Director Jon Lawrence Rivera Celebrates 25 Years of Playwrights' Arena


Ashley Steed

Ashley Steed

Non-Registered Critics, Writer


Director Jon Lawrence Rivera

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera founded Playwrights' Arena in 1992 at the time of the LA riots. Wanting to produce plays by LA-based playwrights and to create opportunities for actors of color, Rivera has been changing and challenging the Los Angeles theatrical landscape for 25 years.

To celebrate 25 years of producing new work, Rivera wanted to do something big, something that also addressed the era that the company was created in. Thus sprung an idea for The Hotel Play. Set at a 25 year high school reunion, audience members are greeted at a registration table at the pool area of the Radisson Hotel across from USC. The first act consists of six scenes which will each be played consecutively in the adjacent hotel rooms facing the pool. For this first half, the audience will rotate from room to room to get each bit of the story. The second act, everyone will congregate at the pool patio.

Having just had a production meeting at the hotel to see the rooms and discuss logistics, he shows me one of the rooms before we sit down by the pool to discuss the play.

The initial idea came from a Danish film called The Celebration he saw 15-20 years ago. “I remember watching this movie,” says Rivera, “in the first half you see vignettes of different rooms, they're all getting ready for a celebration. There's a lot of discussion about having anxiety about the celebration and seeing certain people. So there's all this intrigue that's happening. And then in the second part they come down to the ballroom - it's the 60th birthday of the mother. Then you get all these big reveals of secrets people have been hiding for years.”

He continues, “as I was watching this movie I thought - this would be really interesting if it was happening live. In my head, it was something Playwrights' Arena would never be able to do because where do you get the money [for something of that scale]?”

Cary Thompson and Stevie Johnson

About two or three years ago the idea reemerged. Knowing that the 25th anniversary was fast approaching Rivera wanted to celebrate by doing something he'd never done before. For their 20th anniversary they did Flash Theatre LA, with 20 short site specific pieces throughout Los Angeles. This time, he wanted to create a full length site specific play.

“I started revisiting the idea of doing a show in a hotel. Then I thought who's going to write it? Is it one person, three people? Ultimately it was a time when we were discussing women playwrights in American theatre and how they're underproduced. This was an opportunity for me to do a play and to exclusively ask women to write it.”

After asking female playwrights he had worked with (and suggestions from them for other playwrights) he finally settled on having six playwrights write each scene, with each taking place a separate room for Act One (Velina Hasu Houston, Jennifer Maisel, Nahal Navidar, Julie Oni, Janine Salinas Schoenberg and Laurie Woolery), and one playwright (Paula Cizmar) to write Act Two, which is where all the characters congregate by the pool.

“When I finally decided on the seven playwrights two years ago - I told them about the movie [Celebration]. When we started, we all sat around a table and I put out six squares and we just started talking about what's in each room. What types of characters are there? So that was the beginning of the conversation. From there they were each assigned to a room” with Cizmar writing the second half.

“About six months later they got their first drafts in and we read them. From there we started to fine tune - oh that character in your play can interact with this character because they know each other. So it's been a two year process of that.”

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera working with the company

He made sure to keep them all focused on what they are trying to address. He elaborates, “Playwrights' Arena came out of the 1992 LA riots and the racial conflicts of that time. 25 years later, where are we? Are we still the same, have we moved forward?”

The tone of the conversation shifted after the election. “When in November when we had a different,” he hesitates, “President... the conversation has shifted again about racial relationships. We were at a different path writing this play so after the election we had to address that.”

Was it more hopeful before the election? “Yes! It was a much more hopeful thing. Now, it's not so much. And 25 years later how do these people who have experienced racial tension and unrest here in Los Angeles - how do they then interact with each other?”

They've created a fictional high school calling it South Central High School. “We've made it near Crenshaw and Jefferson, around that area,” says Rivera. “We tried to make it be a place where the unrest was really bad. In our play, the high school had to shut down [during the riots] so they never had a formal graduation.” Which leaves a lot of things unresolved, disconnected and unanswered.

Stevie Johnson and Melissa Greenspan

“It has really been a journey up to this point with re-writes. And we're still re-writing.” They just locked in the script this past Sunday. Explaining the process he adds, “Paula Cizmar, who is the main architect of the second act - she basically got all the scenes for the first act and wrote what she thought would happen with them when they all come together, with a consultation from the other playwrights. She did an amazing job to get all the pieces into a solid shape.” Of course, there's the back and forth with the other playwrights with things like, “I don't think my character would say that.”

The conceit of the play is that it's happening in real time and so some things will be adapted per show in order for everything to happen in real time for the audience. For instance, if it's Saturday or Monday night, they'll make reference to that.

Rivera has been rehearsing the show at LATC (downtown) and has shown the actors pictures of the rooms to give them a better sense of their playing spaces. Although there's a guide for each room, the audience is free to follow the characters around the room and sit or stand anywhere they please. To help with this, Rivera has had other actors not in the scene being rehearsed sit or stand in the space. If an actor needs to be in a certain area, then they just have to gently move the audience member.

“Unfortunately we only have two previews,” admits Rivera. “So those are very important for us to get a sense of how people are interacting with each other.”

Because there are knocks, phone calls and characters going from one room to another, the timing has to be precise. “The actors are now getting into the rhythm of things because they need to be in time for when those things happen. If it's delayed, they have to add whatever they need. Or if it's early they have to make an adjustment because the knock or phone call will happen at the exact same time every night. If there's a key line, they better say it before they open the door.”

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera working with the company

Christina Bryan, the stage manager, will be the one knocking on doors and coordinating phone calls. So she is the keeper of the time. They've gone through the script and have carefully timed these moments so she will be there with a timer making sure everything's running smoothly.

“In the rehearsal room we all see each other,” in other words they aren't practicing in separate rooms but in one big space. They've been finessing the timing in rehearsals because for the show it will be the same time, every time.

It takes a lot of fundraising to put on a project of this scope: 15 actors, seven playwrights, four associate directors, stage management, and designers - not to mention the fact that they are renting six rooms at the Radisson. Rivera chuckles, “I'm so stubborn - once I have an idea, I'm relentless. I started knocking on people's doors. I talked to Diane [Rodriguez] over at CTG and told her about the project. I told her I wanted to be able to support the playwrights. They didn't even blink, they gave me what I asked.” He jokes, “I should have asked for more!” That money was essentially a commission fee for the playwrights. Then he developed a partnership with USC's Visions and Voices and they gave them money which went towards rehearsals, fees and some of the hotel expenses. The Puffin Foundation also funded some of the workshop process. And the rest of the money is from their end of the year fundraiser. Rivera adds, “So all of that got us to this point, to make this happen.”

Cary Thompson, Stevie Johnson and Durant Fowler

What's next for Playwrights' Arena?

“That question always lingers, what is the next step? Having a space and being able to accommodate larger audiences is a desire for most companies. I feel conflicted about that. Because new work is such a hard sell. We're always going to be doing new works - and with that sometimes the work is by unknown playwrights. I don't think audiences in LA are trained to go to new work. That's a problem.”

Perhaps the future is in building more partnerships. “I would love a real relationship with an organisation where we can have housing,” for Playwrights' Arena to be a resident company. He continues, “for me, I think it's all about partnerships. I find that we are able to do a lot more stuff when there is a partner. Native Voices is talking to us about a future collaboration. We already have a relationship with Skylight Theatre. Maybe that's where we need to go - go build more permanent relationships.”

For now, Rivera is “very excited with this project. It's epic!” He adds, “I feel that we're trying to create something that I've never done myself. With Flash Theatre, those were five minute pieces. With this, it's huge! Even just sitting here, I'm wondering how I'm going to pull in the focus of the audience when they're all over the place. We'll see. Should be fun!”

The Hotel Play runs April 1 through 16, on Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 and 7 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. There are two preview performances on March 31 at 8 p.m. and April 1 at 3 p.m.

Tickets are available at www.thehotelplay.brownpapertickets.com or by calling 800-838-3006. The Radisson Hotel Midtown at USC is located at 3540 S Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA.

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