You love the theater, and have always wanted to be involved with it. But to be successful in the field is another matter. Some would call such an ambition a pipe dream — and if your idea of “success” is of the superficial “seeking fame and stardom” variety, then it probably is. On the other hand, if you want to have fun, interact with talented and interesting people, and promote the art form, then there are many paths that you can explore. Theater needs more than actors, writers and directors; it also requires people who don’t always see their names in the lights or in print, such as the set builder, the wardrobe seamstress and designer, the public-relations staff, and the person who takes the tickets at the door. It takes people like the ones you are about to meet.
Pablo Avelar had never given the theater much thought until five years ago, when, while working at a molding store, he noticed that some of his best customers were in set design. Last January, on his way home from work, he passed by the workshop of SetsToGo in Sylmar and made a stop that changed his life.
“I saw them carrying out these big, beautiful things,” he recalls, “and I thought, ‘That’s the kind of stuff I want to do.’”
Avelar introduced himself to Tim Farmer and Mark Henderson, who co-founded Sets-ToGo in 1993. They showed him around the shop, explaining what they did and the kind of work it entailed. Soon after, this eager young man was added to the crew and has been there ever since.
Pablo is thrilled when he receives compliments on specific projects that he’s worked on, such as the intricate ship piece, seen recently in the Geffen Playhouse’s production of Merton of the Movies. “I can foresee him running the shop for us in the next couple of years,” says Henderson. “We were able to teach him from the ground up, and now he’s one of the best set carpenters we’ve ever had.”
Some people drift away from the theater, only to return to it in unexpected ways. Such was the case with Elena Milberg, who, in 1995, graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English literature. She had performed onstage extensively, but felt it wasn’t her true calling. She took a job at a bank, and one day a customer (a script reader for the Mark Taper Forum) told her about the Taper’s internship progam. That conversation was one of discovered possibilities for her. Soon after, she had a meeting with Terry LeMonchek, head of the Taper’s producing-internship program, where they discussed viable career options. One area mentioned, which had never occurred to Milberg, was in the closely related occupations of literary agent and dramaturge, the primary difference between the two being that the former remains with a theater on a permanent basis, while the latter may work only on a particular show. In both fields, one helps analyze and research material to be performed by a company, as well as being the production’s historian. After applying, Milberg soon found herself under the tutelage of L. Kenneth Richardson, the director of Blacksmiths, a program for emerging African-American playwrights. Over a period of eight months, she worked closely with him in a wide range of capacities: as his assistant, narrating staged readings, and serving as a production coordinator.
In July of ’98, Milberg completed the program, and subsequently landed a job at the Geffen Playhouse as a marketing associate, a position that involves audience outreach, working with Stagebill on the construction of programs, and writing programming notes. She feels extremely fortunate to work in a field that she truly loves.
Altruism and love for the arts are the twin forces that motivate Leigh Curran, artistic director and founder of the Virginia Avenue Project. Working as an actress and playwright in New York, she became involved with the 52nd Street Project, a nonprofit outreach program targeting at-risk youth. After several years of active involvement, she got the idea to start a similar program here, and made the move to Los Angeles in May ’91. Soon afterward, she had most of the elements in place.
Curran partnered with the Santa Monica Police Activities League, enabling her to hold workshops at its youth center. She then secured the stage at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica and, after a crash course in fund-raising and grant writing, was ready to put the program in gear. The Virginia Avenue Project came to fruition in April ’92, with its first production of original pieces performed by the kids and written by their mentors from the theater community. Actors Paul Dooley (Breaking Away) and Amy Brenneman (Your Friends & Neighbors) and Winnie Holzman (creator of the television series My So-Called Life) are just some of the people who have devoted their time, love and energy to the proj-ect. All five shows at Highways were sold out, and the project continues to produce 30 new plays a year with the help of 45 to 50 children and nearly as many theater professionals. Curran pairs each child with a volunteer who assists him or her with the project. Kids can enter the program as early as age 6 and can remain through high school. Whenever someone expresses an interest in volunteering, Curran first asks them to do some grunt work for a while: helping with mailings, sitting in on classes and driving children to performances. This way, she weeds out the committed from the curious.
“We like to get kids when they’re little, so then they have experiences other than those that they’ve grown up around,” Curran says intently. “When peer pressure really kicks in, they have alternatives because of the positive experience.”
The project’s success rate is high by any standard. Curran estimates that only about 1 percent drop out, and they currently have five graduates attending college, three of whom are on full scholarships. For the future, this determined former New Yorker envisions the Virginia Avenue Project having its own facility with an area for classrooms and a perform-ance hall. For now, she’s thrilled at developing a new generation of theater lovers.
For more information on careers in the theater:
Volunteer Usher Programs: Tony Peraino at the Geffen Playhouse, (310) 208-6500; Sylvia at Knightsbridge Theater, (626) 440-0894.
Paid Script Reading: Matt Almos at A.S.K. Theater Projects (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org); Literary Department at the Mark Taper Forum, (213) 972-7574.
Internships: Terry LeMonchek at Center Theater Group, (213) 972-7534; Jennifer Moss at A Noise Within, (818) 240-1540.
Set Construction/Design: SetsToGo, (818) 890-7500; Scenic Arts, (818) 767-6568.
Outreach Programs: Leigh Curran at Virginia Avenue Project, (310) 828-7443; Jon White-Spunner at 24th Street Theater, (213) 745-6516.
And last, but not least, call your local theater company — they always need bodies.