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Taking a Bow, L.A.-Style

Small theaters don't get much respect, and actors earn token wages. Yet some companies do brilliant work.

July 23, 1998|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

At 2nd Stage Theatre in Hollywood, backstage is claustrophobic. In the dressing room, which is 15 feet by 11, you can imagine what a tight squeeze it might be for a stagehand, a dresser and, say, two actors doing a play like "The Gin Game."

But these days, this tiny backstage is home every night to 16 people who rub elbows--and much more--in the Blank Theatre Company's production of "Hello Again," the Michael John LaChiusa musical about, appropriately enough, intimacy.

Of the 10 actors in the original cast (which has changed since its April opening), at least half have starred on Broadway or on TV. And yet here they were, night after night, making theater in a space so tight that it seems like some kind of social psychology experiment. Meanwhile, the Blank's artistic director, Daniel Henning, recently boasted about how much he is able to pay his crowded thespians--$14 a performance. That's $9 more than minimum Equity requirement for his 49-seat house.

Why do they do it? This is one of the great mysteries of Los Angeles. When small theater here is done poorly, one assumes it's being produced out of vanity. But when small companies consistently make good or great--or even interesting--theater, they do it for little money and in the face of the general indifference of the larger culture.

They do it in the almost complete absence of a farm system like those that exist in New York, London and, to a lesser extent, Chicago and Seattle. In those cities, small theaters that rise to prominence go on to influence the national, and sometimes international, theater scene and fill up their own coffers in the bargain.

In New York, a couple of terrific reviews can turn a formerly obscure company like the New Group or the Drama Dept. into required viewing for the culturally conversant. One musical called "Rent" seriously transformed the fortunes of the 150-seat New York Theatre Workshop. Once "Rent" moved uptown to Broadway, NYTW paid off the mortgage on its East Village theater and on the adjacent building (which it uses for office and rehearsal space) and opened a bank account with which it can produce its own shows.

In Los Angeles, producing small theater is usually its own reward. Theater artists do their work despite the almost monolithic indifference of the reigning culture, a movie industry whose executives resist both funding and attending the theater here, though they will see, and even in some cases produce, theater in New York or London.

No one likes being overlooked. But people continue to make theater here, usually with very few resources, and people do see it. These people form a community that views theater as a primal cultural impulse, an irreplaceable civilized experience, a human event with which even catching the newest $100-million movie at Mann's Chinese cannot compete.

And seeing beautifully wrought theater in a small space is especially intimate and rewarding.

The following is a thumbnail sketch of five L.A. companies that fight valiantly and sometimes succeed brilliantly in making theater. This is by no means a comprehensive list. Drama-logue, the now-defunct industry weekly, estimated recently that the L.A. area has 140 99-seat-and-smaller theaters (Equity allows actors to be paid a nominal fee in these spaces, making producing theater with virtually no money feasible).

That figure represents physical spaces, whether they are theater companies or stages for rent. Add to that about 70 peripatetic companies that play in these spaces and elsewhere. This list is but a geographically and aesthetically diverse sampling of notable small theaters, each with its own unique producing logic.

Nonprofits all, these theaters all face some of the same problems. Actors frequently drop out in the middle of the rehearsal period to take film and TV jobs--a financial imperative. Grant money, which began drying up in the early '90s, is extremely scarce. Because the number of actors in Los Angeles who want to work in theater far outweighs the number of directors and producers who are so inclined, companies are usually formed and run by actors who learn to do the jobs of directors and producers and, in some cases, landlords, renting out their spaces to other companies to help pay bills.

Small theater in L.A. is a world in which actors not only perform for a pittance, they also paint, do the telemarketing and build and strike sets. Marilyn Fox, artistic director of the Pacific Resident Theater, said a friend begged her to stop putting out the trash in full view of subscribers. When I was there in June for the theater's excellent production of Cocteau's "Indiscretions," she was still doing it.

*

Actors' Gang Theatre. 6209 and 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. Hollywood, (323) 465-0566. "Cheese" runs through Saturday; "Steeltown" closes tonight. "The Rover," presented by Circle X Theatre in the Gang's larger space, 6209 Santa Monica, runs through Aug. 23. "The Tennessee Williams Project," Aug. 7 through Sept. 5.

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