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Entertainment & Arts

Critic’s Notebook: The joys and challenges of the L.A. small-theater scene

“Blackbird,” Scottish playwright David Harrower’s daring two-hander about a young woman who confronts the older man who sexually abused her as a girl, gave Rogue Machine one of its most memorable hits last summer.

Would you believe that it was something of a miracle that this highly respected little company was even allowed to produce the play, especially after it became a succès d’estime off-Broadway in a Manhattan Theatre Club production starring Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill?

“I tried to get the rights for five years, and every year they said no,” said Rogue Machine’s artistic director, John Perrin Flynn. “They were hoping that the Taper or the Geffen or someone else would do it.”

“They,” of course, are the agents, most of whom are based in New York or London and have only a sketchy knowledge of the L.A. theater scene. The theaters they know best are the big institutional players — not just the Mark Taper Forum and the Geffen Playhouse but also South Coast Repertory and the San Diego-area behemoths, the La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe. That there are about a dozen small companies in L.A. that can deliver productions of equal quality doesn’t seem to register.

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The trouble is that these theaters, opening under what’s known as the 99-seat plan, don’t generate much revenue for artists. Prestige potentially; big dollars never.

Flynn, who’s thrilled that his perseverance finally paid off with “Blackbird,” said he’s been chasing after Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” for an equally long time without any luck. “Martin wants it to go to a large theater,” he said. “Certainly, that’s very understandable — it makes a lot more money.”

In the meantime, this highly regarded play has yet to make its L.A. debut. For a city that considers itself a cultural capital, this is, well, a little embarrassing.

Having long suspected that the companies best equipped to produce challenging drama were at a terrible disadvantage in terms of access to this work, I invited the leaders of a few of Los Angeles’ most fearless theater companies for a conversation at the Los Angeles Times.

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The attendees included Flynn and his co-artistic director, Elina de Santos of Rogue Machine, Bart DeLorenzo of the Evidence Room, Daniel Henning of the Blank Theatre Company, Stephen Sachs of the Fountain Theatre, Michael Michetti and Jessica Kubzansky of the Theatre @ Boston Court and Chris Fields of the Echo Theater Company. (Matt Shakman of the Black Dahlia Theatre, unable to attend, met with me the next day.)

I selected these individuals because they have been doing the most interesting work in town regardless of venue size. Disparate in their aesthetic vision, they are united in their possession of a fine-textured sensibility. If I were a playwright, I’d entrust my new play to any one of them — in fact, I think I might prefer it to a production at a regional theater where the audience sometimes seems to be visibly wondering whether the subscription is really worth the time and expense.

To start, I brought up a recent Arts & Books feature in which Reed Johnson noted that there were no Southern California productions planned of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ “A Spoonful of Water,” winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama. I’ve been wondering the same thing about new works by Annie Baker, Will Eno, Christopher Shinn, Lisa D’Amour, Young Jean Lee and Amy Herzog that have yet to reach our area.

Critically esteemed yet commercially challenging, these playwrights have been underserved by Los Angeles. One problem is that the marquee nonprofit houses have been reluctant to take chances on dramatists carving their own paths, while the city’s few midsize theaters, which would be the logical venue for emerging writers who aren’t pandering to established tastes, haven’t seemed eager to fill this gap.

So what’s keeping the better smaller companies from stepping into the breach?

One issue, DeLorenzo noted, has to do with artists and agents trying to map a New York model onto L.A. “Off-Broadway doesn’t exist out here in the same sort of capacity,” he said. “Our smaller theaters are fantastic, but they’re not funded the way an off-Broadway theater is funded.”

DeLorenzo, who brought a fresh 21st century perspective to his recent production of Chekhov’s “Ivanov” at the Odyssey Theater, told the story of a playwright who essentially wanted “the L.A. version of Playwrights Horizons” to do her play. “Well, of course, there isn’t something like that here,” he said. “And I don’t think her agent was equipped to explain that to her.”

Fields, who has a strong track record of not just producing indie playwrights such as Adam Bock, Jessica Goldberg, Kate Robin and Sarah Ruhl but also of surrounding them with a like-minded community of theater artists and playgoers, recalled making a request to a playwright’s agent to be considered “first in line for a play after the Taper and the Geffen and South Coast Rep,” but “they wouldn’t even have the conversation with us.”

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As Michetti recounted, the writers are sometimes willing, but their agents resist. “We had frank conversations with the playwrights who will say, ‘I would love for you to do it, but I can tell you that my agent is going to be holding out because X,Y and Z theaters may be interested, and that’s not to say no, but it may be a struggle.’”

Sachs, who established the Fountain with co-artistic director Deborah Lawlor, echoed these experiences, but he senses that there’s more national respect for the work that’s being done at L.A.'s sub-99-seat theaters. “It took me three years to get the rights to [Michael Hollinger’s] ‘Opus,’ and I chased after [Conor McPherson’s] ‘Shining City’ for years and years and years. But we just got the rights to Tarell McCraney’s ‘In the Red and Brown Water.’ Again, years and years of struggle, but I think it’s changing now.”

‘Premiere-itis’

Quality, like murder, will out. But becoming a player requires finagling.

“One of the big challenges with new plays,” said Kubzansky, “is world-premiere-itis.” “Theaters like the sexiness of it, and playwrights feel the need to hold out for a world premiere at a theater that will give the work some kind of imprimatur. Everyone wants the first production. No one wants the second, third or fourth production, unless the first has gotten the stamp of approval.”

Boston Court, Kubzansky said, has had success working with the National New Play Network, which is making it possible for more than one theater to have the world premiere. For example, Boston Court shared the world premiere of Luis Alfaro’s “Oedipus el Rey” with San Francisco’s Magic Theatre andWashington, D.C.'s Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Flynn reminded that “there’s also a lot of value in doing second things.” His theater is doing Enda Walsh’s play “The New Electric Ballroom,” briefly presented by UCLA Live in 2009, because “Enda Walsh is a playwright that needs to be more widely known in the world.”

There’s a myth in this country that playwriting is an unlimited resource. That the number of potentially brilliant plays will always exceed the number of production slots. But as someone who has scouted new work for several nonprofit theater companies, I can attest that this is complete fiction. Good playwrights are rarer than fine wines.

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The competition is cutthroat for the big guns. The strategies that have proved effective vary for these little engines that could, but the one thing they agree on is that there’s nothing like the personal touch.

“We got the West Coast premiere of ‘Speech and Debate,’” said Henning, “because of the relationship we’ve had with the author, Stephen Karam. I directed Stephen’s first play when he was 17. He was a three-time winner in our young playwrights festival.”

Sachs spoke of the long-standing relationship the Fountain has had with the great South African writer Athol Fugard. “This is a unique example of an international playwright who made a conscious decision of affiliating himself with an intimate theater after a career of being produced at the Taper. He wanted his work to be presented in a more intimate setting, and he’s made the Fountain his new permanent home in Los Angeles for 12 years now.” (Fugard’s latest, “The Blue Iris,” will have its U.S. premiere at the Fountain in August.)

Black Dahlia Theatre’s Shakman said he has asked South Coast Rep, Center Theatre Group and the Geffen Playhouse to pass on work that they find exciting but won’t be able to produce. Nothing has been presented through this channel, but it’s a smart idea. Jonathan Tolins’ “Secrets of the Trade,” which made my 2008 highlight reel after its world premiere at the Dahlia, was commissioned by South Coast Rep, and surely there must be other worthy scripts waiting for the right artistic director to adopt them.

For these artistic directors, being a part of the national conversation is highly desirable, but acting locally is the priority. Flynn and De Santos let it be known that John Pollono’s “Small Engine Repair,” a Rogue Machine smash last year, would be heading to New York. But as De Santos said, “Our first goal is to serve our community. If we do that well, then the work has the potential to ripple out to other communities.”

“The truth is,” Michetti pointed out, “in the English-speaking world, it would be a great year if there are 10 terrific plays.” That is why cultivating an audience willing to go along for the ride of new play production is for him a top priority. “We’re clearly not a theater for every audience,” he said. “But I think audiences are beginning to learn whether we are the right theater for them.”

Hollywood’s role

What about the elephant in the room? Is there any advantage to being in the shadow of Hollywood? No one can argue that the acting pool isn’t world class as a result. And the city is certainly home to plenty of playwrights who are financing their writing lives through work in television and movies.

The response was mixed. DeLorenzo said there’s this notion that “Los Angeles is another New York, yet a lot of these playwrights have this idea that you do your play here and a big movie producer comes to see it and you’re set.” To put it another way, the stage for some is merely a means to a more lucrative dramatic end.

Fields identified a problem of writers “being flown out of Juilliard to Los Angeles, where they’re sitting in the writers’ room” with little experience. “It distorts the process that a young writer needs to go through to become a real playwright,” he said.

On the positive side, Flynn spoke of an agent introducing him to a gifted writer who, in L.A. for TV work, threatened to switch agencies if his rep didn’t help find him a theatrical outlet in town. But what really has him jazzed is a development program at Rogue Machine in which four playwrights are now in residence.

Growing your own plays may take a company only so far (few are completely self-sustaining), but it seems to be the most satisfying approach. Pooling resources with another theater has become an increasingly popular way of dealing with the economic hurdles of new play development. (Observe the way Boston Court and Furious Theatre Company have joined forces on a new adaptation by Oded Gross of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Government Inspector,” opening this month at Boston Court’s enviable Pasadena digs.)

“I feel like over the years at the Blank, we keep coming out of the closet more and more as producers of new plays,” said Henning. “When people ask the question, ‘Why do you only do new plays?’ — which I get all the time — my answer is, ‘Because Shakespeare doesn’t need to pay his mortgage anymore, and I know people who do.’”

Note was made of the passage from Gordon Davidson to Michael Ritchie at Center Theatre Group and the effect this has had on L.A.'s theatrical ecology. The vacuum left by the demise of A.S.K. Theater Projects was discussed, as was (with some ambivalence) the hiatus of UCLA Live’s International Theatre Festival.

Henning asked, “Why is there so much money and energy spent on showcasing theater from other places and nobody gives two shakes about what we’re doing here?”

DeLorenzo cautioned his colleagues against the understandable rage born of long frustration. What’s that line from John Webster, he asked — “Because we are poor shall we be vicious?”

The laughter was raucous with recognition, but for all the gallows humor, the feeling was that Los Angeles was a special place for making theater.

“We’re extraordinarily fortunate, because we have this freedom to do what other people can’t do because we have a financial pass form,” said Flynn, referring to the 99-seat plan that allows actors to be paid a nominal fee at these feisty pocket stages. “We’re still working with the best designers, the best actors, emerging extraordinary young playwrights or not-so-young playwrights. And there’s no place like this, as far as I know in the United States. It’s kind of like Europe, where they have state support.”

With one small qualification, as he put it, speaking volumes: “Except that we don’t get to make a living.”

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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