Radical Theater in LA – Part I

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Written by Julio Martinez

 

In the devastating aftermath of World War II, live theater found itself competing with the technical refinements of motion pictures, radio, and television and had to rediscover what it could provide to the community. A new wave of theatrical experimentation, which had begun with Dadaism after World War I, sought to more radically challenge the audience, breaking down the barriers between spectators and performers. German playwright and director Bertolt Brecht, who wrote his first plays during the 1920s, exerted more influence on the course of mid-century theater in the West than did those of any other individual. He proposed a major alternative to the Stanislavsky-oriented realism that had dominated acting and the construction of the “well-made play.” From his actors Brecht demanded epic theatre, an objective style of acting in which they became detached observers who commented on the action of the plays. Brecht’s most important plays, which included Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Woman of Setzuan, and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, were written between 1937 and 1945 when he was in exile from the Nazi regime, first in Scandinavia and then in the United States, where he set up residence in Hollywood. 

 

During this same time, Dancer/entrepreneur Frieda Berkoff (1903-1976), a member of the famed Berkoff family of Russian dancers, had relocated to Los Angeles with the mandate to create her own space for live theater and dance, the Coronet Theatre. A friend of Berkoff, British actress Elsa Lanchester—best known in U.S for performing the title role in the horror film, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)—was reliving her British music hall roots, performing at historic Turnabout Theatre, located up the street at 716 N. La Cienega. Lanchester confided that her husband, the notable stage and screen thespian Charles Laughton, had been working for months with Bertolt Brecht on a new work. Berkoff desperately wanted to have it be the Coronet’s debut production, but doubted whether the Brecht/Laughton duo would want to premiere a work in a fledgling theatre space.  

British actor Charles Laughton (1899 - 1962) in the title role of Bertolt Brecht's play 'Galileo' directed by Joseph Losey at the Coronet Theatre. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Despite Berkoff’s doubts, Laughton had an intense desire to return to the stage following World War II that was fueled by his friendship with Brecht and inspired by the subject matter of Brecht’s work. For over a year, Laughton had been collaborating with Brecht on the translation and adaptation of Life of Galileo. In a later essay, Building up a Part, Brecht lauded “the processes by which Laughton painstakingly, over many weeks, created his Galileo.” Both men were quite anxious to have the work produced and felt that the Coronet would be a perfect venue. In 1947, Berkoff’s newly constructed 275-seat Coronet Theatre premiered Brecht’s Life of Galileo, starring Charles Laughton, co-helmed by Brecht and Joseph Losey, produced by John Houseman. Also featured in the production were Hugo Haas and Frances Heflin. Reluctantly, in attendance that evening was 9-year-old Julio Martinez Jr., who had been brought there by his babysitter whose boyfriend was in the production. He remembered nothing about what happened onstage but was fascinated when told he was sitting behind the Bride of Frankenstein. On October 30 of that year, three days after Galileo had closed, Brecht was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He left the U.S. the next day. In 1949, he moved to East Berlin where he established his theatre company, the Berliner Ensemble.

In the 1950s, two women in Los Angeles were actively influenced by Brecht’s style of acting, “in which they became detached observers who commented on the action of the plays.”

Born in 1906, Viola Spolin set out to be a settlement worker, studying at Neva Boyd’s Group Work School (1924-27) in Chicago. Spolin was impressed with Boyd’s use of traditional game structures to affect positive social behavior in working class and immigrant children. She incorporated games, story-telling, and folk-dance, instead of traditional scene study, to unlock her students’ individual capacity for creative self-expression. She gave these techniques the umbrella title of Theatre Games. During the World War II years, Spolin moved to LA. In 1946, She opened the Young Actors Company in Hollywood. Two of her preteen students were Alan Arkin and Paul Sands. Her company continued until 1955, with Spolin still developing her Theatre Games System. Meanwhile, her son Paul Sills, a student at University of Chicago, utilizing his mother’s techniques, established the Compass Players, the country’s first professional improvisational theater company.  

Viola Spolin working with her children’s workshop, Alan Arkin is 3rd to left

Spolin returned to Chicago to help her son run improv workshops, which led to the 1960 establishment of The Second City in Chicago. Spolin alumni Sands and Arkin were early members of the troupe. In 1963, Spolin published Improvisation for Theater, which is still the classic source for improvisational actors, directors, and teachers. In 1970 and 1971, Spolin served as special consultant for Sills’ Story Theatre, which premiered at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum, garnishing critical praise for the actors’ inventive self-narration of the drama. The troupe migrated to Broadway, garnering a Tony Award along the way. Meanwhile, theater companies were developing in Los Angeles that were founded on Spolin’s “theatre games,” including two San Francisco exports, The Committee and the Pitschel Players, as well as Gary Austin’s The Groundlings.  In 1976, Spolin established the Spolin Theater Game Center in Hollywood to train professional theater games coaches and served as its artistic director. In 1985 her new book, Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director’s Handbook, was published. Viola Spolin passed away on November 22, 1994, in Los Angeles.

Paris-born 28-year-old Rachel Rosenthal moved from New York to LA in the early 1950s, having studied art, theater, music and dance with such disparate contemporary figures as Hans Hofman, Merce Cunningham, and Erwin Friedrich Maximilian Piscator, a German theater director who, along with Brecht, was the foremost exponent of “epic theatre.” When she arrived on the west coast, Rosenthal began teaching at Pasadena Playhouse; but her non-traditional teaching methods and apparel did not put her in good stead with Playhouse administration and she was fired. She then she met former film ingénue, Vanessa Brown, who had married well and indulged herself by holding Wednesday afternoon salons for aspiring actors in her home. Rosenthal began to organize workshops and sought Brown’s support in finding a space that could be utilized for experimental work. Brown demurred, so Rosenthal went off on her own, launching Instant Theater in 1956 at a small workshop space at N. El Centro Ave in Hollywood (now El Centro Theatre), adjacent to the Circle Theater. 

TOHUBOHU! workshop, Rosenthal in rehearsal

Rosenthal held improvisational workshops—devising exercises that combined movement, voice, sound, found objects, and experimental lighting. The workshop dispensed with conventions of fixed interpretations that are entrenched in the traditional theatrical script and the proscenium stage. Instead, Rosenthal sought a radical sensory experience drawing on the model of Antonin Artaud’s theatrical manifesto, Le Théâtre et son Double (“The Theater and its Double”). She attracted a diverse group of young thespians, including unknowns as well as such established Hollywood actors as Vic MorrowTab HunterAnthony Perkins, and Dean Stockwell, who felt insulated from the need to project their Tinseltown personas. But when Rosenthal decided to allow the public to see the work, the Hollywood crowd left, warned by their agents they shouldn’t be involved in something that was so “weird.” Rosenthal and her smaller, more committed ensemble, pressed on, remaining resistant to the commercial structures of a newly developing LA art world that considered her work too radical.  Rosenthal and Instant Theatre persisted for ten years. Rosenthal went on to achieve legendary status as a performance artist, a leading figure in the ‘70s LA Women’s Art Movement, co-founding Womanspace. In 1989, she founded the Rachel Rosenthal Company, creating a repertoire that focused on such themes as environmental destruction, social justice, animal rights and earth-based spirituality. In 2000 she was honored by the City of LA as “a Living Cultural Treasure of Los Angeles.”  

 

In August 1965, The San Francisco Mime Troupe was performing its decidedly irreverent and controversial Minstrel Show at SF’s Encore Theatre, offering a jaundiced survey of African American history, performed in black face. News of the ongoing Watts Riots in LA kept filtering up and the Mime Troupe started incorporating into the show its version of what it thought was happening 450 miles to the south. During rehearsals, the Troupe’s producer Bill Graham asked, “Does anyone know what the Negro actors in LA are doing?” The answer soon came from C. Bernard Jackson, a visionary and Obie-winning playwright who founded Inner City Cultural Center in 1966 as a direct response to the 1965 riots. For the next 30 years, the Center was a fountainhead of multiculturalism, nurturing the careers of such ethnically disparate artists as Beah RichardsGeorge TakeiEdward James OlmosNobu McCarthyForest Whitaker, and Mime Troupe alumnus Luis Valdez. It stimulated the growth of landmark LA companies East West PlayersBilingual Foundation for the Arts (BFA) as well as Valdez’s Delano-based El Teatro Campesino.  

C. Bernard Jackson

Born in 1927, Jackson, a former gang member in his native Brooklyn, first gained national notice with the off-Broadway civil rights tuner, Fly Blackbird (co-written with James Hatch), which garnered the 1961 Obie for Best Musical. Because he had often been an intermediary between street gangs in Brooklyn and he spoke Spanish, Jackson infused an underlying need for ethnic interaction when the Center set up in a former Masonic Temple at 1308 S. New Hampshire Ave., housing four performances spaces and a school. An example of Jackson’s color-blind casting is his 1975 musical, Maggie The Mouse Meets The Dirty Rat Fink, which featured a black man and woman, cast as the parents of an Asian daughter and a Chicano son.  In 1981, the sweatshop tuner, Wanted: Experienced Operators, co-scripted by Jackson and Estela Scarlata of Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, helmed by Margarita Galban, toured California, featuring Carmen ZapataSuzanna Guzman, Wanda Lee Evans, Shizuko HoshiChristine Avila, and Sal Lopez. Always struggling to keep the Center’s fiscal viability in step with his creative ambitions, Jackson moved the operation to the long-dormant Ivar Theater in Hollywood in 1992, “temporarily” ceasing operation at the New Hampshire Ave. space. While still moving forward to realize his goals, Jackson died on July 16, 1996.  On July 28, LA Times staff writer Don Shirley reported, “The July 16 death of Inner City Cultural Center Executive Director C. Bernard Jackson leaves a big question mark over the fate of the institution. One of the Inner City board members said last week that Jackson was the organization’s only remaining parent, while board members and other supporters are like aunts and uncles. So who’ll take care of the orphan?” By 1998, Inner City Cultural Center ceases operations.

 

Radical Theater in LA – Part II will be published June 25th!

Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.