Welcome to our annual theater guide, a tradition at Back Stage in which we provide proof in black and white that theater is still in full bloom in Southern California.
This year we spotlight a few artists who make their livings in Los Angeles theater. We chose an artistic director, a stage manager, a director, a set designer, a music director, a lighting designer, a costumer, and of course a casting director. Each person reflects back on how he or she got here and the many reasons for continuing to make theater in what's misperceived as a strictly screen town.
In addition, we include our annual list of theaters, theater companies, and related services. You'll note the more than 200 sites at which theater is being made here. We urge you to visit them, to work on their stages, to become a part of the warm community that is Southland theater.
And don't forget to check Back Stage weekly, and BackStage.com much more often than that, for our theater reviews.
As always, if you notice anything missing or incorrect in these listings, please let us know. And keep us posted about moves, closures, and changes in personnel.
We'll see you at the theater!
—Dany Margolies, Executive Editor
The Artistic Director
Those reputedly solid Midwestern values and a devotion to the methods of Jerzy Grotowski meld in Ron Sossi, founder and artistic director of the 42-year-old Odyssey Theatre. The theater has created and produced "The Chicago Conspiracy Trial" and "Tracers" and has provided its audiences with such wide-ranging fare as Euripides and Alan Ayckbourn, Lisa Loomer and Arthur Kopit, Caryl Churchill and August Wilson.
Sossi, born in Detroit, attended the University of Michigan as a theater major, then UCLA for film school, thinking he would direct film. He served as an executive in the television industry for six or so years, hated it, and founded the Odyssey, to which he has remained devoted. Says Sossi, "I remember when I left, people said, 'You're crazy.' I said something like 'Well, I'd rather do a little bit of quality for the few than do shit for the millions.' "
Best about theater in Los Angeles, he says, "we have some of the best actors in the world available to us." Noticeably, Sossi has collected most of them for his productions, although the theater doesn't maintain membership. And although he relies on his pool of familiar faces—which he estimates at 2,000 actors—he holds open calls for most of the Odyssey season productions. "We first call people we know, and 50 percent of the cast ends up being those people. And the other 50 percent are people we don't know at all," he says. Among those topflight actors have been the late Franklyn Seales, Sam Anderson, Laurie O'Brien, and Beth Hogan, each of whom auditioned at an open call.
Among Sossi's tasks for the future is bringing in new young audiences. He plans to begin a council composed of high schoolers, who will offer advice on bringing in their ranks. He also plans to continue pushing artistic envelopes. Possibilities for the upcoming season include a series of two evenings of theater in the dark—short plays the Odyssey will commission. Possible playwrights he mentions include Steven Berkoff, Wallace Shawn, and John O'Keefe.
Looking back, Sossi fondly recalls the theater's roots—in non-narrative plays, in plays with audience involvement, in later productions that moved the audience through the three theaters on the premises, in "splashy" sets such as the water-filled one for "The Frogs." On the other hand, he cautions against gimmicks and "directorial tap dancing."
His own directing seems to function on instinct and trusting his actors—after careful casting, he points out. Of casting, he says, "You know in the first 30 seconds. It's the way they enter the space; it's the way they take command; it's the way they're smart; it's the way they're focused. It's all kinds of things. But you just know."
So Sossi suggests actors assistant-direct a show and sit through the casting process. "You really see all the ways actors step on their own feet," he says. One is to not acknowledge the situation. "So an actor will come in, and you can tell they've been in a class. I'll say hi. 'Hi.' What's your name? What's your piece? And then they'll get up and say, 'Hello, my name is [so-and-so], and I would like to do a monologue from—' just as if we had never had that conversation. You're not acknowledging the environment, the situation. The second [mistake] is the opposite of that: the actor who then cannot immediately throw himself into whatever the imagined situation is and really be involved with it."
Sossi also decries actors who are "over-Methodized" ("I know you can cry. Now what?"), looks for imagination ("even if it's wrong for the material"), and expects technical abilities ("Do they have a sense of doing the words in order to accomplish an objective? Is there something behind the words that drives them? Or are they 'performing'? ").
In sum, Sossi has led a theater in a changing city, in various economic climates, with an eye for the interesting script performed by the best actors available. So that's what an artistic director does.
The vivacious and talented Michael Matthews is very clear about his career ambitions. He's doing exactly what he loves—directing theater. He has garnered stellar reviews and multiple award nominations and wins for his directing work since arriving in L.A. in January 2005. "I've come across some of the best shows I've ever seen in L.A.," he says.
Raised in South Carolina and Tennessee, Matthews honed his directing skills in Chicago for 10 years, following his graduation from Columbia College Chicago. He loves the highly regarded Chicago theater scene, but after deciding to give L.A. a try, he quickly secured a fine job—as artistic director of the gay-focused Celebration Theatre, now in its 29th season.
Under his leadership, the Celebration expanded its formidable membership and volunteer force, and Matthews produced several hits—including "Beautiful Thing," the world-premiere musical "Play It Cool," and an adventurous adaptation of "The Bacchae," which successfully played the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Matthews resigned as the Celebration's artistic director in 2008 but retains the title resident director, helming one company show per year.
During the past few years, Matthews has earned glowing accolades for freelance directing gigs with the Blank Theatre Company ("The Temperamentals," "The Jazz Age," "The Santaland Diaries") and the West Coast Ensemble ("Three Tall Women"); he earned an NAACP Theatre Award for his direction of the Celebration's "Take Me Out," as well as other local nominations, such as for the Celebration's "The Women of Brewster Place: The Musical." Currently wrapping up its Celebration run is his acclaimed revival of the British drama "What's Wrong With Angry?"
Matthews came across a great opportunity when he moved to L.A. He was introduced to director Nicholas Martin, which led to Matthews' working as assistant director on Martin's Ahmanson Theatre production of "Dead End." Matthews subsequently performed the same duties for director Sean Mathias on the Mark Taper Forum's "The Cherry Orchard." Then Martin took Matthews to New York in 2006, where he assistant-directed "Butley," starring Nathan Lane.
Matthews is eagerly anticipating his next Celebration project, opening in March 2012: a small-stage version of the Broadway extravaganza "The Color Purple." He says, "It's an epic, and this will be a huge, huge challenge. But I'm so excited to be able to tell that story—my favorite book when I was a kid."
The Casting Director
Casting director Raul Staggs, also the associate artistic director for L.A.'s Playwrights' Arena, was an actor kicking around the L.A. theater scene when, in 1992, he got an internship with ASK Theater Projects, a service organization for playwrights. That led to a full-time job assisting casting directors with public readings and workshop productions. "I learned everything I know about casting from CDs Lisa Zarowin, Joy Dickson, Nicole Arbusto, and Cathy Reinking," Staggs says.
Eventually he was producing and casting in-house table readings of new plays. When ASK shut down, he began working as a freelance casting director, and he hasn't stopped casting since. More than anything, Staggs loves the diversity of theater in L.A.—of theater styles and of actors. "People who say there isn't good theater in L.A. are simply not going to the right theaters," he says. "It takes a little time, but if you're diligent, you will find the theaters or companies that share your aesthetic."
To date, Staggs' favorite project to cast has been "Caught" at the Zephyr. "Not only was the cast uniformly terrific," he says, "but the understudies and the replacements over the nine-month run were equally strong."
In Staggs' audition room, ask questions—about the script, the style, the character, and where to direct your scene. "I personally hate when actors stare me down with their monologues," he says. He strongly advises actors to come as prepared as possible: "If it's an original script, it tells me a lot about the actor if they ask to read the entire thing. Or if it's a revival, that they made an effort to read the published script." Also, don't forget your headshot and résumé. He looks at résumés closely for legitimate theater training and experience.
Staggs wants actors to know he is on their side. "I want you to do well when you come in the room," he says. "It makes me look good when directors are pleased with the choices I've given them. When I was acting, I never found a way to harness my nerves in such a way that I could truly show people what I had to offer. That's why I'm not acting anymore. But I'm definitely rooting for you. Be prepared, be on time, and find a way to show us who you are as an artist and as a person."
The Stage Manager
"Everything I know about stage management I've learned through experience and on-the-job training," says Terri Roberts, stage manager of "Bakersfield Mist" at the Fountain Theatre. A California native, Roberts began as a writer and actor at Whittier High School. Later, at Rio Hondo College, she was part of the college's repertory company, with which she traveled to Europe twice for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, exposing her to backstage work such as costumes and props.
About 18 years ago, Roberts transitioned from acting to writing, combining her theater background and her writing skills to work as a theater critic and features writer. She continued to write but also missed being a part of the show. So, while helping a friend with concessions at the Theatre @ Boston Court's first show, Roberts began pitching in backstage. The stage manager was impressed with her and, a year later, hired her to work as an assistant stage manager on a new Equity musical, making Roberts eligible to join Actors' Equity Association on her first show. Since then she has worked on more than 30 productions. There's always more to learn, she says: "I always try to keep an open dialogue with my actors, directors, and producers about what I can do better and differently."
Being well-rounded is a quality Roberts values. "I think it benefits a stage manager to have some background in acting and production," she says, "to know exactly what designers do, and to have helped doing props and making costume repairs, etc." She thinks actors should also be aware of those things—and of everything a stage manager does. Stage managers are usually the first ones in and the last ones out of the theater, ensuring that everything is ready and working so the actors can do their jobs. "Stage managers are fairly invisible for the most part," Roberts says. "We're kind of like the Wizard of Oz—the man behind the curtain who makes things run."
Supporting the actors and crew is important to Roberts. "It's hard enough to live the life of an artist and to make a living within the creative community," she says. "There's no need to make things harder by not helping out. We're here to support each other. We're here to make art. We're here to enrich each other's lives."
The Music Director and Performer
Since moving to L.A. in 2007, New Orleans–born Michael Paternostro has received wide acclaim for his music direction in shows such as Havok Theatre Company's "Thrill Me," Musical Theatre West's "Forbidden Broadway," Reprise's "Kiss Me, Kate," and Roger Bean's "Life Could Be a Dream," for which Paternostro earned Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and Back Stage Garland awards. His local gigs as an actor-singer-dancer have included sterling work in Musical Theatre West's "The Producers" and "Annie."
The multitalented Paternostro moved to the Big Apple in 1986 and won a role in the national tour of "A Chorus Line." He studied at New York University from 1987 to 1990 and worked in New York for many years, appearing in many Broadway shows, such as "Disney's Beauty and the Beast," "Sweet Smell of Success," and the 2006 revival of "A Chorus Line."
Does he prefer performing or music-directing? Apparently not eager to supply a direct answer, he says the bulk of his work has been performing, because "once you get in a show, you do eight performances a week and that's your job. Playing music and coaching people has always been a part of my life, though maybe not as much as my visible professional life."
When asked to cite his most rewarding music-directing project in L.A., Paternostro replies without hesitation: "Kiss of the Spider Woman." The 1993 Kander and Ebb musical drama, despite winning seven Tony Awards, had never been produced by a Southland company until director Nick DeGruccio and his Havok producing partner, Chad Borden, tackled the formidable task at the Bootleg Theater in 2008, tapping Paternostro as music director.
"It was a show that terrified us all," Paternostro says. "It's very dark and challenging, and it requires a lot of craft. It was incredible for me to be part of it." He adds that the production greatly stretched his abilities: "It was the first big show I worked on out here as music director and the first time I really put together a musical staff."
Paternostro is now wearing yet another hat. He is co-composing "Scary Musical—A New Musical," teaming with librettist-lyricist-composer Richard Hochberg. "We've already had a Disney ASCAP workshop," Paternostro says. "Stephen Schwartz has seen it and has enjoyed it, and so has Susan Dietz. We're having another reading in San Diego in April; then we're gearing up to do a backers audition reading in New York."
The Set Designer
With her variety of saws, about which she converses so easily (her website is www.sawgirl.com), Sibyl Wickersheimer has created an astonishing number of admirable—and award-winning—sets across the Los Angeles theater scene.
Raised in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., the young Wickersheimer was exposed to varied sets at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, where her parents took her throughout her childhood. She says she never thought of herself as an artist until, while attending Washington University, where she was studying theater directing, set design teacher Bruce Bergner told her she was "too smart to be a director." Says Wickersheimer, "At the time I had no idea what that meant. I do know that set designers direct a lot of the time and have to think like a director. So that maybe makes sense out of that comment. So I took his class. It was like instant 'Oh, I see. This is what I should be doing.' "
She came to UCLA for graduate school, studying under Robert Israel and Neil Peter Jampolis. But her plans to cross over among TV, film, and theater went away when she decided that "theater was so much more sculptural and in a lot of ways more imaginative," Wickersheimer explains. Not that she completely rules out onscreen opportunities. "Who knows where your career ends up going?" she says.
After she graduated from UCLA, a job didn't present itself instantly. She concentrated on artwork and, she says, "that's what led me to understanding myself as a fine artist first." She also worked at Pepperdine University, as a drafting teacher and then as an assistant technical director. Eventually, she says, she started on small-theater productions, "and it kind of all came together."
Not that all was easy and perfect at first. "I was building my own sets when I started out," Wickersheimer says. "And I really didn't know what I was doing. So I ended up building in my carport at my apartment building. I ended up buying my own router, and my boyfriend at the time, who's now my husband, ended up buying me a table saw. It spiraled out of control, where my neighbors were saying, 'Excuse me, you're getting sawdust all over my car.' "
Her early sets were not always stable in the beginning stages, though they would usually be so by opening night. "But I had to learn a lot through failing," she says. A set for an early project, "Summertree" at the Rose Alley Theater, began to fail because one of the joints wasn't strong enough. Her boyfriend helped out at 3 a.m. The tree, she says, "ended up being beautiful, and I learned so much in doing it."
As Wickersheimer looks back at her favorite sets, she mentions "The Stones," which played the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2006. "It's a design I've been very proud of, how such an abstract world can mean so many different things based on how it's used," she says.
Along the way, Wickersheimer has noticed that performers and designers "often get separated along the process of creating theater." And, she says, "that's so tragic." Her hope when working on a production is that the performers seek out their set designer and pose questions that might impact the designs. "The set usually appears, the actors go on it, and they're not really a part of the process of figuring out what the world would end up being," she says. "So, I would really encourage the interaction."
The Costume Designer
Naila Aladdin Sanders
Naila Aladdin Sanders had always been interested in fashion, but while attending the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, she discovered that she preferred the more creative outlet of costume design. She studied art at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles and was exposed to many forms of it, including watercolor painting, weaving, sculpture, textiles, and theater. She now passes on her love of art to new generations of costume designers as the costume shop manager at L.A. City College.
Sanders began working in L.A. theater in the 1980s with the L.A. Actors Theater, run by Bill Bushnell and Diane White. When Bushnell opened the Los Angeles Theatre Center downtown, Sanders helped design the costume shop. In addition to her work at LACC, she has been employed consistently on outside productions since the late '90s and does eight to 10 shows a year for various theaters, including the Robey Theatre Company and the Fountain Theatre.
One of Sanders' favorite projects was the Haitian trilogy "For the Love of Freedom," consisting of three plays based on the Haitian slave revolution. It was produced over the course of four years by the Robey company. She loves the historical aspect of costume design, researching the people, place, and time of the play. This project required a lot of special makeup for scars and missing eyes, which Sanders designed. She also made dog masks to allow the actors to transform into animals.
"I love the transformation," she says of actors stepping into costume. She teaches the actors she works with to sew, and she imparts the importance of costume to each character. "After all the rehearsals, the lights, the set, everything else is done, you bring in the costumes," she says, "and that's what transforms you or should complete the transformation for your character."
Sanders enjoys the challenges of her job. In the recent production "Neighbors" at the Matrix Theatre, she says, "the actress had to shoot milk out of her breasts," so Sanders made several models "to figure out how she would squeeze them, where the water would go, how to prop it up." Sanders garnered a 2011 Ovation Award nomination for her work on the show.
She is also a part of the Surface Design Association, a textile-artist networking organization, and serves on the board of directors of the Girl Blue Project, a summer enrichment program for teenage girls.
The Lighting Designer
Leigh Allen, who hails from Issaquah, Wash., completed her graduate studies at U.C. Irvine in 2001. Since then, she has continually worked in technical theater throughout the Southland. "Most of my interests have been in stage management and lighting and scenic design," she says. "My primary focus during the last several years has been in lighting."
Her accomplishments in this craft have been recognized with impressive honors, such as the Angstrom Award for career achievement in lighting from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and several awards and nominations for individual productions, including the LA Weekly Theater Award for Stages Theatre's "Johnny Got His Gun."
"My work in lighting, which averages one or two shows a month, has encompassed a little bit of everything," she elaborates. "I've done dance, 99-Seat theater, opera, cruise ships, and large musicals. I also work a lot in educational theater." Among the prominent companies she has designed for are Musical Theatre West, Native Voices, the Old Globe, Pacific Resident Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse, Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, and Opera Santa Barbara. Allen has also done music events and club lighting. Among her favorite assignments, she cites the aforementioned antiwar drama "Johnny Got His Gun," Antaeus' classic "Cousin Bette," and Rogue Machine's futuristic "Treefall."
Of working in academic theater, Allen says, "That work tends to include a lot of training students to be stage managers and assistants, as well as lighting programmers. It's rewarding to teach kids. So many are very smart and grasp the idea of programming and running shows very quickly. There's something about the rapid pace of getting a show up and running that appeals to young people.
"What I love about lighting is that it's a collaborative art," she continues. "There are so many really talented and focused people in L.A. It's always a treat to work with artists of that caliber. In small theater here, most actors and directors understand the limitations—that the companies aren't loaded with money. They are always appreciative when you are able to overcome that and create art anyway."