Aug 2, 2010

The L.A./Ashland Pipeline

A large part of what a critic has to offer is the shows he's seen and the artists whose work he's followed. This is especially true of theater critics, who must observe everything they write about at firsthand. For better or worse, the bulk of my theatergoing--the theater that shaped me--has been on the West Coast in general, and Los Angeles in particular. Apart from several catch-up jaunts to London and New York, I spent most of the 1990s and half of the aughts following my affinities and logging precious seat time at L.A.'s best large and small companies: Theatre of NOTE, Circle X, Sacred Fools, Evidence Room, the Matrix, the Fountain, the Taper, Zoo District, the Black Dahlia, the Pasadena Playhouse, Actors' Co-Op, Deaf West, the Colony, the Tiffany, Theater/Theatre, East West Players, Boston Court, Padua Playwrights, Open Fist, Playwrights Arena, Theatre 40, Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, Troubadour Theatre, the Blank, the Groundlings, West Coast Ensemble, the Geffen, the Celebration, the Odyssey, the Shubert, Highways, Pacific Resident Theatre, A Noise Within, Antaeus, the Met, Burglars of Hamm, Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, City Garage, Interact, L.A. Rep and ACE. (I could go on.)

If I had to pick a few that stood out as particularly exemplary or formative, they would be Justin Tanner's repertory company at the Cast Theatre in the mid- to late '90s; the freewheeling salon that was the Evidence Room in its fin-de-siecle heyday; the outsized, experimental creative titans of the Actors' Gang; and the unflinching communitarian ethos of Cornerstone Theater Company.

Over a decade and a half, these companies provided what felt to me like the core of a vibrant theater scene, a full menu of theatrical options, and an irreplaceable education. Most of the best of them, and in particular those last four, demonstrated the timeworn cliche about the best theater arising from repertory ensembles, however loosely defined or ephemeral.

At the same time, as the editor of an actors' trade paper that covered the whole West Coast, I became aware of what some call the "I-5 corridor," a route along which actors willing to commute could find work, and maybe even piece together a theater living, from Seattle Rep to San Diego Rep. I was given to understand that one of the prime destinations along this trail, from a trade perspective if nothing else, was the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where a staff of 70-plus Equity actors are employed for up to 10 months a year, often for years at a time. That sounded to me like an underreported anomaly in a national theater economy where actors are usually the last hired and are invariably jobbed-in.

Well, I came to visit Ashland for the first time in 1998, and it immediately impressed me as more than a mere theater trade story; here was a genuine repertory ensemble doing classics and contemporary work as well as I'd seen anywhere (and yes, I have seen productions by the RSC, the Propeller Theatre, and the new Globe). At Oregon Shakes I would go on see a definitive Othello and Henry IV, Part One, a Tongue of a Bird that was better than the Taper's, an achingly good Trip to Bountiful, a resonant Seven Guitars, a beautiful Night of the Iguana, a lip-smacking Man Who Came To Dinner, a pungent Good Woman of Setzuan, a shattering Trojan Women, a lovely Pericles and a rollicking Troilus and Cressida, a weird and woolly Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?...Again, I could go on. I've also slept through some deadly dull filler (as I've done in L.A. and New York and London), and noted OSF's occasional dearth of convincingly dashing leads and dewy ingenues, a deficiency that to me has been more than compensated for by the company's great store of clowns, oddballs, seasoned souls, and unique characters.

Shuttling back and forth between L.A.'s financially poor and under-recognized theaters and Ashland's embarrassment of riches, I started thinking: What if some of the great talents of L.A. could score gigs in Ashland? It happened with Armando Duran, whom I'd seen in some Padua plays and who's now a fixture at OSF; the costumer Alex Jaeger was also no stranger in both towns. When the Actors' Gang's resident genius of the '90s, Tracy Young (who if she had lived in any other town might have had a career like Moises Kaufman's or Mary Zimmerman's) staged a piece called Four Roses, with four of her most salient muses enacting various Tennessee Williams heroines, it was clear: These great L.A. actors could do anything, but who would give them the chance? I wanted someone to create full productions around Evie Peck's Laura, Cynthia Ettinger's Maggie the Cat, Patti Tippo's Blanche, and above Kate Mulligan's Alma. But who in L.A. even knew how world-beating these actors were, let alone anywhere else on that semi-mythical I-5 corridor?

Bill Rauch, Cornerstone's A.D., had already noticed an affinity with the Actors' Gang's ensemble ethic, and in 1998 had co-directed with Young the deeply odd and greatly rewarding Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, in which three tales of royalty, marriage, and destiny played out simultaneously on the same stage; Cornerstone's and the Gang's actors worked together beautifully as a kind of tag-team rep company. So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised (though I was, a bit) when Bill started getting hired to direct shows at Oregon Shakes--Robert Schenkkan's searing Handler and a couple Shakespeares--and now, as the festival's new artistic director, that he's brought with him some of the great theater artists from the criminally under-sung L.A. scene I knew so well. Starting with his husband, the frigteningly talented actor/director Christopher Liam Moore, and two of Cornerstone's stalwarts, designer Christopher Acebo and lit manager Alison Carey, Bill has lured Tracy Young to direct at his new digs, and both Art Manke (formerly of A Noise Within) and Ken Roht (of Evidence Room, among other places) to choreograph, and he has not only the incomparable Kate Mulligan but also her husband, inveterate Actors' Gangster Brent Hinkley, living and working in Ashland.

Possibly most groundbreaking, Rauch and Carey's first commission in the ambitious 10-year, 37-play "American history cycle," is American Night, a new work not only created by the L.A.-based Chicano comedy trio Culture Clash but starring two of them--more or less the first case in the festival's history that its tightly knit ensemble has "star" interlopers. But if you're going to have any stars disrupt the complicated repertory machine that is Oregon Shakes, it's hard to think of anyone who disrupts decorum better, or more pointedly, than Culture Clash, a troupe I first saw perform at Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1991 and first interviewed a year later.

Among other achievements in the years since, Culture Clash helped close out Gordon Davidson's last Taper season with Chavez Ravine, a meditation/hallucination on the seeming transitory nature of L.A. history--"seeming" being the key word, since even that benighted town has roots worth recognizing and honoring, including its theater scene. I like to think that Rauch and co. are doing that, too--that along with the many other ways in which he has diversified and stepped up the game at Oregon Shakes, and alongside the many roots and traditions the festival now embraces under his leadership, some of the gems of the Los Angeles theater scene I witnessed, and bore witness to, shine on.

I'm in Ashland now, in fact, and I'll be blogging throughout the week as I take in the shows and the town, which I haven't visited since 2003.

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