This illustrious publication once had a fruitful relationship with California Repertory Co., the professional theater troupe that was the graduate-level arm of Cal State Long Beach’s (CSULB) theater department. In our mere infancy, we profiled the praised and reviled critic, director and playwright Charles Marowitz, who had recently been hired as dramaturg. A few years later, Marowitz wrote an essay that dropped a bomb on the program, specifically the department chair, who had a tendency to program lots and lots of work by one person: himself.
And of course, there were the plays. You could always count on Cal Rep, when not staging work by THAT guy, to produce rarely done pieces with an experimental edge. They were always interesting and different, from the highs of the 1998 production of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Moliere to the lows of Mac Wellman’s impossibly convoluted Hyacinth Macaw in 2011.
But all relationships need cultivation, and we got busy (and smaller), and they got busy (and moved around a bit), and it had been several years since we had gotten together. But this past February’s production of Dreamers: Aquí y Allá at CSULB was a vivid reminder of the work that Cal Rep can do. As its fall season starts, we checked in. And here’s what we learned:
1. It’s no longer aboard the Queen Mary. It was always a trip walking onto that spooky, underutilized hunk of rusting metal and heading to the back—sorry, stern—to the 100-seat Royal Theater, which the company called home for seven years. It left after the 2014 season (that space is now a movie theater that shows Queen Mary propaganda and stuff about sharks) and is currently back on campus.
2. It has a new artistic director. Jeff Janisheski took over the reins at Cal Rep, as well as the chair of CSULB’s theater department, in August 2016. (Cal Rep is now fully integrated into the department, using professionals as well as graduate and undergraduate students.) But don’t call him an academic. Though he can teach (he ran the acting arm at Australia’s premier drama school in Sydney from 2012 to 2015), he can also do. He has directed and choreographed in seven countries, and he ran the National Theater Institute, which is all about developing new works, from 2008 to 2011, and worked for five years at New York’s Classic Stage Co.
3. Cal Rep wants to be a bridge. Part of Janisheski’s vision is to bring Long Beach and surrounding communities to the campus, as well as to take the campus to those communities. Examples of this include: October’s production of Patricia Loughrey’s Dear Harvey, a documentary-style play about the life and legacy of Harvey Milk, which will be staged on campus as well as in Harvey Milk Park in Long Beach; a collaboration in the spring with Long Beach Opera that will be hosted on campus; working with high-profile directors attracted by the scope of the company’s work, such as Denise Blasor, an LA-based artist who is associate artistic director at Bilingual Foundation of the Arts and who is directing the current show. “Cal Rep has a very rich history of doing challenging work, and I’m all about breaking down barriers and boundaries and to have us be this connector between different parts of the community,” Janisheski says. “We want to be embedded and connected to the community around us.”
4. The downtown dream is still alive. Cal Rep has produced in several venues around the city, but since launching in 1989, it has longed for a permanent home downtown.
“There were many years when we had a more physical presence downtown, and we’re definitely trying to resuscitate that through collaborating with other organizations,” whether producing at an existing venue or finding its own space, according to Janisheski.
5. California rocks. Rather than a theater department that does a little bit of everything, Janisheski would like to move CSULB more toward “telling stories that are related to California, by California artists, as much as possible.” Last semester’s Dreamers was a perfect example, as is the upcoming Harvey Milk play and In the Penal Colony, Philip Glass’ take on the Kafka short story that is slated for next spring. Co-produced by Long Beach Opera, the show will also involve the cast and crew interviewing formerly incarcerated jail and prison inmates to learn about their experiences.
6. The first play of the season sounds intense. Hilary Bettis’ 2016 work The Ghosts of Lote Bravo follows a mother searching for her missing daughter, one of the thousands of women in Mexico each year who are either murdered or reported missing. “This is a punch in the gut,” Janisheski says. “It’s an intense, brutal play, definitely not a comedy. But though it’s very epic and political, it’s also very heartfelt and tender. It’s about what love is and what one does for love and it’s poetically rendered and beautifully impassioned. It’s a very important, contemporary play.”
The Ghosts of Lote Bravo at Studio Theatre, Cal State Long Beach, Seventh Street and East Campus Drive, Long Beach, (562) 985-5526; www.calrep.org. Tues.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Sept. 30. $18-$23.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???