Theater is ephemeral. No matter how transformative or transcendent or thrillingly hair-raising a particular production might be, unlike a TV show or a movie or a YouTube clip, once the final curtain has been rung down on a live performance, nothing remains but a program, a few faded production stills and perhaps a handful of wistful memories.
You simply had to be there. Well, almost.
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Moving Arts Theatre is giving Los Angeles stage audiences the unique opportunity to experience 20 original plays that the company produced as world premieres over the past two decades. Called 20/20 Vision: Selected Plays, the ambitious retrospective season launched two weeks ago with director (and the season's artistic producer) Sara Wagner's highly praised revival of The Size of Pike, first produced by the Silver Lake-based company in 1996.
Written by Moving Arts' Founding Artistic Director Lee Wochner, Pike is merely the first of 20/20's ambitious slate of 15 full productions — both onstage and in various site-specific shows around town — and five fully rehearsed and directed staged readings that have been selected by Wagner as a one-of-a-kind, season-length portrait of the company's remarkable artistic legacy.
L.A. Weekly recently sat down with Wagner and Wochner, who spoke about the ambitions behind both 20/20 and the company that the season represents.
Wagner explains that the notion of some day doing an anniversary season of all revivals was first floated by Moving Arts committee member Jenny Gillett. Wagner, who had only recently joined the company in 2009 after following her boyfriend, the playwright Terence Anthony, from New York to L.A., stepped forward with a proposal to refine the idea into what became 20/20. Key to Wagner's conception was that the shows be “new productions, not legacy remountings of the original shows.” In fact, the only genuine remount planned with an actual “reunion” cast from the original production will be presented as a staged reading.
The proposal won Wagner the not-so-enviable position of “season artistic producer.” Along with the title came the Herculean task of gathering and reading the actual scripts from every show ever produced by one of the city's more prolific theater companies.
Or, as Wochner puts it, “We relentlessly produce. I mean, we're really a place to launch artists.” What that meant for Wagner was the task of excavating 177 texts and then pouring through them, often in impromptu, backyard table readings with other company members or the odd friend. The archive included both renowned watershed productions of first works by playwrights like John Belusso or Sheila Callaghan or EM Lewis as well as pieces by lesser-known or all-but-forgotten writers that were somehow overlooked by critics or ignored by audiences.
What 20/20 is not, Wagner promises, is some kind of greatest-hits anthology. “I wanted plays that I was compelled to see produced,” she explains. “I freed myself from any kind of, 'Oh, there needs to be a show from each year. Oh, we need to revisit the big hits.' I felt duty-bound to read every script that I could get my hands on, and to consider them all equally on their own merits. And that's what I did.”
Consequently, for anybody even remotely familiar with the Moving Arts' corpus, 20/20 may be more remarkable for what's not included than what is. The most obvious omission is The Car Plays, the company's universally acclaimed festival calling-card production of short-short playlets staged inside actual cars parked in a parking lot. That show, which is produced by former artistic director Paul Stein and was featured at the first RADAR-L.A. Festival two years ago, will have a coincidental Southern California staging at La Jolla Playhouse's Without Walls Festival in the fall.
If The Car Plays didn't make Wagner's final cut, its audience-immersive spirit did. Wagner explains that as she read the texts, certain shared production themes began to suggest a more specific artistic basis for inclusion. “It became about the idea of immersing — you know, each show becoming an immersive, shared experience with the audience. And then, what are the categories that might emerge? And that's when the [site-specific] one-acts came in.”
The bulk of 20/20 will consist of a sub-festival of one-act plays staged in spaces around the city, either at site-specific, outdoor locations and raw indoor spaces or in actual living rooms. The non-traditional spaces will, Wagner believes, charge the shows with the additional excitement of a unique art event, and will be thematically relevant to the texts. “[The one-acts] are all asking people to leave a familiar environment, she says. They take you into an abstract emotional and intellectual space, so I thought, 'Well why not put [the show] in an abstract physical space?'”
Other productions will get more traditional stagings, including Pike, which is currently running at the company's Hyperion Station workshop studio space in Silver Lake, and the upcoming Hollywood Fringe Festival revival of Trey Nichol's 1995 Fathers at a Game at Hollywood's Complex.
Wochner, for one, couldn't be more delighted with Wagner's selections — not the least for the second chance it gives several of his personal favorites that were beloved by the company and even the critics when originally produced but that were inexplicably ignored by audiences. In that sense, at least, Wochner believes that 20/20 Vision is not about looking back at past plays. It is, he insists, “a chance to bring them forward and reintroduce people to them.”
At the top of his list is Michael Moss' Two Men Losing Their Minds, which was originally staged by the company in 2000, when it had just begun its residency at LATC.
“It haunts me. I mean, it really does,” Wocher says. “The L.A. Times, L.A. Weekly made us pick of the week. We won some L.A. Weekly Awards for it later. And so I ask myself to this day, 'Did we market and promote the play correctly?' And probably not. It is not an AIDS play, but it's a play about two men who are dying of AIDS. And what we heard from people was, 'I can't see any more AIDS plays; I can't hear about AIDS.' And I was, like, 'It's not an AIDS play. It's a beautiful, moving, funny play about being alive and knowing you're not going to be, and how we're connected to each, and please come see it.'”
Now, he adds, “we get another shot. Now I don't have to be haunted anymore by, 'Did I serve that play?' And it's never gotten another production, [but] now we can do a second production.”
The Size of Pike runs through June 15. 20/20 Vision will continue with Trey Nichol's Fathers at a Game, which begins previews on June 8.