It was a bit disconcerting to settle into a back seat of a car, parked atop a downtown garage on Second Street, having to adjust a knee to avoid a large plastic red keg from which wires extended to little boxes marked "explosives," while a timer clicked down. No, it wasn't a kidnapping, just a play: Will Hackner's Warriors (directed by Vesna Hocevar), presented as part of Moving Arts' Car Plays series in the Radar L.A. Festival, which just closed.
In the car's front seat, Morgan Krantz and Darren Capozzi played Marine Corps vets venting on the injustices of the world, and of their places in it. One locks the other out of the car, an attempt to spare the life of the one outside; he pleads desperately for re-entry, slamming a palm on the window.
Radar L.A. was a mostly downtown performance festival curated by REDCAT's Mark Murphy and Center Theatre Group's Diane Rodriguez, along with Mark Russell of New York's Under the Radar festival.
Meanwhile, at downtown's Biltmore Hotel, hundreds of the nation's theater makers were in town for Theatre Communications Group's 50th anniversary conference. Though the TCG conference's location in L.A. — for the first time — wasn't responsible for the conception of Radar L.A., it was timed to tap an audience of national TCG conference visitors with a predisposed curiosity for a festival of this sort.
Radar L.A. was conceived as a West Coast branch of Under the Radar, which takes place annually at New York's Public Theater. Whereas Under the Radar throws its net across Europe, Radar L.A. aims to focus on the cultures and concerns that inform this city, mostly across the Pacific Rim. This inaugural year's participants included local companies such as Los Angeles Poverty Department and Latino Theatre Company, alongside visitors from places such as San Francisco (Pan Afro Homos), Austin, Texas (Rude Mechs), and Chile (Teatro en el Blanco).
Meanwhile, the noncurated Hollywood Fringe, now in its second year, ran simultaneously, closing this weekend — a blast of 200 shows staged almost entirely along a walkable strip of Santa Monica Boulevard between Seward and El Centro. The area became a magnet for young theatergoers, with food trucks parked along the boulevard and a bar situated inside the portable tent of Fringe Central. A new educational outreach program with the L.A. Unified School District had 300 students from Bancroft Middle School attend U.K. import How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse.
The conjunction of the two festivals in June lent the impression of a poor cousin to Edinburgh in August, where the noncurated Edinburgh Fringe runs side by side with the curated Edinburgh Festival. But while the Edinburgh Fest includes budget-busting opera, symphony orchestras and the elite of mainstream international theater, Radar invited provocative companies that aren't household names. The two Fringe fests share a spirit of wacky ebullience, but while the Edinburgh Fringe has had more than five decades to figure out its niches, logistics and economics, ours is in its infancy. Among its baby steps in the right direction: This year's presales outpaced last year's total sales. Press rep Stacy Jones says overall attendance spiked 20 percent over last year, with a larger number of shows selling out this year than last.
The open question, and challenge for Radar L.A., whose reps are talking about a return in 2013, is how it will fare when there's no TCG conference in town to provide the artificial bubble of attendees. What follows is a sampling of Radar L.A. performances:
With a few notable exceptions, such as Car Plays, the foreign entries in Radar L.A. showed a broader perspective and greater theatrical ingenuity than the local shows.
"That's because they're road-tested," Russell explained as we found ourselves at REDCAT walking into Amarillo (Teatro Linea de Sombra, from Mexico).
Therein lies one great divide between American and international theater. We're still of a prevailing mindset that the kinds of plays that "matter" are written by playwrights, developed in workshops, then rehearsed for four to six weeks for a production lasting just about as long. Then, if the playwright is lucky, the work gets a whole new production elsewhere.
Radar L.A. aims to show work devised by companies, created through the collaboration of performers, director and writer, rehearsed for months, with the goal of touring. A few U.S. companies employ this model, such as New York's Mabou Mines and the Wooster Group, or L.A.'s Actors' Gang and Ghost Road Theatre Company, but since the demise of touring repertories in the early 20th century, these companies are few.
This would explain why some of the local troupes simply reinvented previous productions. Moving Arts, for example, resurrected its Car Plays concept of yore, with new works — 15 10-minute playlets, each set within a car. Each audience member observed only five playlets, each offering in one of the five cars in one of three rows. Audiences for the other two rows of cars saw completely different bills.