When it comes to LA theater, the embarrassment of riches is embarrassing

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Here’s a quick list of the opening nights over 10 days in LA theater:

September 7: “Haunted House Party” at the Getty Villa
September 11: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the Mark Taper Forum
September 14: “A View from the Bridge” at the Ahmanson and, the same night, “Barbecue” at the Geffen
September 16: “Throw Me On the Burnpile and Light Me Up” at the Kirk Douglas

Those are shows at theaters with more than 300 seats. If I included LA’s intimate theaters, the list would go on.

There are a variety of reactions you could have to this full schedule: “How wonderful to live in a city with such a vibrant theater scene.” Or “Wow, this must be the start of theater season!”

My reaction is, “ARGGH! LA Theater you’re doing it again!” Accompanied by dramatic teeth gnashing and some minor hair pulling. Again, theaters are scheduling on top of one another without either creating an event or, god forbid, an actual theater season out of it.

As I’ve written before, this traffic jam of openings is as predictable as rush hour on the 405. There are only so many good opening slots in the fall calendar. You don’t want to open a show before Labor Day because too many people out of town soaking up the last drops of summer before the kids are back in school. You also don’t want to open too late if you’re trying to sneak another show in without being disrupted by Thanksgiving. So you end up roughly here.

Then, the next show needs to open before Thanksgiving and close before the holidays, so come January you have the same collision at the beginning of that month.

Now, if LA theaters were sold out dynamos that were turning away theatergoers and running constantly in the black with an audience that understood this invisible season and a cultural infrastructure that supported all these simultaneous openings, well, I’d just be a cranky critic who had to make some tough choices on what to cover when (and obviously, what not to cover and why).
That’s not the situation.

If our choices were this rich year-round and we had the theatrical version of a multiplex with a handful of plays always at the ready for an audience that filled both opening nights and the Tuesday and Wednesday nights several weeks into the run, again I’d be the foolish curmudgeon.

That’s not the case, either.

More than one of these shows is going to have plenty of open seats in a couple of weeks.

You could make the geographical argument that each of these theaters is playing to its own neighborhood within our vast landmass of a city. I’d be with you if all these theaters were running at capacity and each had a healthy media outlet that served each of these mini-cities. But this is not born out by the numbers.

I fear that LA’s theaters are dividing an audience and robbing limited coverage from each other. Remember, the list above doesn’t even include our small theaters, which vastly outnumber our large ones. It also excludes our presenting houses like the Broad Stage, The Wallis, Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, or REDCAT.

So we have the crisis of either too much or too little. Either we have too many theaters carving up too little of the pie or we don’t have enough infrastructure for so much good theater. Take your choice.

I fear it’s a problem we’re going to be stuck with until our theaters learn to share a calendar in a way that supports a city-wide audience or garner the support to turn these inevitable collisions into city-wide festivals, celebrating our theatrical riches.

Till then, good luck choosing.