The Odyssey seems like an apt name for a theatre company that has constituted a kind of lifelong personal journey for its founding artistic director, Ron Sossi, who started it 50 years ago in a small storefront church on Hollywood Boulevard as a “frustration outlet.” Toiling in network TV and aching to direct, he was instead “reading scripts and riding herd on such lovely shows as ‘Bewitched’ and ‘The Flying Nun.’” It was a trip to New York to see Hair and Richard Schechner’s Dionysus in 69 that gave Sossi his light-bulb moment. “Fuck, I’ve gotta start a theatre,” he thought to himself.
And so Odyssey Theatre Ensemble was born with productions of Brecht’s A Man’s a Man and Jean Claude van Itallie’s The Serpent, the latter of which Sossi will revive next March as part of the theatre’s 50th anniversary season. For a time, Sossi says, he was “a boy executive by day and an avant-garde theatre director by night.” But soon enough he made the Odyssey his full-time occupation. He began teaching acting and leading an ensemble, and “then one day some guy came in and said, ‘Oh, you’re doing the Grotowski stuff.’ And I said, ‘The what?’” Sossi had apparently found his way to a style that evoked the Polish theatre guru “by instinct,” and only later had the chance to travel and work with the man himself.
Before long he found a West L.A. location with three spaces, where in ensuing decades he’s produced regular seasons and hosted both rentals and co-productions with other L.A. companies, including the Evidence Room, whose artistic director, Bart DeLorenzo, lauds Sossi’s “curiosity and good taste and tirelessness. His is what I would call the textbook example of sustained vision.”
This persistence, Sossi says, is rooted in Shunryu Suzuki’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: to “approach each new piece of work as a beginner. So even though to the outside world it might look like, ‘Oh, well, Sossi’s directing another play’—in many ways that’s true, but the opposite is also true. Each production is a new adventure.” He cites Grotowski: “I don’t want to become a museum of myself.”
Accordingly the Odyssey’s coming season refers to the theatre’s left-field producing history without aping it. The Serpent is the only repertory revival per se; the fall has included Fornés’s Fefu and Her Friends and a musicalized Gertrude Stein anthology called In Circles. Currently running is a play from Ireland’s Fishamble company, Before, and next are an L.A.-centered dance festival, Peter Nichols’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, and Sam Shepard’s The Unseen Hand. While Sossi admits he might have found more support and acclaim in another city, like New York, he figures, “There’s a kind of outlander strain in me or something—I stubbornly want to make it in a place where they say you can’t do it.”