November 08, 2001



Walking the Talk

Theatre LA's new head, Lee Wochner, puts the money where his mouth is.


by Rob Kendt

Lee Wochner is not a loud man. His voice is clear and calm, occasionally insistent, never strident. But at a recent breakfast meeting in Silverlake with Back Stage West, the new president and CEO of Theatre LA was overheard holding forth by a number of diner patrons, approached by a few who wanted to hear more. He was, of course, ready with business cards and a quick rap about the many services offered by his theatre membership group.


It's like that all the time, he said. Wherever he goes and talks about theatre, at public forums or in private conversations, Wochner is buttonholed by theatregoers, theatre makers, and folks who seem pleasantly surprised to hear there's great theatre in L.A. This speaks not only to his own particular flesh-pressing, talking-up skills but also to the latent pervasiveness of theatre in this film and TV town. It's a theatre scene unlike any other in history, its boosters persistently point out, with more stage productions each year than anywhere else and a talent pool that's arguably the deepest in the English-speaking world. As a whole, though, L.A. theatre has a relatively low profile nationally and even locally; audience demand lags behind production supply; respect is scarce.


That's where Theatre LA comes in. Comprising 190 theatre-producing members, the organization joins the forces of theatre makers large and small in concerted efforts to improve their general lot. Its basic member services, in place for nearly a decade, include the Theatre Times, a group-rate ad deal with the Los Angeles Times, and the Ovation Awards, a peer-judged contest that will stage its 8th annual show next week at the brand-new Kodak Theatre.


Wochner has some newer services to pitch to inquiring theatre folks: a glossy bi-monthly theatregoers' magazine, LA Stage, which launched a year ago and is slowly but surely coming into its own; a grant program supporting new plays with $1,000 awards through the National Repertory Theatre Foundation, and, most promisingly, a half-price ticketing service, WebTix, which has partnered with an online company, Seat Advisor, to peddle theatres' unsold seats. Wochner plans to expand TLA's ticketing next year to include full-price "choice seat location" sales and phone order service.


WebTix emerges from the ashes of a previous attempt to mimic New York's TKTS with a half-price booth in the Beverly Center. Bad idea, said Wochner in retrospect: "There was a tumbleweed blowing through there every day."


The online model works better, he said, for a spread-out, non-pedestrian, heavily web-wired town like L.A. And it seems to be passing the ultimate test: It's putting money in member theatres' pockets (around $60,000 total in October, he said). This sales success is trickling down, too: Large-theatre hits like Lion King function as the "anchor store in the mall," Wochner explained, and other shows benefit by association. This isn't just good business--Wochner feels it's helping to erase an old division among member theatres.


"Historically the larger theatres have thought that Theatre LA primarily benefits small theatres, and the small theatres have thought that Theatre LA primarily benefited large theatres--and I think that Theatre LA didn't benefit much of anyone for a period of time. Now we're benefiting all of them, and the small-vs.-large story is going away."


Where would he place the blame for what might be called TLA's mission creep?


"We've always had well-meaning people who've met with varying degrees of success," he said diplomatically. "We're still meeting with varying degrees of success, but the big change is that our core focus is building audiences and sending money to member theatres" from WebTix sales. "That's what we're about. If we're not doing that, they should put us out of business. There's no other reason for us to exist."


We're Buying

His goal is clear: Put more asses in the seats, not just for the blockbusters at the Pantages or the Ahmanson but for gems at Theatre of NOTE and the Road Theatre Company, as well.


"In San Francisco the sold-seat rate is 72 percent," he reported. "In San Diego it's in the 60s, and in L.A. County the percentage of sold seats is 52 percent. How would Theatre LA be viewed if we were responsible for getting that to 62 percent? We would have grown that audience, and all the money would go to theatres."


Wochner is good with shopping analogies. When I mentioned the oft-repeated lament of many, myself included, that this theatre scene is just too big to make sense of, he countered: "When you go to Barnes and Noble, are there too many books? Or are there so many books that no matter what you're interested in you wind up buying 10 when you only really wanted three? If you've got a store full of quality books, people end up buying more of them, and I think that's where we can move this theatre community."


Because studies have shown that "artistic quality" is the No. 1 factor in people's decisions is to attend theatre he said, the problem of too much bad theatre is a self-correcting phenomenon. "We can't help a company be a better theatre company, but we can help them be a better-managed theatre company."


Shining a spotlight on both quantity and quality is the Edge of the World Theater Festival (Nov. 8-18), a 3-year-old celebration on stages citywide. Wochner, himself having had success with Edge programming at the theatre he co-founded, Moving Arts, recently announced that Theatre LA will sponsor the EdgeFest--a partnership with enormous benefits for both parties. In return for its marketing resources, TLA gets to reaffirm its commitment to L.A.'s cutting-edge theatres and connect with the next generation of theatregoers.


Former TLA leader Bill Freimuth used to talk about the "L.A. theatre movement." Lee Wochner seems to be getting that movement moving.