French Stewart

French Stewart

LA Small Theater — Weird Little Pirate Ships

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French Stewart

About 25 years ago I did my first play in L.A.,  in a stinky dump called Galaxy Stage near Western and Santa Monica. We were required to clean toilets, mop the floor and not ask questions about money. At night they used our set to film porn, and on your way out of the theater, a certain “pant-less gentleman” might pee at you. Yes. At you!

It’s pretty common in the world of small theater. It’s what you’d call “local color.” With no centralized drama district to speak of, our theaters float in weird neighborhoods like weird little pirate ships. Over the years, just outside some of LA’s small theaters,  I’ve been lucky enough to witness (and this is true) – an angry Honduran man whipping a crack-head with jumper cables, a shirtless octogenarian “looking for a date”, and a raccoon who walked upright to intimidate people.

On the up side, I’ve seen a 70-year-old actress have a stroke at intermission — and still finish the show. I’ve seen a tech staff perform electronic miracles (when all hope was lost) and a sick actor vomit in his hat and still get his laugh. Ta-da!

French Stewart as Sigmund Freud in "Watson" at Sacred Fools

I find true hope in this. In a modern world where entertainment flows directly into your home, this might be hard to understand. Television, computers and even your phone are all capable of  “drowning” you with easy entertainment at the push of a button. So why small theater? A couple of years ago I told a friend I was doing another play and she seemed really perplexed. “Why are you still doing this, French? It’s an irrelevant art form. You might as well concentrate on CAVE PAINTING!”

Indeed. For me it’s really simple. It’s a small group of people making something for another small group of people. It’s the same feeling you get when someone sends you an actual letter, prepares a meal for you, or helps you move furniture. It’s personal. Time has been taken, effort expressed. It connects both parties in a very direct way. Plus, you’ve  had an experience that isn’t held hostage on hard drive or film. It’s the sole property of memory. Lovely.

This year I had the joy of connecting my longtime theater company (the Justin Tanners) with my new theater company ( the Sacred Fools). We did Tanner’s play (Voice Lessons) at the Fools and the merge was seamless. Two pirates! One ship! Awesome!

It’s what theater should be. A brotherhood. A bunch of weirdos puttin’ up a show. For better or worse, richer or poorer, wrinkled or no, full house or not, spooks on the street. Community.

Two years ago I met my wife Vanessa [Claire Smith] in a “green room romance” at the Geffen. She was doing Louis & Keely ““ Live At The Sahara (which she originated at Sacred Fools), and I was working with Matthew Modine in the big theater. I would hit on her, she would laugh, and Matthew Modine would throw a giant water bottle the length of the hall. (He just really liked the sound.) At this point Vanessa and Jake Broder would perform a “light saber battle” using iPhones or she and Erin Matthews would perform “Robot vs Prospector” (trust me, it’s hilarious). Jack-assery!

Scott Leggett and Henry Dittman in "Watson"

On opening night she invited me to a tiki bar in North Hollywood. Conversation was easy, we got super hammered, and then we made out on her car. Yes, on it. We were never apart again. I found my personal pirate! Theater.

We got married in June. It was the best day of my life. My “best mate” was Jon Palmer (a Tanner), and a bunch of other Tanners/Fools flew to New Orleans to be at our wedding. We got married at Preservation Hall. I wrote my vows and Vanessa sang “Come Rain or Come Shine” for hers. Theater. We did second line down St. Peter Street with family, friends, the Preservation Hall Band and two motorcycle cops. Theater. We had our reception at the Napoleon House (built for Napoleon to flee. Never made it. Pirates?) It was a bunch of actors singing, drinking, doing the electric slide. Great theater.

Afterward we all went to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar — named after the pirate Jean Lafitte.  It’s the oldest bar in America, and there’s a fireplace so you can smelt your sword. (Oh, and he also put people in it.) At the end of the evening, my friend Dave Franklin (the best stage manager in town ““ and fantastic hard-ass) came up to me. “That was awesome!” All I heard was “Great show!”

French Stewart and new wife Vanessa Claire Smith do second line down New Orleans' Saint Peter Street following their June marriage at Preservation Hall

After the wedding, Vanessa and I got on a big dopey cruise. We sang karaoke every night (our “Love Shack” has gotten really good) and I performed on the ship with Second City. “On your honeymoon, French Stewart? Your time of love?” Yes. I’m a full-time pirate. Even at actual sea.

Things have settled, and I’m back with the Fools performing in Watson, a beautiful play.

Backstage, we do a pedophile-themed vocal warm up (“get in the van, I’m a family friend, get in the van, I’m a family friend”¦”) and in front of the theater I regularly get hassled for smoking while dressed as the Queen of England. Business as usual. All is right with the world. Smooth sailing on the Ship of Fools. Yar.

P.S. ““ Come see Watson at the Sacred Fools! One week left! Tickets are going fast! Ha!

**Production photos by Brian Taylor

Watson: The Last Great Tale of The Legendary Sherlock Holmes. Written and directed by Jaime Robledo. Return engagement of Ovation-recommended play at Sacred Fools Theater, 660 Heliotrope Dr., LA.  Thurs.-Sat. 8 pm. Through Saturday, August 20. Tickets: $25.  310-281-8337. www.SacredFools.org.

French Stewart has been an artist in residence for Justin Tanner’s company for 25 years. He is also a member of the Sacred Fools Theatre, where he is currently producing and performing in Watson. His animated show for Fox will premiere in the fall.