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."

 

 

 


BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITIES - Don't Count Out LA Theater!

BREAKING NEWS: The Sacred Fools production of MR BURNS: A Post-Electric Play has been extended to DEC. 9th!!!

New York City.  London.  Los Angeles.

All great cities, right?

Two of the three are known as great theater (or theatre) cities.  Which ones are they?

"Duh," you say.   London has the West End, New York has Broadway, LA has... the Ahmanson, the Geffen and a lot of 99 seat theaters that require street parking.

But hey, not so fast.  There's more to the story than that.

15 months ago, a play I c0-wrote was produced at a Fringe theatre in London.  It was exciting to have a play in London, but the truth is that 99-seat theatre there is not all that different from 99-seat theater here.  The big difference is how much theatre mattered there, how seriously people took the art form.  There were ads in the Underground for literary fiction and experimental plays!  No one in the tube looked at his or her phone; instead they read actual newspapers and books!  The run of our play was sold out, and audiences seemed to take the subject matter very much to heart.  I was delighted to find how both professional people (doctors, lawyers, academics) and regular folk (shopkeepers, salespeople) made going to theatre a part of their daily routine.  I found this to be true of the older generation in New York City too.  In Los Angeles, not so much.

On the other hand, the critical establishment in London seems to be a carry-over from the 19th century.  Literally.  The Irish playwright Conor McPherson has written a brilliant one-man play, St. Nicholas, in which a powerful theatre critic falls in with a group of vampires. I always took this as fiction, but maybe there's more to it, as there are SO MANY critics, and several write as if they still live down the street from Dickens and must protect the King's English from the incursions of the modern world.

An art supply store not far from Picadilly Square

The truth is, the British theatre is in terrible trouble because of the terrible British economy (Brexit, remember?).  I sincerely hope they find their way out of their present dilemma... and are able to whip up a new batch of critics.  Maybe some women for a change?  And some men with a modicum of humility and a sense of humor about what they do.  Regardless, the spirit of creativity lives on in London, and I look forward to having another play there someday soon.  But the idea that the British have some kind of superior knowledge of how to make theatre... no.  The one play I was able to afford to see there was LABYRINTH by Beth Steel at the Hampstead Theatre, a dark comedy-thriller depicting a Wall Street banking firm in the 1970s hoping to make a killing by buying up Latin-American debt.  The staging was dazzling, the energy was unflagging, and it worked well on the level of spectacle.  But it was difficult to care much about any of the bankers or the journalists who covered them, as both were equally corrupt.  I thought the playwright made a mistake in portraying some of the bankers as literal devils, seducing the innocents into their own cozy version of hell.  It made judging them all too easy.

The Company of Junk. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

In his play JUNK - which started at the La Jolla Playhouse and recently opened on the Lincoln Center mainstage in NYC - Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar was able to avoid allowing the audience to make any such easy or simplistic moral judgments as he moves the story forward a decade to the mid-1980s, dramatizing the rise and fall of Junk Bonds in the character of Robert Merkin (reportedly based on the trader Michael Milkin).  Merkin is young and brilliant and eager to elbow his way to the top of the investment world.  He has discovered how to do so using the weapon of "debt" instead of net worth.  The production, again, works best on the level of spectacle, as director Doug Hughes makes brilliant use of the huge theater space at the Vivian Beaumont.  But the people in this drama, while not reduced to stereotypes of good and evil, are still playing out a story that becomes more familiar and predictable as it goes along.  That is, it succeeds as a thesis about how the values of capitalism have been undercut by the manipulators of Debt to the point that money itself has lost its meaning, its purpose.  But it hasn't made this feel particularly interesting or original.  This is an important story, but I'd honestly rather read about it in a book.  While Akhtar certainly knows how to communicate the dramatic issues using the banker's lingo, I'm not sure he's telling us anything we haven't heard said more memorably in Caryl Churchill's Serious Money or in Jerry Sterner's Other People's Money.  

Scott Golden as "Homer"

While Los Angeles may not have the artistic heritage of London or the Wall Street-inspired sense of theater as big business that New York City can boast, it does provide an excellent environment for a company of actors to create the kind of instant sense of community that Off-Off-Broadway used to specialize in (for example, The Open Theater's production of Jean-Claude van Itallie's The Serpent) before it priced itself out of such experiences.  But witness the Sacred Fools production of Annie Washburn's brilliant, MR BURNS - A Post-Electric Play for a 2017 update of such an experience. Director Jaime Robledo starts out by putting us, the audience, in the center of a post-apocalyptic tragedy along with the actors, and his inventiveness never relents as he and his actors bring this key work of our time to vivid life.

Tracey A. Leigh and Emily Clark

This play originated at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington DC and then went to Playwrights Horizons in NYC, which is where I first saw it.  The play received an ecstatic review in the New York Times, so there was a great clamor for tickets.  But the Playwrights Horizons stage is a proscenium, which proved far from ideal.  Also, the play is written in three very distinct sections, which had to be presented there with two lengthy intermissions, so that set changes could be made.  I recall having an argument about the play with a well-known actress (who shall go unnamed) who was sitting next to me and couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.  "This is boring as crap," she kept murmuring.  She stayed through the first intermission but then headed for the hills (or Joe Allen's bar) at the second intermission.  Which was a true shame, since the last section is among the most remarkable writing I've seen from any play in the last decade.

Eric Curtis Johnson and Tracey A Leigh

One of the great things about the Sacred Fools production is that their theater has 3 separate spaces, and they are able to make use of a different one for each Act.  This is absolutely ideal for Ms Washburn's play, and I can honestly say that the Sacred Fools production was superior in every way to the one I saw in New York.  More than that, I understood the play this time in a way that I hadn't before.  That is, I saw how Ms. Washburn assembles the pieces of a broken civilization in Act I and gradually starts putting them back together again in what amounts to an heroic effort of mankind to recover our soul.  It documents a great triumph of the imagination.  Which is, quite simply, what this production is as well.  A triumph for Sacred Fools, for director Jaime Robledo, and for the pitch-perfect company of actors, as well as for the production team under the leadership of Brian W. Wallis, with assistance from Alison Sulock and many others.  It's unfair for me to single out any performances in what is truly a group effort, but I'm going to anyway.  Tracey A. Leigh as "Bart" and Eric Curtis Johnson as "Mr Burns" just kept topping themselves in the final section in ways that I didn't think possible.  All that I can say in return is "brava!" and "bravo!"  You completely blew my mind.

The production has just been EXTENDED to Dec. 9!  Hurray!  I cannot even begin to describe the pleasures that await you in (click here) this production.  And unlike all those bankers, I wouldn't give you a raw deal.  (And even if I did, tickets are only $15 - less than a movie!)