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By and for the People

'House Arrest' looks at U.S. presidencies and media, then counts on the audience to offer its insights.

April 04, 1999|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

If you're under "house arrest," you can't leave your familiar digs. You're restricted by some higher authority from venturing into the rest of the world.

Figuratively speaking, the audience at "House Arrest: An Introgression," the work-in-progress that opens Friday at the Mark Taper Forum, will be about as far from being under house arrest as an audience can get.

Instead of staying in its assigned role as the passive recipient of the play that's being performed, the audience will be expected to provide much of the second half of the production.

After sitting through a 90-minute presentation by actors on the subject of the American presidency and the media, and then taking a break for intermission, the audience will be asked to participate in a "community conversation" that will take off from the topics raised during the first half.

"The play is the trampoline to help enable the conversation," explained Robin Kramer, who is organizing the community participation.

The production as a whole is the brainchild of Anna Deavere Smith, the artist who previously brought to Taper audiences her "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," a solo performance in which she portrayed a number of people she had interviewed about the 1992 riots after the police beating verdict.

The first half of "House Arrest" is based on a new set of Smith interviews and source materials, focusing on the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton--and the media treatment of those chief executives. Smith is directing this part of the show and is expected to join 12 other actors onstage in performing it.

But Act II of "House Arrest: An Introgression" will focus on the "introgression," which, as Smith explained it, is a biological term describing what happens when species leave natural habitats and move onto others' turf, "with the implication that something will happen to both species."

In this case, she said, she wants to put herself in the position of learning from the audience, just as the audience normally hopes to absorb insights from the playwright and players.

"House Arrest" was originally planned as a full production instead of a work-in-progress with audience participation. An early version was presented at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in 1997. But a few months later the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, and the show has since been repeatedly postponed and revised, as Smith attempted to incorporate elements of the news into her production. It was also affected by recent developments in DNA research regarding Jefferson and his reputed alliance with slave Sally Hemings. Smith and Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson finally decided to present the work in a relatively unpolished form that would allow for plenty of audience feedback.

Unlike standard post-play sessions, however, everyone involved hopes these discussions will not be about the play as much as about the issues it raises. To encourage this, well-known moderators will guide the conversations, while other public figures will be on hand to provoke dialogue.

As of press time, the list of moderators at various performances includes KCRW-FM's "Which Way, L.A?" host Warren Olney, Rabbi Laura Geller, L.A. Human Relations Commission Executive Director Joe Hicks, Times columnist and "Life & Times" co-host Patt Morrison and attorney Angela Oh.

The list of other "expert" participants includes conservative pundit Arianna Huffington, former Clinton Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers, TV producer Norman Lear, state Sen. Tom Hayden, Jefferson / Hemings historian Annette Gordon-Read, city council members and journalists.

Asked whether the most famous L.A. resident involved in recent events in Washington, Lewinsky, might participate, Kramer replied that "a forum is best shaped when many voices are heard and no one person dominates. It should be a shared experience in a non-touchy-feely way that leaves us thinking. It's not about whether a particular voice is in the room." Lewinsky's attorney, Richard Hofstetter, said his client does not expect to attend "House Arrest."

Audiences over the course of the 11 performances of "House Arrest" will include approximately 400 less well-known representatives of about 40 community groups, who already will have met within their own smaller circles to discuss some of the issues, without benefit of seeing the play. A few of the groups: Amnesty International, Beyond Baroque, Chinatown Service Center, Museum of Tolerance Associates, National Black Gay & Lesbian Leadership Forum, Rock the Vote, United Teachers Los Angeles.

Coro Southern California, a civic affairs leadership training organization for which Kramer once worked, provided facilitators for these smaller pre-show meetings.

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