A Report on LA STAGE Alliance’s Six Community Forums

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[dropcap]Six[/dropcap] different community forums on the future of L.A. theater, some designs LA STAGE Alliance has concocted, various challenges faced by the local stage community, and how this organization might help, took place in six different locations in February and March.

Each intimate gathering had a different personality, and the conversations diverged in quite different directions, from locale to locale.

Much of the talk of the future drifted inexorably to talk of the past. However, one theme kept recurring — “branding L.A theater” — from discussions at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood to the Center Theatre Group Annex downtown, and points between (Theatre of NOTE in Hollywood, the LA STAGE Space in Atwater Village, the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City and the 24th Street Theatre, adjoining USC).

In Atwater Village, playwright Susan Rubin remarked on the national misperception that “L.A. theater sucks.”

Theatre Unleashed managing director Gregory Crafts — a tall, gentle, imposing figure — responded with a soliloquy filled with digressions and anecdotes, all wrapped in a tone that artfully blended pathos and indignation, until he rounded the final turn of his speech into what might be called a summation. The thing about Crafts is that when he finally gets to his point, he does so with a mix of eloquence and pointedness that’s as witty as it is insightful:

“I think we’re all scared that people think that L.A. theater sucks,” he reflected, before roaring across the finish line. “I work as an Uber and Lyft driver, and I talk to people. And they don’t think L.A. theater sucks. They don’t even know it exists!”

And there you have it — a core truth understood by theater-makers across the region and addressed at all of the forums. The call to us was clarion: Can you please help market and brand L.A. theater to residents and visitors as an entity — not a single show, not a single theater, not a cluster of theaters, but the weird, wonderful, authentic pot-pourri of theaters large and small, experimental and traditional, campy and esoteric, that comprise what so many misperceive as our pointless avocation? Can you please help drive traffic, digital and human, to L.A.’s theaters — or at least, to the best of them?

The answer is yes. With the help of the community and the Theatrical Producers League of Los Angeles, and the L.A. Tourism and Convention Board, we’re now working on a branding campaign for all of us. If we don’t eat each other alive in a dogfight over how we should be “branded,” over who should be included and who not, this could be a significant step forward. It is something that has been attempted before, sporadically — tried and abandoned. So, learning from those mistakes, we’ll try to do something more systemic and durable, so that when visitors open up in-flight magazines en route to LAX and Burbank, or when they arrive at our airports, there’s an ad for our theater, as an option for what to do while they’re here.

LA STAGE Alliance took quite a bit of heat for the way it has conducted itself in the past, and not conducted itself. At the Road Theatre Company forum, Crown City Theatre Company’s Bill Reilly lambasted the organization for what he described as anemic discount ticketing and Warehouse Co-op programs.

Over at Theatre of NOTE, The Complex’s Matt Chait urged LA STAGE Alliance to help fix Hollywood, with all of its theaters, rather than consider partnering with a non-profit developer to build a theater complex in the San Fernando Valley.

“We’ve been here a long time,” Chait pleaded. “We need parking,” he added, echoing what had been said in North Hollywood the week before. If there’s a lack of parking, perhaps an answer is a partnership with Lyft or Uber, I posited, though publicist Nora Feldman (at Road Theatre) had already said that patrons wouldn’t use such services — that they felt more comfortable driving themselves.

(Thought I, if there’s no parking, why would they want to drive? They don’t. Which is why the theaters are so challenged by the absence of both parking and comprehensive public transportation.)

Feldman suggested that LA STAGE Alliance mobilize shuttle buses to get people to the theater. Which begs the question, if patrons are unwilling to use Lyft or Uber because they’d rather drive their own cars to the theater, why would they get on a shuttle bus?

At Theatre of NOTE, I perceived that Chait resented LA STAGE Alliance, and me, for coming up with a unilateral plan to snub Hollywood. Not so, I argued. Our idea (it’s too early to call it a plan) is merely a call for rent-subsidized arts districts for organizations willing to commit to youth engagement and diversity. That I mentioned the San Fernando Valley as a possible site for a new arts complex appeared to enrage Chait. I tried to explain that the idea was for many arts districts — that different areas of the city require different models, that an under-served area with parcels of vacant land could benefit from a non-profit developer building a multiple venue complex from the ground up, incentivized by builder’s fees and HUD grants for education and community engagement programs. That’s quite different from Hollywood, where every square inch of land is already accounted for by for-profit developers. In Hollywood, a different model is required, based on the conversion of buildings, or the inclusion of theaters into commercial developments, and rent stabilization for non-profit arts organizations as a form of protection from gentrification.

(These are the very ideas we’ll be taking to Hollywood’s City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell this week.)

So, for the record, here’s what LA STAGE Alliance can’t do: We can’t fix L.A. traffic, we can’t create parking spaces unless we help build theaters from the ground up — one such idea is in the “discovery” research phase. And we can’t cure cancer.

LA STAGE Alliance also got a bit of love. Over at Theatre of NOTE, actor-writer Ezra Buzzington spoke of rose bushes, the flowers being all the theaters, the stem weak, and the heart of the problem lying with the roots.

“LASA is setting itself up now, potentially as a very powerful main stem. We’re all fighting for our own ghettos and we’ve never been able to come together under one organization and say, ‘we are rooting for each other.’” (That sentence veered dangerously close to a mixed-metaphor, until Buzzington threw in that “rooting” verb, bringing us back to the rose bushes.)

Buzzington’s (much appreciated) compliment was echoed by Rogue Machine’s artistic director John Flynn at the 24th Street Theatre forum. “I’m very encouraged by this new direction LA STAGE Alliance seems to be taking,” Flynn said. If you know Flynn, you’ll also know that he’s not a fellow who is encouraged lightly.

At NOTE, actor-director Chil Kong made repeated, eloquent appeals, based on dying models, for us all to “think outside the box” when imagining the future. By that, he meant for us all to consider going “outside our comfort zone and working with people we’ve never worked with — not just race, but age and gender — that’s the true meaning of diversity.”

Perhaps the biggest delight for me was to see who simply walked into these forums out of curiosity: Alma Robinson (visiting from San Francisco) — Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts — at the Atwater Village forum, and then the following week at the Kirk Douglas, Robinson’s Southern California rep, Alice Reeb. This resulted in a later meeting with Reeb, leading to the idea of future workshops on legal issues as they affect the arts, hosted by LA STAGE Alliance and presented by California Lawyers for the Arts. Also at the Kirk Douglas were administrators from the cities of Culver City and West Hollywood, intrigued by the notion of arts districts in their communities. That discussion concentrated mainly on arts education.

Over at the Annex, Wayne Watkins — Vice President of Partnerships at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts — who ran his own theater in Arizona for three years after being part of Shakespeare Orange County. He’s now back in L.A., brimming with concrete proposals of how to engage corporate sponsors in the idea of arts districts in their respective localities. Obviously, we’re following up with him and his marvelous ideas.

I’m very grateful to those who attended, and struck by the passion and intelligence expressed in each of the forums. And I’m particularly grateful that so many subsequent meetings came about because of them — meetings resulting in the steady progression of ideas into plans. With this much brainpower in the community, and with such clarity of vision, I’m confident that at least some of these plans will eventually become manifested in useful policies and services. At least that’s my hope.

We’ll certainly keep you informed.

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw (www.stageraw.com). Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.