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.



HIPSTER TIPS: TWO GREAT PRODUCTIONS WORTH CATCHING (BUT HURRY!)

THE PRIDE by Alexi Kaye Campbell at the Wallis Annenberg

Neal Bledsoe, Jessica Collins, Augustus Prew in the 1958 triangle. Photo Credit: Kevin Parry

In his review of the New York production, Ben Brantley called The Pride "sentimental," and he may not be wrong.  The play dramatizes two separate love triangles, 50 years apart.  In 1958,  Sylvia is a childless illustrator of children's books who introduces her dapper husband Philip to Oliver, the author of the book she's illustrating.  It soon becomes apparent that Philip and Oliver have far more passion between them than Philip and Sylvia ever have, but theirs is a love that dare not speak its name, and it is filled with anger, guilt and painful silences.  In 2008, two men named Oliver and Philip have just broken up because Oliver is "addicted to cock," as he puts it.  Sylvia is Oliver's best friend, searching for her own authentic self and a man she can have an authentic connection with.  There is so much self-hatred and misery in the 1958 triangle that love cannot possibly blossom; in 2008, however, there is the possibility of forgiveness and self-acceptance - and love and hope.  And that's where the sentimentality comes in -  it's much better to be "different" from some conformist societal norm in 2008 than it was fifty years before, and there is a certain amount of sentimentality in such a notion.  Yet there's more to this play than that - more emotional richness, more speculation on the human condition - and this is a smashing production.  The actors are excellent, especially Jessica Collins and Augustus Prew (as Oliver), who make some remarkable transitions between characters and time periods. And the direction and set design - both by Michael Arden - do everything possible to obscure the more schematic elements in the script (that "sentimentality" again) and stress instead the journey that these characters are on towards some uncertain but hopeful sense of fulfillment.   And Alexi Campbell is a very talented writer - the words flow beautifully and carry the audience along on its elegant rhythms.  It's a production and an experience to cherish.

 

LES BLANCS by Lorraine Hansberry at Rogue Machine

Desean Kevin Terry, Aric Floyd and Matt Orduna play three brothers caught up in an impossible dilemma. Photo by John Perrin Flynn

I'm actually going to start out with what would usually be my last sentence: This production has been extended until July 18, and, if you care about theater and what it means to live in the world, then see it! Go online and buy your ticket right now.  Why?  Because you will probably never get another chance to see this fascinating play from one of our great playwrights, Lorraine Hansberry, who died of cancer at age 34.  Hansberry's first play, Raisin in the Sun, is an American classic, deservedly beloved and frequently performed.   Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window,  is very much an examination of social conditions in the late 1960s and has value now more as a social document than as a work of theater.  Neither of her earlier plays give any indication of the ambition, scope and sheer theatricality that Les Blancs contains, as she depicts on a huge canvas - with 24 characters! - the unresolvable problems created by American and European colonialism in Africa.  It is the presence of such a large cast, and the fact that Hansberry died before finishing her epic, which cause the play to be so rarely produced.  Huge kudos to Rogue Machine Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn for having the determination and resourcefulness to give this truly important play its Los Angeles premiere.  Director Gregg T. Daniels does an admirable job in bringing this world of a white-run mission in the heart of Africa to vivid and theatrical life.  The set design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz is one of the best of the year - roughhewn slats of dark wood primitively lashed together  - truly capturing the essence of this place, so far removed from European civilization and regarded with such condescension by the white American liberal journalist, whose arrival in this village signals the beginning of the drama.  Jeff Gardner's sound design is also one of the year's best, bringing the surrounding jungle to auditory life.  A percussionist, Jalani Blunt, brilliantly plays Gardner's African compositions on a variety of instruments, and Shari Gardner's African dancing is haunting and inescapably vivid.  Yes, the play has scenes that go on too long and monologues that ramble; these are things that I'm sure Hansberry would have given better shape to had her life not been cruelly interrupted. But what's here is so rich and complex, it must be seen.  The fire that burns at the heart of this play - that burns a path of destruction through the lives of all these characters - is still very much with us today.  And I know of no other play that brings it to life as compellingly as Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs.  See it while you still can.