The office of the Evidence Room was abuzz. Artistic director Bart DeLorenzo had just opened an envelope bearing auspicious news from Washington: The National Endowment for the Arts was recommending approval of the theater company’s first NEA grant application.
The grant will yield only $5,000 for the company--perhaps hardly noticeable given the group’s $100,000 annual budget. But NEA grants often generate other contributions. And in the vast and far-flung world of L.A.'s smaller theaters like the Evidence Room, NEA grants are so uncommon that they serve as one way to stand out from the pack.
The NEA grant is just one more confirmation of the ability of the Evidence Room to distinguish itself. Especially since the company’s move last year to a cavernous ex-factory space on Beverly Boulevard, just west of downtown L.A., the Evidence Room has become the most prominent nerve center of L.A.'s Generation X theater scene.
The theater company’s programming, which often applies a contemporary American spin to challenging European material, is delivered with a bold design sensibility, reflective of the two years that DeLorenzo spent as an assistant to the celebrated Romanian emigre director Andrei Serban at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.
The Evidence Room’s first production in the new space, “The Berlin Circle,” an adaptation of Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” was named production of the year in last spring’s LA Weekly awards and won a production award from Back Stage West. A revival of English playwright Edward Bond’s “Saved” and Friedrich Schiller’s “Don Carlos” also attracted critical acclaim.
But the company is open to new American plays as well. It’s currently presenting the premiere of Gordon Dahlquist’s “Delirium Palace” as part of the [Inside] the Ford series at another space in Hollywood. Coming soon to the Evidence Room itself: new works by John Steppling and Justin Tanner, two wildly different writers who were probably L.A.'s best-known home-grown playwrights of the ‘80s and ‘90s, respectively. The NEA money will help develop an adaptation of “Don Juan” by L.A. playwright Peter Nieves.
Times theater critic Michael Phillips recently dubbed the Evidence Room “L.A.'s most valuable rising theater.” Scott Proudfit of Back Stage West said the company has “few equals in terms of play selection, design, performing ranks, and frankly just guts.”
The Evidence Room’s rising profile is due not only to its programming, but also to its status as a hangout, with a high-ceilinged space and a large lobby, where the social interaction belies notions that theater is of interest only to the over-50 crowd.
This fall, the Mark Taper Forum staged its annual New Work Festival of play readings and workshops at the Evidence Room. The festival ended on the same day as the Edge of the World Theatre Festival, which is spearheaded by companies similar to the Evidence Room in age and spirit, and the two festivals--representing the Taper establishment and the edgy new wave--gathered for a joint closing party at the Evidence Room.
Veteran cutting-edge director David Schweizer, who staged “The Berlin Circle,” said that “a lot of what is depressing about smaller theater is to go into these squashed, low-ceilinged rooms. If you find a space like the Evidence Room, in a community so attuned to the visual, you perk people up.”
Also, Schweizer said, “with the geography of L.A., the follow-up is a problem. Everyone goes to a car after the play, the energy disperses, and you don’t hear from them for four months. At the Evidence Room, you don’t want to instantly leave. That’s wonderful and unusual.”
Describing the Evidence Room’s ambience as “modern, hip, unpretentious, inviting the audience to go on some kind of a wild ride,” Schweizer compares it to the glory days of Los Angeles Theatre Center’s resident company from 1985 to 1991. Unlike the center, the Evidence Room is only a single, 99-seat space, “but it feels like a bigger place, with big ideas.”
The Evidence Room grew out of informal play readings in L.A. apartments that began in 1994. Three of the original group members--DeLorenzo, Alicia Hoge and Jason Adams--remain as executive directors, and they have been joined by a fourth executive director, Ames Ingham, who joined the group in 1995. All four are in their 30s but won’t reveal specific ages.
The original founders came from the East Coast--DeLorenzo and Matthew Sheehan from Duxbury, Mass. (where they didn’t know each other); Hoge from New York; Adams from Washington, D.C.
They came to L.A. in the early ‘90s for a variety of reasons. DeLorenzo, primarily a director, wanted to escape winter and had heard that L.A. “seemed open to whatever you wanted to do, a town interested in new things.” Adams, an actor and designer, came West to make a living in movies and TV--and succeeded, working more than four years in two roles on the series “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” Hoge traveled to L.A. to act in an independent film and fell in love with fellow cast member Adams. They’ve been married for five years and have two children, a 3-year-old and a 1-month-old.
As the group grew, it began looking for a name. Adams, Hoge and Sheehan--who left L.A. in 1998 and now teaches third grade in New York City--say the “Evidence” part of their moniker was somewhat inspired by the O.J. Simpson trials. Even today, Adams said, couriers occasionally show up at the front door of the current Evidence Room with packages for the real Los Angeles Police Department evidence room.
DeLorenzo, however, doesn’t recall the O.J. association. He said the “Room” part of the name came first, inspired by the theories of director Peter Brook (“The Empty Space”) that “the theater is a place, not just a series of productions.” The group admired the New York avant-garde company the Wooster Group, which operates out of a space called the Performing Garage, and they wanted to find a similar name that would indicate “a place where unexpected things would happen.”
When the group decided to do a full production, it still lacked a room but eventually found one--a big warehouse--in east Culver City. There the company opened an adaptation of “Krankheit der Jugend” (German for “Sickness of Youth”), a 1923 play by Ferdinand Bruckner, which the Evidence Room called “Swell.” Ingham joined the group later that year as “Leonce and Lena” and “The Houseguests” were in repertory.
By the end of 1997, the landlords, who had initially helped subsidize the rent, had decided to use the space for more lucrative ventures. The group staged productions in the nearby Ivy Substation for two years. But they wanted a room of their own.
Ingham spotted the former brassiere factory on Beverly Boulevard that’s now known as the Evidence Room. Adams, Hoge and Ingham--operating as a limited partnership--raised the money to buy the building. They found a commercial tenant, a sunglasses manufacturer, for its east side. The tenant’s rent provides enough for the mortgage payments, they said. Rent from the Evidence Room company pays back investments that the threesome made to convert a structure that had most recently been a storage facility into a theater.
Adams said he designed the space and personally did about 95% of the renovation, working 12-hour days during the five months between the close of escrow at the end of 1999 and the opening of “The Berlin Circle,” for which he and Hoge also designed the set.
City inspectors finally approved the audience seating area on the day of the show’s first preview, and the fire marshal arrived for final inspection half an hour after the second preview started. “He was ready to walk out on the stage while the show was going on,” Adams recalled, but finally was persuaded to postpone that part of the inspection until later.
After the preview was over, the marshal ruled that the only problem was that a few extra safety lights were needed. Adams worked through the night to install the additional lighting in time for the marshal’s approval the next morning.
Renovation is still going on. The group plans to open a basement area under the stage as a dressing room and rehearsal space during the coming year. The large cast of “The Berlin Circle” had to change some of its costumes on an adjacent, outdoor porch.
With the exception of “Three Days of Rain” last year, “we tend not to do smaller shows here,” DeLorenzo said. The company’s first brand-new play, “Delirium Palace,” has only five actors--and it’s housed not at the Evidence Room but at [Inside] the Ford, where it opened a series co-sponsored by the county and A.S.K. Theater Projects.
Evidence Room will co-produce Steppling’s “Dog Mouth” in January with Padua Playwrights Productions, and will launch Patricia Scanlon’s “The Strip, a Living Comic Book,” a late-night serial to be written by Tanner, Scanlon and two others, in February. Tanner will also appear as twins, a brother and sister.
The company’s first major outreach project is in the works. In rampArt, 15 to 20 youths who live within 11/2 miles of the Evidence Room will spend 17 weeks creating an original theater piece, funded by a $10,000 grant from the Cissy Patterson Foundation. The company hopes this project, directed by Hoge, will help ethnically diversify the company’s work, which has used few artists of color, despite a location in a heavily minority-populated neighborhood.
“I like to think we will continue to surprise,” DeLorenzo said. “We have a willful interest in not repeating ourselves.”
Don Shirley is The Times’ theater writer.