Living and Dying in L.A. - Part 2

Illustration by Patrick MartinezOn July 21, the L.A. Weekly hosted a roundtable discussion among leaders in the theater community about new play development and the ramifications of two major institutions (A.S.K. Theater Projects and Center Theater Group) closing programs whose purpose was to develop new plays and new playwrights. Those present included Luis Alfaro (playwright, former co-director of the CTG/Mark Taper Forum’s Latino Theater Initiative), Sasha Anawalt (director, USC/Getty Arts Journalism Program, NEA Arts Journalism Institute), Jennifer Andreone (display advertising, L.A. Weekly), Anthony Byrnes (former associate producer/new play development for the Kirk Douglas Theater), Stacie Chaiken (writer-performer), Bart DeLorenzo (artistic director, Evidence Room), Sylvie Drake (publications director at Denver Center Theater, former L.A. Times chief drama critic), Erin Aubry Kaplan (staff writer, L.A. Weekly), Jessica Kubzansky (co-artistic director, Theater @ Boston Court), Sandra Tsing Loh (writer-performer, radio host), George Lugg (associate director, REDCAT), Terence McFarland (executive director, L.A. Stage Alliance), Steven Leigh Morris (theater editor, L.A. Weekly), Jon Lawrence Rivera (artistic director, Playwrights Arena), Mark Seldis (producing director, Ghost Road Theater Company), Ray Simmons (executive director, Edge of the World Theater Festival), Shay Wafer (managing director, Cornerstone Theater Company), Chay Yew (playwright, former director of the Taper’s Asian Theater Workshop). The roundtable was the first in a series of such discussions, to be continued and opened to the theater community and to the public during the Edge of the World Theater Festival in October.

More coverage of this story from the LA Weekly can be found in "Confrontations in a Con-Art World" and in "The Great White Way."

For other stories, go to for Margo Jefferson's commentary on Sunday, August 7; and for Don Shirley's reportage on May 24 and June 22.

To read Richard Montoya's article on the need for a new generation of Latino arts leaders, click here.

STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS: I’m concerned that, with the combined closing of A.S.K. Theater Projects and Center Theater Group’s play development labs and New Work Festival, opportunities are closing for playwrights in general, and for playwrights of color in particular. The issue is not so much the activity of play development, which continues to occur at many small theaters across the city, but with the validation and definition of Los Angeles as a theater laboratory — a validation and definition provided by institutions that fund new play festivals. I suggest that the loss of A.S.K. Theater Projects, which uniquely funded companies rather than individuals, to develop works that were already in process, was a blow possibly more profound that the loss of the CTG labs. I propose two questions to be addressed by the roundtable: Are these institutional losses really serious to the welfare of the community? And, if so, is there a possible solution in the form of an umbrella organization, to make up for the deficit? JON LAWRENCE RIVERA: I think that the loss of the Taper labs and workshops is not the end of the labs. The difference between us is that they had the money and we don’t. We [at Playwrights Arena] have been developing workshops and new work for 13 years, but we have no money and that’s the core of the problem. It’s not the end of the world. MARK SELDIS: I think the question we want to ask of those people running the now closed labs: What was it about the programs you were doing that worked, and what didn’t? What was it you found valuable? If we’re talking about reinventing something, let’s really reinvent something. Find out what worked from their view, and then from the community. We need to figure that out before we start talking about money. LUIS ALFARO: I think that not every new play development program serves everybody. The thing that really worked that was great was the sense of community, that there was a community to plug into. And when you can pay a director a real fee, there’s a difference between the activity and a hobby. I always felt that what was good about what we did was the mix of people we brought together. I always saw it as investment. The thing that the Taper gave up [in shuttering its new play development programs] was initiating rather than being the receiver. I think the best we did was invest in really young artists. Many of the plays weren’t that good, but that wasn’t our focus. Minneapolis theater is fertile right now, there are levels of maturity, and different festivals in which artists can participate based on their level of expertise. So the kind of festival you join is based on the level of expertise, so you work your way up the festival ladder, so to speak. You build a really strong community, but not everybody needs to belong to that community. If you feel comfortable in your consortium, you’re not in a big enough consortium. There should be a certain level of discomfort, even intimidation, for artists to keep growing. And then we had a lot of great plays submitted that we didn’t bring into the mix because the artists didn’t need [the development process]. JESSICA KUBZANSKY: I’ve participated [as a director] in ASK and the Taper labs: My favorite thing was being introduced to a play nobody had met before. One of the things I valued about ASK as a participant, I valued that they didn’t have an agenda, not a political or social agenda, not a production agenda. It was purely about nurturing, about a new play and a playwright. They had stage-one readings, and different tiers — graduated levels for the articulation of the play. After they closed, I saw their library and was amazed by how many plays that came through their program had gone on to national attention. SYLVIE DRAKE: What was unique about ASK was that they had the money and they spent it correctly. We’re living in a time now when the political and economic climate are unconducive for what we’re — we have to ask what it’s going to cost and how can to make it happen. Does it have to cost a lot of money or not? If the first thing to go is what a theater considers non-essential, it’s usually the most essential aspect they cut. That’s just a reality. I don’t have solutions, I think we’re in a time that’s not conducive . . . ANTHONY BYRNES: The Taper’s New Work Festival cost $200,000 to $250,000 — in projects, not including staffing. In actual costs it was half a million. There’s a double-edged sword to what Jessica was saying about ASK. What was amazing was that these writers and plays were going on to productions elsewhere. In some ways ASK was more important outside of Los Angeles than in Los Angeles. There are remarkable artists in Los Angeles who are more admired outside of L.A. I think there’s a challenge that we as a city haven’t figured out — how to name the thing we’re already doing. We have to articulate it for ourselves — how do we talk about this thing that we’re doing, how do we convince the outside world of the value in devoting resources to a play that might never get done. We didn’t spend enough time articulating why what we did is important, that it wasn’t a waste of resources. We helped make better artists, even when the art wasn’t so good. LUIS ALFARO: A playwright like Jessica Goldberg, everyone felt, well, in three or four more projects she’s going to arrive. STACIE CHAIKEN: You’re talking about cultivating mastery — an honest inquiry. And in time, product does come out of that, but you can’t promise that. You’re talking about education. Gordon Davidson understood that. It was a no-brainer. It was understood. ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN: You’re right, this focus on product, there are so many communities that need to knock around for a while. I think of [playwright] Lynn Manning, who went out with Quentin Drew [together, they founded the Watts Village Theater Company in South Los Angeles] — they were quietly developing new work, without much attention. Just two of those people in Watts made such a huge difference. Of course now Quentin’s died, there’s just one. SASHA ANAWALT: What strikes me about Los Angeles is it’s not one city, it’s seven or eight cities. Geographically, you can fit Minneapolis, Cleveland and Boston inside of L.A. The demographics of L.A. have caught up to where Gordon was teaching us to go. It seems to me rather than saying [about institutional play development programs] don’t go away, don’t we need to coalesce? L.A. is getting expensive, and the writers are going to leave. Don’t rely on not-for-profit. Rely on profit. I do think that the mandate is pretty serious, in the big picture. You either get it to come together, or you fail what you love. SYLVIE DRAKE: What is the role of the Kirk Douglas? LUIS ALFARO winces. SYLVIE DRAKE: And is Michael Ritchie’s wooing of local companies so different from what ASK used to do? And what about the L.A. County Arts Commission? RAY SIMMONS: The funding they have is not that much. Most of their grants are small. I think they make a concerted effort. TERENCE McFARLAND: They underwrite an ongoing series of organizational workshops, dedicated to the sustainability of the art form. They try to provide guidance and education for the nonprofit sector. I think they’re very committed to issues of sustainability for the field at large. They’ve been working on a huge county report on the cultural tourist. ANTHONY BYRNES: Are we throwing all new play development under one tent? How much are we — are we taking the first step — saying, collectively, here’s how our seasons fit together — sharing resources, coordinating activities? STACIE CHAIKEN: The strongest thing we have going as a community is that you guys got fired from the Taper. ANTHONY BYRNES: The work is already being done, are we doing anything to articulate — what are we doing to name what is already happening? JON LAWRENCE RIVERA: We need a strategy for how to make that happen. TERENCE McFARLAND: If we’re going to publicize that, how does that work? If a workshop production is not open to the press, how do we mark it, define it? By some kind of common aesthetic? ANTHONY BYRNES: It goes beyond aesthetic. I believe in the process, the journey of an artist, and that is enough. And if we approach that question earnestly, that should be enough. SYVLIE DRAKE: I disagree. I think an audience wants to see a finished production. You’re talking about including a very small, specific group of people who enjoy watching plays being built from the ground up. That’s not most audiences. ANTHONY BYRNES: But it’s a huge city. A small slice of a big city is a lot of people. We’re talking about the challenges around us, but a lot of what we’re talking about wanting to happen, the activity, it’s already there. SASHA ANAWALT: Are you at risk for losing talented people? BART DeLORENZO: I don’t think we’re at risk of losing artists, I think we’re talking about losing work. I think both of these organizations [ASK Theater Projects and Center Theater Group] established a strong sense of community around the work. I knew that when I went there, I would be with an audience that would be engaged in the process — what a great audience — even if the play sucked. The idea was to concentrate the work in a way that artists could meet. LUIS ALFARO: I think a lot of it has to do with bringing in a new generation, how to grow artists. SYLVIE DRAKE: The reason you feel the loss of these programs is all connected to what’s going on in the country as a whole. If the country does not feel art is important, how do you create a new program in that environment? STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS talks about having just returned from three cities in Poland and Germany, where the theaters and theater festivals overflowed with audiences in their 20s and 30s. Morris points out that the difference between the core value of theater in Europe as an expression of youthful angst, and theater in America as refuge for an aging, wealthy elite, stems not only from cultural difference between the continents but from institutional ones. In America, the larger, regional theaters have youth outreach programs, which fit into the schools’ curriculum. The students participate, sometimes enjoy their fleeting connection to the arts, and then move on and away, as though they’ve just completed a required, polite visit to an aging aunt. In Britain and Europe, the alternative theaters (composed largely of recent college graduates) take a lead in befriending and introducing teenagers to theaters, putting them on the stage or backstage, giving them a sense of purpose and community and an artistic source for rebellion against the sensibilities of their parents, Morris said. This goes a long way to explaining why hundreds of teens are waiting outside a locked fence to get into an outdoor performance of Macbeth at the Malta Festival in Posnan, Poland — the way teens wait to get into a rock concert or a nightclub here. Los Angeles has well over a hundred permanent theaters of 99 seats or less, Morris points out. In terms of Alfaro’s goal of bringing in a new generation of theater audiences and participants, the responsibility may well lie with the small theaters. SANDRA TSING LOH mentions her concern for the public schools, because of her own, school-age child. She admits she’s been obsessing on so-called Democrats who spend thousands of dollars a year to put their child in a private school, and what that same investment in a public school could do for the children there. Loh says her primary concern is literacy. She also mentions the excellent collaboration between the 24th Street Theater and the Los Angeles Unified School District. LUIS ALFARO: This is an area we’re just starting to visit. There is a way of getting funding for these programs. JESSICA KUBZANSKY: LAUSD has a fine playwrights-in-the-schools program. STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS points out that the issue is not getting artists into the schools, but getting teenage students inside and invested in the theaters. SASHA ANAWALT: What we need is a festival. There’s exactly the same problem in the visual arts.

STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS mentions that there are actually two festivals slated for the coming weeks, REDCAT’s New Original Works (NOW) Festival, for visual and performance artists, which played over the (July 21–24) weekend, and the Edge of the World Theater Festival (Edgefest), scheduled for October. Morris asks REDCAT’s George Lugg and Edgefest’s Ray Simmons to discuss the challenges each festival faces. GEORGE LUGG: The idea behind our program is that we have an ongoing showcase of products through the year, and the audience expectations are really about raw work. The purpose of the NOW fest is to take those works who have been developed through the year, through those workshops. But that’s still a special audience. You never see your main stage subscriber say, “Oh, I want to see something that’s really raw.” RAY SIMMONS: [Edgefest] has evolved over the years. We don’t have the resources to help theater companies develop new works for the festival, though the board has started to make noises in that direction. A particular aesthetic has grown out of the companies that founded it. We keep asking ourselves — what is edgy work? JON LAWRENCE RIVERA: Couldn’t the festival be about development rather than product? Edgefest may be the perfect place for that. LUIS ALFARO: If a few small theaters could form a consortium, there’s a better chance at funding — when the theaters approach funders arm-in-arm. I once went to [a funder] with that idea, and she said, I dare you to do it. So what’s the challenge? What’s the bravery? What’s wrong? SHAY WAFER: My question is, what would this consortium do? LUIS ALFARO: It would be able to fund what theaters already do. JESSICA KUBZANSKY: How do we organize it? I think it’s a fascinating idea — connecting writers. I think there is something about knowing a festival has been curated. ANTHONY BYRNES: Is there something different, a further definition of new play development, is there some level of definition beyond “It’s a new play” that we could find? STACIE CHAIKEN: A level of selectivity is very important . . . SASHA ANAWALT: [Investor] Eileen Adams and Laura Zucker [L.A. County Arts Commission] are working on changing the cultural profile of L.A. USC is interested in becoming more of a player in Los Angeles. Working out of the journalism school, I realized you’ve got to get [theater artists and audiences] when they’re young. Most of them come through the public schools and the Cal States. LUIS ALFARO: Then, how do we grow. How do you graduate? — and graduation means a lot of things to a lot of people. Is there a need? What do you graduate to? If there’s a notion of graduation, what is it? SANDRA TSING LOH: I’ve been thinking of the classical repertory theaters and the Jewish audience — God love ‘em, the saviors of the theater — the Tuesdays With Morrie set — San Jose Rep did it and it killed, with the old guy in the wheel chair going, “Yeah!” I’m always chasing Charlayne Woodard, doing her fill-in when ever she cancels. I’m thinking there’s something interesting about different models of theater. In L.A., there’s a self-producing aspect, a guerrilla theater. Graduation doesn’t mean going to a bigger and larger theaters, ’cause that can feel like the Ice Capades, and it changes the work. JON LAWRENCE RIVERA: At Playwrights Arena, we were at the Los Angeles Theater Center for a couple of years with the hopes of growing into a mid-size theater, and we realized, with a program of all new plays by local writers, we couldn’t even fill 99 seats. For us now, I’m not envisioning us going beyond 99 seats, I’m hoping that our products go to other productions, other cities. And that’s what’s happening: Edinburgh, New York, Poland. SHAY WAFER: We do new plays with the knowledge and the commitment that they’re going to go up, to be on the stage. CHAY YEW: I’m interested in — Tim Dang at [at East West Players] is interested in incorporating the [former Mark Taper Forum lab] Asian Theater Workshop — I keep thinking about cities like Chicago, it’s just like L.A., but the difference is that the Chicago actors can’t find TV work, so they put their energy into making their theater what it is. They’re very proud. Can we learn from cities like Chicago, but I’m not sure, because we double-cast, because one of them is going to go to a commercial. LUIS ALFARO: Chicago suffers from something we do too, they’re not very diverse — If we create a new diversity, we can empower theaters to do new work. CHAY YEW: It’s about people inside the theaters. Let’s face it, a theater is just an empty building. The Mark Taper Forum is not the Mark Taper Forum without Gordon Davidson. It’s going to be a new theater. We have a challenge because L.A. is so wonderfully diverse. Even Gordon Davidson has said, after all those decades of working here, he still doesn’t understand L.A. How does new work describe the city, and how does the city define new work? ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN speaks about ethnic-specific theaters that she’s been following. STACIE CHAIKEN: But diversity is not about one ethnicity. Ethnic specific work is not diversity. SYVLIE DRAKE: The thing you’re not looking at here, I look at Luis Valdez [author of Zoot Suit, co-produced by Teatro Campesino and the Mark Taper Forum in 1978] and it was so exciting. If the work is exciting enough, people will come. You can’t just say, okay, now we’re going to do Latino theater. It has to come up from something inside. Those artists have to show up. It’s very difficult to legislate all of that. LUIS ALFARO: I think you have a point. But the bravest Latino artists are coming out of different entities — not ethnic-specific. The idea is to be brave enough to do that new work, then inspire the community to come and see it.


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