L.A.’s actor-driven ensembles are the mainstay of local theatrical activity — 150 to 200 of them at any given time. Some have been here for decades (Company of Angels, Pacific Resident Theatre, Theatre of NOTE, Actors’ Gang and Lonny Chapman’s Group Repertory Theatre, just for starters). They come; they go. Why they go isn’t hard to imagine, with theater’s infamous poverty and the apathetic malaise that often lies just beyond a theater’s walls, but why do they keep coming? A brief glimpse at a new troupe on the scene shows that the motives for forming a company in the early ’00s are much the same as they ever were.

Bob Rusch and some friends from Chicago formed Sky Pilot Theatre in 2005, after Rusch had been out here five years. In the Windy City, Rusch worked with a company called Trap Door Theater, known for its experimental shows. Rusch says he was also in Steppenwolf Theater’s first-ever ensemble project, a training program for which he was one of 15 selected from more than 500 applicants. After five years in Chicago, however, Rusch was more interested in klieg lights than stage lights.

“I always knew I was going to L.A.,” he explains, adding that he was smacked hard with our fair burg’s infamous disorientation and loneliness.

“I didn’t know anybody, except for a couple of friends,” he says. “It took me about five years to get going, to find an agent, to meet people. In 2004, I was tired of going to classes and doing scenes. I missed acting, the full performance, the journey with the character, the background work.”

Somebody suggested that Rusch do a scene from Rick Cleveland’s Jerry and Tom in a 2004 production that Rusch reluctantly admits was an Industry showcase, partly funded by a couple of filmmaker friends willing to help Rusch move his career forward. Rusch’s roommate at the time, Eric Johnson, played Tom, and Rusch played Jerry. Dave Florek, a local actor, directed.

However, the showcase turned into something much deeper when the process of researching and creating a role with continuity reminded both performers how much richer acting for the theater can be compared with classroom scenes, or the kinds of out-of-sequence short takes that are the staples of film and TV acting.

Then, in late 2005, Rusch started playing poker online. “I won a substantial amount of money,” he says, which naturally opened new possibilities for how he wanted to spend his time in L.A. Memories of what he’d left behind in Chicago were rekindled. “I figured I would start a theater company,” Rusch explains.

His Sky Pilot Theatre Company is named after a song by the Animals. (A “sky pilot” is a military chaplain.)

There are eight members, including designers and a producer. “I saw when Trap Door brought in too many actors, it got too cumbersome when there weren’t enough roles,” Rusch says.

Since Jerry and Tom, Sky Pilot has staged three more shows with a decidedly Chicago bent — David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Will Kern’s Hellcab (about the travails of a Chicago cabby) and a new play, Rocket Men, Clyde Hayes’ Mamet-influenced dark comedy about a group of hapless con men.

“I don’t think any of us went into this to be rich and famous,” Rusch says, explaining his theater’s mission. “We all love to play. The inner child wants to go back to that, to do something just a little more pure — not to be artsy-fartsy about this — but to pay tribute to what I’ve seen in the past. I never felt a part of this community. I always felt trapped here. This last year, I really enjoyed living here because of the theater company. It gave me a deeper reason to be out here. I’m realizing that the group of people I have working with me all have those reasons.”

For more information, visit www.myspace.com/skypilottheatre.

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LA Weekly