SCR and Pasadena Playhouse Share a Ride With Jitney

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Ellis E. Williams, David McKnight and Larry Bates in “Jitney”

Pasadena Playhouse audiences may have to wait until 2013 to catch the premiere of the musical Sleepless in Seattle, but a fortuitous bit of timing and a quickly struck agreement between two of Southern California’s oldest and best established theaters will insure that the reprogramming of Sleepless won’t leave subscribers playless in Pasadena.

Anything but. South Coast Repertory’s revival of August Wilson’s Jitney will close its five-week run on SCR’s Segerstrom Stage on June 10 and begin previews in Pasadena a mere 10 days later for a Playhouse run lasting through July 15. This somewhat unusual sharing of Jitney between two theaters that have never previously collaborated is a venture that artistic administrators from each organization characterize as a win-win partnership for audiences and artists alike. Subscribers in LA and in Orange County will experience a first-class revival of an acclaimed — if less-frequently produced — Wilson play, while the Jitney ensemble and technical team get an additional six weeks of income.

Sheldon Epps

If cost-sharing, venue-jumping co-productions are common, the Pasadena Playhouse-SCR partnership is nonetheless not one LA stage watchers might have predicted. The two theaters are a mere 50 miles apart, with separate subscribers, different facilities and — to some extent — different artistic visions. The 48-year-old SCR has built its reputation largely on the development of new plays, while the Playhouse — during its occasionally financially tumultuous 95-year history — has concentrated largely on revivals, often with recognizable TV and film stars. During Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps’ decade and a half running that theater, its audiences have seen more premiere musicals, as well as plays focusing on the African-American experience.

Playhouse single-ticket buyers are particularly diverse, including an especially loyal black audience who, Epps figures, will turn out in great numbers for Jitney. “I think the [Pasadena run] will be playing to an audience of a different complexion,” he says.

Neither company would be accused of lone-wolfism. SCR and the Playhouse each has partnered extensively with other regional theaters. SCR has partnered with New York Public Theater, Berkeley Rep and Centerstage in Baltimore. Pasadena Playhouse has done likewise with Arizona Theatre Company, Goodman Theatre, Cleveland Play House, Paper Mill Playhouse and the Alliance Theatre.

Ride-Share Programs

“It’s not unprecedented,” says SCR artistic director Marc Masterson, who struck up numerous co-production alliances while running Actors Theatre of Louisville. “Long before I got here [in 2011], SCR moved shows into the LA market. It’s a little less common to have a production move within the same city, but in this case the two cities are separated by enough geography. It’s not a major concern.”

Marc Masterson

For SCR, partnering continues. Its 2012-13 season will feature a pair of high-profile co-productions scheduled back-to-back on the Segerstrom Stage: David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, which will begin at Berkeley Rep, followed by the premiere of Noah Haidle’s Smokefall co-produced with the Goodman. Given the obvious benefits, particularly in a rocky economy, production-sharing may seem like a boon whenever two or more companies can pull it off. Still, there is no guarantee that audiences from both venues will see the play the same way.

“Years ago when I was at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, we did a production of Joe Orton’s Loot on a three-quarter thrust stage,” recalls Masterson. “Loot is a pretty broad farce, and even though it started in the Pittsburgh Public space, it didn’t go that well. It didn’t play as a comedy, and audiences didn’t know what to make of it. We couldn’t figure out what went wrong.”

When the production transferred — with cast and set intact — to Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, it met with a different response.

“That’s a proscenium space and, of course, the audience is different, so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison,” says Masterson. “But all of a sudden the play worked. We were getting laughs at places where we had never gotten laughs in Pittsburgh. It was interesting to see how a space affects how an audience perceives a work.”

Call for a Cab?

 

Rolando Boyce and Gregg Daniel

Jitney didn’t begin its creative life as a co-production or even as a production with the potential to travel. Programmed as the season-closing entry of Masterson’s debut season at the helm of SCR, the play about a group of Pittsburgh cab drivers facing neighborhood gentrification would have shuttered at SCR June 10 on schedule.

But the need for additional “creative development” on the musical Sleepless in Seattle required a postponement of Sleepless to the end of the Playhouse’s 2012-13 season and left Epps with a hole in the June-July schedule. Jitney was a title Epps had considered producing at the Playhouse, and when he learned SCR had a production in the works, a call to Masterson quickly sealed the deal to slot SCR’s production into the Playhouse.

Epps’ call wasn’t exactly an out-of-the-blue SOS from a stranger. Although they had not been in recent contact, Epps and Masterson had studied at Carnegie-Mellon University. In the early 1980s, when Epps and three Carnegie-Mellon friends started a small theater called the Production Company in New York, Masterson served as an intern for the company before returning to Pittsburgh and, later, to Actors Theatre of Louisville.

“The dates were commodious, when their run ended and when ours would need to begin,” says Epps. “I had a brief discussion with Marc, and we both agreed it was a great idea to try to make this happen.”

Door-to-Door Service

Larry Bates and Kristy Johnson

When Pasadena signed on, Jitney’s director and technical team were already in place, and the production was nearly cast. “Usually these things are more set up at the beginning of your season,” Epps acknowledges. “Probably there’s usually a bit more collaboration as to who staff is going to be or who the director and designers are going to be. But I know the kind of work SCR does and the artists they use, and I didn’t have any doubts. I knew I would certainly find acceptable anybody they would find acceptable.”

“Technically, this would be a production transfer,” adds Masterson. “But the language doesn’t matter. Production staffs from the two theaters are working on it together. We’re in close collaboration, which we have to be in order to work out all the logistics of moving the production between two different spaces.”

Although many of the actors hail from or are based in the LA area, Jitney held its initial rehearsals at SCR’s facilities in Orange County. SCR, as the originating producer, builds the sets, costumes and props, the cost of which it splits equally with the Pasadena Playhouse. Rehearsal and design costs are also divided 50-50. Each theater collects its own separate box office revenue from the separate runs.

The two entities expect subscriber overlap to be minimal, and any subscribers who have tickets to both SCR and the Playhouse will see the production in Costa Mesa and have the opportunity to see a different show in the 2012-13 Playhouse season. To date, one overlapping subscriber has been taken care of in this manner, according to Charles Dillingham, interim executive director at the Playhouse, who calls this a “textbook example of a smooth and very successful co-production.”

David McKnight, Ellis E. Williams and James A. Watson, Jr.

“Partly that’s because the leadership at SCR and I have known each other for 40 years, and so each of us had full trust in each other going forward to make it work,” says Dillingham. “All the actors from their production are coming to ours. Sometimes, in a co-production, that doesn’t happen.”

The transfer means additional work on the technical end. By most accounts, the physical production fits easily into both spaces, but there will be a few necessary adjustments. The Segerstrom stage is a thrust; Pasadena Playhouse is a proscenium. The Playhouse is also a deeper house with a balcony, which raises sight line and sound issues for the remount. The additional false proscenium space used at SCR will not travel to Pasadena because it would complicate sideline views from the 180-seat balcony at the Playhouse. The set will lose some of its walls, and Jitney director Ron O.J. Parson will need to re-locate and re-block some of the action. The Pasadena run will also require a new lighting plot.

Set designer Shaun Motley had twice designed shows for the Segerstrom stage””including Fences, the last Wilson play to be produced at SCR. Motley had never set foot inside the Playhouse prior to learning that Jitney would transfer.

Charlie Robinson

“Pasadena’s is a beautiful, Old-World space with extreme sight lines,” says Motley. “When I first walked into the Segerstrom, it’s this big space and I thought, “˜Wow, these sight lines kind of suck.’ Then I went to Pasadena and I said, “˜Wow these sight lines really suck.’ Ron blocks the show for your perception, but not everyone is going to have the same viewpoint. Once we get to Pasadena, we’ll move things around to get the best sight lines and composition.”

Additional brush-up work between the closing of the SCR run and the Pasadena opening will be conducted on the Playhouse stage instead of in a rehearsal room, giving the actors the opportunity to adjust to the new space.

And, potentially, to make new discoveries. “I’m counting [the Pasadena run] as another production,” says Parson, who, once he finishes his work on the SoCal Jitney, will build a brand-new production of the play for the Court Theatre in Chicago. “We may learn some new things from the SCR production before we go back in,” he says. “We have a week of rehearsal up there. Who knows what we’ll find?”

Jitney, continues at South Coast Repertory through June 10. Plays Tues.-Wed 7:30 pm Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 2:30 and 8 pm; Sun. 2:30 and 7:30 pm. Through June 10. Tickets: $20-68. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa 92628. Call 714-708-5555, visit the box office or www.scr.org.

Jitney, opens June 24 at Pasadena Playhouse through July 15. Plays Tues.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 4 and 8 pm; Sun. 2 and 7 pm. Tickets: $20.00 – $60.00. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena.   626-356-7529 . www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.

***All Jitney production photos by Henry DiRocco

 

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Evan Henerson

Evan Henerson

Evan has been writing about live stage in a movie town for more than 20 years. He was the lead theater writer and critic for the Los Angeles Daily News for nine years and his work has appeared in American Theatre, Backstage, Stage Directions, Playbill Online. He is a regular contributor to the Hollywood Pantages blog and you can also read his reviews on TheaterMania and Curtainup.