Art by Bill SmithIn order to assess local theater activity over the past year, the Weekly spoke with three experts in the field who gathered for a recorded conversation over brunch at Marie Callender’s restaurant in Museum Square.
Thornton Byle, an avid theater watcher, has written drama criticism for the Times of London, Mannheim Möde and the New Jersey News. He’s probably best known for his distinguished co-direction (with Peter Stein) of an all-male production of Hamlet at East Berlin’s 1963 Östdeutscher Rundfunk Theater Festival, in which Byle also starred as Hamlet in a performance that earned him Rundfunk’s coveted Karl Marx Award for Good Work. Byle is the author of Progression, a “consumer guide to living well without guilt.” He is a large man in many ways, weighing in at some 300 pounds. At our meeting, he was wearing bifocals with thick black rims, sporting a bushy gray goatee and dressed from head to toe in black spandex. He lives with his teenage boyfriend, Dwayne, in Bel Air. Both are Ovation voters.
Melinda McTavish is the recipient of last year’s distinguished NAACP Looking Forward Prize for her work engaging African-American schoolchildren in the arts. She has organized and sponsored youth bus tours to LACMA and the Getty Museum, and to L.A. Chamber Orchestra concerts and stage performances at the Los Angeles Theater Center. McTavish, 36, was wearing a pixie hairdo and a tasteful maroon business suit with matching clog shoes and tote bag. She lives with her husband, Clyde, in Hermosa Beach, where, she notes, they’re the only black homeowners on their block.
Janucz Brotswatzlinczkrowczki received his Ph.D. in theater from UCLA in 1996, after studying Azerbaijani literature at the Gdansk Institute of Letters, and having escaped political and artistic oppression in his native Poland. Last year, he received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study “the effervescent alternative-theater scene in Los Angeles” and “the dubious relationship of arts funding to artistic freedom.” Brotswatzlinczkrowczki, a diminutive man in his mid-40s, was dressed in a white turtleneck sweater, tan slacks and gold-rimmed spectacles on his shaved head. He lives alone.
L.A. WEEKLY: What were the high points, and the low points, of local theatergoing in 2000?
JANUCZ BROTSWATZLINCZKROWCZKI: I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, after having read the reviews, but I was personally taken with Martin Guerre at the Ahmanson. I’m not generally a fan of musicals . . .
THORNTON BYLE: Only of bad musicals.
BROTSWATZLINCZKROWCZKI: The idea of a soldier slipping into the guise of his best friend, hiding the news of his friend’s death from the village so he can live with his friend’s wife and, at the same time, keep his friend’s spirit alive . . . beautiful idea. Very French.
BYLE: Did you see the movie? The movie was truer. The musical turned it into sugar candy. The music was insufferable, and the lyrics were worse.
BROTSWATZLINCZKROWCZKI: I liked it a lot. The only thing I liked all year in a big theater.
BYLE: Better than Jitney [August Wilson’s play at the Mark Taper Forum]? Better than Metamorphoses [Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Ovid’s tales, set in and around wading pools, also at the Taper]? Better than Death of a Salesman [at the Ahmanson, featuring Brian Dennehy]? Better than Dennehy? Martin Guerre?!
BROTSWATZLINCZKROWCZKI [nervously rubbing his finger across the condensation of his water glass, staring at the ice cubes]: Sorry, but Metamorphoses let me down. All that splish-splashing. Zimmerman’s work was so much more soulful a couple of years earlier in Arabian Nights at the Actors’ Gang. Yes, Martin Guerre had more . . . [Byle is now visibly flushed with rage] Thornton, calm down. Have another enchilada. Mind if I call you Thornton?
BYLE: All my friends call me Thorn. [As he chuckles at his own joke, a sliver of masticated shrimp shoots from his teeth to the tablecloth; he dabs at the stain with his napkin.]
MELINDA McTAVISH: I liked Mack and Mable at UCLA. Charming.
BYLE: So did I.
WEEKLY: Any discernible trends?
BROTSWATZLINCZKROWCZKI: A lot of musical chairs: Colony Theater Company finally making their move from Silver Lake to Burbank, Pasadena’s Knightsbridge Theater swooping in and grabbing Colony’s old space, A Noise Within going back to their old Glendale digs after their fiasco of a season at Cal State L.A., Moving Arts and Playwrights Arena both taking up residence at the Los Angeles Theater Center, the Attic Theater Company headed â
north to the Valley . . .
McTAVISH: And I heard a rumor that Tim Robbins is returning to the Actors’ Gang to direct a show next season.
WEEKLY:That’s not yet confirmed. We shouldn’t be spreading gossip.
McTAVISH: All right. I won’t say another word about it.
BYLE: This is all sugarcoating on the larger, obvious trend that the theater is dying. Here and everywhere.
BROTSWATZLINCZKROWCZKI: Do you have any empirical proof of that?
BYLE: Of course not. What a stupid question. Just look around you. Did you see the lines around the block for the third week of Meet the Parents? Did you see anything comparable for the stage?
McTAVISH: How can you say such a thing after The Lion King has arrived?
BYLE: I concede that point. The Lion King was for me among the most profound and intoxicating experiences in a decade. I’m not embarrassed to say it changed my life. It could well bring Hollywood back from the ashes. And Julie Taymor is a genius. But aside from The Lion King, the theater is dying.
BROTSWATZLINCZKROWCZKI: Julie Taymor’s gifts were wasted on a stupid story and insipid music. It’s a Disney cartoon with a $15 million budget, for chrissake! But never mind that. Let me interject with some facts: According to the latest figures compiled by David Lotz of Actors Equity in New York, in the 12-month period between June 1999 and May 2000, at least 900 shows opened in New York City, not including off-off-Broadway shows, performance art and the like. Meanwhile in L.A., in the 12-month period from January to December 2000, a comparable 900 to 1,000 shows opened — not counting performances that ran less than two weeks. That’s a lot of activity, most of it by people working for a pittance or for free, on turf with some of the highest living expenses in the country. And this is not about Hollywood auditions. This is about City Garage playing Heiner Müller’s MedeaText for months, and Sacred Fools and Circle X and Actors’ Co-op, Pacific Resident Theater, Pasadena Shakespeare Company, Actors’ Gang, Alliance Repertory Company, Cornerstone Theater Company, A Noise Within, Open Fist Theater, Theater of NOTE, Zoo District and countless other rep companies with ensembles that hang together, sometimes for decades, because of a general belief — an active, subterranean, volcanic belief — that theater, and small theater in particular, can offer an alternative to the culture of CityWalk and Disney cartoons passing themselves off as experience! And you say the theater is dying . . . ?! [Brotswatzlinczkrowczki abruptly stops, realizing that he is standing and clutching a fork in his fist, which he has been slamming onto the table for punctuation. He apologizes to the waiter, who is staring at him, and slowly returns to his seat. Nobody says anything for two minutes.]
McTAVISH: That’s why it’s so important to get children into the theater. They are the future audiences, after all. Most audiences say they attend theater because of theatergoing experiences they had as children.
BYLE [after another excruciating silence]: I hate children. I wish they would all grow up. If I had my way, I’d sit in the Pantages all by myself, or maybe just with Dwayne, and we could watch The Lion King over and over. [To Brotswatzlinczkrowczki:] I believe you underestimate the appeal of escape. You’re wrong, my friend. Cartoons don’t pass themselves off as experience. Experience is what we pay good money to flee. If you’ll excuse me, they just put out a new tray of desserts.