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
In 1977, the scruffy worker at Company of Angels takes a couple of the playwright's scripts and promises that somebody will get back to him, then closes the door. Nobody does. The young man knows almost nothing about the realities of L.A. theater and its meager place in the much larger world. He is, after all, only 22, and slightly deluded.
Almost 35 years later, that same man, now a produced playwright in L.A. and New York, and no longer young, still traverses the region, now in the role of theater critic for an alternative weekly newspaper not even conceived in 1977, and often on a bicycle that offers the same street vistas and wind in the face as the scooter of some distant memory.
In writing a 2011 article about the maturing of the local theater, he wonders if the current scene hasn't finally caught up with his delusion of yore.
Gordon Davidson, the now-retired founding artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, has been watching Los Angeles come of age since 1964, when he first arrived here from New York. For many years, his name and his face were synonymous with L.A. theater.
"I didn't put L.A. theater on the map," he says at a Culver City eatery. "I tried to put L.A. theater on the map." Yet he describes what he sees as a growing seriousness here toward the art.
"There were virtually only showcase theaters here when I first arrived," Davidson recalls. "I had never seen anything like that — people acting on a stage to get a job in film. [Because of the actors' union policy at the time] they had to either change their name or kick back money to do it, and therefore they didn't take it very seriously, except for a few pockets of mostly transplanted New York actors — hence Theatre West and others that had that kind of cadre. In other words, it was mostly but not entirely about actors being seen. Now there's a fairly lively scene going on — activity with some talent and some imagination in little nooks and crannies, making theaters out of nothing, but much more seriously than when I first arrived here."
What Davidson describes is true today, but it was just as true 20 years ago. After the demise of the Olympic Arts Festival, the gutting of public funding for the arts and the onset of the Great Recession of 2008, there's the worry that we've settled into a kind of permanent retrenchment.
Travis Preston, also a transplanted New Yorker, has directed experimental theater internationally, and currently serves as dean of CalArts in Valencia. He came to Los Angeles in 1999 after living in New York for 20 years. Unlike Davidson, who was always tethered to the more mainstream national theater circles, Preston's focus has been theatrical innovation and multidisciplinary performance, in venues from warehouses to opera houses. Davidson and Preston have spent some of the same years in Los Angeles circling in different orbits. Yet their conclusions are similar.
"Everyone forgets the fact that when New York's downtown arts scene was flourishing in the late 1970s, Abe Beame was mayor, and New York City was insolvent and losing population," Preston explains. "But of course it was a time of incredible public money that doesn't exist anywhere anymore, and that was the key to its artistic vitality."
Since then, he says, with the gradual decimation of arts funding starting in the Reagan years, "the locus of activity in New York has moved from below 14th Street to Midtown, and the template has changed from experimental to commercial."
These commercial pressures are comparatively muted here, partly because of lower real estate prices in L.A. But for decades, another driving engine of innovation has been the actors' union's 99-Seat Plan, the first variation of which (called the Equity Waiver Plan) was instituted in 1972. Although the plan comes with restrictions, it allows actors to work in professional houses of 99 seats or less while waiving their union salaries, and it's largely responsible for the 200-plus theater companies in L.A. and its environs.
You can see similar patterns of innovative performance in the lower-rent arts districts of Austin, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore. — the difference being the droves of actors who come for paying screen work in Los Angeles, then find hundreds of companies to play in when agents don't call.
"My feeling is that over the time I've been here, that promise of artistic maturity is gradually being realized," Preston says. "There is a critical mass of activity, indicative of a maturing environment. L.A. today reminds me of when I moved to New York in 1979. The characteristics of that era — a great deal of interest in examining an array of theatrical forms — seems to be growing here."
To support his point, Preston uses the evidence of CalArts graduates: "When I first came here, it wasn't characteristic for our students to graduate and to stay in L.A., by and large. Now it's a foregone conclusion that they'll do their work here. There's no question they will investigate the New York landscape, but it's a foregone conclusion that L.A. is a viable artistic hub for them, as an international environment, with influences coming from South America and Asia, with profound influences from Europe."