A few weeks ago, I experienced a rare sighting during intermission at Theatre of NOTE’s A Mulholland Christmas Carol. I met a couple of tourists who frequently cross the continent in order to see theater in LA — and not just one or two shows.
The man was sitting next to me in the front row, and the woman, whom I presumed to be his wife, was on his other side. I would guess that they were between the ages of 55 and 65.
I overheard the man comparing Mulholland to a couple other versions of Dickens’ story that were being produced in Greater LA. So I butted in to inquire if there was some particular reason why they were attending so many Christmas Carol productions in one season.
They generally see a lot of LA theater, of many kinds, they told me — more than 140 shows in 2012. When I asked if they happened to be critics or Ovation voters, they revealed that actually they were visiting from Orlando, Florida.
Yes — Orlando, Florida. Presumably retired, they come to LA several times a year to see theater, while staying in a short-term rental unit.
They lived in Pasadena for a few years in the ’90s. Apparently, during those years, they became so enamored with LA’s theater scene that they continue to keep up with it, even though they now live on the other side of the country.
I use such words as “presumably” and “apparently” because just before the show resumed following the intermission, they declined my request to officially interview them about their LA theater habit. So I wasn’t even able to obtain their names, let alone a number of other details. After the show, they were the first theatergoers to leave, although this wasn’t necessarily a judgment on the production — they had indicated that they were enjoying it during our intermission chat.
In fact, with no prompting on my part, they had favorably compared A Mulholland Christmas Carol to Center Theatre Group’s Christmas Carol adaptation at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. They also liked A Noise Within’s version, although the woman would have preferred its actors to have toned down the British accents.
They also prefer theater on the small side, they told me. No, they hadn’t seen what most Angelenos might have figured to be LA theater’s biggest tourist magnet, Cirque du Soleil’s Iris. After all, if they wanted to see something as big and as expensive as a Cirque show, Orlando has its own permanent Cirque production, La Nouba. But judging from their remarks, the much smaller Orlando area doesn’t have anything approaching the hundreds of professional theatrical productions that LA has each year.
Of course, very few cities have as many theatergoing opportunities as LA, as most readers of LA STAGE Times probably realize. But those of us who are avid theatergoers here generally assume that the (enormous) quantity and the (often high) quality of our theater scene is virtually our own not-so-little secret — that most Angelenos, not to mention most Americans, know nothing about it.
That’s probably still a fairly safe assumption. On Travel+Leisure magazine’s extremely unscientific 2012 readers’ poll of the favorite US cities for seeing theater and performance art, Los Angeles placed 14th in responses from non-residents — following Savannah and tied with Charleston, SC. It placed even worse — 20th — among residents of LA itself. (Orlando and, for that matter, Miami were near the bottom of both lists, for whatever that’s worth).
I’m pretty sure that a more scientific poll of the relatively few people who truly know America’s many theater scenes firsthand would rank LA much higher — close to the top. There is nothing quite comparable to the combination of LA’s vast talent pool and Actors’ Equity’s 99-Seat Plan anywhere else in America.
The Plan, of course, is what enables so many professional, union-belonging actors who are part of that vast talent pool to be in LA’s small productions — even if they aren’t paid much for their efforts. In fact, partially because they aren’t paid much for their efforts, these productions generally charge less than larger productions — even as they provide better sight lines than most audience members would get in larger theaters.
Say what you will about the effect of the 99-Seat Plan on actors’ commitments to theater and their ability to survive in LA. But considering simply the needs of tourists, not the actors themselves or the overall LA theatrical ecology, the Plan should provide a golden opportunity for theater-interested visitors — alongside the higher-priced attractions of LA’s midsize and larger theaters.
Yet because of the scene’s low profile, most tourists and travel agents remain ignorant of it. And even if they become aware of it, the scene’s geographical dispersion makes it virtually impossible for most of them to know how to handle it.
Of course any largely nonprofit theater scene like LA’s (and unlike Broadway’s or the Las Vegas Strip’s) should be serving its local community first and foremost. But if LA’s theater could attract more tourists, it’s possible that the revenue from those visitors could help sustain the local theatrical economy.
AND HOW MIGHT TOURISTS DISCOVER LA THEATER?: This morning I Googled “Los Angeles tourist office” and went to the first site listed — discoverlosangeles.com, which is the official portal of the Los Angeles Tourist & Convention Board. I thought it would be interesting to visit the likeliest website that I might consult if I were planning a theater-oriented trip to LA and see how easy it is to get the information I needed.
As on most websites, there are several routes into discoverlosangeles.com from the home page. If you immediately click on “What to do” at the top, then on the “Culture” category and then on “Theatre & Dance,” you’ll arrive at a paragraphof extreme theatrical boosterism in the form of this sweeping statement: “There are more theaters in Los Angeles than any U.S. city, and its 1,500 annual productions are more than any city in the world”. This statement might be true, as many have long speculated, but if someone at this website has accurate numbers from LA and many other cities around the world to back up this statement, I’d love to see the data — and how it was measured.
Below this declaration are links to five individual pages about specific shows or institutions. The first two of these are Center Theatre Group-related — the upcoming musical Backbeat at the Ahmanson and a page about CTG itself (that manages to avoid mentioning CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City). The other three go to pages about the Pantages, NoHo arts district and Pasadena Playhouse.
Lower on that same page are some links to (full disclosure) the LA STAGE Times Twitter feed, followed by images and links to five more events on specific dates, one of which is even taking place at a small theater (the Little Victory)! However, when I then repeatedly clicked on “View More Events” from the bottom of this page, I kept getting the message “Server not found”.
Back to the home page: if a site visitor skips that “What to Do” link at the top and concentrates instead on the home page’s larger images, it’s even more difficult to discover much about theater. The most prominent link leads to information about the upcoming LA Restaurant Week. Below it are images and links to five “LA Events” — none of them theater-related. Below these is a link to “View all events.”
Click on that, and the next page brings you to an event finder, which can be searched by category, venue, region or date. Below it are images and links to five current “Top Events” — the last of which (at least today), Freud’s Last Session at Broad Stage, is a play!
But if you want more, you’re about to enter a morass, and you’ll probably exit with little to show for it. Click on the “Category” search option of the event finder. Immediately you get an array of 10 “Main Categories.” One of these is called “Museums, Theatre & More.” Click on it, and you’re presented with a bewildering array of 35 “Sub Categories,” arranged alphabetically. Near the top you’ll find separate categories for “Arts Theater” and then “Arts & Theater.”
Click on “Arts Theater,” and you find a day-by-day listing of events — the first three of which, this week, are identical links to more information about “Grammy Museum General Admission” on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. These continue, but on the Wednesday through Friday entries, they are accompanied by links to CAP — UCLA’s visiting production of Cheek by Jowl’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore — another play! However, no other theatrical events are listed for this week — nothing that reflects the many small-theater productions that continued after the holidays or those that are opening in 2013.
Choose “Arts & Theater” instead of “Arts Theater” and you get absolutely nothing. No events are listed in this sub-category.
Among the other sub-categories lower in the alphabetical list, you’ll find one called “Live Theater” (“dead theater” events are inexplicably ignored). “Live Theater” yields more results — seven theatrical performances scheduled this week. But most of the prominent and acclaimed shows (such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDOORS, Nora, Foote Notes, Focus Group Play, Dirty Filthy Love Story) are not listed here.
There are still additional sub-categories that theater lovers might feel compelled to investigate — “More Arts and Theater” (nothing listed for this week), “Musicals” (also nada this week) “Plays” (only ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is listed — and nothing else in the entire month of January) and, finally, near the bottom, “Theatre” (a big zero).
In other words, following this particular route into the site, a theater-thirsty tourist isn’t going to find much of anything but might waste a lot of time trying to do so. “Theater” should be one of the main categories instead of being lumped in with “Museums”¦& More”, and no one should be asked to search through seven mostly vacant sub-categories.
Also, of course, that would-be “Theater” main category should be packed with many, many more entries. Are theater companies and their publicists not aware of this website? Or do they feel that it would be a waste of time to go through the motions of being listed on such a badly organized site? Of course more comprehensive LA theater listings can be found online — including one at the LA STAGE Alliance site. But how many prospective tourists or travel agents have ever heard about that site?
I’m sure there is more that could be done in other areas to encourage more travelers to check out LA theater. Has anyone ever organized theater tours of LA, along the lines of the theater tours of New York and London that affluent Angelenos often take? Unfortunately, when most theater offerings are relatively brief runs of nonprofit productions, as opposed to long-running commercial shows, it might be harder to get ticket commitments months in advance for an LA theater tour.
I’m no expert on what else might be done (or even what is being done) to promote LA theater to tourists, but I’d be curious to hear of other avenues. Still, a fairly easy place to start would be to re-organize discoverlosangeles.com and then solicit more participation in LA’s official online tourist gateway, making it clear that the LA theater scene is big, bustling, and relatively inexpensive.
SPEAKING OF CIRQUE, I checked out Cirque’s Iris last week to see how it has changed since its opening in September 2011 and to see it one more time before it closes on Jan. 19. More than the name of the venue (from the Kodak to the Dolby) has changed.
Cirque’s extravagant ode to the relationship between theater and movie imagery is shorter — a relatively lean 90-minute production, now with no intermission. Two of the earlier acts that weren’t there last Thursday were a hand balancing act and one in which two men and two women performed while backed by rippling blue images of themselves. However, Iris is still spectacular and gorgeous — at times quietly engrossing, at other times downright thrilling.
I speculated here on what went wrong with the ticket sales for Iris, but I should add two additional points.
Last Thursday, the orchestra section appeared to be nearly filled to capacity, including the most expensive section. I couldn’t see the upper levels and couldn’t check them out during the now abolished intermission, but I certainly didn’t detect any lack of enthusiasm for the show itself from the sizable audience that was watching it.
Second, before the show started, I looked at the front of the theater entrance from across Hollywood Boulevard. The big Iris banner over the entrance wasn’t directly lit at all, so one could easily drive by the theater without seeing the smaller posters or even realizing that Iris was inside the building. That’s an odd way to designate the entrance to a show that’s surrounded by so many other competing attractions.
Iris, Dolby Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood., Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 4 and 8 pm, Sun 3 and 7 pm. Closes Saturday Jan 19. www.cirquedusoleil.com/iris. 877-943-IRIS.