Why Theater Matters 

And how our local stage can seize a national leadership role

Thursday, Mar 25 2010

Click here for Steven Leigh Morris’ “At the Tip of the Spear: Players on the fringe, making the future.”

This past January, a press release arrived at the Weekly offices that caught my interest because it publicized a play written by my former UCLA professor Theodore Apstein. Before coming to UCLA, Mr. Apstein taught playwriting at Columbia University. For 27 years after that, until he died in 1998, he taught the craft at the Westwood campus. Despite an accomplished writing career in television and film, he never taught screenwriting.

I remember how Apstein spoke with affection for the theater, and of the various conundrums involved in having his plays put on in New York. His last play, which remains unproduced, was an autobiographical work named Leaving Kiev. This was the play discussed in the aforementioned press release:

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY STAR FOREMAN - Theater, anyone? The Hollywood Fringe Festival wants to know.

"Theodore Apstein's career extends all the way back to the early days of television, writing for the dramatic series The General Electric Theater, The Alcoa Hour, Mystery Theater, Studio One and Hallmark Hall of Fame. He wrote for such television dramas as The Untouchables, Ben Casey, The F.B.I., The Virginian, Marcus Welby, M.D., The Waltons, Kung Fu and Another World, among others."

Next comes the sentence that stands out for me: "He also wrote some on- and off-Broadway plays."

That's it. Theater. Broadway theater! He also wrote some ... plays. Might those plays have a title?

If only this were some West Coast aberration, but in fact it's indicative of a far more pervasive, waning regard for theater in our culture.

For the record, Mr. Apstein wrote a play called The Innkeepers, which was produced on Broadway in 1956, directed by Jose Quintero, the L.A. City College– and USC-educated stage director from Panama, who went on to become one of the most celebrated directors of Broadway and off-Broadway plays in the American theater. Another of Apstein's plays, Come Share My House, was produced off-Broadway in 1960. But the larger point is the divide between the commonly held low regard for theater and its actual relevance — far greater than most are willing to acknowledge. From that chasm emerge the questions of why do theater at all, in these times, and what makes a good producer. After all, producers need a good reason, an incentive to keep producing plays. Because if they stop, we'll all be less than zero for it, culturally speaking. None of this can be addressed until we recognize the point of live theater, in this tiny corner of history, and in an even tinier backwater of recognized theatrical activity called Los Angeles.

The National Endowment for the Arts recently reported that arts attendance in the United States has hit new lows, with 34 percent attending an arts event once a week, down from 39 percent in 2002. (However, the report also noted a spike in audiences procuring their arts fix through the Internet.)

Add to this the emblematic proposal by the Los Angeles Unified School District to eliminate all elementary school arts teachers by the end of 2012, when statistics show a clear pattern of arts attendance established in those formative years.

This apathy toward the arts, and toward artists, is nothing new in America, but with text-messaging, tweeting, cell-photo–taking and social-networking technologies all tied into the escalating global-corporate control of almost all our affairs — now including unlimited corporate spending in political campaigns under the guise of "free speech," thanks to our Supreme Court — we appear to be surfing on a slow-moving wave toward a kind of globally engineered beachhead. On this beachhead, the sort of independence of thought and language that gets expressed through the arts in general, and in great theater in particular, gets dashed on the rocks.

On this beachhead, there exists a system of economics and communications that, more than ever before, financially serves the few at the expense of the many, while the people who govern this beachhead complain about the "elitism" of the arts. On this beachhead, history is either forgotten, or rewritten, or reduced to a few slogans. Here, the kinds of belligerence and barbarism that have always been part of the fabric of American life are given freer and freer rein, while qualities of compassion and critical thought, which have also always been part of the fabric of American life, slowly wash out to sea. We need look no further than the health care debate to see the kinds of obstinacy and greed that now pass for debate. And so it was in ancient Greece, an empire similarly ensconced in domestic barbarism and military adventurism. Yet it was the theater that reformulated the debates of that era with humanity and intelligence, and put those qualities back into the air that we still breathe more than 2,000 years later.

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