Why Doesn't L.A. Get the Cool New Plays Like Those Cities Back East?

Sheila Callaghan's Everything You Touch, which had New Yorkers talking this season, is a cool play that made its world premiere in Los Angeles, at the Theater @ Boston Court.EXPAND
Sheila Callaghan's Everything You Touch, which had New Yorkers talking this season, is a cool play that made its world premiere in Los Angeles, at the Theater @ Boston Court.
Ed Krieger

Los Angeles has a lot going for it when it comes to theater. It's filled with creative types, has a large and vocal 99-seat theater scene, is home to some heavyweight large theaters putting on big-budget productions and is crawling with successful TV and film actors who enjoy doing stage work.

Why, then, do so many of the country's coolest shows — including Annie Baker's The Flick and Nick Payne's Constellations — take such a long time, if ever, to get here? Part of the reason could be that L.A. doesn't have a theater company that's almost exclusively devoted to second stagings, like Second Stage in New York or Studio Theatre in D.C. While many cities tend to have a few "edgy" companies that do the highest-profile buzzy shows, L.A. has a plethora of edgy companies in the 99-seat scene — which could perhaps result in a diffusion of responsibility. 

We posed the question to playwrights across the country who craft cutting-edge work and to theater companies in L.A. that have bucked the trend and brought unorthodox plays here.

Ayad Akhtar, who wrote Disgraced, the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (and one of the shows on the Mark Taper Forum's schedule for 2016), points out that playwrights have "little to no" control over where their plays get performed. Madeleine George, who wrote The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence, a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer, agrees, explaining, “After the first production, basically, if the play gets published, it gets licensed by a publishing company, then they can send the play wherever they want and anyone who’s interested in doing it, if they pay the royalty fee, then they can perform it."

In most cases, the licensing process happens early in the play's life. But George, who licensed Watson Intelligence to Samuel French after it premiered off-Broadway in 2013, says that other writers sometimes will hold onto the rights to their plays for a few productions, so they have more say over the play's trajectory. This happened with Clybourne Park, which played off-Broadway in 2010, then went to a few regional theaters nationwide before a pre-Broadway run at the Taper much later, in 2012. 

"You can choose never to put it in the hands of a licensor," George says, "but from my perspective, it’s great to have the play out there and available.”

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who wrote both An Octoroon (one of New York's most buzzed-about plays of 2014) and 2014's Appropriate (the next show on the docket for the Taper), says, "I’m sort of at a place where I’m letting [my plays] be done where people want to do them," admitting: "I don’t know every theater in America.”

Some playwrights, like Sheila Callaghan, have a strong presence in L.A., but many others, like Jacobs-Jenkins and Akhtar, don't. When he was developing his shows, Akhtar explains, he simply wasn't thinking about an L.A. run.

“It’s just the peculiarity of me not having any relationships in Los Angeles," Akhtar says. "I didn’t know any artistic directors there and wasn’t on the radar at any of the theaters when stuff started to happen.”

The fact that L.A.'s 99-seat scene is a hotbed for world premieres can actually hurt the local theater scene. The plethora of plays in a rush to premiere often aren't ready for primetime, resulting in plenty of poor reviews. Even L.A.'s top fare at 99-seat theaters can get overlooked; 2012 Pulitzer winner Water by the Spoonful had its West Coast premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre Center last fall, but to limited fanfare.

Still, the smaller theaters strive to present exciting new works. Emilie Beck, who acts a literary manager for the Theatre@Boston Court and is in charge of programming for its season of plays, says, “Obviously, if there’s a world premiere, that’s fantastic for us. But we’re also really committed to giving second and third productions, because there is this ‘world premiere-itis,' where every theater wants the world premiere, so the play gets its world premiere — and then nobody wants to produce it, because it’s not a world premiere anymore.”

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She adds, “A play takes several productions to actually become its true self.”

At the other end of the spectrum from the 99-seat companies is the League of Resident Theatres, a nationwide group of 72 theater companies, the size of which allows its members to take more collective risks. Los Angeles County is home to a mere three LORT companies: the Geffen Playhouse, the Pasadena Playhouse and Center Theatre Group. That's fewer than Washington, D.C. (six), San Francisco (four), Philadelphia (four) and New York (four, some of which are Broadway/off-Broadway companies).  

Amy Levinson, literary manager for the Geffen Playhouse, says the Geffen strikes a balance between commercial fare and edgier works, noting, “You want to push [the audience], to some extent, to introduce them to new work, to get them excited about new work and all of those things, but also recognize who your core audience is and be respectful of that." 

She notes, “As you get more established, you get the leeway to take bigger risks, because you’re going along with an audience that has faith that you’re not going to lead them down a bad path.”

While Los Angeles might not have an abundance of buzzy new works, a few exciting plays have started their lives in L.A. or played here early in their runs. The Nether and Everything You Touch, two plays that had New Yorkers talking this season, made their world premieres in Los Angeles, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and the Theatre@Boston Court, respectively.

Center Theatre Group, which runs the Kirk Douglas, the Taper and the Ahmanson Theatre, has presented quite a few shows immediately before or after their New York runs, like Bloody Bloody Andrew JacksonOther Desert Cities and Buyer and CellarVenturing a bit further south, the La Jolla Playhouse also has a good track record, having incubated 12 Broadway shows over the past decade, including Peter and the Starcatcher.

And Center Theatre Group's upcoming seasons at the Taper and the Douglas, its smaller theaters, feature new works like Appropriate, Disgraced, Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men and Callaghan's newest play, Women Laughing Alone With Salad.

Perhaps L.A. has a chip on its shoulder; Angelenos expect that, since we're home to Hollywood, we should have more of the best, most exciting plays. But the reality is that, while L.A. is an increasingly important place for theater, it's not the place for theater. L.A. is a valuable but clearly secondary city. “L.A. is one of those five big markets that you would ideally love to hit as a playwright — New York, D.C., Chicago, L.A. and Boston," Jacobs-Jenkins notes. "And L.A. is a huge one. L.A. is the only one on the West Coast.” 

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