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.
The neighbor's report: that someone was shooting a "Satanic porn movie" in the next yard.
Yes, the 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 serious-minded play.
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 high.
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.
Young ultimately 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.
The Hollywood 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 feminist perspective."
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 Young.
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."
That "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 work.
"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 into that.
"So now, 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 of working.
"We're 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 from scratch.
"The main 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.
The first 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.
That production 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.
"L.A. 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."
These questions 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.
"Homer says, '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.
"So, with 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 create anew.
"We're 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?
"It's way more shape-shifting than following a traditional model repeatedly, 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.
They're still dreaming after all these years.