As Rogue Machine nears the end of its fourth season, with the West Coast premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s Obie-winning A Bright New Boise, founding artistic director John Perrin Flynn exudes his customary passion for the group and its ambitious artistic goals. He also demonstrates a cautious optimism in his view for the future, despite trying times for all arts organizations.
Critical acclaim has greatly boosted the company since its inception. The praise steadily became more profuse for the company’s success with hard-hitting and cerebral plays. Â The group has also amassed multiple citations from local awards organizations, as well as growing audience support.
Last year, the awards wagon might as well have camped outside of Rogue’s Pico Boulevard habitat, at Theatre/Theater. This seemed particularly true for Rogue’s premiere of John Pollono’s dark and dicey working-class comedy, Small Engine Repair. The play will make its New York bow in May, featuring two of the original Rogue cast members (Pollono and Jon Bernthal), under the direction of Jo Bonney. The play is also in negotiations for a prospective film adaptation, which could be quite a feather in the cap for Rogue Machine.
Though last season elicited plenty of hurrahs, Flynn believes the current year feels like a company watershed of sorts. To start with, he finds it highly satisfying that all three mainstage productions in the season so far have garnered LA Times Critic’s Choice designations. He remarks, “It’s like being a baseball player going to bat and hitting the ball every time”. The icing on the cake, critically, was the recent crowning of the group as LA’s best theater company by Rebecca Haithcoat in the LA Weekly.
“We are artists who spend an inordinate amount of time on our work,” Flynn points out.Â “Sometimes, one might ask, “˜Should we be doing this?’ It’s true that recognition, like awards, can sort of pump you up to face another day. Still, it’s an epic struggle to do theater in this town.”
Flynn elaborated: “Part of our mission is to convince the community that theater is necessary — not just for Rogue Machine, but for all the companies. There’s a potential for theater to be more significant in LA, certainly artistically. We’re getting the community involved, but we’re not selling out every night.”
Rogue’s talented gallery of actors, directors, writers, and designers has developed a sense of esprit, Flynn says, because their efforts in tackling highly challenging fare have been so artistically gratifying. Meanwhile, the company’s talent pool keeps growing. Flynn notes: “There have been somewhat divergent pieces in our seasons, and all are not to everyone’s taste, but they all offer interesting central themes and heart, which is what we like.“
In addition, according to Flynn, the company’s board has expanded a bit this year, and a couple of “pretty good donations” have been very pleasing. “Not such that we’re happy,” he asserts, “but at the same time, not such that the wolf is at the door. At least I have not needed to spend 95% of my time trying to find more money.”
Since its 2008 bow with Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty, Rogue Machine has shared the use of the theater building with its original tenant, Theatre/Theater, the veteran local company run by Jeff Murray and Nicolette Chaffey. Theatre/Theater produces its own shows from January through April, or rents the space out, and Rogue Machine offers its fare the rest of the year. However, there has been occasional flexibility to accommodate some hit Rogue shows.Â The two companies pooled their resources for a major renovation of the facility, including a small black-box space, which has proven ideal for Rogue’s late-night shows and other second-stage offerings, as well as some of its major productions.
Flynn’s selection of plays for Rogue Machine continues to meet another part of the group’s artistic paradigm in offering works that make audiences “think and feel.” Aside from mainstage offerings, Rogue’s late-night programming has allowed plenty of free rein for actors, directors, and writers to take artistic risks, in original works, as well as highly provocative fare, such as Adam Rapp’s Bingo With the Indians and Joshua Conkel’s MilkMilkLemonade.
Small Engine Repair was envisioned as a late-night offering, due to its somewhat startling plot elements, but it rapidly broke out into one of the company’s biggest audience and critical successes, and is now on its way to an after-life. David Harrower’s Blackbird last year and Joel Drake Johnson’s Four Places in 2010 also received laudatory reviews and major awards.
Meanwhile, Flynn’s attempts to obtain the rights to important new works not previously seen in LA — world premieres as well as area premieres — have beenÂ highly successful. Â The company’s relationship with playwright Henry Murray has resulted in well-received and thought-provoking premieres, such as Treefall, Monkey Adored, and the currently running Three Views of the Same Object. Another fortuitous relationship was spawned by Rogue’s recent production of The New Electric Ballroom, the heady and poetic Irish drama by Tony winner Enda Walsh (Once).”I now have an online relationship with him,” says Flynn.
“The same thing is happening now with the young writer Sam [D. Hunter]. Â I am astonished by how talented he is. He has great potential. His new play The Whale [is in previews] at Playwrights Horizons in New York, and will be produced at South Coast Repertory in March.” The play opening at Rogue Machine Saturday,Â A Bright New Boise, drew mostly enthusiastic reviews for the Idaho-reared Hunter in 2010, when it played in an 89-seat theater in New York.
What is it about Boise that appealed to Flynn, who negotiated for rights to the work, and directs it? “It’s a play that cuts across the contemporary American experience better than perhaps any I’ve seen, in a very low-key, understated way. [Sam] creates this world where people work for $7.25 an hour, and only work 38 hours a week, because the companies don’t want to pay benefits.” Flynn adds, “Like a lot of modern comedies, it seems really funny for a while, but is actually much darker. The characters are all deeply seeking what their relationships with life are””what it all means””how to get from day to day.”
The main character, Will (played by Matthew Elkins) has fled his hometown after a scandal in an evangelical church, ending up in Idaho, hoping to re-unite with his teenage son and to wait for the Rapture. Flynn remarks, “I was struck by how Sam was able to just slice this character, and open him up so that we can understand how someone can believe in something so strongly that you are willing to hurt to hold on to your beliefs.” Also in the cast are Betsy Zajko, Erik Odorn, Heather L. Tyler, Trevor Peterson, Ron Bottitta, and Rob Dodd.
Flynn, who says he grew up in an “Air Force family,” was born in Oklahoma, and resided in several cities, moving to LA during the 1970s and working in 99-seat theater. In the early 1990s, he completely focused on work as a television producer (on Strong Medicine, Fantasy Island, and other shows). He met his wife, actress Ann Bronston, in a local production. She is active with Rogue Machine as well as Pacific Resident Theatre. Approximately six years ago, Flynn returned to local theater. He met playwright Pollono when he directed his Lost and Found at the Lounge Theatre. These kindred artistic spirits, plus other simpatico theater people whom Pollono and Flynn had met along the way, formed the original small nucleus of Rogue Machine artists.
Flynn’s long-term dream is for Rogue to be a midsize Equity-contract company continuing in its dedication to adventurous and challenging plays. He’s a huge supporter of original work, which is in line with Rogue’s overall artistic mission to offer plays in L.A. not previously produced here. Does he have any other dreams? “I hear some artistic directors actually get paid,” he quips.
A Bright New Boise,Â Rogue Machine in Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., LA. Opens Saturday. Sat 5 pm, Sun 7 pm, Mon 8 pm. Tickets:Â $29.99. www.roguemachinetheatre.com. 855-596-5185.