Challenging the Audience

Philip Brandes is a regular theater reviewer for Daily Calendar

How’s this for high concept: Latina actress finds herself forced to deconstruct her personal and cultural identity while auditioning for the role of Joan of Arc as staged by lunatic surrealist director Antonin Artaud. With a soundtrack by The Motels.

“Pretty Woman” meets “Blue Velvet” by way of Roland Barthes? Hardly grist for a major studio pitch--and the three principal members of About Productions theater company couldn’t be happier about it.

Huddled around a table in a hip Silver Lake coffeehouse, Theresa Chavez, Alan Pulner, and Rose Portillo enthusiastically affirmed their commitment to producing challenging original works that push the traditional boundaries of live theater.

“We’re always interested in exploring issues of gender and identity, redefining a historical moment in terms of contemporary issues, and of course one of our favorite themes--the clash between the inner spiritual voice and social acceptability,” explained Pulner, a writer and performance artist who co-founded the company with Chavez in 1988 while the two were pursuing graduate studies at California Institute of the Arts. “So pairing Joan with Artaud was a meaningful association--they were both outcasts whose private truths put them at odds with their worlds.”

“Vox,” the play they’re discussing, was About Productions’ well-received entry in last year’s LocoMotion festival, an annual series showcasing a consortium of Los Angeles theater groups. A mix of sociology, psychoanalysis, existential whimsy and religious inquiry, the work both required and rewarded an above-average cerebral effort to untangle its densely packed cultural and philosophical associations.

The wiry and animated Pulner--a self-styled “typical single gay male” from Providence, R.I.--readily conceded the eclectic nature of the company’s approach. “We’re always working with three or four ideas--we can’t focus on just one thing! We like to make connections between things, so a lot of our work involves combining diverse themes and styles.”

“That’s how we work,” agreed Chavez, an interdisciplinary artist with a background in dance and photography as well as the social sciences. (Chavez is married to Times Daily Calendar editor Oscar Garza). A seventh-generation Angeleno, she credits much of her interest in cultural identity issues to growing up in a multiracial Monterey Park district. And while multicultural issues figure prominently in her work, Chavez carefully distinguishes it from stereotypical ethnic cheerleading.

“All three of us are comfortable with complexity,” she said. “And if that’s demanding for an audience, so be it. We’re just not interested in any kind of commercial success that compromises the things we care about.”

Chavez and Pulner’s nontheatrical backgrounds inspired them to pursue an alternative to what Chavez calls “the traditional patriarchal model of theater, with white males at the helm.” Instead, they try to adapt “the more inclusive and in some ways more democratic model already embraced by the visual and performing arts” to find new ways of exploring issues of gender politics and social commentary.

Their work aims to inform as much as focus on aesthetics, says Portillo, a Los Angeles native who still lives in the same house in which she grew up. “That’s important to the three of us, because we’re all teachers.” Chavez teaches classes in Interdisciplinary Studies at CalArts, Pulner teaches grammar school for the Los Angeles Unified School District and Portillo teaches high school students through Will Power to Youth and Plaza de la Raza.

Many of the trio’s recurring themes and issues--and some new ones--are reflected in “Memory Rites,” the company’s latest work, which opens June 13 at the 2100 Square Feet Theater on San Vicente Blvd. in L.A. Conceived as the sequel to “Vox” in a thematically related trilogy (with the final play due sometime next year), “Memory Rites” is the story of a video artist suffering from retrograde amnesia as she struggles to reclaim her identity from oblivion.

Though distinct from “Vox” in story and characters, Chavez said, the piece was an organic extension of the previous work. “The idea began in conversations about Joan of Arc regarding issues of control and light and essence--self-determination. There were perspectives that we wanted to explore that were burdensome to that piece. So we put them on hold until we found a new perspective to look at [them].”

That perspective was supplied by Portillo, who chanced upon a New York Times article about a sculptor who had lost her memory in a car accident. “The statement I found fascinating,” Portillo recalled, “was when she said, ‘What I remembered was that I was an artist.’ It really hit on that essential question of ‘Who are you when everything is wiped out?’ ”

Portillo, who plays the artist’s fictionalized counterpart in “Memory Rites” (and also portrayed Joan in “Vox”), has a more traditional acting background than her collaborators. After training at Pomona College with George C. Wolfe and Stanley Crouch, she went on to appear in the original stage and film versions of “Zoot Suit” and has appeared in numerous film, television, and stage projects.

Inspired by the article, she convinced her co-creators that the challenges faced by the recovering artist would make an ideal conceptual vehicle for the new work.

Pausing to caution Chavez about the existential challenges posed by a stylish ceramic teapot evidently designed to deliver its contents everywhere except its targeted cup, Portillo continued in mid-thought, "[the artist] didn’t remember that she was a vegetarian, she didn’t remember that she liked Van Gogh, yet her artistic identity was intact. She was able to go back to sculpture, and found that she understood the medium the way she had before the accident, even though she had no relationship to her previous work.”

“Using this framework,” Chavez said, “We started exploring how the brain functions in relation to spirituality and memory. We started reading books on everything from neurophysiology to Gnosticism.”

“Which led us to new research by Dr. Daniel Schacter,” continued Pulner. “He’s been looking at writers and artists throughout history who’ve dealt with memory, and using them to put together a more holistic picture of how memory works.”

“And Jesus figures prominently in the work as well,” Chavez added.

Based on the authors’ investigations, various characters, including a neurologist and a gay priest, were added to integrate these topics into the story of the artist’s recovery.

Extensive research plays a significant role in the company’s developmental process, Chavez explained. “We start with a skeleton idea, then we all start reading and bringing all our research to the table and sharing it, letting the research inform our artistic ideas. And throwing things back and forth--and in some cases bringing people in the field to the table.”

For the current production, the group enlisted video artist Janice Tanaka at an early stage to help explore the use of light and surface as the central character’s way of recapturing her past.

This collaborative approach to “Vox” and “Memory Rites” marks a turning point in the evolution of the company, which for most of its 10-year history has served primarily as a producing umbrella for individual members’ solo efforts.

“Everything we do now is very much about the collaborative process,” Chavez maintained. “We’ve been trying to redefine the role of the actor and other artistic associates in building a theater work. We go in with an unfinished script and encourage the actors and director [Tracy Young directed an early version of “Memory Rites,” Chavez directs here] and in this case Janice to bring their creative impulses to the piece.”

After a period of improvisation and discussion, actual writing begins. Amid a flurry of meetings, faxes, and e-mails, all writing is jointly critiqued and ratified by at least two of the three core members. “I know it’s an unusual way of working,” said Chavez. “ ‘Written by committee’ is practically an insult in this country--but we try to make the script the focus of our work instead of the egos involved.”

Along the way, they’ve learned to coordinate their complementary strengths in the service of their common interests, Portillo maintained. “Theresa’s the poet who keeps control of the spiritual and aesthetic side. Alan is the researcher--synthesizing complex ideas and getting them into characters’ mouths. And me, I’m the peanut butter sandwich--finding meaning in simple, day-to-day moments.”

Yet their process can pose a challenge for some traditionally-minded actors, Chavez admitted. “Of course, we don’t freak ‘em out as much as Artaud might, but we want to make sure they’re comfortable working that way.”

“No, no!” Portillo squealed in mock dismay, “Give me my blocking--Please!”

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“MEMORY RITES,” 2100 Square Feet Theater, 5615 San Vicente Blvd. Dates: Opens Saturday. Regular schedule: Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; June 28, 2 p.m. Ends June 28. Prices: $15 Phone: (213) 660-8587.