ARTS : Irish Theatre Is Playwrights' Paradise


Leaning back in his chair, the heavy Fairfax Avenue traffic churning outside the window of his modest office, Robert Ginty looks up at portraits of Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw and other Irish scribes on the wall above his desk.

"Six months ago," he says, "believe you me, I didn't think I'd be doing this."

"This" is the Irish Theatre Arts Center, which artistic director Ginty, aided by executive director Cynthia Baer, opened in February at St. Ambrose Church and Parish as a place for playwrights to hear their works being read by actors before an audience.

As Ginty and St. Ambrose pastor Jack Beattie tell it, the two of them were chatting on Christmas Day last year, when Beattie mentioned that the parish school had been closed by the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The school's nearly dozen classrooms were mostly empty.

Beattie, who on this sunny Saturday is rushing from conducting a funeral to conducting a wedding, pauses for a few minutes in the parish auditorium--site of the theater group's public performances--to explain the parish's plight: "For many years, St. Ambrose had been a commuter school. Fewer and fewer children attended from the local area, and with our declining attendance, it was understandable when the school closed . . . a year ago, this month."

Ginty says he realized that a weekly event, with staged readings of new plays drawing a large and diverse audience, could serve the playwrights and the actors--and boost the visibility and community involvement of Beattie's church.

There was something else. Since the Celtic Arts Center's Hollywood theater burned down in 1992, Irish-oriented performing artists in Los Angeles had lacked a real home. (Only recently have Irish-themed performances been booked into Cafe Largo on Fairfax--a few blocks to the south, ironically, of the Irish Theatre Arts Center.)

When Ginty approached local Irish artists with the possibility of performing and workshop space at St. Ambrose, "the response was like a people walking out of the desert.

"But it became especially important in this town full of actors," says Ginty, a veteran film and television director ("Evening Shade," "China Beach"), "to stress that this would be a theater for playwrights, not for actors. The actors would have their performance, sure, but the playwright needs to hear his play with an audience."

With Baer--who owned and operated the Richard Basehart Playhouse in Woodland Hills until its January closure--as the operational mastermind, Ginty set out a plan. Staged readings, cast and rehearsed with a director, would be presented free on Wednesday nights. A playwriting workshop would be held in a parish schoolroom, complete with rudimentary lights and sound, on Thursday nights. There would be no membership fees, no charged admission, no productions, and, as Ginty terms it, all egos would be checked at the door.

In recent months, Irish and not-so-Irish material has been heard in the auditorium, from John Lordan's "Shamrock" and Joe Powers' "Taxi Dance" to Dan Lauria's "Till Jason Comes Home" with Charles Durning and Jeremy Ritzer's stage version of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," which Ginty says has already attracted attention from theaters in the United States and France.

Ginty hopes that upcoming readings, including Jason Milligan's "Men in Suits" with Tony Danza (Wednesday) and the Los Angeles premiere presentation of three Frank Gilroy one-acts (July 27), will climax with an August outdoor staging in the adjacent parking lot area of an evening of scenes from Shaw's plays. Says Ginty: "We're calling it 'Shaw in a Parking Lot.' "

In fact, the center's ambitions seem to extend as far as Ginty and Baer's Rolodexes will carry it. Plans include a Beckett evening, a Horton Foote evening and a Eugene O'Neill evening for which Ginty is trying to attract Jason Robards, George C. Scott and James Earl Jones.

But even as Ginty mentions a list of stars the center is trying to line up, he notes that, besides the star's ability to draw an audience, veteran actors "bring out the best in a play, and the younger, less experienced actors around them, so it helps all of the artists. That's our very simple goal here."

"Men in Suits," Irish Theatre Arts Center, 1261 Fairfax Ave., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. Wednesday. Free. (213) 654-3864.

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