Despite its rep, L.A. is legit

Guest column

You’ll hear the notion that “L.A.’s not a theater town” from so many different people that it can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I certainly felt that way only a few months ago, but having performed “Caroline, or Change” on both Broadway and now during its run at theAhmanson, I can honestly say that I could not agree less with this so-called truism.

We have been blessed with standing ovations in both cities, but L.A. audiences seem more genuinely enthused than those back East. New York seems to have more skeptical audiences, entering the theater with a “show me” attitude, while L.A. audiences have fewer expectations of what the show has to be in order to be enjoyable.

On that level, the whole cast has been amazed at how many more of the references are getting laughs here that seemed to have been missed on Broadway.

The audiences are bigger at the Ahmanson, with even a less than full house still holding far more people than a sold-out show in New York. In fact, the entire first part of our L.A. run could have been sold out (at over 2,000 people per performance) just from the very strong subscriber base.

There’s a welcoming vibe in L.A. — people being excited about seeing a Broadway show without having to go all the way to Broadway — that feeds the cast with an amazing feeling of appreciation. My initial fear was that the audiences might not be as moved given the larger venue, but happily the power and impact of how the show can devastate audiences in a beautiful way is still there.

The scale of the Ahmanson itself also poses some interesting differences for me as a performer.

Once we made some adjustments, we were able, in director George Wolfe’s words, “to reach the pinnacle of what ‘Caroline’ is. An intimate opera.” I also agree with composer Jeanine Tesori’s notion that the scale of the broader proscenium somehow makes the operatic aspects fill the space even better than before. The very intimate, humane moments become that much funnier — more pointed and focused — because of the size of the space.

Another key difference in L.A. is that the crew is nicer than in New York.

For example, there was one crew person in New York who said that “I don’t do laundry.” Well, my character of Caroline is a maid — and a good maid — so my shirts had to be ironed well. Like the audiences, the crew in L.A. seems to appreciate even more than back East having such a beautiful show to work on. I’m not meaning to disparage New York audiences, crews or theaters, but there’s a jadedness that comes from being on Broadway for so long.

The differences between press coverage in the two cities can’t be overstated. There’s really no media outlet in L.A. that can kill a show with a bad review, while a brutal review in the New York Times can be a death knell. Without that pressure, performers have more freedom to really inhabit our characters, allowing us to reach the audience rather than try to cater to what a handful of reviewers might think. The large subscriber base in L.A. also lets us know that we’re going to have a large audience no matter what, so good reviews only really exist to sell more tickets.

Luckily, audiences and critics on both coasts have been largely enthusiastic.

I know I’m a different person, and a different performer, than when I first started inhabiting Caroline. I’m trying to control it less, and I’m getting closer to my aspirations as a performer, showing up empty and letting the show happen to me in the same way that it happens to the audience. As large as the Ahmanson is, I don’t have the immediate feedback that I used to get on the more intimate New York stage.

I’ve learned so much from Caroline, and not just as a performer.

I think I’ve also learned to be a better employer. There’s a character in the show who wants to be friends with the help, and playing this role has taught me how disrespectful that really is. People come into your house to do a job, not to socialize. The time spent socializing is time spent away from getting their job done and back to their families quicker.

I feel more empathy with people in general than I did even a few years ago, as the sense of humanity that comes through in Tony Kushner’s words continue to fill me with hope, ideas and wonder.

(Pinkins is the Tony-nominated star of “Caroline, or Change,” now playing at the Ahmanson Theater.)

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