Pasadena Playhouse's Danny Feldman takes over theater at a crossroads
The theater's new producing artistic director has a big challenge: attracting new audiences without alienating longtime patrons.
Danny Feldman grew up watching theatre productions in Los Angeles. His first job after college was as the company manager for L.A.'s Reprise Theatre Company, known for staging revivals of long-forgotten musicals.
Feldman then spent seven years in New York as executive director for Labyrinth Theatre Company, managing the business side of the legendary off-Broadway company whose diverse roster has included Stephen Adly Guirgis, John Ortiz, Lynn Nottage and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Now back in L.A., Feldman is at the helm of another historic theatrical destination: the Pasadena Playhouse, which is approaching its centennial. The venerable theater is faced with the challenges of securing funding and attracting new audiences without alienating longtime patrons in the process. In the newly created role of producing artistic director, Feldman will combine artistic duties with business responsibilities to steer the Playhouse into a new direction.
"The role that I believe the Pasadena Playhouse has, and my vision for it, is not just about presenting. It's really about creating," Feldman says. "I'm very interested in creating theater of and by the community, for the community."
When Feldman recently stopped by The Frame, he talked about the mission for the Pasadena Playhouse and his upcoming inaugural season, which begins with a production of "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder.
On his theater experiences while growing up in L.A.:
There were many. My first one, I vividly remember, was "Fiddler on the Roof" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The national tour came by and that had a pretty profound impact on me and started all of this mess. I was an avid theatergoer. My family took me to the theater quite a bit. The Center Theatre Group, I was there a lot. Geffen Playhouse. Pasadena Playhouse. [I] went to all of the big theaters in L.A.
On working at the Labyrinth Theatre Company in New York:
It was a big jump and it was a very bold, small off-Broadway theater company. The [co-founders were] Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz. It was dedicated to really doing exciting, bold new work by marginalized voices — stories not typically told on the American stage. And in a given year we worked on about 50 to 60 new plays in one year. We produced about three or four some years, but it was really dedicated to stories not typically told. And my first year there we took a show to Broadway and that was exciting. You'll bleep me out for this, but the play was called "The Mother****** with the Hat."
On his new role at the Pasadena Playhouse:
When you go back and look at history — and the Playhouse turns a hundred years old this year — there's more history in it than basically any theater in America. I believe we're the second oldest theater in America. It's always been a really large bucket of ... types of work. There's always been world premieres at the Pasadena Playhouse. We world premiered Tennessee Williams ... a Eugene O'Neal play in 1928, but [we] also have done Shakespeare, new musicals, old musicals. And when you look at my career trajectory, you talk about Labyrinth being so different from the Playhouse, Reprise was also from the opposite spectrum as well ... I have a wide swath of taste, but the through line for me is always about engaging theater that is bold, that is innovative, that is pushing the art form forward in some way.
On the challenges of programming for a diverse audience:
I welcome the challenge. I think that the Playhouse has had ups and downs very publicly for a very long time. And you look at sort of this hundred-year theater and what is the through line? The Playhouse has always been directly responsive to its community. So, first of all, it used to be called the Pasadena Community Playhouse, and I think we have to look at our communities today and say, How are we serving our communities? We are, as a theater institution, in service of our community.
On the mission of the Pasadena Playhouse:
The mission is to enrich the lives of our community through theater and all of the programming we do, both in education space and community work. What's important for me is, as [our] being the state theater of California, that our work reflects the state of California, that our work is accessible to everyone in the state of California. And so, yes, audiences are quite diverse and the challenge of hitting a subscription base and just catering to them tends to be the downfall of a lot of arts organizations. Because if you move the needle too far one way or another, there's a fear that we're going to rock the boat.
I think you can see by my first season coming up, the work is accessible. There are many different access points to different people. And I really spent time trying to make sure the widest swath of community will be served by this or be interested and engaged.
On why he selected "Our Town" as the first production of his first season:
I do think it's the most beautiful American play, the most challenging American play in many ways. And I was intrigued by how we can do it in a way that can bring our community together — the through line of that play is about community — but also tell the story in a refreshing way that is still very true to the original intention of the play ... [Thornton Wilder] wrote it in 1938 ... We've all read the play in college or high school, we all know the play, it feels like Americana almost at this point. Yet, when the play opened, it was revolutionary. It was one of the first times people had seen a play with no set. The stage directions at the top of the show — an empty stage, two ladders and some chairs — that's exactly how we intend to do it.
It was a play that doesn't have a traditional plot structure. [If] you try to describe the plot of "Our Town," you get stuck real fast. It's episodic, it's thematic. And it's a play that really, to me, just gets to the root of humanity and the struggle and pain of being a human being.
On the production of "Our Town" at the Pasadena Playhouse:
The Playhouse produced it in 1939. When you really think about the magnitude of that — [it] was not a play widely done — that's exciting. I have photos of that production, which is exciting [for] our current production as well. Yet, we're doing it in a way, to me, that is more contemporary and relevant ... We've invited our sister theater company, The Deaf West Theatre Company [to collaborate]. It's a theater company that, at its core, is really exploring gaps in our communication with one another — between hearing audiences and deaf audiences, hearing actors and deaf actors.
When you really think about "Our Town" and what it's ultimately about ... In Act Three, when Emily comes back [as a spirit], she cannot communicate with her family. She sees something they don't see. And that was really a lightning rod moment. DJ Kurs is the artistic director of Deaf West, and I brought it to him just saying, I think there's something here.
"Our Town" runs at the Pasadena Playhouse from Sept. 26-Oct. 22.
To hear John Horn's full interview with Danny Feldman, click on the player above.