What began seven years ago as a play-reading group among East Coast transplants has evolved into something, well, big.
"I think the most common critique when we read a play is, Well, it's a good play, but it's a little small for us," said Evidence Room artistic director and founding member Bart DeLorenzo in an interview with Back Stage West. "When you have a space like this, you want something that reverberates." One of the things these company members certainly know well (and there are many) is how to find and fill a large space with provocative, gutsy work that is impossible to ignore. After working in spacious Culver City warehouses for five years, the company found a new home last year—a cavernous former brassiere factory on Beverly near Alvarado, west of Downtown L.A., and has been packing the space with ambitious creations ever since it moved in, due in a large part to the company's trademark sense of daring and high adventure.
This month Evidence Room is honored with more Garland awards from Back Stage West critics than any other company, mainly for two ground-breaking productions: The Berlin Circle and Saved. The first was Charles L. Mee's provocative update of Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle to Berlin at the fall of the Wall, helmed by the masterful David Schweizer, and starring Megan Mullally and John Fleck, along with a crack ensemble of some of L.A.'s most interesting performers. As an inaugural event, it was tough to top, yet the company has continued to challenge itself and audiences by staging Edward Bond's controversial, rarely performed Saved, and producing a visit by the Fabulous Monsters' production of Speed-Hedda.
Company founding member and producing director Jason Adams explained that it wasn't easy to pull up stakes after years in Culver City and move to the Rampart district last year.
"We were like, Who's going to come here?" said Adams. "Where are we? Are we Downtown? Is this Silverlake?" What's more, Culver City had been generous in its grant giving throughout the company's stay at the Ivy Substation. When Culver City rents became prohibitive, the company spent many months poring over the real estate section of the paper before actress/company financial director Ames Ingham happened to drive by 2220 Beverly Boulevard and noticed a sign that the building was up for grabs. They pounced on it, and rented out half of the enormous space to a sunglass factory, which allowed the company to begin building its new nest. Start-up funds were raised by the board of directors and, said DeLorenzo, "a couple of private investors who believed in the theatre and thought we wouldn't screw things up."
Weaned on Warehouses
Open spaces and voids that present themselves as frontiers have been among the inspirations firing these theatre makers from the outset. When DeLorenzo first came to L.A. in the early 1990s after graduating from Harvard's American Repertory Theatre Institute and a stint in Chicago, he immediately started asking where he could find the interesting theatres. Recalled DeLorenzo, "I called up to ask a friend of mine who was an actress, and she said, 'I don't really know.' Which was kind of scary, because in Chicago, it's so obvious what they are. So I started thinking it would be great to do your own work. The rents are a little bit cheaper than in other cities. I don't know if it's a theatre-friendly city but it's kind of… it doesn't give a damn about what you do. So you can sort of do whatever you want. It was a very ripe city to start something in."
He called up a loose group of friends, and they began to read plays together every week or so—odd plays, obscure plays, "plays you would never see anymore," said DeLorenzo. "It was really a way for us to learn each other's tastes and educate each other about the theatre." Together with founding members Alicia Hoge, a graduate of New York's Neighborhood Playhouse, and her husband Jason Adams, a Bowdoin graduate who had been spending time in regional theatre at D.C.'s Arena Stage, a small group began reading German and Austrian plays. When they stumbled upon Ferdinand Bruckner's Krankheit der Jugend (Sickness of Youth), they retitled it Swell and made this drama about sexual mores among female medical students in 1923 Vienna their debut, marking them as "nothing if not ambitious," according to BSW reviewer Charles Isherwood in 1995.
Staging the play in their first home, an inexpensive warehouse in the Hayden tract of Culver City, helped shape the company's taste for size, and attracted other visionaries such as actress Ames Ingham.
"Since we started in that big warehouse," said Ingham, "that was one of the things that sort of drew me to this company. It was so exciting to see such a big, empty, raw industrial space."
Aside from developing a house style that places designers on par with actors in terms of importance and attention to detail, DeLorenzo described a few of the company's guiding principles when choosing productions. "It has to be something different," said DeLorenzo, "ideally something that no other theatre in town is going to do, whether because of style or content. And we like a good story here, even if it's a strange story or hard to follow." Frequent contributions from the likes of sound designer John Zalewski, lighting designer Rand Ryan, and choreographer Ken Roht, among others, have burnished the company's edgy aesthetic.
Though all company members have input in play selection, DeLorenzo often makes the final decision. He discovered Mee's Berlin Circle in a magazine at the Central Library, promptly Xeroxed it, and began reading it while standing in the checkout line. Said DeLorenzo, "I immediately thought, If this whole play is as good as this beginning is, this is going to be the one we're going to do. It was just so much the perfect play. I love that it opens in a theatre and I love one of those closing lines of Megan [Mullally's character]: 'And to think, none of this would have happened if we hadn't gone to the theatre.' It was about a beginning."
He called up friend and neighbor David Schweizer, who was in New York at the time, and faxed him the entire play. As Schweizer had directed a few of Mee's plays before, he met for lunch with Mee, the company got the rights, and off they went. DeLorenzo headed the casting, along with Schweizer. Said DeLorenzo, "David kept saying, 'We need a John Fleck type for Heiner Müller, someone like John Fleck.' And I was like 'Why don't we just call John Fleck?' David was like, 'Oh, no, no, no. He wouldn't do it.' Finally someone said, 'Why don't you just ask him?' All of a sudden, John Fleck calls me: 'So, what's this play?' "
The group later contacted Mullally through a mutual friend who had produced Mullally's Sweetheart at the Coast Playhouse. "We couldn't think of anyone more perfect for that role," said DeLorenzo, "but we couldn't imagine why she would want to do a show with us. But she read it and liked it."
After Berlin Circle and Speed-Hedda, both comedies of sorts, the company was up for something darker, and also something requiring a smaller budget, as the money from their inaugural smash had been spent sprucing up the theatre. Yet by choosing Edward Bond's harsh Saved, the company was again taking a risk. Centering on a troubled relationship between two young South Londoners, the play has long been stigmatized by a horrific, violent scene at its center. Confessed Adams, "We were nervous as hell that no one would come—that word of mouth would go around and people would say, 'Oh, that's the play where this happens, right?' "
Said Ingham, "Everyone was so scared to offend our public and I kind of said, 'Not that I don't care, but this is the kind of theatre that I really like. If we have a small audience, we have a small audience. This is who we are and what we do.' "
Such determination has stood the Evidence Room in good stead. While the City of Los Angeles has yet to warm to the company as Culver City did, the theatre continues to draw new audiences and make big plans. "We'd like this to be a performance center that is operative full-time," said Hoge, "bringing together a lot of different groups with theatre, dance, music. That's our fantasy, so it becomes a performance community."
Though still struggling to forge ties to the nearby Belmont school, the company has linked with nearby nonprofit Hearts of Los Angeles (HOLA), an organization for some 800 underprivileged kids for which Evidence Room costume designer and company member Ann Closs-Farley serves as artistic director; the space will serve as a place for the kids to do play readings and screen films they've made.
Interested in curating the space as much as they are in producing, company members look forward to welcoming a bit of everything into their home—bands, classes, cabaret. "If you have an interesting proposal, please come," said DeLorenzo. "The doors are open," stressed Hoge. Joked DeLorenzo, "Just no raves."
He means late-night dance blowouts, of course. At the rate the Evidence Room is going, raves of the critical kind will be hard to avoid. BSW