by JULIO MARTINEZ
‘Tis the season to believe in angels, and Sacred Fools Theater Company certainly has cause to affirm their existence — two of them, at least.Approaching a potential crisis of occupancy at its 88-seat home of 19 years, at 660 N. Heliotrope Drive (near Melrose and Vermont Avenues), Sacred Fools has now become the beneficiary of a new venue: a five-space theater complex located at 6322 Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. The venue is the former home of the Elephant Theatre Company, which vacated the building in August, due to a pending sale of the building to a neighboring school. Actor Bruno Oliver, who has been with Sacred Fools almost from its beginnings, and now serves as President of the theatre’s Board of Directors, explained the sequence of events that resulted in the space becoming theirs:
“There have been several periods over our history at Heliotrope where we have entertained the idea of moving. Many years ago in our relatively early history, we actually had a deal worked out at a building downtown, the old underground subway terminal building on Hill Street, but the other side backed out at the last moment. So, we just concentrated on doing the best work possible at our Heliotrope space and moved forward.”
And move forward they have. Since Sacred Fools was founded in January 1997 by a group of like-minded thesps in the Santa Monica home of veteran stage actor John Sylvain, it has managed to produce quite a number of good works over the years, garnering 94 awards, most recently a 2015 Ovation Best Musical Score nod for The Behavior of Broadus. Two of the company’s productions—Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara (2008) and Stoneface (2013)—moved up to large house productions. In fact, a re-structured Louis & Keely is in the midst of a national tour, opening at the Geffen Playhouse on January 6 and starring its co-creator, Sacred Fools member Vanessa Stewart.
This is an impressive accomplishment for a company that is primarily volunteer-run, populated by a non-dues paying ensemble, and founded with a loose-knit mandate “to support each other’s work and foster a safe environment where artists could take risks.” Then a little over a year ago, the members of Sacred Fools seriously started discussing making a change.
“There were some production issues we were running into,” explained Oliver. “And we were dealing with another rent increase. We were not in danger of being evicted and we probably could have worked it out, at least for another year. But it was a combination of these things that started us actively looking for other spaces.”
When Oliver and other members of the search team began looking, they were seeking out rentals. “We knew the Elephant space was in flux,” Oliver recalled, “and it was the first space we had wanted because it had everything we were looking for. We put that out of our minds when the Elephant went into escrow. We kept looking and soon realized that affordable rentals were just not there. And those that did have potential were being offered at exorbitant prices. There was no way we could afford those rents. And that’s when our benefactors appeared.”
“Bruno is referring to my parents, Patrick Duffy and Carlyn Duffy,” said Padraic Duffy, a 15-year member of the company, who has served as artistic director and is now into his sixth year as Sacred Fools’ managing director. “My dad is an actor and my mom was a ballet dancer. They have always been supporters of the arts and were actually thrilled that I wanted to be a starving actor. And, coincidentally, at the time we began looking for a new space, they revealed they were looking to invest in real estate in the Los Angeles area, especially if it was going to be utilized for artistic purposes.”
Since the company was no longer limited to thinking in terms of existing theater rentals, Oliver expanded his horizons. He recalled, “I looked at places south of the 10 downtown, in Frogtown, and up along San Fernando. A lot of them were intriguing in terms of their possibilities, but would have required a major capital campaign, because we would be buying a shell of something within which we would have to build a theatre from scratch. This is not what we were in a position to do. We were kind of stymied as to how to proceed forward.”
Then, at the beginning of November, Oliver was called to jury duty. “I was sitting in that jury room downtown with nothing better to do but to refresh my computer every few minutes. I was on one of the real estate sites and lo and behold, the Elephant popped up. I contacted the realtor and discovered it had fallen out of escrow. We gathered up our real estate people and the Duffys and immediately started the process. For obvious reasons, we wanted everything to happen very quickly. We put in an offer. It was accepted. We went into escrow and that closes this week.”
The new home of Sacred Fools is in the heart of Hollywood, and its very location at Lillian Way and Santa Monica Boulevard will designate it as an anchor to the five-block Theatre Row district. “Our last performances at Heliotrope will be on December 19,” affirmed Oliver. “Miravel will be our last mainstage show at 8 p.m., then our late night show, Serial Killers, will perform at 11 p.m., and that will be it. We officially move the whole operation on January 1, 2016. We are a volunteer-based organization, so a lot of us will be cutting our holidays short to make this move as smooth as possible.”
Once Sacred Fools has occupied its new space, there will be some obvious details to attend to. In a Q&A, Oliver responded as follows:
What will happen to Sacred Fools’ announced 2015-16 season?
Our plan is to continue with the next show of the season, Past Time, starring French Stewart, Leon Russom and Ruth Silveira, opening mid-February in the Lillian space, which for now will be called Sacred Fools at the Lillian. By the way, we have no idea right now what the eventual name of each space will be. And even though we are pretty much 100 percent sure how we will be continuing the rest of the season, we won’t really be able to announce it until January.
Once you make the move, you will have five performance spaces. How will these be utilized?
There are many things we are listing as TBD, including which spaces will actually be Sacred Fools production outlets. We want the spaces to enable us to grow as a company. That doesn’t mean we are doubling our programming and we are not just interested in managing our spaces for the purposes of rental income. We want to have levels of flexibility in terms of rehearsal and production spaces. At Heliotrope, we had to rent space around the corner on Melrose [to house] our office, our costumes, storage and a rehearsal room. So, in our new space, we are going be carving out this living space within the complex.
Will Sacred Fools be as active a participant in the upcoming Hollywood Fringe Festival as its predecessor?
We intend to reside in the Lillian space and manage all the other spaces. For instance, we do intend to make what space we can ready and available for upcoming Fringe shows. It certainly won’t be the volume of Fringe shows that performed there last year. That is not feasible—but not because we don’t want to share the space. There are issues with some of the spaces that have not been dealt with in years. But we do want Sacred Fools to be actively involved in the livelihood of the Theatre District and that neighborhood, as well as being involved in the success of the Fringe.
Are you at all concerned about the potential AEA referendum?
No. I am not a member of Equity. Sacred Fools opened its books to inspection when we were at our former space. Sixty-five percent of our revenue went to paying rent. We all want to move forward in the theatrical community to the point where we are compensating all our artists. This is not a “producers versus the actors” situation. In respect to Sacred Fools, the actors are the producers.
Where did the company name, Sacred Fools, come from? (**For this answer, I was referred to the company founder, John Sylvain.)
We stole it… kind of. Actually, a group of us had been meeting for quite awhile in the living room of my home, working on the structure of this new theater project and we decided to give it a name. Well, all of us made a lot of suggestions. Then we took a series of votes. This went on for quite awhile. Then this one actor, who shall go nameless, came up with Sacred Fools. We liked it. We had our lawyer do a name search. It was available and we legally incorporated it. So, the name was officially ours. Then, a few weeks later, this same actor who had suggested the name told us we couldn’t use it because it was the name of a company he had started in New York with his girlfriend and actor Jon Kellam. Well, they never legally filed the name, so it was our name. Jon was kind of pissed off at the time, but I’m happy to say we are now friends. It turns out Jon also named Wolfskill Theatre and Zoo District Theatre here in LA. But we are the Sacred Fools.