Jay McAdams, 24th STreet Theatre, and COVID-19 – An Interview during a Crisis

Artistic Director Debbie Devine and Executive Director Jay McAdams of 24th STreet Theatre - Photo by Jon Deshler Photography

Executive director of Los Angeles’s 24th STreet Theatre, Jay McAdams is also the producer of dozens of theatrical productions over the past 20 years. He has received extensive leadership training, including programs in LA County Arts Commission Leadership Initiative, the Annenberg Leadership Institute, and the prestigious Stanford University Executive Program for Non-Profit Leaders, where Jay distinguished himself with a Center for Social Innovation Fellowship. He was also selected by the U.S. State Department to serve as a cultural envoy to El Salvador, where he performed and taught on three Central American tours. He won the Innovation and Leadership Award from U.S.C.’s Rossler School of Education.

Together with co-founder and artistic director Debbie Devine, the chair of the Drama Department of the Colburn School of Performing Arts for over 20 years, Jay has been instrumental in developing multiple well-received productions and community events for the non-profit 24th STreet Theatre. Jay took time from his busy schedule to share his observations on theater and the current pandemic.

Tony Duran and Paige Lindsey White in WALKING THE TIGHTROPE – Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins

WHEN AND HOW DID THE 24TH STREET THEATRE FIRST FORM? WERE YOU INVOLVED SINCE THE BEGINNING?

In 1996 the now late Dean of USC’s School of Theater, Bob Scales, wanted a professional theatre in the USC neighborhood, so he helped Jon White-Spunner and Stephanie Shroyer find the venue that is now 24th STreet Theatre. My partner Debbie Devine and I co-founded the theatre with Shroyer and White-Spunner and have run the theatre since 1999. Now in its third decade 24th STreet Theatre has become known for its excellent theatre for all ages, for its equally excellent Arts Education programs, and for its heartfelt community engagement.

LA RAZON BLINDADA – Photo by Juan Tallo

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MOST POPULAR PLAYS YOU’VE DONE? HOW ABOUT AWARDS?

“Walking the Tightrope,” by Mike Kenny won the LA Drama Critics Circle’s Best Production of the Year Award, an Ovation Award, and 17 award nominations. It toured nine cities, ending at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre.  24th STreet is also the winner of TCG’s Peter Zeisler Award for risk-taking in the American Theatre.  Artistic Director Deb Devine has won the Best Director Ovation Award, LA Weekly Awards, Drama Logue Awards, and USC School of Education’s Innovation and Leadership Award.

Another hit show, “La Razon Blindada” by Aristides Vargas, won LA Weekly’s Production of the Year Award and has had over 100 performances on tour in Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, and Ecuador. Other favorites include “Walking the Tightrope,” “Hansel and Gretel Bluegrass,” and “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.” We also offer community activities like “Enter Stage Right” field trips and the Dia de los Muertos street fair. We were supposed to open “The Night Buster Keaton Dreamed Me” in April, but now we’ve had to postpone the opening until the fall.

Angela Giarratana, Will Mercer, and Bradley Whitford in HANSEL AND GRETEL BLUEGRASS – Photo by Cooper Bates

WHEN DID YOU CLOSE THE THEATER DUE TO COVID-19? WERE YOU IN THE MIDDLE OF A RUN?

We closed on Friday the thirteenth, the day LAUSD announced they were closing all LA schools. We spent that afternoon making food bags for neighborhood families using our reception food and “After Cool” program snacks.  We were right in the middle of the rehearsal process for our upcoming show, “The Night Buster Keaton Dreamed Me” by Kerry Muir; the show was directed by Deb Devine. We rescheduled our tech rehearsal dates twice before cancelling rehearsals and postponing until the fall. Sets have already been built and are waiting backstage, and new video projectors for the high tech show were already purchased and in transit when we closed on the thirteenth. We were running our “Enter Stage Right” show for schools, but now all of our remaining field trips are cancelled for the school year.

ENTER STAGE RIGHT Presentation – Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins

HOW HAS COVID-19 IMPACTED ON YOUR THEATER?

We’ve lost over $125,000 already in cancelled Arts Education projects. The 100 neighborhood families for whom we provide free after school programming have been impacted with our closure. As we have done during the 9/11 crisis, during the recession of 2008/09, and during other global crises, we’ve been working diligently to try to find our role as a non-profit and as a theater. We’ve been providing moral support, a tiny bit of financial support, and have literally been taking care of elderly neighborhood residents. Our work has shifted from merely producing excellent shows and Arts Ed programs to being Cultural and Emotional First Responders.

Brady Dalton Richards and Rachel Weck in THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE – Photo by Cooper Bates

ARE YOU DOING ANYTHING RIGHT NOW TO KEEP YOUR LIVE THEATER GOING? STREAMING? HAVING VIRTUAL MEETINGS? PLANNING FOR YOUR NEXT SHOW WHEN YOU REOPEN?

Absolutely.  Every day since the thirteenth we’ve had video conference meetings to strategize.  For us, it’s bigger than just reopening a show.  It’s literally keeping our programming going. With our kids and all kids out of school there is huge need. We are currently shifting our “After Cool” classes to online zoom classes so that our programs are continuing. In the spirit of the WPA and the Federal Theatre Project, we’re hiring teaching artists to create videos and lessons online. For the short term, we are quickly pivoting to inspire online rather than on stage. We are working harder than ever right now to keep serving kids and families during this crisis. And yes, the show we’ve been working on, “The Night Buster Keaton Dreamed Me,” AND our “Enter Stage Right” field trips AND our ICE field trips for middle and high school students will resume as soon as we can.

John Ellsworth Phillips as Buster Keaton in THE NIGHT BUSTER KEATON DREAMED ME – Photo by Jennie McInnis

WHAT DO YOU THINK THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 WILL BE ON LIVE THEATER IN GENERAL IN LOS ANGELES? DO YOU FORESEE ANY PERMANENT CHANGES?

We think people are going to be naturally cautious about public gatherings for some months, but we also know that people are going to WANT and even NEED to gather after not having face-to-face interaction for so long. We fear that theatre will be even less of a priority in a deep recession, but others will need it even more. We are encouraged by the positive response of foundations early on in this crisis. LA intimate theaters are working together to ensure that we stand together once this is over.

WHAT DO YOU NEED RIGHT NOW TO KEEP GOING FORWARD? WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE FROM THE THEATER PUBLIC?

We just need people to remember the basics of who we are as human beings. We need people to remember that talking to your friends on Zoom is fine for now – but it’s not the way life should be. That going to college online is not the same as life away from home on a college campus. That while Netflix is great, it is not the same kind of engagement as experiencing live theatre, up close and personal. Being “in the Zoom where it happens” is not the same as being “in the Room where it happens.” 24th STreet Theatre will be here after the dust clears because we are about more than just plays.  We are theatre artists who are also educators and community activists. We serve school districts, neighborhood families, and our neighbors. And yes, we also provide great art. So we will work hard through this crisis to keep inspiring.

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS block party – Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FUTURE PLANS?

Even with this global crisis, we still have big plans for the future. Life as we know it is not over. It will go on. Next year is our twenty fourth anniversary, and we are scheduled to open a new show by Mike Kenny at the Wallis.  Also coming, whenever feasible, is “The Night Buster Keaton Dreamed Me” by Kerry Muir. We’re also starting the new Stockel Teaching Artist training program, new projects with the LA County Office of Education’s mental health program, new Professional Development projects for teachers, and continuing our Spanish-language work and our annual Dia de los Muertos celebration where we honor the dead with joy and celebration.

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