Toward the end of the new, futuristic play The Nether, a female detective faces the man she's been investigating — a man who has created a sexually deviant virtual reality. "The world is still a place we have to learn to be," she tells him.
After the cast takes its bows during the show's first preview performance, on March 19, The Nether's young playwright, Jennifer Haley, a petite, sharp-witted redhead who declined to give her age but looks like she's in her 30s, is standing in the spacious, neo-modern lobby of the Kirk Douglas Theatre speaking with friends and admirers.
Later, she hovers in the lobby, slightly agitated, listening to the postplay discussion, which follows each performance. She says she wants to hear "not just what they got but what they didn't get."
Haley used to be a freelance web designer, so she knows her way around technology. Her play — not her first dealing with the consequences of online fantasies — debuted last week in a world premiere by Center Theatre Group at the Douglas, the 317-seat house opened in Culver City by the Mark Taper Forum's founding artistic director, Gordon Davidson, for new plays. Such a production in a larger theater is a professional coup for a local writer, and may well be an example of what American Theatre magazine recently described as a revival of interest in new, lesser-known playwrights among larger, institutional theaters.
L.A. is a seductive place to put on a play. The city attracts some of the world's finest actors and directors. Audiences here are reputed to be open-minded and openhearted. Production costs remain a fraction of what they are in "theater cities" such as Chicago or New York.
But compared to those cities, play production here remains an activity, not an industry. There's a comparatively feeble marketing machine, which leaves most L.A. theater productions unrecognized by the nation's premier play publishers and producers. Putting on a play in L.A. has been equated with trying to build a snowman in the desert.
Furthermore, as in the rest of the country, the Herculean effort it takes to get a play performed and publicized still requires that the author have either a patron or some other source of income, just to keep bread on the table.
But dozens of top-flight playwrights have chosen to build their lives in Los Angeles. The main reason these writers remain here might seem at first glance to correspond to that old joke about why people rob banks: That's where the money is. Hollywood work is a great way for a writer to pay the bills.
While movie or TV writing as a means to prosperity may conform to a stereotype of why people stick around here, it doesn't complete the portrait. Other forces include artistic satisfaction, a sense of community, creative opportunities, having a family and friends, and belonging to a place almost all the playwrights interviewed called "home."
Jennifer Haley arrived in L.A. in 2006. She grew up in San Antonio and earned her B.A. at the University of Texas at Austin, where she wrote and performed solo shows and became involved as an actor in a commedia-style theater company, Troupe Texas, formed by a trio of UT grads. Troupe Texas eventually performed in nursing homes and housing projects outside Houston, using no props and often performing with audiences surrounding the actors.
After five years, in 1995, Troupe Texas ran out of steam. "Small theaters are amazing for the monumental effort that keeps them going," Haley explains. "Then we got older and went our separate ways."
Haley spent a couple years writing plays in Seattle before returning to Austin. Her aim was to transition out of freelance web design to making her living as a writer.
"There was something about being in the middle of the country. I didn't feel I could make a career out of it," she says. "I wanted a career where the writing paid for itself, and not because I was a teacher or a web designer."
Haley left Austin to attend grad school at Brown University, where she studied playwriting under one of her idols, Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive). Facing the possibilities of New York and Los Angeles, Haley chose L.A.
"I was in a cave during graduate school, and when I surfaced, I started watching TV and was impressed by the quality of the writing in shows like The Sopranos, and I thought of coming here," she says. "It seemed like less of a cliché than [being a playwright in] New York. I like sunshine and I don't mind driving — those are not things that stop me."