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 Davidsons 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, its been said that New York theater was murdered by New York Times critic 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 nations 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 citys theater life. Besides, from Sylvie Drake to Dan Sullivan to Laurie Winer, the voices coming from the L.A. Times have run the gamut from supportive to benign, and the Weekly has never had the influence to keep audiences away from any theater larger than a closet, hard as weve 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 Tapers 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 whats euphemistically called retrenchment, a trend that is very much part of a larger national pattern. True, we dont 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 Weeklys birth, weve lost the snappy, scrappy Los Angeles Herald Examiner, seen The Daily News emaciated to a skeletal format; weve 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 cant 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 were only talking to and about ourselves?