When There's a Theater Festival in Your Apartment Building

Jennifer Chang, left, and Larissa Kokernot
Jennifer Chang, left, and Larissa Kokernot
Photo by Bill Raden

It's often said that theater in Los Angeles is always about real estate — the struggle of companies to put up work in the face of astronomical stage rents. Ironically, the L.A. theater company whose work most directly addresses the issue doesn't have its own stage.

Chalk Repertory Theatre, which formed in the dark days of the 2008 financial implosion, turned necessity into ingenious invention by making its shows site-specific.

"Chalk is making real estate part of the [theater] conversation," director Larissa Kokernot says.

The company's productions have included Three Sisters at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and Lady Windermere's Fan in the gardens of Jefferson Park's William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. But its latest venture implicitly addresses issues of L.A. housing and the changing cityscape — by literally becoming a part of both.

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On a sunny September morning, Kokernot has joined company co-founder Jennifer Chang and playwright Madhuri Shekar in the cavernous, neo-brutalist gallery space that adjoins the lobby of 8th?+?Hope, a luxury apartment tower on the edge of downtown's financial district, which opened its doors in August. With them is Chantal Lundberg, a creative consultant for the building's owner, Wood Partners.

The building is the site of Chalk's latest edition of Flash Festival, its three-weekend offering of new, site-specific one-acts, running through Oct. 25. The idea of Flash, Kokernot explains, is to send 15 writers into a building to scout sites and then write short plays tailored to their chosen site. When the texts are finished, about a month later, they are matched with a director and cast with actors, who return to rehearse and stage the piece in about eight hours, just before the performance. Each weekend features five of the fully produced plays, with the audience moving from site to site.

The results can be a hit-and-miss affair, but when the alchemy of site, playwright and inspiration does spark, the work can be thrillingly and magically combustive.

Jennifer Chang, Larissa Kokernot, Madhuri Shekar and Chantal Lundberg
Jennifer Chang, Larissa Kokernot, Madhuri Shekar and Chantal Lundberg
Photo by Bill Raden

An example is 2012's Flash at the La Brea Tar Pits' Page Museum, where playwright Steve Yockey used the museum's dire wolf skull wall as the backdrop for his one-act, "Skulls." Directed by Abigail Deser, and featuring Andrew Crabtree and Katie Skelton as best friends who meet on neutral turf to discuss their previous evening of drunken sexual indiscretion, the performance cannily incorporated the milling audience to reap comic paydirt from its loudly inappropriate dialogue.

For this year's festival, the writers were offered the run of the tower, from lobby to rooftop, and the use of any still-unoccupied apartments in the 22 floors between.

According to first-time Flash writer Shekar, inspiration snuck up on her as she and the other writers were waiting in the 8th?+?Hope gallery space prior to their building tour.

"It was me wondering how was this room going to be used in this building," Shekar recalls. "There is an iPad on this pillar, which I thought was really interesting. There were a couple of chairs here, which will probably come back after the installation is taken down, that did not look like chairs. There was a coffee machine. Each one of them will say something about the character or the story."

The resulting one-acts run the gamut from the supernatural comedy of a couple contemplating a lease on a haunted apartment ("Them" by Alex Lewin) to competing interests of privacy and social justice posed by posting video of police brutality on the Internet (Ruth McKee's "Right to Post") to the family drama of a sister's attempts to get her brother to reconcile with their estranged, dying father ("What We Need at the End of the Day" by Brian Polak).

But why would a private developer want to turn a premier downtown luxury property into an experimental theater laboratory?

"It's to have neighbors interact with each other," Lundberg says. "They might make connections, and feel neighborly. In addition to the typical things that buildings do, like having perks and great amenities, at the end of the day, the interest was in doing something a little bit more engaged."

"A lot of artists talk about how they feel really isolated," adds Chalk co-founder Chang, "and I feel like this structure [addresses that], where audiences get paired up in different teams, and then you are invited and encouraged to come back next week and meet a whole new group." —Bill Raden

FLASH FESTIVAL 2014 | Chalk Repertory Theatre at 8th?+?Hope, 801 S. Hope St., dwntwn. | Through Oct. 25 | chalkrep.com


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