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Company Town

Actors form theater companies. It’s a homing instinct — nothing new to L.A., or anywhere else. And though dreams of landing a movie, or an agent, have always generated performances on local stages, equally forceful is the teeming (and teaming) activity that keeps bringing actors home to the theater — almost 100 self-sustaining, not-for-profit, professional theater ensembles with members who have known each other and worked together for years. These largely volunteer (often dues-based) organizations are quasi families — which are sometimes authoritarian, sometimes collaborative, sometimes bickering, often leaving, just as often returning — homes to thousands of actors lured by and often working in Hollywood while sustaining a legit-stage subculture.

Were the commercial pressures on theater here as intense as they are in film, TV, or on the New York stage, you’d see with greater frequency that star-studded model of theatrical production employed in London’s West End, on Broadway, off-Broadway, or even in our regional theaters — companies that assemble for one play and then disperse three months later.

Also in this issue:

Company Town: How did sprawling Los Angeles become a mecca for small theater? Nearly 100 self-sustaining companies, many with distinguished reputations, are at work in the city. STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS addresses the question of why L.A. is such fertile ground for ensembles, and profiles some of the best, along with ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN and STEVEN MIKULAN. Plus, MORRIS on Gordon Davidson, who will be designated this year’s Queen of the Angels at the 25th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards.

Yet such a system, whipped into its shape by the bottom line, doesn’t support the kind of epics and large-cast classics seen in abundance here. And that commercial model could never have produced the great ensembles of our generation — an entire network of Arts Council–funded repertory companies across Britain, the Berliner Ensemble, France’s Théâtre du Soleil, New York’s Negro Ensemble Company and the Wooster Group, among others.

Like the Wooster Group, local companies such as City Garage, Circle X and Ensemble Studio Theater (the Los Angeles Project) develop performances for months before they see the stage lights. But if that’s for quality control, it doesn’t always work.

Frustrated that their company’s large-cast productions had reached a plateau of mediocrity, the artistic director and managing director at Santa Monica’s City Garage, Frédérique Michel and Charles A. Duncombe, respectively, reinvented their ensemble this year. They dropped dues in 1993 and all requirements for their performers to serve on running crews, reduced their membership from 60 to 16, and have now gone into recruitment mode for the caliber of actors who can execute the rigorous, expressionistic acting style that’s required for most of their productions.

“We began to face the fact that while we were a dues-paying company, we would be constantly limited to actors who were willing to pay to belong,” explains Duncombe. “We had to force a change.”

Michel and Duncombe are gambling on a long-term spike in quality that will enhance the company’s reputation and attract skilled actors and impassioned donors. And if their first production under the new configuration (Boris Vian’s post-WWII political farce The Empire Builders) is any indication, that gamble may well pay off.

Because theater in Los Angeles is an activity rather than an industry, the box office is a secondary priority for most of the local ensembles. First comes finding a home and keeping the doors open. The economics of doing theater in L.A. over the decades — supplemented by the stage actors union’s (Actors Equity) long-standing agreement to allow its members to work in small theaters for stipends rather than salaries — has created a kind of hybrid repertory system, with funds accrued from a combination of dues, grants, donations, season subscriptions and box-office receipts.

Here, the work before a paying audience constitutes only a fraction of the activities generated by these ensembles. Michel conducts a monthly daylong acting/style workshop that her company is required to attend. Circle X has an ongoing laboratory program it calls “The Work Shop,” which includes movement and voice training. Pacific Resident Theater maintains a lab space adjacent to its main stage near the beach end of Venice Boulevard — available for company members to use however they want. Like many troupes around town with a youth-outreach program, the Antaeus Company (a classics theater co-founded by Dakin Matthews and Lillian Groag in 1991) has a training academy attached to its organization. Last year, Hollywood’s Open Fist Theater staged the entire cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays in a series of workshop performances.

 

These are the kinds of services that companies must provide to their volunteer/dues-paying membership in order to keep them. Remarkably, the glue is holding. Of 200-plus local actor-based ensembles identified by the Weekly, almost 100 have shown evidence of sustainability (see accompanying list).

The extraordinary number of local theater companies may be attributable to the peculiar, alienating circumstances in which so many thousands of thespians find themselves here. Misery is abundant in every city, but the intensity of misery and isolation in Los Angeles has no equal. All those unreturned phone calls.

“The young actors I coach, who have no theater training and have obviously been chosen for their looks, they’re so, so lost,” explains Jeanie Hackett, co–artistic director of the Antaeus Company. “Our goal is to fulfill our artists’ needs, and if the community wants to look over our shoulder, fine.”

What debases our theater is not actors seeking a living in film and TV — which you’ll find in every theater city — but Hollywood’s cavalier disregard of theater as an institution, and its refusal to get actors to the church on time. “We had to cancel a performance last night, send a full audience home,” explains Antaeus’ John Apicella. “Our lead was held over at a shooting, due to their disorganization or something. He said, ‘But I’ve got a performance!’ Too bad. This would never happen in London or New York.”

Home is the word that crops up most frequently when artistic directors explain their ensembles’ reason for being. As Dakin Matthews puts it, describing how the Antaeus Company could hold onto busy actors such as John Vickery, Kandis Chappell, Mark Harelik, Alan Mandell and Jeremy Lawrence, “Even people making a great living [in film and TV] found they weren’t saying words that meant very much.”

Ensemble Studio Theater’s Laura Jane Salvato spins on her heels when asked whether the theater in Los Angeles is really a profession, or just a hobby.

“A hobby is something you do in your spare time when you have nothing better to do,” she flares. “The theater comes from a hunger — which is very different.”

What follows are snapshots of some of L.A.’s best ensembles:

Antaeus Company at the New Place Theater, 4900 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood; (818) 506-5436; www.antaeus.org. Co–artistic directors Jeanie Hackett and John Apicella. Antaeus explores classical plays. Company members are mostly over 40 years old — hence the in-house training academy, to “pass the torch.” After a series of Monday-night salons through the early ’90s, the troupe was solidified into an arm of the Mark Taper Forum, where it performed Equity workshops of classical plays being considered for production there. After its world-premiere translation (by company members Nicholas Saunders and Frank Dwyer) of Chekhov’s The Wood Demon on the Taper main stage in 1994, Antaeus incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation. This year, it rented a theater space in North Hollywood. Antaeus has 80 members, half of whom are active at any given time because so many of its actors are already working in film, TV or regional theater. Despite its almost 10-year existence, the company has staged only a handful of plays for the public, in mostly excellent productions. Explains Hackett: “John Vickery said, ‘I can go off and do a regional play for four weeks, so here I’d rather sit around a table and explore Coriolanus in depth.’” Dues, $25 monthly. Membership by participation, guest participation welcome through referral.

City Garage, 13401/2 Fourth St. (alley), Santa Monica; (310) 319-9939; www.citygarage.org. Artistic director Frédérique Michel; managing director Charles A. Duncombe. Sixteen-member company. The organization is now 17 years old, in its current space since 1994. Michel directs and Duncombe designs (and sometimes adapts) every production — a stream of politically charged works by international scribes (Rainer Fassbinder, Heiner Müller, Marguerite Duras, Simone de Beauvoir, Aimee Bender and Caryl Churchill). Michel, a graduate of the Paris Conservatory, relishes her reputation as a serious and sometimes harsh taskmaster. No dues. Membership by audition.

Circle X Theater Company c/o Stages Theater Center, 1157 N. McCadden Pl., Hollywood; (323) 461-6069; www.circlextheatre.org. Co-producing artistic directors Tara Flynn and Tim Wright. Founded in 1996. More than 60 members. This space has commented before on the troupe’s literate, whimsical garage-sale aesthetic (embodied in its scintillating, just-closed production of Tom Jacobson’s Sperm, and Jillian Armenante and Alice Dodd’s 2002 movie-biz musical, Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog). “This will not change,” insists Flynn, despite the company’s recent hiatus (the whole artistic staff collapsed from exhaustion) and appointment of a new leadership. The company provides all manner of voice and style workshops; open membership, earned through participation. No dues.

Pacific Resident Theater, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; (310) 822-8392; www.pacificresidenttheatre.com. Artistic director Marilyn Fox; managing director Bruce Whitney. Has had a reputation for top-quality ensemble work since its inception in 1985. It now mostly stages European and American lesser-known classics. Fox took over the company in 1995, when finances and morale were bottoming out after expansion plans fell short. Under her watch, the subscription base has shot up from the low hundreds to 1,800, and the company has raised more than $170,000 as part of a capital campaign to support construction of a new 99-seat theater. More than 100 members. Monthly dues of $25 support the adjacent co-op workshop space, which is available to all members. Membership by audition.

 

Open Fist Theater, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood; (323) 882-6912; www.openfist.org. Artistic director Martha Demson. Incorporated in 1989. Like Fox over at PRT, Demson (a company member since 1991) also brought her theater back from disarray, when she took charge in 1997. At that time, the founding core had left and membership had dwindled to 25. Demson now holds membership to 65 (to assure that all members participate), the finances are stable, and a soulful quality of production has been slowly rising, with particularly strong stagings of Caryl Churchill’s Fen and David Grieg’s The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union in the last couple of seasons. “Films follow a protagonist,” says Demson. “What’s interesting about theater is that you can see the entire community on the stage. I also like doing larger-cast shows because the economics [of commercial theater] preclude it.” Dues, $55 monthly. Membership by referral and audition.

Ensemble Studio Theater (The Los Angeles Project), 137 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 368-9552; www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org. Co–artistic directors Laura Jane Salvato and Michael C. Mahon. Incorporated 1992. A local branch of New York’s famed EST, which is dedicated to the development of new plays. Has an active, in-house playwrights’ unit. Has produced one to two plays per year for the past three seasons, with fine production values. Very active workshop and readings programs. Survives on grants and earned income, helped by the fact that Salvato is a professional grants writer. (A $10,000 production budget expanded to $160,000 in two years.) There are 120 local members (40 active), 500 nationally. Stringent membership requirements. No dues.

1. Spencer Scott
(Unity Players)
2. Stan Weightman
(Circle X)
3. Lynn Manning
(Watts Village Theater)
4. Wade McIntyre
(Meadows Basement)
5. Geoff Elliott
(A Noise Within)
6. Gary Lee Reed
(Actors Co-op)
7. Marianne Savell
(Actors Co-op)
8. Jeanie Hackett
(Antaeus)
9. Robert Lee Jacobs
(Pacific Resident Theater)
10. Nancy Cheryll-Davis Bellamy
(Towne Street)
11. Christian Arroyo
(Company of Angels)
12. Quentin Drew
(Watts Village Theater)

13. Aaron Ginsburg
(Meadows Basement)
14. Michael C. Mahon
(Ensemble Studio Theater)
15. Charles Duncombe
(City Garage)
16. Shay Wafer
(Cornerstone)
17. Frédérique Michel (City Garage)
18. Sarah Hartmann
(Circle X)
19. Laura Jane Salvato
(Ensemble Studio Theater)
20. Tim Wright
(Circle X)
21. Martha Demson
(Open Fist)
22. Tara Flynn
(Circle X)
23. John Apicella
(Antaeus)

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