Tag Archives: Joseph Campbell

Why LA Actors Do Theatre in Los Angeles

Blue silhouetteby Stephen Sachs

When Joseph Campbell spoke of the power of myth he didn’t have LA stage actors in mind. Yet a powerful and prevailing myth has spread for years in theater centers throughout the country about why actors do theater in Los Angeles. The legend claims that LA actors are somehow less serious and do theater only to be seen by casting directors in “the Industry” and not for the art of the work. This is simply not true. The idea that actors in Los Angeles only do theater for the purpose of showcasing themselves with the hope of being cast in television or film is not only an insulting and disrespectful myth, it is a lie.

As the Artistic Director of a leading theater in Los Angeles for 24 years and a longtime theater director, I have an insider view of the truth. It has been my experience over more than two decades that the hundreds, maybe thousands, of LA actors I have worked with do a play for one fundamental reason: they are passionate and committed to the work. The LA actors I’ve worked with have been fiercely dedicated, hard-working, highly-skilled, deeply impassioned and utterly professional.

I believe actors are extraordinary creatures. And actors who do theater in Los Angeles, even more so. They tackle challenges unique to this region, not faced in other cities. Particularly those acting in productions in one of LA’s many intimate theaters like mine where the pay is next-to-nothing and the reward is decidedly artistic.

The LA actor navigates a theater landscape in Los Angeles unlike any other in the United States. There are a handful of large production houses and a collection of mid-sized venues. These, however, are dominated by a network of more than 100 intimate theaters (99 seats or less) webbed throughout the region. And that’s what LA is: a region stretched over 469 square miles, not a city. An immense terrain of diverse neighborhoods too vast and spread-out to be walkable, connected only by freeways. No centralized Theater District.

Skyline-Los-Angeles-Night

Intimate theaters in Los Angeles operate under the AEA 99-Seat Plan. This one-of-kind agreement was created years ago to address the unique plight of the stage actor in Los Angeles. Overseen by Actors Equity, the Plan permits Equity actors to work in intimate theaters in LA without the benefit or salary of a formal contract. Actors are paid a ridiculously low stipend. In pure dollars-and-cents, factoring in expenses and wages lost elsewhere over the course of rehearsals and a run, it can actually cost an actor money to do a play in Los Angeles. So why do it? Because much of the most satisfying work and most challenging new plays are being done in these intimate theaters. Actors long to act in these plays for the same reason we ache to produce them: for the sake of the art. Nobody makes any money.

Debunking the myth, the LA actor often commits to a play under tremendous self-sacrifice, not self-promotion. They reschedule or give up Film & TV auditions, change their day-job schedules, cancel shifts as waiters, rearrange travel plans, postpone weddings, fail to attend funerals, miss family events – all to be in weeks of rehearsals  and then months running a play, all for next-to-nothing money in a theater that holds only a few dozen people. Why? Because they are dedicated to their craft.

I’ve seen LA stage actors turn down high-paying roles in movies and TV shows because it conflicted with a play they were doing at my theater. If “getting seen” by The Industry were their true motive for being with us, why would they do such a thing?

Actors may move to Los Angeles with the hope to make money in movies and television. What they find, however, may surprise them and save their artistic lives: a thriving Los Angeles theater scene of generous, talented artists. Actors may book an episodic to feed themselves and pay their bills, but they do a play to feed their souls and pay their dues as an artist. They come to LA to break into The Industry. They stay to be part of a Community.

Hollywood still heralds itself as “the movie capital of the world” despite the fact that fewer movies are actually shot here anymore. More plays are now produced each year in Los Angeles than major motion pictures. Yet LA still fights for its right to be called a “theater town.” The fact is: Los Angeles has more theaters and creates more theater productions than any other city in the world. More than New York or Chicago. More than London. That’s right. Los Angeles. How’s that for irony?

Los Angeles is also home to more working artists than any other major city in the United States, including New York. According to a report commissioned by the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI), Los Angeles employs the largest pool of artists of any metropolis in the nation. Surprised? Los Angeles supports more than five times as many artists in the performing arts than any other US city, substantially exceeding New York.

Stephen Sachs

Stephen Sachs

I’ve directed actors in cities around the country, in Canada and the United Kingdom. The Los Angeles stage actor is as trained and as talented, as intelligent and inventive as any actor anywhere. A good actor is a good actor, no matter the coast. Sure, I’ve seen bad theater and bad actors in Los Angeles. I’ve also seen bad theater and bad actors in Chicago, New York and London. I’ve also seen truly extraordinary performances by actors in Los Angeles. In this respect, LA is no different than any other major city. If only it were perceived that way by the rest of the country.

The myth is that acting in a play in Los Angeles is only beneficial as a vehicle or stepping stone to something else more important. But LA theater actors, the ones in the trenches, the ones on the stages, don’t see it that way. To them there is nothing more important. They work too hard and surrender too much to do theater for any purpose other than perfecting their craft. Actors are artistic athletes. They need to work out, stretch their muscles, push themselves, and be challenged.

Actors don’t do theater in LA to be seen. They’re not on stage to serve themselves. They are here, like actors everywhere, to serve their art.

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre. This post originally appeared in HowlRound.

 

Fight of Passion and Fury Not Over for ‘The Normal Heart’ Actor Tim Cummings and Director Simon Levy

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup in "The Normal Heart"

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup in “The Normal Heart”

by Dale Reynolds

The HIV/AIDS crisis has slipped from the consciousness of the American public in the last decade or so, as fewer and fewer white folk die from it (or are newly infected) and as GLBT acceptance has become more mainstream.  But back in the mid-1980s, when panic over the disease was the norm (Where’d it come from?  Who’s responsible?  How do you catch it???), the conservative government of Ronald Reagan was accused of insufficiently helping the thousands of (mostly) gay men, blacks, intravenous drug users, and hemophiliacs who were infected, grew seriously ill, and subsequently died.

Verton R. Banks, Stephen O'Mahoney and Fred Koehler in "The Normal Heart." Photo by Ed Krieger.

Verton R. Banks, Stephen O’Mahoney and Fred Koehler

There was so much fury in the left-leaning communities, including the most-affected ones — sexually-active gay and bisexual men — that groups such as AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) with its “Silence=Death” slogan and Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) were formed. They protested government policies and anti-gay religious leaders, along with a general apathy from the confused public.

Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer

To Oscar-nominated screenwriter Larry Kramer (Women in Love), a gay man who is himself HIV+, this was unacceptable, so he helped form the clamorous and aggressive ACT UP and wrote a definitive play on the crisis, The Normal Heart  (1985), which is now having its first revival in Los Angeles since 1997 at the feisty 99-seat Fountain Theatre.

Kramer, an angry and difficult man who still doesn’t mind excoriating the conservatives who wouldn’t help at the beginning of the crisis, was recently quoted in Parade magazine:  “I’ve always felt that our government has allowed [AIDS victims] to die, literally, and…Dachau was where the [Nazi] government was doing just that … [with] Jews and gays and gypsies, a lot earlier than anyone knew.”

The Normal Heart is being directed by Simon Levy, a heterosexual who lived in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, and stars Tim Cummings, a gay man, as Ned Weeks, a surrogate for the playwright.  Cummings came of age after the hysteria had largely disappeared.  But both men were in a decidedly militant mood when interviewed for this article.

For Levy, the crisis is still with us, in the USA especially among African Americans (44% of all new infections in 2009), as well as concentrations of the disease in Africa and Southeast Asia, but it’s become buried in the collective unconsciousness.  “Thirty million people, world-wide, have died from HIV/AIDS in the last 30+ years, and 1.7 million currently die from it each year [as of 2011], with 2.5 million new infections, [so] I picked [this script] because it’s a great American play, a seminal gay and AIDS play, and a great political/love story.  Its agitprop message blends nicely with its real characters.”  And his continued activism?  “Well, I grew up in San Francisco and had a lot of gay friends, from college and around the area, so when the HIV/AIDS crisis hit San Francisco, it took a lot of these friends.”

Tim Cummings and Simon Levy

Tim Cummings and Simon Levy

According to Levy, “This play helps us understand the origins of the crisis when the Reagan Administration wouldn’t acknowledge it or put money into slowing it down.  They were evil.  Larry Kramer is a fighter and a leader in this army of resistance.  He still fights for better health care and more dignity for underserved communities.”

For Cummings, “I knew about the AIDS crisis first hand, studying at Tisch [School of the Arts/New York University] during the early 1990s.  We learned early about the value of condoms [as] ACT UP’s “Silence = Death” campaign was everywhere. There was extraordinary fear about having sex with other men, and even though it was under control at the time, there was a lot of caution and worry in the air.”

Believing that “great art reflects the universal, not just the particular,” Levy wanted to direct Normal Heart since a year ago, when he had seen “this fantastic production of it at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and I knew that I had to do it here. It took seven months of negotiations with Larry Kramer’s and producer Daryl Roth’s people to get the rights for LA, but Kramer’s angry voice was important in 1985 and remains so.  The crisis is not over.”

Cummings learned of the project early.  “I already knew the play, and when I heard about it on the grapevine, and saw it on Breakdown Services, I wrote to Raul Staggs [the casting director] asking for an audition.  I had a couple of other play auditions out of town, and was on hold for some job offers, but I turned them down in order to play Ned — it was that important to me.”

Levy acknowledges that he and producers Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs had a short list of actors they wanted to play the lead, including Cummings. “I called around and asked other directors for suggestions, and Tim was highly recommended.  I’d seen him at Rogue Machine Theatre in The New Electric Ballroom and its director, John Perrin Flynn, said that Tim Cummings was ‘one of the best actors in Los Angeles.’  I have well-honed instincts on acting and actors and I agreed.”

Lisa Pelikan and Tim Cummings

Lisa Pelikan and Tim Cummings

The play follows a gay activist, Ned Weeks, who has become enraged at the deliberate indifference of city, state and federal officials, as well as the blindness of some leaders in the gay community. He’s motivated to become an activist, with personal as well as political ramifications for him.  The play allows director and actors much anguish to feed upon for their characterizations.

While Cummings, son of an Irish fireman and built like one, is totally open about his sexuality (still somewhat problematical in Hollywood, if not New York), Levy never asked those auditioning about their sexual or emotional orientations, nor of their HIV status:  “They’re actors first in our eyes.  Besides, I like to create a ‘sacred circle’ for the cast, into which they can be themselves in order to create a full-bodied character.” As to his actors’ responses during the auditions, many knew this play and had wanted to do it — as it was relevant, on whatever level, to their own lives.

Cummings used Joseph Campbell’s idea of “the hero’s journey” for Ned’s progress — what Weeks goes through from beginning to end mirroring the mythology of any hero’s path.  “It was a ‘eureka’ kind of moment for me, demanding attention and change.  I love that the idea means there is something mythical and heroic about his journey, which elevates the play.”

In addition, Cummings thinks that the notion of Ned’s exploration mirrors the struggles the audience will have gone through themselves, or maybe have regretted not having gone through. “The play’s crisis is Weeks’ rite of passage.  In taking on a hostile — or at the very least, indifferent — government, Ned has to stand alone to be that clarion bell on the truth of the situation.  He will stand up, be counted, and walk away as an advocate for human rights.”

All this fits into the actor’s and director’s activist consciences, especially Levy’s:  “My job as an artist is to awaken — or reawaken — the public to important social and political issues.  My mission is to help people remember what’s right.”

Kramer’s screed of a play is what Levy describes as “a political thriller: ‘How did HIV/AIDS get is name?  and why was the government so hostile in helping those stricken?’  His play is a tornado, but Larry’s main message is about love.”

And hate, too. Kramer told Parade in the recent interview, “Life is very fragile. It’s very difficult for us, no matter how secure we think we are. Everybody who goes into a voting booth and votes against [gay people] hates us. We have been hated for so many centuries. You would think somewhere along the line we could’ve learned how to fight back.”

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup

The Fountain is well-known for its provocative and up-to-date productions on a wide variety of recent minority-themed topics:  Heart SongIn the Red and Brown Water, the deaf-specific version of Cyrano de BergeracOn the Spectrum (about characters with autism), as well as a series of American premieres of plays by South African writer Athol Fugard.  The leaders at the Fountain have reached out to ethnically-and–politically-diverse audiences who don’t normally attend relatively expensive theater.

“If we don’t learn these lessons of intolerance,” Levy says, “history will repeat itself.  So reaching this newer generation of young people about this subject is imperative.  We must never repeat these mistakes.”

Dale Reynolds writes for LA Stage Times.

The Normal Heart  Now to Nov 3  (323) 663-1525   MORE