EST-LA and Circle X Join Forces at Atwater Village

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Gates McFadden and Tim Wright. All photos by Patricia Williams

When Circle X artistic director Tim Wright was beginning his MFA program at Montclair State University in New Jersey in 1993, Gates McFadden was about to end her seven-year role as Dr. Beverly Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. These days, the two face each other across opposing light-colored desks in Atwater Village where their companies share a theater space.

McFadden already was in place as artistic director for Ensemble Studio Theatre-Los Angeles (EST-LA) when she agreed to turn a commercial space into side-by-side 99-seat theaters for owner and developer Avo Tavitian. She had begun to interview potential partners. “Circle X and EST-LA had both worked at [Inside] the Ford,” McFadden recalls, “but I had never met Tim. I just knew from the company’s productions they were top-notch.”

She invited him to a meeting. “What impressed me was his entire staff came with him to meet me and to see the space. Some companies just wanted me to meet with their managing director, but the personality and taste of the artistic director was very important to me.  Subsequently, Tim and I met and spoke separately. We both liked the same kind of plays and productions. Very similar tastes. We both wanted to develop new work.”

And perhaps most important, McFadden felt completely comfortable with Circle X’s entire staff. “I really appreciated their particular energy and humor. Frankly, the job is so difficult that if you don’t have fun with the people you are spending 14 hour days with, what’s the point?”

Atwater Village Theatre (AVT) is housed in a former mattress and pillow warehouse on Casitas Avenue, behind oft-used railroad tracks. Wright acknowledges that during the past year he has learned about noise abatement. “I know now how to soundproof a wall. I didn’t know that a year ago.”

There’s more, he says. “I know how to get a grid installed in a theater. I think I know what my physical limitations are. And I think I thought we were better off a year ago being nomadic and I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”

He explains having a home base gives Circle X “the opportunity not only to serve our mission but also to create the kind of work we weren’t able to create in the past. It allows us to sustain and grow as an organization and a group of artists.”

McFadden has had her own realizations. “Other than I’m crazier than I actually imagined? I’ve learned that a year and a half ago, let’s say, I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be an artistic director and I wasn’t sure I knew how to do it. And even though I’m still learning, I actually find it has brought me back to why I became an actress, director and choreographer in the first place.”

McFadden’s in love. “I love the people in the LA theater scene, the 99-seat theater scene in particular. And I believe this home space will allow us to develop material that will make a significant contribution to that scene.”

She foresees EST-LA extensively collaborating with Wright’s Circle X. “Yet we can keep our companies individual and appreciate each other. There’s a wonderful energy that has been happening within our company. We’re all excited about the possibilities.”

2011 SEASON

Annika Marks and Robert Trebor in Mlle. God

McFadden and Wright open their 2011 season on January 28, beginning with Oscar-nominated Nicholas Kazan’s Mlle. God.

The play had a reading last year and its femme fatale, Annika Marks, returns in the title role of Lulu. McFadden describes it as Kazan’s reinvention of the Frank Wedekind character Lulu, a woman who offers sex for free, only to suffer brutality and death. “It doesn’t have to be that way,” McFadden says, “and that’s how Nick approaches the story.”

Kazan, son of director Elia, earned his Oscar nomination for Reversal of Fortune in 1990. The play, directed by Scott Paulin, is described in EST-LA’s season brochure as “not for the faint of trousers,” as there is some nudity and in-your-face sexual overtones. Cast member Kareem Ferguson admits it was he who momentarily shed his clothes but it is now instead a quick look at the physical essence of the mademoiselle herself, Marks (who also shed her outerwear in last year’s Behind the Gates, as she prepared to step into a Mikveh conversion bath and transform from wild teenaged Bethany to ultra-orthodox Bakol).

“I met Nick Kazan through my friend [acting coach] Larry Moss,” McFadden recalls, “and we hit it off. He sent me a couple plays and I thought Mlle. God was a very interesting, provocative play. I was curious what it would be like to mount.”

Annika Marks and Tasso Feldman in Mlle. God

She calls it a difficult play to produce, but she appreciates the challenge. “It forces one to confront one’s own mores and is also very entertaining. Some of it is extremely funny but there are also tragic themes. It has an unusual structure so we wonder whether it will work. But this is another way Tim and I are very sympathique — we both like edgier theater.”

NOT FOR THE FAINT OF TROUSERS

It may seem most of the season at AVT is not for the faint of trousers. McFadden is directing the late-night offering Crack Whore Galore in February and March. It’s described as a “short, thick and dirty rock and roll play.” McFadden says it came from a company member who’d been developing some material and asked for help in getting a script together. “I thought the material was wonderful. Now that we have a space, we could rehearse in odd hours. Very interesting, provocative sexual issues have come up throughout this season.”

Another 2011 EST-LA offering is House of the Rising Son by Tom Jacobson, most recently known for The Twentieth Century Way (Boston Court). House of the Rising Son is set in New Orleans and follows Trent, who brings Felix home to meet his father and homophobic grandfather.  “It was done in [EST-LA’s play reading series] Winterfest a year ago and I loved it. We thought it was an important play.”

Jacobson also kicks off Circle X’s season with The Chinese Massacre Annotated. Circle X commissioned the work a few years ago, then presented a workshop and received the company’s first-ever NEA grant to present the full production.

It’s having one’s own space that most pleases Wright. “In past years, both companies have been pretty limited in the work we can present because we were nomadic. The rental rates around town are pretty expensive and we’ve both been lucky to be part of the winter partnership at [Inside] the Ford.”

He describes as “epic” the cast size in The Chinese Massacre Annotated, “and we hadn’t until now been able to find a space where we could fully produce it. AVT gives us this opportunity. Our second show of the season is Battle Hymn, which we presented at [Inside] the Ford. We’re going to remount it because we never had the opportunity to extend it there and because the playwright is making some changes, so we’re excited to revisit it.”

One of the issues Circle X confronts as a smaller arts organization, Wright explains, is putting so much energy and resources into a play only to find it “open and close and never be seen or heard from again. We’ve had a few productions done by other companies around the country but we don’t have any involvement in that.”

Now that they are under one roof, yet remain distinct companies with individual bank accounts, EST-LA and Circle X members count on each artistic director to bring in talent, strong scripts and funds, all to help each company better control its destiny. And since the two companies share overhead expenses, what is good for one is good for all.

BENEFITS OF HAVING A HOME

McFadden has a bevy of professional contacts after her time aboard Gene Roddenberry’s Star Ship Enterprise. “I have several friends from Star Trek who are interested in getting involved with the company. I’ve also been teaching in a lot of university theater programs so I have a lot of connections there. I’ve been talking with USC about collaborating. There’s a great excitement about giving students a place to learn, to apprentice.” Having a home, she and Wright agree, benefits the community as well as these formerly nomadic companies.

McFadden points out that a lot of company artists have been involved in arts education. “And when you don’t have a community in which your theater company really lives, it’s hard to do outreach. We have so many more opportunities now that we’re in one community.” On the day McFadden and Wright met with LA Stage Times, for example, she says someone walked in from the neighborhood who wanted to volunteer. “I adore this area. I feel at home here. I think that’s part of the excitement for me.”

Annika Marks as “Lulu” in Mlle. God

While McFadden and Wright agree their relationship is synergistic, especially when they look at material and address their concerns for the companies, Wright adds there are places where they diverge.

“That has to do mostly with putting together the space. It’s been a real steep learning curve for both of us. When technical issues come up, they usually fall to me. I think Gates has a better idea of the bigger picture of how the space works and looks.”

“We’ve already talked about a joint production next season,” says McFadden. “It’s a play that we’re both excited about. It would be the first all-out joint production between the two companies.”

As they head into the 2011 season, with fully produced shows and late night fare including Circle X’s Fringe hit Violators Will Be Violated, the two step back and look beyond the concrete block exterior and not-yet-finished outdoor patio. As Wright explains, “I think the place where we’re just starting to get going is the creation of the Atwater Village Theatre as a whole, both as a presenting entity and, hopefully, an opportunity to help not just Circle X and EST-LA but also other not-for-profits in Los Angeles. We want to help them with projects they’re excited about, too.”

When asked what they need to make that happen, they look at each other a moment. “Money,” Wright says. “Yeah, it comes to more capacity for both companies which means money. We need donor support and audiences. If the shows are successful and people are excited about us and if there’s enough attention, I think we can do this for a long time. I don’t know if there’s anything in town quite like what we’re trying to accomplish at this level, to work collaboratively and present new plays in this fashion. We’re both heavily invested personally as well as through the companies — time, resources, whatever we have. We’re just here giving it everything we’ve got because it’s so important.”

Some roles in Mlle. God are double-cast. “Models” actors are Robert Trebor, Gary Patent, William Duffy, Laura Beckner, Keith Bolden, Jacqueline Wright, Annika Marks, Will Harris, Kareem Ferguson and John Nielsen. “Muses” actors are Keith Szarabajika, Tasso Feldman, Andy Laur, Kim Chueh, Jon Kellam and Heather Robinson with Marks, Harris, Ferguson and Nielsen repeating.

Mlle. God, presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre–Los Angeles, opens Jan. 28; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 and 7 pm; until March 6. Tickets: $20-$25; on Thur., Feb. 3 and 10, pay-what-you-can (purchase at door, subject to availability). Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village (on-site free parking); 323.644.1929 or ensemblestudiotheatre.org.

Steve Julian

Steve Julian

Steve was KPCC's host for Morning Edition, an actor, and director from Southern California. He served on the boards of two theater companies and wrote about theater for LA STAGE Times. Steve passed away in April of 2016, and will be sorely missed by the Los Angeles creative community, his family, and friends.