The Asian Carp of LA Theater

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

It's that time of year again. It's that unannounced season when LA's theaters are suddenly filled with work from distant cities.

You could, like me, see in a little under a week: The latest from New York's Elevator Repair Service, Arguendo at REDCAT.

A King Lear from Shakespeare's Globe at the Broad Stage.
Robert Wilson directing Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe at UCLA.

That's pretty remarkable and it hasn't always been that way in LA theater. To appreciate that and what it means to the broader dramatic ecosystem, we need to break LA theater down into some overly simple categories. Basically: small, medium, large, extra large and home-grown and imported.

You've heard me talk a lot lately about small or intimate theater: 99 seats and below. For all its ongoing challenges this is where most of the home-grown LA theater is made.

Let's skip to the extra-large. At the top of the pyramid, in terms of size, not necessarily quality, you've got your roughly 2000 seat houses: the Ahmanson, the Pantages, historically the Schubert. These are our 'road houses.' Basically, satellites for touring Broadway musicals that can pack them in. These are all imports.

Right below these are our large regional theaters coming in at roughly 500 to 750 seats: The Geffen Playhouse, the Mark Taper Forum, South Coast Repertory. Philosophically, or ideally, these should be our home-grown heroes -- the theaters that give a broad voice to our city. In reality, the makeup here is a little different but that's an argument for another day.

It's in the medium size category that things have really changed over the last decade -- say 200 to 500 seats. LA has a couple of home grown mid-sized theaters that are valiantly fighting the fight: A Noise Within, East-West Players, the Colony.

What's really grown in the last 10 years is the 'presenting houses:' The Broad Stage, REDCAT, Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA. These theaters cater almost entirely to the imports: work made elsewhere that's presented for short runs -- often no more than a single weekend. Ideally, this work should be a sort of international 'best of'.

Now, I don't want to suggest these are the theatrical equivalent of some invasive species (an Asian carp spouting Shakespeare eating LA's audience) but they have shifted the ecosystem and attract outsized attention. After all, it's a lot sexier and easier to market a show that already exists with glossy photos than to say, "We picked this play and we hope it's going to be great."

So what can LA theaters and audiences learn from the rise of the imports and the slow transformation of LA into a 'presenting town?'

In a nutshell, consistency matters. Counterintuitively, these presenters have been committing to artists in ways that our local theaters don't. I'm able to appreciate the Elevator Repair Service and even say Arguendo isn't their best work because Mark Murphy at REDCAT has committed to presenting the company again and again - the same with the Broad's commitment to Shakespeare.

The way to build audiences is over years not over six weeks.

You can catch Robert Wilson's The Old Woman at UCLA this weekend.

And Shakespeare's Globe Theater production of King Lear plays at the Broad Stage through Sunday.

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