The wrong kind of spectacle

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

A lot of things are moving in LA's larger theaters and it's got me freaked out.

I'm not talking about actors - actors can move all they want. I'm talking about furniture, about the sets themselves moving. If you saw Archduke at the Mark Taper Forum, you know what I'm talking about it. For those who didn't, at the beginning of the third act the lights come up on a train car. It fills up almost the entire width of the Taper stage and no sooner does it appear then it starts to magically move towards us downstage. This set piece is massive and it's moving -- seemingly all by itself. Then, as if that isn't enough, it begins to rotate as if it's on some giant turntable. Right there, without a stage hand in sight, it spins so we go from seeing the outside of the train on one side to seeing the inside of the train on the other side.

It's impressive. So impressive that the audience on opening night applauded.

Okay, remember this spinning train for a minute.

Across town, if you go to the Geffen to see Constellations in addition to two actors moving on stage, you'll also see a variety of furniture mysteriously gliding on and off stage. A picnic table slides off stage left. A love seat slinks into position - again without any stage hands - and a bench pops up from the stage floor.

All this theater magic is courtesy of automation - basically just a spiffy way of saying that a machine is doing the work instead of a stage hand dressed in black wheeling the chair or set piece on or off.

So what has me freaked out about all of this automation?

Two things. One, some of it is distracting and two, it's all really costly.

Remember that train spinning in Archduke, the audience applauding? For as impressive as that bit of stagecraft was, dramaturgically it was totally unnecessary. It didn't really move the story forward or serve some critical plot point - it was just a flashy bit of spectacle - expensive spectacle.

Without getting too caught up in backstage drama, the reality of automation is it's costly in any theater but especially in our theaters in Los Angeles. The Taper, the Geffen, really all of our large theaters weren't built to support his kind of thing. That means that any of this theater magic comes at a premium both in terms of time and money. Money for all the machines and tech time to make sure it all works. Getting that train to spin or that bench to pop up takes time - a lot of time.

And both the time and the money needs to come from somewhere and that has consequences. While I'm all for a little theater magic here and there, I'm worried about our theaters getting addicted to the wrong kind of spectacle. The magic on our stages should come from remarkable stories brilliantly acted.

The fireworks, to put it in terms fitting for today, should come from the actors not the scenery.

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

Photo: (L-R) Stephen Stocking, Ramiz Monsef, Todd Weeks and Josiah Bania in the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph's Archduke. at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. (Craig Schwartz)