Stayin' Alive - Intimate Theatre in L.A.
Feature by Willard Manus

For some time now, the VS. Theatre Company has been a solid member of the L.A. intimate-theatre community, mounting an impressive body of work over the years. A non-profit organization, it primarily produces world, west coast and L.A. premieres by leading American playwrights.

The company’s stated mission is to:

-- “develop and/or produce original works and rarely performed plays from major playwrights”

–-“explore the human potential for triumph and tragedy”

–-“champion the theatre as a living art form; to reach out to a larger and more diverse audience”

–- “entertain and challenge that audience”

To learn more about the company–-and ask how it was coping with the pandemic-- Willard Manus conducted the following interview with the company’s artistic director, Johhny Clark.

1) Will the VS Theatre Co be able to survive the pandemic? Are you taking any special steps to help keep it alive?

I sure hope so. We have some savings that will help us with rent and utilities in the short-term. We pay our artists and designers whenever we do a show. But there is no salary/ fixed overhead. I volunteer all my time. Have always done so. That helps with costs. With so many people out of work and hurting right now, it just doesn’t feel right to be fundraising. At some point in the future, we’ll get to work on raising money.

2) When was the company formed and who were the people behind it? Why did they feel it was necessary to put together a new company?

2004. Myself and Kimberly Rose-Wolter founded the company with an emphasis on doing new plays for Los Angeles audiences. Contemporary plays we loved that just weren’t getting down out here. Small cast, actor driven pieces. Our first show, The Credeaux Canvas, ran 6 months and sold out every night. Beginner’s luck. :) Suddenly, a theater company was born!

3) How has the company been financed? Are there, say, one or two big donors? Or has it been supported by dues-paying members?

We have some donors, small grants, and foundation support. Plus rental income from classes and workshops in our space. We have a wonderful company, Inkwell Theatre, which is in residence at our space. They do a Playwrights Lab every year which is excellent. And to quote the great Tennessee, we sometimes “rely on the kindness of strangers.” We are NOT a dues paying company.

4) How many plays has the company produced over the years? How many of them have been originals? Have any of the latter gone on to be produced elsewhere?

20 plays. All except for one (True West last year) was either an Original/West Coast/Los Angeles Premiere. 5 or 6 of those 20 have been co productions.

5) Have you always worked out of your small theatre on W. Pico Blvd? Do you own or rent this space?

We were itinerant until Summer, 2012. Then moved into the theatre on Pico. Used to be called The Black Dahlia Theatre. My good friend Matt Shakman founded and ran it for years (He’s now the Artistic Director for the Geffen Playhouse). They did amazing work and it was always my favorite place to see theatre. I’m so grateful that when he moved out we were able to take it over and have been there ever since. We lease the space. Not own.

6) Has the company ever received any financial help or other kinds of support from the city of Los Angeles? And/or from the film or tv industry? If so, please describe it.

Yes. We’ve received some grants over the years from the city of Los Angeles.

7) What kind of contract with Actors Equity do you work under? Are AE’s recent regulations concerning the intimate theatre scene in L.A. a good or bad thing?

We work under the Membership Company & Under 50-seat agreement.

8) The last play you produced, “The Water Tribe,” was in partnership with Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA. Is this a permanent partnership or simply a one-shot deal?

That was the first time we partnered with EST/LA. I’ve always admired their work and I’m a big fan of the playwright, Don Cummings. This was a great opportunity to partner and I hope there will be other opportunities down the road.

9) The pandemic aside, what do you see as the key to your survival
in the years to come?

What we’ve always done. Only produce those shows we’re truly passionate about. Pure love for the art. That’s what led us to this point and I have to believe it will allow us to continue.

10) What’s the best thing about running a small theatre company in L.A? What’s the worst? It would be good if you could also describe a producing experience that still makes you laugh when you look back on it.

I work a full time job to support my theatre habit. :) Running VS. is a true labor of love for me. It’s a calling, a vocation. Nothing excites me more that seeing a great play done well in an intimate space. I’m blessed every day to get the opportunity to find and manifest plays I love and work with artists I truly respect and admire. I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve been working with the same design team—set, light, costumes and violence design since 2007. Also, we have one resident director, Ron Klier, who directs a lot fo what we do. He is one of my closest friends and was also with VS. from the very beginning. VS. is really like a close family.

11) Is there a last word you’d like to say to the theatre-lovers who will be reading this interview?

Thank you for supporting VS. and live theatre. I can’t wait to see you at VS. again. And please when the pandemic has run its course and it’s safe to go out, please go see plays all over town. There is so much good theatre to see here in Los Angeles and all over the country.