By Lissa Tyler Renaud
There is something quintessentially American about theatre producer Alicia Hoge Adams. Pioneering, inventive, jack [or jane]-of-all-trades, visionary, expansive, intrepid. There is a restlessness. In the fine arts, she paints and sculpts; in the theatre, she is also, as she says, “an actress, an entrepreneur, an artistic director, a creator/writer, a designer.” At Bootleg Theater—of which she is owner, founder and artistic director—she fosters the intersection of art, writing and theatre.
Adams describes her theatre this way: “It is a year-round inclusive art space for original, boundary-defying live theater and performance born from the diverse cultural and artistic landscape of Los Angeles. Bootleg supports and collaborates with the best of established and emerging theater artists to create daring multi-disciplinary live experiences that are striking, contemporary and non-traditional.”
Alicia Hoge Adams’s family history has a certain theatricality about it. The story of her family—in America since 1735—unfurls with generations featuring an extravagant number of social, political and artistic leaders: a long line that includes more than one prolific painter and a sculptor, meets another long line of highly significant newspaper publishers, including highly remarkable women—with brief appearances by a general, a senator, society figures, a Guggenheim, an Austro-Hungarian count… along with a kidnapping and a cartoon strip. Adams’s mother is a longtime film producer and an Oscar Award-winning screenwriter; her father headed newspapers that won seven Pulitzer Prizes and he remains eminent in foreign affairs; her stepfather is a prominent writer and winner of the National Book Award. It is as if family characteristics of drive and excellence accrued, at the intersection of fine arts and writing, and emerged in Alicia Hoge’s theatre work.
Critics, funders and patrons all tell us that when Adams is at the helm of a theatre, it thrives. The critics have weighed in with awards. While she was executive director of her first theatre, the Evidence Room Theater Project (1995-2006), the theatre was nominated an astonishing 54 times for LA Weekly Theater Awards; it won 16 of those, along with 24 Back Stage Garland Awards, and it was frequently found among the year-end Top Tens and the Critics’ Picks. Since Adams founded her Bootleg Theater in 2006, the theatre has received 11 LA Weekly nominations, an LA Weekly Award, two Ovation Awards and several more nominations, in addition to several Drama Critics Circle nominations. Funding for Bootleg Theater has come from a range of prestigious organizations, from the Irvine Foundation to the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and beyond. On the internet, patrons have written, for example: “best independent theater in LA, hands down”; and “Bootleg’s the future of theatre… brilliant, mind-blowing and impactful theatre.”
In fact, Adams does so many different things that our interview didn’t even touch on her career as a stage and television actress; her RampArt Youth Theater Project; her artistic partnership with her husband, television actor and designer Jason Adams; their co-founded design and fabrication workshop; or her strategies for conducting a flourishing creative life while raising three young children.
But you will hear in the interview that she is delightful, frank and thoughtful. With the challenging visual-verbal sensibility she brings to her work at Bootleg Theater, Alicia Hoge Adams dignifies the “American” in “American theatre.”
LISSA TYLER RENAUD: What, if anything, is difficult in communicating with others during a collaboration?
ALICIA HOGE ADAMS: It is difficult sometimes to communicate what I see in my head. How to verbally articulate a visual idea. Or a visual, aural, emotional environment. In a collaboration, how do I communicate what I want to happen in a way that then allows for me to feel understood and ready for my partner to offer his contributions, which will inevitably change my initial conception.
Collaboration necessarily involves more than one person; the fusion that happens when two or more people collaborate means that the final product will not look exactly like what I had imagined because another brain entered the picture. What is hard to determine is what I am willing to let go of in terms of my initial ideas, and what do I want to fight for. And how do I know if I am right? About any of it?
If I am working with someone I trust—and for the project I’m working on for 2014, in part on European exiles in Hollywood, I am—the discomfort that might arise at this juncture is workable. But it requires bravery to be up for the discomfort. And as a woman artist (not that all women are like this, but I struggle with it) I find that I have to be careful not to give in too fast. I find it hard to stick up for my own ideas, to have faith in them, and I am too ready to put more faith in others’ ideas before my own. I prefer to avoid the discomfort. But I am changing that.
The most important factor in a collaboration is the other person in that collaboration. Who is he or she? Do I trust him or her. Do I trust this person, respect their work. Is there an energy that comes from working together that helps to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Is there generosity?
In the creative process, which part do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?
Honestly, I do not enjoy the practical aspects of performance making. Scheduling. Assembling of all necessary props or materials needed for the set. I have no understanding of how to meet the technical needs of a show, without help. I only know how to envision what I would like things to look and feel like. Cables, cords, amps, watts, dimmers, video, projectors and so forth — the language causes me stress. I know that there are many unbelievably capable theatre practitioners who are not only good at the vision part, they also relish the technical part. That is not me: I relish what technology can do, I look to use it, but I do not like being the person who has to know how to run it.
I have a hard time keeping track of keys. Remembering how to deal with the air conditioning and the lights. For this reason, I delegate. I make sure to have the right people on board who actually enjoy and are good at doing these things. I am so grateful for them. An excellent stage manager is very important—ideally, during the rehearsal process in addition to the actual performance run. And I work with designers who know the mechanics of their craft, who can come into the theatre and understand our equipment with the help of our staff.
A charming reply! And in your own creative process?
I would say the part that is the hardest is dealing with my own self. Creating original work is scary, and it requires faith. On a good day, no problem. On a bad day, I think “What am I doing? Or “I have no idea what I am doing” or “Who do I think I am—what makes me think I can make something beautiful? That’s for the geniuses of the world and I am not one of them.” It can be a struggle to keep working.
Those same voices plagued me when I founded Bootleg Theater and took the role of Artistic Director. I did not have that kind of practical experience, and I was profoundly aware of that fact. I am not sure what gave me the strength to keep moving forward, nor do I know where the drive to do such a thing came from. The only thing I can think is that it came from my love for the theatre and the desire to contribute on whatever level I could.
So these voices are the part of my own creative process that I enjoy the least. They have mellowed, and that is a relief. Because when they are not present, the empty space that is there then fills up with ideas, ideas, ideas, and energy, energy, energy. To move forward, and keep trying.
In your country/city, is there any major issue (e.g. a contemporary social problem) that artists fail or neglect to address on stage? Why? Is this due to censorship—to a blind spot or to a community’s avoiding it?
In Los Angeles, there are no barriers other than audience taste. I would say that really all major issues get dealt with in one way or another in the theatre.
What might be considered an obstacle is that we are often perceived to be in an unfair competition with the movies. Los Angeles is a movie town, people say. Why bother doing theatre? Isn’t it too hard? The reality is that there are more plays going on in Los Angeles on any given night than any other city in the country. The talent pool we are working with is extraordinary, because people come from all over the world to be a part of the film and television industries, and many of them find a need to do theatre at the same time. Theatre fills a different need for performers, directors, designers. It is live. It is exciting. It is visceral. There is no waiting around on sets, or trolling craft services; no time for crossword puzzles or knitting. There is rehearsal, tech and performance—that’s it.
My view is that a movie town needs theatre just like a political town does (Washington D.C.) or a tech town (San Francisco), because it is about the people in the room as much as it is about the piece itself. It is communal, local, live, visceral. When it works, it is a sort of communion between performers onstage with the audience that creates a palpable energy in the room; an energy of the moment, transitory, and created by the gathering itself.
Films are made for a worldwide audience, and even if they have local references, most of the audience is not going to understand those references whereas theatre is local, serving a local community.
While film deals with social problems of all kinds, and often quite beautifully, it is less intimate, less challenging, and easier to walk away from. The intimacy, the energy I am talking about, does not take place in a movie theatre. It can’t, because the story and the actors are up on a screen, usually nowhere nearby. When social issues are dealt with in the theatre, and when it is done well, my feeling is that it has a much stronger impact and can actually help to affect change—in a perspective, a life, an action.
During your career, have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? One thing this journal wants to do is to open a dialogue between theatre practitioners and the critics.
As an artist trying to make original work, I care very much about what critics say, and I am especially grateful when critics know what they are talking about. When it is clear they are versed in the world of theatre history, and are up-to-date on what is happening in the theatre currently, both internationally and domestically, I listen.
I am grateful also when critics are coming from a place of generosity and compassion.
If a critic is all of these things, knowledgeable and kind, I am hungry for what they have to say, even if it is negative. I listen closely, when these conditions are present, because I am looking for help. I want to do it better next time. By the time I open a show, both myself and my creative team are no longer in an objective position to be able to see clearly. We depend on outside perspectives.
My latest project, last Spring, was A Fried Octopus, a choreo-play with video, about the women in Toulouse Lautrec’s paintings. Once we opened, I was hungry for feedback. I really wanted to know how the show landed, as it was risky, unconventional and, I knew, not perfect. So I wanted help. I found it. Most particularly from the head critic at the LA Weekly, who understood what I was going after, and gave me a sense of where I could go. And what was missing for him, what would have made it a more fulfilling experience.
You come from generations of creative people who have made enormous contributions to their respective fields. What role has this played in your own creative life?
That is a complicated question. For many years I was in competition with my ancestors as well as with my parents. Their high level of accomplishment was daunting. That phrase “heavy burden”? It applies. I thought: I didn’t inherit all those “brilliant” genes I always heard about, and that I saw in my parents—including my stepfather—on a day-to-day basis. It almost stopped me in my tracks, really.
For some unknown reason, I have been able to continue forward. I think I breathed in their work, their work habits, their conversations (I am talking now of my parents and grandparents). These things came to live in me in some way.
The most important creative relationship in my life is the one I have with my mother. I have always considered her to be brilliant and original. Truly original. It is impossible to predict how she will react to any given situation. She has been a writer her whole life, so I have a very strong picture of her sitting at her typewriter (and later at her computer). She urges me to keep it light, let it flow. She does not believe in sitting down every day and cranking out pages. She says there are enough “pages” in the world. Yes, show up and try on a regular basis, but don’t apply undue pressure. Creation is not the same as lifting dumbbells, or running long distances. It is about trying to capture something out of the air, like a butterfly. You have to be still, open, ready.
And what were those work habits?
Maybe instead of work habits, I should say standards; they have very high standards of what they consider to be good work. This is both good and bad. Very little passes muster. That is the downside. The upside is that my own personal drive, challenged in this way, only grew stronger. I think possibly obstacles are an important component of creativity and productivity. If you really want to be a creator, in any of the arts, for most of us, including myself, the road we travel is more Himalayan than pastoral.
As far as work habits go… I have watched my mother as she delves deep into subjects, into her writing. She will disappear for periods of time—not literally, she shows up for dinner—but you can tell she is elsewhere. And then, one day, she will come up for air—not because she is finished or anywhere near finished—but because she has gone as far as she can with what she is working on for the moment and is wanting to see the world a bit. It is not a 9-5 job for her. It is not predictable, dependable; it is changeable, unpredictable, uncomfortable even.
So for me, with her help, I have become comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable. I can have faith in what I am doing without bearing down hard. I know that I have less control than I instinctively want. I have to be willing to work—but with “the unbearable lightness of being.”
I am interested in artists who work in more than one medium. I know that along with your theatre work, you have been involved with the fine arts. Could you say something about how the theatre and fine arts influence each other in your work?
Hmmm. I guess it is about looking at the world from all vantage points: color, shape, emotion, architecture (of a building, of a scene, of a play). It is about cultivating extreme sensitivity and awareness to one’s surroundings. I seem to have a real thing for color for instance. It moves me physically; my heart starts to beat a little faster, my senses become heightened, more acute. It is a relative of the feeling I get onstage when I am in the scene as opposed to in my head. It is the equivalent feeling, I imagine, to what people feel like who are deeply religious. Each thing feeds the other; a day in the studio is like a day at rehearsal. It is about tuning in to the deeper aspects of being human, on this planet. It is a state of mind that is separate from the state of mind that guides me through my daily chores, responsibilities, preoccupations, worries.
I paint in a studio by myself several hours a week. The concentration involved, the constant effort to make whatever I am working on better also seems very like the state I experience when working as a writer or as an actress. Working consistently in painting, sculpture, writing or acting keeps me from getting stuck, mired in the muck, overly frustrated. I live in the place of trying to make things, so that there isn’t a lot of time for second-guessing myself. I don’t have to depend on any one art form to satisfy what is for me a need—a need—to experience life on a deeper level.
What is wonderful is that there is a kind of freedom I feel; and I am only just now accessing my own potential as an artist.
 Lissa Tyler Renaud (M.A Directing; Ph.D. Theatre History/Criticism) is director of InterArts Training, based in Oakland, California. She has taught acting, voice and alignment throughout the U.S., at major theatre institutions throughout Asia, and in Mexico and Russia. Recipient of Ford Foundation and National Science Council grants, she is an award-winning actress, a director and popular recitalist. She publishes and lectures widely on the European avant-garde. Her co-edited volume, The Politics of American Actor Training, was published by Routledge (2009, 2011); her chapter on Stanislavsky’s voice and movement work appears in the Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky (Oct. 2013). Renaud is founding co-editor (English) of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques.