The Dawn of Jazz and the Voyage Ahead

After 21 years, Robert Grande-Weiss retired as artistic director of Ensemble Theatre last summer. But he hasn’t quite left the scene.

After directing the production of “Betrayal” at the beginning of the season, Grande-Weiss is completing his two-play contract as artistic director emeritus with Ensemble’s upcoming play, Richard Greenberg’s “The Violet Hour.”

Set in New York in 1919, at the dawning of the Jazz Era, the play ostensibly focuses on a new publisher trying to gain a foothold in the industry and who only has enough money to publish one book. He has to choose between his best friend’s lengthy but brilliant novel or the memoirs of his clandestine girlfriend, a star nightclub singer.

But “The Violet Hour,” which plays at Ensemble April 5-29, goes beyond such simple choices even before the end of the first act, as a mysterious machine shows up in his office and begins spewing out pages of books from the future, putting the current crisis in perspective.

Grande-Weiss shared a few insights on the play with the Journal last week.

Q. What is it about “The Violet Hour” that appeals to you?

A. First of all, Richard Greenberg is a wonderful writer, but Ensemble had never done one of his plays. So that was an attraction right there. The play has a lot of elements of fantasy and reality, and the future and the past. It speaks to the kind of people we were at the beginning of the twentieth century and who we became by the end. Although it all takes place on the same day, it’s reminiscent of “The Twilight Zone.” And the characters are very specific.

I read that you were touched by the humanity. Can you explain?

Greenberg says we are who we are, and we should cherish the moments that we live in and not worry about the future. He poses the question, “If you knew what the future holds what would you do? Would you go on living the way you are?” Ultimately, he says we should live in the moment. What I took away and hope the audience gets is that we should take a long look at ourselves and the people around us and know that everyone needs to be told that they have a good heart and that they fit in and belong. Everyone, as Noel Coward used to say, is wanted on the voyage.

The casting is unusual in that there are five actors from Los Angeles, none of whom has ever been at Ensemble before.

We used to cast some from here and some from Los Angeles, but this time we worked with a casting director in Los Angeles only, and found all the people we needed at the auditions there.

But you’ve been here 21 years and know all the local actors and are probably comfortable working with them, many of whom have been in and out of ETC plays for years.

I certainly do. I think I did my utmost to honor the professional actors who live here and cast them frequently in my time. It’s great to find actors you like and keep working with them. It just didn’t happen this time. But they’re all lovely.

I imagine it’s been years since you worked a show where you didn’t know anyone. How has that been?

It’s been challenging…It’s always better when you have people you’ve worked with before, but I had the feeling that this cast was really willing to work hard and they’ve been kind to each other and to me, so it’s a good working relationship. And if I ever do work with these actors again, we’ll have all this behind us, so it will be that much easier.