Ghosts and Shadows

Photo by Michael Gutstadt

Theater is, if nothing else, a social art form and a way to introduce us to ourselves. How and why we engage with the medium of theater usually says a lot about the state of the society we live in. The theater in America is suffering the various viruses of political correctness (with buzzwords like diversity), consumerism, entertainment, and the ubiquitous sentimentality that seems to infect everything. An addiction to celebrity and the marketing of social redemption are everywhere. For over a decade, the Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop and Festival was doing something very different.

The Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop and Festival created a community in the best sense of the word, and from within that community evolved a genuine aesthetic style in both play writing and performing. I rarely have attended any theater or performance in Los Angeles (before I left three years ago) or even in New York where I didn’t instantly recognize the influence of Padua. At this point, one might reasonably ask why the Padua Festival has never garnered the press that so many other similar yet trivial enterprises have. I suspect the answer lies somewhere amid the principles founder Murray Mednick set in place at the inaugural festival.

The first was that the festival developed writers and not plays. In an age driven by marketing and advertising and where the “product” must be foremost in our minds lest the sales of that product suffer, it’s easy to see how Padua never acquired a “franchise.” Padua had nothing to “sell.” Second, Mednick never encouraged the vapid sociology that so appeals to the modern liberal critic. He had the audacity to take theater seriously and to insist that the writers, whatever they wanted to do at Padua, at least maintain the sense of importance he himself felt about the medium. Mednick believed that the theater should ask questions. If answers were available, that was fine, but not necessary. One didn’t come to Padua, as either audience or participant, expecting reassurance.

The workshops and the physical demands (that the company both work and live together) served to underscore the community I think we all felt. The teaching and involvement of the students created a conscience for the festival. The attention given to the (much abused) word process was critical in the evolving of this sense of conscience. The manner in which all involved approached the crafts of both writing and acting (and directing) came to be understood in an almost Buddhist-like way, which is not to say everyone was even aware of these things let alone doing them. Still, the doing of things took on a resonance few had experienced before, and much of the work seen at Padua shared this sense of dignity. The plays may have been sometimes or even often failures, but they were never (or nearly never) silly or flippant. Even the “comedies” took on a shadow they carried with them.

The search was regional to some degree; this was a festival of the West, and as such it seemed to embrace the empty deserts and to exist in the darkness cast by the Rocky Mountains. The mythic expansiveness of American art from Melville to Pollock was always there, and the occasional swooping hawk or howl of a coyote only seemed to be the latest directorial choice from this “sight-specific” group. The festival had a masculine quality as well (and I trust nobody will take this remark as meaning in some way that the women artists weren’t fully themselves or didn’t help form the essence of the festival as much as the men. It seems absurd to include this disclaimer, but there you are) and a lack of attitude; it wasn’t kitsch, and its irony was real and not just cleverness. To be different is to be a threat: So it has always been and so it is today.

Somehow the plays and performances, at their best, seemed to reflect the sense of having reached the end of something. You can migrate no farther than California, and artists have, for years, shared in their work a quality of rootless alienation. From Hammett and James Cain, to Chandler and West, to noir directors (mostly German Jews) who fled to Hollywood from their homeland, the strategies of fatalism have always seemed to be primary out here in El Lay (unless you were groveling for the crumbs from the table of some CEO at Fox or Paramount). The dynamics of the westward migration from the 1800s through to the Dust Bowl generation, and now from Latin America, have given the area a haunted sensibility that its artists have consistently responded to. Orson Welles said the south of anywhere was a different kind of place from the north (or something like that).

The seductions of El Lay and SoCal are well documented (and constantly televised), but the dusty, barren inner life, like the inner valleys of the state itself, the brutalized psyches of the forgotten and overworked, the callused and lonely, are invisible and rarely chronicled. The Padua Festival looked for a way to engage with a medium that had been sold out and made irrelevant by the cultural arbiters of the entertainment industry. In entertainment, “art” is your friend, but of course it isn’t, it’s only a salesman. Padua listened to the ghosts lost to the media, and the images it created were not of wealth or youth, but of the margins and of a hidden American mythology. Peter Brook has talked of “theater not pretending to be other than theater,” and I think Padua came close to achieving this. Not much from the festival had series potential, and I remember few agents or producers bothering to drive out (and the ones who did had a terrible time).

Theater asks for collective attention from the audience, and modern audiences are more used to an isolated individual un-reflective consensus with the cultural ideology. There is little true appreciation in such agreement; it is the ego shrieking “yes,” and at Padua it was difficult to find this easy response. The community of the festival seemed to insist the audience take part in this communal experience, and for some (or many), this was very uncomfortable, but, I would argue, valuable. In any event, I have not seen anything like it since.

Padua wasn’t auditioning, and it didn’t pander. Its doom was written in its ethic and integrity, and I hope the revival Murray is undertaking will plug back into those increasingly rare forces of creativity.

The schedule for the 2001 Padua Playwrights Productions is as follows: * 16 Routines — now playing through May 5 * Joe and Betty, May 25 through June 23 * Mrs. Feuerstein, July 6 through August 4. All performances are at 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd.; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m. Call (323) 692-2652