Little Engines Make Big Smoke: Southern California Season in Review by Larry Dean Harris
From Ham to ‘dam, this was the season that broke all the rules in Los Angeles.
Yes, the juggernaut that is Hamilton thundered into LA’s Pantages Theatre with a brilliant touring cast. But LA being LA—all cool and aloof—Hollywood Hamilton never quite escalated to Broadway’s fever pitch. So pretty much everyone who could afford the hefty ticket price managed to snag one with a little effort.
Meanwhile, two miles east at the Skylight Theatre, a 99-seat, non-Equity production of a London play about transgender love was making a little thunder of its own.
Rotterdam, the Olivier-winning play by Jon Brittain in its west coast premiere, would extend three times and ultimately nab three Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards, sharing the Best Production prize with—wait for it—Hamilton.
Clearly, this was the year of the little engine that could, proving there was room in the LA theatre scene for big engines AND little engines.
New Kids on the Block
Nowhere was that more evident than at Block Party, launched in 2017 by Center Theatre Group to spotlight exceptional work being produced on LA’s smaller stages. The mission was to take three previously staged works of note and remount each for a two-week run at CTG’s edgy-ish Kirk Douglas Theatre. The plays would get a second wind and hopefully find a larger audience in the 317-seat house.
Something clicked, and a second Block Party season was announced for 2018 with 53 local companies vying for the opportunity. This year’s selections were: Playwrights’ Arena Bloodletting, a Filipino American Los Angeles story by Boni B. Alvarez; Ameryka, a Critical Mass Performance Group production written by Nancy Keystone and created in collaboration with the company; and Die, Mommy, Die!, the camp noir Charles Busch comedy starring Drew Droege, which had been a hit for Celebration Theatre.
“Block Party was tremendous in helping to showcase the best of LA’s intimate theater,” says Jon Lawrence Rivera, director of Bloodletting and founder/artistic director of Playwrights Arena, which is now in its 26th year of championing and producing new works by LA playwrights.
“Our experience with CTG was fantastic. They treated us like world class artists, providing us with the tools to make our show expand on a bigger stage. It was a remarkable experience.”
Another shining example of big engines and little engines chugging along side by side (and neck in neck) is evidenced in the annual Ovation Awards, perhaps the most visible and coveted honor for excellence in Los Angeles theatre.
At the 28th Annual Ovation Awards on January 29, 2018, well-funded organizations such as Center Theatre Group, the Geffen Playhouse and the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts were nominated alongside 99-seat artistically-driven companies like The Echo Theatre Company and Rogue Machine Theatre for Best Season.
The winner? Rogue Machine. And one of the plays driving that successful season was a fresh and imaginative new work by Guild member Deb Hiett.
Hiett describes The Super Variety Match Bonus Round! accordingly: “An older couple has their world turned inside-out when a very modern kid rents a room in their rural Texas home and takes them on an unexpected ride through a 1970s truth-telling game show, hosted by their sexy mail-carrier.”
The play, which can be found on the New Play Exchange, was Hiett’s first collaboration with Rogue Machine.
“My friend, director Cameron Watson, was a fan of an early draft of the play and gave it to John Flynn. A slot opened up fast, and we jumped in to fill it. It was all dream-like and lucky-fast and magical, with a delicious cast.”
After establishing herself in New York as a multi-hyphenate (actor/writer/dancer/singer), Hiett moved to LA not so long ago to pursue work in television and film and enjoy the SoCal lifestyle. Before long, she was invited to join The Playwrights Union.
“This was a big turning point in my development as a playwright largely because of the supportive, smart, and successful people involved.”
Hiett said she is already hard at work on a new play, clearly savoring her new playing field.
“Perhaps because there are so many actors focused on booking those smaller roles in film and TV, they are even more hungry for meaty chunky scripts to play with. Find those folks, call them, feed them salty snacks and good bourbon and get the benefit of hearing them read and tell you their thoughts.”
One Voice Dares to Dream
F. Scott Fitzgerald said it best: “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.”
Enter Alex Alpharaoh, writer, performer and DACA Dreamer.
“I did my first professional play at EST/LA (Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles) ten years ago with Marek Glinski’s Mammoth Gorge. I stayed in touch with the company thanks to social media. In October of 2015, during the run of my spoken word play Don’t Talk About It, SP!T About It, which was being produced at Casa 0101 Theatre in Boyle Heights, Lizzy Ross at EST sent a message asking if I would be interested in writing and reading a piece for this storytelling event they were launching. True Story became my haven, where I would share many of the stories that eventually made it into the narrative of WET.
“A year later, Liz knew I was developing a solo performance about being a psychiatric social worker, and she asked me to submit it for consideration for EST/LA’s Winterfest. Then the presidential election happened, around the same time my maternal grandfather got very sick, and I needed to visit him/meet him (in Guatemala) before he died, knowing there was a huge chance I would not be allowed back into the country due to changes in immigration policy. The Sunday before the reading of my solo show at EST/LA, I broke down over the phone and told Liz that I was in danger, and that I wasn’t sure I would make it back home. She told me to be strong, to not worry about the festival. She would hold my slot.
“I was paroled back into the country on January 31st, 2017. The following day, I asked Liz if I could tell a different story, the story of what happened to me and why I had to leave. That Sunday, I read the first three-hour draft of what would later become WET.”
WET: A DACAmented Journey opened to rave reviews in August 2017. Its success led to a second run in October and subsequent performances throughout Los Angeles and in New York at the Hi-Arts Performance Space, ultimately landing Alpharaoh on the cover of American Theatre magazine.
He said he is surprised by the amount of love, support, and appreciation that the theatre community has expressed. “Complete strangers have come up to me after performances, with tears in their eyes, telling me that they love me and that they would hide me if the need ever arose. Many members of the Jewish community that have seen WET understand the kind of persecution the immigrant community is facing today.”
And Alpharaoh is a new member of the Dramatists Guild. “it is the most logical next step in the development of my professional career as a writer.”
San Diego Serenade
Let’s not forget to sing the praises of San Diego. Every month, I receive a detailed email account from the San Diego Playwrights teeming with announcements of play readings, world premieres, new works festivals and so much writing.
San Diego even has its own recognition for theatre excellence: the Craig Noel Awards presented by the San Diego Critics Circle. At this year’s awards presented on Feb. 12, big engines like the LaJolla Playhouse and the Old Globe made way for small and midsize companies like Moonlight Stage Productions, Ion Theatre and Diversionary Theatre.