from Los Angeles Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

Play it fast and loose

Show up with a script, and it might go on stage that night. No fear. No Shame.

By Diane Haithman, Times Staff Writer

Pretend, for a moment, that the rules of Hollywood success have changed overnight. Imagine waking up to an entertainment industry in which getting that plum job as a writer, producer, director, singer or actor is no longer based on talent, beauty, connections, nepotism, age, sex, race, weight, the casting couch or that gorgeous, if somewhat misleading, head shot.

Instead, here in Dream Hollywood, the job always goes to the one who shows up first. ("And the Academy Award for best actress goes to Hilary Swank because she can out-sprint Annette Bening down the red carpet, even in heels.... ")

If these were the rules, Hollywood would be a lot like No Shame Theatre.

It's Friday night around 9:30 on the outdoor deck behind Santa Monica's Powerhouse Theatre, and the scripts are pouring in. But unlike a movie studio or a traditional theater workshop, there won't be months of waiting while various levels of readers, story editors and creative executives compare notes. There's no time.

Scripts are due by 10 p.m. The show starts inside the 75-seat theater at 11.

"It's first come, first served," says Mike Rothschild, an associate producer of the weekly show, as he sits at a table in the chill night air, grabbing pages from writers as though taking bets in a back alley. "Everybody who has a piece gives it to me. Once we've got 15 or 16 pieces, that's the show. The only people who are guaranteed a spot are the people who were bumped last week."

A "script" is loosely defined as anything on paper that outlines a three- to five-minute stage performance. Comedy, drama, dance, music, improv anything goes. The only rules are that your work be original and not cause physical damage to either the audience or the theater space.

All of the evening's performance slots are open, but executive producer Brian Rochlin says that an "amorphous" cadre of No Shame regulars, including the producers, tends to develop sometimes doing their own work, sometimes eager to participate in somebody else's. "The idea is for people to push the edge of their craft, to try something new. I like to say, to dare to fail," he says.

If you're not in the show, you pay $5 for admission. If you are, you get in free. In general, a No Shame host theater will take a nominal amount in the case of the Powerhouse, the first $100 to cover expenses, and whatever's left over (not much) is split between the No Shame producers and the theater. "Nobody's making any money off this," Rochlin says bluntly.

There is an unspoken rule that the audience, mainly made up of theater peers, will be unfailingly supportive. The show's creators hope participants will perceive No Shame as a road to self-discovery rather than just another showcase for being discovered.

Each performance opens with the profoundly silly "No Shame Theatre Song"; the audience chimes in for the chorus. Lyrics are subject to change. Audience members are invited to submit new lyrics to the No Shame website, www.noshame.org. "You don't need talent to write the opening song," tonight's singer, regular J.J. Hickey, assures the crowd.

Once your script is accepted, the show's producers will instantly pair you up with actors, director, lighting designer, whatever your script calls for although you supply your own props and costumes. Some writers prefer to bring their own cast, but actors also just show up and prowl the deck, looking for something to perform. "You get up onstage and you don't know what is going to happen," says actress Jenn Harp of Sherman Oaks. "Definitely some crazy stuff goes down."

No Shame music director Jonathan Price, whose ensemble song will be performed as this evening's closing act, pops out of the theater just before the show. "Anyone here who wants to sing a song?" he asks, sounding slightly desperate.

"Can you be a bad singer?" asks one of the assembled performers. "I mean, a really bad singer?"

"Sure," Price replies with no hesitation.

Says Jeff Goode, artistic director and a co-founder of No Shame Theatre, "I always have a hard time describing No Shame. It ends up sounding like an open-mike night. But it tends to have a very different personality than just stand-up or just folk singers.

"The structure is: Whoever shows up gets to make the show," continues Goode, also the writer of the dark holiday comedy "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues." "What's exciting is that you get to see things that people ordinarily wouldn't dare to do because there would be a screening process and they'd be afraid of being eliminated. People say: 'Oh, I just wrote this tonight' it's important to have someone come and say: 'That's theater.' "

As free-form as it might appear, No Shame Theatre is actually a 19-year-old theatrical institution one with franchises, in fact.

It was established at the University of Iowa in 1986 by student playwrights Todd Ristau and Stan Ruth. The first performance used as its stage the cargo bed of Ristau's green pickup truck, defiantly placed in the middle of the parking lot outside of the university's E.C. Mabie Theatre.

Since then, branches have sprung up in New York, Miami, Chicago, Cleveland, Austin, Texas, Charlottesville, N.C., and other cities, some started by original members, others by newcomers.

This summer, the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charlotte, S.C., will present its second No Shame showcase, also holding slots for walk-ins. The run at the Powerhouse Theatre, which opened March 4 and has been extended through April 29, marks the third No Shame incarnation in Los Angeles.

Goode says that No Shame tends to take on the character of the host city or organization. "Austin has a strong improv scene, so there's lots of improv. We have a couple of companies in Virginia, where there is a more conservative base, so there is a lot less religious heresy than here," he says. Because of the ready pool of professional actors, he adds that Los Angeles tends to provide more polished performances than you might find at No Shame on a college campus, where humor tends to run more to the scatological or "just plain messy."

Well-known No Shame alumni include John Leguizamo; Camryn Manheim; Toby Huss, who is featured in the HBO series "Carnivale"; playwrights Rebecca Gilman and Naomi Wallace; and screenwriter Rick Cleveland. "It's a weird hit-or-miss thing," says Huss, who participated in early No Shame shows in Iowa and New York. "I've watched a whole hour show and just left angry at how horrible people are, and then the next week go back and see something stunning and important.

"The best things were by these guys who'd never done anything before. Somebody who was obviously not an actor, maybe he was an accountant somewhere, but he did his thing and it was a beautiful piece of work. He'd come back a few times and then you'd never see him again."

Leguizamo performed with No Shame in New York in the late 1980s as he was developing his one-man shows "Mambo Mouth" and "Spic-O-Rama." He describes the scene as a "pressurized black fertile box" that was always "mad hot" in the summer, "mad cold" in the winter, but a great place to develop his characters.

"I was just starting to be part of the downtown performance art scene, and I heard that No Shame was more egalitarian than the other tough-to-crack places in the East Village," Leguizamo says via e-mail. "It was a one-piece-per-customer policy no long, one-hour indulgences allowed here.

"There was such an eclectic and off-the-wall scene. There were ranters, monologuists, duos, avant-gardists, absurdists. One guy just wore like 30 T-shirts and told a story through art or labels on the T-shirts."

Here in Santa Monica, writer David Capria of Beverly Hills does not wear multiple T-shirts, but he does have on hand a fluffy purple-and-yellow wig, a straw hat and a cute white bunny hand-puppet that will turn evil in his piece, which he describes as a "perverted children's show."

"This is just the perfect venue for the sick humor that I write," says Capria, who also performed a piece for the show's March 4 opening night spoofing the alarmist local newscasts during the recent rains, entitled "Terror From the Clouds." "I like the democratic way that people bring in stuff.

"It's either brilliant or you fall flat on your face. But that's part of the adrenaline of the show."

* No Shame Theatre
Where: Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica
When: 11 p.m. Fridays
Ends: April 29
Price: $5
Contact: (323) 646-0033


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