25 years ago, Gates McFadden scored an opportunity to be a part of one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises with the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation as Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Beverly Crusher. Despite a brief departure from the series in its second season, Gates remained a series regular for the rest of the shows run and then went on to star in 4 major motion pictures as the story continued from Star Trek: Generations in 1994 all the way through 2002 with the final appearance of the TNG cast in Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002.
In the years since the end of The Next Generation, McFadden has taught in several universities, including AADA, Brandeis, Harvard, Purdue, Temple, The Stella Academy in Hamburg, Germany, and the University of Pittsburgh. She currently teaches as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Theater at the University of Southern California.
Her most ambitious project to date has been as Artistic Director of Ensemble Studio Theatre of Los Angeles since 2009. During her tenure, she spearheaded the building of the Atwater Village Theatre Collective in Los Angeles.
McFadden’s current play with the theatre is The Fisherman’s Wife, which she also directs. It tells of a married couple named Vanessa and Cooper whose sex life has grown stale. While her husband is out at sea, Vanessa is visited by a mysterious traveling salesmen and sea creatures with some very intense desires. We asked Gates describe the play for people who haven’t seen it.
“Well, the writer Steve Yockey really did come up with a great subtitle, which is ‘A sex farce. With sea creatures’,” McFadden recalls, “I mean, how many of those do you see? And it really is that. It’s a wonderfully wacky, weird, funny show. It’s slightly dirty, but you don’t really see anything, so there’s nothing really that happens, but I think of it as a very hilarious fable with some very unexpected things and it’s silly and wonderful.”
“When I read it, I thought it was hilarious. I went, ‘Wow! This guy’s mind!’” she adds, “But we had so much fun working on it. It was very challenging because farce, I think, is just about the hardest thing to do. If you go too much in one way, it becomes too camp or kind of off-putting or too much the other way it can be kind of naturalistic and mean; because honestly, there’s a lot of meanness in farce. But if you can find that line, it’s very clownesque and we had a blast. I had a great cast.”
We asked McFadden what came first, meeting the writer or reading the script.
“I think I read the script first,” she remembers, “He had come to see another show I directed, which was with Greg Moss called The House Of Gold. It was a really edgy production that dealt with all of the pageant children and sort of the way our society treats children, be it putting them on YouTube when they are just a child and they have no choice in the matter. It’s all that, how parents exploit their children basically, that’s what it was about. But it also had, I had an amazing animator that I worked with for six months and we tried to storyboard things together and he’s a brilliant animator named Drew Christy. So we had animation, we had live video, and film video and the space, we really used the space in a really cool way where it was unexpected things kept happening, which made the audience very present. And he saw that and he likes that. There’s some of that in this play. He likes that. It’s theatrical. It’s different. When you’re there, you actually get involved in a very visceral way, so he sent me the script and I think I had met him on the way out. He really liked it. He said, ‘Hi, I’m Steve Yockey.’”
“I knew that his shows had been done all over town and he has about six productions happening right now in the United States,” Gates continues, “He’s a wonderful writer, but I had never read this comedy before and he wanted me to do a reading of it. I think he was sort of like well, ‘does she like it, and let’s try it out.’ So I think the week before I was leaving for Europe, I did one rehearsal with them and we really hit it off, and he liked my notes and did the reading. And that was done at The Actors Gang. And then, I made the decision to try to do this. If it’s a world premiere and I can try to do a rolling world premiere with Impact Theatre up in San Francisco, which I love to do, which is the supporting playwrights and you’re both doing a world premiere and so, you’re both getting to be connected with a production, that’s great. So that’s how it happened.”
We noted to her that The Fisherman’s Wife wasn’t just another simple “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” kind of story, that there’s clearly something a little strange going on in writer Steve Yockey’s head.
“Strange and wonderful,” McFadden notes, “And I do think that he’s hit something. I do think relationships go stagnant and I think he deals with it in a completely unexpected and unique way and if you don’t see it as a literal thing, if you see it as a fable and see it as funny, it really works. It starts out with a couple and they’re blaming each other and then because they’ve changed in some way themselves, they’re able to see and appreciate the other person, which is a very standard sort of thing, except that how this happens is not standard.”
One of the wonderful things about this production is that it’s stage in a blackbox theatre, and while the uninitiated may not think that a room with 4 black walls and minimal furniture can be interesting, their opinions quickly change after seeing this production. There are so many unexpected and very interactive things that occur during the play like tentacles coming out of doorways, a puppet show within a wall and a cast that seems to be entering and exiting from ten different vantage points.
We asked Gates to talk about the challenges of staging a play like that and how rewarding it is when it all comes together.
“Well, I’m a choreographer as well as a director,” Gates says, “And I love the audience being surprised about how the space is used, so they don’t go in and go, ‘oh, I’m comfortable here and this is my seat and everything’s going to happen here.’ That it’s going to happen right next to you and it can happen around you and not in a way that you’re going to have to get a pie thrown in your face, but in a way of just not knowing what’s going to happen next. I think that’s the key.”
“I like [films and] theater where I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and so, that’s kind of cool to me. And one of the things I try to do when I direct is to use the space or to put the audience so that they are almost involved in the play as well, they’re right there, and I like it that they almost have to participate in a certain way, not in a way of coming up and people are playing tricks on them. There’s a lot of comedy that does that sort of thing, not that way at all, you’re an audience member, but everything is not expected.”
As audience members ourselves a few nights earlier, we knew exactly what Gates was talking about. On opening night at one point our seats were in the spotlight for certain segments of the show. We almost felt as if we might have lines to say that we had forgotten.
“It’s just sort of a reminder that we’re all in it together and I think this is definitely an intimate space,” McFadden replies, “The other two theatres [at the Atwater Village Theatre] are larger, but you still feel intimate and there’s something very cool about Blackbox because of that. You can put the chairs any way, you can have the audience in the middle and everything happening around them, and I like the fact that we can change it up. For example, in theatre one, we have never done the same seating ever in anything that we’ve done. It’s sometimes, everything is on one side of the thing, and sometimes we make it into a thrust.”
“We change where the booth is, even,” she continues, “We do things where it’s not necessarily what you think it’s going to be. So what’s good is the audience can get disoriented in a positive way. You don’t go in there with your head in the program and just go, OK, this is what it’s going to be and that’s it. You just don’t know. That’s why in this show, the intermission is kind of entertainment. You can go to the bathroom if you have to, but you are going to miss something, so it’s your choice.”
Another thing we noted to McFadden that was great about the play was that even during intermission, the show was delightful and entertaining. Going on was singing and an unexpected playing of the clarinet and ukulele that made us feel that we were missing out on something wonderful even then.
“There’s a Lady Gaga song on it and there’s a Sonny & Cher song on it in Chinese and Russian,” she notes, “Well, see, that’s a good place to be, I’m not sure. It’s the idea of engaging.”
McFadden’s past with L.A. theatre includes a Los Angeles Theatre Company production of Viva Detroit and Ensemble Studio Theatre’s production of The Shore. She talks about how her long history with theatre stretches further beyond that during her time in France.
“I studied theatre with a man named Jacques le Coq when I got out of college,” Gates remembers, “And he really was my mentor and he influenced me a lot as an actress, as a director, and in my view of the world. So I always had a desire to go back and develop theatre in France. There was something that I felt, being over there, speaking another language; it was a very freeing thing for me as an actress. I suddenly found when I was speaking this other language; I didn’t have the same connections. I could say words that I might not say as quickly. It was easier for me to curse in French, for example, than it was to curse in English at that time, because I had come from Ohio.”
“And so, this is something that was strong in my life and I wanted to go back,’ she adds, “I loved the region near Moglie, a lot of university students there. So I found this stone barn and I also have this house where I redid both of the places and in the barn I put in theatrical lighting. So I was going to develop something for there, but what happened was I became artistic director here, so that’s sort of been put on hold. But I would like to go back. I have actually something that I would like very much to do that is sort of a reworking of Everyman, but it’s very different.”
Gates talks about how she chooses smaller theatres and areas one would create and establish a theatre in which they know people would come, they’d be able to get there, and effectively get the word out about the shows being put on there.
“Well, one of my USC students, while I was teaching there, was going out with the son of the man who’s developed this section of the street where I am,” she recalls, “And it was very dark about 3 ½ years ago and he’s built all of these townhouses across the street. I really dug the area. It was by the railroad tracks. There was something that reminded me of early SoHo in New York. No, it doesn’t look like early SoHo in New York, but just the feeling when you walked around this street. It was kind of quiet, unexpected things, and I had seen what my students had done. They went in and they took one of the warehouse spaces and they had done this theater presentation, which they kind of threw together, and it was the coolest place. And so, I just thought it was a great place to do theater and at that time, I hadn’t quite signed on as artistic director yet. It wasn’t something I sought out.”
“I was asked to take over here as artistic director,” she continues, “and we didn’t have a home, we were nomadic. So we would rent a theatre and we would do a show or you’d get a grant and do it jointly, like at the Ford. And what interested me was that I saw the possibility of getting a space. Because for me, I really love developing spaces, I really love architecture, and that’s what I actually did to the barn in France and I love how you can use it and make it something that’s theatrical and interesting. And so I came in here and everybody thought I was insane, because nothing was really happening much on this street. I picked another theatre company [to share the space with]. I had interviewed a bunch of small companies and picked Circle X, who agreed to come in on it as partners of the space, and it was really hard. We had to put the grid in and we did a tremendous amount of work and figured out the layout and how it would happen.
“When I was young, I went to the Public Theater when it really hadn’t been open that long. You would see three shows would let out at the same time and there was this feeling of, ‘wow, there’s stuff happening here.’”
“You’d see all these actors and all these audience members and people who had just been down at the museum and seen some modern art there or someone hearing some great music and that kind of community I feel is so important, and I love Los Angeles now,” McFadden adds, “I really didn’t like it 25 years ago. I love it now. I really, really do. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I like getting away from it sometimes, but there’s so much happening here now and we’re struggling, all of the theatre companies, because it’s such a spread-out city, it makes it much tougher, but I really feel if we can get film and theatre more connected in terms of the people who are really doing it, like I’m really game to do a series of shorts here and have people be able to come here and use the space and shoot some parts of their movies and stuff like that. I think it’s really, really terrific, so that’s sort of how we got here and it’s a cool area.”
“Everyone comes out and it’s a very similar feeling. You have all these shows letting out, there are three shows that let out at the same time. You have this nice kind of bar area and outdoor patio thing and I just love Atwater Village. It’s this sweet little strip and the two best bakeries in L.A. as far as I’m concerned. They are unbelievable. They are definitely top. There’s one called Proof and one called Sweets For The Soul and they are killer good. It’s just a nice community. It’s more like The Village. It’s got this feeling similar to New York. You have a lot of Armenians, Europeans, Chinese, Korean, Latino, and African American community all together and that’s very cool.”
“So it’s now developing an audience and that’s why it’s wonderful that people are coming out and talking about shows that are done.”
Gates talk about the joy she gets artistically creating something that isn’t film or TV where it will live on forever, where it exists for a short time and then something new is created in that same space.
“It’s great because it’s really like you sort of are having another little family. You’re trying something together and it’s a real challenge and an experiment. It’s very much like a team. You’re really trying something and seeing if it works. I think of people who try and send up the space shuttle or something. That’s got to be pretty cool when something like that happens. It’s pretty cool on any small scale when you work together on something and the way it takes off. It’s the way a film is. Everybody has to do their part. It’s not just one person.”
“It’s collaboration and a collaboration is what makes it fun and I love the fact that there’s so many great artists in this city,” she adds, “There’s a lot of talent in this city, so it’s just a lot of fun. And working with people like Sarah McCarron, who also had studied some le Coq techniques. She had done a little clown things with me, other things. Also, she’s one of our literary managers. She’s very smart. She’s written herself different TV series, she’s written some plays herself, and so much talent where people are multi-talent, they don’t do just one thing, just like Gary Patent, who plays the clarinet.”
We brought up to McFadden about, having come from Manhattan, we have been very impressed with every bit of the mere handful of theatre productions we have seen in Los Angeles, which is usually famous merely for film and TV, and how each one has something and interesting and different and how much of the talent is the same as you would find in New York.
“Circle X, Son of Semele, Rogue Machine Theatre, Rogue Artists, there’s a lot of amazing companies,” she says, “Not all of them do brand new work, but a lot of them do things in very unique and wonderful ways. Ghost Road Company, The Rogue Theatre Company, there’s an amazing theater community here.”
“I didn’t know about it 25 years ago,” Gates adds, “It’s really here and it’s like all the things that happened at REDCAT, which is connected to the L.A. Phil, some fantastic stuff. Come on, we’ve got to get the people out in seeing these things.”
We also commented to Gates that the cast members of The Fisherman’s Wife delivered incredible, memorable lines, such as Sarah McCarron who says dialogue like ‘I’m in a bad mood… forever,’ with such great delivery.
“She’s such a great comedian, really,” McFadden says of her, “She’s really very talented. Just an incredibly talented cast actually, all of them really. There’s no favorite. I just love them. I love my two puppeteers, they were former students of mine, I adore them. I think they’re people who make films. They’re actors. They’re in our affiliates program here.”
We brought up to McFadden that having been on something established like a movie or a TV series like Star Trek is a great way to introduce the uninitiated to theatre.
“Well, that would be great,” she says, “Patrick [Stewart] directed Brent [Spiner], myself, Jonathan [Frakes], and Colm Meaney in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by Tom Stoppard and we took it on the road, this was while we were filming. Because of Star Trek, we did it in 5,000 to 6,000 seat houses with an eighty-piece orchestra and we did the acting in-between.”
“And I cannot tell you how many people loved it and said they had never ever gone to any kind of theater or symphony thing in their lives, but they actually loved it, and that is the power of being on a TV series that is popular,” Gates continues, “So hey, if you want to support me, please do come out and take a look at the theater out here. We have shows of all different kinds, but they’re new works and if people have scripts that are interesting, then people can volunteer and get involved.”
Gates talks about how accessible the non-profit theatre scene is in getting up and coming actors and playwrights’ works to be heard.
“They absolutely can get involved,” McFadden says, “They can volunteer. That’s what it is. It’s not a large infrastructure company, so people go to our website, they send their information, and people have meetings with them and it happens.”
“I would say most of the people here are people who came from that sort of way,” she adds, “And then, they start doing something and then, pretty soon, they’re involved in a reading and then, pretty soon, they’re involved in something more.”
We mentioned to McFadden that the friend we brought to the show has already bought tickets for a second show and said he was coming back because he just loved the show so much that he wanted to see it again and that two friends he knew would be so into this that he had to bring them.
“Oh, see, that’s great,” she says, “That’s how it happens, because I mean I want the person to like the work obviously, that’s the idea. If they like it, then they’ll get involved. And really, again, The Year Of The Rabbit is a beautiful, haunting play and it goes from Vietnam to Afghanistan and really it talks about how you think you have no personal connection to something and then, actually, it happens and it turns out you do.”
“It’s a very beautiful play about children and the cost of war,” Gates continues, “And how it’s just passed on from generation to generation that we actually really need to stop damaging our whole country and world and take responsibility for learning how to do things in a different way, which is a very Star Trek thing, tolerance and the prime directive.”
Also brought up to McFadden was the fact that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the first airing of Star Trek: The Next Generation. We asked the actress whether she would be doing any appearances with her fellow cast members for that.
“Well, there’s a lot of things,” Gates says, “I’ve chosen them. I support the theatre with my appearances and the money goes really to that… I was just in Austin with the full cast and it’s a lot of fun, we all get along. But it really supports my hobby of doing a non-profit theater company, because nobody makes money here, most of the people are volunteers, but you do have to earn money to pay for the rent.”
Gates also brought up that this year marks the beginning of the release of the Star Trek: The Next Generation season sets on Blu-Ray, with the first season having come out in June and the second season, which she didn’t appear on, set for a release in December.
“They’re really nice, aren’t they?” McFadden says, “The detail is phenomenal. It is better. They did a really great job, I think. It’s really cool.”
So if you happen to be in the Los Angeles area you should definitely pass by the theatre and see some of the amazing shows that they have running there!
You can visit their website at The Ensemble Studio Theatre for more details and info.