Dedication and Belief Pays off for A Noise Within

Latest production is apt metaphor for long-struggling, now triumphant Pasadena theatre company

Published : Wednesday, September 5, 2018 | 5:46 AM

Geoff Elliott (Don Quixote) and Kasey Mahaffy (Sancho Panza). Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, the husband-and-wife founders and producing artistic directors of A Noise Within, should be found in the dictionary under “dedication,” with their smiling images beaming out to all would-be theater directors, and anyone else who sets out in pursuit of a lofty, seemingly unreachable goal.

In 1991, along with a partner, Art Manke, Geoff and Julia founded the now-Pasadena-based theatrical company a few years after graduating from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco (ACT).

Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, the husband-and-wife founders and producing artistic directors of A Noise Within

After moving to LA, both eventually signed with local agents and found themselves both doing television and film and commercials and both doing well.

“We were making our living at it,” said Elliott in a recent interview, “but we found ourselves increasingly going out of town to do theater and raising the ire of our agents. They don’t like that.”

Soon enough, both Geoff and Julia realized that the ACT, classical theater and language-based plays “had become a part of our DNA without us even realizing it for a couple of years after graduation.”

That’s when Geoff and Julia took a deep breath and took $3,000 out of their bank account.

Remembers Geoff, “It was all we had. And we decided to produce a very scaled-down version of Hamlet. And that was really the beginning.”

Thus began what Geoff described as an exhilarating and horrifying capital campaign, a campaign that eventually saw them raising a total of $13.5 million, half of it following the recession of 2008.

As Elliott tells the story, “There were points that we were hanging on by our fingernails and it was not something I would wish on anybody except for the fact that we got through it and we built the building and we’ve really been thriving and sinking even deeper in deeper roots of the community ever since. So we’ve got a lot to be grateful for.”

Julia and Geoff had been fortunate in building long-term relationships with several arts foundations that had befriended them in their earliest days.

“They knew us,” recalled Geoff, “and they cared about us and I think just as importantly, we had created a very loyal, somewhat rabid audience and people who just really cared about what we were doing and thought as we did that it was something important and not necessarily offered in Southern California” said Geoff. “So, really between the foundations and all of the people who, uh, who loved us, we were able to really squeak by.”

And both Geoff and Julia could give months of life lessons based on their own experience and dogged determination.

“From my own personal experience,” said Geoff, “Your mission has to be very specifically defined. You have to know who you are and you have to know that what you’re doing has great value to the community. And if you’ve got that, you’re a great deal of the way there because it means that there are other people probably who agree with you.

“It comes down to people wanting an organization that is giving back to the community in real ways,” he added, “both through what it has to offer and also through education that is consistent, and knowing you can count on that organization to do what it does on a very regular, consistent basis.”

Which brings us to “Man of La Mancha,” the company ’s latest production, and a play that perfectly encapsulates Geoff and Julia’s struggle, though the Elliots had far better luck in their battles.

As told by playwright Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh, and lyrics by Joe Darion, Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes sits in a dungeon with his manservant, “Sancho Panza,” awaiting trial by the Spanish Inquisition for an offense against the Church. The other prisoners set up a mock trial: if Cervantes is found guilty, he will hand over all his possessions. Cervantes agrees to do so, but with a hastily assembled makeup kit, he transforms himself into an old man who calls himself Don Quixote de La Mancha.

Quixote and his now “squire,” Sancho Panza, set out to find adventures in a campaign to restore the age of chivalry, to battle evil, and to right all wrongs, as he battles windmills as giants, with the ever-present shadow of his enemy, The Dark Enchanter, darkening his courageous path.

The play has been described by Wasserman as “a show about a few hours in the life of Miguel de Cervantes, using Quixote as a storytelling device.”

The original avant-garde 60s-era production was produced as a non-musical television play I, Don Quixote, and starred Lee J. Cobb as Cervantes, Colleen Dewhurst as Aldonza and Eli Wallach as Sancho Panza. The television play was then adapted for the stage.

In this latest production, Elliott plays the doomed Quixote and the play is directed by wife, Julia. The staging is informed by the play’s original Broadway staging, which was done in a tiny theatre 40 blocks from Broadway in New York City. A Noise Within’s intimate Foothill Boulevard theater offers the same opportunity.

Already the show has been handsomely reviewed by a number of outlets, and received the LA Times’ Critics’ Circle award.

It all comes back to Geoff Elliott’s notion of the value of hard work and dedication.

As Geoff told Pasadena Now, “It’s just the way the universe works. When we first founded the organization back in 1991 with this little production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and then we decided to continue on and see if we could make a go of it as an organization, things began to just come to us. It seemed as though things would just find their way to us, things that we needed, whether it be physical properties or curtains or lots of lights that some other theater was getting rid of.

Concluded Elliott, “It all just seemed to be a kind of horn of plenty and we recognized that as the universe telling us ‘What you’re doing is good. Keep doing it.’”

“Man of La Mancha,” runs through September 9 at A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA. 626-356-3100. www.anoisewithin.org.