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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Is Los Angeles a theater town? That question's been hanging in the air in cultural circles for the past week or so.

In part that's because LA hosted a national convention for people who work in the not-for-profit side of theater. And because the L.A. Times convened a panel that was advertised as tackling that very question.

The Times' theater critic Charles McNulty moderated the event, which began taking heat even before it began.

That's because the participants were big names, like the actor and Actors' Gang director Tim Robbins, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley, and the producer behind the Broadway hit Wicked, Marc Platt.

What the creative folks behind small theater companies in LA didn't see was anyone from their end of the spectrum.

Somebody who has to mount productions in theaters with 99 or fewer seats, and scrounge more or less all the time – for funding, for audience, for attention in the media.

Instead, the panel was rounded out by Michael Ritchie, the artistic director of the downtown Music Center's Center Theater Group, and Sheldon Epps, who has the same title at the newly revived Pasadena Playhouse.

Kind of like a panel on the history of apartheid in South Africa without including blacks, said one unhappy 99-seater.

According to one review, by a Salt Lake City critic who was visiting for the arts journalism program at USC Annenberg, the assembled luminaries wouldn't go near the provocative question.

Is Los Angeles as much of a theater town as, say, New York or Seattle?

Epps quipped that “New York is a great city, and LA is a great state of mind.” McNulty said it's obvious that Los Angeles IS a theater town, yet people feel they have to keep arguing the point again and again.

Ritchie made a different point that casual theatergoers may not realize. Los Angeles stage productions, he says, can't just rely on the thousands of actors who live here.

So many of them are geared toward television and movies, and staying in character to get a single scene on film or tape is so different from standing up in front of a live crowd for two hours, night after night.

So producers have to bring in actors from New York and Chicago for the LA stage, Ritchie said.

There was talk about the car factor in determining the start time – and how long into the night a play can run – in order to lure Angeleno drivers across town.

Not a unique issue to LA, but certainly a real factor here.

I thought about all this during intermission at a performance of Superior Donuts, the play written by Tracy Letts that's now at the Geffen Playhouse.

The house was nearly full – it was billed as girl's night out, and by the looks of it the promotion works. A good slice of the audience were groups of women.

There was a distinct older demographic, like you expect at LA's most established theaters.

But I was struck by the range of audience: younger fans, some hipsters, maybe some students and tourists.

The play was satisfying for most of us, I think. For one night at least, theater town or not, the art form was alive and well. And that's really what matters.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

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