By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
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Kendt says he misses the companies and the ensemble-based work that are more prevalent in L.A., citing Theatre of Note, Pacific Resident Theatre and A Noise Within. “That doesn’t mean that people were cast in the right roles, but there’s more of a sense that these people work together and that they’re doing it because they want to, need to. In New York, there’s a lot more of what I would call that Taper level of deadly professionalism. Sometimes it works. It serves the play. More often it’s — they got some good actors, set looks great, they did their four weeks of rehearsals, and they put it up. Not a whole lot of palpable love, but it’s not about love, it’s about commerce.”
There’s a strong argument that because L.A. is a magnet for some of the country’s best actors, it’s a good place to develop new plays and to create the kinds of repertory system and ensemble theater that are cost-prohibitive in New York. Take the case of Kieren Brown, a Rutgers grad who tried New York for a couple of years, looking for some kind of ensemble-created theater. She is more interested in the process of theater than in its product. Who’d have guessed she’d find just what she was looking for in L.A.? She answered an ad in Back Stage West and has been working for more than a year on a highly disciplined ensemble piece about Mikhail Bulgakov with ARTEL (American Russian Theatre Ensemble Laboratory).
New York–based playwright Bruce J. Robinson says he has received more support for the development of his plays in L.A. than in New York. Six of them have gotten readings or workshops, and one has even been produced, at theaters here ranging from the Norris in Palos Verdes and Theatricum Botanicum, outside Malibu to Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40, though the art form “remains more marginal in Los Angeles,” he says. Robinson has written some television, and hopes to do more in order to help subsidize his stage work, since the kind of New York theater best suited to his work, off-Broadway, is all but extinct.
“It’s impossible to open a show off-Broadway and expect to recoup,” says Robinson. “I know producers are recasting shows, looking for stars and going to Broadway, because there’s a business protocol. [Producers] are not happy with high-quality, small events. Altar Boyz took three years to recoup its costs off-Broadway. My kind of theater barely exists. Very few producers are participating.”
As for the fringier off-off-Broadway, Robinson notes, “It’s vital if you’re not interested in making a living.”
Theater is an art form of waning significance, Michael Feingold has bemoaned, describing himself and his generation as those “who have outlived the death of Broadway.” The kind of theater that matters to Feingold, a theater of artistic subtlety, stylistic elegance, intellectual rigor and spiritual ascendancy, cannot compete with the prevailing mores of a culture that cares more about property values than artistic ones. Rising real estate costs have delivered a lethal blow to off-off-Broadway, and are now doing the same to off-Broadway. It’s all a bit like taking the ax to the cherry trees in Chekhov’s play so that homes on the subdivided lots of the former orchard can be leased out to tourists. Feingold is like Madame Ranevskaya, who just can’t bear the thought of it anymore. The decimation is particularly vexing to people who were around to see the likes of innovative companies such as La Mama, adventurous playwrights such as Edward Albee, Sam Shepard and Richard Foreman, and ensembles like the Living Theater and the Wooster Group launch history-making endeavors in the smaller, now struggling or shuttered venues that existed in the shadows of Broadway’s bright lights.
Isherwood does not concur that the theater is dying in New York, or anywhere else. “It’s been in the same perilous state for 20 years,” he explains. “You’d be surprised, artists find a way.”
One theory of American theater’s future is that off-Broadway is simply moving to lower-rent districts, in Brooklyn for example, and Austin, Chicago, Seattle and, God forbid, Los Angeles. Two questions linger: whether or not the best work these cities have to offer is actually being brought to New York by regional producers speculating on the bottom line, and whether this work can be viewed without prejudice when it rolls into Manhattan, seeking the validation on which so many reputations rely.
Click here to read An L.A. Playwright's Struggle to Go East.