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The Edge of the World As We Know It 

Notes on the second annual Los Angeles Edgefest

Wednesday, Nov 29 2000
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November 9 through 19 marked the second annual Edge of the World Theater Festival (a.k.a. Edgefest), a nonjuried showcase of stage offerings almost entirely from local troupes, at venues in all corners of the city. (There was a visiting company this year, A Hairy Innovation, spawned by UC San Diego, which performed a decidedly collegiate effort called Fun House Style at the Ivy Substation.) The 60 festival entries were 11 more than in last year‘s inaugural festival, and also included the endeavor’s most striking success, a two-day festival-within-the-festival called the L.A. History Project: seven commissioned works, each focusing on a different sedimentary layer of our city‘s past and performed with skeletal production values at Los Angeles Theater Center.

An audience of close to 200 gathered on a Sunday afternoon to watch a company called Plymouth render a thoughtful staging of Crazy Drunk, in which Methodist alcoholic G.J. Griffith (for whom Griffith Park was named after he donated his land to the city) shoots his Catholic wife in the face, presuming that she has been unfaithful. Remarkably, she survives; the play includes excerpts from Griffith’s 1904 trial, after which the landowner was sentenced to two years in San Quentin. (He served half that before being released for good behavior.) The story is told from the point of view of Griffith‘s attorney and the advocate’s grown daughternewspaper columnist, whom he dragged to the trial when she was a child. (Their fate was another story, also told in the play.) Other worthy entries among the septet of historical pieces at LATC included Lucy Kim‘s Fancy, a radio play about the Wild West and presented by Playwrights’ Arena, Joshua Rebell‘s Gatsby in Hollywood, presented by Sacred Fools Theater Company and dealing with F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, and Open Fist Theater Company’s wry The Bay of Smokes, a noirish barroom-murder-mystery send-up that has characters somewhat pedantically, and amusingly, throwing in archaic historical references. Like these, a significant proportion of the other works were created for the festival, which also presented plays that were already in production on November 9 and continue to run as this edition goes to print.

The idea for Los Angeles Edgefest came from conversations on a local theater Web sitelistserve called Big Cheap Theater (BCT), in which members of the L.A. theater community plug their shows, announce their parties, congratulate each other, put out pleas for technical help, and engage in discussions of principles and politics -- the sorts of conversations that, in a more geographically hospitable city, would occur at the bar where the region‘s thespians regularly meet, and which does not yet exist here.

BCT was spawned from a theater movement unofficially called Regional Alternative Theater (RAT), trumpeted by Seattle playwright Erik Ehn and New York scribe Mac Wellman as a national movement propelled by ideals of inclusion and enthusiasm rather than any formal credo. Their concept calls for the creation of a theater scene via the coming together of disparate elements, as though by magic, or magnetism, rather than by applicants submitting to the kind of critical judgments by which theatrical art is traditionally valued and devalued.

This somewhat anarchistic approach may lead to the kind of raw, underground aesthetic implied by the Edgefest acronym and embodied in the Actors’ Gang entry, Cintra Wilson‘s XXX Love Act, a quasi-biographical docudrama, set in a strip club, about the rise and demise of two porno-baron brothers; or Evidence Room’s hypnotically repulsive production of Edward Bond‘s infanticidal Saved. But ”inclusion“ also translates into the kind of open-arms policy that makes the Edinburgh Fringe Festival so democratic, erratic and unwieldy, and, locally, has XXX Love Act playing down the street from the Actors Co-op’s corn-fed production of Godspell. Edgefest: a world of difference.

Aesthetic difference maybe, but not ethnic -- though not for lack of trying. Did the stage companies of color all leave town during Edgefest? Where were Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, Grupo de Teatro Sinergia, Robie Theater Company, Unity Players Ensemble, East West Players, or even the Taper‘s in-house workshops, such as the Latino Theater Initiative, Blacksmyths and the Asian Theater Workshop? Festival organizer Mark Seldis explained during a wrap-up roundtable that such companies were in fact wooed, and that most of those who had expressed interest in Edgefest were unable to follow through. Of the city’s nonwhite troupes, only the Asian-American company Lodestone included itself on the festival docket, with its production of American Monsters. At the same roundtable, Lodestone artistic director Philip W. Chung said that he‘s ”starting from scratch“ in trying to entice audiences from a community that has little cultural sense of, or interest in, the theater. Yet Chung’s plight, which he may believe is idiosyncratically Asian-American, is just a microcosm of the larger quandary faced by every company in the city.

In 1999, the Weekly reviewed approximately 750 professional stage productions in L.A., reluctantly missing at least 20 percent of the legitimate candidates for review and choosing to disregard the many shows that had runs of less than two weeks. These stats alone render Los Angeles the busiest professional-theater center in the country. (Actors Equity says that New York City opened 653 professional productions that same year.) Still, the myths persist that a) Los Angeles is not a theater city, and b) the stage work done here is all showcasing for the film and TV industries. Both of these statements are patently untrue. The activity is here, the quality is here -- in fits and starts, anyway -- but the audiences are not.

The discussion during the round-table homed in on that frustration, targeting the usual suspects: the lack of grant money, shoddy publicity campaigns, high ticket prices, all of which are largely beside the point -- a point best expressed in publicist Jerry Charlson‘s anecdote about his futile efforts to convince a local TV station that, despite the hours and hours of televised vomit spewed forth during local ”news“ broadcasts, perhaps one minute of air-time per week could be devoted to the theater. No such luck. We live in a city that blithely disregards one of its most vibrant cultural arteries. The attitude, the apathy, is in -- and on -- the air.

The Edge of the World Theater Festival is a tiny voice-in-the-void that must continue and gain resonance, a declaration by a well-entrenched and largely ignored arts community that it does, indeed, exist -- and for the best of reasons, despite the impediments that come with poverty: to produce works of theater designed to provoke, intellectually and emotionally; to offer alternatives to, and commentary on, the kinds of entertainment seen on our TV, movie and computer screens. The festival’s function at this point is to make a little noise, create a scene. The strategy appears to be working. As with last year, the hub venues reported booming attendance during the festival‘s 10 days. But logistical questions remain. Scheduling, for instance: On a typical night -- Friday, November 17, for example -- there were 29 different shows slated for 8 p.m., all at different locations; then anywhere from one to three events during each of the remaining time slots. Such stacking of shows during the prime-time slot makes it impossible to see the festival in its entirety, or to get a sense of its scale. And if shows can be staggered more evenly through the night, can they also then be located at theaters adjacent to subway stations? TheatreTheater, Stella Adler, the Hollywood Court and Open Fist (Hollywood and Highland), the Tamarind theater and Actors Co-op (Hollywood and Vine) all come to mind, not to mention the cluster of Valley theaters adjoining the North Hollywood station. If the festival can help get audiences off the freeways and onto the trains, the experience of theatergoing in Los Angeles might come to resemble that in Chicago, Seattle and New York, places that people-in-the-know like to refer to as ”theater cities.“ Along the same lines, how about more deals with local restaurants for discount coupons? As Anthony Burns from Burning Wheel and the Mark Taper Forum pointed out during the roundtable, ”People go to rock concerts not only for shows but for the community. We have to start thinking not only of the 90 minutes on the stage, but what happens before and after those 90 minutes.“

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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