The life of L.A. theater’s party is the small theaters. Lately, for some reason, the city’s best work has come from them, thanks in part to an old agreement struck between the stage actors’ union, Actors Equity, and the theater community. This 99-Seat Theater Plan (once called Equity Waiver) allows actors to work in theaters of 99 seats or less for almost no pay, and has made Los Angeles the busiest professional theatrical center in the world. Some people — generally from New York and London — say that this has resulted in a showcase theater of tawdry ambitions and impoverished accomplishments, but that’s only a half truth.
Though hundreds of press releases announcing what are obviously TV tryouts camouflaged as plays come belching through the Weekly’s fax machines each year, there exists in L.A. a cadre of savvy, well-organized stage troupes doing work filled with equal doses of artistry, conviction and skill. The best work from these companies is as fine as can be found anywhere, and can handily compete, conceptually and intellectually, with what used to be done in New York’s Performance Garage or by the Mabou Mines — particularly the surrealistic, metaphysical explorations of Circle X Theater Company (producer of this year’s Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & 22, Glen Berger’s brainy yet whimsical comedy, set in the Enlightenment, about inventors and invention), or About Productions’ more somber, elliptical excursion into the essence of memory, 1998’s Memory Rites. Troupes that have also proved capable of striking gold include, among others, Open Fist Theater, Theater of NOTE, Gilgamesh Theater, Evidence Room, Empire Red Lip, Playwrights Arena, the Wilton Project, Moving Arts and the Fabulous Monsters. None of their work is about industry showcasing. There are also the more staid, traditional visions by companies such as Buffalo Nights, Actors Co-op, the Colony Studio, the Fountain Theater, Interact Theater Company, Pacific Resident Theater and International City Theater, all of which have a redemptive technical luster, even if they’re not groundbreaking.
I found an article written by Richard Stayton in the Weekly dated October 5, 1979, that captures that era with both flush and foreboding. Here are some excerpts:
The Taper’s opening production was The Devils, directed [in 1967] by Davidson, and it scandalized the exclusive opening-night audience. Ronald Reagan walked out and never again attended a Taper production — surely an omen of good things to come.
Davidson focused the Taper on growth, on developing talent and exploring new playwrights. Risks were taken. New plays were constantly developed, either through the Forum Laboratory or the New Theater for Now — and many found their way to the main stage and a few traveled on to New York. Davidson was putting L.A. on the theater map . . .
Last spring the Taper had never been higher. Zoot Suit was raging, ready for New York. The staff and cast all gave more than 100 percent to the play — it was truly a labor of love. With a budget of $825,000, it was the most expensive non-musical production in Broadway history and the advance press couldn’t have been better. Optimism at the Taper was at a fever pitch.
But what no one — absolutely no one — anticipated were the ruthless criticisms leveled by the New York press. It was met by a total upsurge of East Coast Id, out of control, out to protect its turf. (One critic, Michael Feingold — in, of all places, The Village Voice — even suggested the play’s author, Luis Valdez, wasn’t a writer because English wasn’t his first language.)Zoot Suitdidn’t close — it was castrated.
Simultaneously, there was an extraordinary, ambitious project by the Taper’s experimental wing, "New Theater for Now," called PLAYWORKS. You might recall those streamers announcing the festival strung over key L.A. streets. The Taper was trying something unique in this town: 12 new plays in 10 weeks, 169 perform-ances spread among ä three theaters. But more than likely you won’t recall PLAYWORKS — across town was FILMEX, L.A.’s annual International Film Exposition. No one went to PLAYWORKS, and the critics were not kind. Only Mabou Mines of New York’s production of Beckett’s The Lost Ones was a hit. On the walls in the Taper, on blouses and shirts, are buttons with the motto: "I SURVIVED PLAYWORKS" . . .
There . . . remains a great amount of jealousy and irritation with Davidson’s successes. Small local stages were ignored in the press and by the rest of the country while the Taper was the focus of attention. The Taper is the wealthiest, best-endowed theater outside of N.Y., and many directors and producers felt, given the same chance, they could do it better.
Also, there’s a lot of speculation and doubts about Davidson’s devotion to the theater. His easy manner, many believe, hides some secret greed: He’s a New York boy who bought the L.A. mentality and really has Broadway and film aspirations. A rumor that has persisted for years is that he’s been using the Taper to break into film, and his inability to do it has become a major frustration. The feeling is that if Davidson had produced A Chorus Line instead of Joseph Papp, Gordon would consider it his pinnacle, whereas Papp looked at it as an interesting hit and returned to his major interest: finding major American playwrights and nurturing them through his Public Theater . . .