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A director’s passion for stage underdogs

Times Staff Writer

Midway through a rehearsal of “War Music” at the Geffen Playhouse, director Jessica Kubzansky is getting anxious.

“Are we officially back?” she asks the stage manager, seated to her left in the audience.

The stage manager replies that the union-mandated break will go on for yet another one minute and 30 seconds.

Kubzansky utters a mild oath and pounds the arm of her seat with mock petulance.

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Finally, she’s given the signal that she can resume directing. She responds with a high-pitched “Woo hoo.” Then, in the honeyed voice of a professional narrator, she intones, “and now we transport you to Mittersill, Austria, 1945" -- the site of the play’s second act.

From all appearances, Kubzansky is never as happy as when she’s directing. And in the last decade, she has become one of L.A.'s most prolific and respected stage directors.

“She’s the world’s busiest woman,” says Chris Fields, artistic director of Echo Theater Company, which co-produced the 2002 premiere of “War Music,” staged by Kubzansky at Los Angeles Theatre Center. “I don’t know when she sleeps.”

On second thought, he recalls seeing Kubzansky asleep on the floor between rows of seats at LATC during a rehearsal break.

But in Kubzansky’s case, lots of assignments does not mean lots of familiar, easy plays. “If she were a conductor,” Fields says, “she’d be conducting ‘Fidelio’ or ‘The Ring,’ not Mozart’s 39th.”

“I am passionate about new plays that don’t necessarily fill seats,” Kubzansky says. “To do them, I have to go to theaters that don’t have much money.

“I could have been directing ‘Sylvia’ in much bigger venues. But I like to do plays that I feel need me, particularly. Many directors could do ‘Sylvia’ well.”

“War Music” is one of those new plays that apparently needed Kubzansky. In three connected one-acts, it examines incidents in which composers Frank Bridge, Anton Webern and Olivier Messiaen collide with the harsh realities of war or its aftermath.

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Stepping up to the Geffen

Playwright Bryan Davidson developed his script in an Echo Theater lab and then invited Kubzansky to stage the first public reading. “She brings an incredible compassion for all the creative artists, a specific sense of how to tell a story and how to build arresting theatrical images,” Davidson says. “She has helped clarify what this story is all about.”

Kubzansky thought the play would be too ambitious for a single small company to fully produce, so she invited Playwrights’ Arena artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera to the 2001 reading at the Zephyr Theatre.

“She was very excited about it, and I’m interested in any play that excites her,” says Rivera, whose company has often used Kubzansky as a director. Soon after the reading, Echo and Playwrights’ Arena agreed to jointly mount the play’s premiere in Playwrights’ Arena’s quarters at LATC the following year.

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Produced with a $24,000 budget, “War Music” drew adulatory reviews. It also attracted the attention of Debra Pasquerette, the Geffen’s director of education, who saw the show as the Geffen’s representative in the voting for Ovation Awards.

“I was crazed about it,” Pasquerette recalls. “It was my favorite show as an Ovation voter. It was exquisitely done in that space, but I just wanted more people to see it.” She insisted that some of her Geffen colleagues see the show.

Three of them did. The four “War Music” fans began lobbying for the Geffen to book “War Music,” despite a Geffen policy of steering clear of most shows that already have been produced in L.A. The fervor of the four staffers persuaded the Geffen brass, led by producing director Gilbert Cates, to make an exception.

Now Kubzansky is working with a budget that’s at least 15 times larger than the one at LATC. But it’s the extra time, not any lavish effects, that Kubzansky cherishes about the opportunity to revisit “War Music.” Quoting C.S. Lewis -- “Further up, and farther in” -- “that’s what we’re doing with the play,” she says. “We get to look again at things we pasted over with a Band-Aid at 7 p.m. on opening night at LATC.” Davidson has rewritten substantial parts of the third act.

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Kubzansky began her own life in the theater as a playwright, inspired by a ninth-grade assignment at her school in Newton, Mass., to write a fourth act of the three-act “A Doll’s House.”

She studied creative writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In her senior year, Edward Albee selected her play “Inventory” as the winner of a competition, and the famous playwright directed its premiere.

During her junior year, in a program at Harvard, she began to think about directing, inspired by a “Waiting for Godot” at American Repertory Theatre. Director Andrei Belgrader “really made a difference between the page and the stage.”

After her 1984 graduation, Kubzansky “was determined to make my way as a writer, so I spent a couple of years temping,” culminating with writing a consumer loan manual for the First Bank of Boston -- “puerile, but incredibly thick.”

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When a boyfriend submitted her “Inventory” to a play conference in Austin and it was selected, she chucked a job at a computer conference company and moved to Austin to direct her own play, initially creating “a big waterloo with my parents” (he was a Boston University professor and dean, she was a hospital CEO). But her parents began supporting her career big time after her play also was selected for a San Francisco production.

Kubzansky directed a number of productions in Austin. “But I had never had any training in acting or directing. I was just sort of making it up. I was starting to feel like a hypocrite.”

She got what she wanted at CalArts in Valencia, where she received her master’s degree in 1994. “I never meant to stay in Los Angeles, but I got sucked in” though her connections with the CalArts-affiliated network of working professionals in L.A.

Taking the leap

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Her first major calling card was her acclaimed staging of “The Thousandth Night (Monsieur Shaherazad),” a solo show featuring Ron Campbell that played at several venues.

For several years, she supplemented her work in small theaters with freelance copy editing for Genre, a gay men’s fashion magazine in Hollywood. But eventually “I realized I was going to have to take the leap into full-time directing, which pays almost nothing until you get to some place like here,” she says, referring to the Geffen.

In 1998, she staged her first production at a larger theater, “Dancing at Lughnasa” at La Mirada Theatre. She also has worked at International City Theatre in Long Beach, Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach and the Colony Theatre in Burbank. Her Colony revival of “Toys in the Attic” won an Ovation Award last fall.

“L.A. has a really significant theater scene,” Kubzansky says. “We have astonishing actors and an openness and ability to experiment.” Despite the cliche that L.A. theater is showcase-oriented, “it’s safe to say I almost never do a play that could be called a showcase,” she says. “My plays are not what the agents see in order to cast a soap opera.”

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Kubzansky has hardly put the 99-seat scene behind her. Last year she was named one of two artistic directors, with Michael Michetti, of the new Theatre@Boston Court in Pasadena, the area’s shiniest new 99-seat space. She’ll direct the premieres of Cody Henderson’s “Cold/Tender” there in March and Jean-Claude van Itallie’s “Light” in October.

Also in 2004, she’ll return to Playwrights’ Arena for a site-specific production of “The Orange Grove,” Tom Jacobson’s new adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard,” to be produced at a church in West L.A.

Back at the Geffen, Kubzansky says she doesn’t think about the responsibility of shepherding one of the few plays to arise out of the small theater scene that has moved on to a larger L.A. theater.

“If I think about that, I’ll be lost,” she says. “It’s just my job to make the play great. That’s true if it’s a 40-seat house or a 500-seat house.”

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‘War Music’

When: Opens Wednesday. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood

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Ends: Feb. 22

Price: $28-$46

Contact: (310) 208-5454


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