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Proof of its artistic intent

Special to The Times

Bart DeLORENZO is plotting a coup. The artistic director of the Evidence Room wants to shake things up because he worries that, after a decade, his company could lose the edge that has made it one of L.A.'s most dynamic theater companies.

“This isn’t about artistic ennui,” he says, adding that he and his colleagues still pursue work they believe is challenging intellectually and politically. (In other words: You may not always like what you see there, but you will be given something to think about.) They remain committed to exploring the potential of their famed Beverly Boulevard stage space and their equally well-known lobby -- the heart of what DeLorenzo calls “our attempt to make your visit feel like an event, which is the difference between going to see a play and Going to the Theater.”

What does concern DeLorenzo is the toll that 10 “seat of our pants” years has taken on his group’s ability offstage to support its work onstage. The 20-year-olds who started the Evidence Room are now in their 30s, which raises the risk of slipping into creative ruts. Many have families and other careers, leaving less time for the demands of small-theater life. “Every organization reaches a point, after that initial spurt of enthusiasm, when it has to make that decision of whether it’s going to be an institution and live on, or just live in that fire,” DeLorenzo says. “Our company has reached that moment.”

So he’s asking tough questions: How do we inject newer and younger voices? How do we make things run better? How do we complete the leap from upstart to established theater?

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The Evidence Room’s two dozen active members have responded with a rush of ideas. A few initiatives have been included in the 10th anniversary season, which opened in March. “We’re definitely in a transitional phase,” says actress and designer Alicia Adams. “What those changes are, only now are appearing to us. We’ve got a lot more work to do, but we’re on the verge.”

Perhaps the most significant change was proposed by DeLorenzo. He has begun a search to replace himself as artistic director. “I don’t think it’s healthy to have the same person running things for 10 years,” he says. “Too often, someone holds on to some idea they originally had for too long, and their theater can become an odd castle with high walls and a narrow drawbridge. You begin to think of a theater as a ‘70s theater or an ‘80s theater. I don’t want the Evidence Room to be a ‘90s theater.”

An inauspicious premiere

The Evidence Room’s first show was a critical bust. “Theater seldom gets more painfully pretentious than this,” The Times moaned in describing “Swell,” a 1995 adaptation of a Ferdinand Bruckner drama about Viennese medical students.

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The production grew out of readings organized by several young artists, including DeLorenzo. He had moved to L.A. in the early ‘90s after graduating from Yale and Harvard and working as an assistant to director Andrei Serban at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. “Our group was serious but intensely informal,” says Adams, a New Yorker who came to the meetings with her future husband, Jason Adams, an actor and designer from Washington, D.C. “After a year we decided to form a company.”

No one seems to recall how the name Evidence Room came up. “Whatever its origin,” says DeLorenzo, “we liked the fact it had this noir-ish, no-nonsense quality and that it didn’t declare itself to be Art or Theater. We had read lots of program notes with other people’s mission statements about seeking truth. We don’t say we can tell you what’s true. We say, ‘You come and be the judge.’ ”

The group decided on Bruckner’s “Krankheit der Jugend” in part because DeLorenzo saw the chance to present a play that resonates in the current time as well as its own: “I love when Hamlet declares that theater is about holding up a mirror to the world.” Although “Krankheit” is a 1920s soap opera about disillusioned youth, DeLorenzo says, “it evoked much about where the century had gone.” They also tried to find a site-specific venue, a search that ended when developer Frederick Smith offered a discounted six-month lease on a giant warehouse in Culver City.

Despite -- or because of -- its lofty intentions, “Swell” flopped. “We had been very experimental and enjoyed working with each other,” Alicia Adams says, “but this made us realize we hadn’t worked with the idea of having an audience in mind.”

The company also had to learn to sustain a growing theater, the lease having turned the spontaneity of “let’s put on a show” into the grind of “let’s put on a lot of shows.” Founding member Matthew Sheehan had donated $20,000 in seed money. Producer Mara Isaacs served as de facto managing director. Jason Adams, who had spent summers building houses, led the renovation of the warehouse. Ames Ingham, an actress who joined the group in its second year, became an expert at salvaging. Old movie-house seats were picked up for $5 apiece. Props and furnishings were plucked from alleys.

After the lease expired, Smith allowed the company to stay for three years. Just before Christmas 1997, however, the arrangement ended. “We were in exile,” DeLorenzo recalls. “Then we got a break.”

Because it had received a city grant, the Evidence Room was eligible to use Culver City’s Ivy Substation performing arts facility. In September 1998, the Ivy hosted Naomi Wallace’s London plague drama “One Flea Spare.” “That was the transforming moment,” DeLorenzo says. “People started to notice us.” Even more important, he says, “If we hadn’t pulled off Naomi’s play, I don’t think we’d ever have started up again.”

Still, they needed to find a permanent stage. One day while driving downtown, Ingham spotted an old bra factory on Beverly Boulevard. “We knew it would be a big risk to move so far from our original location,” she says. “This was no-man’s land.”

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At the time, tapping into the Eastside arts community -- Hollywood to Echo Park and beyond -- was more a dream than anything close to reality. Nonetheless, Alicia and Jason Adams and Ingham bought the property, covering the mortgage with rent from a sunglasses firm they recruited to occupy half of the 6,000-square-foot site. Jason Adams oversaw the remodeling and the design of a 99-seat theater and a high-ceilinged lobby and bar that combine industrial club chic with living room touches. Unlike many theaters, the Evidence Room draws a crowd that comes from all over town to hang out and that skews more Gen X than geriatric.

The Beverly space opened in 2000 with Charles L. Mee’s “The Berlin Circle,” in which Bertolt Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle” and the Chinese legend that inspired it are tossed into the frenzy following the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

The show, directed by David Schweizer, received ecstatic reviews. It also marked the beginning of the company’s relationship with Megan Mullally, the brassy costar of TV’s “Will & Grace.” A Chicago-trained stage actress, she had been intrigued after seeing a 1999 Evidence Room production. Besides her role in the Mee play, she has starred as a housewife turned radical in Kelly Stuart’s “Mayhem” and this year will play a teacher in Bridget Carpenter’s “The Faculty Room,” which combines, as Mullally puts it, comedy, Columbine “and a bit of Mary Kay Letourneau.”

Such roles are hardly safe choices, which is why actors like Mullally work at the Evidence Room. “This place is so pure and liberating and on the down low,” she says. “It’s a real theater company.”

Mullally recently became the Evidence Room’s newest member. She is one of the few Hollywood names who appears with the group, which specializes in ensemble acting and gives plays and playwrights as much attention as players. “Selecting what we put on is the most important thing we do,” DeLorenzo says. “There are a lot of beautifully written pieces that are not for us, or at least not for us to do at that moment.”

That uncompromising vision makes the Evidence Room “the perfect L.A. theater,” says Luis Alfaro, director of new play development at the Mark Taper Forum. “They are very smart, very demanding, and they are not afraid to say and do what they want.”

“They’ve stayed one step ahead of their audience,” says Greg Reiner, managing director of the Actors’ Gang, another edgy, small theater company. “They had the foresight to buy that building when they did. Whether what they do works for you, it’s always of a certain caliber. It’s theater for the sake of theater, as opposed to a showcase.”

Soon after moving to Beverly Boulevard, the Evidence Room became a favorite of critics, playwrights and audiences that enjoyed its aggressive style of theater.

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Great expectations are hard to live up to, however. The 2002 season showed the company at its best and, some would say, worst. The year began with John Steppling’s stark “Dog Mouth” and ended with Ken Roht’s psychedelic sugar-high holiday tribute to the 99¢ Only store. The centerpiece was a trilogy of new Hollywood-inspired works by local writers Justin Tanner, Michael Sargent and Peter J. Nieves. The plays, presented in repertory, were praised as revelatory and attacked as signs that the group had gone soft or spread itself too thin. “The knives came out,” says DeLorenzo. “That’s when we really saw that people are harder on you once you’ve been around.”

Since then, he and his colleagues have tried to figure out how to cope with increased scrutiny as well as a collective sense of fatigue. “Outside we looked fine,” DeLorenzo says, “but inside we needed work.” Hence his recent call to action, timed to inspire a 10th anniversary season that is as much about the future as the past.

The Evidence Room allowed itself only one look back: Its first production of the season was Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi thriller “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said,” which the Evidence Room first staged in 1999. “We wanted to do a revival,” says DeLorenzo, “but we rejected a lot of pieces because we’d do them the same way again. We wanted something we could reexplore.”

Besides “The Faculty Room,” other shows will include L. Kenneth Richardson’s reimagination of Jean Genet’s 1960 classic “The Blacks,” and Schweizer’s version of “Tobacco Road,” the 1930s potboiler based on Erskine Caldwell’s novel about a degenerate Georgia farm family.

Offstage, the company is bringing in a dozen specialists it calls “associates” to help strengthen weak spots in producing, administration, grants, casting and outreach. The management structure -- DeLorenzo, Alicia and Jason Adams, and Ingham are the executive directors -- is being reviewed, as are the membership’s composition and ways to better use its resources.

“You burn out doing theater,” Ingham says. “You can keep going only if you can have a situation like this, where people click and like to work together.”

Actors also move around a lot, and, as is true of everyone , their priorities change as they get older. “When we started out,” says Alicia Adams, “our main obsession in life was the theater, and for Jason and me, making it work with each other. Now the obsession is making the theater part of our lives,” which includes raising two young children.

The Evidence Room is competing with 13 companies to return to the Ivy Substation. “We want to start a new-works lab that would be open to others,” DeLorenzo says. “We’d be more like the curators.” A decision by Culver City officials is expected in late May. By then, DeLorenzo predicts, the hunt for a new artistic director will be well underway. His colleagues say he will be difficult to replace. “His literary taste helped make the Evidence Room what it is,” says Alicia Adams.

“He’s cut a swath through the community because he works in a real positive, reinforcing way,” Schweizer says. “It’s really hard to stay gracious when you have so much to do and so little time and so little money.”

DeLorenzo would like to remain involved with the company and direct projects, but he says he’ll try to keep out of his successor’s way: “I think it’s healthy for the theater to take a sharp turn. I imagine we all have our King Lear moment, when we want to preserve things as we had them. But the world always tells you that is a stupid thing to do.”


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