Is LA theater worth the commute?

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Would you drive 90 minutes to see a 90 minute play?

Los Angeles theater is counting on you saying yes and that’s increasingly a problem.

Think about it – curtain time for most shows is 8 p.m. That means if it’s a weekday you’re going to be driving to the theater at the heart of rush hour. Given the geographic sprawl of Los Angeles theaters, a 45 minute commute is hardly out of the question. If, like me, you need to make if from the west side to Pasadena for an opening night – good luck. That’s a multi-hour affair.

This is nothing new and it’s a part of living in Los Angeles, so what’s the big deal?

The trouble is that Los Angeles theaters are behaving as if we’re all one big happy city that can just pop over to their latest play with a moment’s notice. While a dedicated theatergoer might be willing to spend twice as long in traffic as they do in the theater, is that really a winning proposition for a general audience (much less building an audience)?

This raises familiar questions: are we one city? or a collection of villages? Is a theater in NoHo (or Glendale, or downtown, you pick your favorite) serving the whole city or just the neighborhood?

Clearly a musical at the Ahmanson or “Hamilton” at the Pantages is counting on the whole city. But below a thousand seats the answer becomes less clear. Do the Taper and the Geffen split the city geographically? How about our presenting houses? Is the Broad Stage in Santa Monica programming as if they are reaching the city? Or just west of the 405?

When we get to our more intimate houses ( under 99 seats) this really becomes a sticky question. Imagine a typical 99 seat production; say that it’s going to have a run of six weeks; pick your favorite location (Hollywood or Venice or Glendale or Atwater Village); and ask, what audience is that production going to reach?

How much of an issue is  drive time? Can a production in Pasadena really to tap into a west side audience?

Right now, Los Angeles’ intimate theaters are behaving as if they are reaching the whole city, as if a production in one corner of the city is a production for the whole city.

What if they flipped that assumption? What if instead of treating geography as the determining factor, theaters acted like food trucks? What if a production drove to us (or at least, closer to us)? So a production might play six weeks in Pasadena, then six weeks in North Hollywood, then six weeks on the westside?

Would LA theater build a bigger audience if getting to the theater didn’t require a quarter of a tank of gas? I think so.