Illustration by Guy Burwell
Starting in January, the Los Angeles Times’ ace drama critic Michael Phillips takes over as head theater critic for the Chicago Tribune — “a step up, given Chicago’s much more vibrant and satisfying theater scene,” reports Steve Rhodes in an article for Chicago magazine. In welcoming the Windy City’s newest opinion-maker, Rhodes blows some wind himself by way of characterizing Phillips’ remarks about Los Angeles, evidently based on Phillips’ two whole years at the Times.
The clichés about Los Angeles, [Phillips] says, are true. The city lacks a sense of community, largely due to its sprawl . . . And theater exists in the shadow of the real reason people are in Los Angeles — movies and television. The result, Phillips says, is that a lot of talented people are honing their chops on the stage, but they’re also constantly asking themselves, “Is the HBO guy here tonight? And can he help me?”
It’s hard to resist Rhodes/Phillips’ truisms about L.A., especially when one receives so many press packets for obvious Industry showcases stuffed with the actors’ pics and résumés, or when one sees Terri Hatcher mangle Cabaret, or when one observes how the Taper’s main season is studded with stage-inept TV stars. Then again, I just saw Dallas’ Linda Gray murder Mrs. Robinson in a production of The Graduate — but this was in London’s West End, where I suspect Ms. Gray is also waiting for the HBO guy to call. Clichés are clichés not because they’re true, but because they’re half-true. Had Phillips hung around a bit longer, he might have given more credit to the other half of theater in L.A., the half that contradicts the clichés that people in places like Chicago so enjoy hearing.
It’s hard to believe, for instance, that the artists at East L.A. Classics, Highways Performance Space, Padua Playwrights Productions, the Fabulous Monsters, Son of Semele, Zombie Joe’s, Namaste, Zoo District, Sacred Fools, Circle X, Open Fist, Evidence Room, City Garage, Theater of NOTE, Ghost Road, Playwrights Arena, Bottom’s Dream, Moving Arts, Oasis, Cornerstone, Oxblood or Celebration theaters (to name a few) are checking their comp list every night to see whether Mr. HBO is on it. If they are — given the wild theatricality of the plays they put on — they’re out of their minds. And these are companies with members in all aspects of the film/TV biz.
Commonplace wisdom has it that the only people who go to theater in L.A. are friends and family of the artists. But hold on. Was I dreaming, or have I overheard conversation after conversation this year by audience members talking about the other plays they’d seen recently? Or how about that guy at Celebration Theater’s production of Pinafore!, incensed because — thanks to a packed house — one of his group had to sit in an added chair rather than a regular seat. “Who do you know in the cast?” I asked. “Nobody,” he told me. “I organize groups of a dozen or so people for theater outings across the city.” Ditto earlier conversations in theater lobbies from the Westside to the South Bay, hinting at audiences consisting largely of homegrown devotees rather than just, well, support groups.
Our commercial theater has neither the quantity of output nor the richness of quality found in New York or London, and it can’t until card-carrying tourists start to perceive L.A. as a commercial theater center. This probably won’t happen in my lifetime, despite all the Ovation Awards to come and the Herculean efforts of boosters like Theater L.A. Barring some radical change in arts funding, our theater future seems to lie in little black boxes, in former warehouse spaces and, yes, in those homegrown audiences. (Even churches and movie theaters have been getting smaller.)
Meanwhile, in Britain they’re complaining about the demise of the funded repertory system and the courtesy that arose among actors who worked together for years. In a sweet twist of fate, and owing largely to the nature of the membership companies that form the economic base of our smaller theaters, a repertory system of sorts is thriving right here in Los Angeles, with actors who have indeed gotten to know each other — and each other’s working methods — over years, from A Noise Within, to Alliance Rep, Group Rep, Pacific Resident, the Colony, Road, Fountain and Matrix theaters, to City Garage, Actors Co-op, Theater of NOTE, Actors’ Gang, and the Company of Angels. Still, the sad fact of actors fleeing stage work to do Jack in the Box commercials remains a curse on all our houses. In London, I’m told, where actors have also been known to work for free, if they start on a play, they fulfill their commitments to it. This is one rule of a theater culture that’s here still in a fledgling phase — to put it tactfully.
Also worth noting: In London, almost every venue, from West End to fringe, is attached in some way to food and drink. Even the tiniest theaters are situated over pubs where the audiences gather before and after the play. West End restaurants offer pre- and post-theater specials. Our Music Center downtown is among a mere handful of venues approaching that relationship with local eateries. Lukewarm instant coffee in a Styrofoam cup drunk in a frigid lobby is a rotten substitute for a place, even the next block over, where a real buzz can be generated. Food and drink are, after all, where culture begins. From there, legends may take flight.
Alongside the dispiriting half-truths perpetuated by the likes of Rhodes and Phillips lies another, more significant truth about the community of which, they say, the city lacks a sense. Which makes little sense itself, given the organized core of people here who are combining resources to create theater — not, actually, to break into the Industry but to break away from it. Their story may belie the clichés, but it’s every bit as true.