COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Reflections on COVID-19 and the Fountain Theatre – An Interview with Stephen Sachs

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 theater.

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 theater on March 13 due to COVID-19.

Katy Sullivan and Felix Solis in “Cost of Living” – Photo by Geoffrey Wade


 SS: COVID-19 has crippled the Fountain Theatre, but we will survive. Like every other theater 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 reopen?

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 theater 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 theater community require two kinds of need: financial support and loyalty. Every theater 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 green light 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.

This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.

Ronnie Marmo at Lenny Bruce

Spotlight Series: Meet Ronnie Marmo – An Actor, Director, Producer, Playwright, and Artistic Director of Theatre 68 in NoHo

This Spotlight focuses on Ronnie Marmo, an actor, director, producer, playwright, and Artistic Director of Theatre 68 who has been touring the country with his dynamic solo show I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce. I attended the show more than once and was excited to hear the news of its New York City and Chicago production dates, which of course are now on hold. If you missed the show, here’s a link to my review.

Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your own theatrical background?

Ronnie Marmo (RM): On stage, I have starred in more than 30 plays. A few of my favorites include my portrayal of Bill Wilson in Bill W. and Dr. Bob, Silva in Baby Doll, Earl in the Los Angeles Premiere of The Late Henry Moss, Danny in Danny and The Deep Blue Sea, and Satan in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot written by Stephen Adly Guirgis.

I completed an audio book in which I portray Lenny Bruce in Lenny’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. Most recently, I wrote and still perform in the long-running, critically-acclaimed and award-winning show, I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce in Chicago (also in Los Angeles and New York), After 305 total performances across all three cities, we are still going strong. And still under the direction of Joe Mantegna.

As a director, I have staged over 50 productions and produced about 100 in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. I was the Artistic Director and Producer of the critically acclaimed first ever 13 by Shanley Festival; which enjoyed a six-month run. I received the Robert Pastorelli Rising Star Award for achievements as an actor, writer, director and producer at the 2010 Garden State Film Festival.

Most importantly, I am proud to continue to serve as the Artistic Director of Theatre 68 (68 Cent Crew Theatre Company) in Los Angeles and New York City.

(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out you needed to immediately postpone/cancel the show?

(RM): We were in production in Chicago for the solo show I wrote and in which I star, I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce. March 15th was my 85th and final (for now) performance in Chicago. That decision was made since the town was shutting down around us, and I felt the best thing for us to do was stop performing and for me to head back to Los Angeles to be near my daughters.

At the same time, both the LA and NY chapters of Theatre 68 were in pre-production for new shows. In LA, we were in the casting stage for the play Stupid Fucking Bird by Aaron Posner. We are slated to open in early June, and have decided to move all of our auditions and pre-production to a virtual platform, hoping we will get to open on time. Of course, we are prepared to postpone if need be for everyone’s safety during the pandemic.

In NY, our company was just about to go into casting for an evening of seven one-act plays, all written by Theatre 68 members. We were slated to open late May, which seems lightly unrealistic now. But as said above, we will continue on as if we will open as planned and move things out if need be.

To say I am heartbroken for both chapters would be an understatement. I love these artists and so we will do what we can. But obviously, safety is first for them as well as our supporters.

(SB): How did you communicate the shutdown with your cast and production team?

(RM): I was in constant contact with them throughout the entire process. But quite honestly, as the Artistic Director “the buck stops here” in moments like this, and I could not have made these decisions every step of the way without the incredible leaders I have at Theatre 68 on both coasts.

We communicated over video conferencing, phone calls and back and forth email threads. We used any and every platform possible given the circumstances at that moment. Although, I have to say. for someone who had no idea what ‘Zoom’ was a few months ago, it’s become the biggest part of my life now (laughing).

(SB): I am in the same position in that I must also learn how to use “Zoom” in order to be part of online meetings as well. So, we have more than our mutual love of PB&J sandwiches in common!

(RM): My go-to meal before shows!

(SB):  What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?

(RM): In the Theatre world, the only thing that was actually on the docket that has now seemingly been delayed was the booking and logistics for the Lenny Bruce National Tour. We signed with Columbia Artists Theatrical and they just began fielding offers right before COVID-19 hit.

While productions have been temporarily affected, one major shift in our Theatre 68 community has been that we moved our Monday Night Actors Gym to a virtual platform. To me, the productions we do are fantastic and we are blessed to have done over 100 of them. But the heartbeat of our company is the fact that we get together every Monday night on both coasts and have a 3-hour “class” of sorts where we hold each other accountable with scene work, monologues, improv, cold readings, writing assignments, etc. What makes it very special is that everyone in the company has a voice – there isn’t just one individual teacher. Transitioning from us being together on stage every Monday night to moving to Zoom has been the biggest adjustment to the company.

I’m excited to announce that we’ve had two successful Monday Night Gyms in NY and LA so far, and they have been inspiring to everyone involved. We’re still very focused on acting of course, but I’ve taken this opportunity to give our artists writing assignments with deadlines. I always preach taking your own career into your own hands and creating your own work. Now they have that opportunity more than ever.

(SB): How are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(RM): Well, it’s funny you mention that. What started out as a silly idea and something to pass the time about 9 days ago, has become something that many people seem to look forward to watching every day. I have started a Facebook and Instagram live web-show called A Bachelor’s Guide to Do-mes-ti-ca-tion with Ronnie Marmo! The first 8 episodes (days) have felt to be more of a cooking show (since that’s where I need the most work – I basically can’t cook… nor have I ever had to do so for myself and think I single-handedly kept all the take out restaurants in business.

(SB): I watched the episode where you were driving around your neighborhood and asking viewers about how to make chicken parmesan, then took us inside Pinocchio’s Deli to purchase what you needed. I really enjoyed the spur-of-the-moment and interactive format, making those watching feel as if we were in there with you.

(RM): I’m trying to mix it up a bit and tomorrow we might just do some laundry together. It’s interesting how I end up having severe meltdowns and get hurt every episode, but we’re having a lot of fun and there have been a lot of laughs! Honestly, I’ve learned how to cook eight dishes so far thanks to help of all my viewers.  Maybe a cookbook is on the horizon? (more laughs)

(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(RM): I’m very proud that Theatre 68 is a part of the NoHo Arts Theatre scene. I have spoken to a dozen or so other theatres in the area and I’m very concerned that many of them will not recover and continue on after COVID-19. We have all been in constant communication and are trying to help each other. I will say, like any other crisis, this has brought us all closer together. I’m trying to encourage all of us to stay positive and try to stay in the day that we’re in and not project too far into the future because there are so many unknowns. I’m going to fight like hell to keep Theatre 68 and all the other Theatres in the NoHo Arts District alive and thriving.

Lastly, I just want to say “Thank You” to Broadway World for all of the support it gives to all the theatres small, medium, and large. There is never enough advertising dollars and generally speaking, we always need a little more enthusiasm and support for what we do. Broadway World and other press outlets have really kept us afloat even when things are great and especially when the road has become a bit rocky. So thank you for your constant support.

(SB): Thanks so much! It’s always my pleasure to get the word out about shows at theaters of all sizes in the greater Los Angeles area, and I appreciate all the kind words of support from readers of my reviews and these Spotlight Series interviews on Broadway World. This writer always likes to know my articles are being read and my contributions to the LA Theatre Community are helping to keep us united as the powerful group of artists I know we are.

This article first appeared on Broadway World.