The Full Monty will finally make it to the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood—this time for a three-night run as part of the national tour. If you recall, when Oscar's home theatre opened in 2001, it was touted as a state-of-the-art new venue for music concerts and for big Broadway musicals, but when Monty cancelled its Kodak moment and went to the Ahmanson instead—and L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed weighed in with a scathing review of the new theatre's acoustics—the picture darkened for the Kodak and big musicals. Enter Theatrical Arts International, a Redlands-based company that presents tours at San Bernardino's historic California Theatre; in partnership with Korean animation giant Sunwoo Entertainment, Theatrical Arts will present a series of short-run musicals at the Kodak, including the Monty tour in October, a Rat Pack concert event in January 2004, and a new local production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat next April. The series' big catch, though, is Oliver!, to run in December: This, at long last, is a version of 1994's much-ballyhooed London production, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and directed by a young upstart named Sam Mendes (who, I remember reading, got the American Beauty directing gig after Spielberg flipped over this Oliver!). Joseph Henson from Theatrical Arts emphasized that Mendes directed the show "with Graham Gell," and that Gell is "doing the pickup" for the tour. He also admitted that this Oliver!, as some trades have reported, is a non-union tour, but said, "I can't imagine Oliver! being union. There are so many children." The 6-year-old Theatrical Arts, Henson said, doesn't just present tours; it's currently developing a musical adaptation of the Cher/Bette vehicle Mermaids with composer Adrian David and librettist Anthony Rhine… One of the last year's best productions, the Colony's Laramie Project, is slated to be revived at the Laguna Playhouse this fall, with Nick DeGruccio directing and, if possible, the Colony's designers and actors rehired. There was talk of a commercial remount in L.A., too, but this will do for now… Jason Alexander's bio in The Producers program is plenty amusing; he lists the theatre awards he won in New York, then mentions that he's won "no awards" for his stage work in L.A., quipping "it's a tough town." I guess the performance Garlands we gave him for Promises, Promises and Defiled don't count.
• At the recent SRO theatre conference, attendees had just sat down for boxed lunches in a courtyard at USC. The keynote speaker was William H. Macy, who would go on to tell some pithy and instructive stories about the beginnings of the St. Nicholas Theatre and the Atlantic Theatre Company—and then would proceed to pronounce L.A.'s predominant Equity 99-Seat Plan "a bust" and dismiss the concept of actor-based companies. With all due respect to the estimable Mr. Macy, he knows not whereof he speaks; he admitted as much, saying he'd come to L.A., after more than a decade of theatre in Chicago and New York, to pursue on-camera work. His only stage gigs here have been 1994's Oleanna at the Tiffany, which I didn't like, and a stint last year in The Guys at the Actors' Gang with his wife, Felicity Huffman. This town's actor-driven theatre economy is a strange beast, indeed—and it was also the subject of a speech I delivered to attendees before introducing Macy. While I don't agree that, as he said, the 99-Seat Plan "should be abolished," I did intend my speech to raise questions among theatre makers about why they do what they do. Following is the complete text of my speech:
"I saw 'avoiding burnout' on the roster of topics for this second annual SRO event, and it got me thinking. I assume that panel will address ways to combat feelings of helplessness and insignificance, and the danger of sheer work overload, among theatre artists. But what about the feelings of confusion, disappointment, and disillusion among longtime observers and boosters of Los Angeles theatre, like myself? How can we who try to keep track of and make sense of this sprawling scene avoid feeling overwhelmed by, well, to put it positively, its awesome diversity and creative fertility and stunning resilience and…
"Sorry, I can't go on in that vein. Too often, truth be told, L.A. theatre's awesome diversity feels like utter incoherence; its creative fertility can feel like rampant self-indulgence; its stunning resilience sometimes looks more like the sheer Sisyphean persistence of folks who feel they've got to keep putting on show after show after show or their doors will close because the dues money or the rent will stop coming in. To put it brutally, week in week out, I've begun to feel in my gut that there are just too many goddamn plays in Los Angeles. And that rather than creating a vibrant marketplace of theatrical artistry, or offering that many more exciting consumer options for the region's eager theatregoers, the sheer glut of productions on Los Angeles area stages creates a kind of white noise, a traffic jam through which established theatre companies of quality must navigate to compete for audiences, reviews, editorial attention, grants, and awards.
"I never thought I'd say this, but I feel like something must be done to thin the ranks. Darwinian economics alone can't do it; the popular 99-Seat Plan is still such a cheap way to produce shows that not only is it nearly impossible for producers or artists to make any money at it; it's hard for them to lose enough to learn. The cost of failure is often too small to be instructive at all. The freedom to fail is intrinsic to the artistic process, but for failure to have its proper value, artists must feel some of its sting—they must have some sense that they've failed, whether it's from an instructor in the safety of a classroom, or a director, or a critic—or they will have no incentive to improve. The late great actor David Dukes once told me that the interesting difference between working in L.A. theatre and New York theatre, especially on Broadway, was that the economics of the situation focused one's attention; you had to do everything you could to make the play as good as it could be or it would close and you'd be out of a job. That's not the case with any L.A. shows I can think of, apart from the occasional sitdown of a Broadway show, like that one, what's-it-called, at the Pantages right now. For too many L.A. theatres, the 99-Seat Plan's cheap labor and its built-in freedom to fail provide an incentive to keep failing, and when they do succeed, its economics prevent them from building on that success.
"As the editor of an actors trade paper, I understand all too well why there's too much theatre here, and why actors can't get paid for it. There are simply too many actors in L.A. who want and need to get up on a stage to act, both as an exercise and as a showcase. It's the same kind of talent glut that fills the town's hundreds of acting classes, and which has created the phenomenon of cold reading workshops, in which actors essentially pay to audition for casting directors. These are all essentially byproducts of an economic bind: The supply of acting talent and the demand for it are so out of kilter that it's a miracle there are still any union jobs on offer in L.A. at all.
"If you look at the theatres that do offer union gigs, I think you'll see a common thread: They have a reason to exist other than their actors' need to get on a stage. They have boards to answer to; grants to fulfill; they often have a civic mandate, or at least a good relationship with the city they're in; they have a constituency other than their own company and its self-selecting clique, or they've expanded their clique. They have a mission which matches a demonstrated audience demand.
"And I understand that in essence I'm preaching to the choir: You are all gathered here to learn from each other's success, to learn the best practices to build viable theatre companies that sustain themselves and pay their way. That's why Back Stage West is proud to be a sponsor of this event—in fact, it's the only outside event to which our paper actually contributes cash rather than simply advertising space, because it seems to represent a real movement toward making this theatre community more cohesive, and to support its future as an industry rather than as a hobby. And because I think Back Stage West's role is to lift up those theatres which are committed to making great theatre in and for L.A. over the long haul—to lift them up not only because they deserve it but so that they can be recognized above the fray.
"I for one look forward to a day when theatre artists will come to L.A. to work in the theatre and will be able to afford to stay here to work in the theatre. I look forward to the day when it will be just a little easier for those of us who love the good theatre we've seen here as much or more than we deplore the mediocre and the terrible theatre we've seen here, to reel off a list of the top professional L.A. theatre companies that could stand with the best theatres in the country, from the Guthrie to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, from the Wooster Group to Lookingglass to Actors Theatre of Louisville. I believe that there are some in our present company who could proudly stand in those ranks, or who are well on their way in that direction. Are there enough of these shining examples to call L.A. a truly great theatre town? I think the jury is still out—literally, the jury is out, combing the wide boulevards of L.A., trying to find that little hole-in-the-wall theatre their friends told them did really interesting plays. I hope they can find it."