The once and future centers of LA theater

spring-awakening-wallis.jpgSpring Awakening scene. Photo by Kevin Parry.

LA's critics often say it has no center. The city's advocates often reply that Los Angeles has many centers. Some of us believe that downtown is once again becoming the primary center.

Similar issues arise in considerations of LA theater. If people outside LA ever think about Los Angeles theater, they probably think first of downtown's flagship Center Theatre Group - which brands itself as "LA's Theatre Company," as if there were only one such company. On the other hand, they probably don't think of CTG as often today as they did two decades ago, when CTG more consistently contributed to the stream of productions that competed for Tonys and Pulitzers - which is the usual (if simplistic) gauge for measuring a theater company's national profile.

Soon after they think about CTG, well-informed outsiders might also remember hearing about LA's vast and far-flung collection of theaters with fewer than 100 seats. While some of these companies operate in close proximity to each other, forming subsidiary "centers" in NoHo or on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, those clusters of tiny companies aren't necessarily permanent. Witness the recent news of small theaters closing in Hollywood and the planned migration of the Antaeus Company from NoHo to Glendale.

Many casual observers (Angelenos as well as outsiders) associate these small companies with the concept of "showcasing," assuming that they maintain one eye on the Hollywood industry. This impression lingers despite decades of efforts to establish that many of these companies venture far beyond the connotations of that word. Unfortunately, in recent years those we're-not-showcasing efforts have been undercut by a genuine showcase fiesta, the Hollywood Fringe Festival, which often dominates much of the attention paid to LA theater in June.

Meanwhile, LA County has a lot of theatrical activity that occurs in venues between the CTG level and the 99-seat level. But as a group, these widely dispersed midsize theaters remain one of the city's best-kept secrets.

The end of Actors' Equity's 99-Seat Theater Plan is now scheduled for next June. Small membership companies, as I noted in my last column, will continue to operate in their current venues without major changes. But 99-seat companies that are not structured around a membership model will have to pay Equity actors and stage managers the minimum wage, for rehearsals as well as performances. I hope that some of the better such companies will find the resources to advance into midsize theater status.

Surely if more companies migrate up the Equity scale, more attention should be paid to them. If all other factors seem just about equal, why shouldn't a show that performs for a potential 300 people per night get more attention than one that can't ever perform for more than 100?

Over the last few years, I've offered a few suggestions that conceivably could help facilitate this transition period. Here are a few more:

1. Grand Park

Last Friday I saw my first professional theater event in Grand Park, the relatively new expanse of public space that extends from City Hall to the Music Center. Cornerstone Theater presented three performances of its "California: The Tempest" there as the culmination of a statewide tour, using a temporary stage with central seating on the lawn but folding chairs for audience members on the sides. It was free of charge to anyone.

california-grand-park.jpg"California: The Tempest" scene. Photo by Megan Wanlass.

I had seen a slightly longer version of the production previously in an indoor space in Pacoima, but the play felt much more at home on a pleasant summer evening while surrounded by the lights of downtown LA, with City Hall itself looming in the background. After all, Alison Carey's adaptation of "The Tempest" combines California doomsday fantasy with a boosterish appeal for Californians to unite in order to revive their state. At Grand Park, the view and the cross-section of audience members reinforced this theme.

Cornerstone, which has a lot of experience using non-traditional sites, should plan to make a warm-weather appearance in Grand Park a new tradition. But why haven't other theaters been better represented among Grand Park's offerings? True, Independent Shakespeare is about to open another no-doubt-thriving season in the Old Zoo area of LA's biggest city park, Griffith. But Grand Park is much more centrally located - and adjacent to a Red Line stop.

The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles once did its summertime productions downtown, at Pershing Square or the Cathedral plaza, but this summer it isn't producing its usual mainstage show because of complications at its most recent site, the VA Japanese Garden in Brentwood. The Shakespeare Center and some of LA's 99-seat companies should immediately look into the possibility of performing in Grand Park next year.

2. The Wallis - and Broad Stage?

The recent transfer of Deaf West's "Spring Awakening" to the Wallis in Beverly Hills was a magnificent achievement. From my vantage point, it was easier to see everything that was happening on the stage at the Wallis than it had been at the much smaller Inner-City Arts venue last year. And there was so much to see, and think about, that this production could easily serve as the template for a commercial revival of the musical -- because it's so different from the original. Are other companies, including some of the 99-seaters that might have to expand, exploring the possibility of collaborations with the Wallis? Or with the similarly sized Broad Stage in Santa Monica?

3. The Nate Holden Performing Arts Center

This handsome 399-seat city-owned facility on the south side of Washington Boulevard, just east of La Brea, is egregiously under-used by the LA theater community. Right now it's the home of the resident company Ebony Rep's often thrilling revival of "The Gospel at Colonus," which transfers the middle play in Sophocles' Theban Oedipus trilogy to the framework of an African-American church service. Seeing "Colonus" last weekend was doubly poignant in the wake of the massacre that had just taken place at an African-American church in Charleston.

gospel-ds.jpgThe company of "The Gospel at Colonus." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

But Ebony does just one full production a year. Wouldn't it be in the city's interest to help accommodate more productions at the Holden throughout the rest of the calendar? (By the way, did it occur to anyone that the Odyssey Theatre in West LA is currently doing Ellen McLaughlin's adaptation of the first part of the same Theban trilogy, under the title "Oedipus Machina," and that the two productions might have cross-marketed along the lines of "now see the sequel" or "now see the prequel"?)

4. Los Angeles Theatre Center

This year two of the three midsize spaces at the city-owned LATC, operated by Latino Theater Company, weren't used in the company's spring festival. The company's Jose Luis Valenzuela told me that this was at least partially a result of a decision to use the smaller spaces within the building while they could still be occupied by productions on the 99-seat Theater Plan, anticipating that they will be much harder to fill with productions after the plan dies -- and in the meantime saving money that can be used for larger productions later. City officials, in the interests of sustaining downtown's theatrical ecology and attracting even more people to LATC's ever-more-exciting neighborhood, should do whatever they can to make producing at LATC less expensive, less difficult.

5. Falcon Theatre

Could Garry Marshall's Burbank space possibly be an option for 99-seat companies that hope to move up -- but not too far up the scale too quickly? It has only 130 seats. Its location is near both NoHo and Hollywood. It already sells out for Troubadour Theater's rowdy musicals, but -- sound the alarm -- this year there is no summer Troubie show. The rest of the Falcon's fare is often rather tepid, including the current "The Trouble We Come From," a Scott Caan rom-com focusing on a man who appears to make a living from writing plays that are produced at "a mid-sized theatre" (or so it says in the program). I don't know if Marshall and company would be open to collaborations with, say, the Fountain on at least one or two plays a year, but the Fountain has developed a fan club that appears to be almost as loyal as that of the Troubies.

6. Houses of worship

Chalk Repertory, a group that specializes in site-specific theater, has opened a three-year residency at the LA Episcopal Diocese's St. John's Cathedral, on Adams near the Harbor Freeway, with Tom Jacobson's "Diet of Worms." The site's majestic Romanesque sanctuary, dating from 1929, plays the role of a 16th-century convent where a group of nuns are gradually being lured into the Reformation. The audience moves to four locations within the space. Especially in the second act, the play erupts with an exhilarating sense of liberation amid revolution. Of course not every church would want to host such a production -- or a theater company at all -- but Actors Co-op and Crown City also use sites on the grounds of churches. Perhaps other companies should look for the closest somewhat-liberal congregation that might provide them with an open-minded room at the inn.

INHERITANCE COMEDY: Have LA theater companies considered inheritance as a get-rich-quick scheme? Probably not, but two current productions focus on inheritance fever.

"Bad Jews," at Geffen Playhouse, depicts a bitter and often funny dispute between two young cousins over who has dibs on their recently deceased grandfather's chai medallion, which he preserved through the Holocaust by slipping it under his tongue. In one corner is Daphna, a high-strung religious feminist. In the other is the equally neurotic but secular scholar Liam, accompanied by his very non-Jewish girlfriend. He plans to use the chai in place of an engagement ring. The more-or-less non-committal referee is Jonah, Liam's brother, but we eventually learn that he has his own way of remembering their mutual Zayde.

bad-jews-lamont.jpgScene from "Bad Jews." Photo by Michael Lamont.

Playwright Joshua Harmon uses the two hair-trigger combatants to articulate the evergreen dilemma of a small group's cultural pride vs. assimilation -- an issue that is hardly confined to Jews. In the process he creates two manic and sometimes infuriating characters who nevertheless make their cases with remarkable acumen. "Bad Jews," directed by Matt Shakman, is an invigorating experience that provokes some serious thought.

On the other hand, "The Heir Apparent," at Long Beach's International City Theatre, is strictly for laughs - and harvests quite a few of them. In this tale, an old man refuses to die, despite all expectations to the contrary. His possible heirs go to some far-fetched extremes to get their hands on his fortune despite his stubborn unwillingness to cooperate. This is wordsmith David Ives' rhyming-couplet-strewn adaptation of an 18th-century comedy by Jean-Francois Regnard, loaded with contemporary American references although ostensibly set in 1708. That happens to follow a familiar formula for director Matt Walker of the aforementioned Troubadour Theater Company. He brings his cheeky insouciance to the Ives script, even though it lacks the Troubies' expansive riffs on more up-to-date musical sources.

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