PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with John Ortiz

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with John Ortiz By his own count, actor John Ortiz has done six full stage productions over the last two years. They include Sueno at MCC Theatre, Hurricane at Classic Stage Company, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot at the Public Theater and Stephen Adly Guirgis' Jesus Hopped the `A' Train and the currently playing Where's My Money? by John Patrick Shanley. The latter two were both presented by the fiery LAByrinth Theatre Company, of which Ortiz is co-artistic director (with Philip Seymour Hoffman). Now on the cusp of its tenth anniversary, LAByrinth has recently emerged as one of the most vibrant ensembles in the city, thanks to productions such as In Arabia We'd All Be Kings, Jesus and Money, and audiences who seem as revved up as the volatile actors performing on stage. Ortiz plans to take a well-deserved break after Money, but LAByrinth's forward march seems unstoppable at this point. Ortiz talked to Playbill On-Line about both the encouraging and scary aspects of his and his company's sudden rise.

By his own count, actor John Ortiz has done six full stage productions over the last two years. They include Sueno at MCC Theatre, Hurricane at Classic Stage Company, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot at the Public Theater and Stephen Adly Guirgis' Jesus Hopped the `A' Train and the currently playing Where's My Money? by John Patrick Shanley. The latter two were both presented by the fiery LAByrinth Theatre Company, of which Ortiz is co-artistic director (with Philip Seymour Hoffman). Now on the cusp of its tenth anniversary, LAByrinth has recently emerged as one of the most vibrant ensembles in the city, thanks to productions such as In Arabia We'd All Be Kings, Jesus and Money, and audiences who seem as revved up as the volatile actors performing on stage. Ortiz plans to take a well-deserved break after Money, but LAByrinth's forward march seems unstoppable at this point. Ortiz talked to Playbill On-Line about both the encouraging and scary aspects of his and his company's sudden rise.

Playbill On-Line: After Jesus Hopped the `A' Train and Where's My Money?, I'm beginning to think LAByrinth's design is to whollop summer audiences over the head with the highest intensity plays it can find.
John Ortiz: (Laughs) Yeah, I think because that kind of work is not out there during the summer, there's a real hunger for it. It seems to be our most popular slot. I attribute it to the law of averages. Like in movies—there's so many blockbusters and what I want as a filmgoer during the summer is to go to a nice little film. I want an independent film with a human interest story and not so much a bang-bang, shoot 'em up kind of thing.

PBOL: This is only the second LAByrinth production not written by a company member, after Erin Cressida Wilson's The Trail of Her Inner Thigh. Why did you choose to part from tradition?
JO: I think there were plays that we couldn't say no to, and also to relationships to these playwrights. Who knows, after this season maybe they'll become members? Actually, most likely they will be. The bigger philosophy of the company is to have open doors, to say "yes" to everything. Through that we found these two plays. In John Patrick Shanley's case, Money was written specifically for us. He started working on it at our [annual] summer retreat.

PBOL: Where's My Money? covers a lot of territory concerning relationships, marriage and the battle of the sexes. What do you think the play's trying to say?
JO: I think on a basic level it's saying that in order to move forward, we have to clear our past and be honest about our past. There's so much emphasis on looking forward, and it's interesting to me, because I always say what's in the past is in the past. I think that's one basic theme of the play, and it doesn't try to answer it. It doesn't say that if you do deal with the past, it's the best route. It just so happens that every character in the play is kind of forced to deal with their demons in order to look to tomorrow.

PBOL: LAByrinth began life as the Latino Actors Base. When did it change its name and why?
JO: Probably about two years after it was founded. The name changed because we had people who shared our mission who weren't Latino and who really contributed and were a big part of the company. We really wanted them to be in the company. And it was kind of weird that we were called the Latino Actors Base and had two or three non-Latinos in it. We realized it wasn't a solely exclusive thing we were trying to do. PBOL: Part of that ethos of saying "yes" to everything.
JO: Yeah, exactly. It was more of an energy thing. We quickly realized that we were doing this in New York and what better place to include everybody.

PBOL: LAByrinth's reputation has grown manyfold in the last 18 months. What does the future hold for the company?
JO: It's kind of scary. We're actually at a crossroads in dealing with growth. I think we'll take an inevitable leap to the next level. It's scary for me. On one level, the only thing I really see is money and how sometimes money isn't the best thing to come your way. (Laughs) We started with absolutely no money; we never had any dues, we put up shows for $200. We basically had no budget. It was a place to keep things on a workshop level.

PBOL: So, is every show getting more expensive now?
JO: Yeah. We're trying to keep a cap on it. You've seen the space. There's only so much money you can put into it, because there's only so much you can get back. We're getting to the point where we'll keep productions on the highest level, like what you saw with Where's My Money? or even Jesus Hopped the `A' Train. That will probably be the highest level at this space. In the future, I have a goal of possibly getting another [permanent] space, and hopefully coming across some folks who see us doing the kind of shows people are expecting us to do. Hopefully, we can get a 99-seat house or a 199-seat house and still keep our place now and work on a workshop level there and then take the shows to a 199-seat house. We're actually in talks with the other people on the board. We've had the good fortune of having a lot of producers and other theatres come our way and be interested in our work. Maybe then we won't have to be so limited. Stephen Adly Guirgis' next play is going against the trend of producing theatre that is small. He has a knack for big ideas. Jesus was a departure from that because he wanted the show to move.

PBOL: What's happening with Jesus? Will it return to Off Broadway once again?
JO: We hope so. It's going to Edinburgh in a couple weeks.

PBOL: And you with it?
JO: I'm not with it. I'm doing a TV show [the series "The Job"] which starts in two weeks. So, with Steve's next play, I'm encouraging him to go big with it, 13 or 15 characters. Hopefully, we can do that next summer and have another space in a year and a half or two years, and that can be the first show we transfer to the new space.

PBOL: The company's profile has no doubt been helped by your success as an actor. Does your rise seem strange or sudden?
JO: I think that's kind of been the set-up of the company; it's allowed something like that to happen. I'm not the first and I probably won't be the last. The way we're set up is we'll always have this place, and even if you're out working [somewhere else], you have this place to come back to and work out and do things you normally don't have the chance to do. Phil [Seymour Hoffman] was the first real breakout member. He joined the company in 1995. Sam Rockwell is in the company. He's doing tons of movies now. Daphne Rubin-Vega is in the company. Phil and I are the ones that, through thick and thin, any spare moment, we run back to the theatre. I think we've been lucky to just meet each other and realize the importance of theatre and how great it is. Phil was in L.A. before he really hit it big, doing a lot of movies. That's how I met him. We were doing a production of The Merchant of Venice, which was the first play he'd done in a while. And he had such a great time working on that, it was a six month tour. Peter Sellars directed. He said "Man, I really miss this. I think I'm going to move out of L.A. and go back to New York." And I said, "If you come back to New York, I've got this little theatre company. I'd like to call ourselves the Little Rascals Theatre Company. (Laughs.) You're more than welcome." He really took to that.

—By Robert Simonson