When Laurence Olivier brought the National Theatre of Great Britain to Los Angeles in 1970, someone asked him first his impression of the Music Center. Paraphrasing the Book of Common Prayer, he called it "the outward and visible sign of an inward and possible culture."
The phrase also fits the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Whether it will work as a theater won't be known until it's actually in use. (Scale models and acoustic charts guarantee nothing, as we know from the history of Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall.) But--like all those other splendid towers to be seen from the fast lane of the San Diego Freeway--it's a powerful symbol that Orange County is going confidently about its business with no need for validation from its elder brother to the north.
However, a theater critic tends to feel cool to the kind of house that the center represents, for two reasons. First, its size: 3,000 seats. That's impossible for spoken plays and it's oversized for musicals, even in a house that promises relative intimacy. (Don't they always promise that?) Second, the fact that, for now anyway, this will be a booking house, not a theater that creates its own productions.
This coolness doesn't constitute a complaint. Just as the first theater at the Music Center, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, was a big musical theater, it makes sense for the Orange County Center to open with one. A 3,000-seat house isn't outsized for symphony, opera and ballet, and it will do (if the miking is good and if you're sitting close enough) for musicals. The Pavilion (3,250 seats) has been getting away with them for years.
As for the new facility being a booking house, one understands that as well. It's safer to bring in a touring company of "Dreamgirls," say, than to produce an original that nobody has ever heard of. Even revivals cost money. These days musicals start at $1 million.
One doesn't expect the new theater to originate its own work right away. Still, that limits its artistic interest. The question isn't what impact the new house will have on Southern California theater, but what impact it will have on the Southern California theater market . What kind of business will it do when a good musical stops in? My guess is that there are a ton of people in Orange County who wouldn't think of driving to Los Angeles to see "Cats," but who would love to have it down the block.
The problem, as the center's executive director, Tom Kendrick, has pointed out, is coordinating the schedules of touring shows with those of the center. At the moment, Houston's Pace Theatrical Group, which brought "My One and Only" to the Music Center last summer, has the inside track on booking shows there. But the Shuberts may well find it a useful house, and one can imagine co-productions with the Nederlanders, through Civic Light Opera. There will also be tie-ins with other cultural centers.
Kendrick may be hurting for musicals now ("Singin' in the Rain," "Cabaret" and "Big River" are among those being considered). But it's easy to imagine musicals becoming the mainstay of the center, to the point where opera, ballet and symphony--all better suited to its dimensions--have to settle for the occasional odd date between long runs. That would not be a victory for cultural diversity.
But there's a second theater to be built next door, a 1,000-seat house to be occupied for six months or so each year by the center's neighbor, South Coast Repertory. This house does interest the critic. Its size will be ideal for spoken drama--which ought never to be done in the main hall--and its prime tenant, SCR, is one of the most literate theaters in Southern California, with a particularly good record for encouraging young playwrights in its Second Stage series.
The new theater will become SCR's third stage, not always offering new plays itself, but freeing the other two stages to do so. Here we can begin to talk of the center as a creative force, as the Music Center has been in fostering Gordon Davidson's work at the Mark Taper Forum. It's fine to bring your audience a strong production of "A Chorus Line," but the mark of a real theater is what it contributes to the world.
This house is a year or so down the line. Five years down the line, the center's endowment begins to kick in. This is by far the center's most welcome innovation. It's much more important to support living artists than to erect art temples. But we Americans need to see it before we believe it.