Critic’s Notebook: UCLA Live abandons what set it apart
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Feeling a touch more provincial lately? You should. With the cancellation of UCLA Live’s International Theatre Festival, Los Angeles’ status as a cultural world capital has suffered a serious blow. The fall program that brought cutting-edge theater from across the globe to the Westwood campus has been officially put on ice.
It’s a depressing though not unexpected development. In May, UCLA Live executive and artistic director David Sefton resigned in response to the cost-savings edicts coming down from above that put a big scary ‘X’ on the theater program he began in 2002 and curated throughout with a connoisseur’s fearlessness.
The words “rethinking and restructuring” — those rhetorical piranhas infesting our recessionary waters — circled ominously. It doesn’t take a psychic to tell you that a limb is about to be torn off.
“Hopefully, it’s not a permanent decision,” Christopher Waterman, the dean of the arts and architecture school who’s serving as UCLA Live’s interim director, told The Times. “If the economic prognosis improves, we will be interested in staging theater at UCLA, no doubt about it.” Forgive me if that “no doubt about it” leaves me cold. Were less draconian measures really not available? Could the pain not be divided more equally with dance and music and thus made slightly more bearable?
More urgently, does it make sense, economically or otherwise, to risk undoing the almost decade-long work that went into augmenting UCLA Live’s artistic identity and, for many of us, put it on the map?
It seems to me that the decision, made by Waterman and members of UCLA Chancellor Gene Block’s staff, reflects a lack of understanding of the theater festival’s unique place in the city’s cultural ecology. There is simply nowhere else to experience the kinds of offerings Sefton was importing to Los Angeles. Beyond the Brooklyn Academy of Music and one or two lonesome xenophilic venues in the U.S., the only option is a pricey European flight.
Last season’s highlights included one of the most innovative forces in Irish playwriting (Enda Walsh), a radical Italian stage visionary whose American visits are as rare as a pope’s (Romeo Castellucci) and a vibrant Belgian movement-theater piece set to the rhythm of adolesecent angst (Ontroerend Goed’s ‘Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen’). Past seasons have brought Ian McKellen’s outsize Lear, a portion of the Druid Theatre Company’s stinging Synge cycle and the National Theatre of Scotland’s hallucinatory “Black Watch.”
No, I haven’t always swooned over the festival’s choices. The homegrown “Medea” with Annette Bening was flat despite its adventurous intentions, an “Ivanov” from Germany was brilliantly performed though conceptually tedious. And Sefton’s programming could sometimes have the arrogant air of a gourmet chef who invites guests for a meal only to serve a few obscure canapés. But if you think the Geffen Playhouse or Center Theatre Group will step into the international breach anytime soon, you obviously haven’t been keeping up your subscriptions.
More, not less (and certainly not the bloody ax), is what the theater festival needed. I hated the way it was limited to a few autumn months. But not all expansionary ideas, far-fetched as they must seem at this point, cry out for a huge bankroll. For example, more extensive involvement from the UCLA faculty (and other area intellectuals and artists) could have helped contextualize the productions through lectures and other ancillary additions. Audiences are here to be cultivated, but they have to be more actively engaged.
Just the other day, I was bemoaning the fact that the American tour of “The Great Game: Afghanistan” from London’s Tricycle Theatre seems to be bypassing L.A. I guess I’ll catch the work at Berkeley Rep in October. But it’s distressing to consider all the unnamed international riches we now won’t even know we’ll be missing.
-- Charles McNulty
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Photos, from top: Emun Elliott, left, and Ryan Fletcher in the U.S. premiere of the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of ‘Black Watch’ at UCLA Live. Credit: Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times. Ian McKellen in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘King Lear.’ Credit: Manuel Harlan