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Obsessed by the theater

Theater

Attending plays by the dozens and leading online chatter, Ravi Narasimhan may be as passionate about the local stage as its artists.

January 11, 2004|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

If Ravi Narasimhan could write the headline for this story, it would be a slow-news-day parody in the style of the Onion: "Area Man Way Too Into Local Theater."

Indeed, it's probably not a particularly healthy sign for audience-challenged Los Angeles theaters that a 39-year-old physicist for Northrop Grumman has become a figure of fascination, even awe, on the local scene for the simple fact that he attends a lot of plays here, as many as three or four a week.

"I think his passion sometimes exceeds that of the artists themselves," says Jonathan Winn, an actor-producer associated with Circle X Theatre Company and founder of the discount ticket service Play7.

On the other hand, the very existence of a community with the Mystery of Ravi on its collective brain is nothing to sneeze at. Not coincidentally, it's a community whose dialogue Narasimhan has facilitated by co-maintaining the "Big Cheap Theater" newsgroup (the message board, with archives dating to 1999, can be viewed at groups.yahoo.com/group/bigcheap/messages). The newsgroup, popularly known by its nearly 900 members as the "BCT list" or "Big Cheap," mingles snarky political arguments and general "off-topic" musings among its bread-and-butter theater troubleshooting and the inevitable come-see-my-show pleas.

Though he doesn't moderate it, Narasimhan is all over the BCT list, often with several postings a day, ranging from arts-related websites to random musings on shows he's seen.

But there's a nasty flip side to Narasimhan's devotion: He can be almost frighteningly vituperative about shows he doesn't like, using words like "swill" and "pseudo-intellectual piffle." Though he generally keeps such rants off the BCT list -- understood by members to be "neutral ground" -- he does publish them, alongside positive commentaries and links to other reviews, in a self-styled biweekly theater e-newsletter (archives at www.rettacs.org). Narasimhan's seemingly boundless passion -- both hot and cold -- for local theater marks him as either an indispensable gadfly or an Internet kook.

In person, Narasimhan seems more genteel geek than raving lunatic. He's youthful-looking and generally soft-spoken, with an attentive gaze, a schoolboy haircut and a taste for preppy pullover sweaters and classical chamber music. How did this quintessential science nerd get hooked on live theater?

Despite a cultured upbringing in the Bay Area, it wasn't until his post-doctorate years in New Jersey that he caught the theater bug. He had started trolling Manhattan for diversions and stumbled upon a "rinky-dink" theater in the "lower alphabets" of the East Village. "At that point," he recalls, "I thought, 'This is really something I can do here that I couldn't do other places.' "

Or maybe he could: When a research post at UCLA brought him west in 1994, he started attending such L.A. mainstays as the Odyssey Theatre, Theatricum Botanicum, Pacific Resident Theatre and A Noise Within. In 1999, he stumbled upon on the BCT list, where members of such young, edgy theater companies as Circle X, Zoo District, Sacred Fools, Open Fist, Actors' Gang and the Evidence Room were carrying on a lively virtual discussion.

"What I found by lurking on the list for a few weeks is that these folks seemed to be really interesting, in an unquantifiable way," he recalls. "I thought I would enjoy seeing some of their plays."

He was soon hooked -- as much by the artists as by their work.

"I was really impressed by the caliber of work I was seeing, on average," he says. "And I was -- and continue to be -- amazed by the determination of these folks to keep their artistic beliefs and interests in front of the public, at tremendous personal cost."

When the founder of the BCT list, John Scofield, left the theater for other opportunities, Narasimhan and producer-writer Christopher DeWan volunteered to keep it going. And though Narasimhan isn't the only nonpractitioner in on the discussion, the point of view he brings to the table is unique.

"Ravi has an outsider's perspective, in that he never wants to do theater," Winn says. "But by moderating Big Cheap, he hears everything come and go, and by seeing more shows than any of us can, in some really important ways he's more of an insider than any of us."

This intimacy with the scene -- which Narasimhan stresses is not primarily social but "electronic" -- can also be a source of friction. Last year he once conspicuously began reading a magazine during a show he hated in a theater small enough for the actors to notice. "Ravi is like this mysterious, mythic figure, so we were a little disappointed with him," said one actor who was in the show. "But we took it in stride."

Explains Narasimhan, "I was absolutely trapped, and I thought the show had gone so far beyond all norms, I had no other choice. I'm not saying I'm proud of this."

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