The formerly itinerant Vs. Theatre Company, a 99-Seat Plan group that began in LA in 2004, is about to unveil its first resident artistic abode. The intimate performing facility at 5453 W. Pico Boulevard that Vs. is now ready to inhabit is the former home of Black Dahlia Theatre. The premiere of writer-director Ron Klier’s Cops and Friends of Cops bows at the new Vs. Theatre on Friday.
Artistic director Johnny Clark and literary director/resident director Klier have overseen the renovation of the space, including a new lobby created in an adjacent vacant storefront. Clark appears in the new play, amid a five-member ensemble cast that also includes Rolando Boyce, Andrew Hawkes, Paul Vincent O’Connor, and Gareth Williams.
In the Beginning
Klier worked closely with Clark and Kimberly-Rose Wolter (former Vs. co-artistic director, currently on leave from the group) as they planned and launched Vs. Klier says, “I’m originally from St. Louis, but I met Johnny here when he was visiting from Chicago, where he was doing theater. He was getting ready to move out here. We started talking about theater, and this led to a long-standing friendship.”
Clark’s foremost interest is acting, and he has appeared in most of VS.’ 14 productions, most recently in 2011 in Neil LaBute’s The Mercy Seat, at [Inside] the Ford. Klier’s professional focus is on writing and directing. His prior script that received a premiere from VS. was Waste of Shame (2006), and he has directed most of the company’s offerings.
Klier describes his working relationship with Clark: “I think it’s impossible to do anything solely on your own, so it’s nice to have a kindred spirit. We kind of fill in each other’s gaps. He’s such a great actor but also a great administrator, a great collector of people, and things like that. He makes everybody feel valued. And I read every play I get my hands on. I read five to seven a week. I also love the behind-the-scenes elements of things, and trying to bring the works to life. We tend to have the same tastes — actors, sets, material. We’re very lucky.”
Some highlights of Vs.’ history include the aforementioned The Mercy Seat, The Credeaux Canvas, In Arabia We’d All be Kings (co-produced by Elephant Theatre Company and winner of a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle production award), and John Kolvenbach’s On An Average Day, which was staged in LA and Chicago, earning awards in both cities. The bill of fare has encompassed the work of several major contemporary playwrights (including Stephen Adly Guirgis, John Patrick Shanley, Adam Rapp, Brett Neveu and Itamar Moses). Among the 99-seat venues where Vs. has performed have been the Elephant Theatre complex, the Victory Theatre, the Hayworth Theatre, and others.
The Shuffle Begins
Clark said that the idea of Vs. taking this space first came up in 2012, when Vs. was producing a workshop that featured guest directors. He says, “We invited Matt Shakman [Black Dahlia’s founder/artistic director] to come. We were talking in the break about what his plans were, what his next show was. And he was asking us the same thing. He mentioned that he was looking at El Centro Theatre [the former Cast Theatre, in Hollywood] to possibly relocate his company.” Shakman’s plans were to share the space with actor James Roday’s itinerant company, Red Dog Squadron. Shakman and Roday agreed on a deal. Re-dubbed El Centro Theatre-Circle Stage, the facility remains in renovation, with an opening date not yet announced by its partnering occupants.
Clark continues, “Matt had asked if his group were to do that, would we want to rent [at the former Dahlia space]. We loved the thought of having our own space. It was one of those things where you just want to get to the next level of development as an organization, and this space seemed the perfect thing for us. Matt said it would break his heart if his longtime space — for the past 12 years — would go back to being a rental storefront [for non-theatrical purposes][. He said, ‘Let’s keep theater going.’ Acting as go-between, Shakman talked to the Pico Blvd. landlord, and negotiations were successful.
“So we took the plunge,” Clark continues. “I think we’ve done it right. We really spent a lot of time figuring out what the space would be, how it would embody our brand, what we wanted to say. The show that we had earmarked maybe to do at the Ford again was Ron’s play [Cops]. We have always operated by choosing our next production as the one that we are most passionate to do, and we had been dying to do this one.”
The New Chapter
About 10 months following the initial discussions with Shakman and six months following the beginning of renovations, the theater is ready to officially open, complete with the spacious new lobby adjoining the original theater. The auditorium has not been extensively refurbished nor reconfigured, though it appears to be in tiptop shape, as the stage houses Danny Cistone’s barroom set for Cops.
Clark reports that the facility includes state-of-the-art sound and that lighting has been enhanced. According to Klier, “we have one of the best lighting set-ups in town for a small theater” — Jack Stehlin of New American Theatre loaned Vs. some lighting equipment to help the group move into its new space. Klier and Clark speak highly of the members of the L.A. small-theater community, saying that the groups are often supportive of each other. Klier notes, “People have been telling us, ‘You guys deserve this. You’re ready for it.”
Clark, Klier, and the company’s 13 staff members performed most of the labor, and some of their friends stepped up to the plate to pitch in. Clark adds, “We didn’t necessarily have the money, but we had the time and the talents.”
Vs. is more of a producing company with a strong shared vision than a membership company. No dues are collected. Simpatico artists whom Clark and Klier originally knew, or other local artists who came to work on a Vs. show and repeatedly returned, form the company’s nucleus of loyal talents. Some members have official capacities. Besides Clark, Klier, general manager Tommy Dunn and resident designers, there are a few administrative officers.
According to Klier, the company invites interested parties to “come on in and be a part of it, however that is for you, whether you want to be an actor in a play, or come and do some other stuff and hang out. We want you here for your spirit and your talent, that’s it. Our group is a little bit of a hybrid. One of the things I’m most proud of is that we’ve been able to retain so many people. I think it means that for a long time, we’ve been doing something right, and they all like being here.”
In the past, Vs. has not announced seasons, instead choosing to schedule and mount shows at the members’ own pace. Clark says that no seasons will be set at present, but he doesn’t rule out the possibility of eventually moving to a seasonal structure. For now he and Klier are happy to get the theater open, with the inaugural production on the boards. “We might end up doing the equivalent of a season’s worth of work,” Clark says. “Just because we have our space, it doesn’t mean we need to get ahead of ourselves. We decided that at first, we would operate under the same discipline that got us here.”
Clark is confident but realistic about what’s next: “We’re under no illusion that now that we have our own space, we’ll suddenly open the doors, and be packed in like sardines. It’s almost two years since we produced a play, and we’re thinking about that.”
Meanwhile, that dry spell will be broken by Cops and Friends of Cops. Billed by Vs. as “a classic morality play” and “a suspense-fueled ride”, the play, set in an urban bar, adheres to the company’s dedication to intimate and intense works that are brand-new or LA premieres. Clark remarks: “We often do single-set, hyper-realistic sorts of production designs and actor-driven scripts.” In Cops, men of different ages and life experiences are hanging out in a bar, when another man walks in with a secret. The bartender wants to get through his shift. One man is tired of another customer’s bullying sense of humor. The company describes Cops as exploring “regret, loss, explicit and implicit racism, while wrestling with masculine identity.”
Klier speaks of his vision of the play: “First of all, I hope that it’s a very engaging piece and has you on the edge of your seat, in its narrative. Thematically I hope that despite its genre trappings, it explores what it means to be a good man in the constantly changing contemporary America, though sort of disguised as a B-movie/cop thriller/Western. I like long, sustained performances, where some guys are out on a ledge. I like taking real risks. You don’t have a lot of blackouts to get you out there. And my plays are very language-oriented. “
Clark says the beauty of the play is watching the mystery unfold. He calls it a “page turner” and adds that “the challenge for me is the emotional ride that goes through the night. You don’t get parts like that very often. It’s a challenge for me to get to play all those notes. I come from Chicago and the Steppenwolf ensemble sensibility. Part of why I love doing theater is the group dynamic. You get to know complete strangers, and by the end of it, you feel like you’re family. You’re all in this battle together, doing something really challenging. Ron has written a five-hander in which all five guys are leads.”
**All Cops and Friends of Cops production photos by Kate Compton.