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.



Best Theatre of the Year - Looking Back At L.A.’s 2019

I give to you my personal list of the best theatre Los Angeles offered in 2019, with a few swipes at the less of the best….

First off, the production of August Wilson’s Jitney at the Mark Taper Forum. Wilson’s works share a distinction with those of Shakespeare, in that when the plays of either are fortunate enough to be housed in a production of true artistry one finds theatre nirvana, which is what director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and cast provided L.A. audiences with.

The cast —Steven Antony JonesFrancois BattisteAmari CheatomNija OkoroRay Anthony ThomasHarvy BlanksKeith Randolph SmithBrian D. Coats, and Anthony Chisholm returning to the role which earned him a Drama Desk Award and Obie in 2000’s off-Broadway production— performed as keys on a perfectly tuned piano, with  Santiago-Hudson assuring not one false note was sounded.

Contributing to this perfect harmony were David Gallo’s set, Jane Cox’s deft light design and Toni-Leslie James’ superlatively unobtrusive costumes.


In six short years the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts has won L.A.’s appreciation for the work produced and Artistic Director Paul Crewes its respect for his guidance.

This year that appreciation and respect were given further validation: The Old Man and the Old Moon by the PigPen Theatre Company, was an intoxicating entwining of old world folklore, Arabian night tales and the poetic arts of a Celtic seanchaís resulting in an evening of wondrous magic which is the essence of theatre.


Some twenty-five years ago at the old Tiffany Theatre on Sunset Boulevard, the marvelous Hershey Felder presented his first solo show based on the life of a great composer.  Having previously brought Chopin and Beethoven to the Wallis, this year Felder returned again— and again was…well, marvelous.

Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story, are the reminiscences of his first youthful journey to Paris which are placed as a palimpsest in homage to his favorite composer Achille-Claude Debussy.  Directed by Trevor Hay it was perhaps the most enchanting show of the season.


We have the Wallis to thank for Renée Taylor’s one-woman show, My Life on a Diet Best known to movie lovers as Eva Braun in Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1968) and to TV viewers as Fran Drescher’s mother on the CBS sitcom The Nanny, Taylor, with her late husband Joseph Bologna, co-wrote the Oscar nominated Lovers and Other Strangers as well as two additional screenplays and 21 more plays.

It was a privilege and a joy to be in the company of the 86 year old Taylor who is a juggernaut of talent as well as a living history of both Broadway and Hollywood, and, personally, I wanted her show to go on longer than its 90 minutes.

Like a week longer.  Maybe two.


The Wallis also deserves thanks for bringing back talented David Mynne, whose one-man presentation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations was one of last year’s high-water mark.

A Christmas Carol, this year’s Dickens offering, was less satisfying but Mynne’s performance was nevertheless amazing to watch.


The Fountain Theatre, which I regard as one of the jewels in the crown of the L.A. theatre community offered little this year that drew my interest and what did, I’m afraid, I was less than thrilled by.

Idris Goodwin’s play Hype Man, though not without merit, I found weak and I thought the cast, Clarissa ThibeauxChad Addison and Matthew Hancock and director Deena Selenow, brought more to the play than the play brought to the stage.

Of course, there was no performance of the Forever Flamenco series that I was not enraptured by.  These monthly Juergas of dancers and singers, overseen by Deborah Culver at the Fountain since 1990, I have often heralded as one of the best kept secrets in L.A. and one of its hottest tickets.


The Long Beach International City Theatre’s production of Arthur Miller’s The Price was a show one should regret if missed.

David Nevell as a man who sees in the wreckage of his father’s life the failure of his own, and Elyse Mirto as the wife who sees her husband’s true worth but is unable to make him believe it, were each outstanding.

In the most Biblical referenced of Miller’s plays, Bo Foxworth’s layered performance as the prodigal son allowed the audience to see that the chains forged by his choices were as heavy as those of his brother.

As the secondhand furniture dealer Mister Solomon, which is the heartbeat of the play, Tony Abatemarco fluctuated adroitly between the Old Testament’s wise Solomon and Faust’s wheeling-dealing Mephistopheles.

I find director John Henry Davis to be rather hit or miss, but with The Price he undeniably knocked one out of the stadium.

DoubleDouble playwright Guy Zimmerman and director Juli Crockett, by a fusion of the 1944 noir classic Double Indemnity with Shakespeare’s Scottish play, successfully brought another artistic chimera to the stage.

Zimmerman and Crockett juggled snippets of dialogue and hints of shared motifs, transforming a trio of Barbara Stanwyck doppelgangers  (Henita TeloJenny Greer and Isabella Boose) into a Greek Chorus to warn  Saughn Buchholz as Walter-Walter of the fate awaiting his Oedipus MacMurray.

From concept to execution, this production had the luster that craft and intelligence brings; sharing in the credit for this are scenic designer Melissa Ficociello and Michael Feldman’s ballads.


Bill Irwin’s On Beckett was perhaps more lecture than show, but what a subject to lecture on and what a lecturer to hear.  Having been a fan of Bill Irwin since his Old Hats and Fool Moon days, what I found so extraordinary in his discourse/performance/dissertation/sermon on the works of the great Irish playwright on the stage at Kirk Douglas Theatre, was Irwin’s ability to delve into those “linguistic non-spaces” Beckett supplies, and weave relevance into those silences found there.


Playwright Lauren Gunderson is the current “flavor of the month” from the New York theatre scene.  I find most of her works “vanilla” at best.  But there are a couple of her plays which, while not on the level of “Chocolate Therapy,” come close to “Chunky Monkey” status.

Ada and the Engine is one.  It tells the story of the rakish Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada, and her contribution to the development of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, precursor to the modern computer.  In their staging, Theatre Unleashed emphasized the play’s strengths while cloaking its weaknesses, resulting in a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging production.

As the two dominant men in Ada’s life —William King-Noel, later Lord Lovelace and the driven Charles Babbage— Gregory Crafts and Alex Knox gave faultless performances.  But it was Jessie Sherman in the titular role that captured the audience and herded them on the pathway from the joys of dreams to the price paid for them.

Director Heidi Powers enriched the production by her employment of Denise Barrett’s costumes and use of Kevin Hilton’s animation which shattered the black box’s confines by expanding the vista of ideas.

Less successful, but certainly more frenzied was the Theatre Unleashed production of Never Ever Land by playwright Rider Strong, centering on the allegations against Michael Jackson’s involvement with underaged boys.  Director Michael A. Shepperd applied cunning and skill but was only moderately successful in masking the play’s faults.  On the other hand, Josh Randall as the “abused” lad’s manipulating father and Leif Gantvoort as the unctuous news commentator after a story turned in exceptional performances.


As a former puppeteer, I admit I was a sucker for Les Miz And Friends! A Puppet Parody and my hearty guffaws filled the Hudson Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Nathan Makaryk and Geneviève Flati co-directed their “re-envisioning” of Les Misérables, the much beloved musical based on Victor Hugo’s much renowned classic.  The crushing poverty, sexual exploitation, brutal police and civil bloodshed are still there, they just added a ton of puppets and screwed with the songs.

Performer-puppeteers Kelly RogersKevin GarciaGabrielle JacksonJaycob HunterHailey Tweter and Carter Michael kept the laughter coming, as did Christopher Robert Smith as Javert.

The production was packed with silly puns and dopey jokes, but what came as a total surprise, at least to me, was the quality of the cast’s musical chops.  Some credit for this must go to “musical accompaniment, Orchestrator and Arranger” David Norris.  Here’s hoping Makaryk and Flati set their satirical sights on another classic of the musical theatre.


I did manage to see Rogue Machine’s Disposable Necessities in their new space in Santa Monica.  Playwright Neil McGowan has conceived a clever work akin to an old “slam-door” comedy where an actor would rush out as one character to re-enter as another seconds later.  But, McGowan does away with the “doors” by setting his work in a protean near future when bodies are changed with wardrobe like ease.  The device supplies the show with laughs, but also with difficulties.  Claire Blackwelder isn’t up to the demands of conveying the persona of an elderly chauvinistic lecher dwelling in young lady with a body worthy of Vargas’ watercolors.  Nor does Jefferson Reid have the acting apparatus to conjure the reality of a spoiled white boy deposited into the body a black urban teen; the rest of the cast, Billy FlynnDarrett Sanders and the always superb Ann Noble, having the benefit of experience turn in stellar performances.

We look forward to what Rogue Machine and Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn have in store for us in 2020.


The Judas Kiss by British playwright David Hare travels the oft-treaded ground of Oscar Wilde’s disgrace following the infamous trial for libel he foolishly instigated against the father of his young lover Boise.

Director Michael Michetti’s production at The Boston Court was lushly mounted with sets by designer Se Hyun OhDianne K. Graebner’s costumes, and lighting design by David Hernandez, but all the lushness could not conceal the piece’s anemia of dramatic tension.
Some atonement was found in the performances of Darius De La Cruz as Robbie Rose, Wilde’s most stouthearted friend and that of Colin Bates as the self-centered Boise.
But it was the sincerity and depth of humanity which Rob Nagle brought to the role of Wilde that served as the most memorable feature of a rather forgettable show.


The Hollywood Fringe Festival held every June along the strip of Santa Monica Blvd running from Highland Avenue to Vine Street should be a seasonal Mecca for the creative souls of this city and those with any reverence towards the arts.  HFF 2019 boasted a total of 405 individual productions and sold over 67,000 tickets.

Here were the standouts for me:
Mil Grus, featured the absurdly inspired clowning of Helene UdyGrayson MorrisJeremy SappJenson Lavellee and Isaac Kessler under Dean Evans’ direction and took TVO’s “Best of the Fringe.”   The show, along with its five misshapen blobs of bizarre silliness, just opened in New York.

Theatre Unleashed made their presence felt at the Fringe with Tattered Capes by Gregory Crafts, an intelligent and clever account of the marital woes that befall two caped crusaders.  With outstanding performances from Chris ClabaughTravis Joe Dixon and Joanna MercedesCrafts’ play celebrated the superheroes of our childhood while reverberating with deeper questions regarding the secret identities we use in concealing our true selves from those we love.

Designer Denise Barrett provided the super costumes and Corey Lynn Howe’s direction was more powerful than a locomotive.

With Son of A Bitch, Director Billy Ray Brewton fashioned an American Morality play about, to quote my fellow critic David Narine, “Lee Atwater’s  – Republican-Strategist-Liar-Driven-Liar-Brilliant-Liar- Son of a Bitch – rise to power.”

Featuring solid performances by Dennis Gersten as George H.W. Bush, Luke Forbes as “W” and David McElwee as Atwater, playwright, Lucy Gillespie’s work was a much-needed history lesson.

Another political offering at the Fringe was The Mayor’s Debate of Tranquility, Nebraskaa silly and sinister parable on the American electorate.

A local news broadcaster, Emily Dorsett, hosts a mayoral debate in the American heartland.  The candidates include the gay uber-liberal lesbian (Kate Hellen) a Tea-Partier (Lucie Beeby) and the slimy incumbent (Jim Hanna who also penned the script).

The debate goes from glad-handing to backstabbing with gleeful alacrity and the laughs roar out.  But beneath the chortles, Hanna and his cast slip a grim warning; that in this nation today, the “amber waves of grain” are closer to Rod Sterling’s “cornfield.”

Butcher Holler Here We Come written by Casey Wimpee was perhaps the Festival’s most successful immersive piece.  The audience is confined in a room dark as pitch, sharing in the fate of five miners trapped beneath the earth.  Under the astute direction of Leah Bonvissuto, the voices of the unseen miners, Michael MasonIsaac ByrneAdam BelvoMorrison Keddie and Adam Willson, spin about the audience, webbing them in desperation.

Spencer Green’s twisted take on the anthropomorphic beast fables of Aesop, The Scorpion and the Frog, was riotously engaging.  Showcasing the talents of Matthew LeavittChristine Sage and Alex Parker it was hands down one of the Fringe’s most thoroughly enjoyable offerings.

Public Domain the Musicalwhile not perfect, had highpoints that would make your nose bleed. Sam Pasternack (who wrote the book, composed the music, supplied the lyrics and directed) gathered some first-rate performers for this musical ragging of the Disney Corporation’s propensity to squeeze profits from any character in the public domain.  Pasternack uses those public domain icons that Disney overlooked: Oedipus (Max Mahle), The Monkey Paw (Max Ash), Rosie the Riveter (Codi Coates) and…er, Potato Mussolini (Ben Cassil).  Let it be known, costume designer Ember Everett, rose to the occasion.  One of my favorite numbers was Oedipus’ song, “The Way to Become a Hero (is to be at the right place at the right time.)  Were there flaws in the production?  Of course, but it also had a Potato Mussolini!

Solo shows are the stock in trade for any Fringe and HFF 2019 had some extraordinary ones, with the TVO’s “Best Solo Show (Female) going to Raised By Wolves, a cautionary tale about life among alpha-males and evil step-mothers, written and performed by Marla Black.

TVO’s “Best Solo Show (Male) went to Monica Bauer’s Made For Each Other, an astonishingly tender tale staring John Fico as a man who learns that even those in their flabby fifties are deserving of love.

Cathy Schenkelberg arrived at the Fringe with a double whammy for Scientology; first there was Squeeze My Cans, her harrowing one-woman show about the 20 plus years she spent in the cult of L. Ron Hubbard.

Then there was that show’s musical clone Squeeze My Cabaret, in which Schenkelberg related the same tale but showed that she has a pair of pipes on her that could knock the smug superciliousness off Tom Cruise’s puss at twenty yards.

In HFF 2018 Yokko brought her New York based company Ren Gyo Soh with a Japanese Butoh re-fitting of Euripides, Butoh Medea.  This year Yokko turned her efforts on Shakespeare with Hide Your Fires: Butoh Lady Macbeth adapted by Sean Michael Welch and directed by Brian Rhinehart.  Both shows were equally entrancing.

Two excellent productions which deserved greater exposure were Clark Wade-A Jazzy Tragedy, written and performed by Esquizito, AKA EP Perez which drew on memories of New Orleans’ Golden Age;

 And

Stephen Lang’s Beyond Glory based on the recollections of Medal of Honor winners for which Steve Scott took TVO’s “Best Actor” award.

From Ireland came Drought, poetess-songsmith-performer Kate Radford’s haunting indictment of the toxicity of sexual abuse, which TVO acknowledged as the “Best International Show.”

Her true-life tale of a model being afflicted with alopecia was shared by Jannica Olin in (IM)Perfekt. Olin managed to inspire her audiences and at the same time convulse them with laughter.

With Black Boxing, playwright Matt Ritchey held a funhouse mirror to the very concept of solo shows.  Directed by Matthew Martin this raucously funny gem chronicled every pitfall solo shows face.  Fittingly, this send-up of a one-man show featured performances by Ritchey and Jim Niedzialkowski.

Finally, I’ll close with one of the most satisfying shows in HFF 2019, Temple Tantrum, written and performed by Nicole Steinwedell. Raised in a right-wing Christian cult, Steinwedell broke free and plunged into a world diametrically different – Hollywood.  Steinwedell told her tale with the slashes of vibrancy one expects on a Jackson Pollack canvas.

Steinwedell’s dynamism, like the dissonance of a “perfect storm,” may have dissipated into an ineffable silence, but for director Kimleigh Smith who ably applied orchestration to the tempest, assuring awareness of the work’s import and clarity, for which she took TVO’s “Best Director” honors.

Of course the Fringe had disappointments: Olivia Wilde Does Not Survive the Apocalypse, Princess Magic’s Trash Time Revue, and Lincoln 2020.  But these were in a minority.

And the larger L.A. theatre scene had its pratfalls too:

Between Riverside and Crazy, (It won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, just like Enter Madame and Men in White!), Scraps (whose playwright the program told us “never learned to properly write a play.” I buy that.) and The Play That Goes Wrong (which I’m sure would have been much funnier if I hadn’t seen it.)

But these were in a minority as well.

The demands of theatre are arduous, and despite good intentions, dedicated labor and inspired concept, we often fail or falter through our own faults or fate’s callous insensitivity.  This is when we should recall the words of Robert Ingersoll:

“…when men and women belong to a profession
that can count Shakespeare in its number,
they should feel nothing but pride.” ¹

And so I say to all my good friends, to all the stagehands, house managers, dancers, marketing directors, composers, ushers, wardrobe supervisors, directors, set designers, choreographers, carpenters, light board operators, set dressers, producers, sound designers, singers, dramaturges, dialogue coaches, box office agents, fight choreographers, company managers, janitors, make-up artists, musicians, spotlight operators, set builders, technical directors, videographers, dressers, prop masters, parking attendants, playwrights, actors, stage managers, wig makers, publicists, scene painters, critics and most importantly to all who make up our theater, let us join together in 2020 and do what we do best – make magic!

From all of us at theTVolution.com we hope 2020 brings you good fortune, good health and of course, great theatre.