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'Common Ground' Seeks the Uncommon Experience

June 15, 1997|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

'There goes that damn Internet again," grumbled Audrey Skirball-Kenis. A noise from the computer in her Century City home office kept interrupting her telephone conversation with insistent notifications of incoming e-mail.

Still, the arts benefactor--who, when asked her age, replied "around 80"--loves her computer. She has had one for about 20 years, she said. "You have to keep up with the times," she explained.

No kidding. Here is one arts supporter whose money keeps the Los Angeles theater scene "up with the times" in a big way.

This week, A.S.K. Theater Projects, which is named after her and primarily supported by the Skirball Foundation, presents its third annual "Common Ground" festival at UCLA, a workshop for cutting-edge works-in-progress, open free to the public. A.S.K. money also provides much of the support for the Mark Taper Forum's annual New Work Festival, as well as the company's own readings series and a number of other projects that help develop new plays and other theatrical experiences.

It is these other theatrical experiences that define the difference between the New Work Festival and "Common Ground"--this year's "Common Ground" in particular, according to A.S.K. executive director Kym Eisner.

"This year we made a very conscious decision to focus on new work being created by L.A. companies that wasn't solely playwright-driven. A lot of these groups don't have a writer sitting down to create a script."

The first attraction on opening night, Tuesday, will be an early version of "Radio Bordertown," Culture Clash's new piece about San Diego, which is being created by adapting real interviews with San Diegans into a theatrical format--like Culture Clash did previously with Miami residents in "Radio Mambo." Commissioned by San Diego Repertory Theatre, the piece is scheduled to premiere there in 1998.

Also on Tuesday evening, Randy Kovitz's theater-influenced band Lies Like Truth will perform outside UCLA's Macgowan Hall, and Shabaka Barry Henley will run through his new solo show, "Jungle Bells."

On Wednesday, the Fabulous Monsters will perform their movement-based version of the Hindu myth "Ramayana," followed by "Screech: An EcoSeance," a site-specific performance from the SHRIMPS collective (which includes among its members alternative-cabaret star Weba Garretson). "Screech" will involve an installation of ropes, light and sound on the sidewalk in front of Macgowan. The evening will conclude with a heavily video-influenced piece, "Memory Rites," from About Productions.

"Slow Dissolve: Meditations on the Film 'Sudden Impact' " will open the Thursday evening bill in a collaboration between actor director Tony Abatemarco and choreographer-dancer Melinda Ring, who are jointly called Accident Theater.

Only then will a conventionally scripted play show up: Julie Jensen's "Last Lists of My Mad Mother," starring Barbara Bain, Harriet Harris and Christine Dunford. Another play, Bridget Carpenter's "Mr. Xmas," will join the lineup Friday, featuring John Fleck, Sam Anderson, David Fenner and Elizabeth Ruscio.

All of the works will be repeated at some point during the festival, which lasts through next Sunday. The two plays will be presented in the 178-seat Little Theatre while the other performances will take place in a 92-seat black box--Studio 1340--or outside on the sidewalk.

A.S.K.'s staff picked the productions in February--usually without actually seeing any of the work, although the two plays went through A.S.K.'s regular readings series. Each company is expected to provide between 45 minutes and an hour of what might end up as something longer--and indeed, all but one of the shows has a future production lined up somewhere, Eisner said.

In other words, audiences should be adventurous. "It's a risk," Eisner said. "In a creative process, sometimes things get in the way." A.S.K. provides between $1,250 and $1,500 to the groups as "a little seed money." But "we're curating. We're not commissioning. We steer away from artistic questions."

That may change next year, for recently A.S.K. commissioned eight plays, to the tune of $2,000 to $10,000 each, in an attempt to begin initiating as well as developing work. But none of these was ready for this year's festival.

Besides the evening performances, weekday afternoon workshops will tackle a variety of subjects, led by Tracy Young, Robyn Hastings, SHRIMPS and Jensen. And a dozen tables next to Macgowan Hall will offer information about other Los Angeles theaters.

Skirball-Kenis said she isn't sure which, if any, of the "Common Ground" performances she'll attend. She frequently attends finished productions, but she doesn't feel compelled to check up on everything A.S.K. does. She has supported it because she felt theater "was dying" and "I want to give the kids a chance to show what they can do."

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