Q&A Artistic Directors of Open Fist & Skylight Theatres

This Week in Theater

by Rose Desena


Successful collaborations usually breed prosperity and creativity. If only our government could learn this lesson from the Los Angeles Theatre community! Two prominent companies have joined forces to produce good theatre, and to conquer some of the constant challenges presented to small groups in Los Angeles.


Skylight Theatre Company earned 8 Ovation Nominations in 2014 for their productions of The Wrong Man and Pray To Ball, while last year LA Weekly named their productions of Years To The Day, Open House and Sexsting to their Top Ten Plays list of 2013. The Open Fist Theatre Company is best known for tackling ambitious and often large-scale ensemble plays. The Company is a collective, self-producing artistic enterprise with all facets of its operation run by its artist members. Their name comes from two principles. The first is the notion that an Open spirit, embracing all people and all ideas is essential.


The second is that the Fist, a sign of determination and even force, is necessary for the theatre to remain a vital voice for social change and awareness. Both, critically acclaimed entities, are drawing strength and learning from each other during their current co-production of REASONS TO LIVE by Meryl Cohn. The play is being directed by Susan Morgenstern and will open October 25th, running through the end of November. This West Coast Premiere has all the indications it’s a “good bet” for local audiences, with lots of laughs.


I wanted to find out more about this successful collaboration and how it came about. Were they able to solve some of the problems that inherently arise when two professions come together to create something new? The two Artistic Directors, Gary Grossman (Skylight Theatre Company) and Martha Demson (Open Fist Theatre) were kind enough to share their time and some insight on the subject.


Rose: Is this your first collaboration together? How did it come about, and how’s it been going?


MD/OFT: Yes, this is our first collaboration together. I got to know Gary when I was invited to join the Review Committee, the group sanctioned to monitor and preserve the 99-seat plan in Los Angeles as it develops. When the Open Fist suddenly and shockingly lost its beautiful home in 2013, Gary reached out and proposed a collaboration. We each read a number of new plays that the other had been considering and selected REASONS TO LIVE, a lively family comedy that appealed to us both.


GG/STC: It’s the first collaboration with Open Fist, but not Skylight’s first. STC is a proponent of theaters joining together, sharing resources and ideas to create a more vibrant Los Angeles theatre community. After experiencing very positive and productive collaborations with Rogue Machine, we’ve just concluded a successful collaboration with Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble (another is scheduled for 2015). We’ve always been impressed with Open Fist’s work and when we learned that they had lost their home (a problem plaguing a number of our prominent companies), we reached out and offered to share our home with one of LA’s most exciting companies. We’re so happy to include them in the Skylight family.


Rose: What are the biggest benefits of co-producing with somebody outside of your own company?


Martha Demson: The biggest benefit is that it provides a crash course in alternate producing practices, as well as introductions to a host of new artists and relationships. Learning how someone else approaches 99-seat theatre production, not in an abstract conversation but as one is actually producing, offers an opportunity to expand one’s own capacity in exciting ways.


GG/STC: Sharing resources and ideas.


Rose: Please talk about some of the challenges you’ve had while teaming with another established theatre company?


MD/OFT: So much of the first-rate 99-seat theatre production in Los Angeles relies on the strength of repeated collaborations. The challenges in any first time partnership — whether it be with a new playwright, designer, director or producer — is that one needs to learn the other’s strengths and communication styles. Working with an established artist or an established theatre company means that you are working with someone who has a set of practices that have been crafted and honed over years. Gary and I have each developed our own formulas for successful producing, and while I wouldn’t say that either of us is set in our ways, we both have confidence in how we do things. Trying someone else’s methodology is always a bit nerve-wracking. But, at the end of the day, this coproduction has been very fruitful and enjoyable!


GG/STC: Like Skylight, Open Fist has established a successful formula for producing plays in Los Angeles. Each company has their own unique way of working and each has been successful at it. The challenge is merging management styles and sharing artistic responsibilities in a way that complements each other and enhances the production.


Rose: What can you share with new audiences who may not know your past work, but are thinking of checking out this play?


MD/OFT: The Open Fist has a long history of producing family dramas.  From the gut-wrenching and lyrical adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to the high-energy antics of George Walker’s Escape from Happiness, the ability of the Open Fist family of actors to bring other families to life on stage has been well established. REASONS TO LIVE is about a family, it’s a funny, quirky, and ultimately touching piece.


GG/STC: Our mission is to develop and produce new, exhilarating works while nurturing and educating the writers who create them. We’re a family of vibrant artists giving voice to original perspectives of today’s world.


Rose: What’s next?


GG/STC: We begin our 2015 season in January with the World Premiere of Disconnection by Allen Barton, author of Skylight’s 2013 hit, Years To The Day. In February we launch the first leg of a six-city rolling World Premiere of Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea by Nathan Allan Davis. He’s a truly unique voice in American theatre, and this play will be Skylight’s second collaboration with Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble.

REASONS TO LIVE opens October 25th and runs at 8pm Fridays and Saturdays, 3pmon Sundays through November 30, 2014. The Skylight Theatre is located at 1816 1/2N. Vermont Ave, LA, 90027. Tickets are $30. Reservations: 213-761-7061 or online athttp://skylighttix.com


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