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Variety logo. June 15, 2004

The more things change…

Is theater in the showbiz capital growing up, or just growing?

By ALLISON ROBBINS

Model of Madison Project Theater interior.
STAGE BY THE SEA: Santa Monica’s Madison Project will include
500-seat theater, seen in architect’s rendering.

Could a growth spurt lead to maturity for L.A.’s long-derided theater scene? If so, the drawn out adolescence of a medium typically treated like a tag-along sibling to the town’s real business of film and TV may soon be over.

L.A.’s theaters are undergoing record expansion. If quality prevails, the scene could finally come into its own.

“There are more changes going on in the L.A. theater scene than at any time since I’ve been in Los Angeles,” says Gil Cates, producing director of the Geffen Playhouse and an L.A. resident since the 1970s. To name a few:

• The Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theater (320 seats) opens in Culver City this fall.

• The Geffen Playhouse is undergoing a $17 million renovation, and will add the new 120 seat Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater. (In the interim, Geffen is using the 500-seat Brentwood Theater on the V.A. grounds.)

• The Madison Project, an ambitious 500-seat theater and arts complex presented by Santa Monica College in conjunction with Dustin Hoffman’s Three Coasts Theater Co., is slated to open at Santa Monica Boulevard and 11th St. in 2006.

• The 1,200-seat Ricardo Montalban Theater, dedicated to Latino artists and playwrights, opened last month at the renovated Doolittle Theater in Hollywood, in association with the Center Theater Group and the Mark Taper Forum’s Latino Theater Initiative.

More than anything, the need for artistic growth appears to be driving the expansion. New-play development requires more physical space, and spaces technologically versatile enough to accommodate any artistic vision. The idea already fuels presentations at the state-of-the-art REDCAT (Roy & Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in downtown’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Gordon Davidson, outgoing artistic director of Center Theater Group, says, “The biggest challenge is to create spaces that let performers and writers say what they want to say and give them the right to fail and the right to go down a road and change their minds.”

Davidson says the Douglas Theater will facilitate the development process, allowing for extensive readings and workshops and facilitating CTGs commitment to creating theater for the city’s youth.

The Montalban is workshopping four original productions by commissioned Latino writers and looking to create more opportunities. The Madison Project is meant to be a breeding ground for spontaneity, according to its director, Dale Franzen.

“Years ago, George Sand would say, ‘Chopin, come play your new etude, I’ll invite some friends.’ ” Now, because of email, “We’ll be able to do spontaneous readings or performances.” Also helpful will be having ticket prices competitive with movies.

For the industry, though, it’s the potential of a growing theater scene to yield benefits for fllm and television that may be most intriguing. Already, there’s a long tradition of cross-breeding.

Michael Peretzian, a CAA literary agent who signed director Anthony Minghella after seeing one of his plays, reps several other playwrights who have become A-list scribes and directors.

“It’s not like anybody has that assignment (to scout theater for talent), but generally, agents do,” Peretzian says. “The more good theater that is becoming available, the more agents who would go see theater, and a byproduct would be more visibility for everybody involved.”

John Levey, senior VP of casting for John Wells Prods., says the benefits of an improved theater scene include exposure to it and “an auxiliary range of actors you wouldn’t (normally) get to see.”

Many in the industry hold legit theater to New York standards, and their current antipathy could be hard to break, says Dennis Erdman, a director-producer active in both theater and television. Producers, casting directors, and their ilk typically treat theater-going in L.A. as “a last resort,” he says, “after first trying to get the script from an agent or a videotape of the production.”

Besides, he complains, “There’s hardly any good material filling the old theaters. What are they going to put in the new ones?”

Still, there are any number of people ready to capitalize on what’s to come.

Producer Darren Star thinks playwrights who haven’t written for television “make that transition very capably. I think you find a lot of interesting voices in the theater — people who have been writing from their own point of view.”

At 20th’s new Fox 21 division, senior veep Jane Leisner is looking to develop playwrights into TV writers.

“We are going to take chances on more out-there voices,” she says, partly in a bid to reduce costs, because “you’re not competing for the same talent, which ultimately causes bidding wars.”

Incoming CTG director Michael Ritchie, who takes over from the retiring Davidson in January, welcomes the potential for cross-fertilization.

“You don’t necessarily start as a movie star or a producer of a hit TV show you’re probably writing a one-act play in college that leads you to think, ‘Well, maybe I can do this.’ So there’s a real connection (to theater) that I hope there’s an opportunity to draw from,” he says.

There’s also a tradition in L.A. of successful film and television actors lending their names, funding or clout to theater companies (the many examples include Danny Glover with the Robey Theater, Tim Robbins with the Actors Gang and Mark Ruffalo with the Page 93 Theater Group).

Certainly, it was the promised appearance of movie star Hoffman, the project’s campaign chair, that helped draw supporters to a recent fundraiser in Santa Monica for the Madison Project.

Late in the event, however, it was announced that Hoffman would be a no-show — he was held up on the set of feature “Meet the Fockers.”

The irony was appreciable. In L.A., a star theater scene may be waiting in the wings, but for now, the film and TV industry still holds the spotlight.

Barry Edelstein, Valerie Mahaffey, Ava Shamban, John Carroll Lynch and Madison Project';s Dale Franzen at a Santa Monica fundraiser for the Westside project.
FUTURE FOCUS: Barry Edelstein, Valerie Mahaffey,
Ava Shamban, John Carroll Lynch and Madison Project’s
Dale Franzen at a Santa Monica fundraiser
for the Westside project.
Madison Project fundraiser photograph: Vladan Elakovic

 

 

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