Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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20 years of drama

It was 20 years ago tonight that we opened Moving Arts. Not all of those 20 years have been easy — it’s never easy keeping any theatre open, let alone one devoted entirely to new plays — and in fact, some of them have been pretty hard. But still, I’m not surprised we’ve hit 20. We’ve got good people running the place; in fact, we’ve always had good people running the place.

Moving Arts began in 1990, on paper, as Acme Performance Group, Inc. Originally, it was going to be a production company called Acme Arts Co., under a different artistic director than me. The concept of the proto artistic director had been that with the name Acme Arts Co., we could do “anything” — we wouldn’t be limited to theatre. Now I know better: that in most cases, it’s better precisely to be limited to just one or two things. Unless your corporate name is Virgin. But it turned out that Acme Arts Co. was a name already registered in the state of California, so the name became Acme Performance Group, Inc. In other words, the name went from bad to worse. But after waiting a seeming eternity for that artistic director to do something, I decided to drive around, find a space we could afford, and call him up and tell him about it, and as politely as I could, to also tell him that I thought I should take the title of artistic director. “I think you should,” he said.

The space I found, 1822 Hyperion Avenue in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, had been a police substation. It was about large enough for two police and maybe their donuts. When the landlord, Bud Plochere, showed it to me and asked me what I wanted to do with it, I said, “I want to turn it into a theatre.” He stood inside and looked around and said, “You can’t open a theatre in here.” But we did. And we’ve been doing theatre there — and elsewhere — for 20 years now.

Over those 20 years, many hundreds of people have contributed their time and energy to Moving Arts and its productions. I do want to name just a relative fraction of them.

The founding board of Acme Performance Group, Inc. was: Eve Kathleen Baker, Julie Briggs, Gary Guidinger, Joe Stafford and myself. We never would’ve started the non-profit without Eve, who much like Johnny Appleseed sowed seeds wherever she went, but her seeds were non-profits; she started a lot of them, including ours. Eve died about five years ago (more, now?) and I still think about her frequently. And a special two-decade tip of the hat to my good friend Joe Stafford, who wrangled all the paperwork down at City Hall in 1992 while I was on the East Coast dealing with the death of my father; Joe made a friend in the bureaucratic maze and somehow navigated us through the other side.

The theatre was opened with $7,500. (!) Those founding funders were: Julie Briggs, her parents, Paul Crist, Joe Stafford, my mother, my wife and I, my brother Michael, and my wife’s grandfather, Frank Senn. Seven of them gave $1,000 each (that was the ask), and one gave $500. I remain grateful to them all.

There were many people who built the theatre, but the primary work crew was Marcy Ross, Tom Boyle, Rodger Gibson, David Krebs (now deceased), Julie, and myself. Rodger was an electrician and wired us throughout; Marcy was an ace carpenter; and Tom, as always, seemed to know how to do everything. I spent a lot of time scraping fake popcorn off the ceiling and inhaling lots of lung sealant in the process.

When it came time for a name for the place (I was damned if it was going to be Acme something), we compiled a sheet with three dozen or more alternatives. I no longer know where that sheet is (and I wish I did), but I do remember two names off it: Theatre X (which I came up with, and liked, but which got vetoed), and Moving Arts, courtesy of Steve Freedman. Nobody vetoed Moving Arts, and the more it stayed on the list, the more it grew on people. Thanks, Steve.

We’ve always had many talented, resourceful people in charge, but here are the true forces to be reckoned with, as I recall them.

Managing Directors: Julie Briggs, Rebecca Rasmussen, Lisa Payne Marschall, Michael Shutt, and especially, especially, our current hard-working (and long-suffering?) managing director Steve Lozier.

Artistic Directors: Julie Briggs again (about five years in, we adjusted titles and made her an equal artistic director with me; essentially, we’d already been producing partners since the founding), Kim Glann, and Paul Stein. (I was the founding artistic director, and I’m currently serving as artistic director again, on an interim basis, but really it’s in title only.)

Our Literary Director of many, many years, Trey Nichols.

Our incredible producer-director people, including Cece Tio, Sara Wagner, Terence Anthony, Mary McGuire, and Jane Sunderland.

And the many board members who’ve truly made a difference: Dan Beck, Jeannine Fairchild, Michael Curry, Mark Kinsey Stephenson, Kevin Scott, J. Hobart, Joe Stafford, Brian Newkirk, Marlene Coleman and Cris D’Annunzio among them.

And, finally, all the talented (and sometimes semi-talented) actors and designers and board ops and directors and playwrights who gave of their time and their energy. Thank you. Enormously.

Originally, my co-founder, Julie Briggs, just wanted to direct a play, one of mine. But I needed a place to work, and I hadn’t had a great time at the other place I’d tried to work. (The now long-closed Burbage Theatre.) And I didn’t like what I was seeing of other small theatres were run at the time. So I drove around and found the place we could afford to open. It was too small, and we had no money, and it was just the two of us. I figured you could do theatre anywhere, so the size wouldn’t stop us, and I knew even then that you can always get more money. But Julie wanted to know how just the two of us were going to do this. “We’ll get other people,” I told her, and that’s precisely what happened. One of the quips I share all the time is attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre: “Hell is other people.” But from day one, Moving Arts was built by other people. We thought we were building a theatre, but really we built a community.

6 Responses to “20 years of drama”

  1. Wendy Says:

    What a beautiful blog post on our history. I am truly honored to be a part of this company. I thank you for believing that you’d get “other people” and I am proud to be one of them! :)

  2. Werner Says:

    I could go on for days and days, pages and pages about what Moving Arts meant and means to me as a playwright and an oh-so-fortunate member of that community with an address in Arkansas. When I talk about theatre in the classes I teach now, I mention at the beginning how theatre is a collaborative act and a labor-intensive enterprise. Lee and the folks mentioned above certainly bore that out. Being able to play a small part in the history of Moving Arts is a part of my life that I will always remember and treasure. Long live Moving Arts.

  3. Thomas Boyle Says:

    It was very much a Mickey/Judy situation (my uncle has a police sub-station – let’s put on a show). I don’t know how to do much of anything but I am relentless when it comes to trial and error. I believe my greatest accomplishment was figuring out how to make the timer for the outside light work. What I mostly did was what was needed at the time (chip linoleum glue off the floor, paint walls, pull cable for Rodger). I’m just very good a making others think I know how to do everything.

    Moving Arts has permitted me to continue to act and write, which probably would not have been the case otherwise. I am privileged to have worked with some very fine actors, directors, writers and producers in a place that lets you come and do the work. And that’s all I every really wanted.

    Thank you Lee and Julie for asking me to come and play.

  4. Jill Stark Says:

    What an intense pleasure it is to read about the goings-on at Moving Arts, the best theater company in LA and the most wonderful theater experience of my life! So great to hear from Lee, and read about all the many incredible people that started and continue the legacy of Moving Arts. I now live in Florida but have so many fond memories of Moving Arts!!! I wish you all the best and if I get back to LA, I will definitely come see a show. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of the unforgettable art you create! Break a leg all………
    (And hi to Julie, Mark, Kevin, Tom and the rest of the gang!)

  5. Brad Henson Says:

    After all these years, I had never heard the complete story of Moving Arts. I am still grateful to you all for letting me be involved the few years I was there and that you are still going strong…..

  6. Joe Stafford Says:

    How much do I love being associated with Lee Wochner and Moving Arts? Let me wax Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

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