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Robert Gagnier

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Capturing Your Imagination: A Q&A With Susan Albert Loewenberg

Posted: 09/19/2013 8:51 am

Robert Gagnier: Through your company L.A Theater Works, you have been producing Radio Theater in the U.S. for more than two decades now. What continues to drive you, and where does the source of your passion lie?

Susan Albert Loewenberg: You know, I have always loved great literature. When I was three years old, my mother took me to a library. I believe I was reading books when I was four. And I absolutely loved literature. I have to thank my mother for that. I started off with novels and then I became completely lost in everything from Nancy Drew to Little Women and so on. I can recall that one of my favorite books was something rather obscure called the Boxcar Children. As I got older I started writing. I was the editor of my elementary school paper, the editor of my junior high school paper -- and so I was a pretty good writer. Eventually I started getting interested in the theater around the 7th or 8th grade I think. I grew to love to read plays. To this day in my library I have some of those collections. The best plays of the 1970's, the best plays of the 1980's. Some may recall John Gassner who used to do those compilations. And so this love has always been with me. And of course I too had that great, classic, high school drama teacher. She was an enormous influence on me as I eventually went on to act in plays and become an actor myself. At that time if you were reasonably attractive, you didn't think "oh I'm going to be a producer," your focus is on acting. I did my first professional job when I was 14. When I was 12 I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and started performing scenes from wonderful plays in the theater. I would also go to the theater often because I lived in Trenton New Jersey which by train was only an hour from New York. At that time when you were only 12 or 13 you could actually go into the theater by yourself, and come home on the train. I just fell in love with the theater and it just blossomed into a passion that never went away.

RG: You mentioned recently that L.A. Theater Works will double its efforts to cast artists whenever possible in their original roles. The 2013-2014 season is upon us. Will we see those types of performances in any of this seasons plays?

SAL: Yes, actually we are very fortunate in that regard. The first play with that focus will be The Comedy of Errors toward the end of January, beginning of February next year. There was that wonderful production of Comedy of Errors at the Public Theaters in Central Park with Hamish Linklater, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Emily Bergl and that wonderful cast. Emily and Hamish have both worked for me before. Emily is like a daughter to me, and I have known her for over 20 years. She has worked for me and is absolutely wonderful. Hamish has also done a number of things for us as well. And so Emily and I got together and talked about it and I asked her if she thought we could get everybody together to do the play for an L.A. Theater Works? So she helped me out, we made some phone calls and got everyone on board. So that's one play where the cast will reprise their original roles. Thomas Sadoski will be reprising his role in our season opening production, Reasons to be Pretty. (9/19-9/22. Neil Labute the author will direct; and Jenna Fischer who was not in Reasons to be Pretty but was in the sequel Reasons To Be Happy (which just closed in New York) will be on board. Yet another example of a production that will feature some or all of its original talent on this seasons scheduled productions is American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose, which is was written by Richard Montoya from Culture Clash. (5/15-5/18) Richard is brilliant and we have a long relationship as I have done three other Culture Clash pieces with Herbert Siguenza and Richard. I saw the play at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, and thought it was brilliant and so I am very excited about that. This season is also going to have something that I have been dying to do, which is August: Osage County. (7/10-7/13) Osage started at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Most of the cast went to Broadway, while some of them went to London. So between the Steppenwolf Broadway cast and London, I have original talent from the Steppenwolf family to perform. That will be extremely exciting for me as some of them are people I have worked with for a long time like Francis Guinan, Rondi Reed and Sally Murphy.

RG: There are at least ten plays that are on this season's schedule. It's my understanding that you were producing multiple plays simultaneously, both here in L.A. and across the country, correct?

SAL: At one point we were recording plays simultaneously in both L.A. and Chicago. In fact for ten years we had a series called Chicago Theaters on the air and 8 to 10 times a year I would go out to Chicago and record plays with all of the leading Chicago theaters. In fact, in a 10-year period we did some 80 plays with Steppenwolf, the Goodman, Second City, Victory Gardens. And that's how I got to know all of the great Chicago actors though these great theater companies. That's why this project in particular; August: Osage County is dear to my heart because I am such a huge admirer of the Steppenwolf Theater Company because in my opinion they are the greatest ongoing ensemble in America. And a lot of those actors have come to L.A. over time. I have had the privilege of working with some of them such as Jeff Perry who'll be in August: Osage County. Lastly, I'm also excited to be able to work with the brilliant director Anna Shapiro who won a Tony and will direct Osage for radio, and so that is sure to be a production people won't want to miss out on-so those are three examples of productions that we have slated for this season whose talent will reprise their original roles.

RG: When one directs your various productions, is that role all encompassing in that they are essentially directing the actors for the play the audience sees live as well as for those who will listen in later?

SAL: It's interesting. When we started this process, radio drama was basically a lost art that went out in the 50's when t.v. came in. The only radio directors who were current and trained were from the BBC. Over the years we had done about 30 to 40 co-productions with the BBC so I knew many BBC directors. Over 20 years ago I was introduced to Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres who at that time were the top recording artists for the BBC. They have since become dear friends who in turn have directed a good 30 plus shows for me. I am lucky in that they are here in L.A. often and are able to direct a lot. For example, Rosalind will direct Uncle Vanya (10/17-10/20) and Martin will direct An Enemy of the People (4/10-4-13). In any case, when we started we basically had to teach our theater directors how to direct for radio. And its not just about getting great performances, but making it sound good. Because when you are acting for theater you are trying to take in an audience. But when you listen to a radio play, (and perhaps this is psychological to some extent), most want to have that feeling that those actors are just talking to you. Most want to feel as though they are the only person in the room. And it's as though the effect that we like to create is that the person listening to the play is actually peeping through a key hole. And overhearing something that perhaps they are not supposed to hear. That means that technically for actors, for example-they will need to take all of those emotions and energies and somehow condense it. One of the great BBC director's great mantra was "half the volume, twice the intensity." And to be able to get actors to do that, especially after they have done the show on Broadway, was sometimes comical like in the case with the cast from Mother Fucker with the Hat. Now here was an example of a high energy show with these brilliant and amazing performances. At first, some actors may be leery, especially if they haven't worked with a given director before. Finally, at some point, the actor learns to trust these radio directors and the final product becomes great. To the audience watching it, the performance won't look any different. But it's a situation in which the actor has to trust in the concept that the microphone is picking up their voice. At the same time, the actor can't lose their intensity. Lastly, the great radio directors are able to impart on most actors the ideas that its "great to smile, but if the smile isn't in ones voice, no one is going to know." So the radio director has to get the actor to "reorder their instrument," in order to allow it have the intended effect. The radio director is working with a radio producer, a production manager and an engineer. Some people are just naturals at it, and just "get it," while others it takes a little longer to re-adjust. The same is true of actors. But I think the process is a lot of fun for our radio directors. It's a new skill and it's a new way of looking at things. Perhaps most appealing to them is that they can create a beautiful piece of work in a week.

RG: Neil Labute is set to direct the season opener of Reasons to Be Pretty. How do you decide on a given director or actor and which particular piece gets produced in any given season?

SAL: Well we have a collection of well over 400 plays but it's a unique selection. I try to make a balance of the great classic works whenever possible. We have contemporary classics like the works of Arthur Miller, David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, but we also want to do Shaw, Shakespeare and world literature as well. And so that was the first consideration when I think about a new season. It is sometimes difficult because you want to please the live audience, but at the same time you want to make sure that you are capturing significant moments in American theater. A play may have been seen before at the Taper, the Geffen or somewhere else. But if feel that this is the right moment, such as Osage Country, and it was on a year ago, I am still going to do it and hope people will come see it. In terms of new plays I really try very hard to think about who are the young authors, the middle career emerging playwrights that we need to cover and record? As far as the first play of this season, I felt that Neil LaBute is an important contemporary American playwright and I had up to this point never done one of his plays, although I had admired and seen them. I am thrilled because Neil has been directing a lot of his own work and he wanted to do this. He had never directed for radio, so this will be another adventure for him.

RG: L.A. Theater Works excels in a day and age where reality television and a multitude of entertainment options continue to chip away at many traditional forms of entertainment. What is it about your product that keeps your audience coming back for more?

SAL: Well I think the good news is that when you go to the theater you know you are taking a chance. You pay a relatively large amount of money to see something that many times you may not like, especially when you're taking a chance on new plays. Theatre can be hit or miss and so one of the good things I like to think about our organization is that we really pre-select our plays and truly try to choose the best of the best. In that sense, we are able to work with these excellent and standout pieces of dramatic literature. Another key factor is that because we are in Hollywood, we are in a place where the pool of fist rate actors is tremendous. Top actors are attracted to what we do because their time commitment is relatively short (one week of their time). It's a very intense process in which they get to work with great literature and they get to do a play that they might not be cast in physically (for TV or film), but rather are perfect for a given role due to the fact that their sensibility is correct for the role. It's the sensibility, it's the voice that are key in radio, as opposed to what he or she may look like and whether or not they appear to be ten years too old for the role. These actors also get to work with other extremely polished actors. This is such a quick process in which everyone has to be at the top of their game and they have to be able to produce a fist rate, high quality, forever recording in a week! And it's absolutely doable because it's just the actor and the text. There are no sets, there are no costumes and there is no blocking. It's just great actors and great work.

RG: All of the productions are now set to be performed at UCLA's James Bridges Theater. What sets that theater apart from some of your previous locations?

SAL: The great thing about James Bridges is that it is also one of the finest screening facilities in the city as well. We are now able to use wonderful slides in the background of our productions and do all kinds of interesting things very quickly and easily. That has been a lot of fun. I love its intimate feel, it's about 300 seats. And while all of our previous locations were great facilities, it was not a true theater. And of course it's always great to be on the UCLA campus. There is something wonderful about that!

RG: All the world is a stage according to the monologue from Shakespeare's As You Like It. Set against the current political situation the U.S. is facing with Syria and the rest of the world; and the now seemingly endless occurrences of violence both foreign and domestic, can the world of theater still be beneficial to a child, teen or adult in today's world?

SAL: Well theater at its best is what? The reason it is so hard to write a great play is because you not only have to write a terrific set of characters that people care about, but in many cases you have to set up a moral, ethical, and spiritual dilemma. This has to be worked out, and sometimes doesn't have a definitive resolution. That being said there still has to be some kind of closure, even if its doubt. But at its best, theater continues to engage audiences and makes them think about these great questions. When you think about Syria, there are no quick and easy answers. There is no easy solution. The situation over there really typifies the sort of moral, ethical and political ambiguity that we as a country are in. Great theater actually posses very tough and sometimes unsolvable problems for an audience. And yet when you are sitting there as a member of an audience, its very involving because there are characters that you can either identify with through their human qualities and as a result you are engaged in the play, as we are in real life occurrences that are taking place now.

RG: L.A. Theater Works brought Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon's Papers to China recently. How did that turn out?

SAL: We were in China in both 2011 and 2013. We brought a play; a docu-drama about the Washington Post's decision to publish the Pentagon's papers -- a play about freedom of the press to China, which was quite a challenge. One thing of note was that the entire audience was 35 years and under! And that was the audience we wanted to reach. Most of the audience was able to follow the play without the use of subtitles, and it made a huge impression on them. That generation is China's future. Our radio show is on in China every day now. They have been carrying it for everyday as opposed to once or twice a week. And so these are plays that allow for us to interact with this community of younger people. The first time we showed Pentagon Papers we almost got shut down on more than one occasion. But to close out, they wanted us back and the second time we were there we had no problems whatsoever.

 

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