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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

SLM: There's a reason tourists swoon to Hollywood, and it's not the history of our theater. So anyone creating theater can only counter that with a clear sense of purpose. Our community has grown more robust and interconnected. Ironically, the social networking technologies that have contributed to our perpetual distraction have also fostered our theater communities, whose highest purpose is to get us to concentrate on what it means to be human. There are now several theater communities in L.A., call them tribes, and when we're at our best, they overlap and interconnect. L.A. Stage Alliance does a pretty good job bringing them together with panels and round tables. You can see our community at Taper openings, and at the Ovations and the LA Weekly Theater Awards. Our biggest challenge was never geography but the collective myopia that our sprawling geography seduces us into.

Charlie, you came from the Village Voice in New York. I'm curious as to what East Coast myths about L.A. theater (I presume they were dismissive) have been shattered or tempered by your experience here.

CM: I wasn't that aware of the clichés about L.A. theater until I told New York theater people of a certain parochial stripe that I was leaving to become the theater critic of the L.A. Times. I had worked in the professional theater for years, with people who had directed at the Taper, who had great respect for South Coast Rep's play development program and who held Jack O'Brien, the Old Globe's former artistic director, in the highest regard. So I didn't enter the job with many prejudicial ideas about L.A. theater and found it tiresome when others assumed I did.

My experience over the last 4 1/2 years has been colored more by the recession than by anything else. The fallout on the arts, which was insidious at first, has been devastating of late. More and more theaters are going dark. More and more have adopted a survivalist box-office mentality. The recovery phase may be brightening the mood on Wall Street, but it hasn't hit the cultural sector yet.

My faith in the leadership of our largest institutions isn't exactly at an all-time high. I think the turnaround will come through grassroots efforts. The smaller theaters, unencumbered by institutional baggage, are better positioned to make an authentic connection with an audience right now. I hope they will seize the opportunity. It will require self-honesty, self-criticism and self-discipline — qualities most of us struggle with on a daily basis. The work is happening, but it's erratic. And it needs to deepen if it's to have a more profound impact.

SLM: Impact is the heart of the matter. The 99-seat theater contract is now being reconsidered by the actors union, as it is every few years. There's discussion among some producers, who would like to see more profit by lifting the union's restrictions on ticket prices. This, they argue, would provide incentive to invest in stronger production values and make our smaller theater more competitive commercially with other American cities. I'm not sure that isn't killing the goose that laid the golden egg. The cost of doing professional theater in L.A. is about as low as anywhere in the country, while the talent pool is about as high.

Raise the incentive of box office revenue, and you're further squeezing out the incentive to take risks. I'd like to see us play more to our strengths. Half the output of our small theaters is already new work, but it isn't making the kind of impact that such numbers warrant, for many of the reasons we've already discussed. There's no reason we can't put more scrutiny and focus on more imaginative new work development, the way REDCAT and the Steve Allen Theater are already doing — and with strong audiences. That's a goal that comports with the schedules of all those actors who need to make their living on TV and in film, which has always been so challenging to the conventional model of doing theater here. I'm not arguing against a commercial theater district or to shutter the Pantages. But let's be realistic about who we are, where we are and what we're best capable of with the resources we have, so that what we do might actually make a difference.

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