Courtesy Rude GuerrillaDave Barton couldn't have felt higher. Not only had his Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. just secured the rights to a play filled with pistol fucking and penis severing, the piece was Blasted, the most notorious play written by Sarah Kane, the most notorious playwright of the past 10 years.
Only one other theater in the country had produced this intensely graphic anti-war play about human cruelty and depravity—and that was in New York. But Rude Guerrilla's association with the tight-fisted English agent who represented the late Kane's literary estate gave the small, decidedly left-of-center Santa Ana troupe the inside track.
Flushed by this rather awesome coup—"Theaters everywhere were trying to get it," Barton said—he decided against staging Blastedin his company's cramped, 40-seat theater in Santa Ana.
"If we were going to do a play like this, I wanted maximum exposure," Barton said. "I knew if we did it in Orange County, we'd get three reviews if we were lucky. But doing it in Los Angeles would bring out far more reviewers."
Barton looked at a few theaters before deciding on a Burbank space managed by the same guys who run the Gem Theater in Garden Grove. No, it ain't Hollywood or the Westside, but at least you can spit on them from Burbank. And "it was a great space. Deep stage, dressing rooms with a workshop and storage place in back. It was ideal," Barton said.
He had the space, the play and, he believed, the critical mass that would ensure an audience. So, he and a handful of others cracked open their piggy banks and invested $10,000 for a six-week run that would begin June 18.
"I figured we'd make our money back at the very least," Barton said. "But we lost our shirts."
Blasteddrew 40 people on the best night. Five people showed on the worst night. Of the 300 people overall who attended during those six weeks, many were from OC.
Total box office: $2,300.
Barton, his cast and crew would leave Orange County every Friday afternoon at 3:30. They'd roll into Burbank about 5 p.m., set the stage at 6, turn up the lights at 8 and get back home around 11:30. That's an eight-hour shift at a job that's actually costingyou money.
The drive was brutal, the audiences dismal and the box-office pathetic.
"And that was with the best reviews I'd ever received," said Barton, who sometimes reviews other people's plays for OCWeekly. Eight publications reviewed the show; only our sister paper LAWeeklyfailed to slobber praise. But the overall good press wasn't enough to prevent the actors from hearing crickets from the aisles on most nights.
Barton and his cohorts experienced the same lesson that countless actors, writers and other creative types from OC learn while humbling themselves doing the audition, producing and industry-ladder-climbing game in Los Angeles: no one gives a fuck about you, and the competition is fierce among those vying for a chance to have no one in LA give a fuck about you.
So here's what Barton learned from the ordeal:
1) Don't produce theater in Burbank. "It's a TV town; no one cares about theater or goes there to see theater."
2) Don't spend your own money producing theater.
3) Don't stage an incendiary, anti-war play about the brutality of armed conflict at a time when American war casualties are mounting.
But perhaps the most important thing Barton learned—make that re-learned—is producing a play in LA didn't make him feel any more legitimate as an artist.
"It doesn't make you legitimate to work in Los Angeles, but it does give you more exposure," Barton said. "We got eight reviews. And if you're not going to get financially remunerated for your work, you at least want something you believe in and you think says something to be noticed. That means reaching up and painting on a larger canvas."
Now that he lost his ass, no one saw the play, and it was a nightmare staging it, Barton says, "Fuck LA theater," right?
Uh . . . not quite. In June, exactly one year after Blastedbombed, Barton and Rude Guerrilla are mounting Mark Ravenhill's sexually explicit play SomeExplicitPolaroidsat the Celebration Theatre in Hollywood. It's the same cast and staging as the troupe's much-lauded 2003 production, so Barton thinks "it's going to travel a lot better." Plus, the theater is in a better location, it's cheaper, and the show is much less expensive to mount.
"We've done this show already; we know it's good," he said. "I feel passionately about the play, and it's one of the best experiences I've ever had in the theater."
And then, on a more somber note, he adds, "I'm at the age where if anything is going to happen in my artistic career, it's going to happen now or never. So, one more time [in LA] at least."