All Popular on the Western Stage

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Mark Rucker may not have set out to be a trend indicator, but he’s living proof that the times have changed in the American theater. A native Californian with a fast-rising career, he has made his way wholly outside the confines of the New York theater world, which was once an all-but-required proving ground for young directors.

Working these days at such respected venues as South Coast Repertory, the Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse, Rucker has a full slate of plays to stage. And he’s also moving on to new kinds of ventures.

This year, Rucker will direct two new works that he is also helping to develop. He is staging the latest work by writer-performer Anna Deavere Smith--an ensemble play about the press and the presidency--which will premiere at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and come to the Mark Taper Forum in April. And he’s also leading an adaptation of Aristophanes’ “The Birds,” featuring the comedy group Culture Clash, which will premiere at South Coast Repertory in January.


Currently, Rucker is directing Donald Margulies’ “The Model Apartment,” which opens tonight at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. The play, which premiered at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1988, focuses on an older Jewish couple who try to escape memories of the Holocaust by fleeing Brooklyn for Florida.

It’s quite a range of projects, but the variety suits Rucker. Unlike the auteurs of the 1980s, he is refreshingly unconcerned with leaving a trademark stamp on the plays he directs. His priority instead is to serve the material.

“What’s great about directing is that you just let the play tell you what it is,” says the soft-spoken 38-year-old director, over conversation at a cafe near his Hollywood home.

“You’re not the writer, you’re not the performer,” he continues. “You get everything together and try and bring it to life. It’s going to have my signature on it [simply] because I’m doing it, but I don’t focus on that.”

Not surprisingly, Rucker’s attitude and adaptability endear him to artistic directors. “He’s very versatile and works marvelously well with actors, encouraging very dimensional work from them,” says South Coast Repertory producing artistic director David Emmes. “His work is always freshly imaginative.”

“Mark is perceptive, sensitive and generous, and all those things help people to be able to open up,” says La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Michael Greif. “And he’s intelligent, so you feel that you’re in good hands.”

For these reasons, Greif felt confident in having Rucker at the helm of Margulies’ potentially incendiary drama. “The play treats a subject that requires great sensitivity with remarkably brave insensitivity,” says Greif, who hired Rucker based not only on having seen his work at South Coast Rep, but also on the playwright’s recommendation.

“The greatest challenge is setting up an environment in which the actors can feel free and comfortable to explore,” Greif says. “This company is very happy. Watching these rehearsals, I’m confident that the company and Mark are doing an extraordinary job of navigating this play.”

The key, says Rucker, is simply listening to the text. “[Margulies] has got a slightly abstract sensibility that’s just great,” he explains. “It’s realism that’s just a little bit fantastic in the events, writing and characters.

“It’s a very unexpected play,” the director says. “It’s very funny and extraordinarily dark at the same time. It’s got to be the darkest comedy ever.”

It’s also deceptive. “When the play starts, you think it’s just this interesting comedy,” Rucker says. “And then it just takes off.”

You wouldn’t necessarily guess, however, that Rucker would have a feel for dark comedy--at least not judging from his background. Raised in Newport Beach, Rucker is the middle child of three born to a father who worked in real estate “during the Orange County boom” and a homemaker mother.

His interest in theater began in high school. “I am a product of the public school drama department at Newport Harbor High School,” says Rucker. “If it weren’t for the [school’s] drama club and trips to South Coast Rep and our [family’s annual] Easter trip to New York, I probably wouldn’t be doing this.”

Rucker studied theater at UCLA, where he zeroed in on directing as his preferred job. After graduating in 1983, he and a group of friends “went downtown and started a theater” called City Stage.

It wasn’t easy. “We had to literally clean the theater every day and hose it down and somebody had to watch the cars during the performance,” recalls Rucker. “After about four years, you get tired of that.”

He began to get paying work as a director, most notably at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, and to assist more established directors, including Marshall Mason and Robert Wilson at the Mark Taper Forum and elsewhere.

A turning point came in 1988, when Rucker was accepted at the Yale School of Drama, where he earned his master of fine arts from 1989 to 1992. “It was great going back to graduate school after being out for six years,” he says. “It was good to get a confidence about what I do, to know that what I wanted to do worked.”

When he completed his studies, Rucker found himself again at a rubicon. The received wisdom was--and still is--that aspiring theater directors should go to New York. Rucker, however, was unconvinced.

“I had everyone saying, ‘How can you go back to California? You have to go to New York.’ But I came back.”

It was a good move. He returned to work at Santa Cruz during the summer and began to get work elsewhere. A key break came when one of SCR’s directors was unable to fulfill a commitment and Rucker was hired to replace him.

Since then, Rucker, who was named an associate artist at the theater last year, has directed many works there--including “Loot,” “The Triumph of Love” and “The Taming of the Shrew"--and won critical praise for his efforts.

Of his 1996 “Shrew,” The Times’ Don Shirley wrote, “Rucker’s candy-colored concept of setting ‘Shrew’ within a fantasy world of East Coast ‘50s-'60s Rat Pack-Cosa Nostra culture yields so many laughs on its own that any hisses arising from the script become part of the fun.”

Rucker also has been busy elsewhere, including at the Yale Rep, where he’s directed “Twelfth Night,” “Landscape of the Body” by John Guare and “The Cryptogram” by David Mamet. This past spring, he made his Old Globe debut with “Dracula.”

This year, the challenges are likely to be even greater. The day after “The Model Apartment” opens at La Jolla, Rucker will be on a plane to New York, where he’ll spend a month working with Smith and a company of actors on her performance piece.

“It’s not a play yet, so the month in New York is to just work,” the director says. “There won’t be any public performances.”

After a short break, Rucker will then stage the Smith piece for the Arena Stage before returning to Costa Mesa to mount the premiere of the John Glore-Culture Clash version of “The Birds,” with music by composer Michael Roth.

“We’ve been working on that project for over a year,” says Emmes. “That speaks to Mark’s down-to-earth, unassuming way of working. He’s wonderfully collaborative.”

After that, Rucker will stage “Our Town” for SCR. Then he takes “The Birds” to Berkeley Rep. And after that, he will stage the Smith piece at the Taper, “If I’m still alive,” he quips.

It would be an exciting time for any director. But there’s an added satisfaction for Rucker. “I grew up going to South Coast Rep,” he says. “So being at these places now is nice. This sounds stupid, but it’s really been a dream come true kind of thing.”


“THE MODEL APARTMENT,” La Jolla Playhouse, UC San Diego campus, La Jolla Village Drive at Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla. Dates: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 24. Prices: $21-$39. Phone: (619) 550-1010.