The Wallis went big!

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On Tuesday, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts announced its upcoming 2016-2017 season and its scope, at least in theater, was a bit of a shock. They announced 12 theater productions across 12 months (including three children’s shows). Against the backdrop of Los Angeles’ presenting houses, that’s a big deal.

To have a sense of the context, we need to rewind a bit. The Wallis (as it’s colloquially branded and known) has been a bit of mystery since long before it opened. Housed in the old Beverly Hills Post Office, the project was one of those unknown quantities that lurk around the edges for years. Back when I was working on building the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City in the early 2000s, the Beverly Hills Post Office was a potential site for a theater. There were vague programming profiles floating around – it was going to be a children’s theater, some said. This was years before construction began and the theater had been officially named.

Fast forward to the banners that adorned its construction fences, things were not any clearer. It seemed to promise a little bit of everything. There was children’s theater, Shakespeare, and on and on. It was hard to figure out exactly what it was going to be.

It’s opening season in 2013 did not do much to clarify things. The first production was a lavishly self-produced play “Parfumerie” that had folks scratching their heads, as much for its selection as whether The Wallis was to be a production house or a presenting house. Was this a place that was going to make work from scratch (akin to the traditional model of the Mark Taper Forum or The Geffen Playhouse) or was it going to be a presenting house that brought in the work of others (venues like Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, REDCAT a satellite of CalArts, The Broad Stage a resident of Santa Monica College, or the Valley Performing Arts C a part of Calstate Northridge).

Things did not get clearer quickly. The Wallis’ original leader, Lou Moore, was dismissed shortly after the theater opened and the venue made its way through several seasons without a particularly strong sense of direction or programming. Theatrically, the work was over the place with everything from musicals from Oregon Shakespeare Festival to a production of “Love Letters” with Ali MacGraw & Ryan O’Neill – with a smattering of children’s shows (several of them quite good). While aesthetically it was a grab bag, it seemed to succeed in reaching a neighborhood audience. You had a sense, at openings and performances, that the community of Beverly Hills was finding its way there.

It’s against this backdrop, that the announced season is striking.

In the past year, The Wallis has gotten a whole new leadership team. They’ve hired Paul Crewes from Britain’s Kneehigh as artistic director and there’s also a turnover in board leadership and managing director. With this transition, it almost feels like a second opening for the theater.

What stands out to me, without getting into the art itself, is:

  • The amount of theater
  • The profile of the artists and the cost
  • The duration of the runs
  • Work from artists associated with other venues

This is an expensive season both in terms of the amount of work, where it’s coming from, and the length of several of the runs. This season indicates a big infusion of money and to some extent a gamble on LA audiences. Several weeks ago my on-air commentary lamented several of the challenges of LA’s presenting houses. I argued that no one presenting house was doing enough theater to truly support an audience.  The argument being that with only a couple of events a year, you were always starting from scratch.  The Wallis season changes that.  Including the children’s theater, they’re doing 12 theater productions between September and August.  If the audience likes the work, that’s enough shows for them to find a home at the Wallis.

And these productions are from some big names: Peter Brook, Complicite/Simon McBurney, Filter Theater with the Royal, Shakespeare Company, Kneehigh. That’s a significant (and incidentally fairly British) list.

Also of note, there are shows running longer than a weekend or two. Not only does that cost more for the artists, it also places a big audience demand on the theater. It’s one thing to fill a theater for a weekend, it’s exponentially more difficult to fill a theater for three weeks. That’s a stretch for any of our presenting houses and will be a real test for the Wallis.

There’s also a lot of work from artists who directly or indirectly associated with other LA venues: Peter Brook & Simon McBurney – Center for the Art of Performance, Hershey Felder – The Geffen, Matthew Bourne – Center Theater Group, and less persuasively the RSC’s association with the Broad. Typically, out of professional courtesy, venues stay away from each other’s artists. There’s nothing overtly wrong with this but it’s notable that there’s so much of it. Again, it’s a bold move.

So what does all this mean? What questions does it pose?

This season represents a bold new direction for The Wallis, that’s beyond question.  What will be a question is: is this sustainable? Will the Wallis be able to both support this level of programming and find this level of audience support? Is this a single flash in the pan or the beginning of a something larger?

And what does this mean for the broader ecosystem? REDCAT and Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA have distinct and different identities that won’t likely be impacted much by The Wallis season. The Broad Stage, on the other hand, given both it’s location and similar programming profile will clearly be impacted. Or will it? Will a rising tide lift all boats? Or will The Wallis take up all the oxygen in the room? At the least it’s interesting to see two performing arts venues that bear the names of two of Los Angeles’ most significant philanthropist’s engaged in these questions.

Next week, a look at the depth of engagement UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance is asking of it’s audience.