A switch flicks and spotlights softly bathe South Coast Rep's studio theater stage during a tech run-through. Jesse Bonnell stands up, shaking his head. “It feels too much like theater,” he says. An adjustment is made, and suddenly light floods every secret nook of the stage area.
Poor Dog Group, made up of 11 CalArts grads who have been working together for almost 10 years, doesn't really play by the standard rules of theater. There is no backstage, for one thing. The troupe will set up shop wherever it's invited. Once, the actors stopped in the middle of a show and started journaling about how they thought it was going so far — and then they asked the audience to do the same. Their work is challenging, fascinating, frustrating.
Right now, Poor Dog is in the thick of rehearsals for a remounting of its 2009 space race–inspired show The Internationalists for South Coast Rep's experimental Studio SCR series in Costa Mesa. Rehearsals run from 4 to 11 p.m.; to avoid traffic, members have been leaving L.A. around 1:30 p.m. Most of them have day jobs, and “Some of us are getting fired right now,” one says, only half-joking.
As with all Poor Dog shows, the script of The Internationalists has been constantly evolving in the three years since the troupe first performed it, and pages lie crumpled on the dressing room table. Initially Bonnell writes the script. And then? “Show up,” Jonney Ahmanson says. “Try to survive,” chimes in Brad Culver. As comfortable as siblings with each other, the actors have created their own shorthand as they play, investigate and develop the script during rehearsals. There are no rules, except ones specific to the show. For instance, during Naps and Arguments, performed at the Standard Hotel, they mandated that each actor must actually go to sleep if he took a nap.
As animated as they all are, there's a low-grade exhaustion present. Ahmanson says, “We're hitting a point where we're all having to think about the rest of our lives.”
They pay themselves $150 per week for these two weeks — making the storm of controversy that hit the company last year seem all the more ludicrous. When the group was awarded a $12,000 grant, in part from L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs, to work with an experimental theater collective in the Netherlands, a government watchdog, Walter Moore, claimed the city's taxpayers were sending performance artists on a “vacation.” He called Fox News, which reported on it during its evening newscast. As it turned out, less than half of the grant money came from the city, and then only from the 7 percent tourist occupancy taxes. (See our accompanying story on Poor Dog's travels.)
Poor Dog flipped the negative attention into an opportunity to discuss the country's de-prioritizing of the arts. The troupe held “Soapbox Sessions” after performances of its adaptation of Gertrude Stein's Brewsie and Willie, which was staged in a loft on the edge of Skid Row in order to explore issues of class in America.
The public fight seems to have further sharpened the group's teeth. One of its goals is to raise enough money to rent a warehouse space so that all members can live, eat and sleep there for a month this summer, to create a new project. “I think we're on the brink of something,” John Kern says. “ 'Cause [our work] is not romantic. It's getting more vicious.”
The better to bite us with. —Rebecca Haithcoat