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A Director’s Attachment to a Play Set in Czechoslovakia

Lee Shallat is feeling “complicated.”

Tonight, her staging of Larry Shue’s Czechoslovakia-set comedy “Wenceslas Square” opens at the Matrix Theatre. “Czechoslovakia is still really repressive in terms of art,” she said. “But to me, it also resonates to what’s happening here, in L.A. It’s about having the courage to do the kind of art that says something, as opposed to. . . .” She paused. “This play speaks to me, because I work in television; I direct sitcoms. And there’s a part of me that feels complicated about it.”

Complicated--or compromised?

Shallat, 46, smiled ruefully. “The TV work is challenging, invigorating, and I get paid a lot of money for it. But it is also a subtle conflict inside me. I think the reason I say complicated is because I do mean compromised--but I can’t let that word come out of my mouth. That’s why I’m moved by this play, why it touches me. It’s not just about an oppressed country. It’s about the way we oppress ourselves.”

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The piece has its roots in the late playwright’s own 1974 trip to Czechoslovakia with a professor who had earlier chronicled the effects of the Soviet invasion in a 1968 visit.

“The professor had observed how rebellious the spirit was then. Everyone went to the theater because they weren’t allowed to have public meetings anymore--and that’s how they got things through the censors. Now, six years later, there’s been a tremendous change. The piece is about the ambiguity of everyone’s feelings about that change. Some people have sold out. Some have become absorbed. And some are still fighting.”

The parallels with current world events are only part of the appeal for Shallat. “His plays are comedies, but they have a great underpinning of humanity that makes them so much more,” she said of Shue, whose first produced full-length play, “The Nerd,” is on the boards this summer at Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria and Solvang.

“It’s like butter, the way he writes. He’s sort of a gentle Mamet--in terms of understanding people’s rhythms, how their dialogues overlap, weave in and out.”

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Beginning Aug. 13, “Wenceslas” will play in repertory with Alexander Gelman’s Soviet-set “A Man With Connections,” directed by Kristoffer Tabori. The programming marks a new approach by Actors for Themselves producing artistic director Joe Stern, who in the past had usually staged one big production a year, then rented the theater out the rest of the time.

“He’s going to lower the ticket prices so more people can come, make it a more fertile theater place,” Shallat said. “It’s going to be more theater, with less production value. That doesn’t mean we’re doing it on a shoestring. We’re just choosing plays that are about the language and the actor--rather than the eyewash.” Accordingly, Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio’s dual-purpose set is suitably stark, but manages to convey a sense of European scaffolding and jail-like bars.

Also part of the new plan is a networking of the four directors--Shallat, Tabori, Peggy Shannon and Michael Arabian--who will mount the season. “Michael’s already been in to see a couple of run-throughs,” Shallat said. “So have Kristoffer and Joe. We’ve collaborated on our notes. Of course, when we made changes on the set, Kristoffer came in; we sat down and mulled it over, then brought in a couple of other people to talk about it.”

She concedes the format takes some getting used to: “It’s one thing to have someone come in and give you notes on a preview. It’s another thing on a run-through, when you’re still like an open wound. So we’re finding our way with that too: when the collaboration is healthy and encouraging and appropriate--and when it’s not.”

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Because she is up first, Shallat often feels like the guinea pig in this theatrical experiment: “The whole thing is about taking a risk, and not thinking you’re going to die if it doesn’t work out. It’s great to just put it out there, try, not worry about failing. I think the older I get and the more theater I do, the more pressure I put on myself that it has to be perfect.”

Originally intending to be an English teacher, Shallat took a detour in Asian theater at the University of Wisconsin and followed that with Asian-language studies at the University of Michigan. Then the acting bug bit. But after graduation from the University of Washington’s Professional Actor Training Program, “I realized quickly that you don’t work very often as an actor--even a good actor. And I’m way too crazy not to work.”

Segueing back into teaching, Shallat spent seven years running the conservatory at South Coast Repertory, where she also cast and directed several plays--including “Painting Churches,” “True West” and “Boy Meets Girl.” In 1981, yearning to get into film and TV work, she moved to Los Angeles; her recent TV credits include “Newhart” and “Head of the Class.”

But the path hasn’t been without bumps. “It’s just been in the last three years that I’ve had any financial stability. I didn’t get married till I was 43, so I always had the image that I was going to have to support myself, make my own way. But I liked that. I had to work for it, schlep for it. In Costa Mesa, I managed an apartment complex to get by.”

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Making it in Hollywood was even harder.

“I hate to talk about my TV woes,” she said earnestly. “But boy, TV’s hard--a hard medium to break into and survive. As someone from theater, you have to very quickly learn the technical aspects of this complicated camera stuff; there’s no one to teach it to you. You’ve got to do it on the fly. There are also some people who do not perceive women as capable. So if you’re a woman in that business, you have to be pretty flawless.”

It’s not all bad news. “There are people like Gary David Goldberg (who gave Shallat her TV directing break in 1984 on “Family Ties”) who are encouraging women.

“Some producers want someone with stage experience, someone who can communicate with actors--who’s not just a traffic cop and a camera blocker. Some people are excited to have a woman who knows what she’s doing.”

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‘This play speaks to me, because I work in television; I direct sitcoms. . . . It’s not just about an oppressed country. It’s about the way we oppress ourselves.’


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