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STAGE

Dramatic Loss

Eclectic troupe intent on carrying on since death of unofficial manager.

May 29, 1997|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Next to the entrance of the Eclectic Company's theater in North Hollywood is a gold plaque, dedicating the space to John C. Schmidt. He wasn't the company's founder, nor even an original member, nor the artistic director--something the aptly named Eclectic never had.

But, as Francesca Rollins put it: "He was the man."

Technically, Schmidt was an actor, director, producer, stage manager, occasional board member--depending on the show. Founding company member Jill Holden remembered, laughing, that he auditioned three times before the Eclectic let him join. "It seems ridiculous now, how hoity-toity we were."

Holden, Rollins and the rest of the Eclectic were caught completely off guard when Schmidt, who was 39, died of a heart attack in March while in-line skating.

His loss has been devastating, said Rollins. "He was unofficially a managing director. Any physical, logistic, financial question in the world you could possibly have, you'd call John. He'd know," she said. "I would say that the company made it as long as it did because of him."

Schmidt was, in fact, planning to co-produce a play with Rollins at the time of his death. Rollins had met playwright Katherine Burger during a visit to New York, and read her play, "Morphic Resonance," which was a finalist in the 1997 Susan Smith Blackburn Awards. Schmidt was going to audition--but wanted to help produce, whether or not he was cast.

After Schmidt's funeral, Rollins said, some people presumed that she would abandon the project.

"I keep hearing his voice in my head," she said. "I can hear it now, the sound of it: 'Just do it. You've got everything in place.' "

Putting it all together, however, has been a highly emotional journey, in part because of the subject matter. The play centers around a writer named Cleome (Lea Floden) and her relationships with her father, lover and best friend.

"The best friend is diagnosed with cancer, and that is the catalyst for all the characters in the play," said Rollins, who plays the role of the friend, Alice. "Her death is a catalyst for the characters to break through and grow up and move on to becoming adults."

"Morphic Resonance" is a challenge to stage, said director Leo Geter. There are 48 scenes in two acts that have to play in an almost quick-cut cinematic way.

"It's a deceptive play," Geter said. "When you start looking at it, it seems almost breezy and superficial. But because of what happens in the play, we see how that fails them. Their superficiality isn't enough, and that's one of the satisfactions of the play."

Geter lives in New York, where the play is set, and extended his Los Angeles visit to direct "Morphic Resonance." After reading it, he said, he couldn't get it out of his head.

"She wrote sort of the in-between moments of people's lives where things actually happen, and left out the conventional dramatic moments," he said. "Because it does deal with loss, and the pain of that, I think there's something appropriate about this play for this time and this theater company. I think it's brought us all who are working on it to a more honest point about what that [pain] is like and not shy away from it."

The members of the Eclectic Company, too, are realizing that's what the bulk of life is: the moments that surround dramatic events.

Holden remembers being at the theater the night Schmidt died. "Out of nowhere the lights went off," she said. "I tried to track down what was wrong and wound up in the circuit box. And I don't know anything about wiring. So I called John. And I got his wife, and she said, 'He's not home, which is strange...' "

Holden was back at the theater the next morning with an electrician when Rollins called with the bad news. And she remembers how the electrician described the problem: the circuit breaker had melted, for no reason. It was brand new.

For Rollins, these in-between moments come mostly at the theater, which Schmidt helped convert from a storefront when the Eclectic moved to North Hollywood in 1994. She still thinks to call him with her questions. "And when you walk into the lobby, there's a picture of him," Rollins said. "I just expect him to walk through the door."

Though her project has gone forward, Rollins said it's hard to tell where the company will head without its unofficial managing director.

"I'm hoping somebody's prepared to step up to the plate," she said. "This is the beginning of a new era."

BE THERE

Eclectic Company, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood, presents "Morphic Resonance," Thur. and Sat. at 8 p.m.; Fri. at 8:30 p.m., through June 28. $15. (213) 466-1767.

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