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THEATER NOTES : Madeline Puzo Back 'Home'

January 07, 1996|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

People in the Midwest are "nicer but more distant" than they are in L.A., said Madeline Puzo. When she lived in Minneapolis, "my neighbors dug me out of two snowstorms, but they never wanted to know me."

One of those Midwesterners told her she had been a good neighbor as she was leaving last summer. Puzo responded that they had hardly conducted more than two conversations, so how did she qualify as a good neighbor? "Oh, you're so quiet," she was told.

Maybe she won't be so quiet now that she's back home. Puzo has returned to the same Sherman Oaks house her parents built and to the same institution, Center Theatre Group, where she spent most of her career. She's the associate producer at the newly renovated Ahmanson Theatre.

With CTG's artistic director/producer Gordon Davidson splitting his attention among the Ahmanson, the Mark Taper Forum and the in-the-process Taper wing at Bergamot Station, Puzo will be the chief factotum at the Ahmanson, as Robert Egan is at the Taper.

The Taper was Puzo's professional home from 1970 to 1989. She rose from a production assistant to associate producer, helping create the experimental programming at Taper, Too, the literary cabaret series Sundays at the Itchey Foot, and supervising more than 50 Taper productions.

In 1989, she joined the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, working with artistic director Garland Wright, eventually taking the title of producing director. But she left there in November 1994, exiting shortly before Wright himself decided to leave, she said.

She wanted a break--after years of steady work since she was a teenager. And, she said, "I knew it was time for me to come home. Doing theater in L.A. is more important to me spiritually, emotionally. This is the community I'm most committed to."

Considering what she did at the Taper and the Guthrie, the Ahmanson job might appear less challenging. Only one production in the current season, "Candide," is a solely home-grown effort; the others are co-productions or presentations of others' productions.

"Hopefully that will change," Puzo said, "but one shouldn't imply that one [kind of production] is of more value than the other. There is extraordinary work coming in that L.A. should get to see. It's more fun to build a play than to bring it in, but the audience is going to be happy either way."

Puzo professed ignorance about what might happen at Bergamot Station. Asked if she someday wanted to run her own theater, Puzo replied, "It's a very painful subject for me. Nobody has been better groomed than I. But I don't direct. Boards [who run theaters] want directors to be artistic directors. They're only beginning to see that it's about producing, too."

However, when the subject of who might someday replace Davidson at the top of CTG came up, Puzo dismissed the question as "foolish conversation. Gordon's not going anywhere."

Besides, she said, "writing is starting to supplant the desire to run my own theater." During her sabbatical after leaving the Guthrie, she began developing her skills as a writer of nonfiction, memoir-style travel writing. "If I were to run a theater, I'd have to give up the writing," she said, "and I want to write prose that will make you gasp."

*

CIAO CHOW: "Macbeth" has returned to the United Methodist Church in Hollywood, but don't count on it for dinner.

In the show's run before the holidays, theatergoers got to partake of a meal that interrupted the famous banquet scene and even got to eat the food at long tables that were set up for the banquet.

Most of the tables are now gone, and so is the food (except for standard intermission sweets), because Actors' Equity didn't approve. The union's 99-Seat Theater Plan, on which "Macbeth" operates, prohibits the serving of dinner. Meals at 99-seat houses might undercut the union's dinner-theater contract, said the plan's administrator Michael Van Duzer. Producers--or restaurant owners--could make profits from the food even though the actors are being paid only a pittance--or so goes the reasoning behind the rule.

The rule dates from 1972, when the old Equity Waiver plan began (it evolved into the 99-Seat Plan in 1988). Back then, more dinner-theaters used union contracts. However, only one dinner theater in Southern California still uses an Equity contract--the Lawrence Welk in Escondido.

Furthermore, "Macbeth" executive producer Kym Sawtelle said, the elaborate environmental production has made no money, even though it was selling out, and even though it doesn't pay rent to the church (among the production's other connections to Hollywood Methodist, Sawtelle is married to the church's pastor).

Perhaps the union should consider if the old rule is still viable in this age of fewer union dinner theaters and environmental productions, Van Duzer said: "Obviously we need to look at the whole idea of environmental productions under the 99-Seat Plan. It's something they didn't think of in 1972."

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