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Why Theater Matters 

And how our local stage can seize a national leadership role

Thursday, Mar 25 2010
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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.
 
 

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"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.

Do the people who belittle the arts do so because they're too expensive, irrelevant, or because the arts have the capacity to say unpredictable and unpleasant things? This beachhead vaguely resembles the former Soviet Union. They simply took artists they didn't like and either shot them or exiled them to Siberia. We're not killing or dumping artists. We're trying to dump the arts themselves.

This is not cause for despair, though it may sound vaguely apocalyptic. History shows us that the tip of the spear that gored tyrannies of the past was laced with the arts — particularly the arts that were officially buried. (At least we haven't approached that point.) The Russian poet, songwriter and actor Vladimir Visotsky, with a voice like Tom Waits and a cult following — despite being banned by the government — was instrumental in discrediting and bringing down the Soviet Union. He died while playing Hamlet. Thousands followed his casket to the grave — to the profound annoyance of the Soviets.

Playwright Vaclav Havel's Velvet Revolution in communist Czechoslovakia follows a similar pattern. The power-challenging, world-influencing plays of Athol Fugard in apartheid-era South Africa emerged from one of the most despotic regimes of its time. Molière was in and out of favor in the French court, thanks to a church that had little patience for his satires. The cardinal whom he ridiculed in Tartuffe, and who censored him, is long forgotten, while Molière has theaters, and the French equivalent of the Tony Awards, named after him.

The arts in general, and theater in particular, have historically pried open the caskets of hypocrisy and dead yet despotic ideas, and tossed their contents back into the sea. The lack of support for the arts is a cause for distress, and fury, and dogged and wily resistance, because the underlying reason for the arts and for the theater will never be irrelevant or too expensive to realize in some form. Because fighting for the arts is fighting for our humanity, and fighting for our humanity is fighting for our lives. I can't think of a more trenchant reason to be producing theater in the 21st century.

The city of Berlin spends more on the arts than the entire federal government of the United States. It's now been documented — here I refer to the study called Outrageous Fortune, by Todd London, Ben Pesner and Zannie Giraud Voss, published by the Theater Development Fund — that the network of midsize regional theaters across our nation has become too paralyzed by fear and the imperatives of institutional survival to move the art form forward, thereby consigning those theaters to a kind of creeping irrelevance. The evidence for that lies in the aging demographics of their patrons, in a now-staggering system established 60 years ago to provide a viable alternative to the commercial fare of Broadway.

In the absence of arts funding and the intransigence of our regional theaters, the responsibility to keep the theater at the forefront of ideas and passions that are percolating in the United States now falls back squarely on the shoulders of our independent producers, and once again, I can think of no better reason to be producing theater in this country, in these times.

So, if there's even a flicker of belief that our theater does actually matter, the next question is how to keep it relevant, and inviting, financially and aesthetically, to new generations. This most important of challenges comes down to a juggling act between the comfort of the familiar and its ability to seduce audiences and pay back investors; and the discomfort of the unfamiliar, with its sense of discovery and its appeal to the seething, rebellious young who have no money, but who may be the investors of tomorrow, and their willingness to embrace anything that their parents' generation doesn't know about. This isn't rocket science. It's the historical shape of how ideas and art forms move forward.

It's easier to embrace the familiar, but it's also more shortsighted. This obsession with the familiar — familiar plays and playwrights, even new playwrights familiar to those who occupy our play-development fortresses — is too often mistaken for prudence. Prudence is too often mistaken for a good thing in the theater, when in actuality, vision and courage are the qualities that have always propelled the arts forward — as well as the sciences and industry, for that matter. Prudence, without courage, leads to the plight so many of our theaters now find themselves in, as they wonder where their young audiences have gone, and why they can't pay their bills.

It's a very good producer who plucks a hit, like, say, Avenue Q or Urinetown, from a fringe festival and starts building investment and cachet around that project to see if it can survive off-Broadway, on Broadway or, with the help of the Internet, on tours around the country. There's a sort of salvation for the art form in that kind of thinking.

Or in the kind of thinking by Center Theatre Group's Michael Ritchie, who took an unknown play by an unknown writer, Doug Steinberg's Nighthawks, based on the Edward Hopper painting. Ritchie's literary manager brought it to him, he read it and put it on at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. It was a decision based almost entirely on impulse and personal conviction, and whether or not the play was commercially or even critically successful is irrelevant to the blood-and-guts motive of putting it on, of letting conviction drive the engine, and letting marketing concerns sit in the back.

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.

(2) We need nonprofit institutions with sufficient influence to curate local festivals of new works for national markets. Since we lost A S K Theatre Projects, which was brilliant at wooing the nation's top theaters to its annual Common Ground Festival of works in development, REDCAT, a theater in Disney Hall administered and originally funded by CalArts, has emerged as A S K's most viable replacement with a similar commitment to interdisciplinary performance. Aside from its programming of international and local companies, and REDCAT's semiannual Studio series of workshop productions, REDCAT and Center Theatre Group are involved in the planning of an "Under the Radar" performance festival in 2011, based on the model at New York's Public Theatre, and using some of the same organizers. David Sefton continues to program scintillating works in his International Theatre Festival at UCLA Live. (Why isn't more of our best work going abroad?) The emergence of the noncurated Hollywood Fringe festival, this coming June 17-27, is also a very promising sign, as is the first "microfestival" presented in Los Angeles by the national Network of Ensemble Theaters, later this year.

(3) We need an L.A. Theater Chamber of Commerce, created for the express purpose of establishing liaisons between our companies and those in other American cities, with the aim of intranational exchanges of productions. If it's kept to a grassroots level of mutual hospitality, one level where theater is currently thriving, such a chamber could facilitate exchanges that are as viable financially as they are artistically. Note: A S K Theatre Projects was funded on Audrey Skirball-Kenis Foundation money. REDCAT exists because of Disney money. These were, and are, the hippest theater scenes in town.

Which leads to wish No. (4). Eli Broad, where are you? Or the moguls at Paramount Pictures or Searchlight? You could fund an L.A. Theater Chamber of Commerce while sneezing and not even notice. Don't do it just because it's the Right Thing to Do. We understand that's the most unpersuasive and possibly offensive reason for you to do anything. Just visit Upright Citizens Brigade on a Saturday night, if you can get in past all the teens. Or visit the Steve Allen Theater. Or REDCAT. That's where you'll see a kind of theater that bounces off the walls. And most of it born in L.A. You should get behind it, because its heat, and its cool, will rub off on you, and make you look as good as it makes you feel.

Next summer, we'll have a rare convergence of activities that could propel us into a national spotlight. For the first time in its 50-year history, Theatre Communications Group — the national theater-support organization and watchdog (it publishes American Theatre magazine) — will hold its annual conference in Los Angeles.

TCG executive director Teresa Eyring said that the organization chose L.A. for a number of reasons: "It represents a microcosm of how theater has evolved in this nation, from large resident companies such as the Center Theatre Group to small ensembles of every stripe. It is an extremely progressive theater community in terms of its consciousness of internationalism, arts learning, new work and new forms. And it has grown up next to the film and television industries, which at one time were believed to be a major threat to the very existence of theater. We are very excited about the energy and possibility presented by Los Angeles for our 2011 conference."

Meanwhile, with the plans for our own "Under the Radar" theater festival to coincide with the TCG conference, in conjunction with what will then be the second Hollywood Fringe festival, the eyes of the country will be on our theater in the summer of '11. Now's the time to determine what we want to make of that opportunity.

There's little reason that in this city, inventiveness should be seen as running contrary to anybody's interests, or that we can't take the bountiful assets of our theater community, and, through investment and rigor and wit and some daring, transform them into a kind of theater that can pay back dividends to investors, while earning the theater here some respect.

What makes a good producer? The ability to see what's already growing in the backyard, to learn from it, to cultivate it, with the aim of harvests in years to come. That's not only good for the art, it's good business as well.

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