STAGE FEATURE on Opus, at the Fountain Theatre


The L.A. Times devoted print space in last Sunday's paper to an email discussion of small theater in Los Angeles that transpired between the Times' Theater Critic, Charles McNulty, and me. The reactions of at least two bloggers are worthy of comment: Colin Mitchell at Bitter Lemons; and Don Shirley, writing for L.A. Stage Blog

Colin's main beef was that the cordial tone between McNulty and me was too effete.  He was annoyed by what he perceived to be McNulty's disconnect from the small theater community. Though Colin conceded that I did challenge some of the assumptions McNulty was making about showcase theater in Los Angeles, I think he wanted me to bite McNulty in the throat and sever an artery.

Writes Colin, “I was hoping Steven would just give him the old 'Are you out of your fucking mind, Chuck? What about this show and this show and this show?' He kinda does, I guess, I just needed Chuck called to the mat a little harder.”

This got me thinking how Colin felt almost squeamish

when the gloves started to come off in an earlier blog dispute between

producer Rick Culbertson and me. To quote Colin then: “Some may not

like this kind of discourse, but if civility is maintained – no matter

how fragile – I find it to be incredibly healthy and a sign of some

excellent growing pains for our community.

Well, civility was maintained last week between Charles and me, to

the point of conjuring images for Colin of two dudes in tuxedos sipping

cocktails. I think the difference is that Culbertson really pissed me

off at the time for reasons too tedious to drag back out. With McNulty,

I get a guy who's struggling to work things through, and that's a

struggle I respect. That respect influenced the tone.

McNulty takes considerable heat for the Times' anemic

coverage of local small theater, obviously because he's the paper's

front guy for the theater department. And as Don Shirley aptly pointed

out last week, the Times' failure to cover mid-size Independent

Shakespeare Company in Griffith Park boggles the mind. Combine the

self-preservation/self-mutilation instincts of daily newspapers with

the attempt by the arts section of our local paper-of-record to

position itself first as a national, then as a local, outlet.

This would explain the almost relentless coverage of shows from New

York and London by McNulty in a paper where even “local” encompasses

Berkley and San Diego, and Costa Mesa, which McNulty is also obliged to

cover — not to mention mid-size venues from Cerritos to La Mirada to

Thousand Oaks. McNulty didn't create this policy. It is, however, his

job, to carry it out. Blame the rest on diminishing space and

resources. McNulty is actually seeing more small theater in L.A. than

people appreciate, because other Times critics are reviewing those theaters. That doesn't mean that McNulty isn't showing up to many of them.

I know I'm supposed to be the snarky bulldog at the alt weekly,

jockeying for dominance by snarling and sniping at the suits on Spring

Street. Sometimes drama criticism is a blood sport, and needs to be.

But sometimes, the attempt at a serious discussion just doesn't call

for blood-letting. Sometimes we're all just trying to work things

through our perceptions and misperceptions, and find the truths that

reside somewhere between them. That's what our discussion of L.A.'s

smaller theaters was aiming for.

Over at L.A. Stage Blog, Don Shirley is a journalist and critic I've always admired, but in this, another pitch in his heartfelt campaign to promote mid-size theaters, he got a few thing wrong.

Writes Don: “The Times dialogue last Sunday very briefly

referred to three midsize organizations that I hadn't mentioned last

December – REDCAT, Overtone Industries and the Steve Allen Theatre. But

the article didn't acknowledge that these groups don't belong in the

“99-seat-or-fewer” category that was the topic of the dialogue.”

In fact, REDCAT (mostly a presenter) presents some

multi-disciplinary groups that defy categorization in Equity's standard

contract definitions, and many of the groups it presents do belong in

the 99-seat-or-fewer categories. I was introduced to NeedTheater

(currently a 99-seat-theater contract theater) through REDCAT's New

Original Works series.

He's also wrong about the Steve Allen Theatre, which is configured

for 85-90 seats, according to artistic director Amit Itelman.

Rarely, the venue is expanded for special events by moving the

hall's back wall.

Then there's an ideological divide on the potential for mid-size

theaters to solve the box-office incentive/artistic risk paradox. Don

comes up with theories as to how this would work, theories that fly in

the face of actual precedent of theaters that have made the “jump” from

99-seats to mid-size: two-to-three character plays/musicals with a

penchant for crowd-pleasing. This isn't an issue of taste but of

survival. The key to Don's kingdom of mid-size theater vitality is

subsidy – grants and patrons. This explains the success of our more

ambitious mid-size theaters such as Cornerstone Theatre Company, which

has found just the right niche to attract funders. But they've got a

lock on their brand of community-based theater, in a financial climate

not exactly conducive to upstart, risk-taking mid-size theaters.

Don concludes with the idea that there's room for all kinds of

theater, as a response to my call to improve new play development in a city where  50% of the city's theatrical output is new plays. As though either

Charles or I had argued for elimination of revivals, or classics, or

any other sub-genre. In fact, the article explicitly stated just the

opposite. Charles called for innovative directors to have a freer

reign, while I called for stronger institutional support for the

development of the kind of new works that help enhance our reputation

as a cauldron of creativity. How that would jeopardize the work being

done at, say, the Fountain Theatre or The Production Company is a

mystery to me.

Don does, however, score a big goal with his insight that our

discussion was overly Caucasian in a city that is not – a point also

picked up by the blog over at Watts Village Theatre.

LA Weekly