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Pasadena Playhouse: A time to rethink fundamentals

January 29, 2010 |  5:06 pm

Playhouse Pasadena Playhouse’s announcement that it will close on Feb. 7 after the final performance of “Camelot” while trying to find a way out of its current financial straits is sad news for its soon-to-be out-of-work employees, the surrounding business district that depends on it, the local cultural life of Pasadena and the greater theater community of Southern California, of which the playhouse is a long-standing pillar.

Artistic diminishment of this kind is a spiritual loss. I remember the actress Glenn Close remarking at the site of a prospective new theater in Princeton, N.J., that such an undertaking is comparable to the founding of a church. The idea was that theater serves an analogous function in our lives—for group reflection, confession, expiation and celebration. The South African playwright Athol Fugard echoed this sentiment in a more secular way, stressing “the central importance of theater to the psychic well-being and sanity of a society."

If the American theater lost sight of this broader purpose in the boom years of yesterday, perhaps the economic hardships of today will help us regain our bearings. The signs at the moment, however, are not auspicious. The New Year has arrived and many theaters remain dark; in others, revivals of box-office-wooing musicals and inconsequential dramedies dominate. The consumerist model continues its stranglehold.

This approach has left us with a glut of chestnuts that only those addicted to the familiar can get excited about, and the irony is that it's clearly not bringing in enough dough. Truth be told, theatergoers no longer find theatergoing indispensable. Subscriptions are a luxury too many are happy to do without when households start belt-tightening, and even single tickets can seem like a risky investment. Why spend 100 bucks (not counting parking) when you and your significant other can cut your entertainment expenditures by $75 without the fear of gratuitous boredom taking a chunk out of your weekly budget?

Ever since hearing the somber news about Pasadena Playhouse, I keep thinking of the title of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski's book “Towards a Poor Theatre.” This revolutionary text from the late 1960s was all about returning to fundamentals. For Grotowski, the essence of theater was in the communion between actors and audiences. Sublime things, in short, could occur in meager rooms, with limited technical capacity and a paucity of props, when performers were illuminated with radical purpose and spectators were receptive to having their paradigms budged.

I’m not advocating that actors live in communes and playgoers form cults. But I do wish that artistic directors would examine more honestly their reason for making theater. The art form relies on robust institutions, yet these institutions need to care more about the contributions of their artists than the décor of their lobbies. “Starchitecture” and other forms of what has been waggishly referred to as theater’s “edifice complex” have led us down an expensive cul-de-sac. No wonder patrons would rather stay home with Anderson Cooper than fight traffic for Neil Simon and intermission wine. When reality gets tough, tedious unreality is easily sacrificed, no matter how attractive the ambience. 

I’m not singling out the State Theater of California, Pasadena Playhouse’s special designation. The last thing I want to do is kick a theater when it’s down and desperate to reorganize. Artistic director Sheldon Epps deserves a round of applause for diversifying his theater’s offerings and audience to better reflect the face of Southern California, even if his taste has too often headed in an unchallenging commercial direction.

The situation I’m describing—one in which marketing has in effect become the mission—is a widespread ill. But perhaps the notion of finding opportunity in adversity can turn out to be more than a tired cliche. Give the people something that they really need and they’ll find a way to afford it. The challenge is getting them to sample what they might not know to be good for them. Once theatrically bitten, twice shy. But courage is contagious, and loyal support will follow when souls are nourished. 

--Charles McNulty


Pasadena Playhouse will close Feb. 7

Above: David Beringer of Pasadena bounds up the stairs to the box office at the Pasadena Playhouse to buy tickets for a performance of "Camelot." Photo credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times 

Comments () | Archives (22)

" But I do wish that artistic directors would examine more honestly their reason for making theater. "

take that, and apply it to all the arts in LA. Thank you Charles McNulty. It is a rare occasion to find intelligence among the writers in the arts section.

Part of the problem was the artistic director who should have been removed years ago!

I’m sorry to see it go and I hope it will be resurrected. But I don’t think you can blame it all on what’s playing or the houses themselves. When we place little attention and importance on theatre and the arts in general in our schools and elsewhere we hold it back. Society has many more distractions and things to do today and theatre has to find its place within that. When too many kids and young adults think it’s “boring and stupid” we stop creating new patrons. Every theatre wants to get top price for their product but at $100-plus per ticket it is too expensive for many on a regular basis; even $75 is costly, especially now. I’m not sure if they lowered the price if it would put people in seats, or if the interest and importance of attending the theatre has become an outdated image.

I have mixed feelings about the demise of the Pasadena Playhouse. On one hand, this is, architecturally speaking, one of the gem theatres of California. On the other hand, I can't remember the last time I've seen a play here that was relevant. It's sad that its last production will be "Camelot" because therein lies the problem. A revival of a much-maligned, mediocre-to-begin with musical reeks of nothing but a community theatre production.

Broadway is a long, long way from California, yet this theatre made little effort to bring some recently acclaimed works to Los Angeles. Why didn't they work with Broadway and Off-Broadway productions to bring some of these new plays here, even after they closed in New York? I would have loved to have seen All My Sons, David Mamet's November, The Farnsworth Invention, the all-black version of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, Kristen Scott Thomas in The Seagull, Brian Dennehy and Carla Gugino in Desire Under the Elms, Ragtime, Finian's Rainbow, etc, etc. etc. There are plenty of great, critically acclaimed productions that are barely squeaking by in New York. If Pasadena could be a legitimate West Coast repository of Broadway or Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, they would be off to a good start.

The Playhouse also kept churning out pre-Broadway tryouts: Mask, Sister Act, Ray, etc. Enough! It never had the reputation of the excellent La Jolla playhouse for new works, yet time and again subscribers had to suffer through unfinished, sloppy musicals that went nowhere after premiering for good reason.

And lets face it...stars sell. Seriously....there are many big stars in Los Angeles, but so few on the Pasadena Playhouse stage. Most of them end up at the Geffen (probably because of its proximity to Malibu, Brentwood and Beverly Hills), but the fact that no big name actors only added to the problem. Stars + Good Plays = Success.

So the poor Pasadena Playhouse ended up a beautiful theatre with pleasant, if mediocre productions. No wonder it died. Sad, sad day for theatre. Sad.

Weren't some of our finest actors and directors supported by the WPA during the Great Depression? John Houseman? Orson Welles?

Didn't the government build the Dock Street Theater in Charleston, SC as one of its public works projects?

Isn't the President committed to job creation?

Considering so much of the greater LA economy is tied to arts and entertainment, wouldn't assisting the Pasadena Playhouse and other struggling theaters be a prudent investment in the region and its people?

Truer words were never spoken about the state of the American Theatre. We are in a time where there is an over-abundance of media stimulation coming from many different angles. The theatre must find a way to reach people in a way that tv/film/new media cannot do. Why would anyone want to pay $100 to see The Lion King on Broadway when they could just watch the film online for free? Eventually the novelties of the commercialized theatre and its spectacle will wear off and those once-successful Broadway franchises will be remiss to find an audience. The theatre must become even more clear about what it wants to say, how it wants to say it and who it wants to say it to. Re-evaluation is crucial.

$100 a ticket is ludicrous. That's 10 hours of work at minimum wage and a helluva lot of people work for min wage. Plus the work of driving there + cost of gas + cost of wear and tear on car + cost of parking + cost of refreshments + cost of babysitter. It amazes me that anyone ever goes to any theater when you can see a performance of anything on DVD at home for a buck. And the poor actors who have to perform the same show again and again and again. I don't know how they stand it.

But we needn't worry about institutions like the Ahmanson or Mark Taper which put on great performances and certainly people who will pay for the productions there. I think for instance of "Osage County" which I saw last summer(of course my girl friend paid for this so I got lucky:-)

My wife is a very accomplished actress. Last year she appeared in 4 plays including a very strong production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She exposed me during our dating to LA Theater. What the writer writes is not the reality I have observed over the last 20 years. LA Theater needs marketing to compete with all the other entertainment venues available to the public. Theater needs the hype in order to get people to attend.
I have been in theaters seeing wonderful, very highly skilled and professional acting with only 5 to 10 other people sitting in the audience. These equity waver theaters don't have the funds to promote themselves and hence don't get money to really pay the actors or promote their plays.
As a Pasadena resident and lover of the Pasadena Playhouse I was thrilled to see the the large African American audiences at a couple of the recent plays. What this theater was trying to do for the public was terrific but they still couldn't generate the revenue to go on. Something is dreadfully wrong with our collective priorities when an established theater like this can't do any better than some of those equity waver theaters I have attended.

For theatre to succeed, it must overcome the "spectacular" image that comes from the big Broadway show, and the elitist patrician image often provided by the media. Live theatre is available in this city at affordable prices, focusing on the quality of the art, not the quality of the spectacular.

Mr. McNulty is right when he feels the sadness at the loss of a theatre, and bemoans the ediface complex. But readers must not forget the excellent theatre that exists all over Southern California -- not just in Hollywood or downtown (for example, we're going to see "Lost in Yonkers" in Newhall at REP East tomorrow, quite affordibly). Theatre can be seen for a price equivalent to a movie in a good theater (less, if you don't hit the snack bar :-)), and you'll be seeing something unique, not something you can see on your home screen.

Support a local theatre today!

I completely agree with this premise. Many theater companies are community benefit corporations (AKA nonprofits). When the productions are all about "the theater" they lose touch with serving their audiences. This egoistic narcissism runs rampant in the nonprofit sector. There are signs of hope. Artists Rep in Portland stages magnificent productions in a small intimate venue and consistently brings the community "paradigm budging" works. Ticket specials sometimes lower the price to $20. Same can be said of the small black box room at Portland Center Stage. Point being: the farther one gets from Hollywood, the closer one gets to artistic integrity with a passionate connection with the community it serves.

I completely agree with this premise. Many theater companies are community benefit corporations (AKA nonprofits). When the productions are all about "the theater" they lose touch with serving their audiences. This egoistic narcissism runs rampant in the nonprofit sector. There are signs of hope. Artists Rep in Portland stages magnificent productions in a small intimate venue and consistently brings the community "paradigm budging" works. Ticket specials sometimes lower the price to $20. Same can be said of the small black box room at Portland Center Stage. Point being: the farther one gets from Hollywood, the closer one gets to artistic integrity with a passionate connection with the community it serves.

The loss of the Pasadena Playhouse is great. But it's worth remembering that this might as much be the management's fault as the visitors.

As someone who always had a season's subscription to SF's ACT, I could never do the same for the Pasadena Playhouse because more than half of the plays that were staged were not simply not my cup of tea. Rather I found them absolutely dreadful.

If the management consistently makes bad aesthetic choices--or at least choices that deviate from what the folks want, bankruptcy follows. Perhaps this loss will be permanents or perhaps someone will step up to take another stab at it.

"Give the people something that they really need and they’ll find a way to afford it. The challenge is getting them to sample what they might not know to be good for them."

I'm sorry, but this kind of elitist, intellectual arrogance is why the PP is closing. People KNOW what is good for them. It's called entertainment. Not necessarily razzle-dazzle broadway, but something that engages them and takes them away from their daily lives. Something good. If you give people what they WANT, not what you think they need, then you'll fill the seats. This closing is very, very sad to me. But I've seen so many bad shows there, I just stopped going. Nowadays, I have to be extremely careful about getting the most satisfaction from my discretionary dollar. RIP Pasadena Playhouse.

DVD's and Netflix can NEVER take the place of a live theatrical experience. I, for one, would gladly pay $100 to see a well-produced show or hear a live opera (all these recent HD cinema opera screenings nonewithstanding). It's a unique *cultural* experience, not just for ENTERTAINMENT (for pure entertainment I'd go to Disneyland) and therefore worth paying a premium for. Call me a cultural elitist. I pity those who claim live theater is irrelevant in this digital mp3/Netflix age.

I beg to disagree with Mr. McNulty. Audiences who want cutting-edge theatre can find plenty of 99-seat theatres that offer cutting edge productions. For a large theatre such as the Pasadena Playhouse to succesfully succeed, it must offer audiences commercially viable shows. Star driven vehicles and musicals such as Sister Act put butts in seats. It is very difficult to fill a huge auditorium with cutting-edge fare. I suggest the Playhouse stick to musicals and star-driven fare, and leave the edgier fare to small theatres who can put on such productions more economically and provide audiences with intimate, often life-changing experiences.

IF the Pasadena Playhouse has any chance of another "re-birth" the current Artistic Director - Sheldon Epps MUST be removed !! Since he became Artistic Director he has driven the Playhouse deeper into OBLIVION!! Without David Houk and his Theater Corp. of America the Playhouse would already be another Pasadena parking lot. The Artistic Director during Houk's time was Suzy Dietz --- who is BRILLIANT. Her primary interest was to see the Playhouse succeed and she had her hand and hearat on the pulse of not only Pasadena Residents but all of Los Angeles. It should be noted that prior to her leaving and Houk's problems ... the subscribers were more than TWICE the current count under Epps. Sadly, once again the subscribers most likely
will bear the financial loss.
The Pasadena Playhouse is supported by a large group of Alumni of the former school and a dedicated group of past and present volunteers that for years have donated thousand of unpaid hours. The Pasadena Playhouse also is loved by many of the resident of Pasadena and other Southern California communities. The Pasadena Playhouse has benefited from the estates of a number of these loyal FRIENDS.
Seeing the Playhouse rise from the "ashes" and bloom again could happen -- it did once before!!! HOWEVER, any attempt to bring about this will DEFINATELY require the IMMEDIATE removal of EPPS followed by a commitment from a NEW and TALENTED Artistic Director. The rest will follow ---- Just ask the Pasadena Playhouse Resident "GHOST" --- Gilmore Brown.

While you;re re-thinking fundamentals, consider the role of the LA Times which doesn't even list "theater" as an arts category in its header. Also consider that a
group of us have been engaged voluntarily in presenting new musical theater as part of the festival of New American Musicals for two years now. 74 shows, concerts and master classes in 67 theaters from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Pasadena was to have presented a world premiere this summer as part of the festival. But the Times barely gives us a mention unless they can find or create some controversy. On the other hand, if we were a movie festival......

What is "wrong" with theater is that it so absorbed with its fingers and toes that it ignores the larger context.

Case in point: While the theater community continues to gnash its teeth over the loss of the Pasadena Playhouse, the entire grant budget for the City of Los Angeles is on the block this week.

Where is McNulty's article about this? Has the Times done any story on the impact on cultural affairs? The ongoing city budget problem that is spending $500,000 a day more than they are taking in is shortly going to be in tsunami territory. Cultural arts stands to suffer mightly in this; why isn't McNulty exhorting people to climb the ramparts of their city officials and let them know how important the community takes the commitment to cultural arts.

If the theaterical community doesn't make its case for the importance of allocating city funds towards it, that funding will disappear.

Live theater is not going away and for those posters who don't see the difference between watching a DVD or seeeing something live, there really isn't very much I can say.

But to keep live theater from being only a sliver of itself, theater people need to climb out of the 20th Century. Little hint: if you want to convince people of the worth of live theater, you might want to quote a source OTHER than the artist who makes his living creating that theater. Kinda akin to quoting Donald Trump about the value of real estate.

Tell me about how an AUDIENCE member responded and how seeing that $100 performance was worth it because it was a special occasion and it was thought provoking and/or fun and/or enjoyable. Or, how a play like "Oak Tree" opened an audience member's heart in a compelling way.

Bitch about stars coming to Broadway because it is commercial, but the fact is that it works and Broadway just concluded its most profitable season EVER, and there are some damn fine actors that happen to be film stars and it is exciting to watch some of them work.

The great thing is that there is something there for everyone and major productions like "Wicked" or "West Side Story" may bore people who see 300 productions a year, but they aren't boring to an audience who doesn't have that level of exposure. And, tagging them "less than" because their enjoyment triumphs their desire to examine existential questions is beyond arrogant and elitist. It is self defeating.

This what a recession looks like, people, and chosing to stay above the pressures of economic reality is just silly and shortsighted.

I run a theatre and I completely agree with Charles McNulty. Except for those few who are already in the choir, theatre has mostly become irrelevant. Many of us in the theatre community have been aware of this for some time and are trying to re-envision what the theatre of tomorrow needs to look like. How do we give the people what they really want and need? So that's the good news; the conversations and reflection have begun.

Mr. McMulty is in a rare position to help this process by starting to cover the hundreds of small LA theatres in the Times and thus, helping audiences get over that vision of theatre consisting simply of stale drawing room comedies. I'm not just talking about reviews. The Times has historically reviewed small theatre, but not much recently as most of the critics have been let go. And even before the cuts, the Times gave it's major space to the big theatres; SCR, CTG, Geffen, even the Pasadena Playhouse. McNulty needs to find the coolest of theatre events happening and let Times readers know about them. In my biased opinion, the best events are rarely at the large venues. McNulty is right about the challenge is in getting people to sample what they don't know to be good for them. But if he joined in that conversation with the theatre community he could help people find theatres that would truly interest them. It would help LA theatres, the citizens of LA, and the Times, which has also been hurt by competing technologies. So come take a closer look at LA's intimate theatres, Charles. There are plenty of empty seats to choose from.

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