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Theater brawl: Yes, L.A.'s cup runneth over

November 27, 2009 | 10:00 am
Equivoblog

Stereotypes stick in your craw because of their willful obliviousness. One that I’ve had to contend with as the theater critic for The Times is the notion that L.A. isn’t a theater town.

“I didn’t know they had theater there,” is a line that has actually been uttered with a straight face in my direction. Yes, here in Tinseltown we also have hospitals, schools and museums, along with all the movie studios and scandalous starlets.

In a recent New York Times “Escapes” article about the vibrancy of Seattle as a theater town, I ruefully noted the cliché about L.A. theater rearing its ugly head again — and from someone who ought to know better: “One of the reasons I came to Seattle was because there’s a theater scene here unlike most other cities,” said Brian Colburn, managing director of the Intiman Theatre, who moved there last year from the Pasadena Playhouse in Southern California. “There’s probably as much theater here as in the city of Los Angeles, but the population is one-sixth the size. You can walk from theater to theater here, meet friends or colleagues at a cafe.”

Baby its you 2 I decided to put Colburn’s “probably” to the test and contact an organization that tracks such matters.

According to an Actors’ Equity Assn. spokesperson, there are roughly 79 theaters in Los Angeles that use one form of equity contract or another, a number that doesn’t include any big sit-down productions or the 40 or so theaters that sometimes use an Equity member or a guest artist or special appearance contract. Nor does it include the huge number of 99-seat productions each year (verging around 1,000, was the estimate).

"In Seattle,” the spokesperson continued, "there are 15 equity theaters and an additional 16 that sometimes use the special appearance or guest artist contracts."

I'll let Colburn work out the math. But since numbers aren’t always as persuasive as anecdotes, let me get personal about this: I moved to Los Angeles from New York, where I was fairly established as a theater editor, critic and professor. I love Seattle and admire the undeniable vitality of its theater scene. And I have a few friends up north, including Misha Berson, the theater critic for the Seattle Times. But in all honesty I can’t imagine I would have left my settled life in New York for a drama critic post in Seattle (though the beauty of the natural scenery would have made it awfully tempting).

I never had the bias that some New Yorkers have about L.A. theater because I worked for many years in the professional theater and was keenly aware of Southern California as a fertile land of new theatrical work. During my tenure as the literary manager of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., it seemed as if I were always reading plays that had been either commissioned or first produced at such powerhouses as the Mark Taper Forum, South Coast Repertory, La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe. 

What's more, I knew that experimental theater was alive and well in L.A. at REDCAT and UCLA Live. And then all my friends who already lived here told me that the "real" scene was happening at the under-the-radar smaller theaters, which may not be walkable, like in Seattle, but are so abundant that you never have to drive too far and, believe it or not, I get around by foot more than you might think from my home in West Hollywood.

L.A. theater has its share of problems. I’ve written in the past that I think it’s too actor centric — that directors should be granted more of a leading role in the shaping of the culture. In particular, I wish that the larger institutions, such as Center Theatre Group, the Geffen Playhouse and South Coast Repertory, would be more actively cultivating the next generation of artistic directors from our impressive crop of local directors.

I applauded the announcement that Kate Whoriskey, one of the country’s best young directors, will be Intiman Theatre’s new artistic director beginning in 2011, following a year in which she will share artistic leadership with the Seattle theater’s current artistic director, Bartlett Sher. I also thought Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps was wise to bring on Dámaso Rodriguez as associate artistic director during Colburn’s time as managing director. Maybe CTG, the Geffen or SCR will be forward-thinking enough to offer someone like Bart DeLorenzo a permanent place at the artistic table.

Colburn’s comment came during one of the busiest points in the theater calendar for me. Coincidentally, Bill Cain’s highly sought-after play, “Equivocation," is enjoying productions in L.A. and Seattle right now. But the Geffen Playhouse opening was just the tip of the iceberg for me. In addition to reviewing two new musicals (“Baby It’s You!” at Pasadena Playhouse and “Bonnie & Clyde" at La Jolla Playhouse), I also got to cover the exciting Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s “The Walworth Farce” at UCLA Live, the West Coast premiere of “Mary Poppins" at the Ahmanson Theatre, the touring Shakespeare's Globe Theatre of London production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” at the Broad Stage. And somehow in the midst of this diverse onslaught and an article on the 40th anniversary of the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, I caught the U.S. premiere of TR Warszawa’s "T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T." — a rare chance to see the work of Polish director Grzegorz Jarzyna, one of Europe’s most highly regarded auteurs.

To tell you the truth, I’m bushed and am looking forward to relaxing over the next few days. I could have gone home to New York for a family Thanksgiving, but instead I'm taking advantage of the cultural options at my new home. My agenda: To see the Irving Penn exhibit at the Getty; finally experience in person the theatrical charisma of conductor Gustavo Dudamel at the Walt Disney Concert Hall; check out the REDCAT show “Arias With a Twist,” which my colleague Charlotte Stoudt enthusiastically praised; and attend the LA Opera's  “The Barber of Seville.”

God willing, I’ll find a little spare time to play some (outdoor!) tennis and work off that extra piece of pumpkin pie before I’m back on my theater beat.

-- Charles McNulty

Photo: A scene from the Geffen Playhouse production of "Equivocation." Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times. Bottom: A scene from "Baby It's You!" at Pasadena Playhouse. Credit: Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times

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