How Is L.A.'s Top Experimental Theater Company Like a Cult?
Photo: Efren Delgadillo, Jr.L-R: Andrew Gilbert, Condola Rashad and Jonney Ahmanson in Satyr Atlas
In his 2008 show, How Theater Failed America, which takes aim at the raison d'être of the country's big regional theaters, monologist Mike Daisey delivers a particularly mordant riff on what he calls "freeze-dried theater."
In the bit, Daisey describes actors "shot in from New York City" and being flash-thawed in a rehearsal room with a director flown in from back-to-back shows somewhere else to rehearse for the 3½ weeks that, Daisey sardonically cracks, "conveniently is exactly how long it takes to master every play ever written."
Not quite two miles from Los Angeles' reigning downtown regional, a very different kind of rehearsal is taking place at the Bootleg Theater. Poor Dog Group, perhaps Los Angeles' premier theater company that creates a play collaboratively, is preparing for the March 6 world premiere of its latest major stage work, which explores issues of rituals, New Age movements and theater itself.
Rather than 3½ weeks, Five Small Fires has been in gestation for three full years. In terms of its process and artistic ambition, the distance from the Bootleg to the Mark Taper Forum on this day is not one of miles but light-years.
Photo: Bill RadenJesse Bonell, Jennie Marytai Liu and Andrew Gilbert rehearse Five Small Fires
"I did an understudy-ship at a regular theater, and I walked in and they're, like, 'Memorize these lines and we'll do two weeks,' " company member Jonney Ahmanson recalls. "And I was, like, 'What the fuck is going on here!?' You know, it's like there's no freedom to really dive deep into the stuff. ... We've been doing that in every aspect of our lives together since we graduated from school."
Poor Dog was formed as an avant-garde collective in 2008 by Ahmanson and a dozen other like-minded CalArts theater school graduates who set up shop in a downtown warehouse with visions of establishing a sort of West Coast version of the Performing Garage, the space run by the Wooster Group (whose new show at REDCAT is reviewed in this section, coincidentally).
But their timing was off. The economy went into free-fall and whatever limited performing arts money still existed quickly dried up. And after touring The Internationalists - their 2009 piece about the space race - in Europe, the group reluctantly concluded that the new, hard-scrabble realities of the L.A. arts landscape demanded that they find a more sustainable mode of existence.
So the warehouse was let go and Poor Dog adopted a theater-making process that its resident writer-director, Jesse Bonnell, compares to rock bands that spend a year writing an album, then come together in intensive recording sessions before embarking on tours.
Photo: Efren Delgadillo, Jr.L-R: Jonney Ahmanson, Jesse Saler and Andrew Gilbert in Dionysia
In that sense, Five Small Fires might more accurately be described as the third production in a triple-album set, which includes two earlier, large-scale "workshop" productions: the February 2011 Getty Villa staging of Satyr Atlas, PDG's now-legendary spectacle of stylized move-ment, deconstructed Greek myth and self-referential irony, which was the group's "reimagining" of an ancient satyr play; and Dionysia, which extended Satyr's thematic scope to a more contemporary mythology of Manson Family - like American cults, in a lavishly staged production at Troy, N.Y.'s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) in November of that same year.
The company had intended to premiere Satyr Atlas at the first Radar L.A. Festival in 2011, but neither a stage nor production money proved forthcoming. Instead of putting the project on hold, Poor Dog seized on an EMPAC residency to pick up and continue the group-creation process begun at Getty.
"We've strung together these pearls of opportunity to get [the company] into a room and focus on Greek mythology and contemporary my-thologies, and those opportunities are few and far between," Bonnell says.
Whatever its uncertainties, the five-year journey has successfully knitted both a coherent group artistic identity as well as an unusually close and intuitive working relationship among the members - what Ahmanson describes as "an internal, physical language."
"We talked about this yesterday," Andrew Gilbert says, "about this piece being about energy. And really, that's a very keen indication of how we work. It's really about this collective energy that we feel between each other."
Photo: Bill RadenFive Small Fires' Jennie Marytai Liu, Jesse Bonnell, Cat Ventura, Jonney Ahmanson, Andrew Gilbert and Brad Culver
That energy becomes part of the show in Five Small Fires' autobiographical and wittily self-critical comparison of the group's internal dy-namics to that of an incestuous and neo-psychedelic New Age cult.
"We wanted to make something that was really for us in the keyhole of our own life," Bonnell says, "and [that will] speak about the place where we live. California has one of the richer histories of cult movements, and so we wanted to explore that and look at that as a piece of our own identity ... as an ensemble of artists working together, which does go into certain extremes."
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