Sunday, April 20, 2008

On the Nonexistent Cartilage Between LA Theatre and NYC Theatre

NOTE: I'll probably be revising this essay for sense and for typos.

One of my projects this weekend is to catch up on a lot of articles, posts and links that I couldn't think about seriously or otherwise address during the few weeks I spent being buried one final time in my infamous book. (We're currently waiting for one more fact to be fact-checked, by the way, and then off to the printer it'll go. So everyone, please, please, I ask you: cross your fingers, your toes, your legs and your eyes and intone, um, 126 Hail Marys.)

Anyway, the first piece has been gnawing and tugging at my conscience since it was published: Steven Leigh Morris' article in LA Weekly, "Continental Divisiveness: New York and L.A. Theater."

Let me say that I'm far from ideally conversant in LA theatre; my counterparts at Back Stage West have that market close at hand and heart, and, of course, they have a deeper investment in enabling the scene there to flourish that I naturally would

That said, generally speaking I think -- even more now that I’ve read and re-read Morris’ article -- that there's an undercurrent between the theatre communities in New York and LA that hopes or wishes for a rivalry regardless of whether one does or does not exist. This cuts to the heart of Morris’ piece. He begins with a quote from a Michael Feingold's essay in The Village Voice from 1998 "about the cultural lurch toward mediocrity" and proceeds to suggest the obvious: there are differences in the cultural and aesthetic tastes and standards between the two communities. This is true, sure, though I’d argue no more or less so than the cultural and aesthetic tastes and standards between any two geographically disparate communities: San Francisco audiences will respond to Shopping and Fucking far differently than audiences in the Carolinas. Or not.

Morris goes on to point out how much new work is done in LA that comes to New York, citing the musical Curtains, Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour (part of the playwright's longstanding relationship with South Coast Rep), plus Another Vermeer, which Off-Broadway's Abingdon Theatre Company just mounted with Austin Pendleton, and Athol Fugard's Exits and Entrances. This list is selective at best, but it’s an efficient gateway for Morris to then cite three New York Times reviews of various productions that originated in L.A., and to assert, "when an L.A. production is New York is well-received, the originating city is rarely mentioned, but when such a show is attacked, critics salivate at the opportunity to skewer L.A. as well."

The problem with this assessment is its inherent shallowness; the examples he cites could easily be refuted with a little bit of research. Also, for Morris, it’s also a question of someone once again ascribing power and influence to the Times that more and more people are fairly certain has begun to ebb. Indeed, it’s the frame of reference of someone who doesn’t know the New York theatre -- who assumes that beyond the Times and Michael Feingold, there are no other critics in New York -- and yet someone who is writing about the ignorance of New York theatre folk of the L.A. theatre scene. Nowhere in Morris’ piece does he outline the huge dimensions of the community; I happen to know one recent statistic suggesting that there are more full theatre production in L.A. on an annualized basis than there are in New York, counting Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off.

There’s another element of Morris’ article I find disturbing: the question of relevance. In other words, how is it relevant that Curtains originated in L.A. beyond the fact that that's where it received its initial production? The piece wasn’t written in L.A., so far as I know, prior to whatever work was done on it immediately leading up to it’s L.A. premiere; it could just as easily have been produced in another city, in fact, as well. What I'm getting at is that when we see "L.A. theatre" and "New York theatre" being tossed around as terms, as bits of cultural identity, do we mean theatre made by nonprofits that are immersed in, and indigenous to, the community, nonprofits that develop work made by artists living in the community and using indigenous talent? Or are we talking mostly about the commercial marketplace? To me, L.A. theatre should mean work coming out of L.A. that bears at least a few of the hallmarks of the cultural aesthetics and tastes of the L.A. theatre scene, if, indeed, there is one. I don’t know if there is one. If there is one, Morris should articulate what it is. If there isn’t one, Morris should articulate why there isn’t one. None of that has anything to do with New York theatre or New York theatre critics.

I find it interesting that while Morris quotes New York publicist Rick Miramontez as saying "The NYC bias against L.A. is real, and it's bad for business," he quotes Charles Isherwood of the Times as saying that he "doesn't believe that the New York theater community has any collective perception of L.A. at all, good or bad." So at least the piece is balanced in that sense.

Me? I agree with Charles in that I think so much of Morris' piece actually means to stir up enmity between the communities, and that’s because the L.A. theatre community has a problem: it’s fundamentally insecure, far from unself-assured, deeply circumspect and thoroughly taken in with the same fantastic branding of "Broadway" as the apogee of dramaturgical greatness when the way it should be is that quality work is quality work, geography be damned.

Well, again, this is at least the case when we're discussing the nonprofit sphere. If we're talking about the commercial sphere -- well, yes, we are talking about New York, because New York is where the money is made. Or at least it’s one of the places where money in the commercial theatre is made. Moreover, if L.A. is a place where money in the commercial theatre can be made, then wouldn’t it behoove Morris to delve into that, to explain it, to take the community there to task for not branding itself and promoting itself sufficiently and thoroughly?

Again, Morris complains that New York theatre critics don’t cite the city of origin of a piece in their reviews, and I don’t know why that’s relevant. For one thing, a good look at the current state of column inches would suggest that most critics -- including those at the Times and Feingold at the Voice -- haven't unlimited space, and I can’t imagine citing the city of origin of a piece is more important that the critics’ assessment of it.

I know people are going to take issue with what I’m writing on this; Morris is well liked in L.A. and a really spectacular writer; I first met him when I was editor of back during in the year of the flood and we had a swell lunch together. But when Morris cites my good friend Rob Kendt -- who said, "My initial feeling is that L.A.'s just not on the radar at all out here, and I have to pick the times when I want to argue about that -- that there really is theater in L.A. But for the most part, you have to nod along with the perception that it isn't there. It doesn't come from hostility, but from ignorance." -- I kind of grimace.

Why do I grimace? Well, I'm not at all sure any of what Rob says is accurate, but for purposes of this post, let's just agree with him. The question is: What can L.A. do about it? It seems to me, for example, that just as major Chicago theatres have made efforts over a long period of years to form deep, lasting relationships with New York theatres, the same thing has to happen between theatres in L.A. and New York.

Consider, for a moment, all this blogospheric yibber-yabber about the Equity Showcase Code in New York and how it should be modified to resemble the 99-seat Code in LA. Why, for example, is there no loud and strong support for this coming from a single LA-based theatre company? Wouldn’t an increase in cross-pollination between NYC and LA theatre groups be in everyone’s best interest?

Ah, but if New York theatre folk are ignorant about L.A. theatre, why does Morris not address the question of the same being true the other way around? He quotes from an actor here, a playwright there, about how much easier it is to work in L.A. -- to get new work done, and so forth. While integrating into his article no hard numbers on how much money, for example, playwright Bruce J. Robinson made from having his work read or workshopped "at theaters ranging from the Norris in Palos Verdes and Theatrical Beverly Hills' Theatre 40," Morris chooses to include a quote from Robinson, who said, with regard to "the fringier's vital if you're not interested in making a living."

Wait a minute. You’re telling me that Robinson is in development hell in L.A. but he's making such a great living off these readings and workshops? I mean, Morris actually says that one of his plays “has even been produced” -- and he’s making a living from this activity alone? Really? Bull crap -- if he’s making a living, it’s not from having reading and workshops of his plays. That Morris blithely consigns Off-Off-Broadway to irrelevance only shows the ignorance he accuses New York theatre people of perpetuating.

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