The Big Ticket on Broadway 2017, Hello Dolly. Big Ticket on Broadway 2018, Frozen. What is going on with American theatre? Does that sound a bit condescending? Yes, maybe a little, but I’m still high on Hamilton, and somehow it feels a bit like a non-sequitur. I adore Bette Midler, would probably pay for her to read the phone book, but Hello Dolly? That’s a show that had critical acclaim more than 20 years ago done at the Colony Theatre in LA. Not to diminish the accomplishments of either the show or who’s done it, but now?
Prior to 1900, theatre was based in New York. Plays started there and tours began there. There was some classic theatre, mostly Shakespeare, and a few dabbles from antiquity. And then there was melodrama. Archetypical characters, damsels in distress, mustached, avaricious villains and clean, handsome heroes. These played in large houses in big cities and were mostly touring shows. Vaudeville grew and became the mainstay for rowdy entertainment as well as for smaller, more versatile venues.
In the teens of the 20th century, film challenged theatre for the attention of the American public. Film quickly showed itself equal to the task and spent the next 20 years proving it could do melodrama better, it could do comedy better, and it would cost a lot less for the consumer.
By the thirties, film began looking for its own voice. Theatre in the meantime had moved to more profound works. Ibsen, Shaw, O’Neill, O’Casey were becoming important voices and much of that had to do with the rise of the Little Theatre Movement. Artists responded to the shift in audience interest. Small resident theatre companies sprung up around the country with three driving principles: Artistic growth; community relevance; and freedom from commercial interest. As early as 1917, this movement had already hit Southern California when Gilmor Brown and his Pasadena Community Playhouse began sharing performance space with a burlesque show. Just eight years later he purchased the land and built the Pasadena Playhouse.
Where New York once dominated the American theatre, there are now thousands of theatres around the country. The vast majority are small independent theatres and most still follow the goals set forth by the Little Theatre Movement. Nowhere is this more evident than in the
Los Angeles intimate theatre scene. In 2010, there were more than 1000 productions mounted in greater LA. While the recent conflict with Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) has resulted in a thinning of the herd, the still-remaining companies are producing world-class theatre.
Leading the way is what AEA now calls Membership Companies, essentially resident performing spaces that place the value or art and commitment to their community above the commercial interests of traditional theatrical productions.
This month, FootLights is looking at this movement from two perspectives, one, a profile on Sacred Fools, and two, an insight into what makes participation and viewing of these productions so compelling.
So, while the trend in New York is to compete with film, bringing spectacle to the stage at absurd prices, Los Angeles theatre offers profound, intimate, enduring work that is affordable and will knock your socks off.