Jon Lawrence Rivera founded Playwrights' Arena to produce and direct original works by Los Angeles playwrights. He has stuck to this mission for nearly twenty years, surviving race riots, earthquakes, greedy landlords and the exigencies of little theatre. "It's been a tough life," he admitted in an interview with Playbill Online, "but when I wake up, I'm happy because I'm doing what I want, what I really love."
Born and raised in the Philipines, Rivera left at 15 when his journalist father was blacklisted by the Marcos regime. The family was given asylum in Australia, where Rivera first became interested in theatre, studying acting in Sydney. Because of his ethnic look, he got work all the time but decided nonetheless to take a chance in the USA. In 1981 he got involved with the "Up With People" organization and toured as a singer/performer with its revue, traveling to 16 states and 13 countries. "It was an amazing experience," he said. "It gave me the feeling that whatever you want to do, you can do."
After studying film directing at L.A. City College, Rivera and three friends chipped in $500 each to produce a bill of one-act plays at the Richmond Shepard Theatre. The success of that endeavor led to his spending the next decade as a freelance director and producer. "I managed to stay alive," he said, "but I was working on plays I wasn't passionate about. In the early 90s, I told myself that I had to find a play I really wanted to do. That meant starting Playwrights' Arena and renting the Gene Dynarski Theatre to mount a play called Carla, starring the then-unknown Elisabeth Shue. The riots broke out just as we opened and the audience wouldn't come. I decided to keep going and found a storefront on Pico Boulevard which I could turn into my own 35-seat theatre."
Thanks to the long-running success of his first show, Blue Corridor by Mimi Seton, Rivera was able to establish his company and mount a decade-long string of provocative works, including the musical Moscow (an award-winner at the 1998 Edinburgh Festival), All Soul's Day, All Souls' Day, Red Hat & Tales and many others, only to be jolted when his landlord suddenly demanded a 100% rent increase.
After abandoning Pico Boulevard, Rivera has leased various small venues in recent years to house such productions as Robert Harders' Bill and Eddie (5 Maddy Awards) and Straight as a Line by Luis Alfaro. The latter production went to New York, where it was seen at Primary Stages, and Bill and Eddie may go the same route, starring Elliot Gould and Michael Kearns.Rivera likes working in New York and would be happy doing two or three plays a year there, but insists he would always return to Los Angeles. "This is definitely my home," he said. "Also, the changes in L.A. theatre have re-energized the Equity-waiver scene. The emergence of Playwrights Arena and other groups like Actors' Gang, Indecent Exposure and Circle X has generated a lot of excitement. The BCT list service—Bigcheap@egroup.com—an internet networking tool, has made a big difference as well. It's a great way to get information, find actors and staff, discuss and solve problems."
Playwrights' Arena is supported by a board of directors which is responsible for raising needed funds from public and private sources. The current $72,000 budget pays Rivera's salary and the cost of three annual productions. The goal is to raise the budget to $125,000 and be able to use the extra funds for publicity and promotion.
"What I'd also like to see in the new year is for the Los Angeles Times to put small theatre on the front pages of its entertainment section," Rivera said. "That would be the biggest and most welcome miracle of all."
— By Willard Manus
Southern California Correspondent