Los Angeles is becoming a city where you can see theater that is exciting, vital and original. Some of these plays are experimental: They take on forms that don’t look like traditional pieces of theater; they play with the medium and bend it to make a point. More and more, these plays also are written by women and people of color.
A Map of Virtue starts with two people meeting at a diner. Sarah has two bright blue birds tattooed symmetrically on her chest. Mark carries a small bird statue in his pocket. It turns out not to be an actual meeting, more like one person noticing another — and then something strange happens. These characters will meet again in another country, on a city street; their lives and the lives of the people they love will be intertwined.
The Guggenheim Award–winning playwright of A Map of Virtue, Erin Courtney, is a Los Angeles native who currently writes and teaches (she actually taught me many years ago) in New York. When talking with Courtney about her theatergoing experiences in L.A. she says, “The most adventurous plays I saw were at smaller theaters,” highlighting the now-defunct Taper, Too, a more experimental wing of the Mark Taper Forum, as a place to see work in progress and in forms that did not necessarily present as theater. This is Courtney’s first play to be produced in Los Angeles; she felt that new theater company Barker Room Rep and its artistic director, Mark Sitko, would be the perfect company to present a work she calls “formally adventurous,” being challenging in tone (at once jarring and funny) and symmetrical in structure.
Barker Room Rep and Sitko have what sounds like a simple aim: to produce the best new plays, written and cast with diversity in mind. Ssked why A Map of Virtue was chosen as his company’s inaugural show, Sitko says, “Barker Room Rep is committed to producing the plays of female playwrights, like the incredible Erin Courtney, because they are writing the best plays of this century.” He believes that not producing these plays would be a disservice to the audiences that want to see the best possible plays. “We tell stories, these stories are modern myths, and they have a tremendous impact on how we understand the world we live in and our many roles within it," Sitko says.
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Barker Room Rep was founded on the theory that stories should be told by all kinds of people, not just the same few well-known writers. There is talk about gender parity in theater, but many more men are produced than women each year, and it's also hard for plays by women to have multiple runs when they finally are produced. A Map of Virtue won the Obie in 2012 for a critically acclaimed short run in New York, and Courtney is an award-winning writer, but still this play had to wait years to have its premiere in Los Angeles. Companies like Barker Room Rep are hoping to add a new space for marginalized writers to see their work fully realized.
When asked what theater companies in L.A. inspire him, Sitko mentions the work of Circle X, Sacred Fools and Theatre of Note as among those that produce newer plays and work by women. Circle X has an all-female play reading series each year, highlighting new voices, while Theater of Note has a season full of new original works by women. Currently Sacred Fools is showing Mr. Burns by Anne Washburn, a contemporary of Courtney's, and a writer who plays with form, tone and structure as well.
When women’s voices are amplified you get theater that is diverse in subject matter, the perspective is expanded and we all win. As Los Angles theater companies continue to produce work by marginalized playwrights, more theater will be created that is worth sitting in the dark for.
Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; through Sat., Nov. 18. barkerroomrep.org.