As a student at Pomona College, David Callander ’88 had his eyes on the lights of Broadway.
Together with his theatre friends, he cleared out a little-used storage space in the old Edmunds Union, built a stage, added tables and founded Campus Cabaret, a company that would stage a dozen productions, including the Stephen Sondheim musical Company directed by Callander at Scripps’ Garrison Theater.
After graduating, he headed straight for New York, soon landing a job as a production assistant on a “big new Broadway musical” called Legs Diamond.
“It was touted to be the next great American musical. It turned out to be one of the great turkeys in Broadway history,” Callander says. “But it was my entree into the world of commercial theatre. A few months after leaving Pomona, I was part of the Broadway community that I had always longed to be a part of.”
His luck quickly improved. Callander moved up to stage manager and soon found himself in London for rehearsals of Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending, starring Vanessa Redgrave.
“I remember walking along the Thames to rehearsal one fall morning and thinking to myself, you need to remember this moment.”
After the show’s New York run, Callander worked on the first incarnation of Kiss of the Spider Woman, which won the 1993 Tony Award for Best Musical. Broadway legend Hal Prince directed, the music was by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and Terrence McNally—the great playwright who in 2020 would become one of the early victims of the COVID-19 pandemic—wrote the book.
“I would be sitting there in the office, stage right, and McNally would be coming in with new script pages, Kander and Ebb would be coming in with new music and lyrics. My job was to get everything typed up and delivered to the cast. I got the chance to watch these great theatre professionals at the top of their game,” Callander remembers. “It was really something.”
A Change of Plans
Like a play in three acts, Callander’s dream of being a Broadway director did not unfold exactly as expected. In the early 1990s, exhausted by the unrelenting theatre schedule and the absence of work-life balance long before the term was popular, he grew absorbed in fitness and became a personal trainer. It was during the time when the AIDS epidemic was raging in New York, taking a particular toll on the theatre community. And when Callander visited former Pomona classmate Elena Martinez ’88 at medical school in California, everything changed.
“She took me to up to her gross anatomy lab and showed me a partially dissected cadaver. That was the point where I said, ‘I’m going to be a doctor,’” Callander says. “It was the early 90s in New York, and we were at the beginning of the last pandemic. As a young gay man trying to find my way, I felt like I had to do something, or I had to get involved. I think it was the experience of being in New York during all that that ultimately prompted me to go to medical school.”
The former theatre major spent the next three years working and fulfilling pre-med requirements at NYU, then earned a medical degree at the State University of New York Downstate. He continued his training with the intention of becoming an internist before pausing one day at the door of a hospital room as a psychiatrist interviewed his patient.
“I remember thinking to myself, why don’t you do that? Connecting with people had been a skill that I had cultivated in the theatre. When you see a play, you listen to what’s happening, you try to understand the relationships, the wants and needs of the characters, and most importantly, you empathize. I just took that skill and brought it to the bedside.”
Callander completed his residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and built a career in psychiatry, eventually establishing his own practice after years at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he developed a specialty in working with patients with both medical and psychiatric illnesses.
When the pandemic shuttered the office of his practice last March, Callander continued to conduct telehealth sessions with patients. He also had more time to think.
“You get to a midpoint in your life and you look at the things that you’ve done, and you start to realize that time isn’t unlimited,” he says. “Especially having gone through what we’ve all gone through in the past year. You say, when am I going to do that thing that I always said I was going to do?”
Campus Cabaret Revival
And so it is that Callander has returned to the theatre. Not that he ever stopped attending plays and musicals and mixing with theatre friends. But on October 29 at the Pico Playhouse in L.A., a new company Callander has nostalgically dubbed Campus Cabaret will present A Perfect Ganesh, a McNally play that Callander first saw in New York in 1993. It’s about two middle-aged women who travel to India as each seeks healing after the death of a son, yet it carries undertones of the sense of grief that pervaded New York in that era.
“I think one of the things McNally was trying to address was how to process the collective grief and loss surrounding AIDS,” Callander says. “It made me think about the play’s relevance today as the world struggles to contain the COVID pandemic.”
Audiences for the four-week run of Ganesh will be required to be masked and vaccinated. The cast and crew, led by Callander as producer and director, all have been vaccinated and are tested regularly for COVID.
“It’s hard to say what’s going to happen. I mean, we are still in a pandemic,” says Callander, also the financial backer of the production. “This is a crazy venture. People said, ‘You should wait.’ And I thought to myself, no, I want to be a part of the return to the theatre.”
At Pomona, Callander always thought he knew what he wanted to do. He learned that you never know where life is going to take you.
“I’ve been passionate about the theatre since I was a child,” he says. “I love the opportunity to care for my patients, but being a physician is only part of who I am.
“My years at Pomona were golden,” he goes on, remembering Shakespeare classes with much-loved Professor Martha Andresen and all the memories wrapped up in the shows he did with Campus Cabaret. “As I said, I thought I was going down one path and then I turned and took another. And now I’m actually doing both paths.”
There are no other Pomona alumni in his upcoming production, but “we’ll see what happens as Campus Cabaret moves forward,” he says.
“I’d love to get the old gang back together.”
A Perfect Ganesh presented by Campus Cabaret runs October 29-November 21 at the Pico Playhouse (10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles) with showtimes at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Saturday, with two additional performances at 7 p.m. on Sunday, November 7, and Sunday, November 21. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased at Onstage.411.com. Indoor masking and proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 are required.