By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Remember Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the off-Broadway hit that skulked out of the Henry Fonda Theater in 1999 after losing $600,000 with its producer famously complaining that L.A. just isn‘t a theater town? The Lion King, roaring for five years on Broadway and three in London, posted its closing notice before hitting the two-year mark at the Pantages. (It’s shutting down at the end of the year.) The Fonda and Doolittle theaters in Hollywood, and the Canon Theater in Beverly Hills, all excellent Broadway-size houses, have been standing mostly idle through 2002. The Shubert Theater, the Century City barn once heralded as the harbinger of an earlier theater renaissance, now awaits the wrecking ball.
You have to wonder how the new andor reconstructed midsize theaters being prepared for the next generation of stage audiences (CalArts‘ Red Cat Theater in Disney Hall, the Taper’s Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City and the Madison Theater on the campus of Santa Monica College) are suddenly going to be part of (excuse me while I clear my throat) L.A. theater‘s coming of age -- a holy grail that’s been kicking around since about 1937.
The mirage that L.A. can have a theater of Big Houses is sustained primarily by business types who believe that the art is first about edifices, and then about what happens inside them. Unfortunately, they‘ve got it backward. There’s another illusion -- that tourists will come to Los Angeles to see big shows. Some will, but not like in New York or London. If you‘re looking to get rich, investing in theater is already a shaky proposition, but in L.A. it’s like standing under a power line in an earthquake.
It‘s hard to convince profiteers that a city like ours has about 150 tiny theaters, many interconnected through marketing and personnel, each with its own groundswell of community support and each carrying on its small business quietly for years. A forest need not be filled with sequoias and redwoods to be a forest. The chaparral in our city’s back yard and east through Arizona and New Mexico has been called the ”elfin forest,“ dense with trees standing no more than 3 feet high. Visitors from the East like to call it a wasteland, when it‘s actually teeming with activity. And so it is with Los Angeles theater.
The lifeblood of productions staged in our little black boxes flows with their capacity to give expression to ideas and styles that don’t exist in any other media -- because those ideas and styles aren‘t sufficiently commercial, or palatable. Small theaters, at their best, offer an alternative way of seeing things and feeling things. Large numbers of people in our culture aren’t particularly interested in that. But small numbers, particularly the young, are desperate for it. Only that can explain the cultlike expansion of the fringe-theater-festival movement, the granddaddy being Edinburgh. But now almost every big city has one, and Canada‘s concocted a coordinated network of fringe fests that has audiences skipping across the continent through the summer -- from Toronto at one end to Seattle and San Francisco at the other.
Here in Los Angeles, there was a small commotion this summer when someone burst into a planning meeting for EdgeFest 2002 -- the fourth annual citywide fringe theater festival (running October 10--20) -- with the news that UCLA was hosting a major international festival at the same time. The bearer of bad tidings carried the message that Robert Wilson would be coming to town with a newish work, along with the Wooster Group, the Foundry Theater (see accompanying articles), as well as companies from Italy (Societas Raffaello Sanzio), France (Compagnie du Hanneton), Germany (Heiner Goebbels) and Holland (ZT Hollandia). Though the UCLA bash would run through December, some of its programming would directly coincide with EdgeFest.
On hearing this, one of the EdgeFest reps turned pale, as though UCLA’s festival was about to shove EdgeFest off the map. Blood pressure returned to normal with the realization that all of UCLA‘s festival events are slated for only two venues, both on the Westwood campus -- the Freud Playhouse and the Little Theater across the courtyard -- meaning that even with full houses, the international festival would snag no more than about 750 people per night. EdgeFest, at full capacity, with 15 events in houses averaging 50 patrons, would pull in just about the same number on any given evening. In other words, a capacity crowd on a Friday night at either festival wouldn’t even fill the Ahmanson.
You can‘t blame EdgeFest or UCLA for starting small. Organizational shortcomings and the sheer geographical sprawl of Peter Sellars’ ill-fated 1990 Pacific Rim shot, and his 1993 Persia-Africa-themed fest, all but extinguished major international theater programming in L.A. for almost a decade. Thinking more modestly provides the freedom to premiere plays that might actually explode around the world. (Mention the Broadway hit Urinetown in New York City, and somebody will surely say, ”You know it started in the New York Fringe Festival.“)