Quantity or Quality?

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

On the page, there's a lot to like about Chalk Repertory Theatre's Flash Festival of short plays.

The idea is cool: bring together 15 Southern California playwrights; pair up with the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. Convince them, some how, to let you do site-specific 10-minute plays in the museum, at night, for three weekends.

What's not to like, right? It's got the new play element, a ton of actors and directors pulled into the mix, a piece of LA history as a backdrop.

The devil, unfortunately, is always in the details. While Chalk Rep's Flash Festival is great conceptually, in practice it's not quite as promising and reveals a deeper problem about LA theater. More on that in a minute.

Let's start with the space.

The promise of site-specific work is breaking the boundaries of the four walls of the theater. Instead of neutral black walls and familiar sets and lights, suddenly all the world's your stage. Your set can be a smilodon fossil. Your lighting can be the orange glow behind 400 dire wolf skulls.

The challenge with site specific work is to treat this new setting as something more than a backdrop. It has to feel like this is the only place in the world this play could happen. The actors, directors and playwright have to marry the space and through their performance reveal something not only about their play but also about the architecture itself. Both should be a revelation.

Superficially, Chalk Rep's first weekend of plays succeeds in helping us see the Page Museum with new eyes: not through the deep connection of the plays to the space but through the simple transgression of performing in an unexpected place. We don't expect to hear people discuss their sex lives in front of fossils.

The plays, as a group, feel like class assignments. They aren't so much inspired by the museum as set in it. They make passing references but feel a bit generic. To be fair, the playwrights only had a month to write which leads to the real problem behind this endeavor: Time.

Before the performance one of Chalk Rep's founders proudly announced that the actors only had eight hours to rehearse and only three of those hours in the museum. It's no wonder they felt a little less than site - specific.

Did I mention they are doing 15 plays over three weekends? Fifteen.

Sure, there's something joyous about throwing up that much work that quickly. But at some point you have to stand back and ask: is quantity really more important than quality?

LA theater doesn't suffer from too little work - quite the opposite.

Chalk Repertory should be applauded for their ambition and for breaking the familiar mold. It's rare to see LA as even the backdrop for our theater, so that's a step in the right direction.

I just with they, along with the rest of LA theater, might take the time to dig a little deeper to tell the stories of our city.

Chalk Repertory Theatre's Flash Festival plays at the Page Museum through September 23.

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

Run time: 75 minutes without intermission

Banner image courtesy of the Page Museum