Gratitude for the LA Theater Community

10 05 2011

I have been less present on the theater reviewing scene in the past few months – for several reasons. My family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker opens this weekend at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre. I have had a slight addiction to CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera, which inspired repeat viewings and multiple posts on the same show. But even more significantly, I have been in the midst of PhD qualifying exams. I have been studying theories of corporeality, integration, and temporality for at least 8 months. (A little theater here and there, too.) Writtens were just before Easter, my final oral exam was today – and I passed! I am now a PhD candidate with “only” the dissertation to go. 🙂

Academia was an obvious choice for me after undergrad. I have an insatiable passion for knowledge, and I am genuinely excited to get started on the dissertation now that I have advanced to candidacy. I am so fortunate to have 4 brilliant, supportive scholars on my dissertation committee. Today’s exam was more like a conversation than an intense questioning. A lot more enjoyable and less stressful than I expected!

Of course, one reason why the exam was less stressful is that I had “rehearsed” my answers. I didn’t know the questions going into the exam today. But for the past 8 months, I have been an avid theatergoer, a fan, a critic, a composer, a music director – and this nebulous thing called the LA Theater Community has continually engaged me in conversations about theater and performance studies. For that, I feel incredibly blessed and grateful.

One reason I decided on a PhD program in Theater and Performance Studies (rather than English, which I was also considering) was the collaborative aspect of theater. While I was at Duke, theater – and specifically musicals – became an important mode of mediating my social relationships and shaping my cultural world. As much as I enjoy academia, it can be a lonely and isolating pursuit – even in the realm of Theater and Performance Studies. The past 8 months consisted of studying my bibliographies, writing and rewriting my prospectus, organizing and reorganizing my plan for the dissertation; I was mainly holed up in my apartment amidst stacks of articles and books. Meetings with my professors were always welcome conversations, but scholarship is still often an isolated, mental pursuit. Writing stages imaginary conversations among theorists and texts.

Enter the “LA Theater Community.” Amidst all this potentially isolating intellectual work, the idea of a theater as a mode of relation has been central to my life in the past few months. Music directing (Is There Life After High School, Happy End, Gone Missing, Thank You, Mr. Falker, and sporadic concerts and benefits with friends) has been a space of rehearsing my theories about the musical, of actively engaging with my thoughts in practice, of seeing both the ideals – and the contradictions and conflicts – within any community. Thank you to all with whom I worked creatively over the past few months – directors Gary Gardner, Hunter Bird, and Lane Williamson, choreographer Christopher Albrecht, all the stage managers and casts and crews. You were the vibrant musical numbers to my academic narrative; you gave me a renewing respite from my academic work each and every day, not to mention a space to actively discuss and engage in embodied practice of the musical, which I view as invaluable to my scholarship.

What more can I write about CYCLOPS? (Perhaps you should ask me again when I start my dissertation.) This rock opera was simultaneously an ecstatic, Dionysian release from my academic work – and a theatrical experience that actively engaged my scholarship. Psittacus Productions could not be a more brilliant or welcoming company; the sense of communitas among their ensemble palpably extends to the audience. And, by the way, I wrote most of this post before closing night … which Colin Mitchell can attest was a pretty ridiculous and unforgettable experience in my superfandom. (Yes, that was my imaginary overture of Jayson Landon Marcus’ and Benjamin Sherman’s incredible music playing at closing.) Once in a while, shows like Venice and Cyclops come along, reassuring me that theater (and specifically musical theater) can be layered, political, generous, and endlessly entertaining.

I feel blessed to be in a position in the LA theater community where I can advocate for such exceptional new work, in my own small way. But my position in the critical community would not be possible without a great deal of support from readers and fellow critics. I started blogging about a year and a half ago. Colin Mitchell at Bitter Lemons picked up on my work first, for which I am endlessly grateful; he has been one of my greatest supporters and has brought attention to my random, start-up blog in a way that I never imagined possible. In the early months of my blog, I had some fun debates about styles of theater criticism with Trevor Thomas – who is now my fantastic editor at EDGE Los Angeles. And I recently signed on to write for Stage & Cinema, as well. A theatergoing habit has turned into a reviewing practice and, hopefully, can one day become a core part of my career.

My place in this virtual community of theater critics is amplified and enhanced when I have the great pleasure of spotting a fellow critic at the theater: Steven Leigh Morris at Crack Whore Galore, Tony Frankel after Three Sisters or Perestroika, Colin Mitchell at CYCLOPS (twice!). My life is literally structured around theater dates with friends. I cherish the conversations that surround the theater experience as much as, if not more, than the theatrical experience itself.

I recently accompanied a group of UCLA musical theater undergraduates at a Center Theatre Group benefit in Palos Verdes Estates. Over dinner, one of the donors asked me what my “dream role” would be. I explained that I’m not really an actor, but my dream role is actually what I’m doing right now: composing, music directing, reviewing, and engaging in academia. The LA theater community allows me to negotiate multiple roles and to continually push myself into new fields. I never thought I’d find my “dream role” in Los Angeles; I was certain to be NYC-bound after undergrad. And yet here I am after 3 years, honored to be a part of it all and even beginning to call LA “home.”

With so many upcoming theater conferences in LA, we are continually attempting to define this nebulous thing called Los Angeles theater. Yet its excitement, perhaps, is its dynamism and continually shifting shape. We all play multiple roles, as artists and audiences. LA theater is multifaceted, decentralized, vibrant, and mutually supportive. The sense of community is palpable and has been so important to me lately. Thank you all for your continuing support. See you at the theater!

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