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Consultants Upbeat on L.A. Scene

March 16, 1997|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

'Theatre City USA."

That's what Los Angeles could legitimately claim to be, according to two arts consultants who studied the L.A. theater scene and advised a group of L.A. theaters on developmental issues over the past two years.

The team from ARTS Action Research released an upbeat, 24-page final report last week. Their work was sponsored by Theatre LA and supported in part by city and county arts grants and by Actors' Equity.

L.A. theater is "horribly undervalued," wrote Nello McDaniel and George Thorn, who are from New York and Oregon, respectively. "Any other city in the country producing the quantity, the relative quality, and most especially the diversity of L.A. [theater] would not only be celebrating the fact but proclaiming itself 'Theatre City USA.' Big myths die hard."

The ARTS Action Research project was launched in 1994 at an Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre conference devoted to the continuing effort to stimulate the mid-size theater scene, and the mid-size issue was a primary focus of the report. "Unquestionably, in the healthiest theater communities, the mid-level serves as the creative and economic backbone," wrote McDaniel and Thorn.

However, they also defended Equity's 99-Seat Theatre Plan, which is in effect at the vast majority of L.A.'s theaters, even while acknowledging that "in some circles defending the '99-seat plan' is like defending the term 'liberal' in American politics."

"Redefining and working toward a healthy, vertically diverse mid-level theatre begins with the 99-seat plan as a base," they wrote. "Supporting a community in which there are more theatre artists per capita than in any [other] city in the world demands the 99-seat plan."

The presence of so much talent, attracted by the film and TV industry, is one of the "unique qualities" distinguishing L.A.'s theater scene from others, according to the report. A typical growth pattern "was preempted from the outset, as large numbers of theater talent poured into the area well before the nonprofit professional theatre community even existed."

Another key factor singled out by the team: "Distance and travel time are significant barriers between most L.A. theatres and audiences. . . . Although there may be more than 200 producing theatres making work, as a practical matter any individual theatre enthusiast will only have access to a small percentage of those theatres. So in spite of overall population, a traditional indicator of audience and growth potential, L.A.'s geographic characteristics compare more appropriately to a rural, rather than an urban, setting."

The team worked closely with 15 theaters (a number that increased or decreased slightly over the course of two years, as a few theaters dropped out or joined) to determine how to identify and capitalize on each theater's particular niche within that huge, sprawling scene. They also addressed whether the theaters should try to move to the mid-size level, do only occasional productions at the mid-size level, move only successful 99-seat shows up, or not even think about mid-size shows.

For a large majority of 99-seat theaters, a wholesale leap to the mid-size level "is inorganic and risky beyond responsible behavior," according to the report. Nonetheless, the team did identify "great opportunity for growth in this [mid-size] arena. . . . While it is important to underscore that the L.A. community remains fragile and vulnerable to a number of contingencies, there is likely no other community in the country with greater potential for growth."

The theaters that were directly involved in the project and a smaller steering committee will continue to meet, discussing such issues as mid-size Equity contracts and using the report to clear up "misconceptions" about L.A. theater that exist in media, government, foundations and the tourist industry, said Theatre LA executive director Bill Freimuth.

The report is "objective, with no vested interest," Freimuth said. Although the researchers were paid by people who do have some vested interest in the subject, "they were paid to be consultants, not cheerleaders."


LEMMON AT LADCC: The public is invited to the 28th Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards ceremony, to be hosted by Lynn Redgrave on Monday at Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City. In addition to the usual awards, previous LADCC winner Jack Lemmon ("Tribute," 1979) will be saluted as the guest of honor.

Reservations are required. For information: (818) 789-8499.

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