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Not too close for company
For 20 years, familiarity has bred respect for the close-knit ensemble that is Venice's Pacific Resident Theatre.
By Rob Kendt, Special to The Times
Actors mean something very particular when they talk about "company." They're not referring to a job, though regular employment is one aspect of ensembles often invoked by ambitious theater artists — American Conservatory Theater, Steppenwolf, the Royal Shakespeare Company, South Coast Repertory.
They're not referring to a particular organizational structure, especially not in Los Angeles, where actor-driven membership companies range from dues-paying, consensus-based democracies to traditional top-down hierarchies.
The Venice-based Pacific Resident Theatre, which celebrates its 20th year next month, has built its long run on a number of distinctive assets, but none has been as central as its commitment to company. Its programming is eclectic and distinctive, from seldom-revived early 20th century European plays to contemporary and classic American works.
And it has a reputation for adventurous, transporting stagecraft, both in unlikely locations (the former Helms Bakery building in Culver City) and in PRT's current jewel-box 99-seat theater, a former convenience store on Venice Boulevard with two smaller, black-box spaces.
But the fuel that fires PRT's best work, from the sexual heat between its romantic leads to the unfakeable, lived-in intensity of its ensemble work, is more than simply a case of astute casting.
"When people know each other, when they are united by a particular philosophy or vision, I think there's something that happens, a chemistry," says Stephanie Shroyer, who served as artistic director from 1989 to 1995 and remains an associate member. "What we see as an audience is the fruits of that way of working."
On the other hand, according to Mel Shapiro, a UCLA theater professor who guest-directed PRT's 2002 production of Charles L. Mee Jr.'s "Big Love," such closeness can generate some unwanted baggage.
"I normally don't like companies," says Shapiro, who describes his early experiences at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage and Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater as decidedly mixed. "They can get very inbred and petty and stupid and become mechanical in their choices; it all gets to be like summer stock."
Given these preconceptions, he was pleasantly surprised by his experience with "Big Love," Mee's adaptation of Aeschylus' "The Suppliant Women," which he cast entirely with PRT members. The proof, as Shapiro found, was in the playing.
"I loved coming back to the performance and watching how it grew," he recalls. "They got better and better."
Maintaining the company's cohesion and its heat-seeking eye for talent is its tireless artistic director, Marilyn Fox, who's run PRT since 1995, after joining it in 1986. Fox runs the company, by most accounts, with gracious but exacting intentness.
"I don't think she's ever said to a director, 'This isn't working, I'm going to step in,' " says Robert Jacobs, an actor who joined in 1987 and now serves as the board president. "But she's always been very upfront with everybody in saying, 'This is my sandbox, and I want to make sure everybody plays safely and doesn't get hurt, and we're here to build the best sandcastle we can.' "
For her part, Fox says she thinks of herself as an "average" theatergoer when she's assessing the company's main stage productions. "One of the main things I think about as an artistic director," she says, "is the responsibility of the theater to put forth something that has the right to ask people to cross the city to see it."
Finding artistic balance
The company's original impulses were more actor- than audience-driven. The founders of what was first called Pacific Theatre Ensemble were part of a West Coast regional theater diaspora that spilled down the coast as such repertory powerhouses as San Francisco's ACT and Solvang's Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts began to pare their resident companies.
This dispersal partly fed the founding of such Southland companies as A Noise Within and the Antaeus Company. Each has improvised its own solution to the quandary of maintaining an ensemble ethos within, or in spite of, L.A.'s nonremunerative Equity 99-Seat Plan. The scrappy PRT has been no exception.
"We had all come out of what was at that time a very vibrant regional theater scene, and we had every reason to believe that's the way it was going to be," recalls Julia Fletcher, the troupe's original artistic director and director of its inaugural 1985 production of "Happy End." She was among a few dozen actors who began to meet regularly in the Silver Lake living room of Mark Hurty and Bud Leslie just "to keep our minds in the right place," Fletcher recalls, and to read plays together. "It was just sort of an extension of what we all wanted to do."
Recalls former member Geoff Elliott, who later co-founded A Noise Within, "There was a very exciting energy to the group. The whole mission was to provide a place where artists could go and not deal with the commercial side of the business."
When talks of starting a producing company began in earnest, the economic realities of producing theater in Los Angeles — including renting a space and paying an artistic staff — caused their share of growing pains. Under Shroyer's leadership, the company solidified its structure and scoped out a permanent home.
By the early 1990s the company was hewing close to its namesake ocean. After adding "resident" to its name when the cinema chain Pacific Theatres complained of consumer confusion, PRT became the Venice mainstay it is today. The company, which now numbers 100, recently made a bid to take its second-stage productions to Culver City's Ivy Substation but lost out to the Actors' Gang. "It could have been more problematic than good for us," Fox says. "I like being in Venice."
Indeed, the single location on a tree-lined block on Venice Boulevard has only bolstered the company's cohesion.
PRT has two distinct wings: one a democratic haven for actor-generated, invitation-only workshops in a 35-seat "co-op" space, the other the artistic director-run producing wing, for which Fox handpicks plays in collaboration with a stable of like-minded directors. Currently running on the main stage is Daisy Foote's "When They Speak of Rita."
Subscribers, who are guaranteed a number of shows (four) rather than a list of titles, have clambered aboard for this often bumpy ride. According to Fox, PRT's subscription base has grown in the last decade from about 100 to close to 2,000. Says Gar Campbell, a founding member of L.A.'s avant-garde Company Theatre and Fox's life partner, "Mostly our audience is a little bit older; they've seen theater all over the world, and they get it. They're willing to take the downs, 'cause they're nowhere near as low as the ups are high."
Fox admits that her tastes run to "the deeply romantic, sexual, soul-wrenching-type plays." Says her colleague and sometime mentor Ron Sossi, who runs the Odyssey Theatre, "Marilyn likes fairy tales." But she programs other kinds of plays because, as she puts it, "I like to have some vegetables with my steak."
The company's long-term success, though, doesn't stand or fall on one person's taste.
"I believe the reason the theater has lasted is that the objective has always been to put forth what is literate, human and inspiring in some way, rather than that it's an actors' club for people who want to perform," Fox says. "It was always a group of actors who wanted to continue grappling with minds greater than their own."
And, she might add, grappling with one another.
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