Claudio Raygoza
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Ion Theatre

3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest

Ion Theatre has earned an impressive reputation — and a number of Craig Noel Awards to back it up — for quality acting. I asked Claudio Raygoza, the artistic director, to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the company’s methods.

The 49-seat BLKBOX Theater, he says, is a primary consideration. Two SUVs could fit on the stage, but so close you might worry about dinging a door.

“It’s one of the most intimate spaces around,” says Raygoza. “On larger stages, the body can tell the story to an audience far away. Here, actors say ‘you can’t fake it; the audience is so close they can see into your soul.’

“But, the staging has to tell the story, too.”

There’s probably no official name for the configuration. It’s neither a proscenium stage nor a “thrust,” which juts out into the audience. And it isn’t “in the round.” It’s a square tilted like a diamond, or two triangles. Spectators sit in a chevron, on the lower triangle.

So conventional rules of staging don’t apply. Actors must often have their backs to the audience: stage left and stage right are just a few steps from each other.

Raygoza and Glenn Paris, who also directs, conduct rehearsals as if the stage were in fact a box, surrounded by all four walls.

“If you study the scenic design on sitcoms (which are usually shot on a sound-stage), you’ll see examples of this technique — ‘The Cosby Show’ in particular.”

Raygoza and Paris learned that, depending on which side the audience sat, they can see different versions of the play.

When they staged Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, about an unlikely couple, it ended up feeling “more romantic from house right and more sexually tense from house left. Some people who saw the show twice told us.

“They aren’t two separate plays, just subtle shifts that can tip the story over the threshold” for half the audience.

“We English readers scan from left to right. So objects stage right — the audience’s left side — seem closer and lighter. Those stage left seem farther and heavier and more threatening.”

For these and other reasons, in rehearsals, the directors stage each play twice, from the two different directions, “so both sides see a very close equivalent of the same story.”

Several company members did their first local show for Ion. “They’ve developed a real feel for the spaces we’ve come to call home. BLKBOX is the most challenging and, in some ways, the most rewarding.”

Though Ion has staged the musical Gypsy to very good effect, the small space makes demands on play selection as well.

Raygoza and Paris read “stacks and stacks” of scripts, almost one per day each. If it’s a new work, even if they won’t use it, they send a note to the playwright: “here is what I got.” The writers appreciate it, says Raygoza, “even if the script’s not the best fit for us.”

At any one point, Raygoza and Paris are working on at least three plays at the same time. “We open a show every other month — we MUST with only 49 seats — so the work is always happening simultaneously in three phases. It’s glorious sometimes and painfully exhausting at others.”

The phases: “one in performance (still giving notes to actors), one in rehearsal (always the first one we tackle on any given day), and the one in pre-production — working with designers and/or actors and research materials.

“But we never research previous productions. We don’t preview how others have done it. We like to explore the world of the writer with fresh eyes.”

Next time: acting in the BLKBX.

Read part two of this interview.

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