Lodestone Theatre Ensemble is going out on its own terms

Lodestone Theatre Ensemble is going out on its own terms
FINAL: "When we started, I think we all knew this would be finite," says Chil Kong, right, with Philip W. Chung. (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times)
After 10 years, Lodestone Theatre Ensemble is calling it quits.

No, this isn't another sad tale of an arts group crunched by the imploding economy. L.A.'s maverick Asian American stage company simply decided that it's time to go.

"We felt we had hit our stride," says co-artistic director Philip W. Chung. "We had done all that we could with this incarnation."

"The next step would be a paid staff and a move to a bigger space," agrees Chil Kong, the other artistic director. "But we had to ask, What are we going to strive for? How are we affecting our community? The cost of moving up was too high artistically. So we said, Let's go out with a bang."

Lodestone's final season is designed to showcase its desire to tell unconventional stories in unconventional ways (its motto is "plays without rules") and an affinity for life's dark sides, tempered by a sense of humor.

"We've always done whatever we wanted," says Chung. That's meant shunning staples of Asian American theater -- generational struggles, cultural identity crises -- and pursuing "new plays by new writers, plays with more edge that might even be seen as twisted."

The season's initial offering, which opens this weekend, is "Ten to Life," four one-acts in which a census agent, a high school reunion attendee, a homemaker and a psychologist become entangled in what Chung describes as "bizarre," once-in-a-decade events.

Each piece's author, as well as director Alberto Isaac, has ties to Lodestone: Nic Cha Kim, Annette Lee and Judy Soo Hoo wrote works premiered by the company (Kim is also a resident producer) and Tim Lounibos is one of its four co-founders.

In August, Lodestone will present its first musical revival -- "Closer Than Ever," Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire's '80s revue about love, life and relationships. The show doesn't exactly sound edgy, but Kong promises "a few surprises."

The last production, in the fall, will be "Grace Kim & the Spiders From Mars," which Chung says he wrote as an homage to '30s screwball comedies and "the spirit and history of Lodestone."

Lodestone's roots go back to Society of Heritage Performers, a Korean American troupe started by actor Soon-Tek Oh after the 1992 riots. Oh asked Chung, Lounibos and Kong, who came to L.A. after running a theater in Seattle, if they would take over for him one day.

They decided, however, that they would rather create their own pan-Asian company to serve audiences who, like themselves, were in their 20s. They hoped to offer an alternative voice, especially since East West Players, the country's pioneering Asian American theater, was moving from a Santa Monica Boulevard storefront to a midsized complex in Little Tokyo.

The three men, joined by actress Alexandra Chun, founded Lodestone in 1999. Their first production was Soo Hoo's " Texas," in which psychologically challenged brothers living in a trailer take in a college student as a boarder.

"Like me, Lodestone wasn't afraid to show disillusionment with society," says Soo Hoo, "and the side of Asian American life that is not so picture-perfect." She says she will miss "their devotion to the work that comes from having a writer's sensibility as part of the theater."

" 'Texas' gave us a kick in the butt," says Chung, "because we had only a month to do it." The company started in July and found a theater space in August but discovered its only open slot was in September. The mad dash to put on a show helped lead to what Lounibos calls "our guerrilla approach" -- keeping costs low and fundraising creative so decisions could be based on artistic desires rather than, say, box office worries.

Lodestone is funded by gifts and grants, supplemented by events such as a popular Oscar viewing party and a cabaret show withSandra Oh, John Cho and other Lodestone friends in Hollywood. Company members also hold "ten-for-tens" in which everyone asks 10 people they know for $10.

If "Texas" was the jump-start, the turning-point play was Matt Pelfrey's "Terminus Americana," Lodestone's first full-length production written by a non-Asian. Its challenging topic -- an office-shooting survivor explores the bleakness of American life -- was made more challenging because the Sept. 11 attacks occurred while the show was in rehearsals.

After intense discussion, the company decided not to cancel. "Terminus Americana" received great reviews, but, as expected, hardly anyone came to see it. This was not the only time Lodestone's artistic intentions weren't in sync with attendance -- or in some cases, critical reaction.

"But that's why we're here," says Chung. "To provide artists a space where you can 'fail' as long as you take risks."

In 2005, Lodestone settled into the GTC Theater in Burbank. About that time, talk of "what next?" began to solidify. Chun had left after the third year and Lounibus after the fifth, although he remains closely involved with the organization.

"When we started, I think we all knew this would be finite," says Kong, "because of our careers or because each of us had stories we wanted to tell, but we weren't sure what would happen after we told them."

Not only Lodestone was changing, so was the Asian American theater world -- in part because of Lodestone's efforts. "They succeeded in being branded as the hip and edgier theater," says Tim Dang, East West's producing artistic director. "They expanded the Asian American theater canon," he adds, and nurtured younger artists and audiences.

"A lot of people have said, 'No, we don't want this to stop,' " Lounibos says. "For me, though, Lodestone was a necessity when it was created, but since then so many other groups have popped up. We feel we can leave now and things will be in good hands. Three or four people are meeting in a dark corner somewhere coming up with a new agenda."