"There was something carefree but still endearingly grave about the work that came from there then, which had nothing ultimately to do with money or the lack of it. The work ignored the old boundaries separating art from dance from music from architecture, and instead found fresh ground in the interstices between art and life.
"Perhaps, somewhat mysteriously, the answer to the question has to do with, as [Laurie] Anderson put it, a 'sense of place.' Granted, you had to be young then, and now, to love all, or even most, of what came out of early Soho; but it's not hard to admire the youthful, messianic energy that derived from the knowledge that anything was possible there because nobody was really paying very much attention."
So writes Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times about Soho in the 1970s.
Gates McFadden, recently named artistic director of Ensemble Studio Theatre, Los Angeles, was there then; she remembers. She, and Tim Wright, who took over the leadership of Circle X Theatre Company in 2003, have joined forces to lease and convert a warehouse space in Atwater Village into two adjoining 99-seat theaters, one for each long-established company, where they aim to revive some of that early Soho magic. The theaters, still in their first season, have a patio courtyard where people stay to eat, drink and converse after shows.
"It reminds me in a weird way of my first days when I was seeing the Richard Schechner things in Soho — the space, and the unexpected," McFadden says. The work "was unexpected — that's where the [theater company] Mabou Mines were. And people hung out afterwards and talked about the work, and that's what made it important. Here, people go out on the patio after the shows and they stay and talk forever. If you can feel a community, it makes you stronger, happier. Not so isolated."
On their main stages, the two companies are presenting a joint festival of two plays by Tom Jacobson, The Chinese Massacre (Annotated) and House of the Rising Son, in addition to an array of late-night performances.
Though McFadden came to Los Angeles to work in television, she was always drawn to local theater. She spent some time working with Los Angeles Theatre Center when it opened in the mid-1980s under Bill Bushnell and Diane White.
"The reason I'm doing this is that new work interests me, certain playwrights interest me," she says. "I really do like developing new work. It's what I did all those years developing work for film and TV, and now I'm doing it in the theater. I was pleased last Saturday night — there were two 8 o'clock shows, and two late-night shows, and I thought, yes, this is what it was like in New York. This is what it was like at LATC. It's amazing to me — New York people are reaching me now, because they've heard we have a space, and they want to come out, and we can provide a place called home."
The kind of work that most interests McFadden is more experimental than what's been on her boards of late. Both she and Wright acknowledge their own shift in sensibility toward more traditional plays.
"The theater that changed my life," she says, "was Ariane Mnouchkine's Théâtre du Soleil, Lee Breuer. I love that sensibility — those people rehearsed for a long time."
McFadden explains that her EST/LA's more conservative tilt came from a company that was, before she arrived, "essentially middle-aged, and the aesthetic reflected that." She'd like to see more stretching toward the innovative, and this, she believes, can be accomplished by encouraging it through more and more production opportunities. By "packing in the schedule," McFadden hopes, "we can generate enough income and interest that people will do things with a variety of styles and interests."
Wright sees their joint theater venture as a good fit for the current era, which he dubs "the second coming of L.A. theater. I think we know who we are. There are more dedicated, focused individuals who call this place home, who are investing in a life in the theater."
McFadden says developer Avo Tavitian, who owns the spaces, imagines a whole arts district in Atwater Village, including a restaurant, one building over from the theaters, slated to open this month. "He looked a long time for people to take over. When I saw the space, I knew that EST couldn't do it on its own."
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That's when she hooked up with Wright.
"I'm not interested in booking out a space," McFadden says. "I'm interested in collaboration."
So far, the arrangement is viable but with little financial buffer. "Either we exist as companies that produce new work," Wright says, "or we can play it safe. I think it's worth taking the risk."