Playing in the Big House
Moving Stoneface from Sacred Fools’s Storefront Theater to the Pasadena Playhouse
By Jaime Robledo
Editor’s Note: Vanessa Claire Stewart’s biographical drama about Buster Keaton, Stoneface, premiered in east Hollywood at the 99-Seat Sacred Fools Theater on May 25, 2012. That production was widely heralded critically and enjoyed an extended run. Though he didn’t see the Sacred Fools production, Pasadena Playhouse’s artistic director Sheldon Epps read the script and chose to stage the play with the same director at his mid-size union theater – a rare step “up” for a local production initially presented in an intimate venue. Epps also approved using the same leading actor, French Stewart, and many of Sacred Fools’ acting ensemble. The Pasadena version, however, did add musical theater star Daisy Eagan.
In his first-person account, the show’s director, Jaime Robledo, describes the excitement and challenges of moving “uptown.”—SLM
It’s a hell of a thing knowing something’s your “big break.” It’s equal parts exciting and terrifying: exciting because it’s ultimately the result of your hard work plus the strange alchemy of timing and good fortune; terrifying because, well, now that you have this opportunity, you have to actually do something with it. Huzzah and Holy Shit!
The first iteration of the Buster Keaton bioplay Stoneface was a freak of nature. The reviews, the sold out houses, and the extraordinary reaction of audiences to the play were more gratifying than I – or anyone else involved in the production – could have imagined. 99-seat theater is tough, often thankless work. Getting a play opened is no small feat. Getting a consistent audience is a tiny miracle. Gaining critical acclaim at the same time is equally astonishing. Then, moving to a big theater in a town that typically imports its shows to those larger houses is damn near impossible. None of this was supposed to happen . . .
We could have been satisfied with the journey of the original Sacred Fools run from open to close, with the L.A. Weekly Awards accolades as the cherry on top. But we got a tap on the shoulder from L.A. theater superhero Sheldon Epps [Pasadena Playhouse’s Artistic Director]. Apparently we weren’t nearly done because Sheldon saw the promise of a grander vision in this little-play-that-could on the historic Pasadena Playhouse stage – a theater that first opened when silent movie star Buster Keaton was making Go West less than a few miles away. Our band of clowns couldn’t have asked for a better new home.
For the past few weeks, we’ve relocated into that home; literally moving on up to a city north east of Sacred Fools’ Hollywood home, and settling onto a stage that’s three times as deep and almost twice as wide as our previous one. The audience for any week of the run could exceed the numbers of the entire Sacred Fools run. It’s an immense undertaking. Budgets are bigger and you hear people say “yes” a whole lot more when compared to the often-restrictive environs of small theater. Luxuries such as “fly tower space” and “union staffed scenery workshops” are at your disposal. (I haven’t had a fly space to work with since college.) And a large organization that draws national attention has your art in its hands. It’s thrilling.
Still, despite all the fancy trappings and comforts, [playwright] Vanessa Claire Stewart, the cast, and I are worked hard to translate the show to a wider audience and the dauntingly cavernous stage. Everything was scaled up; the projections, the stunt work.
The sets and costumes are bigger and better. We’ve all had two years of living since our last performance at Sacred Fools, and those experiences have found their way into the artistic choices we’ve made. We’ve delved deeper into the characters and made some additions to the script to provide depth and clarity. At the same time, we’re keeping the heart of the show intact. The moments most cherished by audiences at Sacred Fools are still there and the soul of the piece. Our leading man, French Stewart, never wavers or falters. We’ve also added the brilliant Daisy Eagan to the thoroughbreds already in our stable.
In the end though, it’s just a matter of decimal points. The work is the work, no matter the budget. The spirit of invention is the same and we approach the work with the same ethic that we had as when we originally created Stoneface.
For many of us, the Pasadena version of Stoneface is a huge step up; for others it’s a return to the type of stages they are accustomed to. Either way, we’re all riding this General together. What French hoped for when he imagined he would play Buster Keaton one day, what Vanessa imagined as she typed away on her laptop, what I dreamed up as I watched countless Buster Keaton movies on Turner Classic Movies have all lead to this point. We’re making something truly special that is hopefully deserving of Keaton’s legacy and an example that the greatest ideas can come from the most humble beginnings. It’s our “big break” but, in a way, it feels like we’ve been here before.
Jaime Robledo is an award-winning director and playwright. Stoneface continues at the Pasadena Playhouse through June 29.