Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

Where will we be in 20 years?

Posted in Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on October 7, 2009

Quick note: sorry for no posts in two weeks, I have been busy traveling to Chicago and am now back in Los Angeles. In the future my goal is to post an article every Monday. This will give me the time to write what I hope will be thoughtful posts that have something to say, instead of just everyday “filer.” Ok, now on with the show!

I recently attended a committee meeting for the Bringing Back Broadway initiative. The Committee focuses on the 12 large Broadway theaters in Downtown Los Angeles, and their goal is to revitalize the entire Broadway corridor with shops, restaurants, a street car (a light rail that runs down Broadway, connecting LA Live and the Music Center) and most importantly, filling the large theaters with NYC Broadway-caliber shows. They want so do all this in 10 years.

I think they are crazy. Not because what they want to accomplish, but because of their time line. I believe they will accomplish each of their goals, but that it will take about 20 years.

Don’t think their idea is plausible? Take a second to remember 1989 and then think about how much has changed. Don’t think there is a market? Go back and read my post on rebranding and tourists. And then remember how long Wicked ran at the Pantages. Wicked is exactly the kind of show that will run at these theaters. There will also be room for The Lion King, and every other Disney and Warner Brothers movie they want to musicalize. Add the fact that our city, county, and state politicians want this to happen, the theater owners want this to happen, and the downtown property owners want this to happen. And, just as LA Live is about to prove to us all (and just as the Music Center already has), people will come downtown to be entertained.

It will happen.

So when we end up with five to ten 2,000 seat theaters in LA hosting full scale, Broadway productions in them, what will happen to the rest of the theater scene? Will these theaters compliment us? Or destroy us? Will they be part of our scene or outsiders? Will we be involved in making them successful? Will we protest this change, or cheer for it to fail? Or will we simply ignore it?

I think we should get involved. Just as the city of Los Angeles has a 10-year plan, our theater community should also have a 10-year plan (though I think realistically they should both be 20-year plans). I think we need to participate in the efforts to open these beautiful theaters, and we need to be looking at how this will change our entire theater landscape. After all, it stands to reason that if 80,000-160,000 patrons start to attend these large theaters every week, they are going to be less likely to also go see 99-seat theater. And even if 80% of them wouldn’t ever go to a 99-seat theater anyway, that’s still 16,000-32,000 a week that would have, and now probably won’t!

What are we going to do about this?

I think its time to sit down and work together to figure out a way to build a true “middle” type of theater scene with 100-499 seat houses that are available for rent to long-running shows. These theaters will allow us to produce at a higher level of production quality. Currently, shows that would otherwise have done very well in independent 199 or 299 seat houses are more or less being forced to play in 99-seat theaters. In just the past few years we have seen Marvelous Wonderettes, Louis and Keely, Divorce! The Musical, Lovelace, and now Life Could be a Dream— all shows that could have withstood larger productions but instead were crammed into small 99-seat theaters. How many other shows could have done well if they could have been produced in a slightly bigger house and been run with real marketing budgets and production values (not to mention higher salaries for our artists)?

The shows and talent are already here. What we lack is a plan, and perhaps the will.

Isn’t it time to start planning now? Isn’t it time to come together now? 20 years from now the Broadway theaters will be open. Will we have the foresight to ride this wave by creating our own “Off-Broadway” LA Theater scene?

It’s very easy to get bogged down by our own current shows and projects. Who has time to think about extra stuff when you have a full-time job AND run a theater company? I get it– most of us don’t feel we have time to think about the future when we can barely get though today.

But the problem is, if we don’t come together, if we don’t start to work on a 20-year plan, if we don’t think about the future, then 20 years from now all the great work we’re doing could be rendered irrelevant.


2 Responses

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  1. Sean Harrington said, on October 11, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Agree 100%, Rick. How do we start?

    • Rick Culbertson said, on October 12, 2009 at 12:01 pm

      We just have to get together. Start talking to producers and people you know who run theaters. Pass on this blog, and soon we will have enough people to get to work.

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