During the debate two years ago over LA’s 99 seat waiver contract, the actors who wanted to abolish the contract – and eventually succeeded in doing so – claimed that it represented wage-exploitation, where their artistic contributions were not properly compensated. The theater producers defended the plan by saying that no one made money from stage productions, and no one lost more than producers and production companies. But they pointed to all the successes that came out of waiver theater – the productions like Deaf West’s Spring Awakening that moved into the commercial arena and made money for all involved; as well as the many playwrights, directors, designers and actors whose careers have taken off or gone to the next level as a result of their work on waiver productions.
Certainly one of the most shining examples of this waiver success is John Pollono, screenwriter of the just-released movie Stronger starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany, as well as a recurring actor on the NBC hit-TV series This Is Us, where he plays Sterling K. Brown‘s manipulative boss.
I think that on some level we all read interviews with and profiles of successful people to compare ourselves with them. We ask: How did he/she gain that success? Did he/she have “advantages” that we haven’t had – family connections, financial benefits, “quotas” of one kind or another? Why him or her and not me?
Looking at the background of John Pollono, it’s hard to find many “advantages,” fair or unfair. He’s from a white working-class family. Growing up in a small town in New Hampshire, he wanted to attend NYU but his family didn’t have the money, so he went to U. of New Hampshire instead. He was eventually able to get into a summer exchange program on film directing at NYU, and it was a turning point in his life. “It was the first time I was really around creative people,” John Pollono told me at a Starbuck’s in Marina del Rey. “I mean, growing up in New Hampshire was cool in its own way, but it wasn’t very diverse. We’re Italian, my father is from Queens, people were always asking us if we were in the witness protection program.”
Pollono – who, to my mind, looks more like a Major League pitcher at the end of his career than a new Hollywood screenwriter hitting the big-time – went to Colorado after graduation, where he lived with a girlfriend who was in grad school there. “I wrote really bad screenplays and really bad short stories, lots and lots of them,” he told me. “And I had like a million different jobs – you name it, I did it.” He added: “I knew what I wanted to do, but I was crippled financially. The people I knew in New York who were pursuing acting or filmmaking careers all came from really wealthy families.”
The relationship ended, and John went back east to Boston, where he worked as a landscaper and production assistant for Tommy Heinsohn’s show about Celtics basketball. In fact, at 23 years old he have four jobs and rarely slept and drank way too much. It all caught up one night when he was driving a company van and opened his door when the van was still moving, smashing the front window and messing up his hand big-time. “That was a wake-up call,” he said. “I couldn’t keep up that pace, and I had to re-think what I was doing.”
When his hand healed, Pollono moved out west with yet another girlfriend – and then that relationship broke up too. “I didn’t really get any writing done for a few years, since I spent all my free time trying to get laid. I was also working at Castle Rock Entertainment. I had started in the mailroom, then became an assistant public relations guy. I made friends with some guys in literary, who agreed to give coverage to my screenplays. The comments were always the same: “Why is this 25 year old writing a knockoff of Raiders of the Lost Ark?”
“I felt a little lost to tell you the truth,” Pollono told me. “I wasn’t sure what to do next.” That was when a friend of his from Castle Rock invited him to check out the acting class he’d been going to, taught by Laura Gardner. “So I came to class, and I was terrified, because if anybody I grew up with ever found out, I’d be made fun of mercilessly. But the thing is, I loved it. And we did scenes from plays. Well, I’d seen like one play before that, ever. But the teacher demanded that we read the entire play that we were doing the scene from, so I just started reading Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and all these other playwrights. And that was the birth of theater for me. Really, that was the birth of me, because these playwrights just fed my imagination and enlarged my idea of what was possible.”
Pollono started writing monologues and scenes for himself and his friends. Then a bunch of people from the class formed a theater company called Jabberwocky. This included not only Pollono but his wife Jennifer, who he met in the acting class. The group produced four evenings of one-act plays – several by Pollono – but the only critics they could attract were ones who they had to pay. And even then the reviews weren’t great. “By this point Jennifer and I’d had our first child, and I needed to get a real job. So I became a Senior Account executive for PR at an agency, where I basically “acted” the role of a publicist and figured things out as i went along.”
His job gave him access to the contact information for local critics, and he used it to call up lead theater critic Steven Leigh Morris at the LA Weekly and invite him to their new evening of one-acts. Morris came, and he gave them a good review – “high quality considering the budget” – and that put them on the map.
Pollono wrote his first full-length play, Lost and Found, and Jabberwocky agreed to produce it. But who was going to direct it? “I put an ad for a director on the website Big-Cheap. John Perrin Flynn saw it and got in touch with me. He was just coming off producing the TV show Strong Medicine, and he was looking to go in a different direction. As it turned out, he loved the play and wanted to direct it. This went really well, both critically and financially.”
So well, in fact, that Jabberwocky soon morphed into Roguemachine – with Flynn using the 501(c)3 non-profit ID of the former as the basis for the non-profit status of the latter. This was around 2008, and it proved to be the genesis of what Terry Morgan at Variety (magazine) has called “one of the most ambitious and accomplished theatre companies in LA.”
While Flynn and Roguemachine have had many successes, their landmark productions have been by Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami, nominated for London’s Olivier Award) and two plays by John Pollono, SMALL ENGINE REPAIR and LOST GIRLS. Both plays have working-class backgrounds and characters, both veer in tone from the comedic to the menacing and dangerous, and both have gone on from Roguemachine to Off-Broadway and publication by Dramatists Play Service.
John Pollono and Kemp Powers are, in fact, two of the playwrights who have combined to form the seven-member playwrights group, The Temblors. Based in downtown LA at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, the group is dedicated to producing a play by each of its members, based on its own internal development of these scripts. First up was Pollono’s RULES OF SECONDS, a dark comedy very different from his earlier plays. It takes place in mid-19th Century Boston and was given a ripping production earlier this year by the Latino Theater Company under the expert direction of Jo Bonney. Charles McNulty, chief critic of the LA Times, called it “a 21st century comic melodrama set in the 19th Century.” It featured a glorious ensemble of LA-based actors, led by the fearless Amy Brenneman. and including Pollono’s wife Jennifer. While Pollono made clear to me how many years he had been developing the script, he was shocked to find how relevant its theme of “toxic masculinity” ended up being.
Pollono told me that he had gotten the assignment to write the movie Stronger based on the strength of his playwriting, as well as on the fact that he grew up just an hour from where the Boston Marathon bombing took place. The money he has made from writing the movie, along with other pitches that he has sold since, have enabled his growing family (he and Jennifer now have two boys) to move from a small apartment in Koreatown to a house in a ritzy Los Angeles suburb, and to have some financial security for the first time in their lives.
“Truly, I owe it all to theater – to finding my voice and to finding out who I am as a writer. While I may not have made much money for writing and acting in the plays, the rest of my career would never have been possible without them. That’s what people who dismiss theater as an outmoded, money-losing art form fail to see. Whatever else happens in my career, I hope that I’ll always come back to the theater. There’s just nothing like it.”