To start with, some qualifying remarks: This is not an argument that poor theater is necessarily better than subsidized or commercial theater (sorry, Mr. Grotowski). It's not an argument that market forces are evil and that megacorporations and the nonprofits that our regional theaters have become are suffocating our way of life, including the quality of our art and of our minds. (Some of this may be true, but it's largely beside the point.) This is not a case that actors working for a pittance, and the work they do for love and opportunity, are somehow more noble or virtuous, in character or in the standard of their work, than actors slogging away on poverty wages that are at least tentatively reliable, and might even come with some health care, in the few regional and commercial theaters that pay them.
The case for small theater is, at its core, a philosophical one, founded on the virtues of the open market. It's not a local argument but a national one. It is based on the premise of what this country was ostensibly founded on, the open marketplace of ideas and products. The history of the United States is the history of how that marketplace keeps closing as a result of corruption and greed, and how, of necessity, new rebel forces arise to pry open once again the now weighty door of economic and artistic opportunity for small businesses against the hegemony of the larger ones.
This is a history from the early 20th century, from the robber barons and the fledgling union movement, from the Great Depression and the New Deal, to the Wall Street crash of 2008. It's a history of tug-o'-war. But as the world becomes smaller, and the financial entanglements more intricate and extensive across continents, the pulling by CEOs and their lobbyists has been considerably more forceful and more effective than any tugging against them.
Harbor no illusion that the Hollywood Fringe performance festival is some kind of defiant counterargument to the tyranny of market forces. Rather, it has been conceived from market forces. There are some 200 performance troupes who are local or have rolled into town from all corners. There are multiple venues within one square mile of Hollywood. The owners of the venues are making some good change from leasing to artists during this two and a half weeks of cultural infusion. According to press deputy Stacy Jones, some venue owners made up to $25,000 last year during the first Hollywood Fringe — and it was a week shorter then. The theater owners always fare best from our small-theater syndrome.
Most festivals select participants through curation, the way most theaters select their plays through a kind of committee process, weighing the costs and benefits of art and commerce. The Hollywood Fringe, like the granddaddy of Fringe festivals in Edinburgh on which it was modeled, is non-curated. It doesn't mandate leasing rates or ticket prices, though it offers suggestions. It helps administrate. It provides programs. It coordinates schedules and offers a staff of volunteers to serve as liaisons between the public and the artists. Mostly though, it lets the open marketplace set the standards. The door is open. Nobody is turned away.
The Hollywood Fringe is the live- performance equivalent of the Internet — a blend of mostly affordable, laissez-faire economics and messy populist democracy. I've seen the worst and tawdriest shows in living memory at the Hollywood Fringe, alongside those that have given me the most food for thought.
I've heard detractors complain, why do we need a Fringe? L.A. theater is already one huge Fringe festival. Not so, not when you have artistic directors and committees choosing what gets put on.
L.A. theater is probably as open a place as anywhere, but the Hollywood Fringe is the purest program we have that embodies the open market of ideas and entertainments.
Last weekend, I was at the Geffen Playhouse for Tracy Letts' comedy Superior Donuts and at La Jolla Playhouse for Arthur Kopit and Anton Dudley's silly new Scottish comedy A Dram of Drummhicit. Both were nicely acted and performed in gorgeously comfortable theaters — emblems of what America's regional theaters have become.
No qualms about the quality of the venues or the performances or direction in either production. Yet both were heavily subsidized throwbacks: Superior Donuts is a modern and more crass Chicago variation on The Cherry Orchard, while Dram throws a Donald Trump–like character onto a remote Scottish island where corpses are surfacing and fairies rule the rocks — a blander spin on The Lieutenant of Inishmore. I wasn't angry or offended, and the audiences seemed OK with it.
I would have liked to have been offended. Offense is what theater does best. But after the show, I cycled down the bluffs of La Jolla toward the Solana Beach train station feeling as though I'd just eaten porridge. Which was much the impression left from Superior Donuts. I like porridge, and often enjoy it for breakfast, but I'm not sure I'd pay $50-$100 a ticket for it. This pretty much sums up the crisis of the American theater. There are any number of financial pressures that inspire our theaters to serve porridge for dinner. Some of it is cynical calculation for making ends meet. Some of it is a deeply held conviction in some quarters for the virtues of porridge. They even have committees dedicated to stirring out the lumps. The best argument that might be made for the slop is that it does no harm. But in the long run, I'm not sure even that is true.
And then, that weekend, I found myself at the 11:45 p.m. performance of Adam Tinkle's solo show A Mess of Things at Fringe Central on Santa Monica Boulevard. I was the only audience member in attendance. The poor guy was opening in Hollywood for one critic. Many years from now, I'm convinced, this experience will appear in his memoirs.
He cradled a guitar. The stage was littered with sound equipment and a box near the floor that doubled as a projection screen for the image of a helixlike contraption his grandfather had invented. Most of the show was a recorded soundscape of interviews he'd conducted with his grandfather and two aunts. He accompanied some of this with guitar, sometimes with lyrics.
Grandpa had tons of stuff he'd invented, in a former era, and now he was having to downsize. Through the impressionistic snippets of interview, the performance unveiled the history of junk and disposal, an attachment to objects, but mostly just history itself on the verge of extinction.
Midnight clicked into a new day, as the projection showed a mountain stream, with origami boats floating, against the music of those voices and the guitar.
Among the show's many virtues was that rarest of qualities we seek, in the theater and in life — authenticity. A man in an undecorated room, telling his truth without fakery or deceit. How often do you find that?