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.



COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: The Wandering West Coast Jewish Theatre - An Interview with Howard Teichman


As the artistic director for the West Coast Jewish Theatre, Howard Teichman has dedicated his life in the theater to bringing Jewish thematic plays to the second largest Jewish community in the United States. During his tenure as artistic director, Howard has either produced or directed numerous memorable plays that have drawn both critical acclaim and audience pleasure. Plays like Bar Mitzvah Boy, Fugu, and Broadway Bound reveal the variety of approaches he has taken to reach his goals of Yiddishkeit, social relevance, inclusion, and – of course - entertainment. Howard took time from his busy schedule to interview in April 2020.


Pamela Heffner and R. Emmett Lee - Photo by Michael Lamont

When did your theater company first begin its long career? What led to its creation? What's your mission? Were you involved from the beginning?

Howard Teichman: West Coast Jewish Theatre began in the mid-1990s. Our founder Naomi Karz Jacobs wanted to bring Jewish theater to the Los Angeles area. The theater started out performing staged readings with celebrities in people’s homes. Ed Asner, Harold Greene, Shelly Berman and many other well-known actors gave of their time to perform Jewish thematic plays. The readings eventually moved to different synagogues in the Los Angeles area. We did find a home for quite a while at the Wilshire Blvd. Temple in West Los Angeles.

Our mission is to portray Jewish history and foster a respect for our Jewish culture and heritage. It’s through the medium of theater that we keep alive the works of Jewish writers, both past and present, and also encourage new Jewish playwrights. We want to portray to the non-Jewish community the unique qualities of the Jewish people, as well as those qualities that are shared with everyone, making us all equal in the family of man.

I was involved at the beginning of West Coast Jewish Theatre. I was on the Board of Directors. I also produced and directed shows for the theater. I wrote a play on behalf of the West Coast Jewish Theatre for the first ever Yiddishkeit Festival held in Los Angeles in 1999.

West Coast Jewish Theatre’s history is truly a journey of survival. As I stated before, we began as a theater performing staged readings. After a while we partnered with other theaters in town to present full-length productions. We worked with groups like Pacific Resident Theater Ensemble and co-produced with David Ellenstein and other individual producers. When Herb Isaac became our artistic director in 2003, we began to produce our own shows. We performed at the Egyptian Theatre for a few shows, and we performed at the Miles Memorial Playhouse for one show. In 2006, we moved to the Pico Playhouse, where we found a home until 2017. While at the Pico Playhouse, we presented some of the best theater in Los Angeles. We were fortunate to have worked with some of the best actors, directors, and designers that Los Angeles has to offer. If you go to our website, we have cataloged all the good work that we created during that time frame.

In 2018 we returned to the Miles Memorial Playhouse for a couple of shows. Right now, we are searching for a permanent home. I hope it’s a joke when I say, “We should change the name of our theater to the “Wandering Jewish Theater.”

I left the West Coast Jewish Theatre for about eight years and became a resident theater director at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills. In 2009, I was offered and accepted the position of producer for the West Coast Jewish Theatre. In 2010, I took over the reins from Herb Isaac when he retired; and I became the artistic director and producing manager.

Kate Matamura and Matt Gottlieb - Photo by Michael Lamont

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

HT: We closed our theater to any further productions on March 1, 2020, when we could see the writing on the wall. We had just concluded a staged reading series at the Miles Memorial Playhouse and were in the process of negotiating with them for another series of staged readings in May and in July.  We were also negotiating a full length production opening in October.

Richard Fancy and Marco Naggar in "New Jerusalem" - Photo by Hope Burleigh

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

HT:  Just as it has impacted everyone else in town. We are closed for business until it is safe to congregate as a society. Since we only rent spaces at this time, we are not burdened with the expenses of theater property; however, we continue to reach out for donations to keep the flame alive for our theater.

Carl Crudup and Jack Axelrod in "I'm Not Rappaport" - Photo by Michael Lamont

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

HT: We have recently created a video for all social media platform for our theater. We are in the process of editing an overview montage of what our theater has accomplished over these many years. Hopefully, we will be performing staged readings on the platform and offer a variety of Jewish theatrical content. We are in the process of developing our next season. We continue to fund raise. We have a grant writer on staff who is reaching out to various foundations with the hope of procuring monies.

Mark Sande and Jill Remez in "Broadway Bound" - Photo by Michael Lamont

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

HT: Until there is a vaccine or a medication that can prevent the spread of this disease, audiences won’t feel comfortable returning to any publicly-held event. We can only hope that the world’s great scientists come up with something that can kill this virus. Theater is a living being that demands the audience’s participation. Theater has existed for many centuries and has overcome plagues of the past, as well as upheaval, war, and totalitarian governments that censor the free spirit of theater. Theater will continue to shine a light on the human condition as long as man is willing to tell stories and present them in the style, form, and genre that we know as theater.

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

HT:  We need patience, tolerance, and hope. What I would like from the theater public is their resolve that they will return to the theater in droves once it is safe. The public must support and contribute to their favorite theater in order to keep theater alive in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Small theater in Los Angeles is truly at the mercy of the public. Large houses have money and contributors, while small theaters are getting along on shoestring budgets and not enough support from city, state, and federal governments. We need their help now more than ever. History has shown us that a healthy theater scene reflects prosperously on the health of a society.

What are some of your future plans?

HT:  We plan on staying alive and healthy so that we can produce in the near future. We hope to find a permanent home for the West Coast Jewish Theatre. We want to develop new works and open a new season. We must increase our fund-raising events, and we will reach out to the community at large. We will also increase our Board of Directors.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.