PM: Good morning, Ms. Loewenberg. Thank you for talking with me. I’d like to ask you a few questions about L. A. Theatre Works and the upcoming production of David Haig’s “Pressure.
SAL: I am delighted to be able to talk with you about “Pressure.”
PM: I have explored the company website and was impressed with what I saw and read there, beginning with your mission statement: “…to record and preserve great performances of important stage plays, using new technology to make world-class theatre accessible to the widest possible audience, and to expand the use of theatre as a teaching tool.” What, in your opinion, is being taught?
SAL: Teachers use our recordings in the classroom to bring a play to life in a way not possible by simply reading a script. Here is an excerpt from a letter I received the other day from a teacher: “It (“Raisin in the Son”) is by far the best recording I have ever found and I have used it in my English class for 10th grade students. My students benefit so much from hearing these talented actors perform it!”
PM: I am also impressed with the company’s history, how it started as a theatre company dedicated “to give voice to underrepresented groups, bring attention to new plays and playwrights, and produce plays that address critical historical, cultural and social issues.”
SAL: Actually, we started as a group of young actors, directors and writers giving workshops in jails and prisons. When we decided to become a registered nonprofit organization we called ourselves Artists In Prison. Eventually we began working with other underrepresented groups and then we segued into professional production and changed our name to LA Theatre Works. But, as you so aptly stated, the core mission has never wavered in that we choose to record plays in addition to the classics that “bring attention to new plays and playwrights and that address critical historical, cultural and social issues.”
PM: The company abandoned conventional theatre production in the 1990s in favor of recording plays “radio-style,” live in a theatre before an audience, the performances of which were then broadcast on public radio stations across the country, as well as released as podcasts. The catalog of over 500 plays are also available for steaming on the company website for the awesomely nominal sum of $4.99. All the plays are also available through iTunes and Audible, “and free to more than 13,000 libraries nationwide.” Producing a show, whether in a full-blown production on stage that runs for days, weeks or years, or even in a barebones staged reading, is an expensive proposition. How does the LATW pay the bills?
SAL: A good question! We are fortunate to receive generous funding from several foundations, including The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has enabled us to record over 25 plays with scientific themes. We are also generously funded by the NEA, The California Arts Council, and both the City and County of Los Angeles. And, of course, we have so many generous individual donors. We are doing a benefit this year honoring Kimberly Marteau Emerson and Ambassador John Emerson, two exemplary and beloved Los Angelinos. The theme is the Art of Diplomacy. We will be at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica on November 6. Geoffrey Cowan will interview the Emersons about their experiences as diplomats and we will present Lee Blessing’s brilliant play, “A Walk In The Woods” starring Alfred Molina and Steven Weber, which is about a Russian diplomat and his younger American counterpart during the Cold War.
PM: Does LATW have a resident table of performers that they can call upon, or is casting done in some other way?
SAL: We have worked with over 2,000 brilliant actors over the last 40 years. Most of them have done multiple shows. I think Ed Asner has done over 20. When we started the recording project in the mid-eighties it was due to a remark by Richard Dreyfuss who was a member of our original core group of 35 famous actors, including John Lithgow, the late Julie Harris, Marsha Mason, Helen Hunt, JoBeth Williams, Hector Elizondo, Stacy Keach and many other. At any rate, Richard remarked that he had always wanted to do a play on the radio. I thought that was an interesting idea, so I contacted Ruth Seymour at KCRW and we decided on the very ambitious project of doing an entire novel, Sinclair Lewis’ “Babbitt,” using all 35 actors. It took a year-and-a-half to complete and edit and in the end we had a 14-hour word for word, multi character recording, which Ruth debuted as an all- day marathon in 1985 and NPR subsequently ran as a national broadcast. Five hundred plays later, here we are.
PM: Is casting a joint effort, or does it rest solely in the director?
SAL: Anna Lyse Erikson, our Associate Artistic Director, is in charge of casting with help from me and her assistant, Stacey Martinez.
PM: “Pressure” had a troubled birth back in 2014 due to a “difficulty” in casting the leading role and according to Wikipedia, the playwright, David Haig “went on to play the lead role of James Stagg, himself, despite having initially intended not to do so over his fears that he could not play ‘a Scot authentically’.” Did LATW have any difficulty in casting?
SAL: Not really…we have a huge number of British actors here in Los Angeles and many of them can do a perfect Scottish accent.
PM: Why this play? Why now?
SAL: As you know the 75th anniversary of the D Day landing was just celebrated in August so we thought this would be an appropriate opening play for our season. I also think we need, now more than ever, to be reminded of the brave and wise leadership of a man like General Eisenhower and of the consummate professionalism of many of those, including our protagonist meteorologist who served under him and were inspired by his exemplary leadership.
PM: How did you decide on Martin Jarvis as director? What does he bring to the job?
SAL: It is always our privilege to work with Martin Jarvis and his equally brilliant partner in life and the theatre, Rosiland Ayres. Both Martin and Ros, in addition to being highly respected performers, are also considered two of the top BBC director/writer/producers. Between them they have directed dozens of plays for both the BBC and LATW.
PM: A scan down though LATW’s Artist Advisory Council reveals a stellar array of well-known individuals. What does the Advisory Council do?
SAL: The Council is there to make suggestions about plays we may want to record, and to suggest new actors we may want to engage. One of my favorite recordings came about from a suggestion by Matthew Rhys that we record “Under Milkwood.” As you may know, Matthew is actually Welsh although he has an impeccable American accent, his starring role in “The Graduate” being just one example. At any rate, Matthew helped us acquire the rights and then reached out to his fellow Welsh actors here in LA, including Kate Burton. The result is a gorgeous recording of “Under Milkwood” made right here in LA.
PM: I have been seeing notices of upcoming LATW productions for some time now and I am looking forward to experiencing “Pressure.”
Once again, thanks for taking time to respond to my questions.
SAL: Thank you!