Incredible Shrinking Coverage, Summer Shakespeare Shifts

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The shrinking of theater coverage at the Los Angeles Times has reached an ominous new phase. Our supposed “paper of record” has completely ignored recent or current productions at three of the larger nonprofit theaters in L.A. County.

I’m talking about (in alphabetical order) the Colony Theatre, International City Theatre and the Theatricum Botanicum. In terms of seating capacity — and in the temporary absence of activity at the Pasadena Playhouse — these three companies and Independent Shakespeare are next in line after Center Theatre Group and the Geffen Playhouse as the largest of the county’s professional, nonprofit theaters with regularly scheduled seasons.

<br />Beth Grant and Melinda Page Hamilton in Grace & Glorie
Beth Grant and Melinda Page Hamilton in Grace & Glorie

That apparently doesn’t count for much at the Times. At Burbank’s Colony, Tom Ziegler’s Grace & Glorie, which opened on June 12 with the award-winning Beth Grant, has yet to be reviewed by the Times.  It’s due to close on July 18, so only two weeks remain in the run.

At Long Beach’s International City Theatre, a revival of A Shayna Maidel opened on June 11 and closed last Saturday, without being reviewed by The Times — a first for ICT, says artistic director Shashin Desai. It was also the first time that  Barbara Lebow’s reliably poignant post-Holocaust drama had been produced in L.A. above the 99-seat level. The Times last reviewed it a decade ago, in a 99-seat production. A generation of younger theatergoers is probably unfamiliar with it.

The Times also has had nothing to say, so far, about Theatricum Botanicum’s Hamlet — an oft-revived play, of course, but have you ever seen a Hamlet in which two actors play Hamlet and Laertes, alternating the two roles at different performances? That’s what Mike Peebler and Jeff Wiesen are doing in Topanga. This Hamlet opened even earlier than the Colony and ICT productions, on June 5, but its run extends (in rep) until Oct. 2, so the Times should be able to catch up with it fairly easily.

If the people who run smaller theaters worry about the lack of Times coverage (and believe me, they do), their problems are tiny compared to those of these midsize companies, where expenses are much greater, where many more seats need to be filled, where runs tend to be shorter than many of those at the smaller theaters.

But the burdens of the people who run these theaters isn’t why the Times should cover their shows.  The fact is that four times as many Times readers can fit into a 400-seat theater as can fit into a 100-seat theater. The greater capacity, prominence and professionalism of these companies should translate into an assumption that more Times readers might be interested in knowing what’s going on in them.

When I was a Times staffer, from 1990 to 2006, that assumption was a given. All other factors being equal or unknown, we took it for granted that a general-interest newspaper should pay at least a little more attention to the theaters with larger potential audiences. Shows at midsize as well as larger theaters were normally reviewed separately, and at greater length than the short reviews in the Friday Theater Beat column – which was primarily reserved for smaller shows. Now, the arts editor who assigns the reviews (Kelly Scott, since last fall) appears to be uninterested in any such distinctions.

A Times review is especially important to midsize theaters for other reasons, too. They don’t have the marketing budgets of larger theaters. But expenses are much higher than in a sub-100-seat theater, where the actors are barely paid.  So ticket prices have to be higher at the midsize level, and as a result, the potential audiences might skew a little older and more affluent — precisely the kind of people who still read daily newspapers.

In L.A., that usually means the Times. The second largest daily newspaper in Los Angeles – the Woodland Hills-based Daily News — is a lost cause.  Although the Daily News purportedly concentrates on the San Fernando Valley, it has reviewed none of the Valley companies since the perceptive critic Evan Henerson was laid off, nearly two years ago. That means that it ignores not only the midsize Colony, El Portal, Falcon and West Valley Playhouse but also long-established smaller companies such as the Victory, Deaf West, the Road, Antaeus, the Production Company, Crown City, and Banshee — indeed, the entire NoHo scene, which is one of L.A’s densest concentrations of theater.

Midsize theaters usually get reviewed in the LA Weekly. But the alternative weekly’s first priority is the small theater scene, to which it devotes its annual LA Weekly awards. (By the way, does anyone else out there miss the days when you could pick up the print version of the LA Weekly and read capsule reviews of all the still-playing shows, not just the ones that were newly reviewed last weekend?)

Back to the Times, it was wonderful to see a front-page Calendar review by the staff critic, Charles McNulty, of the double-cast Antaeus productions of King Lear (in conjunction with a review of a third Lear in San Diego) — and this was on the heels of a Sunday feature about Antaeus. But I couldn’t help but wonder if all that attention was at the expense of covering the two different versions of Hamlet at the much larger Theatricum Botanicum – or if the Times might ignore the next Antaeus production on the grounds that Lear got so much coverage. When the review assignment process appears so arbitrary, it’s easy to wonder about these things.

Of course online reviews have proliferated in recent years. If you’re a Times reader who wonders why you haven’t read about a production that interests you, go to Bitter Lemons, which offers links to a variety of reviews (as long as Bitter Lemons has found at least three reviews of any given show).

While theater companies hope a current Times review will sell tickets,  I often rely on the Times database for another reason — to research a play’s production history in Los Angeles, as I did (above) in order to determine that the last Times review of A Shayna Maidel was in 2000 at the Colony. But gaps in Times coverage are going to mean that its database will be increasingly unreliable. A year from now, I won’t able to use the Times to see that A Shayna Maidel was at ICT in 2010.  I guess I’ll have to rely on Google and, gulp, Bitter Lemons.

Grace & Glorie, Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. Thurs-Fri, 8 pm; Sat, 3 and 8 pm; Sun, 2 pm. Closes July 18. 818-555-7000.

Hamlet, Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga. In repertory, Saturdays and Sundays. Closes Oct. 2. 310-455-3723.

Speaking of summertime Shakespeare in our larger theaters, there is more bad news — but some good news as well.

The bad news is that the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles (previously known as Shakespeare Festival/LA) isn’t producing a free, professional alfresco Shakespeare this summer — at downtown’s L.A. Cathedral, at South Coast Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes or at any of its other previous haunts such as Pershing Square or the Ford Amphitheatre.

“It’s temporary as we muster resources for our 25th anniversary,” artistic director Ben Donenberg wrote to me in an e-mail. “It’s still coming together, but it will be a nice year of special activities and a restructuring of our financial model to more easily support free summer Shakespeare.” He hopes to return to the Cathedral next year, he wrote.

The Shakespeare Center web site is a little more forthcoming. “Don’t worry,” it says. “Mainstage hasn’t disappeared, just moved. As you can see, we’ve got Helen Hunt lined up to star in Much Ado About Nothing this October. More details to come!” Yes, a Helen Hunt Ado, to be directed by Donenberg, is listed next to this message on the web site’s calendar, without any specific dates. Perhaps the official announcement is being held for…the L.A. Times.

<br />Cameron Knight, Amy Urbina in ISC's Othello.
Cameron Knight, Amy Urbina in ISC’s Othello.

The good news, or at least I hope it’s good, is that Independent Shakespeare Company opens its new and larger space in the Old Zoo area of Griffith Park this week, after being forced to turn away people from its filled-up Barnsdall Park venue last summer. Does this officially make ISC a larger theater instead of a midsize theater?

“I don’t know what the exact capacity is, probably around 2,000,” says ISC’s managing director (and actor) David Melville. “We will be happy if we can bring in 750 on some nights and for this summer we expect our usual average of 350 a night. It may even be considerably smaller to start with, seeing as this is a move to a new venue.”

ISC works on an Equity contract, but it “doesn’t specify capacity as we don’t charge for tickets,” reports Melville. The company relies on donations.  Still, “our actors’ salary has nearly doubled since last year.”

This year’s two plays — Othello opening Friday and Much Ado About Nothing opening on August 5 — won’t be presented in alternating repertory, as in previous summers. “We switched out of rep as an experiment,” says Melville. “Performing in rep is great, but it doesn’t allow a show to grow on a nightly basis — you are always struggling to remember, especially if it’s performing just once a week. It also makes the contracts a bit more affordable. I wouldn’t rule out going back to rep, but for now I really like the idea of one show at a time. Going show by show means a shorter run — more attractive to busy working actors.”

Two other important changes that theatergoers should know in advance: Curtain time is 7 pm, because Griffith Park officially closes at 10:30 pm, says Melville. And no risers bearing folding chairs were permitted at this new site. So bring blankets and/or low-rise lawn chairs. Melville says that the absence of risers is OK, because “the acoustics are amazing, and we think it would be nice to let people spread out a bit more.”

Grace & Glorie photo by Michael Lamont.

Othello photo by Mike Ditz.

Othello, Independent Shakespeare Company, east side of Griffith Park, near 4730 Crystal Springs Drive. Thurs-Sun, 7 pm. Closes August 1. 818-710-6306.

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.