. Does this make me a traitor to my art form? I don’t think so. It makes me a man with a family and a mortgage.

Let’s be honest. There’s a reason why it’s called non-profit theatre. One enters the non-profit arts sector like one enters the priesthood — to serve a higher power. Even so, it would be nice to make a good living doing what you feel is important. To be frank, non-profit theatre-making is an inherently shitty business model. The economics of the art form stack the odds against those who actually make the art happen. So, why do we do it? Here, we cue the piano and launch into “What I Did for Love

Of course, it’s not only playwrights who give their hearts to the theatre at the expense of their wallets. Actors, directors and designers often work for love, and little money. The average member of Actors Equity Association, the professional stage union for actors and stage managers, made an annual salary in 2016 of only $7,700 per year. Like corporate America, it’s the folks at the top in this country’s major regional theaters who are earning large salaries. A few of the larger LORT companies have added playwrights to their theatre’s staff, but they are rare. The model of a permanent repertory company, where artists are paid a yearly salary, is a dying concept, a fossilized relic from an earlier age.

Today, the odds of making a living as a playwright are as remote and precarious as making a living as a poet. Our finest example of excelling at both is, of course, the greatest playwright/poet of them all. Shakespeare wrote multiple plays a year, dozens of sonnets, was a partner in the company, and a co-owner of the theatre building. He was also a ruthless businessman and wealthy grain merchant and property owner.  Unlike the character he created in King Lear, Shakespeare was no fool.

I have dedicated my career to the intimate Fountain Theatre and the non-profit arts community in Los Angeles. I knew twenty-eight years ago when I co-founded this theatre that I would never make a lot of money. I’m okay with that. Most days. I’d be lying if I claimed I haven’t envied men and women my age or younger in the entertainment industry making a huge amount of money more than me.

This is the life I have chosen. Two things keep me going. The impact our work has on others, and the example I am setting for my two sons. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with making money. I just want my two boys to know that their father dedicated his life working at something that he loved and knew was important, that he was committed to making the world a better place in the one way he knew how, by exploring and illuminating the human condition, not striving to make himself wealthy. Can one do both? Of course. I just haven’t yet figured out how to do that.

An artist’s life offers riches not found in a bank ledger. In that, I am the wealthiest man in the world.

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

American Theatre Wing releases new documentary film on Fountain Theatre’s ‘Building the Wall’

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Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth, ‘Building the Wall’, Fountain Theatre

You know them as the New York-based organization that presents the Tony Awards and the Obies each year. But the American Theatre Wing provides a myriad of other remarkable services nationwide. It provides grants and scholarships, connect talents at all stages with educational and professional opportunities, and creates content that illuminates and preserves theatre. Founded in 1917 on the eve of America’s entry into World War I by seven suffragettes, American Theatre Wing has spent a century using theatre to advance human experience, empathy and cultural growth by providing a platform for strong and fearless voices in the American theatre.

This week, American Theatre Wing released a new short documentary film it commissioned on the creation and development of the Fountain Theatre’s world premiere production of Building the Wall by Robert Schenkkan.  The riveting new play opened at the Fountain Theatre on March 18, 2017 and was extended to sold-out houses to August 27th. It earned international attention and launched the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere.

The documentary film, Working in the Theatre: Building the Wall, is an episode in The Wing’s Emmy® Nominated series produced to entertain audiences by revealing theatre’s inner-workings, profiling industry luminaries, and taking a closer look at unique stories that surround important work.

“We’re very proud and honored to have our production chronicled by the American Theatre Wing, ” says Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “Robert’s play is triggering a national conversation. It’s a privilege to have our process at the Fountain Theatre documented and permanently archived by The Wing for the field of the American Theatre.”

For playwright Robert Schenkkan, the documentary carries forward the crusade that began when he first wrote the play in a fury of outrage over the 2016 presidential campaign. For Schenkkan and the Fountain, theatre can serve as a spark for social action.

“Theatre, of course, is about bringing together very disparate groups of people, during which they share a story, ” says Schenkkan. “A story about themselves, about their society, about their culture. And in the sharing of that story, hopefully they learn something about themselves, they are provoked to think more deeply about themselves, to ask better questions, and to leave in some fundamental ways, altered and perhaps more open to the possibility of change.”

 

Students see hit political play at the Fountain discover “we must make the change we want to see in the world”

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Teacher Alan Goodson introduces his college students to the Fountain Theatre. 

They come to the Fountain Theatre each semester to experience the power of meaningful plays about urgent social and political issues performed in an intimate setting.  For teacher Alan Goodson and his college students at Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, the ongoing visits to the Fountain have become a pilgrimage they look forward to making. Not only are the young people enriched by seeing new plays that move and inspire them, they enjoy the opportunity to personally engage with the professional actors following the performance.

The student visit was made possible by Theatre as a Learning Tool, the Fountain Theatre’s educational outreach program that makes live theatre accessible to young people throughout Southern California. 

The FIDM students arrived at the Fountain on August 11th to see our smash hit world premiere of Building the Wall by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright Robert Schenkkan.  They then chatted with actors Victoria Platt and Bo Foxworth.

Returning back to their classroom, the students wrote essays expressing their thoughts and feelings on seeing the production. Take a look at these excerpts:        

“During the political state our country is currently in, it is very possible that history could repeat itself. It isn’t just a theme in a play, it is real and it is happening. That is why I feel this play is very important and the idea it expressed that we, the citizens of the United States of America, must stand up against the immoral actions of the government. If viewers take anything away from seeing this play, it should be that it could happen here, but don’t let it get that far, stop it before history repeats itself.”

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“It felt as if being an audience member was no different than being a fly on the wall with the two actors. Without a doubt, the play would not have been nearly as effective if it were set in a larger theatre. As an audience member, you felt as if you were watching a real interview take place on your TV screen.”

*

“I was able to see the worth in Shenkkan’s exaggeration in comparison to how someone may have felt during WWII, and see that it is true, this could happen, even today. History will continue to repeat itself unless we as humans realize the power of unification and take actions to protect ourselves and others.”

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Building the Wall is a play for people who want to gain perspective on the current events that are taking place and could occur in the near future, considering past events that have taken place while an authoritarian leader is in control of a nationalist country. Personally, I appreciated the statement that it conveyed and became more aware of the impact Donald Trump’s place in office has made in the United States. Theater arts are a form of resistance and often give a lesson and theme to the viewers. Building the Wall was a reminder that history can and will repeat itself if the citizens don’t take a stand and show their voice. Hopefully, those that have attended this play, just as I did, will recognize the seriousness of the message that Robert Shenkkan has made and they plan to make their voices heard.”

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“Robert Shenkkan’s Building the Wall could not have been made into a play at any other better time. People need to go watch his play and see for themselves a visual experience of what America could be headed for under Trump’s presidency.”

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“This performance is set in place to heighten our collective vigilance as a society, allow us to determine wrong from right, empathize, and to take action as citizens of the United States of America. In the closing remarks, we are informed that, included in the playbill, provided by the Fountain, is a call to action, a postcard, stamped and addressed to our dear leader, Mr. Donald Trump, leaving the viewer to decide for themselves what the right thing to do is. This production in itself makes a statement and warning, the postcard is an added confirmation that we have the power to do something, as a governed group and as individuals, and if that is not a defined statement of passion and concern for citizens, then I’m not sure what is.”

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 “It is common to say that the past is often repeated in the future. Robert Shenkkan took the past experience of the Holocaust and wrote it into the near future of America under the Presidency of Trump and his concept of deporting immigrants. It may be bold of Shenkkan to take America to the horrible extent of the Nazis, but nothing is impossible. Robert Shenkkan reinforced the significance of everyone’s individual conscience and choices with the concept play, Building the Wall. He promotes resistance against fear, racism, division. The future of our country, according to Shenkkan, “…of course will depend entirely on what you do.”

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Building the Wall was relevant and had audience members thinking. In its understated message, questioning where the current presidency may lead is a concept everyone can relate to, making the content of the play laudable. At first, I saw its comparisons to the Nazi regime a bit excessive and not believable, until watching the news recently and seeing the riots taking place in Virginia. Current events have strengthened the credibility of this play.”

*

Building the Wall is an excellent drama that I believe will stand the test of time. While the history books are still being written on this time in our modern history, we must be able to understand the situation we are in while we are in it. We must make the change we want to see in the world.”

Final 2 performances of Building the Wall are this weekend, Aug 26 & 27. Get Tickets

 

Los Angeles shines as a theatre town

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The Fountain Theatre in Hollywood

by Stephen Sachs

Hollywood is heralded around the globe as the mesmerizing “movie capital of the world,” yet more plays are produced each year in Los Angeles than major motion pictures. In fact, Los Angeles has more live theaters and creates more theatre productions per year than any other city in the world. More than New York, Chicago or London. That’s right. Los Angeles. Surprised?

Los Angeles is on the rise. You can feel it. LA is ascending to rightfully take its place as a world city. It is already ranked as one of the world’s most economically powerful cities—a center of business, international trade, entertainment, culture, media, and technology. There are 841 museums and art galleries in the area, over 1,000 performance venues. Hollywood is flourishing, undergoing a multi-billion-dollar renaissance of new commercial, residential and cultural development that is transforming the fabled district. 

Theatre in Los Angeles has never been better. It is diverse, vibrant, first-rate—and everywhere. Stretched across an immense terrain of diverse neighborhoods over 469 square miles, you can experience theatre in Los Angeles in every possible setting. From tiny converted store fronts to festive outdoor stages in city parks to Off-Broadway-style intimate houses on trendy boulevards to grand and glittering show palaces—Los Angeles has it all. 

I’ve been a theatre maker in Los Angeles for more than 30 years. Like so many, I was first an actor, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I transitioned to directing plays in 1987, leaving acting behind and never looking back. While building a career as a stage director, I became intrigued by how theatre companies operated. The business side of making art fascinated me. One day, I volunteered to work temporarily in the office at Ensemble Studio Theatre on Oxford Street in Hollywood. Soon I took over as Theatre Manager. In 1990, I worked with Joan Stein and Suzie Dietz at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills, where we launched a 16-month run of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters starring a parade of famous actors, including Ben Gazarra, Gena Rowlands, Christopher Reeve, Whoopi Goldberg, Charlton Heston, Robert Wagner, Matthew Broderick, Helen Hunt, and many more. That same year, I opened the Fountain Theatre with my colleague Deborah Lawlor and embarked on the most meaningful and rewarding journey of my artistic life.

The Fountain Theatre is a charming two-story Spanish-style building on Fountain Avenue in East Hollywood. Originally The Evergreen Stage, it had been a live theatre for more than 60 years. When Deborah and I first walked in and stood on its empty stage, we knew we had found our artistic home. There was something about the place, the cozy atmosphere, how the intimate seating warmly embraced the stage. It felt inviting and electric. We knew magic could happen there. 

The Fountain is now one of a bright constellation of intimate theatres shimmering throughout Los Angeles. This galaxy of small theatres, each singular in their programming, audience and artistic mission, is a construct utterly unique to Los Angeles. There is nothing like it anywhere in the country. LA’s Center Theatre Group, with its Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theatre, form a theatrical nucleus, yet the more than one hundred intimate theatres across the region swirl around it like spirited electrons, each carrying an electric charge that is fundamental for the survival of LA’s overall cultural organism. In Hollywood, Nederlander’s Pantages Theatre prove nightly that there is a vast audience for live performance. 

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Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles

I’ve seen the intimate theatre community in Los Angeles grow from a cluster of what was then called 99-seat “Equity Waiver” theaters in the 1980s to the vast network of hundreds of intimate theaters today. These theatres weave a rich artistic tapestry that is astounding in its range and variety, matching the cultural, racial and social diversity of this city. Los Angeles is now home to intimate theatres that serve audiences that are Black, Latino, Gay, Straight, Asian, Middle Eastern, LGBT, Deaf, Native American, and everything in between. The content on LA stages is equally wide-ranging. American classics, world premieres of new plays, Shakespeare, Chekhov, musicals, farce, adaptations, the avant garde, immersive pieces, plays staged in the round or in a black box, site specific works performed in empty warehouses, in cars or hotel rooms—an endless menu for every taste. 

hollywood-theatre-row-signLA’s intimate theatres have grown not only in number, they have increased in stature. Top-drawer actors from Broadway, TV and film are routinely seen on LA stages. And while Los Angeles remains an essential destination for acclaimed plays and musicals from New York, London and around the world, LA is now its own vibrant theatre center that creates and develops exciting new work. Much of the most satisfying and challenging new plays are being done in the intimate theaters. Actors long to act in these plays for the same reason we ache to produce them: for the sake of the art. LA’s network of smaller theatres provides a safe, fertile landscape where highly-skilled actors, directors and playwrights can bring new plays to life for audiences that are ever-growing, sophisticated and adventurous. More than 120 plays have transferred from LA’s intimate venues to regional theaters across the United Sates. Such world-class playwrights as Athol Fugard, Tarell McCraney and Robert Schenkkan have launched new plays at our modest home on Fountain Avenue that are now being enjoyed throughout the nation and around the world. 

Even with the staggering amount of high-quality activity on its numerous stages, Tinsel Town fights for the right to be called a “theatre town.” The Hollywood spotlight is blinding. The relationship between the film and television industry and the LA Theatre community is precarious. A forced marriage between two partners who share similar desires yet go about achieving them in vastly different ways and for very different reasons. LA Theatre still struggles to step out from under the shadow of The Industry and stand in its own rightful light. But its blaze is being seen and felt, locally and nationwide, more and more. 

As an artist and a citizen, it has never been a better time to live in Los Angeles. As a haven with invigorating potential and endless possibilities, LA is now peering forward and seeing its future. That vision, as a world city, looks bright. As Los Angeles shines, so does its theatre. And the radiance from our light will illuminate the nation and the world. 

This post originally appeared in Discover Hollywood magazine

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.

Victoria Platt is thrilled to join cast of ‘Building the Wall’ for second extension to Aug 27

Victoria Tillford

Victoria Platt

Sold out for four months and extended for the second time, Building the Wall and the Fountain Theatre have even more to celebrate: the return of Victoria Platt to our Fountain stage. Last seen at the Fountain as Roxy in Cyrano, you may recognize her from such popular TV shows as All My Children and The Chicago Code. Taking over the role of Gloria in our smash hit world premiere of Building the Wall, Platt begins performances this Saturday, June 24th. This second and final extension runs to August 27th.

In between her crazy rehearsal schedule, Victoria took time to talk about her roots, her love for the Fountain Theatre, and the importance of theatre in the age of Trump’s America.

Where are you from? What’s your background? 

I was born and raised in Queens, NY to a Polish father and West Indian mother. I have 8 siblings and there was 1 bathroom. That says it all! I started performing as a kid and then attended the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan (the Fame school). I enrolled at Hunter College but work kept rolling in and I chose work.

What initially drew you to this project/script?

I heard about the production and how amazing it was but I was in a play at the same time so didn’t get a chance to see it. Then Simon Levy (Fountain Theatre’s Producing Director) emailed me about auditioning for the extension. I know Robert Schenkkan’s work and this play in particular is beyond relevant for our time so I was really excited about the possibility.

After the election, many theatre artists declared that their work was more important than ever. Do you agree with this and how does Building the Wall relate?

I do agree. There was a time when the common goal of artists was to challenge, to awaken, to question the status quo and hopefully incite change. At some point it became about foreign sales and social media followers and witty sound bites. This election seemed to remind the artistic community of our responsibility in the world. Why most of us got into this business to begin with. Building The Wall is looking directly at the issues and asking some really important questions.

BUILDING THE WALL prod photo VP 2

Victoria Platt and Bo Foxworth in ‘Building the Wall’

What is it like to join a hit production that has been sold out for four months?

It’s like trying to jump onto a moving train! A bit challenging. I’ve done this before however, with The Fountain’s production of Cyrano. My goal is to find that delicate balance between giving the other actors a familiar anchor while also honoring the truth of my own interpretation and performance. Bo and [director] Michael Michetti have been really wonderful in allowing me the space to find things on my own as well as offer the tried and true shortcuts. I’m not too proud to take a short cut!

How does it feel coming back to the Fountain Theatre?

I love The Fountain; seeing productions here and working here. They’re really dedicated to bringing thought provoking and challenging work to the community. They’re actively involved and take responsibility for making the world a better place in a tangible way, all the way down to providing a stamped and addressed postcard that patrons can send to the president! It makes working with them even more inspiring and I feel compelled to match their dedication, passion and commitment.