Published in KPBS On Air Magazine February 1991
There must be a bit of the gypsy in Ginny-Lynn Safford. What the actress-director has always loved is being on tour. Ever since her parents put her in an acting troupe at age eight (because she was so shy) she’s been in — or formed — mobile theater companies. She toured Wisconsin as a child in the Melody Theater. Later, at age 21, she and six friends started “Theatre from a Bus,” living and working out of a big, purple school bus, playing campgrounds in northern Wisconsin . In graduate school at the University of Colorado , she played the remote mountains, “giving something back to the people who spend their tax dollars on the university but never see the benefit.”
“Stationary theater,” Safford is fond of saying, “is only one part of theater.” So it stood to reason that, when she formed her own San Diego theater company, Ensemble Arts Theatre, one of its missions was touring. In its two years of existence, the company has already taken two shows to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The wheels are in motion for August in Edinburgh , followed by a London run of “Dusk to Dawn at the Sunset”, the play with which Ensemble Arts toured right into the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company, for a first co-production.
Collaboration is another one of Safford’s theatrical goals. Sledgehammer Theatre’s “Hamlet” was produced in association with Ensemble Arts Theatre. The company also runs a very active schedule of staged readings — fifteen last year — bringing scripts back from the Fringe Festival and soliciting new works from all over the country. “We’re doing an exchange of productions in this country and with companies we’ve met at Edinburgh ,” Safford explains. “We ultimately want to sponsor a festival of work from around the world, done by the companies that originally produced them. Collaboration is something theaters need to start doing.”
Well, in these days of shrinking theater-subscriptions and contributions, that sounds about right. It might be thought that the seeds of the Gaslamp-Ensemble Arts collaboration were sown in the dry soil of the Gaslamp’s 1990 aborted season and fiscal crisis. But scattered discussions about some future relationship actually began three years ago. Safford, youthful and intense, insists that “In all reality, Ensemble Arts is not interested in being a really large company.”
She wants to keep teaching acting and teaching corporate bigwigs how to present themselves in business. Her managing director, Paul Bedington, advised her to stay small. He’s her husband, and he knows all the ramifications of growing too far too fast. He got involved in the theater in order to see his wife on a regular basis. That seems to work for lots of couples who manage theaters together: Ralph Elias and Allison Brennan at the Bowery, Don and Bonnie Ward at Starlight, Olive Blakistone and husband Tom at North Coast Rep. Unlike those long-term relationships, Ensemble’s affiliation with the Gaslamp is more tentative and variable.
The first collaborative effort, “Dusk to Dawn” was a co-production, which entailed financial input from both organizations. Another one of these shared ventures, “Lady Macbeth”, is on the way in April. Ensemble’s staged readings of new plays will be presented at the Elizabeth North Theatre on the third Tuesday of every month. (Both “Dusk” and “Lady M” started out as staged readings).
Meanwhile, this month, “Woman in Mind” will be produced by the Gaslamp “in cooperation with” Ensemble Arts, with Safford directing and Ensemble’s Maria Mangiavellano as stage manager. The 1985 piece by barbed British playwright Alan Ayckbourn is about a woman in her mid-forties who has no real relationship with her husband, is no longer needed as a mother and is too young to die. She needs to turn somewhere, so she goes inward, creating a fantasy family, and gradually spending more and more time with them. “Hopefully,” says Safford, “as the play progresses, the audience won’t be able to decide what’s real and what’s fantasy. They’ll be seduced into the fantasy and will want it as much as she.”
Ayckbourn, Safford continues, “takes a very serious subject and treats it with equal amounts of seriousness and humor. That’s not terribly unusual, but he pushes the envelope a bit. And that’s what theater is all about. I’m excited about it because it’s a real ensemble piece. That’s absolutely what I love doing — developing a piece together, and having that shared energy show onstage. We’ve established that kind of relationship with the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company. There’s a real feeling between us. We know we’re both getting something out of it. But it feels good.”
Don’t be fooled into thinking Safford and Company have settled into a sedentary theatrical life. They’ll be on the road again soon, playing three Canadian festivals in June, followed by Edinburgh and then London . It’s a never-ending schedule of E.A.T. and run.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.