UCLA Live Theater: Thanks for the Memories

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

Four shirtless men seem to float above a table. They're singing in Polish and I can't understand a word. Beautiful. Two emaciated Italians wander amongst an apocalyptic landscape while light bulbs explode, one after another after another…sheer terror. Thirteen Belgian teens destroy the stage and I'm giddy.

All of these stunning theatrical memories are courtesy of David Sefton and the UCLA Live International Theater Festival. It's been a staple of the Los Angeles Theatre Scene over the last 10 years. But it was with horror that I read in Steven Leigh Morris' LA Weekly blog that UCLA's canceling it. Gone.

Every year David Sefton, the executive and artistic director of the series, scours the globe for visually stunning and moving theater. Then each fall, he shares the best of it as part of the annual festival. It's been a remarkable gift to Los Angeles. Not everything there was brilliant but it was always interesting. Gone.

The reason? Well either a slump in ticket sales brought on by the recession or the California budget crisis brought on by…can we blame all of that on the recession?

The truth Is probably buried somewhere deeper. But the real question is: so there's not enough money to risk doing theater - who cares?

Like any eco-system, the dying of one link in the chain affects all the others. So the passing of UCLA's Theater Festival tells you something about the challenge the whole artistic community faces. And here's the sad thing. While we've all become too familiar with the difference between leading and lagging economic indicators, the arts are punished at the beginning and the end. Ticket sales contract first but the real damage comes, as we learn from UCLA Live's case, with the loss of institutional support -- whether that institution a corporation, a foundation, or even, though limited, government funding.

The challenge for the arts community is to become more articulate about their value and the crisis we all face. We've tried "art makes you better at math," "art is great at fueling the economy and development," "Art is just important . . . and a true measure of society" We're still struggling to find the right message.

Bottom line -- which ever argument you buy…or don't -- the loss of an institution like the Theater Festival makes LA a little smaller. We hear less of the world. We lose a bit of inspiration. We miss each other.

What does this canary in the coal mine mean to audience members? Don't wait until the institution is gone to support it. For those of us inside these institutions, we have to get better at articulating our value and our need.

Let's hope that David Sefton is able to bring back the festival in future years and, more importantly, that he sticks around in LA. Period.

Either way, as I've been saying for the last decade leaving UCLA's theaters, "Thanks, David, for sharing this work."

I'd love to hear your favorite memories of the UCLA theater festival and your argument for supporting theater at kcrw.com/theater.

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


Banner image: Song of The Goat's Chronicles – a lamentation Photo: Arkadiusz Chrusciel