The Responsibility of Space

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

Twenty years ago, A Noise Within was founded like most any another 99-seat theatre company: a couple of folks with graduate degrees and a passion for plays. In this case their dream was to do Shakespeare in rotating repertory. Again, hardly unique in a town filled with actors.

But it is remarkable that A Noise Within is still around two decades later. And more than that, they've managed to build their own 283-seat theater in East Pasadena. They raised $13 million dollars - an impressive sum for a theater in any economy. In this economy, it's a minor miracle.

It also exemplifies what LA theatre needs much more of -- consistency, sustainability, and growth.

Think of LA non-profit theatre as a tall pyramid with a really, really wide base. At the bottom (in terms of size, not art) are the 99-seat theatre companies. There are literally hundreds of them. At the top, our big regionals -- Center Theatre Group, the Geffen, Pasadena Playhouse, and South Coast Rep. In between 99 seats and 500 seats? There are really only a handful.

Of those, only five companies that I know of have made the jump from under 99 to over 200 seats: East West Players, Latino Theatre Company, the Colony, International City Theater, and...A Noise Within.

So in the ecosystem of LA theatre, that's cause for celebration.

A Noise Within's production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night inaugurating it's new space is a peek into how the company made it this far...and it reveals the artistic questions that lie ahead.

Their first challenge is the space itself. While it's shiny and clean, the theater lacks some of the funky charm of the old Masonic temple the company rented in Glendale. That's a mixed blessing: production values that looked lavish in the old space aren't quite as impressive here. First question: What's the aesthetic that matches this space?

While the theater itself stays true to the company's commitment to the thrust stage, the architecture lacks focus both visually and acoustically. I have no doubt that with time the actors and designers will figure out the space's acoustics in the same way that the LA Phil had to learn Disney Hall. But in their opening show - Twelfth Night - the actors struggled to fill the the space with their voices. They also had trouble finding the voice of the play. Second question: What does it mean to be A Noise Within actor?

The current production of Twelfth Night is set in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Why? Sure, it's fun for the designers and you can open with a machete dance number. But what does Cuba have to do with Twelfth Night?

Which leads us to the really tough third question. Why do the classics? For 20 years, it's been enough for A Noise Within and their audience to answer, "Because they're classics." But this year they need to double their audience for the new space. It's time to go deeper. Why do this play for this audience now?

A Noise Within has already built something astounding: a home. Let's hope they're up to answering the tough questions the space asks about their art.

A Noise Within's production of Twelfth Night plays through December

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

Run time: 2 hours 45 minutes, with intermission.

Banner image: A Noise Within's production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Photo by Craig Schwartz