It sounds like the archetypal young actor’s plight, one repeated with every fresh arrival to Hollywood.
“We’ve been working really hard for no money for a year,” says Jesse Bonnell, 23, president of the fledgling performance collective Poor Dog Group, composed of recent CalArts graduates. Since founding the group upon earning their diplomas in May 2007 and getting settled in Los Angeles, Poor Dog’s 12 members have struggled to balance earning a living with launching their careers as professional actors. “We’re just a bunch of art school students, and now we have to work at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. or things like that,” says Bonnell.
But don’t call these Poor Dogs poor. And don’t call their acting ambitions typical. The “Poor” in their company name is “not so much in reference to our financial situation as it is an homage to [Jerzy] Grotowski’s Poor Theatre,” says Bonnell. In his 1968 book “Towards a Poor Theatre,” Grotowski made the case that theater should not try to compete with film; rather, it should focus its attention on the most essential theatrical element of actors appearing in front of spectators. In keeping with the spirit of Grotowski, the Poor Dog members are choosing — in a film town — to fix their eyes on careers in experimental theater rather than Hollywood and, notes REDCAT Associate Director George Lugg, on a “desire to really investigate what theater is.”
Their NOW Festival entry “Hey. Hey, man. Hey.” (part of the festival’s second program, July 24-26) embodies this irreverent investigation. From an improvised scene about an audition for a Hardee’s Philly cheesesteak commercial, the piece grew into a kind of spastic variety show — “100 ideas thrown into 30 minutes,” says Bonnell — about the banality of labor. The smorgasbord of random ideas expressed through music, movement, sound design, text and task is meant to mirror the bombardment of life, both its meaningful and inconsequential moments.
“The group is really interested in creating a reality and then instantly ripping that away, to either expose something on a deeper level or to expose something that has absolutely nothing to do with anything else,” he says.
Among the proposals the REDCAT committee received for the NOW Festival, says Lugg, Poor Dog was “one of those groups that stood out — even though they’re so young — as having vigor. You can really sense their smartness and playfulness.” This combination of elements has started to pay off for Poor Dog: They had a two-month residency at Hollywood’s Elephant Theatre earlier this year, traveled to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, will perform at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica in August, and have been invited to do work with a company in Croatia.
But even if the Poor Dogs rise to international acclaim, they’ll continue to relish being small fries in a company town. Says Bonnell, “I like that the type of theater that we make is an underdog here.”