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Illustration by Patrick MartinezOn July 21, the L.A. Weekly hosted a roundtable discussion among
leaders in the theater community about new play development and the ramifications
of two major institutions (A.S.K. Theater Projects and Center Theater Group) closing
programs whose purpose was to develop new plays and new playwrights. Those present
included Luis Alfaro (playwright, former co-director of the CTG/Mark Taper Forum’s
Latino Theater Initiative), Sasha Anawalt (director, USC/Getty Arts Journalism
Program, NEA Arts Journalism Institute), Jennifer Andreone (display advertising,
L.A. Weekly), Anthony Byrnes (former associate producer/new play development
for the Kirk Douglas Theater), Stacie Chaiken (writer-performer), Bart DeLorenzo
(artistic director, Evidence Room), Sylvie Drake (publications director at Denver
Center Theater, former L.A. Times chief drama critic), Erin Aubry Kaplan
(staff writer, L.A. Weekly), Jessica Kubzansky (co-artistic director, Theater
@ Boston Court), Sandra Tsing Loh (writer-performer, radio host), George Lugg
(associate director, REDCAT), Terence McFarland (executive director, L.A. Stage
Alliance), Steven Leigh Morris (theater editor, L.A. Weekly), Jon Lawrence
Rivera (artistic director, Playwrights Arena), Mark Seldis (producing director,
Ghost Road Theater Company), Ray Simmons (executive director, Edge of the World
Theater Festival), Shay Wafer (managing director, Cornerstone Theater Company),
Chay Yew (playwright, former director of the Taper’s Asian Theater Workshop).
The roundtable was the first in a series of such discussions, to be continued
and opened to the theater community and to the public during the Edge of the World
Theater Festival in October.

More coverage of this story from the LA Weekly
can be found in “Confrontations
in a Con-Art World”
and in “The
Great White Way
.”

For other stories, go to nytimes.com
for Margo Jefferson's commentary on Sunday, August 7; and latimes.com
for Don Shirley's reportage on May 24 and June 22.

To read Richard Montoya's article on the need for a new generation of
Latino arts leaders, click
here
.

STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS: I’m concerned that, with the combined closing of A.S.K.
Theater Projects and Center Theater Group’s play development labs and New Work
Festival, opportunities are closing for playwrights in general, and for playwrights
of color in particular. The issue is not so much the activity of play development,
which continues to occur at many small theaters across the city, but with the
validation and definition of Los Angeles as a theater laboratory — a validation
and definition provided by institutions that fund new play festivals. I suggest
that the loss of A.S.K. Theater Projects, which uniquely funded companies rather
than individuals, to develop works that were already in process, was a blow possibly
more profound that the loss of the CTG labs. I propose two questions to be addressed
by the roundtable: Are these institutional losses really serious to the welfare
of the community? And, if so, is there a possible solution in the form of an umbrella
organization, to make up for the deficit?
JON LAWRENCE RIVERA: I think that the loss of the Taper labs and workshops
is not the end of the labs. The difference between us is that they had the money
and we don’t. We [at Playwrights Arena] have been developing workshops and new
work for 13 years, but we have no money and that’s the core of the problem. It’s
not the end of the world.
MARK SELDIS: I think the question we want to ask of those people running
the now closed labs: What was it about the programs you were doing that worked,
and what didn’t? What was it you found valuable? If we’re talking about reinventing
something, let’s really reinvent something. Find out what worked from their view,
and then from the community. We need to figure that out before we start talking
about money.
LUIS ALFARO: I think that not every new play development program serves
everybody. The thing that really worked that was great was the sense of community,
that there was a community to plug into. And when you can pay a director a real
fee, there’s a difference between the activity and a hobby. I always felt that
what was good about what we did was the mix of people we brought together. I always
saw it as investment. The thing that the Taper gave up [in shuttering its new
play development programs] was initiating rather than being the receiver. I think
the best we did was invest in really young artists. Many of the plays weren’t
that good, but that wasn’t our focus. Minneapolis theater is fertile right now,
there are levels of maturity, and different festivals in which artists can participate
based on their level of expertise. So the kind of festival you join is based on
the level of expertise, so you work your way up the festival ladder, so to speak.
You build a really strong community, but not everybody needs to belong to that
community. If you feel comfortable in your consortium, you’re not in a big enough
consortium. There should be a certain level of discomfort, even intimidation,
for artists to keep growing. And then we had a lot of great plays submitted that
we didn’t bring into the mix because the artists didn’t need [the development
process].
JESSICA KUBZANSKY: I’ve participated [as a director] in ASK and the Taper
labs: My favorite thing was being introduced to a play nobody had met before.
One of the things I valued about ASK as a participant, I valued that they didn’t
have an agenda, not a political or social agenda, not a production agenda. It
was purely about nurturing, about a new play and a playwright. They had stage-one
readings, and different tiers — graduated levels for the articulation of the play.
After they closed, I saw their library and was amazed by how many plays that came
through their program had gone on to national attention.
SYLVIE DRAKE: What was unique about ASK was that they had the money and
they spent it correctly. We’re living in a time now when the political and economic
climate are unconducive for what we’re — we have to ask what it’s going to cost
and how can to make it happen. Does it have to cost a lot of money or not? If
the first thing to go is what a theater considers non-essential, it’s usually
the most essential aspect they cut. That’s just a reality. I don’t have solutions,
I think we’re in a time that’s not conducive . . .
ANTHONY BYRNES: The Taper’s New Work Festival cost $200,000 to $250,000
— in projects, not including staffing. In actual costs it was half a million.
There’s a double-edged sword to what Jessica was saying about ASK. What was amazing
was that these writers and plays were going on to productions elsewhere. In some
ways ASK was more important outside of Los Angeles than in Los Angeles. There
are remarkable artists in Los Angeles who are more admired outside of L.A. I think
there’s a challenge that we as a city haven’t figured out — how to name the thing
we’re already doing. We have to articulate it for ourselves — how do we talk about
this thing that we’re doing, how do we convince the outside world of the value
in devoting resources to a play that might never get done. We didn’t spend enough
time articulating why what we did is important, that it wasn’t a waste of resources.
We helped make better artists, even when the art wasn’t so good.
LUIS ALFARO: A playwright like Jessica Goldberg, everyone felt, well, in
three or four more projects she’s going to arrive.
STACIE CHAIKEN: You’re talking about cultivating mastery — an honest inquiry.
And in time, product does come out of that, but you can’t promise that. You’re
talking about education. Gordon Davidson understood that. It was a no-brainer.
It was understood.
ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN: You’re right, this focus on product, there are so many
communities that need to knock around for a while. I think of [playwright] Lynn
Manning, who went out with Quentin Drew [together, they founded the Watts Village
Theater Company in South Los Angeles] — they were quietly developing new work,
without much attention. Just two of those people in Watts made such a huge difference.
Of course now Quentin’s died, there’s just one.
SASHA ANAWALT: What strikes me about Los Angeles is it’s not one city,
it’s seven or eight cities. Geographically, you can fit Minneapolis, Cleveland
and Boston inside of L.A. The demographics of L.A. have caught up to where Gordon
was teaching us to go. It seems to me rather than saying [about institutional
play development programs] don’t go away, don’t we need to coalesce? L.A. is getting
expensive, and the writers are going to leave. Don’t rely on not-for-profit. Rely
on profit. I do think that the mandate is pretty serious, in the big picture.
You either get it to come together, or you fail what you love.
SYLVIE DRAKE: What is the role of the Kirk Douglas?
LUIS ALFARO winces.
SYLVIE DRAKE: And is Michael Ritchie’s wooing of local companies so different
from what ASK used to do? And what about the L.A. County Arts Commission?
RAY SIMMONS: The funding they have is not that much. Most of their grants
are small. I think they make a concerted effort.
TERENCE McFARLAND: They underwrite an ongoing series of organizational
workshops, dedicated to the sustainability of the art form. They try to provide
guidance and education for the nonprofit sector. I think they’re very committed
to issues of sustainability for the field at large. They’ve been working on a
huge county report on the cultural tourist.
ANTHONY BYRNES: Are we throwing all new play development under one tent?
How much are we — are we taking the first step — saying, collectively, here’s
how our seasons fit together — sharing resources, coordinating activities?
STACIE CHAIKEN: The strongest thing we have going as a community is that
you guys got fired from the Taper.
ANTHONY BYRNES: The work is already being done, are we doing anything to
articulate — what are we doing to name what is already happening?
JON LAWRENCE RIVERA: We need a strategy for how to make that happen.
TERENCE McFARLAND: If we’re going to publicize that, how does that work?
If a workshop production is not open to the press, how do we mark it, define it?
By some kind of common aesthetic?
ANTHONY BYRNES: It goes beyond aesthetic. I believe in the process, the
journey of an artist, and that is enough. And if we approach that question earnestly,
that should be enough.
SYVLIE DRAKE: I disagree. I think an audience wants to see a finished production.
You’re talking about including a very small, specific group of people who enjoy
watching plays being built from the ground up. That’s not most audiences.
ANTHONY BYRNES: But it’s a huge city. A small slice of a big city is a
lot of people. We’re talking about the challenges around us, but a lot of what
we’re talking about wanting to happen, the activity, it’s already there.
SASHA ANAWALT: Are you at risk for losing talented people?
BART DeLORENZO: I don’t think we’re at risk of losing artists, I think
we’re talking about losing work. I think both of these organizations [ASK Theater
Projects and Center Theater Group] established a strong sense of community around
the work. I knew that when I went there, I would be with an audience that would
be engaged in the process — what a great audience — even if the play sucked. The
idea was to concentrate the work in a way that artists could meet.
LUIS ALFARO: I think a lot of it has to do with bringing in a new generation,
how to grow artists.
SYLVIE DRAKE: The reason you feel the loss of these programs is all connected
to what’s going on in the country as a whole. If the country does not feel art
is important, how do you create a new program in that environment?
STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS talks about having just returned from three cities in Poland
and Germany, where the theaters and theater festivals overflowed with audiences
in their 20s and 30s. Morris points out that the difference between the core value
of theater in Europe as an expression of youthful angst, and theater in America
as refuge for an aging, wealthy elite, stems not only from cultural difference
between the continents but from institutional ones. In America, the larger, regional
theaters have youth outreach programs, which fit into the schools’ curriculum.
The students participate, sometimes enjoy their fleeting connection to the arts,
and then move on and away, as though they’ve just completed a required, polite
visit to an aging aunt. In Britain and Europe, the alternative theaters (composed
largely of recent college graduates) take a lead in befriending and introducing
teenagers to theaters, putting them on the stage or backstage, giving them a sense
of purpose and community and an artistic source for rebellion against the sensibilities
of their parents, Morris said. This goes a long way to explaining why hundreds
of teens are waiting outside a locked fence to get into an outdoor performance
of Macbeth at the Malta Festival in Posnan, Poland — the way teens wait to get
into a rock concert or a nightclub here. Los Angeles has well over a hundred permanent
theaters of 99 seats or less, Morris points out. In terms of Alfaro’s goal of
bringing in a new generation of theater audiences and participants, the responsibility
may well lie with the small theaters.
SANDRA TSING LOH mentions her concern for the public schools, because of her own,
school-age child. She admits she’s been obsessing on so-called Democrats who spend
thousands of dollars a year to put their child in a private school, and what that
same investment in a public school could do for the children there. Loh says her
primary concern is literacy. She also mentions the excellent collaboration between
the 24th Street Theater and the Los Angeles Unified School District.
LUIS ALFARO: This is an area we’re just starting to visit. There is
a way of getting funding for these programs.
JESSICA KUBZANSKY: LAUSD has a fine playwrights-in-the-schools program.
STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS points out that the issue is not getting artists into the
schools, but getting teenage students inside and invested in the theaters.
SASHA ANAWALT: What we need is a festival. There’s exactly the same
problem in the visual arts.

[

STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS mentions that there are actually two festivals slated for
the coming weeks, REDCAT’s New Original Works (NOW) Festival, for visual and performance
artists, which played over the (July 21–24) weekend, and the Edge of the World Theater
Festival (Edgefest), scheduled for October. Morris asks REDCAT’s George Lugg and
Edgefest’s Ray Simmons to discuss the challenges each festival faces.
GEORGE LUGG: The idea behind our program is that we have an ongoing
showcase of products through the year, and the audience expectations are really
about raw work. The purpose of the NOW fest is to take those works who have been
developed through the year, through those workshops. But that’s still a special
audience. You never see your main stage subscriber say, “Oh, I want to see something
that’s really raw.”
RAY SIMMONS: [Edgefest] has evolved over the years. We don’t have the resources
to help theater companies develop new works for the festival, though the board
has started to make noises in that direction. A particular aesthetic has grown
out of the companies that founded it. We keep asking ourselves — what is edgy
work?
JON LAWRENCE RIVERA: Couldn’t the festival be about development rather
than product? Edgefest may be the perfect place for that.
LUIS ALFARO: If a few small theaters could form a consortium, there’s a
better chance at funding — when the theaters approach funders arm-in-arm. I once
went to [a funder] with that idea, and she said, I dare you to do it. So what’s
the challenge? What’s the bravery? What’s wrong?
SHAY WAFER: My question is, what would this consortium do?
LUIS ALFARO: It would be able to fund what theaters already do.
JESSICA KUBZANSKY: How do we organize it? I think it’s a fascinating idea
— connecting writers. I think there is something about knowing a festival has
been curated.
ANTHONY BYRNES: Is there something different, a further definition of new
play development, is there some level of definition beyond “It’s a new play” that
we could find?
STACIE CHAIKEN: A level of selectivity is very important . . .
SASHA ANAWALT: [Investor] Eileen Adams and Laura Zucker [L.A. County Arts
Commission] are working on changing the cultural profile of L.A. USC is interested
in becoming more of a player in Los Angeles. Working out of the journalism school,
I realized you’ve got to get [theater artists and audiences] when they’re young.
Most of them come through the public schools and the Cal States.
LUIS ALFARO: Then, how do we grow. How do you graduate? — and graduation
means a lot of things to a lot of people. Is there a need? What do you graduate
to? If there’s a notion of graduation, what is it?
SANDRA TSING LOH: I’ve been thinking of the classical repertory theaters
and the Jewish audience — God love ‘em, the saviors of the theater — the Tuesdays
With Morrie
set — San Jose Rep did it and it killed, with the old guy
in the wheel chair going, “Yeah!” I’m always chasing Charlayne Woodard, doing
her fill-in when ever she cancels. I’m thinking there’s something interesting
about different models of theater. In L.A., there’s a self-producing aspect, a
guerrilla theater. Graduation doesn’t mean going to a bigger and larger theaters,
’cause that can feel like the Ice Capades, and it changes the work.
JON LAWRENCE RIVERA: At Playwrights Arena, we were at the Los Angeles Theater
Center for a couple of years with the hopes of growing into a mid-size theater,
and we realized, with a program of all new plays by local writers, we couldn’t
even fill 99 seats. For us now, I’m not envisioning us going beyond 99 seats,
I’m hoping that our products go to other productions, other cities. And that’s
what’s happening: Edinburgh, New York, Poland.
SHAY WAFER: We do new plays with the knowledge and the commitment that
they’re going to go up, to be on the stage.
CHAY YEW: I’m interested in — Tim Dang at [at East West Players] is interested
in incorporating the [former Mark Taper Forum lab] Asian Theater Workshop — I
keep thinking about cities like Chicago, it’s just like L.A., but the difference
is that the Chicago actors can’t find TV work, so they put their energy into making
their theater what it is. They’re very proud. Can we learn from cities like Chicago,
but I’m not sure, because we double-cast, because one of them is going to go to
a commercial.
LUIS ALFARO: Chicago suffers from something we do too, they’re not very
diverse — If we create a new diversity, we can empower theaters to do new work.
CHAY YEW: It’s about people inside the theaters. Let’s face it, a theater
is just an empty building. The Mark Taper Forum is not the Mark Taper Forum without
Gordon Davidson. It’s going to be a new theater. We have a challenge because L.A.
is so wonderfully diverse. Even Gordon Davidson has said, after all those decades
of working here, he still doesn’t understand L.A. How does new work describe the
city, and how does the city define new work?
ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN speaks about ethnic-specific theaters that she’s been following.
STACIE CHAIKEN: But diversity is not about one ethnicity. Ethnic specific
work is not diversity.
SYVLIE DRAKE: The thing you’re not looking at here, I look at Luis Valdez
[author of Zoot Suit, co-produced by Teatro Campesino and the Mark Taper
Forum in 1978] and it was so exciting. If the work is exciting enough, people
will come. You can’t just say, okay, now we’re going to do Latino theater. It
has to come up from something inside. Those artists have to show up. It’s very
difficult to legislate all of that.
LUIS ALFARO: I think you have a point. But the bravest Latino artists are
coming out of different entities — not ethnic-specific. The idea is to
be brave enough to do that new work, then inspire the community to come and see
it.

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