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Local Heroes

In the past, Theatre LA's board of governors has given out two special Ovation Awards—the James A. Doolittle Award for Leadership in Theatre, and the Career Achievement Award—to folks with little in common. Indeed the pattern has typically been that the Career Achievement Award goes to a well-known actor or writer who's made a brilliant career in the theatre in general, not necessarily in L.A. (August Wilson, Ian McKellen, Stephen Sondheim), while the Doolittle goes to an under-recognized local theatre leader (Joseph Stern, Gil Cates, Charles Kenis and Audrey Skirball-Kenis). Last year the pattern was reversed, in a sense: The Doolittle went to the big name, Michael Eisner, whose local theatre-making credentials were mostly beside the point, and the Career Achievement Award went, gratifyingly, to an under-sung local hero, actor Ray Stricklyn.

This year, however, while TLA board voters have ostensibly returned to the old formula—honoring a celebrity's career achievement and a local producer's leadership skills—they happen to be honoring a pair of performer/producers who each run Southland theatres alongside a talented spouse. Cathy Rigby, receiving a nod for her post-gymnastics second career in musical theatre, happens to run the in-house production company at the spacious La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts with her husband, Tom McCoy, while Tom Ormeny, who receives the leadership award for decades of tireless promotion of the small-theatre scene in L.A., happens to run the 48-seat Victory Theatre in Burbank with his wife, acting teacher and director Maria Gobetti. At La Mirada, Rigby is involved in artistic decisions and has performed there in her signature role in Peter Pan and in The Wizard of Oz, with husband McCoy handling much of the producing work; for his part Ormeny splits a lot of these duties with Gobetti, though he is currently appearing at the Victory in Oleanna, directed by Gobetti.

As I found in an illuminating discussion with these two seasoned stage pros, they have a lot in common, despite differences in background, neighborhood, theatre size, and programming style. They share a passion for reaching the next generation with the art of the theatre, and for the adrenaline rush of performance. And both were trailed by Soviet intelligence at one time in their lives, but that's another story.

Back Stage West: You two have widely different backgrounds. I understand you, Tom, grew up in the theatre—the National Theatre of Hungary.

Tom Ormeny: Yes, we escaped from Hungary in 1956, my family, when I was 10. My mother was a major actress of her time; she starred in 40 feature films and played all the classics, and my father was the chief engineer of the Hungarian national theatre system. So my earliest memories are being backstage. I was at the theatre or the radio station or a film shoot all the time, and that's the world that I knew.

BSW: Cathy, in your own way you also grew up in a professional arena.

Cathy Rigby: I started ballet at age 6 and studied it for a very long time. Then I found gymnastics and knew that's what I wanted to do. It's probably like people who find theatre—it's like, you know that's what you want to do. It's your passion. It's your love. Gymnastics was that for me. When I got out of gymnastics and retired at the age of 19, I thought, What else am I going to do with my life? I started doing episodic television, where I'd always play the Russian gymnast or whatever, and someone recommended I take voice and acting lessons. I studied for seven years before I had the courage to really step out onstage.

The thing was, I knew how to train. And what was so exciting about this new career was that for the first time it wasn't just about me and my own little world on a balance beam; it was about interacting with people. I could be as perfectionist as I wanted to be, but it wasn't about that. It was about, What do you really think and feel? It was difficult to come out of that shell, to be part of a team, interacting, but it was the best therapy in the world.

Tom: It always is. Theatre is the best therapy in the world. It's also really like a sport. I just wrote my speech for the Ovations, and I talk about Dana Elcar, a well-known character actor who was directing a play my wife and I were producing with Fran Saperstein. We were running into trouble, and I said, "Why now? Why this? We're all exhausted. It's three days before opening, it's a cast of 14 and a huge set, and everything is just going down the tubes." And he said, "What do you mean, 'Why now?' This is a blood sport. Don't you know that?"

Cathy: The funny thing is, I wanted to get as far away from gymnastics as possible. I didn't like to be judged constantly; the margin for error was so slim, and your whole self-worth was dependent on how you performed that day. So I picked show business! Now I have critics instead of judges. Thank God it's a team sport, you know?

Tom: One thing you mentioned is that you know how to train and that you have that kind of focus. I think that's what most civilians don't realize—the kind of focus that it takes to do theatre, and the discipline on every level, whether it's management or the art itself, onstage or backstage. You can't miss a cue. It's definitely something where you have to have people you can trust; it's really in-the-trench time. I mean, Cathy hands her life to the people who run her shows—you've seen what she does, the flying. I think all actors feel that way when they step onstage.

I don't know if you know this, but they did some studies with actors and found that the psychological and physiological things that happen to an actor before he steps on a stage are exactly the same as a soldier going into battle or a jet pilot going up for the first time in a plane.

Cathy: And I hated that feeling. Hated it! I did not want to get back into it. But I think you get to an age where you just go, It's going to be OK.

Tom: In the technique Maria and I teach, the final thing is that you do all this preparation and get everything ready and then you say, Fuck it, and you walk out.

Cathy: I don't know about you, but I love doing long runs, because some nights you go out there and it's just what you're talking about—it just happens. You're just alive, and no matter how you feel that day, it works.

Tom: And athletes talk about the X-factor: When a basketball player knows where everybody is, he doesn't have to look. It's like an out-of-body kind of extrasensory experience. As an actor, you hit that a few times in a run where you sort of go through the whole thing and, you know, that's amazing. Talk about a drug—I mean, that's high performance.

BSW: Is that high worth all the struggle to do theatre? I wanted to ask both of you, essentially: Why theatre?

Tom: When I grew up in Hungary, theatre was so much a part of life in Budapest. There were 27 companies in a population of one million people: opera, musicals, comedies, classical theatre, everything. And it was during the Stalinist regime, so these people were trying to do things that would address the repression without directly addressing it. So there was an element of rebellion and of feeding the spirit, and that really stuck with me. I went through most of my schooling in the States, and when I got to university I was in pre-med and hated it, and I walked by a door. I had already worked professionally as an actor, so I walked in and I got a part and that was the end of it, you know?

I was at a Jesuit university at the time of the second Vatican Council, and everything was being questioned. One of my theology teachers was giving a seminar in moral theology, and he was talking about how the arts are really where the spirit grows, and a culture that supports that can create a healthy society. Without a segue he said, "And the king of the arts is theatre, because the raw material is the human spirit." I've never forgotten that.

Cathy: I have a daughter who's going to Orange County High School for the Arts, and she had a 16th birthday party, and it was so interesting—you know how some young teenagers tend to be, not just rebellious but serious, kind of tough? My daughter had invited friends who had gone on to other schools, just regular schools, and next to the kids from the School of the Arts the difference—in a sense of peace and joy and having fun in the world and not being judgmental—was amazing. These kids are getting to feed the soul and the heart. What you're saying about theatre feeding the spirit, I see it at a young age if they're exposed to that.

Tom: There's no question about it. It's been shown that kids, after a three-year period of being in a theatre program, end up in the above-90 percentile of their scholarly stuff. If you're interested, you're willing to learn. If you're hanging lights and you don't know about electricity—man, you learn electricity like that [snaps]. Kids are exposed to so much with theatre, because it encompasses everything: science, arts, literature—it's all there.

BSW: I wanted to ask about the challenges of making theatre in a film-industry town. Tom, you're being honored for your leadership in the L.A. theatre scene. Why you?

Tom: I think that the theatre community in Los Angeles is truly heroic. I don't think I'm necessarily heroic; I've felt like a ditch digger who just keeps on digging. The theatre community has gotten so little support—politically, financially, in terms of how difficult it is to turn audiences out in Los Angeles. In other cities—Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago, New York, even in Florida—there are communities that really are proud they have a successful theatre culture. And as far as I can see, we have one of the most successful theatre cultures in the world. We are the intimate theatre capital of the world. There's never been a talent pool larger in the history of this planet in one place than in Los Angeles. And there are really significant productions in Los Angeles in little tiny theatres where extremely professional, dedicated, heartfelt, enthusiastic people are putting their lives into creating an art they believe in, and often to very few people in the seats. That is an outrage. It has to be rectified. That is something we are working very hard at Theatre LA to address—to make sure it's in every politician's rap when they get on a dais and talk about Los Angeles, that this is a theatre town unprecedented in the history of the world. There is a diamond in the rough around every corner in Los Angeles. I mean, we have more than 200 small theatres; what city in the world can even come close to that? There isn't one.

And I've been saying for some time that theatre is a great education process for children. We are living in such a multicultural place, and being multicultural myself, I know how difficult it is to get over the alienation of being ripped out of your culture. When I was young I happened to be in the middle of a revolution; I was shot at when I was 10 years old, and I learned how to handle a machine gun. I know what's happening to the kids coming into this country, who suddenly can't really relate to their parents and can't relate to the culture they're in, so they find other subcultures to belong to—and whether that's a gang or a theatre community is a big difference. If those kinds of experiences are offered and encouraged, and those kinds of communities brought to the theatre to discover that—you have a whole different possibility for this society. Excuse me. Put me on a soapbox, man, and it's all over.

BSW: That answers the "why you" question very well. Cathy, you're a little bit removed from the L.A. theatre scene, though La Mirada is technically in L.A. County. Do you relate to the struggles and successes Tom is talking about?

Cathy: It's funny, I've toured for the last six years out of 10 and seen theatre from all over, all kinds of theatre, and seen different support systems for it. It is a little difficult here because we are spread out, because our entertainment dollars are stretched so dramatically, and I also think because our foundation was not in theatre here—people think of this place as film and TV. And yet when people come to see theatre, especially new people and especially kids, people who don't go to the theatre all the time, I watch them sit there almost amazed that there are live people onstage, and it's touching them. They always have such a unique experience, and my goal, my quest would be to get those people in here at a young age and educate the general public that this is about life. A lot of times you get people who come to the theatre, and the only thing they have heard about is The Sound of Music, and they think that if you show too much of life, it's offensive to them. When a character uses words they think shouldn't be used, or it's a religious group that comes in, you just want to say: That is a church and this is theatre, and this is about the human condition. It's not just a musical that's light. It's about everything that we experience in life.

Tom: And I really believe that we're dealing not just with the conscious but also the unconscious when we walk into a theatre, and that's because of the human presence onstage. An audience is put in the dark and given a dream—they might as well be dreaming it. So they have to deal with it on a different level because it's coming at them in a human form. That is a teaching tool that is tribal. With what we're going through now as a nation, I think our jobs become more important. In Hungary at the beginning of the revolution, actors, my mother included, would sing poetry to thousands of students who were fed by the fact that this was an issue that the country had handled for hundreds of years. That's the kind of moral leadership that we need, and it's really got to come from the arts. BSW

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