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
The lack of commercial pressure, combined with a horde of young performers with interests in other media, has created an abundance of multidisciplinary works. "What's most difficult for me about New York is that experimental film is segregated from theater, cordoned off, unlike the kind of exchange that we're seeing here within the multiple artistic communities: the visual arts, the theater, the media arts, so characteristic of a vital environment," Preston says. This kind of work crops up here at presenter venues such as Machine Project, Highways Performance Space and REDCAT, and by companies such as Psittacus Productions, Son of Semele Ensemble, Theatre of NOTE and Theatre Movement Bazaar.
But the relaxed commercial environment for small companies isn't enough to keep the theater scene growing. "The challenge for Los Angeles," Preston says, "to sustain and fulfill the energy and talent that's already here, is for institutions to invest in Los Angeles artists, to make up for the dearth of public funding."
Opportunities we've seen slip away for L.A. artists over the past decade include A.S.K. Theatre Projects and all of the in-house labs at the Mark Taper Forum.
Some midsize cities have a smattering of innovative companies, but none has been able to nurture enough adventurous audience members to sustain a full-fledged experimental scene. Despite some aquatic extravagances by Lookingglass Theatre, even red-hot theater town Chicago never staked its reputation on experimental theater. That may have more to do with the aesthetic hegemony of the Goodman and Steppenwolf theater companies, a legacy of TV sketch comedy and the lingering, conservative influence of playwright David Mamet.
"I believe there are two cities in the U.S. that can still support adventurous and vital work," Preston concludes. "That's New York and L.A."
Rob Weinert-Kendt sounds a more cautious note, indicating that the Pomona playwright's delusion of L.A. theater as a destination may still be a mirage. Weinert-Kendt studied at USC and spent the early part of his professional life in Los Angeles, as founding editor of Back Stage West until 2003, before taking a post as an associate editor at American Theatre magazine in New York.
While in L.A., Weinert-Kendt was an avid local theater supporter, and he describes Los Angeles as a "formative theater town" for him. Even so, there are potential conversations surrounding the TCG conference that make his teeth itch with anxiety.
"I have an instinctual dread of two boasts that will go something like this: 'You know, Brecht premiered Galileo at the Coronet,' and, 'Look, there are real stars on our stages!' I cringe when I hear people say that there's no theater in L.A., but I also have an instinctive recoil when I hear people build up L.A. at the expense of other cities, or argue that L.A. has more plays opening than any other city. Yeah? So? That might stop people for one moment and go, 'Really?' But it doesn't convince anybody that makes it a theater town."
Davidson argues that the theater-town debate is a pointless, even dangerous enterprise. "We don't know what's a theater town," he insists. "London is a theater town, except when there's nothing to see there. Then it's not a theater town."
"It makes more sense to talk about what's uniquely L.A.," Weinert-Kendt adds, rather than to engage in compare-and-contrast boosterism.
Playwright Jon Robin Baitz once remarked that L.A. theater artists react largely "to the toxicity of living in a company town." This certainly would explain the disproportionate number of camp movie parodies and soulful, mythological sagas that employ impressionistic rather than narrative storytelling. Both groups are in some ways in defiance of but in other ways an homage to our culture of cinema. Says Olga Garay, head of L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs, which is contributing $100,000 to the Radar L.A. festival, "I'm interested in seeing how [Radar L.A.] explores the romance between theater and film."
Playwright John Steppling, with his dissonant punk-Pinteresque dialogue, tethered to the mythology of the American Southwest, once was heralded by the Los Angeles Herald Examiner as "L.A.'s only playwright." Murray Mednick, poet, dramatist and creator of a theatrical mythology sprung from Native American folklore, ran the highly acclaimed Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop, originally in the hills above Claremont, from 1978 to 1995, attracting the likes of Sam Shepard, Steppling and Baitz. (Mednick's newest work, DaddyO Dies Well, opens this week at the Electric Lodge.) Justin Tanner, a perennial satirist of SoCal suburban mores, wrote an early farce called Zombie Attack!, which ran about as long as any production in Los Angeles. "Those are L.A. voices," Weinert-Kendt says. "The problem is, people doing theater [in L.A.] aren't convinced of the value of what they do."
To the extent that's true, it's a direct consequence of neglect by our major arts institutions and our paper of record. If New York's Public Theater ignored local writers and companies the way Center Theatre Group has done here, and if The New York Times neglected New York's smaller theaters the way the L.A. Times' reordering of priorities has neglected so many of ours, Gotham's theater scene would have imploded years ago. Weinert-Kendt agrees: