The Fountain Theatre, established 25 years ago, began, as many things used to do, with a fateful phone call.
Over breakfast one recent morning at a rackety Fairfax district eatery, Stephen Sachs, the Fountain's co-artistic director, looked as though he could still hear the telephone ringing as he recounted the origins of one of L.A.'s most vital intimate theaters.
"I was working at the time at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills," Sachs recalled. "I was there for almost two years, and we were doing 'Love Letters,' which was running forever, when I got this call out of the blue from Deborah Lawlor, who said that she wanted to start a company.
"Deborah and I had worked together on a project when she was an independent theater producer in L.A.," Sachs continued. "But she was in New York and had got in a very serious car accident. When she was lying in the hospital, she said to herself, 'If I survive this, I'm going to do what I always wanted to do, which is to have a theater of my own.' Thank God she survived. And she called me — I remember that phone call so well — and said, 'I want to start a theater. Will you run it with me?' I said, 'Absolutely.' "
The Fountain occupies an easy-to-miss building on a nondescript stretch of Fountain Avenue, the street made famous by the practical advice Bette Davis reputedly offered young actors with their sights set on Hollywood: "Always take Fountain."
Inside, with its folksy upstairs café and single unit men's room with delicate plumbing, it looks more like a private home in need of a gut renovation than a prominent theater and dance hub. (The Fountain, in addition to being one of the top five small theaters in L.A., is also the foremost presenter of Flamenco in the area.)
The moment Sachs and Lawlor walked into the building, they knew they found their theater. "There's the wonderful relationship of the stage with the audience that's intimate and embracing. We just felt that this was home," Sachs said. "We bought the building in 1990. We own the building outright. Smartest thing we've ever done."
Lawlor, speaking by telephone while at home recovering from hip replacement surgery, said that at the Fountain "the audience becomes a partner with the stage." A former dancer, she used inheritance money to purchase the theater but has shared its leadership with Sachs, whose theater backgound has been integral to their success. Sachs will be honored on Oct. 3 at a special event commemorating the theater's 25th anniversary.
"He has the business background to be basically the chief executive officer of the Fountain as well as the artistic skills, which is why we are honoring him," Lawlor said, before adding: "He's also a joy to work with."
The Fountain's mission has stayed remarkable consistent. "We originally intended the theater to be a safe harbor for theater and dance artists to create new work in a nurturing environment that would reflect the diversity of L.A.," Sachs said. "I think how it's evolved over the years is that we've gotten even more community focused."
Located between Western and Vermont avenues, the Fountain is at a crossroads of multiculturalism. "We're right in the heart of Little Armenia, so it feels very natural for us to be commissioning playwrights to go out into the community and bring back the stories of the shop owners and apartment residents, as we did in 'Little Armenia.' Our process for choosing projects for a season is about what community haven't we served and what issues are they wrestling with."
A prime example of this kind of programming is the Fountain's "Citizen: An American Lyric," which runs through Sept. 14. Sachs adapted poet Claudia Rankine's book of the same title, a series of prose poems grappling with subtle and not-so-subtle manifestations of racism in contemporary society.
Director Shirley Jo Finney, who staged the first two plays in Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Brother/Sister" trilogy at the Fountain (introducing L.A. audiences to this important new writer), infused the production with the spirit of a public reckoning. Her cast didn't so much portray characters as stand in solidarity with the nameless voices reflecting, mourning and expressing outrage over the micro and macro aggressions (from a careless bigoted remark to police abuse) confronting black people on a daily basis.
The aesthetic at the Fountain is poetic, but the governing sensibility isn't at all rarefied. The world doesn't disappear when you see a show there. Nor does the audience. The collective is always in view even when the language is transporting you to a higher realm.
"To be really honest with you, the moments that have been most memorable to me have been when a play or theatrical event become more than just a play," Sachs said. "When it become something sacred."
Sachs recalled a project at the Fountain called "Voices," in which people with HIV/AIDS were invited to write down their stories and perform them. The goal was to provide a platform to express what these individuals — and so many others like them — were going through.
"Many had never told their families or loved ones that they were battling this illness, so it was this secret they were holding as well as the disease," Sachs said. "But I'll never forget the way the audience leapt to its feet at the end of the performance, rushed to the stage and embraced the cast. I remember thinking this is why I do what I do."
Still an idealist after all these years, Sachs believes the theater can bring the marginalized and disenfranchised into the mainstream conversation. "When we did 'Sweet Nothing in My Ear,' the play that I wrote about the cochlear implant issue that was translated into sign language, it was more than just a sign-language version of a hearing play," he said. "It was a play written for the deaf and performed in sign language. And to see their eyes open as they experience a play about them and in their language for the first time is just hugely gratifying."
Reaching the deaf community was an early priority at the Fountain, which was instrumental in the creation of Deaf West Theatre. "We did the first three productions at the Fountain, one of which I directed," Sachs said. "I'll never forget being at Tavern on the Green in New York and watching them accept their special Tony for 'Big River.' I remember thinking, 'Isn't this miraculous?' It all started at the Fountain years ago as an idea."
A graduate of Los Angeles City College's Theatre Academy, Sachs was initially drawn to acting, which he pursued professionally for about 10 years before concentrating on directing, playwriting and management/producing. He said he and Lawlor multitask together, swapping hats and pitching in wherever needed. His profile as a playwright was raised with "Bakersfield Mist," which received a London production last year starring Kathleen Turner, but he's been writing plays all along.
His first season included his adaptation of Vikram Seth's verse novel, "The Golden Gate," a stage work described by Sachs as "'Thirtysomething' meets Shakespeare." And his play "Central Avenue" remains for Lawlor one of the treasured memories of their time together.
When asked to choose a highlight of the last quarter-century, Sachs paused a moment before bringing up the great South African writer Athol Fugard, whose play "The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek" will fittingly close the theater's 25th anniversary season this fall. The Fountain produced the world premiere of Fugard's "Exits and Entrances," which Sachs said Fugard entrusted to him after being impressed with his staging of "The Road to Mecca."
"I had been told that Athol never went to productions of his plays that were directed by other people, but he heard good things about our production of 'The Road to Mecca' and came. After it was over, I went backstage and told the actors that there was somebody I wanted them to meet. They were screaming with excitement when I introduced them. We all went out afterward, and I kept saying to him if you're ever looking for a safe environment to develop new work away from the larger institutions, the Fountain is your home. And one day he sent me an email with a file attached of his new play."
Sachs said Fugard used to come up on Fridays from his home in Del Mar to watch rehearsals and do a little bit of rewriting. "I have a very vivid memory of he and I being alone on the stage of the Fountain, with pages of the script strewn all over the floor. We both had our pencils out as we were going over a scene, and I just had this out-of-body experience of looking down and seeing how extraordinary this is."
The challenge of keeping the Fountain afloat all these years is equally vivid to Sachs. "There's a reason they call it nonprofit theater," he joked. "This myth that some intimate theater companies are getting rich and living off of the backs of underpaid artists is a complete lie," he continued in a more fiery vein. "It's a struggle, even for a theater as highly regarded as ours, to keep the doors open and to keep pushing forward."
Actors' Equity's controversial new agreement isn't scheduled to be fully implemented until next spring, but Sachs is gravely worried about its effect on Los Angeles' network of intimate theaters. "The Fountain will survive. The Fountain will go forward. But this proposal is crippling to our community. We will see how it's all going to play out, but it will really impact the kind of work we can do."
Still, Sachs' plans are if anything more ambitious than ever. His dream is to transform the Fountain into a midsize theater, and he's been talking to Councilman Mitch O'Farrell and Mayor Eric Garcetti's office about his long-range goal of finding a new home that could accommodate a larger audience.
"As you know there are a handful of larger houses, and then there's this vast network of the intimate theater community, but there's very little middle ground, and that's a place I'd like to see the Fountain fill. ... I would want to stay in Hollywood. My hope is that we can find a partner in all this development, rebuilding and revitalization of multi-use venues.
"We're expanding our board and getting more funders in place," he said. "A few years down the line we will be ready to go to the city and say, 'Look, this is what we want to do. This is our vision. Help us to make it happen.' "
Sachs uses the words "family" when discussing the theater's staff and affiliated artists, and in recent years this family has had to do its share of grieving. In 2010, the Fountain suffered the loss of Ben Bradley, a longtime producer and director, who was murdered in his apartment. And in 2014, Diana Gibson, who Sachs called the theater's "subscription diva," died. For many Fountain patrons, she was the presiding spirit who would unhurriedly usher them to their seats while rasping repartee.
This intimacy is precious to Sachs, and he doesn't want to lose it. The prospective new space "doesn't have to be huge — a 150-, 175-seat midsize venue that is vibrant and alive and showcasing the work of new writers," he said. "We could be the Manhattan Theatre Club or Signature Theatre Company of Los Angeles. This is an exciting moment of transition in L.A., and I want the Fountain to assume a leadership position."