Aug 9, 2010

Critics' Showcase

It's hard to convey how dispiriting it is to read, in this colloquy between the LA Times' Charles McNulty and the LA Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris, that the former clings to the cliche that the town's small-theater offerings have the taint of "actors' showcase" about them. But it is helpful to find out where McNulty sets the bar:
I'm not arguing that there aren't auteurs at work or theater companies with an appetite for experiment, such as Circle X Theatre Co., Son of Semele Ensemble and Circus Theatricals...The productions at Boston Court and the Fountain are consistently strong, even muscular at times. But radical or groundbreaking? These venues have dynamic artistic leadership and are committed to ambitious, meaningful work. The same is true of the Black Dahlia and the Blank Theatre Company. But I wish that our best and boldest theater directors had a more influential voice. If they did, the new work that is being generated would get only stronger.
So if your theater offers "strong, even muscular" productions and has "dynamic artistic leadership" that's "committed to ambitious, meaningful work," but you fall short of the "radical or groundbreaking" standard, your work is likely to have "all the urgency of an actors' showcase." Do I have that straight?

I can't argue with a fellow critic's honest perceptions, and McNulty seems to genuinely want to get it, and hey--he's been there in the trenches seeing the shows, and I haven't since 2005. But I have to call bullshit on this. Apply the dynamic-and-muscular-but-sorry-it's-not-groundbreaking standard to theater anywhere, in any era, and you'd end up with a very short list of highlights. Even Eric Bentley was disappointed more often than not, and he was seeing ostensibly the best of the best. I believe that every critic should maintain high standards and should routinely challenge his subjects and his readers, to the point of effrontery and even past it, but I'm sick of seeing L.A.'s small theaters get beaten with this stick so relentlessly, and by their hometown critic.

UPDATE: As usual, Don Shirley is a better reporter than I. In his response to the CM/SLM dialogue, he points out, in persuasive detail, how robust the Southland's midsize theater scene is, and writes hopefully that it may be best positioned to take the artistic risks valorized by Morris and McNulty. Frankly, that wasn't my experience with former 99-seaters that made the move up to midsize Equity contracts in the late '90s and early aughts; the slight move up to bigger-budget houses often meant smaller cast sizes, fewer performances of fewer productions, and more surefire commercial material. But to his credit, Shirley is relentless on the economic argument for his former employer, the LA Times, to cover these theaters.

1 comment:

Dennis said...

Rob, I love that the comment rankles, but I don't think you have that straight. Really, having just finished a season where I saw over 150 shows as an Ovation Voter, a playwright and a LAStageAlliance spouse, I see what McNulty's talking about. And it's more than a taint. It's an actual strain of the LA theatre bloodline and let's face it, Equity Waiver theatre wouldn't exist without it. But more importantly, what McNulty seems to be asking for is "a more influential voice" for LA's greatest directors. I agree. Our LA directors are generously serving the vision of playwrights, companies, collectives and sometimes even individual actors. I join McNulty in suggesting that LA actors and playwrights also be willing to serve the vision of our great directors. Imagine Kubzansky set loose with a big budget and writer, cast and crew all in service of her voice. But keep holding ankles to the fire, there is also a genuine strain of self-loathing we need to guard against and defeat.