Our Problem Presents Itself

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

I want to tell you about two remarkable shows that recently played in LA.

Both were technically seductive tellings of brutal, brutal narratives. One was a mash-up of theater and cinema and graphic novels brought to life by the Chilean company Teatrocinema at REDCAT. The other was Lisa Dwan's solo performance of three of Samuel Beckett's virtuosic texts.

Here's the problem: they've already left town and before I could tell you how wonderful they were they'd closed.

So why even mention them? Because the dynamics behind these short engagements and their timing offers us a window into the health of LA's theatrical ecosystem and highlights several profound challenges.

Both of these shows were made outside of Los Angeles. They're being presented here as just one stop on a longer journey.

Now, there's a lot of factors that go into scheduling a show (other tour dates, costs, venue availability) but one of the prime ones is how many tickets a presenter thinks they can sell. So if we see the most adventurous work only booked for a single weekend, that tells us something about how many Angeleno's these theaters think they can count on.

You can see the same calculations in the varying lengths of tour stops for a mega-success like Hamilton. LA gets a five month commitment -- which isn't bad until you compare it to the open ended run in Chicago. Not exactly scientific but it does tell us about the relative health of the audience in each city.

But that's not the measure I'm most interested in, at least not directly.

In LA we now have a handful of theaters, presenting houses that these shows appear in. Working west to east: there's the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, there's UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance in Westwood, in Beverly Hills there's The Wallis, and downtown there's REDCAT. And these are all part of a larger group that to the north includes VPAC and to the south Segerstrom Center.

What fascinates me is how each of these individual theaters, or presenting houses, sees its audience. Is Los Angeles one big audience pool with a land mass that exceeds some states and who's economy ranks with a decent size country, or is Los Angeles a series of neighborhoods separate and distinct, with little audience pools clustered geographically?

If these theaters saw LA as one big audience, at least for avant-garde work, it might make sense to work collaboratively, to schedule together where possible and when shows end up on the same weekend -- or adjoining weekends like these two did -- make something of it. Turn it into an event. In essence, treat the care and feeding of a citywide audience as a shared goal. That's not happening, at least not in the way it could.

No one can really say for certain whether these theaters are splitting an existing audience or not. But as long as we see single weekend engagements of exciting work, it's pretty clear they aren't working together to build that citywide audience.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.