The first jolt of Los Angeles' big summer of theater came to its convulsive close yesterday with the final curtain of the Radar L.A. festival and the wrap of downtown's TCG National Theater Conference. And even as the last of the visiting regional-theater conventioneers were packing up their notes on new subscription audience models, or draining the dregs of their Biltmore Hotel mini-bars, or were on the LAX Flyaway Bus deleting incriminating contacts and steamy after-party photos from their Blackberrys, a decidedly different kind of conference was just getting under way in Hollywood.
Billed as "The Uninvited: Crashing the Party," mavericks from Los Angeles' 99-seat theater scene convened at The Lost Studio for an afternoon that was part protest, part provocation and part earnest dialogue by artists who mostly remain off of TCG's institutional theater radar. Judging by the full house and the often-impassioned debate, the meeting clearly struck a nerve.
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Presided over by firebrand playwright and Gunfighter Nation founder John Steppling, the featured speakers list read like a who's who of the city's cutting-edge stage artists: playwright Murray Mednick, Padua Playwrights artistic director Guy Zimmerman, ZJU Theater directors Zombie Joe and Denise Devin, the City Garage Theatre's Charles A. Duncombe and Frederique Michel, Theatre Movement Bazaar's Tina Kronis, 24th Street Theatre's Jay McAdams, Son of Semele founder Matthew McCray and Cal Arts School of Theater dean Travis Preston. And with so many opinionated personalities and capacious egos on such a small dais, it didn't take long for fur to fly.
Steppling fired the first salvo, attacking what he called "the broken model of corporate, non-profit regional theater," and referring to L.A.'s institutional giant, Center Theatre Group, as "that great mausoleum on the hill...a space robbed of spirit, blood and life." Zimmerman proffered a definition of serious theater as that which doesn't offer easy reassurances but deals in "questions that can't be answered and problems that can't be solved." Preston concurred but also offered a note of optimism, observing that he sensed in the Los Angeles of 2011 a landscape of interdisciplinary freedom and foment similar to what he found in the New York of 1979...with the caveat that it was considerably more difficult for young artists in the new millennium to both make experimental theater and feed themselves.
McAdams, who came to "The Uninvited" fresh from the TCG conference, defended "institutionalism" as a viable means of providing essentials to theater staffers like health insurance. But when the 24th Street Theater director went on to embrace making programming compromises to appease important donors, the normally taciturn Frederique Michel roused the house with a stirring rebuke in which she declared that an artists only concern should be to their own "honesty, truth and passion." After that it was every man and woman for him or herself.
By the time the dust settled and the group broke for coffee and crudités, a sort of consensus emerged that what the institutional non-profits are best at is raising money and building luxuriously appointed theater buildings. What they're not so good at is making art. For the gathered artists, it was agreed that the reverse is true. The question of how to create a meaningful and mutually rewarding symbiosis between the two groups was left unanswered.