DOWNTOWN — For 50 years, the Santa Monica Playhouse has persevered as a multiple award-winning and well-recognized theatre company that has produced over 500 shows and received an abundance of rave reviews.
“I think it has made a tremendous contribution to the arts in Santa Monica, in particular in terms of developing the knowledge and appreciation for the theatre, amongst them several generations of young people in Santa Monica,” said City Hall’s Cultural Affairs Manager Jessica Cusick.
The Santa Monica Playhouse was brought to life in 1960 by Ted Roter, with the help of James Arness and Eric Braeden. Braeden recently celebrated his 30th year on the popular soap opera “The Young and the Restless.” Arness is most famous for his role on television’s longest running series, “Gunsmoke.”
“[Roter’s] goal was really to produce shows here that most of L.A. audiences had never seen before, so we’ve tried to honor that,” said Evelyn Rudie, who is the co-artistic director alongside her husband Chris DeCarlo.
“When I walked in the doors for my first play I said, ‘This guy knows what he’s doing,’ and he did. And as a teacher he could do what he taught,” DeCarlo added.
The intent of the playhouse was to “showcase European artists, primarily, who were coming over to Hollywood,” Rudie said.
“And we also brought to L.A. [Eugene] Ionesco and a lot of European writers who were contemporary at that time, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s,” DeCarlo said.
The primary change for the playhouse was the transition from being a showcase theatre to a European repertoire theatre company. When DeCarlo and Rudie took over in ‘73, they made this change, so that now, “We don’t just wear one hat.”
“We do everything from building the set to designing the lighting and the sound and all the things necessary to mount a production,” DeCarlo said.
With the playhouse working as a repertoire company, members are provided with the stability of constant work, which actors don’t usually enjoy. Rudie, who was nominated for an Emmy when she was just 6 years old, said that her parents actually urged her to stray from the family’s history of acting because of the insecurity of the profession.
However, her parents were eventually supportive of her goals, and she described herself as lucky compared to others whom she has seen, “get completely messed up.” This is in large part what inspired her to work with young people, like the playhouse so intensely has.
“One of the goals I had personally was to go back to theatre and use theatre to share with other young people to help them in terms of finding out who they are and identifying their own voice rather than thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a star and I’m going to be very glamorous and then all of the sudden I’m on drugs and I’m messed up and that’s the end of it,’” she said.
Rina Mimoun, an alumna of the playhouse, has written for such shows as “Gilmore Girls” and produced the show “Everwood” for four years. She had nothing but praise for the playhouse.
“Evelyn is a really inspirational person — I’ve never known anyone quite as prolific,” Mimoun said of Rudie. “I wanted to be Evelyn so bad when I was a kid.
“I think the playhouse is really where I fell in love with theatre, and I think theatre is what led me to television writing. Playwrighting is more about characters and talking and TV is really all about characters.”
She said that the Santa Monica Playhouse is a special place and that there are not a lot of theatres like it around anymore. She also said that having children attend the theatre is very important, and that the playhouse is a great introduction for kids to the theatre, but that unlike some others, it is also entertaining for the adults in the audience.
DeCarlo and Rudie both believe that the theatre and art is absolutely essential to a healthy childhood.
“Art is education,” DeCarlo said. “It’s not about beating yourself up to get there, it’s about understanding that without your integrity, and without the stamina to sustain, we aren’t going to be able to solve the challenges.”
However, as budget cuts mount, support for the arts disappear.
“We’re swimming upstream based on the financial woes that everybody’s talking about,” said DeCarlo.
“No matter how many studies they do and no matter how much they talk about the fact that arts are vital and critical to education, they’re still the first thing to get cut,” Rudie added.
DeCarlo’s motivation for helping the youth has stemmed from his survival in Vietnam.
“I saw what happens when we surrender our humanity, our ability to look at a person and see a person and feel them and empathize,” said DeCarlo. “For me it was a promise — I want to only do things that celebrate our humanity and empower people to continue to register their humanity.
“We’re the pioneers of the human landscape.”
Both feel there is a growing sense of empathy amongst the younger generation and they are striving to inspire and build a fire within students who attend their acting camps.
The two hope the two-year celebration of the playhouse’s 50th anniversary can raise awareness and attract more fans and students — the next generation of creative minds.
They both laughed when considering all that lies ahead of them, which Rudie categorized into five categories.
First they’re going to be doing shows from some of the genres for which the playhouse is especially well known, for instance a Jewish musical starting in April, since the playhouse was the first theatre in Los Angeles to present full Jewish musicals. This group of plays will also include some which were originally developed in their Young Professionals Company, which has toured the world and is now coming back as adult plays.
There will also be a series of one- and two-night local artist shows, that will be everything from one-person comedies to concerts to spoken word, poetry.
“Everything you can think of,” Rudie said.
For the third category, “we will be doing the five most popular family theatre shows that we have been doing over the past four years,” said Rudie.
There will also be a series of cultural exchange projects from their sister companies in Japan (Model Language Studio) and in England (Playbox Theatre). Actors and playwrights from abroad will visit Santa Monica and vice-versa. Collaboration will be key as the artists create new productions for the years ahead.
For more information on the Santa Monica Playhouse, go to www.santamonicaplayhouse.com or call (310) 394-9779.