Latino Theater Company's 'Desert Rats' Returns to its Western Home

The Latino Theater Company is bringing back the U.S. Premiere of their noir comedy about life and crime in America's contemporary West to the Los Angeles Theatre Center (L.A.T.C.)

Written by Nate Rufus Edelman, directed by Angie Scott, and starring Derek Chariton, Lila Gavares, and Walt Gray IV, "Desert Rats," puts two brothers, a trunk, and a hostage in a motel in Barstow into the mix and stirs.

This new American play was picked out of 10 American plays featured in a reading series in London, according to Edelman. The “Ovation Recommended” Desert Rats originally world premiered in London in 2016, as part of a summer festival at Las Americas Above.

"The festival was good, but kind of rapid paced. It didn't breathe," said Edelman, who works in development and grant writing at the L.A.T.C. "The production here is now about 20 minutes longer than the London production... I really liked the London production, but I was a lot more involved in this one just because I'm home and was able to be at rehearsals from beginning to end."

The play addresses issues between the social classes, as well as issues between siblings – a subject matter close to home and in growing up for Edelman.

"There's a lot of discussions about class through this kind of kidnapping genre narrative – with the 'kind of' poor and the wealthy – to bring them together to try to find some empathy between the two, which might have been subconsciously about gentrification in North East L.A. But I think it's an interesting story to tell in Los Angeles now."

Edelman, whose brother has yet to see the play, reflected on life before gentrification in the North East L.A. area and on growing up with his twin brother, where he characterizes their relationship as more of a mild inspiration for the brothers' relationship in the play.

"[My brother and I] spent every day on earth together," said Edelman. "We shared a room for 16 years, in a small house and we were had a really dysfunctional brother relationship. And he knows how to get on my nerves, and I know how to get on his. That kind of Cain and Abel myth I think, this is my version of it. The kind of squabbling and power games and knowing how to kind of puppeteer a brother to get a reaction... That's definitely kind of there, the dysfunctional brother relationship. I wouldn't say [the relationship] is close to us, but it is an exaggeration."

Edelman, who is also part of a collective with five other playwrights called The Temblors, also teaches playwriting to under-served students in East Los Angeles as a volunteer in a weekly workshop. He grew up in Eagle Rock, went to grad school at NYU for dramatic writing and to Trinity College in Ireland.

After the deaths of friends around him from both accidents and suicides, and struggling in a New York apartment with roommates while going to school, Edelman felt "weirdly selfish" in "pursuing something like writing at a place like NYU." With the onset of both positive and negative effects of gentrification in North East L.A., returning to Los Angeles for Edelman and his friends after college was a bit of a shock and an influence.

Derek Chariton and Walt Gray IV in the Latino Theatre Company's "Desert Rats" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Photo by Giovanni Solis of bracero.

"I thought about the kind of characters – kind of maybe ne'er do well, working-class types – who don't see any opportunity or don't have opportunity in a lot of ways, and divide that with other sides of things like some of my family, and other people I knew," said Edelman.

"None of my friends live in Eagle Rock anymore. They've all been displaced through rent going up," he continued. "But I feel like a 'towny' when I go back in a way that I don't like. I have weird memories of it. I sometimes feel weirdly afraid, like PTSD, in certain parts of Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Glassell Park, even driving down certain streets, because we avoided them 20 years ago. And now they're nice. It's weird."

According to Edelman, the L.A.T.C. brings over 3,000 students to the program via that RACC in outreach to educational opportunities, which has brought some good feedback.

One student specifically came up to Edelman after a show and said that "Desert Rats" made him want to see another play. And while in the lobby of an unrelated production at ELAC, he overheard, "I saw this show downtown called Desert Rats. It was really good!"

As opposed to some honest feedback one might get from a New Yorker, Edelman said, “You don't really get that in L.A. It's such an unusual peek at real honesty."

Students have been working at the L.A.T.C. in various capacities, such as a Stage Manager, Assistant Director, Costume designer, and production assistants. This has helped create a young network at the theater that has brought younger college age and high school students into shows as well.

Frustrated with the stereotyped life and lifestyle “Hollywood” genre product that has come from some theater, Edelman seeks to bring more realism about Los Angeles life in his works.

"So rarely do we see Los Angeles stories on stage in a way that isn't stereotyped or about Hollywood. I can't think of too many plays – Sam Sheppard did a couple – but it's weirdly been kind of largely ignored, except through the lens of Hollywood, which I think there should be a moratorium."

With the show's director, Angie Scott, Edelman said they have been working together since they were undergraduates and studying abroad at different schools in Ireland. Since then, along with producing by the Latino Theatre Company, they've brought a more fleshed-out version of "Deserts Rats" to Los Angeles.

“We cast actors who we really know, like, and who happen to be perfect for these roles,” said Edelman. "Everything worked in a way it almost always doesn't. It was kind of a labor of love for everybody. All the details in performance and design were really kind of lovingly created by people who wanted to do it. I don't know if I'll ever get that again. And I'm really glad it's coming back so I'll have a little more time with it before it goes away forever."

Desert Rats” returns to the L.A.T.C. in a limited three-week run, from Saturday, January 5, to Sunday, January 20, 2018. The Los Angeles Theatre Center is located at 514 S Spring St. Los Angeles, 90013, and visit their website for more information on tickets and show times.


"Stronger" Screenwriter: I OWE IT ALL TO LA 99 SEAT THEATER

During the debate two years ago over LA's 99 seat waiver contract, the actors who wanted to abolish the contract - and eventually succeeded in doing so - claimed that it represented wage-exploitation, where their artistic contributions were not properly compensated.   The theater producers defended the plan by saying that no one made money from stage productions, and no one lost more than producers and production companies.  But they pointed to all the successes that came out of waiver theater - the productions like Deaf West's Spring Awakening that moved into the commercial arena and made money for all involved; as well as the many playwrights, directors, designers and actors whose careers have taken off or gone to the next level as a result of their work on waiver productions.

Certainly one of the most shining examples of this waiver success is John Pollono, screenwriter of the just-released movie Stronger starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany, as well as a recurring actor on the NBC hit-TV series This Is Us, where he plays Sterling K. Brown's manipulative boss.

from STRONGER: Miranda Richardson, David Gordon Green, Pollono, Tatiana Maslany, Jake Gylenhaal, Jeff Bauman

I think that on some level we all read interviews with and profiles of successful people to compare ourselves with them.  We ask: How did he/she gain that success?  Did he/she have "advantages" that we haven't had - family connections, financial benefits, "quotas" of one kind or another?  Why him or her and not me?

Looking at the background of John Pollono, it's hard to find many "advantages," fair or unfair.  He's from a white working-class family.  Growing up in a small town in New Hampshire, he wanted to attend NYU but his family didn't have the money, so he went to U. of New Hampshire instead.   He was eventually able to get into a summer exchange program on film directing at NYU, and it was a turning point in his life.  "It was the first time I was really around creative people," John Pollono told me at a Starbuck's in Marina del Rey.  "I mean, growing up in New Hampshire was cool in its own way, but it wasn't very diverse.  We're Italian, my father is from Queens, people were always asking us if we were in the witness protection program."

John Pollono and wife Jennifer

Pollono - who, to my mind, looks more like a Major League pitcher at the end of his career than a new Hollywood screenwriter hitting the big-time - went to Colorado after graduation, where he lived with a girlfriend who was in grad school there.  "I wrote really bad screenplays and really bad short stories, lots and lots of them," he told me.  "And I had like a million different jobs - you name it, I did it."  He added: "I knew what I wanted to do, but I was crippled financially.  The people I knew in New York who were pursuing acting or filmmaking careers all came from really wealthy families."

The relationship ended, and John went back east to Boston, where he worked as a landscaper and production assistant for Tommy Heinsohn's show about Celtics basketball.  In fact, at 23 years old he have four jobs and rarely slept and drank way too much.  It all caught up one night when he was driving a company van and opened his door when the van was still moving, smashing the front window and messing up his hand big-time.  "That was a wake-up call," he said.  "I couldn't keep up that pace, and I had to re-think what I was doing."

When his hand healed, Pollono moved out west with yet another girlfriend - and then that relationship broke up too.  "I didn't really get any writing done for a few years, since I spent all my free time trying to get laid.  I was also working at Castle Rock Entertainment.  I had started in the mailroom, then became an assistant public relations guy.  I made friends with some guys in literary, who agreed to give coverage to my screenplays.  The comments were always the same: "Why is this 25 year old writing a knockoff of Raiders of the Lost Ark?"

Reiko Aylesworth and Pollono in Pollono's play Lost and Found

"I felt a little lost to tell you the truth," Pollono told me.  "I wasn't sure what to do next."  That was when a friend of his from Castle Rock invited him to check out the acting class he'd been going to, taught by Laura Gardner.  "So I came to class, and I was terrified, because if anybody I grew up with ever found out, I'd be made fun of mercilessly.  But the thing is, I loved it. And we did scenes from plays. Well, I'd seen like one play before that, ever.  But the teacher demanded that we read the entire play that we were doing the scene from, so I just started reading Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and all these other playwrights.  And that was the birth of theater for me.  Really, that was the birth of me,  because these playwrights just fed my imagination and enlarged my idea of what was possible."

Pollono started writing monologues and scenes for himself and his friends.  Then a bunch of people from the class formed a theater company called Jabberwocky.  This included not only Pollono but his wife Jennifer, who he met in the acting class.  The group produced four evenings of one-act plays - several by Pollono - but the only critics they could attract were ones who they had to pay.  And even then the reviews weren't great. "By this point Jennifer and I'd had our first child, and I needed to get a real job.  So I became a Senior Account executive for PR at an agency, where I basically "acted" the role of a publicist and figured things out as i went along."

His job gave him access to the contact information for local critics, and he used it to call up lead theater critic Steven Leigh Morris at the LA Weekly and invite him to their new evening of one-acts.  Morris came, and he gave them a good review - "high quality considering the budget" - and that put them on the map.

James Ranson, Pollono and James Badge Dale in Small Engine Repair

Pollono wrote his first full-length play, Lost and Found, and Jabberwocky agreed to produce it.  But who was going to direct it?  "I put an ad for a director on the website Big-Cheap.  John Perrin Flynn saw it and got in touch with me. He was just coming off producing the TV show Strong Medicine, and he was looking to go in a different direction.  As it turned out, he loved the play and wanted to direct it.  This went really well, both critically and financially."

So well, in fact, that Jabberwocky soon morphed into Roguemachine - with Flynn using the 501(c)3  non-profit ID of the former as the basis for the non-profit status of the latter.  This was around 2008, and it proved to be the genesis of what Terry Morgan at Variety (magazine) has called "one of the most ambitious and accomplished theatre companies in LA."

While Flynn and Roguemachine have had many successes, their landmark productions have been by Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami, nominated for London's Olivier Award) and two plays by John Pollono, SMALL ENGINE REPAIR and LOST GIRLS.  Both plays have working-class backgrounds and characters, both veer in tone from the comedic to the menacing and dangerous, and both have gone on from Roguemachine to Off-Broadway and publication by Dramatists Play Service.

Pollono and Jo Bonney, the director of Rules of Seconds

John Pollono and Kemp Powers are, in fact,  two of the playwrights who have combined to form the seven-member playwrights group, The Temblors.  Based in downtown LA at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, the group is dedicated to producing a play by each of its members, based on its own internal development of these scripts.  First up was Pollono's RULES OF SECONDS, a dark comedy very different from his earlier plays.  It takes place in mid-19th Century Boston and was given a ripping production earlier this year by the Latino Theater Company under the expert direction of Jo Bonney.  Charles McNulty, chief critic of the LA Times, called it "a 21st century comic melodrama set in the 19th Century."  It featured a glorious ensemble of LA-based actors, led by the fearless Amy Brenneman. and including Pollono's wife Jennifer.  While Pollono made clear to me how many years he had been developing the script, he was shocked to find how relevant its theme of "toxic masculinity" ended up being.

Pollono told me that he had gotten the assignment to write the movie Stronger based on the strength of his playwriting, as well as on the fact that he grew up just an hour from where the Boston Marathon bombing took place. The money he has made from writing the movie, along with other pitches that he has sold since, have enabled his growing family (he and Jennifer now have two boys) to move from a small apartment in Koreatown to a house in a ritzy Los Angeles suburb, and to have some financial security for the first time in their lives.

"Truly, I owe it all to theater - to finding my voice and to finding out who I am as a writer.  While I may not have made much money for writing and acting in the plays, the rest of my career would never have been possible without them.  That's what people who dismiss theater as an outmoded, money-losing art form fail to see.  Whatever else happens in my career, I hope that I'll always come back to the theater.  There's just nothing like it."