PLAYWRIGHT MEHRTEN LIKES HIS WORK IN THE MINES
Greg Mehrten is looking for a little understanding.
“I don’t like things that aren’t accessible. When things have been deliberately made obscure, I get angry. Theater is, after all, for audiences,” insisted the 31-year-old actor-playwright whose latest work, “It’s a Man’s World,” receives its premiere today at the new Los Angeles Theatre Center.
The show marks the first co-production venture for New York-based Mabou Mines, the acclaimed--and controversial--theatrical collective founded about 15 years ago by, among others, minimalist composer Philip Glass. A prior foray into Los Angeles last season unleashed the company’s anti-nuke-themed “Dead End Kids” on local audiences.
“It’s really worked out beautifully,” Mehrten said of the experience of collaborating with the center’s artistic/producing director Bill Bushnell and his staff. “I like the built-in support system of the center. It’s been crucial to making this show happen.”
As Mehrten described it, “It’s a Man’s World” is quintessential Mabou: the life history of an actor in 30 scenes. Some are mere blackouts punctuated by unseen voices, others live performances supplemented by video screens--technology that Mehrten considers intrinsic to what he terms “a memory play.”
“Staged memory asks the audience to suspend disbelief,” observed the Marin County native on a break from rehearsals on the top floor of the May Co. building at 8th and Hill. “Video makes the simultaneity real. It’s like talking to someone while you’re thinking about something else. Video opens up that process.”
The technique also affords a wealth of options for both playwright and audience. “I like presenting lots of information, letting the audience choose and analyze,” said Mehrten, who described his play as “a combination of filmic intimacy and subjective analysis. I wanted to put the viewer in the position of a TV director deciding which images to use.”
Which makes it surprising to learn that when Mehrten began writing the show in 1984 in the company of director David Schweizer, he knew next to nothing about video. “I wanted to do a show set and performed in L.A. and about actors,” he reflected. “The video angle came largely from David.”
The piece’s setting made it a natural when Bushnell approached Mabou Mines with the offer to develop a new work in residence locally. But Mehrten shrugged off any questions of expedience. “We batted around a couple of projects, took a while to decide,” he said. “In the end, it was more a question of scheduling rather than subject matter.”
Mehrten became an official member of Mabou Mines in 1981, having met co-founder Lee Breuer while still a directing student at UC Santa Cruz. “It’s a Man’s World” is his second play. The first, “Pretty Boy,” was a transposition of Wedekind’s Lulu stories to ‘70s gay subculture. Mehrten regards the two works as companion pieces.
“ ‘Man’s World’ is my ‘American’ play. ‘Pretty Boy’ was more European in sensibility, more arch. The script brings up the question of how can the artist function in society. It’s about the person in society, not against it. ‘Pretty Boy’ was just the reverse, a search for experience--what most people would call decadence.”
Besides writing “It’s a Man’s World,” Mehrten also stars as actor Joey Fontana--a common practice at Mabou Mines, where the emphasis is on group effort and verisimilitude. Though he regards the role as “very important to me,” Mehrten balked at any autobiographical connotations. “I strenuously avoided creating situations about me. I’m not from L.A., I’m not in movies, I’m not Italian.”
Nor is he particularly eager to discuss his writing on a thematic level, claiming that “I don’t think it’s good to analyze your work too much.” Still, he admitted to a certain fascination with “a juxtaposition of theatrical styles and tones. I want to create a certain kind of theater--emotionalism without the extremes of naturalism or opera. I’m interested in dialogues, the interactions between people.”
Mehrten cited Edith Wharton and Marcel Proust as among the authors he most admires. “They capture the sweetness and pathos of real life. They were interested in what other writers might consider banal or commonplace,” said the playwright, who hopes one day to adapt Wharton’s novel “House of Mirth” for the stage.
Like Wharton and Proust, Mehrten recognizes an unshakable affinity for things past. “I wish I could get interested in the future,” he lamented, borrowing a line from “Pretty Boy.” “Everywhere I go I’m reminded of time passing. You really can’t avoid the feeling--especially if you live in a place like New York or Los Angeles. Just look at the architecture.”
For the moment, however, the future looks bright, despite his self-proclaimed “amazing naivete about the whole Hollywood machine.” Like the other Miners, he carries no head shots or resumes and seldom auditions. Though he admitted to having rarely labored outside the company, the work there has been plentiful--the troupe is booked solid for the next nine months.
But Mehrten takes it all in stride. Success is, after all, the theme of “It’s a Man’s World.” “No matter what you do, you’re still struggling, still reaching for something better,” he explained. “For anyone who works in the theater, that’s what your life is about. What other issue is there?”