January 11, 2004



Obsessed by the theater

Attending plays by the dozens and leading online chatter, Ravi Narasimhan may be as passionate about the local stage as its artists.


by Rob Kendt

If Ravi Narasimhan could write the headline for this story, it would be a slow-news-day parody in the style of the Onion: "Area Man Way Too Into Local Theater."


Indeed, it's probably not a particularly healthy sign for audience-challenged Los Angeles theaters that a 39-year-old physicist for Northrop Grumman has become a figure of fascination, even awe, on the local scene for the simple fact that he attends a lot of plays here, as many as three or four a week.


"I think his passion sometimes exceeds that of the artists themselves," says Jonathan Winn, an actor-producer associated with Circle X Theatre Company and founder of the discount ticket service Play7.


On the other hand, the very existence of a community with the Mystery of Ravi on its collective brain is nothing to sneeze at. Not coincidentally, it's a community whose dialogue Narasimhan has facilitated by co-maintaining the "Big Cheap Theater" newsgroup (the message board, with archives dating to 1999, can be viewed at groups.yahoo.com/group/bigcheap/messages). The newsgroup, popularly known by its nearly 900 members as the "BCT list" or "Big Cheap," mingles snarky political arguments and general "off-topic" musings among its bread-and-butter theater troubleshooting and the inevitable come-see-my-show pleas.


Though he doesn't moderate it, Narasimhan is all over the BCT list, often with several postings a day, ranging from arts-related websites to random musings on shows he's seen.


But there's a nasty flip side to Narasimhan's devotion: He can be almost frighteningly vituperative about shows he doesn't like, using words like "swill" and "pseudo-intellectual piffle." Though he generally keeps such rants off the BCT list--understood by members to be "neutral ground"--he does publish them, alongside positive commentaries and links to other reviews, in a self-styled biweekly theater e-newsletter (archives at www.rettacs.org). Narasimhan's seemingly boundless passion--both hot and cold--for local theater marks him as either an indispensable gadfly or an Internet kook.


In person, Narasimhan seems more genteel geek than raving lunatic. He's youthful-looking and generally soft-spoken, with an attentive gaze, a schoolboy haircut and a taste for preppy pullover sweaters and classical chamber music. How did this quintessential science nerd get hooked on live theater?


Despite a cultured upbringing in the Bay Area, it wasn't until his post-doctorate years in New Jersey that he caught the theater bug. He had started trolling Manhattan for diversions and stumbled upon a "rinky-dink" theater in the "lower alphabets" of the East Village. "At that point," he recalls, "I thought, 'This is really something I can do here that I couldn't do other places.' "


Or maybe he could: When a research post at UCLA brought him west in 1994, he started attending such L.A. mainstays as the Odyssey Theatre, Theatricum Botanicum, Pacific Resident Theatre and A Noise Within. In 1999, he stumbled upon on the BCT list, where members of such young, edgy theater companies as Circle X, Zoo District, Sacred Fools, Open Fist, Actors' Gang and the Evidence Room were carrying on a lively virtual discussion.


"What I found by lurking on the list for a few weeks is that these folks seemed to be really interesting, in an unquantifiable way," he recalls. "I thought I would enjoy seeing some of their plays."


He was soon hooked--as much by the artists as by their work.


"I was really impressed by the caliber of work I was seeing, on average," he says. "And I was--and continue to be--amazed by the determination of these folks to keep their artistic beliefs and interests in front of the public, at tremendous personal cost."


When the founder of the BCT list, John Scofield, left the theater for other opportunities, Narasimhan and producer-writer Christopher DeWan volunteered to keep it going. And though Narasimhan isn't the only nonpractitioner in on the discussion, the point of view he brings to the table is unique.


"Ravi has an outsider's perspective, in that he never wants to do theater," Winn says. "But by moderating Big Cheap, he hears everything come and go, and by seeing more shows than any of us can, in some really important ways he's more of an insider than any of us."


This intimacy with the scene--which Narasimhan stresses is not primarily social but "electronic"--can also be a source of friction. Last year he once conspicuously began reading a magazine during a show he hated in a theater small enough for the actors to notice. "Ravi is like this mysterious, mythic figure, so we were a little disappointed with him," said one actor who was in the show. "But we took it in stride."


Explains Narasimhan, "I was absolutely trapped, and I thought the show had gone so far beyond all norms, I had no other choice. I'm not saying I'm proud of this."


And when Evidence Room artistic director Bart DeLorenzo found a scathing and, in his opinion, ill-informed assessment of his theater's work on Narasimhan's e-newsletter last year, he called Narasimhan on it. They exchanged a few heated e-mails. DeLorenzo invited him to see the company's next play for free, but Narasimhan passed on the offer. He hasn't been back since.


DeLorenzo, while admitting Narasimhan's BCT presence is "obviously extremely helpful," finds his tastes "parochial." "It's nice to have a passionate theatergoer, but we're all lucky he's not a critic," he says. "I just think of him as sort of a nut. He's on that BCT thing all the time. Doesn't he have work to do?"


Narasimhan admits he "goes over the edge" at times, "but I pull myself back." Still, having a strong opinion on every subject, he says, is just part of his makeup. "Some of us are just wired that way: We go ballistic about volleyball, politics, music, the stock market--whatever it happens to be."


The reference to volleyball is not random. Solidifying Ravi's geek cred, his obsession before he discovered local theater was to keep statistics and write online "match reports" about indoor collegiate volleyball games. Theater makers may have cause to wonder whether his intense interest in their work will be similarly spiked one day.


"It's entirely possible," he admits. But when his research post at UCLA hit funding troubles last year and he had to seek another job, he decided to stay in L.A., mainly because the cultural life--particularly small theater, chamber music and the L.A. Philharmonic--has earned his undivided loyalty.


A confirmed bachelor, he often attends plays alone, in part because he likes to choose shows at the last minute based on his mood. One weekend, he had a craving for an Irish play and found Celtic Arts Center in North Hollywood had a new show that hit the spot.


"Ravi is firmly committed to theater, and there's no way a bad performance is going to put him off going," says Kerry English, a pediatrician whose theater attendance rivals Narasimhan's. "Very seldom do I see a piece that just doesn't work, where I feel I would have spent the time better if I hadn't come. He feels that way not infrequently, and yet he still goes."


Indeed, Winn says he knows fellow theater artists who don't like to attend plays at all because of the mere chance that they'll spend "two hours in pain."


"I wish it was something that we could implant in everyone," he says of Narasimhan's attitude. "I wish we had a whole community of people who saw plays the way Ravi does."



On Narasimhan's list of favorite productions


Ravi Narasimhan attends more than a hundred plays a year and keeps track of what he sees on an Internet forum and a biweekly newsletter. Here are 10 shows he loved from the last three years:


Show: "Strange Beliefs" (May-June 2003) and "Cirque Picnique" (July-August 2002)

Who: Theatre Movement Bazaar at Sacred Fools

Why: Both shows highlighted the indescribable, wry weirdness of theater innovators Tina Kronis and Richard Alger.


Show: "Belfast Blues"

Who: Virtual Theatre Project at Black Dahlia Theatre

Why: Geraldine Hughes' solo show about her war-torn childhood was an incredible story well told by someone so young [in her early 30s].


Show: "Orson's Shadow"

Who: Black Dahlia Theatre

Why: A terrific what-if story about Welles matching wits with Laurence Olivier, by an outstanding ensemble.


Show: "Roman Forum Project"

Who: Antoinette LaFarge and Robert Allen at UC Irvine

Why: The multimedia production was a scathing indictment of the 2000 elections, staged in the heart of Orange County.


Show: "War Music"

Who: Playwrights' Arena and the Echo Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center

Why: Bryan Davidson's epic very sensitively and intelligently treated three composers' experiences in World War I in a way that was very theatrical.


Show: "Apollo"

Who: Critical Mass Performance Group at the Autry Museum

Why: This EdgeFest-only staging of Nancy Keystone's play captured the essence of scientific and technological obsession.


Show: "Red Thread"

Who: Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble at Culver City's Gascon Center

Why: This ancient story was retold with breathtakingly fearless physicality and a flawless sense of proportion.


Show: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Who: Classical Theatre Lab

Why: Playwright Edward Albee wouldn't grant the Lab the rights for a full run, but this workshop staging was a superb, all-out rendition.


Show: "Underneath the Lintel (An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences)"

Who: Actors' Gang

Why: Glen Berger's one-man show about an anal-retentive librarian proved haunting, but not in a Gothic, melodramatic way. It didn't go in like a knife; it went in like a needle.


Show: "Infinity"

Who: The Collective at Eclectic Company Theatre

Why: The debut from the Collective featured four very dark tales told with brilliant lights, sound and movement.