ENSEMBLE STUDIO THEATRE-LA: FINDING ITS WAY OUT OF THE SHADOWS

 This Thursday June 1st, the curtain will rise on Program A of Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA’s Second Annual One Act Festival at their 50-seat performance space at the Atwater Village Theatre, with Programs B & C still to follow.

Meanwhile, back in New York City, the 36th Annual one act Marathon of the original Ensemble Studio Theatre is already half-way through its three evenings, with Series C commencing on June 10.

Ensemble Studio Theater founder Curt Dempster

There’s something apt in this timeline difference.  EST in NYC was founded in the late 1960s by Artistic Director Curt Dempster as a non-commercial theater laboratory.  Dempster was an intense man with an abundance of energy and intellectual discipline, as well as a deeply Protestant work ethic, who often seemed to keep his theater going through sheer strength of will.  A 2013 article in American Theatre Magazine detailed the crisis that EST went through when Dempster committed suicide in 2007, after the Board had voted to replace him as leader, following a series of financial setbacks.  It took a few years for new Artistic Director Billy Carden and new Executive Director Paul Slee to find their way back from the brink, but now EST in NYC is flourishing again, with some money and increased respect from its origination of the play Hand To God, which was moved to Broadway, and from a recent grant to renovate their headquarters in Hell’s Kitchen on 52nd Street and 11th Ave.  It also helps that Dempster negotiated a contract with New York City that gave him this multi-floored space for the yearly rent of $1.

(NOTE: Absent from the American Theatre article was the role played by the super-casting agents Risa Bramon Garcia and Billy Hopkins in the acendance of EST.  After the duo – both EST members – hit the big-time with Desperately Seeking Susan, then being with EST could pay your bills as well as feed your soul.)

EST-LA has no such helpful rental arrangement.  The company moved from Hollywood around 2009 to a situation in Atwater Village where Circle X Theater, in partnership with EST-LA Artistic Director Gates McFadden, built two theater spaces from the ground up.  The area was desolate back then, and the cars of company members and visitors were frequently broken into.  Gradually, however, the area has improved, certainly in part to the presence of these theaters, which bring audience to the neighborhood.  A developer came in and revamped the crumbling houses across the street into lofts that now sell for upwards of $1 million.  Two smaller theater spaces have been added, extending out towards the street from the larger ones, and EST-LA now occupies one of those for a fairly hefty monthly price.  The larger spaces in the back are now way beyond the means of EST-LA.

Gates McFadden

The company was guided for its first five years in Atwater by Ms. McFadden, well-known to Star Trek fans as Dr. Beverly Crusher, which she played on Star Trek: The Next Generation and four subsequent movies.  Gates was, by all accounts, an excellent director, and productions under her leadership like House of the Rising Son, Belfast Blues and House of Gold received excellent notices.  She also poured a lot of her own money into the company, so that when she resigned in October 2014, the company had to find a way of surviving without her generosity and largesse.

(I should mention that there’s no current relationship between the east and west coast branches of Ensemble Studio Theatre. “They share a DNA but are two completely separate non-profit entities” is how it was explained to me.   Certainly EST-NYC provides no support, material or otherwise, to its poor relation.)

Roderick Menzies in his daily attir

Liz Ross

EST-LA has been brought back from the brink by a collection of co-Artistic Directors: Roderick Menzies, Liz Ross, Keith Szarabajka and Carole Real (who resigned in late 2016), with operate with the assistance of Managing Artistic Director William Duffy and Producing Director Kevin Comartin. All have worked tirelessly to keep the company going.  Through judicious budgeting and by having the company’s members both volunteer and raise money, they can only afford to do 2-3 full productions a year, including the one-act festival.  In addition, they maintain a packed schedule of company readings, workshop productions and community outreach events that extend throughout the Los Angeles area.

One major development from the Gates McFadden regime has been a closer linking of the acting company with the playwrights unit.  Productions are now selected almost exclusively from plays by unit members or EST-members (not always the same thing), as illustrated by their one act festival, in which all the plays are by playwrights unit members except for How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall? by EST-member Nicholas Ullett, which was written 30 years ago.  I recently met with Nick Ullett and three of the other playwrights – Tony Pasqualini, Mary Portser, and Karen Rizzo – along with Co-Artistic Director Keith Szarabajka at Mr Szarabajka’s home.

Mary Portser, Tony Pasqualini, Karen Rizzo and Keith Szarabajka

As Keith explained in his familiar gravelly voice – he is one of the most in-demand actors around for audio books, video games and voiceovers – EST-LA’s three evenings of plays each have a common (if somewhat loose) thread.  Series A has five short plays, each with a man and a woman in a room, and has been dubbed the “Rom-Com” evening.  Series B has three longer one acts and is called the “Political” evening.  Series C has four medium-length plays and is called the “Eclectic” evening.  Each series begins on a Thursday and runs for two weekends, Thursday-Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm – except for the last weekend of Series C, when there is also a 2 pm on Saturday July 15th.

Speaking with the playwrights about their plays, it soon became clear that there will be a large variety of tone within each particular grouping. For instance, Karen Rizzo’s play, Darkest Place, is in Series A, but it hardly sounds like a “Rom-Com.”  She describes it as drawing on her fascination with “memory and regret,” as a man and a woman meet again 15 years after high school, only to find that time has changed them and their relationship to each other in some very unpredictable ways.  Tony Paqualini’s play, Already Forgotten, is also in Series A and also has surprises that are not of the “rom-com” variety.  “It’s about a Hollywood talent agent,” Tony told me.  “He has quite literally forgotten where he came from, until he meets up again with his ex-wife, who brings it all back.”  Mary Portser’s play, So Lovely Here On Earth, is also in Series A and is about a young man with the job of interviewing people for a one-way flight to Mars.  An attractive young woman comes into his office, and he tries to find out why she would want to embark on what is essentially a suicide mission.

Nick Ullett and Mary Portser.  Photo Credit: Keith Szarabajka

And then there’s Nick Ullett‘s three-person play in Series C about the concert violinist at Carnegie Hall, which will be directed by his wife, Jenny O’Hara.  Anyone who has caught their performances at the Fountain Theatre in the two-hander Bakersfield Mist know that fireworks can be expected when these two get together.  Considering that the play has been waiting 30 years for its premiere, it seems certain that this will be a highlight of the festival.

As it happens, all the writers I’m speaking with here are also veteran character actors with loads of stage, screen, TV, commercial and video game credits.  Yet all have become dedicated writers as well, in an arena where they are able to hone their own visions.  Tony Pasqualini – well-known as an actor from over 30 guest-starring TV appearances – elaborated on this point.

“I think EST-LA has become more of a writers/actors theater than it was before, when the director had a larger role.  We’re trying to find the creative balance between the writer and actors,” Tony said.

Keith added that the small budgets available for EST-LA productions has brought him back full-circle to his roots at Chicago’s Organic Theatre in the 1970s, that became the launching pad for such heralded actors as Dennis Franz and Joe Mantegna and for the production of the 1978 play Bleacher Bums, written by the company’s actors (including Szarabajka).

Will the 2017 version of EST-LA’s One Act Festival be a similar launching pad for the actors and writers?

Come and see for yourself.  The six week festival all starts this Thursday June 1st and runs through July 16th.  Click here for ticket information:  Ensemble Studio Theatre LA One Act Festival 2017. 

 

 

 

 

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