BWW Spotlight Series: Meet Jon Lawrence Rivera, Co-Founder of Playwrights' Arena, Dedicated to Producing Original Works for Adventurous Minds
This Spotlight focuses on Jon Lawrence Rivera, co-founder of Playwrights' Arena with steve Tyler in 1992 during the LA Riots. At the time, and for at least two decades, we were the only theater dedicated to discovering, nurturing, and producing new works for the stage written exclusively by Los Angeles playwrights to be enjoyed by adventurous minds. I first discovered Playwrights' Arena when their 2017 production of Bloodletting was selected to be presented during Center Theatre Group's 2018 Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Here's the link to my review on Broadway World: /los-angeles/article/Review-BLOODLETTING-Opens-Center-Theatre-Groups-Block-Party-2018-at-the-Kirk-Douglas-Theatre-20180401
Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background?
Jon Lawrence Rivera (Jon): I have been producing and directing plays and musicals since 1984. I took some theater classes at LACC, but left to produce and direct my first play. That play snowballed into other opportunities that led me to co-found Playwrights' Arena with steve Tyler in 1992 during the LA Riots. At the time, and for at least two decades, we were the only theater dedicated to discovering, nurturing, and producing new works for the stage written exclusively by Los Angeles playwrights. Now, it seems, other theaters claim to only do new plays by LA playwrights, so it's good to know that our mission has a lasting impact and more theaters are celebrating the wealth of playwrights in our own backyard. We have remained faithful to our mission for 28 years, advancing stories to our stage that reflect the diversity of our great city.
(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out it needed to immediately be either postponed or cancelled?(Jon): At our monthly board meeting on March 9th, through the advice of a doctor on our Board, we decided to cancel our annual fundraiser HOT NIGHT IN THE CITY and postpone the next two productions in our 2020 season: A HIT DOG WILL HOLLER by Inda Craig-Galván and FABULOUS MONSTERS by Diana Burbano. At the time of our announcement, we were the only theater who had made that hard decision. Within a week, most theaters cancelled or postponed the balance of their seasons as well.
(SB): How was the shutdown communicated with the cast and production team?
(Jon): We sent the information by email to our companies. It was difficult to do as we had already secured designers for both shows and a cast for A HIT DOG WILL HOLLER, which was undergoing a very productive workshop at EST/LA at the time. Everyone was very supportive of the decision and understood our safety priorities.
(SB): Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?
(Jon): We are hoping to present A HIT DOG WILL HOLLER by this October, but it feels like that will have to be bumped to the Spring or until a vaccine is found. The two plays we have postponed will receive their productions for sure when it is safe to return to the theater.
(SB): What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?(Jon): Our ACT FOR STUDENT Program is getting a bit of a facelift as we figure out how to do our customary playwriting/performance workshops through Zoom. We are committed to bringing Arts to schools and are looking at effective ways to continue that service, if not in person, through the power of technology.
(SB): It's amazing how popular Zoom has become with theater companies! How else are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?
(Jon): Through the leadership of our Literary Manager, Jaisey Bates, and our new Literary Associate, Zharia O'Neal, we have been presenting a series of 10 weekly internal Zoom readings to hear new works. These readings are not meant to be "performances," but part of the development of the plays as we consider each of them for future productions. It has been very productive to hear these plays in actors' voices.I have been working very closely with our new Grant Writer as we mine other avenues for funding, not only for our future productions but also for our ACT FOR STUDENTS Program and the newly instituted DEBUT PLAYWRIGHT Fund.
My Board is committed in making sure that we remain visible without overloading our audience with unnecessary emails or social media posts. We created a "Close To You" video that was sung by some of the LA playwrights we have produced. Here's the link to that video:
Two of our Associate Artists have created a series called ADVENTURES AT HOME, where they give viewers some funny ideas how to stay active or relaxed during the pandemic. Those videos can be found here:
(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?(Jon): I am optimistic that we will emerge from this big pause with a new normal, especially since the old normal was getting stale. I still believe in the power of live performances, so we are committed to figuring out how to do that safely until a vaccine is found. With the Black Lives Matter movement center stage at the moment, I hope that theaters will reflect upon themselves and make actionable plans to integrate BIPOC artists deeply into their organizations. It would be a shame to return to the old ways after this period of contemplation.
Playwrights' Arena can be found at www.playwrightsarena.org
Included are a selection of photos from plays directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera for Playwrights' Arena (from top): Bloodletting, Little Women, Baby Eyes, Southernmost, Billy Boy, I Go Somewhere Else.