Company Town 

How a big city became America’s small-theater mecca

Thursday, Apr 22 2004

Actors form theater companies. It’s a homing instinct — nothing new to L.A., or anywhere else. And though dreams of landing a movie, or an agent, have always generated performances on local stages, equally forceful is the teeming (and teaming) activity that keeps bringing actors home to the theater — almost 100 self-sustaining, not-for-profit, professional theater ensembles with members who have known each other and worked together for years. These largely volunteer (often dues-based) organizations are quasi families — which are sometimes authoritarian, sometimes collaborative, sometimes bickering, often leaving, just as often returning — homes to thousands of actors lured by and often working in Hollywood while sustaining a legit-stage subculture.

Were the commercial pressures on theater here as intense as they are in film, TV, or on the New York stage, you’d see with greater frequency that star-studded model of theatrical production employed in London’s West End, on Broadway, off-Broadway, or even in our regional theaters — companies that assemble for one play and then disperse three months later.

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Company Town: How did sprawling Los Angeles become a mecca for small theater? Nearly 100 self-sustaining companies, many with distinguished reputations, are at work in the city. STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS addresses the question of why L.A. is such fertile ground for ensembles, and profiles some of the best, along with ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN and STEVEN MIKULAN. Plus, MORRIS on Gordon Davidson, who will be designated this year’s Queen of the Angels at the 25th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards.

Yet such a system, whipped into its shape by the bottom line, doesn’t support the kind of epics and large-cast classics seen in abundance here. And that commercial model could never have produced the great ensembles of our generation — an entire network of Arts Council–funded repertory companies across Britain, the Berliner Ensemble, France’s Théâtre du Soleil, New York’s Negro Ensemble Company and the Wooster Group, among others.

Like the Wooster Group, local companies such as City Garage, Circle X and Ensemble Studio Theater (the Los Angeles Project) develop performances for months before they see the stage lights. But if that’s for quality control, it doesn’t always work.

Frustrated that their company’s large-cast productions had reached a plateau of mediocrity, the artistic director and managing director at Santa Monica’s City Garage, Frédérique Michel and Charles A. Duncombe, respectively, reinvented their ensemble this year. They dropped dues in 1993 and all requirements for their performers to serve on running crews, reduced their membership from 60 to 16, and have now gone into recruitment mode for the caliber of actors who can execute the rigorous, expressionistic acting style that’s required for most of their productions.

“We began to face the fact that while we were a dues-paying company, we would be constantly limited to actors who were willing to pay to belong,” explains Duncombe. “We had to force a change.”

Michel and Duncombe are gambling on a long-term spike in quality that will enhance the company’s reputation and attract skilled actors and impassioned donors. And if their first production under the new configuration (Boris Vian’s post-WWII political farce The Empire Builders) is any indication, that gamble may well pay off.

Because theater in Los Angeles is an activity rather than an industry, the box office is a secondary priority for most of the local ensembles. First comes finding a home and keeping the doors open. The economics of doing theater in L.A. over the decades — supplemented by the stage actors union’s (Actors Equity) long-standing agreement to allow its members to work in small theaters for stipends rather than salaries — has created a kind of hybrid repertory system, with funds accrued from a combination of dues, grants, donations, season subscriptions and box-office receipts.

Here, the work before a paying audience constitutes only a fraction of the activities generated by these ensembles. Michel conducts a monthly daylong acting/style workshop that her company is required to attend. Circle X has an ongoing laboratory program it calls “The Work Shop,” which includes movement and voice training. Pacific Resident Theater maintains a lab space adjacent to its main stage near the beach end of Venice Boulevard — available for company members to use however they want. Like many troupes around town with a youth-outreach program, the Antaeus Company (a classics theater co-founded by Dakin Matthews and Lillian Groag in 1991) has a training academy attached to its organization. Last year, Hollywood’s Open Fist Theater staged the entire cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays in a series of workshop performances.

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