An Audacious Plan to Help Rescue L.A. Theater: Live Streaming

Darrett Sanders, Valerie Spencer, Lorne Green, Elizabeth Liang in The Noir SeriesEXPAND
Darrett Sanders, Valerie Spencer, Lorne Green, Elizabeth Liang in The Noir Series
Turner Munch

When it comes to the state of Los Angeles theater — particularly of its small stages — there seems to be a general consensus that it is in a bad way. Why or how depends on whom one asks.

Some mention the economy, still shaky from the Great Recession. Others point to the rapacious landlords of Hollywood’s theater row that see a greater civic good in abandoning cash-strapped nonprofit theater companies for the greener pastures of marijuana dispensary rents. One group grouses about mediocrity and blames Actors’ Equity’s 99-seat plan, whose 1972 Equity Waiver ancestor transformed L.A. into perhaps the nation’s largest producer of plays (at least in terms of sheer number of productions) outside of New York itself.

And still others, like producer-director Jennifer Cotteleer, don’t blame anybody or anything at all — they size up the situation and coolly take decisive action.

“You can’t financially support it," she says of L.A. theater, during a rehearsal break at Hollywood’s Schkapf Theatre. "At the same time, people are doing exciting work. So how can you maybe do theater in L.A., have it sustain itself, and find a wider audience?”

Her answer? Live-stream it.

At least that’s what she and her co-founding collaborators at the newly minted Heretick Theatre Lab will be doing at Schkapf on Nov. 8 and 9 (preceded by a Nov. 7 dry run) with their inaugural production of The Noir Series. Cotteleer hopes that the 90-minute evening of four commissioned, thematically connected one-acts will help transform a beloved heirloom art form into a viable proposition for actors that are stage artists at heart but are chained to the grind of the Hollywood audition mill.

The notion of taking L.A.’s small stage online at $7.99 per stream, Cotteleer says, could provide the economies of scale that will make small-stage theater more than just a hobby for working actors. For L.A.’s decentralized audiences, it might also provide a less painful alternative to the crosstown schleps and sketchy street parking that are a familiar part of an L.A. stage experience.

The idea has been percolating ever since Cotteleer returned from a trip to London three years ago, where she was first introduced to live streaming while haunting the National Theatre. At that time, the National was in the second, wildly successful year of its own pioneering stream program, National Theatre Live, which the National had copied from the New York Metropolitan Opera and that has since been imitated by Broadway.

“It really became for me this aha moment,” she recalls, “because it was something that respected the theater, it was this technological advance. The way that they cut it, it’s cinematic to a degree, but it really [captures] the whole theater experience, so you feel like you’re watching a live show.”

Returning to Los Angeles, Cotteleer began to research the idea in earnest, noting that the largest theater at the National, which seats 1,000, reaches 50,000 additional viewers for streamed performances. The wheels turned.

“An online audience is limitless,” she enthuses. “A theater like [Schkapf], which is a lovely theater in Los Angeles, it holds 60-70 people, maybe 75 if you put some folding chairs up front. If you can reach anything beyond that, that to me is a huge win.”

Cast and crew of Ed Brubaker's "Air Conditioned Rooms" — clockwise from top: Brubaker, director Cotteleer, Aidan Bristow, Tessa Ferrer, Evan Neumann and assistant director Madison Huckaby
Cast and crew of Ed Brubaker's "Air Conditioned Rooms" — clockwise from top: Brubaker, director Cotteleer, Aidan Bristow, Tessa Ferrer, Evan Neumann and assistant director Madison Huckaby
Photo by Bill Raden

To flight test the idea, however, Cotteleer needed both a producing entity and something to stream. For legal reasons, published, copyrighted plays were off-limits (the performers are working under the same SAG New Media contract that accommodates web series). So she founded Heretick and recruited stars from the worlds of both Comic-Con (Captain America and Thor: The Dark World screenwriter Stephen McFeely, and Eisner-award-winning Marvel author Ed Brubaker) as well as ensemble-created theater companies (avant satirists The Burglars of Hamm and stage auteurist Nancy Keystone from Critical Mass Performance Group) to create new work.

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"I wanted it to be something that sort of was aware of the medium," she says. "So noir, noir you think L.A. — you think movies. And so to stream a play that kind of had a cinematic feel to it seemed a way to tip our hats to that.”

Much like the old Amicus portmanteau films of the ‘60s, the actual evening will consist of four short genre pieces bridged by emcees (comedians Robert Buscemi and Sofia Alexandra), who will interact with both the in-theater audience and, via an online chat feature, the pay-per-stream audience at home. There’ll be a single rehearsal with the three-camera video crew, whose technical director will call the shots live during the two actual streams.

Cotteleer believes that doubling the house audience with home streamers will constitute a successful proof of concept.

But what if she is too successful? In the late 1940s, a similar experiment that siphoned theater directors, actors and writers into an earlier revolutionary live electronic medium ended up inventing something called television. Does she worry that she’ll wind up destroying L.A.’s 99-seat village in order to save it? Not at all.

“What [the National] found was that people who watched the live streams were more likely to come in and watch the live theater productions than not," she points out. "Because they saw it and liked it and then wanted to go and experience it live. And I think that if those theater companies that are doing really interesting work could participate in a form like this, you know, [audiences would learn] what that brand is. They’ll know that group is going to be doing something that’s worth driving across town and trying to find parking on Santa Monica Blvd.”

The Noir Series opens live at Schkapf Theatre on Friday, Nov. 7 and streams online Nov. 8-9.

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