Gary Ballard

Gary Ballard

Red Dog Squadron Gets Greedy

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Red Dog Squadron co-artistic directors James Roday and Brad Raider

Roday, Raider and Red Dog. Kinda rolls off the tongue, huh? But who””or what””are they? A rock group? A trio of swashbucklers? Surely not a stock brokerage or a law firm.

No, the first two are the founding co-artistic directors of the third””Red Dog Squadron, one of LA’s youngest production companies with only its seventh play set to open Jan. 8 at El Centro Theatre.

Let’s reconnoiter through their early years to bring us up to speed. Philadelphia-born Brad Raider states, “I was one of those boring kids who always knew what I wanted to do. I never wanted to be an astronaut or fireman or Indian chief. I wanted to play them. That way I could be each one of those and many more during my one lifetime.”

Fortunately for him he met a mentor in high school who put him on a path palatable to his passion. “Tom Stretton was a director who greatly encouraged me. I was lucky to do a one-person play under his guidance. We spent a year shifting through the autobiography of Frank Capra to write this play we called Frankly Capra. Bob Kelly Make-up in New York aged me from 18 to about 75.”

James Roday meanwhile, born almost a year later in San Antonio under his real name James David Rodriguez, grew up with a dad in the military and a mother who was a school teacher. He remembers, “Both experienced my journey into acting, but they found it challenging because they had no context for it. There was no way they could wrap their heads around it. Still in their own way they were encouraging to the extent that when I began to achieve some success at it, they said, “˜We always knew you’d do it.’ That was a belief in a son they loved more than the course he’d chosen.”

Both young fellows found their way to the Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU where they came under the influence of Kevin Kuhlke who ran the program there. Raider recalls, “He became the catalyst for James and me meeting when he cast us both in Marat/Sade.”

It was also at NYU that young Rodriguez became Roday. He explains, “I was in my final year there when through a happy accident I met an agent who got me an audition for a TV pilot [Ryan Caulfield: Year One] before I’d even graduated. Lo and behold I booked it. So there I was 21 years old and didn’t even know what a pilot was when these network executives flew me to LA to discuss my career.

“They told me I needed to consider a name change. I’m half Mexican on my father’s side. The catch is I look like a white guy with a Latino name. They were afraid they’d get in trouble with the groups advocating for greater diversity in TV programming if they gave a role to a Latino who didn’t look Mexican. I was so overwhelmed by the whole process, if they had told me to lop off my pinkie, I would’ve done it.”

Ivana Milicevic and Peter Mackenzie

Traveling back to finish his last two months at theater school, he discussed it with his friends in the cast of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in which he was playing the role of Vladimir Karlovich Rode. “It came to a vote. That name, changed slightly in spelling but letting me keep my same initials, won out. Today when I meet people who look at me, hear my name and ask about my ethnicity, I never know whether to tell this whole story or simply to lie about it. I’ve found it’s certainly simpler and easier to just say “˜I’m French Bolshevik’ and let them blink in confusion a minute or two and go on.”

Along about this same time Raider wrote, produced, directed and played a role in an 18-minute short film entitled Old Wives’ Tail. He relates, “I was living in the SoHo district of New York, which sounds a lot better than it was because it was three of us guys crammed into a $1600 a month two-bedroom apartment.

“I befriended a lady in her 80s who had been living in the exact same size apartment in the building since the 1940s and who was paying due to rent control””now get ready for this””only $150 a month. I thought, “˜Man, I’ve been a great neighbor. Maybe I can get her to leave me the apartment in her will.’ My friend working in real estate told me the only way the law allows the transfer of rental property by will is from the deceased to a spouse. That sowed the seeds for this film where a guy schemes to marry his elderly neighbor to inherit her rent-controlled apartment. That lady, by the way, still lives in the same place. She’s in her 90s now.”

Shortly after graduation Raider and Roday, in a continuation of their friendship and mutual respect from their work on Marat/Sade, mounted a production of Henry V at the Mazer Theatre off-Broadway, enlisting Laurie Wessely to direct. That was in 1999. They didn’t put up their second production until 2002, this time on the opposite coast.

“I came here in ’99,” says Roday. “Brad came out in 2000. So many actors come to LA and begin to forget why they wanted to be actors in the first place.”

Maggie Lawson and Brad Raider

Raider picks up the thread, “We didn’t know much about theater in LA. It had a rather shady reputation. But we decided to throw our hat in the ring.”

That decision was not a full-blown foregone conclusion, as evidenced by the three years it took them to produce their sophomore effort. Roday offers some reasons why. “We’re in a culture resistant to theater. I mean here in LA specifically. People in New York embrace theater in a huge way. In LA the stigma is bad. Don’t get me wrong. You can see some bad theater in New York as well. It’s just that people are more reluctant to invest in it here. If they see one bad play, they’re ready to write them all off. I guess they figure it costs 20 bucks to see a play when they can spend 12 dollars on a movie and have enough left over for a drink afterwards.”

They resolved to tackle the West Coast drama scene with David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago at the Hollywood Stella Adler Studio Theatre. Raider remembers, “James was playing Danny. I was playing Bernie. In rehearsals when we got to the bit where Bernie is telling about his sexual encounter with the chick who starts yelling “˜Red dog squadron to red dog one’, we went “˜Hey!’ We’d been discussing how we needed to call ourselves something. We felt this was it.”

Roday adds, “We wanted to keep ourselves anonymous to a degree in the interest of justifying a true company because we do theater for the love of the game.”

Although they love the game, they don’t play it that often, producing only four shows since that 2002 outing, which is not to say they’ve grown lazy or remained idle.

Opportunity came calling with its characteristic companion success in those other media for which Hollywood grew famous. Raider booked the independent features Greener Mountains, Americanizing Shelley and Loss Control, guest starring roles on Better Off Ted, Jericho and Flash Forward and became a series regular on both The Trouble With Normal and That Was Then.

Roday likewise hit the big screen in The Dukes of Hazzard, Rolling Kansas and Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking and also landed a couple of TV series regular assignments in Miss Match and the lead in Psych,where he also wrote and directed a few episodes.

Brad Raider and Maggie Lawson

The fact they consider stage at all perhaps merits applause in itself. Roday champions it with the explanation, “Even when a film experience is a great one, there’s a giant lens separating you from the audience. With stage you are right there. Everyone feels it immediately.”

Raider agrees and follows up, “We’ve only done a show every couple of years because of our schedules. Now we want to start doing at least one every year like a real company would.”

Roday continues, “We’re building toward a permanent company. We’ve had the same costume designer since we started. We now have a resident lighting designer. We’ve found who we hope will be our production stage manager forever. Brad has acted in every show save one. Amanda Detmer has done all our shows except Sexual Perversity. Kurt Fuller is now in rehearsal on his second show with us. We want to emphasize Red Dog, not us. We want to throw any sense of hierarchy out the window. There’s no such thing as a bad question. And a good idea can come from anywhere.”

Raider adds, “I firmly believe great artists inspire one another. James and I are real fans of Matt Shakman at the Black Dahlia Theatre. He’s always an inspiration to us.”

Roday seconds the opinion, “Matt is a good model for us. He’s so busy it’s crazy but he still does it. Whenever we ask him for advice, he’s always so generous and gracious with his time.”

They acknowledge L A’s growing awareness of its stage potential even while remaining cognizant of theater’s much younger and some would say brawnier step-brother ensconced in all the major studios around town. “Stage companies are conscious of other companies’ work for sure,” says Roday, “because there’s a certain sense of having to keep up with the Joneses. We’re a little late to the party so we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

“Theaters though are playing the same game as movies and TV, where they’re seeking name talent to draw butts to their seats instead of just doing a good show with good actors. Shows with no names attached are usually the shows nobody much sees. It shouldn’t matter if you have recognizable actors on stage if you’ve got a good reputation for doing high quality work. If that’s the bus we have to ride for now, then of course we’re gonna ride it but I’m looking forward to the day when all you need to hear are the words Red Dog Squadron to make you want to see us.”

Ivana Milicevic and Amanda Detmer

That day may be just over a near horizon. Their last play, Extinction by Gabe McKinley, had its world premiere at LA’s Elephant Space Theatre and then transferred to off- Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre. “With the attention we got from Extinction,” says Raider, “we felt confident about throwing our net a little wider, so we put postings up on various playwriting websites and got a crop of scripts.”

“It was lightning in a bottle, a first for us,” Roday concurs. “We got a lot of submissions, so many it’s keeping the two of us busy reading.”

Raider reports, “We read more submissions in 2010 than ever. This current crop will take us easily into the year to sift through and read them all. We’re looking for something subversive, exciting and profound with great characters and great dialogue. We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves, although I have to admit what we’ve done so far has been on the dark side and our next selection is not an exception to that. James and I love all ranges of stories. We’ve just so far gravitated toward those with elements of danger. But we’ve also discussed how fun it will be for us to do something wildly different up ahead.”

They’re not too greedy to grab at something “wildly different” just yet, however, as their next production demonstrates. It’s called””quite simply””Greedy and is a West Coast premiere by Karl Gajdusek, who saw it first produced by Clubbed Thumb at New York’s Ohio Theatre in 2007.

Raider insists, “Karl has done some great work on his rewrites with some really good new stuff in it. James is a wonderful director as always. The cast we’ve put together is a tight unit. We’ve been very much in our own little rehearsal world which couldn’t be better.”

Roday affirms, “Greedy was the best of all the submissions we’ve read so far. In fact Karl submitted three plays himself. This is the first time I’ve directed something I haven’t also written. I wanted the responsibility of seeing if I could measure up. On Psych I’ve directed myself a few times but always with an assistant to keep an eye on me to make sure I don’t suck in the acting department. Comparatively speaking, it’s really, really hard for me to care about my acting when I’m directing. I’ve done the role in Psych for five years so essentially I can do it in my sleep now, which doesn’t excuse me from being sloppy with it.

“Many times [when directing Psych] I’ve yelled cut, felt pleased and ready to move on when my assistant ran over to say, “˜Uh, no, you didn’t have it that time. You need to do it over.’ With film you can do one scene at a time, reshoot it, edit it, try different angles; you have so many tools you can use. On stage you can’t. I’ve never directed myself on stage. I can’t imagine I ever would. I’m not sure what you’d be proving even if you pulled it off.

“So I wanted to see with this play if I could serve someone else’s vision. I wanted Karl around though. I appreciated his presence. I didn’t know beforehand how much I would dig it. I’d get off my soapbox with the actors and look around to see if Karl had a huge frown on his face at what I’d just said.”

Maggie Lawson and Brad Raider

Raider testifies his partner and friend ran a rehearsal schedule devoid of the kinds of stress conducive to frowns. Now they’re fast approaching their seventh production in a little over a decade and planning their next decade.

“Our long-term goals include producing more often so we can see what Red Dog can become in the community,” says Raider.

To which Roday adds, “Extinction gave us a certain prominence. Greedy is bringing us some expectations. We’re hoping and believe Red Dog Squadron can move from lower case to upper case in recognizability. I want as many people as possible in LA to start believing in coming to the theater. If the theater community in town can establish two or three go-to venues everyone considers essential, maybe we can grow that to 10 or 15 go-tos in the future.”

Raider wraps it up, “We’re developing an idea for a children’s outreach we’ll call Red Pups where we’ll be teaching kids acting and the value of play and ensemble and how to keep their imaginations alive. They already know how to use imagination; this will be encouragement for them to keep using it as they grow older. We both love kids. Our friends love kids. It’s a natural extension for us. Obviously we’d love our own space someday. It’s too prohibitive cost-wise right now but not for always.”

Red Dog, Raider and Roday: remember, recommend, rally “˜round.

Production photos by Kurt Boetcher

Greedy, produced by Andrew Crabtree for Red Dog Squadron, opens Jan. 8 (previews Jan. 6-7); plays Thur.-Sun., 8 pm; through Jan. 29. Tickets: $20. El Centro Theatre, 804 El Centro Ave., Hollywood;

What is ‘Devised Theatre’? 

“Devised theatre can be exceptional at highlighting underrepresented narratives in the world. Since everyone’s voice from the group is an integral component in the process, more perspectives get sifted through while collaborating.”

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