Yale-educated and two-year student of the legendary Sanford Meisner, Martha Demson has spent a good part of her professional career working with Open Fist Theatre Company. After brief forays into acting and directing in the film and TV world, Martha joined Open Fist in 1991 and became artistic director in 1997. Although her first love is directing, her current role has been primarily as producer for the many shows staged by Open Fist in the past few years. Martha took time from her busy schedule to interview in April 2020.
When and how did Open Fist Theatre Company first form? Were you involved from the beginning?
Martha Demson: The Open Fist Theatre Company was founded in 1990 by a group of recent MFA graduates out of Cal State Fullerton. Then-artistic director Ziad Hamzeh had a great appetite for large-cast European experimental theater, and the early years of the Company were characterized by the selection of ambitious (if often obscure) pieces performed with great enthusiasm and varying degrees of success by a very young company. Some of the early productions were by icons like Caryl Churchill and Bertolt Brecht.
I joined toward the end of the Company’s first year and became the organization’s artistic director in 1997. Open Fist has had quite a varied history. From 1990 to 2005, Open Fist performed in its famous “quonset hut” of a theater – until it was demolished to make way for a condo development. In 2006, we moved into what had been the Actors Gang space in Hollywood. It was a beautiful, large theater which permitted us to mount visually ambitious productions. Unfortunately, a sudden 50% rent hike forced us out after seven and a half years. With no time to find a new home, we became a nomadic theater group. We floated in and out of different venues between 2013 and 2017 and hoped to purchase our own theater. When that didn’t work out, we found the perfect space in the Atwater Village Theatre complex. Even though it has meant developing a new patron base, we are very happy putting down roots as a resident Company at AVT.
What are some of the most popular plays you’ve done? How about awards?
MD: We’ve mounted dozens of popular productions, many of which have won awards — Ovation, LA Weekly, LADCC, Garland etc. Our shows tend to be an exuberant and eclectic mix. A few stand out in my mind. The world premiere production of Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage was probably our most memorable hit musical; and over the course of its run I grew to love and respect Zappa’s music. He had a following of millions, and fans flew in from around the world to come to the show. After each performance, patrons didn’t want to leave — they would linger for hours in the lobby. It was really very exciting for everyone. Another personal favorite was our LA Weekly award-winning production of Tom Stoppard’s comedy Travesties. Stoppard’s use of language in that play is astonishing, and the clever interweaving of the lives of Lenin, Tristan Tzara, and James Joyce is delightful; I had loved the play since high school and I don’t think I missed a single performance. And then there was Papa, a one-man play starring Adrian Sparks about Hemingway’s life in Cuba; I directed the hit. While we were in rehearsal, Adrian was involved in a near life-ending accident which left him unable to swallow or speak. But he was determined to do the play. Little by little, he worked his way back to health; and, when we eventually opened, the performance was magnificent. It garnered several Ovation nominations and awards. As a footnote, ten years later, Adrian had an opportunity to reprise the role in the movie PAPA: Hemingway in Cuba with Giovanni Ribisi and Joely Richardson.
When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?
MD: We announced that we were suspending performances effective immediately on Thursday, March 12. We were halfway through the run of RORSCHACH FEST, an ambitious festival of boundary-pushing theater, featuring plays by Caryl Churchill, Harold Pinter, John O’Keefe and Daniel MacIvor. We had already paid for the licenses to perform the plays into April, as well as the theater rent and production costs; this left us in a financial bind. After all, even when we’re closed, we still have to pay our bills.
How has COVID-19 impacted on your theater?
MD: The negative impact has been largely financial. We lost four weeks’ ticket revenue on our Festival (estimated a minimum $8000), we had prepaid a month of license fees for performances which were cancelled (nearly $4000), and we had prepaid the theater rent for the month of March ($8000). Depending on the length of the Stay at Home order, we may suffer other losses (most significantly loss of venue).”
Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen? Auditioning?
MD: Yes, we are a strong community. Rehearsals for our next production, The Solider Dreams, are underway virtually. Production meetings continue on their regular schedule with preliminary designs due in a couple of weeks. Staff and company meetings occur using the Zoom platform. Last week, we opened some rehearsals to patrons at no charge; and we are surveying our patrons to ask what other forms of virtual engagement they would be interested in (readings, conversations, classes). We considered presenting readings of some classic plays using Zoom, but we ran into a problem: Actors Equity is requiring that groups negotiate an agreement with them for any online presentations, and they have not gotten back to the LA community with an overview of what that agreement will be. So we are looking for other ways to engage with our patrons – maybe a cocktail hour where patrons and artists exchange ideas about plays and the theater; and perhaps some puppet shows for young patrons.
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?
MD: I think the answer to that question will depend on the length of the Stay at Home order and the extent of the devastation (both health-wise and economically). I believe that live theater will have an important role to play when we finally re-emerge from isolation and begin to rebuild a sense of who we are together. It may be that patrons feel a residual reluctance to go into public performance venues, so we will have to figure that out – perhaps turning to outdoor spaces for a while. But long term, I believe that the live theater community in Los Angeles will prove as resilient as ever. The number of organizations we lose altogether will really depend on how long this outbreak endures. Some companies are better positioned than others to weather the storm.
WHAT DO YOU NEED RIGHT NOW TO KEEP GOING FORWARD? WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE FROM THE THEATER PUBLIC?
MD: To keep going forward, we need to maintain engagement. Engagement of our members to continue their creative activity and maintain a sense of family; engagement of our inner circle to absorb the expenses required to sustain us during a period of zero revenue; and engagement of our patrons to maintain their connection with us. This engagement will underscore the mutual understanding that together we form an indestructible community.
What are some of your future plans?
MD: When business resumes, we will open The Soldier Dreams.It’s a funny and poignant play that chronicles the struggles of the family of a young man who has died of an unnamed illness. We chose the play long before the outbreak of the coronavirus, but it certainly resonates with what’s been going on all around us.
We do have plans for the rest of the season, but I prefer not to announce other projects because our schedule (and budget!) will definitely be impacted by the duration of the shut-down. It is almost certain that we will move titles around and postpone some of the more ambitious projects to next year. One thing we do know. Assuming that we are operating in September, we will definitely produce our fourth annual “political pop-up” featuring short plays by playwrights from around the country. The “political pop-up” tradition began in response to Trump’s inauguration in 2017; and we have continued it annually, each year around a different theme. For our “pop-ups”, we convert the theater into a speakeasy. We bring in couches, comfy chairs, tables, rugs, lamps and a bar. This year, our theme will be “In a Perfect World,” which should provide a context for addressing our shared goals and challenges, as well as important issues like climate change and social injustice.
The article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.