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When Theater Is Sanctuary and not Temple 

Dancing butterflies

Wednesday, Jan 23 2008
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At a panel discussion among celebrated playwrights who had worked or were working at the Geffen Playhouse — which hosted the event for its subscribers — artistic director Randall Arney waxed a little too poetic about theater's primal essences and beauty before posing the opening question to any of the eight scribes parked on the stage: "So what draws you back to the theater?" Arney asked. Almost all of them have written for film or TV, where they make so much more money than on the stage.

William Lithgow

click to enlarge WILLIAM LITHGOW - Gar Campbell: "Pacific Resident Theatre just lost its father." —Artistic director Marilyn Fox on her partner, Gar Campbell
  • William Lithgow
  • Gar Campbell: "Pacific Resident Theatre just lost its father." —Artistic director Marilyn Fox on her partner, Gar Campbell

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Gar Campbell: "Pacific Resident Theatre just lost its father."—Artistic director Marilyn Fox on her partner, Gar Campbell (Click to enlarge)

"The strike," Neil LaBute quickly replied. (LaBute is the author of Your Friends and Neighbors, The Shape of Things and The Wicker Man.)

LaBute functioned throughout as resident cop, arresting anybody caught with even a few grams of self-importance or inflated entitlement, despite the stash he carries in his own hip pocket.

Jane Anderson, for example(Looking for Normal, The Baby Dance), is one of America's most widely produced playwrights, with a new work staged almost every year at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. She tried to suggest how painful it was for her to write, as though the Geffen's subscribers had paid 25 bucks to hear a wildly successful playwright complain about a labor that nobody asked her to undertake in the first place.

"Who likes to write?" Anderson asked, rhetorically.

"I do," LaBute piped in.

"Every time you write, the bar is higher," Anderson retorted, hoping we would share her pain.

"Not for me," LaBute shot back. "For me the bar gets lower."

Skepticism was in the air. Arney introduced Adrian Pasdar and Marcus Hummon, co-creators of the Geffen's critically excoriated Civil War musical Atlanta, and praised their creativity, adding that Atlanta was slated to close the following week.

"Not a day too soon," the gent next to me muttered to himself.

On the verities of theater, Pasdar remarked that "the closest thing to an empty theater is an empty church."

Donald Margulies (Dinner With Friends, The Model Apartment, Collected Stories) stepped in to bring down the rising hot-air balloon, but even he was not safe from Police Sergeant LaBute.

On teaching playwriting, Margulies said "there is no right way to do anything — sex, writing, anything. Everybody is going to find his own way."

"Actually, with sex there is a right way," LaBute interjected. "It was really helpful to learn. I've become a Casanova."

"I brought up sex," Margulies lamented. "I never should have done that."

"It's not a choice," said Joan Rivers of working in the theater. (Her autobiographical solo performance, Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress,opens at the Geffen next month.) "It's a calling. You just have to do this. Success is just, 'Fuck you, if the window is shut, I'll find the door. If the door is shut, I'll climb in under.'"

The paradox of all this religiosity about doing theater comes from the chastening reality that we live in a commercial culture, and theater has almost always been a money-losing proposition. I doubt that in ancient Greece people talked about theater as a temple. They didn't have to. It was already part of a religious service honoring Dionysus. Do you hear football players talking about the Super Bowl as a temple? No need, it's understood.

On the way out, the gent next to me ran into a female friend, and they launched into a conversation in Yiddish — a blend of German and Hebrew widely spoken throughout Eastern Europe in the early 20th century and subsequently in New York, to which those persecuted Ashkenazi Jews emigrated. The woman spoke of the need to keep the dying language alive, adding that she has childhood memories of her grandmother speaking Yiddish.

Something similar happened in December 2000, on a New York subway, when Israeli filmmaker Dan Katzir struck up a conversation with 88-year-old Zypora Spaisman, who was struggling to keep her Yiddish Public Theater solvent. She'd founded the YPT in the Lower East Side after retiring at age 84 from New York's other Yiddish ensemble, the Folksbiene Theatre, where she'd been the troupe's leading lady for 42 years.

On the subway, Spaisman shamed Katzir for not knowing a word of Yiddish and encouraged him to film a documentary about the Yiddish Public.

The result is Yiddish Theater: A Love Story,Katzir's wistful and moving portrait of quixotically dedicated artisans playing to half-empty houses, struggling for solvency and relevance — which renders it not just a movie about a theater in particular, but about the theater in general.

In one scene, we see Spaisman slicing a boiled chicken in the kitchen of her tiny apartment as she answers the question of why she fled Eastern Europe: "It vas because of, [pause] vat's his name. He vanted to kill me, the German, you think he wanted to kiss me?"

That contrapuntal blend of heartbreak and humor propels the film, as it does the Yiddish tongue. Cross-fade to octogenarian Spaisman in a black coat, carefully negotiating icy streets on her way to the limelight in a dying theater that represents a dying culture. Though they would never admit it, a dying art form is what the discussion at the Geffen was really about, masked with references to temples and churches. But there's a larger point about an embattled art form, culture or tongue, which Katzir ruefully pointed out to me recently as we sat in a coffee shop outside the Sunset 5, where his film was being screened: "It can take a thousand years for a language to die." (For a YouTube trailer for the film, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzJynjw_4dw.)

Sometimes I think the theater is not so much a temple but a sanctuary where people try to save butterflies from the storm, to hold them in the cup of their clutched hands.

The memorial for Gar Campbell last week at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice underscored the primal, human need to hold butterflies, as if they were spirits on the brink of slipping up and away.

"We just wanted to bring him back," said colleague Richard Fancy. There was no shortage of people on hand to remember the actor-playwright-director-teacher-photographer, who died of colon cancer on December 20 at age 64. The overflow crowd spilled into the adjoining studio theater, where the testimonies were broadcast. The assemblage — from aging hippies to teenage students packed cross-legged in the front of the hall — was evidence that someone like Campbell who avoids the spotlight can touch a theater community as profoundly as a leading player, if not more so. (Campbell stopped acting — and drinking — to pursue his callings as a teacher and director, what Fancy described as "service.")

A lifetime smoker, Campbell was a lanky fellow known for his headscarves and fedoras. Said longtime friend Andrew Parks, Campbell was so stylish, heads would turn when he walked into the 901 bar near USC, where they studied theater: "Women followed him like ducklings. He was a dark, bad boy, and I didn't work that side of the street."

He was known for a wry, sideways turn of his head — "as though he was adjusting to a good idea," Parks noted — when he was probably just trying to hear what was being said to him, as he'd lost hearing in one ear.

Campbell co-founded the Company Theatre on La Cienega, which was comprised of USC graduates and enjoyed a 12-year run from 1967 to 1979. It was an ensemble that possessed "a combination of talents and a creative force that has never been matched in Los Angeles," said former L.A. Times drama critic Sylvie Drake.

A stream of actors spoke of Campbell's skill at fathoming the mystery of a scene with a few succinct words.

Suddenly, the room was filled with the sweet, sardonic strains of Parks singing "Dancing Butterfly," a song Campbell had written for his play Creatures.

Parks and Campbell's partner, Marilyn Fox (who's also Pacific Resident Theatre's artistic director), read a scene from the play. One snippet of dialogue speaks volumes about all that's wrong with our theater, and all that can be right about it:

"I will spend my life writing poems for you," says Clem Caterpillar to his "dying" partner, Clara, as she slips away into a cocoon.

"One good one will do," she replies.

YIDDISH THEATER: A LOVE STORY | A film by DAN KATZIR, RAVIT MARKUS and YAEL KATZIR, directed by DAN KATZIR | Presented by NEW LOVE FILMS and LAEMMLE'S GRANDE | Visit www.newlovefilms.com for screening locations and schedule.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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