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THEATER | Theater Notes

They're Inviting More Players to Join the Cast

May 23, 1999|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

In the '80s, Ted Schmitt turned Hollywood's Cast Theatres into two of L.A.'s most creative stages. When he died in May 1990, he was replaced by his longtime associate Diana Gibson, who converted the small theater complex into a virtually exclusive showcase for playwright Justin Tanner and his repertory company. Tanner became L.A.'s most popular home-grown playwright of the '90s, and he frequently gave Gibson much of the credit.

Yet as the '90s end, Gibson is gone. She left the Cast last month after disagreements with Tanner and his longtime friend/co-writer/set designer/actor/producer Andy Daley.

The Cast is now in the hands of Tanner and Daley, whose goal is to return it to what it was during the Schmitt era.

Although the split occurred last month, the principals were willing to talk about it only last week--and Gibson was willing only to read a statement, not to answer any questions.

"After the death of Ted Schmitt," Gibson said, "there is no doubt that I would not have been able to continue the Cast Theatre without the partnership of Justin Tanner and Andy Daley. . . . The pressures that work put on all of us erupted into a dispute which is still not totally resolved in my mind, but the upshot is that they have been carrying on without me, with an eye toward restructuring the organizational aspect of the theater, which is badly needed. . . . I love Justin and Andy and support them as always in all that they do."

Tanner's first words in a separate interview were "I love Diana a lot." But Gibson was not only his dramaturge, he said--"she was always going to be the boss." He spent months or even years rewriting plays to her specifications, and he often wished that "I could pick and choose from her notes. I would rather lower my standards and have more fun."

"I didn't know if critics were responding to me or to her input," Tanner said. "Many of those plays were just as much hers as mine. I'm in my 30s, and I want to make mistakes on my own terms."

Furthermore, he said, "I felt the pressure of being the only artist allowed to work at the Cast. The theater was always floundering until I got the next play done."

The state of the theater was Daley's chief concern. He described the physical plant as "medieval." He felt Gibson "was letting it run into the ground." Because of Gibson's sole concentration on Tanner's works, the company lost its ability to obtain grants, and most of its financial support came from Tanner's earnings from TV writing and Daley's personal assets.

The theater will now welcome other playwrights, Daley said. He and Tanner hope to announce a season consisting of two new works by other writers, as well as one new Tanner play and a Tanner revival. "We should help develop artists the same way Diana brought Justin up," Daley said.

Although Daley acknowledged that he arrived at the Cast too late to absorb a thorough understanding of Schmitt's policies, he said he hopes the theater will be closer to "Ted's vision--more community-based. . . . You've got to have the energy to invite artists in, to take a risk."

A THEATRICAL ODYSSEY: Speaking of inviting artists in and taking risks, meet Ron Sossi of the Odyssey Theatre in West L.A. and Circus Theatricals, the company formerly known as the Hudson Guild, based in Hollywood. The Circus is moving to the Odyssey.

Sossi, whose Odyssey is celebrating its 30th anniversary, invited the 4-year-old Circus Theatricals to become a resident company, doing two co-productions per year for two years, beginning with a production of "Scapin" in July.

Circus artistic director Jack Stehlin (the company's new name stems from a circus background in his family) and Sossi met when Stehlin acted in a long-running Odyssey production of "Speed the Plow" in 1997.

Sossi said he respected the Hudson Guild's work, and when Stehlin mentioned that the company wanted a larger space than the 44-seat Hudson Guild, Sossi suggested the move because "the Odyssey is always looking for new adventures." Although Hudson Guild has concentrated primarily on classics, it achieved a higher level of prominence last year with an award-winning new play, Shem Bitterman's "The Job."

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