A fully realized stage production of a new play in one of L.A.’s small to mid-sized venues is indeed a formidable task. Those who succeed at doing it have most likely navigated well through the elusive necessities of finding an audience friendly space, capturing media attention, discovering great talent, and most importantly, funding.
Paula Holt and Nathan Birnbaum founded Los Angeles New Play Project (LANPP) in order to support the hugely creative world of playwriting and producing in smaller Los Angeles venues. The goal is to help stabilize the new productions that originate here, works that they hope will also resonate beyond our city limits. The project is administered in partnership with the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, the UCLA Foundation, and is funded by a generous benefactor who has asked to remain anonymous.
In a recent interview, Paula Holt was kind enough to give us some insight a wonderful new opportunity for theatre artists in Los Angeles:
Ester: When did your interest in theatre begin, and why do you think that the industry is sustainable in a city known for TV and film?
Paula: My interest in theater, that is, in legitimate plays beyond the musicals I was treated to as a child at Pasadena Playhouse, was formed during my last years at Sarah Lawrence College. We would buy standing room tickets for the back of a Broadway house and see the best theater in the country for less than cab fare. My interest in LA theater began when I attended a reception for the Cultural Minister of France. In a speech at Cal Arts, he declared that Los Angeles would be the Capital of the 21st Century when it came to the arts. I felt as though he were speaking directly to me, so when the opportunity came to acquire a building on Sunset Blvd. which housed an old movie house, I decided to create a space to present live theater. In 1987 the Tiffany Theaters opened their doors. The twenty years of producing and presenting plays in this television and film centered town convinced me that the hunger for live theater, for well-crafted live storytelling, was alive and well and deserved the attention and support to help keep it alive. It is, of course, because Los Angeles is the city where film and television are made that we have such a pool of real talent. Many of those artist’s retain their love of working in the smaller theater spaces in LA. Some years ago, the late and so missed Stephen Sondheim came to Los Angeles to accept an award from Los Angeles Stage Alliance. He talked of the good fortune of working in LA theaters where theatrical work is more often in pursuit of art, not business.
Ester: How did this new grant for Los Angeles playwrights and their mid-size producing theatres come about?
Paula: After the Tiffany Theaters closed, I spent some ‘back of house’ time in several local theaters, like Antaeus and Rogue Machine. At USC’s School of Theater, I taught Theater Producing for seven semesters and I sat on their Board of Councilors. These board positions in the not-for-profit world of small theaters just brought home to me the enormity of talent, of ideas, and the paucity of funding—nothing changes. When I was introduced to an individual who was settling a large estate, I was urged to submit a grant proposal. I worked for months to draft a proposal that I thought might put a bit of a floor under the best work being developed here, and along with my colleague Nathan Birnbaum, we came up with the proposal that became Los Angeles New Play Project (LANPP). We were given a generous grant and we launched in 2021, accepting 50 submissions of producer/playwright collaborations in the Spring.
We empaneled our five-person jury to evaluate the submissions. All jurors selected and agreed that three finalists, script plus production vision proposals, were the most outstanding offerings. The field was quite rich, the jurors were experienced dramaturgs and literary managers with serious resumes and real attention to the work. I only regret we could not have so honored the other 47!
Ester: How were the new plays and producing venues vetted during the process of choosing grant recipients?
Paula: ‘Vetting’ might be the wrong word. If you check our website (LANPP.org), you will see clearly enunciated guide lines, and our job was to be sure that these requirements were met by all applicants. We required that the submitting producer explain their vision for the production but did not require that they have a particular history or body of work. It was our intention to include experimental work, and work that was being produced by new and untried entities. It is their job, however, to be in rehearsal on the project at a Los Angeles venue within 18 months of receiving the writing prize, or the second $20,000 is forfeited.
Ester: Who are the recipients?
Paula: Three wonderfully rich and provocative plays, all created by Los Angeles writers: Ammunition Theatre Company’s “Revenge Porn,” written by Carla Chang; Boston Court of Pasadena’s “Both And…A Play About Laughing While Black,” written by Carolyn Ratteray; and Watts Village Theater Company’s “The Hands that Could,” written by Josh Wilder.
Ester: In what way do you think that the LANPP grants will impact local theatre?
Paula: I am hoping that the Los Angeles theater community will feel an extra layer of potential support for creating and presenting original and riskier works to local audiences. There is some world class writing going on in this community, but it is very hard to make ends meet on a new project that has an untested and unfamiliar title or author. It is always easier to fall back on something tried and true, but I believe the highest value of the small theaters is to develop first steps in work that might go on to have a larger life. It is our intention to encourage that work and to take just a bit of the risk out of it for the ones carrying the burden of producing.
Ester: Will there be another round of grants available? If so, when would submissions start and how could local artists apply?
Paula: Our 2022 grant period will be coming around before we have finished awarding producing grants on this first year’s round! We will be accepting new proposals as early as April 15, 2022 and we will close that submission period on June 15, 2022. Next year’s winners will be announced in Fall. We would like to see the small LA theaters get more of the attention and support they so deserve for the difficult and challenging work they do. Intimate theaters in LA create magic with passion, talent, grit, and often with the paltriest of funding. LANPP cannot change that climate drastically, but perhaps we’ll begin to put a bit of a floor under the work. And if other funders realize the joy that comes from that, they might join in. Information about LANPP