Whether or not Los Angeles is a “theater town,” it is certainly a town filled with theaters — and actors. Small stages and itinerant acting companies are as ubiquitous here as car dealerships, and it's difficult to spit or pay a restaurant check without encountering another headshot-packing devotee of Stanislavsky.
But imagine that you're an actor-manager of one of those companies. You and your fellow artists have been plodding away, producing season after season of polished, if modest revivals of affordable, tried-and-true, former New York or international stage hits — the standard carte du jour of L.A.'s small theater world. The company members get their shots at meaty stage roles, but — in the hardscrabble, break-even economics of 99-seat theater — without the kind of audiences or press attention needed for survival.
At least that was the predicament actor and maverick producer Bob Rusch faced in 2009. Along with actor Eric Curtis Johnson, Rusch had co-founded SkyPilot Theatre five years earlier as an actor-driven membership company (it was reorganized as a 501(c) nonprofit in 2006). Despite some respectable reviews at various venues around town, the theater was still struggling to carve out an identity from the rest of the pack that might better capture the imagination of ticket buyers and press alike.
Or as Rusch himself puts it with uncharacteristic understatement, “To pack a 57-seat theater in L.A. is not easy to do.”
A charismatic and voluble font of enthusiasm, the forty-something, 6'2″ artistic director cuts an imposing figure in person — an appealing mix of physical bulk and slightly bent, rough-edged rectitude that might get him cast as anything from an aging football linebacker to a funeral director to a chainsaw serial killer.
Rusch's biggest role to date, however, has been leading SkyPilot on the long, frustrating road out of artistic obscurity, culminating in their new production, Kong: A Goddam Thirty-Foot Gorilla.
His first real break came in 2009 with a production of Toronto playwright George F. Walker's The End of Civilization. As it turned out, the one-act, part of Walker's Suburban Motel series, happened to be a West Coast premiere — a fact that Rusch dutifully noted in his publicity. And then a funny thing happened — the theater community took notice. “With the Ovation voters and a little bit with the press, that [production] seemed to attract interest because of the premiere,” says Rush. “And that's when the light bulb kind of went off; maybe we should start doing premieres.”
Then, while in the midst of overhauling SkyPilot's programming, Rusch read a 2009 decade's-end assessment by L.A. Weekly's own chief theater critic, Steven Leigh Morris. In the piece, which surveys the theater losses and gains of the 2000s, Morris recounts the triple disaster that struck L.A. during those years: the dissolution of A.S.K. Theater Projects, a critical new-play development forum; the installation of the Manhattan-centric Michael Ritchie regime at CTG, which quickly dismantled Gordon Davidson-era programs designed to nurture the city's emerging playwrights; and the sale of the Los Angeles Times to the financially-troubled Tribune Company, which eventually decimated the paper's coverage of small stages.
The Morris piece proved to be Rusch's epiphany. He would throw SkyPilot into the breach by producing only world premieres of plays only by L.A.-based playwrights. Rusch and Eric Johnson, who was by now the theater's acting literary manager, turned to playwright and playwriting guru Jeff Goode to point them to worthwhile writers. But Goode had a better idea.
“Jeff had been tinkering with for a while, apparently, about a resident company for playwrights,” Rusch explains. “The perfect playwright company. What would that be? And he gave me this idea. He said, 'Listen, I've got these playwrights here.' And later on he added a few more, including Brett [Neveu] and including Adam Hahn and Samantha Macher.” Goode's idea of perfection essentially boiled down to a handpicked, ten-person resident playwrights unit that would write to the strengths of the ensemble, which would in turn exclusively produce their plays.
The idea wasn't exactly new to L.A., at least in fits and starts. The most notable example might be the long-running Padua Hills Playwrights Festival and Workshop, which each summer produced new works for a core acting company by playwrights that included Irene Fornes, Murray Mednick, John Steppling, Leon Martell, Kelly Stuart, John O'Keefe and Julie Hebert. But neither Padua nor its handful of spin-offs could ever quite find the balance between personalities and producing know-how to institutionalize their artistic achievement as a practical theater with the financial stability for regular seasons and a year-round presence.
Though the reconfigured SkyPilot is only into its second all-original season, it's looking as if the triumvirate of Rusch, Johnson and Goode may have finally struck that magic balance. Beginning with Goode's own marriage-equality allegory, The Emancipation of Alabaster McGill, in spring of last year, SkyPilot shows have consistently been winning critics over. More importantly, audiences are responding.
“People are coming out to support us,” Rusch marvels. “We are building slowly but surely; our database is adding people to it, and [they] are coming back for more shows.” Those shows most recently included Macher's War Bride, a universally acclaimed black comedy about postwar misogyny and racial hatred. “War Bride was the first time we extended a show,” Rusch notes. “And it was sold out over half the run, which is great for us.”
It's not only theater critics and consumers that have taken notice, but the artistic community itself. SkyPilot's reputation as a risk-taking, new-works showcase is becoming a magnet for production talent and directors eager to place their stamp on original material. The theater's latest coup has been to get the director Jaime Robledo to partner with production designer Tifanie McQueen on SkyPilot's newest new play, Adam Hahn's anarchic, audience-interactive ape-movie homage, Kong: A Goddam Thirty-Foot Gorilla.
With work on shows like Watson, Stoneface and Hearts Like Fists, Robledo has established his own reputation as a miracle-working wunderkind who can get the impossible up on its feet. “We had a meeting before we actually entered into me agreeing to do this,” the director recalls. “Jeff Goode called and said, 'Hey would you be interested in doing King Kong on stage?' I said, 'That scares the crap out of me. I will do it!'”
Robledo then grilled the playwright over lunch about how he originally imagined getting a 30-foot gorilla onto a storefront stage. “We came up with several ideas,” Robledo remembers. “There's like a puppet show, or this one thing [he] did like some tabletop theater, and like split-screen. I'm like, 'Great! Let's do all of it.' Just kind of throw everything at the audience at once. It's like Kentucky Fried Kong.”
Kong offers a window into SkyPilot's development process. According to Goode, the show is “a perfect example of what we like to do. Because Adam's script was very rough — it was just out of class, but definitely very rough. But the company members who heard it were very excited about what it could be, and at the first reading we were trying to brainstorm about how to solve the puzzle of the play. And then the next step was to go, 'You know, we need a director who's visually imaginative to make this work.' Not to go, 'This is impossible to do.' But, 'How to make this happen because we're excited about it?'”
And while the results of that process have been impressive so far, Rusch is the first to deny that they include anything so homogenous or predictable as “the SkyPilot play.” “The funny thing is, this year everything has been so different,” Rusch muses. “I mean, we started out with a romantic comedy, Lights Off, Eyes Closed by Liz Shannon Miller, and then we were into our first musical, [Earthbound], which was not your grandparents and parents' musical I'd say. … And then we just did War Bride,… which was stylized with the dance and the Japanese movement of these ghosts.” When pressed, however, Rusch eventually admits, “I think the style of SkyPilot is the foundation of strong writing…And now we're really adding to our ensemble as we move forward.”
Kong: A Goddam Thirty-Foot Gorilla opens Oct. 20.
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