By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
While working on a production at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, Joe Tyler Gold was surprised to discover that among the large cast, he was the only actor who didn’t believe in ghosts. But rather than dismiss his supernaturally inclined colleagues as wacky New Agers, he instead wrote and co-produced (with Tammy Caplan) a low-budget flick about L.A. theater actors and ghosts. It’s called Never Say Macbeth (www.neversaymacbeth.com). After rehearsing for five weeks, director C.J. Prouty shot the film in 12 days on location at Stages Theatre Center in Hollywood, employing mostly local stage actors from PRT, Circle X Theatre Company and Sacred Fools.
Never Say Macbeth was screened at the Sunset Five on July 10, and it’s slated to return in the Foundation for the Advancement of Independent Film Festival (www.magicalfilmfest.com) in mid-September at Mann’s Chinese Theater.
The movie concerns a science teacher named Danny (Gold) who, on an unrequited romantic mission, follows his aspiring actress girlfriend, Ruth (Llana Kira), from the Midwest to L.A. After stumbling into the tiny Zodiac Theater, where Ruth is auditioning for a production of Macbeth, Danny utters the forbidden “M” word, arousing the spirits of thespians who perished in a fire that struck the same building 50 years earlier.
Though Gold and Prouty serve up a sweet satire of our theater community’s self-importance laced around a love story, scenes of actors being distracted during rehearsals by the ghosts of thespians who trod the same stage 50 years earlier comment on both the ephemeral nature of theater in general and the eternal mortality of theater in Los Angeles. Whereas the ghosts of New York’s small theaters are enshrined in folklore and reiterated in tours, there’s no such chronicle of the remarkable waves of activity here.
“Doing theater in L.A. is like building a snowman in Hawaii,” Jillian Armenante once told the Weekly. The effort and the excellence rarely get recorded, let alone remembered. Which raises the question, does it matter? Two thousand professional productions per year across the region — do they matter? If our theater is just for actors to work out between “real” work (in TV and film), is our theater really worthy of folklore and history books? Actually, sometimes yes, but I’ll get to that.
In the mid-’80s, I was a member of the playwright’s wing at North Hollywood’s Group Repertory Theatre — since renamed the Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre after the actor who started running the place in 1972.
The vision for what’s now the LCGRT could be called Theater of the Obvious, locked into the prevailing Broadway aesthetic of 1953. I remember their adaptation of some Chekhov play reset in the American West that could have been written by William Inge.
A play of mine was read there one Sunday afternoon more than 20 years ago, and Chapman, a burly 60-something in those days, with a soft, husky voice and gentle demeanor, attended, as he did all the new play readings.
My fond recollection of Chapman — on returning to the LCGRT last week to review a production of Phil Olson’s family-reunion comedy, A Nice Family Gathering — may have contributed to the pleasure I took in Olson’s sloppy, very obvious comedy, so breezily performed by the lovely cast. The play’s centerpiece is a ghost of the family patriarch (Robert Gallo), whom only one of his sons (Brian Clark) can see. In the program was an ad wishing Lonny Chapman to get well soon. A box-office staffer told me that he’d been in the hospital for six months.
The combination of this news with the play’s ghost story so upset me that after the show, I drove into the San Gabriel Mountains. At midnight, I found myself standing under a canopy of stars by Jackson Lake, outside Wrightwood. Stepping out of the car, I could barely see the ground, but I could faintly make out the water in the moonlight, and across the water, I heard a loud grunting and trees rustling. Then, from another tree, came grunting from some different source. I soon came to understand, from silhouettes that grew clearer as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I was witnessing a conversation between two bears.
If two bears argue in a forest, and a drama critic sees it, does it then become part of theater history?
I’m not really a fan of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, John Patrick Shanley’s 1984 “Apache dance” for two actors. A richly textured examination of generic emotions, it’s been done here so often because it offers a showcase for a man and woman who meet in a Bronx bar to play the walking wounded from the lower depths, slide into a moonlit fantasy of love and marriage in her modest bedroom, and then wake to find themselves in a wrestling match with that same fantasy.
Director Michael Arabian informed me there was talk of moving his production of Danny from the Elephant Theatre in Hollywood to New York. Because the performers were from the West Coast branch of the Actors Studio, there’s now a lobbying effort to persuade the New York branch to host the production, if only they can persuade artistic director Al Pacino to deviate from the Studio’s mandate prohibiting public productions. (The Actors Studio was founded in 1947 by Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis as an artistic haven and laboratory for talented actors to develop their craft, without the glare of publicity.) The idea that brilliant stage work should go unrecorded struck me as a particularly L.A. dilemma, so I arranged an interview to discuss the issue with the Actors Studio’s West Coast co-artistic directors, Martin Landau and Mark Rydell, along with Arabian.