Over dinner at the Newsroom Café recently, Times theater critic Charles McNulty and LA Weekly theater critic Steven Leigh Morris (current official title: critic at large) began a dialogue on the state of the city's smaller theater scene — the 99-seat-or-fewer venues that percolate with a relentlessness that not even Starbucks can rival. McNulty recently weighed in on the leadership challenges confronting the larger nonprofit venues, and this give-and-take on L.A.'s network of smaller theater, which the critics subsequently pursued over e-mail, seemed worthy of a larger forum.
CM: I've argued in the past that L.A. theater is too actor-driven and that the director has been shunted to the margins as a result. This holds true for the Equity-waiver theaters, where the bulk of the city's offerings take place. It's understandable that actors working practically gratis should want to take a controlling interest. But too many productions have little more urgency than an acting showcase.
SLM: The actor union's initial rationalization for allowing its membership to work for token payments was founded on the premise of theater as an employment opportunity in TV and movies, hence the damning myth of "showcase theater in Los Angeles." Yet the community has moved beyond that over the decades: Half the productions across the city are new plays. Now it's possible that all these theaters are doing new plays to showcase actors, but I'm skeptical of that presumption. Then I think of actor-based companies, such as Antaeus, people who do work in TV and film, who are committed to exploring classics; you saw their recent, very strong "King Lear" — not sure you could argue that the director was shunted to the margins. I just saw an adaptation of "Macbeth" by a new company called Psittacus — a 60-minute redux staged with pin-lights. No actor showcasing there — they were all in shadow. Actors aren't guiding the ships at director-based theaters such as Boston Court, City Garage and the Fountain Theatre. Then there are director-based companies that devise conceptual works with their ensembles — Theatre Movement Bazaar, Critical Mass Performance Group, Ghost Road Company, and so forth.