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City of Stages

Was it a bad dream, or did I really stand, recently, in an almost empty lobby at the Los Angeles Theater Center — on a Saturday night, no less? This same lobby, as cavernous as Victoria Station, only a few years ago would have been packed at 7:45 with people who had braved the drive downtown, waiting to fill any of the center’s four houses. They might see Chekhov’s The Three Sisters wildly interpreted by Norwegian director Stein Winge, or one of Reza Abdoh’s visually extravagant and obscene theatrical schreis, or the premiere of then-local playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s The Film Society. Such sobering moments make a critic consider the bad dreams experienced in other lobbies across Los Angeles. At least LATC’s was open; a core of L.A.’s midsize theaters — the Cañon, Coronet, Henry Fonda and James A. Doolittle — have stood shuttered for the better part of 1998.

And what of the surviving big-name theaters — are they really leading the art? Or has the Mark Taper Forum become little more than a booking house for London and New York exports, as Weekly critic Richard Stayton prophesied 19 years ago? (See below.) Did the Center Theater Group, under Gordon Davidson’s helm, truly open this fall season with song-and-dance revues in its two big theaters? Has the once refreshingly reckless Odyssey Theater Ensemble become just a bit stodgy?

In other words, is theater dying in the city that introduced the world to Baitz and John Steppling? And if so, who or what is killing it? Economics? "Hollywood"? The critics? After all, it’s been said that New York theater was murdered by New York Times critic Frank Rich — that big, opinionated meanie who, pushing the "send" button on his e-mail, closed so many shows. Well, Rich has been gone several years now as the Times’ lead critic, replaced by the comparatively benevolent Ben Brantley.

Yet the nation’s difficult, thoughtful new plays are being born in exile, ever farther from Broadway, while the Big White Way becomes increasingly about living cartoons. No, a critic, or a body of critics, may close a play, but it takes more than that to close a city’s theater life. Besides, from Sylvie Drake to Dan Sullivan to Laurie Winer, the voices coming from the L.A. Times have run the gamut from supportive to benign, and the Weekly has never had the influence to keep audiences away from any theater larger than a closet, hard as we’ve tried on occasion.

New York and London may still churn out more interesting live theater than Los Angeles, but our own stages are hardly as facile and ingenuous as New Yorkers and Londoners just love to suggest. Over the years, The Shadow Box, Children of a Lesser God, Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle were all born in Mark Taper Forum workshops, and went on to grab three Pulitzer Prizes and a bucketful of Tony Awards. Throughout the ’90s, Highways, in Santa Monica, has hosted solo performances by the controversial NEA Four (Karen Finley, Tim Miller, Holly Hughes and John Fleck), while the Los Angeles Theater Center was conceived to bring Spring Street back from the dead. In between the Taper’s early glory days and Highways’ appearance, Los Angeles hosted a series of international arts festivals from 1984 up until the early ’90s.

Much of our theater landscape has been eroded by what’s euphemistically called retrenchment, a trend that is very much part of a larger national pattern. True, we don’t have any more international arts festivals, but most other major American cities have also scaled back on that kind of programming. This is, of course, a national travesty, leaving the entire country isolated from foreign ways of thinking, and from patterns of logic and taste that may differ from those found in our own movies and TV.

Add to that the consolidation-economics of both theater and the newspaper industry: Since the Weekly’s birth, we’ve lost the snappy, scrappy Los Angeles Herald Examiner, seen The Daily News emaciated to a skeletal format; we’ve watched two alternative weeklies — the Los Angeles Reader and the L.A. View — bought out by New Times; and the trade weekly Drama-Logue melt into BackStage West. The cumulative result has been the net loss of about two dozen stage reviews per week. Combine this with the recent absence ä of international programming and the growing Disneyfication of culture, and the result is a diminishment of exposure and dialogue — for and between audiences and critics. I can’t think of a more pernicious trend: a constriction of the American theatrical conversation. How can we possibly call ourselves a theater city — or country — when plays about language and character are being pushed off our larger stages by corporate-bankrolled puppet shows and dance revues, when neither audiences nor critics have any idea what the French, the Germans or, for that matter, the Balinese are up to? How can we have a dialogue if we’re only talking to and about ourselves?

The good news, however, glitters like shards of glass in the wake of an earthquake. It can be found behind the scenes, as in the Taper’s new-works festivals, or in readings, workshops and colloquies administered by ASK Theater Projects — a prominent, privately endowed theater support organization with the simple mandate of helping theater artists. Both the Taper and ASK Theater Projects have been quietly spreading the word nationally about projects and people they find worthy.

The life of L.A. theater’s party is the small theaters. Lately, for some reason, the city’s best work has come from them, thanks in part to an old agreement struck between the stage actors’ union, Actors Equity, and the theater community. This 99-Seat Theater Plan (once called Equity Waiver) allows actors to work in theaters of 99 seats or less for almost no pay, and has made Los Angeles the busiest professional theatrical center in the world. Some people — generally from New York and London — say that this has resulted in a showcase theater of tawdry ambitions and impoverished accomplishments, but that’s only a half truth.

Though hundreds of press releases announcing what are obviously TV tryouts camouflaged as plays come belching through the Weekly’s fax machines each year, there exists in L.A. a cadre of savvy, well-organized stage troupes doing work filled with equal doses of artistry, conviction and skill. The best work from these companies is as fine as can be found anywhere, and can handily compete, conceptually and intellectually, with what used to be done in New York’s Performance Garage or by the Mabou Mines — particularly the surrealistic, metaphysical explorations of Circle X Theater Company (producer of this year’s Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & 22, Glen Berger’s brainy yet whimsical comedy, set in the Enlightenment, about inventors and invention), or About Productions’ more somber, elliptical excursion into the essence of memory, 1998’s Memory Rites. Troupes that have also proved capable of striking gold include, among others, Open Fist Theater, Theater of NOTE, Gilgamesh Theater, Evidence Room, Empire Red Lip, Playwrights Arena, the Wilton Project, Moving Arts and the Fabulous Monsters. None of their work is about industry showcasing. There are also the more staid, traditional visions by companies such as Buffalo Nights, Actors Co-op, the Colony Studio, the Fountain Theater, Interact Theater Company, Pacific Resident Theater and International City Theater, all of which have a redemptive technical luster, even if they’re not groundbreaking.

I found an article written by Richard Stayton in the Weekly dated October 5, 1979, that captures that era with both flush and foreboding. Here are some excerpts:

The Taper’s opening production was The Devils, directed [in 1967] by Davidson, and it scandalized the exclusive opening-night audience. Ronald Reagan walked out and never again attended a Taper production — surely an omen of good things to come.

Davidson focused the Taper on growth, on developing talent and exploring new playwrights. Risks were taken. New plays were constantly developed, either through the Forum Laboratory or the New Theater for Now — and many found their way to the main stage and a few traveled on to New York. Davidson was putting L.A. on the theater map . . .

Last spring the Taper had never been higher. Zoot Suit was raging, ready for New York. The staff and cast all gave more than 100 percent to the play — it was truly a labor of love. With a budget of $825,000, it was the most expensive non-musical production in Broadway history and the advance press couldn’t have been better. Optimism at the Taper was at a fever pitch.

But what no one — absolutely no one — anticipated were the ruthless criticisms leveled by the New York press. It was met by a total upsurge of East Coast Id, out of control, out to protect its turf. (One critic, Michael Feingold — in, of all places, The Village Voice — even suggested the play’s author, Luis Valdez, wasn’t a writer because English wasn’t his first language.)

Zoot Suit didn’t close — it was castrated.

Simultaneously, there was an extraordinary, ambitious project by the Taper’s experimental wing, "New Theater for Now," called PLAYWORKS. You might recall those streamers announcing the festival strung over key L.A. streets. The Taper was trying something unique in this town: 12 new plays in 10 weeks, 169 perform-ances spread among ä three theaters. But more than likely you won’t recall PLAYWORKS — across town was FILMEX, L.A.’s annual International Film Exposition. No one went to PLAYWORKS, and the critics were not kind. Only Mabou Mines of New York’s production of Beckett’s The Lost Ones was a hit. On the walls in the Taper, on blouses and shirts, are buttons with the motto: "I SURVIVED PLAYWORKS" . . .

There . . . remains a great amount of jealousy and irritation with Davidson’s successes. Small local stages were ignored in the press and by the rest of the country while the Taper was the focus of attention. The Taper is the wealthiest, best-endowed theater outside of N.Y., and many directors and producers felt, given the same chance, they could do it better.

Also, there’s a lot of speculation and doubts about Davidson’s devotion to the theater. His easy manner, many believe, hides some secret greed: He’s a New York boy who bought the L.A. mentality and really has Broadway and film aspirations. A rumor that has persisted for years is that he’s been using the Taper to break into film, and his inability to do it has become a major frustration. The feeling is that if Davidson had produced A Chorus Line instead of Joseph Papp, Gordon would consider it his pinnacle, whereas Papp looked at it as an interesting hit and returned to his major interest: finding major American playwrights and nurturing them through his Public Theater . . .

To counter this, of course, Davidson will point out his Theater for Now productions and the experimental laboratory, where the writer and actor can work secretly, developing their craft. But his critics will point out last spring’s PLAYWORKS as an example of Davidson’s poor judgment in experimental works.

In fact, the strong suspicion about Davidson is that he’s not really committed to avant-garde and experimental work. He’s commercially minded, only his commercial efforts have backfired. He didn’t know Zoot Suit wasn’t good enough for New York because he simply didn’t want to believe it. This, his critics say, is a sign that he’s losing touch and that the Taper is in a stylistic plight.

Stayton goes on to talk about Ron Sossi and his Odyssey Theater as "the best small theater in town," and how his smash L.A. hit An Evening of Dirty Religious Plays got trounced by the New York critics, who described it as "amateurish." (In the latest of a series of L.A. shows protecting themselves from New York’s wrath toward our stages, the 1996 premiere of Oliver Goldstick’s musical hit Dinah Was — about Dinah Washington — won kudos across Los Angeles, including two L.A. Weekly Awards, yet the publicists strategically removed all mention of its L.A. origins when the show went to New York; it did just fine there.)

Stayton was writing for the Weekly during a heady time for both the newspaper and Los Angeles theater, with a symbiotic relationship developing between the two: As the Weekly’s reviews and awards ceremonies magnified the attention given local theater’s smaller productions, the paper’s importance to the theater community also grew. It was a time of hubris, as when Gordon Davidson, on the eve of Zoot Suit’s Broadway opening, lectured the press there: "New York is no longer the generator of theater in America, but the receiver." It was also a time of recognition, as, on the occasion of our 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, Time magazine breathlessly ä proclaimed L.A. the latest theater boomtown. But above all it was a time of experimentation, as Murray Mednick’s nationally renowned Padua Hills Playwrights’ Festival staged annual alfresco productions of brainy new works. These, with L.A.’s international arts festivals, were all signs then taken to signify that Los Angeles was emerging as a serious theater city.

Another such sign could be seen in 1991 with the arrival of Southern California’s first classical rep company: a gem of sorts, Glendale’s ever competent if overly conservative A Noise Within. Davidson told me recently that his attempts to found a classical rep at the Taper ran smack into the brick wall of the TV and film industries. He couldn’t compete with pay scales offered in screen work, Davidson said, so in 1977 and 1978 he tried a couple of rep seasons during the hiatus-time summers. Then the industry started to work year-round, and that was that.

Today, in a model that seems to be a reasonable antidote to this situation, and one now being copied citywide, the Matrix Theater on Melrose Avenue stages remarkably polished repertories with alternating casts, designed to accommodate the actors’ come-when-you’re-available film-biz schedules. This concept isn’t very helpful to playwrights who might want to see their plays staged with one cast at one time. After all, a good play is something like a concerto, and that’s hard to refine when the musicians are playing musical chairs. The Matrix is a perfect name for that theater — the point where contrary ambitions intersect.

And yet, of the world’s "real" theater cities, London can barely sustain its classical reps anymore, and New York has none left. The subsidies have evaporated, while, strange as it seems, aging actors find the idea of having families and living in homes preferable to artistic martyrdom. A lack of commitment, you say? Greed, perhaps? The Royal National Theatre can’t even get Sir Ian McKellen to stay put for an entire season. He’s always trotting over here! Whenever Sir Ian is ready to make a serious commitment to the London stage, then let’s talk about opportunism on Melrose Avenue.

In the meantime, the Actors’ Gang Theater, now growing out of adolescence after almost two decades of operation, has emerged as the small-theater community’s elder statesman, helping to facilitate cooperation and conversation. On this front, at least, L.A. has never looked healthier. Jon Robin Baitz recently attributed the vitality of L.A.’s stages, somewhat ironically, to the film and TV industries. He described L.A. as the last theater haven in America, where young people still gather to do theater, not for Hollywood, but "to cleanse themselves of the toxicity of living in a company town." But of course, he did say that from New York, and I don’t see him rushing back here.

The ghosts in LATC’s lobby tell other tales from when that former bank building was a bona fide theater center run by the rugged, ragged Bill Bushnell and Diane White, producers of some of the most worldly, provocative — and sometimes hackneyed — work in the nation.

These ghost stories are about hubris and squandering resources. Bushnell and White were chosen to run LATC partly because of their thriving two-theater complex off Santa Monica Boulevard, then called Los Angeles Actors Theater (now the MET Theater). They tried to run their center with the same kind of bluster that made LAAT among the city’s most vibrant, daring and respected small venues. LATC went down in flames because, in addition to Bushnell’s almost tragic arrogance, he simply couldn’t fathom the notions of ä fiscal restraint, political finesse and commercial pressure that come to bear upon a larger theater. In fact, he ran LATC much the way Boris Yeltsin has run Russia, with much the same personality and with similar results. In a country like ours, with such paltry subsidy to the arts, larger theaters are almost by definition compromised by the financial challenges facing them.

Unless they’re bankrolled by government or business, how can such spaces take a risk on a playwright like Glen Berger, or a multimedia project about memory? The curse of the theaters, large and small, is poverty, a hunger that affects different scales of theaters in different ways. The larger ones depend on pleasing funding agencies, as well as crowds, while the smaller, if they can just pay their bills, are freer to do their work without a corporate or foundation check. And that’s why, unless there’s some kind of tectonic cultural shift, the future of L.A.’s stage as a forum for fresh ideas and sensibilities resides in those converted warehouses and storefronts — still struggling, still scrapping, across the Southland.

 

Theater fads come and go, but some insist on wearing out their welcome. Below are excerpts from Steven Mikulan’s reviews on three genres we love to hate: the one-person show, the white-trash play and the dysfunctional-family epic.

From "The Word Is Out," July 8, 1994

On any given week you can find someone on a stage describing the highlights of an incest-filled childhood, re-enacting past schizophrenic breakdowns or, in the case of Annie Sprinkle, someone who’ll invite you to peer into her uterus with the aid of a speculum and Mag Lite . . . They confuse raw candor with technique, believing that total honesty is enough to win over the viewer. What they forget is that striptease is more intriguing than exhibitionism, and a confidential whisper can reveal more than a speculum and a flashlight. Theater audiences want to be fondled and caressed; they want to be led gently, but unmistakably, to a discovery — about the performer and, hopefully, themselves.

From "Yokels Only," August 29, 1997

For a while now it’s been the chic thing in party conversations to bash white folks, especially if the people doing the bashing are white folks . . . The piñata of choice is often the redneck, be he Okie, Arkie, Tarheel or whoever else drives a battered pickup . . . Even when driving through rural California, we’re likely, upon spotting someone wearing boots and a bad haircut, to hum the theme from Deliverance to appreciative friends. And so it is in theater, where, locally at least, "white trash" comedies have practically replaced aerospace as a boom industry.

From "In the Family Way," November 7, 1997

Story families have been acting out at least since Tantalus served his son as a casserole to the gods — sometimes tragically, sometimes with a laugh track . . . There is the Rube Goldberg Family, whose characters all seem to be cross-eyed descendants of the Vanderhofs in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You . . . Then there is the Apocalyptic Family, occupying a shifting frontier between farce and tragedy . . . Finally, there is the Sick Family, an unrelentingly somber coterie prone to substance dependencies and dirty secrets. A Sick Family softball game would be coached by James Tyrone and Eddie Carbone, and, I would think, probably be a long scoreless night.


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