COVID-19 Theater Series: Rogue Machine's Journey Beyond Adversity - An Interview with John Perrin Flynn


Leading one of L.A.’s most prestigious theatre companies for twelve years, John Perrin Flynn has nurtured Rogue Machine from the seed of an idea into a group of over 300 artists with an impressive array of accolades and awards. Most recently, he helmed two epic productions, the American premiere of Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer and the west coast premiere of Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London. John received the LA Weekly “Career Achievement Award,” just one of over one hundred awards during his tenure with the company. He was the executive producer and director of Lifetime’s award-winning series Strong Medicine and has produced two other series and 14 television movies or miniseries, including the Emmy nominated Burden of Proof. John took time from his busy schedule to interview in April 2020.


When did Rogue Machine First Begin? Were you involved from the start? Who/what/where was it founded?

John Perrin Flynn:  Our inaugural production was in 2008. The prior year, I had happened to read a new play by a young playwright who was looking for a director. The play was called Lost and Found and the playwright was John Pollono. As soon as I read it, I knew that I had to direct it. We ran it at the Lounge Theatre. Later that year, I directed the West Coast premiere of Craig Lucas's Small Tragedy at the Odyssey Theatre. Afterwards, I was invited to pitch plays at a couple of local venues. By then, John Pollono was working on another new play. I had also begun to work with Henry Murray, developing his Tree Fall; and I quickly learned that none of the companies that I was approaching were interested in producing new work.

Cast of "Pocatello" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

I brought together three disparate groups: theater friends I had made during my time as a television producer; theater friends I had made doing the two plays I had recently directed; and theater friends from the time I was artistic director of Theater Exchange in North Hollywood. We all felt that there were already too many theaters in Los Angeles. At the same time, there seemed to be a need for one which would produce new work and the edgier kind of new work which was then coming out of Chicago, New York, and London. In early 2008, the opportunity to share the Theatre/Theater space on Pico Boulevard opened up and we decided to take the leap.

Ron Bottitta and Tucker Smallwood in "The Sunset Limited" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

How about a brief timeline of changes at they occurred?

JPF:  We began running our monthly salon “Rant and Rave,” which has continued to be one of our most popular programs. We converted a classroom at the space into a second smaller stage. Our programming for that stage brought us a great deal of attention. We opened Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited with Tucker Smallwood and Ron Bottitta. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz designed the small one-room urban apartment set that worked brilliantly. The show became an LA Times Critics’ Choice and ran for five months. We modified that set and opened John Pollono’s third play as a late-night show. It was Small Engine Repair, which ran for six months until we had to move it to open Joel Drake Johnson's Four Places, for which we received our first Ovation Award for Best Production.

Small Engine Repair swept the Los Angeles Award season, winning best production and many other awards. Our fifth season brought us the long-running hit Dirty Filthy Love Story by Rob Mersola and our first collaborations with playwrights Samuel Hunter and Enda Walsh. The sixth season brought us Pollono’s Lost Girls and Kemp Powers’ One Night in Miami, which became our largest box office hit ever. It ended up having multiple productions around the world, including at the Donmar Warehouse in England. We closed that season with Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, which won us our second Ovation award for best production. The eighth season was an abbreviated season because rent increases forced us out - but not before we did our second Sam Hunter play, A Permanent Image. We moved to The Met Theatre in our ninth season and opened with a strong season of multi-award nominated productions, including Hunter’s Pocatello, and Greg Keller’s Honky and Dutch Masters.

Shari Gardner Desean, Kevin Terry, and Jelani Blunt in "Les Blancs" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

Our tenth season featured the first ever professional production of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs in Los Angeles, as well as a collaboration with the Getty Villa of a modern-day refugee version of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women.

We were forced to move once again during our twelfth season, but not before we produced the American premiere of Dionna Michelle Daniel’s American Saga: Gunshot Medley Part I. We moved to the Electric Lodge in Venice and in the fall, where we opened Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer and Joe Gifford's Finks. We closed our latest season with the world premiere productions of Disposable Necessities by Neil McGowan (an LA Times Critics’ Choice) and Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London.

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

JPF:  We were fortunate that we had closed the twelfth season in early March. At that time, we weren’t sure if we would open again until July. Now we have no idea when theaters will be allowed to reopen and we don’t know what the final damage to the economy will be. Fundraising may be more difficult. We understand our existence is imperiled; but all of us, Rogue Machine’s Board and staff, are determined to survive. There is a proverb that “Adversity creates opportunity.” Many theaters are attempting to build an online audience during this period of isolation. We will be offering some programming as well.

Corey Dorris and Josh Zuckerman in "Dutch Masters" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Are you streaming shows? Having virtual meetings? Are you planning for your next show when you reopen?

JPF:  We have most of our next season in place. We will open with a world premiere production of Justin Tanner’s Little Theatre, directed by Lisa James and starring Jennie O’Hara. We are also planning to produce the American premiere of Timothy Daly’s Man in the Attic, with French and Vanessa Stewart and Rob Nagle.

I am participating in weekly meetings with LA area artistic directors to see what we can do collectively, now and in the future, when theaters reopen.

John Pollono, Jon Bernthal, Josh Helman, and Michael Redfield in "Small Engine Repair" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

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?

JPF:  I suspect that some organizations will not be able to survive this shutdown, particularly if they have leases and rent to pay. I think it might be a long time before things return to a semblance of how they were. Some people that were key to how intimate theatre operated may be forced to take up other careers.

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

JPF:  Funding. I am concerned about our employees. We have applied for the SBA paycheck protection loan, but the funding ran out before we were approved. If more funding is forthcoming, we will be able to offer some employment to the staff, all of whom have been laid off. I want our theater public to stay safe and come out of this healthy, and hungry for the common bonds that live theater encourages.

Joshua Bitton, Burl Moseley, and Jennifer Pollono in "Dirty Filthy Love Story" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

What are some of your future plans?

JPF:  We plan to do some online programming, which includes a joint project called “Common Ground” with The Road Theatre. We may also stream some live readings and something with “Rant and Rave.” In addition to the plays that I mentioned, we are hoping to do another Samuel D. Hunter play; and we are reading a number of new plays during this forced hiatus.


This article first appeared in Splash Worldwide.



KEMP POWERS AND THE PLIGHT OF THE AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT (LA Version)

It's become a given that "you can't make a living in the theater," at least not in this country.

And for the most part it's true, especially for playwrights.

Playwrights typically receive 5% or 6% of ticket sales for a full-scale production, which in a six week run of 7-8 shows a week in a 1000 seat house can amount to as much as $15,000.  But only a handful of playwrights ever experience such a windfall in their careers, much less count on it as a yearly yield.  And of course that's before taxes.  The resulting amount would still be well under the poverty level.  And, as I said, most playwrights only dream about receiving such a return on their investment of time and talent.  More typical is the $500-$1,000 that playwrights receive for a four-six week run at a 99 seat theater - an event, again, that seldom happens more than once or twice a year (if at all) for most playwrights.  There used to be subsidies and grants that playwrights could hope would give them some breathing room (and writing time).  But most of these have gone away in the new century (and it's sure to get worse under Trump with this new tax plan).  The ones that still exist are largely tied to production grants to specific non-profit theaters, which playwrights only receive when their plays get produced at those theaters.  So, again, not development grants, and only received by those few playwrights who already have been fortunate enough to have their plays chosen for major productions.

Dael Orlandersmith

And even then... I am reminded of a chance encounter I had a few years ago with the highly successful playwright/performer Dael Orlandersmith.  Her one-woman show Forever was then playing at the Center Theater Group's Kirk Douglas Theater before going to New York Theatre Workshop for a full run, and then on to Long Wharf in New Haven.  This was a trifecta of productions that, again, most playwrights can only dream about.  I congratulated her on this remarkable achievement.  She shook her head, saying, "Yeah, and I've never been poorer."  (And that's with her also getting paid as the only actor!)

To the actors out there who are reading this, yes, it's true that most of you receive even less than the playwrights  - in many cases, much less.  And that's not fair.  But your performances are also your best way of promoting your talent.  This enables you to invite casting directors, agents and producers and increases your opportunity for paying work.  This is especially true in the SoCal area, where two actors from my first production here booked national commercials based on their performances (or so they told me).  Just a few months ago, an actor from a reading of a screenplay I co-wrote was signed by an agent based on that reading and ended up being cast in a new pilot. While such good fortune can also befall playwrights, my experience is that it's far less likely.  The few industry folk who do attend theater here mostly come to scout actors, not writers, directors or designers.

"I love theater here, but it's very actor-driven," Kemp Powers told me over lunch at Hugo's in West Hollyood. "There's no other reason to be doing it except passion.  That is, if a writer has something that needs to be expressed - and can only be expressed as a play - then go ahead and write it.  And don't let anyone dissuade you from doing so.  Any other reason and you're just setting yourself up for disappointment."

Kemp's passion project (and first play), One Night In Miami,  has been anything but disappointing.  After premiering to great acclaim at Rogue Machine in 2013, the play has gone to hugely successful runs at Center Stage in Baltimore and at the Donmar Warehouse in London, where it was nominated for the Olivier play for Best Play.  The play has been optioned for the movies, and Kemp is currently writing the screenplay.

Ty Jones, Matt Jones, Kevin Daniels (photo: John Flynn)

Kemp described how he came up with the idea for the play in an article he wrote for the online magazine This Stage.  "I was reading a copy of Mike Marqusee's excellent Muhammed Ali book Redemption Song when I came across this paragraph: "On 25 February 1964, Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. After the fight, Clay chose to forgo the usual festivities at one of Miami's luxury hotels and headed instead for the black ghetto, where he had made camp during training. He spent a quiet evening in private conversation with Malcolm X, the singer Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown, the great Cleveland Browns running back and an early champion of black right in sports. The next morning, after breakfast with Malcolm, Clay met the press to confirm the rumors that he was involved with the Nation of Islam."   Boom. There you had it. My four most inspirational people were friends. Bigger still, they spent the night of Cassius Clay's victory alone, together, in a hotel room. And the very next morning, Clay made the most important announcement of his life.  My imagination went wild as I started connecting the dots."

Kemp Powers grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where he was an Honors student at Edward R. Murrow high school, raised by a single mother.  He was on course for worldly success when something shocking happened, something completely out of context with the rest of his life: at 14 years old, while goofing around with one of his mom's handguns, he accidentally shot and killed his best friend, Henry. Henry's parents refused to press charges, and Kemp went on with his life, going to the University of Michigan, where he received a Knight Journalism Fellowship. He became a respected journalist, a Business writer for the Reuters chain, but he was haunted by this tragic event. Then 9/11 happened, and it roused him from his personal hell and prompted him to write an article for Esquire about his friend's death.  The article got him a book contract, and in 2004 The Shooting: A Memoir was published.

But none of this explains how Kemp became an award-winning playwright.  As he told me, "There were two main passions on the soundtrack of my growing up in Brooklyn: Hip-Hop and Theater".  But while Hip-Hop was something that he and his friends felt comfortable fooling around with, "no part of me ever saw myself being involved in theater."  Edward R. Murrow High School had an excellent Theater Department, and Kemp loved the productions of musicals like Cabaret and West Side Story that they presented.  But he wasn't an actor, and how else did anyone find a place in the theater?  Kemp ended up getting a job with the Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota as a Public Relations assistant, where one of his tasks was driving around August Wilson when the Guthrie produced Fences.  Kemp said that he was too in awe of Wilson to have any meaningful conversations with him, though he does treasure the memory.

As Kemp made clear to me, it wasn't until he came to Los Angeles for a business-related job that he saw a place for himself in the art form he loved so much. "The only reason I'm a playwright is because I happen to live in Los Angeles, where there are no rules about making theater."  He explained that this is a result of a lot of people coming here to do TV and film, but bringing with them "a certain maturity and understanding" about how theater is made.  Kemp stressed that because theater is something that these "practitioners" love but not something that they have any expectation of making a living from, it removes a lot of the pressure to "be perfect" and allows the creativity to "flow more freely."  Kemp's gratitude to Rogue Machine and its Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn is enormous.  "I've been nurtured within that community, and this born-and-bred New Yorker would never have become a playwright if not for the opportunities I found here to experiment and discover my own comfort level.  I'm very militant about that."

Kemp with Star Trek's George Takei

While Kemp has moved on to writing several new scripts - his play Little Black Shadows will receive its premiere at South Coast Repertory in April - he has also found a new day job as a staff writer for Star Trek Discovery on CBS All-Access, where he was credited with story and teleplay for last season's fifth episode, "Choose Your Pain."

I first met Kemp at the final performance of his friend John Pollono's play, Rule Of Seconds, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center - a show by the way which will be on my TEN BEST List, coming out next week.  Kemp was the lead producer on Pollono's play, which was, in turn, the first production of The Temblors, a 7-member self-producing playwrights group emulating other groups such as The Welders in Washington DC.  By all means, check out their website for future productions.

"There's no part of me that believes that sometime in the near future people will be saying that one of the top three reasons they've come to LA is to see theater, as it often is when people visit New York or London.  This is not a diss, it's just the reality of living in Hollywood, which casts a long shadow. But if we in the LA Theater could develop a real infrastructure, then we could maybe become a Seattle or even a Minneapolis.  That is something worth aspiring to, and I for one am prepared to do whatever it takes to help make it happen."