"Since flesh can't stay, we keep the breath aloft. Since flesh can't stay, we pass the words along." --Erica Jong

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Playhouse

SCENE: The Pasadena Playhouse College of Theater Arts.
TIME: The Present.
CAST: About 270 future Sarah Bernhardts and Laurence Oliviers and (implied in the wings) a list of distinguished graduates whose names you have seen in neon.

As the curtain rises there is a brief flashback to 1916. In a funny little theater called the Savoy, there is a small troupe of professional actors led by Gilmor Brown. They are presenting a different play every week. Then, there is a rapid series of scenes. These show Brown trying to maintain at his own expense a producing group composed of a small nucleus of professionals assisted by a larger group of amateurs, the Pasadena Community Playhouse. As these scenes fade out like calendar pages being flipped up through the years, the action returns to the present. Brown, now an alert 83, sits in his memoir-lined office at the Playhouse.

Activity in the classrooms, rehearsal rooms, the small student theaters, and the main stage down below attest to the success that he has brought to his beloved theatrical institution. In addition to its fully accredited College of Theater Arts, which was established in 1925, the Playhouse has gained a notable niche in the theatrical world with its Main Stage productions. There have been more than 2600 of them produced there, 125 of which were world premiers. And many of the best actors and actresses have trod its boards either as students who carried spears and went on to fame, or as recognized professionals who have starred at the Playhouse out of respect for its reputation, or to take advantage of it as a recognized showcase for their talents with the orchestra seats teeming with movie talent scouts.

As a school, the college offers a two-year course in three phases of theatrical arts--acting, technical and television. There is also a three-year course that leads to a master's degree. It includes what must be the most fascinating "final exam,"--choosing and editing a script, producing and directing a play.

The first-year course is the same for all students. It consists of the basic techniques of acting, speech, history of the theater, stage movement, fencing, and dancing and make-up. In the second year, students select their major, receiving intensive and specialized training in the category of their choice--stage, movies, or television, or any of the technical aspects of any of them. The third year, of course, is devoted to continued development of the student's specialty.

Within the Playhouse are three tiny, but well-equipped theaters. They frequently serve as classrooms during the day, are opened to the public at night for student productions. And, of course, there is the Main Stage, where advanced students can compete with professionals in readings for coveted parts.

Students fence on the roof garden, bound and bend in the dance halls, listen to serious lectures in classrooms, go through wierd vocal exercizes to improve their diction, pour over the thousand of tombs on the theater that line the school's extensive library shelves, and, like students everywhere, chatter in the corridors between classes and gab in the snack bar.

That the Playhouse does a competent job of training is glaringly apparent from its list of illustrious graduates. It's impossible to name them all, but here are a few names you might recognize: Dana Andrews, John Carradine, John Conti, Victor Jory, Wayne Morris, Preston Foster, Robert Young, Lee J Cobb, Lloyd Noal, Onslow Stevens, and many others." To which I might add the names of Makoto Iwamatsu (Mako), who was once nominated for an Oscar for his role in "The Sand Pebbles," with Steve McQueen, and Dustin Hoffman, and Charlotte Stewart, who played the schoolteacher on the "Little House on the Prarie" TV series, who took on the role at the newly-opened Disneyland of "Alice in Wonderland" which I might have had but for homesickness.

(This article was written years and years ago for the Los Angeles Times newspaper, by Art Ryon. We went back to Pasadena and visited the Playhouse in 2000, the turn of the century, and found that nothing lasts forever. The theater is still going strong, but there is no longer a school. The student theaters are storage areas, the Playbox, downstairs, is a coffeeshop. But the great curtain with a picture of a ship, on Mainstage, remains.)

1 comment:

silverlight said...

It is a great loss, the closing of the school.
When I was young. I very much wnted to attend the Playhouse. My parents said no.

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