Rattlestick Playwrights Theater is coming West. The Obie-winning Off-Broadway company is committed to producing the work of emerging playwrights with top notch actors and directors, and its first Los Angeles experiment is no exception. Slipping, written and directed by Daniel Talbott and starring Seth Numrich of Broadway’s War Horse and Golden Boy, will start performances April 4 at the intimate Lillian Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. To coincide with the production, the Rail has asked me to shed a bit of light on the L.A. theater scene, and just what kind of community Rattlestick is Slipping into.
I moved to L.A. from the East almost four years ago looking for wide-open spaces. I had just finished my M.F.A. in directing, and never one to go with the flow, I headed out from under the mothership in search of theatrical adventures in my home state of California. (Daniel Talbott too is a native son, and I have thought perhaps we Californians have an inborn compass that keeps turning us back to the West. After all, we inherited our DNA somewhere down the line from someone who couldn’t resist the land of the setting sun.)
In L.A., I found a flourishing theater scene populated by stubborn mavericks with a fierce desire for growth. “There are so many companies and individuals fighting the good fight and working to put Los Angeles on the map as a place where new theater is thriving,” says Tim Wright, artistic director of Circle X, one of my favorite spots in L.A. for new plays. The fifteen-year-old company shares a nicely converted warehouse with the L.A. wing of Ensemble Studio Theater on the edge of hipster haven Atwater Village. Here—in the home of $16 ricotta cheese and artisan babywear—Circle X has built a following based on the fearlessness of their programming. Their recent premier of Jim Leonard’s musical Bad Apples was a thrilling example of the kind of work that defines L.A. theater for me. Bad Apples tells the story of the abuses at Abu Ghraib centered on a love triangle between the U.S. Army Reservists who committed them. Their earnest balladeering becomes increasingly twisted as the night goes on, the experience was both visceral and thought-provoking. The tension created in the auditorium was palpable without ever overwhelming that between the actors onstage.
Slipping, which the New York Times called “A gay Rebel without a Cause,” resonates well alongside work like Bad Apples. In a series of chiaroscuro scenes, the play tells the story of a young man named Eli, and his ex, Chris (U.C.L.A. grad and newcomer Maxwell Hamilton taking on the role originated by Adam Driver in N.Y.C.), whose cruelty haunts Eli’s burgeoning relationship with the thoughtful Jake (MacLeod Andrews). Wendy vanden Heuvel takes on the role of Jan, Eli’s mother, who cannot save the kid from the gnarly mix of desire and violence that pervades the dark world of Daniel’s play.
Though the range of work and methods of production of L.A. artists are as vast as our sprawling megalopolis, it is safe to say that there is a large audience here for complex, knotty plays with dark themes like Slipping. It’s theater founded in the L.A. noir mythos and defined by the swaths of darkness that break up neighborhoods and lend our city the air of mystery and general amorality upon which Raymond Chandler founded his career as our city’s most famous chronicler. In the decade I spent in New York and its environs, I never much feared the reaper, but wandering in L.A.’s open spaces can make you feel very, very small and at the whim of nature in a way nearly unimaginable in N.Y.C. Seismic shifts and tree roots as big around as small children crack the streets and sidewalks. Coyotes stalk pets all over town, and at the Runyon Canyon running path, starlets in sunglasses and Lululemons ignore signs warning them to look out for rattlesnakes while raptors circle above.
Slipping joins a spring season of L.A. theater that features plays that reflect and refract this sublime unease. Our Class, Tadeusz SŁobodzianek’s WWII drama about neighbors killing neighbors is at Son of Semele Ensemble. Donald Jolly’s new play Riot/Rebellion, based on recently recorded interviews with witnesses of the 1965 Watts Riots receives its first outing at the Watts Village Theater Company. Dan Dietz’s American Misfit, a musical “fantasia” about the Harpe Brothers, who tried to turn back the American Revolution through mass murder, has its world premiere at the Theatre @ Boston Court.
L.A.’s small theaters lead the way in new play development. You hear stories of a time, before the end of Gordon Davidson’s tenure at Center Theater Group and the demise of the late Audrey Skirball-Kenis’s ASK Theatre Projects. Then, the city could attract playwrights based on well-funded national exposure on a regular basis. Now, the laurels go to a klatch of scrappy, smaller companies with very independent tastes, including all those I have mentioned along with many others including Open Fist, Rogue Machine, and Playwrights’ Arena. My company, IAMA, concentrates on new works by younger playwrights that tend definitively toward the complex. We have the freedom here to produce risky new works on a shoestring with outstanding actors and an audience full of ambitious young people making their living in the Biz and looking to connect to their theatrical roots.
The Theatre @ Boston Court’s co-artistic director Jessica Kubzansky tells me she meant to leave L.A. for Chicago or N.Y.C. after graduating from CalArts, but was so impressed with the openness and vitality of L.A.’s scene that she decided to stay. “Everybody ends up here,” she reflects. Our city has the unique advantage of being the place where artists flock to find bigger paydays and somewhat better job security. Her theater has produced world premieres by David Wiener, Julia Cho, and Jean-Claude Van Itallie among many others.
Indeed, as I shared breakfast with Daniel Talbott on a recent hazy morning, we figured about a dozen writers with N.Y.C. cred, including Sheila Callaghan, Jonathan Caren, Megan Mostyn-Brown, Kim Rosenstock, and Craig Wright resided within a mile or two of where we are sitting. Daniel tells me these artists are a large part of Rattlestick’s decision to go West. “It started, like everything at Rattlestick, as this ‘homebase’ concept,” he says, but moreover, “We’re doing it ’cause we really want to be here doing this play, it’s good to strip away everything and see what you have at the core of it, and coming to L.A. is a great reminder of that.”
Daniel knows the the ins and outs of independent production, from his work with Rattlestick as well as Rising Phoenix Rep, Daniel’s production company that he runs with his wife Addie Johnson-Talbott. Together with Ms. vanden Heuvel—who, when not starring in plays, is principal of piece by piece productions—they have produced some of Off-Broadway’s most talked about shows, including David Adjmi’s Elective Affinities with Zoe Caldwell and most recently Martin Moran’s All the Rage. Yet, L.A. presents Daniel and the Rattlestick team with a new producing challenge: sprawl. “It’s so hard to be a cultural center here, just because of the distance between things.” But this sprawl is by no means prohibitive. For Daniel, as for many recent transplants and visitors, it means thinking about community in a new way.
“It’s working with IAMA, working with [Matt Shakman’s theater] the Black Dahlia […] the more theaters that want to come here, the more we become a community,” he posits. “We connect the dots over the large geographic insanity, from Pasadena to Santa Monica, to Studio City […] almost like a subway train, more people ride, it the more stops there are.”
Time Out Los Angeles recently did a feature on the best theaters in L.A., which span from the ocean to downtown and beyond. At the top of the list was The Bootleg, a 10,000 square foot music and theater space on the city’s East Side and home to some of the most innovative (and well-attended) shows in town. I asked Jessica Hanna, the theater’s producing director, what draws people to her space. She tells me, “There’s this need to commune.”
Daniel concurs. “The natural human thing is to come together,” and in this crazy huge spread-out town, “Our work [must be] vital enough that people are craving theater like a drug, but a good drug.”
“We’re in an amazing time for theater,” he tells me, “in a culture that does not get theater, and we need to find more innovative ways to bridge that gap.” Coming to L.A. is bridging the gap––meeting the challenge of bringing people together across this city, by taking the Rattlestick experiment across the country.
I hope that this experiment is a success. I hope that L.A.’s theater audiences are drawn to Slipping and that this company, so essential in the development of new plays, finds a welcoming home and lots of kindred spirits here. Most of all I hope that L.A.’s frontier nature and wild theatrical charms continue to draw those looking not only for a better way to support themselves, but for the fresh outlook and new vitality this growing scene has to offer us as both artists and audiences.
Slipping, written and directed by Daniel Talbott, runs April 4 - May 5 at Rattlestick @ Elephant Stage's Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles, CA. For tickets and further info, please visit: http://rattlestick.org
Becca Wolff is artistic director of IAMA theatre Company and Co-Founder of titled Field Productions, a geographically diversified collective of artists with members in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. Upcoming directing projects include the world premiere of The Last Days of Mary Stuart--an opera composed by the rock band toNY (Son of Semele ensemble, Summer 2013) and Alex Knox's as-yet-untitled solo show at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.