by Rob Kendt
Plays don't just arrive and open on Los Angeles stages; increasingly, they're born and raised here, too. Helping give birth to new plays are theatre companies with a commitment to developing and producing new work, either as their exclusive mission or as a high-profile priority.
LA Stage recently spoke to several "playmakers" who've taken as their mission the care and feeding of plays by living playwrights.
Tom Jacobson, an acclaimed playwright (The Orange Grove, Ouroboros, Cyberqueer), serves as one of two literary managers for The Theatre @ Boston Court, which has mounted an impressive number of wolrd premieres since it began producing in 2003; for nine years previous, Jacobson served as the Celebration Theatre's literary manager.
Kimberly Glann is the Artistic Director of Moving Arts, a small Silverlake-based theatre company formed in 1992 specifically to produce new works; Moving Arts presents its mainstage shows--including its recent production of Ken Urban's The Absence of Weather--at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Laura Jane Salvato is Co-Artistic Director of Ensemble Studio Theatre-L.A., a branch of the New York institution. Originally a developmental troupe, the 13-year-old EST-LA began producing and presenting shows five years ago; its productions have included Berkshire Village Idiot, Buddy/Buddette, and The Shore.
Luis Alfaro is Director the Mark Taper Forum's New Play Development program; plays launched under his tenure have included Chavez Ravine, Living Out, and Sex Parasite. As a playwright, his credits include Electricidad, Straight as a Line, and Bitter Homes and Gardens.
Jon Lawrence Rivera's Playwrights Arena is one place where Alfaro's work has been produced; over 13 years, Rivera has made it his mission to produce new work by L.A.-based playwrights. Major shows have included War Music, Moscow, and Bill & Eddie.
These five met recently at Engine Co. No. 28 to discuss the challenges and rewards of making--and re-making--plays from scratch.
LA Stage: Jon Robin Baitz, who began writing plays in L.A., told me that he moved to New York because that's just where playwrights are supposed to be. Is that still true, or can you stay in L.A. and make a go of it as a playwright?
Tom Jacobson: I have strong feelings about that. L.A. is arguably the best place to premiere a play if you are a "permanently emerging" playwright, as I appear to be. We have the biggest and best acting pool in the entire world at our disposal, and I think at this point--and I don't know if this was true about 15 years ago--but now we have a really good pool of directors in town. We have the 99-seat Theatre Plan, which makes it a lot easier to put on a play here than the parallel plan in New York, the Showcase Code. Also the papers here in L.A. are really good about reviewing new work. In New York, you never get The Times, and you're lucky if you get the lady from The Voice, who reads the script but does not see the production--that happened to me one time. So there are a lot of factors that make it really fantastic to launch a play here in L.A. The frustration is, after it's happened here in L.A., getting it to New York is necessary to get it launched nationally, or regionally. People don't think of L.A. as a place where plays are launched. It's just a national mindset, and I don't know if we can alter that, but we should try.
LA Stage: I've heard some people say that it can actually be a handicap to be have had a successful L.A. production.
Rivera: It depends on how it's perceived when it gets to New York. Like, Jewtopia goes to New York, and there's such a big fuss that it was a huge hit in Los Angeles, and when they don't like it, they go: "Well, of course, this is what we expect from L.A. theatre." It's a handicap if you make such a big deal about it. But the advantage is that we get to produce it, and we get a record of it--a critical response to it--that we can submit to other people, and get some kind of attention.
Glann: I would second that, because we've had playwrights who have told us how beneficial it is to have their play presented by our tiny little theatre in Los Angeles, because then it gets read and noticed by larger theatre companies across the country who won't even consider a play unless it's been produced somewhere.
Alfaro: Well, every production is a process, right? And the opportunity to get productions is the thing you really want as a playwright, rather than going to a million readings or workshops. Plays are meant to be experienced in space, in the 3-D of space, so if you don't ever experience that, I think you really cheat yourself of the process of what new writing can do. There are also writers who come here because the quality of life is so fantastic. A lot of writers come to write for film and television, because if you book one television show, as we all know, you've got a pretty good life here--people like Jose Rivera, who can actually work and make money and have good lives. I hear that so often from writers who move here, who say, "Just the idea of a yard!" And you do a different kind of writing when your life is grounded and comfortable, and you're not struggling as much, and you're able to focus on the act of writing.
Salvato: I do wonder about this: Is it a handicap to have your play done here? Does it help move a play? We are a developmental theatre, so we have a bunch of different developmental programs. Jose Rivera, who's a member of the company, started our playwrights unit out here, and he developed References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot in our playwrights unit, and it was premiered at the Public Theatre in New York and won an Obie. With plays like that, L.A. is having an influence. There are a lot of plays like that that are being developed in the playwrights units that are then being produced in other places. With the plays we've actually produced, sometimes I wonder. We had the experience of a play that we produced here in our Solo Flights--Berkshire Village Idiot by Michael Conner--it moved to New York, and we were told that we had to be careful about how this play was positioned as coming from L.A. Does anybody have feedback on that--experience moving a play in either direction?
Jacobson: Once I wanted to test what it would be like to be a New York playwright, so I pretended to be one. I invented a pseudonym of someone who lived in New York, who had a much sexier bio than I did, and in fact got a play produced here and in Chicago before they found out that it was me. That was Cyberqueer. I think that actually helped get it produced: "Oh, it's a New York playwright, it must be good."
Salvato: I do know that there's incredible value in being here, because you can produce a play for less money, so there's a lot more work that we can actually do here. If we were in New York, we would maybe be doing one production a year with our budget, as opposed to the three or four that were done last year. You can get something done, which is nice.
Alfaro: One of the dialogues we're having right now, and it's a big question in my own heart: Why are we working so hard to try and get the plays to New York, when Los Angeles itself is a kind of interesting destination for a play to arrive and live in? We developed and produced a play I'm very proud of called Chavez Ravine; I can't imagine that play living in New York. It's actually a play for Los Angeles. Working in a regional theatre, it just kills me to hear conversations about why we wouldn't do this play because it will never make it in New York, rather than saying, "We should do this play, because it should live in L.A., and it's the only place that it should live in (maybe)."
LA Stage: Do new plays require certain kinds of directors and actors, and is there enough of that talent here in L.A.?
Alfaro: There is a specific kind of actor. Last year we went into a collaboration with the Irvine Foundation on these California stories. We did a little retreat where we hired a rep of 12 actors to read 8 new plays over a weekend. It was really extraordinary to see, because these were actors who do these kinds of plays, who do workshops, who do new work, who don't paraphrase, who make really strong, bold choices in the cold read. Greg Itzin, Linda Gehringer, Shannon Holt, Beth Ruscio--you can throw these names out, and they're all amazing L.A. actors who have that gift of being able to nurture a new play forward. Jon and I had that experience when we did Straight as a Line--Emily Kuroda is one of those actors who just knows how to read a new play, knows how to think about it.
Salvato: It's a very different thing to have an actor who knows how to try to make it work first before trying to change what's written. Ours is a body of actors who are used to that process, and a group of directors who are interested in bringing the playwright's vision to the stage. Because usually we feel a real responsibility doing the very first production of a play. Five or six productions down the line, some director can do a wonderful, wild adaptation of that play. But for that first production, we wanna try to bring the playwright's vision to the stage.
Alfaro: That's so true. And there are great plays I choose not to develop because I don't think I can give a writer that. In the first production, as a playwright, you wanna see what you wrote. You have to set up an environment for the playwright to be at his most excellent, and sometimes that's really about giving the playwright exactly what they see, with a director that helps them see that. So there are first productions that I would never do, because we don't always have that mechanism. It's difficult to attain.
Salvato: You have to know when to not over-develop a play; I see that a lot. People just develop the life out of a play; they take a play that's structured in an interesting, different way and turn it into a classically structured play. And that's so destructive. You want to get to the place where the play can be at its best, where you've challenged the writer and pushed the writer forward but you're not dictating something to the writer that is not in the play's best interest.
Jacobson: There are ways you can control that in the process, in the play critique session. We always start in my playwrights group, Playwrights Ink, with positive feedback first, for five minutes. After that you can be more critical, ask questions. In a talkback session with a public audience, you can't control it as much; the first person to speak in an audience talkback is going to sit in the front row, they are going to be insane, and they're only there to tell you how insane they are. Inexperienced writers can be very damaged by that. But a person who's moderating properly will not allow that, they will say, "First, we must have what you liked about it." That opens up the playwright; then the playwright can't discount everything that follows, because they'll think, Oh, they liked this and this and this, so they're not rotten people.
Alfaro: Theatre of NOTE asked me to moderate a discussion on a play everybody at the company loved, Erik Patterson's Red Light Green Light. It was getting a lot of love but not a lot of criticism or ideas about what they were loving. So every time somebody said, "This is brilliant!" I would say, "Well, what's your question about the play? Is there something you didn't--oh, you understood every single part of this play?" So I would ask them a question: "Let's just talk about the metaphors." It was fascinating to be in a process with a writer who's still creating, and everybody keeps saying, "It's great! It's great! It's great!" That can be damaging, too. "When it is going to New York?"
LA Stage: Do L.A. audiences have an appetite and hunger for new plays, and does the local press cover new plays fairly?
Rivera: The first few years, it was a struggle to get the press to see our work. They are now coming because they know we provide a service, and we present them in a really professional manner. The audience is a harder thing. When we were trying to expand from a 99-seat to a 300-seat theatre, it was clear this city cannot support a theatre doing only new work--especially for a theatre with no marketing money to spend. We can't have Doogie Howser in our play naked. For us, when we do a play, it's: Jessica Kubzansky is directing, or it's a Luis Alfaro play, or a Tom Jacobson play; some element of it is the first draw, so the audience has some involvement with it before they start coming.
Jacobson: The audience for new work in Los Angeles is an educated audience--an insider audience. A lot of our audiences for new works are actors, directors, playwrights--they're the theatre community that is interested in new work. When you move to a 300-seat theatre, that's when you really have a problem because you need to fill it with, essentially, "lay people." The Kirk Douglas Theatre has been full, though.
Alfaro: We were lucky with that, but we're about to pay a price that I don't think anybody realizes, which is that we went out to our present subscribers--we're very lucky, we have a 36,000-subscriber base--and said, "Would you be willing to buy into this thing: six world premieres, the whole bit?" So we sold 6,000 subscriptions; we sold out the season. A lot of people in our company think that's a big success, and I think actually that's a huge failure because we've sold out our theatre on people who are already know us. So we don't really have a new audience for new plays. And we're sold out. There's not a ticket to be had.
Jacobson: But your problem may be solved if those subscribers who came thinking they were getting one thing realize, Oh, it's more daring, it's riskier than I expected--or like the lady in front of me said, "Oh, naked men again, just like the Geffen." Some of those may support you in your first year, and then run back to the Taper for security next year and you have more seats.
Rivera: I loved my 35-seat theatre on Pico, and I miss it, because we could fill it every night. Now 99 seats is sometimes a struggle. Kimberly, you moved from a 35-seat theatre in Silverlake into a 99-seater at LATC. Do you find that your audiences have supported that move?
Glann: It's a struggle to get audiences for new plays by new and emerging writers, especially without some name director or actor. Our audience moved some, but not as much as we would have liked. We don't have sold-out runs. But yeah, the 30-seat theatre is great--in fact, we moved our play reading series back to that space, because you can fill it and feels much better.
Salvato: When I first came here, I met with some people who had been in L.A. theatre for a very long time, and they told me, "You're crazy to do new plays! Don't do only new plays! You'll never have an audience!" And I do understand where they're coming from. What we do is choose the play, then try to figure out how to get the audience.
LA Stage: Because it's relatively easy to produce theatre in Los Angeles, do you think some plays get up onstage before they're ready?
Rivera: When we do a play, it's final for that moment. That is the production for that time. We're not saying this is the definitive production, and it should always be done this way.
Jacobson: At Celebration Theatre, we did a few world premieres by Guillermo Reyes, and those world premieres got him to Europe, to San Francisco, to San Diego, all over the place. The second production often was better because he saw what worked and what didn't. The second production would often be the big hit; the Celebration took the first risk, and it didn't always work out for huge box office, but a relationship was maintained between this wonderful writer and this theatre. It was incredibly helpful for him to have that first production here. Maybe it wasn't entirely ready but he learned a lot from the audiences, too.
Alfaro: I think there is a moment as a playwright where you need to have criticism, you need to join that community. That's when you cross over from being a hobby artist to being a full-time real legitimate playwright. I think it's important to have that whole process of a production, because then it feels like you have a real process. In the end what's really important for me about new play development is that every play calls for a different process. A new play needs to breathe and find itself.