IAMA, founded in 2007, is LA’s only theater company with all-female leadership: Artistic Director Stefanie Black, Executive Director (and Larchmont resident) Cara Greene Epstein, Board Chair Katie Lowes, Producing Director Lara Myrene and Associate Artistic Director Margaux Susi. Together, this group runs an ensemble based in Atwater Village whose mission is to cultivate new voices and boundary-pushing work.
The company’s latest play in support of that mission is Radical or, are you gonna miss me? It’s a personal look at the political divide within a Mexican-American family commissioned by IAMA from playwright Isaac Gómez. Stefanie Black notes that Gómez’s “fearlessness and curiosity about what makes us human” led to the commission.
The Buzz interviewed IAMA’s leadership about its past, present and future.
How did IAMA start, and how does its all-female leadership affect the company’s mission?
Stefanie Black IAMA was born out of female friendship: five women who went to NYU, studied in London in fall 2002 and became best friends. After we graduated, one by one we all moved to LA and decided to put our Type A brains to use.
Over the years, we’ve had different leadership. Katie Lowes and I came up as leaders when we needed more organization; we led IAMA through the pandemic. We are now not only a group of women leaders, we’re all moms.
We’ve had, and still have, many men in our organization. But we started with five like-minded women and have continued to be a place where women could be in a place of power and change. We hope to continue to foster women in leadership as we become more inclusive and diverse. It’s a lot about passing the torch, building up legacy.
That means collaboration, support and opening doors for others who come after us, as those who came before have done. I don’t think any artistic group benefits from the same leadership for decades. New perspectives are needed. Working artists keep evolving and require the same from their leadership.
Cara and Margaux, what brought you to IAMA? Why do you stay?
Cara Greene Epstein The people, hands down. I’ve been on a cross-country search for a creative community my whole life. Truly. I lived in Minneapolis, New York City, San Diego and Chicago before coming to Los Angeles. I thought moving to LA was selling out. Little did I know that LA was where I would find that artistic community I was craving.
I met IAMA Board Chair Katie Lowes at an event and approached her because I was a huge Scandal fan. Somehow, we started talking about theatre…and just never stopped. Every person I’ve met at IAMA is not only talented, but kind. There is a commitment to the integrity of the work and an ethos of kindness within the community and ensemble.
Margaux Susi I was introduced to IAMA the first month I moved to LA more than 13 years ago. I looked at this wildly inspired, talented, hungry group of artists who were creating art that they believed in and knew I had to be part of it. IAMA quickly became not only my artistic home but every member in it became family. I’ve never been around more supportive people. They all care so deeply about what we do with this company. It’s imperative we continue to develop new plays and artists. We need to make sure that theatre continues to live on.
What work have you produced that you’d you say is most representative of IAMA’s mission?
Stefanie Black When IAMA was formed, one of friends was Leslye Headland, a TV/screenwriter, actor, director and playwright. She created our 7 Deadly Plays series, which helped define our voice. She was writing for our generation, speaking unapologetically, strong and ferocious. We were all massively inspired by her work and that’s how IAMA started. It was a symbiotic relationship. She went on to write for TV and film and to have her plays produced off-Broadway, but the conversation continued. For our tenth anniversary season in 2018, we produced the last of The Seven Deadly Plays, “Cult of Love”, with a large cast fully cast within our own ensemble.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that my favorite production was a small play called Shiner by Christian Durso that we ended up taking to New York. In it, two 13 year olds form a suicide pact to jump off the 101 overpass after they see Nirvana in concert, but then Kurt Cobain kills himself. And the recent Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, a partnership with Center Theatre Group, was very important for a company of our size.
Can you tell us a little about how your collaborations come together?
Cara Greene Epstein Our collaborations come together through a shared love of the work and relationships—and the fact that the cost of producing a play in Los Angeles has basically doubled post-pandemic. It simply isn’t feasible, even for the large theater companies, to produce a whole season on their own. For Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, Lindsay Allbaugh approached us because CTG needed a producing partner and she knew Stefanie and Margaux loved the play and that IAMA shared her artistic values. It was such a great collaboration!
This Spring we’re doing a co-production with Boston Court Pasadena and it’s going to be amazing! Stefanie and Jessica Kubzansky have been looking for a play to collaborate on together for a long time and we’re thrilled to finally be doing it. Manny Prieto (BCP’s Executive Director) and I are both new to our roles and it’s really exciting to be breaking new ground together with this partnership.
In the same vein, what is a show you’ve done, or plan to do, that meant a lot to you because of its impact, or message?
Margaux Susi I cannot wait for our first ever commission-to-production play, Radical, by Isaac Gomez, to open. It feels incredibly important in today’s political climate. Isaac doesn’t shy away from the darkness. It’s incredibly daring and moving.
We have a few other shows in development too that I can’t officially share yet. They all share this same danger. They confront my own beliefs and challenge them. I think they’re going to be pretty divisive and those are secretly my favorite plays. Have an opinion! Even if it’s not one I share, I’d rather an audience member leave with a strong opinion than none at all.
How does the IAMA mission guide your new play development, especially as it relates to supporting new voices, pushing boundaries and reflecting today’s world?
Cara Greene Epstein We’re committed to making sure that we are engaging playwrights from all walks of life, so that the plays we develop and produce invite our audiences into a wide variety of lived experiences, infused with imagination and vulnerability. And we’re super curious about everyone! What motivates these characters, what/who do they love, where are their wounds, where is their joy? We work to provide a safe space for dangerous work that takes risks, pushes boundaries, and allows space for the messiness of the real world.
Margaux Susi The landscape of today’s modern world is wildly complex and intricate. In a world where politics are ever-changing, where boundaries are being pushed, where old systems of beliefs are being challenged, we need a safe space to explore and challenge these new ideas. Our audiences know that we push these boundaries. What better way to explore all this than through art?
What’s your take on the state of theater, both in Los Angeles and around the country?
Stefanie Black The crumbling of the American theater is hyperbolic. We’re seeing a huge generational shift in philanthropic funding. It was all set up in the 1950s when there was a lot of government support in addition to donations. A lot of theaters, like the Kennedy Center, came out of that. Some of those larger institutions and some smaller ones are seeing the boomer generation passing away or not continuing the gifts. Their children or heirs are not continuing. So all of a sudden there’s a huge dropoff in arts funding.
My generation is interested in social action and social justice; they put their money where they can see actionable change. They can show why theater is not just an art, it’s about health and wellness and social action, such as climate change. Theater plays a huge role in how we can educate.
In LA, we’re feeling the ripples of those giant institutions shifting. You have a few large theaters, a lot of small ones and few midsize ones. There are larger budgets with more infrastructure but still under-resourced. Like us: we need to be able to pay everyone a living wage and be functioning in a way that‘s fully supporting the development of new work. It’s expensive to do all these things at the same time.
It’s a myth that there’s no theater in LA. There’s tons but it’s in varied forms. We need to come together to reinforce and commit to LA theater as one ecosystem, no matter the size of the theater. So we’re looking at a lot of partnerships to share resources.
California is the fourth-largest economy in the world, yet from a $700 billion budget, only 66 cents per person is spent on the arts. In Florida, it’s $2 a person! We need to advocate more for the arts in California, and LA is a place that has a spotlight on it. There’s so much money in this town for entertainment and theater is a training ground for film and TV.
We need to come together, organize and celebrate each other’s work. I’m excited about the future because IAMA’s been lucky to have growth despite a pandemic. We’re just starting to come into our own. I have a lot of hope for how we can model this hope and change within the community. It’s not a coincidence that we are almost all female.
Where is IAMA today, and where you see the company going in the near and long-term future?
Cara Greene Epstein IAMA is at an inflection point in our growth as a company. We’re working to provide a platform for new work and new voices that elevates artists and the L.A. theatre scene. To do this, we’re really searching for dedicated Patrons of the Arts, who share our vision for Los Angeles as a theatre town! We want New Yorkers flying to L.A. to see the new must-see show, not the other way around. We’ve got the talent for it; we just need the support. So long term, IAMA has our own physical theatre building in Los Angeles that is a cultural destination for theatre artists and audiences to gather, create, discuss, argue, eat, drink, and embrace the beauty and messiness of this town, community and world.
Cara, since you live in the Larchmont area, could you share a little about your favorite things to do there?
Cara Greene Epstein Walk! I love that Larchmont is truly a walkable neighborhood, and that I know my neighbors. I’m usually walking to Larchmont Boulevard with my dogs and kiddos for a treat. I’m really trying to get the nickname “Sweet Street” to stick—I mean, we’ve got a donut shop, a boba place, three ice cream shops, three bakeries, and six coffee shops – and that doesn’t even include smoothies, juice spots or the farmers’ market!
IAMA’s Radical or, are you gonna miss me? opens this Thursday, Nov. 16, and runs through Dec. 11 on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm (dark Monday, Nov. 20 and Friday, Nov. 25) at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave. Tickets are $40 and are available here.