It was perhaps unfair to put an interview subject through such a test, but Martha Demson, artistic director of Hollywood‘s Open Fist Theater, agreed to speak with me in a Griffith Park canyon, in the company of my two domesticated chickens. (The fowl, who normally live in a large cage, enjoy their sojourns in the park.) I offered also to take Demson to the zoo, but she said the park and the chickens would be just fine. People reveal themselves by such decisions, and how they accommodate to bizarre circumstances. Among the most striking images of that morning is Demson, eyes blazingly intense, almost messianic as her dark-blond hair slaps against her neck. She is speaking, eloquently, about the confidence she holds in the future of theater in Los Angeles — all the while sitting on a picnic table, feet almost touching the ground, as my very plump Araucana hen pecks inquisitively at her trousers.
The bird’s soft clucking catches Martha‘s attention for a moment, for she looks down, half-registering the chicken’s existence, before looking back up to resume her discourse. More and more young companies are evolving in L.A., she says. People with theater training who arrived here from other places to work on the stage (in addition to hustling film and TV jobs) are staying longer, companies are maturing, accruing a history, surviving — rather than collapsing from the weight of apathy in the local culture, the struggle to find audiences that always seems to condemn L.A. theater to the purgatory of irrelevance. This resilience, this new phenomenon, is a harbinger, she explains.
An hour or so later, we‘re ambling on a patch of grass, and Demson’s talking about her childhood in Toronto, where she grew up on Shaw, Shakespeare and Gilbert & Sullivan. My intimidatingly fat Barred Plymouth Rock rooster follows quite close by Martha‘s side. I notice the hackle feathers on his neck start to rise — a consequence of either jealousy or his general bad temper — before he lunges at Martha, though halfheartedly; it’s enough to send most people into panic and me to the rescue. But Demson simply brushes him aside with her leg, laughs and continues her story, unfazed.
It‘s hostile out there, in the canyon, in the theater. And Demson obviously faces impediments with innate leadership qualities: bravery, conviction and humor.
Music is the source of Demson’s approach to theater, as a performer and a director. She played flute with the Jerusalem Youth Orchestra during a year in Israel when she was 16 — her professor father had taken a sabbatical year to teach at Hebrew University. It was 1979, at the time of the Camp David Accords. The Sinai was still in the Israelis‘ possession, and they turned it back over. “It was a very optimistic time,” Demson recalls. “It was before the huge explosion of wealth, before cell phones.” Demson also remembers a terrorist shooting that injured her teacher, Hanoch Tel Oren, who strongly urged her to study music at Yale.
She did just that, for a while, before transferring to Yale’s Theater Studies program. “The music of the theater lies in the rhythm of the language and the tempo that you set. I love that the tempo is established by language rather than through some external force. Rhythm is the thing — it‘s a passionate cry for me. I don’t know what directors are doing when they‘re not paying attention to the rhythm, to the dynamics of how tempo builds.”
Soon after Demson came to L.A. in 1986 for a visit and to try her luck in Hollywood, she began studying acting with Sanford Meisner (from the Group Theater), who had relocated from New York City to North Hollywood. She later joined Open Fist Theater, attracted to the company’s staging of works by European playwrights such as Fernando Arrabal and Bertolt Brecht. Now at the theater‘s helm, Demson directs one or two shows a year, though she describes herself as a very “hands on” artistic director. Which may also explain the steadily rising production standards since she’s taken over. The latest example is the theater‘s tender, visceral staging of Caryl Churchill’s Fen, about life in rural Britain — a production, not coincidentally, defined by a marked sensitivity to the musicality of the language.
The rooster lets out a series of husky crows that echo across the canyon walls. The key to the theater‘s survival here, Demson says, lies in the ability to articulate the goals more intelligently, “not just to repeat some sophistry but to really figure out why we’re doing this.” My hen pecks her shoelace, but Demson‘s too deep in thought to notice.
MARTHA DEMSON, artistic director of Open Fist Theater. High points: Flight of the Earls, How To Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients, Fen.