Reflections on COVID-19 and the Theater – An Interview with Stephen Sachs

Stephen Sachs - Photo by Jenny Graham

An award-winning playwright, director, and producer, Stephen Sachs has been instrumental in turning the Fountain Theatre, which he co-founded in 1990, into a powerhouse venue for all that is best in the theater world. The home of multiple award-winning plays, Fountain Theatre has proudly presented the world premieres of Athol Fugard’s “Exits and Entrances,” and Stephen Sachs’ “Bakersfield Mist” and ”Arrival and Departure,” as well as Los Angeles premieres by Pulitzer Prize winners Martyna Majok and Stephen Adly Guirgis. Sachs was recently honored with a Certificate of Commendation from Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council for “his visionary contributions to the culture life of Los Angeles.” During an interview in April 2020, Stephen took a moment to reflect on the effect of COVID-19 on theater life as we know it.

Montae Russell, Victor Anthony, and Marisol Miranda in BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY – Photo by Jenny Graham

WHEN DID THE FOUNTAIN THEATRE FIRST BEGIN PERFORMANCES? WERE YOU INVOLVED FROM THE BEGINNING? WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MOST POPULAR PLAYS YOU’VE DONE? HOW ABOUT AWARDS? 

STEPHEN SACHS:  The Fountain Theatre was founded by myself and Deborah Lawlor in 1990 and is currently celebrating 30 years as one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles. The Fountain provides a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won hundreds of awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and worldwide. Recent highlights include celebrity readings of “Ms. Smith Goes to Washington” and “All the President’s Men” at Los Angeles City Hall. Our West Coast premiere of Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Cost of Living” was placed on the Los Angeles Times’ “Best of 2018” list. The Southern California premiere of “Daniel’s Husband” and our Los Angeles premiere of “Between Riverside and Crazy” were each named to multiple “Best of 2019” lists. The Fountain Theatre recently swept the 2019 Ovation Awards, winning Best Season and Best Production of a Play. Last month, the Fountain was honored by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle with the Margaret Harford Award for sustained excellence in theatre.

Deanne Bray and Brian Robert Burns in ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE – Photo by Ed Krieger

WHEN DID YOU CLOSE THE THEATER DUE TO COVID-19? WERE YOU IN THE MIDDLE OF A RUN?

SS:  We had to suspend our acclaimed world premiere of “Human Interest Story” and close our theatre on March 13 due to COVID-19.

Katy Sullivan and Felix Solis in COST OF LIVING – Photo by Geoffrey Wade

HOW HAS COVID-19 IMPACTED ON YOUR THEATER?

 SS: COVID-19 has crippled the Fountain Theatre, but we will survive. Like every other theatre in Los Angeles and the nation, we were forced to suspend a production in mid-run and close our doors. That means zero earned income. For months. It’s a financial hardship for our organization. It’s also emotionally devastating for everyone in our Fountain family. None of us are doing this for money. We do it for love. And when what you love most is taken from you, it’s painful. It hurts.

Aleisha Force, Rob Nagle, and Tanya Alexander in HUMAN INTEREST STORY – Photo by Jenny Graham

ARE YOU DOING ANYTHING RIGHT NOW TO KEEP YOUR LIVE THEATER GOING? STREAMING? HAVING VIRTUAL MEETINGS? PLANNING FOR YOUR NEXT SHOW WHEN YOU RE-OPEN?

SS: The Fountain Theatre very much wants to launch into live streaming. But we use union actors, and Actors Equity Association has still not provided the 99-Seat community with guidelines to use AEA actors for streaming. AEA has approved it in Equity theaters across the country but has yet, as of this date, failed to act on behalf of intimate theaters in Los Angeles. Every day that goes by with our theaters sitting dark – and the option of streaming online being withheld – adds to our financial hardship. In the meantime, we are continuing with Zoom meetings and online community gatherings.

WHAT DO YOU THINK THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 WILL BE ON LIVE THEATER IN GENERAL IN LOS ANGELES? DO YOU FORESEE ANY PERMANENT CHANGES?

 SS: COVID-19 is like a wildfire that has burned through the landscape of the LA Theatre community. When this fire is eventually put out – whenever that is – the terrain will grow back, but it will never be the same. Even when we reopen, there is no “normal” to return to, there is no going back. Some theaters will not survive being closed for so long. The ones that do will find themselves in a landscape they will not recognize.

Sam Mandel, Dor Gvirtsman, and Steven B. Green in THE CHOSEN – Photo by Ed Krieger

WHAT DO YOU NEED RIGHT NOW TO KEEP GOING FORWARD? WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE FROM THE THEATER PUBLIC?

SS: All of us in the LA Theatre community require two kinds of need: financial support and loyalty. Every theatre in Los Angeles now has zero box office income. Nothing is coming in. We need financial support from government agencies, from foundations, from donors, and from the public to help get us through this terrible time. And we need loyalty. When we reopen our doors – and we will – we need our audiences to come back, to ignite our rebirth. When this crisis is over, it will take time for all of us to get back on our feet again. If we truly are a community, the community needs to show up, to reassemble in strength, so that we all can march forward.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FUTURE PLANS?

SS: Once we get the greenlight to reopen our doors, our plan is to resume the run for “Human Interest Story” for 4-6 weeks. We will follow it with the LA premiere of “If I Forget” by Steven Levenson. We will return with the passion we hope to share with our audiences.

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