Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.

Significant Others

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LA STAGE WATCH is a series of articles by staff writer/blogger Don Shirley.

A recent Sunday morning.  As I sit down with my oatmeal, I check out the latest theater coverage in the Arts and Books section of the Los Angeles Times. I see that a theater book gets front page coverage — that’s unusual. Then I notice that the book, and the article about it, are by Kenneth Turan, one of the two Times film critics.

Turns out that it’s a promotional article for Turan’s new book, an oral history. The topic of the book isn’t film-related. It’s about Joseph Papp’s Public Theater.

I pause mid-bite when I read the first paragraph of the article: “The New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater has been the most significant not-for-profit theater group in this country since it was founded by Joe Papp more than 50 years ago. During his lifetime (he died in 1991), Papp made theater in America both accessible and essential.”

Really? Did I accidentally pick up the New York Times instead of the Los Angeles Times?

Turan misunderstands what “made theater in America both accessible and essential” during Papp’s lifetime. That task was performed not in New York, where theater was already quite “accessible and essential,” thank you very much.  It happened in Los Angeles and elsewhere outside New York.

Those were the decades when professional, non-profit companies appeared throughout America. Although these companies are often labeled “regional,” which carries a whiff of condescension, they deserve most of the credit for making American theater “accessible and essential.”

It should be obvious that this decentralization of American theater was more responsible for increased “accessibility” of the art form than the actions of any single New York-based producer. Less obvious, perhaps, is that increased accessibility brought increased opportunity for theater to become “essential.” If the theaters of your own community provide enough excitement for you to make theatergoing a habit, it becomes… “essential.” By contrast, if you’re thrilled by a show you see while you’re on vacation, but you lack the opportunity to be equally thrilled by the theaters in your home town, theatergoing remains a non-essential luxury.

The proliferation of theatrical centers in the last half of the 20th century demonstrated that theater is an inherently local art, regardless of the subject matter.  Unlike film or TV or the Internet, theater exists in one particular place, on one particular day, before one particular audience. At least theoretically, your chance of experiencing theater that speaks directly to you or your community is much greater in, well, your own community. That’s why it’s important for non-New York companies not to simply ape successful programming from New York.

So is there any other company or figure who deserves Turan’s accolades? Not really. If you spent most of those Papp years in Los Angeles, maybe you thought that Center Theatre Group and Gordon Davidson created “the most significant” theater. But if you lived a few miles to the southeast, you might have felt that South Coast Repertory and the Martin Benson/David Emmes team merited those kudos. When I lived in Washington D.C. during my young adulthood, I would have said that Arena Stage was my most significant theater. I doubt that any theater critic, not to mention any film critic, sees enough theater nationwide to make a sufficiently informed judgment on which company is “the most significant” in the country.

CTG, SCR, and Arena Stage, like Papp’s company, developed artists and sent plays on to productions in other parts of the country. But their greater significance is that they brought professional standards to the intensely local experience that is theater.

I look forward to seeing if or how the Los Angeles Times covers the recently published book Stepping Ahead, Lawrence Christon’s history of South Coast Repertory. Perhaps the theater critic, not the film critic, should tackle this assignment.

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