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U.S. job-stimulus dollars help bring Gertrude Stein novella to L.A. stage

July 15, 2010 |  6:26 pm
GertrudeSteinAliceBToklas There’s a certain irony in the fact that $50,000 from last year’s $787-billion federal economic stimulus bill has trickled down to the premiere of "Brewsie and Willie," a new adaptation of Gertrude Stein's 1946 novella that opened Thursday in downtown L.A.

The show is produced by California Institute for the Arts’ Center for New Performance, in association with Poor Dog Group, an experimental stage ensemble of young CalArts alumni who play most of the roles.

Jesse Bonnell, Poor Dog Group’s artistic director, chuckles to think that the federal job creation dollars are paying for actors to portray American soldiers whose big worry, as they await their return from France after World War II, is whether they’ll be able to land jobs. But Brewsie, the deep thinker among Stein's characters, fears that postwar America could become so "job-minded," as he puts it, that the nation’s highest purposes could wither– among them his and his comrades’ ability to think for themselves.

Another irony, not in the script, is that the thoughtful, red-headed actor playing Brewsie is Jonney Ahmanson, Poor Dog Group’s co-executive director and a beneficiary of a banking and insurance fortune that has been crucial to the development of the arts in Los Angeles.

The Ahmanson Foundation’s most recent available tax return shows that, while the 2008 market collapse shaved its assets from $1.1 billion to $740 million, it still managed to pay or pledge $70 million in grants, including more than $22 million for the arts.

But Jonney Ahmanson says he has refused to allow Poor Dog Group to seek an Ahmanson grant. "I don’t know if it was pride, but it didn’t feel right. Everybody [in Poor Dog] understands." In any case, the foundation’s guidelines say that "grants generally are not approved" for underwriting performances; its giving in the arts goes mainly for academic scholarships and arts organizations’ capital needs.

Among the 2007-08 Ahmanson Foundation grants were $8.25 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to buy Old Master paintings, and an additional $1.5-million pledge for LACMA’s general support; $4 million for renovations planned at the Autry National Center of the American West; $2 million for the new theater the classical stage company A Noise Within is building in Pasadena; and $500,000 for renovations at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

The foundation also has been a big supporter of CalArts. In 2007-08 it gave $400,000 to the CalArts scholarship fund and pledged $400,000 more.

For Jonney Ahmanson, the funding link between his alma mater and his paterfamilias – William H. Ahmanson headed the Ahmanson Foundation before his death at 83 in 2008 – has been a source of personal discomfort.

"I had a big chip on my shoulder. I was very rebellious," he said before a recent rehearsal run-through of Jonney "Brewsie and Willie" in the ad-hoc downtown space. "I thought people [at CalArts] thought I was just some rich [expletive] who showed up and couldn’t act, and the only reason I was there was because of my dad."

Ahmanson says he acted out his insecurity by neglecting parts of his studies that weren’t much fun – the voice and speech courses that are to stage actors what boot camp is to soldiers, an arduous but essential part of the training.

"In my juvenile way I guess that was a revolt of some sort," he says. Ahmanson graduated a year behind his original class because he had to make up the courses he had ditched. There was a silver lining. Being bumped back to the class of 2007 put him in with the other students who went on to found Poor Dog Group.

While helping to launch the ensemble after graduation, Ahmanson nursed his dying father. Now, being his father’s son informs his performance as Brewsie. William Ahmanson served in the Navy during World War II. "He didn’t talk about the war much," says Jonney. "He said [his ship] got kamikazied twice and he lost a lot of friends. I feel closer to him through this role. I did a lot of research on the war, and went through my father’s old letters, wrapping my mind around the fact that these are real human beings going through this."

Ahmanson hopes to channel some of his father’s personal authority into Brewsie, a soldier the others in his unit look to for answers. "He could quiet a room with the word `no.’ He never swore, and when he did, it had a power. Something I wanted to encapsulate in Brewsie was that power."

The show runs 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays through Aug. 1 on the seventh floor of 533 S. Los Angeles St. For the full story about the production, click here.

--Mike Boehm


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Photos: Gertrude Stein (left) and her life partner Alice B. Toklas in 1934. Jonney Ahmanson in costume as Brewsie in production of Stein's "Brewsie and Willie."; Poor Dog Group performs in 2008. Credits: Associated Press (Stein); Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times (Ahmanson); Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times (Poor Dog Group).