It's a bitter, chilly December evening in Koreatown, one on which casual passers-by might easily mistake the handful of furtive smokers loitering outside the Eighth Street First Unitarian Church for new recruits to some sort of 12-step meeting.
They wouldn't be far off. But the irresistible compulsion that brings this group out tonight isn't for anything as mundane or self-destructive or as easily indulged as booze or dope or cocaine.
They are here to see one of only three performances of a type of experimental, underground literary theater that even Los Angeles' most enthusiastic stage followers have likely barely heard of, never mind actually seen.
That's because tonight's program of short works by playwrights Sharon Yablon, Cheryl Slean and L.A.'s éminence grise of this kind of theater, Murray Mednick, won't be reviewed or even noticed by the city's critics or theater bloggers. And the work will never be performed again.
Welcome to "one-off" theater.
The show has been pulled together by the astonishingly prolific Yablon (under the tongue-in-cheek banner Grief Management Productions), who has a good shot at the title of L.A.'s most-staged playwright with the fewest productions by traditional theaters.
For the last dozen years, Yablon's evenings of backyard theater known as Sharon's Farm, the migrating site-specific shows she calls Boneyard and their kindred one-off showcase, Kevin O'Sullivan's Pharmacy, have doggedly carried on a tradition of serious, homegrown experimental playwriting that has all but disappeared from the city's other stages. (The few exceptions include the Guy Zimmerman–led Padua Productions and Cinda Jackson's Lost Studio, which have produced many of the one-off writers but with multiple-performance runs.)
It's hard for audiences to find out about Yablon's shows — there's no website. All one can do is ask theater friends who may know someone who may know someone.
Inside the church, it appears Unitarian belief doesn't always embrace central heating or hot water. But things warm up quickly when the staging of Close the Door SOFTLY Behind You gets under way, and about 35 audience members are led by actor-emcee Michael Shamus Wiles on a labyrinthine evening of 15 playlets performed in stairwells, on landings, along narrow passageways, inside claustrophobic choir rooms, a restroom, a kitchen and a cellar and, of course, in the balcony, nave and sanctuary of the church itself.
Acted by an ensemble of one-off veterans including Gill Gayle, Amy Landecker, Mark Fite, Alana Dietze, Robert Stoccardo, Doug Birch, Bill Celentano and Lake Sharp, the haunted house–like tour eventually delivers more than its share of transcendent, site-specific coups de théâtre, mystery and language distinguished by its unusual rhythms, edgy humor and an intensity that might best be described as the poetic grotesque.
Not so long ago, this flavor of playwright-centered, avant-theater experience was far more readily available to Angelenos. Its ground zero was Mednick's annual Padua Playwrights Festival and Workshop, which for 20 summers staged new work by national playwrights and trained younger generations of writers in the Padua ethos of respect for a poetic sensibility.
Its most voluble disciple was teacher-playwright John Steppling, who, Yablon says, is probably the godfather of L.A. one-off. Steppling's mid-1990s playwrights group, Empire Red Lip, produced full-length plays but also began doing group shows of very short plays written around themes but with multiweek performance schedules, she explains.
When Steppling departed for Europe, the Red Lip writers — including Yablon, Wes Walker, Sissy Boyd, Hank Bunker and Zimmerman — formed the short-lived Oxblood company, which was dedicated to full-length plays with six-week runs.
By 2002, however, Oxblood had imploded and the Padua festival had been shuttered (its current successor is Zimmerman's Padua Productions), leaving Yablon desperate to keep the community going. The result was Sharon's Farm, which staged free, single evenings of new short-short works in nontraditional spaces.
"I just started staging stuff and asking people [to participate]," Yablon now recalls. "Since then, we've been in parks and pools and hotels and a university and a church. ... But it was also just to keep doing the work, because we would write stuff and kind of test it out in these environments. ... And there weren't any production offers from local theaters."
Sharon's Farm drew from a regular core of Padua-influenced playwrights and actors — and audiences plugged into that group's social network. Among the regular writers were Walker and O'Sullivan, who by 2005 had expanded the one-off concept by launching downtown's Pharmacy.
Pharmacy is essentially Sharon's Farm taken into the nightclub environment of Chinatown's Mountain Bar, recently relocated to Monty Bar, where Pharmacy's next edition, Yield to Total Elation, is scheduled for March 6. The two playwrights seek to replicate the energy and freewheeling anarchy they had known when they were part of the '80s L.A. and San Francisco punk rock scenes.
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"Pharmacy is like a music show," Walker says. "You go have a few drinks and listen to a band for an hour. You don't have to sit there for hours and hours, and the energy isn't dissipated walking around to different spaces. It's a very focused kind of thing, where you look at a really empty, tiny stage."
"It gives us license to do basically whatever the fuck we want," O'Sullivan adds, "and bum people out, go over people's heads. Because we aren't there to entertain people, although some of the stuff is quite funny and entertaining, and I think everybody takes it seriously. But nobody is going to come and demand their money back, because nobody pays."
"It's kind of post-theater theater," Walker agrees. "There's no real loyalty that we have to any space or any real desire to connect to any real stage and help theaters pay their rent."
Pharmacy's next performance is on Thursday, March 6, at 8 p.m. at Monty Bar, 1222 W. Seventh St., Westlake; montybar.com.