What Difference Would It Make?

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

Several weeks ago at LA Stage Alliance's annual LA Stage Day, Ben Cameron spoke.

Now, Ben Cameron is one of the great speakers in the American Theater. He has that TED-Talk-like expansiveness that compares this moment in the performing arts to the religious Reformation. Then in the next moment, he's got the reductive genius to boil it down to '5 simple steps'. Combine that with the fact that he controls $15 million a year for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and you can appreciate why he's someone you should listen to.

What caught me was not his stirring keynote, which I'll come back to in a minute, but something he said on panel on engaging board members. He spoke of the vitality and commitment of Steppenwolf's board in Chicago and traced it back to two key questions that they tackled for a year and a half: "What would a great Steppenwolf look like?" And "What difference would it make?"

What's even more impressive than these fundamental questions is the answers they came up with. Mr. Cameron shared that "Steppenwolf sees itself as the public square where difficult ideas are debated and shared with people who don't know each other."

That's a pretty compelling argument for the theater.

And what difference could that vision make? Mr. Cameron says,

"That board sees their role not as oversight. They see their role as champions for greatness. That board knows that if [Steppenwolf] does this work that Chicago is going to be a more tolerant, a more inclusive, a less hate-crime ridden city. [They] will transform that city."

Stop and think about that for a second. What theater companies, or arts organizations, in Los Angeles have that kind of vision and commitment?

I can only think of a couple.

There's a lot in Mr. Cameron's Steppenwolf anecdote: the leadership required to ask the question; a board's diligence and willingness to tackle it; the way the city is the keystone to the answer.

The real damage of all the time and energy spent on Los Angeles' actor's union kerfuffle is that it's further divided an already fragmented community and kept it from asking these difficult questions.

Los Angeles isn't Chicago. It's not enough for one theater to tackle these questions, if LA theater is going to transcend this existential crisis it's going to require the community to collectively forge compelling answers.

If you think I'm only talking 99-seat theaters, have a look at the balance sheets of our larger theaters over the last couple of years. It's not a pretty picture.

So back to Mr. Cameron's keynote at LA Stage Day. Surely, he inspired the city's theatrical leaders and now it's only a matter of time, right? What you can't see from the youtube video of the speech is that the audience was practically empty. Maybe it was the Hollywood Fringe Festival meeting that was scheduled for the same day or maybe the community's just sick of meeting after the Equity fiasco or maybe it was Terence McFarland's departure? In any case, precious few turned up. So for those who missed it:

What would a great Los Angeles theater community look like?

And more importantly, what difference would it make?

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