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Low pay, huge rewards

June 22, 2003|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

TAMARA Zook is writhing on the floor, hands over her ears, desperately trying to block out the sound as a voice in the room says the number "43." "La la la la la," she chants in a sort of hysterical mantra. Again, louder: "La la la la la," finally hyperventilating into unconsciousness. * A pensive Deborah LaVine is pacing in the background, her eyes on Zook and Taylor Gilbert as Gilbert rushes to Zook's aid, kneeling while Zook's body shakes as if possessed. Then, when the spasms cease, Gilbert lifts one of Zook's limp arms and sees something she never wanted to see. "Oh, please, no -- not again," she murmurs. * The three women are holed up on a small North Hollywood stage on a hot day in May, preparing for the world premiere of Jim Henry's "The Seventh Monarch." It's about three weeks until opening night, and LaVine, who is directing the production for the Road Theatre Company, paces the unfinished set as she choreographs the dance of Zook's collapse and Gilbert's horrified reaction, appearing as calm as the two characters are distraught. "Try playing it as though you can't catch your breath," LaVine suggests to Zook. * For reasons that will become alarmingly clear later, Zook's character, Miriam Hemmerick -- genius, victim and, in her youth, an aspiring astronaut -- cannot handle any mention of the number 43. Her desperation remains a mystery to Social Security agent Raina Briar, portrayed by Gilbert, the Road's artistic director and supervising producer of "Seventh Monarch." * This day's rehearsal brings the Road one small step closer to the end of the road as it prepares to present this new work by Chicago playwright Henry, whose "The Angels of Lemnos" was a hit for the company in 1999.

"In theater time, three weeks is an enormous amount of time," LaVine says in a pre-rehearsal conversation, seemingly as much to reassure herself as anyone.

During those weeks, the theater will become a hive of activity as the production moves from the sensitive character work of this day's rehearsal to the nuts and bolts of staging the story, while the light, sound and scenic designers join the five actors in the cast to set the stage and orchestrate cues in seven nights of technical rehearsals before opening. The smell of new paint, glue and freshly cut lumber hangs in the air.

But although there's still a long way to go, the rehearsal marks the final stretch of a process that began late last year, when the company held readings of Henry's script.

Although the scene, setting and actors may be different, the same drama is being played out all over town on rehearsal stages for any of Los Angeles County's sub-100-seat theaters -- that is, trying to put on a high-quality production at a small theater on a shoestring budget in the long shadow of the entertainment industry.


"A lot of the way I make my money is to direct showcase theater. I'm very clear on the difference when I'm working for the project, and when I'm working for the paycheck," says LaVine, who directed "Napoli Milionaria" for the Road in 2002. "But I really like the work they do here; the company and I speak the same language."

Indeed, the Road Theatre Company has been riding high recently, with critical acclaim and a flurry of local theater awards, including four Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards in 2002 (three for "The Woman in Black" and one for "Napoli Milionaria") and six 2002 Ovation Awards.

The 12-year-old company makes its home upstairs in North Hollywood's Lankershim Arts Center, a city-owned facility with an art gallery downstairs. The space is one of 125 to 140 small theaters in L.A. ranging from 25 to 99 seats, according to Michael Van Duzer, 99-seat administrator for Actors' Equity. (Above 99 seats, theaters have to pay Equity actors higher wages.) Not all small theaters have a resident acting company, and many small acting companies have no regular performance space, using the area's sub-100-seat houses on a rental basis. Van Duzer says the financial arrangements vary: A one-night rental for a 60-plus-seat house might be $300; a week at such a theater, if it includes box office services, could go as high as $3,000.

The number of theater spaces fluctuates because such venues open often but don't always last long. Quality fluctuates too, because many of these small theaters are home to "vanity" or "showcase" productions that serve as little more than a glorified audition for more lucrative, high-profile film and TV roles.

Even that line is blurry, because a good show often can serve as an industry showcase too. Actors say the difference is in the motivation -- putting the goal of a quality production ahead of potential career exposure. As Van Duzer wryly points out: Should one decide to rent a small theater and star as Hamlet, the difference between the performance being called a "vanity production" or "art" for posterity will be decided by the reviews.

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