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Is It Theater? Is It Radio? Does It Matter? : When her play-producing dreams evaporated, Susan Loewenberg put a new spin on a different medium, winning praise--and a few jeers--for her success

March 06, 1994|SEAN MITCHELL | Sean Mitchell is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Unless you work at the Music Center's Mark Taper Forum, the chances of making a viable full-time career in the theater in Los Angeles are right up there with crossing the Mojave Desert on foot in August, or maybe jumping off the Hollywood sign and landing in the arms of Madonna. One who has beaten these odds is Susan Albert Loewenberg, a former actress-turned-producer who after years of little victories and big losses on the city's small stages has found herself the impresario of the nation's leading contemporary radio drama series, "The Play's the Thing," broadcast regularly as part of the weekly "KCRW Playhouse" over KCRW-FM (89.9).

"I didn't plan this, but look what's happened," says Loewenberg, whose success on the radio has been unlikely, ingenious and, in a sense, double-sided. It emerged from the failure of her nonprofit L.A. Classic Theatre Works in the late '80s to mount a stage production using the members of the high-profile repertory company she assembled with former producing partner Judith Auberjonois.

The two turned to the radio initially in 1987 as a short-term compromise with their bigger dream, but when plans for the repertory company eventually were shelved, the radio productions became the main event, growing into a current season of 18 full-length plays read by top Hollywood talent (Jason Robards, Annette Bening, James Earl Jones, Amy Irving, Tim Robbins) and recorded before paying audiences in a 300-seat ballroom at the Guest Quarters Suite Hotel in Santa Monica.

The plays are broadcast Saturday (and sometimes Sunday) evenings at 6:30 on KCRW, and selectively around the country on National Public Radio, and in England on the BBC.

In addition, Loewenberg has expanded her operations into the theater communities of Chicago and Boston, producing a series of radio dramas there in partnership with leading local companies like the Goodman and the American Repertory Theatre. These shows are later heard here on "KCRW Playhouse," as well.

She has accomplished this, supporting a full-time staff of five with an annual budget of about $400,000, in a period that has seen the collapse of the Los Angeles Theatre Center and the dissipation of the not-for-profit theater scene under recessionary pressures. Loewenberg has stayed afloat on grants from Arco, the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council and others, but she has also hit upon a novel idea: that people would pay theater prices (up to $20 a ticket) to watch stars and other leading actors read plays aloud in front of a microphone.

At the same time, she has been able to snag the cooperation of the stars, generally so reluctant to appear onstage in Los Angeles, because these "live in performance" radio productions allow them to indulge their interest in theater while spending only a few days away from their movie and television careers--unlike the two or three months required to do a play at the Taper or another resident theater. Most of the radio plays are performed and taped on three successive nights and edited later for broadcast.

Recent productions (scheduled for broadcast later this spring) include Noel Coward's "Fallen Angels," with Bening, Judith Ivey and Joe Mantegna; Alan Ayckbourn's "Man of the Moment," with Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres, and satirist Harry Shearer's new musical "J. Edgar," about J. Edgar Hoover, starring Kelsey Grammer and John Goodman.

The productions are budgeted at $20,000 apiece, a cost that, on paper, would almost be covered by ticket revenue alone. The actors, as a rule, receive tiny honorariums; Guest Quarters provides the performance space and KCRW the air time and promotion. There are post-production expenses, marketing costs and the administrative cost of L.A. Theatre Works itself, which maintains an office in Venice and also runs a workshop for women playwrights and arts programs for children.

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In the financially strapped theater world of 1994, Loewenberg's formula for survival would seem to be inventive and admirable, although there remains the issue of the medium in which she has survived. That is, is anyone listening?

Is radio drama a real force in either radio or the theater? Or are these productions, seen by a total audience of no more than 900 people each, more like a pleasant boutique in which our best actors are laying down recordings for storage in libraries--an excuse for them not to have to make a real commitment to the stage in this studio city?

Loewenberg has her critics in the local theater community, and these are some of the questions raised when her name comes up.

"She's the only person in Los Angeles theater who's been making a salary for 20 years, and she's never had a space," says, with some exaggeration, a skeptical fellow producer who asked not to be named. "How did she do it? Everybody knows she's a brilliant grant-getter and entrepreneur."

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