The first question is: What the heck do you call it?
How do you describe a 12-day stretch of June in which three very different, recently minted theater festivals with major-league aspirations – "Radar L.A." Hollywood Fringe and the Third National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival – all will be running in Greater Los Angeles at the same time that Theatre Communications Group the nation's largest theatrical professional and service organization, is holding its 50th anniversary conference in downtown L.A.? Not to mention the ongoing Fourth Annual Festival of New American Musicals?
Would you term it a harmonic convergence, since much of the overlap was unplanned? An embarrassment of stage-crafted riches that will tax Angelenos' freeway-cruising skills? A great excuse for hundreds of theater professionals and aficionados to hit every bistro and close down every bar between Little Tokyo and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel?
"We've got basically 'Theaterpalooza' here in L.A. in June," says Ben Hill, director of the 2-year-old Hollywood Fringe, a 10-day (June 16-26) blowout of more than 1,000 total performances by 200 alternative and underground-theater artists, acts and "projects" that someday hopes to become Southern California's answer to Scotland's venerable Edinburgh Festival Fringe (or maybe a slightly tamer, urbanized version of Burning Man).
By whatever name, the next two weeks are shaping up as one of the largest, most varied concentrations of live performances in Los Angeles since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. Mark Murphy, executive director of REDCAT and one of the three co-directors of the inaugural Radar L.A. festival of experimental theater (June 14-19), thinks the next two weeks could be "a theatrical equivalent of a 'Helter Skelter' moment."
That aggressively ambitious 1992 show at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art focusing on cutting-edge L.A. artists and writers has been widely credited with helping to make the case for the vitality and international significance of L.A.'s contemporary arts scene.
Although "Helter Skelter," Murphy says, "didn't change everybody's careers overnight," he thinks it could help people see L.A. as a "theater town" where theatrical performance can mean a lot more than just traditional, author-driven, "well-made" two-act plays.
But how can L.A. theater mavens keep track of all the activity without frying their iPad datebooks? What follows is a necessarily selective guide to a few possible highlights.
Last September, when TCG first announced that it had chosen Los Angeles to host its half-century conference (June 16-18), its organizers cited the quality as well as the aesthetic and cultural diversity of the region's performance offerings (as well as, you know, all those beaches and cool nightclubs). "We feel L.A. just represents so many of the positive things that have evolved for our theater community over the past 50 years," Teresa Eyring, Theatre Communications Group's executive director, said at the time.
Apparently, the sales pitch worked: The group's conference is sold out, with more than 1,000 scheduled participants, topping the organization's previous record high of 930 at last year's gathering in Chicago. (L.A. is only the third West Coast city to host Theatre Communications Group's convention, after Seattle and San Francisco.)
The group's attendees will be spending most of their days at panel discussions with titles like "Breaking the Fifth Wall: Rethinking Arts Marketing for the 21st Century." They'll also hear a closing keynote speech by Julie Taymor, who began her career as a downtown avant-garde artist and went on to become the first woman to win a Tony Award for best direction of a musical ("The Lion King") and craft the beta version of the ever-anticipated Broadway show "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."
But in the evenings, many of the Biltmore Hotel-based conferees will be walking a few blocks north to the REDCAT performance space at Walt Disney Concert Hall or east to the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where most "Radar L.A." performances will take place.
Designed as a sort of West Coast response to New York's frisky 6-year-old "Under the Radar" festival, "Radar L.A." will spotlight innovative, so-called designed theater – interdisciplinary, collaborative theater that doesn't necessarily originate with an existing script and may emphasize visual storytelling and conceptual or other performing elements over a single author's written work.
"There's a group of artists but a single mise-en-scene," says Murphy, co-curating "Radar L.A." with Diane Rodriguez, associate producer and director of new play production at the Center Theatre Group, and Mark Russell, who produces "Under the Radar" for the Public Theater in New York.
Of the festival's 15 companies and 82 performances, several have been seen in L.A., including "Titus Redux," John Farmanesh-Bocca's multimedia take on Shakespeare's revenge tragedy, transposed to the current Afghanistan conflict; Moving Arts' 70-minute "The Car Plays: L.A. Stories," in which audience members watch multiple dramas unfold as they hop into the back seats of actual vehicles; and Jose Luis Valenzuela's Latino Theater Company will revive its well-reviewed production of Evelina Fernandez's "Solitude," a poetic meditation on love, mortality, the American dream and migration as an existential condition.
Of the non-L.A.-based artists, watch out for "As You Are Now So Once Were We" by the Irish/Chilean ensemble called The Company, which uses a handful of actors and dozens of cardboard boxes to construct a series of shifting perspectives about an ordinary/epic daylong odyssey not unlike Leopold Bloom's wanderings through Dublin.
Another much-awaited show is "The Method Gun," an incisively irreverent look at the cultism that surrounds a certain shrugged-shoulders, T-shirt-wearing acting style, and its legions of gurus and disciples. It will performed by the Austin, Texas-based collective Rude Mechs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
Perhaps the most topical work will be the Los Angeles Poverty Department's "State of Incarceration," which brings audiences into the brutal, claustrophobic world of an overcrowded California state prison.
Festival tickets, at $20 per show, or $10 apiece if you buy a festival pass, are relatively inexpensive. And REDCAT will keep its Lounge open late so audiences and artists can meet and mingle over an espresso or a martini.
As "Radar L.A." begins winding down, artists a few blocks away will be gearing up for the National Asian American Theater Conference (June 20-22) and Festival (June 23-26). Performances, open to the public, will be split between the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy and Inner-City Arts, both in downtown L.A.
Tim Dang, artistic director of East West Players in Little Tokyo, which will host the event with TeAda Productions of Santa Monica, says one purpose of the conference and the festival is "to find out how theater is reshaping itself" and how the idea of what "Asian American" means keeps shifting along new cultural and geopolitical tides. New technologies, including social-networking platforms, also are rapidly changing not only how theater artists work but how audiences interact with that process, he adds.
All these developments, to one degree or another, are reflected in the festival, Dang says. Soomi Kim's "Dictee," for instance, is a multimedia dance performance piece that uses nontraditional storytelling to illuminate the lives of ordinary women of extraordinary bravery. "Sunoh! Tell Me Sister," a mash-up of video, theater and dance about "women's erotic power and resistance" by the Post Natyam Collective, was described by a Los Angeles Times reviewer as Bollywood meets rap meets performance art meets modern dance and the classical Indian dance form of bharata natyam.
Dang also sees an increasing willingness by Asian American theater and performance artists to embrace humor as a strategy for plumbing serious subjects. Minneapolis artist May Lee-Yang uses it in her work examining sexual attitudes among America's Hmong immigrants, "Ten Reasons Why I'd Be a Bad Porn Star."
"This June is a very special June," Dang says. "In order for you to say you experienced everything in L.A., I think you have to have at least one Asian American offering as part of your menu."
If downtown is offering a theatrical moveable feast of cocktails and curry noodles, Hollywood Fringe might be viewed as a combination of neighborhood potluck, backyard beer blast and hookah bar. There are virtually no restrictions on who can participate in it; all performers must set up, market and produce their own shows, secure a venue and pay a modest participant fee. Venues include 99-seat theaters, street corners, galleries, bars and maybe a hair salon or two.
Last June that serendipitous, censor-free, entrepreneurial spirit drew 175 artistic groups representing every imaginable (and, reportedly, some unimaginable) performing and visual arts genres, and filled 17,000 seats for the festival's inaugural edition.
"What we provide is a freedom-to-fail environment, where you try something new and something risky and you only lose a few hundred dollars if you fall on your face," says festival director Hill.
This year, the festival has moved its Fringe Central headquarters space to Art/Works Theatre at 6585 Santa Monica Blvd., on Theater Row, where nearly 300 of the festival's performances will take place. The total number of venues has been slightly reduced to about 22, spread across a more compact area. Ticket prices range from free to $25, with an average cost of $11.
Among the fan-favorite acts returning this year will be Long Beach-based the Four Clowns, who took home a festival prize last year as best in the physical theater category, and FreakShow Deluxe, a Hollywood posse of fire breathers, sword swallowers and other intrepid cabaret-circus-burlesque artists.
New participants, Hill says, will include members of the Actors' Gang, the Tim Robbins-led collective that started out on Theater Row and now makes its home in Culver City. The festival also has added a Fringe Film program of 25 feature and short independent and experimental films.
"The shape of the festival is redefined every year," Hill says. "It's a different beast year after year after year."