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Hearing Weariness and Frustration in NoHo: LA STAGE Alliance Looks Forward

By Vanessa Cate

 

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New Musicals’ Elise Dewsberry, Academy for New Musical Theatre’s Scott Guy and LASA’s Steven Leigh Morris (photo by Vanessa Cate)

 

A baker’s dozen when counting the latecomers, gathered on Monday evening in the lobby of NoHo’s Road on Lankershim for the first of six planned community forums hosted by LA STAGE Alliance (LASA), the nonprofit organization representing Los Angeles theaters.

 

The series, titled “Looking Forward,” was announced January 27 in the organization’s online magazine, @ This Stage, as a means to explore the immediate and long-term challenges facing the city’s intimate theaters.

 

Stage Raw founder and former editor Steven Leigh Morris, who has just stepped into his tenure as LASA’s new executive director, moderated. “We wanted to host an intimate theatre meeting,” Morris quipped, “and we achieved that.”

 

Since the announcement of his new role in early November, Morris has wasted no time setting fourth an ambitious proposal for what L.A. theater needs in order to survive — even thrive — and what LASA can do to help facilitate this.

 

Morris explained he was hired by LA STAGE “to articulate a new direction.” That direction, as laid out in @ This Stage, is aimed at overcoming four large obstacles that the L.A. theater community currently faces: mobility (or lack thereof), diversity (or lack thereof), youth engagement (or lack … you get it), and exorbitantly rising rents and property values.

 

LASA has proposed the creation of neighborhood artistic hubs, or districts, each built strategically around the different artistic pockets that already offer thriving theater. Each district would house 8 to 12 theater spaces, as well as space for restaurants and other businesses, parking, and affordable housing for artists.

 

LA STAGE is currently in what Morris called a “discovery phase” in which the organization is actively seeking feedback from the different theater communities, as well as exploring options for realizing the plan. Next, he said, will be the “planning phase,” then “implementation”.

 

Morris said the alliance wanted to know what services do the people of the theater community need? What is on our minds? What help do we want and need? And what do we think of the direction proposed by LASA?

 

Criticizing the effectiveness of the organization, Crown City Theatre Company founder Bill Reilly declared that he had been a member of LASA for twenty years but quit last year because he felt like he kept writing checks and getting nothing in return. Saying he hoped for a higher value, which he basically equated to “getting butts in the seats,” Reilly vowed that until he finds that value, he’d rather store props in his garage than rent from LASA’s storehouse and stick with Goldstar as a discounted ticketing option as opposed to LASA’s LAStageTix.com.

 

The comment sparked a re-hash of the Goldstar debate heard among theater folk, who routinely decry Goldstar as predatory, or find it to be a necessary evil. The latter included Footlights’s Peter Finlayson: “What you’re saying is, the theatre you’re putting on is worth half price?”

 

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Crown City Theatre’s Bill Reilly, Footlights’s Peter Finlayson, actor Steve Polinsky, Dewsberry and Guy (photo by Vanessa Cate)

 

After some further back and forth, Morris got the conversation back on track, stating that focusing on ticketing sales would not necessarily be the best use of LASA’s resources. However, he hoped the LA STAGE website would become a go-to portal to multiple ticketing sites, as well as a hub for theatrical resources in general.

 

Publicist Nora Feldman defended LASA but said she felt it needed to improve its marketing. “We know what LA Stage Alliance is,” she pointed out, “but no one outside of the theater community does.” In order for LASA to become a real go-to source for information and assistance, Feldman urged LASA make a stronger name for itself first among people who might otherwise just go with the first thing that comes up on Google.

 

Other concerns raised were a quickly dismissed question of the need for childcare assistance, the lack of parking around theaters and how it may dissuade patrons from attending, and a suggestion to organize a “theater shuttle” to offset poor transit options. But the bottom line of everyone’s frustrations seemed to second, as Reilly had said, “getting butts in the seats.” In a nearly unanimous plea, attendees asked for help with broader marketing from LASA.

 

“We’re missing a huge audience that doesn’t even know we exist,” said Tom Ormeny of Victory Theater. “We’re dying because we’re not marketing anything, and we don’t know how to market anything.” Morris called this a collective failure of which we are all a part, and which LASA must certainly share some responsibility.

 

Concerns over the dire need for Los Angeles Theatre to gain strong branding echoed similar discussion from LA Theater Network’s April meeting on “How to Build an Audience.” People are weary and exasperated. Marketing people are exhausted. And maintaining an audience is consistently a struggle, the gathering maintained.

 

On a New York flight, open up an on-flight magazine and you’ll find four different Broadway and Off-Broadway shows listed. Morris explained that what New York has that we don’t is “a lingering feeling that theater matters, and that it’s a part of the city.”

 

Everyone at the meeting agreed — what we need is the city to take up arms for L.A. Theatre. How do we get the German Tourist already on a flight from Berlin to LAX to come to a theatrical production? But more importantly, how do we engage native audiences to come? Morris talked about getting Los Angeles’ tourism board on our side. If the LA Opera has signs on the streets, why can’t theaters?

 

Returning to LASA’s long-term plan to cultivate theater hubs, Morris argued that marketing could certainly be streamlined, promoting several districts instead of 200 individual theaters. These localities would also encourage a healthy growth of community and communication between different theaters, which as of now is sorely lacking.

 

“They say theater never dies. But that’s not true, it really does die,” Morris warned. “Our theater audiences are aging Caucasians, and they’re dying.” Morris reaffirmed the importance of cultivating diversity on L.A. stages to acknowledge and reflect a more diverse audience, as well as being proactive in bringing in new generations.

 

By the end of the two-hour conversation, it was easy to see the weariness and frustration of many passionate theater professionals. But there also seemed to be a bit of hope.

 

LA STAGE Alliance will have five more open forum discussions which are free and open to the public, and in which open communication and feedback are welcome and encouraged.

 

They will be held: Feb. 10 at Theatre of NOTE at 7p.m.; Feb. 13 at LA STAGE Alliance’s home base in Atwater Village at 1 p.m.; Feb. 20 at Kirk Douglas Theatre at 1 p.m.; Feb. 27 at 24th Street Theatre at 1 p.m.; and March 5 at Music Center Annex/CTG at 1 p.m. RSVP at https://lasa.secure.force.com/ticket.

 

 

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