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Shakespeare in L.A.: Summer of our discontent

As the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles forgoes its summer fest, leaving the Independent Shakespeare Co. and Theatricum Botanicum among the few alfresco productions in the area, now's a good time to ask why outdoor Shakespeare has yet to catch on in a big way in L.A.

August 07, 2011|By James C. Taylor, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Shakespeare Festival/LA stages Julius Caesar on the steps of City Hall in 1998.
Shakespeare Festival/LA stages Julius Caesar on the steps of City Hall… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Before there were trendy lofts, coffeehouses and bacon maple doughnuts on the streets near Los Angeles' skid row — back when graffiti wasn't considered "art" in downtown Los Angeles — Ben Donenberg had the idea that theater could improve the neighborhood.

"In New York, no one would normally walk in Central Park after dark because it's dangerous," the then-30-year old impresario told this newspaper in 1987. "You put up a Shakespeare festival and thousands of people flock to the park. I thought that creating a festival here would help to bring people downtown."

Twenty five years ago this month will mark Donenberg and Shakespeare Festival/LA's first production of "Twelfth Night" that took place in Pershing Square. But while the artsy and curious flock to downtown L.A., there will be no Shakespeare festival this summer for the first time in a generation.

With Donenberg's troupe, now called the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, dark this summer, it seems like a good time to ask: Why hasn't a signature summer Shakespeare tradition blossomed during L.A.'s warmer evenings? Are our outdoor venues simply dealing with the same challenges facing indoor theaters year-round — or are there unique factors hampering alfresco Shakespeare?

There are certainly many more actors (and arguably better weather) in Los Angeles than in San Diego or the Bay Area, yet those two smaller metropolitan areas have major outdoor Shakespeare festivals — the Old Globe and Cal Shakes — that are centrally located and part of the local fabric, much like the venerable Public Theater's summer productions in Central Park.

Founded in 1954, Joseph Papp's New York troupe started small, and its early years, vividly recounted in Times critic Kenneth Turan's oral history, "Free for All," were not so different from the history of Donenberg's Shakespeare Center or the Santa Clarita Shakespeare Festival or San Pedro's Shakespeare by the Sea, to name some of the many smaller Southern California festivals to emerge in the last generation.

Speaking with some of the founders, including Donenberg, Ellen Geer of Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga and Independent Shakespeare Co.'s Melissa Chalsma, all of them invoked Papp as a role model. Chalsma even admitted that she and her managing director and husband, David Melville, have a shorthand when problems come up: "WWJPD?" (What Would Joe Papp Do?)

Papp's biggest coup was willing into existence the Delacorte Theater, a permanent stage for his company in Central Park. Sitting in the Delacorte seats, before going on as Provost in "Measure for Measure" earlier this summer, L.A.-based actor Dakin Matthews tried to pinpoint why Los Angeles hasn't built a similar venue. "Any outdoor amphitheater in L.A. requires the cooperation of neighbors, it requires traffic patterns," he says, then gestures to the surrounding park. "You don't have to worry about that here."

Matthews is a veteran of numerous California Shakespeare festivals dating back to the 1960s, and he played the title character in Donenberg's production of "Julius Caesar" on the steps of City Hall in 1998. "Ben got a lot of civic support for that. It was a fun play, modern dress, very sexy," Matthews recalls. "That was one of the high points."

Repeating that success has proved difficult. Donenberg says that costs are higher for site-specific productions — and they don't always pay off. "'Julius Caesar' worked at City Hall because we embraced the venue and it was easy to make helicopters overhead part of the atmosphere," Donenberg says. "Whereas when we did 'Much Ado' at the 7th Street Marketplace, not so much."

Theater is ritual, both for performers and audiences, and without a home, Shakespeare Center/LA lacked a familiar setting or season that encouraged loyalty. That changed in 2005, when the Archdiocese of Los Angeles gave Donenberg permission to use the courtyard at the downtown Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. But it wasn't a perfect match.

"I think there's something about a sylvan setting, you want grass and nature with outdoor Shakespeare," Matthews says. "As lovely as the cathedral square is, it's still concrete."

When Donenberg and his troupe begin their next season, it's not clear where they will stage their work. Over the last 25 years, Shakespeare Center has slowly become more about education — or as Donenberg calls it, "community engagement … articulating Shakespeare in different ways." In lieu of its summer season, last month saw the start of its "Will Power to Youth" program, in which students create an adaptation of a Shakespeare play. In this way, Donenberg's troupe is becoming more like L.A.'s oldest continuous venue for outdoor Shakespeare: Theatricum Botanicum.

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