One of the great things about the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival was that it brought exciting theatre and dance companies from around the world to LA, forcing us all to up our game. One of the not-so-great things was that only Center Theatre Group was involved as a planner/presenter and the burgeoning smaller dance and theatre companies in LA were mostly ignored. Because in those days in LA, if it was local it couldn’t be good.
As we pondered what we could do while the festival was going on to not be totally eclipsed, we thought about a tenth anniversary revival of ARE YOU NOW… (or have you ever been a member of the community party?), which Eric Bentley had based on his book, “Thirty Years of Treason,” a compilation of the actual testimony of Hollywood figures in hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee at the height of McCarthyism fervor.
Allan was in the original production of ARE YOU NOW…at Yale Rep, where we met, in 1973, brilliantly originating the role of Abe Burrows. He repeated it the following year when it was produced Off-Broadway at the Riverside Church. Neither production was a huge success, principally because Eric Bentley, who was a serious Brecht scholar, tried to emulate Brecht’s Theatre of Alienation construct with purposefully distancing elements like flashing lights and constantly rotating actors/characters that were hard for audiences to emotionally connect with.
When we came to LA in 1974, Allan optioned the play from Eric with his last $350 in the hopes of producing it here. He shopped it around— for the record, Gordon Davidson turned it down — and finally produced it himself, forming a partnership with Kathleen Johnson, who then owned the Cast Theatre. Allan’s huge insight was that by stripping away the circus-like elements and consolidating the interrogating committee into three consistent roles, the power of the testimony would speak for itself. Plus, he knew how to use what I’ve always thought of as his directorial super power: to impose structure on material that sometimes lacked obvious internal architecture.
This production was not only a smash hit, it rocked the town due to how close it was to home, with the real testimony of figures like Larry Parks, Jose Ferrer, Elia Kazan, Lillian Hellman, Lionel Stander and Paul Robeson. In the first act, Larry Park’s ultimate breakdown left the audience weeping, in the second act Allan’s Abe Burrows manipulated the committee and made the audience laugh so hard they needed the second intermission to recover, and in the third act Paul Robeson told them all to go to hell in an impassioned finale. It became the longest running dramatic play in LA history, moved to the mid-size Hollywood Center Theatre and then to The Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C.
The 1984 revival at the Back Alley, with a whole new cast except for Allan, was also so successful we had to eventually move it to the Victory Theatre in Burbank in order to produce two other shows and then moved it back again. We also did a series of runouts all over the state with support from the California Arts Council. We did the show under every circumstance imaginable, including one time with the audience holding flashlights because the power went out.
It’s impossible to list all the incredible actors who cycled through the production during this time (the show had 14 – 16 actors in the cast), but among the standouts for me were Michael Cavanaugh and Martin Brooks as the prosecutor and chairman– called a “frightening team” in one review, John Jackson and John Medici in a number of roles, Toni Sawyer and Anne Gee Byrd as Lillian Hellman, and Bennett Guillory and Thalmus Rasulala as the powerful Paul Robeson.
Martin Sheen optioned the play for a film version to be directed by Leo Penn, but it didn’t get made. Too bad, because if it had, the Back Alley would have shared in the royalties with Bentley.
The Odyssey Theatre, which became Allan’s artistic home after the Back Alley closed, produced a twentieth anniversary revival in the 1990s with Allan at the helm again, but it hasn’t been done since in LA. Despite the undeniable success of Allan’s version that focused on story and powerful performances, Eric Bentley was wedded to his original concept of theatre as dialectic and wouldn’t approve another production unless it was done his way. We thought we could wait him out, but he outlasted us, dying in 2020 at the
age of 104.
Perhaps someone else will want to pick up the mantle now. As Lionel Stander, who defied the committee, mused in a 1984 interview, “Most people today are nice, intelligent, wonderful. But 5% of them are lunatics. In a population of 200 million, that’s 10 million lunatics. And when they all scream and yell, it gives a distorted view of our country.” That our democracy can easily become an autocracy ruled by the few has never been more relevant.