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A Director in Overdrive

One show at a time just isn't enough for Jules Aaron. He's juggling two others while directing 'Equus' a third time.

March 23, 1997|Daryl H. Miller | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

As a boy, Jules Aaron appeared in a soda commercial with Buster Crabbe and sang on "The George Jessel Show." But any dream of a performing career ended one Saturday afternoon in Detroit, when Aaron, then 20, caught Laurence Olivier's performance in a touring production of "Becket."

"I thought, 'If he can give this kind of performance in Detroit at a Saturday matinee, I'm probably in the wrong business." And thus, Aaron jokes, he and the world were spared "a lot of pain."

He never got theater out of his system, however. He became fascinated with directing while studying dramatic literature and criticism at New York University, and he mounted his first show--an environmental production of Genet's "Deathwatch," with the audience watching through jail bars--in his East Village loft.

Some 150 productions later, Aaron is one of Los Angeles theater's busiest directors. He estimates that in the last half a dozen years, he has almost always had a show running somewhere. The newest--a revival of Peter Shaffer's "Equus"--opens today at the Pasadena Playhouse.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 30, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
"Accomplice" numbers--An incorrect telephone number was published last week for the April 11-27 production of "Accomplice" at the La Mirada Theatre. The correct numbers are (562) 944-9801 and (714) 994-6310.

"He has worked more in Los Angeles than just about anyone," observes Lars Hansen, the Playhouse's executive director. "He's warm; he's understanding, compassionate, articulate, very caring of the artist. . . . His reputation is sterling, from box office to stage crews to designers and their assistants. And when you have a whole staff of people who want to work with somebody, the result tends to be better."

Dave Higgins, who plays the lead role of Dr. Dysart in the Pasadena production, concurs: "I love him. He's a dream. He might be the smartest man I ever met. I'm serious."

It is early evening as Aaron, 53, sits down with a mug of tea at his Silver Lake home. (He turns the cup around to show that it is emblazoned with the logo of one of his favorite productions: a 1988 staging of Stephen Sondheim's "Marry Me a Little" at South Coast Repertory.) He's just home from rehearsal, trying to catch his breath in the midst of a week in which he is juggling "Equus" with auditions for Sondheim's "Company" at West Coast Ensemble and Rupert Holmes' "Accomplice" at the La Mirada Theatre. He has been meeting and taking conference calls with artistic directors, writers and designers regarding four more projects from L.A. to Florida. And he's still working full time as co-head of the master of fine arts directing program at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where he's taught since 1980.

Hard work, but it pays off, he says. Asked about his favorite moments in the business, he describes the simple joy of a job well done, such as the "Equus" rehearsal at which everything started to click. "At the end, the actors just spontaneously applauded one another," he says, looking off in the distance, happily lost in the memory.

His philosophy of theater is similarly straightforward. "The art of directing is about how well you tell the story and how well you get the audience to take that ride with you," he says. The staging shouldn't draw too much attention to itself, he adds. "You never want to see an actor acting, and I don't think you want to see a director directing."

Aaron's career is charted on a desktop in a back room of his home, which is covered with pictures of actors he has worked with: Maxwell Caulfield and Juliet Mills in "In and Out the Window," Salome Jens and Mitchell Ryan in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," Alan Feinstein in "Amadeus," Carrie Snodgress in "The Manchurian Candidate," and Bruce Davison and Lisa Pelikan in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Some of these shows were hits; others, like a Theater League production last year of the Neil Simon/Marvin Hamlisch musical "The Goodbye Girl," were misses. ("Too often the scenes between the lovers go down like flat water that you know is supposed to be fizzy," Times critic Laurie Winer complained.)

In addition to working in L.A. theaters large and small, Aaron has worked at such places as the Public Theater in New York and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Ky.

It is difficult to define his style, since he molds it to each script, from the ancient rituals evoked in "Equus" to the almost filmic fluidity of last summer's staging of "Company" at the Laguna Playhouse.

He freely admits he had no formal training in directing, and in designing the curriculum at CalArts, he says, he has always tried to include "what I would have liked to have gotten earlier on to help me grow as an artist and find my own voice."

Aaron has had particular success with "Equus." When he staged it at West Coast Ensemble in 1993, he earned rave reviews and a directing award from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.

The Pasadena staging is Aaron's third go-round with the play--last year, he mounted it at TheatreWorks in Mountain View, Calif.--and it still knocks the wind out of him. "This is a play that is hard for me to reread without crying at the end of it," he says.

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