From the New York theater to an LA art show

There is hardly a seat open. The tables are essentially slabs of tree. The higher ones have stools for chairs and the lower ones have wooden crates. It's trendy without being unapproachable. There are plenty of people but plenty of room. You get the feeling that everyone here is friends, like this isn't just another bar with a random assortment of people. It feels like a reunion.

From the corner of the room, under a large, naked light bulb, a sandy blonde girl with a black dress and brown leather boots says, "I'm going to sing some songs for y'all." A dusty spotlight swings toward her from the right.The lights occasionally flicker. A man with a beard puts his leg up behind a girl's chair.

The bar is Gravlax and is hosting an art show for Santa Monica College's Writers Club. Along with a variety of pieces hung on the wall, there are black and white photographs laid out on a table. The photos belong to Sergio Cacciotti who took them over ten years before in New York. He is sitting at the bar drinking sangria from a mason jar, with a play he's written in front of him. Now, he writes mainly for pleasure. However, there was a time when he wrote and directed plays for a living.

Over ten years ago, Sergio was at a loft party in Chelsea, New York when he and his friend had a brilliant idea. Looking around at the 3,000 square foot space, the two estimated that if they rented a similar space and had other people to help with rent, they could move in and set up a theater in their home.

They roamed the streets of Manhattan, looking for "For Rent" signs. After about a year, they were about to give up when they found the perfect place on 42nd Street.

During that time, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was cracking down on the Red Light District. The strip clubs were shut down, but the sex shops were allowed to remain open. So on 42nd street, above the sex shop, Show World, was a vacant space that used to be a strip club.

The group asked if they could rent it for $3,000 and the owner casually agreed. They had 5,000 square feet to create a place where they could both live and put on performances.

Coincidentally, two theaters on the street were being redone, the Amsterdam and the New Victory. These were very wealthy theater companies, so as they were , all of the old materials were simply thrown away. The group was quick to take advantage of the situation. They took wood, recovered old seats and built their theater entirely out of hand-me-down materials: the stage, the risers — they even fireproofed the roof.

After a year of putting it together, it was completed. They called it The Pantheon. It was elegant, not "dingy" or "black-boxed"."People really took to it," Sergio said. "We turned the strip club into an art complex."

Sergio was only 22 and the creative director of the theater. He wrote plays, directed and produced in the thick of the New York theater culture. "I felt so alive at the time," Sergio said. "The theater scene is so vibrant in New York. Running that theater was probably the best decade of my life... What killed us was September 11 of 2001."

After 9/11, people stopped going to the city as much. They weren't seeing as many shows. The actors stopped making as much money. To top it all off, the lease ran out and their rent was raised to $8,000.

They racked up $100,000 worth of debt when they finally sold their theater/home in 2004. "I walked away with almost nothing, just enough to start new," Sergio said.

He wanted a change, so he decided to give L.A. a try.

After running a theater company for a decade, even serving on the board of directors for other theater companies, Sergio was unable to find work. "I wasn't able to get auditions," he said.

Back in New York, it was "really all about the art." In L.A. there was much more of a focus on networking. Sergio, being a fairly introverted person, didn't have the kinds of people skills that would allow him to penetrate the scene. “I didn’t enjoy it,” he said, “I just didn't like it. I was getting older and invested a lot of time and years into my career, and I just couldn't anymore.”

So he decided to start over. He took classes at Santa Monica College and decided he would become a social worker. He hadn't written for 6 years and was almost ready to graduate when he took Mario Padilla's Creative Writing class. "It kind of rekindled my passion of being artistic again," Sergio said.

In early 2015, Sergio's friend Susan invited him to a bar called Gravlax. The bar she took him to was actually co-owned by Lars Magnus Stefansson, a former actor who used to hang around the Pantheon. They had taken acting classes together at Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute in New York and had lost touch for 15 years.

Now, Magnus was helping him host events that fostered that same creative energy they had experienced in New York. While originally dismayed by the superficiality of the L.A. art scene, Gravlax has rekindled Sergio's hope. He said, "I think when you hear people talking [at Gravlax], they're talking about art, novels, fear, poetry. It's not 'let's make a movie and become famous.' It's another level of artistry."