Great Read: All his Silver Lake backyard is a stage
Roger Wolfson’s backyard is not unlike the others that dot this rugged Silver Lake hillside -- a narrow slip of grass, on a steep incline, with a distant view of the reservoir.
But Wolfson’s yard, unlike the others, also has a Roman-style amphitheater. And tonight, the recycled-concrete seats are filling up quickly.
“Welcome, come in, welcome,” the TV writer and producer says as he greets the 80 or so guests trekking from their cars and lugging lawn chairs, picnic baskets and bottles of chilled wine as if they were headed for the Hollywood Bowl.
Slim and collegiate-looking, with soft brown eyes and dark hair -- a matchmaker’s nice Jewish boy -- Wolfson clasps newcomers’ hands and squeezes the shoulders of regulars arriving at his backyard bowl, where he stages free concerts, lectures and Shakespeare plays.
The amphitheater’s benches, curved around a glass fire pit, are now almost full, and the grass behind it is patched with blankets and bodies. A shaggy, twentysomething couple lounge on a tattered quilt; a silver-haired woman in a floppy hat sits with a small dog running in tight, jerky circles; a child with frizzy pigtails balls herself up, transfixed by the audio friction coming from the amp adjustments.
Wolfson’s neighbors are part of the audience too. Up and down his street many are camped out on their porches or lawns, dinner on their laps.
Wearing faded jeans and a loose, untucked T-shirt, Wolfson, 43, takes the stage to introduce tonight’s entertainment but first asks for a moment of silence, “in appreciation,” he says, “for this bounty of talent and this community we have.”
He shuts his eyes and inhales deeply, holding the mic to his chest. Then he faces the audience, an expectant smile on his face, as he were a kid doing a living-room magic show, and says, “Please welcome Nadine Risha, everyone, a great talent.”
The singer, wearing a flowing print dress and performing with a guitar-keyboard duo, has opened for Sheryl Crow and Dwight Yoakam, and performed at the Kennedy Center. But here, as the sky fades from orange to deep purple, most guests sit a whisper’s distance from her clear, haunting voice wafting through the hills.
Los Angeles is home to all sorts of entertainment salons, from the splashy nightclub events hosted by Mindshare Los Angeles to readings and intimate music performances held at art galleries and private homes.
“Avengers” director Joss Whedon, who filmed his latest movie, “Much Ado About Nothing,” at his Santa Monica home, has hosted Shakespeare readings for friends in his own backyard amphitheater since the late 1990s. The monthly FRED Talks at the Santa Monica residence of LivingHomes Chief Executive Steve Glenn grew out of a yoga potluck and was inspired by the do-it-yourself TEDx initiative from TED Talks.
Wolfson’s events are equally ambitious and homegrown, very much in the spirit of the DIY, digital movement reshaping entertainment distribution.
“There’s probably more talent per square foot in Los Angeles than maybe any other city in the world,” says Wolfson, who draws on his Hollywood contacts and extensive political network from his past life as chief education counsel to the U.S. Senate Labor Committee to book his home stage, informally known as the Silver Lake Bowl.
“Anyone walking down the street is welcome to come in -- and they do,” says Wolfson, who makes no money from the events. He says he doesn’t even take a cut from the tip jar that’s divided evenly among unpaid performers.
The events -- even with 160 attendees -- don’t cost Wolfson much to produce. He offers no food or refreshments. And no special permits are necessary, says a spokesman for the city Department of Building and Safety, because Wolfson isn’t selling anything. People sign up on his website for a free e-ticket that offers directions to his front door.
Documentary filmmaker Mark Goffman showed his “Dumbstruck,” about the world of professional ventriloquists, on Wolfson’s inflatable outdoor movie screen. Former Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and “Glee’s” Stephen Tobolowsky performed monologues there for KCRW’s “Strangers” podcast. Wolfson’s summer jazz-at-sunset series has brought in acclaimed acts such as Duo del Sol, featuring Uruguayan violinist Javier Orman and guitarist Tom Farrell.
Tyler Spencer, an Oregon-based musician who plays the didgeridoo, created so much buzz during his performance that “Dexter” composer Daniel Licht got wind of it and gave him work.
“I ended up playing on the soundtrack of season six and on an episode of season seven,” Spencer says."I’m a total fan of the show.”
On a recent Saturday, Colonials: An American Shakespeare Company was staging “The Taming of the Shrew.” Italian filmmaker Antony Sestito, who was in the audience, happened to be in the middle of casting an independent thriller called “The Curse” and was captivated by the performance of 21-year-old Blake Sheldon, playing a small part as servant Biondello.
After the show, Sestito told Sheldon, “Young man, you have a quality. I see a career. Would you come in for an audition?”
Wolfson says he’s happy when that happens for the performers. But shepherding unknowns into Hollywood is not his aim.
“I don’t want to put pressure on the events or have the audience think they’re being used for exposure,” he says. “My personal goal is to give performers a home and an audience. And give people who live in other parts of the city, who may not be able to afford a ticket to the Hollywood Bowl, access to great entertainment. It’s about community coming together -- it’s what humans should be doing.”
Wolfson grew up in a relatively quiet New Haven, Conn., household with parents he describes as “loving but workaholics.”
“I was a lonely kid,” he says. “My sister was an introvert, I was an extrovert, and back then we didn’t speak each other’s language.”
Some of his proclivity for hosting, he says, might have come from this early search for connection.
Wolfson’s desire to give back might also be traced to his childhood. His late mother, an attorney, was active in women’s-rights issues; his father is a cardiologist who still volunteers weekly at a free clinic.
“They taught me the benefits of looking out for other people,” says Wolfson, who describes himself as “a vegetarian working toward veganism.”
“I’m not a doctor or a lawyer, but I want to be a pillar of my community too.”
Early in his career, politics was Wolfson’s path toward public service.
After college he went to work for now-former Sen. Joe Lieberman, a family friend, and soon became a legislative assistant for then-Sen. John Kerry.
“It was the ideal job for me,” Wolfson says. “Healthcare, education, housing, women’s issues, all the stuff I care about.”
Drafting speeches for Kerry, Wolfson fell in love with writing in someone else’s voice. Poems, then short stories, started coming to him. When he became a joint staff member to the late Sens. Ted Kennedy and Paul Wellstone, he took part-time classes toward a master’s in creative writing.
In 2002, Wellstone’s death in a plane crash led Wolfson to question his career path.
“I could have been on that plane,” he says. “People would have been able to say, ‘Roger loved what he was doing but wasn’t doing what he loved.’ That’s when I decided I had to try writing.”
Wolfson spent two years sailing up and down the East Coast on his 42-foot catamaran, writing spec scripts and working as a political consultant (Arianna Huffington and Al Sharpton were clients). In spring 2003, Wolfson moved to L.A. so he could pursue his Hollywood dream. Three months later, a “West Wing” spec script landed him a job on CBS’ “Century City.” Work on “Law & Order: SVU,” “The Closer” and “Fairly Legal” followed.
Living on his boat in the marina, Wolfson felt that L.A. needed more community. He started hosting free lectures and concerts at Marina del Rey’s Burton Chace Park. He’s rarely gone two months without hosting an event since, he says.
Still, Wolfson felt something was missing. “I wanted to get married and have kids, and I couldn’t find a woman who wanted to do that on a sailboat.”
When he headed for land and bought his Silver Lake home, his newly acquired yard was mostly barren. His uncle, an engineer, pointed out that it had the natural shape of an amphitheater. Wolfson broke ground on it the next day and relaunched the event series last June.
Noise complaints, surprisingly, haven’t been much of a problem.
“Only one of my neighbors has raised issues, and I’m working to accommodate that person,” Wolfson says. He’s started capping shows at 110 people and aims to hold no more than three events a month. He’s also focusing on quieter, acoustic concerts.
Attorney Rene Kern lives next door to Wolfson and loves the events. “My wife and son and I have a sneaky advantage. When it gets crowded, we can sit in our yard and listen to the music from there,” he says. “Also, my son’s a bit of an entrepreneur. Sometimes he’ll jump out and sell lemonade or cookies at intermission.”
Wolfson’s long-term vision is to create a citywide circuit of backyard bowls with free events run by volunteer hosts. His working title is the Community Amphitheater Association -- “the other CAA,” he jokes.
He may be on the way: Novelist-film-TV writer Gregg Hurwitz says he’s thinking of breaking ground on his own amphitheater, which looks over Mulholland Drive.
“I went to Roger’s and was just blown away,” says Hurwitz, who also writes “Batman: The Dark Knight” for DC Comics. “It’s never anything I would have thought of before, but we’re considering it.”
Expanding into low-income communities would be key, Wolfson says.
“When someone good comes to my house,” he says, “I want them to go to everybody’s.”