by Ed Rampell
Since 2008 John Perrin Flynn has produced all of the main stage productions of Rogue Machine Theatre, one of 2017’s most Ovation-nominated intimate theatre companies, which is competing with large theatres in categories such as Best Season, Direction of a Play, and a dozen or so others.
Rogue Machine Theatre has earned a reputation as one of L.A.’s most boundary-pushing companies. Now the resident of the Hollywood-based, 99-seat MET Theatre’s mainstage, RMT’s current home base is located near – but not exactly a part – of Theatre Row on Santa Monica Blvd. – which seems like an apt metaphor for the independent-minded outfit.
As a part of @THISSTAGE’s 28th Annual Ovations Series, Flynn recounts his early life, what led him to the stage, and the formation of Rogue Machine Theatre.
John Perrin Flynn: Early Life
I was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. My mother remarried when I was five – she married an Air Force pilot. I lived in eight different places… a typical gypsy life of someone in the armed forces.
I was a lost child. As a young adult I hid from the world in books. That became probably the basis for my lifelong affinity for observation and storytelling.
I was drafted during the Vietnam conflict and spent a couple of years in the Army. I was lucky – I was just sent to Germany, instead of Vietnam. When I got out I was not so much a lost youth anymore; I did what I needed to. I changed my life – there was no one who was going to do that for me, so I did it myself.
I went back to college, junior college in Colorado for a year, which was where my mother and her husband and my brothers and sisters were living. I tried out for the first play and got cast in the lead… of an early Vietnam play… and sort of fell in love. At the time I was trying to figure out what kind of career I should have – I had skills in math and science, as well as English. There was a time when I had three different careers moving… the third of which was an offer to go to a school in the Midwest called Stevens College, an all girls school. But… there were 15 men in the school, all actors or dancers, to make it possible to have a viable theater program. I took that, much to the chagrin of the other people offering me the other things. [Laughs.] The die was cast.
I’ve stayed in the storytelling business most of my life. I did exploit that scientific side later – I became a producer, mostly of television. I was the nuts and bolts producer in charge of the budgets and supervising directors. I was doing a TV show called Strong Medicine for Lifetime at Sony and produced that for six years.
When that was over, two things happened. Everybody I knew from six years ago retired or was gone from the business, so I had to start all over again. That had been a good run, but I was tired and my wife, Ann Bronston, who’d seen Small Tragedy by Craig Lucas in New York, said it is remarkable and should be looked at if you really want to do plays again. I was represented by the same agency Craig was… and I got the rights. I had not done theatre for about 20 years…
I approached Ron Sossi [Odyssey Theater’s Artistic Director] and he said, “Let’s do a reading.” We did, but Ron said he wouldn’t produce it until February, and it was July. I was going up for interviews for TV gigs, but I saw this ad… “Writer looking for director.” …Usually, that kind of script is very well meaning but not very well put together. I was so bored, I responded, and he sent me the script. It was Lost and Found, John Pollonno’s first play. I read it, called him immediately and said, “Yes, I’d love to direct it.” …It showed immense talent.
In between waiting to do the play at the Odyssey I directed John’s first play and we rented the Lounge Theatre. I ran into the fact that at that time it was very hard to sell a world premiere. If you have no history in theatre it’s very hard to get critical attention – I’d run a theatre in L.A. before I got into television, called Theatre Exchange, in the late seventies. So that was too long ago.
We did that show; we did [Small Tragedy] at the Odyssey – it was pretty successful, it got nominated for an Ovation for Ensemble. Ron said, “Is there something you want to do next year?” I brought him two world premieres and a play that had been done in New York. He said – he’s changed, so I’m not calling him out here – but at the time he said, “We don’t do new plays because I always lose my shirt.”
There was a certain kind of play that wasn’t getting enough play in L.A. – plays that are more challenging, that are reflective as plays should be of the culture and state of the culture and how we live and why we live the way we live. That, you know, ask some pretty tough questions. So I began to think about should we start another theatre.
During this time I saw Matt Elkins [who later co-starred in RMT’s Cock] and Tracy Blackwood do The Turn of the Screw as a small piece …at Pacific Resident Theatre. My feeling was, if there’s these kinds of talent in this town willing to do theatre we can find a way to produce this kind of plays, particularly new plays. We’ll overcome the prejudice of… a number of companies they said was inherent with the ability to do theatre in this town. So we began to talk and I put together groups of people from my life… and began talking about should we create another theatre in this town? It was very serious, because we felt there were too many theatres – and I don’t mean this harshly, but too many theatres existed to serve the artist and not the community that comes to the theatre.
While we were having these discussions Jeff Murray at Theatre/Theater put an ad saying he was looking for producers to take over his entire space for three months… He matched us 50-50 to redeem the theatre… The first year we did three plays, including the second world premiere by John Pollanno [Razorback]. And that group of people – originally there were 60 or 70 people – became the company that is Rogue Machine.
We started actual production in 2008.
We produce new plays and plays that are new to L.A. We’re also keenly interested in developing a younger adult audience for the theatre. So to a certain extent we program with the idea of finding plays that will speak not only to those of us who are not in that generation but to the younger generation.
…Certainly part of the reason Rogue Machine exists is to create an opportunity for emerging playwrights who might not otherwise ever be able to break through the barriers that exist now at larger regional theatres and other places… It’s a real problem because what’s happened in theatre in the U.S. is there’s tremendous financial pressure. You look at these large institutions and many have yearly budgets in excess of $20 million. Very difficult to convince your board of directors to take a chance on producing a play by an unknown playwright when you can do a new play by Paula Vogel [How I Learned to Drive] or Sam Hunter [Pocatello] or someone who’s already a proven commodity. The opportunity for playwrights to experience production, which is integral of creating a career…. is just drying up. And one of the main reasons we came into existence is to offer playwrights this platform.
What’s in a Name?
If you have a network of computers that are internally connected and create their own computer world – these kinds of computer systems work in large businesses and government, anywhere there’s that need for data – a “rogue machine” in such a system causes mischief. We thought that if you take a step back and look at culture, art, it’s something that often causes mischief, questioning of the everyday status quo, that’s the way things work.
If your purpose is only to entertain and to soothe, that’s a noble pursuit as well. But I believe theatre is art and art’s purpose is to hold a “mirror up to nature,” as Willy [Shakespeare] says [in Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2]. And to make us think, and question who we are, what we’re becoming, how and why we are becoming that. For us, we’ve always wanted to create art and be artists. Sometimes we actually achieve it; sometimes we fail – but we try to fail spectacularly.
“The Play’s the Thing.”
This is a philosophy of Rogue Machine. Again, it isn’t meant to be the only way theatre should be… For us, we believe that the play is what is what determines the work. What I’m trying to say is… there are thousands of choices that get made in creating and producing a play, you make with the best intention of serving the play and not serving oneself and one’s company. There’s nothing wrong with companies that choose plays that are good because they offer roles to members… All that’s wonderful, [but] it’s not who we are. … We were at some pains to make sure our company understood that we’d be making our decisions based on what we think is best for the play – which is not always right, but you’ve got to follow your artistic impulse and intuition and not because so-and-so hasn’t had a part for two years, so we need to give them a part, find a play they can be in.
It all comes back to we’re trying to create a theatre that speaks to a community, that creates a dialogue within a community. Art, particularly theatre, gives testimony, it explores the meaning of life, it’s an attempt to discover… the ever-changing, elusive truth…
The 28th Annual Ovation Awards
First of all, I’m always grateful for recognition… We’ve won the Best Production Ovation three times, I think, in the last six years. What’s become very important to me is the nomination – that’s the recognition. Everybody who gets nominated usually has put in a great deal of work and achieved something kind of spectacular. They’re always so different – I just don’t know how you say this one is better than that one. The truth is the Ovation Awards are numerical… All the nominees deserve accolades. Hopefully, in the end, awards aren’t about making you feel superior or verifying what you always thought, that you’re really good.
Hopefully, they’re about drawing some kind of attention from the larger community, which is a real problem in L.A. that all small theatres face. We need to somehow get better known. We’re a treasure trove – not just Rogue Machine, there are 10, 15 theatres that are cultural treasures, and they’re practically unknown by the community they’re situated in. You hope these awards ceremonies, somebody will read in the newspaper and say, “Huh, I should go see that.”
Rogue Machine Theatre is located at The MET, 1089 N Oxford Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029. Reservations: (855)585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com.
RMT’s bled for the household truth runs through January 28th. Performances 8:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays & Mondays, and 3:00 p.m.