The 'Scandal' star reflects on hitting a decade milestone with the theater company she founded with fellow NYU alumni
Credit: IAMA Theatre

Ten years ago, a group of New York City theater alumni took a stab at founding their own company — a creative outlet amid the drudgery of their day jobs waiting tables, hoping for a break.

Flash forward a decade, and the IAMA Theatre Company is a well-respected theater in Los Angeles, while its dreaming co-founders have found success on stages and screens alike, most notably in the fabled territory of Shondaland shows. And Shonda Rhimes has kept their dream alive as IAMA’s patron of the arts.

The company is now celebrating its 10th anniversary, which culminated with the world premiere of Cult of Love, the seventh and final entry in Leslye Headland’s Seven Deadly Plays cycle, all of which premiered at IAMA. Fittingly, the seventh sin in the cycle is pride — an attribute co-artistic directors Katie Lowes and Stefanie Black are bursting with in the best possible way as they sit down to reflect on the last decade of IAMA’s achievements.

Nestled between costume racks and wall-sized mirrors in the women’s dressing room at the Atwater Village Theatre in L.A., where IAMA is a company in residence, Lowes and Black enthusiastically recount the early days of the company, when they could put together a show for $2,000 in a space they refer to as a “piece of s— theater” teeming with rats and bugs. “It gave us such purpose,” says Lowes. “Being able to hold down a waiting gig, but also get through a tech week. We loved producing and feeling that purpose amongst our soul-sucking day job.”

“We shared a common language of acting that can’t really be taught,” adds Black. “We all came from the same place, so we’d get up on stage together and it was magic. When people came to see our shows those first couple of years, what they were seeing was our love of acting and our friendships, and that’s irreplaceable.”

Credit: IAMA Theatre

In a separate conversation, Headland describes IAMA as a life raft early in her career as a writer. She had known members of the company as a student at NYU and came on board as a writer and director while she was facing her own artistic crossroads. “They helped me survive,” she recalls. “I met them at a time in my life when it was so scary. You’re 26 or 27, you’re just so terrified. You don’t know what you’re going to do with your life, and you’re not sure your dream is going to come true. Once I hooked up with them, it was like being hooked up to an IV. I felt like I was finally being fed in an artistic way.”

Headland also credits IAMA with her development as a writer, and with giving her a platform to really explore her passions as a legitimate career choice. “It coincided at this moment in my life where I realized if I wanted to be a writer and a director, and to be taken seriously at the profession, I was going to have to put in those 10,000 hours,” she says. “I had to start actually doing it, not just watching films and writing in a vacuum. I had to start actually putting the work up, watching the work, watching whether it worked or not. I had to start making mistakes.”

The essence of the company and its mission statement have remained the same since its founding in 2007, becoming more formalized as IAMA put it into words. Black says they set out to create “a strong ensemble of actors, forging an audience with young, exciting theatergoers and theater makers and doing new plays,” while Lowes adds that they took Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company as inspiration.

One thing that helps IAMA stand apart is its dedication to developing and producing new works, something the company has done since the beginning with Headland. “We refer to the immediacy of production,” Black says. “If we find a great play, let’s make it happen, because way too often these playwrights come up with wonderful new works that get stuck in the funnel of development.”

“We believe in the process of supporting a new playwright, supporting a new work, getting it up there, and seeing how the audience reacts,” adds Lowes. This immediacy of production and reluctance to let a play languish in development hell is something Headland credits as a reason for her and the company’s mutual success. “I got the opportunity to really fail. They were not afraid at all,” she says. “Nobody went, ‘That’s a bad idea,’ or, ‘That’s impossible.’ Because they’re all actors, they heard the opportunity to tell these awesome stories and play these awesome people, and that’s what they were responding to.”

It was this fearlessness that convinced Headland to pitch IAMA on her Seven Deadly Plays cycle, an idea she says came from “being absolutely f—ing terrified.” Once she finished Cinephilia, the first in the cycle and first play Headland ever wrote, she was afraid she might not ever write another. She circumvented this fear by pinpointing lust as a central theme in the work and using the sins as outlined in Dante’s Inferno as a launching point for a series. Gluttony was next, which inspired perhaps the most famous play in the group, Bachelorette — a project that became Headland’s directorial debut as a filmmaker.

Credit: IAMA Theatre

The initial goal was to produce the entire cycle of seven plays in a single year — a daunting task, considering Headland had not yet written the majority of them. Ultimately, they staged four the first year. The first six were produced between 2007 and 2010, but after that, things kept getting in the way. Headland was inundated with opportunities outside IAMA, and the company actively sought to produce other playwrights. They remained in touch, always intending to finish the cycle eventually.

For Headland, it was partly a question of nailing down why pride was a sin. “As I moved through them in that short amount of time, the sins went from being very external to [very internal],” Headland says. “What is pride? How is it a bad thing? It was the first one that didn’t have an obvious connotation that jumped out at me. Especially as somebody who identifies as queer, it has a positive connotation in my vernacular.”

In the intervening years, Headland came to IAMA with various ideas, including the possibility of a musical and a trippy notion of an underworld retelling of Dante’s Inferno, where instead of Dante and the poet Virgil, Headland and playwright David Mamet would make their way through hell. Eventually, she hit on the idea for Cult of Love, a multigenerational family drama about the Dahl clan as they gather in their Connecticut home for an explosive, divisive Christmas Eve that threatens to expose their deepest secrets.

The result is what Katie Lowes refers to as Headland’s August: Osage County, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that came out of Steppenwolf. It was serendipity that Headland was finally ready to bring the play into the world just in time for the company’s 10th anniversary, and it’s a fitting culmination of the cycle’s lifespan at IAMA. While the majority of the plays in the cycle featured only a few characters, here there are 11 of them — many of whom speak over each other as dialogue overlaps — and the sparse sets of earlier productions are replaced by a fully realized family living room, complete with hardwood floors and a staircase.

“That sophistication is a testament to [Headland’s] growth as a writer and the growth we’ve made as artists and an organization,” says Black.

Credit: IAMA Theatre

For Headland, the process of writing the play was a clarifying one. “It just became so clear how perfectly this fit into the same theatrical and dramaturgical vernacular as the rest of the pieces,” she says. While all the plays have taken one sin as their centerpiece, this is the first to grapple with religion and its role in our lives directly, an unexpectedly perfect bookend.

“It really is what IAMA stands for,” Lowes says of the play. “There are a lot of social issues in the play. It’s a true ensemble play. It’s a new play. For all those reasons, I love it.”

The play, which Headland says is “based on what it feels like to be in [her] family,” is the moral endpoint for the cycle, a summation of what she’s been trying to get at all along. “The theme of this series has always been, ‘Is morality actually relative?’” she explains. “I wanted to hit that weird moral-funny-bone feeling. I wanted people to feel that discomfort of knowing something was wrong, so when they go back out into their lives and they want to start negotiating for themselves what’s moral for them and what’s not, perhaps they’re a little haunted by the plays.”

Headland confesses that Cult of Love is a testament to IAMA’s decade of existence because the company is a messy, complicated family just like the one at the heart of the play. “They know what it’s like to have in-fighting and desperate unconditional love and the moments of brilliance and all those things,” she says. “They put the principles of what their company stands for and what they believe in artistically over their own personalities and who they are. I think it just spoke to them personally as something that also encompassed them in a way.”

Those values and that familial approach are something IAMA shares with its greatest benefactor, television multihyphenate Shonda Rhimes. “Her tastes, her social responsibility, the way she sees the world — everything that she stands for, we believe in and try to emulate in our work,” says Black.

Lowes, whose role on the ABC drama Scandal first brought IAMA to the attention of Rhimes and other Shondaland collaborators, elaborates by saying, “When we’re picking a season, we’re very conscious of a lot of the things Shonda stands for. We feel a great responsibility to storytelling here in our theater.”

For Lowes, the biggest impact of Rhimes’ involvement though has been her financial generosity, which allows the theater company to flourish. “She’s given us the ability to make this a reality for the next 10 years,” Lowes says.

What do the IAMA team see themselves doing with the next decade? Their ambitions and optimism are boundless. “We believe that L.A. is the next great theater town. We really do. It is the place that artists come to have their dreams come true,” says Black, adding that they hope to make IAMA “synonymous with L.A. theater.”

While Headland stresses how incredible her theatrical experiences in Los Angeles have been, calling an IAMA rehearsal room “messy and weird and like home,” Lowes doubles down on how their location in the City of Angels puts them in a unique position to keep building their legacy. “You can afford to take more risks here,” she says. “There’s a misconception that L.A. theater is terrible or non-existent, and IAMA is working daily to change that. I hope we’re sitting here in 10 years and L.A. has an amazing reputation for regional theater.”

Goals include one day building a permanent space unique to IAMA with multiple theaters, a bar, a teaching space, and more, as well as adding an education component to groom the next generation of ensemble artists. Building on their relationship with Headland, they want to become a space that “fosters multihyphenated artists.”

Perhaps the craziest dream of all? They want to produce an original musical (and it just so happens Lowes is about to make her Broadway debut in a musical, Waitress, alongside her husband and fellow company member, Adam Shapiro). That dream, it turns out, is also on Headland’s to-do list. Given what they’ve accomplished in the last decade together, we wouldn’t bet against it.