Janet Thielke

Janet Thielke

Company of Angels Celebrates 50 Years of “Trekking” New Theatre

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“Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

So spoke Captain Spock, with the iconic ears and eyebrows, signature deep voice, and passion for pure reason that made him a fan favorite, in the Star Trek film The Wrath of Khan. The motto parallels the mission statement of the Company of Angels Theater – to serve new and underrepresented voices in the community – of which Spock’s counterpart Leonard Nimoy served as a founding member.

Company of Angels Theater was founded in 1959 and became a non-profit in 1975, making it the oldest non-profit and the first repertory company in LA. Incorporated by entertainment attorney Bertram Fields, the early company members included actors Richard Chamberlain, Vic Morrow, Leonard Nimoy and Robert Ellenstein. Both Nimoy and Ellenstein will be honored this Saturday, Oct. 17, with the first Leonard Nimoy Angel awards at the CoA 50th anniversary banquet.

Nimoy is admittedly eager to see Ellenstein honored. “(Ellenstein has been) a very close friend for many, many years. We’ve been friends ever since the late ’50s. He has spent a lot more time and energy and effort in working the theatre territory in Los Angeles than I have. My acting career took off with Star Trek and what have you and he remained a director doing theatre work. He and his sons have made much more contributions to the Los Angeles theatre scene.” He adds modestly, “Much more than I did, frankly. He’s much more deserving.”

Current Artistic Director Armando Molina and Co-Artistic Director Marlene Forte won’t let Nimoy’s humility overshadow his contribution to the company. They give both Nimoy and Ellenstein credit for setting a strong foundation on which the theatre company has continued to grow and thrive.

“I would love to honor each and every one of the founding members,” enthuses Forte, “for creating a place for the actor to work!  In the case of Nimoy, because he is so closely associated with Spock in the Star Trek series, people forget that he is an actor with a diverse artistic background. He has a passion for the stage.”

CoA Artistic Director Armando Molina
CoA Artistic Director Armando Molina

“Mr. Nimoy’s contribution to CoA was crucial at a time when the newly-formed theater company was finding its sea legs,” says Molina. “Not only did Mr. Nimoy help make CoA the oldest company in Los Angeles, he dedicated himself to making and supporting theater while simultaneously building a career in television and film.”

More than just a career in television and film, Nimoy is notorious for choosing projects that span a number of mediums. “He is a published poet, photographer, director – and he sings!” adds Forte.

Nimoy has indeed published two biographies, a book of poems, released multiple CDs on which he sang, is still an avid photographer and has directed, among other projects, a music video for The Bangles. Nimoy’s involvement in the theatre also includes a one-man show Vincent he wrote and performed in the ’70s. All this from one man? Nimoy’s career makes him sound more like a creation of science fiction than Spock.

“I personally think he is a Renaissance man,” says Forte, an easy sentiment to agree with. “A TV legend that didn’t forget the theater!”

Nimoy remembers the early years founding CoA as times of struggle to multitask, both personally and for the company. “It was very difficult,” he admits. “It was rocky because we were trying to rehearse a play and build a theatre at the same time.”

According to Nimoy, the company had found a building on Vine Street they were attempting to convert to serve their needs as both a stage and an actor’s studio. Aside from the physical challenges of creating a space and preparing a play, the fledgling company also had issues with Actors’ Equity.

“It was very early on, as I recall, in the theatre movement in Los Angeles, and in the looking for a new contract with Equity to make it possible to do theatre without getting into the heavy economics. Just to make it possible for a group of people to get together and do a play. There were union battles about whether or not actors should be able to act without being paid, and there was a possibility of setting up a whole new pay scale for actors working in small theatres. There were all those issues to deal with.”

Regardless of the struggle, the company remained adamant in their pursuit of establishing a place for quality theatre. “The whole idea was to give actors a place to work and to develop material and to create a theatre,” he says, his words punctuated by the telltale passion of an art lover. “It’s just exciting to create a theatre. People were just looking to work.”

But hard work paid off and success was in the stars for both the CoA and Nimoy: “Eventually the theatre got built. And then I got very busy with my acting career, I had to move on, but the thing was launched.”

Launched – with an appropriately space ship connotation – it was, and the theatre continued to evolve from a place for actors to study and train to a place to exercise and experiment with all sorts of new voices.

Co-Artistic Director Marlene Forte
Co-Artistic Director Marlene Forte

“CoA has survived 50 years through the pure tenacity and will of the actor,” says Forte. “In the last three years, since Armando Molina took over as Artistic Director, and we moved our location downtown in our new home at The Alexandria, the company’s emphasis has shifted a little. It still provides a place for the actor to workout. But it is a place where the actor can flex the muscle through a different kind of exercise.  Instead of doing it through the classics, we tell the stories of those whose voices aren’t readily heard. We seek to give voice to our own playwrights, whose expressions reflect the communities in our great city.  We direct our own plays. We nurture new voices.  We give a different perspective. And we encourage our members to be creative and take chances. To be fearless.”

“Today, the company still nurtures the actor’s craft and growth but our company is not merely just actor-driven,” agrees Molina. “We are also reaching out to the playwright, the director, the designer and the administrator, to give a more comprehensive view of what is theater.  Each part of the collective serves each other and, ultimately, the community.”

“CoA has morphed into a true reflection of Los Angeles,” continues Forte. “It reflects the actual look of LA, with diversity even within each ethnic group. It serves the community in producing new work by diverse artists. We believe in producing work outside of commercial or political restraints.”

On the evolution of the theatre’s mission statement to produce new work, Nimoy is very supportive of CoA’s choices. “I think it’s terrific,” he says. “I think there’s a need for that kind of work and a place for people to develop that kind of work.”

And on its dedication to the community and the ethnic diversity of their productions: “The company is a collection of people of various ethnicities and I think that’s very important for them to be developing things about themselves and about their lives and the things that they know. I think they’ve found a niche for themselves. That particular territory is fertile territory for them.”

So as the company, past and present, unites to celebrate their 50th anniversary, what are they looking towards in the next 50 years?

For Molina, it means continuing the trajectory established with their move downtown: “We see CoA continuing to be an incubator for new work, new artists and to provide a voice and forum for Los Angelinos to speak, rage, howl, sing, weep, laugh and play.”

“I would like to ground the company on 5th and Spring for the next 50 years,” says Forte.  “I would like CoA to be a founding force in bringing theater to downtown Los Angeles.  I would like our Black Box to be a safe place where theater artists can be free and fearless; a place where actors don’t have to wait for the phone to ring; a boxing ring to warm up and create.  To continue to partner up with community organizations — like Urban Possibilities — and create workshops that encourage new voices and social interaction.”

As for Nimoy’s personal future, he’s enjoying his “retirement” for acting — and the success that came from breaking said retirement for the most recent and wildly popular Star Trek film. “The movie was enormously successful and I think it deserved to be,” he says. “It was a terrific film.” Rightly so Nimoy is credited with a good deal of that success for re-donning the Spock ears.

Despite the film’s success, his plans to continue acting are largely open. His extensive career allows him to take on only the projects that interest him. “I’m doing a little bit of work on the Fringe television series, an occasional appearance there, but that’s about it right now.” He was, in fact, on the most recent episode “Momentum Deferred,” returning as the character Dr. William Bell to the delight of loyal fans.

While he is not certain about where his action career will take him, Nimoy continues to be a Renaissance man. “Most of the work that I do now is my photography work,” he says. He has several gallery showings coming up and his photography can be viewed at leonardnimoyphotography.com.

Thanks to founding members like Ellenstein and Nimoy, who survived the initial struggle of building the theatre, CoA continues to a be a presence in the Los Angeles theatre community.

“We write our own stories and share them to the world; a place to plant the seed of our voices and see that these voices have a place in our community,” says Forte. “May we live long and prosper!”

Images courtesy of Leonard Nimoy and Companyofangels.org

Article by Janet Thielke

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