Open Fist’s Anti-Hero

the gary plays
Playwright Murray Mednick & director Guy Zimmerman (Photo: Gabrieal Griego)

Collaborators and artistic directors Guy Zimmerman of Padua Playwrights and Martha Demson of Open Fist Theatre Company,  will tell you, The Gary Plays are a pure product of Los Angeles.  Each part written here and culturally borne of this very city is a sort of Homeric tale prescient in its day, now living in the present moment.  An octet of plays written by Murry Mednick, they portray economic and spiritual distress in the contemporary urban wilderness of Los Angeles, drawn through the narrative of Gary Bean, an unemployed actor, everyman and anti-hero.

How did The Gary Plays develop?

Guy: Murray was one of the main playwrights at Theatre Genesis in New York, during the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway years, along with Sam Shepard and Irene Forness. In the 1970s there was a diaspora to L.A. and Murray started the Padua Hills Playwright Festival that continued through 1995.

I was involved early in the 90s as a playwriting student and a director. In 2000, after a five-year break, Murray hired me to be the artistic director. In that break, I was at the Oxblood Theatre Company.  We had an open slot and I wondered, “What’s Murray got?” He sent me a play with just lines and not even a single character attribution called Tirade for Three which we performed at a theater in Silver Lake.

After that, every couple of years I’d get a new Gary Play. It eventually became obvious that we should put them together. To do that I needed a partner.  I had previously worked with Martha at Open Fist.  So it was a natural ideal partnership with Martha’s think-out-of-the-box approach and willingness to take on a challenging project.

Murray has made a unique contribution to theater…

Guy:  Murray has always had a very undervalued presence in American Theater. He brought a certain way of working from the Off-Off-Broadway movement to Los Angeles where it’s thrived and had a great deal of influence on L.A. playwrights who collaborate fairly directly with actors to create new work. In some ways, Murry evolved a new mode of Avant-Garde plasticism that is innovative and also resonates all the way back to Shakespeare and the Greeks to something really essential about what theater is. Padua was an extended community of this practice.

What’s the attraction here for theater-going audiences?

Guy: We’re in a hyper-mediated culture now. So theater suddenly has this remarkably, direct and unmediated contact between audience and performance.

Martha: We as human beings feel the things that others feel when we’re in a room together. People who are coming out to playhouses are finding those bonds and a sense of community. The Gary Plays are looking at this era of individualism at this time in Los Angeles that is actually alienating us from each other. We’ve been promised big brightness. In actuality, we are walking side-by-side with the angel of death. We need each other. Otherwise, our mortality is just right there.

The landscape of Los Angeles is so embedded in the work we do. The Gary Plays looks at that very overtly.  It’s a tangible and profound spiritual odyssey of transfiguration and possibility for L.A.

Guy: The Gary Plays are a product and a neo-film noir, portrait of Los Angeles, about an unemployed actor who’s carrying his son’s ashes down the L.A. river to the sea. They’re mythic. They touch upon the great American middle-class nightmare of falling into homelessness and destitution. Yet they are full of tremendous poetic verticality that can speak directly to younger audiences.

Do you see the Gary Plays as more relevant today than when they were first produced?

Guy: The U.S. is darker now than the beginning of The Gary Plays, and I feel like it’s a testament to Murray’s insight as a writer. He was really listening and hearing and articulating what was happening underneath the surface. The experimentation in these plays is going to be fertile for younger playwrights for decades.

The plays are a fascinating psychology. You see the fracture of a man’s inner life.  Tirade For Three in a sense is an essential distillation of tragedy and a marketable reinvention of the classic chorus.

Martha: When The Gary Plays were first written I think they felt very dark to audiences. But that dark reflecting mirror now seems much clearer. As the plays develop we see the architecture of L.A. emerge.  This journey is a meta-story created completely through language, also personal because the inciting incident, a senseless shooting, was a true one. The father, who represents every man, needs to come to terms with the death of his son, the death of his relationship with his two wives, the death of his career, all things that maybe he’s never known intimately.

The Gary Plays have been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is a take on Homer’s Odyssey. Do you think epic storytelling has a place today?

Guy: Yes. I think there is a return to epic in theater.  Murray’s work looks like everyday speech but it’s actually iambic pentameter, rhythmic in the same way as Shakespeare. Yet as Beckett is the other great influence, there’s a minimalist, decadian vibe that adds a dark humor. Then beautiful lyrical passages where characters confront issues that drive the cultural dysfunction we’re now seeing everywhere – the individual with no access to community who feels isolated by failure, shame, and all sorts of issues.

Tirade For Three is the shortest piece at 35 minutes. The others, although compressed, are full-length. There are two more Gary Plays, but we’re not doing them this time. They digress off the main arc that we’re covering.

What would you say is a defining element?

Guy: When I came out to L.A. from New York to work in TV it struck me, in New York, you can kind of ignore America. You’re in this little environment where it’s as if all the creative talented people got rolled into a place that exists as this little island between America and Europe.

In L.A. you are in America and that’s part of why Murray’s conversation here is so telling about where the country has gone.  Because in L.A., you cannot ignore America. LA is a 21st-century city. It’s the most multi-ethnic city in the world. And because Los Angeles Intimate Theater is defiantly not part of the marketplace economy, with the current cultural warfare, the stakes are high.  That means the work we do is that much more valuable.

Martha:  You have enormous vibrant theatricality and big, kinetic intimacy here.  It’s free artistic expression and very addictive.

What about The Gary Plays resonates here for the future of Open Fist?

Martha: Open Fist Theatre was founded in 1990.  We are a company whose reputation has been made on large-scale ensemble drama. We look at different theatrical traditions from the newest Avant-Garde to 1930’s screwball comedy to the classics with an eye on how the stage community creates binding relationships with society.

To me, the fist has always been a protest sign of determination, openness, inclusivity and diversity.  We live those values in the work we do. This symbol has embodied the company for twenty-seven years. Now it’s also finding resonance in a large community that wants to stand together.

No outside force is going to determine the course of the Open Fist Company’s artistic future. That is ours to determine. So many challenges have been thrown up over the years, financial and spiritual. But nothing will stop us until we decide we don’t have something to say or to do.

About Tracey Paleo

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Tracey Paleo is Associate Editor at FootLights Magazine. She's also the Founder and Chief Editor of the arts and culture site, Gia On The Move, where she often reviews live performance events.

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