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Described by an Orange County paper recently as the “avant-garde director for the masses,” David Schweizer is arguably at the apex of his career. His production of David Hare’s The Blue Room opened in late March at the Pasadena Playhouse; a few weeks later, he staged a new translation, by his old friend Philip Littel, of George Feydeu‘s Monsieur Chasseur (He Hunts) at the Geffen. After having distinguished himself locally in less establishment venues such as the Actors’ Gang and the Evidence Room -- ascending the heights of the subscription-series playhouse circuit is less a mark of validation for Schweizer than another set of rules to bend and break.
As well as a new set of obstacles. “I‘d been excited to do two projects at major venues in the thick of pilot season,” Schweizer tells me, “but the last couple of months have been, um, hectic. In all the time I’ve been working in Los Angeles -- and I‘ve been making theater pieces here for 20 years -- I have never had to confront the competing energy of the entertainment business quite so strongly. Ever.”
In the course of rehearsals for He Hunts, Schweizer lost two leading ladies to that “energy,” including Megan Mullally, who inspired the work in the first place yet couldn’t juggle her Will and Grace duties with rehearsals. The second, Joely Fisher, quit after two days when she realized she couldn‘t afford the time away from her new baby. “It’s the insanity of show business that we never thought about rescheduling,” says Schweizer. “I mean, you can‘t let the subscribers down.”
And so, five days before opening, I get to watch Schweizer peripatetically coaxing from Valerie Pettiford the kind of performance in a farce that will look like it took a month to hone. “One of the things about a shortened rehearsal time that’s important to remember is not to choke off the process of discovery,” I overhear him say to her on stage, “to not stop yourself from trying things.” In the next four run-throughs of the given scene, Pettiford delivers four distinctly different readings. Each one of them is funny. I recall what one actress told me when I announced I was interviewing Schweizer -- that he works best with actors who are already brave onstage. He does not berate when they drop lines; instead, he reminds them they know more than they think they do. He does not scold them when their performances lack luster; he nudges them in the gentlest way toward confidence. He makes them feel safe.
“That‘s really my job,” Schweizer admits. “I got started really young directing very experienced, very smart actors twice my age. I was 22 years old, working for Joe Papp. I couldn’t come on strong, there was no way. Now I‘m old, and semi-famous, so if I wanted to be a tyrant, I could. But early on I learned that the way to bring people to you and get them to do what you want them to do is to get them to trust you.”
Schooled under the noted critic Robert Brustein at Yale, Schweizer “came up and grew into theater with this notion of ’total theater,‘ which was about bringing all these different elements together -- light, sound, the use of the body in space. Even when I do material that’s ‘conventional,’” he says, “all of that matters.” Watching him work with his actors is like listening to a conductor and his chamber orchestra pick their way through a fugue: harmonies synchronize, themes emerge. While some directors sit under cover of darkness scribbling secret notebooks, Schweizer is always springing up on his suede sneakers, manipulating his actors on the stage, weaving their contrapuntal threads together into something chiseled and whole.
Like all successful directors associated with Los Angeles, Schweizer has a necessary life elsewhere -- his acclaimed New York staging of Randy Eckart‘s And God Created Whales will soon play in his hometown, Baltimore -- the first major work he’s done there. But his loyalty to L.A. remains unflagging. “You can complain that your work is ignored here,” he says, “but the lowered stakes also make it a fertile ground for trying your impulses as a theater maker.” It also allows him to endure “interesting” reviews of the sort he got for The Blue Room (the L.A. Weekly called it “a washout”). “Look,” says Schweizer, “when you do a ton of work, you don‘t get away with it every time.”
DAVID SCHWEIZER, director. High points: Orestes, Actors’ Gang; The Berlin Circle, Evidence Room; The Waiting Room, Mark Taper Forum.