by Carolyn Blais
Whoever said Los Angeles is lacking in arts and culture has certainly NOT visited Barnsdall Art Park, and has especially not visited the park on the second Sunday of the month. That’s right, the arts are alive and well here. This I am sure of after Sunday April 11th when I headed over to the art park, being a first timer myself, for a night of vibrant, living art.
Given to Aline Barnsdall in the early nineteen-teens, the property that sits high on a hill in Hollywood had, from its early days, been intended to house a theatrical community with a theatre and living places for actors. Barnsdall, a bit of an eccentric, experimental dramatist, commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to do the trick, but due to lack of funds only three residences were built including the famous Hollyhock House, where Barnsdall lived until she gave the property to the city of Los Angeles in 1927, leaving also specific instructions for arts programming. Since then, Barnsdall’s vision has come to life as a theatre, an art gallery and studios have been built on the 11 acre property. Curator, Michael Miller was kind enough to explain the rich history of the park to me. Nowadays, he says, the gallery is home to only contemporary art from mostly southern Californians that are either emerging or mid-career artists. The exhibits change about every two and a half months, the next one up being the C.O.L.A exhibit which is the City of Los Angeles’ artist grant show in which each C.O.L.A. grant recipient receives $10,000 to create new work. What I take away with me after chatting with Miller is that the art park is a place of artistic expansion and inspiration that is truly dedicated to providing art education to the general public, both young and old alike.
Now you may remember I implied that something special happens at Barnsdall Art Park on the second Sunday of every month. And that something is an event hosted by spoken word artist Sally Shore and The New Short Fiction Series. I briefly met Shore when I covered one of her offsite events back in December, but more recently I was able to interview her and get some great feedback and insight into her series.
1) Can you give Forth readers who are unfamiliar with The New Short Fiction Series an overview of what it is?
The New Short Fiction Series is L.A.’s longest running spoken words series, sponsored in part by Barnes & Noble, and takes place every second Sunday of the month at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Art Park in cooperation with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Each performance presents new works of short fiction by that month’s featured West Coast writer. The work is performed by a rotating guest cast of incredibly talented working L.A. actors. It’s a spoken word series,…not a reading, literary performance. Combined with the Gallery’s exhibitions, its now a true multi-media experience. Our Feb. 14 program incorporated Indian classical dance in one piece, the Mar. 14 program has a piece in which the actor will be singing opera. I like to mix it up whenever the story calls for it. We’ve been directly responsible for placing 6 newly released books on the Los Angeles Times’ bestseller list and many of the unpublished collections have gone to publication following presentation in our series.
2) When did you first start the series and what inspired you to begin?
The series began in 1995 when I was disappointed with the L.A. theater scene. I really wanted to be part of something that was well written, well acted and left the audience glad they came. I approached Kimberley Heinrichs, a playwright I had worked with before, to see if she had anything new, but all she had was short stories. After reading Kimberley’s stories, it hit me that they could be performed in their own right, and we presented 2 consecutive evenings at The Actors Workout Studio in North Hollywood, a tiny 30 seat space. We sold out both nights (audience had to sit behind the actor onstage), and on the second night, Los Angeles Magazine had a writer doing a piece called “So Ho, No Ho”. We got a couple of great paragraphs in the article and word spread. By 1996, we were given a monthly berth as part of the LA The Bookstore’s alternative performance line up, and we’ve been going strong ever since.
3) As producer of the series, how do you go about finding authors/works of fiction? Are there any particular qualities you look for in the works you choose to perform?
Submissions come to me in many ways. Publishers contact me if they have a new story collection release by a West Coast writer they’d like us to launch, previously featured authors often recommend students and colleagues, and authors find me either on line or after attending a performance. I also keep my eyes peeled. I try to go to as many local readings that feature new authors as I can. Sometimes I see a story published on line, in a journal or discussed in a write up somewhere and I’ll hunt the author down. If Book Expo America is on the West Coast, I always attend.
My criteria is very subjective. I read the submitted collection and, essentially, I look for a voice. I’m not particularly attached to genre or style, the writing just has to grab me in some fashion. When that little bell goes off while I’m reading, I can picture the stories being performed in our format.
4) Can you take us through the process of how the works of fiction go from page to stage, so to speak? Are there rehearsals or table work? Also, are the authors usually included in this process or are they seeing their works performed for the first time at the actual event?
For the stand alone evenings, I pick at least 4 stories from the submitted collection and cast them according to type call for in story. If the stories are very short, we’ll present more than 4. For our annual Emerging Voices Group Show, we present one story per featured writer.
All pieces are table rehearsed once or twice with myself and the actor (or a co-director who works with me on my performance). I try to keep each story performance no longer than 20 minutes long in rehearsal (its my experience that anything longer, the audience leaves their bodies and stops listening!). If a story requires excerpting, I work with the writer to craft an excerpt that best combines the writer’s intent and what the actor brings to the performance. We have a run through with the full cast and the writer present, which allows the writer to experience our format before an audience is present. Since most of the writers are strictly literary writers (not playwrights/screenwriters), it often proves a very different experience for them to see their stories presented in this format. The run through also allows the cast and the author to ask questions, hammer out details, etc. before the public performance.
5) What about Barnsdall Park makes it the perfect new location for the series?
I love Barnsdall! I love performing in the Gallery which expands our show with a mixed-media element. Its really exciting to “weave” our performances into the changing exhibits at the Gallery. Barnsdall is centrally located (and Metro Rail accessible) and is a very busy place art/performance wise – art classes, Shakespeare in the park and outdoor concerts in summer, music/dance performances at the 300+ seat Barnsdall Gallery Theater, and even the public who come to picnic/walk their dogs. Its’ all very happening. The Gallery curators and staff truly embrace all forms of art/performance and provide a very generous home for all artists.
5) Moving forward in the future, what are your hopes, goals, or expectations for the series? Any upcoming events you can share as a preview with our readers?
I’m thrilled with our 2010/14th season schedule (attached). It reflects the breadth and quality of literary voices in L.A. and on the West Coast. We have two wonderful book launches on the schedule.
As to the future, most immediately I’m enjoying reading submissions for 2011. We’d like to reinstate our online clips/presentations on our YouTube channel and are looking into live streaming of our shows. Mostly, I look forward to more and more people joining us to discover the many, wonderful writers and actors I’ve had the honor of presenting these past 14 years. I’m a proud California native and am adamant that we have the best writing and acting talent here in our own backyard!
Shore’s event on the evening of Sunday April 11th presented four short stories from Robert Morgan Fisher’s “Cabaret Nation.” The four stories, some of them excerpted, were performed by actors Edwin Craig, Richard Tanner, Sally Shore and Matt Ferrucci respectively. The stories range in plots from a hobo dying of cancer who looks back on his life as a once circus performer; A regular, forty-something year old Joe who discovers his idol of a folk musician is actually a passionless grump; A young girl whose curiosity leads her to learn of her father’s gruesome war stories; And a struggling actor in LA who learns a meaningful lesson about show business through his director, writer friend. While the subject-lines may seem a bit heavy, Fisher expresses them through characters whose endearing honesty in even somewhat embarrassing situations leave readers or listeners in this case, in stitches more often than not.
I sense a theme linking the stories and find that I am correct when I get to speak with Fisher at intermission. Having been trained as a screenwriter, Fisher uses the components for writing screenplays and adapts them to short stories. He is inspired by several things, sometimes the news, sometimes personal life, but always he starts first with a theme that is the basis for each story he writes for a particular collection. In “Cabaret Nation” the author gets specific with his theme, revealing it to me as this: “all peripheral performers enforce a sacred contract with the world.” I suppose the beauty of fiction is that each reader can interpret underlying themes differently and while I think I understand what Fisher is saying, what I mostly take away from the four readings is the importance of passion and how it is truly a necessity for maintaining and carrying out a meaningful existence.
Perhaps each person in the sold out audience of Sunday’s performance of Fisher’s work by The New Short Fiction Series will be touched in different ways. In any case, no one I’m sure will shortly forget these stories and that is due to not only Fisher’s talented writing, but the cast and crew’s flawless presentation of the texts. Catch a different author and surely a different theme next month when the series presents the work of Martha Ronk.