IAMA Theatre Company: Women Leaders Move Art Forward

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IAMA Theatre Company’s latest play, opening Thursday, is Radical or, are you gonna miss me? https://www.iamatheatre.com/plays-events/radical It’s a personal look at the political divide within a Mexican-American family from playwright Isaac Gómez. Stefanie Black notes that Gómez’s “fearlessness and curiosity about what makes us human” led to the company’s first-ever commission.

IAMA is LA’s only theater company with all-female leadership: Artistic Director Stefanie Black, Executive Director Cara Greene Epstein, Board Chair Katie Lowes, Producing Director Lara Myrene and Associate Artistic Director Margaux Susi. Together, this group runs a 16-year-old ensemble based in LA’s Atwater Village whose mission is to cultivate new voices and boundary-pushing work.

The Three Tomatoes LA Life Theatre Maven, Laura Foti Cohen interviewed Stefanie Black about IAMA’s past, present and future.

How does IAMA’s all-female leadership affect the company’s mission?

Stefanie Black  We started with five like-minded women who went to NYU, studied in London in fall 2002 and became best friends. After we graduated, one by one we all moved to LA and decided to put our Type A brains to use.

IAMA continues to be a place where women can be in a place of power and change. We hope to continue to foster women in leadership as we become more inclusive and diverse. It’s a lot about passing the torch, building up legacy.

That means collaboration, support and opening doors for others who come after us, as those who came before have done. I don’t think any artistic group benefits from the same leadership for decades. New perspectives are needed. Working artists keep evolving and require the same from their leadership.

What work have you produced that you’d you say is most representative of IAMA’s mission?

When IAMA was formed, one of our friends was Leslye Headland, a TV/screenwriter, actor, director and playwright. She created our 7 Deadly Plays series, which helped define our voice. She was writing for our generation, speaking unapologetically, strong and ferocious. We were all massively inspired by her work and that’s how IAMA started. It was a symbiotic relationship. “She went on to write for TV and film and to have her plays produced off-Broadway, but the conversation continued. For our 10th anniversary season in 2018, we produced the last of The Seven Deadly Plays, “Cult of Love”, with a large cast fully cast within our own ensemble.”

My favorite production was a small play called Shiner by Christian Durso that we ended up taking to New York. In it, two 13-year-olds form a suicide pact to jump off the 101 overpass after they see Nirvana in concert, but then Kurt Cobain kills himself. And the recent Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, a partnership with Center Theatre Group, was very important for a company of our size.

Can you tell us a little about your collaborations? 

The most recent was Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, a partnership with Center Theatre Group and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. It was great to work with an organization that size, as a 50-50 partner, although not financially! They treated us as if we were, with a great deal of respect. To be a part of practices at that higher level is so important for a company of our size.

This spring we partnered with the LGBT Center on The Bottoming Process by Nicholas Pilapil, directed by [IAMA director] Rodney To. Nicholas came out of our under-30 playwright lab, homegrown from an opportunity for young playwrights. As soon as we read it, we knew we were going to produce it.

When we moved into our space at the Atwater Village Theatre, we became part of a community, with Open Fist, Echo, Moving Arts, EST/LA. We have a 50-seat theater that’s our main hub where we do readings, workshops and events. Then we alternate producing in the 99-seat theaters with Echo and Open Fist, so we all get to produce in the big places. All the companies focus primarily on new works so there’s a nice sense of community. We try to coproduce at least once a year, as well as play festivals and workshops.

How does the IAMA mission guide your new play development, especially as it relates to supporting new voices, pushing boundaries and reflecting today’s world? Who do you look to as examples?

Producer Jenny is one of my mentors; I look to her as a wonderful leader. She was associate Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theater Festival and a quiet genius behind so much. When IAMA was just starting up, I reached out and she gave me a lot of tools. She taught me about finding patience, being laser focused and thinking big picture. Women are better with the big picture. They’re multitaskers, not myopic.

What’s your take on the state of theater, both in Los Angeles and around the country?

Stefanie Black   The crumbling of the American theater is hyperbolic. We’re seeing a huge generational shift in philanthropic funding. It was all set up in the 1950s when there was a lot of government support in addition to donations. A lot of theaters, like the Kennedy Center, came out of that. Some of those larger institutions and some smaller ones are seeing the boomer generation passing away or not continuing the gifts. Their children or heirs are not continuing. So, all of a sudden there’s a huge dropoff in arts funding.

My generation is interested in social action and social justice; they put their money where they can see actionable change. They can show why theater is not just an art, it’s about health and wellness and social action, such as climate change. Theater plays a huge role in how we can educate.

In LA, we’re feeling the ripples of those giant institutions shifting. You have a few large theaters, a lot of small ones and few midsize ones. There are larger budgets with more infrastructure but still under-resourced. Like us: we need to be able to pay everyone a living wage and be functioning in a way that‘s fully supporting the development of new work. It’s expensive to do all these things at the same time.

It’s a myth that there’s no theater in LA. There’s tons but it’s in varied forms. We need to come together to reinforce and commit to LA theater as one ecosystem, no matter the size of the theater. So, we’re looking at a lot of partnerships to share resources.

California is the fourth-largest economy in the world, yet from a $700 billion budget, only 66 cents per person is spent on the arts. In Florida, it’s $2 a person! We need to advocate more for the arts in California, and LA is a place that has a spotlight on it. There’s so much money in this town for entertainment and theater is a training ground for film and TV.

We need to come together, organize and celebrate each other’s work. I’m excited about the future because IAMA’s been lucky to have growth despite a pandemic. We’re just starting to come into our own. I have a lot of hope for how we can model this hope and change within the community. It’s not a coincidence that we are almost all female.

IAMA’s Radical or, are you gonna miss me? opens this Thursday, Nov. 16, and runs through Dec. 11 on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm (dark Monday, Nov. 20 and Friday, Nov. 25) at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave. Tickets are $40 and are available here.


Laura Foti Cohen

Laura Foti Cohen has been reviewing theatre prolifically for five years at the Larchmont Buzz, a local Hancock Park-area website and email newsletter. She’s a playwright herself; her plays have been produced by NEO Ensemble Theatre. She's a new member of Theatre West.

Laura Foti Cohen

Laura Foti Cohen has been reviewing theatre prolifically for five years at the Larchmont Buzz, a local Hancock Park-area website and email newsletter. She’s a playwright herself; her plays have been produced by NEO Ensemble Theatre. She's a new member of Theatre West.

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