by MICHAEL VAN DUZER
Two days of rain in early January brought not the anticipated El Niño deluge, but a cleansing shower. By the afternoon of the third day, the threat had passed. The clouds were white, the air was brisk, the sun bright, and the palm trees stood out against an atypically crystal blue Los Angeles sky. A real Chamber of Commerce day.
Inside the Fountain Theatre Cafe, a group of creative artists gathered, shucking their jackets and greeting each other with affectionate camaraderie. Actors, director, producers, playwright, tech crew, and one curious interloper from @ This Stage gathered for a design meeting and the first reading of Stephen Sachs’ new play, Dream Catcher.
Sitting down at a series of contiguous tables, the group inquired of each other’s holidays, cracked jokes and opined about the apparently sensational wonton soup at a nearby Chinese restaurant. But underneath the relaxed banter throbbed an insistent thrum of anticipatory electricity. Some of the brightest lights in local theatre were about to begin work on a new project.
Of course, the first reading is far from the beginning for any play. All stories begin with an inspiration. For Sachs, this came in the form of an article in the Los Angeles Times, detailing the suspension of a multimillion-dollar solar energy station in the Mojave Desert. Fragmentary human bones had been found buried at the heart of the construction site, indicating the presence of an ancient Native American burial ground.
Sachs recalled his first reaction. “The fact that a handful of a few tiny fragments could bring down an enormous billion-dollar corporation was mind-blowing,” he said. His second reaction was to realize that this story had all the elements of a potent drama: high stakes, passionately held beliefs, contrasting world-views, and an inherent conflict that was both engrossing and timely.
Even more compelling for a writer was the fact that, although a Science vs. Spirit debate might sound dry or abstruse, this particular conflict was dynamic and easily comprehensible. “The issues were not black-and-white, and both sides seemed right,” Sachs explained. “How can wanting to save the planet be bad? How can fighting for what’s sacred be wrong?”
Sachs opted for ultimate simplicity by paring the cast down to two characters, male and female, facing off against each other in a barren desert landscape. Roy is a white scientist. Opal, who discovered the bones, is a member of the Mojave Tribe. Sachs cleverly ups the dramatic ante by revealing that the two are also lovers. “My goal is to wrestle with these very large issues of planet and spirit within the context of the relationship and conflict between these two people,” he said. “And, in the process, make it ultimately not about these larger issues at all. To somehow interweave it with the struggle of how we see ourselves as human beings.”
Sachs worked on Dream Catcher for about two years, between other assignments. Unlike most playwrights, his position as Co-Artistic Director (with Deborah Lawlor) of the Fountain Theatre meant that he didn’t have to spend the next two years trying to interest producers in mounting the show. But, not surprisingly, the play parallels the Fountain’s creative mandate, as lead producer Simon Levy explained: “The primary mission of the Fountain is to give voice to contemporary playwrights writing about important social and political issues that impact or reflect the various communities in Los Angeles. Dream Catcher is a perfect fit because it explores issues important to the Native American communities, as well as the on-going conversation/debate about global warming and climate change.”
Around the tables in the Cafe, notebooks and interestingly personalized versions of the script were making an appearance among the coffee cups. No announcement had been made, but it was clearly time to begin. After making sure that he had greeted everyone individually, Cameron Watson, the production’s director, took his seat.