Film and television dominate the arts in Los Angeles, but L.A. has a thriving theatre culture that hasn’t received the attention the New York stage commands. Even during the pandemic, local theatre professionals are finding ways to keep their art alive and relevant. Leigh Kennicott is one of those whose work over the years has helped to make the L.A. theatre scene the success that it is. (The interview below was conducted by email in June of 2020.)
Janis Butler Holm: As a theatre professional, you’ve worn many hats–actor, director, playwright, professor, reviewer among them. When did you first know you wanted to be part of the theatre world? And when did Los Angeles become your theatrical home?
Leigh Kennicott: Those are easy questions. I think I was ego-driven for most of it, but I was given my first part at 6, probably because I was already a good reader. Played a kitchen clock–and I still have the script!
Came to L.A. as an undergrad at UCLA, left and went up to San Francisco for the Summer of Love and other delights, then returned to pursue acting in films. You can imagine how that went.
Of course, acting in Hollywood opened new doors for me. Over the next years, I wandered through various television positions, from development both at ABC Television and for Leonard Goldberg (who later became head of 20th Century Fox) on to production with Miller/Boyett Productions–the folks who gave us Full House, Family Matters, and Step by Step, among others.
But in the 80s, I made the decision to bring my experience to academe, earning a Master’s and then a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado. Writing plays while directing and producing in the theatre sustained me through it all.
JBH: When you came to Los Angeles, were you new to California?
LK: I was born and raised in California, and my parents were both schoolteachers. Do I need to say more about why I chose college over “running away to the bright lights”? I sold my parents on my degree in theatre by promising to teach–and, eventually, I did. (Proving what my parents would have told you: they were never wrong.) But, clever little thing that I was, I ended up at UCLA–a hop, skip, and jump from Hollywood–and thus the early emphasis on film and television.
JBH: From your perspective, what are the advantages and disadvantages of doing theatre in Los Angeles?
LK: I’ve always participated in the theatre as if it were part of breathing–while doing other things for money. If there is a disadvantage, I guess it would be that you really can’t make a living in theatre here. Since that was never my focus, though, I haven’t felt deprived.
One advantage of theatre in L.A. is the proximity of like-minded people who have created a close-knit community in what we used to call 99-seat theatre (and I still do). There are professionals operating at all levels, and the various aspects of theatre create different groups that often overlap. The Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights, for instance, allows us to hobnob (even under “Zoom” conditions) and also creates opportunities to get our work seen by the public.
JBH: What artists, writers, or other sources have influenced your career?
LK: Hmmm. This is a hard one. Being female, I grew up without many role models. Lately, though, there have been more and more really inventive creators, from teacher/directors like Anne Bogart to actors like Lisa Wolpe. I think I’ve taken a little from everyone I’ve encountered.
JBH: What, in particular, motivates you?
LK: I am moved to share my experiences, whether actual or imaginary. My Buddhist practice unlocks my imagination, and I can barely get it all on paper. Directing, though, takes me to a different dimension. I’m usually working spatially (something I probably get from my grandmother, who was a painter). But spatial or linear, the collaborative aspect of creating a play for the stage is such a pleasure.
JBH: You’ve worked as a director in both academic and nonacademic settings. What challenges did you encounter? What insights did you gain from “running the show”?
LK: I just had this conversation with colleagues the other day. We agreed it’s a lot bigger job to direct in an academic setting than in, say, a 99-seat or LORT theatre because, generally, the lighting, costume, and set designers are all professors, and they may want to make a statement with your show. Sometimes they have chosen that particular play for personal reasons. But in smaller theatres–also generally–you and the producer have chosen the designers. Sometimes they’re people you’ve worked with before, and there is more of a shorthand going on. When a show clicks, it creates a moment in time for all of us to savor.
JBH: Do you have a definable work pattern? That is, are there specific steps to your creative process? For example, do you have pre-work “rituals,” things you do to put yourself in working mode?
LK: The only real ritual I have is that, when I’m home, I have to clean up first. And since cleaning is never done, I just have to leave the house. I work best when I’m away from day-to-day stimuli.
JBH: Of all your plays, which is your favorite? Why?
LK: Another stumper. My problem is that most of my plays remain works in progress, even the ones that have won awards or gotten productions. So in one way or another, I’m always thinking about them. I suppose my favorite that’s in some semblance of completion is Little White Lies, about a faded country singer. It came out of my acquaintance with the stepdaughter of a prominent country-music singer of the 90s, who shall remain nameless. I was fascinated by the stories of her childhood. My play speculates on the singer’s life but is in no way factual–speculating about her was an intriguing experience. I’m still futzing with the music.
And there’s Scenes from an Unfinished Life, parts of which have been published in several anthologies. This play started as an account of my own life and then jumped the rails to a life of its own. Right now, it’s in two parts. Part 1, Suffer the Children, can function as a one-act, while part 2 is still untitled. I’m plundering other work for ideas for scenes, and I think I’m finally ready to finish it.
JBH: What have you found most rewarding about university teaching?
LK: Ahh. Finally: an easy question! I like interacting with students, and I especially like it when they are as involved in the subject as I am.
JBH: If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring playwrights, what would that be?
LK: I’m sure they’ve heard it all–“Go this way…. Do this first….” But I like to engage in discussion rather than give advice, and I’d ask, “What about playwriting appeals to you, as opposed to writing for television or the movies?” That is a rich topic to consider that draws a line between writers who must write and writers who want to get more remuneration for their efforts. I’m trying to get them to reflect for themselves on the path they choose to follow. Once that’s settled, their journey more easily falls into place.
JBH: In the Los Angeles theatre world, you have a reputation as a perceptive and judicious critic. For whom have you written your reviews?
LK: Once, on a panel, I got into a bit of a “tiff” with Sylvie Drake, who was the pre-eminent critic at the LA Times for a long time. She insisted that critics should never be practitioners. I’d written reviews and criticism in journals at the same time as writing and directing plays, but evidently that didn’t seem legitimate to her. In San Francisco I had written for Rolling Stone and, here, began to freelance for Dramalogue, which was the primary reviewing vehicle at the time. When it folded into what was then Backstage West (now subsumed into New York’s Backstage), I went to the LA Weekly, then to the Burbank Times, then to various publications at Southland Publishing–all this before going on to graduate school.
Upon returning to L.A., reviewing became my way to stay current with the theatre scene. It still is, although one of my outlets has shut down for now, and Better Lemons is experiencing an upheaval that should be resolved by the time this interview is published.
JBH: How–and this is speculation, of course–do you think your reviewing role will change during and after the Covid-19 pandemic?
LK: Recently I’ve been exploring all the innovative ways that theatres are staying alive. For example, there is a really engaging series of online productions from the Impro Theatre Company. It’s an improv group that produces improvised theatre, and, so far, they have adapted well to Zoom. Their performers are top-notch and such fun to watch. And the real heroes, I’ve found, are the technicians, who are also great improvisers charged with making the show work.
A publicist just sent out a new schedule for “drive-in” performances. The company is performing a variety show on a makeshift stage in a parking lot, which should prove quite entertaining. I wouldn’t choose this venue for a serious play, but it’s an engaging idea.
And there are even more possibilities for staged theatre. Some years ago, one group staged the Car Plays, where scenarios played out in separate automobiles as audiences moved from one to another. There is no reason why that idea cannot be adapted to the present situation.
So, you see, the possibilities are endless. Theatre reviewers will have plenty to keep us busy as our associates find new ways to engage while distancing. To use a nineteenth-century circus maxim, “The show must go on.”
Janis Butler Holm has served as Associate Editor for Wide Angle, the film journal, and currently works as a writer and editor in sunny Los Angeles. Her prose, poems, and performance pieces have appeared in small-press, national, and international magazines. Her plays have been produced in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.