Imagine it: a damaged math genius traps himself in his basement with his technology…
Only the basement is actually the St. Mark’s parish hall, temporarily transformed by “North by South,” a nonprofit theater company in residence at and partnering with the Glendale church to highlight social and global justice issues.
Eudoxus is the play and its writer and director, Julianne Homokay, is both a St. Mark’s arts minister and the managing director and founder of North by South, which aims to both provoke conversation and promote the arts.
A veteran of musical theater, Homokay works for CBS-TV’s Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. She collaborated with St. Mark’s rector, the Very Rev. Canon Mark Weitzel, who “wanted to look for ways to increase creative fellowship opportunities for parishioners and to become a vibrant place for sacred arts,” Homokay said during a recent interview.
“And we wanted to create opportunities for other artists,” she added. “One of the obstacles to producing theater in Los Angeles is rent on space and overhead. Being hosted at St. Mark’s removes that consideration … so many theater artists are desperate for opportunities and a chance to do meaningful work.”
Connecting the community
Hosting a resident theater company also means new opportunities for parish fellowship and mission.
“The parish makes up about half of our audiences and we’ve had a couple of parishioners volunteer on a couple of different levels,” Homokay said. “We’ve also been able to hire a homeless woman and her daughter to be greeters for one of our shows. We look for those opportunities, too.”
As North by South begins its second season, possibilities for the arts ministry are “pretty exciting,” agreed Weitzel, who serves along with the Rev. Susie Fowler Kenny, St. Mark’s vocational deacon, on the theater company’s advisory board.
“Part of what we do is allow people to worship and engage God with all their senses,” Weitzel said during a Feb. 4 telephone interview.
“Art is a wonderful way to say that God is in the mystery, but we don’t have to quantify it all. But, if we put things out here, here’s a way to interact with God and each other and find a thin place. It breaks down some of the boundaries between ‘in-church’ and ‘out-of-church’. We can all engage art, whether we’re conservative, liberal or whatever the latest issue. It makes for dialogue and relationship with each other.”
It is about creating “another door” for people to enter to experience the church and “our perspective of the world, our theology and to overcome their preconceived ideas — which are mostly erroneous — about who we are,” he added.
“If you can invite people in and have that conversation, they can experience us and our hospitality and you never know how that might open their hearts to God, to the Episcopal Church, in a new way,” he said.
Performance space, inside and out
It also involves opening up nontraditional theater space in creative ways.
Instead of using the parish hall’s stage for Eudoxus, for example, Homokay used it to seat the audience. Other props helped create the sense that the audience was looking down into the isolated basement of Travis Berry, the subject of the one-man play, she said.
The parish memorial garden became the setting for North by South’s first production, West of the Line, written by Jeremiah Munsey and set in a remote section of the Belgian forest in 1945.
The outdoor setting made for “natural realism,” said Munsey, 33, during a recent telephone interview. “We also got sirens, and helicopters and the restaurant down the street with blaring discotheque, but I don’t have any regrets about where we staged it. It was well worth doing and I got a lot out of the production.”
Like most of North by South’s plays, West of the Line involves a moral dilemma. A young American soldier during World War II has befriended a German soldier while guarding him, but is ordered to execute his prisoner.
Munsey hopes that his North by South productions will lead to productions in other and larger venues as “an example of the new play development process in Los Angeles working.”
Homokay’s Eudoxus is an example. It was co-produced by North by South and the Whitefire Theatre Company in Sherman Oaks on Feb. 16, part of what Munsey calls the “Hollywood Fringe Festival.”
Afterwards, she said, the play “takes on a life of its own, hopefully.”
Expression and change
The St. Mark’s arts ministry’s contribution to assist struggling writers, directors, producers and others is instrumental in providing fresh opportunities for expression and change.
“St. Mark’s is doing a very good thing,” Munsey said. “They have high expectations, which I think means they have a high opinion of the parish and of the message they’re sending. They’re not just expecting people to come to church on Sunday.
“I’ve gotten the impression that the people at St. Mark’s are interested in shaking things up a little bit,” he added. “They want to engage with parishioners. It’s L.A. There’s a lot of artistically minded, progressively minded people in the parish who see plays like West of the Line and Eudoxus as a way of getting the parish engaged.”
Another of Munsey’s plays, May the Lord Take a Liken to You, is part of North by South’s 2013 line-up of productions, and will be presented Oct. 4 – 5 and 11 – 12.
Set in the West Virginia coal country, it involves a group of coal miner’s widows who are driven to desperate measures because of labor abuses, he said.
“I’m from West Virginia and to the best of my knowledge, there aren’t a lot of plays about Appalachia,” he said. “Nobody’s putting Appalachia’s problems and the separate world that it is in the United States on the stage. It’s a part of what I feel is my mission as a writer and as an artist, to try to rectify that.”
He added: “There are stories there. And hopefully maybe I can counteract some of the negative portrayals. The last play I can think of on Broadway about West Virginia was a play called Bat Boy: the Musical about a half-human, half-bat hybrid. It’s the only time West Virginia was ever featured on Broadway.
“I try to write these plays because no one else is. It’s where I come from and I’m both fascinated and vexed by the whole thing.”
By taking a chance on him and others the St. Mark’s arts ministry is giving voice to issues of change, he added.
“A play isn’t a play until it’s performed. Until then it’s just a blueprint,” he said. “St. Mark’s gives us chances to grow and experiment and bring them to life and that’s very encouraging.”
Look for other exciting productions this season, such as a musical about a young walrus in the Bering Strait who wants to swim like the seals and save his herd from vanishing sea ice, co-written by Homokay and Ron Barnett, St. Mark’s director of music and sacred arts.
For Barnett, the theater company “is as much about outreach as about entertainment. North By South does hard-hitting, question-asking theatre, that will challenge an audience, make them think about a subject.”
It also helps people to experience the parish in another way, added Barnett, who does sound design and serves on the advisory board.
“Having the theater company in residence in the Episcopal Church is not only great fun but you can experience the Gospel from another angle,” he said. “It seems more real.”
To learn more about North by South theater company, visit its website at www.northbysouththeatrela.org.