Center Theatre Group just announced the “third and final extension until April 2nd” for “Zoot Suit” at the Mark Taper Forum. That’s great news for the show, Center Theater Group and Los Angeles. It also poses some tough questions.
To appreciate the importance of this “third and final extension,” it’s helpful to know that plays don’t normally extend at the Mark Taper Forum. So any extension, much less a third extension, is a really big deal. Part of that has to do with audience interest. There are not that many shows that have enjoyed an audience demand significant enough to warrant an extension beyond the typical six week slot.
But this is also as much a function of Los Angeles theater culture and the rigid schedule at the Mark Taper (and our other large regional theaters) as it is audience demand.
The Mark Taper Forum, The Geffen Playhouse, South Coast Repertory (our larger regional theaters) all follow more or less the same formula: announce a season of shows, which are all calendared in advance, each running for roughly six weeks with a couple of weeks in between each production. The idea of an extension is not built into the plan. Compounding that, Los Angeles does not have the theatrical infrastructure or tradition to move a successful show to another theater.
Back when the original production of “Zoot Suit” opened 40 years ago, the Mark Taper Forum recognized that the show had struck a chord in Los Angeles and, after extending the show at the Taper – decided to remount the show at what was then the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood. In New York, this is commonplace for a hit show. If a show does well at a nonprofit theater it’ll be moved up the food chain to an Off Broadway theater and if it sells well there will possibly even move to Broadway. There’s an infrastructure that’s ready and waiting to capitalize on success. Capitalizing on a hit, is literally part of the business.
That’s not how things work in Los Angeles theater. Our larger theaters plan for the season and stick with it. We can argue that that’s a response to audience demand (“six weeks is quite enough, thank you”) or we can argue that it’s a self-reinforcing schedule. If you only have six weeks of audience available, you will only market to enough people to fill those seats. Even if you happen to stumble upon a show that resonates with an audience, it’s such a hassle to extend (the next show is already in rehearsals, the set is already built, et cetera, et cetera) that it’s not “worth it” to deal with the hassle of extending.
Extensions make a big difference to a theater. For starters, they help defray the costs of the production. The more weeks you play to a strong audience, the more weeks you spread the costs over. Given the financial structure of the nonprofit theaters in America, that doesn’t mean you’ll make your money back but it does mean a theater gets a chance to come closer. “Zoot Suit” is a perfect example. Given the cast size, roughly three times the size of a typical Taper show, this production likely needed this many extensions for its revenue and expenses to look like a normal six actorTaper show.
More significant than the bottom line is the expanded audience and, in the case of “Zoot Suit,” who is sitting in that audience.
An extension means a theater is extending beyond its core and attracting audience members who don’t typically go to that theater or, even better, people who don’t go to any theater. An extension is critical audience development for the entire theatrical ecosystem. Think of it like a gateway drug. With luck, the production that extends is the first taste of theater that just might lead someone to seek out more theater.
Forty years ago, “Zoot Suit” welcomed Latinos into the theater both onstage and in the audience. Will these extension audiences look more like a typical theater audience? Or will this audience look more like the diversity of Los Angeles?
The tough question, for Center Theater Group and Los Angeles theater is, how do you serve this expanded and hopefully diverse audience after “Zoot Suit? After all, this audience is the future of Los Angeles theater.