BACK STAGE WEST
August 12, 1999
Los Angeles a theatre town? As Theatre LA's new chief, Lars Hansen hopes to turn that skeptical question into a resounding statement.
by Rob Kendt
Anyone who has labored in and/or covered the theatre for any length of time (and I presume to include those on my side of the aisle) knows it can be a thankless lover, sucking away more time, energy, affection, and money than it can ever repay. And yet the theatre is not for those who count the cost. A way of life as much as it is a career or a business, for the true believer it is a nearly religious calling based on faith in the power of human communion to make our lives better, more bearable, even just a little more pleasant for a few hours at a time.
Those who have managed to keep this unlikely faith in Los Angeles, the sprawling film and TV capital of the world, deserve some kind of medal, since the odds against theatrical success in the Southland are ironically heightened by the excess of talent drawn here by Hollywood's native industry. Indeed, Los Angeles theatre has seemingly flourished in every way--its quantity and its quality compare well with any city in the world--except economically, which means it barely registers on the map by which most of its potential audience might find its way to the small storefront stages where the scene is thriving. Apropos the distended geography of L.A., it is a spread-out scene which has found according pockets of paying theatregoers, though it remains in many ways an underground activity, off the radar of the major media and outside the consciousness of the average Angeleno, let alone the millions of tourists who come West for sun and fun.
To connect this vital scene with a broader audience has become the mission of Theatre League Alliance, known generally by the coincidentally catchy moniker Theatre LA. A membership organization of 160 L.A.-area theatres and theatre producers, Theatre LA has been the force behind the peer-judged Ovation Awards, the Theatre Times group advertising box in The Los Angeles Times Calendar section, the (short-lived) half-price walk-up ticket booth, and several other colloquys and studies.
And in Lars Hansen, the organization's new President/CEO, Theatre LA may have found the ideal spokesman-cum-leader to take its collective marketing efforts to the next level. The former longtime managing director of the Pasadena Playhouse, and before that the Long Beach Civic Light Opera, Hansen is the first Theatre LA leader to have done more than a decade's time in the L.A. theatre trenches--and he's not only lived to tell about it but has continued to keep his enthusiasm for it high. Indeed, his favorite part of running the Pasadena Playhouse, he said in a recent interview, was what he called the "chamber of commerce kind of thing. . . building the audience and bringing attention to the institution."
Hansen comes off in person as a sort of mellow, unflappable cheerleader--the kind of speaker who can lull a listener into nodding agreement, but who makes a reporter check his notes and ask follow-up questions. The transcript of our conversation shows that Hansen has got more to offer than happy talk--and that he may indeed be the man with the plan to make L.A. at long last recognized as the theatre town it's already become.
We began by talking about the decade since Theatre LA was founded as a merger between the Los Angeles Theatre Alliance, a group representing smaller theatres, and the big-league League of Theatres and Producers.
Back Stage West: What has Theatre LA accomplished in its 10-plus years?
Lars Hansen: I was there from the beginning. We all sat in Frank Levy's living room--he had the Coast Playhouse and made movies and plays--and it was the first time I remember the Taper being in the same room with the Victory and the Colony, the Pasadena Playhouse, and Bobby Fryer from the Ahmanson. And we sat around as theatre people and talked about bringing our efforts together under one umbrella and celebrating theatre in the form of maybe an annual party or something--because all there was at the time was the Drama-Logue awards, and the continuing feeble attempt of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards to ever become high-profile, or at least capture the attention of the theatre practitioners in this city.
There was tremendous fear at the time that the big theatres would swallow up the little theatres, and that there were competing missions, agendas. The large theatres thought the little theatres were vanity productions producing on the cheap, and the little theatres were saying, "No, we're doing it for art--real, pure art, it's not about money." We were very careful with the bylaws to make sure everybody had equal representation, but there were fears on all sides.
I've seen all that melt away over the last decade. Now, the board of governors is not about fear. My sense is that everybody just wants to succeed at their mission: If their mission is doing new work with 37 seats in Silverlake, they just want to be successful at that; they're not afraid that the Music Center is going to swallow them up or take away their funding or dominate the landscape anymore.
BSW: The profile of L.A.'s smaller theatre scene has indeed been raised in recent years. But what do the larger theatres gain from their association with Theatre LA?
Hansen: The same thing smaller theatres do: attention in the marketplace as an art form, as an activity. This is a huge marketplace; it's very hard to get the attention of a huge marketplace. But doing it organization by organization has only taken us so far. We need to continue to collaborate. And when we say we have 160 theatres throughout the region, and together we have a quarter of a million people who are buying tickets, retail, four or five times a year--that's an audience. And if we can look at it in that perspective and ask that it grows by one percent a year, or God forbid, five percent a year--next year we have 280,000 people going to the theatre, or 300,000 people going to the theatre. There is a huge population that is entering that traditional theatregoing age, which is an opportunity being delivered to our door--the baby boomer bubble is being handed to us on a silver platter, and what are we going to do with it? Well, we can do it as individuals, or we can do it collectively. I think we'll be much more effective in this incredibly rich region if we do it collectively.
I think the message has got to be that theatres collaborate instead of compete, contribute instead of expect. They need to think about what they can contribute to the whole, not what they're going to expect back from the whole. When they give their time or their energy or their planning, and we can create a focus of theatregoing in Los Angeles that is hip and powerful and trendy, and which citizens of our community can access and know about, we're going to have more attendance, and through more attendance we're going to have more buzz, more talk, and more interest is going to develop.
I mean, why is Seattle such a theatre town? There's no magic formula; there's nothing in the water in Seattle that says, "Go to a play." Yet we all think of Seattle as being really prominent, or Chicago, or certainly New York and London. We've just not got the focus here; the theatregoing in Los Angeles has been so blurred by all the other choices we have. We compete with our own backyards--to have barbecues and sit by the swimming pool on a Friday night is very attractive here. But in spite of all these distractions--Disneyland, the beach, the weather--we managed to produce, what, 1,100 plays last year? And we have a dozen mid-sized theatres in a landscape that had one or two.
BSW: Are you including Orange County and San Diego?
Hansen: Well, there's that, too, but I'm talking about A Noise Within, the Colony, East West Players, Actor's Alley--these are all in various stages of mid-sized or becoming mid-sized. And when do we get to say, "Hey, that's cool--let's celebrate that"? Look at what really has happened here in the last few years.
BSW: Is it possible to get people to focus on theatre activity in the world's film and television capital?
Hansen: We think of ourselves collectively as being a film and television town--but this film and television town is made up of thousands and thousands of people who work in the theatre, or have worked in the theatre, or want to work in the theatre, or will work in the theatre. They just get diffused in the landscape here. Everything about L.A. is big; we can't perceive the bus system, we can't perceive a transit system--we can't perceive a city. Where is L.A.? Is it Hollywood? Is it Century City? Is it downtown? It's everywhere; L.A. is this big, giant thing that is pretty great in and of itself. And everywhere you go there's a theatre; everywhere you go somebody's doing it. So I think we need to assemble it, polish it, and let it sit out there for the world to see.
We have friends at the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Bob Barrett, who's the vice president of marketing--his personal passion is theatre, and he wants more than anything else to succeed at making the theatre a highly visible part of the Los Angeles experience. So, when you have somebody sitting in the CVB offices, with a huge budget, offices around the world, and the Democratic National Convention coming to town, he can say: "You know, you go to Disneyland, you go to the beach, and at night you go see a play." Wouldn't that be a great thing?
BSW: L.A. theatre takes its knocks that so much onstage here is "showcase" theatre--actors and writers putting up material to show themselves off to the film and TV industry, not to make good theatre for dedicated theatregoers. Is L.A. stuck with that rap?
Hansen: It's part of what we are. We're never going to get away from it. There's always going to be somebody who believes in themselves so strongly that they'll use their family inheritance to put themselves in a play in the hopes that they'll become Tom Cruise or Nicole Kidman. That's not going to go away. There are powerful decision makers--king makers, queen makers--in our city; they live here. And if they go to a 99-seat theatre and see some hot young actor do something and they offer him that million-dollar contract, then the legend feeds itself.
But I don't think the Colony is a showcase theatre, or the Matrix, or the Victory, or these places that have these established reputations--they're just passionate about doing their work, and doing it well. And the public will come to know which are which. You know, there are lots of books in a bookstore; they don't all get bought. Some end up on the two-dollar table. That doesn't mean people don't go into bookstores anymore.
BSW: Another reason for the sheer quantity of L.A. theatre is that it's cheaper, for a variety of reasons, to put up a play here than in New York, say. Doesn't that accordingly cheapen the value of theatre, at least in terms of perception?
Hansen: Maybe, but if a play lands, and it becomes something, isn't that a benefit to us who live here? Because there's more opportunity, more experimentation, more vitality, you might come across something that's really amazing more often or sooner than in other places where there's less theatre.
BSW: That gets to another gripe of local theatre folks: that when something great comes along, there are very few ways to get out the word, and little media coverage to validate it.
Hansen: That's why we at Theatre LA are talking about creating a magazine for theatregoers. The truth is, we do live in a one-newspaper town; with all due respect to The Daily News and The Pasadena Star News, the newspaper of record is The L.A. Times. That's not going to change, I don't think. I don't hear any rumors of anybody starting a daily newspaper to compete with The L.A. Times, do you? So what do we really wanna do? I mean, in New York, when something starts happening, you hear about it, the acting community hears about it, they read it in Back Stage, In Theater, and weekly Variety sort of buzzes about it, and all that sort of influences The Post and The Daily News and The Times, and it becomes, "Have you heard? So-and-so is going to do such-and-such." All that curiosity is cultivated and developed. Here we have Back Stage West, we have The L.A. Times, and The Daily News and The Star News--but we're so geographically dispersed that that body of opinion is harder to develop.
We at Theatre LA can add one more layer. We have a newsletter that goes out to the members, and to concierges and all that--but who's writing for the fans? Who's asking somebody why they go to the theatre, or why they don't go to the theatre?
BSW: Indeed, the L.A. theatre audience remains something of a mystery. Who is the audience in Pasadena?
Hansen: The Pasadena Playhouse audience is typically 50-65 years old, and becoming, especially in the last five years, increasingly colorful. Mature, educated, slightly more affluent, I guess, than the norm or median or average, and they come from 327 zip codes, which really says about an hour's drive. That's the Pasadena audience, and I don't think it's so different for the Geffen or the Taper or the Colony, or any place else. And as people are turning 50 and are trading in the minivans and the campers and the kids are off to school, maybe there are going to be more of them who would drive an hour to a theatre somewhere.
BSW: What are some specific plans you have to reach that developing audience?
Hansen: We're looking at three initiatives: One is the World Wide Web as an information portal for half-price and discounted tickets and theatre information. And we've started discussions with people who would like to create a television opportunity, like a public television Entertainment Tonight centered around the theatre--a half-hour television show that could air on KCET. We need television--it's such a broad medium--and we need to employ the web. And then there's the conventional print aspect, with a magazine, that we're exploring.
Theatre LA is not ever going to be worthy of public support if we don't demonstrate our effectiveness at supporting theatres--and in supporting theatres I mean delivering an audience. If our earned-income initiatives--like a successful day-of-performance half-price ticketing system, or a publication or a television show we might get licensing fees for--succeed, then we can generate revenue and provide counsel and advice to member organizations, provide access to fundraising research at subsidized prices, maybe provide graphic design services at subsidized prices.
This is what the Theatre Development Fund in New York, which runs the half-price TKTS booth in Times Square, is so good at: bringing in resources. It was formed 30 years ago by the Rockefellers to do something about theatre attendance, and today there are 80,000 members of TDF who buy tickets to various theatrical offerings at a deep discount. That then led to the TKTS booth, all of which led to a tremendous growth in attendance. If you looked at Broadway in the '60s or '70s, everybody said it was absolutely dead, it was over with, and then it sort of picked up again. It's been through some ups and downs, but now it's a big deal; the Broadway stage is as vital today as it was when Rodgers and Hammerstein were alive.
BSW: So what happened with the Times Tix half-price booth?
Hansen: It wasn't paying for itself. We had a Times Mirror Company grant that was supposed to get the booth up on its feet, predicated on it becoming self-supporting after two years. The two years came to an end and it was not self-supporting. It was selling between 100 and 150 tickets a week, in a city of 20 million people--I didn't see it was a service.
BSW: I don't know anyone who used it. I mean, a walk-up booth in L.A.? It's not a walking city.
Hansen: And it's not gonna be, no matter what we do. It's going to be much better on the web, when we get it going. We want to set it up so you can type in something like "www.theatreinlosangeles," and see "Now Playing," and there it all is, in alphabetical form, by theatre, by region. And I see the web page as having three forms of discount: a "deal of the day," for theatres that want to offer, say, 25 percent off 'cause it's a Tuesday night; day-of-performance half-price ticketing, and a "be our guest" page, where theatres who are looking to introduce their work, maybe in a preview or dress rehearsal, or just wanna paper for one reason or another. . .
BSW: Or "Big Cheap Theatre" nights, or actor's nights.
Hansen: Yeah. And then if 160 member theatres start putting into their programs, "Check out "theatreinla.org,'" now we've got a couple hundred thousand people reading about it, and maybe they're gonna look. What if the people who've bought four plays a year at the Taper buy one more play next year at another theatre? Say it's Actors' Gang; they can look on this web page, and here's the Mark Taper Forum and here's a list of theatres. There's Actors' Gang; they click on that and find out where it is, and then the Actors' Gang takes responsibility for saying there's parking, etc.
Also, I'm going to give the theatre the name, address, and phone number of anybody who buys a half-price ticket to its show through our program. When you buy a ticket to, say, Play On!, and you press "submit," within some reasonable amount of minutes an e-mail confirmation will come back to you; you'll print that out and take it to the box office, to which an e-mail confirmation will have simultaneously gone. So the theatre has the information that Rob Kendt is coming to pick up his ticket tonight. What are they doing with this name Rob Kendt on this piece of paper after you get your ticket? What they do with it is going to be their business--but I've learned in Pasadena that when you thank somebody for coming to the theatre within 24 hours, you've got a 50-percent chance you can sell 'em a ticket to another play. If you get to them in 48 hours after they've seen the play, that drops to like a 10-percent chance, and if you wait 72 hours they don't even remember where they were Sunday night.
BSW: As you pointed out at the recent RAT conference, L.A. has made inroads in a lot of other cultural arenas--fine art, architecture, cuisine. But it's still not thought of as a "theatre town."
Hansen: You're right; we haven't done it yet. I'm saying we can. If L.A. can become a food town, if it can become a modern art town, if it can become a town where people come just to see the L.A. Opera--well, we in the theatre haven't done that yet. And I think that's the job I'm supposed to do; my colleagues are asking me to focus us collectively and figure out a way to make it a theatre town. I think that's what I'm supposed to do--represent all of us theatres and turn that public perception around.