Where can Huck from Scandal and Joey McIntyre from New Kids on the Block perform a play written by Lena Dunham and directed by the producer of The 100?
The combination is one of dozens that are possible but not guaranteed at IAMA Theatre Company’s 23-Hour Play Festival, a marathon tradition of artistry beloved by theater companies nationwide but given a star-studded Los Angeles riff on March 13 by IAMA co-founder Katie Lowes and her famous pals.
In between crises management on Scandal, 34-year-old Lowes has devoted most of her free time to bolstering L.A.’s theater scene with her nascent company, which she founded with her NYU classmates almost a decade ago. “My best friends, we all grew up making theater together, so when we all moved out to L.A. 10 years ago and started waitressing, babysitting and auditioning, we realized all we really knew how to do was make cheap, s—ty theater,” says Lowes, who serves as the company’s co-artistic director. But in the past decade, the company has blossomed far beyond those adjectives: It’s a rising contender in the L.A. theater scene and responsible for works that have traveled far outside of the California bubble. (Notably, writer Leslye Headland, the playwright of critical darlings like Bachelorette and Assistants, was an early and formative IAMA participant).
The group’s forthcoming 23-Hour Play Festival — which knocks 60 minutes off the typical cycle “because we like a challenge,” laughs Lowes — is a special fundraising event in theory but a much more joyous endeavor in practice for what it provides L.A.’s television actors: a low commitment opportunity with high payoff for California-bound thesps who crave any ounce of a return to their theater roots. Several (but not all) of those lucky performers happen to share a network family with Lowes, so for 24 hours, Shondaland is basically going live.
“Everyone at Scandal and Grey’s and the Shondaland camp, they are lovely enough that they come to a lot of the IAMA events and plays throughout the year and they all know the quality of work we put on and how our hearts are in the right place,” says Lowes. “And so that’s easy. It’s really a scheduling thing. And the ones who can’t do it because of scheduling are devastated, because everyone wants to do theater.”
Among the participants this year? Scandal‘s Paul Adelstein, Guillermo Diaz, and Joe Morton, How to Get Away With Murder’s Jack Falahee and Aja Naomi King, Pretty Little Liars’ Ian Harding, Pitch Perfect’s Utkarsh Ambudkar, Grey’s Anatomy’s Kelly McCreary, Glee’s Jenna Ushkowitz, Jamie Lynn Sigler, and Joey McIntyre. And that’s just the actors. Lending their writing talents are Dan Bucatinsky, Sundance favorite Jason Lew, and Lena Dunham, among others.
Some (like Falahee and King) are returning players, but new additions like Dunham caught wind of the company independently and asked to be involved. “Lena was guest starring on Scandal last year right when 23-Hour Festival was happening and she really wanted to write one, so I said, ‘Okay, but I’m going to bug you. Be prepared, I will bother you in a year,’” recalls Lowes, who also penned an essay for Dunham’s Lenny newsletter about her experience running a theater company with her girlfriends. “This year, I sent the ask and Lena was so pumped about it — and it’s the worst for the writers! They’re the ones who are up all night long.”
The selection process at 23-Hour finds the playwrights drawing names from a hat to be randomly matched with a director, two celebrity actors, and two company actors. Together, the seven teams will have 23 hours to write, rehearse, produce, direct, design, and tech an entire short play, all of which will be inspired by random topics associated with Los Angeles (which, surprise, will also be drawn from a hat). “Los Angeles is such a rich and insane landscape, and there’s really a lot of stuff here to be done,” says Lowes. “When we started, our plays were in one-room apartments in New York City because that’s what we knew. And now we’re trying to mirror this really beautiful community that we live in.”
To wit, IAMA itself approaches its upcoming 10-year anniversary with demanded thoughtfulness about where to turn next. With a season of world premieres on the horizon and a new not-for-profit status awarded under the Pasadena Arts Council, what began as a passion project has turned into a bid for regional legitimacy: an Ovation Award-winning incubator for young playwriting talent, a would-be Steppenwolf for the West Coast. “We’re small guerrilla theatre and we all just wing it and somehow we still survive,” says Lowes. “But we’re definitely at this crossroads where we’re about to take a big leap. It’s been a friends-doing-business for so long, but we’ve had to gather around and make the decision [to] move on to making this something on a more national level.”
And sure, it doesn’t hurt to have some big-name friends like Bellamy Young and Busy Philipps (who headlined the company’s holiday cabaret) on hand to attract important eyeballs in Hollywood — including master storyteller Shonda Rhimes herself. “I’ve been e-mailing with Shonda about [the festival] and because we had a Grey’s writer and a Scandal writer last year write pieces, Shonda’s obsessed with it,” Lowes admits. And to think, 2017 sign-ups haven’t even started yet.
IAMA’s 23-Hour Play Festival will play the Atwater Village Theater on March 13.