In 2010, Chalk Repertory Theatre embarked on its first Flash Festival, performing 20 original short plays by 20 different playwrights on location at Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church over the course of four weekends. Based on that festival’s standing-room-only success, the Ovation Award-winning Chalk’s second Flash Festival opens Saturday at 8 at Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits.
Replicating elements from the 2010 version, each of the three weekends of Chalk’s Flash Festival will showcase a different slate of 10-minute plays, five each night. Chalk wrangles the 15 playwrights — who include such Los Angeles scribes as Tom Jacobson and Jennifer Haley — along with more than 70 actors, directors and designers.
The festival will feature scripts directly inspired by the physical space and exhibits housed within the Page Museum. The performances will unfold as a walking tour as audiences move from space to space within the museum.
As a company dedicated to creating “classical and contemporary plays in unconventional spaces,” Chalk has remained true to its motto since its inception in 2008. With its eight previous performances occurring everywhere from private homes in Los Angeles to the Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to traditional theater spaces, Chalk Repertory repeatedly attempts to prove that theater can happen anywhere — thus the company’s name, referring to a theoretical performance circle made from chalk.
The Flash Festival is also strategic for the company, going deeper than simply creating introductory relationships. “It’s a way of pulling more artists into our community and getting to know people,” says Ruth McKee, one of the project organizers for Chalk and a participating playwright in the festival. “We do general auditions as a company, but that’s not always a great way of meeting people. This allows actually working with a lot of different people at once…Then we learn who we might want to work with further and on larger projects.”
Peter Wylie, a Los Angeles actor and the performing arts manager for the Page and its parent institution, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, had a working relationship with the company when a new destination for the festival was under consideration. Wylie’s connection to the museum launched the negotiation that became the Flash Festival partnership between the Page and Chalk. Although playwright Jacobson’s day job is senior vice president of advancement at the Natural History Museum, McKee says Chalk learned about this only after the festival plans were already underway — and then “we jumped at the chance to include him as we’re big fans of his work.”
The Page “is just such a cool and interesting space,” McKee says. “From a writer’s perspective there are so many strange and interesting things here — from murals to animatronics.”
The museum sits on mid-Wilshire’s Miracle Mile just east of LACMA. There are few places in Los Angeles quite like it — and it’s not just the permeating smell of tar and the dramatic recreation of ancient animals trapped in the bubbling tar that make it unique. This working paleontological site and the surrounding tar pits encompass 10,000-40,000-year-old fossils being excavated, prepared, studied and displayed for the general public. High-profile fossils housed at the Page include “Zed,” the most complete Columbian mammoth found at the La Brea location as well as extinct saber-toothed cats, mammoths, dire wolves and mastodons. The museum also provides exhibits and research on several non-extinct mammals, plants, insects and reptiles.
“You’d expect something like this to be out in the boonies,” Wylie says. “Or at least farther away, but it’s right here in the middle of LA.”
Hosting multitudes of school field trips every year, the museum strives to serve its educational function for dinosaur enthusiasts and evolution-science junkies of all ages. It also includes educational theater pieces as part of its regular programming.
“It’s really one of those places you forget about or remember going to as a kid,” adds Jennifer Chang, another member of the Chalk team who will be acting and directing in the Festival. “It’s very much a part of LA culture when you live here.”
The Page itself is making efforts to redefine its profile, offering new programming and new facilities for students and the public. A new theater space showcases an impressive, ultra-realistic saber-toothed cat puppet — which weighs about 75 pounds and is actually worn like a costume. Wylie proudly shows off the large paws and realistic features created through collaboration between the museum experts and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
The Chalk Rep team hopes the centrality of the museum and the unusual influence its resources might have on the playwrights will provide a creative conduit that will excite audiences as much as it excites them.
“LA culture can already be so isolating in your shark tank of a car,” says Chang. “We really like to think about how we can best cross-pollinate with other artists or other theater companies — then finding a space like this is that much more exciting.”
Chalk first invited various playwrights to participate in building the slate of plays. Then directors and actors were suggested for the material with several playwrights drawing on and suggesting their own talent pools.
“It’s such a great opportunity to capture the work of these playwrights and directors in one place,” says Wylie. “I’m jumping on board because I want to be involved with so many of these people. It’s a great opportunity for actors.”
As part of the creation process, the Page allowed its professional staff to meet with the writers and give in-depth tours about the exhibits and the science behind them. Relationships continued as playwrights followed up with questions during the writing of first draft material.
“Paleontologists are not how I thought they would be,” McKee says, recounting how work with the scientists enhanced her own writing experience.
“And they had such a good time,” Wylie refers to the museum staff. “They are so looking forward to the final shows to see what people came up with.”
The writing process gave playwrights about a month with no casting or content restrictions other than a logistical tip to keep technical needs at a minimum. The museum was divided into five specific areas as “locations” for each play to use as its main setting.
The plays were written to engage adult audiences in human relationships and include special nods to science such as evolution and archeology.
Chalk Rep’s leadership consists of six women who share all aspects of the producing burden. Chang and McKee are joined by Amy Ellenberger, Larissa Kokernot, Teri Reeves and Hilary Ward in shepherding projects and managing the company. With multiple talents across the board, the leadership is fluid between them, each taking on various responsibilities as needed per production.
Previous Flash Festival plays have developed into full-length plays with performance lives extending beyond the festival format. Chalk is happy to be an incubator for new work, but is still primarily driven through the inspiration of unconventional performance spaces.
“Sometimes you read a great play and try so hard to find the perfect space for it, like the needle in the haystack,” says Chang. “So we’re more inclined to find a great space and create from there.”
Chalk anticipates more Flash Festivals as a regular part of its programming between producing other full-length plays. They also hope to find more distinctive spaces like the Page, joining forces with more forgotten treasures in the LA landscape.
“So often in theater productions there is a huge production and 80% of that is put into ‘stuff’,” says Chang. “We’d rather have that go toward people.”
With only an eight-hour window for rehearsals in the actual performance spaces, the limits of “stuff” is an important element in this year’s Flash Festival. Chalk also hopes these limits will integrate the museum and its entire atmosphere into a character all its own.
“I have nothing against designers, none of us do,” says Wylie. “But there is a way for these kinds of projects to really draw focus on the stories being told. And that’s always exciting to an actor.”
Flash Festival 2012, Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, 5801 Wilshire Blvd. 90036. Opens September 8. Sat-Sun, 8 pm. Through September 23. Tickets $15. For a complete list of plays and other information, go to www.chalkrep.com.
***All photos courtesy of Chalk Rep, except where noted