The actor sat back in his chair at a coffee shop booth.
"You know what an actor's life in Hollywood is like?" he asked rhetorically. "It's like getting out on a road, putting your thumb out and hoping you hitch a ride.
"Sure enough, you get picked up. Then they drop you off down the road. And you get back out there and thumb another ride. You just hope someone gets you to where you want to be."
James Terry, the actor, knew that lonely road. But Terry is also a member of the Actors' Gang, one of a number of vital, prolific theater ensembles based in Los Angeles. Life in "the Gang" (as Terry and other Gang members interviewed for this story fondly dub it) is anything but lonely.
"It's like coming home," Terry said, echoing a phrase that ran through conversations with the Actors' Gang, the KitchenCollective (which recently completed a run at downtown's Wallenboyd of Heiner Muller's "The Mission: Memory of a Revolution") and Friends and Artists Ensemble (about to open Nikolai Erdman's Russian comedy, "The Suicide").
Along with director Reza Abdoh's company and the recent emergence of John Steppling's and Bob Glaudini's Heliogabalus group, these theater ensembles have become oases in an often-hostile landscape filled with the dreams offered by hustlers in television and film, the dog-eat-dog competition for a part-- any part--and the usual trail of crushed hopes.
With the cutthroat commercial world nipping at their heels, ensemble members describe their particular group as a "safety net," "support system," or "family."
"You need that," said Friends and Artists co-founder Michael Nehring, "especially in this town."
Yet, another phrase you'll hear in these groups is, "we're not for every actor." Lisa Moncure was speaking for the Actors' Gang, but it applies to the other groups as well.
None of these ensembles is to be confused with the standard "actors' workshop," mostly concerned with film and television training for any actor who can pay the registration fees. By contrast, prospective Gang members have to meet the demands of rigorous workshop training (inspired by Georges Bigot of Theatre du Soleil) before they can get into a show. The KitchenCollective has studied plays for months before putting one on. Would-be Friends and Artists members go through a six-month "probation," at which time, said co-founder Laurie Wendorf, "you either fit in or you don't."
Which means that they're deadly serious about theater.
This spring, the Actors' Gang pulled off the rare coup of a repertory evening of two full-length, utterly different plays--the broad political satire of "Carnage" and the poignant introspection of "Freaks."
Tim Robbins is the Gang's acknowledged leader. (He is also their chief source of funding.) Friends and Artists' guiding light is Sal Romeo, commandeering the ensemble on a wild ride through world theater: from Max Frisch's "The Firebugs," through Peter Weiss' "Marat/Sade" and Michael Weller's '60s comedy "Moonchildren" to Erdman's "Suicide."
The KitchenCollective considers their leaderless non-hierarchy to be as important to them, politically and artistically, as the material they perform. "The Mission" and their earlier "A Vietnam Requiem" explored the political tensions when the First World encounters Third World revolution and placed textual ideas above plot lines.
All the groups have had ties to university theater. The Actors' Gang was born in a UCLA theater directing class. KitchenCollective dramaturge Rick Berg, a film and theater professor, is moving from Scripps to Pitzer College this fall. Romeo, Nehring and Marc Handler helped build Friends and Artists on the strength of the students they taught at Fullerton, Orange Coast and Chapman colleges in Orange County.
Only one of the groups has a literal home: Friends and Artists just signed a two-year extension on its lease of a cozy space on Vermont Avenue. The Actors' Gang, after a successful run at the Tiffany Theatre, recently lost the lease on its downtown workshop loft, "The Actory." The KitchenCollective meets over kitchen tables, in living rooms or classrooms at Occidental College.
While "families" and "safety nets" abound, the existence of an L.A.-based ensemble can be almost as precarious as it is for the solo actor hitching a ride to fame. Despite a solid reputation the Gang has built up over seven years and nearly a dozen shows, James Terry said, "You don't know if there's going to be another show.
"Jeez, I hope so. But there's no guarantee."
The Gang's Team Spirit
Yet, the striking aspect of these and other groups is that they do come back for another show. Indeed, at a Gang gathering in Tim Robbins' mid-Wilshire apartment, a feistiness borne of survival marked the conversation.
"We'll stay together, definitely," said "Freaks" director Michael Schlitt.
Said Moncure, like a road-show vet: "I'm in it for the tooour !"
"But we need to get paid," said Shannon Holt.