Tucked away in the heart of Van Nuys is a house that, from the outside, looks like a cottage. Painted barn red with white trim, the house is situated on a quiet, tree-lined street in a middle-class part of town. Atop its chimney is perched a proud weathercock, almost as stately as the Italian cypress that towers several feet above the building, constructed in 1923.
At the gate stands Toby, the host for the evening and the first clue that this house is not only a home.
Toby is a charming fellow with a friendly smile and a twinkle in his eye. He extends a cordial greeting and ushers visitors into something called the California Cottage Theatre.
But it isn't a theater at all. Or is it?
What goes on inside is certainly a theatrical event. There is even some semblance of a proscenium arch. Seating, however, is limited, and the building is, for the most part, used as a residence.
'Take What You Want'
California Cottage Theatre is the brainchild of director-actor-producer Roy Brocksmith, 42. He describes his offbeat offering as an "artistic Tupperware party. You look at the things we have to offer and take what you want."
What the Cottage Theatre has to offer is New York playwright Jan Quackenbush's one-act drama, "A Cold Day in Hell."
The play is about a laborer named Charlie (Michael Liscio), whose wife is debilitated by a car accident. Seeing his true love on a life-support system is more than Charlie can handle. Knowing she--and he--will never be the same causes him much anguish and anger.
Quackenbush, whose plays have been produced at La Mama experimental theater in New York, the Young Vic in London and the Fringe of the 1987 Edinburgh Festival, said he was struck by Brocksmith's ingenuity and readily agreed to have his play produced at the California Cottage Theatre.
"One of the things we all confront is production costs," Quackenbush said. "The idea of presenting plays in your own environment seemed cozy and intimate. In this case, you feel like you're with Charlie--mentally and physically--whether you like it or not."
Production costs prompted Brocksmith to open a theater in his house. Eager to do a theatrical production earlier this year, he began visiting the Equity-waiver theaters around town. He quickly grew disillusioned.
"I wouldn't ask people to come into some of them--they're so filthy," he said. The ones he found suitable were beyond his means.
It occurred to Brocksmith that he could transform his Van Nuys home into a theater. After all, at the age of 12, he had produced "Romeo and Juliet" in his father's garage. "Back then, husbands and wives and friends would all get together and make it happen," he recalled.
So this past summer, Brocksmith began recruiting the services of family and friends. Adele, his wife of 24 years, is stage manager. The result of their efforts is what Brocksmith calls "made-at-home-with-loving-hands theater--without being hokey."
Cottage Theatre patrons are offered hot apple cider and home-baked cookies on arrival, then are ushered into the dining area, where 15 folding chairs have been arranged in neat rows. The play's action takes place in the living room, which has been converted into the main stage, and the set includes much of Brocksmith's real furniture, with a variety of props strategically placed so that the theater environment is characteristic of Charlie's home. Piles of dirty laundry and trash are scattered about.
Several ceiling-mounted tracks supply the show's lighting and are adjusted to create a somber mood.
Finding a suitable literary property to fit the venue was a challenge. When Quackenbush, a friend, submitted his work, Brocksmith jumped at the opportunity to present the piece.
The monthly performances at the theater are free. Although Brocksmith would like to offer shows regularly, he said people involved in the production "have to make a living, so we have to work around one another's schedules."
Generally, audiences have heard about the play by word of mouth or have been sent invitations. Reservations are required. "I don't like doing it this way because it appears to be elitist," said Brocksmith. "But it's not. If I had a larger house, I'd like to invite more people."
Brocksmith said the next production at California Cottage Theatre will probably be in complete contrast to the current show--perhaps a comedy. The company is in negotiation with Chicago playwright Claudia Allen to present her comedy "Wake Me Before Morning." Other possibilities include an adaptation of a horror piece by Edgar Allan Poe and a musical, written in association with composer Grant Sturiale.
Brocksmith made his first stage appearance singing at Hap Kohl's Bar in his hometown of Quincy, Ill., when he was 3 1/2. Since then, he has appeared in many plays, on Broadway and off, and a variety of television shows, including "L.A. Law" and "Newhart."
But his first love is the theater. His goal for his Cottage Theatre is simple: "I want the audience to walk out the door feeling differently--either feeling angry or happy or sad. . . . I want the lives of those people in the audience to be enriched--for them to have something they can take home inside of them. . . ."
For invitations to performances at the California Cottage Theatre , call (818) 990-5773.