At the Tip of the Spear 

Players on the fringe, making the future

Thursday, Mar 25 2010

Click here for Steven Leigh Morris’ “Why Theater Matters; and how our local stage can seize a national leadership role.”

SON OF SEMELE ENSEMBLE has been around since 2000 — its first production premiered in 2001, a play called Earthlings by Artistic Director Matthew McCray, a self-described unemployed actor, who assembled his troupe from peers at O.C.'s Chapman University. They've now settled comfortably into a storefront venue on Beverly Boulevard, a few blocks east of Virgil. When not producing its two plays a year, SOSE partners with like-minded companies, such as NeedTheater and Oasis Theater Company. SOSE now has a company of 28, and has distinguished itself with productions such as the 2003 West Coast premiere of Matthew Maguire's The Tower, a "choreopoem" about a woman climbing the Tower of Babel and how the meaning of words in contemporary society has been shattered. This kind of poetic, surreal and darkly humorous production synthesized radically disparate ideas into a raw theatrical experience that was part vaudeville, part religious mass. That blend of tones reappeared last year in a top-tier production of Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner.

Though the company's original mission was to present new plays or the West Coast premieres of little-known plays by little-known writers, McCray says the company is now trying to develop its own ensemble-devised work, Wallow, by working with L.A. scribe Oliver Mayer, who is attending and assembling ideas from rehearsals. "We're meeting in a room, bringing in ideas as a group. Oliver is observational, deriving text that comes from the mind of the group, filtered through the mind of the writer."

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY STAR FOREMAN - Matthew McCray, center in glasses, and his sons of Semele

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McCray says that SOSE productions almost always lose money, despite modest budgets. Yet the nonprofit organization remains solvent with the help of patrons who simply "like the work [SOSE does]."

"Our future is less about looking at work that has been done before but looking at how the company can take an early hand in the creation of work, either with or sometimes without a writer."

Son of Semele Ensemble
3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A. (213) 351-3507, sonofsemele.org


NEEDTHEATER, founded in 2006, remains a nomadic company. In the spring of 2007, REDCAT presented a workshop of its ensemble-created homage to Los Angeles, La La La, in its "Studio" series. In the few years since then, and with a view of theater that's just as inventive as that of Son of Semele Ensemble, the company has nonetheless been moving in precisely the opposite direction — away from ensemble-created work and toward plays written by a single playwright. These include two scintillating productions by New York–based John Clancy (who also serves on the theater's Artistic Advisory Council): 2009's Fatboy, based on Alfred Jarry's 1896 grotesque farce, Ubu the King, and this year's one-man show about one man performing a one-man show, The Event. Other writers in the company's stable have included CJ Hopkins, Naomi Wallace, Eric Coble, Phil Ridley and Lucy Thurber.

Perhaps the drift from ensemble-created work is a consequence of, and reaction against, the founders being "the children of hippies," according to Artistic Director Matt B. Wells.

He adds that the company produces only two main-stage productions per year but supplements these comparatively larger events with smaller-scale readings, "happenings" and even an opera that was performed at UCLA.

Literary Manager Dylan Southard came to NeedTheater from Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company, which, he says, would "rush into production with a script that wasn't finished. And the script dictates everything that follows." Which is why the company is dedicated to taking its time developing new plays, such as the upcoming The Web, by Cornerstone Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael John Garces (also on NeedTheater's Artistic Advisory Council — note to playwrights wondering how to get plays produced).

"We've been working on it for two years," Southard says. "It's about this guy who gets his identity stolen on the Internet, it's like a thriller."

He says he looks for the relationship between the season's plays, in order to establish theater's larger purpose and vision.

Associate Artistic Director Ian Forester, who directed both of Clancy's plays, cites Whit MacLaughlin, artistic director of Philadelphia's New Paradise Laboratories, who says that a play doesn't stand alone on an axis, it stands on the intersection of the cultural moment when it was written and the cultural moment in which we are living. "That collision is what we're thinking about," Forester says.



STEVE ALLEN THEATER, located in the Center for Inquiry-West, across Hollywood Boulevard from Barnsdall Art Park, is a booking house curated by a bearded, rabbinical-looking fellow named Amit Itelman. With a taste for the Gothic and the macabre, Itelman has booked interdisciplinary acts (music, comedy and theater) that strike a particularly brainy and idiosyncratic chord in local performance, from the Bilgewater Brothers, featuring concerts of songs accompanied by bass kazoo, various bottles and ukuleles and the bittersweet, folksy ruminations of comedian-songwriter Kate Micucci to the anticlown clowning of Two Headed Dog (Jim Turner Allen, Mark Fite, Dave "Gruber" Allen and Andy Paley) — a quartet of unemployed and embittered clowns who pass the time abusing each other. You can track an underground railroad of sorts through shared talent between the Steve Allen Theater and Upright Citizens Brigade (a mile west, on Franklin Avenue).

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