City Garage Theatre hosts political talk shows with Steven Leigh Morris

By Bridgette M. Redman

During the pandemic, City Garage Theatre began to release videos of past performances, letting its audience re-experience or catch up on ones they have missed.
Photos courtesy City Garage Theatre

City Garage Theatre has never shied away from politics and it’s not about to stop due to the pandemic.

Like most arts organizations, City Garage Theatre searched for a way to pivot last year, looking for a way that would stay true to its 35 years of offbeat, European-style theater in Santa Monica. Their answer was two-fold.

First, they began to release videos of past performances, letting their audience re-experience or catch up on ones they’ve missed.

“I’ve been doing theater for 35 years,” said artistic director Frederique Michel. “This is my first time not directing at all for 10 months. We wanted to be sure we were staying alive, that no one would forget us. We decided to put all the plays
we had done in the past on YouTube.”

Second, they’ve created something new, an ongoing podcast called “Animal Farm,” hosted by arts journalist Steven Leigh Morris. The series invites playwrights, actors, musicians, arts administrators, health care workers and lawyers to weigh in on the intersection of current events, politics and theater. Morris has covered City Garage Theatre for years and it credits him as having connected it with large portions of its audience.

“He has been such an incredible hero,” Michel said. “We became known because of him. He loved what we were doing.”

She and executive director Charles Duncombe reached out to Morris. Recognizing there was little theater for him to cover, he asked Morris if he wanted to try a talk show.

“Our theater has always been oriented toward society, politics and social discourse,” Duncombe said. “Steven has been really attuned to that as well. How can we explore theater in terms of that? It has been a pretty broad-ranging show, talking to playwrights, theater makers, artistic directors, people in Poland and in London. We’re trying to give it that international and political flavor.”

Since its start in mid-2020, the show has explored things from local to international issues, the impact of COVID-19 and how arts organizations are dealing with it, and the perceived changing role of theater in society.

Morris said he was attracted to the theater because City Garage Theatre was idiosyncratic and Eurocentric, something that wasn’t the norm in Santa Monica.

“They have a vision of theater that is European as opposed to British or American,” Morris said. “They really like stage pictures. They like a kind of choreographic approach to theater production. They’re very design-conscious. They were speaking a different theatrical language. The other issue is they are relentless. Their vision is uncompromising. They are completely dedicated to their view of theater and I started to get a respect for that.”

Partnership creates podcast

Morris, who is the founder and publisher of “Stage Raw” and was the theater editor and critic-at-large for LA Weekly, said the talk show offer interested him because it was new to him. The closest he’d come previously were radio reviews for the local NPR station when he was with LA Weekly.

“I thought this would be interesting,” Morris said. “They wanted me to just have a discussion of theater and politics.”

They also decided to include a segment on pets — thus the name evokes literal animals and the political flavor of George Orwell’s dystopian novel of the same name. It was something Morris, who owns chickens and dogs, said would add whimsy to a fairly serious topic.

“We can just do a little segment inviting people to submit videos of their pets,” Morris said. “If no one has the slightest interest in the political or theater discussion we are having, maybe they’ll just be interested in seeing someone’s poodle.”

Duncombe called Morris one of the strongest political voices to support smaller, alternative theaters that are exploring innovative works, which is how they formed their connection with him. In the early days, Morris said he gave them constructive feedback on their shows, fulfilling what he felt was a critic’s role in helping a theater to improve.

City Garage Theatre has never shied away from politics, something Duncombe says sets them apart from other theaters.

“In the American theater, for the most part, politics seems to be a dirty word,” Duncombe said. “We’ve never felt that, and Steven has never felt that. Theater is the place of the liveliest exchange of ideas. It is the natural home for politics and exploration — not politics in the didactic sense, but in exploring the ideas of the forces that are creating our society moment by moment. Theater is one of the most exciting ways to bring that alive on stage.”

Looking to create historic recordings

When discussing the format for the “Animal Farm” podcasts, they decided to avoid creating highly edited conversations and have the episodes flow with greater authenticity.

“If you are familiar with Neil LaBute, you are able to participate in a real conversation that has not been heavily edited,” Duncombe said. “It’s more like being in the same room with him. That was our aesthetic and our vision with this. We think in the long run, they will be a valuable part of the archive for people studying theater in general. Decades from now, people can watch these in-depth conversations with prominent people that they won’t necessarily get in a front-page interview. It is our goal to leave it very organic. It lets you really see these people in a much more natural way rather than the artificial way of the conventional interview.”

Morris relates the conversations and their topics to his philosophy of theater criticism. He wants the discussions to talk about what is going on and how it connects with the larger world.

“That’s always been my discussion of why criticism matters,” Morris said. “I don’t think we are there to discuss the wallpaper on the set. We are there to discuss what a production has to do with the times we are living in. Maybe in the talk show we can explore that further. It is still very much in development.”

The first “Animal Farm” episode featured Jon Rivera, the artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena, a theater that is committed to performing only new works by Los Angeles playwrights.

“They have a longevity and a dedication to mission that defies common sense,” Morris said. “Dedicating yourself to doing playwrights and plays no one has heard of seems an exercise in lunacy and they’ve sustained that for nearly 30 years, and they’ve played to full houses.”

Some of the other guests have included LaBute, playwright Sue Blundell, actor Lloyd Morris, performer and activist Vanessa Stewart and, most recently, lawyer Bryan Hawkins with Stoel Rives in Sacramento.

The latter two guests discussed AB5’s impact on theaters. AB5 is a law mandating that contractors be considered employees. Morris said he’s tired of talking just about COVID-19. He wants to move on to topics like AB5. However, he places no limits on what “Animal Farm” will cover in the future.

“In general, whatever is happening that the show can bring light and a different kind of light and perspective to, we will have a lively discussion on those issues of interest,” he said.

Audiences receptive to topics and podcasts

Morris has had no difficulty finding people willing to delve into the show’s purpose. He’s also had a positive response on social media to the shows when he promotes them. He said everyone has been very supportive and respectful of the endeavors.

“I know that it is a common myth that artists don’t want to touch politics,” Morris said. “It’s like getting into the profane. I haven’t found that to actually be the case, but I’m selecting people who are activist types. Their art is integrated into their political beliefs.”

The interviews keep alive the persona of City Garage at a time unlike any other in its history. They may represent a pivot, but they are still true to who City Garage is.

“If anything, it’s just going to be a reinvigoration of the identity we’ve always had,” Duncombe said.

Despite the controversial topics, Morris said they haven’t received unsupportive letters. Michel credits it with the podcasts fulfilling a need that people have in this time when everyone is so isolated.

“I do believe that actually people are very excited about listening to writers, playwrights and people involved in theater,” Michel said. “I get a lot of feedback from the audience thanking us for doing this and helping them to learn about what is happening in the theater world.”

Morris also offered these interviews as a holdover for people until they are able to once again meet in theaters or communities.

“If you are not aware of what our local theater is and who the people are that are creating it as producers, directors and actors, this is a window into a kind of world that you might find appealing in ways that you would least expect,” Morris said.

Once the world reopens, City Garage Theatre hopes to continue much of the online work that it does. It has seen more than 37,000 people experience its online offerings over the past year, far more than what it would have had in its 99-seat theater. It is something they wish to maintain.

“We’ve never really taken much advantage of our online presence,” Duncombe said. “We’ve never done vigorous outreach to build an online audience and stay connected. As a result, we have built up a lot of internal capabilities and stronger connections.”

For more information, visit citygarage.org

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