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They Don't Get No Respect

L.A.'s home-grown stage artists, that is. But the Taper's New Work Festival is an exception.

November 08, 1998|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Los Angeles doesn't lack first-rate theater artists, but it's seldom done an adequate job of supporting their work. Some of the most highly regarded stage artists in the country--from director Peter Sellars to playwright Jose Rivera--do in fact make their home here. Yet their new and most challenging efforts are typically seen elsewhere first, and sometimes never here at all.

Many artists who live here feel that they get more respect and attention elsewhere. Nor is it unusual to come across a playwright, director or performer who's had to make his or her mark elsewhere before getting his or her due here.

Anna Deavere Smith, for example, didn't get very far as a playwright when she lived here. But once she'd had a hit in New York, the Mark Taper Forum gave her a commission to create a piece--about L.A., no less. Playwright Oliver Mayer's "Blade to the Heat" was first seen at the Taper's New Work Festival in 1991. It then went on to a full production at the Public Theater in New York in 1994, returning to the Taper's main stage only afterward, in 1996.

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And then there's the case of Han Ong, whose lyrical genius went largely unrecognized when he made his home here, but who moved east and won acclaim from venerable critic Robert Brustein and the MacArthur Foundation. Both Mayer and Ong, it should also be noted, even held staff jobs at the Taper.

The list of those who've abandoned L.A.--such as Jon Robin Baitz, Marlane Meyer and Jan Munroe--is also long. And the problem isn't just brain-drain, it's also a twofold missed opportunity.

First, L.A. fails to present much work that reflects its civic life, precisely at a time when relevant, topical fare might help broaden and diversify the theater audience. Second, the scene fails to develop as much of a artistic identity of its own as it otherwise might.

For these reasons, it's important to applaud the few institutions that do nurture Southern California-based artists. The Audrey Skirball-Kenis (A.S.K.) Theater Foundation has a number of ongoing development programs and has also provided support to other organizations.

The La Jolla Playhouse has just launched its first Playlabs, a series of private readings and discussions that will take place Monday through Nov. 21. And the longest-running program of this type, the Taper's New Work Festival, presents its 11th annual lineup of open public rehearsals, beginning Thursday and continuing through Dec. 20, at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.

Presented in association with A.S.K. Theater Projects, DreamWorks SKG and the Falcon, this year's Taper festival includes eight staged workshop productions and 11 readings. The events are free, although seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. Included will be new scripts by such talented L.A. writers as Doris Baizley, Chay Yew and Kelly Stuart. Ong and veteran Jean-Claude van Itallie will also present new works.

Particularly notable is the workshop staging of "Cut," a new drama about steroid dealers, body building and pornography by John Steppling. This is the first new full-length work from this important and influential writer since "Sea of Cortez" in 1992. And if L.A. isn't careful, it may also be the last.

Best known in recent years for the provocative adaptations of classics that he's presented with his company, Empire Red Lip, Steppling is one of the seminal figures of L.A. theater.

Born and raised here, he first found his voice as a writer at the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, founded by playwright-teacher Murray Mednick in 1978. The nationally recognized Padua Festival also provided the arena in which Steppling, Mednick, Maria Irene Fornes and others helped shape a generation of playwrights, including Stuart, Baitz, Meyer, John Pappas, Michael Sargent and more.

Nothing has risen up to fill the void left by Padua's demise in 1995. And Steppling--who has often turned to screenwriting to supplement his theater work and is now at work on a novel--has never really received the recognition he deserves. His work has been showcased in the Taper's New Work Festival three times, but it's never been put on the theater's main stage, where it belongs.

Fortunately, Steppling has made inroads elsewhere. Last year, Sun and Moon Press published a collection of his works, "Sea of Cortez and Other Plays," and he's had productions in New York and Paris, where his "Teenage Wedding" was staged in the spring.

That's partly why Steppling now plans to emigrate to the City of Light. Paris' gain will be our loss--unless, perhaps, the right production opportunity comes along to entice Steppling back for a visit, or even to stay.

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