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GARLANDS 1999: GARLANDS PROFILE - Going Downtown

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Zoo District continues to strive for an artists' community in urban L.A.-and to seek a warehouse of its own.

It's the beginning of a mid-week rehearsal for Zoo District's Nosferatu, and producer Bernadette Sullivan is making her announcements: ArtShare, the proprietor of the space, has "rejiggered" its electricity, which means no heat, no coffee, no tea. Ricardo Zeger, who plays two characters in the show, is shooting a commercial and will arrive late, if at all. Director Jon Kellam reminds the cast that there are four new cast members rotating in-the most they've had at any one time-who need to get a sense of the complete show.

In some senses, it's a typical rehearsal for a small L.A. theatre company-struggling with a borrowed space and an unpaid cast who are frequently drawn away by other (paying) commitments.

Then comes "Rapid Fire," as Kellam announces it: a fast-paced exercise in the Style, in which actors burst through the curtains at the height of one of the four states (happiness, sadness, fear, anger) and play around briefly onstage guided by, and guiding, the musical improvisation that accompanies them. Kellam directs, suggests; the cast teases. The exercise is extremely physical, concentrated clowning, like a jolt of electricity through the cast. "Phew, that'll warm you up," says Christine Deaver (who plays the bohemian poetess Else Lasker-Shuler in Nosferatu) as she steps off the stage in a sweat.

Like the Actor's Gang, Zoo District's current work is rooted in the Style, a bastardized version of commedia dell'art , which originated with Ariane Mnouchkine's Theatre Du Soleil of Paris. Prior to forming Zoo District, Kellam and founding members Loren Rubin and Jef Bek began giving Style workshops while working the Wolfskill Theatre's production of Brecht's Drums in the Night in 1997. It was also during that production that plans to form Zoo District crystallized.

Kellam explained his fascination with the Style in a recent interview with Back Stage West.

"Even though it's larger-than-life," said Kellam, "the ideal is to achieve these moments of truth and sincerity so that the audience is drawn in and flabbergasted and sad and happy right on top of each other, so that the experience of going to the theatre can't be anything but exciting, riveting, moving."

Yet according to Kellam, who studied the Style with John Cusack and New Crime Productions in Chicago, the Style is more a useful tool for Zoo District than a governing aesthetic. "This is a style that is my gift to the company, yet we're very much open to other styles," he said. "We do tend to go towards the expressionistic or surreal side of theatre, but at the same time, we do Top Girls, Scenes From an Execution, Two-Character Play."

The approach has paid off: Back Stage West is honoring Zoo District's still-running Nosferatu with seven Garland awards, including production (see page 20).

So This

Along with the company's exploration of the Style, what distinguishes Zoo District is its rebellion against "So What" theatre, as founding member Bernadette Sullivan calls it. Sullivan, who also helped to found Frank Theatre Company in Minneapolis, recalled her original inspiration.

"We started [Frank Theatre Company] because of what we called "So What' theatre, which was theatre that causes you to leave saying, "So... what do you want to go eat? So... what do you want to do now?' People wouldn't leave and discuss the work that they saw. They might say, "Boy, that David Rabe sure is a writer,' but there wasn't anything to talk about."

"Theatre as an art form is like a canvas," added Kellam, "and here we are throwing really vibrant work at it, as opposed to something that's a little more sedate and may pass unnoticed. To me, there's almost no point in doing something that passes unnoticed just for yourself."

The company has ventured into more traditional territory-with productions of Brendan Behan's The Hostage and Tennessee Williams' Two-Character Play-and yet there is always the attempt to transform the work into something provocative.

"We try to take a piece that is traditional," said Sullivan, "and dissect it, tweak it, make it our own, causing people to think. Challenging ourselves and challenging the audience-I think that's something we always try to do."

Zoo District's identity has also largely been shaped by its choice of location. The company takes its name from Brecht's Drums in the Night, which is set, in part, in the Berlin artist's district known as the Zoo District-comparable to the kind of downtown loft district that has been budding on and off in Los Angeles since the 1980s. The troupe's first production, A Festival of Horror, was at Studio 9, a loft space downtown in an apartment complex. "The landlord thought we were holding a rave because of all the noise and people," said Kellam. The company was asked to move.

Art Shared

For the past two years, home has been at ArtShare, a magnificently converted warehouse which doubles as the site of an inner-city art outreach program, in the slowly blossoming artist's district downtown. The location has its practical advantages: abundant parking, a few out-of-the-way bars, art studios, a couple nice caf s without waiting lists. But more than that, the area itself and its surrounding community of artists seem to inspire a raw dedication to serious art.

"We are really committed to being downtown, because of the way the arts are viewed there," said Kellam, "as opposed to the way the arts are viewed in Beverly Hills. There's a big difference."

Said Sullivan, "The fact is, we're not on Theatre Row or in West Hollywood. It's not about commercialism or getting seen by agents. Not that we don't want that. We encourage it. Along with that comes a certain amount of freedom and financial or artistic support. But there's a commitment to the work here."

As anyone who has seen Nosferatu, a company-authored play about silent film auteur F.W. Murnau, can attest, it shows. What sets the production apart is a refreshing sensitivity to detail-from warm, elegant lighting (Michael Franco) to lush, evocative costuming (Patrice Lumumba Quinn) to multi-dimensional sound design (Jef Bek/Eric Snodgrass) and an innovative original score (Jef Bek), to exaggerated silent film-style makeup.

"I've gone to see theatre, having read great reviews," said Sullivan, "and I walk in and see sets where the doors don't close, and there's this haphazard, mish-mashed way of putting things together. I think that's what a lot of us left in order to go down to this dusty warehouse that's cold in the winter and say, "We're going to do what we want to see done at other places.'"

"We're trying to show as few seams as possible," added Kellam. "We really try to make it look like it's a $30,000 set."

Part of the obvious unity of Nosferatu is no doubt due to the fact that the sound designer, lighting designer, musical director, movement director, director, and producer were all involved in the creation phase of the project, rather that simply brought in at the end. Sullivan and Kellam explained that in the future, they would prefer to do fewer shows each year-possibly three or four-with more time for this kind of development and workshopping.

The company is also applying for nonprofit status, and is considering another change of venue. ArtShare is currently constructing 30 living spaces above the theatre, an arrangement which could potentially limit Zoo District's rehearsal and performance time. The new space will, of course, be downtown. Founding member Kaaren J. Luker explained, "There are so many empty buildings downtown. We'd like to see how the political community will support us. Give us an old building that's a mess, because we've got the manpower to clean it up. There are so many places-even theatres-boarded up."

"Act different" reads the card promoting Jon Kellam's upcoming commedia dell'art class-a phrase which, indeed, embodies what Zoo District strives for, and, judging by the upcoming season list, will continue to achieve. Its next offering will be Michael Franco and Richard Helweg's adaptation of Mikhail Buglakov's The Master and Margarita, which director Loren Rubin describes as "the most ambitious piece Zoo District has ever attempted, including 24 actors playing 67 roles in 25 distinct locations, with two beheadings, a crucifixion, a flying pig, and lots of people running around in their underwear. It's also an extremely profound and beautiful piece dealing with questions of history vs. truth, faith and forgiveness, and the nature of moral courage."

Act different, indeed.

The Master and Margarita will open on Mar. 10. Nosferatu will continue through Jan. 29. BSW

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