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Backstage

A Director for Real Life

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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

For three decades, Robert Alexander and his small band of actor-teachers gave Washington's inner-city residents, disabled kids and the incarcerated a taste of and for the theater. The founder, artistic director and philosopher-king behind the Living Stage Theatre Company died Feb. 10 in La Jolla, Calif. He was 78.

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"When children who had basically been told they didn't have a chance . . . came in and were told that they were fantastic people who had amazing creative power, and discovered that power, really," son Jace Alexander told Backstage, "lives took on a direction they never would have."

Robert Alexander retired in 1995, but Living Stage continued as the outreach wing of Arena Stage until it was phased out in 2002, when Arena announced that its community efforts would be focused on its home district of Southwest Washington.

"There have been many people who have put together many socially active theater companies . . . but I don't think any to the success and fullness that the Living Stage did over the course of its years. I mean truly life-changing," said Jace Alexander. Now a stage and television director, Alexander grew up in Washington with his father after his parents' divorce. His mother is actress Jane Alexander.

Jennifer L. Nelson came from California to audition for Alexander in 1972 and found her niche in his movement- and improvisation-based approach to theater for nearly two decades and a friendship that lasted even longer. The former artistic director of African Continuum Theatre Company said she "didn't intend to stay, but I fell in love with Living Stage. It was everything I wanted to do at that time."

Bob Alexander "gave me and many others a philosophy of working in the theater, of what the theater could be, of working with children, and an insight into the lives of children," Nelson said. "It just completely opened my mind in terms of understanding the role of an artist in the community."

Jace Alexander's younger brother, Taro, founded the Our Time Theatre Company in New York for people who stutter and also "uses a lot of what our dad did in his work."

Jace Alexander is planning a memorial service in New York on March 3, and he and Nelson are hoping to arrange one in Washington for Bob Alexander's birthday, March 17.

"My hope is that we rekindle people's memory of what a force he was in D.C.," Jace Alexander said. "He really was somebody everybody knew. Everybody knew Living Stage."

Rorschach in Exile

In the midst of rehearsals for "Kit Marlowe" last fall, Rorschach Theatre artistic directors Randy Baker and Jenny McConnell Frederick learned they were going to lose their longtime space at Casa del Pueblo United Methodist Church in Columbia Heights. Suddenly their season was in jeopardy. Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth" was supposed to have been up and running this month. Didn't happen.

The small but ambitious experimental company found a short-term solution through connections with Georgetown University's theater faculty, led by Derek Goldman. Rorschach will present the rest of its season, titled "Rorschach in Exile," over the summer at Georgetown's Davis Performing Arts Center. As part of the arrangement, some Georgetown students will work as production interns and actors in small roles.

The company will open with Jason Grote's "This Storm Is What We Call Progress" (June 22-July 20), followed by "The Skin of Our Teeth" (July 13-Aug. 10) and Baker's new "Dream Sailors," a four-part serial (July 17-Aug. 17). Each show will run in its own space at the Davis Center.

McConnell Frederick and Baker say they're looking for a more permanent space to rent before the 2008-09 season gets underway in the fall. Leaving Casa del Pueblo -- a rugged community hall in the old church with no air conditioning but lots of atmosphere -- may have been the nudge the company needed.

"I don't think all of us wanted to stay there forever. We had bigger aspirations for the company. . . . I think we're glad to have the opportunity to move on, too," McConnell Frederick says.

"It was scary at the time," adds Baker. "But in the end, it's amazing how things work out for the better."


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