Two Theater Companies in Los Angeles

September 22, 2013


When I moved to Los Angeles, I was more interested in theater than poetry. The most important theater company in the city back then was the Company Theater, located on Robertson Boulevard south of Olympic Boulevard. This troupe of actors and actresses understood better than anyone else in Los Angeles how to empower the “empty space” that Peter Brooks had proposed as the only sine qua non for theater. They also fit the prevalent pattern of being the senior segment of young people who were revising cultural expectations for avant-garde activity. Although the category of “baby boomers” gets more frequently cited in this period, the cultural reality of the 1960s and the first year or two of the 1970s was that young people born between 1940 and 1945 were the primary instigators of alternative artistic communities. One of leading actors in the Company Theater, for instance, was Gar Campbell, who was born in 1943 (11/9/43), just a few days after Sam Shepard (11/5/43).

It’s my understanding that Campbell went to the University of Southern California, where he met most of the people with whom he would go on to create the Company Theater, after which he founded and directed plays at the Pacific Resident Theater. The USC connection with the Company Theater goes past the undergraduate terms of its founding members. Laurel Ann Bogen may have been the first poet in Los Angeles to have seen the troupe, since she says they returned to campus to take part in an orientation week presentation in the fall of 1967. USC wanted to showcase the up-and-coming troupe as an example of the intrepidity of their recent graduates and Bogen’s life-long foray in poetry’s underground probably was kindled by the celebratory energy of Company Theater; Bogen herself became involved with the group in the second half of the 1970s, founding the Los Angeles Poets’ Theater at their venue as a way of trying to revive their depleted circumstances.

Although I attended and enjoyed the undulant sensuality of their early signature rite of passage, “The James Joyce Liquid Memorial Theater,” the play that hurled an image into my permanent definition of theater was “The Emergence.” Several characters who seemed to be jovial versions of the knight in Bergman’s “Seventh Seal” were off on a quest: suddenly the theater went dark. When the lights came up, we in the audience could barely see the actors stretched out on their backs on the floor of the stage, the backlit tips of their boots protruding past a long, slightly curved board that was as far downstage as possible. The heads of each character were tilted up off the stage floor; each character peered “down” at us, each of whom in the small theater (which perhaps held 90 people) had a profound sense that suddenly we were at the bottom of a deep well, and that what the actors were seeing were these odd characters peering back at them with awkward expectation of being recognized as exactly what we were: illuminated, puzzled beings, tussled into their story. Never before, and never quite to that extent since, have I felt as if the audience was so profoundly integrated into the mise-en-scene.

The Company Theater went on to produce a considerable number of plays, especially by Michael McClure, with whom later I would have the privilege of studying at Padua Hills. One of the twenty most startling performances I have ever seen in any theater was by Gar Campbell, whose enactment of the mania of “Spider Rabbit” at the Company Theater on Robertson Blvd. still reverberates in my mind. One of the other plays the Company staged at their original digs was Lance Larsen’s “The Hashish Club,” which was derived from Theophile Gautier’s “Le Club des Hachichins” (1846). I saw the play before it moved to New York and had a very brief run at the Bijoux Theater in January, 1975. Gar Campbell, Lance Larsen, Dennis Redfield, Jack Rowe and Michael Stefani comprised the cast. The one-sheet program for the production in Los Angeles prominently acknowledges Trish Soodik as the person whose idea of an adaptation was the original impetus. Soodik was a very fine and courageous actress who was brilliant in a production of McClure’s The Grabbing of the Fairy. Soodik died a couple years ago and you can still read the blog of her final months. Her first husband, novelist and scriptwriter Henry Bromell, also recently died. In addition to acting, Soodik was herself a playwright. I regret not having a chance to see her play, “The 60s,” at the Pacific Resident Theater on Venice Boulevard.

I can’t recall the specific reasons that the Company Theater found itself with an open enough schedule to sublet its venue, but a theater troupe that had started in Hermosa Beach in the late 1960s found refuge on Robertson Boulevard in the early seventies. The Burbage Theater Company, headed up by Sal Romeo, had run into conflicts with the local police in Hermosa Beach and given up its venue rather than endure harassment for putting on plays such as Rochelle Owens’s Futz. Finding another theater to work in was less than easy, and so it eventually borrowed the Company Theater’s space for a production of Paul Foster’s Tom Paine. The Burbage also staged Ionesco’s Exit the King for a brief run at the Company Theater. Theater company rarely thrive as houseguests, however, and fortunately the Century City Playhouse on Pico Boulevard became available for a lease. At that point I joined the Burbage as it slowly pulled together its first production in Rancho Park, The Devils.

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