The Garage Theatre was officially founded seven years ago by a group of Cal State Long Beach students who wanted to perform the kind of theater that spoke to them - whether it sold tickets or not.
A big part of the mission was also to encourage the playwrights in their acquaintance and give them a forum for their work.
Since moving into its permanent home on Seventh Street three years ago, the company has produced at least two original works per season. In 2005, it was "Terror at the Pike (Or: How Come There Aren't Any Waves in Long Beach)" by Jamie Sweet, and "The Reconstruction of Michael" by Nick Armstrong. In 2006, it was "The Killer," by local poet Steve DeFrance, "Play the Play," a collaborative effort by the whole
What follows are brief portraits of playwrights who have contributed in 2007 - or in Jamie Sweet's case, in 2005-07.
Reviving a dying art
Few theaters - and even fewer playwrights these days - devote themselves to melodramas, with their robust heroes, swooning heroines and hissable villains. To many, these shows are too old-fashioned, too cartoony, too unsubtle and unironic for coveted audiences made up of jaded generations X and Y.
But for the
defunct A.R.K., or Artists Reaching Kids, on Broadway. In 2003, it was "Girl of the Frozen North."
Each installment is set at the now-defunct Long Beach amusement park, the Pike, and revolves around two Cyclone Racer roller-coaster operators, Rod and Ging, their friends and their foes. The series starts in the 1920s, goes decade by decade and will end in the '60s (the Cyclone Racer closed in 1968).
For Sweet, the series is a chance to immerse himself in a favorite topic - history.
"I do two types of research," he said. "First, overall
It is also a chance, Sweet said, to put his own twist on an old art, whether it is not relying on mean-spirited humor - "I have a strong dislike of doing things against others" - or excising objectionable traditions - "Even melodramas written 20 years ago have horrible stereotypes."
Melodrama has been part of Sweet's theatrical life for a long time. He grew up in Costa Mesa, and graduated from Newport Harbor High School. He first met melodrama at Orange Coast College, when he acted in "Cowhand," and two others. The college, which has a student-run repertory company, gave him a chance to learn about acting, directing, writing, producing, stage managing and working on a stage crew.
"That's where I learned everything," he said.
Sweet also met some of his fellow Garage cohorts at the college and followed them to Cal State Long Beach, where he would get his degree. It was during his student days at CSULB that "Egg Man," which he wrote with friend Alex Leverde, premiered in a Costa Mesa garage. "Egg Man's" sold-
out run (it was very popular for two nights running with the same 12 people) officially started his professional playwriting career.
Though Sweet has donned many hats since Garage started (as director, actor, designer, etc.), he prefers to write.
"I have always written stories and comics," he said. "My mom made sure I could read before I got to kindergarten. I read 'Moby Dick' in the sixth grade, the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy in eighth grade. Until my senior year in high school I thought I would be a writer of books."
Another big influence was Stephen King, though Sweet prefers King's fantasy novels to his better-known horror ones.
So why start writing plays?
"I generally don't like most plays," Sweet said.
Sweet said part of what appealed to him about the melodrama genre is an urge to produce work that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages, but particularly children.
"There's plenty of entertainment for adults," he said. "But everybody's so worried about what kids see. Cartoons have really lost their edge."
That doesn't mean Sweet's shows aren't all-inclusive.
"Nobody should be left out," he said, promising that parents will enjoy the shows as well.
Even though Sweet is committed to finishing his quintet, he is working on other less-melodramatic projects.
One of these tackles the topic of torture in wartime. Set on a military base, Sweet said his play in progress explores the relationships between a soldier, a general and agents bent on extracting information from prisoners.
"It's about the futility of getting information from someone in pain," Sweet said. "It's about people's sense of duty. ... My goal as a writer is to write plays that foster creative thinking, constructive thinking. Don't accept anything at face value."
Writing about yourself can have its drawbacks. There's always the temptation to paint an overly rosy picture of your character and experiences. And even if you resist that temptation, there's the chance that those close to you - who lived through those experiences with you, - will be hurt by what they consider your brutal honesty.
But honesty, brutal or otherwise, is something 36-year-old playwright Amy Louise Sebelius was unwilling to compromise when writing her autobiographical play, "White Trash Catholic Circus." The show had its premiere in June at the Garage, and was so well-received that the company plans to take it on tour in Los Angeles County in January.
"I have a very strong commitment to being honest," Sebelius said. "I think everyone's journey must be important to them. There's only one of you in the world. ... I never regret anything that I did."
As for family reaction to the show, which covers a number of childhood and adult incidents, including booze, drugs and men, Sebelius said it was positive.
"My brother read it and thought it was hilarious," she said. What's more, she added, the show led to a renewed relationship with a cousin back East. The two plan to write a play together, with the likely title "Fat Girls From Jersey."
But that doesn't mean Sebelius' honesty hasn't gotten her in trouble in the past. Sebelius was born in New Jersey, and moved to Huntington Beach when she was 3 months old. Her mother raised Sebelius and her brother as Catholics (Sebelius' father was raised Lutheran but had no particular interest in it) yet sent them to a Baptist school in Orange County.
Sebelius fondly remembers being kicked out of religion class on several occasions when she dared dispute a Baptist edict on Christianity she couldn't reconcile with her Catholic experience.
"That's where I feel my version of Catholicism started," said Sebelius.
Sebelius' vision of her faith plays a large part in "White Trash." The show not only features the more gruesome stories of the saints as entr'actes, but also Jesus as a main character. However, the Jesus that gives Sebelius her strength in the show doesn't much resemble the one portrayed in Sunday school. Her Jesus (played in the Garage show by actor Jeff Pearce) swears, stumbles and wears a crown of thorns fashioned from a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He also minces no words when telling her what she did wrong. His barfly persona's resemblance to San Pedro writer Charles Bukowski, by the way, is no coincidence - Sebelius is a big fan. She also loves Shakespeare, and has studied and performed in a number of the Bard's plays, including in graduate school in Alabama. She also attended Cal State Long Beach as an undergraduate.
Still, you would think that this Jesus would have offended the more devout in her audience, but Sebelius said he didn't. In fact, many recommended the play to their friends.
"White Trash" has also gotten the stamp of approval from academia. A teacher in Indiana has made it a part of her curriculum. That is particularly pleasing to Sebelius, who teaches theater at the Orange County High School for the Performing Arts in Santa Ana. This recent gig is a nice break from Sebelius' former job bartending, where there were nights, she said, when she would go from tending bar to acting in her show to returning to the bar for another shift.
Teaching, though, is not likely to derail Sebelius from her playwriting. "White Trash" is her fourth produced play to date. She has also written a movie.
"I've always loved reading, I've always loved writing," she said, adding that she started writing plays in earnest in acting school (and wrote much of one on cocktail napkins).
Writing, combined with her love of performing (Sebelius has also danced professionally in Europe, Asia and America) made becoming a playwright a natural route to follow.
"It was an art form I realized could feed my acting," Sebelius said.
At least three of her works are autobiographical - "each of them sum up a certain question I have asked" - so Sebelius has had several chances to play herself. And that presents its own challenge.
"I ask myself, can I authentically be myself?" Sebelius said. "Can you play yourself and not go to a caricature place?"
You can. You just have to stay honest.
A.K. Whitney (562) 499-1252, firstname.lastname@example.org