THEATER : Minimum to the Max : The Lost Studio offers a weekly workshop known as Circus Minimus. Says playwright-teacher John Steppling: 'This is about more than theater; it's about ideas, the nature of performing and the creative process'

Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

It's just after rush hour on a Tuesday evening as playwright John Steppling straddles a chair on the Lost Studio's empty stage and looks out at the faces in the house. With a cigar in one hand and a book in the other, the man many regard as the most influential playwright to have come out of L.A. in the past decade begins to hold forth.

Judging from the rapt attention he gets from the house, you'd think Steppling was about to profess the formula for eternal coolness, or at least the secret of the sold screenplay. But tonight's text is actually director Peter Brook's latest, "The Open Door," and the discussion that follows is of theory and theatricality, not plot points and punch lines.

In a town where most acting and writing classes are pumping for a payoff--get your SAG card, sell a screenplay, find voice-over work--the weekly workshop Circus Minimus is a rare refuge of art for art's (and learning's) sake.

The class--founded two years ago by Steppling, actor-writer Mick Collins and actress-teacher Cinda Jackson--welcomes seasoned writers as well as actors and newcomers and boasts a number of L.A.'s most advanced dramatists on its roster. It's not the place to go if you're looking for tips on how to pen the next small-screen Buttafuoco blockbuster. But if you want to debate the aesthetics of new German Minimalism or delve into Marguerite Duras, come on down.

The workshop goes public only once a year, however, and now is the time. Promising--if last year's event is any indication--both attitudinal and aesthetic relief from the usual holiday fare, "The Lost Christmas Festival II: More Lost" opened Saturday at the Lost Studio in Hollywood and will run through Dec. 23. The show features works developed in the workshop by Steppling, Joseph Goodrich and others, plus the Circus Minimus Sugar Plum Faerie Dancers, the Catherine MacKinnon Christmas Babes ("direct from the Skylark Lounge at O'Hare Airport"), rodents, reptiles, cheap sets and more.

It's an evening of theater as different from the myriad varieties of "The Nutcracker" and "A Christmas Carol" as Circus Minimus is from other L.A. theater classes.

"There's nothing else like this workshop," says the frequently produced Goodrich, whose work also figured prominently in last year's poignantly sardonic "Lost Christmas Festival."

"It's the combination of an interdisciplinary approach and the types of work that are done. In this last session we've worked on Odon von Horvath, Nathalie Sarraute, Thomas Bernhard--the type of stuff that hardly anyone reads, let alone does," says Goodrich, referring to the Circus Minimus penchant for European writers and others marked by their painterly, and often anti-psychological, use of the written word.

The heady bent is by design.

"One of the main thrusts for all of us in doing this workshop was that it was a non-careerist enterprise," says Steppling, who has long refused to compromise his vision in order to get more productions. "This is about more than theater; it's about ideas, the nature of performing and the creative process."

Class time is spent on activities that range from intellectual-theoretical discussions to on-the-spot writing to staging scenes. Students are often given assignments that are read out loud in class and sometimes developed further into works that may be staged later.

Certainly, it's no casting call: "A lot of acting students come in here thinking they're going to get a part in the next Steppling play, but they're quickly disabused of that notion," explains Collins, who has, during the past 12 years, become known as Steppling's signature actor. "People who come here are quickly involved in things that are delightful by their irrelevance to all of what goes on out there."

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Actually, unorthodox might be a better word than irrelevant . Circus Minimus classes mix actors with writers, and both study and work on the same texts.

"I wanted to get rid of this idea of compartmentalizing theater because for me the experiences always overlap so much," says Steppling, who has almost always directed his own plays.

Steppling, Collins and Jackson also resist the standard mentor-prodigy relationships that are fostered in many acting and writing workshops.

"One of the ideas was to abolish all the standard roles, including teacher and student, director, actor and writer--the idea being that the creative process was much more accessible if one didn't hide behind pre-constructed roles," Collins says.

Sometimes, it's as simple as having people try on new hats.

"Instead of having people concentrate on what they perceive to be their strengths, the idea is to get into places where they are weak and work on those," Jackson says. "It helps actors to cross the bridge between melodramatic, self-indulgent stuff and real dramatic work.

"It's uncomfortable for a writer to have to take on a scene, and it's difficult for actors to have to write and have their writing held up against already-produced playwrights."

But the goal is leveling up, not down. And that's why all Circus Minimus students, be they actors or writers, are exposed to an array of challenging authors and literary styles--including poetry, Greek tragedy, a variety of 20th-Century Western writers and even "found texts" such as ad copy and real-estate brochures.

"We're not teaching people how to write plays as much as we're trying to make them aware of language and sound," Steppling says. "Working with scenes from Marguerite Duras requires a different discipline, attitude and way of looking at acting than working on Terrence McNally."

Significantly, Circus Minimus also parts ways with much theater education in its unwillingness to let psychological concerns override the literary imperatives. It gives actors the opportunity to make creative choices they might otherwise avoid.

"As an actor, the film and television industry will kill you as an artist," says Collins, who knows from experience. "They'll make you come up with that one thing that they're amused by and repeat it until you fall over.

"One of the things this town causes actors and indirectly writers to do is to try and ingratiate themselves to their audiences. This need to be liked is most often expressed as a kind of impersonation. The need to make the audition makes cowards of all creative people. But once the actor or the writer is freed from this compulsion, he or she can really begin to write or act."

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Not just the three teachers, but also many of the writers, actors and others who show up at the Lost Studio on Tuesdays--and to an adjunct Saturday class led by Collins--are veterans of the Padua Hills Playwrights' Festival. The annual summer workshop and festival--founded in 1978 by playwright Murray Mednick--has often been cited as one of the most influential forces in recent California theater. Associated with such well-known names as Sam Shepard and Maria Irene Fornes, the group was housed most recently, from 1989 through its last season in 1991, on the campus of Cal State Northridge.

Padua has been in a money-trouble hibernation, though, since its last produced season. And especially with the 1991 demise of the Los Angeles Theatre Center's resident company, and with development resources such as physical facilities and funds from granting sources increasingly concentrated at the Mark Taper Forum, the nurturing grounds for playwrights have become few and far between.

It was largely Padua that drew Steppling back to his native Los Angeles in 1978 from New York, where he had spent the '70s involved in the Off Broadway and experimental theater scene. Steppling first went to Padua in 1978, thanks in large part to Mednick and actor-director Robert Glaudini, and moved to L.A. to stay in 1982.

Steppling taught at Padua for 11 years, producing his own new plays most of those years as well. His association with Collins dates back 20 years, many of them spent together at Padua, where he also met Jackson.

During the '80s, Steppling became a Padua fixture and his annual works an anticipated event. He also emerged as one of L.A.'s most talented and prolific writers, penning an average of two or three plays a year as well as fostering the talents of a generation of writers, including Jon Robin Baitz, Marlene Mayer, John Pappas, Kelly Stuart and Michael Sargeant.

Yet despite this status, Steppling's relationship with L.A.'s dominant producing house hasn't been as cozy as his track record in other areas might suggest. Although he has been commissioned and produced by Taper, Too, and the Taper's New Works Festival (and was offered, and declined, a place in this year's New Works Festival), the Taper has yet to offer Steppling a main-stage slot.

Steppling also hasn't mounted a production of one of his full plays on an L.A. stage since the critically acclaimed "Sea of Cortez" at the Cast Theatre last year.

Which is where Circus Minimus comes in. Even though since "Sea of Cortez" Steppling has chosen to invest more time working on his film projects, as well as doing some writing for TV, he didn't want to give up the theater entirely.

"Mick and I had spoken about wanting to do some sort of workshop again," Steppling says. "I missed that regular gathering of people with a shared concern," Collins adds. Both knew Jackson, and she seemed a natural to round out a teaching trio.

What began a year ago last September as an experimental eight-week session has continued with only short breaks between cycles. Many students who sign up stay from one session to the next.

That's because what goes on in this loft studio on La Brea Avenue strikes a chord with a certain kind of theater artist.

"Since Padua is still inactive at the moment, this really takes up the Padua banner," says Goodrich, who participated in the 1990 and 1991 Padua sessions and has been with Circus Minimus since it began. "It's doing the kind of serious, committed work that Padua has done."

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There wouldn't be such a need for a sanctuary, of course, if Steppling, Collins and Jackson didn't believe that things were so problematic elsewhere. But they do.

"Since I started going to theater in 1971, things have just generally deteriorated," Steppling claims. "Ninety-nine percent of what gets put up in L.A. or New York is unwatchable. It depresses me because, as an art form, theater is my favorite thing in the world. It depresses me to go places and see these sitcoms."

Nor is the sorry state of affairs limited to the stage, Collins adds.

"The audience that is being created is a profoundly ignorant one whose tastes are molded by culturally repressive corporate concerns," says a man whose left-wing concerns have often colored his work, both as a labor organizer and as an artist.

Naturally, the circumstances have everything to do with what individuals experience.

"I started out in the '60s doing summer stock and the occasional agitprop piece, and dinner theater in the '70s," Collins says. "Then in the late '70s, I started doing Steppling's stuff. All told through the '80s I didn't make as much as I made in one dinner theater production, but it's been more nourishing to me the farther away I got."

Similarly, Steppling has found food for thought and creative freedom in the classroom context: "I no longer want to compete for slots at regional theaters and big institutional theaters, because theater is so moribund right now. If you go to the Taper or some other institutional theater, the development is always colored by the competition for a slot, so you're always pandering to the (tastes and demands of the artistic director's) authority.

"Sometimes you have to withdraw from the public sphere as an artist. I just don't feel compelled to be out there at this point. But I happen to love and miss the theater, that's all. I just want to do work that I feel proud of and teaching that I would hope is honest. I have no grander project than that. I don't want to reform the theater community. I don't think I could do it anyway."

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