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Bad Heart, Plenty of Guts 

Ron Sossi, and his enduring Odyssey

Thursday, Apr 24 2003
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Ron Sossi founded the Odyssey Theater 34 years ago at a leased storefront on Ohio and Bundy, in West Los Angeles. In that time, he has suffered two heart attacks, 24 and 19 years ago, yet he continues to refuse bypass surgery, preferring instead "alternative therapy" — a phrase some people might use to describe his kind of theater. And despite the existence of several other small theaters in Los Angeles County that have had similar longevity, Sossi’s Odyssey Theater, now a three-theater complex on Sepulveda Boulevard, is widely regarded as the granddaddy of L.A.’s scrappier stage scene. Serving what Sossi has described as his subscriber base of aging hippies, the Odyssey provides an answer, in style and content, to the comparatively moneyed programming coming out of Gordon Davidson’s Taper and Ahmanson theaters downtown.

"And I’m still here," he points out, underscoring a life lived on the edge: When he moves too sharply, sometimes he feels it in his chest "like a meter," and he pops a nitroglycerine tablet to relieve the stress.

His theater earned a reputation for being politically charged because of early hits like The Adolf Hitler Show and The Chicago Conspiracy Trial, but politics was never Sossi’s primary concern. He’s far more interested in metaphysical plays developed through an extended rehearsal process with an ensemble — like Buddha’s Big Nite, currently playing at the Odyssey — the kinds of works that went out of fashion in Europe and England in the early ’60s, and never really found a niche here. "Do a play about politics, and everyone says that’s ‘important,’" says Sossi. "Do a play about the nature of existence, and that’s ‘escapist.’"

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Sossi grew up outside Detroit in a Catholic household, where his father was an auto executive and where he says there was no art in the family. A rich fantasy life provided some relief. With no interest in sports, Sossi was more inclined toward comic books, friends, mock wars and hypnosis. He says he once hypnotized a girl and gave her post-hypnotic suggestions without having a clue as to what he was doing, or why, other than a generalized attraction to mysticism that has never diminished.

In the eighth grade, he resolved to join the seminary and become a priest. As a counter-move, his parents bought him a puppy, strategizing that the boy-dog bond would keep young Ron at home. It worked.

After graduating from the University of Michigan and receiving a graduate degree in film from UCLA, Sossi became a television executive at ABC, in charge of The Flying Nun and Bewitched — a particularly comical notion for a man who almost became a priest.

"A lot of my friends were trying to get into the industry. I started a theater to get out of the industry. I hated it," Sossi explained to the Weekly at a booth at the venerable greasy spoon Dolores’, having just gotten off a 63-day juice and broth fast.

L.A. WEEKLY: How are you different from Gordon Davidson, and how might you be similar?

SOSSI: I think that, creatively, Gordon is more Western pragmatic; he’s got his social, political feet on the ground. I’m more dreamy. I have a pramatic side, but I’m more unreasonable, always questioning the nature of existence, whereas I think Gordon functions very well within the accepted verities. I think he’s done a lot, considering the position he’s in. He’s got a lot of constituents he can’t offend. He’s pushed the envelope about as far as he can push.

Our problem at the Odyssey has always been money. We can do anything we damn well please, we just can’t afford to. We needed bright video projectors for Buddha’s Big Nite. They’re just too expensive, so we’re doing it with one video projector that’s kind of dim. The other difference, I don’t think he understands the possibilities of a long process. We chatted when the NEA was trying to fund ensembles, we were on a panel together. And I remember Gordon saying, "I’d like another week or two, but I don’t know what I’d do with more than that." Also, I think L.A. resented for many years that he never capitalized on the local talent, but that seems to be changing a bit.

Were you ever invited to work there?

No.

Would you have wanted to?

Yeah, it would have been nice.

What would you have done?

Threepenny Opera would be fun to do there. I’ve done it twice. I have one more in me. Or something else by Brecht.

If you had run the Taper, what would you have done

differently?

I think I would have tried to create an experimental wing — not to play off-nights — but as part of the main season, so once a year they would see something totally off the wall. I would also have tried to put in a resident group there — the Taper has the money to pay a resident company. I know Gordon tried it, and his claim has been that even if you pay them, they would bail if they got a movie. Yeah, they probably would, but not all, maybe two or three. I’d have brought together disparate elements, like Peter Sellars and Arthur Miller, put them together for six months and see what they come up with — Dario Fo and Edward Albee. It might flop, but it would never be a boring flop.

What is the risk of failure at both theaters?

Just one of scale. One big flop isn’t going to destroy either of us. Two or three in a row, it becomes serious for both of us. Seventy-five percent of the time, I’m in a panic over the flops — once a quarter, we don’t know how we’re going to make payroll.

How has the scene changed since you arrived?

When we started out, there were three streams in L.A. The first stream was represented by the Taper — a feisty, populist but still mainstream regional theater. The second stream was showcasing, which remains much as it was. The third stream I consider us a part of, since we’ve never been about showcasing. We wanted to be an alternative to the mainstream — questioning the whole nature of theater. I think the mainstream has gotten less daring, certainly in terms of political material. The stream of which I was a representative died out in large ways. We came in with Scorpio Rising, the Company Theater, founded by Steve Kent out of USC, which split into the Provisional Theater. So both streams mellowed a bit, if that’s the word, I think because the society changed. But I now see a new breed of theaters that are picking up where we left off, they’re doing some interesting stuff — Circle X, Zoo District, Sacred Fools, The Road Theater in the Valley. They’re gutsy. They’re feisty.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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