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What Next for His L.A. Story?

Trying to expand, a group dedicated to putting on plays by local writers runs into a roadblock

September 01, 2002|DON SHIRLEY

Los Angeles playwrights often feel overshadowed by the movie and TV industries. They even feel neglected by many L.A. theater producers.

Enter Jon Lawrence Rivera.

For a decade, Rivera's Playwrights' Arena has developed and produced nothing but new plays by Los Angeles County writers--29 such shows by 17 writers or writing teams.

Rivera, the artistic director, is adamant that the writers of Playwrights' Arena shows must have a permanent residence in Los Angeles County--Orange County won't qualify. And the plays must be at least West Coast premieres, if not world premieres.

These haven't been big productions. The company spent its formative years in a 35-seat venue. Last year, Playwrights' Arena launched a five-year plan to expand its productions at Los Angeles Theatre Center's Theatre 2. But now, in its second year, the plan is in trouble.

The company's current production, "Failure of Nerve," was to use 150 seats and a wage-paying Actors' Equity contract--instead of Equity's 99-Seat Theater Plan, which the company normally uses and under which the actors receive only token fees. But an Equity committee decided that Playwrights' Arena wasn't financially ready. The show reverted to the 99-seat plan. Now the future of the company's Los Angeles Theatre Center residency, which hinged on its five-year plan, is in doubt.

At times, Rivera acknowledged, his company's mission "feels suicidal.... There are moments when I say, 'What am I doing? I should just do plays by Wilder, Williams and Chekhov.' "

Rivera is an unlikely candidate to be a champion of local playwrights. He was not raised in L.A. or even in the United States, and he is not a playwright.

He was born in 1960 in Manila. His father, Jose Lorenzo Rivera, edited Pace, a newsmagazine that displeased the Marcos government. With several members of the magazine's staff detained by the Marcos regime, the older Rivera left the Philippines in 1972 and settled in Sydney, Australia. His wife and three children joined him in 1975.

In Australia, Rivera watched his journalist father--now known as Larry Rivera--blossoming into a playwright and stage director.

"It's clear where I got this passion," he recalled. "When my father and I get together, we talk about plays in detail."

After high school graduation in 1978, Rivera began studying at Sydney's Ensemble Studio Theatre. In 1979, he was cast in his first--and only--play as an actor, a revival of the dramatization of W. Somerset Maugham's "Rain," in which he played "one of the natives who walks around Bora Bora." But he left before the run ended, because long-sought legal permission for his family to enter the United States had finally come through. With his mother and siblings, Rivera moved in with his mother's sister in Norwalk.

With his marriage on shaky ground, Larry Rivera didn't follow. Jon Rivera didn't see or speak with his father again until 1992, when Larry Rivera was finally reunited with his family at the American wedding of his only daughter, Jon's sister.

Since then, father and son have been on good terms. Larry Rivera even maintains the Playwrights' Arena Web site from Australia.

When Jon arrived in America, he worked as a clerk in a law office. In 1981, however, he returned to performing. He raised the $4,800 that was required to tour with Up With People, the musical revue company. From the summer of 1981 until the summer of 1982, he performed in 20 cities in 14 countries.

Upon his return, Rivera noticed that a small theater, the Cast, was about a block from where he lived in Hollywood. He was entranced by a Cast production of the Studs Terkel musical "Working." He couldn't afford to pay to see it again. So he simply listened to it--about 30 times--from the sidewalk outside.

Soon he had enrolled at Los Angeles City College, taking film and theater. He and three fellow students rented one of the small spaces at what is now called the Complex, in Hollywood, and revived two one-acts, with Rivera directing "Birdbath." Friends began asking him to produce or direct similar shows. He complied, but he also began looking for new plays.

He found one by another former LACC theater student, Justin Tanner. Rivera saw an early Tanner play at the college and co-produced "Changing Channels" at a small theater in Hollywood. It was the production that introduced Tanner to the people who ran the Cast Theatre, where Tanner would later become L.A.'s best-known home-grown playwright of the '90s. Tanner now credits Rivera with generally "being on the front lines of L.A. theater."

Rivera staged the U.S. premiere of a British play, "Lunch Girls/City Gents" at Los Angeles Theatre Center. The playwright, Ron Hart, remained in London. "From that experience," Rivera said, "I realized that it was hard to communicate long-distance. If I wanted a true collaboration, the playwright had better be here." He decided to concentrate on L.A. playwrights.

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