Building an Ensemble in Ego-ville

Artel Ensemble: Petrakova at the top of the pile (Photo by Joaquin Lazo)

{mosimage}In January 2005, Olga Petrakova walked into the theater that her co–artistic director, Brad Ashten, had constructed in the rented, empty cinder-block garage of a former ’40s gas station on Santa Monica Boulevard. What she saw when she walked past the lobby shocked her. Their theater had been dismantled and meticulously stored in the middle of the space — planks and lighting instruments and cables, all neatly stacked. In a pique, Ashten had destroyed the house he built.

And though she was dismayed to see what her partner had done, it wasn’t the first time she’d seen a home of sorts dismantled. She left Russia on August 1, 1991, two weeks before the coup that foreshadowed the end of the Soviet Union on New Year’s Eve of that year.

“I felt I’d just fled a collapsing house. But I had such a sense of loss because, I know this sounds strange, but there was something quite precious about actually having a Soviet Union. The first couple of years I went back, there were such rapid changes, but the mentality of people didn’t change. The commercial side just ran away with the country.”

After wading through the rubble of the defunct Soviet empire, and a failed theater enterprise or two in Los Angeles, Petrakova has been searching for a workable balance between her own ideals for an ensemble theater — the kind of collective that the early Soviets talked about for their society — and the means to pay for it.

Born in the Moldavian Republic to Russian parents in 1971, Petrakova was educated in Leningrad at what’s now St. Petersburg State University. In Russia, she was attracted to Eastern philosophy and transcendental meditation. At the university, she completed an eight-year program in applied mathematics and dance. But never acting, she says. “In Russia, actors are gods; you become an actor through lineage, through family and family connections. I didn’t have any. I would have been wasting my time.”

She left Russia at age 20 because she’d been accepted at Iowa’s Maharishi International University, where she studied dance but, thinking practically, received a master’s degree in business administration. In Iowa, she also finally took acting classes, which followed Sanford Meisner’s famously American interpretation of the Russian Konstantin Stanislavsky’s acting “method” that employs improvisation in order to arrive at inner truths.

“All that was dormant in me started to explode,” Petrakova says. “Everything else became clearer. After seven years in Iowa, and visiting New York every year, I decided to move there. New York was very brutal. People on the subway were rude. The waiters were rude. I saw Cats and hated it. It was just not my trip. Everything that could have, went wrong. I auditioned at the Neighborhood Playhouse [where Meisner developed his technique] and left New York not knowing if I’d been accepted. When I got back to Iowa, the invitation from Neighborhood Playhouse came in the mail, but the company I was working for had sent me to L.A.”

Here, things fell into place for her, Petrakova says, including a free place to live because of a job caring for a disabled man. And while slogging through head shots and finding an agent, Petrakova made a few films under the name Istelle Petra. “It wasn’t very fulfilling,” she says. “I felt that artistically and creatively, this isn’t what I wanted to be doing. The idea of exploring Russian theater was much more fulfilling.”

In early 2004, Petrakova met Brad Ashten, a young man from Houston who’d been directing Shakespeare in parks and knew his way around lumber, a drill and a band saw. With the landlord’s approval, Ashten helped build two versions of a theater in the abandoned garage: one in the summer, and then an improved and more elaborate variation in December. Meanwhile, the pair formed a joint enterprise, TheatRevolution — a combination of their respective ventures: Petrakova’s ART Players (ART being an acronym for American Russian Theatre) and Ashten’s INDEPENDant Players.

It was during this time that Petrakova was starting to feel heat from the landlord, Eugene LaPietra — decadeslong owner of Circus dance club, just down the boulevard, and leader of a failed but interesting campaign to incorporate Hollywood as a city. LaPietra told the Weekly he was “charmed by these kids and the seriousness of their commitment to create art,” which would explain the generosity of his month-to-month agreement for a rent amounting to whatever sum “the kids” brought in at their box office. Problem was, explains Petrakova, the theater needed a longer lease for its stability, and those box-office receipts were a laughable fraction of the market-rent value.

Furthermore, LaPietra was now talking about minimum payments, and, with an MBA in her pocket, Petrakova was seeing the practical needs for sustaining their theater. She believed that guest shows would pay LaPietra a market-value rent, and allow her and Ashten to stop abusing his generosity.

She and Ashten fell into a seething dispute over whether or not to subrent the space for “showcases,” as Ashten would derisively describe them. He feared they would harm the reputation of TheatRevolution.

Also at the time, LaPietra was considering converting the entire premises into a parking lot. Petrakova remembers her horror at seeing demolition trucks outside the theater in mid-2004. Nothing actually happened, and after a few fund-raisers in the parking lot, the trucks stopped coming.

“Brad was hoping that his productions would pay the rent,” Petrakova explains, “and he was adamant about not having the space rented to other companies. We can’t afford such a philosophy right now, I said. Rental shows will pay for it. I don’t think our space will be associated with showcases. We need a new partner, I said. He was getting aggressive; our communication went down to nothing. I asked him how I could buy him out. His response was to destroy the theater.”

“Absolutely, I tore the theater down,” Ashten admits, “but I didn’t steal anything. I was wronged. I tore it down because I built that theater and she cut me out. It was a raw deal. I went in there with a group of friends. We unscrewed every screw, unbolted every chair. I took out my Plexiglas in the sound booth, and we piled everything in the middle.”

During this time, Petrakova was negotiating with Don Cesario, owner of the Elephant and Lillian theaters across the street, who had years of experience and an overflow of producers looking for venues to rent. Petrakova soon signed a deal with Cesario.

Ashten was furious that he wasn’t a part of these negotiations, and the only difference in their versions of events is whether or not Ashten was invited, or even willing, to engage in such talks. Referring to herself and Ashten at the time, Petrakova adds, “Neither of us knew what we were doing.”

{mosimage}After Cesario helped build a new theater where Ashten had torn the previous one down, Petrakova returned to her idea for an American-Russian theater, an idea that took several incarnations, she says.

Working with classically trained directors, she tried running a theater that staged Russian plays in rep, alternating between performing them in English and Russian. “I hated that because it was dead for me. Very superficial. A lot of it had to do with me not knowing what I was looking for, and learning from my mistakes, rather than knowing what I want.”

Petrakova’s interests were homing in on the idea of an ensemble. She put out casting notices with the aim of choosing a play based on the actors she had employed. Petrakova had intended to hire an outside director, but the company wanted her to stage it, she says.

The play she selected was Evgeny Schwarz’s The Shadow,  a work with 24 actors that marked Petrakova’s first effort as a director. The paradox of this process, she learned, was that people cast from outside her ensemble were more trained and accomplished than the group she’d assembled, “which raised the question of why I needed an ensemble to begin with.” Through The Shadow, she met Bryan Brown.

In 2005, Brown saw a casting notice for The Shadow and found himself attracted to the company’s ambitions and ambitiousness.

Having grown up in Maine, where his father and grandfather were opera singers, Brown attended the New School for Social Research in New York. He took a Shakespeare course and “understood that all I was interested in studying was contained in Shakespeare.”

His acting teacher there was from the Experimental Theatre Wing of New York University, and mixed exercises from Meisner with the techniques of Polish physical theater guru Jerzy Grotowski.

“I realized this whole other side of performance, and this great sense of connection between people. I became captivated — studying literature and acting,” he says.

Though accepted to Columbia University’s MFA program in dramaturgy, Brown went to Europe instead and studied with master teacher Stephen Wangh. It was there, he says, that he came to an understanding of what an ensemble could be, what theater can be when it’s both structured and improvised.

“I was looking for a way of working with an ensemble, interested in community and being in a band of players,” Brown explains. “Good music is created not by one person telling people what to play, but by people coming to a common understanding of what a good song is.”

After an eight-week intensive course at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2003, Brown’s life in New York collapsed. An ensemble he was working with fell apart, and he was evicted from his apartment. His brother, a grad student at UCLA, offered him a couch.

“That brought me here,” Brown says, “where I got a crash-course education in the 99-seat world of L.A. theater. I found it even more daunting than New York, because there were so few people who understood the principles I was talking about.”

Brown and Petrakova, who have now become partners, worked closely together on The Shadow, which they each describe as a project with mixed blessings.

“The theater in this town still creates a solipsist environment, because there isn’t a strong sense of people working towards a larger goal,” Brown says. “It’s more like, we’re going to do this show. There are few theaters where I can say, wow, you guys are working towards something.”

When The Shadow completed its run, the company started talking about dues and bureaucracy.

“They wanted a company in a very L.A. sense,” Petrakova says. “I wanted a company in the European sense, which means taking care of the theater collectively, training in groups and individually, taking the initiative to do research.”

Petrakova insisted on a once-a-week training program for the company to improve its skills, and most of the membership fell away, leaving a trio of Petrakova, Brown and Valerie McCann, “who’s now leaving us for a graduate program in New York, because she cannot stand L.A.,” Petrakova reports.

While the rent is paid, thanks in large part to Cesario’s bookings, Petrakova’s company is now in what she calls “the experimental phase.” It’s now back up to a devoted membership of six, and includes, along with Petrakova and Brown, Marc Devine, Keirin Brown, Betsy Moore and Ilana Turner. It’s now called “ARTEL,” taken from a Russian word meaning “labor collective,” and is developing a project based on the life and works of one of Russia’s most revered 20th-century authors, Mikhail Bulkakov.

Has this all been worth it? I asked.

“At times, I’ve been very unhappy,” Petrakova admits. “This journey has taught me that it was always worth it, though sometimes the lessons would be very hard.”

Adds Brown, “Once you define what you want, and go after it, when you bring joy into your life, that joy has a way of creating more and more of itself.”

ARTEL Ensemble performs at Highways this weekend. For more information, visit

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