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Stage Mother 

Pamela Gordon has seen it all

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Photo by Anne Fishbein

Cliché has it that L.A. theater exists to provide actors with some diversion until real work comes along. But for the waifish Pamela Gordon, theater is the real work, even with its paltry funding and the often-suffocating self-importance of its practitioners. It’s fitting that she shares this guiding principle with another institution (yes, Gordon is an institution) — the Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop and Festival — for Gordon acted through the better part of a decade with Padua.

“There’s nothing like being on the stage,” Gordon explains in an articulate smoker’s voice that reaches toward the baritone. “There’s no amount of work that satisfies the same artistic need. Whenever I stop, I have to go back. I was once on a recurring TV series and doing a play at the same time. I can’t not do it, it’s too important for me.

“There’s also a comfort in being part of a theatrical community,” she adds, recalling an incident that occurred during the 1994 Padua season at Woodbury University.

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“I was overtired and fell asleep at the wheel, crashing about a mile from my house. I cracked a rib, broke my nose, lost a tooth, and my wallet was stolen — and this was early in the morning. After that, I went out to do the play. What was so fantastic was the response from the whole community — the flowers, the cards — which was so warm and giving. It â really made me feel that I was part of something.”

Born in Pittsburgh, where she performed as a child at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, Gordon studied at Bennington College and Carnegie Mellon before arriving in Los Angeles. During her 25 years here, Gordon has sustained a marriage, reared a son and a daughter, worked with the city’s premier theater companies (Taper, Too; The Wilton Project; Evidence Room; Theater of NOTE; Fountain Theater; Actors Studio; Odyssey Theater Ensemble), received multiple acting awards, and has, until last year, “never made a living” — the American artist’s bane.

“When I was studying acting with Ned Manderino, I used to go all over the damn city auditioning. Finally I got picked up by agent Joyce Selznick, got into SAG and then didn’t get a paying job for nine years.”

But now, in addition to stage credits, Gordon’s résumé is chock-a-block with TV and film work (The West Wing, The X-Files, Frasier, E.R., The King of Queens), a recent spate of good fortune that she herself doesn’t quite understand. Had Gordon made such a career in, say, London, with her principles intact, she’d be a grand dame; in Los Angeles, however, she’s just a charming eccentric.

“It’s foolish to do small theater to woo the Industry,” Gordon says. “It’s only on paper that [Industry execs] go to the theater, because in truth they don’t — they’ve been burned too many times by poor-quality productions and undeveloped talent. However, that doesn’t prevent any of us from doing theater.”

Gordon performed at the gypsy Padua Hills Playwrights’ Festival almost every year from 1985 to its demise in 1995, and her descriptions of people and behaviors draw a portrait of earnest efforts to find theatrical truths, combined with some power-tripping — not unlike L.A.’s theater scene at large. Each summer was like a two-month theater camp with playwrights using the rehearsal process to “find their voice.” (Extant equivalents are the O’Neill Playwrights Conference and A.S.K. Theater Projects’ spring playwrights’ retreat.) At Padua, the writers generally directed their own works and, according to Gordon, were strong personalities. In fact, the frequent rewrites on short notice caused some “emotional meltdowns” on the part of actors who couldn’t keep up with the revisions. “But that’s not so different from TV work,” Gordon points out, “where new drafts arrive every day.”

Gordon maintains that Padua was held together by its leading writers: Murray Mednick, John Steppling, Maria Irene Fornes, John O’Keefe, Kelly Stuart, Julie Hebert, Roxanne Rogers and Susan Mosakowski.

“They carried enough weight to effectively annul the petty wranglings that come up — casting, who gets priority, who gets the most attention, et cetera. I think there were the normal conflicts, but they managed to get subsumed in the effort — you can’t imagine the hard work involved, being out in the sun for many hours at a time. So you’re either going to fight or flee. So few people left, I can only think there was this larger sense of purpose.”

Gordon says that in most theater in L.A., the focus is on turning the play into a consumable product, whereas at Padua the point was to find the object of a theatrical investigation — a very different concern. “There was a premise that the writer was looking for something, and we were there to help him or her look. The childishness of actors who would say ‘I can’t do this, or that’ always irritated me.”

Still, that not all the motives were so pure becomes evident when Gordon speaks about playwright Steppling — one of the festival’s, and the city’s, most charismatic and influential voices through the 1980s and early ’90s. (When the Mark Taper Forum staged his Dream Coast in one of its New Works festivals, a hostile audience member asked dramaturge Roberta Levitow why the play was being staged; Levitow replied that the Taper was strategically trying to promote Steppling as a national playwright.) While playing a mother at Padua, Gordon tried to warn the actress portraying her daughter about Steppling’s reputed womanizing.

“The next day, he came storming over to me (until then we’d been in love with each other) and said, ‘Don’t you ever talk to anyone about me!’ He apologized the next day. Later that summer, he took the smitten young actress to Thailand, but she came back after a couple of weeks.”

Gordon believes that Steppling has often been his own worst enemy. “I’m not sure I’m alone in that observation,” she says. “Steppling should have been heir to a major place in theatrical life. But he’s got this lifestyle, these obsessions that either distract him or prevent him from tapping into larger considerations. Naturally, we look at why people rise or fall, and here I think there’s something to do with his refusal to look at something about himself, some place where he’s stuck, and I don’t know what it is . . . I do know that he was [personally] spellbinding.

“Theater is its own master or mistress,” Gordon says, reflecting on why she still does it. “You get out of it what you put into it — the eternal verities, the attachments without which I would be truly disturbed and disordered. I learn through the theater what is important to me, and what is important at large.”

And was Padua a kind of West Coast Algonquin Circle?

“Sort of, but bigger,” Gordon explains. “And not half as adult.”

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