As cultural centers go, 1990s Glendale may seem like a long way from 1970s San Francisco. Yet there are surprising paral lels, according to stage director Sabin Epstein.
A veteran of the Bay Area's American Conservatory Theatre, Epstein thrives on the challenge of getting a classical company on its feet. That's why in 1992 he threw in his lot with A Noise Within.
"We're providing something for the community that they can't find anywhere else," says Epstein, the four-year-old group's resident director. "The same thing was true in San Francisco in the '70s. (ACT) was doing work in a manner and of a stature that nobody else was in that time and place. So even though it's scaled down, history is repeating itself."
It's also providing Epstein with the chance to hone his stagecraft. "It's been a time for me to reassess where I want to put my focus, aesthetically and professionally," he says, seated in a costume workroom in the 1929 Masonic Lodge that ANW occupies. "I've defined for myself what kind of theater I'm interested in doing and taken the opportunity to just go ahead and do it."
That style--which Epstein describes as "actor-oriented and text-dominated"--will be on display in two of the three productions of ANW's spring season. His staging of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" opens this Saturday. In April, his production of W.S. Gilbert's "Engaged" joins a rotating repertory that will also include "The Three Sisters," directed by the husband-and-wife team Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, who, with Art Manke, are ANW's artistic directors.
These are demanding texts, to be sure, but so is the larger venture, and Epstein says he rises to such occasions. "It gives me a lot of pleasure to be in with younger organizations," he says. "I'm interested in using my background and experience to help define an aesthetic, to contribute to shaping and making a place grow."
Epstein, 50, grew up in L.A.'s Fairfax district. He attended UC Riverside as an undergraduate and went on to graduate studies in directing, first at Tulane and then at UC Davis.
Once out of school, Epstein ventured into experimental theater via New York's La Mama company and toured Europe with the group. "We packed all of our costumes in our own bags and had about three black boxes that we just schlepped all over Europe for six months," he recalls. "This was in 1970, (and we had) hair down to here. We were New York underground at a time when it was glamorous and exciting to be doing that."
Epstein left the glamour behind to take up teaching. He was an instructor at Valencia's CalArts for a year before moving north to work at ACT.
The respected Bay Area theater and conservatory, which was founded in the late 1960s, was coming into its own at that time. "ACT was a mammoth, lavish, well-funded organization with brilliant men running the whole show," Epstein says. "It was a breeding ground, a training ground, especially in the 1970s. The scope and shape of the place was exhilarating, abuzz from the moment you walked into the building until the time you left 12 hours later."
All in all, it was an addicting environment for an artist. "When you come up in that kind of a situation, with that kind of aesthetic, it's in your blood," says Epstein. "It's what you long to continue working on."
In 1980, Epstein moved to New York, where he tried to replicate some of ACT's vitality by founding his own company, the 29th Street Project. He staged a couple of shows with that group but couldn't stay away from ACT. By 1984 he was dividing his time between both coasts and companies.
Then, in 1988, Epstein moved back to San Francisco full time to become head of ACT's conservatory. He ultimately left the conservatory in 1991 to devote more time to directing.
Around the same time, A Noise Within was just getting off the ground. Elliott, Rodriguez-Elliott and Manke all knew Epstein from ACT (Elliott and Rodriguez-Elliott had been his students; Epstein had hired Manke to direct a production at the conservatory). They invited him to come see their first production--a 1991 staging of "Hamlet," directed by Manke and featuring Elliott in the title role.
Then, in November, 1991, Manke popped the question. "In an offhand remark, he said, 'Well, when are you going to direct something for us?' " Epstein recalls.
Epstein was already committed to direct ACT's 25th-anniversary revival of "Cyrano de Bergerac," but he had some time available between that production, in January, 1992, and a staging of "As You Like It" in Sydney, Australia.
The company and Epstein decided on the ambitious undertaking of doing two shows in repertory, and in the spring of 1992, ANW presented "The Merchant of Venice," directed by Manke, and Epstein's production of William Congreve's "The Way of the World."