Almost two years ago to the day, I was sitting on the porch outside the house of David Fofi (acclaimed director and founder of the Elephant Theatre Company).Â I had just arrived back in Los Angeles after a four-month Canadian sabbatical of sorts in Nova Scotia, where I had been raised. Now I was staying on Fofi’s couch. In my hands was the play Under the Desert,Â written by Raymond King Shurtz. I read through the play twice that night and was so taken by it that the next morning I just hadÂ to get in touch with the writer.
But my preparation for producing and acting in Under the Desert, which opens this weekend at the Lounge, had actually begun on the 4600 miles-plus drive to Nova Scotia from LA.
Driving across the country, with no purpose other than what was directly in front of me, brought a freedom and clarity of mind about what I always had thought life to be –Â a series of choices. We must be responsible for these choices.Â If we take wrong turns, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. At forks in the road, we choose to go one way instead of the other.
After a day or so of being home (in Nova Scotia), I realized that this was not my place, as it had no purpose for me and what I wanted to do with my life. I then had to make a choice to either submit to the dismal failure that I had led myself to, or I would quit the job that a dear friend of mine had given me. The job was at his bottling and recycling company. There, I would spend 10 hours a day peeling back old wires, like shelling a lobster to get to the real meat at the core. In this case, the meat was copper wire. To many this had a great value, but to me the wire was, well, worthless, leaving only cuts and blood patches on my work clothes.Â A waste of my time.Â Maybe a waste of my life?
Four months later…I found myself on the open road for five days straight, headed toward LA.Â I remember putting my last $10 in the gas tank in San Bernardino and for the next 50-plus miles just speaking aloud to myself, to God and any other powers that be, “Please just let me get to Stella Adler”.Â The school, that is, in Hollywood, which is where I had arrived eight years earlier by Greyhound bus.Â I did make it to Stella Adler that night, and just as I parked, my Jeep stalled and,Â you guessed it, I was out of gas.Â But, my destination was chosen. I had made it. The choice was mine.
Cut to…a month later…I am now on the front porch of Dave Fofi’s, and in my hands is the script ofÂ Under the Desert written by Shurtz. He would become a mentor, a friend and an artist I respect very much.Â Again, destiny took its course, and I found myself speaking over the phone with Shurtz for the next few months, for hours each day.Â We would speak about everything under the sun and the moon, but ultimately we would discuss how and where we would mount the play.
Two months later”¦the desert…I am again in my Jeep, with the bare essentials, now driving through the Southwestern states making my way through the black night to what I would call my home for the next 58 days — the high desert in a small town known as Boulder, Utah.Â Here I would workshop the play with Raymond on the front lawn of his property.
We would perform the play on top of a mountain/mesa 1500 feet above the town. But as nature would have it, my time in the desert was up. The cold mornings had begun to freeze my hands and my feet. Again a choice had to be made.
I returned to Los Angeles, where I spent the next year and a half working with Fofi at the Elephant Theatre, managing the day-to-day operations. I slept there. Yes, I slept there for almost a year and a half. Was I testing myself? My passion for the theater? I can only assume yes. I didn’t act at all over this time period. But a few months ago I felt that I had earned the opportunity to play once again. The only play that I could think of doing was Under the Desert.
This play has allowed me to realize how simple life can be, but also just how chaotic it can be if one is willing or wants it to be. I believe that we manifest our own destinies by making or not making choices at the time that they are presented to us. This play delves into this exact theme, along with many others that are of a primal nature, but all of which stem from the one nutrient that we all need to live a life that is full. My definition of “full” is going to be different from yours, as we all experience life in a way that we choose to, and beauty exists in all worlds, all choices. It’s just up to each person to see it for what it is, for what it was and can be.
This play is without question a passion piece. More than that, it’s a piece that has allowed me to keep my word to Shurtz, as I told him the last time I saw him that I would do what I could to produce this play here in Hollywood. At that time I didn’t know that it would take all that it has.
My Jeep was recently hit by a drunk driver as it was parked outside the Elephant Theatre. But on the flip side I also didn’t know that my grandmother, who passed away a year ago, would also be attending the opening night of the play (my father has brought her ashes for us to spread and fulfill her final wishes). So at the end of the day, you take the good with the bad, as everything is just a brush stroke on what will eventually be your painting. Your life. I can only hope that the people who see this play will understand this. Not every play is written for the masses. But if we can touch one person, move that person to thought or even change, then we have done our jobs as artists.
Under the Desert, Lounge Theatre, 6202 Santa Monica Blvd. LA 90038. Opens Aug. 24. Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun 7 pm. Through Sept. 30. Tickets: $20. 323-960-7776. www.plays411.com/underthedesert.
***All Under the Desert production photos by Matthew Richter
Sean Thomas was born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia. After receiving his business degree, he abruptly bought a one-way ticket and boarded a Greyhound bus. Destination — LA, where he immediately enrolled in the Stella Adler Studio of Acting two-year program. After graduation, he was offered and agreed to direct and play two roles in Neil LaBute’s Bash — three plays for which he was honored with best actor and best director nominations from the Backstage Garland Awards. Since then, he has continued to bring stories and characters to life that he feels will move, invoke thought and (hopefully) change the hearts and minds of those whom the work reaches (Los Muertos, Junebug versus Hurricane, Burn This and The Chicago Conspiracy Trial).Â Recently, Sean spent 58 days living off the land in the high desert 25 miles outside of Boulder, Utah, preparing the role of “Tom” in Under the Desert, which was then performed 1500 feet above the town on a mesa/mountain to sold-out audiences. Since September 2011, notable producing credits include Baby Doll, Love Sick, After the Fall (Elephant Theatre Company),Â The Crucible (Elephant Stages – Lillian Theatre), and To Quiet The Quiet, (Elephant Stages – Elephant Theatre).