The Odyssey of a Lifetime
Ron Sossi recalls the road he traveled to become a fixture on the LA theater scene.
By Bob Verini
Ron Sossi, founder and artistic director of Odyssey Theatre
Photo courtesy Odyssey Theatre
Ask theatergoers in Los Angeles to name one of the best places to see a production, and most will name Odyssey Theatre among their favorites. Ron Sossi founded it in the late 1960s, and throughout the years he has remained its artistic director. Today, the Odyssey occupies an iconic blue building on Sepulveda Boulevard in West Los Angeles, housing three 99-Seat theaters, where theatergoers can see classics, world premieres, musicals, solo shows—anything, Sossi says, that is “very exciting” and “extremely interesting.”
Bob Verini interviewed Sossi by telephone in June 2015, in the midst of Odyssey Theater’s 46th season.
Bob Verini: How did you come to form the theater, and how does it operate as an organization today?
Ron Sossi: Ironically, it was originally formed out of frustration. We make plans but life happens anyway. I found myself now 46 years later running a theater, which isn’t necessarily what I would have planned. I came out to Hollywood, to Los Angeles, to go to UCLA graduate film school from the University of Michigan. After I got out of film school, I wanted a job. In those days, young directors—[directing] is what I was interested in—were not very much in vogue. Unless you were at least 30 years old, nobody took you seriously. It’s kind of the opposite today. It was very difficult to get any kind of opportunity to direct, particularly when it was the era of film and not videotape, which is so much cheaper now.
I tried to get any kind of job I could. I finally went in as an assistant to a producer on a series. I later became an executive at a network and then after that an executive at a studio, really riding herd on a number of TV series I was assigned to. And that was kind of interesting for a while. I did it for about six years. About midway through that, I really got frustrated because I wasn’t getting any closer to directing. Out of that frustration, I started a theater. I started it with my ex-wife’s acting coach. We began this theater in North Hollywood, starting with classes and with the intention to produce. And as that captured me more and more, as I became more and more interested in what was going on in the world of theater—I was very influenced by the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski and also by the work of Joe Chaikin in New York. As that focused me more and more, finally I bid goodbye to the industry and decided to spend full time doing theater.
We actually began our first productions at a little storefront in Hollywood—the seedy end of Hollywood Boulevard between Western and Vermont—at an 81-seat house that had been a spiritualist church. After we left, it became a porno theater. We started in ’69 and we were there through ’73. In ’73 we found a larger building in West LA, a warehouse, where we moved and created one theater, ultimately creating three theaters in that space. That was at Santa Monica [Boulevard] and Bundy. We were there for 14 years. Then the building got sold out from under us, and we were kind of paid off to leave early, to allow the landlord to break the lease. We used that money to convert the building that we eventually found, that we’re in now, at Sepulveda Boulevard near Olympic. The theater began as a very tight, small membership company. Everybody paid, as I remember, $25 a month dues. We all had to do everything. I think we had 12, 14 members in the company. The idea was to continue working with a very tight ensemble.
The Serpent [pictured] was our early show, as was The Threepenny Opera. Threepenny Opera ran for 14 months, which was a very long run. People would call and say, “Okay, we saw Threepenny Opera, we loved it, when is your next show?” We would say, “We’re still doing Threepenny Opera.” So it was very hard to build an audience. We were just doing one show at a time over a long period of time. The Serpent ran for eight months. So we decided we needed to have a larger company and be able to produce more-frequently. That’s why we went to the second building, where we could have three spaces. If we had a long run, fine. That long run could continue, but at the same time we could open other projects with other members of the company.
That set us on the season path, where we would do a season of six to eight plays. That continues today. We didn’t want to fall into the mold of just doing a play and rehearsing for a short period and running it as was the norm in the regional theaters. We wanted to be able to develop new work and develop projects that were long term.
The Faust Projekt
Photo by Yevgenia Nayberg (costume designer)
So a number of years into this process, we formed a group called the Koan, which is still the Odyssey Theatre but is a sort of unit within the Odyssey of Koan members. That group was designed to pursue my interest, which was metaphysical subjects. And often do it over a long period, so we would develop works. We did such things as The Faust Projekt, our own version of Faust. We did an evening of Kafka. We did an evening that explored the Buddhism, Buddha’s Big Night. And so forth. That group continues to exist. It does maybe one show every year and a half.
[The Odyssey] functions as a season. We do six shows a year now. We’ve been through kind of every structure you could imagine. We were a dues-paying membership company, where actors had to do work hours, as happens in most membership companies in LA. But very early on, I was determined to get us out of that mold because we were limited to 99 seats and couldn’t pay actors any reasonable amount of money. We at least wanted to get to the place where they weren’t paying dues and ultimately where they weren’t doing work around the theater other than being actors. That was a big priority. We tried to professionalize the staff, a small underpaid staff, which we have today. Still, the actors do not pay dues. They don’t have to do anything around the theater.
Verini: That’s the progression every company hopes for, but you’ve taken it beyond that to, in my opinion essential, an resource and crown jewel, and I think it’s partly because of everything you’ve talked about and also because the Odyssey is during the year also home to co-productions and guest productions and outside rentals. Doesn’t that help with the variety, as well?
Sossi: Of course. It’s also not only a desirable thing to get that variety in there, but it’s also a necessity, because with the small staff we have and the company we have, to produce more than six shows a year would really be burnout time. We’re always at the edge of burnout anyway, but six is plenty. To keep three theaters filled, you can’t do that with six productions a year. So we do invite other companies in as co-productions, sometimes. At other times, we just rent the theater, and we rent it at a modes rate—all we want to do is cover our overhead.
And then we bring in companies from Europe, at times when that’s possible. That’s always a financial burden that makes it impossible most of the time. But sometimes we’ll find foreign companies that are either funded by their governments or they’re coming here to perform maybe in the University of California system where their costs are already to a large extent paid for. So we’ve had German companies, Polish companies, British companies, Finnish companies, South American, and so on, through the years. We really like to do that. Being in America, it’s very difficult for theater people, theater audiences and theater artists, to be exposed to what’s happening, the state of the art, in world theater. If you live in France, you buy a train ticket and you hop across to England or to Germany or wherever. You can see what’s going on. Here, being isolated by oceans, that becomes extremely difficult. So anytime we can have an opportunity to bring in a company, we do so. And then co-productions with local companies, with New York companies, and then rentals.
Verini: To those who haven’t been to the Odyssey, what’s the vibe like on a given night or weekend afternoon? What will somebody who encounters the Odyssey for the first time confront?
Sossi: It’s usually pretty exciting because we have one central lobby that serves all the theaters. It also has an outdoor patio where people can go out and sit at little tables and have a drink or sandwich. Because there are often three productions playing at the same time, not always, but often, you have an audience of up to 300 people milling around, waiting for the shows to begin and kind of being exposed to the audiences of the other two theaters, so there’s a lot of talk about, “Did you see that?” or “Oh, you’ve got to see that.”
Now we’re doing a production of Oedipus called Oedipus Machina. And somebody might have come to see the play we just closed, called Sunset Baby, which is a contemporary, naturalistic, African-American play. Well someone might have come to see that and seen the poster or seen the reviews or talked to audience members who were going in to see Oedipus. Maybe they never would have thought of coming to see Oedipus. But because they’re in the lobby, and because there’s a buzz, and there’s sort of cross-fertilization, they may very well end up doing that.
Martin Rayner and Joshua Wolf Coleman in the current production of Oedipus Machina
Photo by Enci Box
Verini: You directed Oedipus. How do you go about deciding what you will direct, and what led you to this project in particular?
Sossi: Well, people often say, “Why do you pick what you pick?” I pick what we do for the Odyssey as a whole, not just myself as a director, with a certain mind to a kind of variety. It usually comes out to a certain rule of thumb where we do one-third classically oriented material, hopefully that we will treat with some kind of innovative new approach; one-third of new plays, either brand-new or maybe the second production of a play; and thirdly, the best stuff that seems to be coming out of the international theater world. We might do a very interesting British play that was just performed in Britain, and so on.
In terms of my own, personal tastes, I can’t tell you. I tend toward things that are either very theatrically exciting in terms of form or style, and/or very exciting content-wise. Sometimes it’s only one, sometimes it’s a very exciting naturalistic play with a subject matter that’s rather explosive. The form in that case might be very conventional. But the subject matter is extremely interesting.
Verini: This new project sounds like it touches all those bases. It’s got some of the most important existential questions, and I think you found a pretty exciting metaphor for it.
Sossi: I always wanted to do Oedipus, and I can’t tell you why except that it does, as you say, address very metaphysical questions: the ideas of fate and destiny, and what are we doing here, are we acting of our free will or is there something else controlling us, either on the outside as the Greeks believe or our unconscious urges. The play has always fascinated me. I found a marvelous new translation, by Ellen McLaughlin, and also had a notion that because of what the Greeks believed—that we are controlled by our destiny or our fate—I started working with the metaphor of a giant machine onstage, that would sort of grind the events of the play out and reveal the characters. The characters would sort of be spurted out of the machine as they were needed to conduct this sort of free-range fate-oriented spectacle.
That machine idea was the central metaphor. As the piece developed, I also became very interested in a couple of other ideas. One is the idea that Oedipus was actually the story of Akhenaten, the pharaoh of Egypt. There’s a lot of evidence that seems to point to that. That was kind of fascinating to me. I didn’t want to do it as an Egyptian setting. That was a little bit on the nose. But I did start to want to do it as a more abstract ancient culture, not saying it’s Greece, not saying it’s a place of white stairways and white togas, but rather some kind of ancient undescribable civilization.
And then the other idea that came into it is my fascination with this idea of ancient aliens—that perhaps a number of our cultures have been seeded way back by interplanetary visitors. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff about that. And so the show is not Star Trek, and it doesn’t suggest a science-fiction approach, but it has some subtle influences that suggest that the story is happening amidst a royal family that is a descendent of these kinds of beings. People of the land are really more endemic to Earth. So you have a chorus that is earthbound, and you have a royal family that has the seeds of perhaps some other heritage. And that became a fascinating idea, and that’s what we pursued. And it helps illuminate the play, I think, in many, many ways. So that was fascinating both as content and as form, as I was talking about.
We have a piece coming up, a classical piece, which will be rather traditional in form; although, Bart DeLorenzo is directing it, so it won’t be totally traditional. It should be quite exciting. It’s a comedy, The False Servant, by Marivaux. And then we have the inimitable Steven Berkoff of Britain coming in to direct O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, one of my favorite classic Americana plays. We’re doing a revival of Awake and Sing, by Clifford Odets. It’s kind of a very mixed bag. We’ve always tried to be very eclectic.
We really like the idea that our audience doesn’t quite know what to expect from us, that they can come one week and see a heavy naturalistic piece about explosive stuff, like [The] Chicago Conspiracy [Trial], or Tracers that was originally developed by Vietnam vets who were members of our theater. And the next week, they can come and see a Brecht piece. And the next week they can come see a silly satiric musical. And the next week, they can come and see a heavy metaphysical piece that has a lot of style and innovation to it. The idea of keeping the audience on the edge and letting theater be an event has always appealed to me, so it’s not just another play. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Of course that’s hard to maintain sometimes, over six productions a year. But that’s what we try to do.
June 15, 2015