Curtain calls: Pacific Stages Premier
“I had a lot of the same preconceived notions about Los Angeles that a lot of New Yorkers have,” says Jeryll Adler, “which is that it is a vast intellectual wasteland. But as a friend of mine said, ‘That’s what they say to keep people from coming here.’ Once you get here, you discover it’s like any place else; and you find your own community. For me, my community was always about the intellectual pursuit. I was always attracted to an academic and entertainment environment.”
Oh? Then what’s she doing in the South Bay?
Jeryll Adler is the founder and executive director of Pacific Stages, a budding theater group with immense ambitions. For the past several years Adler has nurtured a loosely-formed alliance of actors, directors and writers, and they have presented staged readings of new or lesser known plays in various locations throughout the beach cities.
What’s recently changed for Pacific Stages is that it has a temporary home in the Continental Development building that’s just across the plaza from Pacific Theatres on Rosecrans in El Segundo. The company’s inaugural production – Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero” – is in previews starting this evening, with an opening night performance and reception set for Saturday, Feb. 13.
Finding promise in the desert?
An actress in her youth, with previous experience in running a theater and producing plays, Adler, 54, has spent the past quarter century selling and buying advertising for entertainment and media companies. She founded the marketing department for IndieWire, and for the past seven years has been a sales consultant for the Arthouse Marketing Group, which means that she represents the Laemmle theater chain among other high-end clients. She’s been living in California for 10 years now, first in Santa Monica and more recently in Torrance and Redondo Beach.
When she lived at Bay and Main in Santa Monica she used to bicycle to and from Herondo Street, on the border of Redondo and Hermosa Beach. That was how she became familiar with the area, which doesn’t mean Adler was impressed, culturally speaking.
“What I saw in the South Bay was a complete dearth of anything that appealed to me,” she says.
Well, the Bijou was gone, Either/Or was gone, the Insomniac was gone.
Having bought her first house here, but in between jobs, Adler had time to look around and to think about what she wanted to pursue. As she points out, she was alone (no immediate family on the West Coast) and didn’t know anyone. So she asked herself, “What can I do to become part of the community, and what can I do to contribute to the community? And I thought, Well, I’ll build a theater.” She laughs. “And quite frankly, Bondo, that’s how it came to be. That’s about as short a version as I can come up with. I started opening my mouth and talking to people and saying this is what I want to do.”
Adler isn’t dumb. It couldn’t have taken her long to realize that the South Bay isn’t a hub of cultural excitement, and many of her friends in the theater community weren’t encouraging. Even David Emmes, the head of South Coast Repertory Theatre, looked askance. “Your first problem,” he told her, “is that you’re at the beach and you have a 12-mile radius, and half your audience is in the ocean.”
Even so, Adler was sure – and is sure – that the South Bay needs and wants a theater that can go head-to-toe with the Geffen in Westwood and the Taper in downtown Los Angeles. Just last week we might have included the Pasadena Playhouse as well.
“I looked around and said, I can’t be the only person who lives here and feels this way. And the more I met people and talked to them, and said what I wanted to do, the more I discovered that, yes, there was a desire for this. The biggest challenge was that there was no precedent for it. You had to invent the wheel, because ‘Nunsense’ and ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’ do not a theater audience build. That’s an entertainment audience. A real theater audience, like South Coast Rep, that’s what my model is.”
An informal history of theater in the South Bay would reveal that numerous homegrown theater companies have sprung up over the years and some – like the PV Players and the Actors’ Repertory Theatre – enjoyed a moderate success. Francesca Beach had a vision for quality theater at the Cultural Arts Center in Torrance but the city failed to back her. Hermosa’s Second Story Theatre, which gave us a few edgy plays by Angelo Masino, seems to have become dormant. More recently, Brady Schwind staged a number of fine productions at the Neighborhood Playhouse in Palos Verdes Estates, but the last show was back in July. Naturally, I’m not forgetting James Blackman, who has the middlebrow market sewn up with the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities and the Hermosa Playhouse. His meat and potatoes have always been the splashy tried-and-true Broadway musical, but it would be unfair to say that he never takes chances. He gave us world premieres by Dale Wasserman and Ray Cooney, which counts for something even if the works themselves were marginal.
Very little of this, however, would impress or deter Jeryll Adler.
When asked to give her personal definition of quality theater, Adler replies that it’s “the theatrical version of a literary novel. What appeals to me is great story, great character. Great theater is something that provokes you. It makes you a little uncomfortable, it makes you think.
“It needs to entertain you as well; it can’t be provocation for the sake of provocation. When you walk into the theater you do want to be entertained, you do what to be occupied and entranced and involved for that couple of hours that you’re sitting there. The bonus is also when it has you wanting to think and talk and it stimulates you; maybe it has you thinking differently than when you walked in. That to me is much more interesting, and that’s something that I think contemporary entertainment has too often lost sight of. I like a great musical as much as the next person, but if that’s all you’re giving me I’m bored to death.”
I’m with you there, Jeryll; that’s why I’m Easy Reader’s pompom girl for Long Beach Opera and last week covered their production of “The Good Soldier Schweik.” But what is it exactly that Adler would like to see staged?
“The mission for the theater is to do the early and lesser known works of the best American playwrights.”
During our conversation, which took place over the course of an hour or two at the company’s facilities in El Segundo, slight variations of this key sentence appeared several times. It’s the company’s mantra.
What this means is that Pacific Stages intends to give us our dose of Arthur Miller and Thornton Wilder, but instead of “The Death of a Salesman” and “Our Town” they’ll dig deeper into the archives and pull up, for example, the former’s “The Ride Down Mount Morgan” and the latter’s “The Angel that Troubled the Waters.” In fact, these works were among the 30 or so plays that were done as readings over the past few years.
Quite simply, Adler says, “I’m trying to build a category of theater that doesn’t exist here, and I don’t want to do the same-old, same-old.” To use one of her favorite words, she wants to “leverage” a familiar name with an unfamiliar title. That’s somewhat of a provocative idea in itself, but as someone pointed out to me, maybe there’s a reason why these early or lesser known plays are obscure. It may be an unfounded suspicion, the idea that little known is a synonym for second-rate, but it’s going to enter people’s minds. They’ll need to be convinced it isn’t necessarily true.
The second part of the mission – and this is being exemplified by “Something Happened,” by L. Trey Wilson, which opens March 20 – is to nurture work by the next generation of playwrights, young men and women who’ve written at most a handful of plays but who tend to be under the radar.
My impression is that the ratio of name brand author to fledgling author may be one to one, but that it’s an equation not yet fixed in stone. Robert Bailey, who is both the associate artistic director of Pacific Stages and the director of the company’s inaugural production, “Lobby Hero,” emphasizes – in a separate conversation – their commitment to producing at least one premiere each season, “so that people know [we’re] also serious about bringing on new writers.
“It’s good and healthy for the theater to have relationships with up and coming writers,” he continues, “and perhaps we could even start to commission works by them.”
Bailey says he tips his hat to other companies that incur the risk that comes with presenting plays and playwrights no one’s heard of:
“Part of our duty to the art form is to make sure there’s new work. If a theater company can’t provide the platform for the development of new work, and audiences for new work, how are the new writers going to break out? We’re committed to doing that, but at the same time we would like to know that we’re able to continue to attract a strong audience every season, and you have to achieve that mix.”
The biggest challenge, as he knows, and as Jeryll Adler even says in so many words, is to get people through the door.
Theater in the South Bay has tended towards the conservative, I tell Bailey. We see productions at El Camino College, in the Manhattan Beach Community Church, at the Norris Theatre, and in the Westchester Playhouse, but by and large feathers aren’t ruffled. The Aerospace Players and the Torrance Theatre Company stage familiar work and sometimes it’s well done, but the consistency that makes a particular ensemble or group stand out above the rest just isn’t there.
“I hear the word conservative being applied to the community fairly often,” Bailey continues, “and it always makes me wonder. It seems to be a fairly diverse area when you put together the beach communities and then the very upscale R.P.V., and at the same time you’ve got Torrance and Hawthorne and El Segundo.
“It’s going to be interesting to see over time what kind of audiences we’re able to bring in, and maybe we’ll be clever enough to figure out ways to bring in audiences that would never ordinarily set foot in such a theater.”
A couple of years ago, Jeryll Adler made contact with Richard Lundquist, who heads up Continental Development. They’re the folks who developed Plaza El Segundo, which is the spacious shopping center – anchored by Whole Foods and Borders and other such businesses – on the northeast corner of Rosecrans and Sepulveda. Despite its name, Plaza El Segundo is actually the first phase, and Continental Development has a second phase in the works. Somehow – her bulldog tenaciousness, perhaps? – Adler convinced Lundquist that the area needed a resident theater, having already decided that El Segundo was actually an ideal location.
In pitching her idea for a theater, Adler said, “It’s all about the quality. We won’t know if there’s an audience for this unless we try. But the only way to do it is to do it with the best. And I feel confident I can attract the best.”
Having already staged numerous readings – and some of them with accomplished individuals like Stephen Wadsworth and Shannon Cochran and Chris Pine and Dana Delaney – couldn’t have hurt.
“It’s often easier for people on the Westside to get here than to get down to the Ahmanson or the Taper. It’s an ideal setup for what I call the cultural corridor. One of my models for a great way to do culture is Bergamot station in Santa Monica.”
By cultural corridor, Adler means the kind of mixed-use space that includes art galleries and art house movie theaters, with a midsize, stand-alone theater (although she doesn’t say this outright) being somewhat of the flagship enterprise.
Lundquist then donated land – a parcel in the upcoming second phase of development – to be used by Pacific Stages to build their theater.
Why would he do a thing like that? Coming from a family that owns commercial properties in northern New Jersey, Adler knew why. “I understand what a public benefit component is,” she says, “and when you do large-scale development the cities that you do business with require you to do a certain percentage of allocation for public use.”
Do you see where this is going?
Adler’s intention has never been to remain a 99-seat theater, the kind that depends on volunteers and that barely scrapes by. A lot of actors get stuck in places like that. “It’s disrespectful to the artist, and I think it’s disrespectful to the work,” she says. “My goal was never to end up there; my goal was to start there as my proving ground. And all of a sudden I found myself in the position of being offered the land.”
On the wall behind her is an architect’s rendering of the hoped for facility, inside and out. Adler understands that if people see and are aware of these illustrations they’ll know exactly what it is the company is working towards.
Until now, it had all been stage readings, but now it was time to act, and to act fast.
“We got the lease on Nov. 10,” Adler says. “We didn’t have a season because we didn’t know we were getting the space. So all of a sudden we found ourselves scrambling to make choices and to see if rates were available. Normally, theaters plan their seasons at least two years in advance. We had a few weeks.”
The space, formerly a retail outlet for a phone company, will be in the hands of Pacific Stages until at least the end of April, this being another generous offering on behalf of Richard Lundquist and Continental Development. With its natural lobby, a large “auditorium” and several “backstage” rooms, the interior was easily convertible. A set of sturdy risers was constructed in just eight days. Clearly, the company didn’t waste any time.
Although this is the inaugural season, it’s also something of a mini-season since it has just two plays to start with. Adler says that she and Robert Bailey and artistic director Brendan Fox first considered the 30 plays that had been done as readings. “Then we looked more closely. How recently have these plays been produced? How many actors were in the cast? Were the rights available?”
Within three weeks they’d narrowed their choices to Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero” and L. Trey Wilson’s “Something Happened.” “Lonergan has one of the best ears for dialogue of any contemporary playwright,” Adler says, pointing out that the company had done a reading of the same author’s “This is Our Youth.” When she mentions that, in retrospect, “Lobby Hero” wasn’t as lesser known as she had hoped – going back to the company’s mission statement of early and lesser known plays by American playwrights – it’s hard not to smile. I can’t imagine very many people slapping their foreheads and saying, Oh, Jesus, not another Lonergan!
It was Bailey who first came across “Lobby Hero” and then spoke about it to Fox, who was familiar with the play from his days at the Old Globe Theatre in La Jolla. Fox concurred that with its small cast and tight set it seemed like a good choice.
“It’s funny, it’s moving, it has a moral quandary at the center of it,” Bailey says. “It’s got an edge to it, a distinctly Manhattan edge. But because it’s Kenneth Lonergan – a lot of people are familiar with his film ‘You Can Count on Me’ – it’s a compassionate piece about flawed people. It has a lot of resonance for the ambiguous situations people often find themselves in. Sometimes it’s difficult to make the right decision. I’m hoping that people take away the serious intent of the playwright but have a real good time with these characters, because Lonergan has created a lot of comedy around a pretty serious subject.”
And it’s a fairly intense play as well, judging from the few minutes of rehearsals this writer was able to catch. It stars Dana Lynn Bennett as Dawn, Kareem Ferguson as William, Nick Mennell as Bill, with Edward Tournier as the Holden Caulfield-like Jeff.
The second work that Pacific Stages will showcase “probably got the biggest reaction I’ve ever seen at any of our readings,” Adler says. “We were all in love with Trey’s play, and I said to him: God willing, I will be in a position to produce this before anybody else wants to.”
Adler doesn’t give away the plot behind “Something Happened,” but says that “there are parents who discover something about their son that makes them uncomfortable, and [this] calls everybody’s relationships into question. They all have to look very closely at the question of love. Do we love somebody because of what they are in their entirety, or in spite of who they are? If it’s in spite of who they are that’s a very sad thing.”
Wilson, who has been recognized by L.A. critics for his writing, will direct his own play.
Forging ahead“It might have been my idea,” says Jeryll Adler, “it might be my energy that’s driving it forward, but this became ‘we’ a long time ago. I believe that we fulfill a need. This project has given me what I hoped for, which is a sense of purpose in the community and for this community. I feel very blessed that I have the ability to imagine something and that other people are helping me build that. I can’t imagine a greater gift; when we had our first read-through I almost cried.
“The arts,” she says, provide and instill a sense of persistence and purpose. “They offer us a place to learn how to follow through, to develop our soul, to develop our heart, and our public systems are just being drained of the arts and sports programs that are so critical to children’s development. It’s also critical to the soul of the community. Great communities don’t stay great unless they embrace the arts in their backyard.”
Lobby Hero opens in previews at 8 p.m. tonight, with an opening reception set for Saturday, Feb. 13. Performances, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. and Sunday shows at 5 p.m. Pacific Stages is located in the Continental Development building across from Pacific Theatres at 2041 Rosecrans Ave., El Segundo. Tickets, $34.99 general; $25 students; $50 season pass. This week there’s a 30 percent discount (coupon code PSWKONE). Free parking. Through March 14. Something Happened opens March 20. Call (310) 868-2631 or go to pacificstages.org. ER