"We're not the primary industry here, right?" reflected Los Angeles playwright Luis Alfaro. "We're in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, I always say. But to do your work despite that—I think that's very brave."
The playwrights who call Los Angeles home share a passionate love/hate relationship with the place. Catch them in the middle of workshop rehearsal for a new play, and they are likely to sing the joys of working in a place that offers artistic freedom, cultural diversity, an affordable lifestyle, a high concentration of great actors, the option of dabbling in industry work, and an abundance of strange and fascinating subject matter. Catch them on a bad day and you'll hear your fair share of ranting: L.A. writers are stigmatized, ghettoized the second they attempt to step outside the city limits. They bemoan the lack of Equity theatres and spaces that will produce new local work, and that most Angelenos' minds are on entertainment, not art. They blast the amorphous community of critics who, it seems, have yet to earn these playwrights' respect.
"I don't want to put down L.A. critics," said playwright Justin Tanner, whose plays include Bitter Women and Pot Mom, "but in New York they have about as much credibility as my cat."
And while larger theatres like the Mark Taper Forum and South Coast Repertory may offer playwrights a wide variety of development resources and commissions, they're not too likely to offer a risky local writer a full production on their more commercial mainstages—a tough pill to swallow for some playwrights who see this as a grim reflection of the increasingly corporate character of American theatre at large.
Yet what these larger theatres do offer playwrights, in abundance, are fellowships, commissions, readings, and a chance to form lifelong relationships with colleagues on the national theatre scene. There are also invaluable resources like A.S.K. Theater Projects, which offers 24 programs including readings, labs, workshop productions, symposiums, and the yearly Common Ground festival, (although word on the street is that this organization's future is sketchy) and Jon Lawrence Rivera's Playwrights' Arena, a company exclusively devoted to developing and producing new local work. Then there is Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble (P.K.E.), run by Dan Lauria, which puts new plays in the hands of celebrity actors and offers free weekly readings open to the public, with the hope of getting playwrights full productions or film deals.
The abundance of actors, too, makes L.A. a prime spot to forge your own relationship with a small theatre company that will produce your work—an avenue that carried Tanner through a successful 10-year career, exclusively at the 99-seat Cast Theatre, working with friends and actors he met while studying at Los Angeles Community College. For Alfaro, too, some of the most exciting work has been of the do-it-yourself variety.
"I was in a group for 10 years called Dark Horses," said Alfaro, whose plays include Straight as a Line and Bitter Homes and Gardens, "and we used to put up shows everywhere, at the most unusual places. We had a run at this Unitarian Church on 8th and Vermont, and they used to give us the whole church, and the L.A. Weekly used to come and review. It was great. You have to sort of figure out the avenues or the places where there are people like you, who want to join your little caravan.
"We have amazing theatre artists here and that just doesn't happen in other places," continued Alfaro, while comparing L.A. to his recent experience working on an Electra adaptation in Tucson as part of an NEA/TCG grant. "In Tucson, there were hardly any Equity actors, so we used community actors. Electra was this woman who owns the fish shop. Orestes was played by the local grocer. Clytemnestra was a court interpreter. And we'd have to wait until 5 o'clock each day until they got off work. It was exciting, but it was another kind of theatre. Here, you can always pull together a great cast. You can always pull together a great director, a great dramaturg."
For all their gripes, playwrights seem to agree there is a freedom and exhilaration that goes along with living on the outskirts of the national theatre scene. Many don't view it as a periphery at all—they see it as a frontier.
"It makes absolute sense to me to be an L.A. playwright, and I really unapologetically call myself that," said playwright Annie Weisman, whose plays include Be Aggressive and Hold Please. "I think the inferiority complex about West Coast theatre is probably more generated by us than by anything on the outside. I'm proud of the work we do. Being on the frontier, being in a place where it's newer and there's less, that's also a blessing. It's also a place where, I think, minds and ears can be a little more open. So I focus on that."
"Nobody thinks it's interesting to write about Los Angeles, but I've been writing about L.A. for years," said Tanner, "and the best thing I've gained is that I've been able to grow in relative obscurity. That's the strongest suit about writing in L.A. And it's non-pretentious. Because outside of the city limits nobody gives a shit or thinks that there's anything worthwhile going on here. Theatre is sort of high-falutin' in New York. It seems to be very down to earth here in L.A. You don't have to go through everybody's, 'Well, I went to Yale and this is what I learned and I'm a method actor and this is my process.' Nothing to me is worse than that."
Voices of the Border Towns
The sprawling, disjointed nature of the city itself can feel like both a curse and blessing for playwrights. Playwright Dan Rybicky worked in New York and Chicago and came to L.A. recently to search for an agent, shop around a screenplay, and explore the play-development scene a bit, as well.
"L.A. seems less like a communal place," observed Rybicky. "It's more spread out and therefore, I think, it's harder for people to really support each other as much as in Chicago or New York."
Indeed, Los Angeles is not so much a community as but a plurality of communities—something many L.A. playwrights see as part of the thrill of being here. "In a way, there's a community for everybody," said Alfaro, "and hopefully, you're a part of a larger community as a playwright. You're not afraid of the diversity. You're not afraid of the way the city works. It doesn't have a heart. It doesn't have a center. So it's not like New York or Chicago. It's about border towns, right? So you have to explore the border towns. That's what makes a great art, this sort of collision between these worlds."
Alfaro, on staff at the Taper as the associate producer of new play development, is passionate when he talks about the city's many unexplored communities, rich with new voices and new audiences.
"When [the Taper] produced Sunil Kuruvilla's play Rice Boy, it was about the East Indian community, and everybody on staff was having all these issues about, 'Well, we're not going to be able to sell it, because it's very Indian, and who's going to come?' So you take a trip to little India and you pass out a million fliers. We got in touch with community leaders, we invited them to a dinner where we talked to them about the play, and then they came in big numbers. That can happen in any community. It happened when we did Nine Armenians. That completely sold out. I think that's just one of the amazing ways to make art. And this is a great town to do it in."
The Taper's many play-development laboratories reflect the city's diversity, offering many opportunities specifically to actors from varying ethnic backgrounds. Programs include the Latino Theatre Initiative, the Asian Theatre Workshop, Blacksmyths (for African-American playwrights), and Other Voices (for disabled playwrights). In addition a program called Performing for Los Angeles Youth (P.L.A.Y.) commissions plays for young people.
The Taper also offers its New Work Festival, for which a committee selects 10 to 15 plays out of some 1,500 submissions and offers a two-step process in which playwrights are matched with a director, dramaturg, design consultants, and a cast. They are given an in-house reading, a month-long period in which to make revisions, and then rehearsals and a production.
According to Alfaro the Taper has some 50 commissions at any given time of $5,000 to $10,000 for the first draft of a play, a writers workshop for mid-career writers, a retreat in which commissioned work is read by actors, and various other smaller fellowships for young and emerging writers.
"More than half of the work that we develop gets produced, and we do a lot of development," said Alfaro. "There aren't a lot of theatres in the country that do this kind of development. But the challenge is that there's a disconnect between our mainstage and what we do in play development. The biggest limitation is that you don't get to see your work produced, and that's heartbreaking."
Tanner was even more critical about the limitations of the Taper. "There should be a way that you can be an L.A. playwright and move to these larger theatres," said Tanner, "but there's going to be a glass ceiling here in the L.A. theatre until somebody else takes over the Taper, or another place opens up for opportunities for L.A. playwrights. I don't mean to be cynical—you caught me at a really bad time—but if I had an ethnic background, I would be much further along. But you know, I'm white, suburban, and I don't write about the big subjects. I don't write about AIDS. I don't write those plays about big giant issues that people can go and get a treatise on, you know like, What happened to the Jews? or, What are black and white relationships? I'm writing about small, tiny shifts in normal, everyday people's lives, and that doesn't get much attention."
South Coast Repertory also has a new work festival called the Pacific Playwrights Festival, a development program for Latino writers called the Hispanic Playwrights Project, and a substantial number of commissions to writers. NewSCRipts is SCR's developmental staged reading series, which allows playwrights to hear their work read in front of an audience and receive feedback from literary staff. Yet Tanner sees SCR as a place that imposes similar limitations to those of the Taper.
"I just went to see a play there and I don't get it," said Tanner. "It fits the exact description of corporate theatre. It's very smart, it's very high-falutin', it was beautifully acted. It's just boring enough to make you think you're seeing a serious play. [SCR is] a good developing ground. But to me that's a different kind of theatre. They would never do a play of mine until that great day when they suddenly decide that my particular kind of 'edgy' is right for them. But edgy to them is like 'man has an affair' (gasp) or 'person finally says "fuck" after 45 minutes.'"
Yet other playwrights have found the development programs to be fruitful, nurturing places. "Places like A.S.K, or the Taper, those are a kind of nexus for national artists to gather around," said Weisman, whose Hold Please premiered last year at SCR. "That's crucial for writers, because the more actors, directors you meet from around the country, the more opportunities you have. These places have just been for me a really wonderful way to meet artists from places like Seattle, Chicago, and New York, and led to more people getting to know my work and me getting know the work of more directors. I feel like I know more about the national theatre community than I do about a lot of the artists in L.A. because of those programs."
Weisman admitted that working in regional theatre requires a tradeoff. "Last year I eked my living out as a playwright," said Weisman, "which came from regional theatre commissions and royalties. It's enough to live but not a princely salary. And there is a tradeoff. What you give up is the access to younger, hipper audiences that you get when you are working in smaller theatres."
As Alfaro points out, the most important thing for the Los Angeles playwright to remember is not to wait for opportunities here and afar, but to create them. Alfaro said he submitted many times before being chosen for support by SCR, but now he has a commission, a workshop, and a full production.
"We have to be not just writers," said Alfaro. "We have to be architects of the way our work gets done, because nobody is really thinking about our work. I'm excited when playwrights get together and form their own companies. I have had experiences where playwrights will call me and say, 'Three of us are getting together to do our one-acts. Will you come see them?' And I think that's great.
"I was lucky because I had teachers who were activists," continued Alfaro. "I had teachers who said, 'Go do it. Stop waiting.' Mac Wellman, he said, 'What are you doing here at the Taper? You're an idiot! They hate your work. You're never going to write the kind of work they enjoy. Every chance you get, take their money and do something else.' But I love being at the Taper. I've never been produced by the Taper. But in a way, it's like, I can't wait for that. You can have a career here, and you can be valuable. You can live well here, you can eat well, you can afford things, and you can have a good life as an artist, and then you have to sort of have a national profile. But you have to get out there and send your work. Outside of L.A. and inside of L.A.—you have to think about both. And that's always sort of the line that I'm straddling."
While it may be difficult to get a play onstage at the Taper or SCR, Los Angeles does a have an enormous proliferation of 99-Seat theatres where playwrights can have their work produced. And it may be, as Tanner suspects, that smaller fringe theatres are the very places where the most exciting new theatre is going to come from in this country.
"I think it's a ridiculous thing to hope for a different future in the American theatre," concluded Tanner. "I think it's lost. What's going to happen now is that because big corporate theatre is as 'cutting edge'—and I mean that facetiously—as network television, the exciting new theatre is going to come from the underground. There must be underground, exciting theatre that has not been tainted or is not interesting to those people who consider themselves to be the arbiters of taste. And that's where the new theatre is going to come from. I am just hoping that when it comes, there are champions who champion it." BSW