Les Spindle

Les Spindle

Les, a freelance arts journalist, served as full-time theater critic/writer at Back Stage for 16 years. Among other outlets he has contributed to are the original print edition of LA STAGE, Frontiers Magazine, IN LA Magazine, Theatermania, and EDGE. He's a BFA graduate in theater arts from the University of New Mexico.

Radar L.A. Is Again on LA’s Radar

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"Shun-Kin" by Complicite and Setagaya Public Theatre. Photo by Sarah Ainslie.
“Shun-Kin” by Complicite and Setagaya Public Theatre. Photo by Sarah Ainslie.

Next month, LA will again play host to Radar LA. Following its debut in June 2011, the international theater festival returns September 24 for a second edition. This collaborative project is presented by REDCAT and its parent institution, CalArts, in association with Center Theatre Group and a consortium of partners including the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.

Key driving forces behind the festival are two local members of the Radar curatorial team — Mark Murphy, executive director of REDCAT, and Diane Rodriguez, director of new play production and associate producer at Center Theatre Group.   According to Murphy, “We are launching REDCAT’s 10th anniversary season by actually doing what amounts to a whole additional season within the first week. We also want to have a lot of local theater organizers, producers and artists as well as our audiences participating in symposiums in addition to coming to performances.“

On the Radar

Diane Rodriguez and Mark Murphy
Diane Rodriguez and Mark Murphy

The 2013 festival’s eclectic bill of fare will be concentrated in several venues in LA and vicinity over an eight-day period — although several productions open before the festival or will extend briefly beyond the festival. The event will include a diverse mix of 18 offerings, emphasizing new works with an interdisciplinary focus, plus other challenging fare.

Among the wide-ranging productions this year are presentations showcasing visiting artists and ensembles from New Zealand, France, Mexico, Chile, the UK, Japan, Argentina, the Netherlands, and Colombia. Among Southern California artists and companies offering programming are Luis Alfaro, Roger Guenveur Smith, Trieu Tran, Theatre Movement Bazaar, and CalArts Center for New Performance.

Performances will take place at REDCAT, Los Angeles Theatre Center and a few other downtown sites; Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City; the UCLA and CalArts campuses and the Getty Villa. An up-to-date performance schedule is maintained online.

Discussions will include a symposium focused on contemporary theater and performing arts, with an emphasis on innovative and cross-disciplinary approaches to developing new theatrical forms. Also, a delegation from the International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts will convene at the festival as part of the network’s Caravan program, exploring ways that artists from different regions of the world are contributing to the evolution of contemporary culture.

For Rodriguez, the continuing artistic growth of the festival is a gratifying payoff following her longtime efforts: “In 2011, I had originally wanted to do it with Olga Garay-English [executive director of LA’s Department of Cultural Affairs] and we wanted to have Center Theatre Group be the lead on it. And it felt like we needed another partner, so I asked Mark Murphy would he be interested in joining the team. And he was. Then Mark Russell joined the effort.”  Russell, the third member of the curatorial group, is artistic director/producer of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival in New York

"Jerk" by Gisèle Vienne, Johnathan Capdevielle, and Dennis Cooper. Photo by Alain Monot.
“Jerk” by Gisèle Vienne, Johnathan Capdevielle, and Dennis Cooper. Photo by Alain Monot.

Murphy is grateful for Russell’s involvement: “Having a two-thirds LA and one-third non-LA brain trust is useful in terms of thinking of the impact of this as a national project on a larger field.”  But he also points to significant differences between Under the Radar and Radar, as well as similarities: “At Radar, there is an emphasis on having a strong presence of LA artists in the mix. Also, our international program is much more focused on Latin America and the Pacific Rim rather than Europe.”  Another key objective of the Radar festival, he adds, is “to look at influential artists who are playing a significant role in the evolution of the art form.”

Communal Advantages

Rodriguez cites similarities between Radar’s goals and those of her employer, CTG. “Radar is very much in keeping with the aesthetics we are trying to establish at the Kirk Douglas. We have been able to bring in some really aesthetically challenging work to the Douglas with some fabulous artists, including Rude Mechs, Tim Crouch, and Guillermo Calderon.

She acknowledges that traditional plays are sometimes included in the Douglas seasons — for example Come Back Little Sheba, A Raisin in the Sun, and The Paris Letter. “We cast fabulous actors and solo work, as well. But Radar feels like it’s very much in line with the vision of the Douglas. It also fully fits the ensemble-generated work that I develop through my department at CTG. It’s what I like to call hyper-collaborative.”

She explains, “All theater is collaborative, but hyper-collaborative means when collaborators are very much [involved] from the ground up on creating a piece. And the designer is one of the core creators. Think for example of having a director who is also the writer. Or a writer who is also the performer. This all goes beyond traditional collaborations.” She notes that REDCAT’s dedication to adventurous fare matches CTG’s efforts at the Douglas to reach wider and more diverse audiences.

Expanding Vistas

The number of performances is slightly expanded this year due to the partnerships with UCLA and the Getty Villa, Murphy says, and the fact that three productions are being offered by the Kirk Douglas Theatre rather than its single presentation in Radar 2011. He also points to more active commissioning of works and the development of works in residence, such as those from the LA Poverty Department  and choreographer David Roussève.

"Stardust" by David Roussève/REALITY.  Photo by Valerie Oliveiro.
“Stardust” by David Roussève/REALITY.
Photo by Valerie Oliveiro.

The number of venues has been broadened in recognition of the “vibrant and lively” pedestrian traffic downtown, Murphy says, supplementing the performances at REDCAT and Los Angeles Theatre Center. Historic downtown theaters will be included, such as the newly renovated Palace, the Million Dollar Theatre and the Tower, which has been used in recent years mainly for film shoots. Automata in Chinatown and downtown’s Grand Central Market also will serve as sites for performances.

Murphy predicts that increased accessibility to local audiences will draw more people into the Radar experience, helping to stimulate local awareness. He also believes this enriches the vitality of the neighborhoods. He attributes some of the group’s success in this expansion to funding from the national initiative ArtPlace America, which is focused on cultural activity.

He points to another significant change this year — “the first edition had been in conjunction with the national conference of Theatre Communications Group, and there was a lot of local attendance at these events, but it was also somewhat more built around the conference and the conferees — 1000 of our closest friends and colleagues.” Because the timing of the TCG conference is always in late June, “we did it at a time when schools, especially colleges and universities were not in session.”

This year, the Radar management aimed for a late September schedule “so there was more of an opportunity for engagement of the students and faculty from the region, which I think is a big plus.”

The budget for this year, he says, was “a little bit” larger. “There are different sources, but it is somewhat bigger because we had advance time to line up support for the commissioning activity and the residency activity, and some other larger projects, so there’s a more complex web of different subsidy sources this time.”

"Clouded Sulphur" by Janie Geiser and Erik Ehn.  Photo by Amanda Shank.
“Clouded Sulphur” by Janie Geiser and Erik Ehn.
Photo by Amanda Shank.

What does he project for ticket sales this year? “We had approximately 11,000 separate admissions last year, and I anticipate that we will exceed that this time, partly because of the somewhat expanded scale of the program.”

He also cites the use of some larger venues as a factor here. “Of course, the actual attendance remains to be seen, but we are getting a lot of positive response. We’re really encouraging people to attend multiple events and making it affordable to do so.”  Tickets to most events are $15 if patrons buy a five-event pass for $75. Otherwise, they are $25. He notes, “That makes it really possible to see multiple things, and in a single day.”

Rodriguez adds, “Following our first Radar adventure in 2011, we now have UCLA with Kristy Edmunds [executive artistic director of UCLA Live] as a partner. We also have the Getty Villa. Now it feels like there’s a little more of a West Side presence — while we also build up the core of the festival, which is downtown.”

Two Creative Visions of the Healthcare Crisis

Among this year’s highly varied bill of fare, two veteran Los Angeles-based theater artists are creating original works that are vastly different in style and scope, but both encompass timely themes of contemporary healthcare.

Award-winning LA playwright-performer-teacher Luis Alfaro frequently works with theater companies across the nation, and held a job in play development for several years with Gordon Davidson at Center Theatre Group. He performs in and wrote a highly personal new biographical solo play, St. Jude.  It originally began development last year at the Ojai Playwrights Festival (where its second part was workshopped earlier this month) and now premieres in Radar at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Rodriguez invited Alfaro to present the premiere in the festival after seeing it during its early development.

You Should Have Stayed Home, Morons by Manuel Orjuela. Photo by AP/William Fernando Martinez.
“You Should Have Stayed Home, Morons” by Manuel Orjuela. Photo by AP/William Fernando Martinez.

Alfaro has frequently written works inspired by his earlier years in LA. “I like to write about the world around me,” he says, “but this is definitely my family piece. It’s about when my father got ill, and I took care of him for a year. Then at the end of the year, the same illness came back and he eventually passed. “

Alfaro says he initially wondered whether audiences would want to see a dramatization of this story, but he ultimately found an interesting way into the piece: “What does the  healthcare industry do, how does it work, and how can I tell such a  story in a different way — a way that might be funny and interesting?”

He notes that when he was teaching theater at CalArts in previous years, and tried to do some research at a hospital in Saugus, he found that doing interviews there or dealing with topics having anything to do with medical care involves concerns about liability and patient confidentiality.

“So the interesting thing about spending a year and a half in the hospital taking care of somebody, it kind of suddenly opened the door to all of those questions I wanted to ask. I could actually see how it all worked.  I met a lot of doctors and a lot of nurses. And specialists. So all that research that I previously thought I would do for somebody else’s play ended up being the opportunity for me to really learn it through my own experiences.”

He’s finding the experience of developing and performing this play challenging: “My emotions are intense at the moment, but it’s rewarding at the same time. You have to sort of relive it a bunch of times, but there’s something very honorable in giving life to someone’s life.”

Luis Alfaro and John Malpede
Luis Alfaro and John Malpede

Alfaro says that the play partially evolved out of regular “500-word” Facebook posts he wrote while caring for his father and dealing with his worsening condition. He and Ojai producer-artistic director Robert Egan, who directs this production, worked together to shape these episodes into a narrative. Alfaro says the anecdotes flowed very naturally into place.

In addition to Alfaro’s play, Center Theatre Group is also offering two additional solo pieces at the Douglas as part of Radar L.A.:  Roger Guenveur Smith’s  Rodney King, and Trieu Tran’s Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam, also directed by Egan, charting Tran’s experiences with his family escaping from Vietnam when he was six years old.

Meanwhile, John Malpede  is developing Hospital, the other Radar offering that explores problems surrounding the hot-button international topic of healthcare. He is artistic director and founder of the 28-year-old Los Angeles Poverty Department, which enlists many of its performers from the skid row district in downtown L.A. This is the first performance group in the US composed primarily of homeless and formerly homeless citizens.

The multitalented Malpede acknowledges that LAPD exhibits some similarity with artistic paradigms of L.A.’s Cornerstone Theater Company, which focuses on urban collaborations, community involvement, and site-specific productions.

Malpede previously was invited by REDCAT to develop and produce his play Looking for Paul at that theater in 2010 and he subsequently staged it in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. In Health, he is coordinating the collaborative play development effort between two companies — the Wunderbaum company in the Netherlands and American actors from his LAPD troupe. The Wunderbaum actors will soon be in LA, as Malpede proceeds to assimilate the separate development efforts.

"El Gallo" by Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes.
“El Gallo” by Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes.

He explains: “Both LAPD and Wunderbaum create works as a group process. They are very compatible — but also different, which is one reason we all want to do the project — for stimulation.” He says that the Dutch actors are bilingual, and the US performances will be totally in English. He remarks, “In the Netherlands, I expect that some of the text will be delivered in Dutch.” Malpede states that LAPD has created several bi- or tri-lingual productions in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Bolivia.

From Malpede’s description, Hospital sounds like a thematically ambitious work: “Beyond being satiric, the play looks at a trajectory of healthcare leading to today’s reality, problems and possibilities. Both in the Netherlands and in the US, healthcare is talked about in terms of cost containment and the ruinous effects of escalating costs as percentage ‘GDP’ to the economic health of the nation.  All very rational, but we’re talking about people facing illness and death, people in a maximally emotionally vulnerable place.”

He points out that in the US, health problems often spell economic ruination, “which means additional psychic trauma.”  He describes the challenge of this piece as “employing a whiplash from one pole to the other, in search of a humane and ethical course for people and society in sickness and in health.”

Beyond the 2013 Radar

Murphy and Rodriguez are optimistic about the future of the Radar festival. Rodriguez admits, “Obviously our second-year fund-raising effort was stressful, but it was amazing how many people came in and how many foundations really supported it. It would be fabulous every year to know we had a certain amount of money to even begin our fundraising effort.  We would know if we could plan a small festival, or if we can raise enough money, a larger festival.  We’re hoping Radar continues and grows. And that it’s something people will really remember and come to LA for. I think it really puts us on the map as this place where you can see this amazing international festival.”

Murphy concludes, “We’re very interested in the idea of it becoming a biennial event. Nothing is ever 100% certain, and all depends on being able to build on the momentum and find the support necessary, but our hope is that in 2015, it will come back to life  again in some form. And towards that end, we are anticipating that aside from that — even after this edition of the festival — we will continue to be active in identifying projects for commissioning and development support.”

Radar L.A., many venues in LA and one in Culver City. Officially opens September 24. Through October 1, although some events continue. Tickets: $25; $75 for five-show pass. www.redcat.org. 213-237-2800.

What is ‘Devised Theatre’? 

“Devised theatre can be exceptional at highlighting underrepresented narratives in the world. Since everyone’s voice from the group is an integral component in the process, more perspectives get sifted through while collaborating.”

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