Young Jonas lives in the perfect community. There is no pain, no unhappiness, no war, no stress — there is also no joy nor any other emotion. The society is planned at every moment — no one need make choices in life as everything is determined.
Jonas is the central character in the world of novelist Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newbery Medal-winning The Giver, a youthful variant in the literary tradition of 1984 and Brave New World, in which the comforts of utopian society hide the evil that created it. Though the book was controversial and often banned, it became an international phenomenon. A successful stage production of the novel, adapted by Eric Coble, premiered five years ago at Oregon Children’s Theatre in Portland and has become a popular theater piece for young people.
In Southern California the Phantom Projects Theatre Group has a long history of touring schools with important issue-driven productions. Over the past decade Phantom has developed a solid relationship with La Mirada Theatre of the Performing Arts. The company has created youth programming while also building a broader-based season to appeal to all ages.
Since its inception in 1996 and under the constant guidance of producing artistic director Steve Cisneros, who founded the company at age 17 with his partner, playwright Bruce Gevirtzman, Phantom has been a remarkable success. But nothing compares to the excitement the company has witnessed over its upcoming production of The Giver.
Cisneros explains they had originally planned only two performances — still a large number of tickets to sell in La Mirada’s 1300-seat house. “We announced the show back in September and sold 3000 tickets in about two weeks. It was just the response to the title. We planned two shows, now we have five performances and three are sold out.”
This event marks the maturing of the 14-year-old company from both artistic and business ends. The company started as a dream of the teen-aged Cisneros who was extremely confident in his abilities and already boasted a very intriguing professional resume. However, he was just out of high school and the business refused to take him seriously. He explains how he had to find his own way.
“I’ve been very lucky to have had a good deal of legit experience in theater. I was a stage manager; I had directed shows. I started submitting resumes to legit companies and would always get the interviews because my resume was so good. But they had no idea I was a 17 year old until I walked in — at that point I looked more like 15. There was no way I’d get work at that point. I realized I’d have to do it on my own.
“We started off by taking theater into schools. I called a lot of local schools. We did message based shows: drug and alcohol prevention, teen pregnancy, racism. We booked a five-month tour of Southern California schools in our first year. After two years we got involved in partnership with La Mirada Theatre who gave us funding to go beyond that and do other theatrical pieces. We started doing classics being read in schools: Our Town, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men.”
The relationship with La Mirada was born out of Cisneros’ pure fearlessness. “I just approached them. At the time La Mirada had plenty of children’s shows as well as adult plays and musicals but nothing filling that teen gap. I knew as a young person I couldn’t afford the adult shows and certainly wasn’t going to go see Charlotte’s Web. We wanted to see what we could provide to that late teen to early 20s age. As part of that series we bussed in middle school students to see our fully staged productions at a dirt cheap price.” The theater and the City of La Mirada that owns it agreed and provided generous funding.
Though he is artistic director and loves staging productions, Cisneros discovered in running a growing operation he couldn’t do everything. Fortunately he found a great artistic surrogate in director Janet Miller, to whom he has entrusted The Giver among other major productions including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which was a big hit for the company and will soon move to Santa Monica to begin a planned expansion into regional and national tours. The upcoming tour is the beginning of the next step for the company.
“Our goal is to start duplicating our season from La Mirada to other venues. We are trying to break out of the ‘niche’ of youth theater. We did The Bluest Eye last February at La Mirada and it was amazing. It was the greatest show artistically we have ever done and we are so excited to bring that to another area.”
While the company was growing artistically, it also landed a deal that would help it financially. “Kathie Gillespie, who for years ran her own business [The Costume House], made a generous donation of her immense costume inventory, appraised at about $500,000. So we have been renting them out across the country and in just 12 months we’ve had thousands of dollars in rental income. The costumes are all handmade or vintage. It is a huge element of our funding. With so many major theater companies struggling, for us to have this avenue of income has been fantastic. In addition we got federal funding of about $60,000 that allowed us to update all our technologies.”
Even with the success, Cisneros often finds himself torn between his producing self and his artistic self. “They are always fighting,” he laughs. “I hate having to balance those two things. It’s tough. The more we grow the more work the business side has to do. That’s difficult for me because I wish I could go back to directing more. Six years ago my days didn’t consist of researching liability insurance and property taxes. That just wasn’t what I was about. But now I surround myself with people who understand my vision for the company — delegating to them and seeing the excitement.
“Though I’m not directing as much, I am still involved in casting, production meetings, all the elements. Trusting people to carry on what the vision was in the beginning satisfies my artistic soul. Seeing people get excited about our productions makes me happy. Recently I went into a yogurt shop. I had a Phantom shirt on. The guy behind the counter looked at my shirt and said, ‘Oh are you with Phantom Project? I just saw the show. I thought it was so great — it’s a really good company.’ He had no idea who I was. That made my day.”
He does make it clear he will be back in the director’s chair from time to time. “The great thing about having a company is if I have the artistic itch I can just do it. There have definitely been times along the way where I was ready to throw in the towel. I just didn’t think I could handle the stress anymore. But the success we’ve had in the last three years has kept me going. Whenever I may be tired, I think about the fact I would let somebody else down who so believes in the company. I could never leave it in that way.”
The Giver plays Wed Feb. 23 at 12 and 7 pm, Thu Feb. 24 at 10 am, 12 and 7 pm. Tickets: $6-$22. La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd, La Mirada. www.lamiradatheatre.com. 714-994-6310.
The Bluest Eye opens April 8; plays Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm (except 4/24); Sat and Sun matinees, 2 pm,through April 24. Tickets: $22. Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd, Santa Monica. www.phantomprojects.com. 714-690-2900.