“I must learn to love the fool in me – the one who feels too much, talks too much, takes too many chances, wins sometimes and loses often, lacks self-control, loves and hates, hurts and gets hurt, promises and breaks promises, laughs and cries.” ~Theodore Isaac Rubin
The survival of Los Angeles Theatre on Hollywood Row may not rest solely in the hands of one group. It’s a good bet, though, that the boulevard’s newest residents, The Sacred Fools Theatre Company, will help in elevating the Santa Monica strip to a new level of esteem. So far the Fools have made good on revamping the former Lillian Theatre as their main stage, an extraordinary iteration that revealed itself in March at the opening of Past Time, their first official production in the new space.
“I feel like it’s a pond where the water is lowering and the fish are starting to panic,” blurts Padraic Duffy.
But then isn’t that what an ardent enthusiast who cannot resist an opportunity to indulge an enthusiasm, in other words a ‘fool’, is? The company’s members and fans have certainly contributed a sort of zealous fervor to the Los Angeles Intimate Theatre scene, nearing a religion. And, Fools stands to benefit from the closer proximity to the Hollywood Fringe, being visibly the largest, anchor theater on the boulevard.
I recently sat down with Managing Directr Padraic Duffy and Board President Bruno Oliver who were bursting with energy and enthusiasm.
So how are you handling the impending Fringe delerium?
Padraic: There are so many shows you can put in this place. And we got a late start as you know, and we’ve had to sort of invent everything from the ground up. What are our rates? What’s our schedule? What are our policies? Make a packet for the first time. And we’ve learned. There’s stuff that I now know about like, the waves of inquiries and how you probably should do things. Also we have four venues and that’s a lot to handle. It just feels like madness sometimes. I mean, if you have one venue and you’re trying to figure out fifteen shows or something, you can do it. But multiple venues… I have this spreadsheet from hell. But it’s definitely fun. It makes me want to be 25 again and just have nothing to do besides see theater.
You’ve had shows at other Fringe festivals. How would you compare the experience?
Bruno: Very different. I had a show in the New York Fringe last year and I was in Endinburgh prior to that. Both festivals operate on very different structures. In New York there seems to be a nice chunk of help up front. But once we got there we heard a lot of, “Oh wait you want that kind of help? Well that will be a surcharge more.” “We’re not sure we can do that.” “You have to find your own independent producer.” Essentially, it doesn’t seem to really have a structure to help out-of-town projects, which I think this is true of every fringe to a certain extent. There’s a “Come here and just be prepared to solve every problem with money,” attitude. And that can be very discouraging to new companies that don’t have a lot in the bank. We want to make sure that the participant experience for our renters is as smooth as possible. We want them to have a little bit of breath to enjoy the experience. We don’t want to nickel and dime anyone.
Padraic: It’s also been great working with the Fringe producers who realize we’ve just been thrown in here. They’ve been really helpful.
You are now the “big theatre/theatre company on the block”. What do you see as your new role here?
Padraic: To be honest I feel a responsibility to up our game artistically. We’re so blessed to be here and in some way I want to make sure we deserve it.
Bruno: Definitely one of our goals is to make connections with other theater companies and to have other companies occasionally sharing our home with us and learning from each other. It’s an opportunity you don’t have when you’re your own isolated outpost.
Over the years you’ve always done some really funky, edgy shows. You seem to be more sophisticated in your approach now with the kinds of productions that you are inviting in and creating.
Bruno: Sophisticated. [laughs] We’re one of the older, established companies, approaching 20 years old. What might look like sophistication has taken many, many, many, many years of re-inventing. Sacred Fools is such a democratic company and because artistic committees, up until recently, have been voted in on a yearly basis, and because 99.9% is a volunteer staff, people are constantly relearning the jobs, which means people have different ideas about the jobs. In more recent years by having a managing director in such a consistent position, we’ve started to solidify what each job does. We’ve unified our brand and messaging. And so those are certainly benchmarks of sophistication. It’s also been part of our survival. We’ve outlasted a lot of companies that many of us worked with in the early days and that fell apart for various reasons. And because the Fools membership molts over time, there’s a sort of forever freshness about that.
Padraic: It’s good to hear you say you feel like we’re being more sophisticated because early on, the “foolishness” wasn’t just left on the stage. It was in the business part. The bookkeeping was receipts in a shoebox. You know I’m the first one to not want to lose our foolishness and our democracy and our crazy eclectic aesthetic. But when it comes to the business side, we decided to be smart and run this like a business, balance the books and budget.
Bruno: Certainly the last couple years have been a transition for everybody in the company. You know people get concerned about every change of the sandbox and I certainly don’t ever want to change the nature of the sandbox. What I want is for people to look at that sandbox and go, “How is that craziness possible and that it’s doing this work?” A sandbox is only a sandbox because it has four pieces of wood around it. Otherwise, it’s a beach. And that’s where our responsibility is right now. We’ve had to ask ourselves, how do we create a secure structure that helps us move the whole thing forward and know that it’s going to be here from year to year? We were very fortunate. Many companies started at the same time in the late 90’s and we didn’t buy into this idea that, if you’re moving to LA, forget about theater. At that time things were different. Rents were really affordable. The talent pools incredibly deep. And there was a strong New York/Chicago/Seattle group that looked at the landscape and said, “Why can’t we do Chicago-style “store–front“ theater?”
Ok, so “four walls around the craziness.“ Where do you want to go from here?
Bruno: I want to explore relationships with other theaters above and beyond Los Angeles and have writers and theaters I respect in New York and Chicago to want their west coast premiere to be here.
Padraic: Stylistically we’re a very eclectic band. With our business model we’re trying to create a company that can take more and more risks on stage.
Bruno: I’d rather stand at the plate, take a big swing and miss. If we compromise or impinge our own ability to take the creative risks we want to do, then were not us.
Do you think that kind of idealism is sustainable?
Padraic: Yeah. I feel that the new model we’re putting together is going to be very sustainable. I’m very optimistic. It’s going to take a while to get everything up and running, but it’s already starting to change.
Bruno: We’re doing this in logical steps. We don’t have the luxury of magical thinking.
You have four spaces. What’s the long term plan?
Padraic: Apart from theaters and dressing rooms, part of the long-term plan is to install a public non-performance space that can add value to the theater and potentially be another revenue source. Or an actual lobby where people can congregate and even “coffee chat” before and after shows. Nothing is definite yet. We’re not being precious. So that public space is going to take awhile but everything else… we’re just doing it.
Bruno: There are 130 company members right now and they’re all a part of the community, not separated. It’s a community that’s always “involved”, not just now and then to do a show. That’s just the way we operate.
Since the day I came to this company we have been the loudest company around and the idea of what it is to be “foolish” and what Fools is and what the Fools do has sort of evolved over time. Being foolish sometimes has the appearance of crazy insanity. But we have a certain confidence, given the talents and energy in the company. So what we think is foolish or see as foolish, is also a little daring. It’s also a little risky. That is and hopefully will always be a part of our definition.