Why can’t we get great shows out of small theaters?

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Last week, I wrote about several gaps in LA theater’s cultural infrastructure. Specifically, that it’s really hard to make a broader cultural impact with theater that’s only playing to 99 seats over the course of six weeks.

It’s a simple question of scale and time. A theater with 99 seats isn’t large enough to create meaningful word of mouth. Six weeks isn’t enough time for that word to travel beyond a theater’s existing audience (or at best existing audience and regular intimate theatergoers).

To be clear, I’m not talking about the majority of 99 seat shows. For them, six weeks is enough (in some cases, more than enough). But every year there are a handful of shows that strike a chord or find an audience or discover the secret alchemy of theater that makes them special. These shows not only deserve a larger audience but, in a twist of irony, are also the key to building a larger audience for all of Los Angeles theater.

What happens to these great shows?

In the majority of cases, they play their six weeks (often to strong ticket sales) and then they disappear. Maybe there is a tacked on week or two of extension but usually that’s it and that’s a problem.

Why? Because as a theater community, we’re letting our best work go unrecognized. We’re allowing our best opportunities to grow a citywide theater audience (or at least a larger audience) close before they can do their job.

Let’s remember the underlying reality: making theater is tough; making really good theater is really tough. All the fiscal realities aside, if you’re approaching the theater with integrity, not every show is going to be great. This is, after all, an art not a science. For every great show that deserves a broader audience, there are probably half a dozen shows that don’t. That’s not a flaw, that’s just how it is.  Now, what LA theater gets is: it takes a lot of work to make good work. What we don’t get (or haven’t built the infrastructure to support) is: how to take the great work and share it with the whole city.

If you want to see the kind of show I’m talking about go see “Man Covets Bird” at 24th Street Theatre. Here’s a ‘kid’s show’ that transcends the expectations of youth theater and creates a beautiful journey about the importance of not losing your passion in the face of a ‘button pushing job’ and the sadness and joy of letting a dear friend make his own way in the world. It’s a magical piece of theater and it’s only playing to 99 seats in one corner of our city.

Here’s a show that’s worthy of a citywide audience, one that doesn’t already go to the theater. To 24th Street’s credit, they not only know that but have creatively extended this show for six Sundays this spring.

I wonder if that’s enough? Is six Sundays south of the 10 freeway really enough to share this show with everyone in Los Angeles who would love it? Will word travel from 24th Street and Hoover to the Valley? To the Beach? To Pasadena?

Here’s where the demons of time and scale are joined by their insidious friend: geography.

Before we can tackle solutions to these holes in our cultural infrastructure we need to understand, at least for theater, the big challenges: Time, Scale and Geography.

For the first two, we can look to other cities for models but for geography… in Los Angeles, we’re all alone.

BACKSTAGE is an ongoing series focusing on the ‘Inside Baseball’ of the theater.