State of the Stage

In life, in business, it’s always a good idea to access on a regular basis what is going on in the world and how our lives and business are changed or affected. In government, we get the State of the Union, or State of the State, so in kind we’re now addressing the State of the Stage. To be more precise, the State of Stage in LA. There’s lots of good news.  Los Angeles continues to produce more and more original works, the first annual Hollywood Fringe Festival came into being, and intimate theatre as a topic of discussion hit the front pages of the LA Times.

If we had a time machine, and could travel in an instant from the genesis of theatre in ancient Greece through the ages to glimpse moments on various stages, we would see a marked similarity. There would be some drastic differences, but all in all to an uninitiated viewer the presentation would seem to be essentially the same. So why then should we be concerned about the state of theatre? What can be so different that an analysis is required?

Some thirty-five years ago, a unique program was established in Los Angeles.  In its various incarnations, it’s come to be known as the Equity Waiver plan. Professional actors, under certain conditions and on a limited basis could work for essentially no pay. It was the birth of an agreement between producers and Actor’s Equity. While the intent was probably initiated to showcase actors, the effect was actor produced theatre. In America, the land of opportunity, those who have nothing were offered the opportunity to scratch their way to their dreams.

In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Chuck McNulty and Steve Leigh Morris are weighing in on the merits of this system. Los Angeles Theatre is accused of being actor centric. Some other comments have been too many productions without brilliant direction, self-interest of the artist outweighing the needs of the community served and a general lack of cohesion in the theatre community itself.

On a recent story on CBS Sunday Morning, there was a warm story of summer camps for kids focusing on performing arts. The piece was charming and informative and stirred yearning to more innocent days. What was quite startling out of the story, was that 25 years ago there were thirty-one performing arts camps in the US, and this year, there are more than three hundred!

How does that impact us here? To a degree, it defines the intimate theatre scene in Los Angeles. If we were extrapolate the number of kids that go to these camps annually, it would not be outrageous to think that there may be thousands of neophytes with stars in their eyes coming out of these camps each year. Granted not all go on to seek fame and fortune, but based upon the number of universities that now offer degrees in the performing arts, the percentages are probably pretty high. The end result is that after high school, after summer camp, after an undergrad degree, and in some cases graduate degrees, there are hordes of young artists now self professed professionals, frantic to ply their wares. If we throw in the countless number that watch television and film thinking, “I can do that,” and follow that thought with a move to the Meccas of LA or NY, the numbers become even more staggering.

These newbies, strive to join the already well populated theatre scene. In this regard, the Waiver plan works, Seasoned actors, working with the less experienced ads gravitas to both. In some cases, maybe more then should be the case, these new arrivals are caught up with enthusiasm and join equally unschooled partners producing less then finished products. These are not the bulk of work in LA, our theatre has matured, we have more then the showcase to choose from.

If we treat our theatres as an obligation, go to a show because it’s there, and then ignore the plums available throughout Los Angeles then it is we the audience failing. With dozens of productions available weekly, a little research can go a long way. Only if we fail to recognize the strengths and diversity of these successful artists and companies do we then see the community as self-centered. The theatre community, the artists, the producers, all of the people that work tirelessly to bring new and innovative theatre to us deserve to be heard.

In reality, we have a robust community. There are companies that are recognized year after year for producing great theatre. Boston Court, Havok Theatre, Circle X, The Fountain, The Celebration, Sacred Fools, Circus Theatricals, Furious Theatre, The Troubadours, Anteaus, Deaf West, The Road Theatre, The Tribe, the list is actually rather long and our apologies to those unmentioned, but there are many more. Artists often move back and forth from theatre to theatre plying their craft and presenting evocative theatre. It is incumbent upon us the audience to find them out.

With more than 300 different theatre and theatre companies, our theatre choices are often overwhelming. If we settle on going where we’ve always gone, or we go to a show because our cousin, nephew, friend… is in the show, then we are playing theatre roulette. If on the other hand, we honor the spirit of theatre, recognize the value it has infused in our culture for more than two millennium and seek out what serves us best, we will find that the State of the Stage in LA is bright and getting brighter.

About Peter Finlayson

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Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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