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Paul Birchall’s Got It Covered:

This Week’s Roundup: A Note from Sean Branney, SLM on Theater and Our Community, Olya Petrakova on Stagecraft, and Daniel Henning on a Meeting With Alec Guinness


By Paul Birchall



More on Banshee


banshee(Photo courtesy of Theatre Banshee)


After news of the imminent closure of Theatre Banshee theater companies broke last week, I received a very nice email from Banshee artistic director Sean Branney. He particularly wanted to address the question of gentrification, and my suggestion that small theaters time and again help gentrify neighborhoods, only to get tossed aside by their landlords so they can reap higher rent. 


“At the end of the day, the gentrification of our Magnolia Park neighborhood certainly played a role in our being priced out of our space,” noted Branney. “But beyond gentrification, producing theatre has never been harder. There’s more competition from at-home entertainment. The audience is more fragmented. The reach of the press has never been shorter. Half price ticket services cut deeply into companies’ margins. The situation with AEA looms huge and ambiguously over the community. Ultimately, there’s a lot of forces at work which make the impossible job of running a small theatre that much more difficult.” 


It was fascinating to hear this from Branney and to realize that many of the issues you hear bandied through the zeitgeist are not just airy-fairy theories but real developments that need to be taken into account — and soon. Theater companies in Los Angeles operate in an atmosphere that is not necessarily benign or even ambivalent. It requires energy and ferocious innovation to survive in a culture that already wrongfully considers theater in Los Angeles beneath aesthetic consideration. The Banshee is really just the latest canary in the coal mine and we must take the closing of the company as just one more wakeup call.



What Would SLM Do?


2015 LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards Ceremony held at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre on Monday, November 9, 2015, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

Steven Leigh Morris at the 2015 LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)


By now you may have read the interview in American Theatre with our own former editor Steven Leigh Morris who’s moved on to his new gig as executive director of LA Stage Alliance. The interview, conducted by the classy and professional Kevin Delin (also a contributor to Stage Raw) was a dynamic and thoughtful discussion of what Morris perceives to be his role in the community. 


Since Morris is new in the job  — the ink is probably still dry on his business cards — he can be forgiven for not talking specifics. Just casting a spotlight on the problems relating to theater and our community on the pages of a national periodical like American Theatre can be said to be a good start. If nothing else, it is reassuring to at last have a voice on the scene who is both passionate and articulate — and who can articulate that passion in a way that immediately gets the issues the attention it needs.


I especially appreciated his comment, “We need to get recognition of the art of theater beyond the theatre community, so that people who live in Los Angeles understand really clearly that if they haven’t seen a play, in a large or a small theatre, they haven’t really lived in Los Angeles.” 


Of particular note was the idea of creating a neighborhood for theater activity. Opined Morris, “The Hollywood Fringe Festival is particularly successful because it isolates a festival into a very specific geographic corner, a one-mile square block. And I think part of its success is attributable to that, its being tethered to a neighborhood. I see that as a potential fix to the geographic issues… That has worked in other cities, and I think that can work for us, too.”


On a post on the Pro99 Facebook page, Morris was challenged about whether he really means for Los Angeles to create a “Manhattan-style theater district.” “Exactly the opposite,” is Morris’s reply. “Neighborhoods —plural. Theater districts. Once upon a time it was simple to access the entire region, but traffic and poor public transportation has segregated us into colonies. Dealing with that is the challenge.”


Also intriguing was Morris’s discussion of the process by which a show in a small theater can jump to a larger venue and then perhaps on to Broadway. “That has been a model in New York for decades,” Morris suggests. “Now it’s starting to catch on here. I think there was more of a divide 20 years ago in that regard; I think the relationship between larger and smaller theaters is a little more fluid than it used to be. The smaller theatres are being scrappier, knowing the artistic directors of the larger theatres, and pitching their stuff.” 


He continues, “This is so complicated, which is why I am loathe to distinguish between the virtues and the vices of large theatres and small theatres. Maybe it’s age, but I’m just coming to see that theatre is theatre and it takes many many shapes and sizes. And the reasons for doing it are as varied as the appearances it takes. It’s very hard, and almost foolish, to draw divides and try to segment the kinds of theatre we have.”



A Petrakova Manifesto!


Olya Petrakova & Bryan BrownArtel’s Olya Petrakova, left, and Bryan Brown (photo by Bill Raden)


On a related note, the publishing of this interview with SLM in American Theatre has prompted long time local theater luminary Olya Petrakova to publish her LA Theatre Manifesto on the L.A. Theater Network Facebook page. 


Petrakova was the artistic director of the wonderfully ambitious and challenging theater company ARTEL and the subsequent Artworks Theater company which performed out of the now tragically shuttered Schkapf stage.  The document, which was first written and circulated in 2006, is a pleasure to read. (A word of disclosure: Petrakova once responded to one of my reviews of a show of hers with, “He writes his reviews like he is on the toilet” — which might be the best description of the critical process I’ve ever heard). 


Her manifesto details some of the steps that might yield an artistically sound and vibrant company. Much of the talk strikes one as being universally applicable to all good artist-driven theater groups: for instance, an emphasis on collaboration, notable in her statement, “…(the) ensemble meets regularly 3 or 4 times a week for at least 1 year, and when they meet they train, they work on the common vocabulary, develop the common aesthetic, discuss or improvise researched materials related to investigated ideas or to a specific future production.” 


Petrakova’s manifesto undeniably boasts an “artist” sensibility, and steadfastly favors loyalty to a particular theater company over branding oneself as an individual performer. Her other ideas include curtailing the conventional roles of director, producer, and writer, along with transforming the concept of place. “We don’t need traditional theatre space to create theatre, and spend thousands of dollars maintaining one, padding the pockets of greedy landlords. We need space to train, to meet, to work. When the good piece of theatre is born, it will find the place to be shown. I will watch it on the streets, on the roofs, in the abandoned houses, and pay for it.”


Of course, some of Petrakova’s ideas are more idealistic than practical (good luck getting my granny to your theater if there are no comfy seats to sit on). But as Petrakova herself clearly suggests, a manifesto is meant to spark debate, not be adopted as whole cloth.



Daniel, Alec and the Star-Shells of Madness.


Daniel-HenningDaniel Henning


Meanwhile, to conclude on a cheery note, we have this delightful essay up on Buzzfeed by Daniel Henning, the artistic director of our much beloved Blank Theater Company, about his childhood meeting with Alec Guinness. This is a story that has, in one version or another, been going around for years and years. It’s even mentioned in Guinness’s autobiography, apparently as a rather amusing self-deprecatory anecdote that makes him sound rather mean.


According to Guinness, he was once approached after a show by a young boy and his mother. The boy shyly but proudly admitted he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times and added that he would adore Guinness’s autograph. Guinness was appalled that someone would see this movie so many times. “Looking into the boy’s eyes, I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode.” He grudgingly agreed to give the kid his autograph. First though, he asked, “Would you do me a favor?” “Yes, sir! Anything!” replied the boy. “I want you to promise never to see Star Wars again!” In Guinness’s telling of the story, the little boy burst into tears and was hugged by his mother, who snarled at the famous actor, “What a dreadful thing to say to a child!” 


On Buzzfeed, Henning — who reveals that he was indeed the boy — takes exception to the “official” story. He recalls attending a tribute to Guinness at the San Francisco Film festival, where he took the microphone and told the star that he had seen the movie 102 times. Guinness gasped and apparently fell out of his chair in shock.


Later, Henning went backstage to talk with the actor, who agreed to give the boy his autograph if he promised never to see Star Wars again. Instead of bursting into tears (Henning says), he and his mom shook hands with the star and happily left. The anecdote — Guinness’s version — was then promoted for publication and legend, Henning insists. 


Henning opines that he can’t understand why a wise and kind man like Guinness would feel the need to invent a story that actually makes him sound rather unpleasant. “But why did Guinness make himself into a monster? Why did he change the story from his being kind and gracious and lovely to being so mean to a child that the child busts out crying and his mother becomes haughty and drags him away?” Henning wonders.


It is an interesting question — but the truth is, the story really is amusing in its embellished form. I mean, how could you not laugh when you hear such a thing? And the telling of it does allow Guinness to clearly position himself as someone who took his Star Wars fame with a cup of lemon juice.


As for all the “star-shells of madness” bursting in Henning’s eyes — well, that is subject to interpretation, but I have seen some of his plays, including The Why, and that was some pretty star-bursty madness right there.