COVID-19 Theater Series: Rogue Machine's Journey Beyond Adversity - An Interview with John Perrin Flynn

Leading one of L.A.’s most prestigious theatre companies for twelve years, John Perrin Flynn has nurtured Rogue Machine from the seed of an idea into a group of over 300 artists with an impressive array of accolades and awards. Most recently, he helmed two epic productions, the American premiere of Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer and the west coast premiere of Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London. John received the LA Weekly “Career Achievement Award,” just one of over one hundred awards during his tenure with the company. He was the executive producer and director of Lifetime’s award-winning series Strong Medicine and has produced two other series and 14 television movies or miniseries, including the Emmy nominated Burden of Proof. John took time from his busy schedule to interview in April 2020.

When did Rogue Machine First Begin? Were you involved from the start? Who/what/where was it founded?

John Perrin Flynn:  Our inaugural production was in 2008. The prior year, I had happened to read a new play by a young playwright who was looking for a director. The play was called Lost and Found and the playwright was John Pollono. As soon as I read it, I knew that I had to direct it. We ran it at the Lounge Theatre. Later that year, I directed the West Coast premiere of Craig Lucas's Small Tragedy at the Odyssey Theatre. Afterwards, I was invited to pitch plays at a couple of local venues. By then, John Pollono was working on another new play. I had also begun to work with Henry Murray, developing his Tree Fall; and I quickly learned that none of the companies that I was approaching were interested in producing new work.

Cast of "Pocatello" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

I brought together three disparate groups: theater friends I had made during my time as a television producer; theater friends I had made doing the two plays I had recently directed; and theater friends from the time I was artistic director of Theater Exchange in North Hollywood. We all felt that there were already too many theaters in Los Angeles. At the same time, there seemed to be a need for one which would produce new work and the edgier kind of new work which was then coming out of Chicago, New York, and London. In early 2008, the opportunity to share the Theatre/Theater space on Pico Boulevard opened up and we decided to take the leap.

Ron Bottitta and Tucker Smallwood in "The Sunset Limited" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

How about a brief timeline of changes at they occurred?

JPF:  We began running our monthly salon “Rant and Rave,” which has continued to be one of our most popular programs. We converted a classroom at the space into a second smaller stage. Our programming for that stage brought us a great deal of attention. We opened Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited with Tucker Smallwood and Ron Bottitta. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz designed the small one-room urban apartment set that worked brilliantly. The show became an LA Times Critics’ Choice and ran for five months. We modified that set and opened John Pollono’s third play as a late-night show. It was Small Engine Repair, which ran for six months until we had to move it to open Joel Drake Johnson's Four Places, for which we received our first Ovation Award for Best Production.

Small Engine Repair swept the Los Angeles Award season, winning best production and many other awards. Our fifth season brought us the long-running hit Dirty Filthy Love Story by Rob Mersola and our first collaborations with playwrights Samuel Hunter and Enda Walsh. The sixth season brought us Pollono’s Lost Girls and Kemp Powers’ One Night in Miami, which became our largest box office hit ever. It ended up having multiple productions around the world, including at the Donmar Warehouse in England. We closed that season with Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, which won us our second Ovation award for best production. The eighth season was an abbreviated season because rent increases forced us out - but not before we did our second Sam Hunter play, A Permanent Image. We moved to The Met Theatre in our ninth season and opened with a strong season of multi-award nominated productions, including Hunter’s Pocatello, and Greg Keller’s Honky and Dutch Masters.

Shari Gardner Desean, Kevin Terry, and Jelani Blunt in "Les Blancs" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

Our tenth season featured the first ever professional production of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs in Los Angeles, as well as a collaboration with the Getty Villa of a modern-day refugee version of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women.

We were forced to move once again during our twelfth season, but not before we produced the American premiere of Dionna Michelle Daniel’s American Saga: Gunshot Medley Part I. We moved to the Electric Lodge in Venice and in the fall, where we opened Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer and Joe Gifford's Finks. We closed our latest season with the world premiere productions of Disposable Necessities by Neil McGowan (an LA Times Critics’ Choice) and Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London.

Over the past few months, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?

JPF:  We were fortunate that we had closed the twelfth season in early March. At that time, we weren’t sure if we would open again until July. Now we have no idea when theaters will be allowed to reopen and we don’t know what the final damage to the economy will be. Fundraising may be more difficult. We understand our existence is imperiled; but all of us, Rogue Machine’s Board and staff, are determined to survive. There is a proverb that “Adversity creates opportunity.” Many theaters are attempting to build an online audience during this period of isolation. We will be offering some programming as well.

Corey Dorris and Josh Zuckerman in "Dutch Masters" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Are you streaming shows? Having virtual meetings? Are you planning for your next show when you reopen?

JPF:  We have most of our next season in place. We will open with a world premiere production of Justin Tanner’s Little Theatre, directed by Lisa James and starring Jennie O’Hara. We are also planning to produce the American premiere of Timothy Daly’s Man in the Attic, with French and Vanessa Stewart and Rob Nagle.

I am participating in weekly meetings with LA area artistic directors to see what we can do collectively, now and in the future, when theaters reopen.

John Pollono, Jon Bernthal, Josh Helman, and Michael Redfield in "Small Engine Repair" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you forsee any permanent changes?

JPF:  I suspect that some organizations will not be able to survive this shutdown, particularly if they have leases and rent to pay. I think it might be a long time before things return to a semblance of how they were. Some people that were key to how intimate theatre operated may be forced to take up other careers.

What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?

JPF:  Funding. I am concerned about our employees. We have applied for the SBA paycheck protection loan, but the funding ran out before we were approved. If more funding is forthcoming, we will be able to offer some employment to the staff, all of whom have been laid off. I want our theater public to stay safe and come out of this healthy, and hungry for the common bonds that live theater encourages.

Joshua Bitton, Burl Moseley, and Jennifer Pollono in "Dirty Filthy Love Story" - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

What are some of your future plans?

JPF:  We plan to do some online programming, which includes a joint project called “Common Ground” with The Road Theatre. We may also stream some live readings and something with “Rant and Rave.” In addition to the plays that I mentioned, we are hoping to do another Samuel D. Hunter play; and we are reading a number of new plays during this forced hiatus.

This article first appeared in Splash Worldwide.

"Stronger" Screenwriter: I OWE IT ALL TO LA 99 SEAT THEATER

During the debate two years ago over LA's 99 seat waiver contract, the actors who wanted to abolish the contract - and eventually succeeded in doing so - claimed that it represented wage-exploitation, where their artistic contributions were not properly compensated.   The theater producers defended the plan by saying that no one made money from stage productions, and no one lost more than producers and production companies.  But they pointed to all the successes that came out of waiver theater - the productions like Deaf West's Spring Awakening that moved into the commercial arena and made money for all involved; as well as the many playwrights, directors, designers and actors whose careers have taken off or gone to the next level as a result of their work on waiver productions.

Certainly one of the most shining examples of this waiver success is John Pollono, screenwriter of the just-released movie Stronger starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany, as well as a recurring actor on the NBC hit-TV series This Is Us, where he plays Sterling K. Brown's manipulative boss.

from STRONGER: Miranda Richardson, David Gordon Green, Pollono, Tatiana Maslany, Jake Gylenhaal, Jeff Bauman

I think that on some level we all read interviews with and profiles of successful people to compare ourselves with them.  We ask: How did he/she gain that success?  Did he/she have "advantages" that we haven't had - family connections, financial benefits, "quotas" of one kind or another?  Why him or her and not me?

Looking at the background of John Pollono, it's hard to find many "advantages," fair or unfair.  He's from a white working-class family.  Growing up in a small town in New Hampshire, he wanted to attend NYU but his family didn't have the money, so he went to U. of New Hampshire instead.   He was eventually able to get into a summer exchange program on film directing at NYU, and it was a turning point in his life.  "It was the first time I was really around creative people," John Pollono told me at a Starbuck's in Marina del Rey.  "I mean, growing up in New Hampshire was cool in its own way, but it wasn't very diverse.  We're Italian, my father is from Queens, people were always asking us if we were in the witness protection program."

John Pollono and wife Jennifer

Pollono - who, to my mind, looks more like a Major League pitcher at the end of his career than a new Hollywood screenwriter hitting the big-time - went to Colorado after graduation, where he lived with a girlfriend who was in grad school there.  "I wrote really bad screenplays and really bad short stories, lots and lots of them," he told me.  "And I had like a million different jobs - you name it, I did it."  He added: "I knew what I wanted to do, but I was crippled financially.  The people I knew in New York who were pursuing acting or filmmaking careers all came from really wealthy families."

The relationship ended, and John went back east to Boston, where he worked as a landscaper and production assistant for Tommy Heinsohn's show about Celtics basketball.  In fact, at 23 years old he have four jobs and rarely slept and drank way too much.  It all caught up one night when he was driving a company van and opened his door when the van was still moving, smashing the front window and messing up his hand big-time.  "That was a wake-up call," he said.  "I couldn't keep up that pace, and I had to re-think what I was doing."

When his hand healed, Pollono moved out west with yet another girlfriend - and then that relationship broke up too.  "I didn't really get any writing done for a few years, since I spent all my free time trying to get laid.  I was also working at Castle Rock Entertainment.  I had started in the mailroom, then became an assistant public relations guy.  I made friends with some guys in literary, who agreed to give coverage to my screenplays.  The comments were always the same: "Why is this 25 year old writing a knockoff of Raiders of the Lost Ark?"

Reiko Aylesworth and Pollono in Pollono's play Lost and Found

"I felt a little lost to tell you the truth," Pollono told me.  "I wasn't sure what to do next."  That was when a friend of his from Castle Rock invited him to check out the acting class he'd been going to, taught by Laura Gardner.  "So I came to class, and I was terrified, because if anybody I grew up with ever found out, I'd be made fun of mercilessly.  But the thing is, I loved it. And we did scenes from plays. Well, I'd seen like one play before that, ever.  But the teacher demanded that we read the entire play that we were doing the scene from, so I just started reading Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and all these other playwrights.  And that was the birth of theater for me.  Really, that was the birth of me,  because these playwrights just fed my imagination and enlarged my idea of what was possible."

Pollono started writing monologues and scenes for himself and his friends.  Then a bunch of people from the class formed a theater company called Jabberwocky.  This included not only Pollono but his wife Jennifer, who he met in the acting class.  The group produced four evenings of one-act plays - several by Pollono - but the only critics they could attract were ones who they had to pay.  And even then the reviews weren't great. "By this point Jennifer and I'd had our first child, and I needed to get a real job.  So I became a Senior Account executive for PR at an agency, where I basically "acted" the role of a publicist and figured things out as i went along."

His job gave him access to the contact information for local critics, and he used it to call up lead theater critic Steven Leigh Morris at the LA Weekly and invite him to their new evening of one-acts.  Morris came, and he gave them a good review - "high quality considering the budget" - and that put them on the map.

James Ranson, Pollono and James Badge Dale in Small Engine Repair

Pollono wrote his first full-length play, Lost and Found, and Jabberwocky agreed to produce it.  But who was going to direct it?  "I put an ad for a director on the website Big-Cheap.  John Perrin Flynn saw it and got in touch with me. He was just coming off producing the TV show Strong Medicine, and he was looking to go in a different direction.  As it turned out, he loved the play and wanted to direct it.  This went really well, both critically and financially."

So well, in fact, that Jabberwocky soon morphed into Roguemachine - with Flynn using the 501(c)3  non-profit ID of the former as the basis for the non-profit status of the latter.  This was around 2008, and it proved to be the genesis of what Terry Morgan at Variety (magazine) has called "one of the most ambitious and accomplished theatre companies in LA."

While Flynn and Roguemachine have had many successes, their landmark productions have been by Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami, nominated for London's Olivier Award) and two plays by John Pollono, SMALL ENGINE REPAIR and LOST GIRLS.  Both plays have working-class backgrounds and characters, both veer in tone from the comedic to the menacing and dangerous, and both have gone on from Roguemachine to Off-Broadway and publication by Dramatists Play Service.

Pollono and Jo Bonney, the director of Rules of Seconds

John Pollono and Kemp Powers are, in fact,  two of the playwrights who have combined to form the seven-member playwrights group, The Temblors.  Based in downtown LA at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, the group is dedicated to producing a play by each of its members, based on its own internal development of these scripts.  First up was Pollono's RULES OF SECONDS, a dark comedy very different from his earlier plays.  It takes place in mid-19th Century Boston and was given a ripping production earlier this year by the Latino Theater Company under the expert direction of Jo Bonney.  Charles McNulty, chief critic of the LA Times, called it "a 21st century comic melodrama set in the 19th Century."  It featured a glorious ensemble of LA-based actors, led by the fearless Amy Brenneman. and including Pollono's wife Jennifer.  While Pollono made clear to me how many years he had been developing the script, he was shocked to find how relevant its theme of "toxic masculinity" ended up being.

Pollono told me that he had gotten the assignment to write the movie Stronger based on the strength of his playwriting, as well as on the fact that he grew up just an hour from where the Boston Marathon bombing took place. The money he has made from writing the movie, along with other pitches that he has sold since, have enabled his growing family (he and Jennifer now have two boys) to move from a small apartment in Koreatown to a house in a ritzy Los Angeles suburb, and to have some financial security for the first time in their lives.

"Truly, I owe it all to theater - to finding my voice and to finding out who I am as a writer.  While I may not have made much money for writing and acting in the plays, the rest of my career would never have been possible without them.  That's what people who dismiss theater as an outmoded, money-losing art form fail to see.  Whatever else happens in my career, I hope that I'll always come back to the theater.  There's just nothing like it."