Block Party gives three niche L.A. theater companies a much bigger stage
By Christina Campodonico
Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of the world, but when it comes to theater with a capital T, “there’s a persistent per-
ception that L.A. is not a theater town,” to quote Rob Weinert-Kendt, editor-in-chief of American Theatre magazine.
Block Party, a Center Theatre Group initiative to raise the profile of smaller local theater companies, aims to break that stereotype by staging works from three homegrown troupes at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City this spring.
“It’s about building all of us up in order to raise all tides and make L.A. a theater town. That’s kind of the big, über goal,” says Center Theatre Group Artistic Development Program Manager Patricia Garza, who’s overseeing Block Party. That includes showcasing “diverse voices of L.A. theater,” she adds.
“Bloodletting,” opening this weekend, is a family drama written by Filipino-American playwright Boni B. Alvarez and produced by Playwrights’ Arena, which only produces new works by L.A. playwrights. It explores the fantastical world of Philippine aswangs, or witches, through the fraught relationship of a brother and sister laying their father’s ashes to rest.
Next on the bill, Nancy Keystone directs Critical Mass Performance Group’s exploration of democracy in “Amerkya” from April 19 to 29. And LGBTQ theater company Celebration brings the campy drag queen comedy “Die, Mommy, Die!” to the Kirk Douglas from May 10 to 20.
Since transplanting to Los Angeles 14 years ago, Celebration Theatre Co-Artistic Director Michael A. Shepperd has learned L.A.’s 99-seat theater scene is varying and vibrant, even if it doesn’t receive as much attention as other hubs of American theater.
“I’ve relearned, by going through this process, that there’s a lot of amazing theater in Los Angeles,” he says. “That whole ‘New York theater’s better, Chicago theater’s better, whatever theater’s better’ — to that I say, ‘Ptooey!”
Shepperd is grateful that Block Party is giving smaller, niche theater companies a chance to get their names into the mix with more established ones.
“People tend to go to the Ahmanson, the Geffen, the larger theaters because it feels safe. They’re the brands that people know,” Shepperd says. “By having a Block Party through an established brand, like Center Theater group, and putting forward companies like Celebration, I think it boosts our personal brand for people to go, ‘Oh, I think I can get outside of my bubble.’”
Playwrights’ Arena founder and Artistic Director Jon Lawrence Rivera, who directs “Bloodletting,” also hopes that participating in Block Party encourages audiences — especially on the Westside — to get out of their comfort zones.
“Most of our shows are in small little theaters in Hollywood or East Hollywood or Atwater Village. … To go to those small, little 99-seat theaters, it’s a sketchy proposition for a lot of people on the Westside,” says Rivera. “Our hope is that people are going to come in and say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never heard of Celebration Theatre. I’ve never heard of Playwrights’ Arena. I’ve never heard of Critical Mass Performance Group. And now that I’ve seen their work, I want to see their next production.’”
For Playwrights’ Arena especially, putting on a production at the Kirk Douglas is a valuable test run for the future, as the company moves to a new space this fall and converts it into a mid-size theater about the same size.
“It really gives us a sense of whether we are going to be able to sustain what eventually will become a 200-seat theater by 2025,” says Rivera. “To be able to now have the opportunity, it’s like moving on up.”
In addition to full financial support to mount their productions, the companies participating in Block Party receive consultation on aspects of producing, fundraising and running a theater company. And in turn, Center Theater Group picks up on a few new tricks from its smaller, scrappier counterparts.
“We sit with the three visiting companies when they’re first brought in and just ask, ‘What are you interested in learning more about?’ says Garza. “A lot of it is board development or marketing techniques, but they also have a lot to share with us, because a lot of them are doing really interesting grassroots marketing,
or different membership models that we would never think about doing. So it’s really about sharing and collaborating — all four of us.”
Rivera, for one, hopes that Block Party is the beginning of a beautiful friendship between L.A.’s theater companies, large and small.
“I hope that Center Theatre Group will keep doing it,” he says, “so the idea of small theater is not something that’s just on the fringes of society, but an active member of the theatrical community.”
“Block Party” at Kirk Douglas Theatre (9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City) kicks off with “Bloodletting,” which opens at 8 p.m. Friday, March 30, and continues with “Ameryka” and
“Die, Mommie, Die!” Tickets are $25 to $70, or $75 for a three-show pass. Call (213) 628-2772 or visit center-theatregroup.org.