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The Oldest Living Most-Promising Theater City in the World

Remember Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the off-Broadway hit that skulked out of the Henry Fonda Theater in 1999 after losing $600,000 with its producer famously complaining that L.A. just isn‘t a theater town? The Lion King, roaring for five years on Broadway and three in London, posted its closing notice before hitting the two-year mark at the Pantages. (It’s shutting down at the end of the year.) The Fonda and Doolittle theaters in Hollywood, and the Canon Theater in Beverly Hills, all excellent Broadway-size houses, have been standing mostly idle through 2002. The Shubert Theater, the Century City barn once heralded as the harbinger of an earlier theater renaissance, now awaits the wrecking ball.

You have to wonder how the new andor reconstructed midsize theaters being prepared for the next generation of stage audiences (CalArts‘ Red Cat Theater in Disney Hall, the Taper’s Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City and the Madison Theater on the campus of Santa Monica College) are suddenly going to be part of (excuse me while I clear my throat) L.A. theater‘s coming of age -- a holy grail that’s been kicking around since about 1937.

The mirage that L.A. can have a theater of Big Houses is sustained primarily by business types who believe that the art is first about edifices, and then about what happens inside them. Unfortunately, they‘ve got it backward. There’s another illusion -- that tourists will come to Los Angeles to see big shows. Some will, but not like in New York or London. If you‘re looking to get rich, investing in theater is already a shaky proposition, but in L.A. it’s like standing under a power line in an earthquake.

It‘s hard to convince profiteers that a city like ours has about 150 tiny theaters, many interconnected through marketing and personnel, each with its own groundswell of community support and each carrying on its small business quietly for years. A forest need not be filled with sequoias and redwoods to be a forest. The chaparral in our city’s back yard and east through Arizona and New Mexico has been called the ”elfin forest,“ dense with trees standing no more than 3 feet high. Visitors from the East like to call it a wasteland, when it‘s actually teeming with activity. And so it is with Los Angeles theater.

The lifeblood of productions staged in our little black boxes flows with their capacity to give expression to ideas and styles that don’t exist in any other media -- because those ideas and styles aren‘t sufficiently commercial, or palatable. Small theaters, at their best, offer an alternative way of seeing things and feeling things. Large numbers of people in our culture aren’t particularly interested in that. But small numbers, particularly the young, are desperate for it. Only that can explain the cultlike expansion of the fringe-theater-festival movement, the granddaddy being Edinburgh. But now almost every big city has one, and Canada‘s concocted a coordinated network of fringe fests that has audiences skipping across the continent through the summer -- from Toronto at one end to Seattle and San Francisco at the other.

Here in Los Angeles, there was a small commotion this summer when someone burst into a planning meeting for EdgeFest 2002 -- the fourth annual citywide fringe theater festival (running October 10--20) -- with the news that UCLA was hosting a major international festival at the same time. The bearer of bad tidings carried the message that Robert Wilson would be coming to town with a newish work, along with the Wooster Group, the Foundry Theater (see accompanying articles), as well as companies from Italy (Societas Raffaello Sanzio), France (Compagnie du Hanneton), Germany (Heiner Goebbels) and Holland (ZT Hollandia). Though the UCLA bash would run through December, some of its programming would directly coincide with EdgeFest.

On hearing this, one of the EdgeFest reps turned pale, as though UCLA’s festival was about to shove EdgeFest off the map. Blood pressure returned to normal with the realization that all of UCLA‘s festival events are slated for only two venues, both on the Westwood campus -- the Freud Playhouse and the Little Theater across the courtyard -- meaning that even with full houses, the international festival would snag no more than about 750 people per night. EdgeFest, at full capacity, with 15 events in houses averaging 50 patrons, would pull in just about the same number on any given evening. In other words, a capacity crowd on a Friday night at either festival wouldn’t even fill the Ahmanson.

You can‘t blame EdgeFest or UCLA for starting small. Organizational shortcomings and the sheer geographical sprawl of Peter Sellars’ ill-fated 1990 Pacific Rim shot, and his 1993 Persia-Africa-themed fest, all but extinguished major international theater programming in L.A. for almost a decade. Thinking more modestly provides the freedom to premiere plays that might actually explode around the world. (Mention the Broadway hit Urinetown in New York City, and somebody will surely say, ”You know it started in the New York Fringe Festival.“)

Artistic adventurousness is also a priority for both the EdgeFest staff and David Sefton, director of UCLA Performing Arts and its subsidiary, UCLA Live -- a massive performance and music series, which includes UCLA‘s up-and-running international theater festival.

Though seemingly of disparate cultures, one grassroots, the other institutional, EdgeFest and UCLA Live are the yin and yang of our fall theater season, and also models for sustainable theater. While EdgeFest is thinking locally (there’s no troupe in the festival from outside L.A.), Sefton is thinking globally (there‘s no troupe in Sefton’s festival that‘s from L.A.). EdgeFest is dedicated to a theater of shoestrings and duct tape, with a staff made up of volunteers, whereas UCLA Live is fully subsidized with a salaried staff, and transportation and hotel accommodations provided for the artists. With a $15 EdgeFest Passport, you can get into any of the 46 festival shows for $5. At UCLA, however, Robert Wilson’s Woyzeck (December 3--15) will cost you up to $70 a pop, though Sefton insists he‘s making $20 student discounts available. When I asked Sefton if his festival was slated to turn a profit, his brow curled toward his forehead: ”Our ticket prices are designed to minimize our losses,“ he said.

A buoyant middle-aged Englishman, Sefton arrived at UCLA two years ago after heading the contemporary-culture section of the Royal Festival Hall in London. In his Royce Hall office, he leaps from his desk to snag a BAM brochure from a side table, while, every 15 seconds or so, his computer chimes the arrival of new e-mail. He expresses little patience with the L.A. theater scene because, he feels, it’s so insulated from the driving forces of world theater. But that‘s an overstatement, given the number of local troupes touring nationally and internationally (Zoo District, About Productions, Playwrights Arena, Fabulous Monsters) and the growing cross-pollination between the L.A. and New York fringe scenes. (One of EdgeFest’s principal organizers, Christopher DeWan, lives in New York.)

”L.A. will never be the center of cultural activity, but I hope to help make it a center,“ Sefton says, like a British Rajah having just arrived in rural India. But being so haughty may be imperative to his professional survival here, given the raw, combative aesthetic and the primacy of visual images that unifies his festival‘s productions. (He shows with delight a brochure from a Polish festival where a third of the stage is on fire.) Two of the European entries (by Italy’s Romeo Castellucci and Holland‘s ZT Hollandia) have been compared to the most disturbingly violent films by Pasolini (in Castellucci’s Julius Caesar, for example, an endoscope is inserted down the throat of an actor). So Sefton is bracing himself for, and relishing the possibility of, walkouts and outrage. One can see him standing on that burning Polish stage, and winking.

Meanwhile, the beauty of EdgeFest is that after four years, it‘s still here -- something of a miracle in this cultural environment. In its first two years, the festival was intent on announcing to the city that it has a theater scene. Two years later, this is no longer news, and it’s time to start inviting theaters from other cities.

The underlying ideology of both festivals may not be that far apart. Sefton globe-hops to find some raving Italians and Deutschlanders to invite, while Amy Edlin, one of EdgeFest‘s three primary organizers (with Ray Simmons and DeWan), says that they’re trying to focus their festival on ”the edge factor.“ Nobody can articulate what that means, but given the companies on the docket, and the kinds of work they‘ve produced, the EdgeFest vision may have been best expressed in Benedict Nightingale’s recent obituary for London‘s legendary East End theater maven Joan Littlewood: ”She demonstrated . . . that lively work could be produced on a shoestring, that tight-knit ensembles were likely to produce better work than ad hoc casts . . . An instinctive radicalism, combined with habitual restlessness, impelled her toward theater work in which, as she later wrote, everything was created by the actors on a bare platform -- ’tempest, sun and rain, rivers, storm-tossed seas.‘“

The first known theater festivals in ancient Greece were religious functions, havens from a world of commerce, and this is what our two festivals share most deeply. Even though Sefton is trying to cut his financial losses, his motive as impresario, bringing us the work of Wilson and the Woosters, and of some lunatic Europeans, stems from a theological impulse. As does the motive of EdgeFest, even if they can’t explain it. The two are perfect complements in a theater scene perhaps finally coming of age because of them.

For schedule and contact information for EdgeFest, call (310) 281-7920 or visit www.edge oftheworld.org.

For schedule and contact information for the UCLA‘s international theater festival, call (310) 825-2101 or visit www.uclalive.org.