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Parson’s Nose Theatre is not at all a rump

February 17, 2010

Lance Davis has opened his 10th season as artistic director of Parson’s Nose with this promise: “I’ll pay my actors.”

That may not be easy, given Parson’s Nose doesn’t charge for its public reading series and last year’s foundation money (coincidentally, from the Ralph M. Parson’s Foundation) is drying up.

“Sure, I could ask the actors to not accept any pay, but that’s not okay with me,” Davis told me over an Italian soda at Buster’s in South Pasadena. “So many of them work as waiters or what have you, they do so much work that’s unpaid, I want Parson’s Nose to be a place where they can earn something, even if it’s only twenty or fifty bucks a performance.”

Parson’s Nose is trying to establish its identity, its brand, something so many theatres, Davis says, lack. “It’s difficult to find a brand or artistic identity, especially for larger houses like the Pasadena Playhouse or the Taper or the Geffen.” It’s easier with some smaller venues, he says, “like Furious or A Noise Within. And, while we did the Saturday shows at the Geffen for six years, we were thought of as a children’s theatre company. We’re not.” Worse yet, he said, “No one knew our name.”

Davis wants Parson’s Nose to attract young people, sure, but be known as an adult’s theatre. “And we have a brand. We focus solely one adaptations of classics by Shakespeare, Grimm, Moliere, and others.”

Parson’s Nose began a decade ago when Davis, who had been teaching at colleges in San Bernardino and Los Angeles, discovered his students were unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s works – and most others, for that matter. “I had to boil it down, make it simple to relate to, but the result was an interesting examination of the classics. We made them completely accessible.”

He brought in actors he knew from the Guthrie and elsewhere in Minnesota, along with local actors. After a year of staging adaptations, Davis realized he had something solid, something unique. “And I realized then that plays are not movies and we had to do something to get people out of their living rooms.”

That observation is just as true today, he says. Lance Davis subscribes to the theory that ‘less is more’. Full, expensive sets are unnecessary, “especially when the audience is already a step ahead of us.” He adds, “We have to leave realism behind. Why? Because there is no ‘slow pan’ from one actor to another or one scene to another. We have to keep the audience in the game.”

He believesin the kind of theatre that brings the audience into the work, rather than wait for them to take their seats and wait expectantly. Theatre must be a ‘push’ and not a ‘pull’.  “I loved Absinthe Opium & Magic,” he said. “The Grand Guignolers got the audience involved the moment they walked in. They had puppets, dancers, magic, absinthe and tea tasting. It worked. I really applaud their creativity.”

Now Davis has to get creative. He puts on occasional readings at Jameson Brown Coffee Roasters in Pasadena. But he still wants to mount productions. Without a home, it’s tricky. “We’ve been at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. Next? I don’t know. The Norton Simon, maybe? The Huntington?”

At least he laughs. “Desmond Heeley’s a good friend,” he said. Heeley won two Tonys in 1968 for Best Scenic Designer and Best Costume Designer for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. “I was talking to him recently. Here’s this fabulously creative and talented man who can design a stage and its actors to be almost anything. Yet even he agrees that less is more. I’ll have to bear this in mind,” he says, “as we look for the right space.” Less may indeed be more.

Parson’s Nose schedule this year includes Pied Piper of Hammlin (April 17), Ubu Roi (May 15) and King Cymbeline (June 19).

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