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LAist Interview: John Sylvain

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John Sylvain produces websites, films and theater. He is also a writer, actor, director and father.

John possesses a singular talent for organizing performing arts troupes; a knack that enriches us all. Fresh out of college, he helped found The Annex Theater in Seattle. After moving down to Los Angeles in the '90s, he started the Sacred Fools Theatre Company, one of Los Angeles's most prolific and innovative theater companies. How can you not love a theater which mounts productions like a musical about LA poet Charles Bukowski called "Bukowsical!"? The theater company celebrated its ninth anniversary on April 1st. John is also an impresario for the digital age. In 2002, he joined with partners to establish the Instant Films series, which gives participants 48 hours to write, shoot and screen their own films in one weekend session.

John tells us that his goal coming out of college was to make theater the rock and roll of the '90s and to be on the cover of "Rolling Stone" before he was 30. Unfortunately, rock and roll turned out the be the rock and roll of the '90s and so he changed his goal to being interviewed by LAist by the time he was 40 and he just made it!

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How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?
I moved to Los Angeles just a few months before the Northridge Quake so it was late 1993. In 2002 my wife and I bought a craftsman bungalow in Jefferson Park which is somewhere between West Adams and South Central - kind of South Central adjacent.

Why do you live in Los Angeles?
I live here because the interesting, creative jobs are here. There are interesting creative jobs in other places as well but not as many. Plus I am now addicted to non-stop pleasant weather.

What is your latest project about?
I just started writing a book about Instant Films which is designed to encourage and guide people who are interested in making movies with their new iMac and DV camera. We have new edition of Instant Film Festivals scheduled for May 7, 2006. For tickets go to www.instantfilms.com.

I also have this idea to start a new Entertainment Industry foundation to encourage and fund arts education and artistic expression. That's really in the brainstorming stage though.

How did Instant Films come about?
At Sacred Fools we do this thing called "Fast and Loose" which are plays written, cast and produced in 24 hours. We're not by any stretch the only ones to do this or the first ones to do it but I think we were the first to do it in Los Angeles. I really love this kind of instant, intense creativity. For me an extended rehearsal period can get boring and extravagant sets and costumes can be a pain in the neck (or expensive) to create. So this kind of bare bones, fast production avoids everything I dislike and encourages the kind of intuitive, improvisational creation and intense collaboration that I love.

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In 1997 I made a feature film using digital video and Final Cut Pro and I thought it might be possible, given how available and relatively easy to use these new technologies were, to do something like Fast and Loose with video. That is to make short films in a short time frame the way Fast and Loose made short plays. I mentioned this to a friend and he told me that Charles Papert, a working cameraman, had been thinking about the same thing. Charles and I sat down and figured out how we would do a video, "Fast and Loose," sometime in 1999 but we didn't actually do it at Sacred Fools until July of 2001.

One of the actors in that video, "Fast and Loose." was my boss at the time, Peter Lebow. Peter fell completely in love with the idea and convinced me and then Charles to start a company doing this kind of thing on a regular basis. Thus Instant Films was born.

We did the first Instant Film festival in May of 2002 and the screening was in an expendibles warehouse with curtains hung around to hide the huge shelves full of gaffers tape and apple boxes. Now we're working on the 20th festival and we have a permanent home at Los Angeles Center Studios. The screening facility is awesome.

What has surprised you about running the Instant Films series?
There are a number of things that are surprising about Instant Films. The first is the quality of the films. For the past couple years the quality has been astonishing. My jaw has literally dropped on many occasions at what people are able to do in such a short period of time..

You have to understand that the writers write these scripts in less than 12 hours in the middle of the night and directors pick the script and cast at random Saturday morning. The first thing they do Saturday morning is read the script to figure out what locations and props they need. I think many people imagine that they start shooting Saturday morning. They get the script Saturday morning at about quarter to 9. Most of the time they don't get a shot off until mid-afternoon Saturday, about 28 hours before the finished product is due.

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Given these constraints the filmmakers have no business turning in mini-masterpieces but they do with astounding regularity. On top of the satisfying quality of the story telling the images are often incredibly beautiful. Some times the cinematography is gorgeous and sometimes the graphics or the editing is super slick. One film featured stop motion animation and we've seen incredible special effects, make-up effects and even stunts. And even given the fact that this has happened over and over again I am still surprised. Maybe I'm easily surprised.

Another thing that is that people love doing it. Even people who are working all the time on television series and movies love to take up the challenge of making an Instant Film again and again. I think with the time constraints and the random aspects it just becomes a purely creative and logistical challenge which real "show people" just love.

I mean you come to the screening and you see these directors stumbling in with the tapes hot out of the editing decks and their eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep and stress and you'd think they'd never want to go through it again. Or writers get pissed off because they think the director ruined their script or actors have to wait around until the wee hours to do one scene. You'd think I'd have to beg people to go through this but in fact people are lining up to do it again. People who have great, successful careers who have no need to use Instant Films to get tape for their reel or anything like that. They can't wait to do it again.

Why did you found Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles?
It was a bunch of things coming together but the main reason was that I wanted a creative community in my life. It was something that I had in high school and college in the theater that I did there and something that I created for myself with Annex Theatre in Seattle after I graduated. Creative community is something that I crave and need and something I am pretty good at creating. I had lots of friends that I knew from school and from Seattle and I sensed that they kind of needed that as well. That sense of an artistic home where you support others and receive support yourself. Where everyone is working toward a common goal. And of course where you can drink beer and talk about music and politics and sex until the sun comes up and forge relationships that last a lifetime. So far Sacred Fools has produced at least seven marriages and three kids along with over 50 productions and dozens of awards.

What does live theater contribute to Los Angeles?
Live theater is, in my opinion, a community creating machine which helps drive the creative life of any city. Theater creates intimate connections between fellow actors, between performers and their audience and between audience members. This is especially valuable to Los Angeles which is community-challenged because of its car based culture makes it hard to make lasting connections with strangers.

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Secondarily, and much less importantly, theater produces very unique benefits to the entertainment industry, which is unique to this city. Theater is a way for many of the people who create our popular culture to work and develop in an artistic milieu that is a bit less corrupted by the concerns of commerce. It also gives young actors and writers and directors a way to develop their skills.

What show would you like to put on in Los Angeles?
I would love to remount "The Fatty Arbuckle Spookhouse Revue" for Sacred Fools' tenth anniversary. It's a brilliant musical about the scandal that brought down the silent movie star written by Chris Jeffries. I also have a long standing dream of doing some version of The Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V) but I'm not sure if I am audacious or ambitious enough any more.

Your projects reflect a punk DIY ethic, is that deliberate?
Thank you! It's nice that you noticed!

Yes. I have no patience for auditioning or waiting to be hired or pitching ideas to some mogul. I would rather do it myself and I am constantly encouraging others to do the same. Perhaps to a fault. Just fucking do it is what I say. Most of considerations that stop people, especially creative people, from doing exactly what they want are based in nothing but fear. And mostly fear of being great.

How do you feel about the entertainment-industrial complex in LA?
It's kind of like a big, clumsy, dumb monster but it's kind of silly to complain about it. It's not purposefully evil. It makes a lot of good stuff that I really enjoy watching and a lot of crappy crap. The fact of the matter is that it's easy to put down Hollywood but in fact nobody sets out to make a bad movie or television show.

I think the biggest frustration with Hollywood comes from the fact that it commoditizes creativity and storytelling, which is frustrating and offensive in a way that the commoditization of rubber bands or cars or even software is not. A middle manager at Microsoft who doesn't know who Alan Turning is doesn't bother me at all but a Development Executive at Disney who doesn't know anything about D.W. Griffith makes me nauseous. (Even though Turing and Griffith are pretty much equally irrelevant today.) The other big problem with Hollywood is the tradition of low ethical standards which is completely unnecessary and counterproductive.

Do you think LA is a company town?
Yes, at least the part that I am familiar with is. But what do I know?

It recently occurred to me that I hear on the radio lots of reports of heavy traffic on highways that I have never seen which leads me to suspect that there is a lot of L.A. that I don't know anything about.

What surprises you about Los Angeles?
The natural beauty can still be just stunning.

What's your preferred mode of transportation?
The train. The Amtrak train to San Diego is one of the nicest trips you can take.

How often do you ride the MTA subway or light rail?
Hardly ever nowadays.. I rode buses and subways for about a year in 2001 and 2002 and I really enjoyed it. L.A. should invest in more buses. The subway/light rail thing doesn't work here because there is no center.

What's your favorite movie(s) or TV show(s) that are based in LA?
Altman's one two punch of The Player and Short Cuts which came out before I moved here. L.A. Story is pretty awesome as well. I also love "Entourage" and "Six Feet Under."

Share your best celebrity sighting experience:
I went out to lunch with Peter Lebow at Schatzi's in Venice some time in 2003. The place was almost deserted but Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon came in and sat down and had lunch two tables away. Peter and I pretended to continue our conversation but we pretty much sat there silently and eavesdropped for the rest of the lunch. They didn't say anything all that interesting but it was just such a thrill to be near such icons.

In your opinion, what's the best alternate route to the 405?
To the airport: La Cienega or Crenshaw, Stocker, La Cieniga. To the Valley take the 101 or just don't go there between 7 am and 9 pm.

If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?
The 1920s. Hollywood was just getting geared up but the place was still mostly orchards and farmlands and wilderness.

What's your beach of choice?
Santa Monica.

What is the "center" of LA to you?
The Farmers Market/Grove is the geographic center of my version of Los Angeles.

If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?
I love my neighborhood and I love my house. Jefferson Park is full of beautiful Craftsman Bungelows with almost no '60s shitbox apartment buildings messing up the architectural landscape. It's gotta be the most racially, culturally mixed place on Earth which I like and, most incredibly, it is convenient to get almost anywhere from Jefferson Park. We can even get to West Hollywood in just a few minutes via San Vincente.

But if you offered me Merv Griffin's mansion in the Hollywood Hills I wouldn't say no.

Los Angeles is often stereotyped as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do find it challenging to make new friends here?
I did until I started Sacred Fools. Now I have more friends than I know what to do with!

I heard once that Woody Allen said "Los Angeles is great if you can find it." I don't know if he really said that and I can't find it now on the Internet. In any case, I've always thought that was 100% accurate. It takes a lot of effort to find your Los Angeles. More effort than any other city I have lived in. Once you do, however, it is great.

What is the city's greatest secret?
Los Angeles is full of amazing secrets from its incredible history to its underground hotspots to its hidden passageways. The greatest secret that I just learned is that the La Brea Tar Pits is one of the richest fossil deposits in the world and that they are still digging fossils out of there. Amazing. Another great secret are the $3 shrimp burritos at La Playita on Lincoln near Marine.

Describe your best LA dining experience.
I still haven't recovered from my first visit to Chinois in Santa Monica. Every bite sent shivers down my spine.

What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?
Get over yourself. What's the point?

Los Angeles has a lot of things wrong with it but so does any city. At least we don't all live in broom closets and call ourselves lucky like they do in Manhattan. Los Angeles is not a vastly inferior version of New York or Chicago. Los Angeles is a moderately inferior version of Los Angeles.

Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?
No, now that you mention it.

Earthquakes are easier to be in denial about though.

Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?
Visiting my brother in Portland, Maine.