Theater artists and marketing directors have bitched and moaned, for as long as I can remember, about the graying of our audiences and our inability to attract black, Asian, Latino and Indian patrons. As we stood in the back of our theaters and surveyed the endless sea of blue-haired Caucasians we asked ourselves: Why aren't we attracting people less than 50 years old and of color to our theaters? What are we doing wrong?
The answer, supplied now by the Los Angeles Festival, is that we were doing almost nothing right: We were relentlessly pursuing a white European theatrical tradition that was primarily attractive to those who grew up with it and attended theater in traditional venues. The Los Angeles Festival turned this concept on its head: It dared to present work representing cultures outside the European tradition, and it dared to present these artists where people of like cultural backgrounds were already living.
Every event I attended (except for the screening of "Rikyu" and "Mineko Grimmer's Contemplative Sculpture" at the Woman's Building) happened outside, clearly a conscious strategy for festival organizers. (And also, possibly, in some cases a choice by default: There are no theaters that seat 200-300 people in Santa Monica or the Valley.)
In outside venues, you lose some aesthetic values: subtle lighting, gorgeous set changes, whispered dialogue. But you gain a sense of community: The audience and performers share the sky, the heat, the sound of waves from the ocean or traffic from the street. And you gain a sense of spontaneity, adventure and freedom.
One of the many interesting aspects of the festival was that everyone's festival was different. Because it was impossible to attend everything, personal choices made the cumulative experience uniquely one's own.
I attended a mixture of ticketed events--Wayang Wong Dance Theater at the Arboretum, the Andean Winds concert at the Sunset Canyon Amphitheater, El Gran Circo Teatro de Chile's "La Negra Ester"--and free events--Bread and Puppet in Reseda Park, Likay Theater at the Wai Thai Temple--and my experience of the event was inextricably related to the audience I was part of.
The ticketed events successfully attracted people of every age, including those who reportedly are more interested in going out to eat than into theaters, but the audiences were still predominantly white. The lesson, maybe, is that any ticketed event will most likely be attended by people trained by years of conditioning to purchase tickets; to buy a ticket at most mainstream venues one better have a credit card--and the credit that goes with it.
El Gran Circo Teatro's amazing opening-night performance at Santa Monica Pier was a unique blend of ticketed and free theater; the tickets were only 10 bucks and the experience was sophisticated street theater. At least a quarter of the audience was laughing at the jokes told in Spanish, but you didn't need to know the language to love the outrageous makeup, fantastic costumes, emotional passion of the actors and genius of the direction. Every element of El Gran Circo Teatro screamed that art is life arranged, so the painted flats of the ocean propped in front of the real ocean were a signpost for the philosophy of the company.
For my money, the heady excitement of the festival was at the free events. One of the best things about the festival was that it forced me to explore my neighborhood in new ways. Even though I live just a few miles away in Sherman Oaks, I'd never been to Reseda Park. There's a real division in Los Angeles between those who live in houses with back yards and stay home to barbecue, and those who dwell in apartments and hold their family gatherings in our parks.
On Labor Day as I strolled through slightly shabby Reseda Park--there's almost no grass left at all--I saw people of every ethnicity dressed in their Sunday best, grilling hamburgers, playing with babies and speechless that the Bread and Puppet Theatre with its frayed but imaginative costumes and irrepressible band had come to their neighborhood. I sat next to people who didn't speak any English at all but we all laughed at the same big visual jokes.
At the Wai Thai Temple I talked with a woman who lived two blocks from the site but had never been onto the grounds--she was thrilled at the opportunity for demystification. People jammed into the cafeteria under the temple to try food they couldn't pronounce. The performance courtyard was overflowing, despite the extreme heat, with Thai and white people thrown together. So who cared that the performance itself was slow to my MTV sensibilities, or that the video crew there to record the event worked oblivious to the people's views they were blocking? The experience was being there; the performance was the excuse.