Directors Lab West 2012, Days 1-2

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Attending directors Gathered in the Pasadena Playhouse Library

(All this week Doug Oliphant and Danielle Oliver will blog about Directors Lab West 2012. Oliphant is DLW’s production coordinator; Oliver is his intern.)

Each year the Lab chooses a theme around which it will base all its sessions, as well as a play around which it organizes many of its group workshops. For 2012 the theme is “Movers and Shakers” and the text is Spring Awakening.

Is it that time already? Seems like just yesterday I was with the 2011 Directors Lab West, mingling among the TCG Conference attendees, meeting Marc Masterson on his eighth day at South Coast Repertory as the new artistic director and experiencing The Car Plays in the Radar L.A. Festival. Time flies, and the 2012 Lab is upon us at last.

Doug Oliphant and Danielle Oliver

Though we don’t have the privilege of mixing with all the conferences that take place at the same time as our Lab, this year we’ve got a whole slew of movement sessions planned, eight different performances we’ll be attending, and an incredible panel of five Southern California LORT artistic directors to look forward to. And this year, I’m joined in writing these blogs with one of our interns, Danielle Oliver. She and I will trade off days we cover, and here she is to recap the first day.

Saturday, May 19 by Danielle Oliver


Check-in and Orientation

We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful Pasadena morning to jump-start this year’s Lab. The sun, as if to embrace the cliché, grew brighter as each participant came into the courtyard of the Playhouse — our familiar Lab host and site we’ve already started referring to as “campus.” Nametags were given out, small talk was made, and then we were off to the cool shade of the library to be, well, orientated.

We were welcomed by members of the steering committee Ernest Figueroa, Kappy Kilburn, Che’Rae Adams, Jessica Bard and Cindy Marie Jenkins. We were fed rules, regulations and Figueroa’s traditional Lab motto — uttered originally by Anne Cattaneo, this year’s honorary chair — “You are the future of American theater!” Heck, yes, we are. And we were also pleased to hear we’re the Lab’s lucky year 13. Bring it on.

I Am Sheldon, Hear Me Roar

Panel: Sheldon Epps

Directors Lab West steering committee member Kappy Kilburn with Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps

Orientation wouldn’t have been complete without two things: The first, the pizza and soda. The second, a chat with Pasadena Playhouse artistic director and our kind host, Sheldon Epps. After giving us a bit of history, both his own and the theater’s, he provided a few words of wisdom. Here are my favorite highlights:

“You can only become a national theater by doing new work,” said Epps. When questioned about his own artistic process for selecting a season, he characterized his tastes as eclectic, often employing a food/menu metaphor. He articulated his desire to present audiences with Greek one night, Chinese another, soul food another. And furthermore, he made it known that new work is just as important as the canon when it comes to theatrical tradition and relevance.

“Your audition process is your first date,” said Epps, speaking about the humanity of the actor intersecting with the humanity of the characters they play. He emphasized getting to know the actors we direct — and not to overlook who they are as people, basing directorial decisions off their textual characters alone.

We Don’t Need No Playwright

Panel: Guillermo Aviles-Rodríguez, Matt Almos, Leilani Chan

“We want to make theater a verb again.”  — Guillermo Avilés-Rodríguez

We walked the few steps to the Carrie Hamilton Theatre for a panel on devised work. I’m not sure any of us expected to encounter three such distinctly different artists discussing a type of theater about which they felt so strongly. As it turns out, “devised” is a loaded word. Guillermo Avilés-Rodríguez, artistic director of Watts Village Theater Company, spoke of his mission to break the barriers of traditional work. It’s important, he argued, that we shift from the tradition of “theater as location” to “theater as action.” Appropriately, his work has included incredible, collaborative theatrical performances (or, to amend myself, experiences) in the LA Metro. Our theme this year is “Movers and Shakers,” and it would be impossible to not see how Avilés-Rodríguez fits this requirement perfectly.

“Our plays are often humiliating to perform.”Matt Almos

Matt Almos of “Burglers of Hamm”

Matt Almos, founding partner and director of Burglars of Hamm, also embraces the collaborative process. Like Epps earlier in the day, Almos spoke of a successful process relying on the fabric of the individuals involved. He attributes fruitful collaboration to knowing your collaborators well, to sticking by the relationships that work best. We watched a photo slideshow of previous Burglars productions, and the photos alone had the room laughing. The images and Almos’ candor portrayed risk-taking, detail-driven satire, out-of-the-box thinking and a willingness to embrace ambiguity.

Leilani Chan of TeAda Productions contributed a lot to the conversation of devised theater being inextricably tied to community. Like Almos and Avilés-Rodrí­guez, she expressed a need to focus on audience and to include audience in performance so it becomes a shared experience. Creator of Refugee Nation, a touring play about Laotian refugees in the U.S., Chan said her mission is to give a collective voice to many shared, individual, often silent stories.

Dancing from the Heart

Panel: Vincent Paterson

Lab members Angela Batravil and Wolfgang Wachalovsky improvise a scene

At this point, we were all getting a bit comfy in the Carrie Hamilton Theatre. It was coming closer to the end of the evening, and many of us had turned to caffeine for a bit of a boost. We didn’t know we’d be getting a different sort of pick-me-up in this next panel. When the moderators asked Vincent Paterson to give us a bit of his biography, he quickly said, “You’ve all probably seen me before but have no idea where.” Boy, was he right. If you’re reading this and don’t know who Paterson is, you should probably just Google him. Really, go ahead. But here are some keywords if you’re feeling particularly lazy: Choreographer. Director. Dancer. Madonna’s “Vogue.” “Express Yourself.” Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” “Thriller” zombie dancer. Opera. Cirque du Soleil. Must stop. Head will explode.

If his accomplishments didn’t blow us away, his personality did. My absolute favorite quote from his 1.5-hour session was: “I still believe theater is the place where magic really happens.” It seemed to be the undercurrent for much if not all of his work, and the tiny Carrie Hamilton stage grew much larger beneath all his enthusiasm and his candor. He briefly commented on the current trend of producing spectacle-oriented theater that “leaves you sitting at back of your seat instead of on the edge of it.” Funny enough, Figueroa commented post-panel that he noticed all of us at the edge of our seats by the end. Well played, Paterson. I think we got the point.

We rounded out the day with a smashing performance of The Heiress at the Pasadena Playhouse. (Can we talk about how great the lighting design was? Do we even have time? No! Because we have to get ready for tomorrow!)

Sunday, May 20 by Doug Oliphant


Anne’s Greetings from Afar

Discussion (Via Skype): Anne Cattaneo

“The size of the venue matters less than the size of the artistry.” — Anne Cattaneo

Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab Founder Anne Cattaneo via Skype

We started off the second day like any live, televised theater awards ceremony”” filled with technical difficulties. The plan was to use Skype to video chat with Cattaneo, founder of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab. She had just returned to NYC from a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, and was unable to join us in person this year, so naturally, technology is the next best way to include her, right?

Well in theory, yes, but in practice, no. It came down to two choices — use my PC and not have a microphone for her to hear us, or use a Lab attendee’s Mac and not be able to connect the projector to the computer. We settled for no sound on our end, and a large, audible projected version of Cattaneo spoke to a silent Directors Lab West about the history of the Lincoln Center Lab and current plans for this year’s Lab, and answered individual questions. That was fun, as each person with a question came up to the computer, waved in silence to Cattaneo and then typed his or her question. Cattaneo would respond, the questioner would smile and give a thumbs up, and we’d move on to the next question from there. For all the difficulties this session presented, it proved an enjoyable experience, and any chance to hear Cattaneo speak passionately about this now-international Directors Lab movement she created is a privilege in and of itself.

Impro Awakening

Workshop: Dan O’Connor and Paul Rogan

“We try not to have great ideas.” — Dan O’Connor DLW ’08, Impro Theatre

Two previous alums, Dan O’Connor (DLW ’08) and Paul Rogan (DLW ’09) led a hands-on workshop on Impro Theatre, their unique company that presents improvised plays based on the world of an already existing play. As an example, O’Connor spoke about a takeoff on Chekhov’s The Seagull, in which the characters spoke of a duck, frozen in the center of the lake and ending with the ice being broken through and the frozen duck retrieved. O’Connor and Rogan then led the directors through a series of idea-generating exercises their company uses, pairing everyone up and generating improvised stories with each other. This eventually tied in to Spring Awakening. Three characters who do not exist in the play (or musical), but could have, were invented by the directors. Then, the three characters came to life in an improvised scene, involving a lisping bully trying to win the affection of a large-breasted girl cleaning a classroom, only to be thwarted by her love, the bully’s punching bag””a short, cherub-like, voice-never-got-deeper boy. Comedy ensued, and it was good.

Café Vida and Roundtable #1

Performance: Cornerstone Theater Company

(about Café Vida) “Just watching the curtain call was great for me.”  — Lisa Hopkins (DLW ’12)

Katja Rivera and Brian Robertson

The afternoon saw the directors attending Cornerstone Theater Company’s production of Café Vida at Los Angeles Theatre Center in Downtown LA. A heated roundtable discussion immediately followed the production, where 35 different opinions on the show and what is right and wrong were thrown back and forth.

As directors, we have our own specific system of beliefs in “the ideal production,” so naturally a show presented with nonprofessional actors will prompt a variety of opinions on the positives and negatives of this kind of theater. Opinions aside, one of the most apparent things that this show did was bring together a wide range of people. Looking around the audience, I saw old people, young people, middle-aged people with babies on their laps, white people, black people, Latinos, wealthy, poor, and everyone in-between””all in a sold-out Sunday matinee performance in a 250-seat theater in LA. I think that’s an incredible thing, and no matter what group audience members belonged to, they seemed to genuinely connect with the story. Anyone still honestly think LA is not a theater town?


Performance: Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre and Little Ethiopia Cultural Group

To close out the day, we headed into Koreatown to an empty lot next to a large Ralphs supermarket. In the center of this dirt lot was a three-story scaffolding structure, surrounded by work lights, soon to be danced upon by Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre and Little Ethiopia Cultural Group.

And dance they did, doing everything from shoulder-isolation movement, to flagpole feats of strength, to fights with metal bars. The dancers of HDDT even made their entrance blowing donuts in a car on the dirt opposite the audience before parking and running toward the structure to begin their physical journey.

Both companies brought their own unique style in their individual performances, and came together at the end for ceremonial-like wrapping of the structure in plastic, breaking through it for their curtain call. With the solar eclipse sun/moon setting on this beautiful dance piece, it was a great ending to another day of director/choreographer inspiration.

Directors Lab West is a forum that brings theater directors together with peers and seasoned professionals for an opportunity to collaborate and grow together as artists. Directors Lab West is modeled after the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab in New York City. Like its NY counterpart, the Lab is a series of discussions, working sessions, panels and symposia with some of the nation’s and region’s leading directors, playwrights, designers and other theater practitioners.

***All photos by Danielle Oliver

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Doug Oliphant and Danielle Oliver

Doug Oliphant and Danielle Oliver