Playwrights’ Arena Takes Over Hotel for Immersive Theatrical Experience

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interview by MICHAEL VAN DUZER

I’m sitting in the lobby of the USC Radisson waiting to interview Jon Lawrence Rivera. Rivera isn’t enjoying a staycation. His latest production, The Hotel Play, is an immersive theatre event performed in six poolside hotel rooms as well as the area surrounding the pool. The play also celebrates the 25th anniversary of his company, Playwrights’ Arena. I attended the production’s first preview on Friday night on and marveled at its size and complexity.

I notice Rivera enter the lobby, looking fresher than he has a right to after a weekend of performances. And there’s one more scheduled for this evening.

He spots me, and strides over. A compact, energetic man, he smiles a familiar welcome. I rise to embrace him, trying to remember if I’ve known him for only those 25 years, or whether it’s closer to 30 years than either of us would care to admit. Either way, he’s changed little.

We find a secluded corner in the lobby and, after a few minutes of catching up, we settle down to chat.

MVD: What was your original inspiration for creating Playwrights’ Arena?

JLR: It’s very interesting. We had our first show around the second week of April in 1992. We were only doing one production at the Gene Dynarski Theatre [a long-vanished theatre located near the intersection of Sunset and Western]. Two weeks later, we were doing an understudy rehearsal, and that was the beginning of the LA Riots. We came out of our rehearsal, and everything was chaos. Shops across the way — they were looting.

My then my founding co-producer, Steve Tyler, and I were standing outside of the theatre and we said, “You know, we really need to pursue making this company a more permanent one.” We thought we should continue this, and really nurture LA artists — playwrights — because the reason that we’re having this sort of problem is because no one is supporting the community.

So, starting in 1993 to almost 2000, we were at the Carpet Company on Pico. And that launched us. We created a lot of our work there. In that small 35-seat theatre. And I know you watched many of those productions. So, this was our response to the unrest — to the chaos that was happening around us.

Well, that segues into my second question. When did the theatre become a long-term dream? And, at the point you decided to move forward with it, did you ever see yourself, a quarter of a century later, celebrating this anniversary?

Within six months of deciding to do it, we took over the Carpet Company and started to plan a season. And then, Sylvie Drake [at that time, chief critic for the LA Times] — I was calling her, or writing her about Playwrights’ Arena and she said to me, “Well, that won’t last very long. Only LA playwrights, and only new work? Well, good luck with all of that.”

But I was determined, and thought we could make a go of it. 25 years later, I am still shocked that we are doing this. We still have the support of the community, and the support of funders and I think we keep developing and improving. It’s a hard sell. I wish I could do what some other theatres do, a couple new works, then a Sondheim musical and a classic. Because I think you can get the audience to say, “I want to see that Tennessee Williams, but then I’ll also see that strange Luis Alfaro play.”

A spoonful of sugar?

Right. But I don’t have that. I have all these playwrights that are LA based. For the most part, they’re unknown playwrights and that’s a hard sell. That’s why we’ve kept it small. The LA audience is not trained to go out and see new work. Even when the Geffen or the Taper do something new, that isn’t from New York, they have problems. New work is just a hard sell.

And that’s never changed? Never gotten easier?

It’s never changed. We made that commitment in ’92 to only do works by LA playwrights and we’ve stuck to it. The main reason is that I always wanted the playwright to be in the room for rehearsal. I want them involved in the production. So, if there’s a problem with a scene, if there’s something that needs to be addressed, they can come right away and have input.

You’ve touched on this a bit, but I’d like you to elaborate. How has the focus of the company changed and developed over the last 25 years?

We’ve really fine-tuned the way that we function. We know exactly what we’re looking for. We know exactly what we’re trying to say. The first few years, it was, “We’re doing LA playwrights. Well, I know these people, so we’ll do their plays.” We weren’t really saying that we want to address this issue, or anything like that.

But it worked out that a lot of the plays we’ve done over the years have really reflected the city. Now we’re very conscious about diversity. We’re very conscious of race relations. We’re very conscious of inequality. So, I think that a lot of the plays we’re looking at, touch on those issues. We like addressing them and really getting to explore how those issues affect LA audiences.

You mention issues of diversity and discrimination, and, from my knowledge of your history, and the general small theatre scene over the last 30-plus years, it feels like you were in the forefront of producing plays that put those issues front and center. Long before it was sexy or trendy. So, what—

Well, I think it’s because I’m Filipino-American. And I think my point of view is very different from my colleagues, who are white, male and, some of them straight, who have a different view. I think their default is always going to be — I had this argument with Ron Sossi, for many years when I worked for him. I’d say, “Let’s do this. And what if we cast an African-American actor for that role? And maybe a Filipino for —” And he’d say, “Jon, let’s just have everybody come in and whoever is best, is the best.” And I said, “I understand we want the best, but you’ll never know the best if you just say, we’re casting a male, 35 years old.” But, if you say “Male, 35, Pacific Islander,” then you’ll get those people in. But, if you don’t say that, who’s going to show up?

Too many disappointments. Too many times they’ve not been taken seriously.

Right. And then they say, “Well, no one showed up.” So, White is the default. For me, my conversations with my playwrights, especially in the last 10 years, are about how are we going to cast this? Jennifer Maisel wrote the play At the Speed of Jake. And it’s about a Jewish family. But we cast it with an Asian family. There are Asians who are Jewish, so we were able to create a world about this family who is Jewish, and lost a child, that’s now on stage with Ryun Yu as the father, and Elizabeth Pan as the mother. And there were very few people who questioned it, and the few who did, were white men.

So, I keep pushing those boundaries. I feel the world is more complex. It’s not just black and white. There’s a lot of gray that I don’t feel we address.

You have a history of stylistically diverse plays with wide-ranging subject matter. What makes a play a great fit for Playwrights’ Arena?

The first thing that happens to me, when someone gives me a script, is that I connect to it in an emotional way. Not so much in a heady way. I read it and I feel like I know these people. I know what these people are going through.

A lot that we’ve done over the last 10 or 15 years, are stories that touch on immigration, on displacement — people who are not part of a community. A lot of the plays talk about being an outsider. We did Bloodletting, which set in the Philippines and the brother and sister are displaced, because they can’t connect to each other. Or we did The End Time last year, which is about someone being in a cult, and it tears this family apart.

What was the genesis of the The Hotel Play?

About three years ago I saw our 25th anniversary is coming up. For our 20th anniversary, we did 20 flash theatre events, in honor of our 20th anniversary. But our centerpiece for that anniversary was our production of Helen at the Getty Villa. So, we’re turning 25, and I think, “What are we going to do?”

I remember that about 15 or 20 years ago, I saw a Danish movie, The Celebration. I remember thinking it was such an interesting idea. Watching this, I thought it would be interesting to do it live. To have people go from room to room where you hear all these stories. Then you come into a reception where the big reveal happens.

Through the years, I think about how could I do this? How am I going to get a hotel and all of that stuff? And so, when I was revisiting all the ideas coming up to our anniversary, I thought, “Let’s see if we can make it work.”

I first talked to several playwrights — actually, the seven playwrights I have now are the first seven I approached. I told them I had this idea: we have six rooms, and we have six scenes happening in those rooms which get integrated into the second act. Then I assigned six of them a room and asked them to create characters. One playwright, Paula Cizmar, was tasked with being the main architect for the second act.

For about a year, the playwrights worked on those characters. We got together and began to look at them and see how the characters might interact. And I kept thinking about what this event was. I felt it had be 25 — a 25th wedding anniversary, a 25th birthday… And then we all came ‘round to the idea of a 25th High School Reunion.

The question I had was, with the riots 25 years ago, where are we with race relations today? So, the interesting thing about our process is that we were writing it for the last two years and we were going towards a trajectory about where race relations were going. Then November happened. Trump got elected and we had to re-write the whole ending.

About a year ago, the playwrights had the stories where we wanted them to be. And I really wanted it to be more interactive, so that is why we have some people moving from one room to the other. Paula took all of them and began to work on that reception.

USC helped us with the hotel. Of course, we’re paying for the rooms. They didn’t offer things for free. So, a big chunk of our budget is going to rent the rooms. But we got really lucky having financial support from CTG [Center Theatre Group] and from USC. And that kept us going.

Our typical budget for a show is $15,000. All those budgets I sent you over the years, and it really hasn’t changed. Our bill for this hotel alone is $14,000. And I have designers and a crew, and I have 15 actors! CTG came on about a year and a half ago. I asked for commission money for the playwrights and they gave it — no questions. And then USC partnered with us, and gave us a big chunk. And we had a big year-end fundraiser last year in support of this. And I was able to add in grants from the city and the county and I saw that we could make this happen.

The only thing I couldn’t do is the 99-Seat minimum wage. When I talked to them [Actors’ Equity Association], I said, “For just rehearsals, for 15 actors, it’s $22,000.” And so, I have to go with a non-union — non-Equity cast. I just couldn’t afford it. But it’s been an amazing journey, and we got lucky with a lot of the support.

Let’s talk about the particular challenges of creating this immersive theatre event. I want to know about the timing issues for those characters who overlap scenes in the rooms.

Everybody says that. I had to rehearse all the individual scenes at LATC, because we couldn’t afford the rooms for the hotel. We were here the night before the preview. And then we had the preview you saw. But, during rehearsals, my stage manager was keeping track as we defined the entrances and exits of all the different people. And she could see if the timing was off.

If the timing was a minute off, we would have to find an adjustment. Either a playwright had to cut some, so that someone could leave earlier, or the other playwright would have to add lines to make the timing work. I would go back to them with suggestions on how to fix it. So, we’d get the timing down to within 15 or 20 seconds and that was good.

But we still never had the rooms to run the timing in rehearsal. So, when we checked in on Thursday, that was the first thing we ran. I have four Associate Directors and they have been eyes and ears when I’m on the other side. They’ve been in rehearsal, they know exactly what I want and how the timing goes. On the Friday preview day, we ran it four times and it worked. The SM is back in the hallway and when she starts the 10 minutes (each individual play in a room is exactly ten minutes), she has all the timing down to call the cues exactly. It’s been a very, very interesting nightmare of coordinating.

What other challenges came up with casting? Were any of the roles written for specific actors?

None of the roles were written for specific actors. The challenge we had was trying to be as authentic as possible. We were really trying to find a Korean-American actor in a wheelchair. We searched high and low and we just couldn’t find him. So, we had to cast an able-bodied Japanese actor for that role. But we were lucky to find a trans actress to play Ava. She was just reading the audition sides and suddenly we could see how she was so truthful and honest. She’s not pretending.

There was a scene in one of the drafts where she said, “I used to be one of the guys.” And she told the playwrights, “As a trans person coming into her first reunion, that openness doesn’t come easy. I can’t say, ‘I used to be one of the guys.’ We’re very sensitive about how we’re defined, and in an open setting. I would never say that.”

The other challenge is that I have seven playwrights, so each has 1/7th of the ownership of the play. Even though Paula Cizmar is the chief architect of Act II, once it’s done, everybody has input about their characters. And then Paula would have to revise and adjust. So, it wasn’t like dealing with one playwright, and you talk to the playwright, and they make the adjustment – done.

But that was a challenge in a good way. Everyone made an effort to be as collaborative as possible. And we made some conscious choices about three or four weeks ago, that some stories will just never have a finished thing.

You don’t tie everything up.

No, because we’d be here all night. And we also decided we could never completely address race issues. That’s a 15-play cycle. So, we just focus on what we want to say, and move on. Let the audience decide some things. If they walk away talking about race issues, then we’ve done our job.

You’ve nearly finished your first weekend of performances. Geography dictates that you can’t evaluate the audience experience the way you can, standing in the back of a conventional theater. How do you determine the success of any specific performance?

In this production, if the audience gets an experience. And that experience is beyond just being in a hotel, but is an experience about exploring ideas about race, I’m happy with that.

Radisson Hotel Midtown at USC April 1 – 16, 2017

Michael Van Duzer

Michael Van Duzer

Michael is an award-winning playwright and director. For over 25 years he has reviewed opera productions around the country for a variety of print and online outlets. During the past year he has added theater to his reviewing duties.