Director moves in Tim Vasen brings to Center Stage an affinity for the avant garde, along with impressive theater and academic credits.

September 20, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

At age 34, Tim Vasen has just started his first 9-to-5 job.

The former free-lance director is the first person to hold the title of resident director at Center Stage. And along with the title come regular hours - a prospect he views with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation.

"Structure is both the thing that's exciting and the thing that's scary," says Vasen, posing for a photo while perched atop a steamer trunk that is one of the props in Center Stage's production of "Travels with My Aunt."

The play, adapted by Giles Havergal from Graham Greene's 1969 novel, begins previews Friday. It is one of three plays Vasen is directing at Center Stage this season. In January he will stage Heather McDonald's "An Almost Holy Picture," followed in March by the world premiere of Karen Hartman's "Gum."

The resident director job is still evolving. In addition to directing, Vasen will be working on long-term planning, as well as two of Center Stage's continuing programs - the Theater for a New Generation outreach project and the performance art series, Off Center.

Both programs tap into interests of Vasen's. A Los Angeles native who received his master's degree from the Yale School of Drama in 1993, he spent five years teaching acting and directing at Princeton University. Listed among his directing credits are off-Broadway, several productions at California's South Coast Repertory and one play in each of Center Stage's past three seasons ("Open Admissions," "The Glass Menagerie" and, most recently, "The Woman in Black").

Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis had been looking for someone to fill the new post for several years. She says she chose Vasen because he has "a level of talent I was interested in, a level of intellect, sensitivity to people and ... a real interest in how an institution works."

Nor does it hurt, Lewis adds, referring to herself and others on the theater's artistic staff, that "he's more of a regular guy, not quite as kooky as we are ... more of a straight arrow."

"Tim is just a rock," says Jill Rachel Morris, curator of Off Center and the person who introduced him to Lewis. "He's very even-keeled emotionally ... He's one of the directors I've heard artists say, 'I would put my life in his hands,' and I think an institution could put its life in his hands."

Vasen is especially avid about Theater for a New Generation, which is aimed at theatergoers between the ages 14 and 30. This year, he points out, offers a particular challenge, since the program's five-year $1.4 million Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund grant has come to an end. "A lot of great things were started with that money, and the theater doesn't want to let them go," he says.

He also has an affinity for the avant-garde Off Center series. "I'm fresh enough from my grad school/young director days that

I find small-budget, intimate work very challenging," he says. Acknowledging that last season's Off Center festival was a financial disappointment, he expects this season's festival, which will probably be held in February, to be trimmed from two weeks to one and to showcase three or four performance artists.

At first glance, Vasen's previous Center Stage productions might seem to have little in common. All three, however, were modern plays, as are his three this season. "What I want to bring to the theater is more involvement with contemporary playwrights," he says.

In the case of "An Almost Holy Picture," a one-man show about a crisis of faith, Vasen will benefit from the proximity of playwright McDonald, who lives in Washington. "Gum," a play about female circumcision in an unspecified Arab culture, will be playwright Hartman's first full-scale production, and Vasen is eager to work with this young writer. "She has a really distinctive voice," he says.

Though he won't be working with playwright Havergal, who lives in Britain, the script of "Travels with My Aunt" fits Vasen's predilection for plays with a strong sense of theatricality.

One of the most theatrical elements in Havergal's adaptation is that four actors in business suits portray its two dozen characters - male, female and even canine. And, at one point or another, all four portray lead character Henry Pulling, a meek, retired bank clerk who becomes more and more caught up in his eccentric aunt's international adventures.

But while Henry's travels are just beginning, Vasen is staying put for the first time in years. He chose the uncertain life of theater back in grade school, when his grandmother gave the family a subscription to Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum.

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