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.



The Winners at the 50th Annual 'LA Drama Critics Circle' Awards Ceremony Held at the Pasadena Playhouse

The 50th Annual LA Drama Critics Circle Awards at the Pasadena Playhouse, Monday, April 8, 2019. (Photo by Better Lemons)

The LA Drama Critics Circle (LADCC) held their 50th Annual Awards ceremony at the landmark Pasadena Playhouse where Better Lemons was in attendance to live tweet the evening's festivities and entertainment, Monday, April 8, 2019.

Wenzel Jones presided over the festivities, and Christopher Raymond served as music director with musical performances by Kristin Towers Rowles, Constance Jewell Lopez, and Zachary Ford.

There were four recipients of the 2018 Production award: Cambodian Rock Band (South Coast Repertory), Come From Away (Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre), Cry It Out (Echo Theater Company), and Sell/Buy/Date (Geffen Playhouse / Los Angeles LGBT Center).

Better Lemons' Chief Operating Officer Stephen Box (Left,) Publisher Enci Box, and Playwright & Screenwriter Steven Vlasak at the 50th Annual LA Drama Critics Circle Awards at the Pasadena Playhouse, Monday, April 8, 2019.

The Antaeus Theatre Company received the most awards, with three of its productions winning a combined seven trophies. Celebration Theatre's Cabaret took home six awards, the most awards for a single production, including one for Revival. Tom Hanks received a lead actor award for his performance as Falstaff in The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles production of Henry IV in a competitive category. 17 awards were presented in other categories with 17 productions taking home the honors.

In its inaugural this year, the Theater Angel award was presented to Yvonne Bell in recognition of her "long career devoted to fostering theater in Los Angeles ... [and] successful fundraising campaigns" to help open several cultural institutions, such as The Museum of Contemporary Art and the California Science Center.

Eight previously announced special awards were presented, including the Margaret Harford Award for sustained excellence in theater to Sacred Fools Theater Company and the Ted Schmitt Award for the world premiere of an outstanding new play to Lauren Yee for Cambodian Rock Band.

The LADCC was established in 1969  “to foster and reward merit in the American Theater and encourage theater in Los Angeles,” the LADCC site quotes from an announcement in the L.A. Times of that year.

Here is the list of award recipients as announced during Better Lemons' live coverage on Twitter:

Featured photo by Enci Box - Theatre patrons in the courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse for the 50th Annual LA Drama Critics Circle Awards, Pasadena, California, Monday, April 8, 2019. Enci Box contributed to this story and photos.


THE PLAYWRIGHT AS HERO - Shepard, Kushner, Stephens and Yee

I am going to talk about the National Theatre Live screening of Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA with Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield, and two new plays at CTG theaters, HEISENBERG and KING OF THE YEES.   But, to be completely honest, I'm having trouble moving on from the death of Sam Shepard.  Silly, I know.   I mean, I already wrote about my one extended encounter with him, so what more is there to say? Sam had a great run - 44 plays written, all the honors in the world (10 OBIE awards!), 68 film and TV roles, 27 screenplay credits, 32 credits for "himself" - that is, for playing Sam Shepard.  Remarkable.

when he arrived in NYC at 21

Of course, to be honest, Sam hadn't written anything great since A LIE OF THE MIND and PARIS, TEXAS, both in 1984-85.  His 20 years of amazing creativity began in 1964 with Cowboy and The Rock Garden, and it included such gems (which you should definitely check out, if you don't know them) as The Geography of a Horse Dreamer, The Unseen Hand, and Seduced - his odd but ingenious play about Howard Hughes, whose effectiveness depends on who's playing Hughes.  I was lucky enough to see Rip Torn, and I'll never forget it.

The thing with Sam is, he never sold out.  Some of his acting roles aren't great - his dad afflicted with periodic spells of blindess in 1994's Safe Passage is definitely not going in the time capsule - but even there, he never embarrassed himself, and he rarely if ever seemed to do anything just for the money.

in 1983, when he had the world by the short hairs

He was flat-out great as both Chuck Yeagar in The Right Stuff and as Major-General "Bill" Garrison in Black Hawk Down.  He was the best thing in the film of August Osage County, though his role should have been larger.  But if you really want to see a mind-blowing performance, check out Sam in 2012's Mud as a fat, balding retired U.S. military sniper.  It's not just that he's unrecognizable, but his character is very real, and so different from anything else he's ever done.

It's hard to be as gifted as Sam was, and to become as famous as Sam did, and still hold on to your honor, your humility and your soul.  So here's to Sam: you put up a battle with your demons that we can all be proud of.  Sleep well, my friend.

In my 2004 theater memoir, Best Revenge,  I wrote, "As tremendous as Tony Kushner's achievement was [in Angels in America], its "universality" may have been largely a product of being in the right place at the right time.  It will endure as dramatic literature, not drama."  Wrong.  So wrong.  After viewing the eight hours of Angels on successive Thursdays in the National Theatre Live production, I can only say "Wow. What a writer.  And what an epic!  How universal!"  It really is one of the great American plays, which does things and goes places that no other writer has done or gone.  It has the largeness of spirit of Walt Whitman (the main character is "Prior Walter") with the analytic genius of George Orwell and the sheer theatricality of Brecht at his greatest and, well, Tony Kushner at his greatest too.  What a vision!  This production is directed by Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) and features Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter, Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, Denise Gough as Harper Pitt, Russell Tovey as Joseph Pitt, Susan Brown as Hannah Pitt, James McArdle as Louis, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize and Amanda Lawrence as the Angel.  All excellent actors, worthy of mention.  The major curiosity, of course, surrounds the two best-known actors, Garfield and Lane.  How were they?

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter. Photo by Helen Maybanks

Now I saw both the original Broadway cast  and their replacement cast, as well as the Mike Nichols film, so I have some basis of comparison.  Andrew Garfield is very good, but I'll still take Stephen Spinella, who originated Prior Walter on Broadway.  Garfield has more charisma and style than Spinella, but Spinella had more gravitas, a more matter-of-fact sense of hurt.  Spinella anchored the show in the reality of his gayness, the richness of his emotional pain.  Garfield just doesn't have that.  As for Nathan Lane -- sorry, but no.  He's a great actor, one of our greatest, but he's not right for this role; in fact he couldn't be more wrong.  Physically, he suggests J. Edgar Hoover, not Cohn.  Lane's great gift is to humanize his characters, to show us the clown crying on the inside, and that doesn't work here.  Giving Roy Cohn a soul - wrong!  That's not how Kushner wrote him.  Ron Liebman was the greatest Cohn I've seen, seething with rage at the injustice of his fate.  But Pacino was also great.  Neither of them gave Roy Cohn the gooey center that Nathan Lane does, and it simply doesn't work.  For me, this production was stolen by McArdle and Tovey, who are both endlessly fascinating as Louis the temp and as Joe Pitt, the Mormon lawyer he works for.  Both are much better than the other actors I've seen take on those roles.   Stewart-Jarrett comes alive in Perestroika, the second half of the show, but he can't hold a candle to Jeffrey Wright in the original Broadway cast.  (I doubt anyone ever will.)  Gough is fine as Harper, the pill-popping wife of the gay lawyer, but both Marcia Gay Harden on Broadway and Mary Louise Parker in the Nichols' film were better.  I loved Susan Brown's work as Hannah, the gay lawyer's mother, she's gruff at first, but then reveals her inner sexiness in a way I don't recall seeing before.  Still, better than Meryl Streep or Kathleen Chalfant?  Not really possible.  On the whole, the production didn't shake up the world the way that Wolfe's did.  But the real star is and always will be Kushner, who has written an American masterpiece about the way we dream.  My only caveate - and I have to say it - is that ending, in which Prior Walter becomes Tony Kushner and "blesses" the audience as "fabulous."  Sorry but that feels patronizing.  Just stay inside your character, Tony, and let him speak for himself.  No need to pat yourself on the back when everyone else already wants to.  That said, go and see an encore showing of this video version - essential viewing for anyone with a brain.

KING OF THE YEES by Lauren Yee, Directed by Joshua Kahan Brody

Lauren Yee's play The King of the Yees is about Lauren Yee and her family's 150 year old trade association, to which only male Yees can be admitted.  This is actually a great idea for a play, with a great central  metaphor: the red double doors to the family association, doors which Lauren as a female has never been able to open.  And I'm convinced that there's a very good - even possibly great - 90 minute play hidden in the 125 minutes of the current version about how Lauren finally gains admission to the secret history of her ancestors.  If I was a dramaturg - a position I held for 5 years at an Off-Broadway theater - and I was assigned to this play, I would say: I know that this play is based on your life and that many events related here actually happened, but that doesn't mean that they necessarily belong in your play.  Because right now the First Act is 10-15 minutes of good theater and 30 minutes of pseudo-theater, in which you're playing silly games and stalling for time, so you can slip in two minutes of a cliffhanger before intermission.  A third of your audience left, and I would have too if I wasn't contracted to stay.   Then you have 40 good minutes in your Second Act and another 15 minutes of bullshit.  Let's find a way to take this apart and put it back together into 90 strong minutes.  As Scott Carter (Bill Maher's producer) once told me, "If you do five minutes of standup, and there are two good and three bad minutes, the audience is not going to love you for the two good minutes; they're gonna hate you for wasting their time with the three bad minutes."

HEISENBERG by Simon Stephens, directed by Mark Brokaw

Mary Louise Parker and Dennis Arndt

This is an enigmatic little play which belongs in a small theater not as large a space as the Mark Taper.  The Taper seems to realize this, and they seat audience on both sides of a skinny slice of stage space, trying to create as intimate a playing area as they can.  Personally I was sitting in the 5th row, and the magic didn't quite touch  me.  (A friend of mine told me she sat in the third row, and she was swept away, so maybe that's the key.) I admired the eccentricity of Mary Louise Parker's performance as a 40 year old woman who begins the play by kissing the back of the neck of a 77 year old stranger in a bus station, an event that in real life might instigate many things, but significant dialogue is not one of them.  I was deeply aware throughout of the unlikelihood of this scenario, this sequence of events, though that seemed to be what the playwright, Simon Stephens (The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime, Punk Rock), is going for.  "How far can I push these highly unlikely events?  How long can I sustain this highly ridiculous premise?"  The actors, Mary Louise Parker and Dennis Arndt, are both deeply focused and committed, though I kept wondering why Parker didn't have a British accent?  In the play she speaks again and again about how she comes from Islington in London, but Parker makes no attempt to change the speaking voice that we are so accustomed to from Weeds and so many other shows; and Arndt's character never mentions this, so I simply don't get it.  Nevertheless, there is something engaging, even moving, in the way that Stephens stretches out his slight and unlikely premise into a full-length play.  The play after all is titled Heisenberg, the scientist who is known for giving us The Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Physics.  Simon Stephens captures here both the uncertainty of the human condition and the uncertainty of ever really connecting with another human being.  It's only around until August 6th, so go this weekend if you can.  Just sit in the first 3 rows, okay?