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The Playwright’s Playwright

Photo by Debra DiPaolo

In the theatrical geography of Los Angeles, there’s a much-storied location called Padua Hills, a place far, far from the glaring footlights of showcase theater. According to local legend, artists were nurtured at Padua, and the playwrights’ festival that occurred there became associated with theater luminaries: Sam Shepard, Jon Robin Baitz, Maria Irene Fornes, John Steppling and, of course, the festival’s founder, Murray Mednick.

But while the fabled name “Padua Hills” is derived from actual property in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, just above Claremont, Padua Hills was always “a way of mind,” as Guy Zimmerman, artistic director of the newly reconstituted Padua Playwrights Productions, puts it. After all, the festival, inaugurated in 1978, took place in the hills of Padua only six of its 23 on-again, off-again years. What endures are the sometimes conflicting memories of the writers, actors and directors who experienced Padua — one of the most important playwright labs in the country — and Mednick himself, who is the embodiment of its poetically terse, wryly comedic sensibility.

“[Padua means] being an outlaw and misfit within the theater community. We need Padua for artistic nourishment,” says Roxanne Rogers, a director and original Padua participant. “And Murray is a tough teacher, a hard taskmaster who’s crafted many of us into artists.”

Now, after being out of commission since 1995, Padua is back, but in a very different way. The original Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop and Festival was famous for having audiences trudge from site to site, following some dusty, moonlit trail to a bank of bleachers behind a sagebrushed hill. Lights would hang sometimes from a grid, sometimes from a tree. The actors might be pacing, in costume and character, on the stage clearing, just waiting for their audience to arrive. For the next play, the audience would find itself on the hoof again. After the festival left Claremont, it continued to play at outdoor venues, migrating from the Pacific Design Center to Cal State Northridge to Woodbury University to USC.

This year, Padua Hills will perform an entire season indoors for the first time. And rather than premiering works-in-development by a stable of writers, the 2001 Padua Season features a lineup of just three plays, all of them by Mednick.

Though he was never the proverbial angry young man, Mednick has spent his career at the forefront of avant-garde theater first in New York, then on the West Coast, after he emigrated to California in 1974. The 1968 collection The New Underground Theater (Bantam Press) includes his early one-act Sand, a disturbing anti-war play that features a character introduced on a meat hook. “The three upcoming plays are not as graphic, but they may be disturbing to some people,” Mednick concedes.

A two-time Rockefeller Foundation grant recipient and an Obie Award–winning playwright (and 1997 L.A. Weekly Playwriting Award recipient), Mednick is perhaps best known for the Native American imagery of his seven-part The Coyote Cycle. But in this season’s trio of plays, 16 Routines, Joe and Betty and Mrs. Feuerstein, Mednick, who grew up in the Catskills, returns to themes associated with Jewish life.

16 Routines, the 2001 season’s first play, currently in production, is a stylized comedy set in a rest home for distressed actors; the main character is a vaudevillian who can’t remember his lines. Comparing The Coyote Cycle to 16 Routines, he remarks, “In 16 Routines there are literally 16 routines — bits very much like those performed by the characters [from Cycle] Coyote and Trickster.”

A deeply spiritual man, Mednick has sustained his artistic vision without yielding in the usual ways to commercial pressures. Though his plays Iowa and Blessings were filmed for the PBS series Visions, he has never been seduced by Hollywood. Asked why, Mednick states succinctly, “Because I’m really a playwright. No other art form is interested in the sound of live speech, the match between language and gesture. Only in theater can the stylistically induced present moment become the foundation for a kind of presence.”

One striking aspect of Mednick’s three new plays — in a town that worships youth — is the relative absence of younger characters. 16 Routines, directed by Wesley Walker, is set in a retirement home; Joe and Betty, to be directed by Diane Robinson, is loosely based on the playwright’s parents (although several characters are younger); Mrs. Feuerstein, to be directed by Rogers, focuses on an elderly woman at an East Coast boarding school who may or may not be a Holocaust survivor. “In the latest version, Murray has honed every word to the minimal — his language cuts through everything, including questions of identity,” says Rogers.

Mednick seemed surprised at the mention of the preponderance of older characters in the three plays, as though he hadn’t considered it a factor. He was also taken aback when told that some theaters discourage reviewers from attending matinees because of the perception that matinees attract an older audience. He was incredulous that ageism could hinder audience development.

Still, in trying to find a new audience for Padua the Next Generation, Mednick appears to pass the torch to Zimmerman, who will oversee a full slate of workshops, featuring classes taught by Mednick. Both foresee classes and workshops starting in the fall.

Despite having different takes on Hollywood — Zimmerman, who has directed for television, has a more congenial relationship with Hollywood — both agree that Los Angeles is a great place for theater. But while “most theater is actor-oriented, Padua has always been playwright-oriented. It’s a playwrights’ organization for playwrights,” says Mednick.

Is the city ready to support this latest reincarnation of the festival? “We have a more secure financial base,” Zimmerman says. “It’s dangerous to talk about it, but we plan on four productions a year, a combination of the old and new Padua.”

The new home at 2100 Square Feet is a more traditional performance space than the outdoor sites of previous years. Mednick noted that the audience will no longer have to suffer through the great outdoors, where ambient sound can be a distraction. (More than a few patrons and participants remember the winds whipping through many a Padua performance, particularly at Northridge.)

The real test is whether Padua can transcend its own legend and again become a vital force in Los Angeles theater. Rogers, with a catch in her voice, says, “Everybody really missed Padua. We have been empty and alone without this tribe, so we really want to make a go of it this time.”


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