Theater Has Long Run as Family Affair : Couple Runs Playhouse as a Total Experience

It's not always easy to tell where Evelyn Rudie and Chris De Carlo leave off and the Santa Monica Playhouse begins.

Married since 1970 and artistic co-directors of the Playhouse since 1973, the pair have successfully juggled the duties--financial, artistic, technical and educational--of running a theater, establishing their own personal style and a solid reputation in the community. As the Playhouse celebrates its 25th year, Rudie and De Carlo will mark the event with the 12th annual Oktoberfest, a party program featuring stagings of Chekhov's "The Boor" and Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano."

"One of the things we always felt was that theater should really be a total experience," said Rudie, who started acting as a child. "The most fun you can have is if you're not just coming in, sitting down, watching the play and going home. So we have hors d'oeuvres before the show--with actors and musicians, palm readers and wandering minstrels in the patio. Then the first act. Then more wandering minstrels and buffet supper. Then the second act. Then dessert and more wandering minstrels. . . . "

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The pair, both students of playhouse founding director Ted Roter, met at the theater 20 years ago.

"Then Ted started making films," said Rudie, 40. "He'd ask us, 'Do you want to start a children's workshop?,' and we said, 'OK.' Then he said, 'Do you want to take over the Monday night actors' workshop? 'Cause I really don't have the time,' and we said, 'OK.' Then he said, 'I'm in the middle of this play, but I really have to work on my movie--so could you guys finish directing the play?,' and we said, 'OK.' By 1973, we'd inherited the theater."

In those early days, "the original idea was to survive," De Carlo, 42, said wryly. "We banded together with a group of people; today six of those original 12 are still with us." Rudie added: "We wanted a theater where people would stay, instead of just passing through. So we hit on the European repertory concept, where a bunch of actors stick it out through thick and thin. Yes, they also go out and do television and film. But the main thrust is theater."

In 1979, they looked around the space ("basically black walls and tin cans on the ceiling," De Carlo says) and realized they had to move or remodel. They opted for the latter. "We pooled our resources, went to our audiences and constituents, and asked them to help us out," De Carlo said. "We raised $80,000. We did all the work--under the supervision of the contractor--ourselves: put in the floor, the wallpaper, the wood, the lights, the seats, everything. And we did it all in five weeks."

The resulting 88-seat space, with its dark paneling, antique fixtures and homey knickknacks, serves a variety of theater fare.

Jerry Mayer's comedy "Aspirin and Elephants" fills the Thursday-through-Sunday slot, running until Dec. 31. The Oktoberfest program will play Tuesdays and Wednesdays through Nov. 22. For kids, "Alice and the Wonderful Tea Party" plays matinees Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 12. And for kids and adults, the theater's Young Professionals' Company presents "Dear Gabby--Confessions of an Over-Achiever" on a return visit Nov. 28.

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"It's a tiered workshop system, starting with a regular workshop, a summer program, and a play production program--all the way up to the Young Professionals' program," Rudie said of the group, whose members range in age from 8 to 18. "Usually when we work on a piece for them, we say, 'What are you interested in right now? What do you want to do a play about?' This time they said, 'What about normal problems kids face--the little problems, like how to behave on a first date, peer pressure, cheating, self-esteem, parents not understanding us?'

"So we started doing improvisational work with them: 'OK, which problems do you want to deal with? Let's see it. Act it out.' They wrote papers, did research, interviewed their friends." From that material, Rudie and De Carlo wrote "Gabby." Since the show's premiere in May, 1988, they have been flooded with performance requests. Plans include a tour of Japan this winter and one to Quebec next spring--plus additional mini-tours (so no one's out of school for too long) throughout California schools.

"Now the crossover of kids is integrating into our adult audiences," De Carlo said proudly. "And that's been our real goal. From our point of view, theater is not just a luxury or an opportunity to be entertained. It's a necessity in our growth as human beings, a cultural tool for us to come away with different life alternatives. Whether it's farce or drama, the potential exists for that sort of phenomenon. That's why our program has such an emphasis on young people."

In spite of a slew of community and professional awards, the couple hold on to their vision by keeping the operation small--and knowing every corner of it. "We worked exclusively in repertory as a closed shop for the first eight years, and we all learned a lot," De Carlo said. "There's not any of us that couldn't run the theater single-handedly, do everything: from PR to operating the computers to running the lights to building sets. That's the value of having a theater family."

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There's also an affinity for social concerns (the playhouse recently helped raise $10,000 for a local food program for the homeless), an awareness that De Carlo attributes to his two years as a soldier in Vietnam.

"It changed my perspective on everything," he said slowly. "I saw a tremendous amount of human abuse there, and it angered me. It's an insensitivity to other cultures, a superiority that's bred into us from the time we're kids. Having national pride is fine, but being insensitive to human life is not. It wasn't till I'd been home 10 years that I realized what happened to me. And I knew the work we did as artists had to have meaning--that that integrity, that sensitivity, needed to be brought to the community."

Although the majority of their time is spent overseeing various aspects of the theater, each swears they get enough personal artistic venting: De Carlo directed "Aspirin," and both will appear in the Oktoberfest program. Time away from the playhouse is limited (Rudie jokes that they only go home to sleep). But as De Carlo said: "We have a lot of fun together. Even the worst situation is fun, because we're doing it together. There's a security in a long-term relationship that you're never alone."

The down sides of life in the theater? "The only important one is the difficulty of any arts organization to survive," De Carlo said grimly, "the amount of effort we have to put in to maintain it. Costs are going up and up and up, and we want to keep our theater accessible. We don't want to raise our ticket prices--but what are we going to do? And our educational programs are bursting at the seams." Plans are already afoot to look for a second stage, an alternative space for shows and classes.

Although they hunger to do new work (Rudie figures she reads about 50 scripts each month--many deemed "not ready" or not suitable for their small stage), revivals constitute much of the playhouse's fare.

Their most popular show is "Author! Author!--an Evening with Sholom Aleichem." After seven runs and 1,000 performances, they still get calls and letters asking when it's coming back. The Ionesco/Chekhov bill (which opened the playhouse's first season) is also a popular repeat. Noted Rudie, "Ionesco came to see it once, and afterward he said, 'Magnificent! Your fidelity to my original intent is incredible.' It was like God walking in and saying, 'You did good.' "

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