When Death and the Maiden, a play set in South America, opened on Broadway in 1992, no Latinos were in the three-person cast. It was a controversy that riled actor John Ortiz, whose career was just getting under way. So he rounded up pals Gary Perez, Paul Calderon, and David Deblinger and suggested they remedy the situation—to show producers, Ortiz says, “where Latino actors are.” In a Nueva York minute, LAB (Latino Actors Base) materialized—a center where, Ortiz recalls, 13 “kick-ass” actors could have a theatrical “gym.”
Nine years later, the group—now the LAByrinth Theater Company—has expanded beyond its original mission. Non-Latino actors have joined, and the company is opening its first real Off-Broadway production, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, at the East 13th Street Theater (home of CSC). Adhering to LAByrinth policy, the play—about two Rikers Island inmates hoping for both physical and spiritual exoneration—is an all-members event. The cast, including Ortiz, is made up exclusively of LAByrinthers; member Stephen Adly Guirgis is the playwright; Philip Seymour Hoffman is directing (he joined the group after meeting Ortiz in Peter Sellars’s 1995 production of The Merchant of Venice).
With one of LAByrinth’s homegrown enterprises hopping the downtown R train from its West 21st Street loft base, the company might be perceived as abandoning its humble beginnings. After all, this summer’s successful Jesus workshop, produced by member John Gould Rubin, is shuttling to 13th Street with the help of producers Ron Kastner and Roy Gabay. Contributors to the jaunt include Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Daryl Roth, Marlo Thomas, and Tim Robbins.
Yes, the LAB gym may have grown into a gym-boree, but the three men most responsible for Jesus give convincing testimony that they’ve remained true to the company’s initial aims. Members are still drawn largely from wannabes in no way as familiar as Hoffman (now co-artistic director). For example, David Zayas, who plays a guard in Jesus, was once a New York cop. And while the member lineup has ballooned to 56, a commitment to the company’s original principles is still required.
Making money is not an incentive for joining his club, Ortiz says. “No one is on a year-round salary. When we go to grant givers, they look at us like we’re crazy.” In its middle period, LAByrinth survived on an annual $15,000 grant from the city and money raised at beer parties, where $5 and $10 entrance fees went toward workshop productions mounted for $200 or so. These workshops developed, Ortiz explains, because the actors, looking for material that reflected their backgrounds, began writing for themselves. Then, he says, “People wanted their work to be seen—so we put more of an emphasis on production. It became a real joy for us to develop plays.”
Projects have often been initiated on yearly retreats the company takes at an upstate location they want to remain nameless. It’s there Guirgis has done much of the work on his growing list of plays, including Jesus, a piece that reflects his interest in faith, religion, and cults. “I guess I had some sort of knack for it,” he says about the dramas he started knocking out when Ortiz prodded him. It helps, he notes, to write for pals like Zayas. “I know what words sound good coming out of his mouth.” The budding playwright also discovered a directing knack; he helmed Liza Colón-Zayas’s powerful one-woman play Sistah Supreme, presented at P.S. 122 this past June.
Hoffman has acted in several LTC shows and directed Guirgis’s In Arabia We’d All Be Kings last year. He says he signed on to LTC when, bored with the L.A. acting life, he moved back to Manhattan, eager to join “an eclectic group of real people, some starting out in their thirties—teachers, police officers.” He remains steadfastly involved because LAByrinth “takes chances you might not take otherwise.” Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, though, is “the first time LAByrinth has gone into rehearsal with a full play.”
Hoffman says his current notoriety as one of moviedom’s rising character actors doesn’t make much difference at LTC. “I think all these guys would have gotten to where they were going without me in the picture,” he insists. “They’re all making a name for themselves.”