The King of Boyd Street is dead, and an era in local performance history passes with him. Through the 1980s, impresario Scott Kelman’s Pipeline Inc. ran three theaters in Los Angeles — Factory Place Theater, Boyd Street Theater and the Wallenboyd. Highly respected by critics and a small but devoted following of artists and students, Kelman’s excursions into nontraditional and noninstitutional theater were part of a national art movement that’s been squeezed by economics and cultural penchants that favor personal fame over personal exploration. Kelman succumbed to pneumonia on Thursday, February 22, in Portland, Oregon, where he had moved and formed another theater company (Drunken Monkeys of Brooklyn Bay) after leaving Los Angeles more than a dozen years earlier. And though the era that Kelman represented is passing, reports of its death may be premature. There are local companies using acting ensembles to create new works that could be said to be part of Kelman’s legacy: Ghost Road Company, Olga Petrakova’s ARTEL troupe, Ron Sossi’s KOAN Ensemble and the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD). There’s also a British organization, The Kelman Group, specifically organized around Kelman’s teachings. It’s not easy to stifle a man, or a movement, that’s driven by conviction. Kelman defied his doctor’s prediction that he would live no more than two years after his first heart attack at 37. While smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, he survived more heart attacks and quadruple-bypass surgery, and he continued to work through excruciating pain from spinal stenosis. As determined as he was stubborn, Kelman died at 70.
A child of the Beat generation, Kelman found his passion in the 1960s experimental theater scene in New York after returning from a two-year conscription in the Army and working for his father in the jewelry business. Inspired by Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater, and Judith Malina and Julien Beck’s Living Theatre, Kelman founded the Off-Off-Broadway Association while directing and performing at such venues as La Mama, Theater Genesis and the Museum of Modern Art. During this time, he was developing a philosophy that tried to steer theatrical activity away from the artifice and venues of traditional theater and into art galleries, correctional facilities and nursing homes, to better capture the spontaneous, lunatic rhythms of life.
Feeling underappreciated, underfunded and part of New York’s waning experimental theater movement, Kelman came to Los Angeles in 1981, hoping that the artistic climate here would be more receptive to his interest in Eastern mysticism and a brand of performance that valued the processes of creation over its products. To some degree, his hopes were met. He was a successful teacher, director and performer, he shared stages with other local luminaries of that time (including Jan Munroe and Kedric Wolfe), and he received this publication’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Kelman’s sister, Pepi Kelman, remembers her brother’s wild imagination. “As a kid, I had to pay attention when he was speaking to what part was fiction and what part was real. Blurring that line was part of his humor and his passionate curiosity.”
Audiences were scared to come downtown to Kelman’s theaters, Pepi recalls, so he hired the homeless to park cars and watch over them. “Then he discovered that there were great actors among the homeless, so he put them on the stage. The life became the art and the art changed the life.”
Ron Sossi, artistic director of Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, remembers a woman telling Kelman about her idea for a one-woman show based on St. Teresa of Avila. “It was an impassioned pitch,” Sossi recalls. “Scott thought about it for a moment and said, ‘Well, I’m not interested in Teresa of Avila, but I’d like to work on a piece about your interest in Teresa of Avila.’ He was always dealing with the moment.”
“His thing was moment-to-moment reality,” adds performer Strawn Bovee, who developed projects with Kelman and served on Pipeline Inc.’s board of directors. “His early passion for politics shifted more to those of a personal, spiritual journey. Scott was the most authentic teacher and a director of process I have ever known. His techniques for endlessly unpeeling a moment in time created a theater of continuous discovery and surprise. He was cantankerous, generous, passionate, obsessive and a great friend. And like his theater, Scott was never dull.”
By the early ’90s, Kelman was having the same problems in L.A. that he’d had in New York. Audiences were dwindling and grants were no longer coming in. Had he the temperament or the interest, he could have paid his way by managing the careers of talent — such as Whoopi Goldberg — he introduced on his stages. Instead, Kelman sought out yet another Greenwich Village in Portland’s soggy climes. Shortly before his death, Kelman was developing Liars’ Club, a series ofsolo shows spun from lies, and a folk musical with and about folk musicians Steve Einhorn and Kate Power. His most popular work may have been a piece also developed in Portland, Tao Soup.
The production recently came south to Venice’s Electric Lodge. The L.A. Weekly’s Steven Mikulan had this to say about it:
“The show is a funny, pensive evening that tickles and provokes. In six chapters, five barefoot performers march, swoop and wander across a naked apron, repeating sounds and mantras in unison, or issuing aphoristic imperatives (‘Learn to see emptiness’); a whorl of pain and laughter is probed while examining conformity, eroticism and even the dangers of pursuing personal growth to extremes.”
In Portland and L.A., the show sold out, prompting Kelman to remark that he must be doing something wrong. “My God, this is practically a commercial show,” his sister remembers him saying with amazement and apprehension.
When Kelman was planning to move to Portland, he met his second wife, dancer Anet Ris-Kelman. (He was also married briefly in his 20s.) Ris-Kelman was with him to the end.
“He wasn’t easy, but he was real,” she remembers. “He spoke his mind, he followed his vision. Everyone can tell you about his cantankerous side — he could drive us crazy. But the fact that so many people loved him so much, even with that, is a tribute to how much we all learned from his relentless pursuit of a way to live and to create, being mindfully present, moment after moment after moment.”
An open-house memorial for Scott Kelman will be held at Electric Lodge Theater, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice, on Sun., ?April 1, 4-9 p.m. For more information, visitwww.electric lodge.org.