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Shakespeare in L.A.: Summer of our discontent

by James C. Taylor / Los Angeles Times

As the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles forgoes its summer fest, leaving the Independent Shakespeare Co. and Theatricum Botanicum among the few alfresco productions in the area, now’s a good time to ask why outdoor Shakespeare has yet to catch on in a big way in L.A.

Before there were trendy lofts, coffeehouses and bacon maple doughnuts on the streets near Los Angeles’ skid row — back when graffiti wasn’t considered “art” in downtown Los Angeles — Ben Donenberg had the idea that theater could improve the neighborhood.

“In New York, no one would normally walk in Central Park after dark because it’s dangerous,” the then-30-year old impresario told this newspaper in 1987. “You put up a Shakespeare festival and thousands of people flock to the park. I thought that creating a festival here would help to bring people downtown.”

Twenty five years ago this month will mark Donenberg and Shakespeare Festival/LA’s first production of “Twelfth Night” that took place in Pershing Square. But while the artsy and curious flock to downtown L.A., there will be no Shakespeare festival this summer for the first time in a generation.

With Donenberg’s troupe, now called the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, dark this summer, it seems like a good time to ask: Why hasn’t a signature summer Shakespeare tradition blossomed during L.A.’s warmer evenings? Are our outdoor venues simply dealing with the same challenges facing indoor theaters year-round — or are there unique factors hampering alfresco Shakespeare?

There are certainly many more actors (and arguably better weather) in Los Angeles than in San Diego or the Bay Area, yet those two smaller metropolitan areas have major outdoor Shakespeare festivals — the Old Globe and Cal Shakes — that are centrally located and part of the local fabric, much like the venerable Public Theater’s summer productions in Central Park.

Founded in 1954, Joseph Papp’s New York troupe started small, and its early years, vividly recounted in Times critic Kenneth Turan’s oral history, “Free for All,” were not so different from the history of Donenberg’s Shakespeare Center or the Santa Clarita Shakespeare Festival or San Pedro’s Shakespeare by the Sea, to name some of the many smaller Southern California festivals to emerge in the last generation.

Speaking with some of the founders, including Donenberg, Ellen Geer of Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga and Independent Shakespeare Co.’s Melissa Chalsma, all of them invoked Papp as a role model. Chalsma even admitted that she and her managing director and husband, David Melville, have a shorthand when problems come up: “WWJPD?” (What Would Joe Papp Do?)

Papp’s biggest coup was willing into existence the Delacorte Theater, a permanent stage for his company in Central Park. Sitting in the Delacorte seats, before going on as Provost in “Measure for Measure” earlier this summer, L.A.-based actor Dakin Matthews tried to pinpoint why Los Angeles hasn’t built a similar venue. “Any outdoor amphitheater in L.A. requires the cooperation of neighbors, it requires traffic patterns,” he says, then gestures to the surrounding park. “You don’t have to worry about that here.”

Matthews is a veteran of numerous California Shakespeare festivals dating back to the 1960s, and he played the title character in Donenberg’s production of “Julius Caesar” on the steps of City Hall in 1998. “Ben got a lot of civic support for that. It was a fun play, modern dress, very sexy,” Matthews recalls. “That was one of the high points.”

Repeating that success has proved difficult. Donenberg says that costs are higher for site-specific productions — and they don’t always pay off. “‘Julius Caesar’ worked at City Hall because we embraced the venue and it was easy to make helicopters overhead part of the atmosphere,” Donenberg says. “Whereas when we did ‘Much Ado’ at the 7th Street Marketplace, not so much.”

Theater is ritual, both for performers and audiences, and without a home, Shakespeare Center/LA lacked a familiar setting or season that encouraged loyalty. That changed in 2005, when the Archdiocese of Los Angeles gave Donenberg permission to use the courtyard at the downtown Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. But it wasn’t a perfect match.

“I think there’s something about a sylvan setting, you want grass and nature with outdoor Shakespeare,” Matthews says. “As lovely as the cathedral square is, it’s still concrete.”

When Donenberg and his troupe begin their next season, it’s not clear where they will stage their work. Over the last 25 years, Shakespeare Center has slowly become more about education — or as Donenberg calls it, “community engagement … articulating Shakespeare in different ways.” In lieu of its summer season, last month saw the start of its “Will Power to Youth” program, in which students create an adaptation of a Shakespeare play. In this way, Donenberg’s troupe is becoming more like L.A.’s oldest continuous venue for outdoor Shakespeare: Theatricum Botanicum.

The secret to Botanicum’s longevity, according to Geer, is that it is a home for actors. The Geer family has been performing Shakespeare since the 1950s on their Topanga estate. But Botanicum’s outdoor season is just one component of the company. The company also performs indoors for students. Geer hopes that Los Angeles will become a destination for summer theater fans, like the Delacorte in Central Park or the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, but she also says that outdoor theater will continue to struggle in L.A., just like regular theater: “The film business is a mighty powerful older brother,” Geer said.

Matthews thinks that L.A. can host a world-class outdoor Shakespeare venue (“but it will be devilishly hard to start in this economy”), but says it would have to overcome one particular fact: “If an L.A. actor is a star or a good face, and they want to get cred by doing a serious Shakespeare play, they will come to New York first.”

Before Joe Papp, the only way to get serious Shakespeare cred was for an actor to go to Broadway or London. Now stars like Al Pacino and Anne Hathaway work for a fraction of their film quotes in Central Park. What L.A. needs is its own Joe Papp, Matthews says.

“It does take a single person, I think, who puts it all together,” he says. “I thought Ben was on his way to it. I’m not saying he’s been sidetracked … but a company’s focus can start to shift so much to education so they can no longer think in terms of larger productions.”

Donenberg concedes that his company is moving away from the Papp model. “When Mr. Papp was around there was money for the arts, lots more federal funding, local funding. … It was a different environment,” he says. “The financial crisis has made us become a lot more specific about our goals … we have to grow up.”

As Shakespeare Center has been redefining itself, the company that is emerging as perhaps the closest thing to Papp’s vision of Free Shakespeare for All in Los Angeles is Chalsma’s Independent Shakespeare Co. Like Donenberg, who says acting in Papp’s production of “Henry IV” in 1981 was a key motivation, ISC’s founders met on the 1995 Broadway production of “Hamlet” with Ralph Fiennes. They moved west and mounted their first production in 2003 at Franklin Canyon Park. The next year they moved to Barnsdall Park, where the first performance was attended by 14 people and a dog, according to Chalsma. In 2009, their last season there, nearly 12,000 people attended the festival.

Last year, the ISC moved out of Barnsdall Park and set up shop in Griffith Park, which is probably the closest thing that L.A. has to Central Park. The troupe performs in a natural amphitheater in the Old Zoo and Chalsma says the move was a blessing. “I can’t imagine a better venue. There’s a lot of parking. In L.A., that’s a critical thing.”

Last month, the ISC opened its second season at Griffith Park with “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and 1,700 people attended the first four performances. This marks ISC’s ninth season of free Shakespeare, but don’t expect any recognizable faces from TV or the movies in its productions, whereas in Papp’s ninth season, George C. Scott and James Earl Jones starred in “The Merchant of Venice,” and the Delacorte was inaugurated.

Chalsma is well aware of the uphill road she and her company are traveling, but she remains optimistic: “I think there’s no reason L.A. can’t be considered a Shakespeare town. In my experience, audiences are fantastic, vocal and crazy-supportive, you just have to get them to the theater.”

For Donenberg, this summer is a time to regroup and prepare for the next generation. He’s hopeful that there will be a next 25 years for his organization — and despite the difficulties, he still talks about the legacy of what Joe Papp did in New York. “The things he tapped, the idea that theater is a birthright, it’s as true now as it was then.”

Of course, free Shakespeare is never really free. Joe Papp’s trick was to make Shakespeare in the Park sexy enough so that city officials and those who could donate wanted to. Matthews says that the only way L.A. will have a world-class Shakespeare venue is when being on its board has as much prestige as being on the board of LACMA or the L.A. Philharmonic.

Chalsma says that her board thinks a new permanent outdoor theater like the Delacorte would help distinguish her company. She agrees that this would be great, but insists that money is better spent on the actors and the productions.

“Look at Ashland, it’s out of the way but people don’t just drive 60 miles from Oregon to go there, they come from all over the world.” She adds that they’re making the pilgrimage not to see the architecture of the theater, but rather the work that’s onstage. Putting on high-quality productions that rival the best companies in the world is ultimately what will make Los Angeles a Shakespeare destination. “Just because L.A. doesn’t have it yet,” Chalsma says, “doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible.”

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