The turmoil surrounding the Los Angeles Theatre Center revives the ongoing debate about theater in Los Angeles. There are local and national observers who dispute that L.A. is--or ever could be--a theater town, primarily because of the overweening presence of the film and television industry and the lack of a historic stage culture such as New York's. Yet there are also those who maintain that the L.A. boards have begun to come of age. Is there a vital theater culture here? What does the possible demise of the city's largest producer of provocative stage work--one with an avowedly multicultural mission--mean for the artistic community? Calendar posed these and other questions to a group of key players in Southern California theater.
At what stage is the development of the Southern California theater scene?
Des McAnuff, artistic director, La Jolla Playhouse: People who work in the theater don't consider palms trees and live production a contradiction now. That wasn't true in the early '80s. It has been a wonderful period of growth over the past five or six years. People moving in and out of the area are spreading the word that there is something happening here. Actors look to Southern California as a base, and not just because of the "mechanical reproduction." It would be very easy to slip back from this position. It remains to be seen what kind of impact the recession will have.
Gordon Davidson, artistic director, Mark Taper Forum/Center Theater Group: We share a pool of artists who are willing to commit to the theater and that's the beginning, since no one theater has to totally support them. It's never a good thing to see a theater go under--it's too much a part of the cultural ecology. If it does happen, it makes it harder for everyone else. People on the outside say, "Too much subsidy is required," or, "The community doesn't want it." But sometimes theaters do run their life spans in order to come back another way.
What is the broader significance of the precarious situation of the city's largest producer of controversial, socially relevant stage work?
Susan Dietz, former artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse; now developing projects for film and television: It's the materialization of something that's been apparent, but not overwhelmingly accepted, for the last five years. There is not enough demand for the supply of theater in this town. Over the last 12 years or so, we went from a one-theater town to a 300-theater town. The Taper blazed the way, I was a pioneer of the mid-size houses, (LATC artistic director Bill) Bushnell moved downtown and the little theaters have become institutional. But if you look at it as a pie, the Ahmanson and the commercial houses used up the theatergoers. There wasn't enough support for the kind of theater we all wanted to do--experimental, cutting-edge stuff. LATC is a victim of that.
You can't cram theater down peoples' throats. Everybody hates to say this, but theater is an elitist art form, and we can really only support a certain number of theaters in this town. Our theater community has been too idealistic. For me, the last couple of years was an eye-opener, which is why I'm not there anymore and why I sleep nights.
McAnuff: There's simply less breathing room. What's happening with LATC could happen in a number of places. These are tough times and government support isn't growing. I'm convinced we'll get through this, but there are others that are going to have to struggle. It would be a tragedy if we lost an institution, because they take years to develop. When one disappears, it has an impact on many levels.
Sam Woodhouse, producing director, San Diego Repertory Theatre; member, National Endowment for the Arts theater panel: It's frightening and sad. This kind of bad news makes us all look at the mirror to see whether it could happen to us. But how many theaters in America have closed in the last months? Many established theaters of various sizes have. It's a signal of looking backward and retrenching across the country. One of the major issues facing the future of American theater is how changing demographics will be represented. Will people from non-Anglo cultures be onstage, in positions of power, in the audience? I would ask the question, "Is it possible to be courageous in these troubled times?" I hope it is.
An LATC board member recently said: "It's hard to believe we cannot afford a theater on the cutting edge of drama." Could it simply be true that there is no such willingness?