COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: A Nomad's Journey - An Interview with IAMA's Stefanie Black


The co-artistic director of IAMA Theatre Company, film, television, and stage actor Stefanie Black has done it all. Twelve years ago, she co-founded the IAMA Theatre Company, an Ovation award-winning Los Angeles-based ensemble of artists committed to invigorating live performance for a streaming generation. Through cutting-edge, cool, and hyper-modern stories, IAMA is invested in the immediacy of production and strives to bring audiences out of their personal space and into a shared experience. IAMA has produced over 15 premiere plays, including Found, Canyon, The Recommendation, A Kid like Jake, and Cult of Love. Pamdemic or not, Stefanie has determined to stay busy doing what she loves. She kindly agreed to being interviewed in April, 2020.


Stefanie Black, Brandon Scott, Adam Shapiro, and Christine Woods in "Canyon" - Photo by Dean Cechvala

When and how did IAMA Theatre Company first form? Were you involved from the beginning? 

Stefanie Black:  IAMA was founded in the summer of 2007 by a group of us who had all just moved to Los Angeles from NYC. We'd all graduated from NYU a couple years before and found ourselves together in LA looking to create theater and stay true to our roots. Katie Lowes, my co-Artistic Director, and I were part of the original eight members.”

What are some of the most popular plays you've done? How about awards?

 

SB: IAMA is probably best known for producing the world premieres of all seven of Leslye Headland's The Seven Deadly Plays. Bachelorette and Assistance were some of our most popular and successful plays. We concluded the series in 2018 with our production of Cult of Love which will have its co-world premiere this summer at The Williamstown Theater Festival. In 2013, we won the Ovation Award for best production intimate theater for our production of Jonathan Caren's The Recommendation. We also garnered an Ovation Nomination in 2019 for best season. In 2019 we co-hosted the 5th Annual Stage Raw Awards with Ammunition Theatre Company.

 

Ryan Garcia, Sheila Carrasco, and Desi Dennis-Dylan in "Found" - Photo by Jeff Lorch

When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?

SB: We closed our west coast premiere of the new musical Found on March 13. We had two more weeks of performances before we were to close on March 23. We also had our production of Canyon cancelled, which was to be remounted by the Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas as part of Block Party. That was scheduled to open on April 10.”

Tom De Trinis, Jordan Kai Burnett, Mike Millan, and Jonah Platt in "Found" - Photo by Jeff Lorch

How has COVID-19 impacted on your theater?

SB: Honestly, for us, we are very lucky to be a nomadic company moving between a few theater venues each season. Our lack of home has actually kept us a little more financially stable than some of our colleagues. What we do need right now is to keep a direct line to our audience and community. We need to spend this time to plan for the future and the new normal that we are about to enter. The downside has been that we didn't get to finish what was a very successful run, and it has us looking at downsizing production for next season.

Laila Ayad, Melissa Stephens, and Tina Huang in "Cult of Love" - Photo by Dean Cechvala

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen?

SB:  IAMA is keeping busy by meeting regularly via Zoom and launching our #IAMAatHome, which will see us rolling out a variety of content. We're making theater without a theater. We are also in planning mode for our first show of next season, as well as a potential workshop this summer - if we are able to gather by then.”

What do you think the impact of COVID-19 will be on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

SB:  I think it's hard to say what the permanent impact will be on LA Theater. I do believe that we are setting new precedents of how theater can live virtually in the cyber world and what that means for all artists. I am hopeful that LA intimate theater will be the first to come back since our numbers for gathering are smaller. Hopefully, that will be encouraging for audiences and help to bring us all back to the theater together.

What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?

SB: IAMA isn't going anywhere and we just want our audience to stay with us, stay safe, and stay engaged. We'll be back!!!  #LATheatreLives

What are some of your future plans?

SB: IAMA is always looking towards the future. We are very excited about our 2020/2021 season, the Jubilee Season, dedicated to celebrating female-identifying playwrights. We are excited about continuing our writers’ labs and finding ways to share their work with the public. Most importantly, our plans include being around for another 12 seasons and then some.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



Spotlight Series: Meet Sascha Vanderslik, a Native Australian Who Calls The Group Rep Theatre Company Her New Home

Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background?

Sascha Vanderslik (Sascha): I am Australian born and bred and grew up in the theatre. My Mum is an incredible singer with her band Organic Joe and she did musicals when I was a kid, so I spent my childhood watching her perform.  I would sit backstage and watch the actors put on their make-up and costumes, completely enthralled by the magic they were creating and then would go home and make up my own plays with my toys. Then one day they did Little Shop of Horrors and my mind was blown. Seeing that show changed my world and suddenly I realized how versatile and fun the stage could be.

When I was 12, I co-founded a theatre company in my home town since we didn’t have a lot of theatre available for youth. So we made it ourselves and wrote plays that dealt with youth issues such as peer pressure and drugs. I took what I learned in the years with this company and I used it in my career. For me, the best art will always challenge you while it entertains you.

Since living in the States I’ve been focused more on film and TV work and building my credits. I felt something was missing though, and the last three years have been focused on reigniting my first love since theatre soothes my soul and there is no greater rush than performing on stage. I did two plays with the Manor Theatre Company in 2017 and have been a member of The Group Rep Theatre Company for a little over a year, during which time I have been involved with multiple productions at GRT. And I am pleased to announce I was just voted onto their Board of Directors as the 2nd Vice President.

(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out it needed to immediately be either postponed or cancelled?

(Sascha): When the shutdown started, we were right in the middle of rehearsals for London Suite which is the next Main Stage production at The Group Rep.

(SB): How was the shutdown communicated with the cast and production team?

(Sascha): The Group Rep is such a fantastic company and we are lucky that both the Artistic Director Doug Haverty, and the Executive Director Bert Emmett, are incredibly transparent with the membership. There had been multiple discussions before the shutdown started about what the process would be. We had also had discussions with our Producer Aly York and Director Doug Engalla, both of whom really made it their first priority to make sure the cast were comfortable and felt safe while rehearsals were still happening. As soon as the shutdown started, we received communication from Doug and Aly explaining the situation and that we would be postponing rehearsals.

Once the shutdown happened, we have had regular communication from our Director Doug to check in and see how we are doing. Bert Emmett and Doug Haverty are also in constant contact with the membership to give them updates on what’s happening, and we will be having Zoom meetings with the membership in the future.

(SB) Most theatre companies are going that same route for now, and all are trying to figure out options for their next steps. Do you know if plans in place to present London Suite at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?

(Sascha): At this time London Suite is postponed and not cancelled, and the plan is to open it as soon as it is safe to do so. We are rehearsing weekly on Zoom, which has been different and a lot of fun. We are a family and it’s great to see people even if it’s only on Zoom. Of course, we are only able to rehearse lines but it’s nice to keep everything fresh in our minds so that when the time comes, we can hit the ground running.

(SB): What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?

(Sascha): This year I am co-producing Nine Winning One Acts at The Group Rep. It was supposed to open in June, and we would be heading into rehearsals right now if we were able to do so. This festival has now been postponed and we don’t have a date yet for when it will open. My Co-Producer Helen O'brien and I have been hard at work reading all the submissions and narrowing down the plays so that when we get the green light, we can head into auditions and get the festival up on its feet.

I’m also in two staged readings that are postponed: the first, Baby With the Bath Water, is going to be completely staged and we are going to be starting Zoom rehearsals for that soon. The other, Ouartermaine’s Terms, is just postponed until it is safe to open.

Loose Knit

Lastly, I am in a hilarious new play, The Canary by Amy Sullivan, that is part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, which had been postponed to October and was then cancelled completely. This is such a fun play and I can’t wait until it can be shared with the world, maybe at Fringe 2021.

(SB): How are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(Sascha): I am lucky that I still have projects keeping me busy, and rehearsals for London Suite have been such a bright light in these times. I’ve also been participating in the open call self-tapes that different casting offices have been doing. I also have some very talented friends that have been doing Zoom table reads for projects they have written.

(SB): While it’s true the online theatre experience is not quite the same as being in a theater for a live performance, it certainly is keeping us creatively busy. Any thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Sascha): This is such a hard time for our community and it warms my heart to see how we have all banded together. The Arts are so important to the world and we will make it through these dark times. It won’t be easy and we don’t know what the other side looks like, but we will make it through together.

And of course, the Theatre community is struggling right now and we need your help. Most of the small non-profit theaters are held together by a membership of volunteers, so without ticket sales we are struggling to survive. And since Art is always there to help people, in these dark times Art needs some help in return. Like so many other theaters, we need as many donations as possible. And while it has been incredible how many people have already donated, we still need more help. To donate directly to The Group Rep, you can go to TheGroupRep.com/show/donations. Another place to donate is at gofundme.com/savenohotheatres.

Please stay in touch as we all work together to support our vibrant L.A. Theatre community! You can find me on Instagram @saschavanderslik or at TheGroupRep.com.


This article first appeared on Broadway World.



How Wearing a Mask Could Help the Theatre Industry and Your Local Economy


The following was posted on facebook by film and theatre actress Kitty Swink, who is a member of the Antaeus Theatre Company in Los Angeles. With her permission I'm reposting for all to read and share.

Kitty copied and slightly edited this and shared from multiple of her dear and fabulously talented colleagues.


Please read this...this is personal!!!

Our industry is gone, and it will be a very long time before it recovers. Hope you all are enjoying the beach and theme parks while we just sit home and hope our jobs come back. Stop being selfish. Stay home. Wear a mask.

Yesterday, Broadway formally announced the rest of the year is canceled and Cirque du Soleil has filed for bankruptcy protection. Lincoln Center is closed. Multiple orchestras and opera companies have cancelled seasons. Smaller regional companies , venues and organizations are in jeopardy. Even community theatres , bands, orchestras, free lance gigs have gone away. So when you see your entertainment friends begging you to wear masks and stay home, understand that we are helplessly watching our industry crumble before our eyes because the country is doing so poorly at reducing the spread. This IS personal for us.

If you plan on watching ‘Hamilton’ today... or if you loved the ‘Chicago’ movie... or if ‘Sound of Music’ or Nutcracker is a holiday tradition for you. THEY ALL started on a stage.

Now Broadway is shut down till Jan 2021. Major performing arts presenters are closed for the next season.

ALL of the following people are out work.

It’s not just the actors or musicians.

For those of you not in the theatre or music community, please understand the scope of Broadway/Off-Broadway being shut down. Frankly, this affects all theatre and music anywhere. It travels much further than the stage boards where you see the brilliant performers giving you an amazing show. You also have:

- Tour managers
- Production managers
- Tour accountants
- Stage managers
- Company managers
- House managers
- General managers
- Stage Techs
- House crew
- Runners
- Truck and Bus drivers
- Promoter reps
- Caterers
- Production Assistants
- Dressers / Wardrobe
- Hair/Makeup
- Carpenters
- Electrics
- FOH Sound Engineers, Monitor Engineers & techs
- Lighting Designers and Techs
- Props
- Musicians
- Ushers
- Bartenders
- Box office treasurers
- Porters
- Cleaners
- Matrons
- Merchandise
- Security
- Marketing
- Producers
- Directors
- Choreographers
- Authors
- Orchestrators/Arrangers
- Interns
- Press Agents
- Casting Directors
- Set Designers
- Costume Designers
- Hair/Makeup Designers
- Lighting Designers
- Sound Designers
- Prop Designers
- All the design assistants
- Vocal/dialect coaches
- Child wranglers
- Doormen

Now go out of the theatre district and see the jobs this shutdown also affects:

- All the costume shops where the costumes are made
- The millinery shops where the hats/headpieces are made
- The cobblers where all the custom shoes are made
- The wigmakers
- The fabric/bead/feather shops- while these may reopen they will suffer huge losses with no shows requiring anything for this entire year.
- Scenic shops where the sets are built
- Prop shops where the props are made
- Sound and Lighting shops where the lights & mics are rented from
- Design studios where the sets, costumes, props, etc are dreamed up to make the directors vision a reality
- Rehearsal spaces for the show to be worked out before it appears for your pleasure
- Merchandise vendors, concessions
- Advertising agencies & press agencies
- Talent agencies and managers
- Union offices
- Producer & general management offices

Now venture even deeper into the shutdown and see the business that is lost in the theatre district from just the people in the industry not working on a show (then on top of that the loss of audience members buying stuff at)

- Delis
- Restaurants
- Post-show bars
- Coffee shops
- Hotels
- Garages
- Gyms
- Physical therapists

If that list seems long - it is! And that’s just New York. That’s not even taking into account all the theatre around this country. For most of us - this is our whole life!!
Wear a damn mask!



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Twelve Actors and a Laundromat - An Interview with Group Rep's Doug Haverty


Talented California-born Doug Haverty has done it all, from actor and playwright to lyricist and producer. Little did he know that his first play, a college comedy called Hello, This is the Bottom Drawer, would draw so much positive attention and lead to a writing job in New York. But it was not until In My Mind's Eye premiered at the Los Angeles Group Repertory Theatre in 1984 that his talent won him a most promising playwright award, as well as a Drama-Logue award for best playwriting in 1985. Musicals included Love Again, Roleplay/Inside Out, Flavia, and The Dream Maker, and The Ghost of Gershwin. Doug has acted in numerous Group Rep productions, most notably And Then There were None, Lend Me a Tenor, and The Cape and the Klan. In addition to his role at the Group Rep, Doug also co-moderates Theatre West’s Writer’s Workshop. A true multi-tasker, Doug took some time out of his busy schedule to interview in April 2020.


Kyle Bares, Jean Altadel, Emma-Jayne Appleyard, Daniel Lench, Suzy London, Andrew Bourgeois, and Gregory Guy Gorden in "The Ghost of Gershwin" - Photo by Sherry Netherland

When did your theater first begin its long career? Were you Involved from the beginning?

Doug Haverty: The Group Rep began life in May of 1973 when 12 actors converted a laundromat in Hollywood into a 37-seat theater. They convinced Lonny Chapman to come on board and be their Artistic Director. Shortly thereafter, they relocated to a charming theater on Magnolia Boulevard in North Hollywood. I saw plays at this space, which reminded me (personally) of the summer stock theater in Michigan where I met my wife. The building looked like a barn. It was red with white trim, and it was set back off Magnolia. There was a walkway lined with pine trees and benches. It was really bucolic. It had a front porch and the box office/concessions looked like the bar in a saloon.

I joined the theater in 1982 as a playwright. Lonny liked my play, In My Mind's Eye, and told me he’d like to help me develop it. My first meeting with the group was on a Monday night, and they were presenting a workshop of a new play they’d been rehearsing. It was memorized, directed, costumed; it even had working props. But it was played on the set of their current show. The work and dedication was astounding. Every role had been cast perfectly, it was beautifully directed, and I could not believe the level of commitment from these actors and this director. They had obviously been working on it for weeks without any guarantee of production — they just believed in the play. I knew, then and there, that this was the place for me. The play was The Lilac Tree, and it did become a production — in fact, it was the last production at that charming space. The City of North Hollywood had determined that they needed that land for a senior citizens tower (which is there now). One or two of the pine trees survived.

The City relocated Group Rep to its current space on Burbank Blvd.; and the first full-length production was my play, In My Mind's Eye. The production did very well, and this play went on to be produced in Berkeley and Whittier. It was eventually published by Samuel French, where it’s been done all over the country. The Group Rep just revived this play as part of their 2020 season; and it was, again, very well received by audiences and critics alike. I had many people tell me how moved they were by the play — even perfect strangers liked it.

Reenie Moore, Pat Lentz, Claudia Fenton, Bonnie Snyder, Jodi Carlisle, and Julie Bloomfield, the world premiere cast of "Roleplay/Inside Out"  - Photo by Dale Cooke

When did you become the artistic director?

DH:  Through the years, I have participated in various productions at Group Rep wearing various hats. I have acted in many shows, produced several shows, and done sound design and graphic design for many shows. As a playwright, I’ve had several premieres, including In My Mind's Eye, Next Window Please, Roleplay (A Musical written with Adryan Russ), Love Again (a musical written with Adryan Russ), The Ghost of Gershwin (a musical written with Wayland Pickard and Laura Manning), and A Carol Christmas (a musical written with Bruce Kimmel).

When previous co-artistic directors Larry Eisenberg and Chris Winfield announced their plans to retire, the search committee offered me the artistic directorship about a year ago. We began planning the 2020 season last June. I took over, officially, on January 1, 2020. Larry and Chris are both still very much involved with the theater — which is great for the company and me.

“The Group Repertory Theatre was one of the original 99-seat Equity waiver theaters in Los Angeles (allowing us to use Equity actors and not have to pay Equity wages). The 99-seat plan was dissolved by Equity a few years ago, and Equity named a dozen membership companies as AEA approved membership companies. This allows us to use Equity actors and non-Equity actors without any restrictions. AEA recognizes that we are a company run by actors, and therefore assumes we will treat actors justly and with respect.

Some of my works have started at Group Rep and gone on to have other lives. So, it’s fun to realize that things we’re developing in our little theatrical think-tank could actually “grow up” and expand after their debut in NoHo. I wrote a musical with Adryan Russ which started as a workshop. We were going to present it as a two-nighter to the public. After Lonny Chapman popped into a rehearsal for a look-see, he came up to me afterwards and said, in his usual theatrically startling way, “No. We’re not going to do this as a two-nighter. Let’s do a little more rehearsing and just open it.” And we did. It was supposed to run five weeks and it ran five months, which was fairly unheard of at that time. That little musical, now called Inside Out, eventually wound its way into Manhattan , had an Off-Off Broadway run at the Village Theatre Company, and eventually an Off Broadway run at the Cherry Lane Theatre. It’s been done around the world, was recently translated into Serbian, and had an 18-month run in Belgrade that was tremendously successful.

“We did a relatively new version of A Christmas Carol in 2009. It was adapted for the stage by Richard Hellesen and David De Berry. This extravaganza was directed by our then-artistic director, Ernest Figueroa. It was one of the most ambitious shows we’d done with a huge cast, glorious set design, tons of costumes, and beautiful, lush music. The author of the book combined text from the short story, as well as other essays Dickens wrote about Christmas. So, it was a Dickensian Christmas buffet. I played Bob Cratchit, and Chris Winfield was Scrooge. It was magic. Audiences loved it. It was so rewarding to be a part of that; and I genuinely felt affection for all the Cratchit kids, especially Tiny Tim.

It was that experience that inspired me to write my own musical version of the classic by Dickens. I wanted to make mine modern and set in the U.S. I converted all the major men’s roles into women’s roles. I enlisted Bruce Kimmel to direct and create the songs and score. In 2018, A Carol Christmas was born; and audiences absolutely loved it. We’re in the process of marketing it now to a national theater network and hope to have the GRT-streamed version available during this shelter-in-place.”

Stephanie Colet, Tricia Hershberger, Shelby Kocee, Gina Yates, and Bianca Gisselle in "Next Window Please" - Photo by Doug Engalla

When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?

DH:  Our first production was scheduled to close on March 15, and we did run until the published conclusion. That last weekend, groups of 50 or more were being discouraged. We limited sales to 50 seats per show (which wasn’t difficult at that point) and encouraged seat selection using social distancing. Those last three shows were very good, and the audiences seemed very appreciative. My friend, talented director John Musker, remarked, “Well, this may be the last play I ever see…and if it is, then at least it was a good one.”

“Our next two plays, Neil Simon’s London Suite and Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, were both in rehearsals. Rehearsals continued for a few days, but then the order came through that groups larger than ten were discouraged. That’s when we collectively decided to postpone all activity in the theater building until the Mayor/Governor determine it’s safe to gather again.

Cast of "A Carol Christmas" - Photo by Karen Staitman

Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?

DH:  This has impacted us drastically. We are completely volunteer-run and member-funded. Our members pay dues and are, in essence, shareholders in our company. Somehow, over the past 46 years, we have managed to stay afloat with donations, dues, fundraisers, and box office. Some months are leaner than others. We had two shows almost ready to open and fundraisers planned. Everything has been put on hold. Plus a lot of our members utilize the theater space for work on various projects that they’ve devised. There is a lot of activity at that building, given two theaters and two additional rehearsal spaces.

Additionally, we are in a Triple Net Lease, which means we are responsible for the physical upkeep of the building (as well as property taxes and insurance). With the rains and a very old roof, we have to constantly keep watch for leaks. We were right in the middle of refurbishing the dressing rooms for the upstairs theater and putting in a new lighting system upstairs.

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen?

DH:  Just this week, we put a video of In My Mind's Eye; and it’s available for steaming. In the coming weeks, we will upload other original works and make them available for streaming. Once it’s safe to gather again, we will resume rehearsals and start to reschedule our fundraisers. We have had tele-conferences, and some people have been meeting via Zoom."

Bobby Slaski, Kait Haire, Lloyd Pedersen, and Peyton Kirkner in "In My Mind's Eye" - Photo by Doug Engalla

What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

DH:  Will live theater in Los Angeles change as a result of COVID-19? I am an optimist, so I always hope for the best. I hope that, after people have been quarantined and sequestered for weeks or months on end, they will be hungry for live theater and crave participating in live art played out before their eyes. I hope that theater-going habits will survive this pandemic. I hope that people will once again look for activities outside the safety of their homes.

Our matinees have always been popular with audiences. We had already planned to introduce additional Saturday matinees with London Suite, and we will continue to schedule them in once we’re up and running again.

My fear is that many businesses, including many theaters, will not survive this pandemic and will shutdown. I just hope that we can hang on and continue doing what we love doing.

What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?

DH:  Naturally, the thing we most need is money just to keep paying the rent (and in our case also the property taxes and insurance). We realize that — at this point in time — money is not easily given. We desperately need a new roof. The rains have damaged our structure and exterior doors and carpets. We’d also like a large storage shed to hold costumes, props, and set pieces. So, since we are an official 501 (c) (3), we can accept donations in kind (things like materials, labor, etc.)”

What are some of your future plans?

DH:  Once we re-gather, we will complete the rehearsal process and open two plays in rep (upstairs and downstairs). We have a very ambitious season planned (in both spaces). We will re-strategize our fundraising campaigns and events. And we will continue to audition and bring in new members, as well as continue to develop new plays and musicals.

In 2008, we did Inspecting Carol, which is kind of Noises Off  meets A Christmas Carol. It was in the beginning of the financial downturn, and people were generally depressed. It was so wonderful to be able to offer the community an evening of belly laughs. There were times where the laughter was so intense that the huge laughs turned into coughs. Laughter can be healing. So, personally, I am looking forward to presenting Neil Simon’s London Suite. A lot of people are familiar with Plaza Suite and even California Suite, but not that many people are familiar with the third entry in his Suite of Suites. It will be like discovering a new Neil Simon. That play opens whenever we reopen - which is currently set for mid-May - pandemic permitting, of course.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



Spotlight Series: Meet Holly Baker-Kreiswirth and Bill Wolski, the Dynamic Duo Who Call Little Fish Theatre Their “Home Away from Home”


Anyone who has attended a production at Little Fish Theatre in San Pedro has most likely met Holly Baker-Kreiswirth and Bill Wolski, the dynamic duo who call Little Fish Theatre their “Home Away from Home.” As well as appearing onstage together, the married couple also work behind-the-scenes with Holly managing the theatre's Press Relations and directing shows while Bill often takes on the roles of Director and Producer when not acting onstage.


Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background?

Bill Wolski (Bill): I'm a veteran of over a hundred plays and a whole host of other projects and performances. I cut my teeth on the small theatre circuit in greater Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up. I'm primarily known for my work at Little Fish Theatre, which has been my artistic home since 2007, and for being the husband of the equally talented and prolific Holly Baker-Kreiswirth.

Holly Baker-Kreiswirth (Holly): I started out in television before I worked in theater; the very first paid job I had was in the acting category on Junior Star Search which led to various roles in shows such as Chicago HopeGia (HBO), and Private Practice. I studied theater in college, but took a 10-year break to work on a career in TV production, and then had my kid.  In my early 30s, I started with Palos Verdes Players as a sound tech, then worked my way up to directing, producing, and finally acting again.  When PVP sadly went down, Bill and I appeared onstage in The Tender Trap at Long Beach Playhouse (when we started dating!) and subsequently found our artistic home at Little Fish Theatre, where we produce Pick of the Vine and act in or direct roughly 1/3 of the productions every year.

(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out you needed to immediately postpone/cancel the show?

(Bill): I was working on a show called Becky's New Car, written by Steven Dietz, and directed by my wife. It was scheduled to open on April 9th. I was playing Becky's steadfast, not-as-dumb-as-he-looks husband, Joe.

(Holly): We were both deeply into rehearsals for Becky's New Car. I pre-block the shows I direct before rehearsals even begin; we had ten rehearsals under our belt with our lead actress, Amanda Karr, already off book.  Costumes/props were bought, lights/sound were being designed... everything was in motion.  Our stumble-through was the last rehearsal we had, and the show was already in great shape.

(SB): How was the shutdown communicated with the cast and production team?

(Bill and Holly): First, the sports teams postponed their seasons. Then, it was gatherings over 250 people. Then, gatherings over 50 people. Being a very intimate theater, there was still a possibility that LFT could limit ticket sales and hold performances, but the conclusion was reached that we didn't want to put our fan base and company members at risk. Emails went out to those involved that everything was going to be put on hold.

(SB): Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?

(Bill): Becky's New Car will open at a later date, once we've been given the all-clear.

(Holly): We're thrilled that the work we've already put into the show will be seen by an audience someday.  I believe the message will resonate with them.

(SB): I have seen the show before and was really looking forward to seeing the production at Little Fish. So I am happy to hear that eventually that will happen. What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?

(Bill and Holly): We are involved at LFT all the time in a volunteer capacity. The shutdown has affected our entire season. Shows and special events that have not yet been cast or started production may be canceled entirely to give the shows that were already in progress a chance to be performed.

(SB): I know Bill is an avid hiker, but how are the two of you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(Bill and Holly): Little Fish Theatre and its company members are doing a lot to bring theatre to a virtual audience. We're promoting and reaching out to our subscribers with videos and newsletters, and writing and sharing original content through our social media platforms. Specifically, we have a 5-part original web series called "Little Fish" that features hilarious portrayals of our artists.  We've produced multiple virtual readings of everything from comedic short plays to screenplays to a play about the shootings at Kent State 50 years ago this month.  And coming up next month we have a reading of a M*A*S*H* script donated to us by one of the writers, Ken Levine!  All of our readings are free -- we're so happy to be able to provide the arts to everyone in this format.

(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Bill and Holly): Please, be safe. Follow the rules and the health guidelines and limit the risk posed to yourself and your loved ones. In Shakespeare's time, theaters were closed due to the plague, and 400 years later, theatre is still alive and well. As long as there are stories to tell, there will be people to tell them. We'll all be together again soon enough. From our theater to yours, here's a big hug from Little Fish. We love you!

Here's how to stay in touch with Little Fish Theatre:


All production photos credit: Miguel Elliot


This article first appeared on Broadway World.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Tom Vitorino - Reflections on COVID-19 and the Thursday Night Theater Club


Actor, producer, and co-founder of Thursday Night Theater Club (TNTC), Tom Vitorino has appeared in film, television, commercials, soap operas, and live theater. Most recently, he starred in The Elephant Man, the tale of tragically deformed John Merrick, at the historic El Portal Theatre. Tom graciously took time from his busy schedule to interview in March 2020.


Vanessa Vaughn, Jennipher Lewis, Robin Roth, and Tom Vitorino in THE ELEPHANT MAN - Photo by David Ruano

When did your theater company first begin? Were you involved from the beginning? Who/how/why/where was it founded?

TV:  Alice Walker and I started “Thursday Night Theater Club” at her kitchen table in 2017. While the company has no long career in the sense of decades, anyone who’s ever taken on the task of starting a theater company ages a decade in the first year!

Alice and I wanted to put on plays that held a mirror up to the audience. That was the reason we started the company. The plays we’ve produced deal with very real social issues, tend to be timeless, and have large casts. We wanted to involve large groups of people from all social groups. It is about activating the idea of change, some sort of mind and spirit expansion, even if for just those associated with the production.”

Tom Vitorino and Alice L. Walker in "A View from the Bridge" - Photo by Cierra Danielle

Have you had to close down any productions due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run - or do you have any upcoming productions - which are affected?

TV:  I was at the pre-production stage of Anne Nelson’s The Guys. This was my new endeavor outside of TNTC. This play takes place during the period right after 9/11. It really amplifies the idea of how complete strangers can lean on each other in the most difficult of times. We’ve had a few get-togethers and were set to meet on March 15, but we’ve postponed all of our meetings. We were just about at that point to really dive in, so that is on hold. Ronnie Marmo is directing. Robyn Cohen is playing the role of Joan, and I will be Nick. This will open at Theater 68 in the NoHo Arts District on September 11, 2020. Yes, I am projecting that we return to a sense of normalcy. I have to.

Tom Vitorino and Alice L. Walker in "The Elephant Man" - Photo by David Ruano

Over the past weeks, has COVID-19 impacted on your group in any way?

TV: I think right in front of me is the fear, the anxiety, and the depression that I have never really experienced like this. Usually those feelings are in the moment; but, with this deadly outbreak, you go to bed with it. You awake, and those feelings are still there. Every cough creates a sense of panic!  New terms like “social distancing” are forever a part of the world; and that distance - while 110% needed - creates the inability to physically comfort a friend, a stranger, or anyone outside of your “home stay” crew. I spend a lot of time on Zoom, and it is rather ironic that the very medium of online connectivity that many felt was not a real connection is now in many cases the only connection we have left at this point. My wife Stephanie and I have stayed at home since March 11 except for a few trips to the grocery store wearing whatever PPE (there’s another new term) we have. We are three weeks into this situation. If I should meet eyes with another shopper while grocery shopping, there’s this knowing nod, this unspoken support of each other. The “social distancing” that we all employ is a shared experience is a sign of solidarity against this virus and an act of love for life itself.  So all of this makes me even more grateful for many things I have taken for granted.

Ethan Micael, Tom Vitorino, and Jeremy Falla in "A View from the Bridge" - Photo by Cierra Danielle

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Having virtual meetings? Streaming?

TV:  We have discussed when the time is right to start some readings on Zoom. At this time, I just think that people need space to figure out the day-to-day life changes that this virus has created. There is a lot of information to process, and that reality is front and center every day. But, in the near future, we will find a way forward.

What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

TV:  In hard times like World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, and 9/11, people needed entertainment to forget - if just for a few minutes or a few hours - about the reality just outside the living room, cinema, or theater door. Some look at “the arts” as being non-essential in these difficult times; but to me, that is like saying love is non-essential. Art will always be essential to the healing of the world and the existence of a loving, caring humankind. Los Angeles is an amazing, resilient town, and we will come out of this stronger than we went in. As for theater goers, the theater needs them as much, if not more, than it needs the performers. We are all counting on them, as we always do; and they have never let us down.

I understand that you are offering something special to theater patrons for your upcoming productions. Will you tell us more about that?

TV:  We had always planned on offering free tickets to firefighters for our upcoming production of The Guys,, since it deals with the subject matter of eulogizing eight firefighters who lost their lives in 9/11. It just felt like the right thing to do. The COVID-19 outbreak has shifted our social awareness, and we have a responsibility as artists to our community. Any student, healthcare worker, first responder, and anyone 65 years or older, is added to our comp list. We will have to figure out how we administer that. Maybe half the house will be reserved for those groups. Everyone else will be “pay what you can afford,” but that will be our policy.

Do you have any closing thoughts or words of encouragement for your patrons?

TV:  You are not alone in your thoughts. We all share those same fears. But know that this will eventually end, and hopefully we come out a little better than we were before this happened. I wish I could line all of you up and give each of you a hug, but that might not happen again for a good while. So, wrap your arms around yourself and give a little squeeze. That hug’s from me.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



Spotlight Series: Meet Fringe Management Co-Founder Mike Blaha


This Spotlight focuses on Mike Blaha, Co-Founder of Fringe Management, a company that has produced an incredible assortment of shows for both the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Hollywood Fringe Festival. Listen in as he shares his insights on how the Coronavirus pandemic has affected both this year, especially since the initial shutdown occurred just as the Edinburgh event had begun.


Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background?

Mike Blaha (Mike): I did a little bit of acting in high school, but never really thought about producing.  Then a friend of mine asked me to be his associate Artistic Director at a small, long-defunct theatre in the Valley in the late 80s and I caught the producing bug.

Since beginning in 1989, I’ve produced or co-produced over 100 shows in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Hong Kong, London and especially at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where our company Fringe Management,  LLC (co-founded with my Edinburgh based partner, actor-director Nigel Miles Thomas) has presented approximately 70 productions since 2001.  I have also produced 18 shows at the Hollywood Fringe Festival since 2012.

I was also one of the co-founders of Sci-Fest, a festival of one act science fiction plays that ran from 2014-2016 and have served on the Board of New Musicals, Inc. for most of the last 20 years (as President from 2015-2019).

(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out it needed to immediately be either postponed or cancelled?

(Mike): I was producing, along with Joel Shapiro of the Electric Lodge in Venice, the Edinburgh Fringe sensation “Hitler’s Tasters,” a brilliant dark comedy by Michelle Kholos Brooks.  We were originally scheduled to run March 12-30, 2020.  We had previews Thursday and Friday, March 12 and 13, 2020, opened on Saturday, March 14, 2020 and had to close on Sunday, March 15, 2020.

(SB): Here is “Hitler’s Tasters” promo reel on You Tube. How did you communicate the shutdown to the cast and crew?

(Mike): We communicated the heartbreaking reality of the shutdown in person with the cast and crew after the performance on Saturday night.

(SB): Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent? 

(Mike): Fortunately, we made an archival recording on opening night and we were able to negotiate an agreement with Equity to stream that recording for a two-week period, May 8-21, 2020, so audience members who bought a ticket to the live performance, and some new audience members, were able to watch that recording during that window. It is possible that there may be a remount of the play at the Electric Lodge, but it’s tricky because the cast members, who were the actors in the Edinburgh Fringe production, are all from New York.

(SB): What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?  

(Mike): I had five shows lined up for the 2020 Hollywood Fringe Festival, including three shows from the UK (The Nights, The Tanner and West), a local sketch comedy show Gold Baby and the 7th annual “Combined Artform’s Pick of the Fringe”.  With the Hollywood Fringe now cancelled this year, except for online shows, I have lost most if not all of the planned productions, although they may return for 2021.

We were also producing 7 shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, which has been cancelled altogether including Activities of Daily Living, Bard Overboard, Elton John: Rocketman, Elvis: He’s Back, Hiding Anne Frank, Once Upon A Time in Hollywoodland, and Two Girls: One Mic.  Fortunately, it looks like most if not all of the shows want to perform at the 2021 edition.

(SB): I saw Joanna Lipari in her one-woman show Activities for Daily Living at the Sierra Madre Playhouse and believe everyone needs to experience her incredible and very personal observations about life and love in that show. So I certainly hope she will be able to take the show to Edinburgh in 2021. (Here’s the link to my review on Broadway World.)

So now that everything is on hold, how are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(Mike): Well, I’m reading my daily reports from Broadway World, of course, following updates from various theatre companies, as well friends’, colleagues’, and various theatre forums on social media (and occasionally posting myself), and trying to keep up with the amazing explosion of content by artists of every stripe on YouTube, Facebook, Patreon, Twitter . . . the list goes on.  I’m in touch with all of the artists involved with the delayed and cancelled productions referenced above, and working with a couple of them on developing new projects.

(SB): Are there any thoughts would you like to share with L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Mike): Some people think the pandemic will move live theatre online permanently; some people think live theater will return eventually unchanged. I fall somewhere in the middle. I think there may be a hybrid model that combines live theatre with more digital innovation, both with respect to the design and production of live theater, but also respect to the supplemental, possibly complementary exploitation of those live productions.  One thing I am certain of, having witnessed the resilience and creativity of our community over these past few weeks, is that the L.A. Theatre scene will adapt and thrive in whatever becomes the “new normal.”

Of course, this has been a very difficult time for all of us.  One of the things that has kept me sane in spite of all the postponements and cancellations and missed openings is the knowledge that theatre has been around for a couple of thousand years and ain’t going anywhere.  It may be very different or not that different at all; but in a few weeks or months we will all be sitting in a dark black box once again in thrall to the magic of live theatre!


This article first appeared on Broadway World.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Susan Loewenberg "Sets the Stage for Learning" - LA Theatre Works and Educators


LA Theatre Works, a non-profit organization dedicated to the arts, says it all in their mission statement: “To record the most significant and important stage plays from the American and World canons and to make these recordings available worldwide.” LA Theatre Works invites the public to hear and see well-known actors perform classics by icons like Shakespeare and modern plays by playwrights like Lynn Nottage and then record the results.

Today, LA Theatre Works has the largest library of recorded plays in the world — over 500 audio productions, both free and for purchase, available to the public. In response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, they are offering 25 audio recordings of significant stage plays, each performed by leading actors of stage and screen and free to educators worldwide. LATW’s “Setting the Stage for Learning” initiative is designed to help teachers enhance distance learning during the crisis — as well as classroom learning when schools are again open.  In addition to the current initiative, LATW has remained busy in the community, offering weekly two-hour radio shows on public radio stations nationwide, worldwide streaming and through their podcasts. LATW also broadcasts their show daily in China, where they have over 15 million listeners a week, and they broadcast weekly on KCRW Berlin in Germany. All of these offerings can be accessed on their website. In the midst of this never-ending activity is producing director and CEO Susan Loewenberg, who kindly agreed to this interview in March 2020.


LA Theatre Works Digital Cover Art - Photo Courtesy of LA Theatre Works

What is LA Theatre Works, and how did it begin?

Susan Loewenberg: Originally, six theater artists and I started the organization. Eventually I agreed to head it up. It was around 1972 when a group of artists, actors, and playwrights associated with the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles began to do workshops in Federal, State, and County prisons. We called ourselves Artists in Prison. We created plays with inmates, and the general public was allowed inside to watch our productions. At one point, we even arranged for a group of furloughed inmates to perform live at the John Anson Ford Theater.

It was 1977 or 1978 when the group received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and we changed our name to LA Theatre Works. By 1980, we had begun to produce professional theater, including several award-winning world premieres. In 1985, a group of well-known actors, including John Lithgow, Marsha Mason, Amy Irving, Hector Elizondo, Ed Asner, Helen Hunt, Julie Harris, and Richard Dreyfuss, approached LATW to become their producers. We agreed, and our first project was to record Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt for radio station KCRW. It took 18 months to record the book; all 34 actors in the company participated. The recording was 14-and-a-half hours long and was released on Thanksgiving Day in 1986. It was a huge success and got great reviews. We had to follow up on that success.

Jane Kaczmarek and Nicholas Hormann in "Spill" - Photo by Nick Toren

How do you arrive at the final recording from start to finish? How do you pick your casts?

SL: Depending on how difficult the play is, we either perform in front of a live audience; or, for the more difficult plays, we record in a studio. For the live performances, we record four or five times in front of audiences, using state of the art technology. There are actors with microphones and live sound effects. I take notes on every performance. The first time, I watch the actors. But after that, I never look at them again. I focus on listening. I put on my headset and take notes, then decide which performance is better for each section of the play. For example, perhaps the first scene was better on Saturday, but the second scene was better on Sunday. We have people in continuity who make sure that every word is correct; everybody makes notes, and the editor looks at all the notes. We edit three times. It takes two to three months from performance to the finished product.

In order to cast our plays, we have a group of both high profile and excellent working actors who love to record with us and who find the work to be challenging and a wonderful way to experience great dramatic literature and exercise their professional muscles at the same time. Think of it as akin to working out in the gym! We give them the opportunity to do that, and they feel it’s invaluable.

Gregory Harrison, Diane Adair, John Heard, and John Getz in "Top Secret" - Photo by Derek Hutchison

What are the advantages of your recordings over live staged theater or audio books?

SL:  Instead of using several senses, like you do in live theater, you’re just listening. That fires up your imagination. You begin to visualize… it’s really very stimulating. With audio books, you usually have only one person telling the story; with LA Theatre Works, there is a whole cast interpreting the story. It’s a doubly rich experience — the recordings stimulate concentration and imagination. It’s more fulfilling to listen when you want to learn, and it’s a better teaching tool than a film would be. The teachers who use our recordings say that the students learn better. One student said that listening to Romeo and Juliet instead of reading it helped him to understand the play for the first time. The head of the Division of Instruction at LAUSD recently remarked about how useful we are in assisting students during the pandemic.

Gregory Harrison and Richard Kind in "An Enemy of the People" - Photo by Joshua Arvizo

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted LA Theatre Works?

SL: It’s had a big impact. Every year, we take a play and tour it around the US to 30-40 performing arts centers. We enhance the production values for touring audiences. Everybody is in costume, we don’t use scripts, there is lighting and movement. This year, we were in the middle of a tour of Seven. It’s about seven women from seven countries whose actions impacted women and human rights in extraordinary ways. We did a fabulous performance in Palm Beach on March 7, which I had flown in to see; then they flew to Minnesota to do five performances, but they only got through two when it, and the rest of the tour, was cancelled. We had 11 more performances to go. It’s sad, because it was a great show and we lost all the fees from those bookings — a big blow. We also had to cancel our NTLive film screenings and our next live in performance show at UCLA for the month of April, and we are waiting to see what we may have to cancel after that. We are trying to get new dates.

But we’re a little more fortunate than most because we still have audio sales and the radio show. We can weather the closures and cancellations. Hopefully, we’ll get aid for the losses on the tour, and maybe we and other nonprofit arts organizations will be eligible for additional governmental and private support.

Larry Powell and Aja Naomi King in "The Mountaintop" - Photo by Matt Petit

Do you have any final thoughts or information that you want your audiences to know?

SL: Absolutely. We always have the play recordings available for purchase. We also have another group of plays available for free online listening. They’re on scientific themes, and they’re called The Relativity Series — titles like The Great Monkey Trial about the Scopes trial with the great speeches of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. We just recorded Behind the Sheet. It’s based on a true story about a doctor in the 19th century who performed experimental gynecological operations on slave women. It was good research, but they didn’t use anesthesia and the women suffered terribly. We have others about autism, DNA, and ethics. And we just put up a free listen to the late Terrence McNally’s Lips Together Teeth Apart starring Kristen Johnston and Steven Weber.

Again, the general public can log onto our website and find a host of wonderful free and for sale recordings — a great way to help get through this trying time.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



Spotlight Series: Meet Elmira Rahim Who Began Her Acting Career in Iran, Trained at USC, and Created the ÉLAN Ensemble


This Spotlight focuses on Elmira Rahim who began her acting career in Iran, trained at USC, and created the ÉLAN Ensemble whose inaugural production, How We're Different From Animals, was the recipient of Best Adaptation at Stage Raw Theater Awards in 2019 as well as nominated in multiple categories including Best Production at Stage Raw Theater Awards and LA Drama Critics Circle Awards. But like so many others, this year’s production of a modern adaptation of Trojan Women with A Noise Within had to be postponed until theaters can safely open again.


Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background? 

Elmira Rahim (Elmira): I started my acting career in Iran when I was a teenager and was fortunate enough to work with some prominent theater companies including Ayeneh, which led me to perform in     in Paris in 2004. Working in Iran as an actor has given me a perspective of what it means to push the boundaries and use limitations as opportunities to be creative, which I will forever cherish and use as a force. After leaving my roots in Iran, I joined the USC MFA Acting program where I got the chance to work with some of my most inspiring mentors. The training at USC and the opportunity to collaborate with artists from different backgrounds inspired me to start a theater company, ÉLAN Ensemble, dedicated to creating adaptations and devised works rooted in physical theater techniques.

I am proud to share that ÉLAN's inaugural production, How We're Different From Animals, was the recipient of Best Adaptation at Stage Raw Theater Awards in 2019 as well as nominated in multiple categories including Best Production at Stage Raw Theater Awards and LA Drama Critics Circle Awards. I have also been working as an actor with other theater companies in Los Angeles as well as pursuing a career on camera and in voice over, but working as the leader and artistic director of ÉLAN has been one of the greatest honors of my theatrical career.

(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out it needed to immediately be either postponed or cancelled?

(Elmira): Before the pandemic, I was in conversation with A Noise Within to present a modern adaptation of Trojan Women with ÉLAN Ensemble as part of their Noise Now season. As you can imagine, an opportunity like this is really valuable for a new theater company and often takes time to come to fruition, but it did seem like we were getting closer. The presentation was not yet announced but we were planning to schedule it for August and could not wait to share this powerful piece with the audience.  But it was clear to us after the shutdown that live performance in August was not going to be an option.

(SB):  How was the shutdown communicated with the cast and production team?

(Elmira): I deeply feel for all colleagues and friends who had to cancel shows before opening or in the middle of a run. As an actor and a producer, I can totally understand the financial and emotional burden such action incurs. Since our performance dates at ANW were not yet confirmed, we were lucky to only have to communicate with the cast that we will be looking at another time to share this work, which was still hard considering we are still not certain when we will be able to safely gather in theaters again.

(SB): Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?

(Elmira): As of right now, Trojan Women is announced to be performed at ANW on Dec 19th, but we are still waiting for more specific guidelines. As you know, most theaters have cancelled their seasons until next year, so there is a possibility of having to postpone again.

(SB): What future productions on ÉLAN’s schedule are also affected by the shutdown?

(Elmira): ÉLAN is also in development for another project which is going to be a devised piece in process for a year or so. Now that we can’t be in the same room, we have started working on it one day at a time online.

(SB): How are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(Elmira): We have been scheduling multiple Zoom readings and meetings like most companies. I am also trying to use this time to write, read and think of ideas for future productions. Some online works and creations have been truly inspiring, but we all miss being in the same room together and feeding off of each other's energy and artistry.

(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Elmira): I would like to extend my love to the LA Theatre community. During this time of isolation and reflection, I was reminded of how lucky I am to have met many wonderfully talented artists who are also wonderful human beings. At the same time, I wish that we will come out of this as a community with more awareness to create works that reflect our society more truthfully. Living in such a multicultural city is truly an asset for the Arts, and with all that is going on in our society today, I hope that we can recognize an opportunity for change and our individual role in creating it. I cannot wait to see you all in the theater!  "Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself." Rumi

I would love to invite readers to a wonderfully unique modern adaptation of Trojan Women at A Noise Within/Noise Now at ANoiseWithin.org/noise-now.

Also, would love to share ÉLAN's website for any upcoming productions. ElanensEmble.com


ÉLAN Ensemble's productions of How We're Different From Animals and Seven. Photo credit: Meredith Adelaide


This article first appeared on Broadway World.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Reflections on COVID-19 and the Fountain Theatre - An Interview with Stephen Sachs


An award-winning playwright, director, and producer, Stephen Sachs has been instrumental in turning the Fountain Theatre, which he co-founded in 1990, into a powerhouse venue for all that is best in the theater world. The home of multiple award-winning plays, Fountain Theatre has proudly presented the world premieres of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances, and Stephen Sachs’ Bakersfield Mist and Arrival and Departure, as well as Los Angeles premieres by Pulitzer Prize winners Martyna Majok and Stephen Adly Guirgis. Sachs was recently honored with a Certificate of Commendation from Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council for “his visionary contributions to the culture life of Los Angeles.” During an interview in April 2020, Stephen took a moment to reflect on the effect of COVID-19 on theater life as we know it.


Montae Russell, Victor Anthony, and Marisol Miranda in "Between Riverside and Crazy" - Photo by Jenny Graham

When did the Fountain Theatre first begin performances? Were you involved from the beginning? What are some of the most popular plays you've done? How about awards? 

STEPHEN SACHS:  The Fountain Theatre was founded by myself and Deborah Lawlor in 1990 and is currently celebrating 30 years as one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles. The Fountain provides a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won hundreds of awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and worldwide. Recent highlights include celebrity readings of Ms. Smith Goes to Washington and All the President’s Men at Los Angeles City Hall. Our West Coast premiere of Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cost of Living was placed on the Los Angeles Times’ “Best of 2018” list. The Southern California premiere of Daniel’s Husband and our Los Angeles premiere of Between Riverside and Crazy were each named to multiple “Best of 2019” lists. The Fountain Theatre recently swept the 2019 Ovation Awards, winning Best Season and Best Production of a Play. Last month, the Fountain was honored by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle with the Margaret Harford Award for sustained excellence in theater.

Deanne Bray and Brian Robert Burns in "Arrival and Departure" - Photo by Ed Krieger

When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?

SS:  We had to suspend our acclaimed world premiere of Human Interest Story and close our theater on March 13 due to COVID-19.

Katy Sullivan and Felix Solis in "Cost of Living" - Photo by Geoffrey Wade

HOW HAS COVID-19 IMPACTED ON YOUR THEATER?

 SS: COVID-19 has crippled the Fountain Theatre, but we will survive. Like every other theater in Los Angeles and the nation, we were forced to suspend a production in mid-run and close our doors. That means zero earned income. For months. It’s a financial hardship for our organization. It’s also emotionally devastating for everyone in our Fountain family. None of us are doing this for money. We do it for love. And when what you love most is taken from you, it’s painful. It hurts.

Aleisha Force, Rob Nagle, and Tanya Alexander in "Human Interest Story" - Photo by Jenny Graham

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen?

SS: The Fountain Theatre very much wants to launch into live streaming. But we use union actors, and Actors Equity Association has still not provided the 99-Seat community with guidelines to use AEA actors for streaming. AEA has approved it in Equity theaters across the country but has yet, as of this date, failed to act on behalf of intimate theaters in Los Angeles. Every day that goes by with our theaters sitting dark - and the option of streaming online being withheld - adds to our financial hardship. In the meantime, we are continuing with Zoom meetings and online community gatherings.

What do you think the impact of COVID-19 will be on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

 SS: COVID-19 is like a wildfire that has burned through the landscape of the LA theater community. When this fire is eventually put out – whenever that is – the terrain will grow back, but it will never be the same. Even when we reopen, there is no “normal” to return to; there is no going back. Some theaters will not survive being closed for so long. The ones that do will find themselves in a landscape they will not recognize.

Sam Mandel, Dor Gvirtsman, and Steven B. Green in "The Chosen" - Photo by Ed Krieger

What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?

SS: All of us in the LA theater community require two kinds of need: financial support and loyalty. Every theater in Los Angeles now has zero box office income. Nothing is coming in. We need financial support from government agencies, from foundations, from donors, and from the public to help get us through this terrible time. And we need loyalty. When we reopen our doors – and we will – we need our audiences to come back, to ignite our rebirth. When this crisis is over, it will take time for all of us to get back on our feet again. If we truly are a community, the community needs to show up, to reassemble in strength, so that we all can march forward.

What are some of your future plans?

SS: Once we get the green light to reopen our doors, our plan is to resume the run for Human Interest Story for 4-6 weeks. We will follow it with the LA premiere of If I Forget by Steven Levenson. We will return with the passion we hope to share with our audiences.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



Spotlight Series: Meet Kristy Edmunds, Executive and Artistic Director of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance


Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about you and CAP UCLA?

Kristy Edmonds (Kristy): UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance produces and supports programming that builds a community around the world’s creative artists whose ideas find a home in contemporary theater, dance, music, writing and collaboration. Artists that have achieved a towering legacy in their chosen art forms, alongside those who are well on their way because of their generous and singular vision. At CAP UCLA we leave no stone unturned in assuring that people (in every age, culture and means) have artists in their lives one project at a time.

(SB): What production(s) were you (and/or your company) involved with when word went out it needed to immediately be either postponed or cancelled?

(Kristy): After presenting Octavia Butler’s Parable of The Sower by Toshi Reagon, on the now legendary evening of March 7, there were but days before the safer at home order would come in. An additional 13 performances were immediately impacted. Our work began in earnest for postponing (cancelling was a last measure position for us), and important in every discussion around rescheduling was CAP UCLA’s commitment that we would not leave artists, managers and audiences out to dry, as we knew that artists and their creative teams would be in a severe cash flow challenge (one that would move from stressful to imperiling within weeks as more organizations began to cancel). But none of us anticipated the long duration of the marathon this would rapidly evolve into.

In our situation at CAP UCLA, I had an enhanced vantage point because of the leadership of UCLA – they were responsibly addressing a scale of change that was unfathomable and because of the transparency of critical decision-making, I had a slight head start on the crucial reality of public safety measures spreading in every direction imaginable. We had to all focus on the huge contour and the exacting detail concurrently. I remember getting off of a Zoom call and saying to myself: “Kristy Edmunds, this is not a surreal dream this is happening. You have to move NOW, you’ll add to the chaos if you wait a second longer.”

As hard as it was, it ensured that no one was left unaddressed – not my staff, not the audience, our supporters, associated businesses and not the artists. I knew what the scale of impact would be to artists instantly, this is my profession after all. But I didn’t know it would spread to all of us in every allied workforce and in all walks of life. That equally heart-breaking realization would come later (and rapidly).

(SB): How was the shutdown communicated with the artists and production teams?

(Kristy): With all speed and with emotional intelligence. CAP UCLA one of the first performing arts organizations to suspend our programs, so everyone effected would have a different level of awareness and the impact would be different for everyone. I knew that there would be a shock reaction, or a denial impulse (the show must go on!), and then too the gracious diplomacy of understanding. It would land differently for everyone, and everyone would be affected unevenly. Our imperative was that every artist would be supported, and every ticket holder would be refunded. We were bleeding of course, but we acted on principle and did not stand still in justifiable but acutely problematic suspended animation.

(SB): Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?

(Kristy): Yes, there are plans in place for future dates and all of us are operating from plan A, B, C and D. We have also worked closely with artists to explore what approaches for presenting their works will look like, and we will start the soft launch of the programming for the upcoming season in a few weeks.

Every project is now rescheduled, or being re-developed. Some are being filmed and we will present the work online later. Some projects have jumped to the fall of 2021 to get to more solid ground where it may be less crazed by uncertainty. Others are adjusting their work for new platforms and we are there for that as well.

It’s different for each artist and each art form, and with everything still changing, it’s about generating continuity with far less means. All is considered and thought through after many earnest discussions, and in a full recognition that the future of anyone’s capacity is subject to change. For CAP UCLA this means we have had to create possibilities and innovate for the most immediate future as well as the further flung horizon line.

(SB): How are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(Kristy): We have this rapidly assembled “newsletter” generated weekly. It’s actually becoming a real touch stone for our audiences locally, nationally and around the world. Once the programming for next season is announced, we will all have a lot to look forward to as well.

(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghost light on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Kristy): Each of us have assets that are strained now beyond our wildest imagining. It was hard enough before. We do not know how long we can survive in this suspension or what proceeding will look like. But we are an incredible part of the cultural infrastructure of the city and country, and the more we are able to collaborate together, the better off our ecology will be as we work on recovery.


(SB): And with forced theater closures world-wide and long-range performance cancellations, presenting organizations are faced with a myriad of challenges as they navigate artist support with organizational sustainability, and how to plan for an unknown future.

Here is a link to a Conversation with Kristy Edmunds, Executive and Artistic Director, UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, and Lauren Snelling, Senior Director of Alumni Programming, National YoungArts Foundation, in which Kristy offers an honest conversation addressing the harsh realities associated with a return to public gatherings and ongoing postponements and cancellations, as well as a hopeful perspective on alternatives for artists operating in a virtual landscape and her motivation to activate recovery for the preservation of America’s cultural ecosystem.

Websites and social media:

cap.ucla.edu

facebook.com/CAPatUCLA

instagram.com/cap_ucla

twitter.com/CAP_UCLA

twitter.com/KristyEdmunds

Photo captions:

Kristy Edmunds, Executive & Artistic Director of Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA - Photo by Reed Hutchinson

Production photos of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and “Parable” by Phinn Sriployrung

"Love Letters Straight From Your Heart" promotional photo provided by CAP UCLA


This article first appeared on Broadway World.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Reaching for the Stars - An Interview with Edgemar's Michelle Danner


To understand the philosophy of filmmaker, director, and acting coach Michelle Danner, it is only necessary to hear the truth of her own words:

"The craft of acting is as alluring as it is mysterious, and it takes a being of great passion, insight, and determination in order to succeed. But to teach acting – to inspire creative souls to successfully harvest those tools – requires an even great commitment to bring out the best in each and every actor one encounters…the important thing is to keep growing as an artist, to keep raising the bar for yourself.”

Michelle has taught acting for the last 29 years and has worked with many A-List actors privately and on set, including Chris Rock, Gerard Butler, Seth MacFarlane, Penelope Cruz, James Franco, and Zooey Deschanel. In 2020, Michelle anticipates the release of the supernatural thriller Bad Impulse, while prepping her next feature, The Runner starring Cameron Douglas. That’s in addition to running her weekly acting class, keeping watch over the conservatory program at the Los Angeles Acting School (which she co-founded), directing a play starring Anne Archer at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, or cheering on her two high-school aged sons as they pursue their own passions. Michelle took time out of her workaholic’s schedule to interview in April 2020.


Jerry Lacy and Gina Manziello in "Surviving Mama" - Photo by Eric Wade

When did the Edgemar Center for the Arts first begin its long career? What led to its creation? What's your mission? Were you involved from the beginning?

Michelle Danner:  We built the theaters and the art gallery at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in the year 2000. We’re actually celebrating our twentieth anniversary! When I discovered the space, the Santa Monica Museum of Art was there; and it was a big open space. We were able to raise funds to build these beautiful theaters. Ever since then, we have had many many theater productions, musical theater shows, children’s shows, independent film festivals, outreach programs, and exhibits. We have hosted hundreds of events. I was the person who got everyone to believe that this could be a thriving cultural center. I was involved from the beginning, including the construction. I always joke that I know more about drywall, plumbing, and electricity than I would have ever wanted to know. I have been the artistic director for the Edgemar Center for the Arts from its inception. I had a vision for what it could be, and I got a group of similar minded folks to come on board and be part of it.

Rob Estes and Michelle Danner in "One White Crow" - Photo by Sandis Babauskis

When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?

MD: We were. Thankfully, we had just finished our film festival, Cinema at the Edge, that takes place every year. We had a great response to our screenings, culminating at the end with our award ceremony. Shortly after that, we had to shut down. I was in the middle of rehearsing a very wonderful show, A Ticket to the Circus, with Anne Archer. It was written by Bonnie Culver about Norris Church Mailer, the wife of Norman Mailer; and we had to cancel our rehearsals abruptly and reschedule them from day to day. When it became clear that we had to cancel everything all together, we shut down completely. Because of the unknown of this, it remains a mystery when we will be able to reopen. We had two other shows that were set to open which we also had to cancel and plan to reschedule.

Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?

MD: It’s impacted it tremendously in the way that everybody has stayed home, but we have touched base online and on the phone. People are scared, sometimes isolated, and not close to their families. A lot of our employees were dependent on their paycheck. We have done our best, but it’s not easy.

Christine Dunford in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" - Photo by Teferi Seifu

Are you dong anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen? Auditioning? Fundraising?

MD: We are streaming chats and having virtual meetings with our acting students, but it’s not the easiest. Again, all of this because there is an unknown factor to it. We are, however, starting a GoFundMe page to ask people to help keep the theater open. When it’s time - and if anybody would like to help - we are a 501(c)(3). No donation is too small, and they are all tax deductible. Anyone can reach me directly through our website. I would be happy to talk to anyone about different possibilities.

What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

MD: If we read the history of all pandemics, they all come to an end. So I am hoping that there will be a renewed desire to want to share live theater with other people. There is nothing like a communal experience together. Maybe this will help us appreciate the value of that even more.

What are some of your future plans?

MD: Our future plans are to remount what we had planned for the spring and the summer and develop some new plays that will thematically address what we have all been going through. We will also be preparing for “Cinema at the Edge 2021.” I believe that great art can come out of scary times. This is a moment in our lives that can give birth to great content. From my point of view, the theater can never die. When we are back in action, we all need to support it. Right now, I miss theater and that magical shared experience with others.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



Spotlight Series: Meet Eloise Coopersmith, Creator of the “Home for Mom” Web Series


This Spotlight focuses on Eloise Coopersmith, creator of the Home for Mom web series which focuses on elder care and grief in a residential care facility. And with the Coronavirus pandemic hitting this type of facility the hardest, the subject matter about finding a safe place for our elders is even more relevant to families now than when filming began.


Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background?

Eloise Coopersmith (EC): I started my formal theater education at the Young Conservatory at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, graduated from Northwestern, and then earned my Masters from Cal State Los Angeles.  I opened my own theater company in Los Angeles, “Open Book Theater” to bring literary works to the stage.  Performing in many wonderful productions over the years has been a joy. Most recently, I was invited to be a part of the Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble in Santa Ana, and I developed my current web series Home for Mom.

(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out it needed to immediately be either postponed or cancelled?

(EC): Home for Mom our awarding winning musical digital web series was set to shoot the second half of the season on March 7th. In February we recorded the music at Clear Lake Studios, and performed a live reading at the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana, all in preparation for the upcoming shoot days in March. But our lead actress notified the production team she was ill the week before the shoot, so there was no question we were going to have to cancel. I personally called each actor, crew and production team member as well as providing a written email explanation to everyone involved.

(SB): Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?

(EC): The majority of our cast is over 60 years old, which is appropriate since this project deals with elder care and grief in a residential care facility, which requires a more mature cast. And since our production team did not see how we could provide the safe space needed, we are in the process of pitching to different entities to take this project to the next level.

However, wanting to share the brilliant work of these talented actors, I placed the music on 50+ streaming platforms. We edited the live reading from the Frida Cinema performance and shared it on the “Re-imagine: Life, Loss and Love” event platform which focuses on the emotions we are experiencing during this pandemic.  We offered a post panel discussion on coping with grief, spring-boarding off the reading. And the feedback has been gratifying.

(SB): What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?

(EC): I was cast in a play set to open in June, which of course has been cancelled. Currently, the OC and LA theater groups are holding online forums to discuss how to move forward bringing productions back for live audiences. Unity among creative artists is key to breathing life back into our “new” normal world.

 

(SB): How are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(EC): Using Zoom, I am a part of readings of original scripts to help writers to continue to develop their work. I am attending online productions of new works, and these powerful performances are impressive and inspiring.

“Home for Mom” is currently being uploaded in podcast format and I am using various social media platforms to create awareness of the project. And of course, I have already mentioned my involvement with “Re-imagine” and those artists keeping the conversation open through creative performances and discussions so people don’t feel quite so alone at this time.

(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(EC): I think we need to remember who we are: a very resilient group. We built up a thriving, vibrant artists community once and we will make it happen again. We will do it with original, out-of-the box thinking, looking for solutions that may sound a bit crazy but we try it anyway. And it will work. We will help each other - because we are a community. And although it may seem scary, we are artists who take risks for a living and we make magic happen. It’s is who we are - it is what we do.


This article first appeared on Broadway World.