Was it a bad dream, or did I really stand, recently, in an almost empty lobby at the Los Angeles Theater Center — on a Saturday night, no less? This same lobby, as cavernous as Victoria Station, only a few years ago would have been packed at 7:45 with people who had braved the drive downtown, waiting to fill any of the center’s four houses. They might see Chekhov’s The Three Sisterswildly interpreted by Norwegian director Stein Winge, or one of Reza Abdoh’s visually extravagant and obscene theatrical schreis, or the premiere of then-local playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s The Film Society. Such sobering moments make a critic consider the bad dreams experienced in other lobbies across Los Angeles. At least LATC’s was open; a core of L.A.’s midsize theaters — the Cañon, Coronet, Henry Fonda and James A. Doolittle — have stood shuttered for the better part of 1998.
And what of the surviving big-name theaters — are they really leading the art? Or has the Mark Taper Forum become little more than a booking house for London and New York exports, as Weekly critic Richard Stayton prophesied 19 years ago? (See below.) Did the Center Theater Group, under Gordon Davidson’s helm, truly open this fall season with song-and-dance revues in its two big theaters? Has the once refreshingly reckless Odyssey Theater Ensemble become just a bit stodgy?
In other words, is theater dying in the city that introduced the world to Baitz and John Steppling? And if so, who or what is killing it? Economics? "Hollywood"? The critics? After all, it’s been said that New York theater was murdered by New York Timescritic Frank Rich — that big, opinionated meanie who, pushing the "send" button on his e-mail, closed so many shows. Well, Rich has been gone several years now as the Times’ lead critic, replaced by the comparatively benevolent Ben Brantley.
Yet the nation’s difficult, thoughtful new plays are being born in exile, ever farther from Broadway, while the Big White Way becomes increasingly about living cartoons. No, a critic, or a body of critics, may close a play, but it takes more than that to close a city’s theater life. Besides, from Sylvie Drake to Dan Sullivan to Laurie Winer, the voices coming from the L.A. Timeshave run the gamut from supportive to benign, and the Weeklyhas never had the influence to keep audiences away from any theater larger than a closet, hard as we’ve tried on occasion.
New York and London may still churn out more interesting live theater than Los Angeles, but our own stages are hardly as facile and ingenuous as New Yorkers and Londoners just love to suggest. Over the years, The Shadow Box, Children of a Lesser God, Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle were all born in Mark Taper Forum workshops, and went on to grab three Pulitzer Prizes and a bucketful of Tony Awards. Throughout the ’90s, Highways, in Santa Monica, has hosted solo performances by the controversial NEA Four (Karen Finley, Tim Miller, Holly Hughes and John Fleck), while the Los Angeles Theater Center was conceived to bring Spring Street back from the dead. In between the Taper’s early glory days and Highways’ appearance, Los Angeles hosted a series of international arts festivals from 1984 up until the early ’90s.
Much of our theater landscape has been eroded by what’s euphemistically called retrenchment, a trend that is very much part of a larger national pattern. True, we don’t have any more international arts festivals, but most other major American cities have also scaled back on that kind of programming. This is, of course, a national travesty, leaving the entire country isolated from foreign ways of thinking, and from patterns of logic and taste that may differ from those found in our own movies and TV.
Add to that the consolidation-economics of both theater and the newspaper industry: Since the Weekly’s birth, we’ve lost the snappy, scrappy Los Angeles Herald Examiner, seen The Daily News emaciated to a skeletal format; we’ve watched two alternative weeklies — the Los Angeles Reader and the L.A. View — bought out by New Times; and the trade weekly Drama-Logue melt into BackStage West. The cumulative result has been the net loss of about two dozen stage reviews per week. Combine this with the recent absence ä of international programming and the growing Disneyfication of culture, and the result is a diminishment of exposure and dialogue — for and between audiences and critics. I can’t think of a more pernicious trend: a constriction of the American theatrical conversation. How can we possibly call ourselves a theater city — or country — when plays about language and character are being pushed off our larger stages by corporate-bankrolled puppet shows and dance revues, when neither audiences nor critics have any idea what the French, the Germans or, for that matter, the Balinese are up to? How can we have a dialogue if we’re only talking to and about ourselves?
The good news, however, glitters like shards of glass in the wake of an earthquake. It can be found behind the scenes, as in the Taper’s new-works festivals, or in readings, workshops and colloquies administered by ASK Theater Projects — a prominent, privately endowed theater support organization with the simple mandate of helping theater artists. Both the Taper and ASK Theater Projects have been quietly spreading the word nationally about projects and people they find worthy.