Is Los Angeles a Theater Town? A resounding “maybe.”
The Los Angeles Times roundtable began with a contentious question portending more than its share of blood in the water: “Is Los Angeles a Theater Town?”
But the sharks of LA’s theater community couldn’t — or wouldn’t — rise to the bait at Tuesday night’s panel at Colburn School’s Zipper Hall: Moderator Charles McNulty of the L.A. Times defused the question even as it was broached. The conversation turned, instead, on what makes the city’s theater community unique in terms of both its challenges and achievements.
The panel included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley, who sat largely silent for most of the proceedings. Film actor and Actors’ Gang director Tim Robbins brought star-quality to the proceedings. Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps proved the chatterbox, while Broadway producer Marc Platt, the man who gave the world Wicked, gave a few sage words.
Michael Ritchie, artistic director at Center Theatre Group, may not have satisfied the many small-theater artistic directors in attendance. But neither he nor the panel as a whole left anyone seething.
The audience seemed eager to engage, but the lack of a question-and-answer period rankled. Veteran artists from the 99-seat-theater scene will have their chance to respond, and perhaps draw a little more blood: a “counter-panel” on June 19.
Most contradictory moment: McNulty. “I feel like the answer’s obvious. It [Los Angeles] is [a theater town], and yet we have to keep arguing it again and again.” Indeed.
Biggest applause: Epps. “I’m still here!” A terse reference to his Pasadena Playhouse’s resumed performance schedule in the wake of last fall’s financial troubles for the company.
Best moment when panelist backs up moderator: Epps. “I do think we should have stopped this panel.” (Applause.) “No one’s here asking me if I’m black or not.”
Oddest moment of shifting the blame, but also conceding a point: Robbins. “What I really think is tragic is that LA Weekly doesn’t have a comprehensive listing of equity theaters in the area.” Robbins admitted in the same breath that the same listing could be found online.
Best moment of an artistic director showing a business side: Epps. “This is a nasty word in art, but sometimes you have to understand the product, and who will use this product.”
A question that perhaps only a Los Angeles theater critic would ask of theater professionals: “How big of an obstacle is the car for your audiences to make it to productions?” You got the sense McNulty really wanted to know, and really cared.
A panelist’s short answer to McNulty’s question: Ritchie. “There’s no way we could start a show later to make time for commuters. If it ends at 11:30, no one will stay past intermission,” Ritchie said.
Most Zen-like summation of the chief difference between East and West Coast theater scenes: Platt. “I always like to say that New York is a great city, and LA is a great state of mind.”
Worst moment of revealing an unacknowledged inferiority complex on the part of L.A. theater companies: Epps: “I actually think New York bolsters itself by the false belief that theater there is superior. A great deal of what ends of up in New York is nutured by our theaters.”
Best short answer to the question of whether LA’s abundance of actors makes producing theater easier: Ritchie. “For the most part they’re out here to act in television and film. … We can’t cast all our shows 100 percent from LA. We still go outside the market. People in New York and Chicago go to act on stage.”
When the question is about the difference between writing for film and stage, Henley finds her moment to shine. “The stage is about writing for breath, and words and the skin. But at the same time I really love film. I love people who are gifted and also give you money. It’s really difficult to make money in theater.”
Don’t know the difference between acting for film and stage? Let big-shot producer Platt break it down for you: “An actor on stage has to live in continuity of a character for three or four hours. That’s a very different experience from an actor who gets in front of a camera and act minutes here and there out of sequence.”
Is there a recognizable LA aesthetic for the stage? Ritchie. “Chicago is best exemplified by Steppenwolf [Theatre's] in-your-face acting style. I think it’s really broad-based here. You’re going to see styles specific to companies.”
Most vexing closing line of the entire panel, and one that may well justify the June 19 rejoinder forum by LA’s small-theaters contingent: “OK, our hour is up,” McNulty said. “LA is hard to define. This is just a start.”