How would L.A. stages change if the theater gods were able to wave their magic wands and transform the local scene into a utopia? We asked a number of artistic directors around town what would be their fantasy production to helm, had they unlimited resources and the cast of their dreams.
Though just a sampling, the responses open a window on the range of artistic and ethical priorities held by the people running our theaters.
The leaders of two theaters with polar-opposite aesthetics and styles of organization each weighed in with brief, bright remarks that capture the contrary essences of what those organizations are about, yet they are bonded by celebrity appeal.
When contacted, Michael Ritchie was on a cruise through the Panama Canal with a boatload of potential funders for his heavyweight organization, Center Theatre Group (which consists of the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson and the Kirk Douglas theaters). He wrote simply, "Funny Girl with Lauren Ambrose" — a production that was set to premiere at CTG this year before funding fell through.
Meanwhile, in the tropics of Santa Monica, where City Garage has found temporary digs at Bergamot Station — digs that recently turned slightly more secure with a longer lease there, after the troupe was kicked out of its tiny space in an alley off the Santa Monica Mall when its lease expired after 15 years — artistic director Frederique Michel said, "A postmodern Dante's Inferno with Johnny Depp as the poet and Mireille Enos [a theater actress who's become known for AMC's The Killing] as Beatrice. So get me the unlimited resources. I'm ready."
Two others begged off the question, though for slightly different reasons. Over at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, artistic director Randall Arney could find no cause to complain, working in a state-of-the-art theater like the Geffen. "With shows like recent Superior Donuts and The Jacksonian, current Good People, upcoming The Exorcist, as well as the slate of eight coming in 2012-13, I find I'm already privileged to produce the shows of my dreams — great, actor-driven stories — with access to casts taken from the deepest acting pool in the world," he says.
OK, Randy, we know a commercial when we hear one. "Sorry to slightly bend the rules of the exercise. I hope I give direction better than I take it," he quipped.
But he did sound a note of caution about a slippery commercial slope: "And I'm wary of the trap of Spider-Man [the infamously troubled and expensive Broadway show]. I have had some of my most perfect theater experiences in a converted dairy with sets that ran into the tens of dollars. Give me 'two boards and a passion,' as they say." (This could be construed as a formula for either great theater or a crucifixion.)
"I wouldn't so much change my choices or drop a lot of dough on fancy sets and clothes," Arney added. "Rather, I would hugely increase all artist and staff compensation to hasten a quest for a living wage, and I would slash all ticket prices to make their hard work accessible to everyone."
Now we're talking.
Rogue Machine's artistic director, John Flynn, is on much the same track. (Flynn received last year's Career Achievement Award at the L.A. Weekly Theater Awards.) Rogue Machine operates out of Theatre/Theater, a two-theater complex on Pico near La Brea, with the larger venue holding 99 seats. As at City Garage, and unlike Center Theatre Group and the Geffen, and because of its small audience capacity, Rogue Machine is under no contractual obligation to pay its professional actors union wages.
With unlimited funding, Flynn says, "We would have a facility with two theaters and a good rehearsal room. The theaters would be flexible, seat around 200 or so, and be Equity [pay actors union salaries]. Everyone would get paid. The theaters would be designed with care to preserve the intimacy 99-seat theaters have, because we believe that intimacy is important to the future of theater. We would put time, effort and those unlimited funds into developing not plays but playwrights, new voices for the American theater. We'd also continue to bring Los Angeles productions of important plays not seen here. Of course, being an Equity house, we would not have to wait four years to get rights to plays like David Harrower's Blackbird" — a 2011 production that was recently nominated for several L.A. Weekly Theater Awards. "Wouldn't that be a boon?"
Playwrights are also on the mind and in the heart of Playwrights Arena artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera. For two decades, the gypsy company has been dedicated to producing L.A. scribes.
"I've had this idea for the last 10 years of commissioning 10 [L.A.] playwrights to write 10-minute plays set inside a hotel room," he writes in an email. "The audience (about 100, in groups of 10) will move from room to room to witness individual stories as [the characters in] each room prepare for a big banquet about to happen in the grand ballroom. At the end of the 10-room experience, the audience will gather in the grand ballroom for a banquet (audience will be served food and drinks), where all the characters from all 10 rooms come together to reveal their interconnected lives."
Rivera notes that this piece can only be done with proper funding, and imagines it occurring in a classic hotel such as Hollywood's Roosevelt, or the Culver Hotel in downtown Culver City.
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Up Pasadena way, classics are on the collective brain of Pasadena Playhouse's artistic director, Sheldon Epps, and his colleague the next town over in South Pasadena, James Reynolds, who co-runs the Fremont Centre Theatre with his partner, Lissa Reynolds.
"Most people don't know it," Epps says, "but the Playhouse in its early years had a strong tradition of doing Shakespeare's plays. In fact, that mad dreamer [and original Playhouse producer] Gilmore Brown actually produced all of the plays in the canon, quite a feat in an American theater at that time — and a challenge now, given the size of the company and the number of Equity contracts that are required in most of the plays."
Epps says he yearns to bring Shakespeare back to his stage, "in the grand manner, with a large cast and an original score commissioned just for the production. Both The Tempest and Twelfth Night come to mind. The cast, of course, would be made up of all of the classically trained and highly experienced Los Angeles actors who are also hungry for and eager to grapple with the Bard's beautiful language. And of course, I would love to find a concept for the play that allowed the casting to reflect the rich diversity of our fair city." (Epps' vision of staging Shakespeare with local actors is being at least partly accomplished by A Noise Within, an Equity theater near his, also in Pasadena.)
James Reynolds says he'd love to direct Julius Caesar, starring Morgan Freeman. Lissa Reynolds, however, says she'd "bring back the original play we did about Jackie Robinson, called National Pastime, by Bryan Harnetiaux. ... With all the money in the world I wouldn't change the cast we had. They were perfect. I would use the money to tour it around the country so more people had the chance to see it."