When a candidate for public office faces the voters, he does not face men of
sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is that they
are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any, save the
most elemental -- men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and
whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So
confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack, or count himself
lost. His one aim is to disarm suspicion, to arouse confidence in his
orthodoxy, to avoid challenge. If he is a man of convictions, of enthusiasm,
or self-respect, it is cruelly hard
The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small
electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying
even a mob with him by the force of his personality. But when the field is
nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second or third-hand, and
the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the
odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre --
the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual
The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men.
As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of
the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day, the
plain folks of the land will reach their hearts desire at last, and the
White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
--H.L. Mencken, The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920
Theater in time of cell-phone cameras
by STEVEN MIKULAN
LA WEEKLY April 23/05
Jeff Murray, a Canadian, and his British-born wife, Nicolette Chaffey, came to Pasadena in 1979 and began working at the DeLacey Street Theater, then run by the Fremont Center's current producing director, James Reynolds, who'd been staging plays in parking lots and on library steps. In 1982, Murray and Chaffey formed their own Theatre/Theater company, which, after hundreds of productions, is about to move to its fifth location, on Pico Boulevard near Orange Drive. The L.A. Weekly recently sat the couple down with Vonessa Martin and Shawn Lee, two of the six young co-founders of Pasadena's Furious Theater Company, which hit the scene three years ago with a string of critically acclaimed productions, first at Pasadena's Armory Northwest, now at the Pasadena Playhouse's Balcony Theater. The idea was to look back as well as forward.
L.A. WEEKLY: Where did Theatre/Theater launch?
MURRAY: In 1982 we built a 24-seat theater on Melrose Avenue across from the Zephyr - Joe Stern was down the road. It was about 12 feet wide but long.
CHAFFEY: The box office was in the window. We found a couch on the side of the road and that became our lobby.
MURRAY: Its saving grace was that it had high ceilings. It was the last time we had high ceilings.
CHAFFEY: Right after we signed the lease, we said, "This is it, this is our first theater!" We came out and found that someone had stolen our car battery. So with nowhere to go, we all trooped back in, and there was an old carpet on the floor, so we put our 4-year-old daughter between us, and the three of us lay down on the floor and rolled the carpet over us and slept out our first night.
L.A. WEEKLY: Were theater economics easier then?
CHAFFEY: We found we could survive with seven people a night and pay the rent. But we moved in over the top, because we couldn't afford both a theater and a place to live. Jeff made a one-way mirror, positioned so that our daughter could lie in bed and watch the shows every night. Later she wrote this essay in college, "How I Grew Up in the Theater."
MURRAY: We opened with Creeps. Dan Sullivan, the lead critic for the L.A. Times, sat there with five other people - we didn't even make our seven. His review put the show and the theater on the map, even though he said it could never be a Critics' Choice because the piece was too confrontational. It's five guys with cerebral palsy stuck in a toilet.
L.A. WEEKLY: How did Furious form?
MARTIN: There were six of us: Shawn and I met in Chicago and fell in love and got married. We also met Dámaso [Rodriguez] and Sara [Hennessy] there, and the four of us moved to Los Angeles. Eric [Pargac] was friends with Sara and Dámaso from college. And Brad [Price], who was friends with Shawn when they were in college, moved out here, and we became friends by going camping.
LEE: We'd go camping while some of us were doing internships and some were working with computers. We were living in Pasadena, reading plays together on our camping trips, and said, rather than spend $200 a month on an acting class, why don't we form a company together? We drove around looking at abandoned buildings in different cities. The Armory [Center for the Arts] had a temporary gallery and offices in an old plastics factory in northern Pasadena, a neglected part of the city. We were fortunate not to have to pay rent, just part of the utilities.
MARTIN: We don't pay rent at the Balcony.
CHAFFEY (gasps): What do we do wrong?
L.A. WEEKLY: Most of Furious' plays have so far been from the British Isles. Is that just coincidence?
MARTIN: We just look for a good story, and it so happens that a lot of the plays we find are British.
LEE: It wasn't a conscious effort by any means - the royalties for a lot of those plays are easier to get. We couldn't get the rights to the first American play we wanted. The British really cherish and develop their new writers and get the work out. And they had that whole in-your-face movement. A lot of those were younger scripts for people in our ensemble to play. We're really pushing for a younger audience. Because younger people aren't going to theater much anymore - I never went to theater growing up. We're saying, "Hey, live theater is cool, you should come and see it!"
L.A. WEEKLY: A while ago, my wife and I saw Edward Albee's
The Goat at the Taper, and I was really distracted by a row or
two of younger audience members who were passing around a couple of camera
cell phones to one another - apparently there was something on their screens
that was very important. Are people's attention spans not what they used
LEE: We'll look at a script, and if it's a long show we'll scratch our heads and say, "How do we bring this down, make it short?" Because if critics see the show is almost three hours . . .
LEE: It hurts, because people don't want to spend three hours in the theater. You're seeing 90-minute plays done more and more often. And plays without intermission. People at the Pasadena Playhouse - of that age - love intermissions. To go out and have some wine, or walk and talk about the show. But you're seeing intermissions vanish from theater as well.
L.A. WEEKLY: Then are we seeing a generation of theater-hating Bart Simpsons who now have to be dragged into venues by their heels?
MARTIN: We did Mojo, about British gangsters in the 1950s, as part of our outreach program for high school students in northwest Pasadena. It was the first play they'd ever seen. There's swearing and blood at the end and this guy dies, but it's comical, too. I was doing the concessions, and during intermission they'd come up to me and say, "What happens?" They were really into it, but at the same time I felt they were surprised that it was so accessible. They saw this story that they totally connected to, and they were really floored. If they just knew that theater is like that, they'd be addicted.
MURRAY: In the last seven years we've had no connection with education, but we're hoping to in the new space, because it's a good audience base, and the idea of turning kids on to something other than their computer screens is an honorable calling. We've had some good talks with [L.A. City Councilman] Martin Ludlow about this.
CHAFFEY: We tried it awhile back with Buffalo Soldiers, because we figured that would be really great for high school students. But because there were guns onstage, the principal said, "No, no, no!" I contacted L.A. Unified, and they asked, "Are there any guns? Is there any swearing?"
L.A. WEEKLY: What have been some of the stranger things about
working in theater?
LEE: Producing theater in that warehouse that had the puppet museum - it was one of the biggest collections of puppetry in the United States. All the audience members had to walk through it to get to the bathroom.
MARTIN: The Puppet Conservatory - they had, like, Jesus Christ on the cross with the blood coming out of the puppet, and it was a little dark there, and people would go, "Whoa, puppets!"
MURRAY: One day we came to the Cahuenga theater, and I thought, This door was locked when I left. I went inside, and they'd cleaned out our lighting system. Someone must have had a key - thieves aren't going to come in and take a lighting system. But a producer will come in and take the time to take the lights out of the ceiling. There was also an abortion clinic next to us that mysteriously burned down one night.
LEE: We got a lot of stuff stolen from the Armory. This was after we were out of the building. But [the city officials] were kind enough to let us store our sound equipment and all our tools -
MARTIN: - in a caged-in, locked security area.
LEE: They cut through and got all our stuff.
MURRAY: Stephen [Kearney], from the Australian show Los Trio Ring Barkus, and myself were standing outside the Cahuenga theater, and this guy comes up to us with a gun and says, "Give me your briefcase." Stephen says, "You really don't want my briefcase." The guys says, "Give me the fucking briefcase!" Stephen hands over his briefcase, and the guy goes charging up the road and I say to Stephen, "What was in your briefcase?" "All my head shots!" he says. I still had the night's receipts, though.
MARTIN: That mugger's going to read this and come back!
L.A. WEEKLY: Somebody told me the old Theatre/Theater on Cahuenga
was once a gay bar.
MURRAY: The story we'd heard was that at the turn of the century it had been an old tavern that had been the favorite bar of Wyatt Earp, who died in Los Angeles. Supposedly, when he was buried, the funeral cortege took a little detour to go past the front [of the building].
MARTIN: They tore that building down?
MURRAY: They turned it into a bus station! It had previously also been a theater - it was Ed Wood's Casual Company, which was all the actors who went on to make the bad movies. So one assumes before they were making bad movies they were making bad theater. When they were shooting Ed Wood there, Tim Burton's art director told him, "You know, Tim, we could do this way cheaper on a sound stage." And they got into a fight right in front of me, and Burton said, "No, no, no, you don't understand - we're doing this in Hollywood in the original location!"
Tomorrow and Tomorrow
L.A. WEEKLY: The theater you had on Cahuenga represented Theatre/Theater's
golden age, so far. Then you moved to the fourth floor above the old Pacific
movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard.
CHAFFEY: I don't think we've had the same critical attention since we've been in that space.
MURRAY: Somebody told me they heard someone on the radio going on about our space, saying, "Well, they've only got these 10-foot ceilings."
CHAFFEY: Our friends said, "Guys, this is not a theater - it's only because in your imagination it's a theater that we all believe it's a theater. Because it isn't - it's a telephone-sales space!"
MURRAY: We've taken a lot of criticism over the last seven years, because we had to change the format of the way we did things. We've done some good work and some turkeys, no doubt about it. But we're still here, and changing is better than dying as far as I'm concerned.
L.A. WEEKLY: How long is Furious dug in at the Balcony?
MARTIN: The idea is for us to be at the Balcony Theater for about four years and hopefully outgrow the space and pass it on to another group.
LEE: Our next show is Tearing the Loom, a Northern Ireland play set in 1798. It's 90 minutes. With no intermission.
WEEKLY: Does Theatre/Theater have any advice for the Furious?
MURRAY: I don't know - don't take it too seriously. I'm sorry - it's outrageous that I should say anything to you, but I'd say keep your passion alive. For us theater really is a joy, even though we see a lot of people get burned out, become cynical or develop a sense of entitlement. You do reinvent it all the time. For me it's really quite exciting to be going to this next space. I mean, it's got 16-foot ceilings, frontage and parking!
CHAFFEY: Our daughter said that working in the theater was like having a retarded child, because every six weeks you have to start all over again.
Theater in Exile
What does it mean when we send our theater companies packing?
by STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS
LA WEEKLY April 23/05
On La Brea Avenue between Sunset and Hollywood boulevards, after 15 years of theatrical productions and countless awards, Open Fist Theater was stunned to receive a 30-day notice to quit from landlords Steven "Corky" Ullman Jr. and his brother, George Ullman. The Ullman brothers sold the property, valued at $16 million, to developer John Laing Homes, which intends to raze the theater for construction of a 180-unit condominium complex plus 14,000 square feet of restaurant and other retail space. (The theater was built by Troopers in the early 1940s and used as a vaudeville house.)
Since the beginning of this year, four of Hollywood's best and most established small-theaters companies - Open Fist, the Actors' Gang, West Coast Ensemble and Theatre/Theater - have either been evicted or are considering leaving the Hollywood area due to redevelopment and rising property values. All have resided in Hollywood for years, establishing themselves in marginal neighborhoods. Their very existence and the patrons they attracted lured restaurants and/or other businesses to the area, contributing to the rise in property values that is now pushing them out. All have delivered on their promises to be good neighbors, three of the four working with schoolchildren and engaging in community-outreach programs, in exchange for city grants. Most tellingly, all have been leaseholders rather than property owners, making them vulnerable for relocation.
Before demolition on Open Fist Theater begins, the project needs to pass an environmental review by the city, which the company's artistic director, Martha Demson, suggests should present a challenge, given the number of cars that 180 new homes and businesses would add to that already chronically traffic-congested corner of Hollywood.
John Laing Homes' Urban Division president, Philip Simmons, disagrees, saying that the complex conforms to a city plan of easing car flow by adding homes (in a housing-shortage region) to transit corridors (the site is walking distance from the Hollywood/Highland subway station), so that fewer people would need to enter the city. But for Simmons' logic to hold, the vast majority of approximately 270 new occupants, each with their own cars, must find work either in Hollywood, North Hollywood, downtown or along a narrow strip of real estate extending from Staples Center to Long Beach, in order to utilize Metro's subway and light-rail system. That logic simply defies the odds, and it's inconceivable that people would pay half a million dollars for a condo in order to take the MTA's crowded, unreliable buses to and from work, when they've got a car or two in their garages.
Demson says that her landlords have always been very supportive and are working with the theater on a transition plan that's not too painful. Nonetheless, all parties are now speaking to each other only through lawyers.
"Lip service is paid to the importance of theater and the theater community and yet there's so little public support and certainly no public assistance," Demson says. "I don't want to be overly critical, as the [City Council] districts become aware of all these [theater] companies that are losing their homes, but you'd think there would be some kind of outreach. I think what may happen is that a number of these companies that are being forced to relocate will meet and discuss the issues collectively and speak a little more with one voice."
Demson feels that her councilman has been of no help. "I tried to talk with Tom La Bonge's office, I've been trying since December and haven't gotten past his assistant."
The Weekly also didn't get past La Bonge's Field Deputy for Hollywood and the Hollywood Hills, Erik Sanjuro, who remarked, without much sympathy for the theater, that where there's no eminent domain, the city has no requirement to assist any evicted tenant.
"The theater is on a parcel of attractive land," Sanjuro explained. "The Community Redevelopment Agency is trying to help this theater to relocate. As Hollywood undergoes a renaissance, a lot of small theaters are being forced out. They have to move to a lower-rent district." Referring to the building's historical significance, Sanjuro said, "You can't use the historical preservation argument for everything. The CRA tries at least to put up a plaque as recognition of local history."
The plight of L.A.'s small theaters raises a larger question about the purpose of performing arts - often a money-losing proposition - in a culture increasingly driven by market forces. Legislators talk about the virtues of family and education before cutting funds for school lunches, child care and afterschool programs. They blather about neighborhoods and community before sending community magnets, like small theaters, to the other side of town at best, or worse, into oblivion, when the developers move in.
Citywide, John Laing Homes has five projects at various stages of predevelopment. After pointing out the developer's reputation for community service (the company contributed $1 million to a 21-bed shelter in Santa Ana for homeless children with AIDS), Simmons says that the company would like to build Open Fist a theater but can't, for reasons having to do with ceiling requirements, parking and economics.
"It's always difficult when you have a fair-market economy, Simmons remarks. "The perception is of developers making money hand over fist. It may exist somewhere, but not in my world. The truth is, there's not that extra money for us to do what we want. It would be possible to help Open Fist if they were to get subsidy for the rent."
Whether or not the La Brea Avenue project will include an affordable-housing component "still hasn't been determined," Simmons added.
Late last year, Jack Khorsandi, the new owner of the building housing Actors' Gang two-theater complex (on the northwest corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and El Centro Avenue), mentioned to the Gang's managing director?, Greg Reiner, that the theater was leasing the property at about half its market value, and that he intended to rectify the imbalance by doubling rent from $5,100 a month to somewhere between $10-$12 thousand. That's when the Gang started dusting off its suitcases.
Actors' Gang Board President Colette Brooks says that negotiations with Khorsandi are ongoing. Meanwhile, she says, "New challenges present new opportunities." The theater is being courted by the cities of Santa Monica and Culver City. And though the theater must jump through hoops to meet administrative and community-relations requirements to secure either of those cities' support, Brooks was flattered by the welcoming attitude of L.A's neighboring burgs. She pointed out that Councilman Eric Garcetti's office, with an appreciation of the Gang's rich history and reputation, was "quite concerned" about finding ways to keep the Gang in the neighborhood. She also mentioned that artistic director Tim Robbins, in an inspiring speech to the troupe, said: "'The company is not these four walls, it's the people within these four walls. So if we become a roving band of actors, we're still the Actors' Gang.'"
Yes, but we would prefer that Garcetti's office deliver.
After two five-year leases and having accrued a base of 500 subscribers to its theater on La Brea Avenue near Second Street, West Coast Ensemble, like Open Fist, was handed an eviction notice when the landlord decided to sell the building.
"We do want to stay in that area," says artistic director Les Hanson. "But we'll look closer to downtown, maybe go south to Culver City, west to Westwood. It's difficult now. Prices are much steeper than when we looked 10 years ago. We've been looking for months, but it really has to be decided by August."
In 1995, West Coast Ensemble was forced out of its two-theater complex on Hollywood and Argyle, which is now a parking lot. "The building [owned by the Nederlander Corporation] was pretty much destroyed by the  earthquake, and Metro Rail was building inches from the front door, so we got out of there," Hanson explains.
Theatre/Theater's Jeff Murray is comparatively upbeat about being booted from his fourth-floor Hollywood Boulevard venue. No stranger to eviction, he was recently kicked out of a Cahuenga Boulevard location that had housed Theatre/Theater since 1984.
Murray says that on Hollywood Boulevard, the parking situation almost killed the theater. "You're competing now with clubs [that are] happy to raise rents on the parking lots, so if the customers can't get to you, it's really a pointless exercise."
In addition, he says, his landlords were using some strong-arm tactics to get him to move his theater. "They were threatening us with a massive rent increase and a bill that was backdated for 2003 and 2004."
Murray says that his landlords didn't really want him to pay the money. They just wanted the theater to leave because of rising property values and rising costs. The landlords declined to comment.
Murray and his wife/coartistic director, Nicolette Chaffey, are moving Theatre/Theater to a facility on Pico Boulevard and Orange Drive, with frontage and 16-foot ceilings - an artistic director's fantasy. "Can you imagine looking at the stage and seeing lighting instruments actually in the sky, rather than at eye level?"
Pico Boulevard's industrial look reminds Murray of Melrose Avenue when he first arrived. "It has the feel of a neighborhood that's going to turn," Murray says. "In these areas, it's always the artists who make the area hip and trendy, then in come the investors. Developers are sitting on a ton of dead space in Hollywood with no intention of letting in arts organizations. They're all waiting to turn it into condos, and quite cynically."
What's happening in Hollywood (and North Hollywood - Antaeus Theater Company is looking for a home after the sale of its new theater by owner Dakin Matthews) is a mirror of what happened in Seattle during the dot-com boom. During the building boom of the '90s, larger arts organizations were handed impressive new buildings, as has happened with Disney Hall and the Kirk Douglas Theater in L.A., explains Misha Berson, theater critic of The Seattle Times.
"So we have a new symphony hall, a new opera house, a new Seattle Children's Theater."
But for the smaller theaters, with skyrocketing property values, a lot of spaces have been lost. Berson says that gentrified Seattle districts such as Belltown went from having half a dozen fringe spaces to having none, and more companies are now roaming or trying to connect with other theaters to replace a space they lost.
"So we have the 'haves' and the 'have-nots,' " Berson says. "These theaters are very important to the health of our scene, since the larger theaters have to sustain box office, these folks can take more risks. One of the questions and concerns we all have: How long can some of these younger artists stay in Seattle before they flee for New York or L.A.?"
In San Francisco, there's a distinction between home prices, which have been off the meter for decades, and the price of industrial properties, says Brad Erickson, executive director of Theater Bay Area, a membership support organization representing 370 theaters across nine Northern California counties.
"Yes, we had a real crisis during the dot-com boom, during the late '90s," Erickson explains. "The rental spaces began to go through the roof, even in the Mission District, which is where all the smaller, nonprofit companies are housed. Dance Mission lost its home, which ignited street demonstrations. Out of that came a proposition that went on the ballot in 1999 that would change the zoning laws to arrest this problem. It failed. At least six companies lost their venues. There was a task force that was formed to stop the bleeding. The groups were organizing and then the crash happened, and the industrial property values plummeted. So you could say that the market corrected the problem. We learned how it underscored the fact that the Bay Area is a real boom and bust economy. This will happen again. We've just formed an arts task force to deal with issues of space. Right now we're in a breather."
The San Francisco Examiner reports how in that breather, a plan for the mid-Market district - which superficially resembles the eastern end of Hollywood Boulevard - is now before the Planning Commission. It provides an innovative template on how to serve commercial and cultural interests at the same time.
Under the plan, developers can contribute to a city fund in exchange for permission to build more profitable, higher-density housing. The fund would then be used to subsidize the rents of nonprofit performance venues in the areas of the reconstruction. In theory, this would be the answer to Open Fist Theater's woes, since Simmons has said that John Laing Homes could help the theater if it had some kind of rent subsidy.
Look north, L.A.
Erickson's L.A. equivalent, Terence McFarland, executive director of theater support group L.A. Stage Alliance (representing 230 member performing-arts groups across four counties), admits that in Southern California, there's little organizing at either the grassroots or government level. A fledgling attempt to start a conversation on the topic can be found at www.capwiz.org.
"It's trickier down here," McFarland says. "Last year, the state California Arts Council and L.A. city's Cultural Affairs Department were both almost abolished. Culturally, the Bay Area is a much more activist community. It takes a celebrity to be involved with a local protest for it even to be covered here. I think that in terms of civic participation, there's a lot of room for improvement."
McFarland's suggestion for endangered theaters: "Have a conversation with every single business and personal relationship that you have, find every single student that you've done educational outreach with, and let them know what's going on. And then, as a group, go to the neighborhood council meetings, and have them just imagine what the climate will be without theater in their neighborhood, how the neighborhood will change, how the bottom line will change for all those businesses."
"Neighborhood" and "community" have become buzzwords and buzz-ideas in this fledgling century. You'll find those two words plastered throughout Web sites of the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council and L.A.'s Cultural Affairs Department. You'll find their core ideas permeating books such as Robert E. Lane's The Loss of Happiness in Market Economics, Robert D. Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community, Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less and Peter C. Whybrow's American Mania: When More Is Not Enough.
This literature suggests that however entertaining new Sony Portable Playstations, condos, shopping malls and the economies behind them may be, they're infringing on the stability of marriages, families, friendships, courtships and communities, leading to a growing isolation - both liberating and potentially lethal - particularly among a younger generation that's cast off community service and political engagement (the old bonding standbys) as quaintly irrelevant or grossly corrupt.
Spiritual comfort no longer comes from traditional churches, which struggle to hold parishes together when parishioners jump from city to city, from job to job. Rather, spiritual comfort now comes from evangelical churches (the only churches that are thriving financially), and of course from television, Palm Pilots, iPods and the Cheesecake Factory. And then there are the arts.
Fifty years ago in the theater, pre-eminent playwrights from William Inge to Tennessee Williams to Lillian Hellman to Eugene O'Neill, had built their reputations on the desperate loneliness of people in small towns. Getting away to the big city, to the delights of anonymity, independence and sexual freedom, represented the ultimate escape from the claustrophobia of family and neighbors knowing your every move. The idea of community and neighborhood didn't have such a nostalgic glow in their plays as it does on, say, the Web site of L.A. city's Cultural Affairs Department. This century's plays, from Patrick Marber's Closer to Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House, show prosperous city folk grappling with their harrowing ineptitude at forming bonds in a culture almost defined by its sterility. The blaring common link between the literature of then and now is the characters' underlying misery, as though they've time-traveled from one hideous extreme to its opposite, from the horrors of a community that won't leave them in peace, to those of not having any community at all.
This is why community and neighborhood keep popping up on Web sites of government arts agencies that are at least vaguely aware that something is out of balance. Their job is to hand out whatever financial pittance they have to arts organizations that agree to work with schoolchildren and provide services generally defined as community-building.
Meanwhile, these same agencies present arguments, based on two reports commissioned by the CAC, about the benefits of the arts to local businesses.
Both of these arguments are falling on deaf ears, not because they're untrue but because they're beside the point - a case presented in an illuminating report ("Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts") released by the RAND Corporation at the beginning of this year. The core purpose of the arts is neither to encourage business nor to promote social welfare, though it may certainly include those components. You can rent Chris Rock on video anywhere between Beijing and Timbuktu, and in both places it's the same exportable, marketable product. A live performance, however, whether it be a concert, a dance recital, a standup-comedy routine or a play, occurs in a specific time and place for a specific time and place, providing what the Rand report calls "a distinctive type of pleasure and emotional stimulation" that serves cognitive development, expands the capacity for empathy and the creation of social bonds. This is admittedly an attempt to describe the indescribable, but the failure to describe the core significance of the arts has led to a perception of its irrelevance to the culture. To overstate the argument, the preservation of the arts for tomorrow may actually be as much a matter of life and death as funding a hospital today.
This is why the small story of four Hollywood theaters, at this particular moment in the evolution of our culture, is such a telling expression of what we think we need, and who we think we are.
How Long, is a Play? by Michael Billington
How long, ideally, is a play? The question is palpably absurd. How long is a piece of string? Samuel Beckett's Breath lasts 40 seconds; Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra runs four-and-a-half hours. Form, as in architecture, follows function.
But, while I've no wish to lay down laws, I find myself increasingly
disturbed by the fashionable tyranny of the 90-minute play. It is everywhere;
and I believe it is crippling ambition, ironing out contradiction, and effectively
What are the reasons for the 90-minute rule? I suspect there are several. Social customs are changing and, in a busy restaurant culture, 90 minutes is the ideal postscript to a night out: after Art or Oleanna you ate and argued about the show. Audiences, trained on TV advertising, are also quick to absorb information and no longer need lengthy exposition. There is also the visible influence of the "Edinburgh factor": the bustling hypermarket of the Fringe, where people rush from show to show and anything much over an hour is regarded as an impertinent incursion into one's time.
On the plus side, modern drama has in many cases proved the power of brevity. Beckett's Footfalls uses the hypnotic image of a woman's solitary pacing to externalise her inner anguish. Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes shows how a drawing room confrontation can open up to admit the Holocaust. Caryl Churchill's A Number brilliantly explored, in one hour, not only the anguish of parent-child relationships but the defining marks of human identity.
But it is worth remarking that Beckett, Pinter and Churchill all began by writing conventionally structured plays and only gradually mastered the technique of creating images that distill a wealth of human experience. Only a fool would deny dramatists the right to choose the appropriate form. But what worries me is the way relatively young writers are settling into the 90-minute groove: a form midway between pure Beckettian cystallisation of an idea and the once-familiar two-act structure. And while much may be gained - not least for critics up against a deadline - something vital is being lost: the ability to explore the ramifications of a situation or the inconsistencies of human character.
The symptoms are everywhere; but it is particularly striking that the Royal Court, still the epicentre of new writing, has offered us a succession of interval-free plays over the past six months. One result is that you get cut-to-the-chase crisis without social analysis. Joe Penhall, as we know from Some Voices and Blue/ Orange, is a talented writer. But his latest piece, Dumb Show, dealt with the process of celebrity entrapment by tabloid journalists without exploring the wider issues. Who creates the ethos that makes such entrapment possible? Is it an editorial vendetta? Is it a by-product of the circulation war? Or does it spring from some public need to see our secular idols mocked and humiliated? I ended up the none the wiser; and that was because Penhall, in his 90 minutes, had no room to range beyond an examination of a sleazy journalistic device.
The new compressionism can also leave too much unsaid. Kevin Elyot's 70-minute Royal Court play, Forty Winks, was both fascinating and cryptic. You could understand Elyot's theme: the destructiveness of erotic obsession. But, in exploring his peripatetic hero's lifelong preoccupation with his first love, Elyot reduced the other characters to unexplained ciphers: the neurotic love-object, her brutal husband, her narcoleptic daughter. No one is asking for easy resolutions: incompleteness, as Dilys Powell wrote many years ago of Antonioni's L'Avventura, is often part of a work of art's mystery. But Elyot's abbreviated form left the audience not merely to join up the dots but to find where they were located.
Perhaps the gravest charge against the new playella is that it fails to allow room for debate, discussion, dialectic. No one could accuse April de Angelis, a geninely inventive socialist feminist, of a lack of ideas in her latest play, Wild East. It positively bulged with issues: corporate responsibility, economic imperialism, environmental rape, gender politics and many more. But the 80-minute length and the job-interview format meant that attitudes were struck without any counter-propositions being offered. And, having accused big companies of manipulating individuals, De Angelis proceeded to do precisely that with her own characters.
None of these plays was empty or dull; but in each case I felt the dramatist was constricted by his or her chosen form. And, although I've singled out the Royal Court, I could make the same charges against other venues. Recently, for instance, I saw a promising play, Gerald Murphy's Take Me Away at the Bush, about the breakdown of a dysfunctional Irish family. At Edinburgh it had been extravagantly praised. But yet again I felt Murphy had failed to address the really hard question: what is it about the supposedly thriving Celtic Tiger that produces so much misery? In the 1920s Sean O'Casey plotted the connection between poverty and tragedy, so why today has the Irish boom led to noisy desperation?
I am not asking for a standard structure or a return to the days of the two-interval play. But what I miss is the polyphonic richness of which drama is capable, or the complexities of character revealed by an unfolding narrative. One reason why people are flocking to Don Carlos is that it provides exactly the kind of stimulus so much modern drama lacks: exploration of ideas through character, examination of the manifold selves that make up individuals, the thrilling collision of private and public worlds.
You can't, of course, simply re-create old forms: as Alain Robbe-Grillet shrewdly pointed out, Hamlet would not be a masterpiece if it were written today since we do not live in the age of the five-act tragedy. But the new, slavish obeisance to the 90-minute rule stems, I suspect, from a mixture of fashion and ignorance; in particular, a shocking unawareness of even the recent past when drama moved beyond a single situation or point of crisis to examine causes as well as effects.
To put it bluntly, perhaps our own practitioners should simply read more plays. Whatever the remedy, I am getting impatient with these dramatic driblets that offer ideas for plays rather than plays of ideas. Too many of our best playwrights are being inhibited by their surrender to a modish, audience-friendly form.
The Great White Way
Minority labs booted from Center Theater
by STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS
Center Theater Group (CTG) artistic director Michael Ritchie says that,
effective July 1, four play-development laboratories at the Mark Taper
Forum will be disbanded. These labs were a large part of the
affirmative-action legacy left by Ritchies predecessor, Gordon Davidson.
They include the Blacksmyth Theater Lab, the Asian Theater Workshop, the
Latino Theater Initiative, Other Voices (for the disabled), the Writers
Workshop and the annual New Works Festival Ð which have been part of the
Mark Taper Forum for 10 to 17 years, hoisting a flag of cultural and
artistic diversity over an organization with an aging, white subscriber
That flag has just been lowered.
Ritchies decision comes after the closing of the privately endowed
new-play-development laboratory A.S.K. Theater Project three years ago. It
leaves local artists with no major cultural institution dedicated to
fostering a community of theater artists.
Ritchie says that the decision was agonized over, but that the
werent delivering, and Ritchie holds the lab directors responsible. CTGs
production-oriented priorities for its three-theater complex (the Taper and
the Ahmanson downtown, and the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City)
werent as pressing before the Douglas started operating last year, Ritchie
To produce plays, of course you have to develop them, Ritchie said.
well do that. But my aim is to get plays onto the stage. With these labs,
I had wanted to see more product, more aggressive advocacy for production
[by the lab leaders], as opposed to the idea of continuing development.
Luis Alfaro, who runs the Latino Theater Initiative, says he was
concerned about product as anybody, but who is the product for? The labs
were about introducing the theater to a new American audience Ð that was
Anthony Byrnes, project coordinator for the Kirk Douglas Theater and
associate producer of New Play Development at the Taper, lost his job,
along with lab directors Alfaro, Chay Yew and Brian Freeman. Byrnes says
the underlying causes of the shuffle are hard to fathom, but its not about
money. At an institution like CTG, new works generate grants. Byrnes
suspects that a corporate strategy of branding at CTG Ð so that plays are
produced the same way in all three theaters Ð may underlie the changes. Had
Ritchie been brought in to run just the Ahmanson, Byrnes says, We might
not be having this conversation.
Ritchies decision places two issues on the table that blurred into
other under Davidsons leadership: One is how to best develop a play; the
other is affirmative action in the arts.
Though rarely premiered on the Taper main stage, the plays developed
Davidson were often propelled through national streams, and two returned to
L.A. with Pulitzer Prizes (Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle).
Still, complaints abounded that at the Taper and around the country,
new-play development was shifting from a Broadway model (a play has a
Boston tryout, then floats into New York, or sinks en route) to a Hollywood
studio model in which a play is developed to death by committee, demoting
playwrights from artists to employees. Ritchie has, in effect, returned the
Taper to a system that brought renown to the likes of Eugene ONeill,
Arthur Miller and Neil Simon. But that was a long time ago, in a very
different economy, and in a land where Broadway was as white as Christmas.
Davidsons policies brought artists of color to the Taper Ð
L. Kenneth Richardson, Charlayne Woodard, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks,
Alfaro, Culture Clash and Yew Ð and with them, new audiences. Says the
outgoing director of the Blacksmyth Lab, Brian Freeman, Black audiences
were starting to come to the Taper. Not in big numbers. But it was growing.
People definitely came, and then came back.
Ritchie must face the embarrassing reality that in a city with
elected Latino mayor and in which whites are now a statistical minority, 15
of 16 CTG plays chosen for production by Ritchie were written by white men.
Ritchie says he hopes to see that change.
Meanwhile, the citys smaller companies, struggling to keep doors
their neighborhoods gentrify, face a crucial turning point. New-play
development must now come from their ranks, as must a coherent strategy for
survival and sustainability.
Center Theatre cuts new play programs
The company hopes collaborations with smaller theaters will fill some of the
The Los Angeles Times May 24, 2005
By Don Shirley, Times Staff Writer
The ax has fallen on Center Theatre Group programs designed to develop new
plays and playwrights Ð including a cluster of labs that has been one of the
most distinctive features of CTG's Mark Taper Forum for more than a decade.
Artistic director Michael Ritchie, who took the helm of Los Angeles'
flagship theater company in January, is eliminating the Other Voices program
for disabled artists Ð a Taper fixture since 1982 Ð plus the Latino, Asian
American and African American labs established from 1993 to 1995.
Ritchie says he hopes collaborations with other, small theaters would fill
some of the gaps.
The action, which takes effect July 1, means no major theater company
L.A. area will sponsor ongoing ethnic-specific programs. Last August, South
Coast Repertory shut its 19-year-old Hispanic Playwrights Project. The
demise of the disabled artists lab will leave only one similar program
affiliated with a major U.S. theater, the Victory Gardens Theater in
Chicago, said Victoria Ann Lewis, Other Voices' first director.
Ritchie, who said he hasn't attended a play reading in seven years, is
dropping a system of readings and workshops conducted under the direction of
playwright Luis Alfaro Ð whose job is being eliminated, along with those of
the lab directors.
"I've never liked having a play read to me," Ritchie said.
He prefers to
read it himself because "it gives me the ability to go back over it."
Alfaro, who oversees the Taper New Work Festival, said Ritchie is missing
the point. "Development is where you meet emerging artists. A festival is
not about readings. It's about relationships and building a community of
artists. Great art rises collectively, not because one person writes the
play that every regional theater produces."
He noted that Ritchie's changes will mean lost work for artists beyond
playwrights; 140 actors and 16 directors had jobs at his last New Work
Jessica Goldberg, an award-winning playwright whose work has been presented
at the annual New Work Festival, said she is "heartbroken" over the
decision. "The support of the artistic community at the Taper has been
essential to the development of my last three plays."
Tim Dang, artistic director of East West Players and a member of CTG's
diversity advisory committee, said the to-be-discontinued labs "mean so much
to so many emerging playwrights. They help sift through thousands of
scripts. And even if the work didn't go on [to full production], the lab
heads have the clout to say, 'This will be read at the Taper.' That means a
Ritchie's predecessor and CTG's founding artistic director, Gordon Davidson,
who created the new play programs and granted them a degree of autonomy,
declined to comment.
Instead of devoting resources to such programs, which seldom result in
CTG productions, Ritchie plans to produce full stagings of new plays by
fewer writers. "I want to see a shorter list of plays in production," he
said, "as opposed to a long list that gets mired in development."
Ritchie also hopes that his initiative to establish partnerships with
theater companies, in which their work would be presented at CTG facilities,
will provide an alternative way of developing plays and relationships. His
first example: "Permanent Collection," a recent hit at a small L.A. theater,
will be restaged at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City in the coming
This amounts to "outsourcing," said Brian Freeman, the outgoing
CTG's now-scrapped Blacksmyths lab. "That's not new play development. It's
bringing in a product. It's apples and oranges."
"You certainly can argue that," said Ernest Hiroshige, chairman
diversity advisory committee. That committee, which has been meeting with
Ritchie, was created in 2003 to help reflect minority communities' views in
the selection process that culminated in Ritchie's hiring. Ritchie "wants to
take advantage of a ready-made product instead of competing with it. He
wants plays that can appear in the near future."
Much of CTG's new play program, including commissions, "will be
my office," Ritchie said. But Diane Rodriguez, who has held a part-time job
running CTG's Latino Theatre Initiative, has been promoted to a full-time
job as associate producer in charge of new play production. She'll serve as
a liaison with other local, national and international ensembles and as "an
advocate for a wide range of artists."
In his previous job, producing the summer-only Williamstown Theatre Festival
in Massachusetts, Ritchie was accustomed to producing new work without
extensive developmental programs, he said. "It wasn't about managing many
plays. It was, 'All right, let's put it on.' It was a model that worked.
"If plays that are in development hell are valid, they'll find a
too much development, they wither and die."
If a playwright CTG is already working with wants a reading, Ritchie
provide it, he said. He might even produce a new play festival, but it would
differ from previous New Work Festivals. The plays in Ritchie's festival
would be works that he has already decided "to take to a new phase, as
opposed to filling holes in a festival schedule." If there aren't enough
qualified plays, he said, "I won't do it."
In Ritchie's first Taper and Ahmanson seasons, only one play Ð the
trio Culture Clash's "Water and Power" Ð is by a writer from the groups
represented by the Latino, Asian, black and disabled labs. There are no
women writers except for lyricist Lisa Lambert, for the musical "The Drowsy
Chaperone." By contrast, the current Taper season Ð Davidson's last Ð had
works by a black writer, John Kani, and Alfaro, a Latino. The Ahmanson
featured music (for "Caroline, or Change") by a woman, Jeanine Tesori, and a
collaboration with a deaf theater company on "Big River."
Ritchie said he was confident that ethnic and other forms of diversity
still be represented. Among the plays he presented in brief runs at
Williamstown that later moved on to other productions were two works by
black artists, "One Mo' Time" and "Lackawanna Blues."
"Permanent Collection" is a play co-produced by the black Robey
Company. But Freeman noted that it was written by a white writer, Thomas
Gibbons. Alfaro said he fears the abolition of the ethnic-specific labs will
signal that "somehow the issue of race isn't real anymore." As L.A's
flagship theater, Alfaro said, CTG "must represent Los Angeles on every
level. If you can't take that on, then run a 99-seat theater."
In meetings, Ritchie "does appear to be committed to representing
diverse culture," said the diversity committee's Hiroshige. "We have to give
him some latitude within the framework."
Rodriguez said her presence should reassure doubters about CTG's commitment
to diversity. "I'm here, and I'm pretty loud," she said. "With me around,
you're not going to forget it."
Dang said Ritchie's pledge to work with other theater companies could
benefit his company, East West Players. Although East West works in a
theater named after the prominent playwright David Henry Hwang, it lacks the
clout and resources to present a Hwang premiere. But a co-production with
CTG might make that possible, he said.
Ritchie has "a different style," Dang said. "Maybe we're
not used to it, but
we should give him that opportunity. If it doesn't work, then we can call
him on it."
The exiting Anthony Byrnes, associate producer of new play development,
noted the 2003 end of a private organization that developed playwrights,
A.S.K. Theater Projects, and said the double loss "creates a vacuum for that
kind of work in L.A."
Juliette Carrillo, the former director of SCR's defunct Hispanic Playwrights
Project, said she is "greatly concerned for playwrights. It's a very
difficult and lonely task, and professional and financial success is a
rarity. They need nurturing. The fact that these labs were focused on ethnic
groups that are already suffering from underexposure makes it even worse."
However, she added, "the potential collaborations with smaller L.A. theaters
could be healthy."
CTG board President Richard Kagan said the board "had nothing to
Ritchie's "artistically driven" decisions. "We hired him to look at the big
picture," Kagan said. "This is the results."
Confrontations in a Con-Art
by STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS
This is a defining moment for Los Angeles theater. News that Center Theater Group is dropping four of its affirmative action play-development laboratories - while leaving its New Work Festival up in the air - landed like a bomb, with an impact felt all the way in New York. (I received a call from playwright Chay Yew, who said that the story was being talked about up and down the Hudson. Yew was working in New York a year after having given his notice directing the Taper's Asian Theater Workshop. He suspected early that CTG head Michael Ritchie would have little patience for the Taper's labs.) Regardless of how one feels about affirmative action or new play development, the sheer loss of jobs will be palpable - the employment of actors and directors being paid for all those readings that Ritchie says he can't be bothered with. Putting aside for a moment issues of ethnicity and the troubling patrician implications of having one room for black playwrights, and another room for brown ones, and another one for the handicapped, etc., at the heart of the matter lies the clash between product and process. Ritchie complained that the lab directors were constantly arguing for more time to develop plays-in-process, while he has three theaters (the Taper, the Ahmanson and the Kirk Douglas) to fill with product. The labs weren't pulling their weight, he suggested. Using that as a reason to shut down play-development labs is like closing NASA for not launching enough rockets. The underlying conflict is really between opposing philosophies of what and whom theater is for. This is a dispute between those, like Ritchie, who feel that success in the theater lies in an ongoing exchange of product between, say, New York and L.A., and those, like playwright Luis Alfaro (director of the Taper's abolished Latino Theater Initiative), who believe that the primary purpose of theater is to establish and nurture relationships between an artistic community and the neighborhood in which its theater resides. New play development, to Alfaro, is part of that process.
Last winter, I saw a pair of Russian women knitting and smoking as they watched a Chris Rock video in their Moscow living room. You can find such videos from Beijing to Timbuktu, and where you watch them is largely irrelevant to the product. Not so for the theater, which exists in a specific place and a finite time, created by a community for a community. That's much more difficult to commodify. Ask all those New York producers who grumble that L.A. just isn't a theater town because their Broadway or off-Broadway hits founder here. The transfer of NYC smash Hedwig and the Angry Inch from off-Broadway to the Fonda was a travesty. Even The Lion King disappointed in L.A. It was supposed to play for years. Disney rebuilt the Pantages for the blasted thing.
L.A.'s a theater town, but it's not a New York theater town, or a London theater town, or Williamstown, and every attempt to model it after somewhere else has gotten lost in the desert. Angelenos often scratch their heads at the latest Tony Awardwinning spectacle at the Taper or the Pantages or the Geffen, wondering what on Earth those Easterners were thinking. Movies and TV and pop music can flit across cities and nations like butterflies, but the theater is far more precarious and cumbersome. Ask David Sefton at UCLA Live!, who brings international troupes to Westwood. Sets and costumes get held in customs. Visas get denied. Actors come down with laryngitis. It's like trying to transplant a giant oak.
L.A.'s field of talent is fertile. What grows here can thrive, but it needs a little care.
While our theater community waits to test the authenticity of Ritchie's offer to work with and promote local companies on CTG stages (what the Taper's Blacksmyth Lab director, Brian Freeman, has dubbed "outsourcing"), this is the moment for the community to define itself, and what it stands for.
With no large theater-support institution left to foster emerging artists, the responsibilities for both new play development and community building now fall on the hundred or so small companies that are the soul of theatrical activity here. There will always be somebody's talent manager subsidizing a stage showcase for a client. This town is full of such productions. They come and they go, and they make no difference.
Our ensemble companies, however, are of a completely different breed, run by smart people for a deeper purpose. Some companies already have development programs in place, but it's not enough to compensate for the double-loss of A.S.K. Theater Projects and the Taper's various development programs. We're less than we were if we can't channel some of that lost grant money back into the city, back into some kind of umbrella organization that funds readings and workshops that pay actors and directors stipends to help our playwrights and theaters discover what's being born here.
Our theater is in trouble, and trouble offers the challenge of rising to face it. This is the moment for L.A. Stage Alliance to step up and start coordinating efforts with REDCAT and the Edge of the World Theater Festival. This is the time for a coherent strategy to address problems of affordable space, plus resources to foster emerging artists and sophisticated, sustainable theater. When this community gets on a roll, sparks of its brilliance flash across the city.
This is the moment when we decide whether we're to move forward or to follow a trajectory of diminishing returns.