Collaborating with ‘Straight White Men’

[BACKSTAGE is a series of posts focusing on the ‘Inside Baseball’ of the theater.]

backstage-with-anthony-byrnesIf you go see “Straight White Men” (and you should), you might notice an odd credit in the program. Young Jean Lee’s play is being produced by Center Theater Group (CTG) in association with UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP). In Los Angeles, that’s an all too rare occurrence. We’re used to seeing program credits that span the country as regional theaters piggyback on the same play but a marriage between a producing organization (CTG) and a presenter (CAP) in the same city? That doesn’t happen enough in Los Angeles.

This isn’t the first time that the Center for the Art of Performance has flexed it’s collaborative muscles. Notably, CAP was a partner on the LA Opera’s production of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach.” That partnership yielded not only the stunning remount but also a Q&A with the creators and a chance to see Robert Wilson perform “Texts for Nothing” at UCLA. For audience members who wanted to make a deep dive, UCLA made it possible. And there are other UCLA collaborations in the works (see below).

Why is this kind of collaboration important to LA theater (and, for better or worse, essential to our future)?

I won’t bore you with all that ails LA Theater (a fragmented audience, constantly scarce resources, limited outlets for visibility, geography) but suffice it to say these partnerships help combat those foes. We have, especially when budgets are tight, a tendency to get trapped in our own silos: to think only about a single institution and forget the larger goal we all share — the audience.

A partnership like this get’s “Straight White Men” into both the brochures for CTG and CAP. Perhaps it gets someone new to buy a ticket at the Kirk Douglas Theater. At the least, it creates greater exposure and helps create, through both this production and UCLA’s previous presentation of Ms. Lee’s work, an audience.

The dirty little secret that LA theater must confront head on is that no one, and I mean no one, is doing enough work to support and grow a sustainable audience. Not the big guys (CTG, Geffen, etc); not our presenters (REDCAT, UCLA, Broad, Wallis, VPAC); and certainly not our smaller 99-seat companies (Rogue Machine, Boston Court, Antaeus, etc.). The burden and responsibility of audience must be shared. If LA theater is going to fundamentally shift the audience culture — they’re going to need to do it together.

Sadly, LA theater is nowhere close to that level of collaboration. Just look at our schedules. As a community, we neither schedule collaboratively (‘okay, you open this week, we’ll open the next’) nor acknowledge the collisions and turn the abundance into some kind of critical mass (‘hey, we both have plays that have a strong African connection opening a matter of days apart. Let’s make something of that’).

Now, I appreciate the obstacles. I know that touring schedules are touring schedules. I know everyone wants their special piece of the pie. I know that we’re all flying by the seat of our pants and nobody wants to open in August but . . . if we won’t do it for the audience, how about we do it for the form?

No city has yet tackled August Wilson’s century cycle? Wouldn’t that be a glorious gesture for Los Angeles at this moment? Or with the stunning productions of Chekhov that Antaeus, Boston Court, and Circle X have recently done — how about Chekhov’s canon? Or a city-wide festival of female playwrights? Or family drama from the Greeks onward?

Or even just, three 99-seat companies collaborating and sharing an audience across a year: making a commitment that once a month, there’s something for their audience to see, something to plan around.

After all, let’s not forget, theater is fundamentally a collaborative art form. So what’s stopping us?

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Additional Collaborations:

Citywide: I recognize, and deeply appreciate, the collaborations that are already happening. To mention just a couple: CTG and The Burglars of Hamm, Boston Court’s Co-Productions, REDCAT and CTG teaming up for RADAR:LA, et alia.

UCLA CAP: Here’s a list from the Center for the Art of Performance on their collaborations this year.