Amanda Berube is quitting her day job Friday. In the world of small theater, this action might be considered clinical proof of madness, but the 26-year-old Wisconsin transplant is determined to devote all her time to Hollywood’s Ethos Theatre Company, which she founded in 2003. Ethos is an island of classicism located in a famously scruffy mini-mall on La Brea Avenue that includes L.A. Xpress, Mashti Malone’s Ice Cream and the late Lava Lounge. Although she’s a self-described former pompon girl who was “cool-ish,” Berube herself must have stuck out somewhat in Milwaukee, where as a teenager she went about with Shakespeare’s complete works tucked into her backpack.
“I was like a Fame kid who went to an arts high school and lived and breathed Uta Hagen since I was 14,” she says in the gloom of her company’s Tres Stage, strands of her tied-back hair escaping from a band. “I had always wanted my own Shakespeare company by the time I was 25.”
After dropping out of college in 2000, Amanda Marquardt, as she was then known, had to decide: Seattle, Chicago, New York or Los Angeles? L.A. won out because her then-boyfriend wanted to attend makeup-effects school here.
“I was 19 and had no money or car,” Berube says, “and I worked for Starbucks on Ventura and Laurel Canyon.”
In a sense, Ethos was born at Starbucks — many of Berube’s earliest collaborators or their friends worked at the coffee chain. But another important tool was Craigslist, the online want-ads site, which provided her with her first stage manager and director. Berube was so new in town that she hadn’t yet heard of L.A. Casting and Actors Access, although she eventually discovered Backstage West, which she used to assemble her cast for Antony and Cleopatra under her company’s original name, Shakespeare in the Sand. The play was performed in the summer of 2003, on the Santa Monica Pier, and free admission.
Then, with the help of acting teacher Peter Spellos, Berube moved her renamed Ethos Theatre Company indoors to the Next Stage space on La Brea. There, far from the Santa Monica sand, she quickly learned the pitfalls of running a brick-and-mortar theater — especially how easy it is for someone with a pure vision to become the only person working for that dream.
“It’s pretty much me sending out our notices,” she says, “setting up auditions, buying the lights and costumes and washing them at the Laundromat downstairs. I would love to have a staff.”
Then, there are the peculiarities of Los Angeles’ theater audiences.
“L.A. theater time is not 8 o’clock but 8:15,” marvels Berube, an expressive conversationalist who often assumes the voices of people she’s quoting. “I would try to start right at 8, but then I would have eight people come in after the show started.”
Other things chafed: “Our parking isn’t fantastic, and I’ve grown to hate the L.A. Marathon, the Oscars and the [Christmas] parade because they’ve cost me rehearsal time.”
Berube teaches several acting workshops and stresses “accountability for actors” by demanding that they set audition goals and other benchmarks to advance their careers, rather than dwell on excuses for not moving forward. To that end, she pairs off actors in a buddy system in which members look after one another by checking up on each other.
“So many people come out here who want to be actors that aren’t trained,” Berube says incredulously. “And [they] don’t think that’s important, and get this idea that they’re just going to move to Hollywood and be an actor. I had an ex-boyfriend out here who had nicer head shots than me and had never read a play by Shakespeare. That floored me. Wait a minute! I told him. How — how does that work? I don’t understand! I’m very passionate about acting, and I know it takes skill and technique and work.”
In three seasons, her company has staged an improbable inventory of 15 productions, including stagings of Hamlet, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and Othello. Like many other new artistic directors, Berube faces the daunting challenge of attracting audiences.
“Unless it’s a big show like Wicked, people don’t open up the paper and go, ‘Ooh, Romeo and Juliet, Ethos Theatre Company — I don’t know who they are, but I’ll pay $15 to see this!’ Most audiences come from the actors and their friends and relatives. So, if you use the same actors, eventually their audience gets sick of seeing plays.”
Which may account for why Ethos maintains only a very small company of actors for its productions and auditions the rest. ? Not that Berube hasn’t attempted other tried-and-true methods for selling tickets.
“There are companies that require their actors to sell tickets,” she says. “Lots of companies. I’ve told my actors that they ? have to sell tickets, but I’ve never gone after them for money.”
On one level, romance has smiled on the Ethos company — last year, Amanda married Chris Berube, founder of the Berubians theater company and manager of the two-house Next Stage venue her group has been using. She received use of the smaller Tres Stage as a wedding present.
“Chris runs the theater space and pays rent. I help, but he runs it. The space and the rent check come from him. [Ethos has] a set amount that I have to pay to him, so it’s like a sublease.”
This arrangement isn’t something many other new companies can duplicate, but Amanda Berube’s headaches are familiar to nearly everyone in the business, especially what might be a reluctance to delegate duties and only a casual interest in press notices — notices her actors seem eager for.
“It’s not that I’m against being reviewed,” she says, “it just hasn’t been a priority.”
Berube admits to moments of fatigue but says she never burns out. And, although she is usually at her theater seven days a week, occasionally she gets out to see what other companies are doing and exudes an astonished admiration for Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, the quirky, sometimes Grand Guignol–ish storefront theater in North Hollywood.
Some of her workshops stress the Viewpoints acting technique, a relatively obscure program that, unlike the Method, discovers an actor’s relationship to the past and present, and to other characters, through physical movement and spatial proportions. Although she will modify the technique, which in part grew out of director Anne Bogart’s teachings, it hasn’t always gone down well with some company members. Recently, one quit in despair after Berube announced a one-night-only performance of Twelfth Night. What would give this production its edge was that none of the cast members knew who would be playing the story’s other roles and, even more ambitiously, there would be no rehearsals.
“It’s so cool,” she enthuses. “The performance is either going to be a complete train wreck or it’s going to be amazing!”
If anyone can bring Shakespeare to La Brea — and keep it there — it’s Amanda Berube. “Work hard. Play hard,” she posts on her MySpace page. “One day I’ll take a nap. I love my life. I love my work.” After all, she had always wanted her own Shakespeare company by the age of 25 — and got it at 23.
For more information, visit www.ethostheatrecompany.org.