Performing in a small theater in Los Angeles can be seen as an act of love or an act of vanity, depending on the quality of the show. Actors make as little as $5 per performance if the number of seats is less than 99. Often volunteers operate the lighting and sound boards, where they can easily throw off pacing and destroy atmosphere. Yet somehow, miraculously, real theater companies manage to spring up.
The most impressive small company I have seen in my six months here is the one churning out plays by 30-year-old Justin Tanner at the Cast Theatre in Hollywood. On any given night the playwright-director can be seen running madly from the stage manager's booth to the box office, when he is not appearing on stage. That may seem charming or amateurish, but what shows up on stage in the Tanner comedies is utterly serious. Here, individual performances are not the point. The company invests in Tanner's alternate universe--which has its own logic, timing and aesthetic. In the course of nine plays, a true theater ensemble emerged.
Cast artistic director Diana Gibson will be only too happy to tell you how difficult it is to hold a company together. "Zombie Attack!," the long-running late-night show by Tanner and Andy Daley (also production manager and set designer at the Cast), is a loss leader; after the 80-performance mark, costs go up considerably for the theater (because of Equity rules). Gibson keeps it going, she says, "for the sake of the ensemble."
Theaters struggle just as hard at higher levels of financial crisis. In its current struggle, the venerable Pasadena Playhouse has several visible assets, starting with the physical beauty of the 1925 building, which is the state theater of California, and a community that appears to take theater-going seriously.
The playhouse, however, appears to have had an uneasy relationship with artistic directors since the Theatre Corporation of America took over management in 1979. That company, under president David Houk, must be credited with saving the theater, which, by all accounts, the city of Pasadena was willing to turn into a parking lot in the late '70s. Yet TCA has its work cut out if it is to make the Pasadena Playhouse a truly vital theater.
A rtistic directors have come and gone in the past decade. When Paul Lazarus departed in 1992, Deborah Dixon stepped in, under the title of senior vice president of creative services. Dixon was let go in June.
Based on the two shows I have seen there ("Heartbeats" and "The Crimson Thread"), it seems that at present the Pasadena Playhouse is offering bromides instead of theater to its community. If it has any ambition to move beyond its current status of producing work at a community-theater level, it needs to install a real artistic director and give him or her the reins. The Pasadena Playhouse has everything it needs to become a great theater; all that's missing is something even a theater as poor as the Cast can have--a vision.
Lest anyone doubt what an artistic director brings to a theater, let's remember that the La Jolla Playhouse, in its first incarnation in the 1960s--before it reinvented itself and hired Des McAnuff in 1982--was presenting Zsa Zsa Gabor in "Blithe Spirit."
Speaking of McAnuff, we all wish him well, but only if he makes good on his promise to continue directing at La Jolla--what was it, once a year? He had some highly commercial successes there; his farewell to the theater was a dynamite, visually stunning rethinking of Frank Loesser's 1961 "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," slated for a Broadway opening in March.
Critics like Robert Brustein traditionally frown upon regional theaters that use their stages as developing ground for Broadway. About "How to Succeed," Michael Phillips, the critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune, wrote that "McAnuff is essentially a gun for hire, plucked from Broad way's revised A-list by Dodger Productions" and that the production "represents McAnuff's opportunity to nab a first-class Broadway revival property before they're all taken."
This assumes that, given a magical, perfect property, any director with talent can make a hit on Broadway, which, of course, is not the case. McAnuff and his design team reimagined what could easily have been a hopelessly irrelevant tale, and they injected it with an incredibly elusive, indefinable elan--the pure joy of a musical that's clicking. "How to Succeed" makes it extremely difficult to side with the Brusteins of the world on what nonprofit should and should not be doing.