Why L.A. Needs to Be Connected to The Bridge

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Over the past few months I've noticed a general worry among people in the arts that the current financial crisis is going to bring about the demise of many of our finest cultural institutions.

In Los Angeles, we've already watched one opera company go bust, Orange County's Opera Pacific, and have seen many other theaters, museums and other arts organization pare back schedules or openly ask for help.

All of this brings me back to a quote by George Bernard Shaw, arguably the finest playwright of the last century. He said, “The surest way to ruin a man who doesn't know how to handle money is to give him some.” It makes one ask the question: perhaps we shouldn't be wondering how the recession is going to stifle creative artists — theater and other arts have survived for thousands of years in good times and bad — but rather how the past years of flush budgets and little accountability will allow the same executive directors and general managers to pretend that the recession is the cause for diminished artistic results as opposed to bad ideas and business practices stemming from when times were good.

I mention this because last month I had the good fortune to see new model for what I believe is the best hope for high quality, artistic theater in the future.

It's called The Bridge Project and it's an interesting mix of old fashioned theatrical traditions like: performing plays in repertory, long touring schedules, and of course, star power to bring in audiences. It melds these old ideas with a 21st century belief in globalization.

Theater is expensive. This is something that isn't going to change regardless of the stock market. It takes lots of work to make theater engaging and as opposed to other forms of entertainment that can be mass-produced, the hope for a big return on this investment is limited.

What The Bridge Project does is right is that rather than pinching pennies (by shortening rehearsal times, or limiting cast sizes) or taking big money risks (like adapting a major motions picture or banking on a movie star to bring in audiences who don't really care about the play) it uses a healthy budget and its star power in a long-term investment way.

It's true, The Bridge Projects has some name actors, which is why it has attracted financing, media attention and sold out audiences for its productions of The Cherry Orchard and A Winter's Tale, two classic plays not exactly known for burning up the box office.

ethan_hawke-winters_tale.jpg Ethan Hawke who's in the cast of both these productions is an American movie star — and so is Simon Russell Beale, who's considered one of England's finest stage actors; but the biggest names involved with The Bridge Project are people you won't see on stage: Sam Mendes and Kevin Spacey.

These two men wanted to create a classical stage company comprised of the finest stage actors on either side of the Atlantic, and they figured that if they assembled an all-star team of some of the finest actor's in the world then the world would take notice.

dakin_matthews-winters_tale.jpg After finishing its New York run, The Bridge Project moves on to Singapore, New Zealand, Spain, Germany, England and Greece but doesn't come to L.A. This is something that should be remedied, especially since one of the key cast members of the The Bridge Project is from L.A.: Dakin Matthews, who runs the Andak Stage Company in North Hollywood.

Many of L.A.'s (and America's) larger theaters have used the money they raised during the boom years to invest in bigger, flashier theaters and lobbies. This is not bad thing, but perhaps more money should have been invested in the actors and directors that make theaters come to life. The Bridge Project, by investing in a company of performers and ensuring that they are seen by a wide audience, is not just a bridge across the ocean connecting actors on both sides of an ocean; its also a bridge to the future, where people who have been exposed to what first rate theater can be, will realize just how much it's actually worth.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Photos: Joan Marcus