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 main two tastemakers in L.A. theater would be CTG and the Times. Both are slavishly New York–centric. I don't think it's cynical, I think it's sincere — it's what they believe." He continues, voicing the perception in the theater community that those in charge at these institutions "have been to a few mediocre plays in L.A. that somebody overpraised, and the touring shows are not as good as Broadway, so they've determined that this is a backwater. And they're serving an audience that has the same idea, I guess. ... I think they're so inside their own bubble, they can't really see."
The Times' transparent interest in enforcing its reputation as a national player would explain the frequent sojourns of its chief drama critic to Gotham, London, Seattle, Berkeley and San Diego at the expense of local coverage. This continues to incense many of our top-tier local producers, but then again, if you talk to New York producers, they don't speak with great affection for their paper of record, either.
The L.A. Times does have a local theater beat with some smart and passionate critics, but it's a shadow of the coverage recalled by that playwright from Pomona in 1977, in the era of exacting yet optimistic drama critics such as Dan Sullivan and Sylvie Drake. Perhaps they weren't only anticipating the future of L.A. theater, they were helping to build it. Today, the Times' coverage has neither the depth nor the placement to lend much legitimacy to a scene that's sometimes seething with activity, and other times just seething.
The folly of boosterism, Part 1: 1978, Mark Taper Forum. The premiere of Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit, an epic slice of L.A. Chicano history with music, sells out almost every performance to ebullient crowds. Shortly before the play reopens at Broadway's Winter Garden Theater the following year, its director, Gordon Davidson, tells the New York press corps that Los Angeles has become the nation's center for new-play development. The production is subsequently met with excoriating reviews, and closes in about four weeks, after only 41 performances.
The folly of boosterism, Part 2: 1985, Sloane Square, London. The playwright from Pomona, now 31, finds himself in the cramped office of Michael Hastings, literary manager for the Royal Court Theatre, a powerhouse presenter of new work. The pair are discussing a possible writing commission.
"Los Angeles," Hastings says, "is a center for films, is it not?"
"Yes, that's a fair assessment."
"If you're so passionate for the theater, then what are you doing in Los Angeles?"
The playwright explains the transformative effect of the prior year's Olympic Arts Festival, how it has opened the perception that L.A. is a place where theater might at last be taken seriously. As the words pour out, he watches the eyes of the Englishman glaze over.
What was so extraordinary about the Olympic Arts Festival, says Davidson, was the sheer size and the possibility to have a real impact on the city. "[Festival director] Bob Fitzpatrick had this vision and [festival organizer] Peter Ueberroth, by whatever magic, got it, saw it and put in $7 million. That was an extraordinary sum of money to bring over the best of the best. It's almost impossible, even in the Edinburgh [Festival] situation, to see the level of work by major companies throughout the world.
"My sadness is that we had money left over, and they created a Los Angeles World Theater Festival for future years, and they hired [renowned theater director] Peter Sellars, and he went through the money in two years — gone. It took the heart away. And you can only keep something going like that with repetition. It's got to be in the atmosphere. I know my audiences at the Taper were more attuned after the festival. They brought more to the theater after. You could have a discussion with them about what they'd seen," Davidson says.
"To have an impact, you want people talking about the work, not how much money it took to put the festival on."
Davidson's remarks are echoed by the exuberant Ben Hill, director of the Hollywood Fringe, and the festival's press deputy, Stacy Jones. "We shouldn't judge our success by our production budgets," says Jones, sipping ice tea at a coffeehouse on Hollywood's Theater Row, "but by the excitement the work generates and by the support of our artists for each other."
The Hollywood Fringe (June 16-26) is a noncurated, open-door, open-market potpourri of theater, comedy and dance staged within one square mile in Hollywood; it's modeled on the granddaddy of noncurated festivals, the Edinburgh Fringe. In last year's Hollywood Fringe debut, Hill says, the artists could rent out a venue for as little as $50 — less if they nixed ticket prices in order to attract bar customers. Last year's premiere festival was a triumph of organization, energy and goodwill: 200 performance groups, 17,000 seats occupied, 40 percent average capacity — a very good start for a first year — with audiences mostly in their 20s, an important factor for the city's cultural ecosystem.
Hill aims to build on last year's success by moving the festival's headquarters/bar from Hollywood Boulevard down to Art/Works Theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, home to a string of participating theaters. Hill wants to encourage as much foot traffic from venue to venue as possible, to create a carnival atmosphere.