Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Is there theatre in L.A.?

Can't resist linking to this article from the L.A. Weekly, wherein playwright Luis Alfaro promotes the potential for theatre in Los Angeles.

First, some personal news: three years after leaving Los Angeles for Philadelphia, my partner and I are returning to the West Coast now that he is graduating from law school.

Mixed feelings abound about leaving Philly, a perfectly pleasant place to live, but one that in terms of its theatre offers, well... Let's just say it's an hour and a half from NYC, and therefore has a hard time generating any really exciting events. I haven't visited many of the theatres here, and I don't doubt they do noble work, but this just ain't a theatre town.

Los Angeles, believe it or not, is far more vibrant. But, wow, is it a strange town for theatre. The reasons are obvious. L.A. is the home of the film and television industry, the highly-related cousin of drama and the omnipresent uber-elephant in the room at all L.A. theatrical productions. If theatre in L.A. could ever really find a comfort level with its cousin, the family could flourish.

There's an enormous amount of theatre in Los Angeles -- I've been told, with no desire to research the truth, that more productions actually open in L.A. than in NYC. I believe it, but that's comparing apples and oranges. The "shows" that open in L.A. are often not done for the sake of theatre. They're showcases, usually for actors, who desperately need opportunities to court agents, casting directors and the rest of the film-TV crowd who can provide entree into the real money. It doesn't matter that these shows suck -- they're really auditions for commercials!

That said, there's a remarkable amount of serious theatre in the city at all levels of accomplishment. After all, there's no dearth of people seriously committed to acting, directing, design, etc. Plenty of them do theatre to keep their skills sharp between film and TV gigs, or just 'cause they really love it (see: Jason Alexander).

Let's face it: theatre in L.A. is first and foremost a feeder to the "big leagues." New plays are seen as potential fodder for HBO and Showtime movies (HBO sponsors lots of readings, and even full-fledged stage productions), if not independent films (a lesser animal, unsure of distribution).

More celebrities do theatre than you'd think. Actors who come off sit-coms or hour-long dramas will do plays in order to make casting directors -- and heck, directors -- see them in a different light. I've seen Tori Spelling do comedy, and Nora Dunn do tragedy. You won't get that in NY! Maybe in London, these days, but not NY.

Still, if a show isn't coming from or headed to NY, it's seen as a nice exercise but not a real step in a career, even if it's performed at one of the major regional theatres, the Taper or the Geffen.

There's lots more to talk about regarding L.A. theatre. For example, the article mentions the L.A. Theatre Center, which is filled with fantastic small theatres, and is falling apart.

But Luis Alfaro -- the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet, by the way -- is right in his optimism about L.A. theatre.

There's certainly no other town like it.