Gar Campbell had finished talking for a couple of hours about his 7-year-old allegorical play with music, "Creatures," about life during and after the legendary Company Theatre that he co-founded 24 years ago, and about how he feels lucky to be alive at 47.
Time passes, but in some very real ways for Campbell and his longtime companion, actress-director Marilyn Fox, who is staging "Creatures" at the Burbage Theatre with students in her workshop, time has also stood still.
Campbell was in the alley next to the Burbage and, with his bushy mustache and longish, graying hair covered by a bandanna, he looked--the phrase is unavoidable--like a cowboy hippie. As he hopped on his "Easy Rider"-style motorcycle, the picture was complete. The '60s, and the Company Theatre that embodied that time, are long gone, but Campbell and Fox aren't about to completely let them go.
Fox was too young for the tight Company, "though as a studying actress who was very, very serious about theater, I certainly had heard about them." Of course, by the time the Company had taken its groundbreaking ensemble-mixes-with-audience work, "James Joyce Liquid Memorial Theatre," from its old Robertson Boulevard digs to, of all places, New York's Guggenheim Museum, even non-serious actresses had heard about the group.
Old theater entities never die, they just evolve into something else. So when the Company announced its obituary Jan. 1, 1982, its essence was carried on by member Paul Linke, who founded the Powerhouse Theatre, brought in fellow Company artists and created a magical space--and a few magical shows. And even when Linke parted from the Powerhouse, the space soon was inhabited by a group forged in the Company's tradition of physical, ensemble work--the Pacific Theatre Ensemble, of which Fox is an integral part.
Between Campbell and Fox, both actor-teachers, there's a lot of L. A. theater, and more than a lot of evidence to counter the rap that L. A. theater has no continuity or history.
"Tears came to my eyes--I mean this--real tears, when PTE was compared to the Company," Fox says. "It was an honor because the Company has sort of set a standard that other groups had to live up to, even though most PTE people had never heard of the Company since they came from Northern California. The majority at PTE were trained in San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre training program or at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Solvang and Santa Paula.
"But the comparison follows," Campbell adds, "because both came from the same values, . . . developing players who are transformative actors--actors who can change faces and characters." Like the Company, PTE is fond of fashioning alternative universes on stage ("Slaughterhouse on Tanner's Close," "The Beggar's Opera"), following in the footsteps of Pacific conservatory and ACT directors Jack Fletcher and William Ball. There's even a refugee from the Company and now with PTE--actress Melissa Hoffman.
The groups even share the same kind of hard luck and transiency: A property sale forced the Company out of its original home in 1973, and the end of a lease (and the inevitable rent increase) means that PTE must leave its theater-workshop space on Venice Boulevard in January. "There's much earthquake-proofing to be done there," Fox says. "And besides, the building's weak structures just didn't allow us to do the kinds of things we wanted to do. I thought it would be really neat if Robert Jacobs as Macheath (in "Beggar's Opera") could enter swinging in on a rope. But engineers told us that if he did that, the ceiling would cave in."
PTE's hunt for a new home is on, and if \o7 deja vu\f7 is really working in the Company-PTE connection, it will uncover one. The Company eventually found a new theater.
But with Fox's fresh vision of "Creatures," \o7 deja vu\f7 is about the last thing that Campbell wants to happen. Its 1984 premiere at the Odyssey Theatre, with Campbell directing old Company pals Alan Abelew, Trish Soodick and Michael Stefani, seemed like a Company revival, but Times critic Dan Sullivan wrote that this show wasn't "a patch on their best work. The freshness of vision is replaced with a labored-after cuteness, as when adults overplay a children's theater piece they don't really believe in."
Having condensed his original three acts down to one, Campbell feels that Fox's is "truly a better production than at the Odyssey. My mom was dying at the time, and I'd go from visiting her to do this show. That was difficult. On the surface, the play seems like a cartoon. At the Odyssey, we only treated it as a cartoon."
It still is, in the view of The Times' T. H. McCulloh, who noted that although "Fox's direction is energetic," Campbell's book and score "are sophomoric." (Campbell and Fox claim that, because of the production's time-pinched logistics, the Aug. 10 opening was, in effect, a dress rehearsal.)