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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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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.

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

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.

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