Radical Theater in LA – Part II

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Written by Julio Martinez


J.F. “Smitty” Smith was never concerned with the theatrical output of his spaces.  When operating The Epicurean Coffee House (1965 to 1970) in Los Angeles, he envisioned it as a hangout for poets, musicians, and any other displaced people who suffered from “anguished souls.” Interviewed in 1983, he claimed, “I didn’t care what people did, as long as they were cool and I could sell my coffee.”  What he didn’t anticipate was his establishment becoming a popular tourist attraction.  “That wasn’t my scene and I split.”  In 1971, Smitty opened the Deja Vu Coffeehouse at 1705 N. Kenmore Ave. in Hollywood. “I never meant to start a theater here, it just kinda happened. As long as I can keep selling coffee, it’s cool.” It was Smitty’s philosophy of “letting people try out stuff” that led to a minor onslaught of forward-thinking theater folk, using whatever was on hand to produce “works-in-progress” fare that was long on ideas if short on production values. In 1978, director Frederick Combs and actor Michael Kearns moved things up a notch with the West coast premiere of Robert Patrick’s T-Shirts, focusing on three gay men reflecting on their challenged lives. It was an immediate hit but had to close after eight performances, due to Deja Vu’s lack of proper Equity-Waiver certification. But it did establish Smitty’s establishment as a viable “try out” space. 

J.F. “Smitty” Smith

While Smitty was still working at Epicurean Coffee House, a group of students from USC and Santa Monica College in 1967 were searching for a space to produce “avant garde and experimental work.” Sanford Yaras took $3660 of insurance money following his father’s death and joined forces with fellow SMC theater major William Hunt and his wife, Marcina Motter, to rent a small playhouse located at 1024 S. Robertson Blvd. owned by actor Frank Silvera. They inhabited the space four nights a week at $175 a month and The Company Theater was born. Motter worked at the computer center at USC and Hunt had performed a leading role in a USC production a year before, so the campus became a natural recruiting ground. USC alums Carole Brown, Gar Campbell, Nancy Crawford and Lance Larsen became part of the company.  They were soon joined by another contingent of USC alums: Nancy Hickey, Steven Kent and Candace Laughlin, who had recently returned from USC’s tour of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.   

Students from California State University at Los Angeles also came to the Company Theatre, bringing special skills to those areas demanding detail work. Cal State’s Russell Pyle became the Company Theatre’s most prominent designer. With Kent serving as its initial artistic director, the ensemble received critical acclaim for it staging of Kurt Weill’s anti-war tuner, Johnny Johnson, with Gar Campbell playing the lead. In 1970, Campbell was also memorable as a drugged-out rock star in Children of the Kingdom. One of Company’s more acclaimed works, featuring Campbell, is The James Joyce Memorial Liquid Theater, which not only broke the fourth wall, it drew the audience in as participants. The production set a precedent by going to New York City to perform at the Guggenheim Museum. 

The Company Theater’s instructions to the audience for James Joyce Memorial Liquid Theater
Clearly, the Company Theatre was the most important West Coast experimental theatre launched in the 1960s. It was the first experimental theatre on the West Coast to receive a federal grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. It also received grants from the Office for Advanced Drama Research, the Shubert Foundation, and the California Arts Commission. It produced over fifty plays, including seventeen original works. With the disbanding of the Living Theatre and the Open Theatre, the Company Theatre (along with La Mama) had become the longest running significant experimental theatre groups in the United States. Unfortunately, the emotional volatility of much of Company Theatre’s work during this decade carried over into the working relationships of the ensemble members.  This inter-company dissension led former Company artistic director Steve Kent and actors Barry Opper and Candace Laughlin to form Provisional Theatre. In 1972, they set off on their own with meager financial support. Provisional survived as a touring ensemble, while giving limited performances in a space to the rear of Catterton’s Bookstore in the Los Felix area of Hollywood. Meanwhile, The Company Theatre lost its Robertson Blvd. space and officially closed at the end of 1981.

Reporting on Los Angeles regional theater for the 1982 edition of California Theatre Annual, LA Times entertainment reporter, Sylvie Drake, lamented the demise of the Company Theatre, but praised the continued success of The Provisional Theatre. She concluded: “With so little persuasive alternative theatre remaining in the country, let alone Los Angeles, the Provisional’s endurance is particularly precious.”  Provisional is accorded almost immediate critical praise with its production of Michael Monroe’s Dominus Marlow – a visiting production at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s space in West LA – which garners a 1973 LA Drama Critics Circle honors for production, direction (Steve Kent) and lead performance (William Hunt). Through the rest of the 70s, Provisional took mostly to the road, performing such socially and politically volatile works as the anti war Xa: a Vietnam Primer by Michael Monroe and America Piece by Susan Yankowitz and Don Opper, which were both presented at the Festival Mondial Du Theatre in France (1975). 

The Provisional Theater staging of The Tecolate Visions

Other touring works included:  Voice of the People (1978), an unromantic, anti-glamorous look at American history; and Inching Through the Everglades (1979). By 1980, Provisional no longer found itself financially able to continue touring nationally.  That same year, the ensemble moved into the Embassy Auditorium in downtown LA, performing a season of two shows. In 1982, Provisional teams with El Teatro de la Esperanza Company – including Jose Luis Valenzuela and Evelina Fernandez – of Santa Barbara to create and subsequently embark on a statewide tour of The Tecolate Visions, a parable of life in America. By the 1983, the fragile financial underpinnings of Provsional gave way. In March, Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center hosted the Provisional-produced one person, Don’t Start Me to Talking or I’ll Tell Everything I Know, scripted by John O’Neal with Ron Castine and Glenda Lindsey, performed by O’Neal, helmed by Steve Kent. By the end of the year, Provisional Theatre ceased to exist, making prophetic the words of LA Times theater critic Dan Sullivan, who wrote that the members of Provisional are “prophets witbout honor in their own hometown.”

However, the campus of USC was not done turning out innovative live theater folk. In May 1973, recent USC grad Warren Christensen was living in the carriage house of an old estate near USC campus, south of downtown LA. Inspired by USC’s annual performances at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Christensen converted the garden area of his backyard into a performance area and held his own weekend-long fringe festival, enlisting the aid of friend Paul Linke and others. Actor/director Linke recalled, “Warren borrowed my van and when I got it back it smelled of oranges. He had driven out to Ventura and got donations of thousands of oranges that he passed out for free to people who came. I remember arriving late one night and it was the wildest mixup of performance and partying I had ever seen. I knew I had to get involved.” Christensen’s weekend performance bash grew into the Garden Theatre Festival (GTF), held from mid-September to mid-October from 1974 to 1978, featuring over 900 hours of performances on multiple stages at Barnsdall Park. The principle master of ceremonies was Linke. A frequent performer was actor Will Geer who also lent his own facility, Topanga Canyon-based Theatricum Botanicum, for GTF performances. 

Will Geer at The Garden Theatre festival

In 1976, Christensen acquired funding from the US government’s Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) and hired an administrative staff of 32 employees to help him administrate and book GTF. Every type of performance discipline was represented, punctuated by impromptu appearances by such talent as singer Jackson Browne, comic Father Guido Sarducci and performance ensemble, Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.  GTF also put out a program detailing what other LA-based theaters were doing during Festival time. Unfortunately, one of the listed shows was Ron Sossi-led Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s An Evening of Dirty Religious Plays, which was actually a pairing of Peter Barnes’ Noonday Demons and Robert Coover’s A Theological Position. A public outcry went out that reverberated through the walls of LA’s City Hall. City administrators – formerly supportive of  Christensen’s GTF efforts – now cast a decidedly jaundiced eye in his direction. In 1978, Christensen was cited for financial impropriety and Garden Theatre Festival was over.  However, GTF proved that a widespread and diverse area like Los Angeles could successfully produce ambitious arts events, later serving as a planning model for LA’s highly successful 1984 and ’87 Fine Arts Festivals. Paul Linke and Ry Hay went on to found The Powerhouse in 1981, located at 3116 2nd Street in Santa Monica, highlighted by appearances of the comedy ensemble, Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre and the 1983 premiere of the surrealistic musical play, After Stardrive by O-Lan Jones and Kathleen Cramer.  

Around the same time Christensen was dreaming up his Garden Theatre Festival, playwright Murray Mednick, who attended Brooklyn College, had become involved with New York’s off-off Broadway company, Theatre Genesis. In 1974, he moved to Los Angeles after being evicted from his apartment while on a trip to Yucatan on a Guggenheim grant. He explained “I began teaching at La Verne University and that’s where the original funding for my playwright workshops came from.” Thus began the Padua Hill Playwrights Festival, which took place at the Padua Playhouse in the hills above Claremont. The workshop was meant to be an extension of his collaborations with Ralph Cook, his mentor and the founder of Theatre Genesis. One of the mandates of the Padua Hills Festival was that the plays were to be site-specific. In his teaching on playwriting, Mednick stressed a reliance on “language in relation to space.”  

Darrell Larson, Norbert Weisser and Chistine Avila in a performance of THE COYOTE CYCLE, at the Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop outside Claremont, circa 1980

The Festival, founded in 1978 by Mednick, accompanied by five other playwrights, including Sam Shepard and Maria Irene Fornes, mentored the careers of such noted talents as John Steppling, Jon Robin Baitz, Kelly Stuart, Susan La Tempa, Guy Zimmerman and others. Mednick’s contribution that first year was Coyote, which incorporated elements of American Indian myth, slapstick comedy, campfire storytelling and epic drama. The plays produced at Padua were all very much connected to the physical environment in which they were performed, with Mednick contributing a new edition of The Coyote Cycle for seven consecutive Padua seasons. One of the major highlights was Don’t You Call Me Anything But Mother, written and directed by John O’Keefe, starring Tina Preston.

The culmination of Mednick’s efforts took place on August 3, 1985. Susan Albert Loewenberg, founding artistic director of LA Theatre Works (LATW), and Mednick were standing in a wilderness clearing in the wilds of Paramount Ranch in Agoura at 7:30pm. In 30 minutes, four actors would launch into an all-night performance of Mednick’s complete  The Coyote Cycle, a seven-play outdoor theatrical pageant, produced by LATW. All seven plays were scheduled to perform in succession for the first time, ending at dawn. With 15 minutes until show time, Dan Sullivan, head theater critic for the LA Times, trudged up the road, dressed as if for a night with the Donner Party. At 8pm, the figures began to emerge, including Coyote (Darrel Larson), whom Mednick described as a “moment-to-moment character who meets his circumstances willy-nilly.” The audience was asked to follow the characters wherever they go as Coyote sets off on a quest to bring heaven and earth together again. By dawn, as the sun rose, Coyote had triumphed over his alter ego and brought life giving waterfall to Earth. Nobody in the audience perished during the night, although theater critic Sullivan mentioned encountering a drowsy rattlesnake. On his way to his car he said simply, “It was easier than sitting through Nicholas Nickleby.” 

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.