There's a line about Los Angeles that goes like this: When it comes to getting together with friends, it's easier to see them in a freeway jam than agree on a date to meet.
If that's true for regular Angelenos, imagine getting a bunch of Angeleno performing artists together.
That was the dilemma faced by performer-producer Eric Trules, who has worked for two years to organize a festival of L.A.-based performance artists, storytellers and actors.
"You'd think it would be impossible in this town to arrange a schedule for 12 individual artists and get the ones you want," Trules says. "But I managed to get almost everyone I wanted."
Solo / LA, co-produced by Trules' organization, Multi-Cultural Spoken Festival, and Theatre InSite, gets into the fast lane Tuesday with Sandra Tsing Loh and her story trilogy, "Aliens in America." The festival continues through May 7 on Sound Stage 11 at CBS Studio Center in Studio City with one of the broadest, most diverse assemblies of performers Los Angeles has seen.
Following Loh, the festival continues with Monica Palacios and her acclaimed "Latin Lezbo Comic" (Thursday and April 21); Cyndi James Gossett's "The Hand of God" (April 21-22); Tim Miller, performance artist and co-founder of Santa Monica-based Highways, in one of his first Los Angeles-area appearances outside Highways with "Naked Breath" (April 22-23); "All-American Girl" co-star Amy Hill and her comic work "Tokyo Bound" (April 25-26); Luis Alfaro's intimate urban epic "Downtown & Other Stories" (April 27-28); Trules' own "It's the Day After Valentine's Day" (April 29-30), and Vicki Juditz's autobiographical "LA Stories" (April 29-30).
Starting the festival's third and final week is Keith Antar Mason, performing apart from his Hittite Empire collective, in "In My Living Condition / Field Hollers & Other Screams From the Night" (May 2-3); Rick Najera's provocative "The Pain of the Macho" (May 4-5); Stephen Rappaport performing two works, "The Chocolate Quarry" (May 5) and "Museum of Contemporary Art" (May 6), and Kedric Robin Wolfe making a rare appearance with "Beneath the Load" (May 6-7). The festival's final matinee May 7 features a collection of short works by new, young performing artists.
The festival marks a notable left turn for both Michael Arabian's and Suzanne Battaglia's Theatre InSite--producer of environmentally staged plays at CBS Studio Center--and for Trules, whose previous productions include the 1991 Santa Monica Festival and 1992's Word / LA: An Oral Response to the Rodney King Violence.
"Those gatherings were wonderful, but huge headaches," Trules says. "We had all of these various sites around the city for Word / LA, plus dealing with bureaucrats in various municipalities, all with different needs. Michael and Suzanne already had this solid relationship with the studio, and I was able to really focus on curating a festival of artists. I wanted to get the absolute best L.A. had to offer.
"I was looking around the country, and noticing how other cities had their own solo performance festivals. . . . It just seemed time for Los Angeles, where so many actors and performers live, to have one of its own."
At the same time, Highways--a nationally renowned base for such artists as Miller and Mason--already provides a venue for soloists, along with spoken-word, theater and dance groups. But because of its profile as a home for gay and lesbian artists, Trules says, "it tends to serve a particular community. This festival is intended to cross over every community, in a kind of neutral, untraditional performing space like the sound stage."
Loh herself crosses over communities. The youngest daughter of a Chinese father and German mother, she brings her life into her performed works, but not in the conventional first-person perspective of many solo pieces.
"The key is that I write my stories to be published," Loh says, "so they're literary pieces first. Only then will I adapt them to the stage, because by then, I know that these are fully developed stories and characters. I'll write about the crazy things my dad would do, but I'll be a kind of innocent observer so it's not so self-absorbed."
Loh tends to write about her current life in her monthly column on the San Fernando Valley for Buzz magazine, whereas the trilogy in the festival ("My Father's Chinese Wives," "Musk" and "Ethiopian Vacation") traces what she calls "the adventure of growing up in my family."
You won't catch Palacios' act, "Latin Lezbo Comic," on any conventional stand-up stage, even though stand-up clubs were her training ground.
"This piece came out of the whole struggle of not wanting to fit into the mold of 'entertainment' and 'comedy' created by the Hollywood mainstream," Palacios says. "At a certain point, when mainstream clubs weren't willing to book queer comics like myself, I thought, 'Why bother? Why not go in another direction?' As my lesbian identity developed, so did my storytelling skills. Now, I do more stories than stand-up bits."
Gossett's "The Hand of God" emerged from dreams a few years ago that she says triggered memories of child abuse as a girl.
"With music . . . and with humor, it lets people get a feeling for my trauma without feeling drained."
Hill, who plays Margaret Cho's grandmother on ABC's "All-American Girl," is one of the few Asian American actors to have built a television and theater following. Her "Tokyo Bound," based on a trip to Japan, is a legend in Los Angeles performance circles as a small masterpiece of stylized solo satire.
"It was written in an unconscious way," says Hill, "and I'm still trying to understand it. That keeps it fresh, but like a friend told me quoting Goethe, you don't finish a piece, you abandon it."
Like "Tokyo Bound," Alfaro's "Downtown & Other Stories" is 4 years old, but, unlike Hill, Alfaro continues to revise his work "to the point where it has the same title as always, but it's a completely different work. It still comes from the Pico-Union streets I love, but I think I have a much better sense of what kind of theater I'm doing."
Which is . . . ?
"Post-modern Chicano theater," says Alfaro, who is co-director of the Mark Taper Forum's Latino Theater Project. "The future of my art is the borderless art between the two cultures of the U.S. and Mexico. But Latino theaters don't want my plays, because I inform them with my gay sensibility, and gay theaters have a hard time with my cultural clashes."
Alfaro says he is charmed by being on the same festival bill with "a straight guy like Eric (Trules), moaning over Valentine's Day." Trules says he "wanted with this new piece to get out some of the emotions and psychic stuff that men today are going through--territory that men are afraid of exploring, and women may not know about."
Juditz, acclaimed for her autobiographical theater work, "Teshuvah, Return," shifts from that piece's concern with Jewish identity to what it's like being, as Juditz says, "white and female and sheltered and afraid in Los Angeles."
Najera's "The Pain of the Macho," which premiered last year at Chicago's Goodman Studio Theatre, is an effort, he says, "to explain that in the Latino community, macho can have good connotations, not just being a wife-beater or exploiter. Mothers say, 'Be a macho,' meaning 'Be a good man.' But I also leave it to each audience member to interpret what macho means."
A Solo / LA highlight is Wolfe's return to the Los Angeles stage after several years' absence. "I kind of came out of retirement for this," Wolfe says of his new piece, "Beneath the Load."
Rappaport, a Bay Area transplant, stresses that both "The Chocolate Quarry" and "Museum of Contemporary Art" "are not stories about me. I don't look at what I do as performance art, but as 'monodramas,' where I take on characters. The kind of acting I do is physical, coming from the solar plexus and the soul. 'Chocolate' is a very wild, non-linear, poetic piece about a schizoid man, while 'Museum' is very linear, about an everyman looking for love."
And, in a comment that perhaps unifies the 12 disparate artists in the festival, Rappaport says, "I try to be both introspective and revealing, edgy and--hopefully--surprising."
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Where and When
What: Solo / LA performance festival.
Location: CBS Studio Center, 4024 Radford Ave., Studio City.
Hours: 8 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, through May 7; 10 p.m. April 21-22 and May 5-6; 2 p.m. April 29-30, 4 p.m. May 7.
Price: $10 to $15.
Call: (213) 466-1767.