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Back Stage West, May 2004: "Salamanticus: This Mythical Moment"
by Dany Margolies

Stephen Legawiec is not like most other playwrights. Of course he’s literate and articulate. Of course he’s observant. Of course he thinks in themes and symbols. But he says he prefers to write the endings of his plays first. And he also volunteers—yes, volunteers—to reveal what his newest work, Salamanticus, is about.

It’s the latest of 14 plays he’s penned for his company, Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble, and it’s set to premiere at the Miles Playhouse. Ziggurat is known for its vibrant dramatizations of myths. For example, Red Thread followed a Tang Dynasty governor’s maid who was also a secret assassin; Winterquest was inspired by the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, transposed to a seaside village.

Ziggurat’s core actors are Dana Wieluns, Jenny Woo, AnnaLisa Erickson, Lorin Eric Salm, Luis Zambrano, Dean Purvis, Michelle Tenazas, and Lyena Strelkoff. Says Legawiec, who is also Ziggurat’s artistic director, “Before every play I do I ask the actors what they want to do. For example, before Red Thread Jenny said, ‘I want to do something physical,’ and Dean said I want to play a villain. They didn’t know what the play was at that point. In this play AnnaLisa wanted to play the villain, Luis said he want to do something that has a lot of text. Insofar as we’re not paying these people a living wage, the best thing I can give to them is to let them do what they want.”

Salamanticus has 12 actors; five are company members and two Legawiec has worked with previously. To find the five other actors, he placed a casting notice in Back Stage West. “Sadly the thing I’m looking for is not on anyone’s resumé,” he notes. In 1996, when he ran his first ad looking for actors, it specifically asked for applicants interested in theatre and not TV or film. “And the most important thing I look for on a resumé is, either if the person studied with somebody I consider interesting or if they were involved in an unusual project.”

During the audition, he tries to “see if they can act,” at least in a role with which the actor is comfortable. “The thing about audition pieces is, you can choose from any role in the world and you have an unlimited time to rehearse it, so it should show you off well.” But there’s that intangible factor he looks for: “You want somebody who makes you look up—people who are interesting to watch, for whatever reason.”

Then, because Ziggurat’s work is always physical, says Legawiec, “After the audition pieces, if I like the person’s work, I have them do physical work and see how articulate they are with that work.” But despite the exciting physicality of the work, he says, his plays always deal with spiritual transformation: “As a good Catholic boy I respond to the idea that theatre is a ceremony and that in the best theatre you feel like you’re in the presence of something bigger than yourself. That even happens in plays that have nothing to do with the spirit. What qualifies as spiritual is something that has changed in my mind over the years—and will keep changing and broadening.”

He continues, “I used to think each of our plays had something like a mythic moment—the moment at which the climax of the story and the emotion of the main character intersected with this moment of magic, and that for me was the payoff. This ‘thing’ was very difficult to create, because the phrase ‘the magic of theatre’ is something you hear a lot but to actually do is hard. It’s never hard for the same reason, and you’re never trying to do the same thing every time you do it. But when I say magic I mean magic, because a lot of the plays we do deal in supernatural things.”

Salamanticus is about an ailing kingdom and three misfits in search of a supernatural book they think will set everything right. Says the playwright, except for two scenes based on a Washington Irving short story, the plot is completely invented based on grail myths—in which characters go off in search of a sacred object. The 90-minute work is narrated by Fibonacci, the real-life 12th century mathematician who derived the Fibonacci sequence—a string of numbers in which each number is the product of the two previous numbers. Says Legawiec, “The play has to do with a pattern to life that we can’t see and understand, and that the idea of destiny, which is where you’re going to end up, is a product of everything that’s happened before, and if you could analyze everything that’s happened before, you could see where people would end up.”

As for what the play is “about,” he says, “Normally I try to avoid that question, but…. The phrase that gets used in the play is ‘the web of destiny’—that people’s lives and circumstances are connected together by circumstances and reasons they cannot understand. I actually believe that’s true. There are people in my life I’ve kept coming back into contact with for no good reason. The play explores that idea.”

And because this is Legawiec, and because his belief in the power of the mythical and physical moment is so strong, a book happens to arrive during our interview, addressed not to Legawiec but to Back Stage West. It’s Ovid’s myths, reworked for children. Unlike his interviewer, Legawiec seems not at all amazed. But this moment is something even this playwright couldn’t have written better.

Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2002: "Drawing Inspiration from the Gods"

Stephen Legawiec borrows from world myths to create uncommon productions for his Ziggurat Theatre.

Philosophers from Plato to Paglia have long acknowledged that myth is society's building block, the barometer of a common world culture extending back to the cave. But just what place does myth have in Hollywood, where the high concept is king and humanistic considerations commonly yield to the youth demographic?

That's an issue Stephen Legawiec, founder and artistic director of the Ziggurat Theatre, has set out to address, one production at a time.
During the past half-dozen years, the Ziggurat Theatre has made a name for itself with evocative, visually stunning productions inspired by world myths. The company's inaugural production in 1997, "Ninshaba," featured two Middle Eastern goddesses as central characters. "Twilight World," mounted in 2000, was a loose adaptation of the Tereus and Procne story from Ovid's "Metamorphosis." In 2001, "Aquitania" employed the French legends of Charlemagne as a jumping-off point for a lighthearted meditation on time and utopianism. "Red Thread," Ziggurat's latest production at the Gascon Center in Culver City, opening Friday, borrows freely from a Chinese folk tale for a timely parable about a heroic female assassin who must break her new vow of pacifism to save the kingdom. Ironically, Legawiec makes a living as a television promo writer--a professional distiller of high concepts. But if by day he is a spinner of spiels, by night he's a weaver of tales--the curiously timeless original theater pieces that he creates.

A multi-tasker with a vengeance, Legawiec has written, directed and largely designed (sets and makeup) every Ziggurat production since the company's inception. He comes by his interdisciplinary skills naturally. The son of noted Polish violinist and composer Walter Legawiec and Eleanor Legawiec, a secretary and homemaker, Legawiec was an art major before he switched to acting--a painful transition, as it turned out.

"I went to two graduate schools for acting--first Cornell, then Rutgers," Legawiec explains. "They both kicked me out. They thought I wasn't any good. That was a pretty severe experience."

Experience that later stood him in good stead. "Directing comprises so many things," he says. "I had a design sense because of art school and a musical sense because of my father. I think that my art and music and acting backgrounds all coalesced into the raw skills that one needs for directing."
Those skills impressed Robert Velasquez, Ziggurat's resident costume designer, from the outset. "I like Stephen's work because it's so innovative," Velasquez says. "He writes everything himself, and his work is so unique. That's the real challenge. You can't just pull things from costume shops. Everything must be designed."

After his acting school debacle, Legawiec eventually teamed up with his friend Steven Leon (now a Ziggurat board member) to found the White River Theatre Festival, a Vermont theater that evolved from a summer-only venue to a six-month season. During the winter months, when the theater was dark, Legawiec lived in Boston, where he began toying in earnest with the notion of myth.

"My family is Polish," he says. "And being a Polish Catholic, you are really steeped in ritual, because of the Mass. I thought a lot about the importance of myth and ritual in theater--an area I had never turned my attention to before."

Legawiec used his Polish heritage as a starting point for his initial exploration. "I assumed everyone in Poland was working in myth and ritual," he says. "Of course, that was far from the truth."

Acting on that mistaken assumption, Legawiec wrote to the Krakow-based Teatr Stary, Poland's leading repertory theater, explaining that he was a young American theater director interested in observing a Polish theater's rehearsal process.

To his amazement, his inquiry was met with a firm invitation. "They were very accommodating," he says. "They sent me the schedule for the whole year and said, 'Come when you can.'"

Legawiec spent the winter of 1990-91 in Poland, arriving in time for the country's first post-Communist presidential elections. "It was a very tempestuous time for the country and the theater," he recalls. "Under the old Communist system, actors couldn't be fired; they were employed for life. For the first time, the theater was in the position of having to fire people."
In the midst of the political upheaval, however, the Teatr Stary remained surprisingly laid-back. Legawiec was particularly impressed with the theater's lengthy rehearsal process. "They would rehearse something for three or four months, until it was ready to open," he marvels. "That kind of unlimited rehearsal time was a real revelation to me."

A more profound revelation was to follow--Legawiec's visit to Jerzy Grotowski's theater and archive. "I didn't know much about Grotowski at the time. I just knew he was important," he says. "I talked to the people who ran the archive, and they gave me Grotowski's book, 'Towards a Poor Theatre,' and videotapes of his productions. That night, I slept in the theater. I read the book from cover to cover and watched the videotapes. It was a surreal experience."
And a life-altering one. "Grotowski talked a lot about myth in his book, and it was clear that all his staged productions used ritual in a big way. Grotowski's philosophy really had meaning for me. And I was also struck by the idea that Grotowski spent a year or so on each individual production. He had no time limit."

Returning to his Vermont theater, Legawiec chafed at the strictures he'd formerly accepted as routine. "When I was confronted with my short little two-week rehearsal periods, I didn't feel I could go on," he says. "So I proposed to my non-Equity actors, 'Give me two extra hours a week to work on a piece. Maybe we'll perform it, maybe we won't.'"

That venture, the Invisible Theatre Project, resulted in "The Cure," later remounted in Los Angeles in 1998. Subtitled "A Dramatic Ceremony in One Act," the play also marked Legawiec's first experiment with invented language, a technique he returned to in 2001's "A Cult of Isis."

Although the words in Legawiec's invented language pieces may not be intelligible, the meaning is--a distinction Ziggurat member Jenny Woo appreciates.

"When he experiments with invented language, Stephen is trying to tap into the subconscious, to express something more guttural and emotional," Woo says. "At other times, his work is very verbal and intellectual. You have to listen to the words and really pay attention. But the invented-language pieces do the opposite. They distance people from the literal understanding so that they can merely feel."

After his Vermont theater folded, Legawiec moved to L.A. and set out to form a new company, implementing the principles he'd developed with the Invisible Theatre Project. Actress Dana Wieluns, a charter member of Ziggurat, then known as the Gilgamesh Theatre, remembers those days.

"I responded to an ad in Back Stage West that called for actors interested in a long rehearsal process and new theatrical forms," Wieluns says. "I remember the ad made that distinction. It was a call for actors wanting to work in the theater as opposed to film and television. That first piece, 'Ninshaba,' rehearsed for six months."

In L.A., where actors routinely ditch small-theater commitments for more lucrative bookings, Legawiec's leisurely process was a hard sell. "On that first project, we started with nine actors," Wieluns recalls. "By the second rehearsal we were down to six, and a week later there were only three of us. The others realized they couldn't commit for that length of time."

What inspired such loyalty among the die-hards? "The reason I keep working with Stephen is that he's one of the few people who embraces the theatrical," Wieluns says. "He wants to put on stage the kinds of things that can't be committed to film or TV. I think for Los Angeles that's a unique thing."
An unapologetic purist, Legawiec views the gap between theater and other media as a great divide. "It seems to me that the spiritual component exists in the theater as in no other medium," he says. "I've never had a spiritual experience in the movies, the feeling that you're part of something larger, or you are beholding the mystery of life."

Legawiec routinely travels the world to research his plays. On a trip to China in September, he immersed himself in Chinese opera, a style that influences his staging of "Red Thread." The play derives from an obscure folk yarn written during the Tang dynasty. Despite the antiquity of his source material, Legawiec's updating resonates in ways he never anticipated.

"The story's about an assassin who swears off killing just when the kingdom needs her most," he says. "Coincidentally, the play deals with war versus pacifism during a time of crisis."

The timing may be coincidental, but the message of "Red Thread" is as fresh as when the story was written 1,200 years ago. That's typical of the Ziggurat Theatre, as it crosses cultural boundaries and spans generations in its own continuing saga.

Daily Breeze, Friday, August 15, 2003: "Bringing Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year to life on stage"

By JIM FARBER, Theater Critic

In the spring of 1665, the poorest of London's poor, in habitants of the overcrowded parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, suddenly became aware that people were dying of a ghastly disease.

The first tell-tale symptom was an ugly black lump, a "bubo" that appeared beneath the skin of the groin. Next came fits of uncontrollable vomiting, grotesque swelling of the tongue, and splitting headaches. The infected rarely survived. It was bubonic plague ˜ the Black Death. And it was spreading.

During May, while the weather remained mild, only 43 people in London succumbed to the disease. But as the temperature climbed, and the congested, unsanitary sections of the city began to swelter, the death toll accelerated at an alarming rate. By the end of June it had reached 6,137; by July it had climbed to 17,036 and by August, 31,159.

Those who could, including Charles II and his court, simply abandoned the city. Those who could not afford such luxury, did whatever they could to protect themselves, and prayed for deliverance.

By midsummer, the clatter of death carts, laden down with victims of the plague, echoed through the streets. Their destination was the mass graves-- the "plague pits" which were being hastily excavated beyond the city gates.

Those who remained behind walked the streets with posies of flowers gripped firmly to their noses, hoping these fragrant packets would ward off plague. The practice soon gave rise to a grotesque little rhyme and dance that was taken up by the children of London: “Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, all fall down!”

The posies didn’t help. Executing thousands and thousands of the city’s dogs and cats didn’t help. Nothing helped. Ultimately, it was the frigid air of winter and the great London fire of 1666 that finally put an end to the plague. The flames destroyed a third of the city. And with it, the rats and the fleas that had transmitted the disease.

The exact number of people who died during the plague of 1665 and 1666 is unknown. But well-researched estimates place the number at more than 100,000 ˜ approximately 15 percent of the population.

Daniel Defoe, the English writer who in 1719 penned his most popular novel, Robinson Crusoe, was just 5 at the time of the plague. The horror it generated, however, left a lifelong impression. So much so, that in 1722 Defoe decided to write a semi-fictional, “eyewitness” account of that dreadful event, A Journal of the Plague Year. The story is narrated by a diligent, God-fearing working man, a saddler, who chooses to stay behind in London when many others are fleeing. It offers a fascinating, highly detailed account of what it was like during those dreadful days.

Given the horrendous nature of its subject, A Journal of the Plague Year would not seem the obvious choice for a theatrical adaptation. But in 1989, the idea to adapt it for the stage did spark the imagination of a young playwright/director (and sometime actor) named Stephen Legawiec.

Legawiec saw those dreadful days as a distant mirror of current events. He still does. And tonight his highly acclaimed dramatization will be revived at the Gascon Theatre Center in Culver City, with the playwright performing nearly all the characters who wend their way through the narrative.

“It seems like a good time to revisit this story,” said Legawiec, who in 1996 founded the Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble. “When I first wrote it, it was at the height of the AIDS scare. And that was heavily on my mind. Now we're facing the threat of bio-terrorism and the development of super viruses.”

The way Legawiec sees it, the plague that swept London could be a preview of events to come.

“In the world of microbes, humans are completely vulnerable,” he said. “We could be wiped out in a moment. The narrator of this play is a survivor. But he could just as easily be the last man on Earth.”

Instead of writing his play for a large cast, Legawiec created a formula that allowed a single actor to play a wide variety of roles representing a cross-section of London society at the time of the plague.

"Defoe made his novel rather dry, by design," explained Legawiec. "There's not much in it that comes across as a plot. I liked the story and the character of the narrator. But there wasn’t enough there to make it dramatic. So, I created a through-line that makes Defoe’s material function as a play "essentially I gave the narrator a household. And over the course of the play, you learn what happens to all of them."

At the same time, Legawiec said, there are lengthy sections of the play that are drawn directly from Defoe’s novel.

When "A Journal of the Plague Year" was first produced, Legawiec was working in a small theater in the town of White River Junction, Vermont, 4 miles south of Dartmouth.

“We were the only professional theater for 30 miles,” he said. “We tried to do as many different things as possible ˜ from Shakespeare to contemporary plays, musicals and forgotten classics. Occasionally, I would write a play so we could save money on royalties.”

But after two intense years in Vermont, Legawiec (who had studied art and theater at Washington University, Cornell and Rutgers) decided he needed to expand his horizons.

So, in 1990, he packed his bags and went to Krakow, Poland, where, he felt, the most innovative work in contemporary theater was taking place.

“It was that trip that solidified my interest in myth and ritual,” Legawiec explained. “And unlike the 2- to 3-week rehearsal period I'd been used to in Vermont, these actors would rehearse a piece for months and months, until it was finished.”

When Legawiec returned to Vermont, he tried putting what he'd seen into practice. He created a summerlong workshop called “The Invisible Theatre Project.” Its goal was to develop a process of discovery, rather than a single, highly polished production.

“That was really the beginning of the work I'm doing now,” he said.

In 1995, however, it all came crashing down. Legawiec and the theater's board of directors no longer saw eye-to-eye. He wanted to create process-oriented theater that, in his words, “could produce a spiritual experience for the audience.” His board, he said, wanted plays that made money.

Discouraged and unemployed, Legawiec wanted to put Vermont as far behind him as possible. He accepted a friend's invitation to come to Los Angeles, where he found work writing and producing television promo spots ˜ those 30 second blips designed to make you crave the next re-run of “Frasier.”

It allowed (and continues to allow) Legawiec the wherewithal to operate the Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble.

“In 1995,” he recalled, “I ran an ad that said, ‘Looking for actors who are interested in theater not television or film’ who would like to rehearse an unspecified piece for an indefinite period of time.”

Expecting (perhaps naively) that L.A. actors would bring with them an Eastern European brand of commitment, Legawiec set to work creating a new play. Then, one by one, his actors began to drop out. Eventually, the eight he’d begun with were down to three.

“I said to them, ‘Listen, we’ve gone through four plays in four weeks. And I swear, if the three of you stay, we will do a play. But you’ve got to stay!" And they did.”

Now in its seventh season, the Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble has produced a series of noteworthy productions, first at the Glaxa Studios in Hollywood, then at the Gascon Theatre Center in Culver City.

Unfortunately Journal of the Plague Year will mark the end of the company’s Gascon Center residency. The theater is expected to close to make way for a major real estate development, which means the company will, at least temporarily, be without a home. But with a determined director such as Legawiec in charge, it’s unlikely this inventive ensemble will be homeless very long.

LA Weekly, "Stephen Legawiec's The Medicine Show"

Sweet Tonic and Gibberish

Stephen Legawiec's The Medicine Show
by Steven Leigh Morris

Boy, demons and a nighttime chill: The Medicine Show

HERE'S AN IDEA THAT'S BEEN BREWING since I saw Space (still at the Mark Taper Forum), Tina Landau's gush-filled ode to the cosmos and our changing views of it, in a production with visual beauty, romance, sound, fury -- and an alien abduction or two. If Space actually had a point, you could envision it as something Charlotte Brontë might have penned for the millennium. And it's really quite gutsy of the Taper to turn the keys of the theater over to writer-directors with grand and beautiful ideas, even if those ideas do wind up flopping about the stage like beached fish, suffocating from such toxic self-importance that even levity is no antidote.

That the track record of the Taper's writer-director experiments has been so dreary of late -- what with Landau, and the Gordons, David and Ain -- does give one pause for reflection. Perhaps they're looking for talent in the wrong places.

The Taper does have a back yard called Los Angeles. Let me say that again, with emphasis: The Taper has an artistically fertile though economically parched back yard called Los Angeles, home to writer-directors such as Robert Prior, who -- with his troupe, the Fabulous Monsters -- turns fiction into camp and back again. Recently, Laural Meade and Susan Rubin's Indecent Exposure Theater Company's Harry Thaw Hates Everybody, a play with music developed in the Taper's New Works Festival, offered a brainy if bumpy ride through the decadence of the Roaring '20s. On a good day, the Actors' Gang's Tracy Young can melt both logic and history into stirring spectacles (Euphoria, Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, Four Roses), a feat heartily matched in the collaborative efforts of About Productions (Vox, Memory Rites, Properties of Silence). Then there are the Sacred Fools, Evidence Room, Open Fist Theater Company, Theater of Note, Zoo District, Bottom's Dream, Wolfskill Theater, Oxblood and other companies capable of cutting through the theatrical malaise -- in storefront or warehouse venues, no less. If the Taper has some extra keys lying around, they'd do well to toss them in them in the direction of such companies: It's unlikely they'd wreck the place, though they might bend it a tad out of shape.

LIKE ROBERT PRIOR, STEPHEN LEGAWIEC is a visionary writer-director with an idiosyncratic view of theater that ties into an obsession with folklore and legend. For The Medicine Show, the audience is led by lantern-wielding guides down a dusty trail from the parking lot of Coldwater Canyon Park to the stage proper -- a clearing in the brush identified by a free-standing billboard announcing a production of "The Birds," a performance based on a Navajo legend that will culminate in a festive bird dance, or so we're told by the ditty-crooning top-hatted Driver (Legawiec), dressed in the garb of a 19th-century MC and stationed at a workbench.

Why the dance? And what is the significance of the bird masks? "I don't know!" he barks flippantly at the audience, while carving a puppet. There's to be no show today. The actors are all suffering from a mysterious malady. Three have died, he explains cheerfully. The French-speaking Eskimo prop girl (Alyssa Lupo), who is doubling as a nurse, appears from behind the billboard, trying to repair a broken hammer as Driver describes his plans for the puppet: a wandering boy, terrified of demons, maybe carrying a lantern...

At that moment, we see a lantern moving in the shrubbery, carried by a Boy (Ogie Zulueta), who crosses behind the billboard onto the playing area, pleading with the prop girl, in sign language, for food. During the hourlong performance, he will dream of being teased and tormented by gibberish-speaking demons (masks by Beckie Kravetz); he will die and be resurrected, accompanied by dissonant a cappella chorales and boisterous drumming.

Throughout, Legawiec examines the ceremonies of death and healing, and the oddities of language. As in last year's The Cure, much of the language is invented. Which is Legawiec's way of showing the universal shapes of ritual without locking himself into an anthropological exhibit. In The Medicine Show, spirits speaking some Slavic-sounding comedy wind up capering through a Navajo dance against a sagebrushed backdrop of the Wild West. It would be a different experience were there even a telephone pole in view, or if The Medicine Show were staged indoors. This work is truly site-specific.

At the performance I attended, a blanket of fog shrouded the set, pierced somewhat by a quarter moon. The cumulative impact was mesmerizing. And although the company provides a supply of paper towels to dry the seats from the condensation, do bring a jacket.




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