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L.A. Theater--a Year of the ‘Artistic Deficit’?

Times Theater Writer

If theater has never exactly enjoyed abundant good health, no one ever doubted it would manage to hang in there as it always has--precariously, by its teeth, by its fingernails, but in there.

Yet as we wind down one of the least inspired years in Los Angeles theater, hanging in is getting harder and harder. It would be nice to say the odds were good for a strong 1988. Reality indicates otherwise.

Of more than 600 productions in 1987, the overwhelming majority occurred in Equity Waiver theaters (houses of 99 seats or less where Actors’ Equity, the actors union, waives its rules and where actors seldom get paid).

The big contract houses--the Wilshire, Henry Fonda, Pantages, Shubert, James A. Doolittle, Las Palmas, Coronet, Beverly Canon and Hollywood Playhouse--continued to stay mostly dark and there is little prospect for change.

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Yet dark and troubled theaters are only partly the concomitant of an ailing economy and a lack of national product--the most frequently heard explanations. They are also attributable to bad management, absence of imagination and, increasingly, in the resident theaters, what Peter Zeisler of the Theater Communications Group has called “artistic deficit.”

That’s the time artistic directors have to spend raising money instead of raising artistic standards. At its worst, this leads to attrition, at its best to a lousy self-image.

All year long we’ve heard of troubles on the hill--artistic and financial ones at the Ahmanson, which stands rudderless as both outgoing artistic director Robert Fryer and his short-lived replacement Martin Manulis abandon ship in June, leaving behind a board of directors with no apparent notion of what kind of individual they need to steer that problematic theater.

The Mark Taper Forum, inextricably linked to the Ahmanson, celebrated its 20th anniversary last year less with its gala week in April than by having its most lucrative season in years ($3,343,825 from its main stage). But even there things are not quite what they seem.

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We can accept that the Taper’s experimental New Theatre for Now has been abandoned, but it is not reassuring when the Taper’s major successes for 1987 are productions hosted rather than generated by the theater.

“Burn This” was the product of a long-standing collaboration between playwright Lanford Wilson and Circle Repertory Theatre artistic director Marshall W. Mason) and the twin Joe Orton plays (“Loot” and “Entertaining Mr. Sloane”) were imported from New York as a quick fix for the annual Taper Rep, stalled by inadequate funding.

These may be a testament to Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson’s good judgment, but what do they tell us about this flagship theater’s ability to cope with its shrinking budget? Or about its use of local talent? Even the smaller avant-gardish Taper, Too has been put on a classy but singular diet of one-person shows: Spalding Gray (opening Wednesday with “L.A. The Other, Conversations With . . . "), David Cale and Joseph Chaikin. Yet the Music Center, which cannot adequately fill or finance its existing theaters in the style to which we and they were accustomed, is planning yet another great hall. . . .

Is the invalid dying? No. But if it’s to get better, it must do that popular thing: take greater control of its own health. Some artists and theaters already have.

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The raffish Los Angeles Theatre Center, whose finances are at least as embroiled and precarious as the Taper’s, whose artistic standards are far more erratic and whose productions are rarely to everyone’s taste (usually a virtue), has managed, despite these odds, to generate greater ethnic and artistic diversity. Its programming is often untidy, its gambles don’t always pay off, its bombs are the biggest (remember “Antony and Cleopatra”?). But it’s the only Equity theater in town that is taking real chances. It is also the only one with a poetry series. Whatever else it does or does not do, LATC serves the community by stimulating its public and employing a lot of its artists.

Last year we saw the second and more genuine resurrection of the Pasadena Playhouse. Its announced 1988 season--with plays by Britisher Steven Poliakoff (“Breaking the Silence”), Los Angeleno John Bunzel (“Death of a Buick”) and the Australian Warwick Moss (“Down an Alley Filled With Cats”)--is much more inspired than the last, which made it largely on the strength of its mega-hit: “Mail.”

The Shubert, dark all last year and now refurbished, re-opens in June with the much awaited and sure-fire “Les Miserables.” “Les Miz” will also be offered as part of the Nederlanders’ Los Angeles Civic Light Opera season, but so far only LACLO’s presentation of “Nunsense” will light up the Fonda (in March)--and only “Me and My Girl” illuminates the Pantages (Jan. 13), despite protests from subscribers that it’s too soon to revive a show that was part of LACLO’s 1986 season.

This situation is notable chiefly because such disregard for the wishes of its constituency has spelled trouble and shrinking subscriptions for LACLO over the last half-dozen years. More could be coming. The new California Music Theatre in Pasadena and the Long Beach Civic Light Opera have shown the desire (in the case of California Music Theatre) and the ability (in the case of Long Beach) to cheerfully muscle in.

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As a group, Los Angeles theatergoers are also getting smarter and demanding more. They’re more internationally attuned--partly because they travel and mostly because the Olympic Arts Festival of ’84 and the Los Angeles Festival of ’87 have sharpened their appetite.

Stages, our most international Waiver theater--it introduced us to the plays of Marguerite Duras and Argentine writer Eduardo Pavlovsky--has announced plans for a major American production of Le Theatre du Soleil’s “1789" in cooperation with the USC department of drama. That we won’t have it before 1989 doesn’t take away from the project’s potential--or the fact that, without our exposure to the Soleil in 1984, this connection might never have been made.

So the invalid struggles on. It’s harder to predict what may happen in those resident theaters currently under financial siege. (“Resident” is a misnomer, since no theater in Los Angeles has a permanent company and only Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory comes close with a semi-permanent acting pool).

The Taper will launch the new year with its own productions of Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind” (Jan. 21) and Anthony Minghella’s “Made in Bangkok” (March 5). Then it imports George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum,” a 1986 hit at New York’s Public Theatre (coming May 5), and “The Lost Highway--The Music and Legend of Hank Williams,” another Mark Harelik/Randal Myler creation at the Denver Center Theatre Company (they did “The Immigrant”), arriving July 7.

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The Ahmanson, which is mounting “Summer and Smoke” with Christopher Reeve to replace the canceled “Bus Stop” (Feb. 18) concludes its season with its only box-office shoe-in: Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound.” Heaven only knows what happens after that.

As for Equity Waiver, it is in a funny way the real pulse of the city. That purely Los Angeles grass-roots phenomenon where theater can be anything--a miracle or a mess--was threatened with extinction two years ago by a disenchanted union. But Waiver has survived through the sheer collective will of the city’s actors who misuse it as often as they use it.

The best Waiver shows last year continued to come mostly from a nucleus of theaters we’ve learned to depend on: Actors for Themselves at the Matrix (“No Place to Be Somebody”); the Cast (“Savage in Limbo,” “Oct. 22, 4004 B.C., Saturday”); the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (“Master Class”); L.A. Theatre Works (“Bouncers”), and its newest offshoot, L.A. Classic Theatre Works (a collective of top professionals which gave us two smashing radio productions: “Once in a Lifetime” and “Babbitt,” the latter now airing episodically over KCRW-FM).

The debate over whether Waiver is good or bad may have become less vocal, but it hasn’t gone away. Nor should it. Serious questions need to be addressed because, tacitly, serious statements have been made. After 15 years of Waiver, only LATC has managed to make the leap to full Equity status. Another company--L.A. Theatre Works--seems to be edging closer. So far, that’s all.

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It’s a fact that theater in San Francisco, where the Waiver was voted out by actors two years ago, is functioning quite well without it. It’s another fact that theater in San Diego, which never had Waiver, has seen two non-Equity companies (The San Diego Repertory and the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company) sign Equity contracts in the last two years--to say nothing of the flourishing 50-year-old Old Globe and that brash newcomer, the La Jolla Playhouse.

Unintentionally perhaps, Waiver has contributed to a proliferation of mediocrity. This is less dangerous than it is demoralizing. There seem to be young generations of theatermakers out there, claiming Waiver as their own without paying their dues and precious little attention to craft, standards or quality. We live in the city of the Great Showcase. Showcasing is good for the actor, but it does very little for the art--and it’s the best way to ensure that theater in Los Angeles will remain a stepchild to the film and television industries.

So where is the future coming from? Where it usually comes from: that small, stubborn group of individuals who defy statistics, manage to pierce through the sludge and point a way. Last year they included (aside from the theaters and individuals already mentioned) writers/creators Reza Abdoh (“Rusty Sat on a Hill and Watched the Moon Go Down”); Gina Wendkos (“Boys and Girls/Men and Women” and “Personality”); Suzanne Lummis (“Oct. 22"), and Jane Anderson (“Defying Gravity”).

A couple of new companies bear watching, such as the Pacific Theatre Ensemble (“June 2") and the Actors Gang (“Carnage: Final Assembly”), along with playwrights Jon Robin Baitz (“The Film Society”), John Steppling (“Herakles”) and those transplanted New Yorkers John Patrick Shanley and John Ford Noonan, each with multiple entries.

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Optimism is what keeps us going, but it cannot overshadow the need for more financial support and greater security for the arts of theater. Sooner or later, a way must be found to establish a true development fund and a true endowment for an art that can no longer really flourish without them. Sooner or later, the film and television industries will have to recognize the responsibility they bear to pay back an art form that has given them their best talent by giving in return.

But that’s a story for another day.


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