Tag Archives: Steven Leigh Morris

Fountain stands for social and political theatre in LA with ‘Building the Wall’ and ‘Citizen’

CITIZEN WALL layout

That Was The Week That Was was a satirical television show in the early 1960’s that brought focus to social and political issues of the day. The Fountain Theatre may look back on this current week, May 1 – May 7 in 2017, and brand it the same name. This week, in an unplanned juncture of synchronicity, the Fountain Theatre has two acclaimed productions running simultaneously in Los Angeles — one at its 78-seat Hollywood home on Fountain Avenue, the other at the 300-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City —  each dramatizing in mesmerizing fashion the urgent issues of race, injustice, and politics.

The Fountain’s National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of Building the Wall by Robert Schenkkan was a smash hit the moment it opened in March at the intimate Fountain Theatre, selling out weeks in advance.  Set in the near future, the powerful new drama unfolds as a man awaits sentencing in a federal prison for carrying out the orders of Trump’s national policy to round-up and detain immigrants by the millions.    

 

Meanwhile, across town at the mid-sized Kirk Douglas Theatre, the Fountain’s acclaimed and award-winning encore production of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs, is galvanizing audiences. The centerpiece of Center Theatre Group‘s inaugural Block Party celebrating intimate theatre in Los Angles, Citizen is a searing, poetic riff on race in America based on the best-selling book.   

 

“To have these two important, meaningful productions running concurrently, one in an intimate theatre and the other in a mid-sized venue, is extraordinary,” says Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “It exemplifies who we are, what we do, and why we do it.”

Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan agrees. “Both Citizen and Building the Wall deal with the issue of race and the fundamental question of who is it we mean when we say, ‘We, the people,'” explains Schenkkan. “For more than twenty five years, the Fountain Theatre has been presenting exhilarating, necessary theater, wrestling with the most pressing social and political issues of the day.” 

LA Stage Alliance Executive Director Steven Leigh Morris points out that this week is no anomaly. Morris notes, “That the Fountain Theatre has two productions running simultaneously — one at its home space in East Hollywood and the other at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of Center Theatre Group’s Block Party program — is a testament to the rigor and meticulous artistry that has been part of The Fountain tradition for twenty-seven years.”

By all accounts, this is an unforgettable week for the Fountain. We vow to continue our commitment to create, develop and produce meaningful new plays that bring to life urgent issues, week after week, for many years to come. 

Tickets/Info BUILDING THE WALL

Tickets/Info CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC

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Actors’ Equity Association vs. Los Angeles Theater

 

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris, Executive Director of LA Stage Alliance

by Steven Leigh Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FT group

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

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

Stage Raw Theatre Awards 2015 - Los Angeles Theatre Center - Apr

The Stage Raw Awards at the Los Angeles Theatre Center

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

SS

Stephen Sachs

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

 

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

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

Fountain Theatre Honored at Stage Raw Awards

Joel Polis, Jenny O'Hara, Matthew Hancock, Gilbert Glenn Brown

Actors Joel Polis, Jenny O’Hara, Matthew Hancock, Gilbert Glenn Brown

The first-ever Stage Raw Awards were held last night at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in Downtown LA.  Founded by local arts journalist Steven Leigh Morris,  Stage Raw is a digital journal dedicated to discovering, discussing and honoring L.A.-based arts and culture. The Stage Raw Awards specifically honor achievements in LA intimate theaters with 99-seats or fewer.   

The Fountain Theatre received 13 Stage Raw Award nominations for three of its 2014 productions. Two Fountain artists were honored: Joel Polis won the Best Supporting Actor Award for his performance in our LA Premiere of My Name is Asher Lev, and lighting designer Pablo Santiago won for his work on our LA Premiere of The Brothers Size.  

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LA Weekly: The Timeless Voice in Fugard’s “The Blue Iris” at the Fountain

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

by Steven Leigh Morris

A series of poems by Thomas Hardy, grieving after the death of his first, estranged wife, inspired Athol Fugard‘s latest play, The Blue Iris, now receiving its U.S. premiere at Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre, directed by Stephen Sachs.

Athol Fugard, the internationally renowned Causasian South African dramatist who writes in English, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of his early writing career dedicated to battling his nation’s apartheid policies (in plays such as Blood Knot, 1961; and Master Harold and the Boys, 1982). Fugard was as brave as a playwright could be, joining the ranks of Chile‘s Ariel Dorfman and Czechoslovakia‘s Václav Havel by risking prison for writing works that looked askance at the policies of their authoritarian governments. It was a baton they passed along to the likes of Russian punk band Pussy Riot.

But when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in South African prisons, and in the nation’s first multiracial elections became the nation’s first black president, the purpose of aging white liberals such as Fugard became ever more nuanced and difficult to define. After all, South Africa’s brave new future also contained a raging AIDS epidemic, and the continuation of unspeakable poverty, revenge and violence.

That transition is what Fugard has been writing about since 1994, in a series of plays set in his beloved Karoo, among them Valley Song (1996), Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001),Victory (2007) and his latest, The Blue Iris.

Invariably, they concern an aging white man and young “colored” (the South African term for mixed-race) woman. In Valley Song, presented here at the Mark Taper Forum, the young woman, Veronica, needed to come of age, to escape the confines of the Karoo for a faster life in the city. She was an innocent, and a symbol of the future.

Sorrows and Rejoicings (also premiered here at the Taper) concerned a white, male poet from South Africa who went into exile inLondon. When he returned to the Karoo, he was dying. There he met the young colored woman he left behind, Rebecca. She answered his abandonment of her by burning his early poems. The essence of Fugard’s anxiety was spoken in a single line from that play:

“For your soul’s sake, Rebecca, I hope you know that what you did was terribly wrong. What you turned to ash and smoke out there in the veldt was evidence of a man’s love, for his country, for his people — for you! Don’t reject it. … Rejoice in it! Because if you think you and your New South Africa don’t need it, you are making a terrible mistake.”

In Victory, which received its U.S. premiere at the Fountain Theatre, also directed by Sachs, the aging white man (Morlan Higgins) found himself being robbed and held hostage by the young colored woman (born on the day Mandela was released from prison, and consequently named Vickie in honor of this victory) and her boyfriend. The old man was Vickie’s educator and mentor. Her petty criminal alliance was a representation of how the innocence of Veronica and the hope for the future in Valley Song had corroded in Fugard’s eyes.

Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill

Fugard’s plays have been getting ever more despondent, and The Blue Iris contains his most austere view to date. Morlan Higgins returns as Robert Hannay, eking out an existence in the Karoo near the charred remains of a house where the colored woman, Rieta (Julanne Chidi Hill), once grew up and worked as a housekeeper. Robert still grieves for his wife, Sally (Jacqueline Schultz, appearing as a phantom), who died of a heart attack shortly after a lightning strike that burned their home. (Jeff McLaughlin‘s set depicts blackened beams and detached doors amidst piles of detritus.)

Sally begged Robert not to leave the night of that storm, but he was determined to buy a new breeding ram, and so now he lives with the agony of his decision on that night of decimation. Rieta stands by him, for reasons unveiled in the play. She endures his conjurings of Sally.

Some verses of one poem by Hardy, “The Voice,” embody Robert’s state of mind:

“Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,

Standing as when I drew near to the town

Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,

Even to the original air-blue gown!

“Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness

Traveling across the wet mead to me here,

You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,

Heard no more again far or near?”

Sally, a painter by avocation, floats through the play on the day Rieta discovers Sally’s only painting that was untouched by the fire. It’s a botanical portrait of a blue iris, which for Robert brings back the memory of when Sally found the flower on the floor of the drought-blasted veldt — a single symbol of hope in a withered landscape otherwise punctuated by the death of plants and sheep.

That particular flower, however, has poison within its beauty, enough poison to “bring down an ox,” which is why the local farmers so loath it. That’s what Sally was trying to capture. What looks pretty contains toxins. And there you have the parable for the contamination of a hope-filled future.

Sachs’ meticulously rendered production features a trio of impeccable performances. These include Schultz as Sally’s ghost, who arrives as though via tornado, chattering and desperate, before she’s sucked away by that same wind tunnel, to explain the meaning of her painting, and of how in painting it she failed to convey that meaning.

Then there’s Higgins as Robert, and his fastidious, lumbering search for his own meaning amidst the remains, his world-weary eyes, the sonorous, aching tone in his voice. Hill’s Rieta offers a spritely foil — she’s as impatient as she is pained. Their joint decision, the only decision in the play, is whether she and Robert, both tramps and Platonic lovers, should stay or go, together or apart. And there’s an allegory in that, too, about circumstantial bonds and inexorable isolation. The play is saturated in allegories.

Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins

To fully appreciate The Blue Iris, however, one might look beyond Thomas Hardy’s poems to W.B. Yeats‘ poetical drama Purgatory, also set by the remains of a charred house. Purgatory also studies a man grieving for his late wife, trying to release her from purgatory. She, too, paces between life and death, listless in her travels beyond existence. The other character in Purgatoryis the man’s son, representing a hope for the future that stands on the brink of corrosion.

Both plays wrestle with how past and future can possibly travel any road together. And yet they do, as they must, as they always have. The ensuing, combustible emotions are what provide the fire of our most timeless poems and stories, where writers such as Yeats and Fugard ache to fathom the unfathomable.

Steven Leigh Morris writes for the LA Weekly.

THE BLUE IRIS | By Athol Fugard | Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Sept. 16. |   (323) 663-1525       |fountaintheatre.com

Recent News from Newspapers is Bad News for LA Theatre

News about print newspapers is now seldom good. And news about newspapers in Los Angeles reducing or cutting theater coverage has now gotten worse. Here it is — the good, the bad, and the ugly:

Back Stage

Last month, Back Stage laid off Dany Margolies, the Los Angeles executive editor and theater editor. Without warning or notice. After eleven years championing the LA theater community, she was told by a young staffer that Back Stage was “restructuring”. Her services were no longer needed. It took her two days to remove more than a decade’s worth of work from her office using the post office tubs they gave her in lieu of storage boxes.

In an open letter to Back Stage readers in October, the new CEO and Chairman,  John Amato, had expressed his excitement about taking over the company, adding “I would like to thank the dedicated, talented, and loyal Back Stage team, whose incredible work has gotten us to where we are today. ”

Three months later he fired Los Angeles theater editor Dany Margolies,  national editor Jaime Painter Young, and other staff members including one in charge of casting notices.

John Amato states the publication is entering a “transformative period” as it moves exclusively to an online digital platform. Print media is fading fast and will soon be gone, going the way of vinyl LP’s.

Of course, if you’ve followed the magazine at all in recent years, the “transformation” at Back Stage is more than about going digital. Back Stage has become another Hollywood Reporter, with more focus and coverage of films, TV shows and movie stars than on the art form it was created to cover in the first place: theater and plays. Back Stage has sold its soul to Hollywood. Someone needs to remind Amato: It’s called Back Stage. Not Back Lot.

Which is why losing Dany Margolies at Back Stage is so painful. LA Theater has lost one of its strongest advocates in that office.

Los Angeles Times

The same week in January that Dany was laid off at Back Stage, it was announced that Lisa Fung, the longtime Online Arts Editor at the Los Angeles Times, had jumped ship to The Wrap,  the entertainment website “covering Hollywood”. Word has it that the new editor making Arts assignments at The Times has meager knowledge of theatre and little familiarity with the many theatre companies in Los Angeles. Not good.

And now the Los Angeles Times has just announced that it will no longer provide online listings for plays, events or venues. It will list only critic’s picks online throughout the week, adding “select listings” and critic’s picks on Sunday. To make it even harder on folks in the LA theater community, the Times now requires that play listings be submitted directly to individual Times reporters and editors, to their personal email addresses. No more “@latimes.com”.  So, if you don’t know Charles McNulty’s personal email address, you’re out of luck. And left out.

LA Weekly

Meanwhile, over at the LA Weekly,  editors decided two weeks ago to reduce the Weekly’s theater coverage even more than it already has in recent years. The Weekly had already eliminated its theater listings. And its former service of running all play reviews for the length of a play’s run.   Now Weekly editors wanted the number of new theater reviews assigned each week to be cut down to six. Six! In a city that averages 20-30 new productions opening each week! It took passionate negotiating by theater writer/editor Steven Leigh Morris to convince the Weekly higher-ups that assigning only six reviews per week was absurd.  A higher number was reached: eight.

Times are tough for print newspapers everywhere. Arts coverage in newspapers is slowly evaporating like an old faded photograph.  The LA Weekly has reduced the size of its print edition and the scope of its theater coverage. Back Stage is going digital.  The Tribune Company, owners of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

We need to understand the impact of technology on the live performing arts.  Technology has emerged as our biggest competitor for leisure time: the average American spends 25.7 hours of leisure watching television or online each week. Internet consumption per person has grown to 14.2 hours per week.  By the time Net-Gen-ers reach their twenties, they will have spent more than 20,000 hours on the Internet and an additional 10,000 hours playing video games.

We are in the middle of a transformation of cultural expression and communication—a realignment that is shaking the newspaper and publishing industries.

So, where’s the good news?

Here: As arts coverage in newspapers declines, theater-related blogs and websites are flourishing like never before. Folks are blogging, posting, tweeting and chatting online about theater — and sending their friends to see plays they “like”. With audiences wielding iPhones, the experience of going to the theater involves more than just seeing a play. Its about sharing the experience with friends.

And Here: More theater is being created and produced in Los Angeles than ever before.  Against all odds, the number of theater artists developing new work in Los Angeles grows. The hopeful urgency of the artists’ need to create and share work with other human beings lives on and still flourishes.

No doubt, these are dark times to be an artist of any kind. In this city, in this country, in this culture.

As theater artists, we can curse the darkness — or light a candle. And in Los Angeles, thousands of theater candles are being lit everywhere, every night, all over this landscape.

Let’s keep our candles burning! Together, we illuminate the world!

Tanya Saracho’s “El Nogalar”: Chekhov Set in the Mexican Drug Wars

by Steven Leigh Morris

Tanya Saracho

Though Tanya Saracho is 35 and has lived in the United States since she was 12, she still isn’t a citizen, holding only a green card. Deeply grateful to the United States for the life she’s lived here so far, she finds the citizenship process now administered by the Department of Homeland Security a bit daunting.

​Born in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa, she grew up in the adjoining border towns of Reynoso, Mexico, and McAllen, Texas; her father still works on the Mexican side. Saracho has been tentatively crossing borders ever since, including literary borders — among contemporary Latino literature, classical Spanish plays and even Russian classics.

Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre is presenting her play El Nogalar (The Pecan Orchard), based on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, starting this week. (The play premiered last year in a joint production between Teatro Vista and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.)

“When I was in school, I didn’t get exposed to Latino playwrights,” Saracho explains. “I got exposed to [Spanish classical author] Lope de Vega, but not the modern ones. When they introduced Chekhov, we read The Cherry Orchard. I kept saying, ‘Oh my God, this guy is Latino. The women, the way they lamented, the way they whined, it seemed very Latino to me.”

Saracho moved to Chicago because of its reputation as a serious theater town, and there she formed her own company, Teatro Luna, where she mostly performed solo shows. At one point, she says, “I said, ‘In this company, we’re going to adapt The Cherry Orchard to Latino.’ ” Eventually the more established Teatro Vista company got involved and helped make it happen.

Diana Romo, Yetta Gottesman, Isabelle Ortega in "El Nogalar"

In her adaptation, she says, “I got rid of the dudes. I never understood what the dudes did. The first version was all women. Lopahkin can’t touch the women because of the class thing,” referring to the grandson of a serf kept at a distance by the play’s aristocrats as “vulgar.” “So I consigned him to monologues.”

But it was the maid, Dunyasha, who became the playwright’s obsession — “how she became a survivor,” Saracho says, after having been jilted by the servant Yasha, who doesn’t appear in Saracho’s version. “Yasha could have been a coke-head, I guess, but I cut out all the men.”

The play is in English, but peppered with Spanish and Spanglish. “Nobody’s going to miss a thing,” she says.

The bank doesn’t foreclose on the orchard, as it does in Chekhov’s play. Rather, a drug cartel causes the family to part with the property.

Saracho plans to stay in L.A. for a while, thanks to a literary agent and the hope of another border crossing — from theater to TV and film.

El Nogalar opens Sat., Jan. 28, at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd.; through March 11. (323) 662-1525, fountaintheatre.com.

Steven Leigh Morris is the Theatre Editor for LA Weekly