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Dialogue: Critics Charles McNulty and Steven Leigh Morris discuss the state of L.A.'s small theaters

Sifting myth from reality, they debate whether the scene is driven more by showcase than vision and which complementary arts are contributing energy.

August 08, 2010

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.

CM: The Antaeus "Lear" exemplifies what I'm describing. Here you have one of the town's brightest directors, Bart DeLorenzo, creating a production in which his work is more or less a subordinate element. There are directorial flourishes and shadings, but the staging was about providing opportunities for the talented cast rather than offering a rigorous new reading of the play. I look forward to seeing DeLorenzo's "Lear" down the road. This I'll count as the Antaeus version.

I'm not arguing that there aren't auteurs at work or theater companies with an appetite for experiment, such as Circle X Theatre Co., Son of Semele Ensemble and Circus Theatricals, to add to your fine list. But as I consider the current offerings, I'm not convinced that it's the most robust element in town — in terms of quantity or quality. The productions at Boston Court and the Fountain are consistently strong, even muscular at times. But radical or groundbreaking? These venues have dynamic artistic leadership and are committed to ambitious, meaningful work. The same is true of the Black Dahlia and the Blank Theatre Company. But I wish that our best and boldest theater directors had a more influential voice. If they did, the new work that is being generated would get only stronger.

SLM: I'd never have expected a radical re-imagining from Antaeus, with or without DeLorenzo. That's never been what that company's about. The kind of funky dance-theater rendition of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" in Theatre Movement Bazaar's recent "Anton's Uncles" is rare out here. It's also the kind of work being generated in REDCAT's New Original Works Festival. When I argued for more of such work recently, I received comments that I was partly responsible for killing local theater, because I was ignoring popular audience tastes. If innovative theater is going to change the way we think or pave the way for such, we need an environment that supports it and understands it. How are theaters supposed to go out and do work that they know will alienate 95% of the general population? What's their incentive to be brave?

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