By Damaris Montalvo
Dear Vanity Fair,
On April 10, you published a review of For the Record: Tarantino, which the author entitled, “Can Quentin Tarantino and Rumer Willis Save L.A. Theater?” From the very title, I knew this piece would contain inflammatory content, for it immediately beckoned the question, “Why does LA Theatre need saving?”
The review opened with an incendiary assumptive statement, “Los Angeles is teeming with actors, so why is the theater so bad?” This makes me wonder what plays the author has been going to. Surely not those at The Theatre @ Boston Court. Or Rogue Machine. Or Antaeus. Or pretty much anything playing at Atwater Village. Or any of the thought-provoking, gut-wrenching, inventive, and transformative plays I’ve seen throughout Greater Los Angeles over the past six years.
Unless, of course, we have a very different perspective on what makes “good” theatre. If “good” theatre is defined by a star-studded Hollywood cast, and its quality is measured by an audience of celebrities, then I do nothing but go to “bad” plays.
As an avid patron who supports several of LA’s 99-seat theatres, I have been known to see 3 plays a week – on average. There have been weeks where I’ve seen a play each and every single night (hooray for Monday performances!). But why do I do this? I certainly don’t have a stake in the matter. I am not part of the theatre industry, nor am I related to anyone who is. Perhaps I am just a glutton for punishment, a ghost or zombie living in the wasteland of LA’s “dead” theatre.
But what a disservice that thought is to the talented people who bring these stories to life. How disrespectful it is to discount playwrights whose words capture the feelings that we often fail to articulate; artistic directors who take bold risks; sound, set and lighting designers whose work is often overlooked, especially when its subtly is so masterful that it seems inherent; actors who “strut and fret [their] hour upon the stage” to bring us to laughter or tears and put up a mirror to our own lives. And the many, many more talented people who pour their heart and soul into giving me, the theatergoer, an experience I’ll never forget.
I love LA theatre because it’s fearless. Unapologetic. Unafraid to say what needs to be said about everything from government to dogma to our own humanity. Unafraid to explore and overcome boundaries, breaking from traditional forms and moving us into new directions that film and other forms of entertainment can’t do.
I wonder if the author has ever seen a piece by Theatre Movement Bazaar. Or Critical Mass, Four Larks, or Theatrum Elysium. Original and adapted pieces that come alive in imaginative, unpredictable, and riveting ways.
Now don’t get me wrong: I enjoy For the Record. I’ve seen a couple of their shows and have been thoroughly entertained. But entertained in the way that a good cabaret show is entertaining. Not entertained like I was with Kemp Powers’ One Night in Miami, where I couldn’t get enough of the conversation with Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Malcolm X, so I saw the play five times to get my fix.
And though some of the cast for the For the Record productions is certainly good, “bold-face names that could bring other theater directors to tears with envy” is a gross overstatement. The theatre directors I know would cry over Paige Lindsey White, Ann Noble, Jill Van Velzer, or Kalean Ung any day over Rumer Willis. Don’t even get me started on Tim Cummings, John Sloan, and Justin Huen, to name a few.
To me, LA theatre has been transformative. Boston Court’s Twentieth-Century Way introduced me to the complexity of LA Theatre, with layers upon layers of meaning. Theatrum Elysium’s Cymbeline showed me that dance is a transcendental storytelling mechanism. Rogue Machine’s Small Engine Repair showed me the joy of conversation, and the struggle of growing up. Bad Apples taught me how disturbingly easy it is to dehumanize people. Boston Court’s Creation challenged my notions of love, relationships, and the meaning of “forever.” Repeat viewings of my favorite plays have taught me that perspective is different from where you’re sitting.
So “bad” theatre has taught me critical thinking, compassion, bravery, gratitude. And much, much more.
But this review does bring to bear an important thought: if good theatre is in every pocket of Los Angeles, how did your author miss it, Vanity Fair? How has this person been so out of touch that these outlandish remarks could come to be?
If it hadn’t been for Boston Court, which is conveniently located for me, I’m not sure I would’ve known about the wonders LA Theatre has to offer. I would not have gone as far as assuming that LA Theatre was dead, but I would’ve continued to have a narrow view of what LA Theatre meant, considering only well-promoted, large-scale productions at the Pantages or the Ahmanson.
‘Cause let’s face it: LA Theatre is kind of incestuous. It’s a common occurrence at every play I go to to shock other theatergoers when I tell them I’m not “in theatre.” The conversation often starts with, “Do you know anyone in the cast?” It’s hard for people to fathom that I go see so much theatre without an agenda or vested interest other than the pure joy of experiencing theatre itself.
So maybe, Vanity Fair, you can help “keep LA Theatre alive” for those who aren’t part of the industry by investing in it a little more. Theatres rely heavily on word of mouth, but there is much the local media can do to help boost awareness of the excellent theatre that’s out there. Assuming, of course, that you can set aside the Hollywood song-and-dance to let real LA Theatre shock, impress, delight and transform you.