Los Angeles: Still Crafting the Theater’s Future

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Despite what my last column implied back in February, I moved to Los Angeles from New York in large part because I believe the next century of American theater will be defined by what is happening here. By “American,” I mean the continent, by the way, not our slightly isolationist country. L.A. theatre has seen the demographic writing on the wall for the future and is acting on it now.

Less than three decades from now, minorities will be the majority in this country. At that time, more than 30 percent of the population will be Latino. While Broadway and many regional theaters blithely ignore this impending and unavoidable shift, Southern California companies are racing to meet it and to cater to it. When this change arrives these institutions, artists and audiences will be at the cutting edge as together they forge new aesthetics, new approaches and a new legacy for the performing arts.

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Fut-81In many ways, this change has already come. In February, Center Theatre Group (CTG) elected Kiki Gindler as its first Latina board president. This is a very public and high-level manifestation of how CTG has adapted to demographic reality. Culture Clash and El Teatro Campesino, two prominent and homegrown Latino groups, have worked with CTG for decades. In the late 1970s, CTG’s Mark Taper Forum saw the premiere of Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, which went on to become the first Broadway play written by a Chicano author. CTG still has years of work to do in terms of gender and racial parity, and there is a kind of disturbing trend of rape jokes in some of the plays it selects. But the fact that a behemoth West Coast theater institution recognizes that it must acknowledge demographic change is extraordinary. With educational, artistic and outreach programs targeted directly at the audiences of today and tomorrow, CTG is showing a nimbleness and sensitivity that belies its size and traditional subscriber base.

The Boston Court Performing Arts Center — which I would call the rising star of L.A. theater — is not preparing for this change so much as participating in it. From swaths of original works confronting our ever-digitizing, NSA-observed existence, like Jordan Harrison’s Futura, to reimagined classics, like Luis Alfaro’s Mojada: A Madea in Los Angeles, Boston Court isn’t tapping into the zeitgeist, it’s creating it. Founded in 2003, the idea is that theater is a place to make culture and make society and not just react to it — and that is why I think the institution has advanced so quickly and powerfully during its relatively short lifespan. With a price point aimed squarely at emerging audiences — $100 for an entire season — it is poised to grow into a big theatrical fish.

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Teatro Luna’s latest at Los Angeles Theater Center.

For the last 28 years, the Latino Theater Company has created engaging, powerful work. While their name implies a specific focus, their work nearly always connects to the world at large, allowing it to be precise but not limited. Supported by the Los Angeles Theatre Center, this year the group offers work from ancient classics — like La Olla, based on Plautus’ The Pot of Gold — and contemporary pieces Generation Sex. In sharp contrast to some other companies, the LTC and LATC are battling heroically to bring racial and gender casting parity to reasonable balance.

It would be remiss to mention the LATC without discussing The Encuentro. This festival brought 150 artists and 17 engaging works together to explore the Latino experience through performance. Beyond the artistic confluence, the media coverage, at least within the theater world, was positive and detailed. HowlRound announced the event, provided live coverage and hosts Cafe Onda, the Journal of the Latina/o Theatre Commons which helped produce the event. It was similarly covered in American Theatre and the L.A. Times.

These are wonderful influences in the theater and to me a welcome rash of good news. Considering all the challenges that face us it is simply inspiring to see L.A. tackling some of them head on. Even the recent 99 Seat controversy has provided a much needed impetus for debate about the future of the arts and forced us to become involved in creating our own arts ecology. This also puts less adaptable institutions on notice: a change is coming. Rather, the change is here and barreling towards you, so get on board or get out of the way. I’m looking at you, Broadway.

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Dillon Slagle
Dillon Slagle works in New York as a dramaturg and biological anthropologist. His experiences range from dramaturgy for puppet performances exploring the nature and formation of mono-theism with Kevin Augustine, to excavating pre-Greek burial sites in Menorca, Spain. In both anthropology and dramaturgy, Dillon believes in rigorous research, cultural awareness, and creative approaches to the process. Dillon is constantly searching for new, engaging, and relevant work. He is a member of LMDA, Dramaturg for the Carroll Simmons Performance Collective, and the Literary Manager for the Creation & Completion Project. Check out his Web site, Dramaturgy Tea, and find him on Twitter and Facebook.