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Staying Power

Group Repertory has managed to take production risks and still last 25 years.


Along one wall of the Group Repertory Theatre's lobby hang four panels. On each, white adhesive letters spell the title and author of every play the company has produced. All 145 . . . and counting.

In Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world, small theater companies can die as fast as you can say "regular guest spot on a sitcom." But Group--as GRT was first known--somehow gelled into one of the longest-lasting companies in the Valley. Only a few others, such as Actors Alley and Theatre West, have been on the boards as long.

It began in 1972, when 13 actors got together to practice scenes in Hollywood, in a former Laundromat that had been turned into a crude 32-seat theater. Actor-director Lonny Chapman, who had worked with Actors Studio and helped found its Los Angeles branch, heard about Group from a friend.

He was impressed by the talent. But, he told them, "This isn't a theater yet because you're not doing plays. . . . I'll work with you if you start doing a play." It was agreed and Chapman became Group's artistic director--a title he holds today, a quarter-century later. Although the company has a board of directors, Chapman still green-lights every production.

For Group's public debut, Chapman adapted Arthur Schnitzler's "La Ronde" into an Americanized version called "Round Dance." He matter-of-factly chose the play because it had parts for five men and five women--the exact number of Group members available. It was a great success.

The Hollywood Reporter lauded the adaptation, saying, "It is performed with great style by a top-notch cast." The Los Angeles Times weighed in, calling it "a fluidly choreographed theme on the variations of seduction." Even Variety, which noted some flaws in the production, acknowledged that the troupe "looks as if it will become a major group."

Indeed, Group quickly outgrew its former Laundromat theater and moved into a larger space in North Hollywood with the expanded name, Group Repertory Theatre. The first home was a barn-like building on Magnolia Boulevard. After that was razed to build senior citizen housing, Group Repertory moved to its current home on Burbank Boulevard.

The company grew in size as well--from 13 members to 105 actors. GRT also has a playwright's unit that develops new work. Of its 145 staged plays, 60 have been new works.

The current production, "And Heather Went Everywhere," by writer-actress Jonna Ivin, went through the full development process: evolvement in the playwrights' lab, a staged reading for members, a two-night staged reading for an invited audience and a full production.

But you don't have to be a writer to get your idea on the boards, explained Janet Wood, the only member of the original Group active in GRT. The company also does revivals and adaptations, and any member can try out an idea with a staged reading. "You can never say, 'I'm dying to act and nobody will let me.' You can always initiate your own project."

With such an open-door production policy, it's not surprising that Group Repertory Theatre has been more defined by its longevity than any particular style.

Listed on the lobby wall are revivals, classics, comedies and dramas. The Group has done revivals of "Chicago" and "Company," adapted "Red Badge of Courage" and presented ordinal one-acts united by setting.

Chapman calls the style "eclectic," which might be the only term broad enough.

"You can be bad," Chapman said, "but you don't have to be dull."

Even if critics have taken their shots, the audiences have often responded. Last year's romantic comedy "Crappie Talk," about a radio station in Minnesota, got lukewarm reviews but did well with theater-goers and won several artistic-director awards from the Valley Theatre League.

The year before, "411 Joseph," about the confrontation between a gay son and his Jewish father, ran for six months--a runaway hit by L.A. theater standards.

That show drew a particularly funny audience, director Patricia Willson recalls. In the front rows were older, mostly Jewish patrons. The back of the theater was filled with gays and lesbians.

Chapman has avoided programming a regular season at GRT, so the theater can extend hits such as "411 Joseph," or put up a new play quickly before the rights are lost. That has meant forgoing the stability of a large subscriber base. But it also frees the theater from the conservative choices that companies make when trying to please regular audiences.

"Lonny doesn't pick a play because he thinks it'll be a hit or make money," said Willson, a 17-year member.

Times can get lean between hits. Expenses have gone up--rent was so cheap at the old place that when Group had a hit, no members had to pay dues. Now, the operating budget hovers between $35,000 and $50,000 a year--nearly all of it supplied by $35 monthly member dues.

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