It’s 3:00 pm on a Saturday and I’m sitting in a loft of a church that’s been converted into a theatre. The space holds seating for 27 audience members, and the seats I’m sitting in were installed in their current configuration by my husband (with the help of a crew of actors). It’s warm and since there is no air conditioning in the loft/theatre, the windows are open. We have to be mindful of the neighbors to the west; if we get too loud, we’ll have to shut those windows. It’s May in North Hollywood, so the temperature is only in the low 90s. We won’t be performing in this space this time—we’ll be taking this production to the Hollywood Fringe Festival to a larger (88 seats!) theatre, with air conditioning. We’ll have one two-hour technical rehearsal in that space. The space we are rehearsing in is sublet from September through June from the theatre company downstairs, who rents from the church. They specialize in musicals, so when they leave their doors open, strains of Sondheim float up to us.
But they have AC, so their doors are shut. There will be no serenade this afternoon. I’m directing this time. We’re working on a new play. It’s based on Schnitzler’s La Ronde, and it’s called Sleeping Around, a name given to it by the current producing company (Theatre Unleashed) with the blessing of the playwright. The playwright is the best friend of one of the actresses cast in the show. There’s no “favors” at work here—the script (and the actress) are solid. The Artistic Director (also cast in the show) was thrilled to be able to get the script, the playwright was thrilled to get his work produced. Everybody is thrilled.
Before me are two actors in their twenties. I am not in my twenties. We’re working a scene that involves a break up—so we’re exploring betrayal, misunderstanding, the pain of losing the fairy tale, the pain of taking some one’s fairy tale, the irrationality of love. To help my actors grasp a particular moment, I describe something from my own past, something personal, private—and for a moment, I’m twenty-something again, confused and in anguish. Could I have imagined then that all these years later I would be sitting in a small theatre in Los Angeles exploiting my youthful heartache? I am caught in time—past and present exist simultaneously in my mind.
And then I’m back. Back in the small, hot theatre with two actors looking at me with the gracious impatience the young afford the nostalgia of their elders. (When exactly did I become an elder?)
But this is what we do. We theatre artists. We playwrights, directors, actors—we pick apart our past, mine it for the true things of our human experience, repackage those discoveries and tell new stories with the bric-a-brac we’ve collected. Sometimes we clothe our truths so they are unrecognizable as biography, and sometimes we toss them to the world almost naked.
This is why we keep coming back to classic plays like Romeo & Juliet. Almost everyone remembers the excitement, the passion of young love. While the text of Romeo & Juliet remains constant, I change my aspect to it every time I see it. As a teenager, Romeo & Juliet was romantic, as an adult, it is nostalgic. And maybe a bit silly. But I become a time traveler into my own past, remembering what it was to be so young and so certain of love. I know my experience, though uniquely mine, was also shared by a man who lived 400 years ago, and also shared by everyone else who has had the fortune to see his play. I am still unique, yet I am not alone.
The play I am working on now in no way resembles Romeo & Juliet. It is urban, contemporary, full of slang, at times crass, and uses current cultural signifiers to explore a range of relationships. (I suppose an argument could be made that when Romeo & Juliet was first produced, much of the above could have been said about it as well.) But, like all good plays, this new work sinks its teeth into human experiences we recognize.
A few days ago, I found out that the play I directed last year, Friends Like These, is getting published. This work was developed entirely in small spaces, and I am so proud to have been a part of its development. My own plays have been going through the development process with the assistance of the intimate theatres. Our stories might be modern, or they might be hundreds of years old, but all over Los Angeles, they are all created by the magic of the true things contributed by the artists that work on them.
At this time in the midst of the 99-Seat Waiver Wars many of us working in the intimate spaces in Los Angeles theatre search our souls to explain why it is so critical for us to keep going, to continue to create work when we can’t get paid, can’t possibly make a living. There are rational arguments in support of the LA small theatre scene, and better minds than mine have made them. You can read about them at the Ilove99.org website.
Like love though, the answer is sometimes irrational: We are theatre artists. We make theatre. This is what we do.
Info for Sleeping Around: