TV queen Shonda Rhimes expands her empire to include the theater
As if Shonda Rhimes didn’t have enough drama in her life — being the woman whose ShondaLand production company’s galaxy of shows has become the backbone of Thursday nights on ABC — she’s now about to fund more of it.
On the stage, that is.
Rhimes, the force behind TV hits “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” is looking to bolster L.A.’s theater community by becoming a “patron of the arts” for IAMA Theatre Company.
Her objective, she says, is to strengthen L.A.’s profile as a theater town — which has long been a matter of debate depending on your point of view in the community.
“I had been missing the world of theater here in L.A.,” Rhimes said in a telephone interview. “There’s a couple of very nice large theaters, but there’s not a lot of interesting small theater, like you can find in New York. And I was sort of craving it.”
The amount given was not disclosed. But the new endowment, which comes courtesy of the Rhimes Family Foundation, will fund a variety of company efforts, including the “Rhimes Unsung Voices Playwriting Commission,” whose aim is to help budding playwrights develop new stagings that have a special emphasis on culturally-inclusive storytelling.
“I think it’s hard for any playwright to find opportunities,” Rhimes said. “If people aren’t being included, then I’m going to find a way to make sure they’re included. I’m going to find a way to make sure they have opportunities.”
The writer-producer has recently amplified her philanthropic profile. Last year, she established the Rhimes Family Foundation, which gave $10 million to the new Smithsonian African American museum.
Her latest donation comes at a time when government arts funding is being threatened. On Thursday morning, President Trump released his first federal budget proposal that, if passed, would eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. IAMA has never received funding from the NEA, but the move would undoubtedly impact other cultural resources and programming in Los Angeles.
Now in its 10th year, IAMA has dedicated itself to producing young adult-oriented works that often speak to social problems through the lens of Angelenos.
The Los Angeles-based nonprofit was founded by a core of graduates from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts — among them: Katie Lowes, who plays Quinn Perkins on “Scandal.”
Rhimes was introduced to the company’s work after hearing about “Scandal” cast outings to see IAMA performances.
“I’d say, ‘Why am I hearing about these things? Invite me! I want to come,’” Rhimes recalled of playfully confronting Lowes.
The first invitation came last year. Rhimes attended the company’s annual spring 23 Hour Play Festival — in which short plays inspired by random topics associated with Los Angeles are written, rehearsed, produced, directed and designed in 23 hours. She has been a frequent audience member since. Last summer, Rhimes approached Lowes about getting more involved.
“She asked, ‘What do you need? How do I help this grow? What will make it last?’” Lowes recalled. “It’s probably the most game-changing thing that’s happened for this company.”
Fellow founding member Stefanie Black concurred, adding: “It’s starting off the next chapter for us and allowing us to turn this small business of friends into a business business.”
If people aren’t being included, then I’m going to find a way to make sure they’re included. I’m going to find a way to make sure they have opportunities.
The company mounts about about three main stage shows a year and two side events: the IAMA Holiday Cabaret and the 23 Hour Play Festival. (This year’s festival takes place Sunday at the Atwater Village Theater.)
“This new commission is devoted to the goal of getting voices heard,” Black said. “There are so many voices out there that aren’t being shepherded or nurtured. So many people do their dream stuff or their passion projects for free, and that’s not sustainable.”
Details about how the commission will work are still being finalized, but Lowes said it will start soon. As part of the scouting, the company will reach out to writing programs in schools across the country to find new, underrepresented voices.
Rhimes, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, said her motivation to support the company stemmed from the idea of wanting theater to always be available and accessible, the way it was in her childhood.
“I went to every play that came around our town, from the time I was little,” Rhimes said. “My parents felt like theater was a necessary piece of our culture growing up, it was the way of the world. I never questioned it.”
She staged plays in her garage as a kid and, later as a teen, volunteered at a youth organization called Aunt Martha’s, where she performed plays that were meant to educate teens on the importance of not using drugs or alcohol. While studying at Dartmouth, she was in a theater troupe.
“It’s always been a part of my life, and it’s never felt inaccessible,” Rhimes said. “And if I can help so that it’s not inaccessible here, great.”
Rhimes has already demonstrated her level of involvement with the company. She took part in the workshop of last month’s Echo-Park-set production, “The House That Jake Built,” which explored immigration.
But has Rhimes ever considered being a playwright?
“I think a lot about writing plays now because it’s new and it’s different for me,” Rhimes said. “I’m kind of busy right now, so I don’t know that that will be a thing that I actually embark upon. Until then, I’m just going to be a lovely patron.”
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