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July 24, 2005 E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed


Drop its avant-garde? Never

*Galvanized by its directors' vision, City Garage offers a daring alternative to the mass entertainment around it.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times)

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By Rob Kendt, Special to The Times

The set is built before rehearsals begin. The actors, cast in roles demarcated merely by numbers, arrive knowing all of their text but none of their blocking.

The director, a leggy Frenchwoman of unsmiling intensity who has banned the words "improvisation," "motivation" and "cute," takes up her perch in the center of the 48-seat house and begins to run performers through a precise choreography of movement and gesture, sometimes at stop-motion speeds. She gives direction; she doesn't give praise.

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So begins work on another typical production at City Garage, a small, almost cultishly dedicated avant-garde theater company tucked in an alley off Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, where the occasional Ionesco (last year's "The Lesson") represents the most conservative programming.

More characteristic is the troupe's currently running "Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream," an aggressively stylized stage adaptation of Kathy Acker's vast novel about sex, power and identity; or 2000's "MedeaText: Los Angeles/Despoiled Shore," a melding of Heiner Müller's deconstruction of the Greek tragedy with original material about environmental collapse closer to home.

The new text in that case was provided by City Garage managing director, resident designer and sometime playwright Charles A. Duncombe. The "Don Quixote" adaptation is the work of artistic director Frederique Michel, the aforementioned Frenchwoman, who directs all of the company's productions with a famous iron fist, and who doesn't reject the term "micro-managed."

"I think I'm very fair, but I'm very demanding," concedes Michel, who has run the company with Duncombe, her husband, since they met in the late 1980s on a local production of "Miss Julie"; the company moved into its current space, a former garage for Santa Monica police and city officials, in 1995. "I choreograph every move. It's really like an orchestration."

"She creates the physical framework of the performance," Duncombe chimes in. "Once that has been completely physicalized, then the actors do their own work to supply the character that fits the frame. It's the opposite of what American-trained actors for the most part are used to."

Paul M. Rubenstein, a frequent performer and the company's general manager, agrees. "It feels backward to a lot of actors who are trained in a more internal, inward-looking sort of technique."

Company member Justin Davanzo, who in "Don Quixote" plays the roles of a talking dog and the 18th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, says he prefers this approach. "I've always been a very physical actor; I come from the physical side first. Then once I've mastered the movement, I don't have to think about it."

Not that it's a cakewalk: "Frederique works down to between a line: If the line is, 'I went to the store,' she'll say, 'Between "the" and "store," turn to the left, take three steps.' At first it's so frustrating, trying to grasp what she wants. She holds us to an extraordinarily high standard."

Paring the ensemble

The standards have only gotten higher in recent years, as Michel and Duncombe pared the acting company down from more than 50 dues-paying members to a core of a dozen or so committed ensemble members who don't pay dues, except the artistic kind. They had heard the refrain about their work for too long: that their admirable ambitions often exceeded their grasp, that the often "youthful" actors weren't up to the challenges of the material.

Michel cites L.A. Weekly theater editor Steven Leigh Morris as a key advocate. "We sat down with him and had long talks," she says. "He is the one who really made me shake out the company, because he told us, 'You guys do great work, but the problem is, most of the time the acting is not terrific enough for what you guys are trying to do.' I completely agreed, and we decided, OK, shake everything, throw out everybody."

"I was just sort of blathering, but they took me at my word," says Morris, who in 2003 singled out City Garage in the Weekly's "Best of L.A." but even then rapped them for their "hit-and-miss" productions. "Even when they don't succeed, they keep coming back at it. There's a singleness of purpose there that I find hopeful."

The commitment is bearing fruit: In 2004, New York's avant-garde Castillo Theatre bestowed an award for political theater, which found City Garage honored alongside such theatrical luminaries as Charles L. Mee Jr. and Robert Wilson.

For Diane Stiles, Castillo's managing director, City Garage's national reputation rests partly on an anomaly. "I'm tickled that they do such experimental work in Los Angeles," she says. "Here you can't walk a block without someone doing avant-garde theater in a shoebox. But to have it going on in the middle of Hollywood — there's something very charming about that."

Duncombe says the company relishes this contrast.

"People say to us, 'Theater does not really matter that much in Los Angeles. Why don't you go to New York,' or wherever supposedly serious theater is being done." But making theater in the backyard of Hollywood, where global mass culture is produced, feels more "challenging and alive," Duncombe says. "Ours may be a small voice, but it's a vital voice."

Audiences and funders seem to agree: City Garage meets its $100,000 annual budget with grants from the city of Santa Monica, Los Angeles County and the Wells Fargo Foundation. Its box office, like that of most small L.A. companies, is relatively meager and unpredictable, though the company has a regular local following for its Sunday pay-what-you-can matinees, and it has connected with adventurous theatergoers.

"We don't always understand it, but we're always surprised," says Clyde Goddard, a retired aerospace engineer in Redondo Beach, who with his wife, Kathy, has made every City Garage opening night since Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Blood on the Cat's Neck" in 1996.

For longtime company members — those who survived the purge, that is — the place is more than an artistic haven from the film and television industry. It's become an alternative calling.

"If you become possessed by the work that we're doing, other stuff becomes kind of meaningless and hollow," says Stephen Pocock, who's been with the company since 1997 and who works during the day in film production. "I just lost interest in going to these auditions to be in something I thought was nauseating, and to sit in a room with thousands of people who look like me. I like physical stuff, difficult texts, I like sorting it all out. To walk into a room and say, 'Jane, we need to talk' is not for me."

A general contractor by day, Davanzo has similarly shed his early aspirations to acting fame and fortune. "The people at City Garage are there because it speaks to us to be there, and for no other reason," he says. "We're there to create and do dangerous things and not really care what the norm is."

The sense of experimental zeal starts at the top.

"It's a very personal theater — we never rent to anybody, or do co-productions," Michel says. "As a director, there's nothing which stops me to try things."

Indeed, City Garage's auteurist single-mindedness, particularly as applied to its original works and adaptations, is unique in Los Angeles theater, perhaps in the country. The closest analogy might be to Richard Foreman's New York-based Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, which has developed a distinctive aesthetic around its leader's singular vision.

Generously funded European theater companies provide more examples of this artist-driven model. This is no coincidence: While City Garage has done its share of American and English writers — including work by such living playwrights as Caryl Churchill, Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard and Jacqueline Reingold — it is best known for introducing or adapting authors from continental and Eastern Europe, from Tadeusz Rozewicz to Marguerite Duras.

A crucial lesson

A sense of cultural distance — what Duncombe calls Michel's "expatriate's view of America" — not only creates much of the frisson onstage. It can also engender its share of backstage drama.

"We were having such a problem with a rehearsal," recalls longtime member Liz Pocock. The opening night audience was on its way for the company's production of Simone de Beauvoir's "Sweet Madness," and there was a scene "we were just not getting," she says. "I said to Frederique, 'Can't you just tell us that you know we can do it?' And she said, 'No, I can't tell you that, because you're not.' Then I realized it was a language thing; she thought I wanted her to say we had done it, when we hadn't."

Though Pocock and the company broke through with what she remembers as "a transcendental performance — we did do it," the conflict taught her a crucial lesson: "I realized that Frederique is not going to be a mommy or my No. 1 fan, that she would always be the person who just keeps demanding more."

Like the loyal audiences and company members who regularly return to the experimental hothouse that is City Garage, Pocock is up for the challenge.

'Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream'

Where: City Garage, 1340 1/2 4th St. (alley), Santa Monica

When: Reopens Aug. 5. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5:30 p.m. Sundays.

Ends: Aug. 28

Price: $20

Contact: (310) 319-9939

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