Since the early 1920s, Los Angeles has been a magnet for artists of all stripes. Even though movie-studio politics and a blockbuster ethos wore down literati from Bertolt Brecht and the Mann brothers to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, still the scribes kept coming. The Industry’s callousness extended to the way aging sex symbols like Marilyn Monroe were eventually, shrewdly packaged into the romance of falling stars. It’s as though the nation feeds on the cruelty of our city. Those inside Hollywood, or aiming to be so, eventually snap, or surrender, or retire extremely wealthy.
For almost as long as the Sign on Mount Lee has been luring hopefuls, local theater has offered a kind of life raft from the desolation of waiting for agents to call as days turn into decades. (Somebody once noted that Los Angeles is the only city where one can die of encouragement.) For artists in or out of the Industry, theater provides at least some community, and places to perform or be performed. The Industry is often where our artists go to work, but the theater is where they go to work out. (It’s also where they go to audition for the Industry, which is an old and tiresome story.) On TV, some of the best shows (Six Feet Under, Law & Order, Weeds, CSI, Everybody Loves Raymond) have been written and even produced by playwrights, teams of them, because playwrights understand character and structure so well. Many of our great actors, our national treasures, came through the theater — Pacino, Streep, Hoffman, De Niro. It may be a cliché, but the theater really is a training ground.
Theater too comes with its own hardships: the difficulty of keeping performance spaces that a company can call “home,” as property values soar; the rigorous demands of time; the relentless poverty from working in an art form with a union-approved pay scale of about $10 per performance under the Actors’ Equity local small-theater contract; the mounting challenges of raising funds for a form that almost never breaks even, as the priorities of public-funding agencies and private foundations drift away from the arts. Then there’s the classic local challenge for a director to keep a cast together when the Industry arbitrarily knocks at the theater door and plucks out a performer or two.
In the articles that follow, we sought to isolate specific moments in the lives of theater artists or companies when they come to that crossroads at which, after considerable duress, they must decide whether to continue doing local theater, or to leave. Through these stories, we hope to learn about these individuals and companies, and what their experiences tell us about the state of our theater.
The interview with actress Daisy Egan was originally intended to be a portrait of someone who had chosen to leave performing, because that was the decision she said she had come to when we first contacted her. Yet by the time of the interview, she had changed her mind, which provided its own kind of revelation.
Olga Petrakova’s ARTEL Ensemble and Company of Angels (L.A.’s oldest acting company) open a window onto why theater groups, having faced surreal impediments, chose to keep going.
Paula Holt, once among the city’s most prestigious and prolific theater producers, explains her reasons for throwing in the towel, while producer-director Mark Seldis, the former embattled managing director of Actors’ Gang, has come through a bitter falling-out with artistic director Tim Robbins. Seldis has found a new sense of personal harmony and professional satisfaction through Ghost Road Company, which he runs with his fiancée, Katharine Noon, and their commitment to build ensemble-created works.
Also included are profiles of new companies Ethos Theatre Company and Sky Pilot Theatre, done with an eye toward discerning if their aspirations are any different from those of artists who used to roll into L.A. through Union Station, in days of yore.
Some aspects of theater in L.A. are universal, others are unique, and this issue is dedicated to the people in this city trying to carry it forward.