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THEATER; The New Indies of
Los Angeles Are Live Onstage

By JOSEPH HANANIA | Published: December 16, 2001

THE dining table in Michael Blieden's rambling Los Angeles apartment is a heavy piece of used butcher block, still sporting stains of animal fat, propped up on standard restaurant-fare metal bases. Nearby stands a green board Mr. Blieden surfed on last year, now used mostly to adorn his largely bare walls. The pièce de résistance: stereo speakers that belonged to his father, their woofers and tweeters on full display, minus any decorative covering.

Clearly, the tousle-haired 30-year-old isn't keen on investing money in expensive furniture. His one new piece -- aside from the dining table -- is a black leather couch for which his mother paid half.

Instead, Mr. Blieden prefers to invest his money in creative projects -- currently his play, ''Phyro-Giants,'' at the 50-seat Third Street Theater near Beverly Hills.

Mr. Blieden is typical of a new breed of independent playwright that has been changing this city's small-theater scene over the last few years from the often bland to the frequently stimulating. Others in this category include: Prince Gomolvilas, whose play ''The Theory of Everything,'' about seven Asian-Americans in search of the meaning of life while on a U.F.O. watch in Las Vegas, has just completed a run at the East West Players, an Asian-American company in the city's Little Tokyo area downtown; and Del Shores, a minister's son whose ''Southern Baptist Sissies,'' about four gay young Baptist men trying to make peace between their sexual orientation and their religion, recently ran at the Zephyr, a 99-seat theater in Hollywood.

Individual playwrights aren't the only forces changing the small-theater scene in Los Angeles. The television industry has been contributing, as has specialized, or niche, theater, like Asian-American, Latino-American and gay-themed productions.

The television industry also turned out to be a catalyst for Mr. Blieden's play. The idea for ''Phyro-Giants'' was born in New York, where Mr. Blieden, who grew up in Detroit and majored in English at the University of Michigan, produced television commercials for five years. During dinner at a SoHo restaurant with a friend, the two men were joined by two female acquaintances. Over the next few hours and as many bottles of wine, the four young people dropped their attempts at small talk and revealed their innermost selves.

Returning to his West Village apartment, Mr. Blieden scribbled down bits of the conversation. The play itself -- a dramatized re-creation of the dinner -- gestated for three years until Mr. Blieden moved to Los Angeles in 1999 and wrote it, with a nod to the 1985 John Hughes movie ''The Breakfast Club,'' about which he speaks admiringly. In it, five high school students doing detention time confront one another verbally.

''Phyro-Giants'' isn't ''The Big Chill'' or even ''The Canterbury Tales,'' although the characters do tell stories. Rather, the L.A. Weekly called it ''a fast, furious and funny study of 30-something angst,'' while The Los Angeles Times said the play, which is being performed on Saturday and Sunday nights through Jan. 27, is ''shrewdly observant.''

Mr. Blieden plays the socially inept Melvin, who keeps the conversation going because he is -- for once -- enjoying the interaction. Stephanie Courtney, Annabelle Gurwitch and Matt Price portray the other diners, while the waitress, played by Kathleen Roll (all four are young television actors), gets some of the more ironic lines as her four customers discuss a range of subjects from the desire for sex to the reality of the soul.

''I was worried, writing about people talking about God,'' Mr. Blieden said during a recent interview. But after some informal research among his friends, he said he found ''they're very comfortable at my age talking about this.''

Mr. Blieden, who has also worked as a television writer, earns his living largely as a television actor and has appeared on ''E.R.,'' ''The Ellen Show'' and in a recurring role as a gay office worker in ''The King of Queens.''

''Phyro-Giants'' (the title comes from a story Melvin tells about a schizophrenic who imagines a highly intelligent class of beings) is his first theatrical play. Mr. Blieden talked the producer of the HBO Workspace in Hollywood, Gary Mann, into reading the five roles aloud with him. The goal of the Workspace, which is sponsored by HBO Productions and Warner Brothers Television, is to discover potential television material. As a result, it frequently presents showcase productions of writers' work.

Mr. Mann also happens to be a theater lover. ''Certainly, we are funded by television,'' he said of his decision to present Mr. Blieden's not-exactly-made-for-television play at the Workspace last June. ''But television also benefits from good theater.''

Those in attendance included Steve Rudnick, a screenwriter for the films ''The Santa Clause'' and ''Space Jam.'' Mr. Rudnick, who also directs plays, agreed to direct a theatrical run of ''Phyro-Giants.''

When the play opened in October at the Third Street Theater, Mr. Mann said, it was following a trajectory similar to that of more than a dozen plays that have been performed at the Workspace and gone on to productions at small legitimate theaters.

Indeed, the television industry did not just provide ''Phyro-Giants'' with a showcase; the $10,000 Mr. Blieden himself put in to the production also derived from television: specifically, from a Coors Light commercial that shows him and another actor sitting on a sofa drinking beer, the other character then pulling a cord to an overhead bin, dousing Mr. Blieden in snow.

Mr. Blieden is not alone in using television as a means to mount theatrical productions. ''L.A. has become a terrific foundry for new plays,'' said Lee Wochner, president of Theater L.A., a consortium of more than 100 commercial and nonprofit theaters. The television industry provides work for many actors who then moonlight in the theater, Mr. Wochner said, adding that theater production costs are relatively low in the city. More than 1,300 plays opened here last year, he noted with enthusiasm.

Certainly, theatrical productions from the larger theaters in Los Angeles, like the Ahmanson and the Mark Taper Forum, which often initiate Broadway-bound shows, are better known. But productions that open here in smaller theaters are also being exported to New York and other cities. Their ranks most recently have included ''Bat Boy'' and ''Reefer Madness.'' It is a truism, however, that given differing cultural sensibilities and casts, hit plays presented at small theaters in Los Angeles do not always translate well elsewhere.

Still, Mr. Wochner believes that small-theater productions are the wave of the future. ''Worldwide, we're experiencing a cultural trend toward personalized, niche markets,'' he said, noting that niche marketing has occurred in publishing and, lately, in television. ''That's the dynamic in theater, too,'' he emphasized.

Mr. Wochner cited a recent study by the Rand Corporation showing that while most Angelenos still prefer watching movies and television, those who go to the theater average four shows a year and fill 52 percent of the seats. His short-term goal, Mr. Wochner said, is to expand the audience attending theater, while increasing the shows seen by the average theatergoer to five.

To help accomplish this, Theater L.A. last year inaugurated the Web site www, an online version of the TKTS booth in New York that offers same-day half-price tickets. This summer, Theater L.A. hopes to track the preferences of participating ticket buyers, alerting them online to other productions of interest and offering ''choice seats, great locations and appropriate-price tickets,'' Mr. Wochner said. These steps should increase the amount of seats filled to well above 60 percent, Mr. Wochner said.

Lars Hansen, the former head of Theater L.A., said he senses a changing attitude toward theater in Los Angeles. Ten years ago, when he was executive director of the mid-size Pasadena Playhouse, he would hold auditions in New York to cast particular roles. ''Now,'' he said, ''we find New York producers coming here.''

In addition, Mr. Hansen said, ''Almost all national tours and Broadway shows now hold auditions in L.A, and the largest theater company in the world -- the Walt Disney Company, with $1 million a week in worldwide ticket sales -- is based here.''

Not only does Los Angeles now boast ''a theater in every zip code,'' Mr. Hansen said, established theaters are also growing. In the last four years, he noted, half a dozen companies have moved from 99-seat theaters to mid-size facilities that can seat up to several hundred patrons. The difference is crucial, because above the 99-seat level, Actors' Equity rules take effect, substantially increasing production costs because the union salary scales allow actors to actually earn a living in the theater.

Niche theater, in which ethnic and gay subjects are the focus, is also experiencing a surge of interest here. Asian-American and Latino-American theaters are among the most rapidly developing ethnic theaters in the area. Also, according to Gary Gardner, vice chairman of the theater department at the University of California, Los Angeles, more of ''the best and longest-running pieces lately have been in queer theater.''

As examples, Mr. Gardner cited the sung-through rock musical ''Bare'' and ''Southern Baptist Sissies,'' a play that Mr. Shores wrote in response to Matthew Shepard's murder. Both were cited by L.A. Weekly as among last year's best productions. The New York producer Daryl Roth said last week she hoped a version of ''Bare'' would be seen in New York in 2002. It is ''in development for a commercial production,'' she said. Ms. Roth, her son, Jordan Roth, and MTV would produce it. The score is by John Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo.

Tim Dang, the producing artistic director of the East West Players, perhaps the nation's pre-eminent Asian-American theater troupe, said ethnic theater is on the rise. East West itself moved four years ago from a 99-seat theater to its current 240-seat space downtown, the David Henry Hwang Theater, named after the Tony Award-winning playwright. ''Many ethnics don't have mainstream opportunities to sink their teeth into good roles,'' Mr. Dang said. ''So a lot of them are empowering themselves, producing their own shows.''

ANOTHER reason for growth, he said, is that ''mainstream theaters won't cover the issues we want addressed because mainstream audiences are going to feel bashed.''

Some interesting experimentation has resulted, like the East West 1999 co-production of Philip Kan Gotanda's ''Yohen'' with the Robey Theater Company, an African-American troupe. Starring Danny Glover, ''Yohen'' took the interracial romance story a step further. Instead of one of the two characters being white, to boost mainstream audience appeal, ''Yohen'' focused on a marriage between an African-American and an Asian-American.

Larger numbers of Latino immigrants in the Los Angeles area and second- and third-generation Latinos wanting to rediscover their roots are part of the reason that Latino-American theater productions are increasing, said Aracelly Alvarez. Ms. Alvarez is the managing director for the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, whose productions are presented in English and Spanish on alternate weeks. Five years ago, the Foundation, which usually performs in its 99-seat theater, began renting space for an annual production at the mid-size Los Angeles Theater Center. Now, Ms. Alvarez said, the Foundation plans to rent space two or three times a year because its ticket sales have increased.

The spike in sales can also be attributed to increased cross-cultural tourism. About 40 percent of East West's audience is now non-Asian-American, Mr. Dang said. ''I see the theater in Los Angeles like a menu,'' he explained. ''Instead of asking, 'What kind of food do you want to eat tonight?' we're asking, 'What kind of show do you want to see tonight?' ''

Perhaps, said Mr. Blieden, the city's small-theater scene is reaching a tipping point -- the point at which an idea becomes so popular, ''You no longer have to push for it -- it has energy to spread.''

''I wanted to reach as many people as possible with my ideas,'' he added. ''And now I can.''

Whether Mr. Blieden and his counterparts could have done so even a few years ago is questionable. And that is what has changed in Los Angeles theater.

Joseph Hanania has written about television and minority issues for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and TV Guide.

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