BACK STAGE WEST
November 12, 1998
Now that Theatre L.A. has harnessed the abundant energy of L.A.'s local theatres, its new leader hopes to define the identity of the scene.
by Rob Kendt
Is 1998 Los Angeles theatre's year? Is this the year it will grow up from a sprawling, incoherent underground showcase community into a thriving live entertainment industry? In short, is this the year theatre in Los Angeles will arrive?
The good news is that scene is already here—or, at least, all the players are in place, some of the sets are built, there is even a director. But the script is still in the works.
The "players" in this case are a large handful of scrappy, dedicated theatre companies (and a smaller clutch of independent producers). The "sets" are the theatre spaces—ranging from a very few large and midsized venues to dozens of converted laundromats, warehouses, jails, convenience stores, tire shops. And the "director" is that young but hardy mainstay Theatre L.A., a stage producers' membership organization which next week will stage its fifth annual competitive theatre awards show, the Ovations, at one of L.A.'s only large-scale houses, the Shubert.
The "script" in this rather strained metaphor would be Theatre L.A.'s mission statement, something its new executive director, Alisa Fishbach, has been mulling and discussing with her board since she took over the job in June from the popular Bill Freimuth. Fishbach has some clear ideas, if not a master plan, for the organization, gleaned from her own experience in both the for-profit and nonprofit theatre worlds—in casting and development at the Center Theatre Group and the Los Angeles Theatre Center, and operations management at the Shubert.
"Theatre L.A. is in a period of fine-tuning what we do, restating our raison d'etre to the point where we can then evaluate whatever ideas come up down the line in terms of that new mission," said Fishbach, a tall, bespectacled young woman with a quiet, unshakeable aplomb.
Under Freimuth's leadership, Theatre L.A. got a number of long-dreamed-of projects off the ground: Times Tix, a half-price theatre ticket booth, originally at the Beverly Center, now at Jerry's Famous Deli; Kids Week, a weeklong festival of discounted theatre to introduce kids (and their parents) to local stage offerings; an in-depth study of the Los Angeles theatre market by arts wonks George Thorn and Nello McDaniel of Arts Action Research, which suggested that L.A.'s outsized quantity of stage productions should earn it the moniker "Theatre City, U.S.A.," and, not least, the peer-judged Ovation awards (see below for details).
Apart from these programs and others—an opening night newsletter, a cooperative group-advertising deal with The Los Angeles Times; the five-year tenure of Freimuth may be best remembered for his relentless promotion of the sheer quantity of theatre produced in the region. A 1993 county arts commission study put the figure at 1,200 productions a year, which would justify Freimuth's oft-repeated phrase, with slight variations, that "there is more theatre in L.A. than in any city in the world."
"You know, we all joke about that mantra Bill had," Fishbach said. "But the funny thing is now I'm getting phone calls from people outside the theatre community—from the convention industry or whatever—who are quoting that phrase back to me. Which is fantastic—it's basically laid the groundwork for us."
If the Freimuth period got the message across that there is a huge and persistent theatre scene in L.A., and made great strides in linking the players in that scene to each other, less addressed was what all this might mean to a potential theatregoing audience. As L.A.'s resilient small theatres could tell you: Size isn't everything.
One reason for the extraordinary amount of L.A. theatre activity is its staggering talent population—actors, directors, writers, and designers who want to get onstage at almost any cost, either to do theatre for its own sake or to showcase their talents to the film and television industry. While the creatively motivated stage artists of L.A. hold out its best hope for claiming the title "theatre town," and the showcase-motivated work is just a fact of life in an film industry town, neither thus far has attracted a wide and attentive mainstream audience. Of course, with their limited resources to even produce their shows, few L.A. theatres can advertise or publicize their work widely. Doing what no single theatre could do on its own, Fishbach feels, is the proper task of Theatre L.A.
But is it possible that between the artistic adventurers and the showcase-mongers, there is just too much stuff on L.A. stages for any potential audience to sort through?
"I don't think it's a matter of there being too many theatres," Fishbach said. "It's more that the theatre community in Los Angeles doesn't have a clearly defined identity of what it is to the outside world. People are now buying into the reality that we have a creditable amount of theatre, but they don't have a sense of what that theatre's about. New York does; even though New York theatre is much more than the big Broadway shows, that's the identity in the minds of people, and anything beyond Broadway is a part of that in some way. What we have to do for the community is to establish a more clearly defined identity."
Of course, if the mega-suburb of L.A. itself seems eternally gripped by an identity crisis, many who live here cite that sense of freedom from easy categorization as part of the city's appeal. In the theatre world, such non-identity means that some theatre artists feel a sense of boundless possibility they don't feel in other, more established theatre towns, whether or not there's an audience to appreciate it.
"I don't think that works, I don't think it sells, and I don't think it's artistically particularly sound, either," said Fishbach without equivocation. "It's the role of Theatre L.A. to make the theatre community realize they need to clearly define who they are. I mean, when I think about the theatre companies around town that are really successful, those companies as individual groups have a very clear identity—the Actors' Gangs, the Cornerstones can articulate what they're about. I think if more individual groups could do that, then we can try to find out what the collective identity is, based on that, and then Theatre L.A. can market that.
"You know, people have talked about doing a campaign like the milk campaign or the "I Love NY' campaign for L.A. theatre—but what exactly would it be advertising?"
One candidate for L.A. theatre's identity—and one that already sticks by default—is as a stepchild or, more charitably, an adjunct to the film industry. It's often posited that film, TV, and theatre are essentially in the same business, using the same talent, and that they should work together—i.e., that deep-pocketed Hollywood should subsidize small theatre.
"There's these two arguments," Fishbach said. "One says we have to connect with the film industry; we provide them with talent and product, they have to give back. The other mentality is, We are completely separate and shouldn't link ourselves with the industry at all because it devalues us in some way, which I don't buy."
"I think we have to remain differentiated from the film industry in some way, but to deny that it's here and that it is somehow connected to who we are is unrealistic. We have to find how we are connected with the industry, because that's part of L.A."
If Fishbach hedges her bets, then, on pronouncing final answers about Theatre L.A.'s mission, it's because she doesn't feel it's her role, as the leader of a dues-paying membership organization, to impose a pre-set agenda. Asked if she'll have a mantra, as Freimuth did, she demurred.
"My mantra? I don't know that I want to get to the point that I boil it down to one phrase," she said.
Which is not to say that Fishbach is not opinionated. With a degree in theatre from Occidental College and her years of experience at the Taper, LATC, and the Shubert, she said one of her own personal agendas is "having people take the art of producing seriously—that it's as important an element as anything else that goes into creating theatre. If there were a recognition of that, every other part of it would become much stronger, because people could pay attention to their work instead of dividing their efforts.
"I talk to actors who are literally planning on producing their own piece that they're going to be in themselves. How can they do their best work in that situation? They can't. And if they're not doing their best work, artistically it's not going to be successful, and financially it's not going to be successful."
Of course, one paradox of this town with too many actors is that it's also a town with too few bona fide theatre producers.
"If you think about how many producers there are in town—people who consider themselves theatre producers first and foremost—there aren't that many," she lamented. "I'd love to see more. I'd love to see the people who are going to take the financial risk and put the blood, sweat, and tears into it."
Another L.A. scarcity is good midsized spaces: When a production under the mostly non-remunerative Equity 99-Seat Plan is a hit, producers have few midsized venues to which to move it. And companies like A Noise Within and the Colony Studio Theatre, ready for moves to larger theatres, have struggled and/or waited to find appropriate spaces.
These and many other challenges, including fundraising, greet Fishbach and the organization she heads. Even if she does hammer out that "script," hers is the kind of job that is never really done.
"The thing about Theatre L.A. is that there are so many things it could be doing," she said. "This is not an organization that has a problem finding something to do with its time. Making choices about what we're going to do is probably the biggest challenge."
With a thoughtful and savvy leader like Fishbach, Theatre L.A. will be an organization to watch, even after the Ovations are over. And even if 1998 isn't L.A. theatre's year.