Today IAMA Theater Company is one of the leading independent companies in Los Angeles. Known for creating new work and advocating for young artists, the group has built a devoted following over the past decade. Her fans include Shonda Rhimes, who was recently elected as the first IAMA Patron of the Arts. Thanks to your charitable support, the future of the company looks brighter and brighter.
It’s hard to believe that nearly a decade ago, the founding members of IAMA were “a group of theater kids from the East Coast” who were trying to find an alternative to working in restaurants.
One of those theater kids was IAMA co-artistic director and scandal star Cathy Lowes. After graduating from New York University, Lowes spent two years in New York City, where she worked as a waitress and occasionally worked off-Broadway. “It looked very, very difficult,” he says. Tired of the riots, Lowes decided to join his college friends in Los Angeles. But on the west coast, it looked the same as in another city. At least initially.
“We all worked at the same restaurant, and we all looked at each other, a little depressed and like chickens with their heads cut off, and thought: “What are we going to do?” We were like that,” Lowes says. “So we thought, ‘Well, we know how to make a few dollars and play games. We learned this in school!”
A group of eight (Lyla Ayad, Stephanie Black, Amy Rosoff, Brandon Scott, Sarah Utterback, Wes Whitehead, Lowes, and her current husband Adam Shapiro) pooled their funds to rent the theater and put on an original performance. “The game wasn’t great,” Lowes says, “but we sold seats to all our friends for a very low price, we had a lot of fun, and it gave us all a sense of artistic home and a sense of life purpose in this new city.”
For Lowes, the decision to take matters into his own hands was “everything”. This saved her career as an actress.
“It was the difference between being in LA and continuing to try instead of coming back home,” he says. “It was the difference between continuing with my chosen career and saying goodbye. [Previously] we all felt so lost and aimless. We were waiting for the phone to ring and we didn’t have a sense of control.”
In the early days of playing with IAMA, Laws and his co-founders rediscovered a sense of purpose. “There are a lot of people in our company who have said many times that they would have left if it weren’t for [IAMA],” he says.
As Lowe’s acting career skyrocketed (she played Quinn Perkins in Scandal five years ago), IAMA has evolved from a personal venture to a legitimate business. “The word started going around,” Lowes recalls. “We only had a small theater with 50 seats, but the tickets sold out every night.” The little money they made always flowed into the next production. “We needed to quickly learn how to turn the scholarship business into a smooth and efficient non-profit organization.” Under the guidance of several successful friends in the industry and with a spirit of learning, IAMA has continued to evolve.
As their budgets grew, so did the community, making room for writers, directors, designers, and producers; Today the IAMA Association has 24 members. Several Los Angeles-based playwrights have developed close ties to the theatre, including Bachelorette playwright and writer Leslie Headland and Jonathan Karen, who released The Recommendation with the company in 2014. The play outperformed the show with a much larger budget and won the Ovation Award for best performance of the year.
Lowes explains that all of this led to the involvement of TV mogul Rhimes. “He said he wanted to be in [IAMA] and you can make me drop my jaw,” Lowes says. Rhimes has been spying on the company for the last two years; He liked that the productions were a diverse ensemble, befitting their directors. Rhimes’ financial support goes directly to the development of new games focused on cultural integration, and Rhimes helps fund the 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 has been a decade of rapid growth for IAMA, but it is still changing.