The Complete History of L.A. Theater (Unabridged) in 15 Minutes
By Steven Leigh Morris
An audience member at the Dramatists Guild Town Hall, held last Saturday at the Veterans’ Memorial Building in Culver City, remarked at his astonishment of how easy it would be for him to raise money in Silicon Valley for a bio-tech or website startup, yet the very idea of a movie/TV studio, flush with cash, helping fund a new play at a local theater would be a kind of aberration.
This partly explains why L.A. theaters suffer financially like theaters in no other American metropolis, according to a 2015 report published by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.
And according to data provided by one Town Hall event panelist Bronwyn Mauldin, who oversees a research and evaluation team for the L.A. County Arts Commission, corporate giving to local troupes averages 4% of any theater’s budget, compared to 7% in New York; local boards of directors give their theaters 11% of their organizations’ budgets, compared to 19% in New York; foundations provide 20% of their theaters’ budgets, compared to 26% in New York, and government grants make up only 5% of local theaters’ budgets, compared to 12% in New York. This leaves local theaters far more dependent on individual donors to survive. In Los Angeles, theaters depend on philanthropists for a whopping 61% of their budgets, compared to only 35% in New York.
A fuller accounting of Mauldin’s presentation, and of the Town Hall event itself, can be found in my Spokes and Mirrors column at thisstage.la
For the Town Hall event, I was asked to provide an historical overview of L.A. theater. Despite the heroic efforts of writers such as Julio Martinez, the failure of our community to document our storied history, and a kind of collective amnesia, and the accompanying absence of local theater mythology in the social consciousness, partly explains why it’s so difficult to raise money for L.A. theater. There’s little sense of why it matters, because there’s little sense of where it came from, and perhaps even less sense of where it’s going.
So here goes: The Complete History of Los Angeles theater (unabridged) in 15 minutes.
1771: La Dolorosa (Our Lady of the Sorrows)
According to parish accounts, two Franciscan priests journeyed by mule train from San Diego to what’s now the San Gabriel Valley, some 15 miles east of the Los Angeles pueblo. They were surrounded by Native Americans who were brandishing their spears. Not known if these were of the local Tongva Tribe, or whether the priests been followed north by members of either the Yuma or Apache tribes. Either way, the natives made it clear they intended to kill the priests, the likes of whom had already made it known in San Diego that they intended to convert the natives to Catholicism. The theologians were accompanied by Spanish soldiers, who came armed with gunpowder, guns and small pox. This was a context that prevented what might otherwise have been called love at first sight in San Gabriel.
Frightened, the priests unfurled a canvas of La Dolorosa — a 15th or 16th century canvas of unknown origin, depicting the Madonna. (The painting was stolen from the San Gabriel Mission in the 1970s by William March Witherall. It was retrieved in 1990 by a parishioner, who flew to Philadelphia to pick it up from the FBI. But that’s another story.)
“As soon as (the Indians) set their eyes on the image of the Blessed Virgin, they threw down their bows and arrows,” says one account.
Furthermore, the awe-struck natives removed their own beads and gave them to the priests, who established the San Gabriel Mission on September 8, 1771.
It could be argued that this clear demonstration of the power of art was probably not in the best interests of the indigenous people. It could also be argued that if the outcome had been different, almost none of us would be here to tell any of our stories.
The Tongva tribe had been living in comparative harmony (with the Serrano tribe in the San Gabriel mountains and the Chumash of Ventura county) for the better part of a thousand years, until the Spanish priests arrived and showed them how to improve their lives.
We don’t know much about Tongva theater, because they had no playwrights or historians who wrote down their history. Playwrights are the only theater artists who leave behind a record of our theaters’ fleeting performances. It could be argued that, in the absence of scribes, the entire Tongva millennium was as ephemeral as most of our theater.
The 19th Century
According to accounts in the Los Angeles Star, Los Angeles was primarily a pit stop for touring Shakespearean and burlesque companies.
The Little Theatre Movement was spreading across the U.S. cities and towns. In Pasadena, a particularly charismatic actor-director named Gilmor Brown began producing plays at a renovated burlesque theater with his troupe, The Gilmor Brown Players. Brown established the Community Playhouse Association of Pasadena in 1917. By 1925, the citizens of Pasadena raised funds for Brown to build the Spanish Colonial 686 proscenium Pasadena Playhouse (currently the historically protected State Theater of California) on El Molino Avenue. Brown headed the theater until his death in 1960. (Shortly after his death, the Playhouse entered the first of two bankruptcies in its history.)
Brown staged plays by Shakespeare and luminary playwrights of his times such as Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, featuring actors the likes of Margaret O’Brien and John Barrymore. Brown also created an experimental theater in a 40-seat theater, staging plays by A.A. Milne and Maurice Maeterlinck. Brown’s was a community theater that, presaging a future era, was heavily dependent of volunteers. The community’s passion and support for a local civic life led playwright George Bernard Shaw, visiting from London, to dub Pasadena “The Athens of the West”– an uncharacteristically enthusiastic moniker, coming from Shaw.
Brown also established a Pasadena Playhouse theater college in the late 1920s that became accredited in 1937. It became the training ground for actors on the West Coast and served as a pipeline to the local film and TV industries. The school trained talents such as Raymond Burr, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jamie Farr, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Sally Struthers, and Leonard Nimoy, among many others.
The theater school’s training of technicians for the film/TV industries also represented the first and last time that the region’s legendary Industry would actively recruit its talent from local theater.
1947: Bertolt Brecht
Meanwhile, on July 30, 1947, during a blistering heat wave in Southern California, the Coronet Theatre on La Cienega Boulevard presented the world premiere of the play, Galileo, by ex-pat German scribe Bertolt Brecht. He was living in Los Angeles and Santa Monica at the time. The production starred Charles Laughton, and opening night was attended by Charlie Chaplin, Ingrid Bergman, and Frank Lloyd Wright. The production, featuring a truly weird collaboration between Brecht and Laughton, between a new European theater and establishment Hollywood, was the cultural event of the year. Brecht later said that he loathed Southern California, and all that it represented: not enough theater and too much crass commercialism. (It could have been called Tomorrowland.) Decades later, when L.A. would have over 300 professional theaters, the complaint would then be that there was too much theater in the area, though Brecht didn’t live to lodge that complaint.
1964: The Incubation of Center Theatre Group
In 1964, a Brooklyn-reared assistant stage manager was recruited from a gig in Stratford, Ontario to run a professional theater, The Theatre Group, that operated under the auspices of UCLA Extension Division. The Theatre Group’s productions included such actors as Jack Albertson, Judith Anderson, Edward Asner, Nina Foch, John Kerr, Cloris Leachman, Carroll O’Connor, Paula Prentice, Robert Ryan, and James Whitmore. John Houseman served as its founding artistic director until 1963, after which Davidson was recruited. In 1966, Davidson was selected by Dorothy Chandler to helm a theater, the Mark Taper Forum, in what was planned to be one of three institutions in a downtown arts hub. “The Taper” was slated to open the following year.
In 1969, The Theatre Group moved to the downtown hub, Los Angeles Music Center, as the resident dramatic company known as the Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles.
Of course, like any New Yorker, Davidson ached to bring productions in from New York, but he also wanted to develop works for New York. Furthermore, his vision also included the idea of using the theater to connect Los Angeles to itself. He set up in-house play writing laboratories for under-represented communities.
New play development was one of the many parts of Davidson’s vision – the Taper’s New Theater for Now program presented works on the Taper mainstage, while the New Original Works program operated in Taper, Too, a satellite theater underneath the Ford Theatre in the Hollywood Hills. That’s where, in 1988, Robert Schenkkan developed his The Kentucky Cycle, and the following year Tony Kushner and Oskar Eustis were there, fiddling with a little play called Angels in America.
So the idea of L.A. being a research and development center for the national arena had taken firm hold by 1990
The 1970s: The Company/ProVisional Theatre
In the 1970s, we also saw impressive work coming out of a completely different administrative model – graduates of USC grabbed a dumpy space on Robertson Boulevard, south of Olympic Blvd. Their leaders, Steve Kent and Gar Campbell, were influenced by the writings and teachings of Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski. Their Company Theatre and its descendent, the ProVisional Theatre, grabbed the attention of the L.A. Times for producing thrilling home-grown theater.
The idea of grabbing a space and putting on plays was directly tied to affordable real estate in Los Angeles, now a distant memory, that made it easy to put on new plays, as it had in the early days of off-Broadway and then off-off-Broadway.
1978: The Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop
In the late 1970s, playwright Murray Mednick received a grant from the University of LaVerne to create a writers’ theater and laboratory. Under Mednick’s helm, this was to be research and development center for non-commercial, poetical plays. It was called the Padua Hills Writers Workshop and received national attention for its summer performances of entirely new works in several outdoor settings in the hills above Claremont. Its writers included Mednick, Sam Shepard, Maria Irene Fornes, John Steppling, Jon Robin Baitz, Martin Epstein, Susan La Tempa, John O’Keefe, Leon Martell, Elizabeth Ruscio, Marlane G. Meyer, Roxanne Rogers, Susan Champagne, Shem Bitterman, Kelly Stuart, Julie Herbert, and others. The workshop exited Claremont in 1993, subsequently setting up camp at various locales from Cal Arts, to the Pacific Design Center, to Cal State Northridge to USC. The Workshop’s descendant, Padua Playwrights, is a collective of playwrights, now run by Guy Zimmerman.
1984: The Olympic Arts Festival
From Pina Bausch, to the China Performing Arts Ensemble, to the Royal Shakespeare Company to Teatr du Soleil, to Ballet Folklórico de Guadalajara, for about six weeks, Los Angeles was saturated with some of the world’s top-tier companies, alongside local troupes, performing in museums and universities and sound-stages, as well as the city’s more traditional stages. The festival was conceived and curated by Robert Fitzpatrick — a spectacle so mesmerizing, Time Magazine ran a cover story announcing that Los Angeles theater had, finally, come of age.
Meanwhile, in the 1970s to the Present
L.A. had lured between 7,000 and 8,000 actors in the theater union (Actors’ Equity Association) – obviously here for the financial opportunities afforded in film and television. (This figure does not include the estimated 100,000 unionized television-film actors.) This created L.A.’s singular ecosystem of having the second largest population of stage union actors outside New York, in a region where there was almost no professional employment in theater itself.
In 1972, responding to agitation by its membership, which was allowed to work only by the terms of a union contract and was thus sitting mostly idle, Actors’ Equity waived its rules but not its jurisdiction in theaters of fewer than 100 seats. This number was chosen by the union in order to prevent producers from profiteering off the actors’ labor. The result allowed thousands of stage union actors to volunteer for stipends, simply to do whatever kind of theater work fueled them – from new plays to musicals to classics – while still maintaining the health and safety protections of their union. This led to an explosion of professional and mostly actor-run theater companies across Los Angeles county. The movement was called Equity Waiver. In an era before video clips and the Internet and online submissions, the Waiver was rationalized by the union as an employment opportunity – for film/TV and theater casting directors to see union actors in a play.
In 1980, a report financed by the Department of Labor concluded that “Waiver is working well and a surprising number of actors are being compensated.”
In 1984, a revised report from the Department of Labor, advised Equity to better police working conditions at these theaters. It also pointed out that opportunities for producers to profit were minimal, as were the opportunities for substantial actor payments.
In the meantime, amidst a comparatively flourishing arts economy, several of the 99-seat actor-run companies were transferring up and out of the 99-Seat Plan to become mid-size theaters, utilizing union actor contracts: East West Players, The Colony Theatre, the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre. The latter moved from what’s now the MET Theatre on Hollywood’s Oxford Avenue to set up shop downtown in a refurbished former Security Pacific Bank building. This was now a four-theater complex known as Los Angeles Theatre Center, run (into the ground in 1991) by Bill Bushnell and Diane White. After considerable controversy, Latino Theatre Company won a bid in January, 2006, to administer the facility.
In 1986, the union announced its intent to modify the Waiver with a new 99-Seat Theater Plan. A band of theater operators responded with a plan of its own. The union quietly held a referendum and informed the theater owners after the vote that its members wanted the union’s plan, leading to what’s now called the Los Angeles Waiver wars, and charges that all points of view were not properly represented to the membership
There was a membership vote in which the union plan was again affirmed, and an advisory referendum shortly after in which it was reversed, but that reversal was not implemented, and so on. Finally, in May, 1988, attorneys representing 10 Equity members requested a reversal of the new plan, alleging violations of union resolutions and federal law. The case was settled out of court in a compromise plan that annoyed both sides, and that settlement formed the building block of 99-Seat Theater Plan that would function for almost 30 years.
Under that Plan, which allowed for some evolution of terms, Los Angeles county boasted over 250 99-seat theaters producing anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 productions a year. 70% of these productions were new plays. Hundreds of L.A.’s intimate theater productions over the years transferred to either larger theaters in the region, or to other cities, such as New York, including Broadway (in the recent case of Deaf West Theatre’s revival of Spring Awakening), London, Chicago and various destinations across Europe.
In 1996, Equity initiated a campaign to restrict the terms, specifically the longevity of the runs under the 99-Seat Plan, from 80 performances to 24. Facing objections from local membership, the union abandoned that plan.
This might explain the union’s exasperation with its Los Angeles membership, not to mention the LA theater producers – many of whom were and are union members.
In 2014, the union started to play hardball in its attempts to eliminate in its entirety the 99-Seat Theater Plan, overriding a 67% advisory referendum in January, 2015, to repair the flaws in the existing Plan. The union’s National Council decided instead to “repeal and replace” what the union insisted was a broken plan. A lawsuit by Equity actors and some producers to prevent the union from doing so, was dismissed in 2016.
I’d like to close with a cautionary note, as expressed by Tony Kushner during the 1992 conference “Inventing the Future,” presented by Audry Skirball-Kenis Theatre. This was before social media led us into impenetrable camps of certainty, and invited the “democratization of the arts” – where everybody can be a critic, and a film-maker, and can publish a book. The standard for having any “expert” curate any artistic experience is eroding as quickly as our respect for expertise itself. Even the act of sitting passively in a theater to watch a play is an act of faith in antiquated habits. As a colleague once noted at the beginning of the 21st century, everybody’s writing and nobody’s reading. Here’s Kushner’s warning, in 1992:
“We’re professional heirs to an institutional theater structure that’s outlived the historical moment that created it. Theaters still exist pretty much as they were conceived of in the early sixties, and these theaters are no longer facing the same society that created them. What worries me is that our generation of artists is not successfully taking up the mantle. We’re not finding ways to transform this system into something that works for us and something that speaks for the society for which we are writing plays.”