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.



JOAN OF ART: My Favorite Theater Company, About John Wick 3, and Pacific Visions

Friday evening I'll be at one of my favorite LA theaters...The Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood. Every single play I've seen at this company totally rocked. They are always at their best.

So I naturally can't wait to see their new production which opens Friday May 17th at 8pm entitled AT THE TABLE, written by Michael Perlman and directed by Judith Moreland. The play has been called by its creators as a 'Big Chill' for the millennial generations. If you haven't seen it, you're missing an iconic film.

AT THE TABLE is about six ethnically and sexually diverse friends who head out of the city on their annual weekend retreat. With no social media, no cell phones, no internet allowed at all, this leaves them with one thing to do...look up from their screens and talk to each other. Remember talking?

When the liquor starts flowing and the tongues loosen, no conversation is uneventful and no topic is off limits. In the end, these so called liberal friends realize they're not as enlightened or diverse as they thought.

If you see this play, be sure to leave your review on their show page her on Better Lemons so they can qualify for a LemonMeter rating!

The Road Theatre is located at 5108 Lankershim Blvd in North Hollywood. The play runs Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. until July 7th. For more information and to purchase tickets go to RoadTheatre.org or call 818-761-8838.

And now for something completely different. JOHN WICK 3...Parabellum. First I must say that I absolutely loved the first JOHN WICK as well as the second one. Yes, both films were violent but the story penetrated through all the brilliantly staged sword fights, knife fights, hand to hand combat scenes to old fashioned gun fights which are anything but old fashion.

In the first film we meet Keanu Reeves who nailed the part of the assassin who miraculously retires after marrying the love of his life. Her sudden death leaves him in deep mourning.

When a sadistic mobster and his thugs steal John's prized car and kill the puppy that was a last gift from his wife, he unleashes the remorseless killing machine within and seeks vengeance. The world created by the writer Derek Kolstad and directed Chad Taheiski was just so creative and so extremely original that you didn't mind the excessive violence and the same goes for the second film.

This brings us to John Wick 3...Parabellum which opens where the second film leaves off. John has to get out of New York City fast. And I mean FAST. Wick has been deemed 'Excommunicated' by the High Table and all of his rights and privileges are stripped away and there's an open contract on him starting at $14 million dollars. So basically every single person in New York City and all around the globe are trying to kill the dude.

BTW, The film is 133 minutes long and 110 minutes is violence to the extreme. I'm talking about sadistic, savage violence. At first it was applauded BY THE AUDIENCE at the press screening I attended. Then the audience started to laugh and then silence. I don't know what they were feeling but personally I was bored by the overly long fight scenes.

Yes the cast is great. Ian McShane's part as the proprietor of the assassins home away from home, the Continental Hotel, an establishment designated as a safe ground for those in the killing trade.

The film also stars Halle Berry, who is upstaged by her two incredible dogs, and Ava Kate Dillon (Billions), who plays The Adjudicator who arrives in New York City to make sure her minions get the job done.

The film has received great reviews but it just didn't do for me. Love to know what you think. It opens in theatres November 14th.

Now after all this excitement I recommend spending the day at the Aquarium of the Pacific. It houses an art gallery that transports you under the ocean, a state of the art theatre with multi sensory effects and a culmination gallery with interactive game tables, and live animal exhibits including the first and only public aquarium exhibit with the controversial delta smelt fish.

Aquarium of the Pacific / PR Use of Scouts - Photography by Tom Bonner - Job ID 6417

As the new focal point of the Aquarium, Pacific Visions provides a platform to integrate the arts and sciences and offers visitors innovative ways to explore their impact on our ocean planet while allowing them to explore sustainable solutions. The topics of how we produce and consume food energy and water as well as ways to make more sustainable choices are highlighted.

All 29,000 square feet and two stories, it is the Aquarium's first major expansion and the result of more than a decade of planning and development using the latest technology and methods of storytelling that combine art, science, and interactivity. Pacific Visions is an example of the aquarium of the future. Pacific Visions opens to the public on Friday May 24th. I'm writing about it now to give you plenty of time to prepare for a visit.This is a great event for the whole family.

The Aquarium of the Pacific is located at 100 Aquarium Way Long Beach CA 90802. For more information and tickets go to AquariumofPacific.org/pacificvisions.

Whatever you plan to do this weekend people, make it a fun one!