For Your Ears Only: A Conversation with Susan Loewenberg, Producing Director, L.A. Theatre Works (Los Angeles, CA)

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Susan Lowenberg in her office

Susan Loewenberg, L.A. Theatre Works' Producing Director.  Photo courtesy of L.A. Theatre Works

Founded in 1974, the mission of L.A. Theatre Works (LATW) is to use innovative technology to produce and preserve significant works of dramatic literature on audio and to assure the widest public access to these works. In addition to annually producing 10 high quality audio productions featuring leading actors through its The Play’s the Thing program, LATW also provides selections from its archives to more than 2,000 public schools and libraries nationwide with accompanying educational materials; distributes free of charge titles to libraries in underserved areas; and facilitates workshops in the literary, performing, and visual arts for incarcerated and at-risk students in the Los Angeles metro area.

The following interview took place in 1997, shortly after LATW received an NEA Media Arts grant of $100,000 to support a campaign to increase the nationwide audience for its theater library. NEA program specialist Wendy Clark spoke with Susan Loewenberg, LATW’s Producing Director, about the organization’s beginnings as a small volunteer group bringing theater to incarcerated populations, the inauguration of LATW’s live-in-performance radio program, and how LATW “translates” stage plays to the radio.

NEA: Susan, congratulations on the success of L.A. Theatre Works. Take me back a few dozen years though. I remember reading that you actually started with a small company, and you were working exclusively in prisons.

SUSAN LOEWENBERG: Well, that’s correct, we were formed in 1974, a young group of people in theater--directors, actors, designers, writers--all working in LA. We got together to think about using our theater skills in a way that would be socially active. We decided that it would be interesting to work in a prison situation, that is, work with inmates and do theater workshops, improvisational acting workshops. We were volunteers working in a small county jail in Los Angeles. I agreed to informally head up the group and find some funding for it.

By 1976 we were in a position to approach the NEA, although we didn’t know much about funding for non-profit organizations. As it turned out, they were very interested; they gave us our first major grant, for $10,000, I think. But, more than that, the NEA gave us tremendous guidance and encouragement; they helped point us in the right direction to seek further funding and alliances. We continued to receive money for our projects in prisons, which led to full productions with inmates in prisons around the State of California, even getting some inmates furloughed for performances at UCLA and USC and the Mark Taper Forum. We established a national reputation pretty quickly.

NEA: Those grants were through the agency’s Expansion Arts Program. I understand through the years that you also received Theater program and Media Arts grants.

SL: Yes, we began to get Theater grants in 1979 or 80, and we were selected to be in the first round of Advancement grants--we were one of 15 small arts organizations chosen, it was quite an honor. The grants were for institutional advancement for groups that had promise. With the consultant’s help, we restructured and changed our name from Artists in Prisons to reflect our current activities, thus L.A. Theatre Works.

NEA: Were you and the others still doing other work?

SL: This is when it became a full-time job for me. We had become a real nonprofit, theater-producing organization with a significant community outreach project for institutionalized adults and eventually for at-risk youth. It was around this time (1978) that we received a grant from the NEA’s Media Arts program to do a documentary film about our work in prison called Jump Street, our first film. Then, we received NEA funding to tour Yugoslavia with one of our productions, The Coyote Cycle, by Murray Mednick. We were also discovering important American playwrights including Jon Robin Baitz, Milcha Sanchez Scott, and John Steppling as well as several British writers including Timberlake Wertenbaker, Steven Berkoff, and John Godber.

NEA: Is it true that a chance remark made by Richard Dreyfuss about his love for radio drama actually motivated you to move in that direction?

SL: What happened is around 1985 or 86 we gathered together a group of 34 very famous actors living in LA who loved working in the theater. These actors had a desire to work on the stage in LA. They were tired of going halfway across the country to a regional theater every time they wanted to do something. So we spent a lot of time and energy trying to raise the money for a major theater company that would bring in world-class directors.

We were unable, ultimately, to raise that money, but we began recording plays for the radio because at one of our meetings Dreyfuss made that chance remark. I looked into it, and the result was that 18 months later we had done a 14-1/2 hour production of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit, which Ruth Seymour, the general manager of KCRW, our local public radio station, agreed to back. This put us on the map. It brought us to the attention of the BBC in London--National Public Radio picked Babbit up and ran it three times--it became an instant cult classic. The BBC then contacted us and asked us to collaborate on a number of radio dramas and we are still doing that. We’ve done 20 co-productions with them, both BBC and BBC World Service, and, in fact, we have five productions planned with them over the next six months.

NEA: Who were those early members, and do they still work with you?

SL: In the original group, those still working with us include Edward Asner, Richard Dreyfuss, Hector Elizondo, Harry Hamlin, Julie Harris, Amy Irving, Stacy Keach, John Lithgow, Marsha Mason, and JoBeth Williams. All of these people do projects with us all the time.

At first, we were working in the studio with our 34 actors and then through a series of circumstances we ended up-- well, Ed Asner called me when I was on vacation and said, “You’ve got to talk to this person. They’ve just opened this new hotel in Santa Monica, and I think we should do readings in the hotel.” Well, of course this idea didn’t interest me one bit, but he kept bothering me about it so I agreed to meet with them. At the meeting it occurred to me that we could do this like an old time radio show, create radio programs in front of an audience. That was the beginning of what is now a far-flung live-in-performance radio recording program in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC, for which we thank Ed Asner.

NEA: Describe what you mean by “live-in-performance” radio recordings, what is the experience of the audience?

SL: It’s similar to watching a TV show being created. The audience buys tickets and watches us record the radio program for broadcast. There are live sound effects. We have a person called a Foley artist on the stage, a person who has a large table with an assortment of odd things on it to make all kinds of wonderful sounds. The Foley artist is visible and part of the show. They do everything from ringing telephones and doorbells to throwing big pots of crockery into a trash can, wearing goggles and gloves to protect themselves. In the production Camping with Henry and Tom, which takes place on a camping trip with Thomas Edison, Warren G. Harding, and Henry Ford, the Foley artist spent the entire production trampling over eucalyptus branches to simulate the sound of men traipsing around the forest.

Ninety-five percent of our work is dedicated to putting plays on the radio--that is to say, not plays written for the radio, plays written for the stage. Radio becomes the medium by which we can really disseminate this work to more people. However, one of the challenges for us is to leave the play intact, as much as possible. So we are always looking for ways to take the visual elements of the play and translate that into sound. We do not use narration to do that, we really try to do it organically, by finding ways [by which] what would normally be experienced visually by an audience in a play is experienced orally, through sound. And we are usually very successful in this, we spend a lot of time and energy making that translation.

NEA: Can you elaborate on “translation”?

SL: A set evokes a certain mood. An interesting example of that is Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, where the central image of the play is when the stage goes dark, illuminated only by dozens of candles. To help the listening audience understand this potent visual and its meaning for the play, we used music that had a swelling, spiritual quality, which perfectly evoked the moment.

Another challenge is when someone might be speaking in a scene for a very long time, while the other person is listening and reacting. Physically reacting doesn’t do it for a radio audience. We try to devise non-verbal sounds that really convey a person’s mood as they are listening to and being affected by what the other person is saying. This may be simple sounds in their throats or the way they breathe, a certain kind of breath intake. Radio is so subtle that you can actually convey something by the way you’re breathing. Those things work very well.

We virtually never resort to narration to explain something, we usually can find a way within the body of the play. Now, one of the things we will tend to do in a play is identify people-- a lot more than one would for a stage production. For instance, instead of “Oh hi, I didn’t see you there,” it would be, “Oh, hi John, I didn’t see you there.” The other thing that is very important is that both the director and I work with headsets; we never look at the actors. Ever. If we start looking at them we are not going to catch what we need to catch because we may visually substitute what we’re missing. So I never look up. I keep my head down, and that way I can tell what’s not reading, what’s not going to come across on the radio. Then, we fix it.

NEA: So, you, as producer, and the director, you are both sitting with your noses to the grindstone, so to speak.

SL: We’ve trained a cadre of terrific directors over the years, theater directors who have learned how to do this. The temptation for a theater director in the beginning is to be too theatrical. They soon learn that what might sound good up at the mike looking out at the audience is not going to sound good on the radio. One of the cardinal rules of radio, from a famous BBC Radio director Martin Jenkins, is “half the volume, twice the intensity.” That’s what works for radio. With our productions you have an audience out there that you also have to entertain. The actors are miked very heavily so the live audience can hear them very clearly, hear all the nuances of what they’re doing, but the actors have to be very careful, it cannot sound like they’re playing to a crowd, it really needs to sound like they’re playing to one person, you the radio listener.

NEA: Obviously, then the actors too, have to retrain themselves to a certain extent. Are there some plays that just aren’t suited to this?

SL: Well, there are, but I have been stunned as to how many plays we’ve been able to do. I mean one would think that M. Butterfly would be completely unsuitable. It’s done as a very visual production, and the story is based on someone who appears to be a woman, a geisha, who turns out to be a man. It’s actually one of the best things we’ve ever done, and one of the things I think that was so wonderful about the play was that once stripped of all the visual effects, the brilliant language and wonderful story line come shining through. John [Lithgow] had a very difficult task because he had to alternate between delivering interior monologues, talking to the audience, and then being in the scene. Of course, also, he was used to doing this on Broadway in a big house and projecting. I said to him, “John, let’s put headsets on you,” and it transformed his performance. It put him right in the radio world. Some actors find headsets useful, others don’t. But mostly, headsets help an actor to hear themselves and not talk too loud or be too presentational. You don’t want to feel that someone is shouting into the microphone at you. The feeling the actor needs to convey is that you, the listener, are a voyeur in the best sense of the word, privy to someone else’s most intimate moments. For some actors, learning that is a big adjustment.

Over the past decade L.A. Theatre Works has continued to receive regular support from the NEA. In FY 06, the organization received a total of $75,000 in federal arts funds to support its radio theater series and national outreach programs. To learn more about L.A. Theatre Works, please visit www.latw.org.