Almost a decade ago, I met Tom Jacobson during my transition from undergrad studies at Princeton back to Los Angeles theatre life. A few alumni contacts recommended I involve myself with Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA because it was one of Los Angeles' premier theatre for new play development. Tom was active in the company's artistic directorship and took me under his wing.
What I remember most about my mentorship with Tom Jacobson was his staunch belief in outlining before writing. Because of his adherence to this rigorous prep work, Tom's plays remain immensely well-researched, planned and cared for, structured, and richly detailed.
Tom Jacobson's newest creative endeavor is The Ballad of the Bimini Baths, a trilogy on the now-forgotten but once (in)famous Bimini Baths, a hot springs resort that only the City of Angels could produce. Tom's trilogy boasts an unprecedented exploration of almost 50 years of Los Angeles' history through the lens of the Baths. Each of the works in The Ballad of the Bimini Baths will be produced by a different LA intimate theatre: Son of Semele's production of Plunge will run until June 17; Rogue Machine's presentation of Mexican Day runs through July 1; and Playwright's Arena's premiere of Tar opens June 9 and runs through July 2.
Recently, as Tom prepared to take LA theatregoers to the Baths, I checked in with him to find out about this exciting project.
Roger Q. Mason (RQM): You are writing a trilogy on a forgotten place in LA. I'm already in love with the prospect of these works. What drew you to the subject matter?
Tom Jacobson (TJ): Bimini Baths was located a block from my house. It's in an unnamed neighborhood at the edge of Koreatown, Historic Filipino Town, Silver Lake, and Wilshire Center/Westlake. A lost stream called Sacatella Creek used to run through it to a swamp called Bimini Slough. There were two movie studios and a restaurant on the top floor of the American Storage Building called Thirteenth Heaven where the waiters wore angel wings (until they were shut down for liquor violations during Prohibition). Lots of drama happened in these few blocks, including fires (Palomar Ballroom in 1939, civil unrest in 1992), floods (Sacatella Creek overflowed as far southwest as Mariposa and 6th) and several drownings in Bimini Baths. A lot of the conflict in the area grew out of racial bias, and these stories of the past are still relevant today. Plus, I'd like the neighborhood to get a name: Bimini Basin.
RQM: Which piece came first? Why did you start there?
TJ: I workshopped one play with Son of Semele Ensemble for several years, trying to create a site-specific work that encompassed 100 years of stories. That proved to be too much for one play, so I broke it into three plays, starting with Plunge, set in 1918. I outlined all three plays to tell one novelistic story, and then started at the beginning with the original sin that overshadowed the next 30 years.
RQM: Now, three of LA's finest companies are working with you to present the trilogy. Wow! What a feat! How did this production arrangement come about?
TJ: I had relationships with all three companies (Captain of the Bible Quiz Team in 2016 at Rogue Machine, The Orange Grove in 2004 at Playwrights Arena, plus the workshops with SOSE), and John Flynn, Jon Lawrence Rivera and Matt McCray all liked the idea of collaborating on a theatrical event related to the history of our city. They've done a terrific job of linking actors (some characters appear in more than one play), sets, costumes, sound, lighting over the 30 year span of the story. It was wonderful to see the directors exchanging ideas about how to link their productions.
RQM: The trilogy traverses a critical time period in LA's history: 1918 to 1948. The two Great Wars, the rise of Hollywood, the Roaring 20s, the Great Migration, the television age, our first freeways - just to name a few milestones. In your research, what major cultural shifts caught your eye during this time frame?
TJ: Plunge begins with the founding of Otis Art Institute, a proud civic moment as Los Angeles was just starting to envision itself as a city focused on the future. As Los Angeles boomed during the early Hollywood years and as a center of production during World War Two, civil rights became more of a focus nationally and in our city. Race figures prominently in all three plays, andMexican Day chronicles an early (and mostly unknown) civic rights victory.
RQM: Ultimately, one of the things I adore about this project is that it is an investigation of Los Angeles history written by a Los Angeles playwright which will premiere before a Los Angeles audience. You have always believed in the power and dignity of developing dramatic work in this town. Why should writers continue to make theatre in LA?
TJ: There are so many unexplored stories in our vast city. Any writer can find Los
Angeles tales that touch their hearts, probe their questions and bring to life issues about which they are passionate. We're so much more interesting than the cliches of beaches, Hollywood and plastic surgery. Together we can rediscover our landscape and remind ourselves of what we have in common as well as what tears us apart (which is drama). We can shape our public image in the stories we tell. Los Angeles is really coming into its own, a true city of the future, emblematic of our country's future, and that should be celebrated on stage.