When an innovative revival of “Spring Awakening” awoke on Broadway last year — combining sign language and vocal performance — few theatergoers realized the production originated almost 3,000 miles away, in Los Angeles.
The vitality of LA’s live theater scene is one of the best kept secrets about the city, even among Angelenos.
“There are 400, 500, 600 productions in LA a year,” says Los Angeles theater expert Steven Stanley, editor of StageSceneLA.com. “It’s very active, and I don’t think people realize it.”
Stars Shine on LA Stage
Some of Hollywood’s most accomplished stars bring energy to LA theater. Four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening has headlined productions at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, the Geffen Playhouse, and the Mark Taper Forum.
Emmy winners Laurie Metcalf and Megan Mullally regularly stride the LA stage. Oscar winner Tim Robbins serves as artistic director of the LA-based Actors’ Gang theater company. And screen legends Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman trace their early acting days to the Pasadena Playhouse.
Like Hoffman and Hackman in the 1950s, many up-and-comers today gain valuable experience on the LA stage, often in petite 99-seat theaters. Los Angeles boasts more than 180 of these intimate venues.
“There are a lot of actors who want to work, who want to perform, and are glad to do great roles in small theaters,” says Stanley. “These actors see it as something they do during their free time that ends up earning them something, instead of paying a lot of money for acting classes and getting to do just a scene a week.”
Shows typically run between four and eight weeks, with many theater companies putting on four or five productions a season, says Stanley.
But the future of LA’s small theater scene is clouded by disputes over what performers are paid.
For decades, Actors’ Equity Association — the union representing actors — permitted members to basically volunteer their services at 99-seat venues in LA, with actors receiving a stipend of as little as $7 a day. Last year, Equity surveyed LA performers and found most of them were content with that arrangement. Despite that, the union moved forward with a plan that would require small venues to pay minimum wage for rehearsals and performances, with some exceptions.
A group of marquee names, including Ed Asner, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, and French Stewart, filed suit to block Equity’s move, saying the plan would force 99-seat theaters to close or cut back on productions.
Equity accuses its opponents of waging a campaign of misinformation, “releasing false and distorted data in their continued grasp for a rationale as to why actors should not be paid,” as the union put it in a statement to BELLA LA.
Wicked-Good Shows and World Premieres
The dispute doesn’t involve LA’s medium and large venues, which pay Equity-scale wages. One of the most regal sites is the historic Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, which hosted Oscar ceremonies decades ago. Today it attracts touring productions of Broadway hits like “Wicked” and “The Book of Mormon.”
The venerable Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center downtown also presents some touring productions, and mounts its own shows including a revival of “Grey Gardens” this past summer.
“That’s our production,” says Douglas C. Baker, producing director of the Center Theatre Group, which operates the Ahmanson, the Mark Taper Forum next door, and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. “We licensed ‘Grey Gardens’ to be able to produce it. We went out and hired the team and we made the deals for Betty Buckley and Rachel York to be our stars in the show.”
No less than seven world premieres are slated for the Kirk Douglas and Taper in the coming season, Baker says. Among them is a new musical commissioned by the Center Theatre Group from acclaimed playwright David Henry Hwang.
Another sign of the vibrancy of LA theater is the number of productions that begin here and then head east. Once the Center Theatre Group’s production of the Tony-winning show “A View From the Bridge” wraps its Ahmanson run in mid-October, it will move to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
The musical version of “Sister Act” began at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2006 before making it to Broadway. The Deaf West Theatre has transferred two of its shows to Broadway, including that acclaimed revival of “Spring Awakening,” which earned three Tony nominations. And it will come as no surprise if Tony winner David Henry Hwang’s upcoming musical eventually makes it to Broadway.
In the end, despite the controversy over 99-seat venues, the overall picture for LA theater is sparkling.
Says Baker, “There’s a lot of good work being done in the community.”
Contributed by Matthew Carey