About a hundred years ago in Los Angeles, scores of people would gather for Easter Sunrise Service on a small flattop mountain northwest of downtown. Musicians would perform while folks prayed and celebrated in the olive groves. But an heiress to an oil fortune wanted that land for herself.
So, as the story goes, Aline Barnsdall bought Olive Hill and helped secure money to move Easter mass to the spot we now know as the Hollywood Bowl. Barnsdall then hired the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a house and theater complex atop her new purchase.
Barnsdall didn't live very long in the house, and she and Wright could never agree on a design for the theater, so it was never built. But now, the property is about to host its first theatrical production.
Barnsdall’s home is more famously known as Hollyhock House. The 1920s-era masterpiece is the centerpiece of Barnsdall Art Park, which is located at the junction of Los Feliz, Silverlake and East Hollywood. On a recent day, a troupe of musicians and actors are rehearsing a play to be performed inside the landmark structure.
With only 12 performances and 20 tickets a night for sale, audience members will experience the show exactly as Fornés intended. An all-female international cast spreads out across the Hollyhock grounds to tell the story of how a group of women confront societal pressure.
“At one point all the women divide up and they find these little intimate pockets," Jopson says. "So, Fornés in the '70s — before all these immersive or site-specific shows that have become fairly common to have scenes happen at the same time — she wrote this piece to have these four scenes happen simultaneously.”
Jopson believes Hollyhock is the perfect backdrop for this classic feminist text by Fornés because the playwright and Aline Barnsdall both mirror the strength, smarts and sass of the women who come together in the story.
"[There’s] text from the play where they say where women are like live wires, they have this energy about them," Jopson says. "And so you can do a lot, be very productive, but there’s always a need to feel like you have to prove yourself to someone or prove that you are worth something in a way that sometimes men don’t have that.”
To mount a show inside Hollyhock House is no small feat. This is a National Historic Landmark and is on the path to becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site. To put that in perspective, there are only a tiny handful of other places in the entire Southwest with that distinction. Yosemite National Park, the Redwood Forest and the Grand Canyon are among the elite few. Hollyhock House curator Jeffrey Herr says the upcoming play allows the building’s history to finally come full circle:
"Aline Barnsdall was educated in Europe, her father and grandfather’s oil money saw to it that she had the finest of everything. And she became interested in avant-garde theater and she wanted to produce. So she hired, or commissioned, Frank Lloyd Wright to provide that theater for her to be able to do the kind of work that she had seen in Europe. She was the original Silverlake hipster! Although I don’t think she would have tried to be or intended to be, but it was just who she was.”
It took Barnsdall about four years to find Olive Hill. She had tried Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, but it was here in L.A. that she fell in love with this remote locale and its dramatic views.
According to Herr: “There were some bungalow tracks around the base of the hill, but more to the east there were lemon groves and, of course, there [were] the studios — some of the small, but soon to be major studios. The Disney Studios were over on Hyperion where the Gelson’s is.”
In the end, Barnsdall and Wright fought over the designs, timelines and overall construction of the house and theater colony hybrid. While Wright was distracted with building the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Barnsdall grew impatient and fired him. Shortly thereafter, she gave a 12-acre portion of the land, including Hollyhock House, to the City of Los Angeles. The theater complex was never built. Her dream was dashed, until now, when members of the Circle X Company and Just TOYS production began rehearsing for their upcoming show inside the residence.
“The house became alive," muses actress Julia Ubrankovics. "The energy is just lighter. We have a relationship to these pictures. We have relationships to these books, and to the carpet. And we touch it and we sort of bring life back to it and the house gives a lot.”
Ubrankovics says there’s a certain poetic justice in Barnsdall finally getting what she paid Wright for all those years ago — a living, breathing home for theater.
“It was a museum," Ubrankovics notes. "And now it’s a house — with a purpose.”
“Fefu and Her Friends,” runs May 6-28 at Hollyhock House. The show is nearly sold out, but to help with restoration efforts on the Hollyhock guest house, there are two special fundraiser seats available at each show.