Memorable Moments in L.A. Theater

Pasadena Playhouse painting

Editor’s Note: History: First comes the experience, and then the  recording of it. Though theater is an ephemeral art generally, it’s more mercurial in L.A. than in other burgs, since so little of it gets recorded, so much of it is forgotten. This is the first in a two-part series of moments remembered people who either recorded them professionally, or engaged in an activity best described by actress-director Jillian Amenante: “Putting on a play in L.A. is like trying to build a snowman in Florida.” — SLM

A Delicate Balance

BY ROB WEINERT-KENDT, formerly, the editor of Back Stage West, contributor to the Los Angeles Times, currently associate editor at American Theatre Magazine in New York.

There’s a lot of bad theater in Los Angeles — that everyone knows. It is a condition as unchangeable as the weather. That there is also great theater in Los Angeles — truly, as great as anywhere in the world — not everyone seems to know, but it is a well-kept secret I once held dearly and fought, in my way, to uncover and to proclaim from whatever rooftop I could find.

One winter night I recall in either 1994 or ’95 encapsulated the steep range of L.A. theater as I saw it, from dreadful to transcendent, flea-bitten to angel-kissed. I showed up at Hollywood’s most notorious rat-trap, the Complex, to review a revival of Leonard Melfi’s Porno Stars at Home, and found it to be so dispiritingly awful that I decided as I drove home down Santa Monica Boulevard that I wouldn’t even be able to file the negative notice it deserved. Then my spirits lifted as I checked the time and realized I could still make it to the 10:30 performance of Justin Tanner’s Party Mix at the Cast Theater, just a few blocks away on El Centro Blvd. I’d already seen the show as part of the historic eight-play repertory of plays by Tanner – a writer of nimble comedies and L.A.’s one-time answer to Molière. Though Party Mix was arguably the flimsiest of a bunch that included the raucous Pot Mom, the tart Bitter Women, the punchy Zombie Attack, and above all the pitch-perfect Teen Girl, as a palate cleanser Party Mix hit the spot — and for a chaser there was a can or two of cheap beer in the thatched open-air lounge next to the theater.

Indeed, while I relished the extracurricular scenes that formed around such L.A. theaters as the Actors’ Gang, Evidence Room, and Theatre of NOTE, that late-night recourse to the Cast’s Party Mix is the only time in all my theatergoing years that I was able to use a good play to immediately purge the vibes of a bad one. On such delicate balances are my memories of that town, with its harsh and vivid contradictions, ever poised.

Fascism and Its Discontents

BY RON SOSSI, director, producer, founder of Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Adolph Hitler Photo - Stage Raw Los Angeles Theater Reviews

Adolph Hitler

One of the most memorable theatrical moments for me occurred during the Odyssey’s “devised” production entitled The Adolph Hitler Show (1984)

The interactive piece had the audience entering the theater after the intermission to find that a majority of the cast were dressed like Hitler Youth and were singing one of their songs in front of giant film projections of Hitler speaking. One audience member totally lost it and ran up to the platform where the actors were singing and grabbed an actress by the neck and tried to throttle her, and needed to be pulled off.

(Most of the audience thought this was part of the production.)

It was revealed at the end of the show that the “attacker” was actually the KPFK critic! Post-show he requested to chat with the cast in order to apologize and discuss his reaction. Meanwhile, I stood in the doorway of the former Odyssey building where one could see both the stage and the lobby at the same time. As the critic was spilling out his guts about his family’s loss in the Holocaust, a chubby young woman, whom I had seen earlier with a plastic-wrapped book under her arm, had gathered a few listeners in the lobby and was extolling the virtues of Nazism to them, while brandishing Mein Kampf. I observed the two scenes happening simultaneously and thought,  THIS is theater!

Fame and Misfortune in Pasadena:

BY JEANIE HACKETT – actress, director, teacher

Pasadena Playhouse, scene-painters on the stage Photo courtesy of Pasadena Playhouse

Pasadena Playhouse, scene-painters on the stage
Photo courtesy of Pasadena Playhouse

My most memorable moment in LA theater had to be my first, when I came from New York to play Louka in Shaw’s Arms and The Man for the grand re-opening of the Pasadena Playhouse [http://pasadenaplayhouse.org]  in 1986 – finally putting on a play after 17 years of lying dormant. But in absolutely no way were the theater gods with us.

Saturday’s opening night curtain went up over 45 minutes late — thanks to a plethora of pre-show parties and celebrations. 8 p.m. came and went, and another 15 minutes passed, and then a half hour with no call to “places.” We actors bounced off the walls backstage, syphoning off our creative steam scampering around front to gape at the spectacle of the after-party setup: klieg lights, silk tents, an orchestra worthy of the LA Phil (maybe it was the LA Phil), scores of huge potted palm trees (air-lifted in? or have I embellished with the years?), an army of caterers, lookie-loos lining the perimeter, not to mention a chorus line of men and women in police-officer costumes diverting all traffic to the Inland Empire. This pre-fab scenic wonder completely dwarfed anything on our stage. Shaw’s comedy of ideas about love and war paled next to what was happening in the parking lot across the street.

Finally our audience staggered to their seats a little before 9. They found not a moment to their liking. Nor did the critics.

Richard Thomas and John Rubinstein and Carole Shelley and Dylan Baker and Rex Robbins and all the rest of the cast but especially me were — spectacularly! —  less than the hoopla going on around us. At the party after the show, I’m not sure anyone even registered that we, the cast, were actually there. Certainly no one made mention of it. The whole thing was a marvelous excuse for a Hollywood extravaganza — and in this company, Shaw’s Raina and her Chocolate Soldier were clearly extras.

Fame and Fortunate in Pasadena

BY FRENCH STEWART, actor

French Stewart as Bustor Keaton in Stoneface

French Stewart in Stoneface
Photo by Shaela Cook

I’ve always looked at theater as farming. You start with something small and you grow it. You work. You sweat. You grow it. And also there’s a lot of hoe action. Thank you!

I started my farming career in Pasadena when I was 19. I was an usher at The Pasadena Playhouse. I graduated from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts  [http://aada.edu] in Pasadena.  My hero Buster Keaton used to party there. It’s honestly my favorite city. My most meaningful stretch of land.

Sometimes theater is nurtured in an 800-seat gazebo with sizable subsidies. But, more often than not, it’s grown somewhere else. It flowers from a crack in the 99-seat pavement or some black box closet with a grow lamp. In Burbank no less!

My wife (Vanessa Claire Stewart) and I started growing Stoneface, a play she wrote about Buster Keaton, in February of 2010, from our home pavement at east Hollywood’s Sacred Fools Theater — a barn we dearly love, and soil my wife and I had previous luck with. She, with Louis And Keely: Live At The Sahara, which she co-wrote and performed in – it moved on to an eight month run at The Geffen Playhouse; and me, with Jamie Robledo’s Watson https://www.sacredfools.org/mainstage/10/watson/ and Justin Tanner’s Voice Lessons http://www.sacredfools.org/mainstage/11/voicelessons/, both of which are enjoying an extended life.)

Stoneface was a different beast. We worked abnormally hard and fought through a long, hot, summer drought (the Fools’ air con went down). But we did six months total. All in tweed. Stinky, stinky, tweed. With our faithful friends working for free. We also got really banged up physically. A long road to hoe indeed.

Vanessa and I spent the next year trying to shop it to a larger market. Our plan was to keep the charm of our little garden while also seeking a larger grow house.

I’ll turn the tractor around.
Here’s the really lovely thing. The thing I love, anyway.

The central theme to Stoneface is that eventually, you get a break in the weather. And it broke for us. Rain came, in the form of a call from Sheldon Epps and the good people of The Pasadena Playhouse. Lovely gardeners.

That meant everything to us. Best day ever.

Weather changes. How ‘bout them apples?

I’ll stop.

[Stewart will star as Buster Keaton in Stoneface at the Pasadena Playhouse, June 3-29.]

Next week: stories by John Pollono, Cathy Carlton, John Achorn, Sharon Yablon and Rhonda Aldrich