STAGE : Are Critics Emptying Theaters? It's a Bum Rap

Bums on seats. Not vagrants: rear ends. How to get them there?

It was a big concern at a meeting of local theater people and critics the other night at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. The theater people, most of them representing the smaller houses, felt that the critics weren't doing the job they could to attract readers to the theater.

It stood to reason that if a show couldn't attract a mere 50 customers a night in a megalopolis of 7 million people, the public simply hadn't gotten the word.

The producers weren't begging for better reviews. But the critics did need to write more about the rewards of live theater in the film and video age: the intimacy, the involvement, the presence of the actor.

And when a critic did like the show, he or she shouldn't be afraid to say so!!! Quibbles don't sell tickets.

You had to smile. Theater producers are like new parents: They can't believe that the outside world doesn't see their baby as absolutely the cutest thing in the world. If the reviewer fails to rave about their show, he must be censoring his feelings.

In fact, reviewers love to be swept away by a show. The energy produces good copy. Usually, though, there are one or two qualifications that have to be made. What the disappointed producer reads as a suppressed rave is an honest report on a mixed experience.

The critic, especially in Hollywood, also likes to speak up for the magic of live performance. Unfortunately, a bad show can override it. If the actors haven't found their characters--or if the playwright didn't give them any--it doesn't help to be only 10 feet away from them. In fact, it can add to the embarrassment. You can't walk out on them.

The critic acknowledges that he probably underestimates the power of the press, so as not to feel like a skunk every time he has to produce a negative review. He is also pretty sure that theaters overestimate the power of the press to put bums on seats.

A friend of mine once put a small ad for her homemade product in a national magazine, figuring that if only one-half of 1% of its readers answered it, she would be in business. Nobody answered it.

Similarly, even with good press, it's not at all inevitable that 50 people in Los Angeles will choose to visit a particular theater on a Friday night. Count how many other theaters there are in Los Angeles--up to 100 listings in each Sunday Calendar. Consider how many movie complexes there are, how many clubs, how many restaurants, how many ballgames, how many places to rent a video.

What can local theater do to meet the competition? A couple of producers at the meeting thought that L.A. theater would put more bums on seats when it went after "excellence." That, of course, is what every artist should shoot for. Aim for the bull's eye and you may at least hit the inner ring.

In practice, though, a theater can't hope to do a superb script and a scintillating production every time out. It can hope to develop a following as a house that does interesting scripts and first-class productions; a reputation as a real theater, rather than a showcase or a workshop.

One way to ensure first-class productions is to pay your actors. Equity Waiver theater is amazingly professional, considering how little money the actors take home from it. But rehearsal schedules tend to be loose, and the understudy situation haphazard. Serious salaries would demand serious commitment.

The public likes to feel that a theater means business. One sign of this is a well-maintained lobby and auditorium. Going to the theater is something like going to a restaurant for dinner. The play is the thing, but the atmosphere of the theater will register, and it will have something to do with whether the customer returns to see the next play.

Our smaller theaters offer better sightlines and sound than the downtown houses, and much more affordable ticket prices. But some of them are fairly dingy. One doesn't expect mirrored lobbies and gilt chandeliers, but some fresh paint and a new carpet (or a clean one) would help. And someone to take your ticket with a smile.

The public also likes to call the theater's phone number and have it answered by an actual person--or, failing that, an informed machine. Printed programs have a touch of class and aren't that hard to achieve in the era of desk-top publishing. Real coffee is pleasant at intermission, with real cream, not that awful powder. It's fun when there's a bookstand in the lobby, as at the Back Alley.

Even when the play falls short, the amenities needn't do so. And if a theater is serious about getting bums on seats, the amenities ought to be there. All the way back to the Greeks, theatergoing has been associated with the notion of holiday and festival. People go to the theater for pleasure. They don't want to walk into a lobby and have to feel sorry for the people putting on the play.

I thought of all this the other night at the Santa Monica Playhouse. The show was Jerry Mayer's comedy "Almost Perfect." It had been running for a year, an Off-Broadway staging was in the works, and it was time to catch up with it.

My last trip to Santa Monica had been to the Mayfair Theatre to see a wretched sitcom called "Harry and Thelma in the Woods." Mayer's play could also be called a sitcom. Todd Sussman plays a happily married guy (fairly happily) who has a fling with a beautiful third party (Sandra Kerns) and comes home to the girl he married (Susan Cash), everybody having learned something in the process.

The husband also has a bossy father, a swinging older brother and a mother who can't stand to see people fight at the dinner table. Yes, it's been done.

But you also got the feeling that it had been lived. The older brother punches the younger brother on the arm, and the latter shrugs--"Didn't hurt," as if they were still in sixth grade.

The wife is one of those people who get up early every morning to make sure that the sunrise comes off all right. Between the kids and the house and the League of Women Voters, she's so overbooked that he has to make a reservation to make love--which makes her accuse him of being unspontaneous.

There's more truth than fiction in "Almost Perfect." I saw it with a group of senior citizens. They loved it. And one reason was the Santa Monica Playhouse itself.

It's a tiny house off 4th Street. Not only is it clean, it's decorated. Is it ever decorated. The lobby looks like a takeoff of the Old Curiosity Shop, a jumble of books and candelabra and costumes. You wouldn't be surprised to see Squirrel Nutkin taking a cup of tea on the divan.

The decor is a bit too whimsical for my taste, but it's certainly got personality. And at the Santa Monica Playhouse the customer is made to feel like a Somebody. For instance, there's a velvet rope at the door, where you check in with the head usher.

The playhouse is also renowned for its intermission noshes (a New York deli theme the night I was there). All right, laugh. None of this has anything to do with the art of the theater.

But it has plenty to do with the subject of the meeting at LATC--how to put bums on seats. For the next meeting, it might be smart to hear from someone at the Santa Monica Playhouse.

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