LA Stage – Theatre Spotlight
by Karen Kondazian

Have you ever dreamed of one day opening your very own theatre? It seems in the secret heart of every passionate theatre actor, director, producer or writer, that is a common desire. Perhaps it comes from a childhood memory of putting a play together in the backyard and selling tickets to dubious parents and neighbors to “please come and watch me!” Whatever the motive, whatever the vision, theatres continue to blossom in Los Angeles — some have become legendary, some have faded into memory, some have disappeared as quickly as their first production.

This month’s spotlight is on one of those new theatres that started with a dream. It is the Laurelgrove Theatre Company, 12265 Ventura Blvd. in Studio City (818-760-8368). The inspiration for the theatre began with actor/director Jack Heller. He opened in March of this year (2001) with the world premier of Edward Allan Baker’s Crying Rocks. In August (2001), his second production, the U.S. premiere of Joe Pintauro’s The Dead Boy, opened.
Pintauro burst into the world of theatre with his first play, My Name is Alice, which was directed by Dustin Hoffman and starred Robert Duvall. Other plays include Beside Herself, which featured William Hurt and Calista Flockhart at the Circle Rep. I spoke with Mr. Pintauro long distance from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, about the genesis of this play.

“The Dead Boy is loosely based on the tragic fall of Father Bruce Ritter of Covenant House and what could have been one of the most haunting love stories of our time. There could not have been more against its consummation: the ages were inappropriate, church law and secular law both condemned it, the genders were wrong, vows prohibited it, the parties were economic and cultural opposites, and yet the thing that drove them was a painful, psychologically inevitable longing, that was insurmountable.”

“In my plays, I have consciously directed myself to identify with society’s outcasts because in those characters the possibility for transcendence and glory are so far from possible. I like the challenge of that. I have always considered the truth of Goethe’s famous statement: ‘I have never heard of a crime of which I am not myself capable.’ And I wonder if that truth lies somewhere deep in all of us. Therefore, when I create characters who fall from grace I try to honor their loss, not with mere sentiment but with the best human understanding of which I am capable.”

Jack Heller is the artistic director of Laurelgrove as well as director of Dead Boy. When asked his advice to people interested in opening a new theatre, he laughed. “I would say don’t – unless you are 1000 percent dedicated. And for God’s sake don’t do it unless you have sufficient funding. You can’t do it on a dream. If you don’t have the proper funding, you end up doing 10 and 12 jobs, all at the same time. It’s more than just playing ‘Mickey and Judy’ and putting on a show. There are thousands of little details that need to be done besides the production. I mean it comes down sometimes to, do you have enough cleaning supplies and toilet paper?”

Gregory Von Dare, associate artistic director of Laurelgrove, explained that he takes care of many of the technical details of the theatre. “Ideally, Jack and I are going to alternate directing so one can produce while the other directs and then we can switch roles and that will keep us from getting too exhausted. What we have found about opening a new theatre is that the ultimate challenge is coping with the business of show business: raising enough money, spending the money wisely, knowing when and where to advertise, how to put those dollars into the place where they really bring something back to you.”

Stephen Nichols, who has starred on General Hospital as Stefan Cassadine since 1996, plays Father Sheridan in The Dead Boy. I asked how he managed to work on General Hospital and rehearse at the same time, “Of course, when we started to rehearse the play, I was suddenly working four and five days a week on the show. And even though the work on the show lately has been thin, shall we say, even with that, this play and theses rehearsals and this whole process enriched my work on the show. I felt like an actor again. I think it is of the utmost importance to do theatre in order to stay connected to who you are as an actor.”

LADCC Award-winning Travis Michael Holder plays The Cardinal. He also did the press relations for this play and was responsible for bringing Nichols into the production. “I do PR for small theatres and this one I did as a labor of love because I wanted this theatre to succeed.”

Cyril O’Reilly, who plays reporter Tony McGuire, spoke of acting in a 99-seat theatre. “I think that you must do theatre for doing it and whatever comes out of it comes out of it. If anything ever does. But I am really just here just for me. For my love of doing it. For the work. And what people think of it or don’t think of it, or whether casting people come or don’t come, I can’t think about that. I have to just do it for me.”

“Because his father never hugged him but abused him, my character is trying to get a hug from every man he possibly can,” replies Derek Sitter, who plays Willie, the dead boy. “And the one man he does attract, can you believe, is a priest. That is a big obstacle to overcome. Trying to find love in all the wrong places. But that is what moved me about him.”

Lorry Goldman, who plays the role of Father Rosetti, stated that “one of the things that makes this play fascinating is that besides forgiveness and compassion, it raises a lot of questions and it doesn’t answer everything. Like life. It leaves you thinking, it stimulates and affects you, which is what theatre should be all about. And so many times isn’t.”

So with all the problems of producing theatre, why did Heller need to open this theatre? “Well, for personal reasons, theatre saved my life, that’s number one. And number two, it’s a dedication. You see, it’s not a choice, it’s a calling.”