by HAYLEY HUNTLEY
Coeurage Theatre Company were a Los Angeles landmark, Artistic Director Jeremy Lelliott says it would be downtown’s The Last Bookstore: it’s “independent, cozy, has an eclectic collection of classics and alternative gems.”
The Coeurage repertoire of shows over its six seasons supports this comparison, with classics like Sondheim’s Assassins and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (simply called Andronicus) juxtaposed against gems mined from Chicago’s non-union scene, like the upcoming West Coast premiere of The Sparrow by Chris Mathews and Jake Minton.
“That occult section upstairs,’” Lelliott adds about The Last Bookstore, “I hope if Coeurage was a bookstore we’d do that.”
Lelliott curates each season with indispensable input from his creative co-conspirator, Assistant Artistic Director Joe Calarco (“There isn’t such a thing as a Coeurage show without Joe.”). They and a handful of other artists make up Coeurage’s core, most of whose members’ roots reach back to a college production of Hamlet at Cal State Fullerton. To the students involved, that experience felt like the beginning of something bigger, and in 2009 — over slices of pie at NoHo’s Four ‘N 20 Restaurant — they established themselves as Coeurage Theatre Company. Though Lelliott plants himself firmly at the helm and takes ultimate artistic accountability for the company, he says Coeurage still speaks a language that “requires a few different voices to be complete.”
One term not in the Coeurage vocabulary is ticket price. When you see a Coeurage show, you decide what to pay for your ticket. The Pay-What-You-Want model differs from the Pay-What-You-Can model that other theatres adopt (usually once or twice per season) largely in the distinction between can and want: to Coeurage, Pay-What-You-Can conveys charity, while Pay-What-You-Want communicates desire. It doesn’t just speak to the budget-conscious theatre-goer — if you’re in the wealthiest 1% and want to pay $10 for a theatre ticket, Coeurage wants you in the audience. Knowing that attendance would always be a concern for a small LA theatre, Coeurage devised Pay-What-You-Want almost as early as their inception so that cost would never be prohibitive. They wanted to make theatre affordable without devaluing their own work, and they found a solution that has become an integral piece of the young company’s identity.
Does Pay-What-You-Want work? The simple answer: yes. The first year’s average ticket price was $8; today, it’s $17. Lelliott is proud to say this increase reflects true growth in production quality, and he’s confident Coeurage will continue to approach income parity with other 99-seat theatres. For Coeurage, the priority is to fill the house every single night, not to hit a specific financial goal. In fact, the most successful shows average the lowest ticket prices because, the founders believe, the system encourages patrons to see a favorite show multiple times. “The honor system works,” Lelliott says.
What’s the most anyone has ever paid for a ticket? What’s the least? Calarco and Lelliott report both answers with equal delight: $1000, and a single fig.
Two holy words in the Coeurage vocabulary (and mission statement) are fresh and challenging. To Lelliott, fresh means approaching “every single production as if it were the premiere,” and challenging means never condescending. They aim for theatre that isn’t cynical, indulgent, or accidental: “You’re gonna see the results,” pledges Lelliott, “of something that a lot of people have been caring a lot about for a long time.”
That’s not to say that results come easily. Lelliott admits, “Some of our best work has happened when things haven’t gone well.” He draws inspired comparisons between Coeurage and Slings & Arrows — a Canadian TV show chronicling a fictional Shakespearean festival and its cast of characters. The similarities between the two visibly buoy Lelliott as he recalls a favorite episode, wherein the company gets kicked out of their venue. They instead produce King Lear stripped down to its bones in an unadorned location lit only by candlelight, and they articulate their purpose in the simplest of terms: “putting on a play.”
“That’s the goal,” says Lelliott with affection and admiration for the theatre cause: “It’s always a group of twenty to fifty people, pulling in one direction, and giving it their all.”
Though producing live theatre on a slim budget is anything but easy, Calarco confesses he wouldn’t know what to do with the budget of a larger theatre, since tight fiscal parameters have trained them to innovate and focus on the essentials of storytelling. For last season’s production of David Saar’s The Yellow Boat, Coeurage reimagined the play’s requisite spectacle by the transforming the main character’s hospital bed into the titular boat, rather than constructing a separate set piece for which they had neither funds nor storage space. (And by the way, Coeurage dismisses the stereotype that theatre for children is not to be taken seriously: Calarco urged his actors to approach one Yellow Boat scene “like a Chekhov scene between two 8-year-olds.”)
The biggest challenge Coeurage faces is location, location, location. If the LA theatre world were Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead (which Coeurage produced in 2012), Calarco says Coeurage would be the character Rake, whose monologue includes a riff on the life of a hustler: “Hustlers travel around, after all they follow the sun, staying where the weather’s warm.” Coeurage has followed the proverbial sun from rehearsal spaces in Lelliott’s workplace, to an early performance space in a dilapidated garage, to rental venues all over Los Angeles County in constant pursuit of a decent space, namely one with a landlord who’s sympathetic to the challenges (budgetary, and otherwise) of producing live theatre. (This month, at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre, the set for Coeurage’s current production of Steven Fechter’s The Woodsman must be assembled and struck every single night.)
Lelliott and Calarco aren’t shy about Coeurage’s longing for a permanent home, but they’re proud that the challenges they face off-stage are concealed from the audience once the curtain rises.
For their professionalism and serious intent, there’s a playfulness and optimism to Coeurage that follows its members on stage and off. Lelliott’s two favorite photos of the company (appearing at the top of this article) feature them, first, in a semi-circle “council meeting” in an austere rehearsal room, doing the business of theatre. The second features the whole gang, blissfully disheveled on stage for their annual concert, TRIBUTE, with every mouth stretched wide in song.
In filling their hypothetical time capsule, Lelliott and Calarco select the 501(c)(3) documentation they completed to earn federal tax-exempt status — the paper and ink that legitimized the life of their non-profit theatre. If Coeurage won a million dollars, the founders say they’d buy a theatre. If they won a hundred dollars? They’d buy a round of drinks. They answer each of these dream dollar questions in equal response time (almost no time at all), and perhaps that’s the best illustration of this growing theatre company: as enthused about their lofty aspirations as they are proud of their humble ones.
NOW PLAYING AT COEURAGE: The Woodsman by Steven Fechter, running through June 12 at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre & Cafe.
Having just been released from prison after 12 years for molesting young girls, Walter is determined to find a ‘cure’ for his disease. In order to keep his desires from turning back into damaging behavior he must face down his demons once and for all.