Issue: Issue Summer 2004
LA’s Unique Theatre Scene
In LA, we’re saddled with the misperception that LA is not a theatre town. It isn’t true - and if you’re reading this, you already know that. But I think it comes from the idea that because we’re not like New York , we’re not a theatre town. Well, not only is LA not like New York , it never will be - and it just doesn’t matter. LA is a unique environment and its theatre scene is just as individualistic.
In some ways, despite all its storied reputation, theatre in New York is just about impossible. Particularly small theatre. Years ago I was in New York for the load-in of a play of mine at the Samuel Beckett Theatre. It was an experience I haven’t forgotten. Driving narrow broken streets clogged with traffic, chilled to the bone in the back of a panel van, making periodic stops to lug furniture and set pieces down flights of stairs, double-parking everywhere we went and risking both tickets and irate fist-shaking of other drivers, to unload in a theatre that presented the producer with two options: freezing with the heat turned off, or warm but a deafening rumble with it turned on.
The people putting on my play were a committed bunch, dedicated to doing the best they could against enormous challenges. Because New York is an island, real estate is at a premium - and theatre rents are fantastically high. Whenever I’ve had a production in New York , I’ve been impressed by the sheer determination of the people involved. Producing small theatre in New York is like being on Survivor but without the final cash prize.
In LA, I’ve produced a lot of plays. I don’t think we ever once carried anything down or up a flight of stairs. Heat has never been an issue. Rent has always been a part of the budget but it hasn’t been almost the entirety of the budget. And, unlike New York , we’ve been able to run the shows long enough to get critics and build an audience.
New York ’s perception as a theatre town originates with Broadway. When we define success we almost always mean economic success and Broadway, for all its flops and failures, is an economic engine for New York . Other theatre there defines itself in relation to that economic engine: off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway.
In LA we don’t have anything like that. We just have theatre, wherever it is, in the form of hundreds of smaller but equally vibrant economic engines scattered throughout the county. Unfortunately, there’s this constant perception that defines us in relation to the economic engine of the film and television business. It assumes theatre exists here as a showcase for film and television. If that’s true, then my question is this: Why does theatre exist in Cumberland County, New Jersey ? In Fayetteville, Arkansas ? In rural Pennsylvania, and Iowa, and Kansas , and everyplace else where there is no Broadway and no film and television business?
Theatre in LA does not exist because of the film and television business. Theatre in LA exists because the elemental human desire to personally witness our collective stories is burned into our sub-conscious, no matter where we are. Our advantage is in the enormous talent pool drawn here by the prospect of working for the screen, and in the sheer ease of doing most things in LA.
We aren’t Broadway. We never will be. It doesn’t matter.
We have more theatre in LA than anyplace else.
Our theatre is excellent. Not all of it. But a lot of it.
No matter where you live, there’s a theatre near you. Everyone can attend. Ticket prices for some shows start at just $10. And there are always bargain offerings available over the internet.
Theatre in LA is diverse, eclectic, reflective and resonant. Somewhere right now, your story is being told on stage.
These are the facts that make up our story. You and I know this story. It’s time we tell everyone else. As for the comparisons to New York : Let’s stop. I’m not going to do it anymore. But I will arm myself with the facts of our unique theatre town so I can help other people overcome their misperceptions.
Theatre in LA exists because the elemental human desire to personally witness our collective stories is burned into our subconscious, no matter where we are.
Lee Wochner, a consultant and writer, is board president of California Arts Advocates. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .