Lights, Panels, Action!

While working at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, an outdoor theater in Los Angeles County with a regularly fantastic summer rep in a fantastic outdoor canyon setting, I met Kim Zanti. Amongst other titles, she is also a writer. This is an article she wrote for the Whole Life Times on The Electric Lodge. One of our partners in programs at the CSPA. Though, with the AEP, the lodge is rapidly becoming a hub of activity in the sustainable arts movement, this article gives an excellent history of where the lodge came from… a good way to understand where it is going.

Powered by the sun and amped by imagination, Venice’s Electric Lodge illuminates the community

by Kim Zanti

Robed in a white lab coat and trousers, a lone dancer gracefully crisscrosses a black box stage. He speaks of medical clinics, rectal examinations and disease, his words all the more surreal for their pairing with his ethereal dance. Gradually, his stream of narrative shifts our focus to a chronic patient we’re all familiar with, one whose air we foul, guts we eviscerate, skin we scar, fluids we contaminate. The dancer holds a stethoscope to a delicate, wire mesh model of a tree bathed in blue light. We wonder: Is the tree well? Are we well? Is there hope, doc?

In real life, the dancer, Dr. Joel Shapiro, would answer yes and invite you to join him on the patient’s road to recovery at Venice’s Electric Lodge. Powered entirely by the sun and the creative energies of hundreds of performing and visual artists, “The Lodge” is a place of transformation.

Founded in 1996 by Shapiro, the Lodge is one of the first solar-powered arts centers in the country. Many artists rent the facility and four artistic ensembles are in residence: Apartment A theatre company, Body Weather Laboratory, Organic Orchestra and Venice Theatre Works. For the past two years, the Venice Film Festival has screened entries in the 99-seat black box theatre. Visual artists use the airy lobby to showcase their works and performance, and education and environmental groups hold classes in the spacious dance studio or rent the commercial kitchen for receptions.

Shapiro’s own improvisational performance took place on a Monday night as part of The Lodge’s Max 10 performance laboratory. The monthly event offers 10, 10-minute time slots for artists to perform works-in-progress in front of a live audience before sharing constructive feedback, munchies and beer in the lobby. After 32 productions, Max 10 consistently attracts talented artists throughout California and standing room only audiences, solely on word of mouth.

Max 10 producer Cid Pearlman thought the program might never get off the ground when she started it three years ago. “Everyone turned me down,” she says of her efforts to find a home for Max 10, “except Joel.”

“When Cid proposed it, we jumped on it,” Shapiro says. “I think it’s really important the Lodge have a foothold in the world of open creativity. I like to do work that’s outside a linear story line, and it’s been amazing in my own development as an artist.”

At 51, Shapiro is the type of person who seems to grow younger with age. He is tall and trim with the demeanor of an enlightened pilgrim—laid-back, yet fully engaged on his life’s path. When he started out, the path wasn’t so clear.

“Initially, I became a doctor because I wanted to prove I was smart and I wanted to do something that I could always earn money on. What can I say? I’m Jewish. You’re either a doctor, lawyer or accountant,” he laughs.

Shapiro began studying dance while earning his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley. Drawn as he was to this form of creative expression, the young doctor found he couldn’t easily ignore deep-seated familial and cultural expectations, even as strong passions emerged. “I had a girlfriend who was a phenomenal dancer and I’d go to her [dance company] rehearsals and just go, whoa… but I didn’t really understand dance because I still had the thinking of [his voice becomes stentorian, echoing the voice of a family elder], ‘you’ve got to have a career that earns money.’ I’ve struggled with that a long time.”

By his junior year he’d decided to become a doctor, and he went on to earn an MD at Tufts University in Boston, beginning his professional practice in 1986. Through it all, Shapiro continued to dance.

“The thing that I’ve discovered about performance is that it’s really about logic—in listening to your emotional state, your physical state and what they’re telling you from moment to moment to moment.” Logic is what Shapiro describes as his real talent. But listening is the common thread linking his performance work with his background in medicine.

When not at the Lodge, Shapiro is often at Malibu Urgent Care, where he has worked for seven years. “When I walk into that clinic, it’s the same sort of experience as when I go on stage. When you’re on stage with another performer who’s freaking out and can’t breathe, and you’re the other ‘actor,’ you can completely freak out, remain stoic or be the counterpoint. At the clinic, [the other performer] is the patient. I give patients space to be upset while keeping myself calm. I think most of them dig me because I listen.”

Listening is also at the heart of Shapiro’s environmental activism. In 1979, he joined Physicians for Social Responsibility after attending Dr. Jack Geiger’s presentation on the medical response to nuclear war. Excited by what he heard, he studied Geiger’s presentation and delivered it to high school students and church groups. Shapiro’s been active ever since, learning and speaking about global environmental issues with a passion that echoes his ardor for dance. “World War II was of less consequence to the ecosystem and our very existence as humans than the war that’s going on right now with global warming and over-population.”

In his personal life, the doctor considers the consequences of even his smallest actions—Shapiro drives a Honda Insight and thinks nothing of hopping on a Big Blue bus to get around.

The Electric Lodge’s mission statement reflects his desire to be a catalyst for ecological change in the community. His vision for the Lodge is that the space will “evolve as an environmental and performance center where people can express themselves and become educated about issues.”

Solar power was his logical starting point. In addition to reducing electric costs over time and stimulating the market towards efficient, renewable energy sources, the benefit of solar energy, according to the US Department of Energy’s website, is that “photovoltaic systems produce no atmospheric emissions or greenhouse gases.”

“From the moment I had the building, I wanted to put solar panels on it, but there wasn’t a financial method for doing it,” Shapiro recalls. Then in 2000, the Department of Water and Power (DWP) implemented the $150 million Green LA’s Solar Photovoltaic Incentive Program to encourage localized electrical generation, also known as distributed generation, or DG. Highly efficient, DG allows electricity to flow into, and be drawn from, the city’s power grid. The 10-year program splits the costs of solar panel installation with the customer and offers rebates for electricity flowing back to the grid. Shapiro calculated the projected electricity use and overflow of the Lodge and then applied to the program. His project was accepted and he subsequently received $38,000 towards the $62,000 cost of the Lodge’s solar modules. He was also eligible through the program for $4-$5 rebates per kilowatt-hour of excess electricity available to flow back to the grid.

The city monitors the Lodge with a net meter. When the Lodge produces more power than is needed, the meter runs backward as it calculates the amount of excess power flowing back to the grid. The power is converted to match the voltage and frequency of the electricity flowing in the city’s utility line, and the Lodge is credited per kilowatt-hour.

The Lodge can generate 7.2 kilowatt hours of electricity, or enough to present four performances a week for 52 weeks a year—and the theatre is currently booked over 50 weeks a year. For the entire facility to run on solar, the Lodge would need enough panels to generate up to 11 kilowatt hours, more weight than the roof can tolerate. So, much to Shapiro’s dismay, the remainder of the building still runs on standard electric. “I have to figure out another way,” Shapiro muses.

Percussionist Adam Rudolph has no doubt that Shapiro will find the way. “He has the qualities of a visionary. He’s imagined what he could do and then put his heart, soul and pocketbook into bringing it into being. In these political and cultural times, when we often feel impotent, here you feel like a complete participant. Joel has really set the tone for what can be done with a public space.”

The Lodge is instrumental in the lives of many artists. Rudolph, founder of the Organic Orchestra and Vashti music collectives, is one of them. A Cal Arts graduate and Chicago native, Rudolph has played music for over 30 years with musicians such as Don Cherry, Yusef Lateef and Pandit Taranath Rao. “I go all over the world to perform and it’s always difficult to present my music in Los Angeles. The Lodge has changed the way I feel about living in Los Angeles as an artist. I can present my work in a dignified, flexible and beautiful theatre. The Lodge is Koutoubia—the center—where there is magnetic energy built around the gravity of art, instead of around the idea of buying and selling. Joel is not there to edit or to be a gatekeeper. He’s open to sharing.”

Shapiro also shares responsibility. He requires prospective facility renters to have a plan for recycling stage set materials and trash, and makes sure that they will direct traffic on show nights through the narrow streets in the densely populated area. His goal is community, not authority.

As he sees it, “The true owners are all the performing and visual artists who have used and will use this space. Without their energetic and loving spirit, this generative space would be just a structure of planks and nails.”

Kim Zanti is a freelance writer and Managing Director of the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga (