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Culture Monster roundtable contemplates state of L.A. theater

June 15, 2011 | 12:24 pm


On Tuesday evening, Culture Monster hosted an hour-long public discussion on the state of L.A. theater at Zipper Hall at the Colburn School of Music. The panelists included producer Marc Platt, actor-director-writer Tim Robbins, playwright Beth Henley, Sheldon Epps of the Pasadena Playhouse and Michael Ritchie of Center Theatre Group.

The roundtable discussion, moderated by Times theater critic Charles McNulty, touched on a wide range of topics and elicited a diversity of opinions from the panelists, who acknowledged that there are no easy answers to encompass such a sprawling and fractured cultural landscape.

The nominal theme of the evening was whether or not L.A. can call itself a "theater town." Platt, who has produced "Wicked" as well as a number of movies, said that the city's theatrical offerings are drowned out by the noise from the film and television industries.

At one point, Robbins noted that there is no centralized geographic area for L.A. theaters, unlike New York. He also noted that publications like The Times and L.A. Weekly no longer run comprehensive theater listings in print.

Later in the discussion, Epps said that New York bolsters itself on the false notion that its theater is superior to that of other cities. The reality, he noted, is that much of what is on Broadway (and off-Broadway) originates outside of New York.

On the subject of audiences, Ritchie responded that L.A. theaters typically don't attract tourists and are comprised mostly of local theatergoers. Epps, who has managed the Pasadena Playhouse through bankruptcy in recent months, said that theaters can't depend on subscription audiences anymore and have to engage in target marketing.

The proximity of theaters to Hollywood talent agencies doesn't constitute an advantage, according to some panelists. Ritchie noted that actors come to L.A. to work in film and TV, and that his company usually has to go outside of L.A. for casting. He added that CTG often goes through New York agents to contact L.A. actors for possible stage projects.

Many of the panelists have worked extensively outside theater. Henley, who has a number of screenplays to her name, said that it's "scary to make a living in the theater," and added that being a playwright requires a different writerly aesthetic than other forms of dramatic narrative.

Platt noted that working in theater and film has given him the ability to recognize what a good story is and to decide which medium is more appropriate.

The panel discussion also touched the familiar L.A. theater complaint of traffic and the difficulty of traveling from the Westside to see theater in downtown.

On the subject of the economic crisis, Robbins said that "the worst thing is to run into a corner and hide," and noted that his company has been trying "to do more with less money."

Ritchie said that CTG has lost traction with casual ticket buyers in recent years. "Under the best circumstances, theaters struggle to survive," he said.


Is Los Angeles a 'theater town'?: A Culture Monster event

Critic's Notebook: A nonprofit theater education

A Culture Monster event with Placido Domingo and Gustavo Dudamel

-- David Ng

Photo: Times theater critic Charles McNulty, left, producer Marc Platt, playwright Beth Henley, Tim Robbins of Actor's Gang, Sheldon Epps of the Pasadena Playhouse and Michael Ritchie of Center Theatre Group at the Colburn Music School. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times