Newsletter: Essential Arts: Where have all the playgoers gone?
Good morning. I’m Times theater critic Charles McNulty, with Times arts reporter Steven Vargas standing by. Together we’ll be attempting to fill the fabulous shoes of Carolina A. Miranda, who has a reprieve from her newsletter duties this week. Before Steven reviews the latest arts news, I want to address an urgent issue facing theater companies — dwindling audiences. The venues are open, but so too are whole rows of seats — a disheartening sight for ambitious, meaningful work.
Jessica Goldberg pulls off a neat trick in “Babe,” her new play about an overdue cultural reckoning in the music business. But if only a small number of theatergoers witness the sleight-of-hand, has the magic really happened?
In the all-out war between Gus, an old-school record-label boss immune to sensitivity training, and Kaitlin, a newly hired young employee who is as ambitious as she is politically combative, Abigail, Gus’ right hand, seems at first to be a self-effacing bystander. But as hostilities intensify at the office, she grows in emotional stature. This enigmatic lieutenant who doesn’t say much at meetings suddenly has a lot to say — and none of it fits anyone else’s ideological agenda.
The transformation of a subordinate character into the play’s protagonist left me gobsmacked. But was anyone else marveling at this dramatic coup? At the sparsely attended Atwater Village Theatre, where “Babe” is having its world premiere courtesy of the Echo Theater Company, the play seemed in danger of echoing into a void.
Intimate theater companies like the Echo serve a niche audience. Attendance is limited by design. But the smallness of these venues makes the growing sections of empty seats all the more apparent. Where have all the committed playgoers gone?
Among the pandemic’s many casualties is the steady diet of theater. The pool of patrons who turn out not just for hits but also for entire seasons has conspicuously dwindled, throwing into doubt the future of companies that have long been working against the odds to forge vital local connections to the art form.
“Babe” is one of those modest new plays easily overlooked by consumers drawn to celebrity, hype and lavish spectacle. Awards committees will likely turn their attention elsewhere when deciding the year’s prizes. But attention should nonetheless be paid.
Goldberg emerged off-Broadway at the turn of the century with plays, such as “Refuge” and “Good Thing,” that intriguingly mix gritty realism with poetic mystery. A distinctive dramatic voice, with subtle traces of Sam Shepard and María Irene Fornés, announced itself. But a playwriting career isn’t easy to sustain, and Goldberg inevitably moved into television.
Echo Theater Company artistic director Chris Fields, who directed “Babe,” has been a champion of Goldberg’s work. (“Body Politic” and “Better” both received Echo premieres.) A long-term relationship with a dramatist is healthy for artists and audiences alike. Theater doesn’t have to be as transactional as dining out. Buying a ticket can be an investment in something larger than an evening’s entertainment.
The structure of “Babe” isn’t perfectly calibrated. The play, rushed in places, is still germinating. Plot isn’t Goldberg’s strong suit. Oblique character observations, the curious rhythms of relationships that defy category, and an agile empathy too alert for sentimentality are her trademark strengths.
These virtues are embodied in the deeply moving performance of Julie Dretzin’s Abigail, who’s caught between the rock of Gus’ retrograde masculinity and the hard place of Kaitlin’s revolutionary fury. As the acrimony ratchets up between these antagonists, Abigail refuses to let anyone rewrite her story for their own ends.
Sal Viscuso’s Gus has grand arias of male toxicity that he delivers with savage aplomb. Wylie Anderson has the challenge of being doubly cast as the aggrieved and increasingly aggressive Kaitlin and as Kat Wonder, the legendary female recording artist who was romantically linked with Abigail and came to a tragic end.
“Babe” offers the pleasure of a theatrical novella. In a mere 70 minutes, whole lifetimes are intimated and reassessed as the contradictions inherent in the term “music business” are teased out. The play makes a case for the capacious vision of art in an age dominated by the restricted views of commerce and politics. But is there public bandwidth left for this kind of small-scale theatrical meditation?
The Southern California premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s “A Great Wilderness,” produced by Rogue Machine Theatre at the Matrix Theatre, is similarly struggling for notice. I have mixed feelings about this 2014 play about gay conversion therapy. Hunter also wrote “The Whale,” which has been adapted into a highly anticipated film set for wider release later this fall.
“A Great Wilderness” takes a complexly sympathetic view toward Walt, the avuncular protagonist who is trying to convert one last youngster before he gives up his operation in rural Idaho and moves to an assisted living facility to deal with his incipient memory loss. A father still grieving the death of his own son, who died by suicide after coming out, Walt is haunted by doubts about the legacy of his counseling center, which he has asked his ex-wife to continue.
The problem with the play isn’t the surprisingly gentle angle from a gay playwright on a controversial subject but the work’s lack of structural focus. Hunter can’t seem to find a sustainable dramatic throughline, and Elina de Santos’ unsubtle direction compounds the sense of dithering.
John Perrin Flynn, founding artistic director of Rogue Machine, plays Walt, marking his return to the stage in a lead role after years of concentrating on directing and producing. His grief-flecked performance, shadowed with misgivings and shot through with worry, strikes the production’s deepest chord, though it’s not enough to rescue the work.
Rogue Machine has produced other plays by Hunter, including “A Bright New Boise,” “A Permanent Image” and “Pocatello.” I was grateful for the opportunity to encounter “A Great Wilderness,” despite my reservations. But there doesn’t seem to be a rush to catch this play by one of our leading contemporary dramatists.
In a Facebook post, Flynn sent out an SOS: “If you think art theaters are important to this culture, this nation, this state, this city, you have to support them. If you think Rogue Machine is an important part of the cultural community of Los Angeles, you have to buy a ticket. Now. Today. It is this simple. Theaters should only exist if they have an audience. Buy a ticket and come or don’t buy a ticket and don’t come. Either choice helps answer the question.”
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Pasadena Playhouse has been struggling to bring in an audience for Martyna Majok’s “Sanctuary City,” which I consider to be one of the best productions of the season. A free-ticket initiative was put into effect for the last two weeks of the show’s run, which ends Sunday.
Why are audiences so reluctant to resume their theatergoing ways? It’s obviously not just about COVID. Our tolerance for inconvenience has taken a hit after the unrelenting stress of the last few years. Traffic, ticket prices, parking and, yes, masks make it easier to succumb to domestic passivity. Surfeited with choice at home, we have trouble committing to anything that requires a little exertion.
As my colleague Jessica Gelt has reported, L.A. theaters are dealing with unprecedented challenges. But these companies don’t always make it easy on themselves. Once again operating in a vacuum, many of the more prominent venues opted for the same two weeks in September to open their fall productions. In a media environment in which theater coverage has been drastically curtailed, this makes no tactical sense.
I have my own pet peeves. Theaters should start their shows on time and not make masked patrons wait 20 minutes for the curtain to go up (as Pasadena Playhouse is in the habit of doing on opening nights). And price gouging at parking structures is just another reason for a younger demographic to stay away.
But the value of playgoing goes beyond the merits of an individual work. To see a show is to be part of a community. To buy a ticket is to assert what you think matters in the world. To leave your home for a cultural experience is an expression of openness — to seeing more, feeling more and, quite possibly, understanding more.
And now I’ll turn things over to Steven Vargas, who will provide an expert rundown of our cultural coverage in the last week.
On and off the stage
Thanks for the introduction, Charles! Naturally, I’ll keep the theater conversation going and start off The Times’ reporting roundup with a story I had the opportunity to cover this week:
Inda Craig-Galván — a playwright known for works like “Black Super Hero Magic Mama” — took on a new challenge: writing a leading character outside of her own race. In her new play with East West Players, “The Great Jheri Curl Debate,” Mr. Kim (Ryun Yu) hires Veralynn Jackson (Julanne Chidi Hill) at his beauty supply store under one condition: He calls her “Julie.” Taking on the project for East West Players’ Playwrights Group meant Craig-Galván had to navigate stereotypes while thinking empathetically and collaboratively with all involved. “She didn’t want to offend, exploit, appropriate — any of that,” Dramaturg and Playwrights Group instructor Alice Tuan told me. “That’s the scary thing about writing outside of your race, and that’s why not a lot of people do it.”
In his review of “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” at the Mark Taper Forum, Times theater critic Charles McNulty notes that the Center Theatre Group’s revival of Jane Wagner’s one-woman show — starring “Saturday Night Live” comedian Cecily Strong — doesn’t quite hit the mark. The iconic role was written by Wagner for Lily Tomlin, who premiered it on Broadway in 1985. “A theatrical garment custom made for one performer is never going to fit another quite as well, no matter how extensive the alterations,” McNulty writes. The play weaves together outlandish characters, notably a bag lady named Trudy who lost her mind and comes to believe she’s contacted space aliens.
And Times arts and culture writer Jessica Gelt sat down with Strong, director Leigh Silverman and Wagner to talk about why they’re reviving the show today.
The museums and gallery scene
Times contributor Christina Catherine Martinez dips into Tita Cicognani’s new work at the Hammer Museum, “Heart Tub” — a hot tub installation that visitors can soak in, both literally and artistically, for 45 minutes at a time. Cicognani’s work is accompanied by the 40-minute video “I Still Believe” looping on a large screen. Visitors can challenge their ideas of what it means to be in a museum — typically associated with cleanliness and sterility — and embrace the intimacy of a hot tub. “What began as an overdetermined catalyst for romance has since devolved into a symbol of tackiness (see: ‘Failure’),” Martinez writes. “But loving is nothing if not embarrassing, its expressions always a little infra dig.” Martinez got submerged into a conversation with Cicognani and into the water, at one point almost soaking her reporter’s notebook — oops!
Thirty-five years after the little Newport Harbor Art Museum in Orange County announced plans to relocate, its aspirations came to fruition — the new $93-million, 53,000-square-foot Orange County Museum of Art designed by Morphosis is set to open today. So was the wait worth it? Times art critic Christopher Knight provides a look inside the museum doors and a gander at its three inaugural exhibitions. Spoiler alert: plenty of art with little opportunity to sit and ruminate.
And Times arts and culture writer Deborah Vankin attended the art museum’s gala to capture the “utopian black tie” affair that marked the opening — providing a glimpse into the fashion and artists of the night.
A quick update on last week’s newsletter: Due to a tech glitch, last week’s email featured an art review from 2018 that stated that an exhibition by Jo Ann Callis at Rose Gallery in Santa Monica was ongoing. That show is not currently on view. Instead, the gallery is exhibiting a show of work by photographer Caleb Stein titled “Down by the Hudson.” We regret the error!
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What does it mean to be Pan-American? Times classical music critic Mark Swed writes that the L.A. Phil’s Pan-American Music Initiative, led by Gustavo Dudamel, probed the idea in a compelling way at a recent concert. Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez struck a chord on the question during her recent performance at the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage as well. “Melody in all three of these pieces needs to be assembled a note at a time,” Swed writes of Martinez’s performances of new work. “Martinez did so by providing such substance to each individual note that she gave the impression of capturing it from the air, like a flying insect, and attaching it to the piano so that it could join the next one.”
L.A. Opera‘s new resident conductor, Lina González-Granados, received a warm welcome from opera fans last month, writes contributor Catherine Womack, when she made her debut at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion conducting Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” (The opera closes this weekend.) Hailing from Calí, Colombia, González-Granados was surrounded by music and dance growing up, and gravitated toward opera recordings in addition to classical piano lessons. At the behest of her mother, González-Granados learned Colombian and other Latin American tunes on the keys. “I wanted to focus on classical because I needed the technique,” she tells Womack. “My mom was like, ‘You need to know your roots.’”
Daniela Lieja Quintanar, previously the chief curator and director of programming at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, was appointed chief curator and deputy director of programs at REDCAT.
The Wallis named violinist Artem Kolesov as its inaugural artist for the Walter and Peggy Grauman Fellowship in Classical Music.
Hero Theatre announced two new play commissions: Phanésia Pharel will develop a play for the company’s “Nuestro Planeta” initiative and Amina Henry riffs on Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” in “Nothing, Nothing.”
Tony nominees Dee Dee Bridgewater and Delroy Lindo have been slated as co-hosts for the inaugural Jazz Music Awards on Oct. 22.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s the Ground Floor is kicking off its 10th anniversary by announcing the 20 projects that will be part of its upcoming Residency Lab, which also marks the program’s return to full capacity since the start of the pandemic. Projects include Monica Bill Barnes and Robbie Saenz de Viteri’s “Many Happy Returns,” Minita Gandhi’s “Nerve” and Franky D. Gonzalez’s “Heart Stop, or The Obesity Play.”
Charles Fuller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright best known for “A Soldier’s Play,” has died at 83. His acclaimed work explored the pervasiveness of racism in social institutions.
Dan Sullivan, Los Angeles Times theater critic from 1969 to 1991, has died at 86. He was also the director of the Eugene O’Neill National Critics Institute from 1999 to 2013.
Kim Jung Gi, a renowned illustrator who has contributed to graphic novels, Marvel and DC comics, has died at 47. He’s remembered for his ability to draw detailed illustrations straight from memory, and he held the Guinness World Record for the longest drawing by an individual.
Sacheen Littlefeather, the Apache activist and actress known for turning down the best actor award on behalf of Marlon Brando at the 1973 Oscars, has died at 75. On Aug. 15, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences issued an apology for the jeers and mistreatment she received from her act of protest against the stereotypes of Native Americans in entertainment.
Meredith Tax, an activist and writer of second-wave feminism, has died at 80. Her 1970 pamphlet, “Woman and Her Mind,” became a prominent piece of second-wave feminism that investigated gender norms and the behavior of men and women. Other notable writings include her nonfiction “The Rising of the Women,” the novel “Rivington Street” and its sequel, “Union Square.”
In other news
— Christie’s and Highsnobiety’s latest collab, a $125 sweater with “Art Dealer” printed over the chest, is costing them more than they’re selling it for. After receiving criticism for “aestheticizing art handlers’ labor” and workers’ complaints of low pay, the company has taken down its controversial merchandise.
— Surprising news from my hometown: A former KKK headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, that was set to be demolished was picked up by Adam W. McKinney, a dance professor at TCU College of Fine Arts, and his partner, Daniel Banks, to be transformed into the Fred Rouse Center for Arts and Community Healing.
— Hyperallergic’s Elaine Velie investigates the Art Institute of Chicago’s quiet changes to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” over the years, revealing how the mention of AIDS was omitted from the museum label.
— President Biden signed an executive order that reinstated the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, an entity that dissolved during Donald Trump’s presidency as an act of protest.
— Art writer Mark Lamster explores the timeliness of the Kimball Art Museum’s architecture to commemorate the Dallas museum’s 50th anniversary.
— An interesting read: Deborah Nicholls-Lee’s deep dive into the meaning and impact the color black has had in fashion, for BBC.
— An art collective consisting of formerly incarcerated artists, born out of the Fairton Federal Correctional Institution in south New Jersey, is making waves in the art world, with plenty of stories to tell about how the collective came to be.
And last but not least ...
It's a date
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