BACK STAGE WEST
May 23, 2002
Tracy Young and
Chris Wells leave the Actor's Gang to mount Dreamplay--and to dream of new theatrical forms.
by Rob Kendt
Not many play
rehearsals are busted by the vice squad. But that's just what happened one
night a few weeks ago at a private home in Studio City, when a concerned
neighbor called the cops after observing a dozen young people, some
half-clothed, performing what must have looked like cultic rituals in and
around an outdoor swimming pool, lit by hanging clip lights.
report: that someone was shooting a "Satanic porn movie" in the next
visionary writer/director Tracy Young is back, and, as always, she's dreaming
big. As she quickly explained to L.A.'s finest, this was a workshop/rehearsal
for her newest work-in-progress, Dreamplay, a meta-theatrical meditation on dreams, the unconscious,
and the strange case of Scott Falater, an Arizona man who was convicted in 1999
of stabbing his wife 44 times while, his defense claimed, he was fast asleep.
Young and her company of 12 performers were using some of the
"Composition" techniques pioneered by theatrical innovator Anne Bogart
to develop a scene enacting Falater's reported "dunking" of his
already-stabbed wife, Yarmila. The misunderstanding thus cleared up, Young and
company returned to their work, which to outside eyes can look like a kind of
Young's Dreamplay, which opens June 13 for two weeks of
workshop performances at that same private residence, began its life more than
two years ago at the Actors' Gang, the 20-year-old, Hollywood-based theatre
company best known, originally and recently, as actor/director Tim Robbins'
baby--but which, for most of the 1990s, became better known for its peerless
acting company and its highly theatrical, commedia-based style (often referred
to reverentially as The Style). Few directors used and stretched that company's
talents like Young, who, in extravaganzas like Hysteria, Euphoria, or Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella (a co-production with Cornerstone Theater
Company) and in genre-busting chamber pieces like A Fairy Tale or Four Roses, found fresh, vital, uniquely theatrical
ways to fuse style and content, performer and audience, literature and pop
culture, sublime and silly. To many inside and outside the Gang, Young was the
troupe's leading theatrical creator and a justly recognized local treasure,
with Ovations and L.A. Weekly awards to show for it. When the first workshop of
Dreamplay premiered in
June 2000, supported by a generous Flintridge Foundation grant, she was riding
A year later the
party was over, and Young was caught up in an ugly, tendentious battle over the
Gang's leadership, as founder Robbins had returned and, with the support of
many but not all Gang members, had re-taken the company's reins. Robbins told Back
Stage West last fall
(9/20/01) that it was up to Young whether she would stay with the Gang and
mount a full production of Dreamplay as originally planned.
walked away instead and, along with the toweringly talented actor/director
Chris Wells, also a former Gangster, has formed a new, as-yet-unnamed theatre
company dedicated, she said recently, to "transforming the live
event." Wells and Young's fledgling company, which has fresh Flintridge
funds to produce Dreamplay, may prove transformative in other ways, too--namely in its sense
of what a theatre company can be. Wells and Young have, at least, strong
convictions about what a theatre company should not be.
coffeehouse Highland Grounds is one of the places the "second wave"
of the Actors' Gang found its feet in the early 1990s, with sketches and music
that included a ridiculous rap/folk act called Tenacious D. With his film
acting career taking off, Robbins had begun to scale back his direct
involvement in the company, and Young was among a second generation of Gang
affiliates, inspired by the fearlessly theatrical work of such Gang shows as Freaks, Carnage, and The Big Show but fired up to bring their own voices
into the mix.
And it was at
Highland Grounds recently, in an interview with Wells and Back Stage West, that Young recalled those early days,
when she said she felt "galvanized" by the "feeling that I was
in an atmosphere of total male dominance," referring to the aggressive
energy of the early Robbins posse. "It really got me charged to make a
show using that angry, overt, in-your-face Gang thing but channeled through a
The result was
1993's Hysteria, a
searching, uproarious take on female body politics, from misogynist Victorian
medicine to modern-day cosmetic surgery and abortion; it played like Caryl
Churchill filtered through Monty Python, and it felt like a logical extension
of the Gang's rock 'n' roll sensibility. So did the gay perspective introduced
by, among others, Chris Wells and Daniel T. Parker, both in the drug-themed
romp Euphoria and in A Fairy Tale, their brilliant queering of the Brothers Grimm, co-authored with
But according to
Wells and Young, these groundbreaking shows represented not so much an
extension of the Gang's style as a departure from it. Indeed, Young's later
Gang work--Four Roses,
an exploration with four actresses of Tennessee Williams' heroines, even Fairy
Tale and Dreamplay—started to seem less like rock 'n' roll
than chamber music.
"In a way,
Tracy's work was not representative of that company," said Wells.
"The irony is that it certainly was a huge part of that company, and it's
a part of the company that the community responded to, because it's awesome.
But I think, especially now in looking at that, it's certainly not the whole
picture" would have to include the Gang's offstage company politics, as
directors and actors vied for stage time and the company struggled to keep the
doors to its spacious Santa Monica Boulevard theatre, bankrolled by Robbins in
1994, open. The factions and the funding crisis conspired to create last year's
leadership battle—and to convince Wells and Young to seek a new way to do their
"One of the
things that we learned in the tenure of the Gang is that while there are a lot
of great things about a group of 30 or 40 working in a democratic system,"
said Young, "there's also a lot of difficulty and struggle in that, and
different people interested in putting in more time and energy than others. And
the struggles of keeping that fantastic space financially afloat with basically
a paid staff--it was difficult, and a lot of our personal time and energy went
along with my own sadness or anger in the wake of leaving the company, there's
also this enormous amount of freedom that's come with it. We aren't beholden to
a space, to a company, but only to each other. We feel like we can deal with
that. We trust each other and get fed by each other as artists. So we just
start there, we know that much, and what happens beyond that, we're not going
to jump into it. We're going to really find the necessity for any other things
that get added into the equation after that."
Lest this make
them sound like single people who've left painful marriages and are just now
gingerly re-entering the dating scene, Young and Wells insist that they are
consciously seeking a company model that both reflects and supports their way
trying to approach the creating of this entity in the same way we approach the
making of the work, which is through questions," said Wells. And, as they
explained, their way of making theatre, informed in part by the Gang's
commedia-based Style and by Bogart's Composition and Viewpoint techniques, is
to come together with certain common interests and create the work together
thing is sort of a walking-down-the-dark-hallway feeling," said Young.
"You start out at the end of the hall and you're kind of like, 'I don't
know where the light switch is,' just kind of feeling your way. 'OK, maybe
there's this,' and we put it in our bag. There are certain known things and a
lot of unknown things. To me, it's like a conversation."
The creation of Dreamplay began, Young explained, with a few known
things: Her self-described "obsession" with Carl Jung's theories of
the collective unconscious, with the iconography of Tarot cards, and with the
case of the sleepwalking murderer Falater.
workshop production in June 2000 came to reflect not only her overarching
vision but also the personalities and creative energy of an extraordinary
12-member ensemble, who were cast alternately as a jury that offered periodic
reactions to the unfolding case, as Freud and Jung, as Falater and his wife, as
tour guides and deejays and Tarot figures, in a theatrical mix that combined
song, direct address, choreographed movement, court transcripts, sketch-like
comedy, confession, and literary quotes. Perhaps most strikingly, it seemed--to
me, at least--to be both a summation and a triumphant genetic splicing of all the
Gang types and voices, from frat boy to feminist to queer, in one piece. It was
both a profoundly communal work, defined as much by who was in it as by what
they did onstage, and an original work that could only have come from the
fertile theatrical mind of Tracy Young.
It was the best
thing I ever saw at the Actors' Gang.
of Dreamplay had
actors suspended from ropes and swings, a catwalk from which raw eggs were
dropped, and a climactic umbrella dance across chairs. The new space, a rented
private residence with a pool, is going to change the piece--as is the
replacement of at least half the cast. Some, like Young and Wells, consider
themselves "former" Gang members; some have kept ties to the Gang;
many are non-affiliated artists (as were some of the original Dream players).
Wells is playing
a role created by the impish M Brauer--a change of gender and type that
exemplifies the new direction the piece must necessarily take as it
accommodates the new space and performers. Young anticipates that about a third
of the play will be significantly rewritten, and most of it restaged.
This is, as was
the Gang production, a "workshop," meaning a short run and no
reviews. It may seem a modest public beginning for Wells and Young's new joint
venture, which kicked off quietly in fall 2001 with a Boston run of A Fairy
Tale and will continue in
fall of this year with a Yale Rep revival of Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, co-directed by Cornerstone's Bill Rauch.
This low-profile L.A. debut and out-of-state travel reflects another sort of
inquiry: not only what projects this new company will undertake but where it
will take them.
theatre artists have a hard time," said Wells, who with Young is mulling
productions of his cabaret Nowhere To Run and a new tent-revival piece called The Secret City. "Not the least of our challenges is
that nobody expects us to get any money for our work. There are all these
people who want to be based here as theatre artists, but you kind of have to
leave L.A. to make a living as a theatre artist. Yes, I think we want to be in
Los Angeles, and L.A. definitely informs our work, but we'd also like to take
our work around the world, around the country—just to see if it's possible to
have a thriving, somewhat avant-garde theatre performance arts organization
based in L.A. that can thrive nationally and internationally."
aren't just organizational or geographic but aesthetic, Young said. She
explained by citing a moment from The Simpsons in which Homer berates a slow-moving
animal at the zoo for its lack of entertainment value.
'What are you doing?
You're so boring. Plays are more interesting than you. Do you hear me? Plays are more interesting!' I tend to agree
with Homer a little bit. There's a lot that I find deadly about certain kinds
of theatre--unsatisfying and not as livening, whereas a lot of times if I go to
a live concert I'll tend to be more involved, more connected to the action
that's going on around me.
Chris' background performing as a musician and a singer, I think there's
something interesting in learning from that and finding out, What is vital about
the theatrical event? What's not vital about it? And how can the work we create
sort of wake up theatre again by informing it with other mediums of live
performance, hybridizing it in a way?"
They aren't, of
course, the only L.A. artists with an interest in this kind of form-busting.
Among their theatrical soulmates are the artists of Cornerstone Theater Company
and writer/director Laural Meade, formerly of Indecent Exposure Theatre
Company, who created 1999's stunning Harry Thaw Hates Everybody, a category-defying piece of
performance-art/vaudeville/docu-theatre, which starred Wells and Dan Parker;
Young has also directed Meade's work, including a workshop of a music/theatre
piece about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Indeed, Wells was quick to stress
that his and Young's new company isn't an exclusive club, a "fort,"
but that it will involve like-minded artists from "a handful of people
who, because of our relationships with them, are pretty much part of everything
we do." Meade, in fact, is acting as a sort of consultant on Dreamplay.
All of which
means we aren't likely to see a season announcement of classical plays from
this new company any time soon. Indeed, we're more likely to catch it mounting
a cabaret at Largo Pub or performing in someone's backyard, or, in Wells'
concept for the L.A.-themed Secret City, leading a revival meeting in a tent or a place of
worship. Young and Wells estimate that between them they have around 20
projects, conceived individually and/or jointly, ready either to revive or
approaching this from a place of questioning and curiosity," said Wells.
"Can you make a two-person arts organization? Can it be based in L.A.? Can
it be original work that is interesting thematically, aesthetically? Our whole
ethos is based upon inquiry."
Their work so far
has demonstrated that their answers—the work these two artists put onstage—are
at least as fascinating as their questions. And they have demonstrated, as only
a handful of local theatre artists have, that Los Angeles can breed its own
forms, its own aesthetics, its own artists. Whether it can sustain and validate
them remains to be seen.
But with their
Gang years behind them, these two definitive local artists are hoping, as Young
said, to create "a different kind of momentum, as opposed to a repertory
season. That feels kind of dead for L.A. There's something transformational
about this city that we want to mirror in our work. It's continually
transforming in the way it looks, seems, whatever image it's presenting. Is it
a musical performance, a theatrical thing?
more shape-shifting than following a traditional model repeatedly, repeatedly,
This may be
what's most inspiring about Young and Wells: that their years of honing what
they do, of paying dues, if you will, in the service of a larger company, have
made them not jaded or wizened but freer, less dogmatic, less set in their
ways. Their bags are packed and their minds are open.
dreaming after all these years.