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Creation Myths 

Theater in time of cell-phone cameras

Thursday, Apr 21 2005
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Photos by Ted Soqui
Jeff Murray, a Canadian, and his British-born wife, Nicolette Chaffey, came to Pasadena in 1979 and began working at the DeLacey Street Theater, then run by the Fremont Center’s current producing director, James Reynolds, who’d been staging plays in parking lots and on library steps. In 1982, Murray and Chaffey formed their own Theatre/Theater company, which, after hundreds of productions, is about to move to its fifth location, on Pico Boulevard near Orange Drive. The L.A. Weekly recently sat the couple down with Vonessa Martin and Shawn Lee, two of the six young co-founders of Pasadena’s Furious Theater Company, which hit the scene three years ago with a string of critically acclaimed productions, first at Pasadena’s Armory Northwest, now at the Pasadena Playhouse’s Balcony Theater. The idea was to look back as well as forward.


Getting Started

L.A. WEEKLY: Where did Theatre/Theater launch?

MURRAY: In 1982 we built a 24-seat theater on Melrose Avenue across from the Zephyr — Joe Stern was down the road. It was about 12 feet wide but long.

CHAFFEY: The box office was in the window. We found a couch on the side of the road and that became our lobby.

MURRAY: Its saving grace was that it had high ceilings. It was the last time we had high ceilings.

CHAFFEY: Right after we signed the lease, we said, “This is it, this is our first theater!” We came out and found that someone had stolen our car battery. So with nowhere to go, we all trooped back in, and there was an old carpet on the floor, so we put our 4-year-old daughter between us, and the three of us lay down on the floor and rolled the carpet over us and slept out our first night.

L.A. WEEKLY: Were theater economics easier then?

CHAFFEY: We found we could survive with seven people a night and pay the rent. But we moved in over the top, because we couldn’t afford both a theater and a place to live. Jeff made a one-way mirror, positioned so that our daughter could lie in bed and watch the shows every night. Later she wrote this essay in college, “How I Grew Up in the Theater.”

MURRAY: We opened with Creeps. Dan Sullivan, the lead critic for the L.A. Times, sat there with five other people we didn’t even make our seven. His review put the show and the theater on the map, even though he said it could never be a Critics’ Choice because the piece was too confrontational. It’s five guys with cerebral palsy stuck in a toilet.

L.A. WEEKLY: How did Furious form?

MARTIN: There were six of us: Shawn and I met in Chicago and fell in love and got married. We also met Dámaso [Rodriguez] and Sara [Hennessy] there, and the four of us moved to Los Angeles. Eric [Pargac] was friends with Sara and Dámaso from college. And Brad [Price], who was friends with Shawn when they were in college, moved out here, and we became friends by going camping.

LEE: We’d go camping while some of us were doing internships and some were working with computers. We were living in Pasadena, reading plays together on our camping trips, and said, rather than spend $200 a month on an acting class, why don’t we form a company together? We drove around looking at abandoned buildings in different cities. The Armory [Center for the Arts] had a temporary gallery and offices in an old plastics factory in northern Pasadena, a neglected part of the city. We were fortunate not to have to pay rent, just part of the utilities.

MARTIN: We don’t pay rent at the Balcony.

CHAFFEY (gasps): What do we do wrong?

L.A. WEEKLY: Most of Furious’ plays have so far been from the British Isles. Is that just coincidence?

MARTIN: We just look for a good story, and it so happens that a lot of the plays we find are British.

LEE: It wasn’t a conscious effort by any means — the royalties for a lot of those plays are easier to get. We couldn’t get the rights to the first American play we wanted. The British really cherish and develop their new writers and get the work out. And they had that whole in-your-face movement. A lot of those were younger scripts for people in our ensemble to play. We’re really pushing for a younger audience. Because younger people aren’t going to theater much anymore — I never went to theater growing up. We’re saying, “Hey, live theater is cool, you should come and see it!”


This Generation

L.A. WEEKLY: A while ago, my wife and I saw Edward Albee’s The Goat at the Taper, and I was really distracted by a row or two of younger audience members who were passing around a couple of camera cell phones to one another apparently there was something on their screens that was very important. Are people’s attention spans not what they used to be?

LEE: We’ll look at a script, and if it’s a long show we’ll scratch our heads and say, “How do we bring this down, make it short?” Because if critics see the show is almost three hours . . .

MARTIN: Yep.

LEE: It hurts, because people don’t want to spend three hours in the theater. You’re seeing 90-minute plays done more and more often. And plays without intermission. People at the Pasadena Playhouse — of that age — love intermissions. To go out and have some wine, or walk and talk about the show. But you’re seeing intermissions vanish from theater as well.

L.A. WEEKLY: Then are we seeing a generation of theater-hating Bart Simpsons who now have to be dragged into venues by their heels?

MARTIN: We did Mojo, about British gangsters in the 1950s, as part of our outreach program for high school students in northwest Pasadena. It was the first play they’d ever seen. There’s swearing and blood at the end and this guy dies, but it’s comical, too. I was doing the concessions, and during intermission they’d come up to me and say, “What happens?” They were really into it, but at the same time I felt they were surprised that it was so accessible. They saw this story that they totally connected to, and they were really floored. If they just knew that theater is like that, they’d be addicted.

MURRAY: In the last seven years we’ve had no connection with education, but we’re hoping to in the new space, because it’s a good audience base, and the idea of turning kids on to something other than their computer screens is an honorable calling. We’ve had some good talks with [L.A. City Councilman] Martin Ludlow about this.

CHAFFEY: We tried it awhile back with Buffalo Soldiers, because we figured that would be really great for high school students. But because there were guns onstage, the principal said, “No, no, no!” I contacted L.A. Unified, and they asked, “Are there any guns? Is there any swearing?”


Scary, Scary


L.A. WEEKLY: What have been some of the stranger things about working in theater?

LEE: Producing theater in that warehouse that had the puppet museum — it was one of the biggest collections of puppetry in the United States. All the audience members had to walk through it to get to the bathroom.

MARTIN: The Puppet Conservatory — they had, like, Jesus Christ on the cross with the blood coming out of the puppet, and it was a little dark there, and people would go, “Whoa, puppets!”

MURRAY: One day we came to the Cahuenga theater, and I thought, This door was locked when I left. I went inside, and they’d cleaned out our lighting system. Someone must have had a key — thieves aren’t going to come in and take a lighting system. But a producer will come in and take the time to take the lights out of the ceiling. There was also an abortion clinic next to us that mysteriously burned down one night.

LEE: We got a lot of stuff stolen from the Armory. This was after we were out of the building. But [the city officials] were kind enough to let us store our sound equipment and all our tools —

MARTIN: — in a caged-in, locked security area.

LEE: They cut through and got all our stuff.

MURRAY: Stephen [Kearney], from the Australian show Los Trio Ring Barkus, and myself were standing outside the Cahuenga theater, and this guy comes up to us with a gun and says, “Give me your briefcase.” Stephen says, “You really don’t want my briefcase.” The guys says, “Give me the fucking briefcase!” Stephen hands over his briefcase, and the guy goes charging up the road and I say to Stephen, “What was in your briefcase?” “All my head shots!” he says. I still had the night’s receipts, though.

MARTIN: That mugger’s going to read this and come back!


History Lessons

L.A. WEEKLY: Somebody told me the old Theatre/Theater on Cahuenga was once a gay bar.

MURRAY: The story we’d heard was that at the turn of the century it had been an old tavern that had been the favorite bar of Wyatt Earp, who died in Los Angeles. Supposedly, when he was buried, the funeral cortege took a little detour to go past the front [of the building].

MARTIN: They tore that building down?

MURRAY: They turned it into a bus station! It had previously also been a theater — it was Ed Wood’s Casual Company, which was all the actors who went on to make the bad movies. So one assumes before they were making bad movies they were making bad theater. When they were shooting Ed Wood there, Tim Burton’s art director told him, “You know, Tim, we could do this way cheaper on a sound stage.” And they got into a fight right in front of me, and Burton said, “No, no, no, you don’t understand — we’re doing this in Hollywood in the original location!”


Tomorrow and Tomorrow

L.A. WEEKLY: The theater you had on Cahuenga represented Theatre/Theater’s golden age, so far. Then you moved to the fourth floor above the old Pacific movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

CHAFFEY: I don’t think we’ve had the same critical attention since we’ve been in that space.

MURRAY: Somebody told me they heard someone on the radio going on about our space, saying, “Well, they’ve only got these 10-foot ceilings.”

CHAFFEY: Our friends said, “Guys, this is not a theater — it’s only because in your imagination it’s a theater that we all believe it’s a theater. Because it isn’t — it’s a telephone-sales space!”

MURRAY: We’ve taken a lot of criticism over the last seven years, because we had to change the format of the way we did things. We’ve done some good work and some turkeys, no doubt about it. But we’re still here, and changing is better than dying as far as I’m concerned.

L.A. WEEKLY: How long is Furious dug in at the Balcony?

MARTIN: The idea is for us to be at the Balcony Theater for about four years and hopefully outgrow the space and pass it on to another group.

LEE: Our next show is Tearing the Loom, a Northern Ireland play set in 1798. It’s 90 minutes. With no intermission.

WEEKLY: Does Theatre/Theater have any advice for the Furious?

MURRAY: I don’t know — don’t take it too seriously. I’m sorry — it’s outrageous that I should say anything to you, but I’d say keep your passion alive. For us theater really is a joy, even though we see a lot of people get burned out, become cynical or develop a sense of entitlement. You do reinvent it all the time. For me it’s really quite exciting to be going to this next space. I mean, it’s got 16-foot ceilings, frontage and parking!

CHAFFEY: Our daughter said that working in the theater was like having a retarded child, because every six weeks you have to start all over again.

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Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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