L.A. as Theater Town: Something's Coming

By Stayton, Richard | American Theatre, July-August 1994 | Go to article overview
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L.A. as Theater Town: Something's Coming


Stayton, Richard, American Theatre


My name is Richard and I'm a dramaholic.

Last year, fellow writers warned me about a relapse. "Don't do it!" my colleagues counseled. "Fight it. Find alternatives. This is a film and television town. There's no theatre in Los Angeles!"

But I couldn't hear their advice. Therapy didn't help. My tragic flaw--an addiction to theatre--once again became my downfall. After five years of sober careerism, I slipped back into bad habits. I began reviewing theatre for the Los Angeles Times.

I expected to hit bottom--fast.

I assumed that the oft-prophesied death of the American theatre would be most visible in Southern California--a desert haunted by the apocalyptic quartet of riots, fires, earthquakes and traffic. I assumed that much in the theatre community would be in ruins, like the burnt-out grocery stores of South Central.

After all, in the 1980s Southern California's phenomenal theatre growth had blessed my criticism for the city's second paper, the now-defunct Herald Examiner. But by 1993 it had to be a wasteland. Flat on its back lay the Mark Taper Forum's new works space, the Taper, Too, which nurtured the Pulitzer-winners Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle. The Los Angeles Theatre Center and the Grove Shakespeare Company--bankrupt. The Odyssey Ensemble's two-stage West Side space, once a mecca for experimental works, was now a Blockbuster video store. Ensemble Studio Theatre West--gone. Padua Playwrights Festival--kaput. Joe Stern's Matrix Theatre, the home of his adventurous Actors for Themselves company, was now a rental house. And little theatre's most visible champion of local playwrights, Ted Schmitt, founder of the invaluable CAST Theatre, was dead from AIDS.

So I expected the worst. But I was wrong. And those who insist that Los Angeles isn't a theatre town are wrong. Instead of the sad burial ground I expected, I found a spawning ground.

Take it from one who's been there. Since resuming drama criticism early last year, I've reviewed more that 200 stage shows--and that's a mere fraction of the total number of productions which opened in the Southland. (According to Actors' Equity Association, an estimated 530 99-seat theatres listed openings last year in greater Los Angeles, an area of roughly 432 square miles stretching from the San Fernando Valley to Orange County.)

Some of it's new. Some of it's mediocre. Some of it's good. Some of it's not. But no on can deny that there's a great deal of it.

Hollywood Row: several blocks of theatres and coffee houses where new companies like the All-U-CAN-EAT Players from Indiana work near veteran Los Angeles ensembles like Tim Robbins's Actors' Gang. Back from the dead came the Padua Playwrights Festival. New theatres like the Lost Studio and the Ivy Substation took root. An established theatre, Ron Sossi's Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, moved into a new three-stage complex. The defunct Ensemble Studio became the vibrant MET, home to Beth Henley's latest work Control Freaks. Joe Stern returned and suddenly his Matrix was the hottest theatre in Los Angeles.

But why? Are all these companies and writers and actors and directors living the L.A. showcase fantasy, just doing it for publicity, putting themselves out there to be discovered by the Industry? No, too much of it's too theatrical, too off-the-media-track. Would the Actor's Gang celebrate its new theatre with an outrageous, anarchic, postmodern version of The Oresteia in order to find work on Roseanne?

The Mark Taper Forum's classic repertory workshop actors spent four years evolving the Antaeus Company, then debuted with a revelatory interpretation of Chekhov's first play, The Wood Demon.

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