The Geffen Playhouse, located across the street from the University of California-Los Angeles in Westwood, was founded by the enterprising film/TV/theatre producer Gilbert Cates in 1995, and has since taken its place as one of the film town’s most prestigious stages. Cates died in 2011, to be succeeded by his son Gil Cates Jr.; another leadership change came last year, when the theatre’s artistic director, Randall Arney, announced his departure. To replace him, the theatre hired Matt Shakman, a former actor and artistic director of L.A.’s erstwhile Black Dahlia Theatre, who had directed Good People and Bad Jews at the Geffen, in addition to helming such TV shows as “Game of Thrones” and “Fargo.” (Arney subsequently sued the Geffen for age discrimination.) We spoke to Shakman about his plans for his first season.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: How did running the tiny Black Dahlia prepare you for taking charge of a $10 million theatre?
MATT SHAKMAN: Though it wasn’t a major LORT theatre, the Black Dahlia certainly helped me understand how theatres are run, and I did focus on new work there, which is something I’m hoping to bring more of to the Geffen. That history of new-play development was part of my pitch for the job. Also, the founder here of the Geffen, Gil Cates Sr., really had one foot in theatre and one foot in film and television, which I also do, and I think that doing plays here in Los Angeles, it is helpful to embrace the film and theatre community as well. It’s a busy, vibrant community here, and so many of the actors and writers and directors go back and forth between those worlds, so understanding how that all works can be a benefit to the institution.
Where do you think the Geffen fits into the L.A. theatre scene? There’s obviously Center Theatre Group, which is sort of like Lincoln Center, there’s Pasadena Playhouse, and lots of smaller theatres.
I think Michael Ritchie has done such a great job running the Taper and the Ahmanson, doing bold and interesting programming. So I guess if that’s Lincoln Center, I’d love to be the Public—to do maybe a little more new-play development here. And I think both of us are trying to reach out and embrace and reflect the diversity of this city, which is something that Michael’s predecessor, Gordon Davidson, did such a brilliant job of. When I was young growing up here in Southern California, I would go quite regularly to the Taper, and there was a sense that Gordon was telling important stories that were relevant both to L.A. and to the national discourse, starting a conversation that would echo across the country. I would love to try to pick up that mantle and to the best of my abilities do the same if I can.
At the Geffen, we’ve done a lot of second productions of plays that have started elsewhere, and that’s a very worthwhile thing to do because you’re continuing important work, but I think I’d like to move us a little more into becoming a new-play generator so we can be starting more of conversation and doing a little less echoing of it.
And your first season is definitely more premiere-heavy.
Right, six world premieres out of nine shows. The only second production we’re doing is Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole, which was done at [Pennsylvania’s] People’s Light. I’m very excited about that piece and bringing that out here to L.A. The world premieres include Mysterious Circumstances by Michael Mitnick, José Rivera’s The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona, Inda Craig-Galván’s play Black Super Hero Magic Mama. Also we’re doing new versions of some classics—a new take on Anouilh’s Antigone by Sarah Ruhl, a new version of A Christmas Carol, adapted and performed by Jefferson Mays. The only straight-up revivals we’re doing are the Brian Dennehy one-act Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape. Then we have a new magic show and we’re remounting the Echo Theater Company’s production of The Cake by Bekah Brunstetter.
I was heartened to see that last example, having covered theatre in L.A. myself and seeing so much great small theatre that didn’t get enough recognition.
I come from the intimate theatre, and one of the things I wanted to do was try to platform as much as I could the exceptional work that’s been done in the L.A. theatre scene.
And how does L.A. theatre fit into the national theatre ecology?
It is continually changing, and because of film and television, so many writers and actors work in L.A. I think because of the nature of how people work in television, where they’re required to work maybe only half a year on a television show, a lot of these writers are able to live truly bicoastal lives. So they’re spending half of their time here in L.A. and half their time in New York. I think that has created a really wonderful conversation, and a good energy going back and forth. So I think that there’s a tremendous amount of great work being done here. And I think that every year I’ve been doing work in Los Angeles, I feel like its profile increases, and that people are aware that great, new work is being premiered here and moving to New York. I think that we’re slowly getting over the reputation of Los Angeles as just a film and television town. But much like doing theatre in Washington, D.C., we are dealing with a monolithic industry that looms over everything. We have to find ourselves within that shadow. We’re doing our best, and I think the work speaks for itself.
You mentioned reflecting the city’s diversity. Obviously you, like your predecessor, Randall Arney, are a white man. What can you bring to the table?
I think about this every day, every moment of every day. I think the biggest thing that I can do is be curious, and be interested in telling every different kind of story that I possibly can. And to represent writers and artists of every different race, culture, creed here on the stage, and try to reflect the city that we live in, which is an amazing, multicultural place. We have, I think, a very diverse season coming up, and stories that are relevant to many people here in Los Angeles. And I think it will both reflect the experience of many people in the audience, and it will also expand the experience of others in the audience as they will see different stories onstage.