Illustration by Erik Sandberg
Only in Los Angeles would stage artists — capable of approximately 1,200 productions per year in L.A. County alone — question whether local theater is “vital.” This was the central query proffered by hosts Rebecca Gray and Patrick Towne last Sunday in a community roundtable at Diavalo’s downtown dance space as part of the Fifth Annual Edge of the World Theater Festival, which wrapped up last week.
There was some smart and passionate discussion, during which the question of vitality provoked a necessary auxiliary question: vital for whom? If theater weren’t vital for the artists, surely they wouldn’t be sidling away from their day jobs to work for a pittance putting up another Guys and Dolls in a Valley storefront.
Vital for the Industry? Almost nobody harbors that illusion anymore. To the contrary, after a representative from Moving Arts mentioned that the company was slightly embarrassed when Tori Spelling optioned a one-act produced there, Towne answered like a good father, “No, no, as a community we all need to be supporting each other when there’s any kind of movement from our work.”
Vital for the press? The complaint rang loud and clear that coverage of L.A.’s theater scene is diminishing, which is true, though you can hear the same complaint in Chicago, New York and London — that the press is shifting to more poppy dimensions of pop culture. Which raises the larger questions — not whether L.A. theater is vital, but whether theater in general is vital, and whether reportage is even necessary to define a scene’s vitality. In Milwaukee and Austin, you’ll find underground theaters doing subversive, furious and poetical plays that are packed with 20-year-olds bored by the latest offerings at the movie-plex. But hardly anybody outside of Milwaukee and Austin even knows about them. The New York Times doesn’t seem interested. Does that mean these scenes aren’t vital, or not part of a larger national movement?
This discussion led inevitably to the perennial questions: Do L.A.’s actors cheapen themselves and their art by constantly running from theater rehearsals (and performances) to Jack in the Box auditions, or do they cheapen themselves by working for pennies in the theater? Should Equity’s Small Theater Plan (which allows union actors to work for token stipends) be abolished? Has it led to too many theaters and too many productions? (To this, Towne announced that, were the Plan to be taken away, he would rather turn in his union card than not work in the theater.) Is L.A. theater a cradle of amateurs feeding their delusions in small black boxes, as actor William Macy suggested in his ignorant and arrogant keynote address at the S.R.O. Conference in June of 2002?
Unlike in cities and countries where the arts are subsidized, L.A.’s larger and midsize theaters are among the most artistically tedious in the city — not for lack of imagination or talent but because of the financial pressures to avoid biting the teats that feed: conservative subscribers and politically correct foundations. It was for such reasons that the off-Broadway and regional theater movements were created (off-Broadway as a haven for difficult new plays, and the regional theater as a home for expensive classics). And when they quickly became infected with the commercial virus, bouncing crowd-pleasing, cost-effective properties for five actors or less — predecessors to The Gin Game and How I Learned To Drive — around the country like billiard balls, the off-off-Broadway movement emerged, with actors, yes, working for a pittance. Without them, and New York companies such as La MaMa, Café Cino and the Genesis Theater, works by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Murray Mednick, Megan Terry and Lanford Wilson would never have been seen on American stages.
In this awful economic climate for the arts, and because of the quality of the actors here, Los Angeles’ own off-off-Broadway — 90 percent of what’s produced here — serves as one of the nation’s most vital laboratories not just for new plays, but for companies that are working to incorporate movement and text into combinations that keep providing alternatives to the products of our mass media. (Examples include Gärung, at the Ivar Theater last month, and works by Tina Kronis and Richard Alger’s Theater Movement Bazaar at Sacred Fools Theater.) As the Russian Federation’s minister of culture, Mikhail Shvidkoy, once said, “Every culture produces the art that reflects it.” The Pantages Theater reflects our most commercial impulses, while the tiny Theater of NOTE, a few blocks away, reflects the primal anger and alienation behind all the horse-
trading and corporate consolidation. Meanwhile, our few midsize theaters weigh in somewhere betwixt and between.
A few dots worth connecting: Earlier this year, Marc Savage’s adaptation and staging of Pinafore! (which premiered in 2001 at Hollywood’s Celebration Theater) took a coveted prize for production at the New York Fringe Festival. Deaf West Theater Company’s exotic revival of Big River, born and raised in a stuffy North Hollywood storefront, transferred to the Taper last year and just closed on Broadway after a respectable run. And old news that bears repeating: In 1998, Jessica Kubzansky’s staging of Nick Salamone and Maurice McIntyre’s Moscow — a gay, Chekhov-themed musical (if you can imagine that conjunction) that gestated at L.A.’s Playwrights Arena — took one of The Scotsman’s Fringe First prizes at Edinburgh. Oliver Goldstick’s New York hit Dinah Was, based on the life of Dinah Washington, first took the stage at West Hollywood’s tiny Coast Playhouse; the Pulitzer Prize winners Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle both came through the Taper’s New Work Festival; and so on.
It’s been verifiable for decades, and is simply a sign of civic defensiveness at this point to have to say once more, that L.A. has proven itself to be a very successful theater laboratory — despite the impediments of poverty, and the lack of proper fly space, of convenient parking, of a theater culture, of a theater community, and all that crock.
The Taper appears to be venturing more than ever into the local community. In its just-closed 16th annual New Work Festival, playwrights Joe Hortua, Jodi Long, Jessica Goldberg, Hilly Hicks Jr. and Keith Josef Adkins, and directors Guy Zimmerman and Bart DeLorenzo, as well as the Taper’s longstanding artistic partners, Dianah Wynters, Lisa Peterson, Robert Egan and Chay Yew — all hail from L.A. The Taper’s interest in local talent is yet another symptom of the ongoing coalescence of a community that detractors say doesn’t even exist.
Even the truth in the complaint about our lack of accomplished stage directors seems to be paling with the emergence or continuing work of DeLorenzo, Zimmerman, Stefan Novinski, Michael Michetti, Kubzansky, Kronis and Alger, Marc Savage, Jon Lawrence Rivera, Randy Schulman, Frederique Michel, Kiff Scholl, Stephen Legawiec and Robert Prior, among others.
And if you believe that the city has no playwrights, please note that this year’s Ashland (Oregon) New Plays Festival recruited all of its scribes from Southern California (Robert Barnett, James Caputo, Gary Seger and Michael Wolfson).
But the most emblematic institution of our financially impoverished yet artistically energized theater has to be the Edge of the World Theater Festival, still scraping by after its fifth year with a volunteer staff, though its Los Angeles History Project and Young Writers Project received grants and sponsorship, which allowed Edgefest to commission seven works.
This year’s festival staged 47 productions, mostly in Hollywood and Silver Lake, though with some entries in the Valley and the beaches. The total was down from last year’s 50, partly because of a vetting process by a committee headed by playwright Bryan Davidson.
Edgefest’s own survey indicates that its festival plays to an audience of about 8,000, mostly ages 18 to 40; most admit not knowing anything about the artists they’re venturing out to discover. And though there are some gaping holes in attendance, companies report that their Edgefest shows (depending on location and schedule) attract more customers than productions in their normal season. These responses suggest certain parallels between Los Angeles’ theater culture and Britain’s.
A recent article in London’s The Observer told of the Edinburgh Festival’s attempt to woo students and empty-pocketed youth to its Scottish Opera production of Wagner’s Ring cycle. At a performance for which 1,900 tickets were given away to people under 27 years old, an embarrassing 237 showed up — despite reviews that were through the roof. Meanwhile, in Edinburgh’s pub theaters and converted churches, the Fringe Festival was overflowing. Perhaps Wagner is simply too daunting for today’s youth, but those bemoaning the raw scrappiness of storefront theater are likely bemoaning the future.