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Into the Woods

The art and craft of being: Daniel De Weldon and Deborah Dir, playing for real in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (eyemgphotography.com)

The art and craft of being: Daniel De Weldon and Deborah Dir, playing for real in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (eyemgphotography.com)

While working on a production at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, Joe Tyler Gold was surprised to discover that among the large cast, he was the only actor who didn’t believe in ghosts. But rather than dismiss his supernaturally inclined colleagues as wacky New Agers, he instead wrote and co-produced (with Tammy Caplan) a low-budget flick about L.A. theater actors and ghosts. It’s called Never Say Macbeth (www.­neversaymacbeth.com). After rehearsing for five weeks, director C.J. Prouty shot the film in 12 days on location at Stages Theatre Center in Hollywood, employing mostly local stage actors from PRT, Circle X Theatre Company and Sacred Fools.

Never Say Macbeth was screened at the Sunset Five on July 10, and it’s slated to return in the Foundation for the Advancement of Independent Film Festival (www.­magicalfilmfest.com) in mid-September at Mann’s Chinese Theater.

The movie concerns a science teacher named Danny (Gold) who, on an unrequited romantic mission, follows his aspiring actress girlfriend, Ruth (Llana Kira), from the Midwest to L.A. After stumbling into the tiny Zodiac Theater, where Ruth is auditioning for a production of Macbeth, Danny utters the forbidden “M” word, arousing the spirits of thespians who perished in a fire that struck the same building 50 years earlier.

Though Gold and Prouty serve up a sweet satire of our theater community’s self-importance laced around a love story, scenes of actors being distracted during rehearsals by the ghosts of thespians who trod the same stage 50 years earlier comment on both the ephemeral nature of theater in general and the eternal mortality of theater in Los Angeles. Whereas the ghosts of New York’s small theaters are enshrined in folklore and reiterated in tours, there’s no such chronicle of the remarkable waves of activity here.

“Doing theater in L.A. is like building a snowman in Hawaii,” Jillian Armenante once told the Weekly. The effort and the excellence rarely get recorded, let alone remembered. Which raises the question, does it matter? Two thousand professional productions per year across the region — do they matter? If our theater is just for actors to work out between “real” work (in TV and film), is our theater really worthy of folklore and history books? Actually, sometimes yes, but I’ll get to that.

In the mid-’80s, I was a member of the playwright’s wing at North Hollywood’s Group Repertory Theatre — since renamed the Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre after the actor who started running the place in 1972.

The vision for what’s now the LCGRT could be called Theater of the Obvious, locked into the prevailing Broadway aesthetic of 1953. I remember their adaptation of some Chekhov play reset in the American West that could have been written by William Inge.

A play of mine was read there one Sunday afternoon more than 20 years ago, and Chapman, a burly 60-something in those days, with a soft, husky voice and gentle demeanor, attended, as he did all the new play readings.

My fond recollection of Chapman — on returning to the LCGRT last week to review a production of Phil Olson’s family-reunion comedy, A Nice Family Gathering — may have contributed to the pleasure I took in Olson’s sloppy, very obvious comedy, so breezily performed by the lovely cast. The play’s centerpiece is a ghost of the family patriarch (Robert Gallo), whom only one of his sons (Brian Clark) can see. In the program was an ad wishing Lonny Chapman to get well soon. A box-office staffer told me that he’d been in the hospital for six months.

The combination of this news with the play’s ghost story so upset me that after the show, I drove into the San Gabriel Mountains. At midnight, I found myself standing under a canopy of stars by Jackson Lake, outside Wrightwood. Stepping out of the car, I could barely see the ground, but I could faintly make out the water in the moonlight, and across the water, I heard a loud grunting and trees rustling. Then, from another tree, came grunting from some different source. I soon came to understand, from silhouettes that grew clearer as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I was witnessing a conversation between two bears.

If two bears argue in a forest, and a drama critic sees it, does it then become part of theater history?

I’m not really a fan of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, John Patrick Shanley’s 1984 “Apache dance” for two actors. A richly textured examination of generic emotions, it’s been done here so often because it offers a showcase for a man and woman who meet in a Bronx bar to play the walking wounded from the lower depths, slide into a moonlit fantasy of love and marriage in her modest bedroom, and then wake to find themselves in a wrestling match with that same fantasy.

Director Michael Arabian informed me there was talk of moving his production of Danny from the Elephant Theatre in Hollywood to New York. Because the performers were from the West Coast branch of the Actors Studio, there’s now a lobbying effort to persuade the New York branch to host the production, if only they can persuade artistic director Al Pacino to deviate from the Studio’s mandate prohibiting public productions. (The Actors Studio was founded in 1947 by Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis as an artistic haven and laboratory for talented actors to develop their craft, without the glare of publicity.) The idea that brilliant stage work should go unrecorded struck me as a particularly L.A. dilemma, so I arranged an interview to discuss the issue with the Actors Studio’s West Coast co-artistic directors, Martin Landau and Mark Rydell, along with Arabian.

Rydell brought with him the ghosts of Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner, who were both his teachers. Landau, limber and sprightly at 76, was one of only two actors accepted in 1954. (The other was Steve McQueen.)

The two men bantered about how difficult it is to get in: Dustin Hoffman auditioned nine times, they said; Harvey Keitel, 11; Geraldine Page, six; Jack Nicholson, two. Nicholson’s judging committee consisted of Lee Strasberg, Landau and, yes, Lonny Chapman.

Landau and Rydell had just seen Chapman in the hospital and were upset by his deteriorated condition.

“He was a track star at the University of Oklahoma,” Rydell recalls. “All muscle and virility.” (As a young man, Chapman grabbed a leading role on Broadway as the womanizing track star Turk in William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba.)

Rydell and Landau praised Arabian’s production of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (which has moved from months of work as an Actors Studio project to an independent production) and struggled to articulate what exactly they’re trying to keep alive at the Actors Studio. They repeated words such as “humanity” and “truth” versus “fakery” — with frequent allusions to the dehumanizing influences of technology, commercialism and diminishing attention spans.

I asked to observe one of the acting sessions, and Landau invited me as guest, “but you can’t write about it,” he stipulated.

“How can the public know what you’re doing?” I argued, but he was unmoved.

Meanwhile, I chose to see something I could report on — Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.

The following evening, the studio space of the Elephant Performance Lab Theatre was shrouded in stage fog and a bluish hue. Actors Deborah Dir and Daniel De Weldon sat at separate bar tables on the stage, staring into space, smoking, playing out Shanley’s Apache dance with scrupulous honesty and attention to the details of blackened knuckles and bruised pasts, unfolding in the ebbs and flows of real time. There they were again, the bears in the forest, rattling trees, bellowing and grunting. Both live-wire performances turned out to be indelible manifestations of what Rydell and Landau were struggling to articulate about theater being one of the last stands against a culture that values us more for what we can buy than what we can be. Here was the art and craft of being. It can’t be printed on a T-shirt or posted on MySpace or YouTube. After the lights go down, it’s history, theater history. And, yes, it matters because it’s so rare when they get it so right, the authenticity of it in a world of fakery — a fleeting, sacred moment. After every great performance, the theater burns down, and we’re left with ghosts.

A NICE FAMILY GATHERING | By PHIL OLSON | Presented by LONNY CHAPMAN GROUP REPERTORY THEATRE, 10900 Burbank Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Through July 21 | (818) 700-4878

DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA | By JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY | Presented by THE ELEPHANT THEATER and VOLITION ENTERTAINMENT PRODUCTIONS, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hlywd. | Through July 20 | (323) 960-7753