Before launching the new theater company they've dubbed BOTHarts, Chris Wells and Tracy Young decided it would behoove them to make a deeply personal inquiry into the meaning of terror.
There is, after all, a lot that's scary about putting on plays -- raising the money, risking critics' scorn and audiences' indifference -- even for two 38-year-old veterans of the L.A. small-theater scene who won awards and enthusiastic reviews at their previous home, the Actors' Gang.
They already have weathered an experience that would frighten most thespians: a stiff public rebuke from a powerful actor-writer-director.
That happened in October 2001, when Tim Robbins wrote an article for The Times explaining the convulsions of the previous 12 months at Actors' Gang, the theater company he helped found in 1981. Robbins stepped down as artistic director in 1996 and handed the reins to an artistic steering committee of six other company members. In his absence, he wrote, the Actors' Gang had turned into a "a fractious and dysfunctional organization," its premises unkempt, its finances cloudy and its programming choices dubious. Robbins said the only way he could see to right the organization was to retake artistic control.
He didn't mention Young or Wells by name -- except to praise Young as one of the "wonderful" directors nurtured at the Gang -- but she had been on the deposed steering committee throughout, and Wells had joined it shortly before the company's board of directors brought Robbins back in December 2000. When Robbins returned, Young and Wells were among the gang-within-the-Gang that left. They went on to form BOTHarts in 2001.
Now they're sitting side-by-side in folding chairs in the dressing room at [Inside] the Ford, an 87-seat house in Hollywood where BOTHarts tonight will open "Liberty!" The show, which Wells wrote and Young directs, is an idiosyncratic, genre- and gender-bending musical fantasia in which the Statue of Liberty, played by Wells, abandons her pedestal and, undocumented French immigrant that she is, gets chased through the heartland by a trigger-happy homeland security agent.
Young and Wells are both fairly indefatigable talkers who seem to enjoy delving into the theory and practice of their creative work. So it's a distinct departure when they're asked about l'affaire Robbins, and Young begins her answer with a slow, unsteady "Uuhhhh ...."
The BOTHarts duo decline to return fire; Young ventures that the plays the Actors' Gang mounted during the Robbins-less interregnum speak for themselves, and that she regards the period as an artistically fruitful time for herself and the company. The bottom line, they say, is that it was great to be there, but that the change came at a good time. They relish the opportunity to be on their own together, making decisions as a duo while enlisting like-minded artists, including several former and current Actors' Gang members, as regular collaborators.
In addition to creative compadres, Young's and Wells' connections and artistic reputations have brought them cash and kudos. A $25,000 grant from the Pasadena-based Flintridge Foundation covered most of the expenses for "Dreamplay," staged last spring in and around the swimming pool of a private home in Studio City. The work, written and directed by Young, reconstructs an Arizona murder case in which the defendant claimed to have killed while sleepwalking.
Much of the $36,000 budget for "Liberty!" comes from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, which is offering a rent break on the county-owned theater, and A.S.K. Theater Projects, a nonprofit organization that fosters new plays. Young was going to direct "Moscow," by Steven Leigh Morris, for the A.S.K. "Hot Properties" series, but that project was shelved when she and Morris disagreed on staging concepts.
"Hysteria" and "Euphoria," satiric musicals Young wrote and directed at the Actors' Gang, earned Ovation Awards from Theatre LA in 1994 and 1997, respectively. She gets the utmost endorsement from Bill Rauch, artistic director and co-founder of L.A.'s Cornerstone Theater Company, where Young adapted "Candude, or the Optimistic Civil Servant" in 1997 and joined Rauch in adapting and directing "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella" in 1998. They recently collaborated on a new staging of their "Medea ... " at Yale Repertory Theatre, winning enthusiastic reviews from the Hartford Courant ("vivid and surprisingly cogent") and the New York Times' weekly Connecticut section ("extraordinary, category-defying show").
"I think she is one of the five most brilliant directors working in America, a true genius," Rauch says. "She understands deeply how tragedy and comedy coexist in every moment."
Chay Yew, a playwright-director who scouts and develops talent as a member of the Mark Taper Forum's artistic staff, regards Wells -- who played a racist killer in Yew's 1998 play, "A Beautiful Country" -- as "one of the most underrated actors I know in L.A. He can carry the dramatic and the comic in one fell swoop."
Wells and Young first worked together in 1996, when he played Orson Welles, the narrator of "Euphoria," which chronicled the history of substance abuse. They say the glue of their partnership is a shared relish for stagecraft that's hard to pin down to a single genre or mood.
"Duality is one of the mainstays of our work," says Wells. "How to tell a story that's deep and dark and serious in a light way." Wells and Young spent 2001 brainstorming in unusual ways. Rather than just talk about finding money, securing a theater space and dealing with any artistic anxieties that might come with hanging out their own shingle, they turned their dialogue into a creative exercise. They dreamed up assignments that would be scary or risky. Steal something. Go to a public place and ask strangers for money. Create a photo montage that explores your deepest fears.
"To take terror's hand is a really important thing for an artist to do, because there's so much fear of failure in making art," Young says.
For the record, Young says, she made a point of returning the pair of dice -- or was it a compact? -- that she lifted from a store. Wells stole a menu from a taco joint, and he promises to go back and buy a meal someday in recompense. "I don't know if other people work that way, but it's a personal spin we enjoy, making a game out of tasks and out of theater," he says.
They have left in abeyance for now some crucial organizational tasks such as forming a board of directors. Also to be determined is whether they will remain gypsies or try to find a permanent space. There are film scripts they hope to develop under the BOTHarts umbrella, including a film version of "Liberty!" Young, having made her regional theater debut at Yale Rep, thinks it might be time to get over her dislike of self-promotion and try to find a niche as a director on the national circuit.
"One of my goals is to become better at selling myself," she says.
Of course, she has fans like Cornerstone's Rauch to help with that. "She has to rethink where she's heading," he says, "and it opens doors for her."
Where: [Inside] the Ford at John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood
When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.
Ends: Feb. 23
Contact: (323) 461-3673