L.A. Theater's Moment of Truth 

In the national spotlight this summer, will we show we've grown up, or just embarrass ourselves?

Thursday, Mar 31 2011

Click here for "This Is the Week That Will Be," by Steven Leigh Morris.

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them," recites Malvolio, a fool in Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night.

This summer, Los Angeles theater will be under a national magnifying glass of conferences and festivals that will make us the focus of attention we haven't seen since the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984. That event brought us world theater superstar directors such as Poland's Tadeusz Kantor, Japan's Tadashi Suzuki, France's Ariane Mnouchkine and German choreographer Pina Bausch, not to mention the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera of Covent Garden. All of these, and more, poured into local theaters around the same time.

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  • Lord of the CalArtians: Travis Preston

Our theater was not born great. That reality is beyond rational discussion.

The Olympic Arts Festival, however, presented the rare opportunity to have greatness thrust upon us.

As for achieving greatness, which is entirely in our hands, what remains possible? And when exposed in the national spotlight, will that suggestion be taken seriously, or reduced to a joke of Shakespearean mirth?

From June 14-20, Theatre Communications Group, the nation's premier theater support organization, will hold its annual conference in L.A., bringing hundreds of representatives from its 488-member not-for-profit theaters and 1,200 individuals nationwide. The conference also marks TCG's 50th anniversary, and the first time it has chosen Los Angeles as its host city.

"Among the aims is to put a national spotlight on Los Angeles theater," says Teresa Eyring, TCG's executive director.

At the same time, directors from L.A.'s Center Theatre Group and REDCAT theater — along with New York's Under the Radar Festival — are curating an international theater festival, Radar L.A., emphasizing solo and "company-devised" work, at various sites across Los Angeles County.

Add to the mix the second annual Hollywood Fringe, plus a whole other mishmash of theater events that same week, including the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival and the annual convenings of Directors Lab West and the NEA's institute for theater critics (see sidebar for details).

As it happens, the L.A. Film Festival also is rolling out its wares then. Yes, once again in L.A., poor film gets to be overshadowed by the theater industry.

In 1984, Time proclaimed that with the Olympic Arts Festival, in which the best of the best of world theater strutted on our stages, Los Angeles theater had finally come of age. It hadn't. The energy and the money slowly dissipated, revealing, at best, the subtlest of changes. Jaded local observers are quick to point out our cyclical tendency toward overenthused hyperbole.

Will the summer of '11 reiterate or end that cycle? Can it possibly be a game changer of perception? Has our theater grown up at last? If so, will anyone believe it, or care? And should we care what anybody else believes?

On a smoggy Saturday afternoon, a 22-year-old man drives a Honda 90 motor scooter along Fountain Avenue, with scripts stacked in a box behind him. He's driven in from Pomona, where he recently graduated from college. No, he's not submitting screenplays to local TV and film companies. The scripts he transports are stage plays, his own, that he's written in the past year and a half. He visits tiny theaters with strange names, such as Company of Angels, Theatre Rapport and the Odyssey Theatre.

The year is 1977, long before websites and email. There are, however, a phone book and an almanac describing some of the city's more active theaters. The Mark Taper Forum is only 10 years old. Somebody from that already esteemed theater suggested to the young man that he get to know the people who run the dozens of smaller theaters in the city.

He parks on Waring Avenue, near Vine Street, and knocks on the door of a building with the Company of Angels sign. He hears hammering from inside and the screech of an electric saw. An unkempt man in a black woolen cap, a dirty T-shirt, jeans and sneakers opens the door and squints into the sun from the shadows within: "Ugh?"

"Wondering if I could find out more about the theater, what it might need and if I can help. I'm a playwright."

For some inexplicable reason, the idea of having a play put on in any of the dozens of storefront/warehouse theaters in Los Angeles, most with room for audiences of only about 60 to 80 people, is the end of the rainbow for this playwright. This is partly because, from the hinterlands of Pomona in 1977, he's been reading the Los Angeles Times' reports and reviews on L.A. theater, much of it on the smaller stages, which the city's paper of record appears to take seriously. From what he reads, and what he sees, the young man assumes that Los Angeles is a theater destination. Such is the power of a paper of record. It not only reports the facts, but it can also create a mythology via the selection of and emphasis on the scenes it chooses to cover. This is what drama critic Richard Christiansen, and his Chicago Tribune, did for that city.

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