The Bard Goes to College
Employing military veterans, students and at-risk youth, the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles finds a new home at SMC
By Evan Henerson
In the third act of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” the countess Olivia tries to dismiss the disguised Viola, who has been wooing the countess Olivia for another man while dressed in drag. (The hows and whys of this circumstance aren’t particularly important. This is Shakespeare. We accept such things.)
“There lies your way, due west,” says Olivia.
“Then westward ho!” returns Viola.
“Westward ho!” could be part of the mission statement of Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles (SCLA), which has reached its beach. Now in its 30th year of producing plays, the largely nomadic company, which has staged summer Bard productions all over the city, has been scouting for a permanent Westside home since losing their performance space at the Japanese Gardens on the grounds of the VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Campus two years ago.
They appear to have found it. A new partnership with Santa Monica College has SCLA producing three summer productions at the Pico Boulevard campus, giving students the chance to get college credit, performance experience and a path to earning their union card with Actors Equity while providing summer employment, school credit, training and income for military veterans through another one of SCLA’s social programs.
The inaugural Summer of Shakespeare at SMC began with an apprentice company production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” followed by the children’s show “Aladdin Jr.” A professional staging of “Twelfth Night” opened last week and runs through Aug. 21.
“There’s a lot of possibility here,” said Ben Donenberg, SCLA’s founder and executive artistic director. “There’s a lot of cooperation and a lot of opportunity for our social mission to be fulfilled in a deeper way, so we’re really excited about it. This is our first summer, so we’re trying to figure it all out, but things are going well.”
“We do everything we can for our students, and I think this is a nice opportunity for them,” said Perviz Sawoski, chair of the Theatre Arts Department at SMC. “I don’t think Santa Monica has ever had a Shakespeare festival before, and I hope there are many more such undertakings. It’s kind of a win-win all around.
SHAKESPEARE WITH AN L.A. TWIST
On a Friday afternoon, the theater arts complex is buzzing with activity. As director Kenneth Sabberton looks on, actors Time Winters and Tracey A. Leigh share a waltz. Back in the scene shop, several of the 23 military veterans employed by the production are sawing away at planks and boards.
The current “Twelfth Night” is set in 1942 Los Angeles, with Angelenos living in fear of an invasion by the Japanese or even — given wartime paranoia — from outer space. The lesser-known 1979 Steven Spielberg comedy “1941” was set during the same period.
Viewers should never expect swords and tunics from this company. Since staging his first production 30 years ago of — you guessed it — “Twelfth Night,” Donenberg has made it his company’s mission to produce Shakespeare plays with a distinctly Los Angeles or Southern California overlay. Past productions have included a “Merry Wives of Windsor” set during the golden age of television and a “Romeo and Juliet” with the Montagues and Capulets hailing from feuding L.A. record labels.
The apprentice company “Midsummer,” composed entirely of SMC students, was set in Laurel Canyon during the 1960s. Eight SMC students are working on the current “Twelfth Night” as stage managers, understudies and even playing small roles. Donenberg expects the students to return in winter to restage this production of “Twelfth Night” for a tour of high schools in the downtown area.
Reflecting on his company’s history, Donenberg agrees that it has been an eventful three decades.
For that first production of “Twelfth Night” staged in Pershing Square, the company’s audience was made up largely of homeless people who would return night after night. Near the end of the production’s run, they collected a giant bag of aluminum cans and gave it to Donenberg, encouraging him to cash them in for a nickel apiece and use the money to pay the actors.
Donenberg declined, but that generosity sparked the Food for Thought initiative. For subsequent productions over the years, audience members paid for admission by bringing nonperishable food items for the homeless.
RITA WILSON AND TOM HANKS
From its early days, when it was called Shakespeare Festival L.A., the company attracted some soon-to-be-famous names to play Shakespeare. Helen Hunt, Benjamin Bratt, Lyle Lovett and Tessa Thompson have all been in SCLA productions.
But the company’s longest sustaining celebrity connection began in the late 1980s.
For a production of “As You Like It,” the company put out an open casting call in Dramalog and ended up hiring a young actress named Rita Wilson in the role of Celia, cousin to the heroine Rosalind. According to Donenberg, it wasn’t until they spotted Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Sally Field and Tom Hanks in the opening night audience at the Ford Amphitheatre that they learned that Wilson was newly married to Hanks.
“We were like, ‘Oh wow, that’s cool,’ Donenberg said laughing. “She won a Dramalog award and then we later learned that she had gotten her Equity card with us. They’ve remained loyal to us all these years.”
Wilson now serves on the company’s board of directors. She and Hanks have hosted Simply Shakespeare, a one-night benefit reading of a Shakespeare play featuring a celebrity cast, for the past
25 years. The 26th Simply Shakespeare, a reading of “Much Ado About Nothing,” happens on Sept. 19 at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse.
WILL POWER TO YOUTH
Proceeds of Simply Shakespeare support both SCLA’s veterans employment program and Will Power to Youth, an education and empowerment initiative for at risk youth ages 15 to 21 that SCLA began in 1993.
The Will Power students spend seven weeks working on a Shakespeare play that incorporates elements of their own feelings and experiences. The program, which includes a component for writers and musicians as well as actors, has won awards and recognition from throughout the city and across the country, including the White House Coming up Taller Award. It was recognized as one of the Top 50 Programs in USA by the Ash Institute at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Will Power for Youth operates largely out of the company’s administrative headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, which has a small performance space. Before arriving at SMC, SCLA staged its professional productions at Pershing Square, the Ford Amphitheatre, the South Coast Botanic Gardens and the steps of L.A. City Hall, among other places.
“When I started the company back in 1984, I wrote a five-year plan that I delivered to the Community Redevelopment Agency downtown back in the days when there was a CRA,” Donenberg said. “It had Shake-Square because we were in Pershing Square. It had Shakes-Park because we thought we could be in Griffith Park, Shakes-Pier for Santa Monica. Bard in the Garden. There were several places that we wanted to drop by and do shows during the summer, and it was going to be free for everyone. We haven’t given up on that. That’s part of the goal of the business plan: to be free Shakespeare forever.”
SCLA thought they had a fixed home in 2012 when they came back to the Westside VA campus, a venue where the company had previously worked in the early 1990s. From 2012 to 2014, the Japanese garden proved to be both a bucolic setting for outdoor summer theater as well as providing easy access for veterans. Using compensated work therapy, SCLA trained more than 75 chronically underemployed veterans in all aspects of stage production. The vets built the sets, worked as sound engineers and ushers, and served as wardrobe assistants.
A lawsuit between the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs ended SCLA’s tenure in Brentwood, but the new partnership with SMC has opened up additional opportunities for veterans, who can now get college credit as well as an income. With their SMC ID cards, they can ride the blue buses free of charge. Several of the company members who hope to pursue civilian careers in the entertainment industry say the training has been valuable.
“The experience has exceeded everything I could have imagined it would be,” said U.S. Army veteran Stephen Jackson. “I’m learning new things all the time. The staff is very helpful, and they emphasize, ‘Don’t worry about messing up — that’s part of the process.’”
SMC Technical Director Doug Forsyth has been delighted to have the vets working in his scene shop. Since the scenery for SMC shows are typically built buy college-age students, the veterans bring a different set of skills and a different work ethic, according to Forsyth.
“I would hire these guys full-time in a minute, and I will take them every summer,” Forsyth said. “These guys know how to work. They’re grown people and they have been in the armed services — they know what responsibilities are.”
Donenberg, meanwhile, hopes to solidify the Santa Monica partnership for years to come and then get back to directing. He has some ideas about “The Merchant of Venice” and has requested a meeting with actor/director Kenneth Branagh to talk them over.
“Oh yeah, I will direct again,” he said. “Part of the business plan is to hire people that can do all of the kind of work I’m doing now to free me up to direct as I move toward ending the part of my career as a business guy and become more of an artist guy.”
“Twelfth Night” continues at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 21 on the Theatre Arts Department Main Stage at Santa Monica College, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. $40 general admission, $20 for students and free for military veterans (must call ahead). Call (213) 481-2273 or visit shakespearecenter.org.