Dialogue: Critics Charles McNulty and Steven Leigh Morris discuss the state of L.A.'s small theaters

Over dinner at the Newsroom Café recently, Times theater critic Charles McNulty and LA Weekly theater critic Steven Leigh Morris (current official title: critic at large) began a dialogue on the state of the city’s smaller theater scene — the 99-seat-or-fewer venues that percolate with a relentlessness that not even Starbucks can rival. McNulty recently weighed in on the leadership challenges confronting the larger nonprofit venues, and this give-and-take on L.A.'s network of smaller theater, which the critics subsequently pursued over e-mail, seemed worthy of a larger forum.

CM: I’ve argued in the past that L.A. theater is too actor-driven and that the director has been shunted to the margins as a result. This holds true for the Equity-waiver theaters, where the bulk of the city’s offerings take place. It’s understandable that actors working practically gratis should want to take a controlling interest. But too many productions have little more urgency than an acting showcase.

SLM: The actor union’s initial rationalization for allowing its membership to work for token payments was founded on the premise of theater as an employment opportunity in TV and movies, hence the damning myth of “showcase theater in Los Angeles.” Yet the community has moved beyond that over the decades: Half the productions across the city are new plays. Now it’s possible that all these theaters are doing new plays to showcase actors, but I’m skeptical of that presumption. Then I think of actor-based companies, such as Antaeus, people who do work in TV and film, who are committed to exploring classics; you saw their recent, very strong “King Lear” — not sure you could argue that the director was shunted to the margins. I just saw an adaptation of “Macbeth” by a new company called Psittacus — a 60-minute redux staged with pin-lights. No actor showcasing there — they were all in shadow. Actors aren’t guiding the ships at director-based theaters such as Boston Court, City Garage and the Fountain Theatre. Then there are director-based companies that devise conceptual works with their ensembles — Theatre Movement Bazaar, Critical Mass Performance Group, Ghost Road Company, and so forth.

CM: The Antaeus “Lear” exemplifies what I’m describing. Here you have one of the town’s brightest directors, Bart DeLorenzo, creating a production in which his work is more or less a subordinate element. There are directorial flourishes and shadings, but the staging was about providing opportunities for the talented cast rather than offering a rigorous new reading of the play. I look forward to seeing DeLorenzo’s “Lear” down the road. This I’ll count as the Antaeus version.

I’m not arguing that there aren’t auteurs at work or theater companies with an appetite for experiment, such as Circle X Theatre Co., Son of Semele Ensemble and Circus Theatricals, to add to your fine list. But as I consider the current offerings, I’m not convinced that it’s the most robust element in town — in terms of quantity or quality. The productions at Boston Court and the Fountain are consistently strong, even muscular at times. But radical or groundbreaking? These venues have dynamic artistic leadership and are committed to ambitious, meaningful work. The same is true of the Black Dahlia and the Blank Theatre Company. But I wish that our best and boldest theater directors had a more influential voice. If they did, the new work that is being generated would get only stronger.

SLM: I’d never have expected a radical re-imagining from Antaeus, with or without DeLorenzo. That’s never been what that company’s about. The kind of funky dance-theater rendition of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” in Theatre Movement Bazaar’s recent “Anton’s Uncles” is rare out here. It’s also the kind of work being generated in REDCAT’s New Original Works Festival. When I argued for more of such work recently, I received comments that I was partly responsible for killing local theater, because I was ignoring popular audience tastes. If innovative theater is going to change the way we think or pave the way for such, we need an environment that supports it and understands it. How are theaters supposed to go out and do work that they know will alienate 95% of the general population? What’s their incentive to be brave?

CM: Theater always needs to be interrogating itself, examining what separates the stage from TV and film. This line of inquiry may seem rarefied, a preoccupation of the avant-garde, but it’s fundamental. Why venture outside of your house, deal with traffic and parking, if the kind of drama you’ve traveled to see is available on HBO with a stellar cast? REDCAT has found a way to connect with daring audiences, but artistic directors and theatergoers have steadily become more risk-averse. The economy has exacerbated the trend, but it has long been in the works. Part of it has to do with more competition for our time, more distractions at our beck and call. But the deeper issue is the Zagat mindset that has led to star casting, familiar titles and commercial froth. The smaller theaters can’t compete in this terrain, but by staying true to their mission they may end up feeling isolated at times.

I’d like to see more interaction between L.A.'s thriving art and music scenes and its theater culture. I wish artistic directors would break out of the straitjacket of the two-hour drama with 15-minute intermission. Why not produce a 45-minute piece in an art gallery or a marathon offering in a site-specific locale? What about more joint programs with dance companies and music groups?

SLM: I’m finding more intersections of theater and dance than between theater and music. For choreographic theater, I’ve already mentioned Theatre Movement Bazaar, City Garage, Psittacus, Ghost Road and Critical Mass Performance Group. I’d add Son of Semele Ensemble and NeedTheater, Zombie Joe’s Underground and maybe Poor Dog Group.

In terms of theater-music blend, Amit Itelman over at the Steve Allen Theater is looking for just that; there’s also Overtone Industries, and a company called Killsonic that just presented a workshop of its “parade opera” about a reconstituted Saddam Hussein giving a lecture about British diplomat and spy Gertrude Bell — all accompanied by a brass band numbering in the dozens. The success of our gallery scene is that it sprung from the needs to explore and to express taking precedence over the needs to please and to sell. Pleasing and selling are awfully seductive, essential really; they may lead to a popular theater but not necessarily to a relevant one. And that’s the paradox. The world crashes into a playwright or choreographer or company, and they create a piece to sort out the confusion. If their aim is true, they may not be as isolated as we think.

CM: Theater artists can benefit from the example of other disciplines. The education and training of dancers and musicians is different from that of actors and playwrights. The extent of the commitment in these fields should be a source of inspiration. Too many emerging theater companies in America aspire to little more than what a Juilliard acting professor once described to me as “brilliant amateurism.” Travis Preston’s directing work with Poor Dog Group in “Brewsie and Willie” is a boon for the company because he brings a degree of rigor that is rare in today’s theater — fringe or mainstream. Additionally, it’s imperative for theater artists to break out of their self-imposed ghettos and become more fully engaged — politically, economically, artistically. Too much contemporary theater seems to be produced under a middle-class anesthetic.

SLM: You know the adage: “Write about what you know.” That may actually be what we’re seeing and what we’re finding so lacking. People who take four to six years to study at, say, CalArts, USC/UCLA or Florida State are of the middle and upper-middle class, so it’s hardly surprising that their work should have a middle-class aesthetic, or anesthetic. I wish we could extend that edict to: “Write about what you know, and try to know more.” So many theater people here see other shows for the sole purpose of supporting their friends. That speaks to constricted frames of reference — even within the city, let alone being tuned into what their peers are doing in London and Berlin and Johannesburg. I’m hoping that in the years to come, the Hollywood Fringe Festival and the way it attracts artists from well beyond L.A. and the U.S. can help in that regard.

CM: There has long been a sense of theater people here feeling completely overshadowed by “the industry.” The beleaguered tone is understandable, yet when I see a play with several alternate performers, a practice that allows actors to take better-paying Hollywood gigs, I can end up feeling a little beleaguered myself. Yet this shouldn’t eclipse the commitment that’s out there. What’s your sense of the state of the L.A. theater community?

SLM: There’s a reason tourists swoon to Hollywood, and it’s not the history of our theater. So anyone creating theater can only counter that with a clear sense of purpose. Our community has grown more robust and interconnected. Ironically, the social networking technologies that have contributed to our perpetual distraction have also fostered our theater communities, whose highest purpose is to get us to concentrate on what it means to be human. There are now several theater communities in L.A., call them tribes, and when we’re at our best, they overlap and interconnect. L.A. Stage Alliance does a pretty good job bringing them together with panels and round tables. You can see our community at Taper openings, and at the Ovations and the LA Weekly Theater Awards. Our biggest challenge was never geography but the collective myopia that our sprawling geography seduces us into.

Charlie, you came from the Village Voice in New York. I’m curious as to what East Coast myths about L.A. theater (I presume they were dismissive) have been shattered or tempered by your experience here.

CM: I wasn’t that aware of the clichés about L.A. theater until I told New York theater people of a certain parochial stripe that I was leaving to become the theater critic of the L.A. Times. I had worked in the professional theater for years, with people who had directed at the Taper, who had great respect for South Coast Rep’s play development program and who held Jack O’Brien, the Old Globe’s former artistic director, in the highest regard. So I didn’t enter the job with many prejudicial ideas about L.A. theater and found it tiresome when others assumed I did.

My experience over the last 4 1/2 years has been colored more by the recession than by anything else. The fallout on the arts, which was insidious at first, has been devastating of late. More and more theaters are going dark. More and more have adopted a survivalist box-office mentality. The recovery phase may be brightening the mood on Wall Street, but it hasn’t hit the cultural sector yet.

My faith in the leadership of our largest institutions isn’t exactly at an all-time high. I think the turnaround will come through grassroots efforts. The smaller theaters, unencumbered by institutional baggage, are better positioned to make an authentic connection with an audience right now. I hope they will seize the opportunity. It will require self-honesty, self-criticism and self-discipline — qualities most of us struggle with on a daily basis. The work is happening, but it’s erratic. And it needs to deepen if it’s to have a more profound impact.

SLM: Impact is the heart of the matter. The 99-seat theater contract is now being reconsidered by the actors union, as it is every few years. There’s discussion among some producers, who would like to see more profit by lifting the union’s restrictions on ticket prices. This, they argue, would provide incentive to invest in stronger production values and make our smaller theater more competitive commercially with other American cities. I’m not sure that isn’t killing the goose that laid the golden egg. The cost of doing professional theater in L.A. is about as low as anywhere in the country, while the talent pool is about as high.

Raise the incentive of box office revenue, and you’re further squeezing out the incentive to take risks. I’d like to see us play more to our strengths. Half the output of our small theaters is already new work, but it isn’t making the kind of impact that such numbers warrant, for many of the reasons we’ve already discussed. There’s no reason we can’t put more scrutiny and focus on more imaginative new work development, the way REDCAT and the Steve Allen Theater are already doing — and with strong audiences. That’s a goal that comports with the schedules of all those actors who need to make their living on TV and in film, which has always been so challenging to the conventional model of doing theater here. I’m not arguing against a commercial theater district or to shutter the Pantages. But let’s be realistic about who we are, where we are and what we’re best capable of with the resources we have, so that what we do might actually make a difference.