In his first role in America, Maurice Barrymore played the hero in Augustin Daly's immensely popular 1867 "Under the Gaslight." Daly saw the production and later brought Barrymore back to his Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York, where Barrymore eventually met Georgie Drew, with whom he founded the Barrymore theatrical dynasty.
"Under the Gaslight" helped establish Daly's company as one of the most popular of the mid-19th Century.
The play signals the first production of Pacific Theatre Ensemble in its new space in Culver City, the group's first association with a new director, Stephen Wyman, and the first production with PTE's new managing director, South Africa's Jon White-Spunner.
The group has become prominent in L. A. theater with productions such as "Slaughterhouse at Tanners Close," "The Beggars' Opera," and "Camino Real" at its minuscule space at 705 1/2 Venice Boulevard in Venice. Very large casts performing among, around, above and sometimes below the audience have been the company's trademark.
PTE still uses that storefront for classes and projects not open to critics. But after a yearlong search, it is in new, large, air-conditioned quarters, and faced with new problems to solve--one of its favorite pastimes.
After members of its apprentice system--from the UCLA theater department and extension program--staged a production in a small space at the Helm's Bakery building in Culver City, PTE negotiated a period of occupancy at its present site at Helm's Bakery, in a location that is rapidly becoming an arts and commercial complex.
"This space has more square footage," explains artistic director Stephanie Shroyer, "so that we could double our audience capacity. We decided to take this as our next step, in the hopes that we'll be able to expand programming and then move on to a larger space, with perhaps 200 to 250 seats operating under a LORT contract." The Equity LORT contract, under which large regional theaters operate, would be the next logical step up from the group's current Equity 99-Seat Plan.
Because of the growth of the company and the move to larger quarters, Shroyer realized that it was time to stop her administrative duties, which she had shared with other company members in the past, and concentrate on artistic direction. But someone had to wear that administrative hat. Jon White-Spunner got in touch with the company.
"It seemed that the company was at some kind of a cusp, a crossing point in its career. It also sounded pretty similar to the place the Market Theatre was at when it started, when it actually moved into its present building."
White-Spunner is referring to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, where until recently he was managing director. The Market is the theater where Athol Fugard originally worked, and where many of his plays premiered.
Like PTE, White-Spunner says, "They were a company that did shop-front productions; they worked wherever they could find space.
"What was interesting to me about PTE," he continues, "is that it's a company that is committed to doing \o7 theater\f7 , and doing new work. The thing for us now is that we have to concentrate on not doing a season and then stopping. We have certain expenses we have to pay every month. Eventually we want to have main stage productions happening all year round. I'm learning about the mechanics of that in Los Angeles."
Stephanie Shroyer leans into the conversation. "And we're interested in the idea of collaboration," she adds. "Any project we do is not so much because we identify it as, 'This could be a great success,' or 'This would be fun to work on,' but it's the idea that the collaboration affords people involved something to learn from this experience. When we invite an audience in to participate in that, it is going to become vital, and it will remain vital to the community."
Shroyer, who delights in looking at plays that seem to defy being done, discovered "Under the Gaslight" while observing director Stephen Wyman at work guiding the television soap opera, "Days of Our Lives," which he has done since 1984. She asked him for suggestions for PTE's coming season.
Wyman had directed "Gaslight" twice before, once in Texas, and again at New York's Soho Repertory, a company which champions America's "lost" plays.
"Stephanie said she would do it," Wyman recalls, "if I would direct it. During the time I've been directing 'Days of Our Lives,' I've never been able to do any theater. I decided it was time I did some."
Picking up on the mention of America's lost plays, White-Spunner seems taken aback. He asks, "Is America losing its old plays?"
"Along with everything else," Wyman responds with a wry smile. "Part of the idea of America is the matter of bulldozing the old and getting on with the new. There isn't a sense of keeping up a classical repertory, the way there is in other countries. It's a little bit like having a library with only new books in it."
The value of many old plays, Wyman believes, is their continuing pertinence. "In spite of the fact that 'Gaslight' was written 125 years ago," he explains, "a lot of the themes have all of a sudden become very, very relevant again.
"There's a whole woman's perspective that's going on in the play," Wyman says, "and it contrasts the wealthy and the poor. There is a renewed concern about the differences that exist between classes, and this play directly addresses them. It's a play of entertainment, which has themes of social commentary, and all that'll do is make the play more entertaining.