STAGE : Can’t Kick Him Out of <i> This</i> Club : Having burned his bridges in the stage world, Charles Marowitz plans his own theater in Malibu
Charles Marowitz is railing again.
“We don’t know what a real theater situation is because we’ve become so conditioned,” he says. “The Taper and the LATC have to be fiercely assessed because they are the standard bearers--and at the moment the standards are falling somewhere around their knees.”
The controversial critic-director-writer is sitting in a Westside strip mall cappuccino joint, bemoaning in his inimitable British-Yiddish accent the sorry state of the L.A. stage.
Marowitz’s gripes and proposals aren’t confined to mall small talk. He’s just published yet another book, “Burnt Bridges,” a “souvenir of the swinging ‘60s and beyond” in which Marowitz reflects upon the seminal two-decade upheaval in British theater and his role in those goings-on.
Now, after 9 years of making art and trouble in L.A., he’s on the verge of upping his bid by launching a professional theater, the Malibu Stage Company, which has its inaugural benefit on January 5.
Fortunately for Marowitz, his supporters are as loyal--and high-powered--as his detractors, as evidenced by the figures he’s attracted to the Malibu venture.
Lending their names and clout to the Malibu Stage Company are advisers James Doolittle and Glenda Jackson. (Marowitz lobbied to have Jackson admitted to the Royal Shakespeare Experimental Group in 1964.) The 11-member board of directors includes local theater and other professionals such as Dan O’Herlihy, Nan Martin and architect Harry Gesner, who has created a rendering of the proposed 250-seat house and who will eventually design the facility.
The January benefit will be a reading of Jerome Kilty’s “Dear Liar,” a play based on the correspondence between George Bernard Shaw and actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell. It will take place at Pepperdine’s Smothers Theater and feature Martin and O’Herlihy. The committee for the event boasts such familiar Malibu veterans as Stewart Granger, Jean Simmons, Glynis Johns and Dick Van Dyke.
Board member and developer Douglas Himmelfarb has pledged a 6,000-square-foot parcel of prime real estate on the Pacific Coast Highway adjacent to the old courthouse for the theater site. The Malibu Stage Company will have the property rent-free during its early years. (The project--which in addition to the theater might include a gallery, restaurant and flower shop--is in its early planning stages. Approval has not yet been sought from the Malibu City Council and the Coastal Commission.)
Although much of his energy these days goes into the new theater, Marowitz is writing and directing as well. He has still another book in the works, contributes regularly to London and New York periodicals and is casting his 90-minute version of “Macbeth,” set to open at the Odyssey Theatre in February.
A New Yorker by birth, Marowitz, 56, is less well known here than in London, where he lived from the late ‘50s through the early ‘80s, the period chronicled in “Burnt Bridges.” In the mid-'60s, Marowitz was co-director with Peter Brook of the Royal Shakespeare Experimental Group. Later, he founded London’s premier experimental venue, the Open Space Theatre, and was its artistic director from 1968 to 1980.
During his London years, Marowitz was active as a critic, director and writer, working with some of the key talents of the British “New Wave.” The pages of “Burnt Bridges” are filled with Marowitz’s encounters with the likes of Kenneth Tynan, Joe Orton, Thelma Holt, Glenda Jackson and many others.
The author of more than a dozen books and play collections, he’s had his works staged nationally and internationally, including “Sherlock’s Last Case” on Broadway in 1987.
In 1981, Marowitz moved to Los Angeles, a sort of self-imposed exile to a frontier where he had yet to build or burn any bridges.
Since settling here, Marowitz has become known to Angelenos as a director, as part of the Los Angeles Theatre Center and as the final (albeit short-tenured) critic at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. Wherever he’s gone, controversy has followed.
As he prepares to launch the Malibu company, Marowitz continues to attack a theater Establishment he sees as terminally arteriosclerotic.
It’s not only what’s on the stages that irks Marowitz, but also the distribution of power. He points to Gordon Davidson’s control over the Mark Taper Forum, the Taper, Too, the Ahmanson and the Ahmanson at the Doolittle as “an oligarchical situation.”
Criticisms of the Davidson empire notwithstanding, Marowitz reserves his sharpest criticism for the LATC. He was associated with that theater--either as a director or, briefly, as part of the artistic administration--from the early ‘80s until he left abruptly in January 1989, after a 10-month stint as associate director in charge of dramaturgy and editor of the LATC magazine, Alarums and Excursions.
The ostensible reason for the departure was Bushnell’s objection to the all-white complexion of a panel being organized by Marowitz, who said Bushnell was interfering with Marowitz’s “contractually delegated” authority.
That spat, though, was likely just the straw that broke the camel’s back, given that tales of blow-ups--and actual blows--between Bushnell and Marowitz are legend.
“Every time he came in the building, he was eventually banished,” recalls Mame Hunt, ex-LATC literary manager and current literary manager of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. “The security guards were periodically instructed to keep him out.”
When asked to comment for this story, Bushnell’s only response was that “Charles Marowitz is not worth a feature (article) or 10 minutes of my time.”
Marowitz, on the other hand, has plenty to say about what’s wrong with the LATC.
“When I started with the LATC it was the (L.A. Actors’ Theater), a more ambitious (small) theater than some of the others,” he recalls. “I found more sympathy there than in other places, but it was a different sort of theater entirely then.”
LATC producing director Diane White responded: “The only difference between LAAT in the years Charles was there and LATC (now) is that it’s bigger. The spirit is the same.”
Marowitz, however, claims the LATC has become a victim of its own success.
“The irony is that Bushnell was motivated strongly by having an ethnic-oriented theater. Well, he’s more or less got it. But what he ought to do now is step aside and let the Hispanics and the blacks--the artists of that persuasion and background--do their work, instead of being (colonial) and facilitating their activities.
“It ought to be a dynamic ethnic theater run by the artists themselves.”
Marowitz’s wishes may come true if the city council adopts a mayoral blue ribbon task force recommendation that LATC share the facility with other companies.
“More important than the economic problems of the LATC is the future of theater in Los Angeles,” Marowitz said. “There are larger issues than whether or not these people retain their jobs. They have not achieved a sufficient level of artistry to justify them being there ad infinitum.”
For all the heat Marowitz serves up in LATC’s direction, he himself takes as much in return. He admits--as his book’s title announces--that he tends to torch once-fruitful relationships.
LATC’s White calls Marowitz “a wonderful playwright and critic,” whose work “formed a lot of the original basis” of LAAT’s repertoire. However, “for him to be critical of us is arrogant, when his work was the landmark of a lot of what we did.”
Among White’s favorite collaborations with Marowitz was “Sherlock’s Last Case,” a play that Marowitz wrote during his Open Space years. The play went from L.A. to Broadway in 1987, and while nearly all the other New York publications disagreed, the New York Times found Marowitz’s outing a disaster.
According to Times theater critic Frank Rich: “In ‘Sherlock’s Last Case,’ the writer Charles Marowitz and accomplices have so completely diminished Victorian England’s most beloved detective that one leaves the play wishing its title were a promise rather than merely an idle threat.”
Others have more specific complaints.
“I think that he’s very intelligent and a racist and a sexist,” says Hunt, who co-founded the LATC Women’s Project in 1985 with current project director Susan Mason. “It’s unfortunate because it makes the intelligence inaccessible.”
Adds Mason, who is an Ibsen scholar and Cal State L.A. assistant professor: “He came in (to LATC) on the Ides of March. He’s like Tartuffe--sleazy and sexually obsessed.”
Although Mason admits to admiring some of Marowitz’s productions, she sees a problematic emphasis in his stagings.
“I saw a wonderful version of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ that he did in L.A. where he focused on relationships, but also on females manipulating through sexuality. Both of the females were ruined because of their sexuality.”
That wasn’t the first time Mason had come across Marowitz’s stagings.
“I saw his (late-'70s) version of ‘Hedda Gabler’ in Norway, which was a completely Freudian interpretation,” she recalls. “Hedda rode her father around on the stage whipping him. I think that’s reductive: It puts the whole play between Hedda’s legs.
“His ‘Hamlet’ version has Hamlet raping Ophelia, who wears a tear-away dress. He gets women in underwear whenever he can.”
Theater impresario James Doolittle expresses faith in the Malibu project and is undaunted by Marowitz’s controversial reputation.
“I’ve known Charles Marowitz for many years and have discussed numerous projects with him and seen a number of his shows,” Doolittle says. “He’s certainly very qualified and has a good record behind him. His being both a director and a writer adds to that. He said he would appreciate it if I became involved, and I thought this one was a good idea. We are always in sympathy with resident projects that stimulate theater activity in the area.”
The Malibu Stage Company, while officially begun only 6 months ago, actually had its genesis when Marowitz tried to get a theater started in Santa Monica about 5 years ago. He labored on that endeavor for a few years before the project fizzled ultimately because of prohibitive costs to make the designated building earthquake-proof. Then the Malibu idea hit him.
“Malibu has this influx of people. There are housing developments everywhere--much more so in the last 2 or 3 years,” he says. “Plus, the city of Malibu just happened and there’s a new civic consciousness, so it struck me that the time was right.”
Doolittle agrees with Marowitz’s theory that Westside patrons would as soon go to theater up the coast as downtown. The theory won’t be tested for another 2 or 3 years, a period during which the company must raise construction funds. But Marowitz is already working on establishing a reputation for the company.
“The idea is we’ll do a number of different things in a number of different places, all around Malibu, and let people know that we’re fully professional and can deliver the goods artistically,” says Marowitz. “So when people hear the name, they can connect it up with things they’ve seen over time.
“There will be a permanent company of no more than 10 actors. It’s not an empire. There will never be more than one theater. It’ll never make money, and it’ll never break even. It has to be subsidized to the hilt. There isn’t a theater in America that is not in that situation in one form or another.”
Even so, he admits no worries.
“Depressions feed on theatrical stimuli; depressions provide theatrical stimuli. In 1931 they started the Group Theatre, at the height of the Depression.
“The reason to do it is it’s in the Zeitgeist right now,” says Marowitz. “When things are wacked out on every other level, you find that people are trying to create theaters and do things that seem to be going against the trend, but in a funny way aren’t. They’re antidotes to what’s happening.”
The Malibu antidote, Marowitz hopes, will be just part of the solution for the new decade--a scenario that includes a radical redistribution of power and the emergence of many new contenders in the L.A. theater landscape.
“What I would like to happen and what I think is going to happen are actually the same: a series of 12 or 15 new companies created around Los Angeles, each one with its own artistic tilt. I would like to see them subsidized on a small scale.
“You’d find out what theater really can be, with a situation similar to what happened in New York in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, when Off-Broadway theater took a leap forward and Broadway had to take account of it.”
Further, personalities and leaders would emerge. “The figures that I dealt with in ‘Burnt Bridges’ were thrown up by a social upheaval that started in the mid-'50s and went on until the end of the ‘70s, a period in history which was tumultuous and radical,” says Marowitz.
“Those little theaters all over the place might change the nature of the cultural character, as they did in France or New York in the ‘30s,” says Marowitz, the optimist temporarily triumphing over the cynic so many love to hate.
“It’s a natural historical tendency for people on the fringes to infiltrate and take over,” he says. “I’m too old to be on the fringe anymore, but temperamentally I feel that way.”