Monday, August 25, 2014

Interview with Christian Lebano

New artistic director of Sierra Madre Playhouse Christian Lebano is busy as director rehearsing 4000 Miles for its opening at Sierra Madre Playhouse September 26. Lebano talks about this play, this season at Sierra Madre and his role as artistic director, including his plans for the playhouse.              

What is your background at Sierra Madre Playhouse?

           When I first came to the Sierra Madre Playhouse as an actor to play the Stage Manager in Our Town, I had the same reaction to the building that a lot of people have. I loved that I was walking into a space that had been designed to be a theater, albeit a movie theater built in 1923, but a theater nonetheless. By the time that I worked at SMP in Our Town, the theater had already begun its transformation from its days as a community theater.  In that cast alone there were two actresses who had been on Broadway – one of whom had been nominated for a Drama Desk – so the attraction of the space and the company were working on other actors besides me. The coincidence of doing that particular play in this town (Sierra Madre is a lovely, quiet, and very charming community) made me feel that there was an enormous potential for the theater to become a real draw – almost a destination theater, if you will. I worked at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and the Utah Shakespearean Festival both for a couple of seasons years ago and both of them started the same way – as small theaters in charming towns.  Both of them also had leaders who could envision something larger and more substantial growing out of their intimate beginnings.

I was invited by the Board to direct Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind (artistic decisions were made by a smaller committee of the Board as the theater had been without an Artistic Director for several years.)  Directing this play allowed me to learn what producing a play was like at the theater and the challenges inherent in the model that the theater had been using. That play got an LATimes Critic’s Choice designation – the first in the history of the theater – which gave me some credibility. I joined the Board later that year and joined the Artistic Committee. 

What are the theatre's strengths and weaknesses?

It starts with the building and the location and our place in the theatrical community of the San Gabriel Valley. I believe that you have to assess your strengths and weaknesses before you can make any decisions.  Our strengths were in our location, the fact that we owned a lovely little playhouse, that our theatrical reputation had been on the rise, that we had a loyal base of patronage, and that we had a small but really dedicated group of people who cared a lot about the Playhouse and its future. Our weaknesses were that we didn’t have a “brand” that distinguished us from other theaters, that little attention had been placed on fundraising, that the old model of directors coming in and having free reign to make decisions that had a great impact on the theater as a whole (I likened it to occupying armies) made a unifying vision impossible, and that because of those factors there was no overall marketing strategy to get the word out about what we were doing.

What is your mission?

Our new mission is to celebrate the American experience in plays written by American playwrights and to put those plays in a cultural and historical context.  What better place to celebrate America than in Sierra Madre? Those plays will create an identity for us, one that fits beautifully with our location and will distinguish us from the other theaters with whom we are competing for patrons. 

How do you plan to carry this forward?

I have always felt that a theater has to look at the complete experience that a patron has – from his or her first visit to the website, to their interaction with the box office, the lobby, the program, the show and what happens afterwards.  That’s why I’ve been so big on our placing the plays in context and have made it part of our mission – we started with my production of Driving Miss Daisy  (our first Ovation Recommended play) for which we had a couple of symposia with Freedom Riders mixed in with songs of the Civil Rights movement, to the world we built around our first Field Trip play (a Series I created to produce school-day matinees) Battledrum, a play about Civil War drummer boys, which included talkbacks with Civil War Historians at every show, a beautiful study guide, and a wonderful lobby exhibit.To the lobby exhibit we have up for our first play of my tenure, 6 RMS RIV VU, which highlights the references in the play and has some fun interactive things (designed by Diane Seigel) for the audience to engage with.  The lobby is already planned for 4000 Miles, our next play, and we are now working on A Little House Christmas, our holiday offering this year. It adds another level of planning and deadline pressures, but I am convinced after seeing audiences engage with the exhibits that it is worth the effort.

Another initiative I started was a refinement to our Sunday Series which had been a really loosely structured series with occasional Sunday evening performances.  I set about curating it more aggressively.  The theater is a wonderful space for music and I thought a music series would be fantastic.  Last year I developed a collaboration with the Colburn Conservatory of Music in downtown Los Angeles.  I call that part of the Series “Emerging Artists in Concert at the Playhouse” and it features young, incredibly talented musicians making wonderfully beautiful music in our acoustically fine little gem of a theater.  The series proved very popular and is back this year with six concerts with the Colburn, two with Idyllwild Music Conservatory, and a concert featuring our new Resident Composer, Jonathan Beard.   With this series I am trying to link the music to the plays that we have on the stage at the time of the concerts.  So for this year’s Field Trip play Einstein is a Dummy I hope the String Quartet will feature music that Albert Einstein enjoyed – filling out the experience of that play.

Finally, and most importantly is engaging the audience with what we are doing.  We’ve been using the line “Come home to the Playhouse” lately – that’s just what I want people to feel.  I want the Playhouse to be a place our patrons feel belongs to them, a place in which they feel comfortable – comfortable to take risks with programming they may not be familiar with, comfortable to engage and speak up about issues that the plays may bring forth, comfortable encouraging other people to join in because they will be sure that no matter what the quality of the work will always be good – whether or not they like the play.  This is the key to my overall strategy.

Tell our readers about 4000 Miles and its significance to this season.

As I said earlier, I’m thrilled that we are premiering 4000 Miles. I thought the LA premiere would have happened at the Geffen or the Douglas, and I’m amazed that we got it and this play could really put us on the map theatrically. It is a beautifully written play and I’ve had enormous luck with the casting – Mimi Cozzens is playing Vera, the grandmother and heart of the play. Mimi has had a long career and has been on Broadway several times directed by the likes of Herb Ross and Gene Saks. Christian Prentice is playing Leo, her grandson. This play brought out a wonderful group of young actors to audition - Estelle Campbell (managing director) and I think it was the strongest showing we’ve ever had – a testament to the attraction of the material – and Christian is an example of that. He’s just so right for the role. The relationship he’s developing with Mimi is beautiful and funny and true. Susane Lee is playing Amanda, the girl Leo picks up in a bar and Alexandra Wright is playing Bec, Leo’s girlfriend – both of these women are remarkably good actresses and are going to be wonderful in the show. I’ve got a wonderful design team who are as committed to making this a success as I am and in whom I have the utmost respect and with whom I’m having a very happy collaboration.

More importantly, this show will let the theatrical community know that we are serious about broadening our reputation and ambition.  We’ve made it clear in our press releases and in our advertising that this is not a “family show” and though we have no intention of abandoning our commitment to families, we will have a range of shows in each season and this play will signal that.  I hope audiences respond to it as I have.

I’m one of the last of a dying breed – I really believe in theater as a place where good things can happen.   My goal is to remind our audiences of the power of live theater, of being in communion with a group of people sharing an unmediated experience, of the incredible thrill it is to be invited in to another world, to consider possibilities and choices foreign to our everyday experiences, to sit in the dark and laugh or cry surrounded by other souls.   That’s the real work of my position – and be it Neil Simon or Amy Herzog or Lee Blessing or any of countless playwrights and artists I hope to people the stage with – that will always be my personal mission and goal.

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