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Destiny Manifesto 

L.A. theater lurches into the future

Thursday, Apr 24 2003
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

The first L.A. Weekly appeared in December 1978, two years before the nation would vote to boot Jimmy Carter out of the White House and replace him with Ronald Reagan. The Weekly's 25th-anniversary year and its preparations for the 24th annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards at Los Angeles Theater Center on Monday night afford an opportunity to reflect on the theater scene over the past quarter-century, and where it may be headed.

The October 5-11, 1979, edition of the Weekly featured a cover story that profiled L.A.'s two most prominent theater producers, Gordon Davidson and Ron Sossi, both young men. Two-and-a-half decades later, they're still L.A.'s most prominent theater producers, so we decided to check back with them. (See below) The Reagan-Bush years framed a heady rush of enthusiasm for a burgeoning L.A. stage scene that included a Time magazine story, Robert Fitzpatrick's hugely successful citywide international Olympic Arts Festival in 1984, and the opening of the artistically daring four-theater Los Angeles Theater Center, recklessly administered by Bill Bushnell and Diane White, and modeled on the New York Public Theater.

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Yet shocking as it may seem, all was not golden in the age of the Great Communicator. Among the many miseries of that decade was watching Bushnell run LATC into the ground until the city seized it from him, and Peter Sellars similarly pissing away his fiscal responsibility for subsequent international arts festivals here. The Reagan-Bush era also marked the beginning of a steady erosion of the National Endowment for the Arts, and of arts funding at every level of governance. Privatization was the game of the '80s; this meant that local, larger theaters that weren't already bus-and-truck stops for touring musicals were subjected to increased commercial pressures, and dependence on private and corporate donors. Meanwhile, our smaller theaters were pretty much on their own, scraping for ever-diminishing crumbs from foundations, and from audiences that might actually purchase a ticket for an art form that has never, historically, paid for itself.

However, small theaters were thrown a life jacket, of sorts, by the Actors Equity Association when it allowed its membership to work on stages of 99 seats or less without payment, so long as safety regulations were enforced. The 1972 "Equity Waiver Agreement" evolved into L.A.'s Small Theater plans of 1988 and 2000. The latter stipulates that actors receive some token payments, that rehearsal times are limited and that runs of such productions be restricted so producers can't profit by exploiting the union's cooperation on lower actor stipends.

The Small Theater Plan is now primarily responsible for the 150-plus permanent dues-paying membership theater companies in the region, and the 1,000-plus professional productions that open in Los Angeles every year. These theaters provide a thrillingly elevated pulse of activity here. But the Small Theater Plan has also contributed to the often-toxic creative atmosphere that condones actors bolting from their stage commitments at the drop of a fedora whenever paid work enters stage left. For this all-too-common exigency, productions are routinely double-cast. But the cumulative effect of such tenuous working conditions is summed up by actor-director Jillian Armenante, interviewed by the Weekly last year: "Doing [small] theater in L.A. is like trying to build a snowman in Hawaii . . . No matter how hard you work, it always melts away."

What a testament, then, to the tenacity and vision of our theater and its artists, to find so much excellence — particularly in the small theaters, many of which have struggled against the odds to grow up and actually pay their actors: the Colony Studio Theater, East West Players, the Falcon Theater, A Noise Within, International City Theater and Cornerstone Theater Company.

For the first time since we've been watching, the Taper appears to be looking seriously at the local community as a resource for talent (e.g., Deaf West Theater's Big River hitting the Taper main stage last year).

Similarly, the midsize Geffen Playhouse has shown some chutzpah by scheduling local playwright Bryan Davidson's War Music into its season next year, a play also plucked from our own back yard (Playwrights Arena) rather than from NYC or London. These are good signs.

That the Edge of the World Theater Festival, our local fringe fest now in its fifth year, has survived the departure of its founders, and with almost no money, is another encouraging development; and that David Sefton is poised to present UCLA Live!'s second successive theater festival (the highlight being a work by Robert Lepage) is an equally welcome harbinger of what Sefton has called "a sustainable model" for international programming.

Though we've lost LATC, the Shubert and the Tiffany theaters, the Hollywood Playhouse has been shuttered for years, and though the beautiful Broadway-size Henry Fonda and James A. Doolittle theaters continue to stand (almost) empty on Hollywood and Vine (respectively) like ragged damsels in distress, and though we've seen the gutting of A.S.K. Theater Projects, there's balm in Hollywood and its surrounding environs.

The Taper has refurbished the Ivy Substation in Culver City and is using it for Taper, Too's new works project and sundry theater labs. By the end of next year, the Taper expects to open another venue that it's also refurbishing, the Kirk Douglas Theater (formerly the Culver City Civic Theater), for new plays. The Boston Court theater, a state-of-the-art 99-seat venue in Pasadena, also starts programming (under the helm of Jessica Kubzansky and Michael Michetti) later in the year, as does CalArts' Red Cat Theater, a future home for experimental works to be located in Disney Hall.

And finally, the NoHo arts scene has become, at the very least, a real scene, with bookstores and magazine racks and coffeehouses, supporting a network of theaters, large and small, peppered around Lankershim and Magnolia, near the Red Line's final destination.

And what does all this mean? L.A. is a city of cultural migrants that keeps rebuilding itself, so that almost nobody remembers what went before. The only constant is rising rents. Theater artists here do inspired work on tiny stages, sometimes supported by Industry employment, often not, until they grow tired of it all and move on. Of course, the coming and going is true of many cities, but there's more reconstruction here — city blocks whose faces change with every decade. L.A.'s cultural amnesia allows considerable good work to be born of ignorant bliss, though the same could be said of the bad work. All of which renders us theater enthusiasts ticket holders for a train whose destination is always in flux, and whose tracks are perpetually being relaid. All aboard. Exit Stage Left, Slowly Gordon Davidson and the changing of the guard by Steven Leigh Morris Bad Heart, Plenty of Guts Ron Sossi, and his enduring Odyssey by Steven Leigh Morris Tough Act to Follow The rise and fall, and rise, of theater of color by Erin Aubry Kaplan Let There Be Lights A quarter-century of changes in a lighting booth by Steven Mikulan In Memoriam: Raye Creevey by Steven Leigh Morris

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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