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Confrontations in a Con-Art World 

CTG fallout, and threatening the president

Thursday, Jun 2 2005
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Photo by Anonymous
This is a defining moment for Los Angeles theater. News that Center Theater Group is dropping four of its affirmative action play-development laboratories — while leaving its New Work Festival up in the air — landed like a bomb, with an impact felt all the way in New York. (I received a call from playwright Chay Yew, who said that the story was being talked about up and down the Hudson. Yew was working in New York a year after having given his notice directing the Taper’s Asian Theater Workshop. He suspected early that CTG head Michael Ritchie would have little patience for the Taper’s labs.) Regardless of how one feels about affirmative action or new play development, the sheer loss of jobs will be palpable — the employment of actors and directors being paid for all those readings that Ritchie says he can’t be bothered with. Putting aside for a moment issues of ethnicity and the troubling patrician implications of having one room for black playwrights, and another room for brown ones, and another one for the handicapped, etc., at the heart of the matter lies the clash between product and process. Ritchie complained that the lab directors were constantly arguing for more time to develop plays-in-process, while he has three theaters (the Taper, the Ahmanson and the Kirk Douglas) to fill with product. The labs weren’t pulling their weight, he suggested. Using that as a reason to shut down play-development labs is like closing NASA for not launching enough rockets. The underlying conflict is really between opposing philosophies of what and whom theater is for. This is a dispute between those, like Ritchie, who feel that success in the theater lies in an ongoing exchange of product between, say, New York and L.A., and those, like playwright Luis Alfaro (director of the Taper’s abolished Latino Theater Initiative), who believe that the primary purpose of theater is to establish and nurture relationships between an artistic community and the neighborhood in which its theater resides. New play development, to Alfaro, is part of that process.

Last winter, I saw a pair of Russian women knitting and smoking as they watched a Chris Rock video in their Moscow living room. You can find such videos from Beijing to Timbuktu, and where you watch them is largely irrelevant to the product. Not so for the theater, which exists in a specific place and a finite time, created by a community for a community. That’s much more difficult to commodify. Ask all those New York producers who grumble that L.A. just isn’t a theater town because their Broadway or off-Broadway hits founder here. The transfer of NYC smash Hedwig and the Angry Inch from off-Broadway to the Fonda was a travesty. Even The Lion King disappointed in L.A. It was supposed to play for years. Disney rebuilt the Pantages for the blasted thing.

L.A.’s a theater town, but it’s not a New York theater town, or a London theater town, or Williamstown, and every attempt to model it after somewhere else has gotten lost in the desert. Angelenos often scratch their heads at the latest Tony Award–winning spectacle at the Taper or the Pantages or the Geffen, wondering what on Earth those Easterners were thinking. Movies and TV and pop music can flit across cities and nations like butterflies, but the theater is far more precarious and cumbersome. Ask David Sefton at UCLA Live!, who brings international troupes to Westwood. Sets and costumes get held in customs. Visas get denied. Actors come down with laryngitis. It’s like trying to transplant a giant oak.

L.A.’s field of talent is fertile. What grows here can thrive, but it needs a little care.

While our theater community waits to test the authenticity of Ritchie’s offer to work with and promote local companies on CTG stages (what the Taper’s Blacksmyth Lab director, Brian Freeman, has dubbed “outsourcing”), this is the moment for the community to define itself, and what it stands for.

With no large theater-support institution left to foster emerging artists, the responsibilities for both new play development and community building now fall on the hundred or so small companies that are the soul of theatrical activity here. There will always be somebody’s talent manager subsidizing a stage showcase for a client. This town is full of such productions. They come and they go, and they make no difference.

Our ensemble companies, however, are of a completely different breed, run by smart people for a deeper purpose. Some companies already have development programs in place, but it’s not enough to compensate for the double-loss of A.S.K. Theater Projects and the Taper’s various development programs. We’re less than we were if we can’t channel some of that lost grant money back into the city, back into some kind of umbrella organization that funds readings and workshops that pay actors and directors stipends to help our playwrights and theaters discover what’s being born here.

Our theater is in trouble, and trouble offers the challenge of rising to face it. This is the moment for L.A. Stage Alliance to step up and start coordinating efforts with REDCAT and the Edge of the World Theater Festival. This is the time for a coherent strategy to address problems of affordable space, plus resources to foster emerging artists and sophisticated, sustainable theater. When this community gets on a roll, sparks of its brilliance flash across the city.

This is the moment when we decide whether we’re to move forward or to follow a trajectory of diminishing returns.



To threaten the life of the president of the United States is a federal offense, which is why the Imagination Liberation Front calls its political satire “I’m Gonna Kill the President!: A Federal Offense.” Without the adjunct clause after the threat, the title would be a federal offense, which would be illegal.

The show was written by Hieronymous Bang, who’s the son of socialite Meriweather Bang of the famous Massachusetts Bang Dynasty. (Please don’t tell; Hieronymous is obsessed with secrecy.) When you call the reservation line, and you really should, you’ll hear Hieronymous speaking with a fake Texas drawl. He’ll tell you where to wait, since every week the show plays at different locations. I arrived, as instructed, at the McDonalds on Seventh and Alameda, downtown. Hardly anybody else was there, except a thin, surly guy munching a burger. He asked me if I was there for the play. I nodded, and he silently escorted me across Alameda to a vacant sidewalk where I was told to declare on video that I was not part of any law-enforcement agency.

In the secret theater were twinkly red lights, a makeshift stage and an ad hoc bar, where the Brit barhop pleaded for people buy a drink: “The show’s a lot funnier with a beer.”

Imagine a cross between Billionaires for Bush and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, only more juvenile and sweet. A young college student named Fifi can’t decide whether to devote her life to drug abuse or political engagement. She befriends a revolutionary who meant to blow himself up, but blew up his girlfriend instead. He’s Fifi’s Virgil, leading her down a path to political enlightenment via lampoons of the Left and the Right. Will she stay by her man or be wooed by The Man (a Republican, of course) or paralyzed by The Monster (a roving sleeping bag threaded with two big eyeballs, representing the mass media)? Can’t tell you who plays whom because all the actors' names are blacked out in the program, for security reasons.

In an audience participation section, a volunteer representing the president was tied to a chair, while an actor used the volunteer’s cell phone to call the White House. On cue and in unison, the audience shouted the first part of the show’s title into the phone. The White House operator was not amused.

What happened next was chilling. Absurdity doesn’t get more realistic, nor reality more absurd. It’s a triumph of what 20 years ago was called performance art — blurring the line between an event and experience by shattering theatrical conventions and leaving them on the sidewalk. I’ll ruin it if I say more. Experience it at your own risk.


I’M GONNA KILL THE PRESIDENT: A Federal Offense | By HIERONYMOUS BANG | At various locations and times | Through June 25 | (888) 475-6181

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Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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