L.A. Theatre Works lends an unlikely hand to 'The Importance of Being Earnest'

In June, thanks to satellite technology, bows taken in a Broadway theater following a performance of "The Importance of Being Earnest" will be applauded by audiences in 13 countries spanning four continents. Even Oscar Wilde, the virtually unrivaled wit who wrote the play, might have been left speechless at the thought.

The impetus for his comedy's transmission from the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre in Times Square to screens in 32 states and the District of Columbia — as well as to Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, Malta and South Africa — came from an unlikely source.

It's not so much that Susan Loewenberg and L.A. Theatre Works, the company she founded in 1974, are not in Broadway's loop. Using technology to reach far-flung audiences is precisely what they do. But Loewenberg and the formidable casts of moonlighting film and television stars she habitually assembles have always reached the masses by grabbing their ears and more or less ignoring their eyes. L.A. Theatre Works' series, "The Play's the Thing," often originates in front of live audiences at the Skirball Cultural Center, but the main point is to record and edit the results for radio broadcasts and online audio streaming.

Loewenberg confesses that she was initially nonplussed when one of her nonprofit company's key donors, the Sidney E. Frank Foundation, asked if she'd be interested in beaming the Broadway production of "Earnest" to hundreds of screens around the world.

In 2009, the New York City-based foundation gave L.A. Theatre Works a $338,000, three-year grant to record and distribute studio-made radio productions of a dozen "important works of dramatic literature." The first round included three Moliere comedies starring the veteran British actor, Brian Bedford. Now Bedford was headed to Broadway with his production of "The Importance of Being Earnest," directing it and starring in drag as Lady Bracknell, the sharpest-witted antagonist young love ever encountered.

If Loewenberg was interested in joining the growing trend toward beaming high-definition broadcasts of live performances to movie screens worldwide, the foundation was interested in underwriting the cost.

"I said, 'It's not an area I'm familiar with,' and spent about a month researching it," she recalled this week. Deciding that her company's mission wasn't producing audio plays but producing great theater, period, Loewenberg signed on. Bedford and Roundabout did as well. BY Experience, a New York company that produces satellite-transmitted series for the Metropolitan Opera and Britain's National Theatre, joined as a co-producer with L.A. Theatre Works and Roundabout. In March, three performances were "captured," as the digital lingo has it, and it's the last of them that will be screened starting June 2.

Loewenberg recruited David Hyde Pierce as the show's host; during intermission, viewers will see two L.A. Theatre Works regulars — actor Alfred Molina and director Michael Hackett, who is chairman of UCLA's theater department and an Oscar Wilde expert — strolling through the Murphy Sculpture Garden at UCLA and chatting about "The Importance of Being Earnest."

The L.A. venues are the Mann Chinese 6 in Hollywood (June 2, 9), the James Bridges Theatre at UCLA (June 2, 5, 23, 26), the Downtown Independent on Main Street (June 9) and the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (June 26).

Loewenberg said the collaboration went swimmingly, and she'd be up for more, acknowledging that any subsequent ventures in the world of high-definition satellite transmission would depend on whether important and earnest donors continue to step forward to underwrite the considerable cost.

She acknowledges that after having spent so many years honing her ability to hear a play, with an ear toward editing multiple readings into a single perfect performance, delving further into video transmission would present a fresh challenge: "I've gotta train the eyes."


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