Theater Journalism: Size Matters

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

It's 6 o'clock in the morning, LA time, and LA Weekly critic Steven Leigh Morris and I are somewhere over Louisiana in a small plane talking about LA theater.

Okay, let me step back and explain that.

Steven and I were headed to the Actors Theatre of Louisville for the 37th Humana Festival of New Plays. Along with ten other journalists from around the country, we were descending on Louisville to form "Engine 31," an experimental pop-up newsroom to cover all things related to the festival of six fully produced new American plays.

What's a pop-up newsroom? Good question (one that we're still in the process of answering). The easy answer is: it's an experiment and brain child of Doug McLennan, the founder of Arts Journal, and Sasha Anawalt, who runs the Arts Journalism program at USC. Basically, like a pop-up restaurant or boutique, it's an ad-hoc assemblage of talent organized around an idea. Instead of food we're shilling journalism. And the idea, at least for this iteration, is theater.

Theater and journalism are an interesting duo at this moment. Engine 31 found itself at the intersection of two fields that are doing some serious soul searching. Both theater and journalism are struggling with a world where the meaning, value, and delivery of the written word has radically changed. Technology, the internet, is pressing against the attention of both theatergoers and readers. The drive to scale down can be felt as much in newsrooms as in the preponderance of two person plays in the regional theater. But as a wise dramaturg once said, 'it still takes a lot of people to make "Hamlet".'

I haven't yet wrapped my mind around the festival or "Engine 31," but let me share some first impressions before I get back to LA theater.

Size matters.

Having never been, I had always imagined the Humana Festival as part of the continuum of 'New Play Development'. You know: reading, workshop, production? I didn't appreciate how 'produced' this festival is. These are full productions of six plays.

To put it in perspective, the Humana Festival budget, alone, is $3 million. If you broke out the festival as a separate 'theater', $3 million is greater than the budgets of over 80 percent of theaters in America. In LA, that budget would dwarf all but Center Theater Group, the Geffen, and Pasadena Playhouse.

That kind of investment in new work makes a difference. That kind of support fosters community.

Which leads me back to that plane flight. Our conversation led us to the importance of support, of how LA theater still hasn't recovered from losing the close to $1 million that A.S.K. Theater Projects used to pump into LA's theater community annually.

The challenge for LA theater, and journalism, is the only substitute for that kind of money is vision.

If you want to check out Engine 31's coverage of Louisville, you can find it on the web at And if all this talk of new plays has you hungry, you can check out South Coast Repertory's "Pacific Playwrights Festival" from April 26 to 28 in Costa Mesa.

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