59 L.A. Theatre: No Longer Waiting in the Wings

In the mold of many a Hollywood drama, the rising star may be poised to upstage the vintage veteran in the world of theatre. To be sure, the general public may not think of theatre in L.A. the way they do when they're off to New York or London. Perhaps because everything about L.A. is so theatrical that the street scene keeps everyone sufficiently entertained. Los Angeles IS theatre. Still, it may come as quite a surprise that L.A. is the spawning ground for many of Broadway's most famous shows. Tony nominees and winners like "Zoot Suit," "Children Of A Lesser God," "Angels in America"_and more_were all first brought to life on stages here.

And, with more than 1,100 annual theatrical productions and 21 openings every week, there are more theatrical shows produced in Los Angeles than in any other city in world, including New York. More than four million theatre tickets are sold in L.A. annually. By the time opening night on Broadway rolls around, shows can be very old news in L.A. "Sunset Boulevard"? Glenn Close got under Norma Desmond's skin at the Shubert Theatre in Century City months before it was New York bound. Ditto for "Beauty and the Beast" which had a very long run at the Shubert before heading east. Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," the toast of New York intellectuals, packed them in at L.A.'s Geffen Theatre on the UCLA campus a year ago.

"We've been bringing Tony-winners to Broadway since 1976 when `The Shadow Box' won the award," said Nancy Hareford, media director of the Mark Taper Forum, one of three theatres at the Los Angeles County Music Center, Downtown.

"The Taper had a banner year in 1994 when three of the four plays nominated for the Tony had been developed here: `The Kentucky Cycle;' `Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992' And `Perestroika', which was part two of `Angels In America.' Many of the plays spent years in our workshops. And this year, two of the Tony-nominees played here first: `Master Class' at the Taper and `Seven Guitars' at the Ahmanson," she added.

What does this mean to L.A. visitors? Check out the theatre listings. You may not recognize the title but if there's a well-known actor or recognized playwright involved, it usually means something's perking.

The Music Center is a stately complex of three venues that sends many productions on to bigger things. The complex's cozy, theatre-in-the-round Mark Taper Forum takes the most chances with new and off-beat productions_risk-taking that pays off with Tony nods. The elegant Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a familiar sight to Oscar-watchers, is also home to the L.A. Philharmonic, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The Ahmanson mounts a mix of original productions and old chestnuts.

Theatre (with a capital T) is just part of the picture. L.A. has such a busy small theatre life, theatre lovers so inclined could see a different production every night for weeks.

Resident troupes often include famous actors who, during a hiatus from in front of the camera, are delighted to sweat in a 99-seat, equity-waiver production. Often they do so because it puts them in front of a real audience, playing far meatier roles than sitcoms demand. And never far from anyone's mind: agents and casting directors trawl here for fresh talent. The Actor's Gang, a clique of famous and not-sofamous actors presided over by actor-director Tim Robbins, usually has a production up and running at their small Hollywood theatre.

Small theatres like these run on a feast or famine cycle. When a movie or TV star is in the cast, it's standing room only; otherwise, cast members are rounding up family and friends to fill the house.

And then there's performance art_which is a large and unregulated industry in L.A._meaning you can be in for a snooze or the ride of your life. Hard to define, performance art is a new term for experimental theatre. It's usually solo performance-driven, whether the artist delivers an hour-long monologue or pretends to be a suitcase. Highways in Santa Monica, L.A.'s best-known performance space, has carefully cultivated a reputation for avant garde productions. It draws a devoted audience and is so popular, artists must apply a year in advance to perform. This spring the production that seemed to flap even the unflappable was by 60ish performance artist Joan Hotchkis, who explored sexuality in the golden years. Gauging by local reactions, this is the final frontier. The house was packed, of course.

L.A.'s rich ethnic diversity is as evident on stage as in the streets. The Japan American Theatre mixes contemporary Japanese-American productions, which often wrestle with acculturation issues, and traditional productions from Japan. Critics love the productions at Bilingual Foundation for the Arts, north of Downtown L.A. which mounts two productions of every project, one in English, one in Spanish, on alternate nights. And the Vision Complex in Leimert Park often hosts thoughtprovoking one-act plays such as "The Owl Killer," and "Dink's Blues."

The cool, desert night air doesn't seem to be a discouragement to evening concertgoers in L.A. For L.A.'s socialites, a box at the Hollywood Bowl is as good as it gets (so prized they are bequeathed in wills). Boxholders think nothing of toting silver candlesticks, fine china and elaborate dinners for the traditional pre-concert picnics. For binocular-toters in the bleacher seats, these high society hi-jinx are a great source of amusement_a warm-up act to the dazzling concerts after the sun sets.

All summer long, the Hollywood Bowl and Griffith Park's Greek Theatre are packed with a something-foreveryone line-up, Beethoven to Zydeco. L.A.'s major concert venues know they've got an eclectic audience to please. This year seems more heavily weighted to '60s superstars than usual. At the Bowl, Chicago is performing with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. At the Greek, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, does his funky thing.

The indoor Universal Amphitheatre, gives its ode to the '60s this summer with Al Green, Alice Cooper, James Taylor and The Monkees 30th Anniversary Tour - even (can it be?) Pat Boone. Universal always schedules top Latino stars and this year the line up includes Rocio Durcal and Jose Jose.

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