A New Theater Form Takes to the Streets of LA ““
Flash Mob Style

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Jon Rivera directs night rehearsal

On September 27, Flash Theater L.A., Los Angeles’ first full-fledged flash theater series, hits the streets ““ literally on Spring Street between 5th and 6th Streets ““ in signature Playwrights’ Arena fashion: hard-hitting, fast-paced, and without a moment to lose. Nor a spectacle spared. Flash Theater L.A. is the brainchild of Playwrights’ Arena director and founder Jon Lawrence Rivera, who felt theater was taking a new direction whether anyone liked it or not.

“The idea for me mostly is that I was very interested in theater that just happens instantly, without any kind of schedule or any kind of information really,” said Rivera. “There’s no schedule, so it’s not like Tuesday through Saturday at 8, Sunday at 3 ““ you know, whatever. Literally, the people would just be anywhere and things would just happen. So because of that idea, we wanted to do the launch right here on this street.”

The September event is a taste of things to come, a preview of 20 flash theater presentations set to take place throughout 2012, none of which will be announced. Rather, news of each performance will be tweeted just hours before the show.

“A kid  ““ or anybody ““ could be at Ensenada Restaurant, having dinner at 7:30,” said Rivera. “They get a tweet and it says ‘Flash Theater. Tonight. Spring and 6th. 8:30.’ And they go, ‘Oh my gosh! That’s in an hour. It’s right here. Oh my gosh! You gotta see this. I saw it on YouTube. Blah blah blah blah blah.’ They finish their meal. They come out. They expect something. All of a sudden ““ boom! Here comes the thing.”

But what is “the thing?” What is flash theater?

“When [people] hear [the words] flash theater, they’re not quite sure what that really is,” said Rivera. “The word flash is something that happens very quickly, like a flash mob, and a lot of it’s really based on flash mob except instead of us learning a dance step, it’s really creating a whole theatrical experience where there is text, there’s music, there is choreography, there is pageantry, there are rituals that are done. All these elements are put together.”

Essentially, flash theater is drive-by theater, happening instantaneously to unsuspecting bystanders. The form remains true to flash mob mentality, blindsiding whomever might be in the area with song, dance, or other handcrafted, choreographed art. In this case, it’s all of the above.

So, here’s the skinny — at 8:30 pm, four cars pull up along either side of Spring Street. Four couples emerge, proceed to fight, a musical number breaks out with nuns on bicycles, followed by a spectacle involving homeless people and candelabras, succeeded by a pageant of 20 couples performing 21 different wedding rituals and a performance by the Gay Men’s Chorus from the balcony of the Alexandria Hotel. Give or take a song or two.

Members of the company rehearsing Flash Theater L.A.; Photo by Playwrights Arena

“It’s like one thing after another. The nuns will come in. They’ll do the song here. They’ll sing that and bicycle off again. All of a sudden, the candelabras come to life and they sing the song,” said Rivera. “Then after that, the Gay Men’s Chorus comes out of the Alexandra Hotel ““ on the balcony ““ they come out and they’re starting a song. Then a gospel choir sings over here…12 minutes after that, we just disappear.”

Poof! Just like that. That’s flash theater.

Although it sounds off-the-wall, it’s actually timely, given how much social media have grown over the past five years. Yet it’s even more than that. Rivera thinks it would take something as immediate, interactive, and as time-sensitive as this to ensure the longevity of theater in Los Angeles by appealing to younger audiences.

“I feel that a lot of the young people who are all invested in their Twitter accounts, into their Facebook and all that stuff, they’re not interested in ‘Oh, there’s a show that runs blah blah blah at the Mark Taper Forum. Tuesday to Thursday ““ whatever. Right? That scheduled thing, that’s a formality that was created many, many years ago, and I’m not saying it doesn’t have any room at all. That should exist and continue to exist,” Rivera explained. “ I just feel like the young kids don’t care about an eight-week run of any show. The thing for them is the immediacy of things. When they go to Twitter and say, ‘Oh my gosh. Justin Bieber is going to be at Barnes and Noble ““ oh my gosh!’ They just go. So, I said, ‘To really capture that kind of excitement with the young, we have to do it the way that they think about stuff.'”

Just three months ago, Rivera embarked on the battle to revive theater among the young by enlisting about 100 actors from the Playwrights’ Arena contact list. When he explained the project, it garnered the same response:  Flash theater? What’s that?

Director Jon Rivera with Christian Le Blanc

Nonetheless, having worked with many of these actors and actresses in the past, Rivera knew the cast was like-minded. They knew he was on to something. A month later, Rivera had the makings of flash mob theater.

“Two months ago I said, ‘Meet me on Saturday at [Los Angeles Theatre Center] at 3, and I want to talk to you about this project that I’m doing.’ I told them this when they all came to the meeting. I said, ‘Oh my gosh. I can’t believe how many of you showed up!’ said Rivera. “They were all very excited about it and go, ‘Wait a minute. What is it again? You want to do what? Outside and site-specific?’…from there I asked them to really think about it and then they became the core group of actors.”

Flash theater has been attempted in LA — a collective called New Renaissance produced a few events about five years ago. But it never garnered the support that is behind Playwrights’ Arena. In addition to 100 actors, singers and dancers, 20 familiar names ““ Luis Alfaro, Boni B. Alvarez, Alison de la Cruz, Evelina Fernandez, Tony Foster, Prince Gomolvilas, Velina Hasu Houston, Michael Kearns, Lucy Kim, Leon Martell, Gene Franklin Smith, and Bernardo Solano, just to name a few ““ join the roster of playwrights providing text for the 2012 flash series. The playbill for the September premiere includes text by the company and the talents of young soap opera actors Christian Le Blanc and Michelle Stafford.

Flash Theatre L.A.

Flash theater is as much for theater itself as it is for those who watch it. Theater aficionados do not live forever. Eventually, the next generation will rise and take their place.

“I’m not sure that it will have that exact effect that I want, but what I hope will happen is that the young kids will really get excited about the form, about theater, about the onset of ritual, music, and text. That they get excited about it enough that they will be invested at least to see the next few flash theater [shows],” said Rivera. “What happens is that these kids who are 16, 17, 24, 25 ““ at some point they will transition into moving into the theater. But what I want to do, what I want flash theater to do, is to get them excited so that they don’t get to 24 [or] 25, then go, ‘I’ve never seen theater. I don’t know what it’s about.’ I meet so many kids now when I teach at USC or if I’m directing at CalArts ““ some of the kids that I hear go, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen live theater.’

As driven by time and technology as this viral age can be, the masses are still looking for art, but in new ways. Fortunately, art has a tendency to adapt to change. In fact, the future of interactive, localized performance may be just around the corner.

“At some point, we’re going to come up to [the] theater [and] it’s [going to be] just like how people decide on who’s the winner for America’s Got Talent. We’re going to have keypads in each theater and we’re all going to decide how the play’s going to end,” Rivera speculated. “At intermission, you press [a button]. There is something about the culture where they want to have control over what happens and I feel like at some point there’s going to probably be some lever that people decide ““ does [this character] die or live? They’re going to decide, so that they have a say in what happens.”

Flash Theatre L.A.

But what Rivera wants people to know right now is that theater is not dead, and the City of Angels’ various enclaves of artists and dream chasers are alive and well.

“Theater is alive and theater artists are here. They’re working and they’re doing the work of an artist. Sometimes they just don’t know that it exists because it’s buried in a theater somewhere. That’s what I want them to know ““ that we are here and that we are working,” said Rivera. “We are many colors, many shapes and sizes and we’re out here and hoping they would actually jump in and say, ‘Yeah. Alright. Excellent. What else can I see [like] this work?’ That’s what I would like them to think about.”

** All Flash Theatre L.A. photography by Julie Anderson/JR Anderson Photography (unless otherwise noted)

Flash Theater L.A.,  Spring Street between 5th and 6th (the LATC block), Sept 27, 8:30 pm. After the initial performance, information about subsequent performances will be accessible only by following Flash Theater L.A. on: twitter.com/#!/flashtheaterla or www.facebook.com/pages/Flash-Theater-LA/

Stephanie Jones

Stephanie Jones