Hunched over a cup of steaming black coffee and frowning like a badly stumped TV quiz-show contestant, John Flynn, M.S. ’74, has just asked himself a brutally difficult question.
“What could lead a man to become so foolish as to attempt to establish a theater that specializes in producing new plays in Los Angeles?”
He pauses for a moment. His bushy, silver-streaked eyebrows flare dangerously, and then a moment later, he explodes in a rush of language that perfectly captures the passion he feels for daringly original theater.
“If you’re a dramatic artist, you have to question why we exist,” roars the 66-year-old Colorado native, who’s also part Chickasaw Indian and proud of it. “What is existence, anyway? That’s the kind of question that theater should be asking.
“If theater is to survive, it must find its own voice in each new generation. And back in 2007, when I decided to try and launch a new live theater in L.A., I was determined to create a space for that voice and a space for new work. I knew it would be hard at first, and it was. But all of us who were involved in creating Rogue Machine Theatre (RMT), well, I think we understood that if we could give people original plays, they would respond and we would gradually be able to build an audience.”
And they did.
Since the 2008 opening of the 140-seat theater complex on Pico Boulevard in a battered and somewhat scruffy-looking section of the city, RMT has produced more than a dozen original plays while also nailing down more than 50 local and regional artistic awards for its bold-hearted insistence on challenging theatergoers to the max.
“I spent 30 years producing and directing TV movies and TV series in Los Angeles,” said the well-known television exec who now regularly sweeps L.A. theater awards. His TV credits in recent decades include the popular cable series Strong Medicine, the widely praised remake of Fantasy Island as a multiyear TV series that starred A Clockwork Orange legend Malcolm McDowell, and a hugely successful TV-movie version of Scott Turow’s smash-hit thriller, The Burden of Proof.
“I think I was reasonably successful in television, but live theater had been my first love, starting all the way back at Illinois State in the 1970s. I finally came to a place where I said: ‘You’ve got to go back to what you love most!’”
Driven by his passion for the mysterious energy that erupts on “the boards” when great actors blaze through the dialogue in great plays, Flynn took a giant risk and put together a plan to purchase a crumbling old theater complex that contained two different performing spaces. After convincing a second L.A. theater group to join him in the project, Flynn & Co. borrowed a ton of money and assembled a team of actors and directors who would labor more for love than for cash. After many months of hard work, he and his artistic crew launched what has now become one of the city’s most promising venues for neglected older plays and daring new works alike.
Relying on a staff of about 100 theater devotees—most unpaid volunteers—and while doing his best to manage a yearly budget of about $300,000, the indefatigable Flynn has achieved a theatrical goal that critics and theatergoers alike would have said was impossible a decade ago. He has created and sustained a theatrical enterprise heavily devoted to launching new works.
The editors of the highly influential LA Weekly acknowledged as much in 2011, while presenting a coveted Lifetime Achievement Award to the unstoppable Flynn. Agreeing wholeheartedly with the selection, the influential Terry Morgan at Variety described the daringly original Rogue Machine Theatre as “one of the most ambitious and accomplished theater companies in Los Angeles.”
Spend an afternoon hanging out with Flynn at the increasingly popular Rogue Machine Theatre, and you’ll soon discover that he minces no words when it comes to explaining what he’s after as the high-profile founding artistic director of L.A.’s most talked about new theatrical enterprise.
“I think we’re here to challenge audiences, and I think they really respect that,” said the former ISU theater arts graduate student during a tour of the Pico Avenue showplace. “In recent years, we’ve brought one daring work after another to town—including some highly provocative new plays by some of America’s most original, younger playwrights—and the reaction has been quite positive.
“For me, that reaction underlines what I’ve always believed to be true about theater: As soon as you start pandering to your audience, you start destroying your audience.”
To illustrate his point, he described two recent RMT productions that left audiences (and critics) reeling with shocked excitement after watching Flynn’s high-voltage actors attack hugely controversial topics.
In Dying City by the widely admired playwright Christopher Shinn, a damaged Iraq War combat veteran has apparently split into two schizophrenic halves. One is addicted to violence and hates women, while the other is a sniveling, terrified wimp who’s lost control of his life.
“Dying City is all about questions,” said Flynn, the delighted producer of the well-reviewed play. “Is Baghdad dying from the wartime violence that began there with the Iraq War in 2003? Or is the ‘dying city’ really located in America, as an entire society is brutalized by the endless, bloody warfare? Theater is all about asking those kinds of questions, it seems to me, and that show didn’t hesitate to do so.”
Another recent RMT hit—Kemp Powers’ relentlessly provocative One Night in Miami—explores the powder-keg issue of racial anger and race-related violence. Four instantly recognizable African-American celebrities—former heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali, pop singer Sam Cooke, pro football star Jim Brown and black-power advocate Malcolm X—gather in a booze-soaked Miami motel room to debate whether or not their superstar billing as deeply admired African-Americans really has liberated them from the “shackles” of racial discrimination.
“That show was one of the dozen or so original plays we’ve produced at Rogue Machine,” said Flynn, “and our audiences really loved its naked honesty. The play was developed right here at RMT as part of our Playwrights Development Workshop, and watching it unfold on opening night was a great thrill for all of us who believe in the importance of staging new plays in Los Angeles.”
Describing the “terrific passion and excitement” that Flynn has brought to building and managing a new L.A. theater, the award-winning playwright John Pollono says Flynn loves to see both “honesty and raw action” in every play he produces or directs.
“John Flynn has a rare gift—a burning passion and dedication to the theater,” said Pollono, whose highly praised Small Engine Repair enjoyed its world premiere at RMT a few years ago and then went on to a New York City off-Broadway production in 2013.
“Once he made the decision to build Rogue Machine, he became totally dedicated to the task. I remember one afternoon when we were all down there refurbishing the building, and John fell off a platform and badly injured his leg.
“But you know what? The very next day, he was back in the theater hobbling around and back at work. To this day, we still love to kid him about that. We tell him: ‘John, you dedicated your leg to the cause of theater in L.A.!’”
Henry Murray, another budding L.A. playwright who’s had several shows produced by Flynn, points out that the ISU grad “founded RMT at a time when no one else in Los Angeles was willing to take a chance on new plays. The big institutional theaters had closed their development programs [for new plays], and the small theaters weren’t willing to take a risk.
“But John is a risk-taker and six years later, L.A. has a new play scene, led by the most-awarded theater of the last three years, Rogue Machine.”
Ask Flynn to explain why he left big-time TV directing and producing at the tender age of 60 for the low-budget world of original theater in Los Angeles, and the unflappably Irish showman will give part of the credit to the highly regarded Illinois State theater arts program which, he noted, had helped to launch the famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company and numerous other theatrical initiatives during the years right before Flynn landed on campus.
“That was a magical time for me,” Flynn said. He gained “huge inspiration and also very practical advice” in courses with such legendary ISU theater faculty as the late Professor Jean Scharfenberg and Professor Emeritus John Kirk. “When I arrived, some of the Steppenwolf people were still there, people like Francis Guinan Jr. ’74, M.S. ’76, and Terry Kinney ’76, and the excitement was palpable.
“That excitement left an indelible impression on me,” Flynn said. “In the end, I think it’s what helped most to bring me out of the TV world and return me to my first love: the world of live theater!”