For those who produce 99-seat theater in Los Angeles, the headaches might seem to outweigh the pay-offs. From actors suddenly dropping stage roles for screen jobs to small theaters booting one-off productions from rehearsal space to collect a more lucrative rental fee—our small theaters sometimes dig deep to keep going.
In that spirit, director Josh T. Ryan—whose natural habitat is the experimental Zombie Joe’s Underground—brings his punk-rock theater style to producer Dee Smith’s remount of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Previously staged by Smith’s Breedlove Productions at the Victory Theatre Center in Burbank, the show opens this weekend at the Hudson Backstage in Hollywood.
As a personal friend of Smith, Ryan became superficially involved in Smith’s original production by offering an outside eye late in the rehearsal process when the director, Patrick Riviere, was forced to step into an acting role. When Smith decided to pursue the remount, Ryan was at the top of her list to helm an edgier production for a Hollywood audience.
Getting there has posed a few challenges. The new production team recently discovered that it would essentially have only one full day of technical rehearsals in the new space during the week leading up to opening, due to a scheduling conflict with the Hudson’s calendar of events.
“If it ever went totally smooth…it would be weird,” shrugs Ryan, taking the news in stride. “That’s the nature of the beast here. But it will pass and it will be completely normal and everything will work out. I’m not happy about it. But it will work out.”
Ryan sits comfortably on stage at the Hudson in overalls without a shirt, his colorful body art hinting at the passion he verbally expresses for his craft as an actor, director and theater artist with more than 20 years experience in Los Angeles. A veteran of both stage and screen, Ryan’s creative life has endured even as he held what he describes as “every other day job imaginable except waiting tables.” But he is perhaps most known in LA circles for his longtime association with the avant-garde antics of Zombie Joe’s Underground in North Hollywood.
“Zombie and I met in high school,” says Ryan, describing his theater roots and the unconventional style developed at the Underground over the years. “Even when we were doing theater back then, we didn’t fit in with that crowd…the theater kids. Because we were off reading Artaud and Chekhov. And watching The Wall.”
It was exactly this outside-the-box creativity that prompted producer Smith to bring Ryan on board for the remount. Her original production of Judas ran to somewhat mixed reviews at The Victory earlier this Spring.
“I had a lot of people who approached me after the show and asked if I was going to extend it,” says Smith. “I felt like if I did extend it, I wanted it to be a little grittier and edgier. I also wanted to bring it over the hill….I wanted to do it in Hollywood.”
As new dates and space at the Hudson were secured, Smith scheduled a shortened rehearsal period, hoping to maintain some of the momentum gathered by the first incarnation of the project. But talent availability changed and what started as a simple remount with the same cast quickly became a new production, with more than half the cast changed and Ryan’s completely new take on the text brought into the mix.
“It’s amazing because now it’s vastly different,” says Smith. “I didn’t think we’d be able to pull it off. And all the poetry is still there but it looks different, it feels different. It’s a whole new show.”
As Ryan sees it, he is merely fulfilling his role as director: honoring the writer’s words while also taking the script to another level through performance. And even though Ryan claims this is not a play he might choose to produce on his own, he has found a connection to the material, he says, by trimming what’s extraneous and making the production deliver the main ideas of the script with brevity, while never sacrificing substance. He’s not interested in what’s generally accepted as “proper theater” but what, in his book, works.
“Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!” trumpets Ryan from the edge of the set for Judas, openly mocking the superstition to never utter the name of Shakespeare’s Scottish play in a theater. “I don’t really care about superstitions or any of that stuff. And if there is a curse…I say bring it. I like that spirit which is an Underground spirit and so much more interesting. That’s why I do [theater]. I still want to be a card-carrying member of the punk rock society.”
Accustomed to unabashedly cutting text from classics to create anything from sixty to ninety minutes of in-your-face theatrical experiments, Ryan takes his lessons of economy developed at Zombie Joe’s Underground and applies it to his overall philosophy of performance in any genre.
“To me [Judas] is very traditional,” says Ryan. “What it all boils down to is that no matter what the style, it can still be truthful. I don’t know if this particular show and this particular experience illuminate anything new that I’ve encountered in life. But I can always find a way for it to be truthful. And I can respect that.”
Smith echoes Ryan’s sentiments and carries first-hand knowledge regarding his excavation of truthful performances from actors. Smith serves double-duty on Judas as both producer and actor, taking on the roles of Judas’ mother and Mary Magdalene. Smith and Ryan worked together in the early 2000s at Zombie Joe’s. She believes Ryan’s knowledge of her as an actor has brought more out of her performance.
“Another challenge is being in the play and trying to produce it at the same time. I have my producer hat on all the time,” says Smith. “But Josh can see through all that. He knows what I’m capable of and if I’m not going there.”
Ryan and Smith worked together on the added challenge of integrating returning cast members with new actors, while aligning their shared visions for the final production. Ryan approaches performers individually, asking each to bring something personal to a role.
“I also believe that if it’s not an expansive experience for [an actor] with the show, then quit the show,” says Ryan. “I don’t have to know what that expansive experience is, but if you aren’t having one, what are you doing here?”
The mash-up of craft and personal investment is a tall order for any play, let alone a full-length play with a limited rehearsal process. As a director who also acts, Ryan finds that his personal stage experiences—from guerrilla stints at Zombie Joe’s to stock characters in Shakespeare—helps him communicate with cast members using diverse acting styles. He describes an emphasis on homework for each actor—inviting everyone to dig deeper—even those who think they know what they “should” be doing.
“I think I’m less restrictive than most,” says Ryan. “As long as you can track it and back it, I’ll let you go for it. You better still do all the technical stuff that I need from you to move the play along, but I’m all for trying things out. See if it works.”
It’s that experimental Zombie Joe’s Underground spirit that Smith was counting on.
“It’s very edgy what they do. They pull out the stops and it’s not for everyone,” says Smith. “Either you like it or you don’t. There’s very little in between. I knew he’d be the right one to direct this because he has a strong voice. And, either way, I want the audience to walk away feeling something.”
Despite the challenges of the final week, Smith felt especially energized after a “fantastic day” of technical rehearsal in the performance space. As Ryan predicted, things have come together.
“I’ve had some challenges with keeping particularly the returning actors inspired,” says Smith. “But now that they’ve seen the [new] show and seen it on stage, I can see now that their eyes are lighting up. We’re all getting excited.”
Ryan agrees, adding that the trials of so many small productions are rarely perceived by audiences in the end. He believes the best defense is to blow off the steam but come back swinging for the positive experience.
“Like I tell my actors,” says Ryan, “it’s a play not a lobotomy. If it’s not a good time, what are we doing here?”
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot presented by Breedlove Productions. Hudson Backstage Theater, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., LA, 90038. Opens July 19. Fri-Sat 8 pm. Through Aug. 24. Tickets: $20-30. (323) 960-7738. www.plays411.com/judas.
**All The Last Days of Judas Iscariot production photos by Jeff Xanders.