December 16, 2018

Monica Horan, activist artist

In her first scene in the ensemble play “Different Words for the Same Thing,” actress Monica Horan sits at a table in a doughnut shop, talking to another character. After finishing her doughnut, she reaches across the table, snatches up her companion’s confection, and quietly chews it as the audience bursts into laughter.

It’s that kind of comic timing that got Horan cast in the show, which plays through June 1 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Of course, it helped that she’s also an accomplished actress, best known for playing Amy MacDougall Barone on the hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Horan’s husband, Philip Rosenthal, was also the show’s creator and executive producer. 

“Monica is warm and genuine, and damn funny all the time,” said Neel Keller, director of “Different Words.” “Having her in the room during rehearsals, there was a sense of lightness.”

Horan got her start as a stage actress, graduating with a degree in theater performance from Hofstra University and then moving to Manhattan to perform in off-off Broadway shows. She’s kept her acting chops alive in some very small venues here in Los Angeles since “Raymond” finished its run in 2005, but for her return to the professional stage, she said, she wanted to find a play that matched her values.

“I wanted to do work that elevated,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s cheap funny. It’s dirty funny. It’s degrading funny. I always used to joke that I’m the Tipper Gore of television,” she said, laughing. When she found out about “Different Words for the Same Thing,” by young playwright Kimber Lee, she knew she wanted to be involved. The play is set in the small town of Nampa, Idaho, and revolves around a family torn apart by the death of a daughter. After a long absence, the family’s other daughter comes back from Chicago to try to reconnect the three generations of her multiethnic middle-class family.

Horan plays Dottie, an Evangelical Christian and town gossip. “It was great to get inside the head of a fundamentalist person,” Horan said. But she acknowledged that getting comfortable with the role wasn’t easy. In the play, Dottie tries to dissuade a young white girl from dating a Latino teen “from the wrong side of the tracks,” and she refers to Asian-Americans as “Orientals.” But Horan wasn’t turned off by her character’s backwardness.

“What’s at the core of it, though, is a love for other people. So all these terrible things she says, what she’s really saying is, ‘I really care about you, and this is the way I think it is.’ It’s just” — Horan paused and  laughed — “different words for the same thing.” 

The way people express their beliefs has long been a subject of fascination for Horan. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she worked with USC’s Center for Religion & Civic Culture to coordinate meetings with Muslims and other members of the faith community. She even played an Amish woman in a guest appearance on the TV series “Hot in Cleveland.”

Horan was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism when she and Rosenthal married in 1990. “His grandmother did not want to meet me, because I was not Jewish,” she said. As it turned out, when Horan was 13, her grandfather died — and that’s when she learned he wasn’t her biological grandfather. She discovered that her mother’s real father was Jewish. Now, Horan serves on the board of her synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, as well as on its arts council. 

When she isn’t acting on TV or onstage, she’s an active philanthropist, advocating for public school theater and arts programs. “It’s a civil rights issue,” she said about dwindling budgets for arts education. “We’re trying to create a pipeline to college, as opposed to a pipeline to prison.”

“Children stay in school, and perform better, when arts is part of the curriculum,” Horan said. “All of us here in Los Angeles, because we’ve had some success as a result of our life in the arts, need to get on board with helping L.A. Unified, the public school system, really reach the mandate to make arts part of the Common Core curriculum.”

To that end, Horan is an executive board member for Inner-City Arts in downtown Los Angeles, and the nonprofit’s state-of-the-art Rosenthal Theater bears her family’s name. The organization, which provides arts education to elementary-, middle- and high-school students, has a $4 million annual budget, and educates thousands of students and teachers in drama, ceramics, animation and other art forms.

“She’s absolutely committed to education reform, and how arts can be a part of that,” said Bob Smiland, president and CEO of Inner-City Arts. He said Horan often drops by to lend a hand during workshops and training sessions. “She serves a valuable role as a board member but is equally valuable as a volunteer.”

Horan and her husband also founded The Flourish Foundation, which funds theater, dance and music workshops for Los Angeles youth. The nonprofit has given out about $500,000 in the past five years for teacher residencies, student scholarships and classroom grants to help integrate arts into classrooms.

“Monica and I were the first in our families to go to college,” said Kevin Kane, executive director of The Flourish Foundation. The two met as teenagers, in a ninth-grade production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Philadelphia. “We understand the obstacles and challenges facing these first-generation kids,” Kane said. “We know what that path is like. And now we have the privilege of seeing them develop into amazing teachers and artists and citizens, knowing that we’re making a difference.”

Horan also offers support via the Rosenthal Family Foundation, which issues grants for arts education and projects such as City Year, an AmeriCorps service program, and Food Forward, a fruit distribution program. The foundation also created a two-year, grant-funded arts education reporter position at Los Angeles public radio station KPCC-FM and helps fund a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., to advocate for federal funding of arts education. It also supports the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. 

Horan and Rosenthal also are major supporters of Democratic political candidates. They’ve hosted fundraisers for Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In January, the couple hosted first lady Michelle Obama for a $1,000-per-ticket backyard reception at their Hancock Park home. Later, at the $32,400-per-person discussion in their home theater, the first lady talked about the upcoming midterm elections. The event raised nearly $700,000 for the Democratic National Committee. 

“She’s a very real, impassioned, practical person,” Horan said of Obama. “The politicians, it’s important for them to have these living-room events, because they can hear what people care about, one-on-one.” The day of the fundraiser, the first lady tweeted that arts education is “linked to better grades, test scores, motivation & social skills.”

Horan said Obama recently invited her to the White House to attend an upcoming arts event, but she regretfully had to decline. “I have a performance that day,” Horan said with a laugh.

“Different Words for the Same Thing” is at the Kirk Douglas through June 1.