Theater runs on the fuel of its own gypsy blood. As theater artists, we all have it in us, even when we settle down: the thrill of travel, the prospect of getting to tell our stories, with our people, in a new place and time. How fulfilling, to have a community of artists that is fluid geographically as well as artistically, whose home base is rooted in fierce loyalty to each other and more importantly to the work they make together. In this vein, I’m hugely impressed by and excited for Los Angeles-based theater company IAMA’s sojourn to New York this month with two new plays: Louise Munson’s Do Like the Kids Do and Christian Durso’s Shiner.
I grew up in San Francisco, and I’ve lived in New York for 15 years. I love N.Y. I love its bigness, even when I feel small in it. I love that it blows your mind, that its relentlessness is as enlivening as it can be punishing. I love S.F., too, and in comparison to N.Y. I love its sleepy, comforting beauty. L.A. was an unknown to me until earlier this year, when we got to plunge into it, as well as the incredible theater community there, while bringing my husband’s play, Slipping, west in Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s first Los Angeles production.
As we came from east to west, fellow nomad travelers offered connections in Los Angeles: people they thought we should meet, supportive hands and hearts. One of the most important of those was Becca Wolff, artistic director of IAMA, who welcomed us and felt like an old friend real fast. It’s a small, gypsy world, after all.
Some people who take themselves very seriously will persist in “hating L.A.,” but Angelenos don’t much seem to care. Even better, they don’t deign to return the distain. They love S.F. and they love N.Y., and if those places insist that’s just hero worship, well, whatever dude (smile). Maybe that cheerful liking of New York is part of why IAMA is coming back East. Running Munson’s and Durso’s plays in rotating rep for the first half of December, their N.Y.C. stay will be rounded out by a benefit reading of Leslye Headland’s play Surfer Girl. IAMA presented world-premiere, acclaimed productions of all three plays in Los Angeles, as well as the first six plays in Headland’s Seven Deadly Plays (the seventh is due to be announced soon). But it’s not like these guys are new to New York by any stretch. IAMA’s trip to N.Y.C. is a homecoming for most, if not all, of the artists involved, who have either trained in or hailed from the East, or both.
Do Like the Kids Do takes place over the course of Christmas Eve and Day in the attic of a suburban home in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. Playwright Louise Munson was born in New York and raised in Princeton, New Jersey, and like many IAMA writers, she started out in the theater as an actor. She describes trying to work as an actor in New York, and following an impulse early on with two other friends, of “Hey, let’s move to L.A.!” She’s grateful that being “super young and a little stupid” meant that they actually followed through.
Shiner reveals two young teens meeting up and hatching plans in the parking lot of a used record store in Canoga Park, a suburb of Los Angeles. Playwright Christian Durso is originally from Los Angeles, and first met a bunch of his fellow IAMA members-to-be when they were all doing a study abroad in London at Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) together in 2002. After a few years “plugging away” in New York, he went to grad school in San Diego and started writing plays. While at school, he reconnected with the RADA alums (who had founded IAMA in the meantime) and when they decided to produce his plays, he began to drive up from San Diego for rehearsals with the L.A. company. After school, joining the company was “a no brainer.”
I love how my husband and partner-in-crime, Daniel, describes the scene in L.A. as a “small, insanely hardworking, passionate, and huge-hearted group of people, spread out and away from each other because of geography, who got in their cars and drove two fucking hours in traffic to see your show anyway. And then would stay after despite the drive back and talk to you about what they’d seen. There are no delusions of grandeur when it comes to the theater or the work. They do it for the love.”
Our experience in L.A. showed the openness, vitality, and fierceness of theater in L.A. It takes a singularity of vision to make theater in a town known for the business of TV and film, so the people who do it want to do it. They are diving in, creating spaces and life and community in the sprawl. They are finding the voices that speak to the audiences they love. They are making it work in a scrappy, daring, dangerous, and fun way. They are doing it cheaply and nimbly, two qualities that seem like a pipe dream in New York City. As Becca says in her article about L.A. theater in the April issue of the Rail, “We have the freedom here to produce risky new works on a shoestring with outstanding actors and an audience full of ambitious young people making their living in the Biz and looking to connect to their theatrical roots.”
IAMA’s mission statement uses the words “vibrant” and “voyeuristic,” words that also describe the work of writer/director Leslye Headland, who has been a driving force since the beginning at IAMA. Headland’s plays Bachelorette and Assistance, which both premiered at IAMA, have gone on to successful recent runs in New York, at Second Stage and Playwrights Horizons, respectively. Bachelorette has since been made into a film, and Assistance into a forthcoming TV movie. Munson describes finding IAMA as an actor, and first meeting Headland, saying she “got really lucky because Leslye was just starting out with her writing and she cast me in her first full-length, Cinephilia, in a part I had a lot of opinions about, which most writers would be annoyed by, but she liked it, so we worked great together. So then she wrote Bachelorette with me and a few other actors from IAMA in mind, which is how I got into the company. Everyone was in love with her writing and directing—we would always joke about going to ‘Headland University,’ and the first couple of years of IAMA did feel like that, we were all absorbing her talent, point of view, way of working. We all work insane hours, and even now, it’s just this group of people with incredible energy. At it’s best, we’re all like excited kids putting on a show in our backyard.”
Both Shiner and Do Like the Kids Do are modern and theatrical and don’t shy away from the quotidian brutality of growing up, whether you’re 13 and obsessed with Kurt Cobain, or 27 and feeling the crush of your own choices in life, art, friends, and family.
In Munson’s play, there’s a moment when Claire answers her cell phone and gets the news that her best friend just booked “some slutty part on a TV show.” Her response on the phone is ecstatic, excited, and very Los Angeles-actress—a mode we haven’t seen her in with her family. She crashes as soon as she hangs up. Her brother Patrick calls her out.
You sounded weird.
Yeah, you sounded like a teenage wind-up doll.
It’s what you do with girls!
You sounded nuts.
(Claire looks out, thinks deeply about this. After a long pause.)
Listen, if you fail to match a girl’s unbridled enthusiasm one hundred percent, it’s a tactic. It’s specific. Like to gain power. If they meet you at eighty percent enthusiasm, then you can either match them, or just go all the way. You only go, you know, lower than them if you’re essentially separating yourself. Trying to make yourself impenetrable. Which leaves the other girl in a state of unknowing, of wondering, which is the most painful state in a relationship, and therefore the most powerful state for a girl.
(Takes a breath. Then, with quiet intensity)
I’m just trying not to be a tyrant, okay.
This is probably why you’re depressed.
One of my favorite moments in Shiner is when 13-year-old Margot and Jake are just meeting, and end up trading dark secrets as new friendship grist. After Margot confesses to poisoning her pet rat by testing out the medication she’s been prescribed in therapy on the animal, she demands a story in kind:
Okay. Uh—I peed myself at school a while back.
You actually peed yourself? At thirteen-and-a-half?
Yeah, okay? Look: There’s this rumor going around that Chris Larson was beating me up one day and I pissed myself. The rumor is true but I’ve done a really good job of, of, of, making kids think it’s not true. And I find the less I talk about it, the less it happened.
It might help to talk about it.
I’d appreciate it if we dropped it. Because as far as I’m concerned, I gave you better collateral than you killing a rat with pills.
I loved Polly One.
Yeah, well I liked who I was before I pissed myself, too.
I ask both writers what it might be about L.A. that supports writers in particular, to which Munson replies, “In New York, I’m so easily distracted because it really is the best city in the world. For me, in some ways it’s easier to have blinders on in L.A. and just do your work and live a boring, dorky life and then come to N.Y. and go nuts and not sleep and immerse yourself in other people’s art.” Durso says, “L.A. is a great place for a writer, and I think particularly for a playwright—the theater scene here is thirsty for good plays. And since the theater scene is small, affordable, and vibrant but low pressure, you can have your work produced at a decent scale with talented actors who are also thirsty to work on challenging new material, and you don’t have to fear an Isherwood casket handed to you opening night. Also, traffic is maddening,” he adds. “Twice a day you don’t want to go anywhere. Some insanity is nice to have as a writer. It makes the calm of your desk very welcoming.”
In the end, I hope IAMA’s experience with these plays in New York brings along what Daniel reminded me of this morning: “I love Becca’s description of L.A. theater being like the Wild West. I think great theater has a frontier explorer’s heart, and maybe since N.Y. is becoming so economically impossible for many artists to live in, maybe that’s part of the future of theater. To saddle up and ride with their imagination from one city to the next, finding a room or floor and getting to work, with a few bucks, an unknown play, and some simple magic that money or marketing can’t buy.” I for one can’t wait to run out and greet the gypsy cowboys on the horizon.
Do Like the Kids Do and Shiner will run in rotating rep from January 19 – February 2, 2014 at Theater Row: The Studio, located at 410 West 42nd Street, near the corner of 9th Ave. Tickets are $19.25 and available at www.telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. Visit IAMA Theatre Company on Facebook for more info.