L.A. Times Forum Tackles Question of ‘Theater Town’

Charles McNulty, Marc Platt, Beth Henley, Tim Robbins, Sheldon Epps and Michael Ritchie at the @CultureMonster panel: "Is L.A. a Theater Town?"

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.

Some highlights:

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.”

Ben Fulton

Ben Fulton, who writes about theater and other assorted arts matters for the Salt Lake Tribune, is an amateur violinist who still has not seen The Book of Mormon.

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  1. Michael Filerman says:

    None of these people represent equity waiver theatre in LA. I doubt if half of them have ever BEEN in one.

  2. OMG. What a question. There are hundreds of theaters here that have been here for over a decade, and dozens that have been here for over two decades. There are even dozens of theater publicists here who have been doing what they do for that long. To pose the question at all is like asking if Castroville is an artichoke town.

  3. Why was there no Q&A. Why was there no AEA rep. Why weren’t the known and respected 99-seat houses represented. And – Michael Ritchie’s answer abt NY talent is BS. LA actors have to fly to NY to be seen for shows in LA, and as for designers/stage managers, well, it is absurd that to think there is no talent in all arenas out here either, and he provides limited at best opportunity. What could have been a lively exchange and an informative and enjoyable evening was just more reinforcement of an old and tired cliche. LA has great theater, and great theater artists in every aspect of the work, and we deserve opportunity as much as anyone else to work in our own city.

  4. The question was simply beneath dignity. Shame on the panelists, for being willing to participate. And shame on the LA Times, for trying to brew an artificial controversy–and for that matter, this site too–when everyone who’s been following theater here for decades already knows the answer. Shame on your site for leading with this.

  5. Pat MacKay says:

    Shocking and embarrassing for several well known performing arts professionals to actually confess that getting out of the house and going somewhere to experience theatre is what stops them. I could understand this, maybe from the film community, but one panelist actually said she goes to two theatres because they are “near” her and could not remember the name of them both. And another panelist actually complained about the burden of driving across town to see his own son in shows at the Music Center.


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