Tag Archives: Stephen Sachs

Take a pill or see a play?

doctor writing prescriptionby Stephen Sachs

Need a cure for what ails you? Next time you see your doctor, the prescription he or she scribbles may surprise you: see a play.

Research is now proving that gathering with other people to see a play, listen to music or watch a dance concert not only heals the soul. It mends the body, as well.

Doctors generally prescribe pills to make people feel better. Yet the medical benefits of engaging with the arts are well-recorded. A first-of-its-kind study last year found that the social engagement of art is an effective way to improve the health and well-being of patients with such long-term conditions as asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, epilepsy, and osteoporosis—which often exacerbate symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.

Going to the theatre and being part of an audience, joining other human beings in a shared live experience, has medical benefits. Countless studies have found that social isolation takes a heavy toll on our well-being over time. One of the advantages of joining other theater-goers to see a play is that it reduces feelings of loneliness. Our daily lives in front of computer screens can be isolating. Attending live theatre boosts a sense of belonging and face-to-face human connectedness.

In January this year, the U.K. appointed Tracey Crouch to serve as its first “minister of loneliness” to explore how to combat the “sad reality of modern life”. According to a report last year from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, more than 9 million people in Britain—around 14% of the population—often or always feel lonely. The numbers are even higher in the United States. Cigna’s recent survey revealed 46% of Americans — nearly half the population.– report sometimes or always feeling alone.

“We should value the arts because they’re essential to our health and wellbeing,” says British Health Secretary Matt Hancock. “Access to the arts improves people’s mental and physical health. It makes us happier and healthier.”

The larger question we must ask ourselves is: What sort of society do we want? One that generates physical and emotional illness and then thrives on pharmaceuticals to put it right? Or a society that embraces a more holistic approach to public health through social responsibility and artistic engagement? Given the toxic state of our politics and the poisonous nature of our society and environment today, it is remarkable that we manage to keep going as we are. But for how long? The dilemma was raised by Samuel Beckett, once again, at the theatre, “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Witnessing a powerful play can illuminate what it means to be a human being and connect us to a larger and higher vision of ourselves. In his powerful account of his own holocaust experience, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl concludes that the ‘search for meaning is the primary motivation in life’. He describes lack of meaning as an ‘existential vacuum’, often manifesting as boredom, and invaded by numerous neurotic and addictive problems. He quotes Nietzsche:

‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.’

This echoes, of course, the eternal question posed by Hamlet: “To be, or not to be …”  This is how theatre triggers self-treatment. A theater-goer witnessing Hamlet’s struggle on stage is himself, from the audience, thrown into questioning the purpose of his or her own life. A great play, seen in the most public of settings, generates intimate self-examination and, at the same time, connects us to our fellow beings. Theatre is a journey inward and outward.

The arts play a critical role in the better health of our nation.  Not only spiritually and aesthetically — but physically, medically.  The arts, like health care, not only make life better — they make it livable. Congress seems to agree. Despite Trump’s call to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, Congress passed a 2019 budget increase of more than $2 million to the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Even with this modest 2019 budget increase in arts funding, the United States is writing a doctor’s prescription to itself. Politicians must learn to protect the NEA as fervently as they defend the Second Amendment.

More than guns, Americans have the right to bear arts.

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

Martyna Majok shares with Fountain audience how she almost missed phone call of Pulitzer win

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Martyna Majok and “Cost of Living” cast

Playwright Martyna Majok almost missed receiving the call from her agent on winning the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play, Cost of Living. She was supposed to be serving jury duty that day.  Instead, she had postponed it.  She was, therefore, home in her New York apartment to receive the call that would change her career forever.

Sharing the story with our Fountain Theatre audience in a post-show Q&A discussion Saturday night, Martyna explained that her husband, actor Josiah Bania, had the day off work that day. They were planning on doing their taxes. He was taking a nap on the couch when Martyna’s phone rang around three o’clock. Her agent was on the phone screaming, “You won the Pulitzer!” Her reaction? She was furious. “How dare you!” she yelled back. “You know how much this means to me. This is not funny!” For nine minutes on the phone, Martyna’s agent tried to convince her. But she would have none it. It wasn’t until the texts began flooding in from friends — including one from her playwright pal Stephen Adly Guirgis — that she accepted that her wish had come true.

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Since that fateful phone call, her life has spun into a whirlwind of national attention. Yet the work remains the same. The Fountain Theatre is proud to be producing the West Coast Premiere of her funny and beautiful play, and we’re pleased to now call her our friend and a member of our Fountain Family.

Cost of Living is earning rave reviews in a limited run to Dec 16th. More Info/Get Tickets

The cat we rescued to star on our stage

Bob Liz Nathaniel

Robert Symonds, Elizabeth Reilly, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

by Stephen Sachs

In honor of National Cat Day, I celebrate Nathaniel Hawthorne — the fat, furry feline I rescued from a shelter to co-star in our Fountain Theatre production of Park Your Car in Harvard Yard starring Robert Symonds and Elizabeth Reilly in 1995.

The script called for a fat cat to be brought on stage. I searched animal shelters throughout LA. until I discovered Nathaniel stuffed in a cage in Glendale. “That’s him,” I said, and brought him back to the Fountain. Nathaniel hung out with us in the office all day during the run. At curtain time, he would be brought downstairs to the theatre and wait backstage for his cue. At the proper time in the play, Bob Symonds would carry the cat out on stage for his one scene. After the performance, Nathaniel was returned upstairs and slept in the office, enjoying the actor’s life. This routine happened nightly.

Well … the production was a smash hit. We moved the show to the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble on the West Side. Nathaniel could not stay overnight at the Odyssey. Therefore, four times a week, the cat was put in a car at the Fountain, driven across town to the Odyssey, would do his one scene with Bob and Liz, and then be driven back to the Fountain that night. For three months. When the Odyssey run was finally over, Nathaniel lived at the Fountain, yet another out of work actor. He spent the remainder of his life with us as a happy and well-loved theatre cat at the Fountain.

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

A beautiful reminder of why I chose this life

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Tech rehearsal for “The Chosen”, Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Palo Alto

by Simon Levy

Our acclaimed production of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, adapted by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok, was a wonderful success at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center Taube Koret Campus for Life/Schultz Cultural Arts Hall in Palo Alto this past weekend.

We were invited by Ronit Widmann-Levy, Director of Arts and Culture, because several members of her JCC had seen our production earlier this year in L.A., plus she’d heard about the production at a conference of JCCs in New York. She made arrangements with our Artistic Director, Stephen Sachs, to bring the original cast (Jonathan Arkin, Steven B. Green, Dor Gvirtsman, and Sam Mandel), our stage manager (Miranda Stewart), and myself to remount our production in their 300-seat theatre.

On Monday and Tuesday of last week, Miranda and the actors and I got together for brush-up rehearsals over at the Colony Theatre (the Fountain was busy getting ready for the VIP opening of Cost of Living, our current production). It had been four months since we had done the show and I wanted to make sure the actors had time to get ready. They were remarkable! – they knew all their lines and the old camaraderie immediately returned. It was as if they were still doing the show. They were ready and eager to dive back in.

After packing up and shipping most of the furniture, props, and costumes (except for the beautiful bookshelves, arches, and hundreds of books), we boarded a Southwest flight to San Francisco on Thursday, Super Shuttled to the beautiful Sheraton Palo Alto, took a quick tour of where we would be performing, gathered for dinner at the Town and Country Village near the hotel, then settled in for a good night’s rest.

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Simon Levy and actor Sam Mandell enjoy the plane ride to San Francisco.

Friday was a 12-hour tech day where we re-configured and re-sized our intimate production to the larger stage of the Arts Hall. We re-blocked a few key moments, re-designed the dozens of light cues, laid in dozens more sound cues, and re-configured the special video effect of Hebrew letters that accents a key moment in the play. Even without the bookshelves, archways and library effect, the production sat nicely on their stage, allowing the emphasis to be on the actors.

Center for Jewish Life, Palo Alto, California

Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Palo Alto

Moving a show from one space to another, especially with only one day of tech, can often be stressful and prone to all sorts of mishaps. But we were blessed! I want to give special thanks to the Center’s tech wizards, Nick and Kyle. They could not have been more professional, helpful, creative, and just downright nice! And the same for Ilanit Gal, the Events Manager, who took good care of us. Ronit Widmann-Levy was gracious and welcoming and warmly introduced us to many of the attendees and made sure we had everything we needed. It was a pleasure to work with them, and they made the transition from our intimate space to their larger one, smooth and stress-free.

On Saturday afternoon we had a tech run of the show, made a few adjustments, then prepared for our opening. Spirits were high; there was much joking among the cast as they donned costumes and makeup, re-checked their props, and waited for the 7:30 curtain. The Saturday night show was so oversold that the Center had to add three extra rows of seats to accommodate the 300+ patrons. And word-of-mouth from that performance quickly sold out the Sunday night show. Two full houses… two standing ovations!

CHOSEN LCC posterAt the Q&A after the Sunday performance nearly the entire audience stayed, applauding us, engaging us with intelligent questions, and afterwards they swarmed the actors with more questions and compliments. They loved the show. Just loved it. And they could not have been more complimentary – not only about the acting and production, but also about how relevant the story is; how much it touched them; how certain moments made them laugh or cry or nod in recognition; how Chaim’s book and Posner’s adaptation give life not only to so many Jewish themes and historical moments, but to the dynamics of family, of children finding their own path, of the need for understanding and forgiveness, and how, with empathy and compassion, we actually can hold two opposing ideas in our mind at the same time, and both can be true.

The other thing I heard over and over, both from the JCC staff and audience members, is how the immediacy and three-dimensionality of theatre brings to emotional life the richness of the novel in a visceral way that’s different from reading the book. They entered into the world we created for them, and they were moved.

We were even featured on the cover of J. The Jewish News of Northern California with a full-length article about the production and the novel. 

On Monday morning, we boarded another Southwest flight and returned home.

Theatre of the heart. To touch the heart of another and to remind them of their humanity is our highest calling as artists. Our road trip to Palo Alto was a beautiful reminder of why I chose this life.

Simon Levy is the Producing Director of the Fountain Theatre. 

3,500 technical cues in the play? No problem for this mighty pair of stage managers

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Stage Managers Deena Tovar and Emily Lehrer, “Arrival & Departure,” Fountain Theatre

You may know that the Fountain Theatre’s smash hit world premiere, Arrival & Departure, is highlighted as Critic’s Choice in the Los Angeles Times, has earned rave reviews everywhere, and has been delighting audiences in sold-out houses since it opened in July. What you don’t know is that the magical mixture of lights, video, sound, music and open captioning is operated by only two stage managers in the booth — executing the play’s 3,500 technical cues in a fast-paced running time of 90 minutes. How do they do it?

Production Stage Manager Emily Lehrer and Assistant Stage Manager Deena Tovar make an excellent team.  They share years of professional experience between them but Arrival & Departure marks the first time they have worked together. It’s also the first time they’ve managed a cast of Deaf and hearing actors. 

There was a learning curve on the American Sign Language front, for sure,” admits Emily. “That being said, everyone has been so helpful and supportive as I fumbled my way through.”   

Deena echoes the same enthusiasm. “This has been an amazing experience. Everyone involved with the show are truly remarkable and supportive. Even with my signing skills — or rather the lack thereof — everyone made sure I was learning.”

“I really want to start studying ASL more seriously,” adds Emily. “It’s a gorgeous language, and as a Stage Manager, communication is at the heart of everything I do. So having that asset in my communication toolbox would be amazing.”

Emily Lehrer is from Los Angeles and has worked as Production Stage Manager on several plays at the Fountain Theatre. She has also stage managed for The Latino Theatre CompanyThe Garry Marshall TheatreThe Odyssey TheatreSacred Fools, and at Universal Studios Hollywood.  Deena grew up in Eagle Rock. She has worked as a Stage Manager all over Los Angeles at such companies as Circle X, Open Fist, Casa0101, Shakespeare Center of LA and many more.

“The Fountain is a great place to work,” Deena beams. “It really is like a family. Anything I need is almost always available. Everyone is here to support the art and you can really feel that when you walk in every day.”

They clearly enjoy working together and make a kick-ass team in the booth and in the rehearsal room. What makes them such a dynamic duo?

“Complimentary skill sets, ” says Emily. “Honestly, a lot of it comes from Deena also being a great PSM, and because she knows how to think like a PSM, she is able to anticipate needs and fill in the gaps beautifully. It also doesn’t hurt that we enjoy each other’s company as people. Having team members you genuinely enjoy working with is a gift, and it makes every aspect of the process go more smoothly and easily.” 

Deena agrees. “We both absolutely love our jobs as Stage Managers. We don’t come to work wishing we were doing something else, we walk in knowing we are working in our dream profession. It also helps that we both have very similar styles of stage managing and from that we are able to predict exactly what is needed before it’s said out loud.”

Emily Deena 5

When Deena first read Stephen Sachs‘ script for Arrival & Departure, and its blend of both Deaf and hearing actors in a production that mixes lights, sound, music, video and open captioning, she was unsure how it would all come together.

“I originally felt it would be difficult for the audience to keep up with everything going on,” she admits. “But during the rehearsal process my concerns were very quickly extinguished. I saw exactly how each word and each scene had to be portrayed to make sure no one was missing out on any moment.”  Emily agrees. “I am so thrilled with the way it turned out.”  

Both have been blown away by the audience reaction. 

“It has been such a balm to see how audiences have responded to the show, ” says Emily. “Especially our Deaf audiences, as they realized with utter joy that this is a production created with them in mind.”

“The audiences have loved it, ” exclaims Deena. “They really enjoy the way the show captures both the Deaf and hearing experiences. I love looking at the audience during intense moments and seeing their reactions. My personal favorite was the reaction of these two women sitting in the front row. Just as the characters Sam and Emily are about to kiss, the two women grabbed each other and shook their heads like they wanted to yell out, “don’t do it!”

Both Emily and Deena feel the play — how it was conceived and the way it is performed — serves a valuable purpose.  

“This production is truly important because it incorporates elements of sign language, captioning and spoken English, ” Deena explains. “This show isn’t only for one audience. It is open for everyone. Everyone can watch and relate. That kind of inclusion is sadly lacking in the entertainment industry.”

“We live in weird, difficult, and downright terrifying times,” states Emily. “Times where hatred, bigotry, and closed mindedness are becoming the new normal. In times like these, creating art is an act of resistance. Creating art that is, by design, inclusive, a celebration of a woman coming into her own, a love story —  is nothing short of revolutionary. “

And now that the celebrated run is soon reaching its final performance? 

“I got to meet some of the funniest, most energetic, and kind-hearted  people, ” Deena confesses. “It really has been an excellent experience.”

“It has been such a beautiful, hopeful reminder of what we can be when we open our arms and our hearts to those who may on the surface appear different than us,” states Emily. “I will cherish it.” 

Emily in booth

Arrival & Departure ends September 30. 

You Have Changed Me Forever: Remembering ‘The Normal Heart’

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Tim Cummings, Bill Brochtrup, “The Normal Heart”, Fountain Theatre, 2013.

by Tim Cummings

“Hello, you don’t know me. I hope you get this message. Sometimes, when you try to send a message to someone you’re not ‘friends’ with on Facebook, it gets blocked, or you have to ‘approve’ it. I hope you’ll approve this message if it gets to you.

 I saw The Normal Heart on Saturday night, and haven’t slept well since. My father died of AIDS in 1995. I was 15. Except he didn’t die of AIDS, he died of ‘cancer.’ Except we all knew it was AIDS because he was gay and had been sleeping around with men for years. We were a Catholic family, and so shame was tantamount to pretty much everything, especially my dad’s secret life. There were a lot of years after he died where Thanksgiving and Christmas and birthdays and anniversaries were lonely days, hollow days where not much was said and my sister and I would sit with our mom around the table and stare at our food.

Watching you on stage, the frustration and rage, it was so palpable it cracked me open, like an egg, and I feel like I can feel again. Except now I feel a lot of rage too. I feel like the rage is taking its revenge, saying, “You ignored me for 20 years and now I own you.” I feel like you brought it into my life. It was like you were breaking barriers up there. I could feel how uncomfortable the audience was at times. Like they were afraid of you. I was too, I guess, but also relieved. I don’t know what you are doing up there, or how you manage to live the role several times a week, but I want you to know that you have changed me forever. More than the play. More than the production. YOU.

I didn’t know who Larry Kramer was before the other night, but I’ve been reading up on him and watching videos on YouTube. He wanted to change things and wake people up and he could only do it by shattering everyone around him that wouldn’t listen. He’s lucky someone like you can interpret his intentions. I will probably see the show again before it closes. For now, I’m figuring out what to do with these feelings. Like, how do I forgive my dad? How do I talk to my mom, after all these years, about what really happened? How many more people out there are just like me, waiting for something to come along and break them open? Too many innocent men died. For nothing. I think I might take boxing lessons.”

In the summer of 2013, I was 40 (and a half) years old and really taking stock of my life, as one is wont to do at 40 (and a half). I had been in Los Angeles exactly a decade at that point, and reflecting on my career as an actor: roles won, roles lost, characters deeply inhabited, their skins later shed like a snake once a show ended, reviews, awards, pounds gained and dropped again, friends made and later lost, the worry over male pattern baldness. That summer, I contemplated the possibility that the ‘acting thing’ was more of a hobby than a profession. Things had changed drastically after I moved from New York to LA. In NY, I was working on Broadway, making a living acting. I was on a good trajectory there.

Where I grew up, and in my time, theater had always felt like a great act of rebellion, a middle-finger held up high to everything normal and expected and accepted. Thespians were teased and bullied, but I prided myself on being subversive, anathema to their pack mentality and bougie normality. Theater was punk af. In LA, however, acting suddenly felt like trying to be part of the popular kids again. Clique mentality. I wanted no part of it. How will I succeed if I have no interest in playing by the rules? I’ve always hated rules. I didn’t want to be hot or muscular or skinny or alpha or tan or…commercially viable in any way. I didn’t want to do things the way they were supposed to be done. I desired to shave my head, ring my eyes with racoon-black eyeliner, cover my body in tattoos, pierce every part of me, paint like Pollock, join a band. I contemplated whomever managed to pull off “LA success” with bitter disdain and a kind of squishy envy. That’s okay—I’m not above being human. Actors are not superheroes, despite the way the media depict them and fame & fortune define them.

I happened to be perusing the labyrinthian interwebs that summer when I discovered a breakdown for The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s seminal 1985 agit-prop manifesto about AIDS in the early-to-mid 1980s and how he and his friends banded together to create GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis). The Fountain Theatre in Hollywood was set to produce, overseen by one of the theatre’s founders and Co-Artistic Director, the outstanding Stephen Sachs. The play hadn’t been done in LA in about twenty years, and though it had been given a slick, starry revival on Broadway a few years prior, it felt, perhaps, like something that sunny, surfery Southern California had no right to consider. It’s my (arguably harsh) opinion that LA has always felt too granola (read: passive) for the righteous anger of stories birthed in New York City by New Yorkers.

Nonetheless, The Fountain had a reputation for mounting plays with a social justice bend, and Kramer’s behemoth was certainly no exception. I drafted a cordial email to the casting director asking to be seen. (I’m a firm believer that if you want something done, you do it yourself, and immediately. In other words, I wasn’t going to ask the manager to ask the agent if I had been submitted and then wait around, to neither receive a response nor an appointment time.) When casting responded to my inquiry I assumed the team would want to see me for the role of Bruce Niles, the strapping gay ex-marine. At 6’2” , broad-shouldered, and north of 200lbs, I figured it was the only role they’d consider me for. Instead, they asked me to prepare the role of Ned Weeks, the play’s antagonistic protagonist. Ned is molded out of the playwright himself, the pejorative Larry Kramer. It was the true story of him and his friends, after all, and he was going to tell it his way. It’s a colossal script, with a role as immense as Hamlet, and on nearly every page it elucidates Ned’s pushiness, outspokenness, and righteous anger.

How does an audience go on a journey, and root for, a disagreeable character?  Continue reading

My father’s table saw

Table saw 3by Stephen Sachs

This is the story of a table saw. A steel-framed Sears Craftsman table saw manufactured when things were built to last. My father bought the saw more than fifty years ago,  when he was forty-three, to cut lumber at the new home he had just bought in Westlake Village for his young family. The table saw now sits in the parking lot of the Fountain Theatre, worn-out and rusting, like a broken-down Oldsmobile.  

My dad was a newsman in 1967. He was a logical thinker, deliberate. He wore a suit jacket and tie when he went to the CBS newsroom in Los Angeles each morning. Smoked a pipe like network icon Walter Cronkite. Dad was a serious man with a dark furrowed brow who approached his duty as a journalist with somber dedication. On weekends, he was a different man.

Like most dads of that era, he liked tools. Hammers, screwdrivers, socket wrenches. On weekends, Dad eagerly drove our white station wagon to Sears in Woodland Hills to buy a glistening new set of socket wrenches or a new power drill. He dedicated an entire section of the garage to his tools and hardware, mounting hundreds of Craftsman gadgets and gizmos on the wall like shiny religious weaponry.  As a boy, I would stand in the dim garage alone and stare at the burnished tools. They held some kind of spell of magic to me because they drew so much of my father’s care and attention.  Each packet of screws, each mechanical device, each bundle of power cord was lovingly mounted in a logistical order that I recognized as my father’s sense of propriety.  It was on one of his weekend pilgrimages to Sears that he bought the table saw. 

Harvey Sachs Westlake Village building patio overhang

Harvey Sachs

My dad and that table saw labored hard in the hot Conejo Valley sun on weekends, building fences and benches for our home and the outdoor patio overhang  that circled our backyard. Dad huffed and puffed as he manhandled that table saw, his shirt off and bare chested, tiny chips of sawdust speckling the black hair on his chest and arms like  woody flakes of snow.  Who was this man? A clutch of roofing nails clenched in his teeth where, during the work week, a Dunhill pipe used to be. 

By the time I opened the Fountain Theatre, my dad had Parkinson’s disease. He could barely move or speak. He had stopped working for CBS News long before. He could no longer hold a pencil or lift a hammer. His shrine of carpentry tools in the garage stood silent,  dusty and untouched for years like an abandoned tomb. Except for that table saw. 

Somehow, in 1993, I lugged that heavy steel table saw from Westlake Village to the Fountain Theatre and presented it to my Technical Director. “This is my father’s saw,” I told him. It would now build our stage scenery. 

Table saw SS 2

Stephen Sachs, 2018

For the next twenty-five years, my father’s saw stood proud at the Fountain, cutting miles of lumber into thousands of pieces to build dozens of sets for so many of our plays. As Dad’s health declined his table saw powered on. Dad passed away in 1995. From that day forward, the scenery for every play I wrote and directed at the Fountain Theatre has been cut on my father’s table saw.

Until today.

The once hearty motor is now blown. Replacement parts have been discontinued years ago. It is done. The saw now stands forsaken in the Fountain parking lot waiting to be hauled to the dump. 

I swing my car into the lot as I arrive for work each morning. I park, hoist myself out of my Honda, walk to the front door. As I do, I cross the parking lot and shoot a glance at the table saw. And see my father. Bare-chested, happy and alive, pushing a two-by-four into the ever spinning blade. 

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre