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Debating the state of the Los Angeles theater scene

Los Angeles is accustomed to a long-running, wide-ranging rivalry with New York City, but recently, a former Angeleno compared L.A.'s theater community with his new home, Seattle, in the pages of the New York Times. The implication was clear: smaller, theater-intensive Seattle was preferable. Times theater critic Charles McNulty was moved to defend the quality and quantity of L.A. theater, and his Critic's Notebook drew many comments about the strengths and limitations of the drama scene here.

The problem with Los Angeles theater is that everybody who is involved with small theater is trying to get a job in TV or film and everybody who is big and successful in those media just uses theater as an exercise.

Someone once said that when you get on the stage you have to make it look like you have nowhere else you'd rather be that night. In L.A. theater productions everybody would rather be on TV or the big screen.

Philip Wissbeck

Madison, Wis.

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Having recently moved from a dramaturgical background in Seattle and relocated to Los Angeles I find this discussion to be incredibly important. Yes, Los Angeles has a lot of theaters. But I would argue that Seattle is a lot closer to figuring out the whole "theater as community" thing. All shows at the Seattle Rep, Intiman, Book-It, Live Girls, etc., offer tickets to those under age 25 for $15 . . . something most people can spend on a night out on the town. Good luck finding that at Mark Taper . . . or REDCAT. You're almost always looking at tickets in the $40-$60 range. That kind of exclusivity makes this a less friendly town for theater and the artists who struggle to support it.

colonelminx

Via e-mail

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I have friends in Chicago and Southern California, as well as a brother in NYC, all of whom are members of Actors' Equity, and they can tell you that one of the biggest deterrents to making a living in Southern California or Chicago as an actor is that so many auditions for productions in L.A., San Diego or Chicago are in New York.

Shows that will be Broadway bound, for example, from houses such as the La Jolla Playhouse or Old Globe will have NO auditions in Southern California -- NYC only.

If these Equity houses would stop relying solely on NYC actors and auditions and start concentrating on casting locally -- or at least offer local auditions in the first place -- they might be able to cultivate an even stronger theatrical culture and presence in these tough economic times.

Eric Oswald

Cleveland

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Having been fortunate to have a long-term artistic post at one of L.A.'s biggest resident theaters and now having been an active free-lance writer-director for the last two years, I'm seeing all too clearly the enormous chasm between the two worlds.

It's nearly impossible for independent theater artists in Southern California, no matter the degree of success, to sustain themselves here without self-subsidy from teaching, commercial work or other "day jobs."

And the number of resident artistic positions (compared to producing positions) has dwindled to almost none. Our region is as large as New York, larger than Chicago, and yet we have precious few artists living and working here who earn their living from local theater or who garner national respect. Maybe even worse, we have lost countless talent to commercial film and television and to New York.

Why?

The fault, dear Brutus, lies . . . in ourselves. Southland artists can't get no respect! Or more pointedly, they get the respect only when they make it somewhere else.

By not taking the lead and hiring local artists consistently and robustly, Southland theaters are short-circuiting the long-term potential of the region's artistic community. They are leaving local artists out of the national creative conversations and opportunities. When they do hire them on less prestigious projects, revivals, etc., they stymie their aspirations.

Fewer opportunities result in higher expectations per opportunity, which results in a greater likelihood that an artist will fail to meet expectations. This is a self-fulfilling pattern. Even with the robust resident artist programs like those I worked in at the Taper, it took a decade or more for resident directors like Chay Yew, Lisa Peterson and me to reach main stages and garner the respect of the press and the leadership of the theater.

Today, I'm not aware of any programs that provide meaningful support to Southland young or midcareer artists at any of the larger theaters. Without consistent nurturing, artistic careers don't expand, they contract. I'm all too aware that there are almost no positions like the one I held for 15 years at any theaters along the South Coast. Without these positions in place and consistent free-lance work for local directors and playwrights, there is absolutely no chance that a home-grown artist will become a nationally respected one.

Then there are the amazing die-hard artist-producers like John Rivera, Tim Dang, Jessica Kubzansky and Michael Michetti and many others who run (and subsidize) their own smaller theaters, who have proven themselves artistically, and still are more or less ignored by larger theaters. And how many others are in line behind them who can't progress?

All this because the system simply doesn't value local artists in the same way it does those from New York. Now add color and gender, mix liberally, and you get a sense of the desperation one feels standing outside the doors of the institutions meant to support our community.

As a model, Southland theaters should look at the progress made in the last two decades in raising the global status of local visual artists and by association Southland conservatories, museums and leadership. This takes guts, time and a stomach for failure . . . all of which is hard for any artistic director to pull off unless the critical, philanthropic and civic community stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

What we need desperately is a regional dialogue about the balance between artists' needs and institutional needs. We need a conversation about what constitutes a healthy theater local community. Most urgently we need to debate how local, state and national support from individuals, boards, foundations and government can create a sustainable arts environment.

Eat Local. Art Local.

Corey Madden

Writer-Director

Los Angeles

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I live in New York and attend the theater twice weekly. I was recently in Los Angeles and made it a point to check out your theater scene once again.

Thanks to Goldstarevents.com; LA Stages and 411 I was able to see "Parade" (Mark Taper), "Life Could Be a Dream" (Hudson Theatre), "Scarcity" (The Imagined Life), "Louis and Keely" (Geffen), "Equivocation" (Geffen mainstage), "Baby It's You" ( Pasadena Playhouse), [L.A. Opera's] "Tamerlano" (Dorothy Chandler) and "Mary Poppins" (Ahmanson) and was glad I did all of the above.

Yes, theater is alive in L.A. You just have to check out the scene.

Frank G. Krasevec

New York City

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This article was looooonnnng overdue. I've been living in L.A. since 1990, and the theater community has been struggling throughout this time to gain a foothold into the city as a viable entertainment option without much help from the L.A. Times.

In New York, London, Toronto (among other "theater cities"), theater doesn't have to battle vampires, blue aliens or shrieking pituitary cases. Due to the obsessive scrutiny of celebrity in L.A., it is notable that almost any production that boasts a "name" is reviewed within its first week by the L.A. Times. Other productions -- equally good if not superior -- must wait until the end of a run (or more likely, not at all) for a reviewer.

L.A. theaters are dying for audiences, and most productions simply cannot afford the costs of promotion, and thus the general public knows nothing about what's playing and why they should consider seeing live theater as opposed to one more cinematic reboot/remake/recycle.

Mr. McNulty's [article] is certainly a much-appreciated step in the right direction, but until the L.A. Times editor(s) elevate theater coverage and promotion to equal standing with film and television, L.A. theater will continue to limp along unrecognized, undervalued and derided.

Gene Franklin Smith

Los Angeles

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While the information provided by Actors' Equity Assn. is factually correct, some contextualization needs to be done to make the Los Angeles vs. Seattle theater concentration an apples-to-apples comparison.

First off, it should be noted that the 79 theater figure quoted also includes companies that reside far outside of Los Angeles proper, ranging as far north as Ojai, as far south as San Diego and as far east as Rancho Mirage; cities that, even given Angelenos' noted affinity for driving, stretch credibility in terms of being characterized as "Los Angeles theaters."

So factoring out these more distant companies in reality the number of theaters should really be 58, that is, the number within the Los Angeles metropolitan area, which covers some 4,850 square miles, as compared to the Seattle metropolitan area's much more compact 142 square miles. This works out to an average concentration of one theater per 83.6 square miles in the [Los Angeles metro area] versus a much higher concentration of 1 per 9.5 square miles for [Seattle]. .

Of the 15 Equity houses in the Seattle Metropolitan Area, all but three are less than three miles from the City core, and only one is more than 18 miles distant, which would make the concentration for the city of Seattle itself even greater.

Finally, given the comparative populations of the metropolitan areas -- 19 million for Los Angeles, versus 4.1 million for Seattle -- the number of professional theaters per-capita works out to one theater per 330,000 population for L.A. versus one per 270,000 population for Seattle, which would seem to be a much fairer measurement for comparative purposes.

So while there is no question Los Angeles theater has been unfairly maligned, it would be equally unfair to make any correction to the record, as Mr. McNulty quite reasonably attempts to do, without taking these other factors into consideration.

Chris Comte

Seattle

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