Spinning Straw into gold
Slowly but surly, survivor Strawdog Theatre turns 20.
On its surface, Strawdog Theatre Company has every reason to have gone away by now. The whereabouts of certain original founding members, for example, are unknown to the current management. Several companies of similar size and mission that began around the same time (Famous Door, Roadworks) have long since dissolved and scattered to the four winds. And the programming is just elusive enough to make it tough to pin down what exactly defines a Strawdog show.
Yet this fall Strawdog turns 20, meaning it was founded when many of its current ensemble members were in middle school. The lesson, it seems, is that sometimes it really isn’t bad to be the tortoise.
Although plenty have come and gone through a well-greased revolving door, the company’s gradually accumulated crop of 31 active members is a host of strong non-Equity actors, designers, technicians and even live musicians who can be seen regularly throughout the city. Most go financially uncompensated, but remain on board because, according to artistic director Nic Dimond, “Strawdog is a for-the-love-of-the-game kind of place.” (Operating at around $170,000 annually, the company has no full-time staff; most administrative duties are handled by artists.) Meanwhile, the group’s Buena Park space has slowly transformed from second-story rathole to an inviting complex that retains its funkiness without scaring anybody away.
This week, the theater christens season 20 with Brian Friel’s Aristocrats (directed by Broadway refugee Rick Snyder, the one Steppenwolf ensemble member who won’t join his castmates in the New York transfer of August: Osage County this fall). But while the play is the main event, Strawdog has managed to create enough of a nightlife scene that the casual visitor might not even know he’s stepped into a theater.
If you walk through the handsomely lacquered lobby and past the entrance to the theater space, you’ll find yourself in Hugen Hall, a onetime rehearsal room that has been spruced up to double as a late-night cabaret and bar. It’s there that an increasingly popular comedic shenanigan called The Game Show Show (a regularly changing satire of game-show culture created by Strawdog artists and others) and a lineup of bands can serve either as chasers to the mainstage activity or as freestanding events. The resultant foot traffic has given the place new bustle, upping the party vibe while reinforcing Strawdog’s identity as a venue—which is key to an ensemble that takes on willy-nilly projects ranging from live radio plays to golden-era Broadway plays whose casts number more than 40.
“We’re not topic-driven, we’re not style-based. We just like doing plays together,” Dimond admits. Built on a relatively democratic model—all ensemble members are inducted only after unanimous company vote—the troupe was headed by an artistic collective before Dimond took the lead in 2003. And even with a singular artistic director, the shows have been all over the map: a mash-up of punk Shakespeare, traditional stagings of Americans and Brits and experiments like a hip-hop bowling musical.
But the two things tying it all together were a collective work ethic and an address. “The difference is that we have a home,” says Tim Zingelman, the company’s senior-most member, who joined as a technician in 1992. “A single style is something that Strawdog has always had a hard time putting its finger on. But the space grounds us.”
While maintaining real estate can be a dangerous liability for a nonprofit, Zingelman claims it’s also been a life-saver in times of financial woe. “No one wants to donate money to help you pay off a debt. They want to donate money to produce something new,” Zingelman says. “If we produce a show and lose money on it, we can rent out the space to make some of that back.”
Interestingly, while the newly redesigned lobby and Hugen Hall (which Dimond estimates cost about $20,000 to renovate) look slicker than ever, the theater itself still retains a skeletal feel. And the famously tricked-out bathrooms—chock-full of chain-link and antiquated trappings that might suit the maxim “One man’s trash…”—remain ungentrified.
Though recent trimmings like air-conditioning and new risers have increased audience comfort, they’re not enough to fool onetime storefront actor Snyder. “What I like about Strawdog,” the Steppenwolf actor says, “is how small and intimate and bare-bones it is.”
Aristocrats is now slumming at Strawdog.