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Fullerton College Troupe Is Invited to Stage Drama : 'Tracers' Finds Mark--Edinburgh

June 17, 1989|JAN HERMAN | Times Staff Writer

A Fullerton College acting troupe that staged an unheralded campus production of "Tracers" in May has been asked to restage the Vietnam War drama this summer at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, one of Europe's major international arts gatherings. But between now and the end of next month, the troupe must come up with $19,000 to pay for the trip.

The trip was suggested by John DiFusco, who wrote "Tracers" with a group of Vietnam veterans a decade ago. He saw the college production "on a whim," he said earlier this week, and was so impressed that he endorsed it for the festival over another by a semi-professional troupe from San Diego.

"We are absolutely committed to going," said Pamela Richarde, the part-time drama instructor who directed the Fullerton production. "We've already booked the theater in Edinburgh" for 10 performances from Aug. 16 to Sept. 3.

Richarde said the eight actors--Randy Strippling, Steven Spehar, Terry McNichol, Michael Mollo, Nicholas Boicourt Jr., Scott Crockett, Daniel Michelson and Bradly Whitfield--have raised $5,000 among themselves toward anticipated expenses of $28,000. Another $4,000 has been donated by the college's Associated Student Body, according to theater department chairman Bob Jensen.

The rest of the money must be raised by July 31, said Jensen, who is seeking contributions from local and national corporations. A benefit performance of "Tracers" will be staged July 16.

"I've seen a lot of people do 'Tracers,' " said DiFusco, a Vietnam veteran who conceived the play partly as self-therapy and partly as a tribute to the American soldiers who died in Vietnam. "Of all the productions I have not been connected with, the one they did in Fullerton is probably my favorite. They were hot."

DiFusco, 42, directed the original version at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles in 1980 and subsequent productions at the Public Theater in New York, the Royal Court Theatre in London and a touring revival in Australia. What surprised him about the Fullerton version, he said, was how closely it hewed to his intentions.

"They also tried new things that I liked," he added. "They used taps, for instance, which I always wanted to do but never had."

Moreover, he said, the sheer physical force of the production was right. "This is not a well-made play," he pointed out. "It's an event. It has to explode. You need energy and speed, and they had both. When I saw what they did, I thought, 'Whoa!' If anybody is going to carry my message to Edinburgh, it ought to be them."

"Tracers" is a wrenching collage of true stories about "the green suck," as the nightmarish experience of the Vietnam War is termed in the play. Jensen said he programmed the drama because "there was significant student performer interest in it" and because "it isn't chic." Unlike some later movies and TV series about the Vietnam war, he said, "it doesn't have a political agenda. It's not a commercial Hollywood property."

DiFusco said that with a few exceptions--chiefly the first professional production by non-veterans at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago--most non-veteran stagings of "Tracers" lack the two most important ingredients that the Fullerton production displayed: physical commitment and a mental perspective familiar to those who had been through the war.

For precisely those reasons, he said, he turned down "an impassioned plea" by a non-Equity professional troupe in San Diego to take its production of "Tracers" to the Edinburgh Festival. "I just didn't think it was good enough," he said, declining to identify the troupe.

The Ensemble Arts Theatre staged the play in March and April at San Diego's Sushi Performance Gallery. Ginny-Lynn Safford, who heads the troupe, confirmed that it had asked to take "Tracers" to Edinburgh but was turned down. It will take two other plays, she said.

If the Fullerton college troupe possessed both necessary ingredients, it was no accident. Richarde, the director, is a martial arts instructor as well as a drama teacher. Also, a group of Vietnam veterans put the actors through a vigorous regimen in rehearsals, which were designed to instill a sense of military discipline. At the same time, the veterans met with the actors to convey their experiences of the war and to probe its psychic aftermath.

"To be honest, we didn't care what they wanted to know," said Stuart Klemm, a Vietnam veteran from Fullerton who organized the sessions. "We told them what we wanted them to know. Our view was that we had something precious to give them, and if they were going to receive it they would have to suspend all judgment. They kept their mouths shut long enough to understand what it was like to be over there."

The sessions also became "a profound healing process for us (veterans) because we looked this thing right in the eye," Klemm added. "Some of us talked about it for the first time. One of the guys hadn't talked to anybody about his Vietnam experience in 22 years. The impact he made was so strong that one of the actors patterned his performance on this guy's mannerisms."

The annual Edinburgh Festival, which began in 1947, attracts major companies in all the performing arts from around the world. The Fullerton troupe will participate in a section of the festival called the Fringe Festival, which is devoted to smaller, off-beat companies.

Richarde said she expects 18 people in the "Tracers" cast and crew to make the trip to Scotland.

The July 16 benefit performance will be staged at the college's Wilshire Auditorium. Tickets are $25. For information, call (714) 871-8101.

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