Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 50 and Going Strong

The year is 1969. In January, Richard Nixon is inaugurated as the 37th president of the United States of America. Ronald Regan was in his third of eight years as Governor of California.  For all intents and purposes, the American dream was alive and well.  The only hic-cup was a place called Vietnam.  And there was another problem, racism.  Oh, one more thing, women had the right to vote for nearly 50 years at this point, but they still couldn’t get a credit card without a male co-signer. And gay the word is not even fit for discussion in polite company.

 

Those were the days my friend

We thought they’d never end

We’d sing and dance forever and a day

We’d live the life we choose

We’d fight and never lose

For we were young and sure to have our way.

            Music by Foris Formin

            Lyrics by Gene Raskin

            Originally performed by Mary Hopkins

 

 

At the same time, Hair on Broadway was setting records, Woodstock would take place in August, The message of the civil rights movement was finally reaching whites and Women Lib was taking hold.

 

What was the American dream of the sixties? The plan that had been established by the “greatest generation”, was get an education, pick your career path and be loyal to the company that hires you. They will be your partner for life.   At home, you get a wife, 2.2 kids, a dog and your annual two-week vacation. What could go wrong?

 

Earlier in the decade, Ron Sossi had followed the plan. He went to the University of Michigan, his interest and studies had earned him a degree in theatre/television with a focus on writing.  Photography was a passion, and combining the two, theatre and photography led to a desire to create movies. Inspired by the films of Fellini, Kurosawa and Bergman, Ron moved to Los Angeles and earned a master’s degree in Film from UCLA.

 

What does a newly minted master’s degree in film get you? It got Ron a job as an assistant to a television producer. He was overseeing five different sitcoms. Ron says it was fun, till it wasn’t. Each night going home to tighten up scripts for shows like Bewitched was not fitting the dream that Ron had envisioned.

 

Earlier in that decade, President Kennedy had declared The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of the nation, is close to the center of a nation’s purpose – and is a test to the quality of a nation’s civilization. Kennedy inspired action and by 1965, we had the National Endowment for the Arts.  One of the benefits, all over the country, theatres began to spring up. In 1961, there were 23 regional theatres in America. By the end of the sixties, the number had grown to over 1,800.

 

Ron, now working with other television producers, advanced, and wrote several scripts for Rat Patrol. The dream, while working, was becoming tarnished, and “moving up the ladder” was not delivering happiness nor fulfilment.  Rescheduling episodes of Land of the Giants while sparking some attention was hardly a step in the right direction. How much more could Ron take?

 

Married at the time to a budding actress, Bonnie Franklin, Ron got involved with her acting group. Bonnie’s coach, who had worked with Bertolt Brecht, she had collected a group of dedicated actors. This group, working together, digging deep into the exercises and methodology of the era was the foundation for The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (OTE). But before they could get beyond the exercise work in the newly formed collective, the coach was offered a position developing a theatre in New Mexico. Regional theatres were popping up everywhere.

 

In working with actors, Ron had found a gratification that was missing from his work in television. But who transitions from television to theatre?

 

In 1969, they – Ron and the acting group – rented space on Hollywood Blvd.  The neighborhood was seedy, next door there was a porn theater, but the rent was right, and so began the journey of OTE.  There is some question as to the first show. Be it Brecht’s A Man’s A Man, or The Greeks.  which was a six-hour two-night production.  What is well established is that the second production was The Serpent by Jean-Claude van Italie. The show was so well received, that it ran for eight months, and put the OTE on the map as an important company to follow in a town where theatre was barely more than a whisper.

 

in the first three years, six shows were produced at this location. Ron directed three of them. Ron laughs when he recalls that the soundtrack of the movies next door could be heard during performances.  Often with a climactic crescendo at the most inappropriate moments. The solution, the stage manager, would have cues in his prompt book as to when to run next door and ask that the volume be turned down.

 

As is the case with many theatre companies, when it came time to renew the lease, the rent became unmanageable, so it was time to come up with new digs. The next 15 years, from ’73 to ’88, saw OTE produce more than 100 shows at the new location on Ohio Ave.

 

From the beginning, the focus had been on bringing international voices to the LA stage. World theatre was providing opportunities to address many of the ills that plagued society.  And as the relevance of the plays became more apparent, the company began creating and producing original works. Many then went on to longer lives with productions elsewhere. Two amongst many were Tracers and The Chicago Conspiracy Trial.

 

At the end of 1988, it was once again time to move.  Ron found a space on Sepulveda Boulevard which happened to belong to the City of Los Angeles.  Serving on numerous civic committees and panels helped pave the way to strike a deal.  Since then, 2055 S. Sepulveda has been home and residence to The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.

 

Ron Sossi had succeeded. He’d gone from neophyte filmmaker to a renowned theatre producer and director.

 

But success is an elusive term. Building a stable environment and support structure to advance the creation of challenging and influential theatre is one marker.  But was it enough? How do you sell a theatre to a city obsessed with what can be mistaken as a replacement of theatre, film and television.

 

Early on, while still working in television, Ron had discovered that the correlation between film, television and theatre were coincidental. While the same artists were employed, the definition of success was quite different. Theatre’s first focus is on art, with a trust that economic success is to follow.  Film and television, by and large, were and still are focused on the business side of show-business. Financial success first, with art being the commodity sold.  And while art is still an operative in “the industry” mass marketing trends to the lowest common denominator and that takes the edge off of the art.

 

And then there was Equity.  Since the formation of Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), there has been a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles theatre.  LA had a concentration of actors, most transplants looking to break into “the industry”.  Back in the 40s, an understanding had been established wherein members of AEA could work on small (99 seats or less) stages without a contract. Several times since then, AEA has tried to cancel this accord and has repeatedly made adjustments, or tightened the screws, more restrictions, shorter rehearsals, shorter runs.  All actions that were oppositional to creating the type of theatre that had been the staple of OTE. For more than 35 Years, Ron was at the forefront trying to hold back the onslaught from the misguided union.

 

Good theatre requires great artists.  Looking at the roster of talent that has worked at the Odyssey, it reads like a Who’s Who of the entertainment world. Hundreds of actors, directors, designers have been engaged while they built their skills and resumés. Other companies got their start by working on Odyssey stages. 24th Street Theatre and New American Theatre are just two of many that produced for years at the Odyssey.

 

For fifty years now, the prime challenge of creating great theatre has been met by Mr. Sossi and the OTE. With more than 300 plays produced, many earning great recognition and awards, Ron could sit back and say I’ve accomplished something of substance. Just the fact that he has produced the entire Brecht canon is enough to earn respect.  But for Ron, it is not yet enough.

 

Never one to sit on his laurels, Ron continues to pilot The Odyssey. This year alone, he has directed Faith Healer and is getting ready to start working on a remount of The Serpent. Despite the obstacles, Ron knows that OTE has filled a niche and helped build a culture that is now well established and artistically flourishing.

 

Looking back, the song does apply,

 

We’d live the life we choose

We’d fight and never lose

For we were young and sure to have our way.

 

 

About Peter Finlayson

monsterid
Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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