It's just after rush hour on a Tuesday evening as playwright John Steppling straddles a chair on the Lost Studio's empty stage and looks out at the faces in the house. With a cigar in one hand and a book in the other, the man many regard as the most influential playwright to have come out of L.A. in the past decade begins to hold forth.
Judging from the rapt attention he gets from the house, you'd think Steppling was about to profess the formula for eternal coolness, or at least the secret of the sold screenplay. But tonight's text is actually director Peter Brook's latest, "The Open Door," and the discussion that follows is of theory and theatricality, not plot points and punch lines.
In a town where most acting and writing classes are pumping for a payoff--get your SAG card, sell a screenplay, find voice-over work--the weekly workshop Circus Minimus is a rare refuge of art for art's (and learning's) sake.
The class--founded two years ago by Steppling, actor-writer Mick Collins and actress-teacher Cinda Jackson--welcomes seasoned writers as well as actors and newcomers and boasts a number of L.A.'s most advanced dramatists on its roster. It's not the place to go if you're looking for tips on how to pen the next small-screen Buttafuoco blockbuster. But if you want to debate the aesthetics of new German Minimalism or delve into Marguerite Duras, come on down.
The workshop goes public only once a year, however, and now is the time. Promising--if last year's event is any indication--both attitudinal and aesthetic relief from the usual holiday fare, "The Lost Christmas Festival II: More Lost" opened Saturday at the Lost Studio in Hollywood and will run through Dec. 23. The show features works developed in the workshop by Steppling, Joseph Goodrich and others, plus the Circus Minimus Sugar Plum Faerie Dancers, the Catherine MacKinnon Christmas Babes ("direct from the Skylark Lounge at O'Hare Airport"), rodents, reptiles, cheap sets and more.
It's an evening of theater as different from the myriad varieties of "The Nutcracker" and "A Christmas Carol" as Circus Minimus is from other L.A. theater classes.
"There's nothing else like this workshop," says the frequently produced Goodrich, whose work also figured prominently in last year's poignantly sardonic "Lost Christmas Festival."
"It's the combination of an interdisciplinary approach and the types of work that are done. In this last session we've worked on Odon von Horvath, Nathalie Sarraute, Thomas Bernhard--the type of stuff that hardly anyone reads, let alone does," says Goodrich, referring to the Circus Minimus penchant for European writers and others marked by their painterly, and often anti-psychological, use of the written word.
The heady bent is by design.
"One of the main thrusts for all of us in doing this workshop was that it was a non-careerist enterprise," says Steppling, who has long refused to compromise his vision in order to get more productions. "This is about more than theater; it's about ideas, the nature of performing and the creative process."
Class time is spent on activities that range from intellectual-theoretical discussions to on-the-spot writing to staging scenes. Students are often given assignments that are read out loud in class and sometimes developed further into works that may be staged later.
Certainly, it's no casting call: "A lot of acting students come in here thinking they're going to get a part in the next Steppling play, but they're quickly disabused of that notion," explains Collins, who has, during the past 12 years, become known as Steppling's signature actor. "People who come here are quickly involved in things that are delightful by their irrelevance to all of what goes on out there."
Actually, unorthodox might be a better word than irrelevant . Circus Minimus classes mix actors with writers, and both study and work on the same texts.
"I wanted to get rid of this idea of compartmentalizing theater because for me the experiences always overlap so much," says Steppling, who has almost always directed his own plays.
Steppling, Collins and Jackson also resist the standard mentor-prodigy relationships that are fostered in many acting and writing workshops.
"One of the ideas was to abolish all the standard roles, including teacher and student, director, actor and writer--the idea being that the creative process was much more accessible if one didn't hide behind pre-constructed roles," Collins says.
Sometimes, it's as simple as having people try on new hats.
"Instead of having people concentrate on what they perceive to be their strengths, the idea is to get into places where they are weak and work on those," Jackson says. "It helps actors to cross the bridge between melodramatic, self-indulgent stuff and real dramatic work.
"It's uncomfortable for a writer to have to take on a scene, and it's difficult for actors to have to write and have their writing held up against already-produced playwrights."