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How the Geffen’s New Artistic Director Is Changing LA Theater

September 11, 2018 by Allison Considine
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Matt Shakman

The Geffen Playhouse’s new artistic director, Matt Shakman, has grand plans for the Los Angeles theater. The director and former actor straddles both the theater and TV worlds in LA — he’s directed “Bad Jews” and “Good People” at the Geffen and directed episodes of TV shows including “Game of Thrones” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Shakman’s first season kicks off with the world premiere of José Rivera’s “The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona,” Sept. 4-Oct.7, a fantastical tale about a young woman who tries to send a message to her deceased twin sister through a messaging service.

We caught up with Shakman to learn more about the full season lineup, and his plans to build the Geffen into a new-play factory of sorts, capitalizing on LA’s talented pool of TV writers.

Unlock $20 Rush tickets to “The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona.”

What drew you to Rivera’s “The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona”?
I’ve been a fan of the playwright, José Rivera, for a really long time. I’m a sucker for his use of magical realism and the theatricality of his plays. I definitely believe that theater right now needs to be presenting things that can only be seen in a theater — and José’s plays really feel like they capture that. I love many beautiful, smaller, more intimate dramas, but when you can see beautiful, intimate dramas on Netflix and Hulu, the question is: What brings you out to the theater? What makes you, especially in LA, want to fight the terrible traffic and go to the theater? I think José’s play answers that question, at least it does for me.

What else is in the lineup this fall that you’re excited about?
The rest of the fall is a really exciting group of plays. “The Cake” [by Bekah Brunstetter] is a stunning work deeply resonant with what is going on in the world now. It’s a beautiful study of two sides of intolerance. It’s brilliantly produced with great actors, and I’m super excited for that one to start previews this week.

Obviously having Brian Dennehy, a two-time Tony winner come into our studio space and perform two amazing classics five feet from the audience is going to be a really special experience. As a theater fan, I’m excited about that myself. I’m thrilled to have Jefferson Mays, who I think is one of the most magical actors in the world, come to do a one-man “A Christmas Carol” directed by Michael Arden who has had two projects in New York and has been nominated for both of them. He feels like a young Peter Brook — he’s able to do amazing human-based magic on stage. I think he and Jefferson are a great match to bring Dickens to life in a whole new way.

Cate Scott Campbell, Ricardo Chavira, and Zilah Mendoza star in “The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona” at the Geffen Playhouse. (Photographed by Darrett Sanders)

There’s some O’Neill and some Beckett in the season mix, but six out of the nine productions are new plays. Can you talk about Geffen Playhouse’s role as a sort of new-play incubator?
It has not in its history been known as that. It has certainly premiered a lot of new plays over the years, but it’s been more of a traditional blend of second productions of plays that have been successful in the recent past in New York, mixed with maybe one new play a year and the occasional revival. I definitely believe that being in Los Angeles, we have access to incredible artists — whether they’re actors, writers, designers — and since we’re here in the media capital of the world, we should be helping to start the conversation and create as much work as we can — and then send that from here out into the rest of the world. So that’s why I put a real emphasis on new-play development, and we’re working really hard to develop a pipeline that can support that.

The inaugural Writers’ Room residency is starting up this month. Can you talk about that year-long program and your plans for it?
It is a pilot program and we’re hoping to expand it. Right now there are six writers in it [Angelica Chéri, Dipika Guha, Chelsea Marcantel, Brian Otaño, Liza Powel O’Brien, and Matt Schatz]. LA has so many talented playwrights. Not only do I believe in supporting new work, but I really believe in supporting work that is being created here by LA artists.

Programming new works offers up an opportunity to usher in a new generation of theatergoers to the Geffen. Can you talk about your plans for welcoming new audiences?
LA is an incredibly diverse city, and I feel like we have the joy as well as the obligation of reflecting that city on our stage, both in terms of the people who are performing on it, the artists who are working, and the stories that we are telling. It’s really exciting to see stories onstage that reflect your life, but it’s even more exciting to see stories that are unfamiliar to you that you can draw connection to and resonance for your own life. To that end, I definitely want to diversify the kind of plays that we are doing as well as the audience that is coming to see them.

Where do you think Los Angeles fits into the larger national theater community?
I think it should be as vibrant as it was when I was growing up here in LA, when Gordon Davidson was running the Mark Taper Forum and they were launching “Angels in America” and “Twilight” and “Zoot Suit” — one amazing work of theater after another, and they were sending those plays and those ideas out into the rest of the world. Our ambition points in that direction. To capture that spirit when the Taper felt like the Public Theater of LA and to have a sense of creation where we are starting a conversation.