Visiting Visionaries on Campus

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Ah, fall. Back-to-school time. When journalists everywhere (or at least here) bemoan the gap between educational and professional theater.

None of Los Angeles' campuses has a top-level professional resident theater company that intermingles students and Equity players to the extent of, say, the Yale Repertory Theatre or Harvard's American Repertory Theatre (ART). Nor is there even a cozy arrangement like that enjoyed by the La Jolla Playhouse and UC San Diego.

Still, L.A.'s institutions do occasionally harbor some impressive visitors. Case in point: coming soon, to an ivory tower near you, two of the most provocative directors working in U.S.-European theater today.

Unlikely as it might seem, both CalArts and Cal State L.A. are going to have acclaimed avant-gardists on their campuses this season. The former now counts the prodigiously talented Travis Preston among its faculty. And the latter is about to welcome France's Pascal Rambert, who'll be in residence from mid-October to mid-December.

Preston, in his second year as the head of the master of fine arts directing program at CalArts, is a rigorously innovative artist whose work has been cited as both intelligent and intuitive, smart and sensual. Known for his incisive and often startling stagings of classics and new works, he's mounted productions at Yale Rep, ART, Center Stage in Baltimore and a variety of venues in New York and Europe. And like an increasing number of American theater's boldest directors, Preston also works in opera, where his recent coups have included a widely hailed staging of Alban Berg's "Lulu," slated to be seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2000.

Preston was lured to CalArts last year by his old friend Susan Solt, the former Miramax Films senior vice president who's now the dean/producer of the School of Theater at the Valencia campus. A former resident director at ART, Preston has not only directed, but also created, many new works and plans to continue in this vein at CalArts.

During his first year at the school, in fact, Preston and collaborator Tom Gunning created an experimental piece called "An Unseen Energy Swallows Space." "I've created works in a variety of circumstances, and this was really like working with a professional company," says Preston of his work with the CalArts crew. "It was a wonderful experience all the way around."

"An Unseen Energy," which was developed out of research into gesture and silent film, went on to play a limited run at the Kitchen in New York in June, with 10 CalArts students in the cast.

In addition to upcoming opera productions in New York and Europe, Preston will also begin work this season on a project for the year 2000. To be developed at CalArts and produced in conjunction with the Hamburg Festival, the piece, which takes the figure of Christ as its subject, will tour to the eight European cities that have been designated as cultural centers for the millennial celebration.

Meanwhile, down at Cal State L.A., they're getting ready for the arrival of Rambert. The French director has recently made a name for himself by creating controversial pieces about immigration in Paris and London. He uses an approach that's similar to the kind of documentary theater that's been in vogue here in recent years--venturing into various communities in each city and enlisting the help of the people he meets there.

The idea is to have Rambert do something similar in L.A. He'll research the piece this term and return in the spring to stage it. Rambert's stay, incidentally, is brought to you by Cal State L.A. department of theater arts and dance chair Susan Mason, L.A. Poverty Department leader John Malpede and the French Consulate.

POLITICAL THEATER: It's all, as playwright David Ives might say, in the timing. Or so might go the thoughts of the folks working on Anna Deavere Smith's new play about the presidency, "House Arrest," due at the Taper in May. Smith declined to say how she's updating the piece to reflect current events, but you can bet that the script is anything but set at this point.

"House Arrest" is also in the market for a new director, who would be the project's third so far. First, there was Mark Rucker, who had to leave when the project was postponed last year. Now, the word is that the much-admired Mark Wing-Davey, who ran the "House Arrest" workshop at Cal State L.A. in the spring, is also out.

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