Sandwiched between two beauty salons on Venice Boulevard, the three-stage Pacific Resident Theatre (PRT) complex does not look like the home of a critically acclaimed theater company celebrating its 25th season. No play title has yet appeared on the marquee when I arrive to interview the director and playwright of PRT’s upcoming show — the premiere of Jennifer Rowland’s comedy, The Indians are Coming to Dinner, directed by PRT’s founding artistic director Julia Fletcher. Frosted glass and white boards cover the store-front windows.
But once I’m inside, those first impressions change. Maroon, velvet curtains frame the entrance to a cozy room with three Victorian-styled, cushioned couches, an upright piano, and walls covered with photos from past shows.
The contrast between PRT’s plain faÃ§ade and its homey interior illustrates L.A. theater culture as described by Fletcher and Rowland during our hour-long conversation on the play’s set. In this sprawling city, theaters and theatergoers can be hard to find. From the outside, PRT does not look like a company that supports the creative lives of more than 150 theater professionals and has one of the most loyal subscriber bases in L.A.
For Fletcher and Rowland, however, small theaters such as PRT, rather than Center Theatre Group’s theaters or the Geffen Playhouse, define L.A. theater. They both agree that to succeed in LA theater, aspiring directors and playwrights should attach themselves to small theaters, like PRT. As the founding artistic director of PRT, Fletcher helped create the home that has supported Rowland’s development as a playwright and now Fletcher’s own return to directing after a 20-year hiatus.
San Francisco roots
Rowland’s and Fletcher’s distinct styles belie their shared theatrical roots.Â Rowland keeps her arms tucked at her sides, only occasionally raising her hands to make quick back-and-forth movements in the air to illustrate the fast-paced dialogue she admires. Fletcher frequently stages her stories with her hands on the set’s formal dining room table, where we sit.
As the two women discuss their theatrical experiences, both repeatedly refer to their training at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT). Although Fletcher and Rowland did not meet at ACT, their tenures there overlapped. When Fletcher was in ACT’s advanced training program for actors, Rowland attended its Young Conservatory. Fletcher admitted that when she first read The Indians are Coming to Dinner, she thought, “This should really be at the Geary [ACT’s theater].” The play takes place on multiple levels and in several rooms of a wealthy family’s house ““ a challenging set to construct on PRT’s small stage. In response to Fletcher’s Geary allusion, Rowland laughs, “It’s my ideal theater. It wasn’t consciously but probably that was in my head. [ACT] was a fantastic education.”
Finding and re-finding an LA home
At ACT, Fletcher met many of the people with whom she would start PRT. When she moved to LA, she found herself among a large group of bored theater professionals, many from ACT. Six months later, she created PRT because she wanted a place where she could continue to develop her skills. Initially, that place was company member Bud Leslie’s living room.
“First we were getting together in someone’s living room and then it just progressed from there… The initial vision, of course, was how do we keep ourselves from going crazy and how do we keep our creative inner lives awake?”
PRT’s success launched Fletcher’s acting career. After five years as artistic director, she left PRT for out-of-town acting jobs.Â She did not work at PRT or as a director for 20 years.
Now, the artistic home that Fletcher helped establish has supported her return to directing. Although Fletcher continued acting, she stopped directing after the birth of her children. Because she wanted to stay with her children when they were little, she “took an enormous hiatus from directing and a brief one from acting.” When both children were in high school, she started thinking about what else she wanted.Â Â She decided she wanted to direct.
“About a year ago, I looked at myself and said, what do I care about? What might be my greatest contribution other than my children? So I made a conscious decision to go after finding directing work.”
Two weeks later, after Fletcher mentioned her decision to PRT founding member Sarah Zinsser at a birthday party, Zinsser called to ask her to direct Funny Mirrors at PRT’s workshop-oriented Co-op. When she found the cast evenly divided between people from PRT’s founding members and people she did not know, she thought, “This is too good to be true.” She identifies the new relationships that she has developed through directing Funny Mirrors and The Indians are Coming to Dinner as the most satisfying aspect of her return to directing.
Rowland, too, cites the relationships that PRT has fostered as her favorite part of this production. Zinsser also facilitated Rowland’s connection to PRT. When Zinsser directed Rowland’s werewolf scene at a PRT 24-hour play festival, the two hit it off.Â Zinsser then directed Rowland’s play The Contest at the Co-op ““ a play that had subsequent productions at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Powerhouse in Santa Monica. PRT has now become Rowland’s artistic home. She started The Indians are Coming to Dinner in a PRT writers’ group, used the Co-op for readings and workshop productions of several pieces, and now has written a mainstage production.
For Fletcher and Rowland, PRT’s strong subscriber base and support for its members’ projects makes it an ideal LA home. In a city where performers sometimes outnumber audience members, PRT fills its audiences with subscribers whom Fletcher describes as thoughtful lovers of theater. The playwright and director agree that PRT’s reputation for consistently high-quality performances attracts this loyal subscriber base. They also emphasize what they see as the uniqueness of PRT’s Co-op. They both marvel at the freedom and support that the Co-op provides members.
“In the Co-op you can try anything you want to try. . . . you’re totally supported,” Fletcher states. “If you want to do a Co-op show, [you’re told] ‘here’s your little budget, go with it’.”
Rowland chimes in, “Here’s your budget, here are your dates.”
Fletcher concludes, “That doesn’t happen anywhere else that I’m aware of.” In addition to this financial support for members’ artistic pursuits, the company also has what Fletcher calls a warm tone that makes the membership feel like “a family endeavor.”
The Indians are Coming to Dinner
Neither woman, however, romanticizes theater life. The persistently low number of female directors hired (16%) and playwrights produced (17%) by theaters nationwide frustrates and mystifies them (statistics from studies cited on L.A. Female Playwrights Initiative website: www.lafpi.com).
When we enter the theater for the interview, an industrial vacuum cleaner occupies center stage. The night before, a roof leak had soaked several chairs but luckily spared the newly laid parquet floor. The production has gone through two ingénues, delaying the play’s opening twice.
Rowland’s plays examine the struggles and disappointments that artistic careers often entail. The Indians are Coming to Dinner pursues this theme through the conflict between a father and daughter. The father, played by Michael Rothhaar, has his last chance to realize his youthful dream at the same moment that his daughter, played by Thea Rubley, has her first chance to launch her dream. The daughter must choose between her father’s and her own needs. Rowland explains that the play, as do her others, hides heartbreak under fast-paced dialogue and silly action.
This combination of screwball comedy and introspection attracted Fletcher to the play. “It has elements of screwball comedy but [it’s] also very truthful about family issues and identity issues. How do you become the person you become given your background? I hope that it makes people think about all of those unspoken expectations that your parents had of you, that you have of your children, that you have of yourself.”
Both women believe that the play will not only entertain but also provoke reflection.Â Toward the end of our interview, Rowland promises, “You will laugh and have plenty to talk about.”
The portrait of Nancy and Ronald Reagan that hangs on the set’s back wall marks the play’s time period as the early 1980s. Fletcher started PRT in the same era ““ an era that saw severe cuts and debates about the arts. She returns to PRT and directing during a different era of economic hardship.Â A play that explores the challenges of pursuing an artistic career appears to be a fitting vehicle for her return.
The Indians are Coming to Dinner, presented by Pacific Resident Theatre. Opens January 28. Plays Thu- Sat, 8 pm; Sun 3 pm. Closes March 25. Tickets $20-$28. Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. 310-822-8392. www.pacificresidenttheatre.com.
*All The Indians are Coming to Dinner production photos by Vitor Martins
Alison M. Hills, Ph.D.. is a playwright, essayist, and dramaturge. Her plays have been produced at Stanford University and UCLA, where they won playwriting competitions. She wrote and performed a piece for an L.A. production of Expressing Motherhood.Â She co-produces ALAP’s (Alliance of L.A. Playwrights) New Works Lab with local L.A. theaters.