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A company man of many gifts

Director-actor Gar Campbell shared his talent with a communal L.A. stage world, and the city is better for it.

January 02, 2008|Sylvie Drake | Special to The Times

Hanging above my desk in my home office is a framed copy of a tattered program for "The Emergence," one of the Company Theater's famous communal shows dating back to the 1970s. I love it because it gives me the names of most of the members of this remarkable company. This ensures I will never forget them.

The two went hand in hand -- the company and the 1970s. Hippies and flower children were everywhere, and the artists of the Company Theater -- young, inventive, bold and talented -- were its most exotic blossoms.

Los Angeles had never had a company quite like this one before and was never to have another. Its members lived together and did pretty much everything else together, whether cleaning toilets or directing, choreographing and stage managing, or designing and constructing lights, sets, costumes and programs. All of this, always, on a budget of about 5 cents, which never seemed to affect the quality of the work.

If New York had the much darker Living Theatre at about the same time, L.A. was blessed with this very different but astonishing troupe of performers. They were much sunnier and lighter in spirit than the New Yorkers (as behooved the climate in which they worked) and still young enough to put their art before any other considerations and not look back.

It lasted as long as it lasted. Anyone who saw it would never forget the whimsy of "The Emergence" or the sheer magic of "The James Joyce Memorial Liquid Theater," which had a closing image worthy of nature's aurora borealis. But because theater is an ephemeral art, a mere handful of fortunate people saw "Liquid Theater" (cosmically speaking), even though the show traveled to New York's Guggenheim Museum and later, with other performers, to London and Paris.

When these artists hit their mid-30s and 40s, other needs started to manifest themselves, and the group began to splinter and move on. Life is like that. But in the decade and a half that they were together, these troubadours collectively gave Los Angeles a memorable gift: A theater of vigor, vision, beauty, originality and gentleness never to be duplicated -- a quintessentially young theater full of dreams and passion and optimism.

Prominent among its members was this tall, dark, somewhat taciturn fellow, Gar Campbell, a man of dry wit and many gifts who went on to become a key figure at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice until his death from cancer Dec. 20. If this sounds as much like an appreciation of the Company Theater as it is of one of its principal avatars, it is because it's impossible to separate the two. The members of the company were as close as threads in a tapestry. And Campbell's untimely disappearance cannot help but stir up memories of a theater that Los Angeles was just plain lucky to have had.

The emergence of the Company Theater coincided with my own beginnings as a theater critic in this town, so I knew Campbell's work firsthand as an actor, director and creator. I am told he later became an equally charismatic teacher, which makes perfect sense. We never knew each other on a personal level, but we met briefly face to face on several occasions, while the Company Theater was still together and later when he joined and helped guide PRT with Artistic Director Marilyn Fox, his companion of 27 years. Campbell was a guarded fellow (shy perhaps?) who did not easily let you in. Yet there was no hostility there. Just a kind of reserve and dignity; the natural stance of an actor meeting a critic on a level playing field.

Campbell was never showy. As far as I know, he kept the display of his prodigious talents mostly on the stage. Between his dedication to the Company Theater and his association with PRT came some roles at Center Theatre Group, but he did not actively pursue fame. He pursued excellence and delivered it in spades, chiefly in the smaller venues where he flourished.

I am told that members of the Company Theater are getting ready to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its founding. Like most reunions, this one is bound to be bittersweet, and Campbell's absence will leave a big hole in its fabric. But his friends and colleagues will surely celebrate him as they also celebrate what long ago they all did -- and did so well -- for love.


Sylvie Drake is a former theater critic for the Los Angeles Times and currently is an artistic advisor to the Denver Center Theatre Company and director of publications for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

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