Why we need a good 'Block Party'

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

Would LA's intimate theater be more popular if it were slightly . . . less intimate?

That's one of the questions that Center Theatre Group is tackling right now at the Kirk Douglas Theater with the Block Party.

Block Party is a sort of greatest hits of last year in LA's 99 seat theaters. The event is three plays curated from smaller theaters and remounted at the Kirk Douglas Theatre for 11 performances each. They were all hits in their smaller 99-seat-and-under homes so Center Theatre Group is giving them a brief shot at the slightly larger 317 seat Kirk Douglas Theatre. The plays? Coeurage Theatre Company’s production of Failure: A Love Story, the Fountain Theatre’s production of Citizen: An American Lyric and, my favorite, the Echo Theater Company’s production of Dry Land.

Block Party is a big deal for LA's small theaters but to appreciate why you have to understand LA's theater ecosystem and how it differs from our cousins in Chicago or New York.

On its face, Block Party is simple. Take a show that was a success at a smaller space and transfer it to a bigger theater. No brainer, right? That's how healthy theater ecologies work. You start small and if you hit an artistic cord you move the show to take advantage of a bigger audience and the prestige of a more established venue. This kind of thing happens all the time in New York. It's a transaction that benefits both parties. The smaller theater expands its audience and gains the imprimatur of the bigger theater. The bigger theater takes advantage of a known commodity that already exists so it's less risk than a brand new production. Ironically, the big theater likely ends up with an edgier production that if it had produced itself given how risk averse most large theaters are in today's climate. It's a win/win.

What makes this a big deal is that this isn't how Los Angeles theater has traditionally worked. Our larger theaters have been slow to recognize and support the best of local work, instead privileging productions from out of town which in turn devalues the local product and makes LA less of a theater town for the small and the big.

Can the Block Party change all this?

No, but it's a start. At its best Center Theatre Group is pointing a finger at LA's small theater and saying "something exciting is happening there that you should know about." That benefits the culture of theater in Los Angeles. Block Party is a modest start. These shows are only playing for two weekends each. This isn't the same as a full four or six week run. When you do the math these shows will likely be reaching about 50% more audience than they did in their original runs. That's not revolutionary but it's a start.

More significant than the size may be the geography. We often think about LA's theater audience as one thing rather than a collection of discrete audiences driven as much by geography as aesthetics. If Block Party can teach us that you can move a show across town and reach a different audience, that could really change LA theater.

The best news? Center Theatre Group already announced they're going to throw another Block Party next year.

Block Party’s" last two production play through May 21 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

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

Photo: Connor-Kelly Eiding (sitting) and Teagan Rose in Ruby Rae Spiegel's Dry Land.