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Critic's Notebook: The joys and challenges of the L.A. small-theater scene

Artistic directors talk shop. The upshot? Agents — this is not New York; give smaller theaters a shot at your indie writers. Plus, 'premiere-itis' and Hollywood's role in the scene.

July 05, 2012|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Los Angeles small-theater leaders Chris Fields, left, Stephen Sachs, Michael Michetti, Jessica Kubzansky, John Perrin Flynn, Elina de Santos, Bart DeLorenzo and Daniel Henning.
Los Angeles small-theater leaders Chris Fields, left, Stephen Sachs,… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

"Blackbird," Scottish playwright David Harrower's daring two-hander about a young woman who confronts the older man who sexually abused her as a girl, gave Rogue Machine one of its most memorable hits last summer.

Would you believe that it was something of a miracle that this highly respected little company was even allowed to produce the play, especially after it became a succès d'estime off-Broadway in a Manhattan Theatre Club production starring Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill?

"I tried to get the rights for five years, and every year they said no," said Rogue Machine's artistic director, John Perrin Flynn. "They were hoping that the Taper or the Geffen or someone else would do it."

"They," of course, are the agents, most of whom are based in New York or London and have only a sketchy knowledge of the L.A. theater scene. The theaters they know best are the big institutional players — not just the Mark Taper Forum and the Geffen Playhouse but also South Coast Repertory and the San Diego-area behemoths, the La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe. That there are about a dozen small companies in L.A. that can deliver productions of equal quality doesn't seem to register.

The trouble is that these theaters, opening under what's known as the 99-seat plan, don't generate much revenue for artists. Prestige potentially; big dollars never.

Flynn, who's thrilled that his perseverance finally paid off with "Blackbird," said he's been chasing after Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman" for an equally long time without any luck. "Martin wants it to go to a large theater," he said. "Certainly, that's very understandable — it makes a lot more money."

In the meantime, this highly regarded play has yet to make its L.A. debut. For a city that considers itself a cultural capital, this is, well, a little embarrassing.

Having long suspected that the companies best equipped to produce challenging drama were at a terrible disadvantage in terms of access to this work, I invited the leaders of a few of Los Angeles' most fearless theater companies for a conversation at the Los Angeles Times.

The attendees included Flynn and his co-artistic director, Elina de Santos of Rogue Machine, Bart DeLorenzo of the Evidence Room, Daniel Henning of the Blank Theatre Company, Stephen Sachs of the Fountain Theatre, Michael Michetti and Jessica Kubzansky of the Theatre @ Boston Court and Chris Fields of the Echo Theater Company. (Matt Shakman of the Black Dahlia Theatre, unable to attend, met with me the next day.)

I selected these individuals because they have been doing the most interesting work in town regardless of venue size. Disparate in their aesthetic vision, they are united in their possession of a fine-textured sensibility. If I were a playwright, I'd entrust my new play to any one of them — in fact, I think I might prefer it to a production at a regional theater where the audience sometimes seems to be visibly wondering whether the subscription is really worth the time and expense.

To start, I brought up a recent Arts & Books feature in which Reed Johnson noted that there were no Southern California productions planned of Quiara Alegría Hudes' "A Spoonful of Water," winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama. I've been wondering the same thing about new works by Annie Baker, Will Eno, Christopher Shinn, Lisa D'Amour, Young Jean Lee and Amy Herzog that have yet to reach our area.

Critically esteemed yet commercially challenging, these playwrights have been underserved by Los Angeles. One problem is that the marquee nonprofit houses have been reluctant to take chances on dramatists carving their own paths, while the city's few midsize theaters, which would be the logical venue for emerging writers who aren't pandering to established tastes, haven't seemed eager to fill this gap.

So what's keeping the better smaller companies from stepping into the breach?

One issue, DeLorenzo noted, has to do with artists and agents trying to map a New York model onto L.A. "Off-Broadway doesn't exist out here in the same sort of capacity," he said. "Our smaller theaters are fantastic, but they're not funded the way an off-Broadway theater is funded."

DeLorenzo, who brought a fresh 21st century perspective to his recent production of Chekhov's "Ivanov" at the Odyssey Theater, told the story of a playwright who essentially wanted "the L.A. version of Playwrights Horizons" to do her play. "Well, of course, there isn't something like that here," he said. "And I don't think her agent was equipped to explain that to her."

Fields, who has a strong track record of not just producing indie playwrights such as Adam Bock, Jessica Goldberg, Kate Robin and Sarah Ruhl but also of surrounding them with a like-minded community of theater artists and playgoers, recalled making a request to a playwright's agent to be considered "first in line for a play after the Taper and the Geffen and South Coast Rep," but "they wouldn't even have the conversation with us."

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