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L.A.'s Theater Renaissance: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Art by Santiago UcedaTHREE SEPARATE L.A. THEATER FESTIVALS IN AS MANY weeks have arrived as if by deus ex machina. On the heels of the A.S.K. New Play readings series at Inside the Ford, which wrapped up on October 31, the Mark Taper Forum launches its 12th New Works Festival at the Actors' Gang Theater on November 5. That's also the kickoff weekend for the Edge of the World Theater Festival, an all-city event with "Fifty Shows. Twenty Venues. Eight Days. One City." (See related article.) And while gifts from the theater gods are rare in L.A., there is the question of what, exactly, the theater community's burnt offerings have wrought.

L.A. theater struggles for audiences, perhaps because of the boggling array of more than 100 productions, excluding college performances, up and running in a given week. Are the competing festivals, adding yet more entries to the city's swollen docket, going to tax the stamina of whatever audiences overlap? Definitely not, says Mead Hunter, director of literary programs at A.S.K. "The move of A.S.K.'s reading series from the Skirball to the 87-seat theater Inside the Ford created a buzz regarding the scarcity of tickets." (The event sold out, as expected.)

Edge of the World festival organizer Mark Seldis, however, is worried about box-office issues. Unlike its better-heeled competitors, the Edge fest will charge for some events: A one-time outlay of $10 for a "passport" entitles patrons to pay $5 for any festival show (some of the scheduled productions are free). As at A.S.K. programs, all events at the Taper festival, produced in association with A.S.K. Theater Projects and DreamWorks SKG, are free to the public. (A.S.K. had "compressed" eight plays into two "high energy" weekends, a departure from last year's one-play-per-week schedule.) Eighteen events are scheduled for this year's Taper festival.

Edge "had no money and no organization," says Seldis. "When we set the Edge dates, we knew about the Taper festival, but we didn't know about A.S.K."

When asked about the relative cohesion or fragmentation of L.A.'s theater community, Seldis says, "We're more cohesive now than ever before, what with the number of co-productions going on. But the model of a chummy theater community where everyone hangs out in a certain section of the city doesn't apply to a big, geographically fragmented locale like L.A. We need community events like festivals to bring us together." For similar reasons, Hunter supports A.S.K.'s new compressed schedule because it allowed artists, particularly those from out of town, to meet each other and see new theater.

In some ways, the slightly anarchic spirit of the Edge Fest makes it the "fringe" festival to the A.S.K/Taper/DreamWorks "official" festivals, which seem to be as much about enhancing L.A.'s image as a world-class city as about bringing local artists together. Impresarios Peter Sellars and Robert Fitzpatrick tried but were unable to be the glue for local theater with the progressively less-engaging festivals of 1987 and 1990. We wonder whether the dueling festivals will feed off each other, or exhaust the theater community's exuberance.


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