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Less Is More? 

The Eighth Annual Common Ground Theater Festival

Wednesday, Jun 19 2002
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For its eighth annual Common Ground Festival this weekend at UCLA, ASK Theater Projects is scaling back, though arguably probing deeper -- inviting six experimental theater groups (a 33 percent drop from the past average of nine), of which only four will actually present their work to the public. (A Traveling Jewish Theater and Critical Mass will use their grants to develop works in-house.) Executive director Kym Eisner notes that this allows ASK to expand the festival’s scope. ”In the past, we chose groups that were all about in the same part of their process,“ she says. ”By taking the emphasis off the actual performance part of Common Ground, we‘re giving time to companies that need the opportunity to be avant-garde. We give a company that makes its living from mainstream audiences, a company concerned about the bottom line, such as A Traveling Jewish Theater, the opportunity to sink their teeth into something cutting-edge.“

Furthermore, the festival’s time span has been sliced by two-thirds -- to a Saturday and a Sunday, as opposed to last summer‘s Tuesday-through-Sunday schedule. And finally, two aspects of Common Ground that in the past made the festival so festive have now been dropped: the Theater Fair (an outdoor gathering of 40 to 50 local companies, each with its own booth in order to promote itself and its upcoming shows) and the Playwrights Slam, an al fresco, between-shows speaker’s corner for selected playwrights, who read excerpts from their own new works-in-progress.

The first reason for these changes is obvious: With ASK‘s administrative redesign, reported in the Weekly’s news section last week, most of the people who have always put together the Fair and the Playwrights Slam are no longer with the organization. Another explanation is the reallocation of limited resources.

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”When we were going through the applications for this year, the thing that theater companies kept saying they needed was time and money,“ explains Heather Dundas, ASK‘s public-relations director. ”We decided that’s what we were going to give them.“

This year the average budget for each company more than doubled, from $5,000 to over $10,000. And in previous C.G. festivals, groups had to squeeze the most out of a few days working in Los Angeles the week before the festival. Now ASK has invited all its participating companies to spend two weeks on-site, developing their shows. Also, the time allotted for each technical rehearsal in the theater has gone from a couple of hours to an entire day. Assistance used to come from a single technical director; now a team has been added in the mechanics of getting the works ready for presentation.

The entries are as eclectic as ever.

Originally a painter and illustrator whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, L.A.-based director Janie Geiser found herself attracted to the art of puppetry while working in Atlanta and has since made it the centerpiece of her career. (She currently heads the Gotsen Center for Puppetry and the Arts at CalArts.) Geiser and her company are developing a piece called Ether Telegrams, which features dancers, actors and puppeteers. In collaboration with composer Chip Epsten (a participant in Common Ground two years ago), Geiser has woven three of Edith Wharton‘s ghost stories into a dramatic tapestry. Film also plays an important role as images are projected onto actors’ bodies.

Take a group of people leaping from an airplane and charged with sewing together a parachute on the way down. That‘s how playwright-director Jim Lasko describes the process of Chicago’s Redmoon Theater for developing Lasko‘s play Nina -- a musing on Chekhov’s The Seagull in a commedia dell‘arte style and an outdoor setting. Actors in whiteface emerge from giant packing crates, each in a vehicle designed to reflect some aspect of one of The Seagull’s complex protagonists -- Nina intertwines commedia‘s broad stylistic strokes and Redmoon’s object-based theater with the subtlety and nuance of Chekhov‘s characters. Lasko explains that his troupe’s creative process involves choosing a design concept (in this case, the packing crates), a style of performance (commedia) and a narrative line (Chekhov‘s text), throwing all of those elements together in a room with artists and seeing what happens.

The contemporary modern-dance company Tongue, based in Culver City, performs The Middle of Everything or Almost Everything, a movement piece developed through an organic process in studio. ”[We] use as a starting point motivations that are not usually at the conscious level,“ says company member Bryan Wallk. An ensemble of dancers, including Tongue’s artistic director and choreographer, Stephanie Gilliland, has created the work through interactive relationships with the design team and the composer.

San Diego‘s Sledgehammer Theater, in collaboration with musical iconoclasts Pea Hicks and Scott Feldsher of OperaZero, presents The World Is Round, a minimalist opera based on the Gertrude Stein story of the same name. A little girl named Rose begins to inquire about the wonders of the world around her and, eventually, questions her very existence. Stein’s story reflects the circular and fragmented logic of a child, and Sledgehammer‘s piece follows suit, spinning out childlike whimsy.

For eight years, the Common Ground Festival has aided in the development of experimental theater. Most if not all festival projects have later received full productions at other venues. Locally, the Fabulous Monsters first staged Speed Hedda at Common Ground, and it went on to a local staging at Evidence Room, then to New York; Nancy Keystone (whose Critical Mass company is one of the non-performing participants in this year’s festival) developed her The Ahkmatova Project at Common Ground; a short while later, it was critically lauded when performed at the Actors‘ Gang. Change is always alarming, especially in the fragile ecosystem of Los Angeles theater. It remains to be seen whether the changes in Common Ground and its hosting organization represent an abnegation or a deepening of its self-proclaimed responsibility to artists.

The Common Ground Festival takes place in and around UCLA’s Macgowan Hall, Saturday and Sunday, June 22 and 23. Ether Telegrams is being performed June 22 and 23 at 3 p.m.; The Middle of Everything or Almost Everything June 22 at 6 p.m. and June 23 at 2 p.m.; The World Is Round June 22 at 2 p.m. and June 23 at 5:30 p.m.; Nina June 22 at 8 p.m. and June 23 at 7 p.m. All events are free. RSVP required: (310) 778-9ASK.

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