“Radar LA was much more important than the Hollywood Fringe Festival.” -Harvey Perr, Stage and Cinema
This was the rather shocking statement uttered by Harvey Perr during the Bitter Lemons sponsored Critics Panel at the Fringe. The statement came after Harvey admitted that he’d seen almost ALL of the 14 Radar LA shows and had seen only 1 of the 200+ shows playing at the Fringe. The show he had seen had been Four Clowns: Romeo and Juliet and he had seen it the night before the panel. Adding an interesting twist to the clamor, Four Clowns: R&J went on (the next day) to sweep almost all the Fringe Awards for which it was nominated, taking the Dance & Movement Award, the World Premiere Award and the Top of the Fringe Award. The one it didn’t receive was the Bitter Lemons Outrageous Award for Theatre (BLOAT) which went to Porter’s MacBeth: A Parody. More on that later.
Harvey was rightly lambasted by at least three attendees in the audience for his almost clownishly (yup, I said “clownishly”) uninformed conclusion, but what interested me more was the question that began formulating in my own head that morning and that has now finally crystalized today:
To whom was it more important?
Before I continue though let me make it clear, I love Harvey, he’s a tremendous critic, an excellent writer and a truly passionate lover of the theatre with 50+ years of experience as a writer, critic and actor. He is a man who should be listened to when it comes to all things theatre. I am a fan. So this post is not going to be an exclusive Harvey-Bashing Fest, though he deserves it for uttering such an ignorant statement and making himself look, well, rather silly, but for me what is more important is that I believe what Harvey said was a gift to the Los Angeles Theatre Community in much the same way that the LA Times Panel’s display of utter contempt towards that same community was also a gift.
The LA Weekly’s Steven Leigh Morris sums it up much better than me in a recent article:
Perhaps the biggest gift of the summer came from the L.A. Times, whose panel on the state of our theater (Broadway producers, a playwright and Tim Robbins talking about and to themselves) all but snubbed the small-theater community that produces 75 percent of the work here. Furthermore, after this neglect was made pointedly clear through aggrieved unanimously angry responses on the newspaper’s own theater blog, the panel completely avoided audience questions — even those that had been solicited ahead of time. After the panel left Zipper Hall, local theater makers lingered in a state of shock and dismay over the lucidity of how they’d been further disregarded. Let’s just say it was a clarion, galvanizing call to action.
“A clarion, galvanizing call to action”. Indeed. I see Harvey’s utterance along the same lines.
To whom was it more important?
Clearly it was more important to Harvey. Would he have been swayed if he’d seen more Fringe Shows? I doubt it. When pressed at the panel Harvey tried to elucidate:
Radar LA was much more important than the Hollywood Fringe Festival. More important in its objectives. Because it brought to our city everything the city hasn’t had in the theatre. I didn’t see anything like that here (the Fringe). I don’t think it’s all that exciting. Last night (at Four Clowns) I was surrounded by thousands of screaming people who seemed to have no judgment or taste and I’d rather be around those other people. And that was one of the best shows at the Fringe.
Now there’s no need for me to expand on how absurdly illogical and, well, dumb, Harvey’s initial statement was. It’s like those people who criticize a movie’s content when they’ve only seen the trailer, but they’d HEARD that it was this and that and therefore they felt informed enough to disparage it. Not that Harvey might not be right – perhaps the Radar LA Festival was more important – but you actually have to some idea of what you’re talking about, some factual evidence with which to compare, before you can make informed broad stroke conclusions like that.
To whom was it more important?
Let’s take a look at some other recent reactions to, well, everything that just occurred in the world of Los Angeles Theatre.
Steven Leigh Morris LA Weekly’s Bill Raden on the “Uninvited Panel” which was organized by John Steppling at the Lost Studio as a response to the lack of small theatre representation in, on, around, well, almost everywhere and everything:
By the time the dust settled and the group broke for coffee and crudités, a sort of consensus emerged that what the institutional non-profits are best at is raising money and building luxuriously appointed theater buildings. What they’re not so good at is making art. For the gathered artists, it was agreed that the reverse is true. The question of how to create a meaningful and mutually rewarding symbiosis between the two groups was left unanswered.
This from Gedaly Guberek from Coeurage Theatre Company on whether LA is a theatre town:
What I think people are really asking is, “Is LA a theatre DESTINATION?” No. It’s not. New York is. Broadway is a tourist attraction, so is the Grand Canyon. In order to feel like we’ve accomplished something do we need to have tourists come see what we do?
This from LA Stage Watch’s Don Shirley on the Fringe:
I’m not arguing that this giant developmental stew contributes nothing to LA theater. Surely a few talents will emerge from the Fringe in a better position to do better developed work. But I’m also saying that we already have a big cauldron of that same developmental stew simmering throughout the year, thanks in large part to the relatively loose strictures of Actors’ Equity’s 99-Seat Theater Plan. Most Fringe producers don’t even bother to use Equity actors or the 99-Seat Plan, so it’s not surprising that the level of professionalism in some of these Fringe productions makes the average 99-Seat Plan production look like something from the Royal Shakespeare Company.
And this from CTG Artistic Director Michael Ritchie on the “subscription model” that has prevailed in America for quite some time:
I’m so tired of subscribers. They drive me nuts; they’re strangling me; I hate them. I don’t care how good they are; I don’t care how much money they bring in. Fuck subscribers!
What’s hard is that there is a solution to it, and this is what Lincoln Center does with their membership program. They don’t plan a season. They go from show to show and depending upon demand will run it or close it. Going from a subscription model to a membership model is difficult to do in a seamless way. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do with Douglas Plus—push our subscribers into a membership model so that we can do it at the other theaters too.
Something seems to be brewing, eh?
It’s a lot to chew on. And I was going to initially chew on it piece by piece, but the more I tried to digest, the more patterns began to form in the gastric juices of my mind. So I’ve decided to try and toss it all together in a veritable salad of cerebral salaciousness and dish it out to the Lemon Head Nation for its own personal consumption.
Now clearly there were other things going on this last month, the National Asian American Theatre Conference and Festival and The Director’s Lab West Festival, to name a couple. There was also the KPCC panel, the Uninvited panel and that insipid LA Times Panel. So this is not just about Fringe and Radar. But I believe by comparing these two and expanding the conclusions to the broader question of Los Angeles Theatre and Theatre in general, much can be gleaned.
So now some random points that I’ve been meaning to get off my chest and that will lead back to the question at hand:
Point One: Radar LA was certainly a worthy theatre festival and TCG threw a nice conference and I wish I had caught more shows and more symposiums. That said, I caught one symposium, one informal journalistic meet and greet and four shows. Of the four shows, two were clunkers, both from LA (sorry!), The New American Theatre and Not Man Apart Physical Theatre’s (gasp) Titus Redux and A Ghost Story from Wicked Lit, the other two were good and entertaining but didn’t quite fully deliver the goods in my opinion, these were As You Are Now So Once Were We and State of Incarceration which was also from LA. I heard the Car Plays were excellent as was Neva. I’m sorry I missed them. I just didn’t have the time due to many many obligations both personal and professional.
Point Two: Radar LA was basically the entertainment arm of the TCG Conference. Its essential purpose was to entertain the 1100 or so TCG Conference attendees. Nothing wrong with that, perfectly valid, but to pretend that it wasn’t is to deny reality.
Point Three: To compare Radar LA to the Hollywood Fringe Festival is like comparing Da Vinci’s sketching’s to the Mona Lisa. One was a well-funded, curated festival of road-tested finished shows culled from Los Angeles and from several other countries around the world. The other was the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
Point Four: If LA Stage Alliance truly wants to be the guiding and organizing force for Los Angeles Theatre they need to stretch their arms out a little wider next time. Their lack of support for the Fringe was pretty appalling. I understand that their main emphasis was the Conference and Radar, but would it have hurt them to perhaps put together some Conference goody bag within which the Fringe Guide could have been included? Even a gesture that miniscule would have gone a very long way. I like Terrence and Doug and they have done many beneficial things for the community but I would continue to challenge them to think a little more broadly. I’d hate for them to go the way of the LA Times.
Point Five: Pauline Adamek of ArtsBeatLA, if you truly want to be considered a legitimate theatre critic in this town I’d suggest you don’t scamper out in the middle of a Fringe show and then tweet that it “completely SUCKED” immediately afterwards. I don’t think anyone would deny you your opinion, but if you call yourself a critic and are given free tickets under that guise, you are obligated to some semblance of eloquence. And “completely SUCKED” ain’t gonna cut it.
Point Six: I saw 25 Fringe Shows. Of those I’d say 4 were pretty bad, 6 were mediocre, 10 were entertaining, and 5 were excellent. And I’d say maybe 2 of the 25 were actually finished pieces. Most of them needed work. Most were about 15 to 20 minutes too long. So all in all for overall quality (again I only saw 25), I’d give the Fringe a 60% Sweet on the LemonMeter.
Point Seven: If The Complex wants to truly join the Los Angeles Theatre Community and become what could be a major theatrical hub, they have to start treating their renting artists with more respect. It was brought to my attention that many if not all of the people that rented from The Complex for the Fringe showed up to find that their rental did not include Tech Support a sudden cost that I believe fell somewhere in the $300 range. That, folks, just ain’t cool. The amazing thing is the people who work there and who are the real engines and movers and shakers down there, David Svengalis, Cate Cundiff, John Toom, just to name a few, are honorable, incredibly hard working professionals. So my only conclusion is that the horrid reputation of cheapness that continues to cling to The Complex like a foul stench since I first lived here (1992) comes directly from the top. The owner. And his name is Matt Chait.
Point Eight: Matthew Quinn is a Theatre Stud. Sorry, Gedaly.
Point Nine: Tony Frankel is a Theatre Slut. Sorry, Matthew.
Point Ten: I had an absolute blast at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
So how do we pull all of this together? What is the connective tissue? Is there one? Is there a through line? A designing principle that can make sense of it all?
Well, yes. And no.
To whom was it important?
Well for the Los Angeles Theatre Community the Fringe was more important. For the National Theatre Community Radar LA and the TCG Conference were more important.
It’s a natural schism, but it’s a schism, in my opinion, that can co-exist and SHOULD co-exist in Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, I would even say, that it is this very tension that will allow us to emerge as a major national theatre force over the next decade.
Let me go back to the Critics Panel. After Harvey offered us his brain-fart, someone in the audience (it might even have been Enci my partner!) said that what Harvey didn’t take into account was that everyone else around him was having a hell of a good time and because of that Four Clowns was a great show. I wholeheartedly disagree with that assessment. I have seen show after show (mainly at the Geffen lately) where the crowd launched itself to its feet at the end of the play to offer a standing ovation. And the show, in my opinion, just wasn’t that good. So, like Harvey, I would conclude, the audience has no fucking clue.
Okay. Now. Let’s stay with this for a moment by using Four Clowns as an example (sorry, guys!). I liked the show, it was nominated for our BLOAT because it was a truly outrageous and mostly entertaining take on Romeo and Juliet. I saw it twice and I have to admit, on the second night the night that Harvey was there, it was a lesser show. It’s part of its nature, sometimes it’ll hum, other times, not so much. Of the actual 8 critic reviews (LA Weekly, LA Theatre Review, etc…) I read on the show, counting Harvey, 3 were negative, 2 were so-so, and 3 were raves, though almost all highlighted the “juvenile” nature of the show. So about a 50-60% on the LemonMeter. But the people seemed to like it. They liked it so much that the “community” – those who saw enough Fringe shows to become ballot voters online – voted Four Clowns winners of every community award it was nominated for – or as it’s known in the Fringaverse “The Freak”. The only award it lost was its juried award nomination, the BLOAT, ours. Hmmm. Now, again, it was good, but Enci and I just thought Porter’s MacBeth was a superior show in our category.
Here’s the point, just because “the people” like something doesn’t mean it has to be mediocre or pure pop or not “art”. And just because a “jury” or a “critic” likes something doesn’t mean it can’t be “pure entertainment” as well as “art”. They can co-exist. And should. What I’m saying (and again sorry Four Clowns folks for using you as an example but it’s all I’ve got) is that both have value. Harvey was right (about Four Clowns) and so was the Fringe Community.
What are we supposed to make of that dichotomy?
I’m glad you asked.
First, Four Clowns and many of the other shows that won awards had the privilege of location: Fringe Central. They also marketed themselves very well. Several shows got together and decided to do cross-promotion. Those shows – besides being good – got noticed. Smart marketing. Make a note of it, folks. Four Clowns also already had a following. And they were a genuinely subversive take on both the Clown Genre and Shakespeare. Sophomoric it may be, but the concept was original and for the most part the performers were quite good. So attention must be paid, and it was. Mostly, by the “community”.
But what of the critic? The jury? Harvey?
Well here’s the beauty of it all.
At the Critic’s Panel there was much consternation about whether true critics were a dying breed. Were these top-notch writers, lovers of theatre, highly-savvy and experienced audience members, those who love theatre so much that they set themselves up as the guardians of the art form, are they becoming obsolete as print dies and the Social Media Mobs become the true tastemakers? I would say that if they are, we are in deep deep trouble. Without the critic, art simply becomes entertainment, but without the community, entertainment simply becomes art. Both lead to irrelevance.
Harvey actually said this at one point, “I’m interested in the art”. Yes, but what of the entertainment? I’m guessing Harvey would say, “Art is what entertains me.” Okay, fine. But it is the critics duty to provide context as well. There is room for both. And a critic should always be open to the fact that they are wrong and the “people” are right. And vice versa.
Let me further emphasize the beauty of how all of these elements can and do currently exist in Los Angeles. Three of the longest running – and still running – shows in LA are Re-Animator: The Musical (Steve Allen Theatre), Caught (Zephyr Theatre) and La Razon Blindada (24th Street Theatre). The first is a campy, clever spoof of a cult movie (entertainment), the second is a heartfelt take on gay marriage (moral), and the last is a sublime melding of culture, spectacle, theatre and literature (art). Certainly there are gradations in each of these, but my point is that each of these shows has been running anywhere from 6 months to almost a year. Why? Because people – THE COMMUNITY – wants to see them. AND, even more amazingly, the critics have also shown their love for these same shows. A perfect blending of all that is right with LA Theatre perhaps?
What the Fringe provides is an opportunity to build a community that encompasses all of these things. Art, Entertainment, Morality. But mostly, the opportunity to risk at a very very low expense.
Is it a showcase? Certainly. Is the quality hit and miss? Absolutely. Does it represent Los Angeles Theatre? Most definitely. In all its glory and in all its infamy. But what it does that’s even more important is that it focuses the whole thing down to a Hollywood Square Mile, the key component to all successful arts communities – a center. I can’t tell you how many people came up to me in the Fringe Central tent (I was there alot) and said, “I can’t believe that this is going to be gone next week”. My mind raced, could we create a permanent Hollywood Circus, a regular weekly Cabaret space, can we rejuvenate Theatre Row and make it the center of the community? I had no immediate answers. But others, as I found out, were already putting things in motion.
Here’s the thing; there is talk of bringing back Radar LA for 2013. Fine. And yet, the Fringe doubled its attendance and its box office sales this year, by 2013 the Fringe will have probably tripled or quadrupled all of those numbers. I just don’t see Radar LA being able to grow without the TCG Conference to feed its engine. Certainly go for it, there is room for all, but in the meantime the Fringe will be binding the community together and growing exponentially. Radar LA will have a lot of catching up to do.
In conclusion, I’m left with this great unifying image: after the Critic’s Panel there was much grumbling and muttering and call for lynchings, but out of it emerged Jeremy Aluma, the man who conceived and directed Four Clowns, the show Harvey had held up as the reason why the Fringe was a lesser undertaking than Radar LA. Jeremy Aluma approached Harvey Perr, humbly and gratefully and basically said, “Let’s talk”.
That, Lemon Heads, is where all roads converge. Entertain, make the art, take the good with the bad, the critical and the populist, and strive to do better next time. These are the building blocks of a strong and healthy artistic community: heat, passion, risk, success, failure, commerce, morality, ego, value, quality, ideas, entertainment, art, story-telling. A crucible of give and take and give and take again.
So thank you, Harvey. Thank you LA Times. But most of all, thank you Hollywood Fringe Festival.
Let’s keep that tent up.
About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.