In 1974, a gang of recent UC Irvine theater grads eschewed the textbook path to stardom—venomous agents, humiliating cattle calls, bit roles as retarded extras in tampon commercials. Turning their rumps to Hollywood, they set up shop in an old Long Beach laundromat and founded the Found Theatre.
That was 28 years ago. And since that first unspectacular night, original member and co-founder Cynthia Galles has never veered from her commitment to way-off-Broadway theater, to a troupe that would rather burn than produce Neil Simon and that is, God forbid, touchy-feely shrouded in camp.
OC Weekly: Smokin' was the first Found play I saw. It was very gumshoe noirish and farcical, but I don't remember if you said smoking was bad or not.Cynthia Galles: We really wanted to not have an opinion. It's just such a large part of the American culture, especially if you look at the really great detective writers. Not a page goes by that those guys—Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe—aren't talking about pulling out a butt. And the films? Humphrey Bogart, of course, died from it. But everyone is so extremist about it. We wanted to show it, period. What aboutOne Tit Wonder? I must admit I initially thought it was going to be burlesque, but it's actually about breast cancer, and yet it's hilarious and poignant—with a dancing breast number and this bizarre Kubrickesque hospital-clown/mime parade. What made you think it was okay to turn cancer into comedy?
I would never have touched this if I hadn't gone through the experience. There are certain things that you just can't do if you haven't been there. But we're artists, and the whole point of being an artist is to take experience and try to find something in it that's useful to yourself and to humanity and then give it back. And if you can find humor in something terrible, you might feel like you're dancing on your own grave, but you have to do it.
Is there any money in this?
Well, no one's doing it for money in our group. They've decided they don't want to pay the price—you have to be incredibly hard-driving [to make it in mainstream theater]. But those of us who don't want that, but want to act, have to accept we're not going to make a lot of money.
Does the fact that you're not tied to money explain the wacky scripts?
Gin [Virginia DeMoss] and I collaborate on the basic body of the script, and we work it within the company and get a lot of feedback. For One Tit Wonder, we told everyone to take it home and take a red pen to it.
Most writers are so crazed about letting others touch their prose.
But practically everything they cut made it better. Donner Party: The Musicalwas a challenge. The big hit song from that was "You're Looking Good to Me."
Like a turkey leg.
Yeah, but a Gershwinesque number. And people were just screamin'. And there was this huge letter-writing controversy by people who hadn't seen the show but were outraged.
So is it possible to do whatever you want, regardless of profit or popularity?
Well, one year, we almost went under—right after the Rodney King riots. No one wanted to go out—everything was so serious—so we did a show called Beyond the Valley of the Flight Attendants. Cheap comedy. That show made four times what any other show made. We were shoving extra seats into the theater—it saved our life.
I saw that one, too. Big-haired flight attendants screaming at me to sit the hell down and then throwing bags of peanuts at me. That was hot.
And we had to add a hand puppet when one of the actors dropped out—I mean, you have to go on. Theater wasn't invented for technical perfection. Those who do come know there's going to be something to the show. One reviewer said, "You go away with more than just a crumpled program."
One Tit Wonder at the Found Theatre, 251 E. Seventh St., Long Beach, (562) 433-3363; www.geocities.com/FoundTheatre. Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m. Through May 4. $10.