COVID-19 Theater Series: A Repurposed Movie Theater Goes Live - Sierra Madre Playhouse and Christian Lebano

Since 2011, when he first joined Sierra Madre Playhouse (SMP), Christian Lebano has produced, directed, or acted in over 43 shows. As an actor, he has played major roles at theaters across the country, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Utah Shakespeare Festival, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and American Players Theater.

In 2014, he became artistic director of SMP. Under his leadership, it has earned two Ovation Awards out of thirteen nominations for eight different shows and many awards from other critic’s groups. Six years ago, he initiated the Theater for Young Audiences (TYA) series of plays for schools; the program has drawn 14 school districts and over 13,000 students. He started the Off the Page free monthly reading series which has performed 44 readings to date. Three have moved to full productions, and another is slated for 2021. In 2019, he launched the Off the Screen movie series which is screened with and supports each new production. Christian is currently recovering from COVID-19 but nonetheless made time to interview in April 2020.

Brighid Fleming and Christian Lebano in "To Kill a Mockingbird" - Photo by Gina Long

Tell us something about the history of your theater. When did your theater begin its long career? What is your mission?

Christian Lebano:  The building was built in 1910 as a furniture store and was converted to a silent movie theater and limited vaudeville in 1923. It continued as a movie house until it closed in 1970 when the building was chopped up and used for many different purposes. In 1980, a community theater took over the building and became the Sierra Madre Playhouse. The building underwent major renovations to make it look as it does today. In 1996, we started using Equity actors and began professionalizing our offerings. In 2014, we had a major reorganization and mission change. That was the year I became the first artistic director in over 10 years.

Lee Chen and Grace Shen in "The Joy Luck Club" - Photo by Gina Long

The Sierra Madre Playhouse is a nonprofit, award-winning 99-seat theater. With century-old ties to our community; we are dedicated to fostering an appreciation of live performance in people of all ages and backgrounds by illuminating the diversity of the American experience.

I was not involved from the beginning. I first came to SMP as an actor in 2011 and then joined the board in 2012. I became artistic director in 2014.

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

CL:  We closed on March 5. At the time, we had a rental in the house, and they cancelled their remaining performances. We had cancelled our sold-out production of Charlotte’s Web a few weeks earlier because of the added costs incurred due to AB5 – specifically, the redefinition of independent contractors – so we were spared having to shut down a production.

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

CL:  Of course, we have canceled all programming: our film series, our reading series, and all our productions through the end of 2020.

Aaron Shaw and Katie Franqueira in "Dames at Sea" - Photo by Gina Long

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

CL:  We have not yet streamed anything for our audiences, but we are considering the best ways to stay connected to them, including live streaming performances. We have just launched a newsletter and continue to send email updates. We are also on Facebook. Our marquee has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, LA Times, CNN, and MSNBC. Pretty soon we’re going to need an agent!  We have been updating our marquee messages weekly.

We’re having lots of virtual meetings with staff and our board. We’re planning on our grand reopening production for April of next year. We haven’t set a date yet. Given our uncertainty about the opening date, we haven’t yet scheduled auditions.

In terms of fund raising, we haven’t made any direct appeals for support at this time. We feel that - with so many people struggling - it isn’t the right time to ask for money. However, we have received several unsolicited donations from patrons, all with notes telling us how important we are to the community and how much they hope we will survive the shutdown. WE WILL!!

Brad David Reed and Jack Sundmacher in "The Odd Couple" - Photo by Gina Long

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? 

CL:  I imagine that quite a few intimate theaters will be forced to close. I see a contraction of offerings looming. COVID-19 comes on the heels of the disastrous AB5 law which changed the definition of independent contractors and thus added thousands of dollars to the cost of productions. The uncertainty of the future makes it very difficult to plan. It is our opinion that we won’t be allowed to gather until 2021 and that, even then, audiences will be wary until there is a vaccine. That is why we are not planning to produce in 2020 and will only begin later in 2021.

Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James in "The Gin Game" - Photo by Gina Long

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

CL:  We definitely need patience and fortitude. Obviously, we also need donations as we try to keep paying our small staff through these dark times. We love hearing from our patrons. Knowing that they are rooting for us and looking forward to our reopening keeps our spirits strong and makes us determined to come back better than ever.

Most importantly, very soon we will be announcing ways that the audiences can reach out to their State Senators and Assembly persons to help rethink and rewrite AB5. This law has had a great impact on our ability to produce shows at the high level we’ve come to be known for. That’s why we are planning only a four-show season, which is down two shows from our past production schedules.

Susane Lee and Christian Prentice in "4000 Miles" - Photo by Gina Long

What are some of your future plans? 

CL:  We plan a four-show season in 2021 which will include three of the cancelled productions from 2020 – Lauren Yee’s King of the Yees, Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, and a return of our Christmas classic, A Christmas Story. We will be announcing one more show which will open the season. We are ready to announce our Silent Film Festival which will be in the spring. Our reading series, Off the Page, will be back with its monthly offering. We will include a full month of four new plays in June or July, and we’ll launch our Story Telling events (to be named) with two dates. AND we have a few more ideas in the works.

We are also using this time to make many long-needed upgrades to our theater. These changes, large and small, will make our producing capabilities stronger, our actors better supported, and our audiences happier. I am very excited to share them with our patrons when we reopen.

This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.

Spotlight Series: Meet Andrea Stradling, an Actor Formerly in Health Care Public Relations

This Spotlight focuses on Andrea Stradling, a Los Angeles-based actor formerly in health care public relations who fully understands and appreciates the dedication and sacrifices being made by those on the frontline treating patients in the CoViD-19 pandemic. And like so many other actors, the show in which Andrea was performing had to end its run earlier than expected, opening up unplanned time in her schedule to fill with online theatrical opportunities.

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

Andrea Stradling (Andrea): I have acted in productions throughout Los Angeles and its surrounding communities since the 1980s. In 2012, I was able to retire early from a career in health care public relations, enabling me to concentrate full time on my theatrical endeavors which has been an absolute joy. However, my heart is with my many close colleagues who are still courageously working the front lines of this terrible pandemic.

(SB): I remember first meeting you when I took publicity photos for the Kentwood Players production of Clybourne Park at the Westchester Playhouse in which you portrayed the dual roles of Bev and Kathy. What production were you involved with when word went out you needed to immediately postpone/cancel the show?

Harold Dershimer and Andrea Stradling in "Clybourne Park" by Kentwood Players at the Westchester Playhouse

Andrea: On January 2, I was cast as Dotty Otley in Noises Off at Long Beach Playhouse. It was a fantastic opportunity to do a show that is traditionally performed, and usually rather dependent on, a proscenium stage, rather than it was being stages on a deep thrust with arena style seating. It was a puzzle to figure out, and an amazing cardio workout to perform! But our talented and creative director, Gregory Cohen, marvelously staged it and we opened February 22 to rave reviews.

Andrea Stradling as Dotty Otley in "Noises Off" at Long Beach Playhouse.

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

Andrea: Our fourth weekend began Thursday, March 12. The day was ominous, dark and rainy, with news reports emphasizing the importance of social distancing (especially in crowds) running all day long. I kept checking my phone, but hearing nothing to the contrary, I left for the theater as usual. At approximately our half hour call, the theater’s artistic director, Sean Gray, asked us to assemble on stage. He was there with Madison Mooney, executive director, and together they shared that, after a grueling day of conversations with city officials, it was decided that that night’s performance would be our last. In total, we lost being able to perform our last five shows.

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

Andrea: Sean and Madison were absolutely lovely and just as gutted as we were about having to close the show early. There was talk of a possible remount in November, but that would be dependent upon so many variables, least of which involves the Playhouse getting the rights to the show again and the cast’s availability at that time. I think it is very much up in the air.

Andrea Stradling and the cast of "Noises Off" at the Long Beach Playhouse.

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

Andrea: The only other definite job I had was performing in Sierra Madre Playhouse’s production of A Christmas Story this November/December 2020. But now, SMP has put their entire season on hold because of the pandemic. I was so looking forward to being in the show, as this would have been my third time appearing as Mother, and the production is to be directed by the wonderfully creative Christian Lebano, the Playhouse’s artistic director.  I am heartbroken about this, both personally and because of the devastating financial impact for the theater.

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

Andrea: Like everyone, I’m sure, I’m doing my best to continue submitting myself for work, and I appreciate the latitude casting directors have given regarding self-taping via cell phones. I sent in one monologue where I held the phone with my left hand and tried not to breathe too loudly, but my husband said my face looked too big!

(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?

Andrea: I appreciate so much watching friends share their incredible talent via social media with lots of online monologues, beautiful songs, dancing, impressions -- it’s all wonderful.  Theatrical organizations all over the world are being so generous offering up free streaming of their productions. I enjoyed a staged reading via Zoom of IVRT’s recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire. I saw Kevin Kline in Present Laughter and just watched a fantastic production of Jane Eyre streamed on YouTube by London’s National Theatre. Bravo!!

(SB): I agree with you. It’s incredible all the wonderful productions from around the world that are now available for free online. I am especially enjoying watching all the Broadway musical productions as it has been a really long time since I was able to get to New York to experience them in person.  

Andrea: Despite the quarantine, I feel blessedly connected to my theatre family thanks to the connectivity of social media. I pray for everyone’s good health and resilience, and especially that the theaters that have been my havens for the last 30 years receive the support they need to reopen and thrive.

This article first appeared on Broadway World.

Ashton's Audio Interview: CHRISTIAN LEBANO Adaptor and Director of LITTLE WOMEN

Sierra Madre Playhouse and California School of the Arts-San Gabriel Valley combine forces to bring an American classic to life on stage at SMP, and directed by SMP's own Christian Lebano! Come enjoy Louisa May Alcott's classic account of four sisters--Meg, Beth, Jo, and Amy March--coming of age in post-Civil War America.*

Enjoy this interview with CHRISTIAN LEBANO Director of “LITTLE WOMEN at SIERRA MADRE PLAYHOUSE, playing through Nov 3rd. You can listen to this interview while commuting, while waiting in line at the grocery store or at an audition, backstage and even front of the stage. For tickets and more info Click here.

*taken from the website