Put “Los Angeles” Back into the Los Angeles Times for LA Theatre

by Don Shirley

During the holiday season, the LA Times (aka LAT) demonstrated anew its curiously constricted view of the importance of the other LAT — LA theater.

Charles McNulty

Times theater critic Charles McNulty’s year-in-review roundup included a Top 11 list of theatrical productions, of which only two (Blackbird and Peace in Our Time) were LA-originated. Two other shows on his list, The Cripple of Inishmaan and Let Me Down Easy, were imported by LA area theaters. One Orange County production, Circle Mirror Transformation, also made McNulty’s list.

The other six shows on the list – more than half of the total – included a Canadian import McNulty saw in La Jolla (Jesus Christ Superstar), three shows he saw in New York (The Book of Mormon, The Motherfucker with the Hat and The Normal Heart), and two he saw in London (Luise Miller and One Man, Two Guvnors). McNulty also wrote a separate year-end essay that mentioned other shows, including four LA-originated productions, but they didn’t appear on his Top 11 list.

Whenever a critic tries to cover more than one geographical area in a year-end theater assessment, especially if traveling among the areas involves crossing not only continents but also oceans, I wonder how the critic could possibly have seen enough of the contenders in any one of the areas to make reasonably comprehensive judgments. To be fair to McNulty, it’s true that he wrote that these were the shows that “had me clapping loudest at home and abroad” – not that these were necessarily the best shows in the 2011 theatrical world or even in these particular cities.

Even so, a lot of readers probably assume that the chief LA Times critic reviews or at least sees most of the better LA shows. But it ain’t necessarily so.

RADAR L.A.

I looked up the record of what McNulty wrote about in 2011, courtesy of one of the databases at the LA Public Library. I found 52 reviews of individual theater productions within LA and Orange counties (plus one review at Long Beach Opera and a RADAR L.A. commentary that included brief comments on several shows).

It’s no surprise that he reviewed Center Theatre Group shows more often than those of any other company – a total of 13 in 2011. The surprise about his CTG coverage is that only two of those 13 were at CTG’s flagship venue, the Mark Taper Forum. Four were at CTG’s largest theater, the Ahmanson, while seven were at CTG’s smallest venue, the Kirk Douglas. McNulty wrote about eight productions at Geffen Playhouse and seven at South Coast Repertory. He covered five shows at Broad Stage (all of them imports).

So 33 of his 52 individual theater reviews in Los Angeles and Orange counties took place at those four companies, which are more or less regarded as the “1%” of LA theater by many of the “99%” who work elsewhere in the vast LA theater terrain.

McNulty also spent time in the major San Diego theaters, reviewing five shows at La Jolla Playhouse and four at the Old Globe (plus one at San Diego Rep, which he later re-reviewed when it came to LA).

Oddly enough, McNulty largely avoided one of our major theaters, the Pasadena Playhouse, even though 2011 was the year when it rebounded from bankruptcy. McNulty reviewed only one of the playhouse’s productions, Dangerous Beauty. He ignored the return of the playhouse’s Sheldon Epps as a director in Blues for an Alabama Sky (it opened the same night as the Mark Taper Forum’s Vigil – but McNulty didn’t review Vigil either).

Although 2011 was the year when A Noise Within moved from Glendale to larger digs in Pasadena, McNulty wrote only about the company’s opening show (Twelfth Night) in the new theater, not about the final season of three (better) productions in the former space or the new theater’s second show.

"Small Engine Repair" at Rogue Machine

He didn’t write about any of the four 2011 shows that won the top production honors at last year’s Ovation Awards ceremony (A Raisin in the Sun, Kiss Me Kate, Small Engine Repair, Jerry Springer: the Opera), nor has he has ever written (in his six years at the Times) about Troubadour Theater Company, which won the “best season” Ovation for the second time in three years.

He reviewed no 2011 shows at most of the companies that make up the middle tier of Equity-contracted LA theaters – the Colony, International City Theatre, East West Players, Theatricum Botanicum, Independent Shakespeare, the Falcon, Ebony Rep, Theatre West, Native Voices – nor did he write about anything at the larger musicals-only companies such as Musical Theatre West. He reviewed one production each at Reprise, REDCAT and the Skirball, plus the only Getty Villa production that was open for review in 2011. He wrote about one show each at the larger Pantages and Montalban theaters and at the Hollywood Bowl, as well as Cirque du Soleil’s Iris.

On the small theater (99-Seat Plan) level, he reviewed eight productions, including two at Boston Court and one each at six other venues. That’s eight out of the 371 productions that used the 99-Seat Plan in LA County in 2011, according to tentative figures from Actors’ Equity.      

Of course the Times sends free-lance reviewers to many LA shows that McNulty doesn’t write about (although not as many as in previous eras). McNulty probably saw at least a few of these other shows in 2011, but he included none of them in his year-end roundups, so it’s hard to guess how many he saw or what he thought about them.

Following his year-end roundups, McNulty finished the year by writing a Dec. 25 article about four new plays that he said reflected a troubling quality of “trial and error” in their dramaturgy. He had seen all of them in New York, and none of them has been produced in LA. So, of course, most of his readers had no familiarity with the plays, no reasonable chance of seeing them soon, and hardly any incentive to keep reading until the end of the article.

"Poor Behavior" at the Mark Taper Forum

Surely he could have found four new plays that were produced or even merely presented in LA in 2011 with some of the same problems – in fact, he wrote that he could have included “other new works that appeared closer to home this fall,” briefly citing Poor Behavior, which he had reviewed at the Taper, and another play that he reviewed at the Old Globe. Maybe he didn’t want to rehash what he had already written about those plays, so he devoted only a phrase to each of them, while examining more closely each of the New York-produced plays. But his essay would have meant more to most of his readers if he could have examined four LA plays – preferably four that he had not earlier reviewed.

McNulty certainly isn’t the only person at the Times who appears not to appreciate that theater is primarily a local art form – in the sense that it exists in one particular place at one particular time. Even before McNulty arrived in 2006, some of the Times editors had clearly defined theater as something that happens primarily in New York and London – thereby justifying their decisions to take space and other resources away from the indigenous theater in the Times’ primary circulation area.

It’s tempting to wonder if this editorial attitude might have something to do with the fact that LA fails to offer the commercial equivalent of Broadway or the West End. Nearly all LA theater exists within a nonprofit framework, which usually lacks the advertising budgets that commercial productions use to buy newspaper ad space in New York and London. But of course Broadway and West End productions have seldom advertised much in the LA Times, so if this New York emphasis is part of some elaborate Times strategy to sell more ads, it isn’t working.

I think the Times tilt is more attributable to the fact that several key Times editors – some of them New York Times veterans – simply never understood that LA manages to produce as many professional productions as anywhere else in the world. While the current trend for newspapers is to emphasize distinctive local matters in the online era, as opposed to phenomena that are covered by so many other media outlets, that trend hasn’t reached the LA Times theater coverage.

McNulty moderated a Times-sponsored panel discussion last June, in conjunction with the many theater-related festivals that were in LA that month. The formal topic of the panel was “the role of LA in the national theater scene,” but a headline reduced it to whether LA is “a theater town,” which drew derision even from some of the panelists. McNulty’s often a graceful stylist, and his writing usually reflects considerable theatrical knowledge in general, so I looked forward to a follow-up essay about the issues and concerns that were raised by the discussion. Instead, after the panel, he reviewed Blackbird and RADAR L.A., and then he was off to London, where he produced five articles.

He wrote 17 reviews, interviews or commentaries from or about New York last year, not counting several book reviews about New York theater topics. The Times also uses other writers to turn out still more feature articles about New York theater, and it obsessively over-covers the Tony Awards, while hardly mentioning the LA theater awards. Of course this bias also happens to coincide with Michael Ritchie’s inclinations when he chooses CTG programming.

In 2011, most of McNulty’s New York stories were in the first half of the year – probably because that’s when the Tony hype builds so relentlessly. Is McNulty about to enter this phase again, or might we hope that he makes a New Year’s resolution to spend a little more time in some of the LA theaters that he has seldom or never visited?

If McNulty were to re-direct more attention to a much wider slice of LA theater, he would not only serve the interests of his primary audience, but he might save his bankrupt and cost-cutting corporation a few dollars in travel expenses. And perhaps we theater-devoted readers would finally begin to see the words “Los Angeles” emerge from the name “Los Angeles Times.”

Don Shirley is a Los Angeles theatre critic and columnist. His theatre news blog,  LA Stage Watch, appears on the LA Stage Times website.

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