Today, IAMA Theatre Company is one of Los Angeles’ leading independent companies. Known for producing new plays and championing emerging artists, the group has amassed a dedicated following over the last decade. Among its devotees is Shonda Rhimes, who was recently named IAMA’s first Patron of the Arts. With her philanthropic support, the company’s future is looking more and more promising.
It’s hard to believe that almost ten years ago, IAMA’s founding members were just “a bunch of theatre kids from the East Coast” trying to find an alternative to working in restaurants.
One of those theatre kids was IAMA’s co-artistic director—and Scandal star—Katie Lowes. After graduating from NYU, Lowes spent two years in New York City, working as a waitress and booking the occasional acting gig Off Off-Broadway. “It just seemed really, really hard to get ahead,” she says. Tired of hustling, Lowes decided to join a couple of college friends in L.A. But on the West Coast, it looked to be a case of same struggle, different city. At least, in the beginning.
“We all worked in the same restaurant and we were all looking at each other, pretty depressed and kind of like chickens with our heads cut off, thinking: ‘What do we do?’” says Lowes. “Then we thought: ‘Well, we know how to take a couple of bucks and put on a play. That’s what we learned at school!’”
A group of eight of them—Laila Ayad, Stefanie Black, Amy Rosoff, Brandon Scott, Sarah Utterback, Wes Whitehead, Lowes, and her now husband Adam Shapiro—pooled their finances to rent a theatre and stage an original one-act. “The play wasn't very good,” says Lowes, “but we sold seats out to all our friends for a very low ticket price, we had a great time doing it and it gave us all an artistic home and a sense of purpose in this new city.”
For Lowes, the decision to take matters into her own hands was “everything.” It saved her acting career.
“It was the difference between staying in L.A. and continuing to try, versus going home,” she says. “It was all the difference between sticking with this career path I had chosen and throwing in the towel. [Before] we were all feeling so lost and like we had no purpose. We were just waiting for a phone to ring and had no sense of control.”
In those early days of putting on plays with IAMA, Lowes and her co-founders rediscovered their sense of purpose. “There are so many people in our company who have said numerous times that they would have quit had they not had [IAMA],” she says.
As Lowes’ acting career took off—she landed the role of Quinn Perkins on Scandal five years ago—IAMA transitioned from a personal project into a legitimate business. “Word was starting to spread,” recalls Lowes. “We only had a little 50 seat theatre but we would sell out every single night.” The little money they made always went into the next production. “[We had to] learn, quickly, how to take a business of friendship, and become a not-for-profit that runs smoothly and effectively.” With the guidance of a few successful industry friends, and a learning-as-they-went ethos, IAMA continued to flourish.
As their budgets grew, so did the ensemble, making room for writers, directors, designers, and producers; today, there are 24 IAMA company members. A number of L.A. playwrights have formed close relationships with the theatre, including Bachelorette screenwriter and playwright Leslye Headland, as well as Jonathan Caren, who debuted his play The Recommendation with the company in 2014. The production was awarded the Ovation Award for Best Production of the Year, winning out against shows with much bigger budgets.
All of this, explains Lowes, is what led to the involvement of TV mogul Rhimes. “She was saying she wanted to be involved [with IAMA] and you could have just picked my jaw off the ground,” says Lowes. Rhimes had been keeping an eye on the company for the last two years; she liked that the productions were representative of the diverse community, which was in line with her own principals. Rhimes’ monetary support will go directly into funding new play development specifically with an eye for cultural inclusion and help fund the Rhimes Unsung Voices Playwriting Commission. The first playwright to receive a commission from the company will be an artist of color, to be announced later this year.
It’s been a decade of expedited growth for IAMA, and yet, some things in the theatre never change. On the eve of tech week for the company’s production of Species Native to California, company members stayed at the theatre until 4 AM to get the set completed. “We’ve grown up, we’ve changed—some of us have kids now—but the show must go on,” says Lowes. “It's all hands on deck to get this thing up and swinging.”
Dorothy Fortenberry’s Species Native to California is running May 11–June 11 at the Atwater Stage Theater, with direction by IAMA company member Eli Gonda. For tickets and more information about IAMA Theatre Company visit IAMATheatre.com.