Could any art ever hope to challenge us as much as reality has in the past eight weeks? Should it? Do artists and audiences have an appetite right now—in a time of national crisis, of war, of widespread and well-founded anxiety—for the edgy, the disturbing, the disconcerting?
Some do, of course—and, not surprisingly, it's many of the same artists and audiences who are consistently drawn to the edge, no matter the political climate. The Edge of the World Theater Festival, now in its third year, is about to unleash itself throughout Greater Los Angeles, and, the geopolitical moment aside, it's shaping up to be another auspicious collective of adventurous theatre makers, gathered around no particular theme but with a common goal of theatrical exploration and experimentation. Contemporary masters like Caryl Churchill and Erik Ehn are represented, as well as a fair number of inter-disciplinary theatrical happenings, out-there sketch shows, and solo performances. Even productions that look back in time for inspiration cite edgy 20th century creators: There's Rick Mitchell's Brecht in L.A., about Brecht's collaboration with Charles Laughton in creating Galileo, and the City Garage's The Gertrude Stein Project, an anthological celebration of the modernist writer.
The Brecht show does hint at one theme that animates a number of the plays: L.A. history. For those who think that's an oxymoron, consider the offerings of the L.A. History Project, or such festival fare as the Fountain's long-running Central Avenue, about the vibrant if segregated West Coast jazz scene of the 1940s.
These shows point to another promising development: the potential to begin defining an aesthetic identity for L.A. theatre. Who's going to take the lead on that, if not a self-proclaimed "edgy" festival? Chicago has a strong theatrical signature; so do Seattle and San Francisco, and New York—fuhgeddaboutit. Los Angeles theatre has many companies of national importance and recognition—a lot more than we know or acknowledge—but what unites them? A multicultural mission, like those of East West Players or Cornerstone? Liberal politics, like the Actors' Gang or the Mark Taper Forum?
Such superficial commonalities—let alone the kind of name artists and awards that may validate us on the other coast—don't speak to the creation of an L.A. aesthetic per se, but they're a start. Another way to start to see an L.A. style is, since there are so many actors from other great theatre towns here, to categorize local companies as Chicago-style, Seattle-style, New York-style, Euro-style. But it's an ultimately pointless game; where would the theatrical style of the Actors' Gang, influenced as it is by all of the above (except perhaps Seattle), fit in?
Speaking of the Gang, it's strange that its new shows Mephisto and The Seagull aren't part of the EdgeFest. Indeed, for those who follow the local scene, this still-fledgling stage fest continues to have the look of a self-selecting "in" crowd, along with some one-off festival-only companies just looking for a stage. But, for those who don't know Zoo District from the Theatre District, EdgeFest remains an inviting introduction to some of the city's most distinctive troupes, from Theatre of NOTE to bang, from Ensemble Studio Theatre—The L.A. Project to the Evidence Room, from Playwrights' Arena to the Open Fist.
As such, it makes eminently good sense that Theatre LA, the membership advocacy organization for Southland companies both large and small, has stepped up as the EdgeFest's official sponsor. It's not only a powerful endorsement from an organization that is sometimes perceived as favoring larger, deeper-pocketed commercial theatre producers, it's an alliance that would seem to promise even greater cohesion and inclusion in festivals to come. A good number of EdgeFest producing companies are not Theatre LA members—and a good number of Theatre LA members who do edgy theatre aren't part of EdgeFest.
That's this year. With these two forces aligned, our hope is that the gap can be closed, and that the full diversity of L.A.'s stage offerings—from the CLOs to the artists' lofts and Hollywood storefronts—can reach the audience and gain the recognition we who follow L.A. theatre know they deserve. The Edge of the World Theater Festival offers an important radical alternative to business as usual, to the dim picture that even audiences locally have of L.A. theatre as tours, rentals, and actors' showcases.
And, lest all this sound overly portentous, it's a festival, after all. It should also be a lot of fun. We'll see you there.