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

November 27, 2009 | 10:00 am


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

Comments () | Archives (21)

Bravo - the wealth of theater productions in Los Angeles or greater Southern California is remarkable for any city or metropolitan area. Realization by others is long overdue.

Well said, Mr. McNulty, and welcome. L.A is still a relatively young city and it's been dramatically growing artistically and culturally over the last decade. I also think it's important to note that, in spite of its flaws, the city has managed to achieve its global status in a fraction of the time other world cities have. People seem to have a strange myopia when it comes to that, but it's their ignorance, not ours.

I agree that there is plenty of performing arts events to see in the LA area. I can't get into worrying if someone else had more theater than LA. I am too busy attending different events here.

The notion that Southern California lags behind in certain arts is one of the most dated (and boring.) Enjoy your time off!

Good Point. So why isn't there a theatre section of your newspaper?

Don't make me REMIND New York and the rest of the country that LA once had more Theatres (live and Film) on Broadway in Downtown LA than Broadway in NYC!

(whomever remarked that LA was still a "young city" clearly has not an inkling of the history here. The problem is they've torn half of it down.)

I'm a native whom also spent 12 years in Manhattan.

AMEN!! Glad to see this on the front of the calendar section today.I blog about the Theatre in LA(along with film and TV), in an effort to get more people aware of great shows. Course your schedule puts me to shame. But as they say, what a wonderful way to go, buried in playbills!

Dear Charles,

I was grateful to see your article about LA theatre, and in particular your plug for larger budget theaters to more actively support local directors; and may I add: local designers, choreographers, composers and playwrights.

As a long time member of the theatre community I think it's time to do something more: sound an alarm about the state of Southern California's professional theater community.

Having been fortunate to have a long-term artistic post at one of LA's biggest resident theaters and now having been an active free-lance writer/director for the last two years, I'm seeing all too clearly the enormous chasm between the two worlds.

It's nearly impossible for independent theatre artists in Southern California, no matter the degree of success, to sustain themselves here without self-subsidy from teaching, commercial work or other "day jobs". We live in arguably the largest and most robust economic region in the country, and yet the number of independent working professionals making most of their income from Southland theatre is miniscule. And the number of resident artistic positions (compared to producing positions) has dwindled to almost none. Our region is as large as New York, larger than Chicago, and yet we have precious few artists living and working here who earn their living from local theatre or who garner national respect. Maybe even worse, we have lost countless talent to commercial film and television and to New York.


The fault, dear Brutus, lies….in ourselves. I know this from being on the inside of large theatres and on now the outside. Southland artists can’t get no respect! Or more pointedly, they get the respect only when they make it somewhere else.

By not taking the lead and hiring local artists consistently and robustly, Southland theatres are short-circuiting the long term potential of the regions’ artistic community. They are leaving local artists out of the national creative conversations and opportunities. When they do hire them and use them on less prestigious projects, revivals etc, they stymie their aspirations.

Fewer opportunities results in higher expectations per opportunity, results in a greater likliehood that an artist will fail to meet expectations. This is a self fulfilling pattern. Even with the robust resident artist programs like those I worked in at the Taper, it took a decade or more for resident directors like Chay Yew, Lisa Peterson, and myself to reach the main stages and garner the respect of the press as well as the leadership of the theatre.

Today, I’m not aware that there are programs supporting Southland young or mid career artists at any of the larger theatres. I’m all too aware that there are almost no positions like the one I held for two decades at any theatres along the South Coast. Without these positions in place, there is absolutely no chance that a home-grown artist will become a nationally respected one.

Lately, it seems we’ve become inured to this reality. And that’s no good for Southland theatre. And while your article serves an important purpose, much more needs to be done to effect real change.

With an almost complete dependence in the areas of press and promotion, as well as grants and opening night speeches on a production moving to New York ...as the bar set for excellence, we're losing a chance to define a specific West Coast aesthetic, one that could resonate well beyond our time and place, for this generation.

One of the reasons I left CTG in 2007 was to pursue this notion. I am a Southern California artist, with a specific set of interests and aesthetic ideas bred from 25 years of living here. Sadly, I've found that this focus is barely on the radar of most large theatres in the area. Imagine if LA's museums and curators ignored California artists, or if the music world ignored the pop and new music visionaries who come up regularly through the clubs and concert spaces of the West Coast?

We all know fantastic playwrights, directors, designers, choreographers and composers who can't get theatre work in Los Angeles, or not enough to stay in theatre here. They end up working in film and television, teaching or leaving town. Privately you see how angry they feel about being ignored by LA theatre but after years and years of being undervalued, they do what anyone would, they turn their energies elsewhere. Not surprisingly, they are almost always a huge success in other arenas.

Then there are the amazing die hard artist/producers like John Rivera, Tim Dang, Jessica Kubzansky and Michael Michetti and many others who run their own smaller theatres, who have proven themselves artistically, and still are more or less ignored by larger theatres. And how many others are in line behind them who can't progress? All this because the system simply doesn't value local artists in the same way it does those from New York? Now add color and gender, mix liberally, and you get a sense of the desperation one feels standing outside the doors of the institutions meant to support our community.

What would happen if hospitals didn’t serve local doctors as well as patients? Or schools didn’t serve local teachers as well as students? Instead they contracted with professionals from out of town to heal and teach? What would happen to the local community when doctors and teachers couldn't support themselves here? This is the equivalent of what is happening in our field.

In a short sighted strategy to retain audiences theatres stamp " bound for" or "straight from" New York on a show, leaving the contributions and accomplishments of every local artists out of the equation. This only serves to further dis-empowered local talent. Of course this phenomenom is not just happening in Southern California, but pointedly and most urgently for my colleagues, it is by far the worst in our home town.

I don’t blame anyone working on the problem today. The leaders, the boards, etc are trying to SURVIVE. I applaud their efforts and I remember how hard the work to survive can be.

For almost a generation the whole art community has suffered from a retrograde national arts policy, the taboo against supporting independent artists and the obsession for commercial transfers. Out of this, we’ve created a monster over which artists and leadership seem to have almost no control.

Limiting the power of artists in favor of institutions shifted the relationship from our being free agents with grants to spend into glorified servants of institutions, funders and audiences.

Unlike painters whose value is held in the materiality of their paintings and whose audience and patron are one and the same elite individuals, theatre artists’ value and power is held in trust and, some would say, check by the institutions. Virtually no theatre artist has the means of production in their own hands, and as times have become more difficult the commercial artist has gained power while the cutting edge artist has lost the leverage to make a deal.

A form of artistic begging's become a regular activity. Wage and fee deflation weren’t far behind. Self subsidy is now an accepted fact. Try paying for your children's education on a free lance theatre artists' salary. And thus, by default we've sacrificed ourselves to get by in the system that we allowed to be subverted. Now with dwindling audiences and difficult fund raising (on top of a world wide recession), the mandate of large theaters is "SURVIVE" at any cost. That cost is the health of the artist.

Like a scene on the Titanic, there’s a string quartet playing, while thousands of souls fall overboard.

Now....Imagine the power Southland theaters have to transform the artistic community locally if they consistently support West Coast theatre artists in the way that Chicago has cultivated it own? This takes guts. This takes time. This takes a stomach for failure...all of which is very hard for any artistic director to pull off unless the critical, philanthropic and civic community stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

What we need desperately is a regional dialogue about the balance between artists needs and institutional needs. We need a conversation about what constitutes a healthy theatre local community. Most urgent we need to debate how local, state and national support from individuals, boards, foundations and government can create a sustainable arts environment.

Eat Local. Art Local.

Corey Madden

Thank you Corey Madden for your excellent reply to this article. I live in New York and attend the theatre twice weekly. I was recently in Los Angeles and made it a point to check out your theatre scene once again. Thanks to Goldstarevents.com; LA Stages and 411 I was able to see Parade ( Mark Taper), Life Could Be A Dream ( Hudson Thea.) Scarcity ( The Imagined Life Thea. , Louis and Keely ( Geffen Thea. , ( Two weeks in Hawaii and back to L.A. for another seven days ) to see Equivocation ( Geffen, Main stage), Baby It's You ( Pasadena Playhouse), Tamerlona ( Dorothy Chandler) and Mary Poppins (Ahmansion Thea.) and was glad I did all of the above. Yes, theatre is alive in L.A. you just have to check out the scene and it's all before you. I have to add that I stayed downtown and used your subway and buses which took longer but got me there none the less. Your metro system is available with the help of the Metro Bus and Metro Rail System Map I managed nicely with it.

This article was looooonnnng overdue. I've been living in LA since 1990, and the theatre community has been struggling and striving throughout this time to gain a foothold into the city as a viable entertainment option without much help from the LA Times. In New York, London, Toronto (among other "theatre cities"), theatre doesn't have to battle it out with vampires, blue aliens or shrieking pituitary cases. Children are brought up to appreciate and love theatre, which benefits from continual press coverage. Due to the obsessive scrutiny of celebrity in LA, it is notable that almost any and every production that boasts a "name", the play is reviewed within its first week by the LA Times. Other productions -- equally good if not superior -- must wait and wait until the end of a run (or more likely, not at all) for a reviewer to appear. LA theatres are dying for audiences, and most productions simply cannot afford the costs of promotion, and thus the general public know nothing about what's playing and why they should consider seeing live theatre opposed to one more cinematic re-boot/remake/re-cycle. Mr. McNulty's op-ed is certainly a much appreciated step in the right direction, but until the LA Times editor(s) elevate theatre coverage and promotion to equal standing with film and television, LA theatre will continue to limp along unrecognized, under-valued and derided.

Well, it is about time that someone stood up for the variety and complexity of theater in Los Angeles and Southern California! Hear, hear! Yet, one of the legs of an important theater center is the critical base that supports it besides those organizations that do that, sometimes appearing as mutual admiration societies. Yet who can blame them when there is no real nor discriminating recognition of the work of artists in so-called "smaller" theatres by the editors of the Los Angeles Times, and specifically the editor of the Calendar section, where their reviews are squeezed together every Thursday in one column? And, come to think of it, if we are truly not going to bow to the New York Times as the sole arbiter of what are the culturally noteworthy theaters in this country, why are you, the lead theater critic of the Times, not a member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle?

I lived n LA for nearly ten years and when I went to the theatre I was always disappointed. Finally I performed at the Ahmanson a few years ago. I saw the process from the inside. LA IS a theatre town.... a third rate one.

Just read Corey Madden's article. It clarified my thinking. LA needs a top rate acting school.... theatre acting school. Without such there is really no hope.

Does anyone really think that nyc is stil the standard bearer for art/theater in the u.s.? seriously.


While the information provided by Actors' Equity Association is factually correct, there's some contextualization that needs to be done to make the Los Angeles versus Seattle theatre concentration an apples-to-apples comparison.

First off, it should be noted that the 79 theatre figure quoted also includes companies that reside far outside of Los Angeles proper, ranging as far north as Ojai, as far south as San Diego and as far east as Rancho Mirage; cities that, even given Angelinos' noted affinity for driving, stretch credibility in terms of being characterized as "Los Angeles theatres".

So, factoring out these more distant companies in reality the number of theatres should really be 58, that is, the number within the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, which covers some 4,850 square miles, as compared to the Seattle Metropolitan Area's much more compact 142 square miles. This works out to an average concentration of 1 theatre per 83.6 square miles in the L.A.M.A. versus a much higher concentration of 1 per 9.5 square miles for the S.M.A.

And it should be noted that, of the 15 Equity houses in the Seattle Metropolitan Area, all but three reside less than three miles from the City core, and only one is more than 18 miles distant, which would make the concentration for the the City of Seattle itself even greater.

Finally, given the comparative populations of the two Metropolitan Areas - 19 mm for Los Angeles, versus 4.1 mm for Seattle - the number of professional theatres per-capita works out to 1 theatre per 330,000 population for L.A. versus 1 per 270,000 population for Seattle, which would seem to be a much fairer standard of measurement for comparative purposes.

So, while there is no question Los Angeles theatre has been unfairly maligned (one might more accurately characterize it as being "overshadowed" by the film and television industries) in the national press, it would be equally unfair to make any correction to the record, as Mr. McNulty quite reasonably attempts to do, without taking these other factors into consideration when comparing the relative merits of L.A.'s theatre scene over Seattle's.

I was born and raised in the suburbs of L.A., but have been living in Cleveland, OH for 15 years. I go back home to LA at least once a year, as well as visit Chicago and NYC often.

I have friends in Chicago and Southern California, as well a brother in NYC, all of whom are members of Actors Equity and they can tell you that one of the biggest deterrents to making a living in Southern California or Chicago as an actor is that so many of the auditions for the productions in LA, San Diego, or Chicago are in NYC. Shows that will be Broadway bound, for example, from houses such as The La Jolla Playhouse or Old Globe will have NO auditions in Southern California - NYC only. My brother maintains his Equity card with a yearly contract, but it's always an out-of-state job with a New York City audition. My San Diego Equity friend can't afford to fly to NYC but maybe once every two years to audition for shows with roles available for her that will be produced in San Diego.

If these Equity houses would stop relying solely on NYC actors and auditions and start concentrating on casting locally - or at least offer local auditions in the first place - they might be able to cultivate an even stronger theatrical culture and presence in these tough economic times.

Fabulous article and EVEN better response by Corey Madden!

Hire locally!

~ Edgar

Fantastic article. Thank you for standing up for LA's theatre scene. Don Shirley recently wrote a piece along the same lines, on http://www.lastageblog.com. He was responding to a piece on NY theatre (and Joe Papp) that was, interestingly enough, in the LA Times. I hope that this means we'll be seeing more coverage of LA theatre in the Times!

Having recently moved from a dramaturgical background in Seattle and relocated to Los Angeles I find this discussion to be incredibly important. Yes, Los Angeles has a lot of theaters. But I would argue that Seattle is a lot closer to figuring out the whole "theatre as community" thing. All shows at the Seattle Rep, Intiman, Book-It, Live Girls etc. offer tickets to those under age 25 for $15. Fifteen bucks is something most people can spend on a night out on the town. Good luck finding that at Mark Taper...or REDCAT for that matter. You're almost always looking at tickets in the $40-$60 range. That kind of exclusivity makes this a less friendly town for theatre and the artists who struggle to support it.

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