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Assessment of Theater Trips Over Bottom Line

September 09, 2002|STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS

How refreshing that in its Sunday Calendar, The Times chooses to give such prominent attention to a local theater and its artistic director, Jon Lawrence Rivera, who has dedicated his efforts over the past decade to producing only new plays by L.A. writers ("What's Next for His L.A. Story?" by Don Shirley, Sept. 1).

As Shirley rightly asks, what could be a more losing financial proposition than presenting works almost exclusively by little-known authors?

Yet speaking as one of the little-known playwrights in that theater's stable, I do feel the article overlooks a couple of key points while applying a standard of judgment that may not pertain to a theater such as Rivera's Playwrights' Arena.

First, it keeps homing in on the theater's box-office returns and ongoing financial woes, implicitly holding Rivera's new-plays-only policy accountable, as though 90% of theaters across the city--regardless of their programming--don't function on the brink of fiscal catastrophe. (To be fair, the hook to Shirley's story is Rivera's inability to pay the bills at a venue with more than 99 seats, and the consequent strain with Actors Equity.)

Yet from the article, one is left with the impression that Luis Alfaro's "Straight as a Line" is the only Playwrights' Arena production in 10 years that had any merit, since it was able to hop from a 35-to a 99-seat theater. "Black Dawn" at the Ivar Theater lost money, Shirley remarks. Alfaro's "Bitter Homes and Gardens" launched the theater's LATC residency "on a high note," Shirley says, before sounding a lower note: "Although the play never sold out."

Though this is all true, the article contains not one sentence about the quality of the work on the stage, the respect it has engendered over the decade, the top-flight designers Rivera has attracted, the stream of favorable reviews (some even by Times critics), or the awards that the company has accrued--and not only in Los Angeles. In addition to a love-letter review of Alfaro's "Straight as a Line" (directed by Rivera) in the New York Times, Nick Salamone and Maury R. McIntyre's musical, "Moscow," received a Fringe First Award from the Edinburgh Festival--one of only 15 such nods in a docket of more than 1,500 productions. It, too, lost money in Los Angeles.

How, then, do we measure accomplishment in a field that has never thrived without patronage or subsidy, or at a theater with no advertising budget?

Of course, The Times' function is to report the news impartially. And the newsworthy question posed by the article is a potent one: If Playwrights' Arena goes under, what will be lost?

A lot more, I suggest, than Shirley was willing to credit.

Steven Leigh Morris is a Los Angeles-based playwright whose "Atomic Quintet" and "Wet Snow" were produced at Playwrights' Arena in 1997and 1994, respectively.

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