Look at the schedule for LAMEC 2001, a festival at the New Ivar Theatre in Hollywood, and you wonder if it has a focus.
LAMEC stands for Los Angeles Media & Education Center--which doesn't tell you much. Although most of the festival is theater-oriented, it also includes a series of Monday-night documentary film screenings, seminars on media and journalism, and a closing concert featuring the premiere of a symphony.
If you keep looking for a central theme, it might occur to you that many people search for the same quality in Los Angeles itself--where's the center? And once this dawns on you, you're getting close to answering your question.
"Two words tell me what we're doing," said LAMEC founder and President Robert Guenette. "Los Angeles."
LAMEC is, in its modest fashion, trying to help bring Los Angeles together. The subject of most of the staged readings, documentaries and other programs is L.A.--or some particular aspect of what Guenette calls "the most diverse city ever in the history of the world."
So how does that explain the prominence of Guenette's "fully staged reading" of Luigi Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author," a 1921 play by an Italian? Scheduled for the festival's prime-time weekend slots, "Six Characters" is about a play rehearsal in which the characters take on lives of their own. The play has no references to Southern California.
Guenette freely admits that one key reason for doing the play is logistical: It's set at a rehearsal, so it requires no permanent set or costumes, which might have gotten in the way of some of the festival's other events--all of which share the same stage.
But returning to the subject of L.A., Guenette said the city reflects the play's themes. "L.A. is the foremost city in the world that is fed by illusion in search of reality. That's what drives us, and it's not just in the movie business. A lot us came here, to the end of the continent, in search of freedom. A lot of it is illusory, but that illusion seeds our energy."
Guenette, 66, moved from New York to L.A. in 1972. He had arrived in New York in the early '50s assuming he would be an actor, but "I never cracked the theater," he said. He found acting "extremely difficult and unpleasant--so much rejection." Instead, he joined what he called "the 16-millimeter explosion" and became a documentary filmmaker.
While in New York, he began working for L.A.-based television producer David L. Wolper, and by 1972 Guenette realized that much of the documentary market had shifted to the West Coast. So he and his wife, Frances, made the move "kicking and screaming, like many a New Yorker. But now, the more honest of [former New Yorkers] admit we prefer it out here."
Guenette's production company thrived on such fare as documentaries about Orson Welles, "Star Wars" and other big-budget movies. Perhaps the producer's best-known project was the ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie "Victory at Entebbe." Guenette took a brief detour into the L.A. theater scene, directing a 99-seat production, "Pieces of Time," in 1982. He served as president of the International Documentary Assn. But generally he seldom strayed far from his lucrative work behind the camera.
He and his wife often discussed doing something in the nonprofit arena as a way of giving back to their community. He credits three factors with spurring him to take action: a 1985 TV movie he made about Dr. Lois Lee's Children of the Night, the Van Nuys-based shelter for teenage runaways and prostitutes; the death of his wife from ovarian cancer in 1994; and the dedication of a younger colleague, Robert Leeburg. Without Leeburg, Guenette joked, he might have retired to an island off Spain.
Instead, Guenette founded LAMEC. Leeburg became its executive director. For the last four years, the organization has worked behind the scenes, conducting video training and improv workshops for a variety of youth groups and other community organizations.
So far, Guenette has provided most of the funding, not only from his business proceeds, but also from the 1998 sale of a Beverly Hills house he and his wife bought in 1972. He has looked into the possibility of grants, he said, only to be told, "Your mission is too broad." Guenette hopes the group's first festival will raise the LAMEC profile enough to diversify its funding sources beyond his wallet.
The cost of the festival will probably be more than $250,000, Guenette estimated--and this is with most of the staff working as volunteers (union rules require payments to the actors and musicians).
LAMEC's mission has been, from the beginning, to help bring together the disparate communities of L.A. under nonprofit auspices. Guenette said he would like to see more gatherings of the L.A. public in areas in which commerce isn't the main drawing card.