In screen-focused Hollywood, Robert Hayman and Rachel Ewy have done something you might not expect: They’re launching a theater company.
Their new troupe, Hollywood Stage Company, kicked off with a new production of “Bent,” Martin Sherman’s 1979 Holocaust drama, in a non-Equity production that began performances earlier this month. As they see it, the company is filling a niche currently underserved in L.A. theater.
“Classical theater is something that we’ve both noticed is kind of lacking in L.A.,” said Ewy, the writer-producer-actor who is HSC’s producing director. “It’s a lot of original pieces, a lot of comedic pieces, small unknown pieces. We want to do pieces people will know.”
“Bent,” about a gay man persecuted by the Nazis, first played Broadway in a 1980 production that starred Richard Gere. Given the current political climate, “Bent” has taken on new urgency.
“With our next vice president, Mike Pence, believing that homosexuality can be ‘cured,’ we are standing in a very strange and possibly volatile moment in history,” said Hayman, the company’s artistic director. “I meet so many gay men who’ve never heard of the pink triangle, and it boggles my mind. They need to understand the pink triangle story.
“And the nudity, of course,” he added with a laugh. “We wanted to have some nudity.”
Finding a home for the fledgling Hollywood Stage Company was not so simple. After crunching numbers and determining that an initial budget of $15,000 was needed to rent theater space and cover the cost of costumes, sets, and props, Hayman and Ewy crowdfunded but came up short. Instead they knocked on doors and eventually met up with Tony Arranaga, the communications director in L.A. councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s office, who in turn directed the pair to the Department of Transportation, which just happened to own an empty theater space on Hollywood Boulevard.
It was something of a fixer-upper – a small black box theater that wouldn’t be out of place Off Off Broadway, covered in dust, with some pieces of the stage missing. During their first walk-through, the place didn’t have electricity.
After months of heavy-lifting and a top-to-bottom renovation — including the addition of a cozy lobby area with a bar selling beer and candy — “Bent” bowed at the 55-seat venue Jan. 6. The play runs through Jan. 29.
“It ended up being the perfect space for the kind of intimate, integrated theater we want to do, which kind of includes the audience,” says Hayman.
In a cast led by newcomer Lior Burlin as Max, Hayman plays a drag queen who owns a Berlin nightclub and Ewy appears as a performer at the club. In addition to an interactive pre-show featuring cabaret-like performances by some of the play’s characters, this production of “Bent” is the first to include women in its cast — with one actress playing, unexpectedly, a Nazi.
Hayman and Ewy were adamant the play reflect as truthfully as possible the horrors of Nazi Germany. In their version, there’s blood and screaming and a final scene involving an electrified fence that feels all too real. “I want the audience to go through a harrowing experience,” Hayman said. “A lot of the violence in previous productions of the play were not very visceral, or not done for realism. But we are going for it 100 percent.”
The company will likely producer something lighter for its next outing, Hayman added, noting that HSC’s focus on pre-existing plays allows the company to become a showcase for performers rather than scribes. “Most theater in L.A. is a vehicle for writers to showcase an original play,” he said. “There was no real way for actors to showcase their chops.”