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
To hell with critics, and boards of directors and other committees of approval that make pablum of our theater. The conviction of the producer, interlocked with the conviction of the artist, is the kind of thinking that's going to imbue our theater with newfound relevance. That's just theater history. It's what made London's Royal Court Theatre the breeding ground for generations of new plays that almost always got mixed reviews, but that has nothing to do with their importance.
Please don't take this as some romantic defense of artistic or commercial failure — that's a balmy island where embittered critics go to retire. I'm not suggesting we stop producing the latest revival of The Color Purple, or Dreamgirls, or David Mamet's latest whatever with Annette Bening or Laurie Metcalf or Martin Sheen or whoever. I'm saying that amid all that calculation, leave room for the other, the way Joseph Papp did or Cameron Mackintosh does; leave room for the impulsive, for the possibility that you may be discovering and nurturing something new, because none of us can really know what a failure is after one production.
Chekhov's The Seagull got shot out of the sky after its first production, in St. Petersburg. (Its second production did just fine in Moscow.) Imagine the loss had the playwright, or his producer, believed the critics and the committees who defined that play as a failure. Imagine if Chekhov had left the theater, as he said he was going to do after this initial response to his first play.
If we can't get 20-year-olds back into the theater because we keep thinking that marketing strategies and the consensus of committees are more important than conviction, that's when we'll be facing failure like we've never seen failure before. If we can't afford to put the risky on the stage, there's no excuse for not developing it in the laboratory, so that the possibility of it living and breathing remains.
This brings us to Los Angeles. In 2008, L.A. welcomed more than 25.6 million visitors. Direct visitor spending totaled $13.8 billion that year. Los Angeles continues to be the second-ranked destination for overseas visitors after New York. Add to that the actors' unions' various small-theater contracts — which are both our blessing and our curse. They're our blessing because they permit a breadth of theatrical activity with some of the best acting and writing talent in the world — a breadth and a talent pool that are the envy of most cities. They're our curse because the economics of those contracts consign that activity to unlivable wages and second-rate production values. Until we figure out a way to bridge that divide, the most obvious purpose of our theater is that of a gigantic laboratory, completely supported by our economic, professional and even cultural realities.
Our folly is that because we do almost as much theater as they do in New York, we think we should be doing the same kind of theater they do in New York, we think our ticket booths should look like they do in New York, as well as our theaters and our awards ceremonies — when the incentives, the economics and the culture couldn't be more different.
Until our Equity contracts change, we'll always be the farm team. And that's not so terrible, and not such an indignity, once we recognize our value as a theater laboratory, as a generator of new plays, new musicals, new forms and, most importantly, new ideas.
With the possible exception of off-off-Broadway, New York doesn't do so much of that anymore. They import chunks of their product from London, Chicago and Seattle, and a fraction from L.A. Those numbers should change: Why isn't Los Angeles a premier supplier of new theater? With the talent here, and the resources, this is inexplicable at best, shameful at worst. We could generate more works for the national and even international markets were we not so fixated on presenting TV stars in the West Coast premieres of plays by Adam Rapp or Martin McDonagh or Neil LaBute.
That said, in any given week across the city, in productions running two weeks or longer (not including sketch comedy), almost 40 percent of the city's theatrical output is original work. These data, taken from L.A. Weekly's listings, also suggest a correlation between costs and new work: In the Valleys, where theater rentals are lower, some 60 percent of the shows are new plays; on the Westside and beaches, it drops to 50 percent, and in Hollywood, where property leases really creep up, it drops to 40 percent. In the midsize and larger theaters, the ratio of world premieres plummets to 10 percent. Clearly, with our swath of small theaters, we're already a new play incubator, but those new plays aren't getting much traction, either because they're not very good, or because there's no system in place to develop them properly or to shine a light on them.
Here's a wish list for what's required in the trenches: (1) We need producers who think of themselves as curators — not of one production but of a series of productions incubated here, some targeted for their own neighborhood, some for Broadway, some for Chicago, some for Austin, Texas, and some for Warsaw, Poland. Local producer Rick Culbertson has called for a league of L.A. producers — a good idea, so long as their purpose has a broader vision than bickering with the actors' union over producers' profit margins.