When it comes to public support for theater in Los Angeles, it would be an understatement to say that times are tough.
Twenty-five years ago, when the city lavished money on downtown's newly launched Los Angeles Theatre Center, Spring Street became the epicenter of a dynamic and exciting theater scene that seemed to rival the experimental and literary fecundity of New York's Off-Off-Broadway movement of the 1960s. Today LATC is a dispiriting ghost of its former glory — made even eerier in January when its two long-feuding tenants, the Latino Theater Company and the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, had their 20-year leases revoked by the City Council.
Sure, local politics is a slippery business and budgetary belt-tightening has hit the arts particularly hard, but is there something inherent to the government funding/theater mix that dooms it to an oil-and-water relationship?
Don't tell that to [Inside] the Ford, the small theater affiliated with the Ford Amphitheatre, on Cahuenga Boulevard near the Hollywood Bowl. On Saturday, the theater will host Circle X Theatre Company's world premiere of Naked Before God, writer-director Leo Geter's farce about pornography and religion. This marks the third year a Circle X show has made the cut of the [Inside] the Ford's 4-year-old Winter Partnership Program, created by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.
Never mind that no other company has even returned for a second WPP season. The Ford's support has helped Circle X grow from an interesting if itinerant actor-supported membership company into one of the city's most critically acclaimed producers of small theater.
In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that in its short life the WPP at [Inside] the Ford has been responsible for some of the best shows produced in this town during the period. It's a record that includes Circle X's award-winning Battle Hymn (from the 2008-09 season) and highly praised Lascivious Something (2009-10), as well as Rogue Artists' popular puppet extravaganza HYPERBOLE (2010-11), Vs. Theatre Company's spectacular The Mercy Seat (also 2010-11), and this season's magnificent The Romance of Magno Rubio by PAE Live!
What is the Ford's secret in getting so right what LATC and the L.A. City Council have bungled so badly?
I am seated in the Ford Amphitheatre's deserted concession barroom across the table from WPP creators Adam Davis and Heather Rigby, the managing director of productions and general manager of productions, respectively, for the L.A. County Arts Commission. What is immediately striking about the pair is both their relative youth and their infectious enthusiasm for creating quality theater. And it quickly becomes apparent why their tenure has transformed the Ford into a lean, mean arts-making machine and, perhaps, a model for how public arts money and government-owned theaters can best be utilized in achieving excellence.
Davis explains that when he and Rigby were hired by executive director Laura Zucker in 2006, they inherited an LATC-style, winner-take-all program of long-term residencies. “They really just kind of got the keys and got to do whatever they wanted in the space. … [But] we're the county, a county facility, and we're supposed to work with all our constituents,” he says. “So we said, let's take away their residency and open it up for competitive competition.”
The result was that they evicted the five resident companies, including Circle X, and replaced them with Winter Partnership, itself modeled on the Ford's successful Summer Partnership, which from June to October fills the 1,200-seat outdoor amphitheater with music, dance and film events from Los Angeles County-based arts organizations or producers.
The idea, says Rigby, “is that we want what's on our stage and who's in our audience to reflect the diversity of Los Angeles County.” So instead of giving the theater to residencies or companies, the Winter Partnership would be about particular plays. Davis and Rigby designed a revolving, merit-based program in which three productions would be selected each year for the three available eight-week slots. Selections are based on an extensive application process — so demanding, in fact, that of the original five resident companies, only Circle X has even had the administrative wherewithal to bother filling it out. The applications are then evaluated by a WPP panel that takes into consideration not only a group's demographic suitability (i.e., meeting the Ford's diversity mandate) but also its organizational ability and, perhaps most important, the quality of the play itself.
Davis says it all comes down to artistic excellence. “That's the first thing we try to look for when a group applies. You know, there's the budget and all of that, but if they don't put on a good show, then we don't want them on. … You know, how good is the writing and how good is the show? And then what is the artistic documentation they submit?”
To that end, the entire eight-person Ford staff, from box office assistants on up, is constantly on the prowl during off-time, scouring obscure storefront theaters in a never-ending search for worthy contenders. “Our staff as a whole is passionate about this program,” Davis proudly boasts. “They actually really, really love working with these companies. And also they make sure they understand theater and what's going on out there and what can be seen.”
The prize that awaits companies who successfully surmount WPP's rigorous application hurdles and artistic vetting is eight weeks at one of the city's premier and high-profile 99-seat houses replete with state-of-the-art technical support. “Here we have a space that is arguably one of the better 99-seat spaces in Los Angeles,” Davis explains. “[It] could easily rent for $2,500 or $3,000 per week. So what we do is, instead of giving it rent-free and doing ticket-sales percentage, we give it to them for $1,000 a week and we give them the season publicist, Lucy Pollak.”
Even the $1,000 rent is taken from box office sales rather than upfront, making WPP a sweet deal for the lucky companies, a cultural treasure for Los Angeles audiences and a boon to L.A.'s small theater artists who have been all but forgotten in recent years by the city's risk-averse, New York-centric institutional nonprofits. “We're trying to build a relationship with local companies,” Davis adds, “to let them know that, yeah, you may not get accepted every year, but we're here to help you.”