The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, located in the famed NoHo Arts District, is on a very important mission.
It’s true, this majestic theater, as unassuming as it may appear, is not here simply for entertainment value. Having staged over 300 productions, including upwards of 65 originals, with over 80 active members and growing- it would be easy to see the Group Rep as another very prestigious yet typical theater company. But what you don’t see and what you would be missing out on is all the professional development and leadership being cultivated there day in and day out, right under your nose.
See, what makes the Group Rep family unpredictable and anything but typical is the commitment they have to fulfilling on what legendary leader Lonny Chapman started back in 1973 when he took on the role of artistic director until his passing in 2007. “He had this saying when it came to theater: ‘First, to entertain; then to illuminate the human condition- and never be boring,’” said Larry Eisenberg, current co-artistic director of the Group Rep. “And that’s what we’re doing here. We’re bringing the highest quality theater that we can to whomever would like to receive it.”
Having done research on Eisenberg prior to our interview, his modesty came as no surprise. He originally joined the company in 1990. And Chapman quickly took Eisenberg under his wing, mentoring him through the process of writing an original play called Nautilus, which was produced by the Group Rep, and later adapted into a feature film called Fish Don’t Blink. Chapman also directed Eisenberg in several plays until Eisenberg left the company in the mid-90’s, visiting periodically, and not officially reprising his membership again until 2003. And at that time, Chapman’s health had begun deteriorating.
Still, Eisenberg performed in what turned out to be Chapman’s final production The Time Is Out of Joint. Ironically, he ended up directing the last play that Chapman would ever see called Chaim’s Love Song. And shortly after the production’s run ended, Mr. Lonny Chapman passed. “Lonny was connected to a lot of people,” Eisenberg commented. “For instance, he personally gave Dustin Hoffman the role in The Diary of Anne Frank that got him his Equity card; he gave Barbra Streisand her first professional job. Many of us have personally worked with and been impacted by him, and we didn’t want to let his theater die, which is one of the reasons why I choose to be here today.”
What Eisenberg isn’t saying is that not only is he choosing and committing to seeing Chapman’s vision carried out in reality by providing significant material for audiences across L.A. County, but he’s also taking the same guidance Chapman gave him and paying it forward by providing leadership to those specific members in his organization who have identified themselves as capable of taking his coaching and completely expanding their skill set. “When Chris Winfield and I first took over as co-artistic directors, we did a production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, and there was a girl working props on that show,” he recalled. “I asked her what she wanted to do, and she said, ‘One day, I’d like to be a director.’ So we gave her some projects to work on. And then a couple of years ago, we gave her an assignment to direct a play called Moon Over Buffalo, which she did a terrific job on. This is now her 3rd assignment. And she’s blossomed and turned into a very good director. She’s only 27 years old, and it really is incredibly thrilling to see her, in a period of three or four years, go from prop mistress on a show to directing her own plays.”
Yes, at the Group Rep, they are passionate about developing new talent through their writing workshops and short play series’ as well as through their Participating Actor and Technical Associates (PATA) program, which provides internship opportunities for aspiring artists in the creative and technical fields. And while one of their missions is to promote and produce the original works of untapped, hungry resources in the form or recent college graduates, they certainly don’t shy away from aligning themselves with seasoned artists as well.
In fact, Eisenberg prides himself on decorating his seasons with stimulating, challenging pieces like The Paris Letter by Jon Robin Baitz, and the upcoming Tiger by the Tail. “We did The Paris Letter because Proposition 8 had gone through, knocking out gay marriage. And I felt that this play would be something that would make a real strong political statement in favor of marriage equality,” he said. “Tiger by the Tail is also a gay-themed play and it deals with human relationships and avoiding being alone. And it raises the question of how do you find love? And I thought it made a very powerful statement in that regard.”
Jules Aaron will be directing Tiger by the Tail when it premiers on March 6th at the Group Rep; he also directed The Paris Letter, and it was the stunning job he did on that production that prompted Eisenberg to find a second piece that would really showcase Aaron’s talent. Tiger by the Tail was that something Eisenberg was looking for, further demonstrating how he consistently looks for ways to train and develop other leaders, and proving that the Group Rep is a theatre company available to artist who are serious about the opportunity to refine their talent. And their reputation precedes them.
For two years, popular website in service of the L.A. theater community http://losangeles.bitter-lemons.com/, has recognized the Group Rep as one of the top ten theater companies in the Los Angeles area for their outstanding season runs, no doubt due to the challenging and politically provocative material they refuse to shy away from. “I like to do at least one show every season that pushes the envelope,” Eisenberg shared. “And they don’t necessarily do the best at the box office, but my experience tells me that our audience comes in and sees that we’re taking on challenging pieces, and it raises our credibility level with them.”
What also really works about Eisenberg’s leadership is the fact that he’s always looking for ways to raise the credibility level of the company for himself and his members. It’s one of the reasons they haven’t broken into doing much classical theater yet. “A lot of what we do as far as productions go depends on the people we have in the company at the time and the concept of the production,” he remarked. “It’s really about marrying the product with the personnel because I don’t ever want to do something unless it’s as good as anybody can do it. So we’ve done some American classics like A Streetcar Named Desire, and we did Hotel Paradiso, so we’ve been broadening, but not to the point of Shakespeare or restoration comedy yet.”
Yes, it’s this commitment to excellence that will ensure that Mr. Chapman’s intention is fulfilled on out in the world. And how we’ll know is through the causing of more gifted artists, propelling and ejecting themselves through the system that Larry Eisenberg and his team have in place at the Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre. Those actors, writers and directors will step up as leaders, in the image of Lonny Chapman, creating more original work that will inch by inch change the world because it’s the shifting of one’s point of view that ultimately shifts one’s experience, leading to a shift in one’s life. And that is the magic and power of live theater.
“We want to explore our own artistic impulses, but also to illuminate the human condition. We all have a point of view of the world, and theater is an expressive art. So we’re expressing what’s important to us, and sharing that with the audience. And I think that’s what’s so great about small theaters: you have an audience of 90 or fewer people, and while you’re on stage- you can feel their heartbeat. You can feel them breathing. When you take a breath, they take a breath, and they can feel your heart beat. And there’s a kind of personal communion that takes place.”
For more information on the Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre and it’s upcoming season, please visit http://www.thegrouprep.com/.