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L.A. Theater's Moment of Truth

Lord of the CalArtians: Travis Preston

Click here for "This Is the Week That Will Be," by Steven Leigh Morris.

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them," recites Malvolio, a fool in Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night.

This summer, Los Angeles theater will be under a national magnifying glass of conferences and festivals that will make us the focus of attention we haven't seen since the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984. That event brought us world theater superstar directors such as Poland's Tadeusz Kantor, Japan's Tadashi Suzuki, France's Ariane Mnouchkine and German choreographer Pina Bausch, not to mention the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera of Covent Garden. All of these, and more, poured into local theaters around the same time.

Our theater was not born great. That reality is beyond rational discussion.

The Olympic Arts Festival, however, presented the rare opportunity to have greatness thrust upon us.

As for achieving greatness, which is entirely in our hands, what remains possible? And when exposed in the national spotlight, will that suggestion be taken seriously, or reduced to a joke of Shakespearean mirth?

From June 14-20, Theatre Communications Group, the nation's premier theater support organization, will hold its annual conference in L.A., bringing hundreds of representatives from its 488-member not-for-profit theaters and 1,200 individuals nationwide. The conference also marks TCG's 50th anniversary, and the first time it has chosen Los Angeles as its host city.

"Among the aims is to put a national spotlight on Los Angeles theater," says Teresa Eyring, TCG's executive director.

At the same time, directors from L.A.'s Center Theatre Group and REDCAT theater — along with New York's Under the Radar Festival — are curating an international theater festival, Radar L.A., emphasizing solo and "company-devised" work, at various sites across Los Angeles County.

Add to the mix the second annual Hollywood Fringe, plus a whole other mishmash of theater events that same week, including the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival and the annual convenings of Directors Lab West and the NEA's institute for theater critics (see sidebar for details).

As it happens, the L.A. Film Festival also is rolling out its wares then. Yes, once again in L.A., poor film gets to be overshadowed by the theater industry.

In 1984, Time proclaimed that with the Olympic Arts Festival, in which the best of the best of world theater strutted on our stages, Los Angeles theater had finally come of age. It hadn't. The energy and the money slowly dissipated, revealing, at best, the subtlest of changes. Jaded local observers are quick to point out our cyclical tendency toward overenthused hyperbole.

Will the summer of '11 reiterate or end that cycle? Can it possibly be a game changer of perception? Has our theater grown up at last? If so, will anyone believe it, or care? And should we care what anybody else believes?

On a smoggy Saturday afternoon, a 22-year-old man drives a Honda 90 motor scooter along Fountain Avenue, with scripts stacked in a box behind him. He's driven in from Pomona, where he recently graduated from college. No, he's not submitting screenplays to local TV and film companies. The scripts he transports are stage plays, his own, that he's written in the past year and a half. He visits tiny theaters with strange names, such as Company of Angels, Theatre Rapport and the Odyssey Theatre.

The year is 1977, long before websites and email. There are, however, a phone book and an almanac describing some of the city's more active theaters. The Mark Taper Forum is only 10 years old. Somebody from that already esteemed theater suggested to the young man that he get to know the people who run the dozens of smaller theaters in the city.

He parks on Waring Avenue, near Vine Street, and knocks on the door of a building with the Company of Angels sign. He hears hammering from inside and the screech of an electric saw. An unkempt man in a black woolen cap, a dirty T-shirt, jeans and sneakers opens the door and squints into the sun from the shadows within: "Ugh?"

"Wondering if I could find out more about the theater, what it might need and if I can help. I'm a playwright."

For some inexplicable reason, the idea of having a play put on in any of the dozens of storefront/warehouse theaters in Los Angeles, most with room for audiences of only about 60 to 80 people, is the end of the rainbow for this playwright. This is partly because, from the hinterlands of Pomona in 1977, he's been reading the Los Angeles Times' reports and reviews on L.A. theater, much of it on the smaller stages, which the city's paper of record appears to take seriously. From what he reads, and what he sees, the young man assumes that Los Angeles is a theater destination. Such is the power of a paper of record. It not only reports the facts, but it can also create a mythology via the selection of and emphasis on the scenes it chooses to cover. This is what drama critic Richard Christiansen, and his Chicago Tribune, did for that city.

 

In 1977, the scruffy worker at Company of Angels takes a couple of the playwright's scripts and promises that somebody will get back to him, then closes the door. Nobody does. The young man knows almost nothing about the realities of L.A. theater and its meager place in the much larger world. He is, after all, only 22, and slightly deluded.

Almost 35 years later, that same man, now a produced playwright in L.A. and New York, and no longer young, still traverses the region, now in the role of theater critic for an alternative weekly newspaper not even conceived in 1977, and often on a bicycle that offers the same street vistas and wind in the face as the scooter of some distant memory.

In writing a 2011 article about the maturing of the local theater, he wonders if the current scene hasn't finally caught up with his delusion of yore.

Gordon Davidson, the now-retired founding artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, has been watching Los Angeles come of age since 1964, when he first arrived here from New York. For many years, his name and his face were synonymous with L.A. theater.

"I didn't put L.A. theater on the map," he says at a Culver City eatery. "I tried to put L.A. theater on the map." Yet he describes what he sees as a growing seriousness here toward the art.

"There were virtually only showcase theaters here when I first arrived," Davidson recalls. "I had never seen anything like that — people acting on a stage to get a job in film. [Because of the actors' union policy at the time] they had to either change their name or kick back money to do it, and therefore they didn't take it very seriously, except for a few pockets of mostly transplanted New York actors — hence Theatre West and others that had that kind of cadre. In other words, it was mostly but not entirely about actors being seen. Now there's a fairly lively scene going on — activity with some talent and some imagination in little nooks and crannies, making theaters out of nothing, but much more seriously than when I first arrived here."

What Davidson describes is true today, but it was just as true 20 years ago. After the demise of the Olympic Arts Festival, the gutting of public funding for the arts and the onset of the Great Recession of 2008, there's the worry that we've settled into a kind of permanent retrenchment.

Travis Preston, also a transplanted New Yorker, has directed experimental theater internationally, and currently serves as dean of CalArts in Valencia. He came to Los Angeles in 1999 after living in New York for 20 years. Unlike Davidson, who was always tethered to the more mainstream national theater circles, Preston's focus has been theatrical innovation and multidisciplinary performance, in venues from warehouses to opera houses. Davidson and Preston have spent some of the same years in Los Angeles circling in different orbits. Yet their conclusions are similar.

"Everyone forgets the fact that when New York's downtown arts scene was flourishing in the late 1970s, Abe Beame was mayor, and New York City was insolvent and losing population," Preston explains. "But of course it was a time of incredible public money that doesn't exist anywhere anymore, and that was the key to its artistic vitality."

Since then, he says, with the gradual decimation of arts funding starting in the Reagan years, "the locus of activity in New York has moved from below 14th Street to Midtown, and the template has changed from experimental to commercial."

These commercial pressures are comparatively muted here, partly because of lower real estate prices in L.A. But for decades, another driving engine of innovation has been the actors' union's 99-Seat Plan, the first variation of which (called the Equity Waiver Plan) was instituted in 1972. Although the plan comes with restrictions, it allows actors to work in professional houses of 99 seats or less while waiving their union salaries, and it's largely responsible for the 200-plus theater companies in L.A. and its environs.

You can see similar patterns of innovative performance in the lower-rent arts districts of Austin, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore. — the difference being the droves of actors who come for paying screen work in Los Angeles, then find hundreds of companies to play in when agents don't call.

"My feeling is that over the time I've been here, that promise of artistic maturity is gradually being realized," Preston says. "There is a critical mass of activity, indicative of a maturing environment. L.A. today reminds me of when I moved to New York in 1979. The characteristics of that era — a great deal of interest in examining an array of theatrical forms — seems to be growing here."

 

To support his point, Preston uses the evidence of CalArts graduates: "When I first came here, it wasn't characteristic for our students to graduate and to stay in L.A., by and large. Now it's a foregone conclusion that they'll do their work here. There's no question they will investigate the New York landscape, but it's a foregone conclusion that L.A. is a viable artistic hub for them, as an international environment, with influences coming from South America and Asia, with profound influences from Europe."

The lack of commercial pressure, combined with a horde of young performers with interests in other media, has created an abundance of multidisciplinary works. "What's most difficult for me about New York is that experimental film is segregated from theater, cordoned off, unlike the kind of exchange that we're seeing here within the multiple artistic communities: the visual arts, the theater, the media arts, so characteristic of a vital environment," Preston says. This kind of work crops up here at presenter venues such as Machine Project, Highways Performance Space and REDCAT, and by companies such as Psittacus Productions, Son of Semele Ensemble, Theatre of NOTE and Theatre Movement Bazaar.

But the relaxed commercial environment for small companies isn't enough to keep the theater scene growing. "The challenge for Los Angeles," Preston says, "to sustain and fulfill the energy and talent that's already here, is for institutions to invest in Los Angeles artists, to make up for the dearth of public funding."

Opportunities we've seen slip away for L.A. artists over the past decade include A.S.K. Theatre Projects and all of the in-house labs at the Mark Taper Forum.

Some midsize cities have a smattering of innovative companies, but none has been able to nurture enough adventurous audience members to sustain a full-fledged experimental scene. Despite some aquatic extravagances by Lookingglass Theatre, even red-hot theater town Chicago never staked its reputation on experimental theater. That may have more to do with the aesthetic hegemony of the Goodman and Steppenwolf theater companies, a legacy of TV sketch comedy and the lingering, conservative influence of playwright David Mamet.

"I believe there are two cities in the U.S. that can still support adventurous and vital work," Preston concludes. "That's New York and L.A."

Rob Weinert-Kendt sounds a more cautious note, indicating that the Pomona playwright's delusion of L.A. theater as a destination may still be a mirage. Weinert-Kendt studied at USC and spent the early part of his professional life in Los Angeles, as founding editor of Back Stage West until 2003, before taking a post as an associate editor at American Theatre magazine in New York.

While in L.A., Weinert-Kendt was an avid local theater supporter, and he describes Los Angeles as a "formative theater town" for him. Even so, there are potential conversations surrounding the TCG conference that make his teeth itch with anxiety.

"I have an instinctual dread of two boasts that will go something like this: 'You know, Brecht premiered Galileo at the Coronet,' and, 'Look, there are real stars on our stages!' I cringe when I hear people say that there's no theater in L.A., but I also have an instinctive recoil when I hear people build up L.A. at the expense of other cities, or argue that L.A. has more plays opening than any other city. Yeah? So? That might stop people for one moment and go, 'Really?' But it doesn't convince anybody that makes it a theater town."

Davidson argues that the theater-town debate is a pointless, even dangerous enterprise. "We don't know what's a theater town," he insists. "London is a theater town, except when there's nothing to see there. Then it's not a theater town."

"It makes more sense to talk about what's uniquely L.A.," Weinert-Kendt adds, rather than to engage in compare-and-contrast boosterism.

Playwright Jon Robin Baitz once remarked that L.A. theater artists react largely "to the toxicity of living in a company town." This certainly would explain the disproportionate number of camp movie parodies and soulful, mythological sagas that employ impressionistic rather than narrative storytelling. Both groups are in some ways in defiance of but in other ways an homage to our culture of cinema. Says Olga Garay, head of L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs, which is contributing $100,000 to the Radar L.A. festival, "I'm interested in seeing how [Radar L.A.] explores the romance between theater and film."

Playwright John Steppling, with his dissonant punk-Pinteresque dialogue, tethered to the mythology of the American Southwest, once was heralded by the Los Angeles Herald Examiner as "L.A.'s only playwright." Murray Mednick, poet, dramatist and creator of a theatrical mythology sprung from Native American folklore, ran the highly acclaimed Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop, originally in the hills above Claremont, from 1978 to 1995, attracting the likes of Sam Shepard, Steppling and Baitz. (Mednick's newest work, DaddyO Dies Well, opens this week at the Electric Lodge.) Justin Tanner, a perennial satirist of SoCal suburban mores, wrote an early farce called Zombie Attack!, which ran about as long as any production in Los Angeles. "Those are L.A. voices," Weinert-Kendt says. "The problem is, people doing theater [in L.A.] aren't convinced of the value of what they do."

 

To the extent that's true, it's a direct consequence of neglect by our major arts institutions and our paper of record. If New York's Public Theater ignored local writers and companies the way Center Theatre Group has done here, and if The New York Times neglected New York's smaller theaters the way the L.A. Times' reordering of priorities has neglected so many of ours, Gotham's theater scene would have imploded years ago. Weinert-Kendt agrees:

"The main two tastemakers in L.A. theater would be CTG and the Times. Both are slavishly New York–centric. I don't think it's cynical, I think it's sincere — it's what they believe." He continues, voicing the perception in the theater community that those in charge at these institutions "have been to a few mediocre plays in L.A. that somebody overpraised, and the touring shows are not as good as Broadway, so they've determined that this is a backwater. And they're serving an audience that has the same idea, I guess. ... I think they're so inside their own bubble, they can't really see."

The Times' transparent interest in enforcing its reputation as a national player would explain the frequent sojourns of its chief drama critic to Gotham, London, Seattle, Berkeley and San Diego at the expense of local coverage. This continues to incense many of our top-tier local producers, but then again, if you talk to New York producers, they don't speak with great affection for their paper of record, either.

The L.A. Times does have a local theater beat with some smart and passionate critics, but it's a shadow of the coverage recalled by that playwright from Pomona in 1977, in the era of exacting yet optimistic drama critics such as Dan Sullivan and Sylvie Drake. Perhaps they weren't only anticipating the future of L.A. theater, they were helping to build it. Today, the Times' coverage has neither the depth nor the placement to lend much legitimacy to a scene that's sometimes seething with activity, and other times just seething.

The folly of boosterism, Part 1: 1978, Mark Taper Forum. The premiere of Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit, an epic slice of L.A. Chicano history with music, sells out almost every performance to ebullient crowds. Shortly before the play reopens at Broadway's Winter Garden Theater the following year, its director, Gordon Davidson, tells the New York press corps that Los Angeles has become the nation's center for new-play development. The production is subsequently met with excoriating reviews, and closes in about four weeks, after only 41 performances.

The folly of boosterism, Part 2: 1985, Sloane Square, London. The playwright from Pomona, now 31, finds himself in the cramped office of Michael Hastings, literary manager for the Royal Court Theatre, a powerhouse presenter of new work. The pair are discussing a possible writing commission.

"Los Angeles," Hastings says, "is a center for films, is it not?"

"Yes, that's a fair assessment."

"If you're so passionate for the theater, then what are you doing in Los Angeles?"

The playwright explains the transformative effect of the prior year's Olympic Arts Festival, how it has opened the perception that L.A. is a place where theater might at last be taken seriously. As the words pour out, he watches the eyes of the Englishman glaze over.

What was so extraordinary about the Olympic Arts Festival, says Davidson, was the sheer size and the possibility to have a real impact on the city. "[Festival director] Bob Fitzpatrick had this vision and [festival organizer] Peter Ueberroth, by whatever magic, got it, saw it and put in $7 million. That was an extraordinary sum of money to bring over the best of the best. It's almost impossible, even in the Edinburgh [Festival] situation, to see the level of work by major companies throughout the world.

"My sadness is that we had money left over, and they created a Los Angeles World Theater Festival for future years, and they hired [renowned theater director] Peter Sellars, and he went through the money in two years — gone. It took the heart away. And you can only keep something going like that with repetition. It's got to be in the atmosphere. I know my audiences at the Taper were more attuned after the festival. They brought more to the theater after. You could have a discussion with them about what they'd seen," Davidson says.

 

"To have an impact, you want people talking about the work, not how much money it took to put the festival on."

Davidson's remarks are echoed by the exuberant Ben Hill, director of the Hollywood Fringe, and the festival's press deputy, Stacy Jones. "We shouldn't judge our success by our production budgets," says Jones, sipping ice tea at a coffeehouse on Hollywood's Theater Row, "but by the excitement the work generates and by the support of our artists for each other."

The Hollywood Fringe (June 16-26) is a noncurated, open-door, open-market potpourri of theater, comedy and dance staged within one square mile in Hollywood; it's modeled on the granddaddy of noncurated festivals, the Edinburgh Fringe. In last year's Hollywood Fringe debut, Hill says, the artists could rent out a venue for as little as $50 — less if they nixed ticket prices in order to attract bar customers. Last year's premiere festival was a triumph of organization, energy and goodwill: 200 performance groups, 17,000 seats occupied, 40 percent average capacity — a very good start for a first year — with audiences mostly in their 20s, an important factor for the city's cultural ecosystem.

Hill aims to build on last year's success by moving the festival's headquarters/bar from Hollywood Boulevard down to Art/Works Theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, home to a string of participating theaters. Hill wants to encourage as much foot traffic from venue to venue as possible, to create a carnival atmosphere.

Though last year's Hollywood Fringe even drew some foreign troupes from places like Australia and the U.K., the often-inspired work was nonetheless mostly de rigueur stand-up and solo shows. Jones hopes the success of last year might attract more adventurous projects. Still, she shrugs, "The whole point is that we don't curate — we open doors and see who comes in."

Hill defines success in the frame of a "scene." "Our definition of success isn't that everyone agrees that a work is good, but that everyone agrees that this is where people are taking it seriously."

Though Radar L.A. is a more heavily curated festival, its organizers hold a similar philosophy. "It's not a rich festival" compared to the big-ticket showcases of world theater in Edinburgh, Adelaide or Avignon, says co-curator Mark Russell, who also runs New York's Under the Radar Festival with Meiyin Wang. They're sitting among Radar L.A.'s other organizers in the cavernous, vacant REDCAT downtown. "But seeing the array of productions should provide a rich experience."

The festival's budget of approximately $750,000 (which includes in-kind contributions of venues by Center Theatre Group and REDCAT) is a fraction of what poured into the city for the Olympic Arts Festival, but both the era and the ambitions are profoundly different.

"It's not splashy in the traditional way," adds co-curator Mark Murphy, REDCAT's executive director. "No RSC, or Robert Wilson. It's more organic. The largest single company consists of 12 people. It's meant to provide a variety of rich experiences as opposed to moments of spectacular dazzlement."

To support this mission, ticket prices will be on par with the Hollywood Fringe: $15 to $20 per performance, or a 10-show pass for $50. The larger point, agree the co-curators (who also include Center Theatre Group's director/producer, Diane Rodriguez), is how the various companies, and their ideas, bump up against each other, and the conversations that ensue from those collisions.

The lineup has not yet been finalized, but a third of the entries will be Los Angeles companies, among them Latino Theater Company, Sekou/Steve Connell, Stew & the Negro Problem, Los Angeles Poverty Department, Moving Arts and Poor Dog Group. Also, unlike New York's Under the Radar Festival, which has deep European influences, Radar L.A. will have a distinctively Pacific Rim tilt, reflecting the cultures that have influenced Southern California. Toshiki Okada and his Japanese company Chelfitsch, Teatro en el Blanco from Chile and the Australian visual theater artist Fleur Elise Noble are among the visiting artists.

The TCG conference will examine the foundering producing models for professional theater in the United States, and seek remedies in new approaches. "What if?" is the overarching theme for the workshops that will try to re-imagine what theater's future will look like with, we hope, an invigorated sense of purpose.

How will the hundreds of TCG visitors view Los Angeles, as compared to last year's conference in Chicago, a city that's at least comprehensible and traversable? If the array of festivals doesn't provide the anticipated adrenalin rush, the attendees' theatrical experience will depend on their patience for unearthing the jewels in our sprawling desert — the life of the arts here when there isn't a convergence of events. Geographically, we're not a hospitable city. Our transportation challenges are even worse. How does one show a guest the richness of our bewildering culture in seven days? The galleries in Culver City or MacArthur Park? LACMA? MOCA? The Ahmanson and Disney Hall? Theater Row? Bergamot Station and Highways in Santa Monica? The Watts Towers? The Electric Lodge in Venice? REDCAT? Mann's Chinese on Hollywood Boulevard? The Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena? The Colony Theatre in Burbank, or the Fountain or Sacred Fools theaters in east Hollywood? Zombie Joe's Underground in NoHo?

 

Nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live here? No, it's more like a horrible place to visit, but you need to live here to appreciate its many virtues.

Does the attempt to compress those virtues into festivals place us at odds with our unique history, and geography? Perhaps a purpose and a way of doing business here, which are more defined, less sprawling, more identifiable and less mercurial, are what will give us a stronger identity. If that's what we need, or even want.

In 2001, the playwright from Pomona has a play performed as a guest production at Theatre of NOTE in Hollywood. It gets respectful reviews, though the L.A. Times never gets around to it, and it gets good houses. And then it's gone, as though it never happened.

In November 2008, the same play is performed off-Broadway at a theater that, by New York standards, is not top-tier. The theater, with about 100 seats, looks like so many converted theaters in L.A. The New York Times, Back Stage and Variety show up on opening weekend. The day after the Times' review appears, the playwright receives a message from the theater that a Hollywood film studio has requested a copy of the script. By the time the play closes, Samuel French Inc. has contracted to publish it, and it's slated for Smith & Kraus' anthology Best New American Playwrights of 2009.

With its sporadic, convulsive and completely unpredictable explosions of breathtaking, brilliant performance, if Los Angeles is truly a destination for theater, the playwright reflects, then why were none of the lasting consequences for his play generated by the L.A. production?

Actress Jillian Armenente once quipped that trying to do theater in Los Angeles is like trying to build a snowman in Florida. Just when you think you've accomplished something, it melts away before your eyes. Yet it's that same local landscape, with its armies of accomplished actors, union waivers and small pockets of relatively cheap real estate, that allows anything to happen on our stages, at a comparatively low cost.

"In the end, the only thing that matters is the will to do it, the idea that's worth doing," says Gordon Davidson, dabbing his lips with a napkin. "I think that the best thing that can come out of a convention and all these festivals coming this summer is people talking about the work. Why it should be done, why it matters and then how to do it. That's what came out of the Olympic Arts Festival. Everyone was talking about the work, how great it was, why — and then how — it got done.

"I do think," he adds, "I do think of Los Angeles as a place where we can practice the art of the possible." His perspective then broadens to the general art of theater. "You have to believe that in the theater, everything is possible." He takes a sip of wine. "Except for Spider-Man."

We are not Chicago, we are not New York. Nor should we aim to be like either. In this summer under the magnifying glass, can we finally discern something concrete about who we really are, and who we'd like to be?


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