For John Densmore to call himself a "dabbler in the arts" is more than modesty. It's misleading.
"John has a really interesting presence onstage," says Stages Theatre Center artistic director Paul Verdier, who has cast Densmore--drummer for the legendary '60s rock group the Doors--in the North American premiere of Eduardo Pavlovsky's two-character relationship drama "Cerca" (Close), which opened Friday at Stages in Hollywood. "John is not necessarily an actor," Verdier says, "but he is a performer. And he brings a refreshing, non-acting quality."
The hourlong piece is a theatrical pas de deux between Densmore and actress Leslie Neale (his real-life wife); Densmore composed a percussion score and will perform it around--and sometimes over--the play's dialogue.
"It's jamming words and sounds, very different from anything Pavlovsky has ever done," says Verdier, who adapted and directed the piece. "It's all about relationships, the games people play." Adding percussion, he says, was his idea: "I thought it could be done with music. And I wanted to work with John."
"Cerca" is part of a Pavlovsky tribute at the theater. It will be followed in coming weeks by the English-language premiere of the acclaimed Argentine writer's "Sen~or Galindez," plus a program of Spanish-language staged readings.
The series marks a continuing relationship between Verdier and Pavlovsky. In 1987, Stages hosted "Pavlovskyfest," a multi-language repertory of the playwright's "Pablo," "Potesdad" and "Camara Lenta." And just last year, Verdier revived "Potesdad" (a terrifying treatise on Argentina's "dirty war") in an English-language version starring Neale and Joe Spano.
Densmore's association with the theater and Verdier goes back to 1984, when he volunteered his percussion services for a series of commedia dell'arte workshops being held at Stages by Le Thea^tre du Soleil actor Georges Bigot.
"I like to drum for various theatrical things," says Densmore, who won an L.A. Weekly Theatre Award in 1985 for his score for the Actors' Gang's "Methusalem," directed by Tim Robbins. As an actor-writer, Densmore premiered his one-act "Skins" at New York's La Mama in 1984, which was followed by "The King of Jazz" at L.A.'s Wallenboyd in 1989.
He's also tried his hand at producing, including a partnership with Adam Ant for 1992's "Be Bop a Lula" at Theatre/Theater in Hollywood. As a film actor, he has appeared in Penelope Spheeris' "Dudes" and Oliver Stone's "The Doors." As an arts patron, he has funded some seminal local theater work, including "Tracers" and "The Coyote Cycle." And as a biographer, his musical memoir "Riders on the Storm" became a bestseller in 1991; since then, he's gone out on personal appearances--he hits 10 to 20 colleges a year--that feature a combination of drumming, reading from his book and an audience Q&A.;
If the audience doesn't bring up the subject of drugs, Densmore does.
"I like myself being a survivor," he says stoically. "Obviously I dabbled in drugs. But we didn't all burn out in the '60s. Jim represented the best and the worst of the '60s. The best was that wonderful, giving spirit. The worst was he couldn't face the demon of addiction. Hopefully we can inspire people now to [emulate] that social consciousness--and not party the night away."
Though Densmore, 50, is quick to stress he's no Pollyanna teetotaler, his current life is clearly framed by sturdier concerns: In addition to an 18-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, he and Neale have a 3 1/2-year-old son, Luka.
"So we're parenting," he says contentedly, "and now with this theater thing, we're rehearsing six days a week. For so many years I've backed up other actors; now it's a great thrill to back my wife."
The couple met seven years ago at a performance workshop run by Wallenboyd artistic director Scott Kelman, but for Densmore, the acting seed had been planted long before.
"I stumbled onto Peggy Feury in the '80s," he says of the late acting guru. "I recognized her brilliance immediately; it took her awhile to recognize mine. I couldn't figure out how to convert my knowledge of music into words. And I was scared [to perform] in front of 12 people--as scared as performing in front of 24,000 people at Madison Square Garden."
Densmore, who was born and raised in West Los Angeles, was attending Cal State Northridge (he was 30 credits short of a degree in anthropology) when he "got seduced" by the Doors. He subsequently co-wrote and co-produced eight gold and platinum albums for the group, and this year--as a founding member of the Doors--he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In the same way his drumming has provided accompaniment for actors and musicians, Densmore emphasizes that this score was created first and foremost to service Pavlovsky's words.
"The text tells the story, the feeling" he says firmly. "Or [the other player does] something and you answer. That's what I used to do for Morrison. So it's a duet, going back and forth. I wouldn't even call it a play: It's more of an instrument-and-sound piece. It's experimental, existential, funny. The characters play mind games, Pavlovsky games. And the words rush around together--it's a verbal twister just saying them."
* "The Second Pavlovsky Cycle," Stages Theatre Center, 1540 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday and Oct. 29 at 7 p.m., and Oct. 28 at 9 p.m., with a Spanish-language staged reading Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. "Sen~or Galindez" opens Oct. 26 and plays Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. (except Oct. 28 and Nov. 23.) Ends Dec. 9. "Paso de Dos" and "El Bocon" will have Spanish-language staged readings; dates to be announced. $5-$18. (213) 465-1010.