COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Susan Loewenberg "Sets the Stage for Learning" - LA Theatre Works and Educators


LA Theatre Works, a non-profit organization dedicated to the arts, says it all in their mission statement: “To record the most significant and important stage plays from the American and World canons and to make these recordings available worldwide.” LA Theatre Works invites the public to hear and see well-known actors perform classics by icons like Shakespeare and modern plays by playwrights like Lynn Nottage and then record the results.

Today, LA Theatre Works has the largest library of recorded plays in the world — over 500 audio productions, both free and for purchase, available to the public. In response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, they are offering 25 audio recordings of significant stage plays, each performed by leading actors of stage and screen and free to educators worldwide. LATW’s “Setting the Stage for Learning” initiative is designed to help teachers enhance distance learning during the crisis — as well as classroom learning when schools are again open.  In addition to the current initiative, LATW has remained busy in the community, offering weekly two-hour radio shows on public radio stations nationwide, worldwide streaming and through their podcasts. LATW also broadcasts their show daily in China, where they have over 15 million listeners a week, and they broadcast weekly on KCRW Berlin in Germany. All of these offerings can be accessed on their website. In the midst of this never-ending activity is producing director and CEO Susan Loewenberg, who kindly agreed to this interview in March 2020.


LA Theatre Works Digital Cover Art - Photo Courtesy of LA Theatre Works

What is LA Theatre Works, and how did it begin?

Susan Loewenberg: Originally, six theater artists and I started the organization. Eventually I agreed to head it up. It was around 1972 when a group of artists, actors, and playwrights associated with the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles began to do workshops in Federal, State, and County prisons. We called ourselves Artists in Prison. We created plays with inmates, and the general public was allowed inside to watch our productions. At one point, we even arranged for a group of furloughed inmates to perform live at the John Anson Ford Theater.

It was 1977 or 1978 when the group received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and we changed our name to LA Theatre Works. By 1980, we had begun to produce professional theater, including several award-winning world premieres. In 1985, a group of well-known actors, including John Lithgow, Marsha Mason, Amy Irving, Hector Elizondo, Ed Asner, Helen Hunt, Julie Harris, and Richard Dreyfuss, approached LATW to become their producers. We agreed, and our first project was to record Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt for radio station KCRW. It took 18 months to record the book; all 34 actors in the company participated. The recording was 14-and-a-half hours long and was released on Thanksgiving Day in 1986. It was a huge success and got great reviews. We had to follow up on that success.

Jane Kaczmarek and Nicholas Hormann in "Spill" - Photo by Nick Toren

How do you arrive at the final recording from start to finish? How do you pick your casts?

SL: Depending on how difficult the play is, we either perform in front of a live audience; or, for the more difficult plays, we record in a studio. For the live performances, we record four or five times in front of audiences, using state of the art technology. There are actors with microphones and live sound effects. I take notes on every performance. The first time, I watch the actors. But after that, I never look at them again. I focus on listening. I put on my headset and take notes, then decide which performance is better for each section of the play. For example, perhaps the first scene was better on Saturday, but the second scene was better on Sunday. We have people in continuity who make sure that every word is correct; everybody makes notes, and the editor looks at all the notes. We edit three times. It takes two to three months from performance to the finished product.

In order to cast our plays, we have a group of both high profile and excellent working actors who love to record with us and who find the work to be challenging and a wonderful way to experience great dramatic literature and exercise their professional muscles at the same time. Think of it as akin to working out in the gym! We give them the opportunity to do that, and they feel it’s invaluable.

Gregory Harrison, Diane Adair, John Heard, and John Getz in "Top Secret" - Photo by Derek Hutchison

What are the advantages of your recordings over live staged theater or audio books?

SL:  Instead of using several senses, like you do in live theater, you’re just listening. That fires up your imagination. You begin to visualize… it’s really very stimulating. With audio books, you usually have only one person telling the story; with LA Theatre Works, there is a whole cast interpreting the story. It’s a doubly rich experience — the recordings stimulate concentration and imagination. It’s more fulfilling to listen when you want to learn, and it’s a better teaching tool than a film would be. The teachers who use our recordings say that the students learn better. One student said that listening to Romeo and Juliet instead of reading it helped him to understand the play for the first time. The head of the Division of Instruction at LAUSD recently remarked about how useful we are in assisting students during the pandemic.

Gregory Harrison and Richard Kind in "An Enemy of the People" - Photo by Joshua Arvizo

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted LA Theatre Works?

SL: It’s had a big impact. Every year, we take a play and tour it around the US to 30-40 performing arts centers. We enhance the production values for touring audiences. Everybody is in costume, we don’t use scripts, there is lighting and movement. This year, we were in the middle of a tour of Seven. It’s about seven women from seven countries whose actions impacted women and human rights in extraordinary ways. We did a fabulous performance in Palm Beach on March 7, which I had flown in to see; then they flew to Minnesota to do five performances, but they only got through two when it, and the rest of the tour, was cancelled. We had 11 more performances to go. It’s sad, because it was a great show and we lost all the fees from those bookings — a big blow. We also had to cancel our NTLive film screenings and our next live in performance show at UCLA for the month of April, and we are waiting to see what we may have to cancel after that. We are trying to get new dates.

But we’re a little more fortunate than most because we still have audio sales and the radio show. We can weather the closures and cancellations. Hopefully, we’ll get aid for the losses on the tour, and maybe we and other nonprofit arts organizations will be eligible for additional governmental and private support.

Larry Powell and Aja Naomi King in "The Mountaintop" - Photo by Matt Petit

Do you have any final thoughts or information that you want your audiences to know?

SL: Absolutely. We always have the play recordings available for purchase. We also have another group of plays available for free online listening. They’re on scientific themes, and they’re called The Relativity Series — titles like The Great Monkey Trial about the Scopes trial with the great speeches of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. We just recorded Behind the Sheet. It’s based on a true story about a doctor in the 19th century who performed experimental gynecological operations on slave women. It was good research, but they didn’t use anesthesia and the women suffered terribly. We have others about autism, DNA, and ethics. And we just put up a free listen to the late Terrence McNally’s Lips Together Teeth Apart starring Kristen Johnston and Steven Weber.

Again, the general public can log onto our website and find a host of wonderful free and for sale recordings — a great way to help get through this trying time.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



TO ACCUSE OR NOT TO ACCUSE? Some Things to Think About. And Some Names. Part 1

Accusations of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct are all the rage right now, with new revelations coming at us faster than we're able to absorb and consider them.

But why now?  And what does it all really mean?  And what are we supposed to think - or do - about it?

I mean, all these offenders, and then all the confessions/accusations of The Me-Too posters - where is this taking us?

King of the Douchebags

On the one hand, of course, are the hardcore predators and repeat offenders - Bill Cosby, Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey.  (Many would like to add Donald Trump's name to that list; I'll discuss that later on.) These are men who clearly took advantage of their positions to violate the rights of the less powerful by using them sexually and abusing their individual rights, perhaps in ways that constitute serious crimes.  There's no doubt that the downfall of these men is a positive thing, both for the inviduals involved and for society in general.  They represent the most noxious element of celebrity culture, the way certain men have been able to insulate themselves with their power from taking responsibility for their actions.  The rumors about all these men abounded for years, but still they paid no price.  Now they finally have.  I certainly welcome more disclosures of this type that would rid politics, the entertainment industry and every other aspect of American life of these vultures who prey on the vulnerability of others.

Brett Ratner and James Toback hanging out

James Toback and Brett Ratner?  Sure, that's probably right.  Toback is a 300 pound filmmaker/douchebag whose manipulations stink of old school misogyny.  I remember hearing all the stories of him hanging out in supermarkets on New York's upper West Side, waving his scripts around in the air and promising roles to any lady who would blow him; very classy, dude.  How could any woman resist that?  Alec Baldwin has been his recent enabler, for reasons I don't pretend to understand.  Brett Ratner is also out of step with the times and, it seems, fatally drawn to that misogynistic storyline.  But I believe he has genuine talent and still has real passion for moviemaking.  I found him engaging when I saw him speak at a festival.  Maybe it was all bullshit, who knows, but I wouldn't count him out yet.

Agent Adam Venit of WME, as accused by actor Terry Crews?  Absolutely.  I think this is really important, because it spotlights something that happens so much, 85% of the time to young women, the rest to young men - it happened frequently to me when I was a young actor, something I will talk about in Part 2 - but almost never to a 6'3" 240 pound black man like Terry Crews.  The fact that it did this time - and the fact that Adam Venit is certainly one of the stupidest people on earth, because he put his hands on a man who played pro football and who could have literally done to Venit what Venit was already figuratively doing - that is, put Venit's head up his ass - well, thank God this is something that is finally being talked about!  We've all seen it happen, at pretty much every big party we've been to where drinks are being served.  As the party goes on, men's hands slip down from touching the shoulder, then the middle of the back, then the small of the back, and then the butt.  Almost always accompanied by that shit-eating smile, in which the man is saying, there's more where that came from.  Except the young person being touched never asked for it, was never interested, and now the party is ruined for them as they're filled with confusion and trepidation about how to react and what to say.  Well, Terry Crews is standing up for all of you, and I applaud him with all my heart for doing so.  If only we could clone him and have him stand guard at these parties, then maybe these young people - our daughters and sons - could enjoy themselves without constantly being molested.

Louis CK?  See, here's where we start entering a gray area for me.  Here's a comedian whose act is comprised in large part of a catalogue of his darkly-comic misdeeds and angst.  So a comedian who jokes in the bluntest ways possible about masturbation - his constant need to do it, and the great pleasure  he derives from it - is outed by female comics for having masturbated in front of them.  This is bad, it's wrong, not just the act but his evasiveness over the years about whether it happened, and his lack of empathy for the women upon whom he inflicted this violation.  But it's just not surprising.  I can understand and even share the anger that these women felt in this famous comedian forcing them to watch him pleasure himself - he was indeed taking advantage of his fame to do something that these women in no way asked for or wanted to see.  But he didn't touch them or continue to try humiliating them after that.  So personally I believe he deserves censure, but I don't understand why his career has to be over.  Why he's so toxic that he can't be given another chance at some point.  He's not a friend, and he's not my favorite comic, but I think there's more to him than just his fucked-up behavior.  Witness the Sarah Baker-starring episode in Louie about the Fat Girl comic who kept asking Louie out.  And a really impressive body of work, most of which works against putting himself on any celebrity pedestal.  If anything, he comes across in his work as pathetic.  Which is a pretty accurate description of anyone who would compel women who are his friends to watch him jerk off.

Then we have been given this really bizarre political tandem of Roy Moore and Al Franken - two men who couldn't be more different than each other, who literally have nothing in common except that suddenly the latter man becomes the name shouted out when the former is accused.  But this is simply a "false equivalency," as both Bill Maher and Alan Blumenfeld (my friend and unofficial rabbi) have called it.  What after all did Franken do?  While he was on a USO tour as a comedian, not a senator, he had a silly photo taken of himself about to grope his fellow USO traveler, model Leeann Tweeden. The optics may not be great, but it's just the kind of juvenile thing that performers do to while away the long and tedious hours of travel between stops.  Her claims that the photo and an overly-aggressive kiss that Franken gave her in rehearsal have been haunting her for the last 10 years are hard to take on face value, since Leeann Tweeden has put herself in many other situations that would seem more likely to haunt her.  By which I mean all the nude and semi-nude modeling that she did, and all the other ways she chose to make a living from her body.  Now I'm not trying to shame how she made her money, and I understand that she feels like she had control over those situations, while an aggressive kiss during a rehearsal of a written sketch comedy scene is just soooo horrifying.

A Democratic Congresswoman holds up a photo of 4 of Moore's accusers

But even at the worst possible interpretation, it still doesn't compare in any way with dating girls under 17 when you are a 30-something District Attorney in a small town in Alabama.  It just doesn't, no way, no how.  (The idea that any senator should even consider resigning for such an inconsequential reason is deeply offensive.)  Al Franken had no power over Leeann Tweeden, obviously, she certainly had no reason to be in awe of him, nor could he have done anything for her career.  According to the women who have come forward, Roy Moore used his stature as a district attorney to "dazzle" them when they were young girls, then used it to intimidate them into silence after their encounter.   Still and all, if Moore had simply apologized for his misdeeds of 35 years ago, saying that he made mistakes as a young man, then I'm not sure these acts would have all that much relevance.  The fact that he keeps doubling down in his denials makes it evident that he is unqualified to run for high office.  While Al Franken's sincere contrition shows the opposite.

There have been many strange allegations and finger-pointing, but I think the strangest have to be events surrounding the actor Richard Dreyfuss, star of such '70s classic films as Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  First Dreyfuss sends out a proud tweet, standing behind his son Harry's claim that Kevin Spacey traumatized him by groping his genitals - and, basically, daring him to tell anyone, which at first Harry didn't have the nerve to do.  And then, the very next day, Richard Dreyfuss himself was accused of sexual abuse by Jessica Teich, a writer he had worked with 30 years earlier.  Honestly, both accusations sound highly credible, which sort of sums up how complicated this web of conflicting stories and revolving truths has become.   Dreyfuss's immediate response was to say, "At the height of my fame in the late 1970s, I became an asshole," but he refused to admit that her specific charges were true.  Nevertheless, Dreyfuss contributed what may be the best characterization of our current phase.

"There is a sea-change happening right now, which we can look upon as a problem or an opportunity... I hope this is the beginning of a larger conversation we can have as a culture."