When it Comes to Theater, L.A. Is Center StageThe city known for Hollywood produces more plays than Broadway.
“When people think of Los Angeles, they think first and foremost about film and television,” says Meghan Pressman, the CEO and managing director of Center Theatre Group (CTG). Indeed, since early in the 20th century, L.A. has long been associated with Hollywood. But the fact is — although it is generally overlooked and is located some 2,500 miles off-Broadway — the “City of Angels” is also home to a thriving theater scene, with uniquely Angeleno attributes. As playwright Stephen Sachs writes:
“[M]ore theatre is produced in Los Angeles, more productions of plays and musicals, than in any other city in the world — more than New York, Chicago or London … [and] Los Angeles is home to more working artists than any other major metropolis in the United States, including New York[.] According to a report commissioned by the Center for Cultural Innovation … Los Angeles hosts the largest pool of artists of any city in the nation. Los Angeles supports more than five times as many performing artists (actors, directors, producers) outpacing New York substantially.”
Sachs, who co-founded L.A.’s Fountain Theatre in 1990, adds that the city has “hundreds of theatres producing more than one thousand plays a year.” He acknowledges that, “These facts always trigger startled looks of surprise,” but insists that “L.A. is number one nationwide in the quantity of theatre produced, but still fights to be perceived as a theatre town — although that has significantly improved.”
The pandemic didn’t help this misperception as (like so many other public arenas worldwide) L.A.’s live stage venues were locked down and the road back to the footlights has been fraught with difficulty. CTG’s Pressman laments that in December 2021, the Ahmanson Theatre “ended up canceling 22 of 40 performances of the production [of ‘A Christmas Carol’] due to COVID-19 and losing approximately $1.5 million. The next show at the Ahmanson was our presentation of ‘Everyone’s Talking About Jamie.’ While we did not cancel that production, we did see significant audience reduction due to [the COVID-19 Omicron variant] that was also estimated to be about a $1.5 million loss … Most of 2022 was a struggle.”
In this overview we dig into L.A.’s legit contemporary theater arena: What it consists of; the range of live stages; theatrical niches and specialties; how Hollywood impacts performing on the boards; how the live stage is faring now that we’re emerging from the worst of the pandemic and more.
L.A.’s Spatial Spectrum of Stages
L.A. County offers more live performance spaces for dramas, comedies and musicals than possibly anywhere else in the United States, with a wide variety of venues (the number of seats may vary according to the configurations of sets and stages). In terms of the larger outlets, the biggest indoor house that regularly presents theater is Hollywood Boulevard’s 2,691-seat Pantages Theatre, a former movie palace that opened in 1930 and where vaudeville acts and galas (such as the annual Academy Awards ceremony) have also been presented. The Ahmanson Theatre, CTG’s flagship, located at Downtown’s Music Center, seats up to 2,000. (The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall are also parts of the Music Center, but are mainly venues for opera and other live orchestral and classical performances — not of theater per se.)
The 1977-built La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts — which the L.A. Times called “one of the best Broadway-style houses in Southern California” — has 1,251 seats. The larger houses are arguably L.A.’s counterparts to venues that line New York’s Great White Way.
Mid-sized houses, such as CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, have up to 317 seats. The Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theatre, in Westwood, holds 512 ticket buyers. These mid-size venues are L.A.’s rough equivalents to N.Y.’s off-Broadway theaters.
The majority of Los Angeles’ live stage venues sit 99 or fewer ticket buyers and are called “intimate theaters.” They are the L.A. parallel to New York’s off-off-Broadway spaces and include the 80-seat Fountain Theatre at the intersection of Fountain and Normandie avenues, and Rogue Machine, currently in residence at the 85-seat Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue.
Theater Al Fresco
Manhattan’s outdoor Delacorte Theater may present “Shakespeare in the Park,” but often sunny La-La-Land boasts a number of amphitheaters, including Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon and the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa in Malibu. Although primarily a place to enjoy pop and classical concerts under the stars, the famed 17,500-seat Hollywood Bowl, perched in the Hollywood Hills, since 1922 has periodically presented theatrical productions, usually musicals such as “South Pacific,” “A Chorus Line”and “Hair.”
The John Anson Ford Theatre in the Cahuenga Pass is also mainly for music events, but starting in the 1920s, the 1,200-seat amphitheater has sometimes featured plays. In what is a direct response to the pandemic, in June 2021, the Fountain Theatre cleverly transformed its adjacent parking lot into an outdoor stage compliant with COVID protocols for summertime shows.
In addition, there are a number of L.A. theater companies that perform, generally admission-free (as at Central Park) in public parks. According to top L.A. publicist Lucy Pollak, each summer, the Independent Shakespeare Co. stages the Shakespeare Festival at Griffith Park, while Shakespeare by the Sea mounts classics by the Bard at Point Fermin Park in San Pedro and elsewhere in L.A., Ventura and Orange County parks. Rogue Artists Ensemble has performed at West Hollywood’s Plummer Park, while in August, The Actors’ Gang presents “Free Shakespeare in the Park for Families” in Media Park, adjacent to The Gang’s 99-seat Ivy Substation space in Culver City. (Griffith Park’s 5,900-seat outdoor Greek Theatre primarily presents pop concerts.)
Venue size often plays a key role in determining the type of production theaters present. According to Sachs: “Los Angeles offers theater in venues large and small, Broadway tours, new plays by local writers, classical work, the avant-garde and companies with artists that reflect the wide cultural spectrum of the city.”
With a keen eye on box office receipts, larger houses — which by their nature are generally more expensive to operate — tend to feature crowd-pleasers, including special performances by visiting New York City and other out-of-town theater troupes of note. CTG’s Pressman says, “The Ahmanson Theatre is traditionally our home for acclaimed musicals and big-scale productions. Most of the offerings at the Ahmanson include national tours, special engagements or productions straight from Broadway or those headed there. This season, we have already, as a company, produced two shows at the Ahmanson that have Broadway aspirations: ‘2:22—A Ghost Story’ and ‘The Secret Garden.’”
The Pantages’ 2023-2024 “Broadway in Hollywood” season is heavy on musicals, including Disney’s “The Lion King,” “Six” (about Henry VIII’s half dozen wives), “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” “Beetlejuice,” “Chicago” and “Les Miserables,” ballyhooed as “the world’s most popular musical.”
La Mirada Theatre follows a similar “give-the-people-what-they-want” formula, trotting out revivals of tried-and-true retreads of Broadway hits such as “Grease,” “The King and I,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and the jukebox musical “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan,”in 2023. To enhance ticket sales, these productions often include casts with high-profile performers (more on this below).
Pressman describes the focus of CTG’s two mid-size houses: “The [739-seat] Mark Taper Forum is our stage for timeless classics and grand productions from established and noteworthy playwrights looking for an iconic institution to call home. It is best known as the original home for landmark plays such as‘Angels in America,’ ‘Zoot Suit’ and ‘Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,’ among others.”
She adds, “The Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City is our smallest theater and the only venue we operate that is not located on the Music Center Plaza in Downtown L.A. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is our home to new works and is dedicated to uplifting Los Angeles artists while producing bold, cutting-edge and sometimes experimental theater.”
The mid-size REDCAT, CalArts’ (California Institute of the Arts) 250-seat multidisciplinary contemporary arts center, located behind Disney Concert Hall, presents artsy, often-imported dance, film and video, music and live theater. In February, REDCAT brought the Wooster Group (co-founded in the mid-1970s by four-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe) cross-continent from its Lower Manhattan performing garage to stage “The Mother,” Bertolt Brecht’s 1932 Lehrstücke (German for “lesson play”) about the Russian Revolution.
L.A. Theater Thematically Runs the Gamut
To use a motion picture analogy: While L.A. theater’s larger houses generally present the equivalent of big studio productions, L.A.’s mid-size and intimate stages are the counterparts to indie movies, and more likely to take creative chances. The 99-and-less-seaters tend to mount more original, edgier, experimental works geared toward more adventurous theatergoers. Less obsessed with the bottom line, many intimate spaces see bringing live theater to audiences as an artistic and even spiritual calling.
According to Fountain’s Sachs: “Theater organizations in L.A. and nationwide have engaged in racial, cultural and gender self-reckoning since the publishing of “We See You, White American Theatre” in June 2020 [a letter to the theater community signed by more than 300 Black, Indigenous, and people of color]. This is a good thing. More women and people of color are being hired as artistic directors, staff are becoming more diverse and boardrooms are reconfiguring to better reflect the communities they serve. As the Sam Cooke song says, ‘It’s been a long time coming, but change is gonna come.’”
John Perrin Flynn, Rogue Machine’s producing artistic director, notes: “Some theaters seek to serve specific communities or ethnic groups. This has been a relatively new and encouraging development in the small theater community.”
Following are some prominent examples on the political, ethnic and gender fronts.
Enter Stage Left
The Actors’ Gang’s mission, according to their website, is to “present new, unconventional and uncompromising plays and dynamic reinterpretations of the classics, to restore the ancient sense of the stage as a shared sacred space, to introduce theater to children and help them find their own creative voices, to bring the freedom of self-expression to the incarcerated.” (The Gang runs the ambitious Prison Project to teach dramatic arts to imprisoned Californians.)
Taking its cue from Gang co-founder and artistic director Tim Robbins, many of the troupe’s plays lean left, such as 2003’s “Embedded,’ one of the first productions to critique the Bush administration and its unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq, written and directed by Robbins. As the Trump regime attacked immigrants and refugees, the Gang extolled those “yearning to breathe free” in America in 2018’s “The New Colossus.” The Actors’ Gang is often anarchic in form as well as content, including productions of leftist Italian playwright Dario Fo’s “Accidental Death of an Anarchist”in 2019, and his Nobel Prize-winning “Can’t Pay? Don’t Pay!,” which premiered in 2020. As of this writing, the Gang’s current show is the Robbins-helmed version of “Ubu the King,” raucous, rebellious, anti-authoritarian Dadaist classic by French writer Alfred Jarry, which like many Gang spectacles, is unconventional in style and politics.
On its website, the 299-seat Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum (WGTB) states its mission to “elevate, educate and entertain audiences of all ages by presenting thought-provoking classics, socially relevant plays and education programs in a beautiful, natural outdoor sanctuary for the arts. By passing on a sense of history to young people and adults alike, great works of art inform their present and inspire their future. A true renaissance theater, we offer a diversity of programming from Shakespeare to poetry to folk music to the development of future playwrights — all to help understand the world we live in and to embrace our shared humanity.”
Currently celebrating its 50th anniversary as an incorporated nonprofit, WGTB’s annual summer season bill features an eclectic mix of Shakespeare standards, vintage fare served with a contemporary, relevant twist and debuts of original plays, performed in repertory from June through early October. Along with the perennial favorite “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” this year the Bard’s “Macbeth”and “The War of the Roses”are being staged, along with Terrence McNally’s India-set “A Perfect Ganesh.”
Last July, the amphitheater founded by blacklisted actor Will Geer, co-star of the 1954 left-wing classic “Salt of the Earth,” world premiered artistic director and playwright Ellen Geer’s “Trouble the Water,” a stage rendition of Rebecca Dwight Bruff’s 2019 novel about Civil War- and Reconstruction-era hero Robert Smalls, a former slave who commandeered a Confederate ship and was elected to Congress.
WGTB’s adaptations of classics include Ellen Geer and Heidi Helen Davis’ 2009 resetting of “The Cherry Orchard” — Anton Chekhov’s 1904 classic that was originally set in Russia — to 1970s Virginia in the wake of the civil rights movement. In 2019, Geer reworked Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 “An Enemy of the People” to take place in 1980 South Carolina during the presidential race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The proverbial curtain of the updated “Enemy” lifted with ex-KKK Grand Wizard David Duke addressing a “white power” rally, spewing the “N-word.”
John Perrin Flynn, the producing artistic director of Rogue Machine, which edged out the far larger and better-funded Mark Taper Forum, The Geffen and the Beverly Hills-based Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts to win 2017’s top Ovation Award for Best Season, asserts: “Our mission statement says we are here to produce new plays, primarily by Los Angeles-based playwrights, and plays that are new to Los Angeles. We very much believe that small theater in Los Angeles should be producing new work. We also believe that there are some very important plays being written elsewhere that are not being seen in Los Angeles — and we seek to produce those plays as well.”
Rogue Machine’s envelope-pushing, innovatively mounted productions include trenchant takes on hard-hitting topics. In 2018, the West Coast debut of “Finks”by Joe Gilford (son of blacklisted thespians Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee) alternated onstage with the U.S. premiere of British bard Tom Morton-Smith’s bio-play “Oppenheimer,” about the nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who expressed second thoughts after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both dramas grappled with censorship and political persecution during the post-WWII Red Scare era. British playwright Mike Bartlett’s“Cock” took a searing look at binary sexuality and identity in 2014.
Ethnicity Takes Center Stage
Many of Rogue’s topical dramas tackle what many consider to be America’s thorniest subject: race. In 2018, Rogue Machine world premiered “American Saga: Gunshot Medley: Part 1,” an ethereal drama about gun violence that targets African Americans, written by Dionna Michelle Daniel, who, like the late playwright Lorraine Hansberry, is young, gifted and Black. While the latter’s 1959, Chicago-set “A Raisin in the Sun”is oft-revived, Rogue put Hansberry’s 1970, rarely produced Africa-set anti-colonial drama “Les Blancs” back on the boards in 2017. Greg Keller’s 2016 gritty urban saga “Dutch Masters”provided another gloves-off look at racism.
But the company’s most powerful drama about racism was Kemp Powers’ “One Night in Miami,” an imagining of what happened in 1964 when Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown joined Cassius Clay at his hotel room shortly after the boxer won the world heavyweight championship and before he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, which world premiered at Rogue Machine in 2013.
Ethnicity is the essence of the experience offered by a variety of L.A. outlets. The Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC) is a major downtown complex that includes five spaces devoted to the live stage. Named after the legendary actor, activist and singer Paul Robeson, the Robey Theatre Company states on its website that its mission is to “foster a community of artists whose purpose is to develop and produce plays written about the global Black experience. At its core, the organization is committed to effecting social change and to the preservation, production and reinterpretation of celebrated ‘Black Classics’” in its 99-seat Theatre Four. Actor Ben Guillory is the CEO and producing artistic director of the Robey Theatre.
The City of Los Angeles owns LATC and in 2006, the Latino Theater Company (LTC) was awarded a long-term lease to operate the Spring Street establishment, where more than 155 plays have been produced. LTC’s artistic director Jose Luis Valenzuela, and its two associate artistic directors, playwright Evelina Fernandez and actor Sal Lopez, are the guiding lights of this company, which according to its website, is “[d]edicated to both serving the Latina/o/x community and reflecting the diverse cultural experiences of Los Angeles.”
Located in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo district, East West Players (EWP), now in its 57th year, calls itself “the nation’s largest and longest-running Asian American theater.” EWP’s website describes its mission as “raising the visibility of the Asian American experience by presenting inventive world-class theatrical productions, developing artists of color and providing impactful youth education programs.” Its vision “is to inspire and advocate for a world free of racism and discrimination through transformative artistic works.” EWP’s main stage is the David Henry Hwang Theater, with about 270 seats.
Founded in 1993, according to its website, the mission of West Coast Jewish Theatre (WCJT) is “to portray Jewish history, philosophy and culture through theatrical productions dealing with Jewish life in days past, present and future. Through these presentations we hope to foster a respect for and understanding of the Jewish heritage.” WCJT’s “objectives” are: “To keep alive dramatic works of the past, and to promote and encourage new and contemporary playwrights whose plays deal with Jewish themes; [t]o reach out to members of the Jewish community and their children and offer them an opportunity to connect positively with their roots, their ethnicity and their family; and [t]o portray to the non-Jewish community the unique qualities of the Jewish people, and those qualities shared with everyone that make us all equal in the family of man.” WCJT’s productions, which have included works by prominent Jewish playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Neil Simon, have been presented at the intimate Pico Playhouse on Pico Boulevard.
Gender Identity in the Limelight
The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival (LAWTF), which bills itself as “a multicultural festival of solo artists” was co-founded by African American actress Adilah Barnes and includes performers of many ethnicities. However, what distinguishes this annual multidisciplinary fête is that every one of the artists is female, and all of the performances are one-woman shows, ranging from the theatrical to music, dance and beyond. This year is LAWTF’s 30th anniversary, and the festival (running from March 23 to 26) is kicking off with a gala awards ceremony and live entertainment at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre’s 299-seat proscenium space on Hollywood Boulevard, located near the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Hollyhock House.
In 1982, Celebration Theatre was founded by gay rights activist and Mattachine Society co-founder Chuck Rowland. Today, Celebration Theatre is a guest resident theater at the Los Angeles LGBT Center in Hollywood. According to its website, “As one of our country’s longest-running LGBTQIA+ theatres, Celebration has a history of creating award-winning, inspiring, engaging, entertaining theater that celebrates the LGBTQIA+ experience. Celebration Theatre has grown with the community, expanding its vision and ambition while producing a wide range of theatre, from new voices to new visions of old favorites.”
Star Power: The Cross-Pollination of Stage and Screen
L.A.’s theater world has unique attributes and as Rogue Machine’s Flynn, who has a TV producer background, points out: “First and foremost, there is an immense amount of talent residing in Los Angeles and these are people who are dedicated artists and want to continue working on their art.” Being poised at the crossroads of the motion picture, television and music industries provides an immense pool of gifted performers and craftsmen that feeds the City of the Angels’ live stage scene. The larger, mid-size and intimate houses often tap into this reservoir of creativity that also has the added PR benefit of luring audiences to see thespians with celebrity status — up close and in person — treading the boards.
Exhibit A could well be the Ahmanson’s 2011 reuniting of the Tony Award-nominated original Broadway cast of “God of Carnage,” co-starring James Gandolfini (a three-time Emmy Award winner for HBO’s immensely popular television series “The Sopranos”), two-time Emmy winner Jeff Daniels, three-time Emmy nominee Hope Davis and Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden, who won the Best Leading Actress Tony for “Carnage,” which also scored the Best Play and Best Director Tonys. Similarly, in late 2021, when the Ahmanson returned to live theater with Charles Dickens’ beloved “A Christmas Carol,” Bradley Whitford of TV’s “West Wing”fame starred as Scrooge.
French Stewart, the co-star of the TV sitcoms “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Mom,” is no stranger to L.A.’s stage. In a double role, he hilariously played Sigmund Freud and Queen Victoria in 2010’s “Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes” at the intimate Sacred Fools Theater. Stewart brilliantly portrayed the eponymous silent movie comedian in “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton”for Sacred Fools in 2012, and then at the 686-seat Pasadena Playhouse in 2014. French has also acted opposite his wife, the actress and playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart, in Rogue Machine’s 2018 “Finks” and in 2019’s “Deadly,” at Sacred Fools’ new 96-seat space, the Broadwater Main Stage, at Hollywood Theatre Row, the live theater district that features about 22 stages.
In 2015, four-time Emmy Award winner (for “Roseanne”and “Hacks”) and Oscar nominee (for 2017’s “Lady Bird”) Laurie Metcalf starred in the harrowing tragicomedy “Trevor,” about a chimpanzee raised as a human at the 99-seat Atwater Village Theatre, Theatre #1. George Takei of “Star Trek” fame co-starred in the musical “Allegiance,” based on his experience as one of the 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry imprisoned in U.S. internment camps during WWII, which was co-produced by East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center at the 880-seat Aratani Theatre in 2018.
La Mirada’s 2019 production of the musical adaptation of the movie “Grumpy Old Men” co-starred Hal Linden of the long-running TV sitcom “Barney Miller.” Sally Struthers, of television’s beloved “All in the Family”and “Gilmore Girls,” co-starred as Frau Blücher (cue the horses!) in La Mirada’s 2022 “Young Frankenstein.” Similarly, Teri Hatcher — a Bond girl in 1997’s 007 thriller “Tomorrow Never Dies”and one of the eponymous wives in the popular television series “Desperate Housewives” — played Morticia in the stage musical adaptation of cartoon-cum-TV-sitcom-movie “The Addams Family” at the 1,800-seat Kavli Theatre at the Bank of America Performing Arts Center in Thousand Oaks, in Ventura County, in 2022. That same year, Bryan Cranston, the star of the acclaimed television series “Breaking Bad” — an Oscar-nominee for 2015’s biopic of a blacklisted screenwriter in “Trumbo ”— co-starred with Amy Brenneman, of television’s “NYPD Blue”and“Judging Amy,” in the antifascist drama “Power of Sail” at the Geffen Playhouse.
The Economics of Dramatics
Its proximity to Hollywood also has economic repercussions for L.A. theater. Flynn says, “Although it is by no means cheap, production in Los Angeles is definitely cheaper than it is in New York and the existence of the Actors’ Equity Association’s small theater contract makes it possible for theaters to take risks.”
Sachs, on the other hand, grouses: “Producing a play in Los Angeles, even in a 99-seat theater, has become astronomically expensive. I’ve been creating theater in L.A. for a long time, and I’ve never seen expenses so high. Everything costs more. Lumber, paint, tools, production equipment and the people who use it cost double or triple since before the pandemic. California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) went into effect two months before the pandemic struck. The impact of that piece of legislation is devastating to small arts organizations. Payroll costs have skyrocketed. Budgets have soared through the roof.”
The Fountain’s co-founder and artistic director and playwright goes on to say: “It would be hard for an actor to make a living only doing theater in Los Angeles. Most actors work in all media: film, TV, voice-overs, audiobooks and theater. Professional Actors Equity Association stage managers can earn a living in L.A., but many take tours out of town. Local designers can scrape by, but they need to book many shows and constantly work to earn enough money. I’ve been making a living as a theater-maker in Los Angeles for 36 years.”
CTG’s Pressman has another take: “It is certainly challenging to make a living solely doing theater in a city like Los Angeles, or any city for that matter. Can it be done? Yes. But it’s not always easy. And yes, many people have to supplement their theater work with other income. At Center Theatre Group, we are privileged to have the resources to support the cast and crew, as well as artists who participate through our Education and Community Partnerships programming. These are often highly-trained, skilled professionals, who should be rewarded for what they do. And we are fortunate enough to be able to do just that.”
Sachs points out another hurdle facing L.A.’s myriad of theaters, each seeking to get the word out about their productions. “Every newspaper and outlet in town has significantly reduced its arts coverage or cut it entirely,” he says. “There are fewer paid theater critics and professional arts journalists than ever before. Because of cutbacks, the Los Angeles Times now has one theater critic, essentially. For a city our size, with hundreds of theaters producing more than one thousand plays a year, that’s a challenge. There’s been a rise in independent reviewers and bloggers filling the gaps.”
For the Love of It
CTG’s Pressman states, “Many, if not most, people working in the film and television industry got their start in theater. And many still have a strong passion for being on stage. That’s often where that love for storytelling first began.” Despite the pay cut big and little screen thesps generally undergo when they tread the boards, performing in the legit theater also offers its share of benefits to actors.
According to Inger Tudor, who as of this writing co-stars in the Fountain Theatre’s three-hander “The Lifespan of a Fact” and portrayed actress Rose McClendon, founder of the Negro People’s Theatre, in the 2022 feature film “Voodoo Macbeth”: “The actors doing theater here are doing it because they love it and if you’re here to do film and TV until you reach a certain level, theater may be the only place where you get to develop a character and play them through the entire arc of a piece, as opposed to only in a scene here or there in a TV show or film.” However, Tudor, who has a long list of big and little screen credits, laments: “It’s very hard because there are so few theaters in L.A. that actually have the bigger contracts which allow one to work enough and earn enough money to make a living.”
Sachs goes on to say: “Los Angeles is a hugely important theater market for agents and producers.” Newcomers working their hearts out for little or no money never know who may be lurking in the audience. This critic has seen Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson attending shows at intimate theaters, where they discovered Nia Vardalos in her 1997 solo show “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” at the diminutive Hudson Backstage Theatre and brought the rom-com to the silver screen, where it earned almost a quarter of a billion dollars. Another “rags to riches” Hollywood dream come true story for L.A. theater is the Regina King-directed “One Night in Miami,” which debuted at Rogue Machine in 2013 and went on to be adapted for the big screen in 2020. The drama was nominated for three Oscars, including for playwright-turned-screenwriter Kemp Powers in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.
Long before attaining fame and fortune as Roseanne Barr’s television sister in the 1980s, Laurie Metcalf cut her acting teeth working with Chicago’s venerable Steppenwolf Theatre Company. She went on to co-star in Steppenwolf’s 1984 off-off-Broadway production of Pulitzer Prize and Obie Award winner Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead”at Circle Repertory in Greenwich Village, for which Metcalf won the Obie Award for Best Actress. Metcalf proceeded to appear on Broadway in plays such as David Mamet’s “November,” for which she was Tony-nominated. After co-starring as Jackie in “Roseanne” (a role she’s still playing on ABC’s “The Conners”), Metcalf returned to her theatrical roots onstage at New York, Chicago, London’s West End and in L.A. productions, such as 2009’s “Voice Lessons”opposite French Stewart at the 74-seat Zephyr Theatre on Melrose Avenue.
The merger of stage and screen may be best epitomized by Tim Robbins, who co-founded The Actors’ Gang in 1981. In previous interviews, Robbins told me that Hollywood’s powers-that-be have only enabled Robbins to direct three features, even though he was Oscar-nominated for Best Director for the 1995 film “Dead Man Walking.” While the Academy Award-winning actor has presumably received much bigger paychecks for his screen roles, as a playwright and the Gang’s artistic director, he is empowered to exercise far more creative control on the stage than he has been able to on screen.
Up Close, Personal and Visceral: The Living Theater
In addition to offering artists the opportunity to practice and expand their craft — plus the chance to be discovered by talent scouts on the lookout for the latest hot property — the L.A. stage gives something to actors, et. al., that motion pictures, TV shows, commercials, streaming programs, web series, and so on, never can.
Flynn, who was Emmy-nominated for the 1992 TV mini-series “The Burden of Proof,” and co-founded Rogue Machine in 2008, gushes: “Nothing can compare to live theater. It is never the same. Every night is different. There is always an element of improvisation. The audience is experiencing the play in community, together. Live theater audiences are participants in the experience, not observers, and we learn from experience.”
The Fountain’s Sachs elaborates: “Neuroscientists have now proven what theater folk have known for years. The heartbeats of audience members actually synchronize and beat together in unison when watching a live performance of a play or musical. The audience members’ hearts were responding in unison, with their pulses speeding up and slowing down at the same rate together. The study found that couples and friends continue to have synchronized heartbeats during the intermission. I believe theater’s fundamental and most sacred purpose is to bring a variety of individuals to a common place where they share a meaningful human experience together. This study proves it physiologically. Our hearts beat together. Can there be a higher calling? I don’t think so.”
Actress Inger Tudor echoes these sentiments: “There is something very different and magical about having actors only a few feet away from you and seeing them react in the moment to everything going on in the scene. To me, it heightens the effect of what they’re portraying and the emotions you’re feeling as an audience member because you are right there with them.”
CTG’s Pressman agrees: “Theater offers a shared experience you can’t get from the movies, TV and streaming. There’s something magical that happens when a group of strangers gathers in a room together to engage and interpret and be entertained by live theater. A single laugh or tear can turn into a thousand in an instant. There is nothing quite like that experience. It is a singular one that transcends time and space. At its very core, theater cannot exist without an audience. You need that shared experience.”
Even the special effects of a Hollywood blockbuster arguably can’t compete with the swordplay of 50 thespians dueling in a Shakespearean tragedy live under the stars on Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s boards, as toga-clad spear-holders gallop offstage around Topanga Canyon’s woods and up the amphitheater’s rows (make sure to keep your feet out of the aisles!).
The Next Act?
Despite the setbacks wrought by the pandemic, many of Los Angeles’ live stages are, in that great showbiz tradition, making a comeback. CTG’s Meghan Pressman asserts: “We did close out the year  with signs of hope. “2:22—A Ghost Story” performed very well at the Ahmanson, as did “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” which exceeded our expectations and did extraordinarily well. Audiences have been a little bit slower to come back to the Mark Taper Forum. But our first show of the year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre — “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” — has been packed with enthusiastic audiences every night of its run. So, we are still in unknown, unpredictable times, but there does seem to be light around the bend.”
Rogue Machine’s producing artistic director John Perrin Flynn, who first dabbled in theater in the 1970s then returned to the footlights in 2006, sums it up: “Theater in Los Angeles is and should be a cauldron. A place for new work and new artists to define and refine.”
“A profound, fundamental shift is happening in the L.A. theater community, within those of us who make theater and those who attend it,” declares Fountain’s artistic director Sachs. “With the pandemic receding, it feels like we’re all coming out of our caves, squinting into the bright sun, and asking ourselves, ‘What is that? What does it mean to me now?’ There’s a deep reassessment going on within all of us, of ourselves and our art form. Which is healthy because all of us are changed. How does all this influence the art? We’ll see. I’m aware of a change of guard underway, as it should be. Those of us who have been here a long time will step aside for the next generation of arts leaders. The landscape is changing. The next few years will determine what the future will look like.”Wait, before you go…
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