In a time when events of a century ago seem especially significant — 100 years after the Spanish flu pandemic ended and American women won the right to vote, the coronavirus pandemic hit and six women sought the Democratic presidential nomination — the Antaeus Theatre Company unearthed an interesting homage to that era.
With stage productions indefinitely shut down, the Glendale performing arts group was among countless others suddenly out of work nearly a year ago. However, the local troupe did not remain idle. Using homemade recording studio kits, actors recorded audio-only short plays penned and directed by other artists in the theater company, works that told historical stories about Los Angeles’ myriad neighborhoods.
Six of these ZIP Code Plays were released for listening in November, and their success — reflected in their far-flung listenership — has paved the way for a second round of productions that is being planned now.
“It’s been extraordinary,” said Kitty Swink, Antaeus’ artistic director. “To have over 30,000 people listen to them is wonderful. We don’t have that many people pass through our doors in Glendale in a year.”
The six plays — representing the 90011 postal area in South Central Los Angeles, 90012 in downtown L.A., 90024 in Westwood, 90272 in Pacific Palisades, 90403 in Santa Monica and 91352 in Sun Valley — range from 11 to 30 minutes long and are freely available on the theater’s website. Each production has no more than three cast members, who use only their voices to tell the stories, in a manner that harks back to the radio dramas that preceded television as the principal home entertainment option.
“We forget in theater that there are barriers for people,” Swink said. “It’s a lot to ask people to spend $35 for a ticket. A lot of people in the world can’t afford that, but they can click on these audio plays and hear them for free.”
Swink said there was also a natural opening for using this medium, as podcasts and audiobooks have become regular parts of our routines — at least for Angeleno commuters.
“Your imagination is so vivid when you listen to those,” she said, speaking by phone. “We wanted geographical diversity, ethnic diversity; we wanted to highlight how broad the city is. I lived in New York for a long time and I spent a lot of my life traveling. L.A. is one of the most diverse places in the world, and that can be thrilling. It breaks down walls when people live together in the way that we do.”
The stories, which often adapt real-world situations or contexts, are notably diverse. The play “90024” — the works take their titles from the respective ZIP codes — concerns an 80-year-old woman under FBI investigation after she joined a street protest, while “91352” chronicles a nearly blind woman on the hunt for a car part at a Sun Valley salvage yard so she can take one last drive in her beloved Subaru Impreza WRX. The satirical “90403” pits a woman on trial before the “Floral and Fauna Committee” for the high crime of plucking a piece of fruit from a neighbor’s tree.
Last week, cast and crew members gathered for a question-and-answer session for “90272” — subtitled “Annexing the Palisades” — which concerned the infamous Murphy Ranch, home to members of the white supremacist Silver Legion in 1939. Starring Nike Doukas, Harry Groener and Adrian LaTourelle, the 23-minute piece illustrates how virulent racial prejudice can manifest itself among otherwise mainstream and aristocratic members of society.
In many ways, the play was written to reflect present-day reckonings with hard-to-see prejudices and highlight large-scale support for then-President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric that pilloried immigrants and sometimes were regarded as dog whistles to white supremacists.
“I found it to be an oddity and an interesting part of the past,” playwright Alex Goldberg said during last week’s session. “As times changed after the 2016 election, things became a little more relevant with that story. You think history’s gone away — ‘Oh, we solved that problem’ — but then it came bubbling back.
“It does come full circle,” he added, noting the existence of 39 documented, active hate groups in Los Angeles County, “and that’s what I was going for.”
Groener, who plays Norman Stephens, the anti-Semitic owner of Murphy Ranch, touched on recording at home using egg carton foam pads to mimic the usual studio space — “I came to realize I think I prefer performing in an egg crate box,” he quipped — along with iPads for silent script reading and other ad hoc equipment.
“In ‘South Central,’” Swink chimed in, “there’s some serious kissing and a fistfight, which the actors did for themselves. I didn’t know it would be so sexy for people to kiss this part of their hand, but it’s toasty.”
Being offstage — i.e., relying on your voice and not having cues from fellow cast members — also was an interesting adaptation, Groener said.
“It’s just a different way of working,” he said. “You just have to try to convey the emotions or the action of the scene through your voice. As long as you have a good director — and we did — it just kind of ends up working out. All of us had ended up working together before, and that helps.
“When you work with somebody as often as we all have, you can almost see their faces as they’re performing,” Groener added. “I know Nike and Adrian, so it wasn’t very difficult.”
Doukas starred as Winona Stephens, wife of Norman, while LaTourelle played craftsman Joseph Kurtz, who slowly picked up on the prejudices and dispositions that would preclude him, a Jewish German immigrant, from taking a job for the Stephenses.
“One of the reasons we chose our three actors is because they have such distinct, wonderful voices and they were able to convey that,” explained director Ann Noble, who highlighted the transatlantic accents of the time and noted LaTourelle’s careful slips of his German accent when flustered. “We all know that if we get a little stressed out or have a couple glasses of wine, the accent comes out.”
Noble added that she appreciated Goldberg’s script for showcasing how subtly racism and prejudice can present itself in society.
“You wouldn’t know that he had this belief system, and that’s important,” she said, of character Norman Stephens. “Evil doesn’t just present itself as ‘muhahaha.’ One of the points of Alex’s play is that we don’t know what people have been through and what helps people form their beliefs.”
Antaeus is presently preparing its next six ZIP Code Plays, having received a pair of scripts already — “We did not get a Glendale pitch, but who knows what will happen in the future?” added Swink, who is producing the projects.
The artistic director said she anticipated finding a way to continue the project even after the end of the pandemic and the return to the theater’s performance center on Broadway. Listeners have tuned in from Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ireland, among many other areas throughout the world, she said.
“The pandemic has been quite difficult,” Swink added, “but there have been some opportunities in it and this is one of them.”
The plays can be heard at antaeus.org/plays-events/zipcode-plays, or wherever you listen to podcasts.