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At the Tip of the Spear

Matthew McCray, center in glasses, and his sons of Semele
PHOTO BY STAR FOREMAN

Click here for Steven Leigh Morris’ “Why Theater Matters; and how our local stage can seize a national leadership role.”

SON OF SEMELE ENSEMBLE has been around since 2000 — its first production premiered in 2001, a play called Earthlings by Artistic Director Matthew McCray, a self-described unemployed actor, who assembled his troupe from peers at O.C.'s Chapman University. They've now settled comfortably into a storefront venue on Beverly Boulevard, a few blocks east of Virgil. When not producing its two plays a year, SOSE partners with like-minded companies, such as NeedTheater and Oasis Theater Company. SOSE now has a company of 28, and has distinguished itself with productions such as the 2003 West Coast premiere of Matthew Maguire's The Tower, a "choreopoem" about a woman climbing the Tower of Babel and how the meaning of words in contemporary society has been shattered. This kind of poetic, surreal and darkly humorous production synthesized radically disparate ideas into a raw theatrical experience that was part vaudeville, part religious mass. That blend of tones reappeared last year in a top-tier production of Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner.

Though the company's original mission was to present new plays or the West Coast premieres of little-known plays by little-known writers, McCray says the company is now trying to develop its own ensemble-devised work, Wallow, by working with L.A. scribe Oliver Mayer, who is attending and assembling ideas from rehearsals. "We're meeting in a room, bringing in ideas as a group. Oliver is observational, deriving text that comes from the mind of the group, filtered through the mind of the writer."

McCray says that SOSE productions almost always lose money, despite modest budgets. Yet the nonprofit organization remains solvent with the help of patrons who simply "like the work [SOSE does]."

"Our future is less about looking at work that has been done before but looking at how the company can take an early hand in the creation of work, either with or sometimes without a writer."

Son of Semele Ensemble

3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A. (213) 351-3507, sonofsemele.org

 

NEEDTHEATER, founded in 2006, remains a nomadic company. In the spring of 2007, REDCAT presented a workshop of its ensemble-created homage to Los Angeles, La La La, in its "Studio" series. In the few years since then, and with a view of theater that's just as inventive as that of Son of Semele Ensemble, the company has nonetheless been moving in precisely the opposite direction — away from ensemble-created work and toward plays written by a single playwright. These include two scintillating productions by New York–based John Clancy (who also serves on the theater's Artistic Advisory Council): 2009's Fatboy, based on Alfred Jarry's 1896 grotesque farce, Ubu the King, and this year's one-man show about one man performing a one-man show, The Event. Other writers in the company's stable have included CJ Hopkins, Naomi Wallace, Eric Coble, Phil Ridley and Lucy Thurber.

Perhaps the drift from ensemble-created work is a consequence of, and reaction against, the founders being "the children of hippies," according to Artistic Director Matt B. Wells.

He adds that the company produces only two main-stage productions per year but supplements these comparatively larger events with smaller-scale readings, "happenings" and even an opera that was performed at UCLA.

Literary Manager Dylan Southard came to NeedTheater from Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company, which, he says, would "rush into production with a script that wasn't finished. And the script dictates everything that follows." Which is why the company is dedicated to taking its time developing new plays, such as the upcoming The Web, by Cornerstone Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael John Garces (also on NeedTheater's Artistic Advisory Council — note to playwrights wondering how to get plays produced).

"We've been working on it for two years," Southard says. "It's about this guy who gets his identity stolen on the Internet, it's like a thriller."

He says he looks for the relationship between the season's plays, in order to establish theater's larger purpose and vision.

Associate Artistic Director Ian Forester, who directed both of Clancy's plays, cites Whit MacLaughlin, artistic director of Philadelphia's New Paradise Laboratories, who says that a play doesn't stand alone on an axis, it stands on the intersection of the cultural moment when it was written and the cultural moment in which we are living. "That collision is what we're thinking about," Forester says.

NeedTheater
needtheater.org

 

STEVE ALLEN THEATER, located in the Center for Inquiry-West, across Hollywood Boulevard from Barnsdall Art Park, is a booking house curated by a bearded, rabbinical-looking fellow named Amit Itelman. With a taste for the Gothic and the macabre, Itelman has booked interdisciplinary acts (music, comedy and theater) that strike a particularly brainy and idiosyncratic chord in local performance, from the Bilgewater Brothers, featuring concerts of songs accompanied by bass kazoo, various bottles and ukuleles and the bittersweet, folksy ruminations of comedian-songwriter Kate Micucci to the anticlown clowning of Two Headed Dog (Jim Turner Allen, Mark Fite, Dave "Gruber" Allen and Andy Paley) — a quartet of unemployed and embittered clowns who pass the time abusing each other. You can track an underground railroad of sorts through shared talent between the Steve Allen Theater and Upright Citizens Brigade (a mile west, on Franklin Avenue).

 

Among the more recent offerings is an anti–Dating Game show called Hook-Up, hosted by Ron Lynch. On the night I attended, female contestants perched onstage during a "videotaped broadcast" were humiliated not so much by their host, or by the fellow behind the screen asking idiotic questions in order to select one of them for a dinner date at Palermo Italian Restaurant up the street on Vermont, as by the crew. These twerps were even more idiotic than the questions, barging in and goading the audience to ramp up the energy, and urging the contestants to be sexier. Pretense of professionalism unraveled before our eyes in a parody that actually delivered its satire with a serving of psychic anguish.

Itelman says he has no real basis for why he selects the acts he does, or a theory for why his selections have hit such a responsive chord among an audience of faithfuls.

"I don't even think about it," he says. "I just work with people who disregard their better judgment by doing theater, and funnily enough, audiences show up. It's really just storytelling."

Steve Allen Theater

4773 Hollywood Blvd., L.A., steveallentheater.com

 

THE HOLLYWOOD FRINGE FESTIVAL will be the first attempt at a completely noncurated arts festival in Los Angeles. "We don't turn anyone away," explains executive director Ben Hill, who's been planning the festival (June 17-27) for more than two years with compatriots including Ken Peterson and Stacy Jones. Hill has an ebullient, almost childlike energy and brings 15 years of experience in the arts. In Washington, D.C., he founded and produced the Hatchery Festival — a showcase of new plays from emerging playwrights — and he presented ARTBASH at the A+D Museum in Los Angeles.

Hill intends the Hollywood Fringe — modeled on the Edinburgh Fringe — to take as much square footage of one square mile around Hollywood central as can be imagined, with street performers, gas stations turned into makeshift venues, etc. He wants it to be a confrontation with art that pedestrians simply can't avoid. Terence McFarland, executive director of Los Angeles Stage Alliance, says he is impressed with Hill's blend of savvy and enthusiasm, and hopes, as we all do, that the event can become an annual ritual here.

In a highly populist mechanism, performers have been registering with the festival organization and then negotiating their own contractual terms with orthodox and unorthodox venues. The performers are responsible for whatever rental costs they negotiate, as well as insurance. Hill and his staff are unpaid but may keep a percentage of registration fees after all expenses have been taken care of — if there's anything left in the kitty.

Hollywood Fringe
hollywoodfringe.org

 

REDCAT The son of a TV host and himself a former tap dancer, Mark Murphy — now executive director at REDCAT — knew he wanted to be involved in the theater when he studied Communication Arts as a Catalyst for Social Change at Fairhaven College, in Bellingham, Washington. (It was a major he invented himself.)

Murphy came to L.A. after coordinating programming for On the Boards, a contemporary performing center in Seattle. That was a kind of template for his work as curator at REDCAT, where he presents local and foreign artists side by side. His aesthetic leans toward the interdisciplinary, consistent with the founding principles of CalArts, which oversees the venue.

In addition to getting New York's Wooster Group in as a company in residence, Murphy is trying to develop local performers and companies through his NOW (New Original Works) and Studio (works in development) festivals.

Murphy credits the combination of REDCAT, the "less predictable" programming at UCLA Live, and the "mix of presenting and producing at the New Los Angeles Theatre Center" for creating "more nourishment for the curious soul" in Los Angeles.

His biggest challenge remains the export side. "It's taken a little longer than I imagined to develop a body of work in contemporary theater, as well as dance and hybrid performance forms, which reaches audiences outside of L.A."

Though there are some examples: REDCAT co-commissioned a new work, Under Polaris, by Cloud Eye Control, now touring to the Exit Festival outside Paris, as well as a festival in Austin, Texas, later in April. Murphy also sees an interesting growth in and sophistication of works dealing with identity politics, particularly in the works of Kristina Wong and Lars Jan.

 

"I suspect that 10 to 20 years from now, when people think about work that captures the essence of artists from L.A., the visual approach to theater will be one of the landmarks."

REDCAT

631 W. Second St., L.A., redcat.org

 

ROGUE MACHINE At Rogue Machine, now in its third season in residence at Theatre/Theater on Pico near La Brea, Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn set out to establish a tight relationship between his theater and a community it would feed with challenging plays by lesser-known writers. Among the more recent examples is a work called Never Land, by the darling of London's Royal Court Theatre, Phyllis Nagy, in a production she directed herself (a fact that may have caused some of the most blistering reviews on record from the generally amiable L.A. critics). At a panel discussion before one of the productions, Nagy described how the Royal Court put on plays without regard for their embrace by critics — or audiences. The artistic staff just did what they felt was good work. That seems to be Flynn's devil-may-care approach for Rogue Machine. And much of the work is very good: a production of Adam Rapp's Bingo With the Indians, for example.

Flynn's concern has been how to keep the theater open. Special events such as "Rant 'n Rave," in which writers and performers from L.A. present their own 1,500-word soliloquys on a different topic every month, are packing in about 120 people a night.

Flynn came to L.A. after working in the Chicago theater. During his early years here, he ran a company called Theatre Exchange, while also working in TV. Rogue Machine now consists of a company of 90, and charges no dues. "We ask people to work instead, people who believe in what we're doing." There appears to be no shortage of them.

Rogue Machine

In residence at Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A., roguemachine.co m

 

Other, more established companies playing on the fringe include Theatre @ Boston Court (Jessica Kubzansky and Michael Michetti, co-artistic directors); ARTEL (American Russian Theater Ensemble Laboratory, Olya Petrakova and Bryan Brown, co-organizers); Ghost Road Theater Company (Katharine Noon, Sara Loe and Mark Seldis, artistic board); California Repertory Company in Long Beach (Joanne Gordon, artistic director); Theatre Movement Bazaar (Tina Kronis and Richard Alger, co-organizers); City Garage (Frédérique Michel, artistic director, Charles Duncomb, general manager); Highways Performance Space, Theater of NOTE, Zombie Joe's Underground and others.


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