Geffen Theater moves center stage

L.A. Theater's revamp pumps premiere theme

There is a new, more adventurous spirit that is defining West Los Angeles’ Geffen Theater: After years of using star actors as a lure, the Geffen now is turning to world and U.S. premieres of works from established playwrights.

Those debuts — “Atlanta,” a musical by Adrian Pasdar (star of NBC’s “Heroes”); and two Geffen commissions, Donald Margulies’ “The Elephant in the Room” and Jane Anderson’s “The Quality of Life” — provide a side benefit, too: They may help diminish East Coast criticism that L.A. doesn’t develop new plays.

“This is our attempt to add to the pool of theatrical literature,” says Gil Cates, the Geffen’s producing director. “We’re taking the steps necessary to be first in line in the food chain or, whenever we can, the second.”

It has been a dozen years since Cates took the helm at the Geffen just as he was in the final years as dean of UCLA’s School of Film & Television, a school he created. Soon after the Geffen went to a full subscription season, he established a mantra: Every Geffen subscriber should love two plays, like two others and hate the fifth. His goal has always been to get Angelenos talking about theater.

That has long been a challenge. Down the road 40 miles or so, South Coast Rep has established itself as a home for playwrights. The Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse have blossomed as Broadway tryout houses with audiences receptive to new work. The two houses also launched directors Des McAnuff and Jack O’Brien in a way no L.A. theater has done for any artistic talent. L.A. continues to be criticized for having no theater that pushes boundaries.

This is the Geffen’s second season since the completion of a $20 million renovation that supersized the playhouse in everything from backstage space to the size of its season. A second stage, the 100-seat Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater was added, the lobby was reconfigured and space for talent, sets and rehearsal has been added.

The revamp has provided Cates and artistic director Randall Arney with options: Plays can be booked for one space and then moved to the other; rehearsal schedules can be extended; larger productions can be mounted; and the onstage talent and the audience have more comfortable surroundings. (New seats were a big part of the renovation of the 524-capacity mainstage).

“We now produce 10 plays instead of five,” Arney says. “We’re casting twice as many people. But I love the fact that we’re still a mom & pop operation — we still fit in the same conference room and we retain the agility of a hungry organization.”

More than most theater directors, Cates and Arney have succeeded by playing fast and loose with the concept of a “season.” In the past, they have asked subscribers to renew while announcing only two of the five plays, essentially requiring those subs to trust that the three yet-to-be-booked plays will be noteworthy.

When the Audrey was built, Cates and Arney had no specific plans for the space. One thing they believed was that they could avoid mounting plays too early, a problem they had experienced in earlier seasons. But in a very short time, the Audrey has come into its own without a definition or a mission statement.

Unlike most theaters’ second stages, it’s not a space for experimental work or not-ready-for-primetime plays, monologists or two-handers; it’s a space for fully realized theatrical presentations. And it can be adapted for several seating arrangements.

“We have a different approach to the second theater,” Cates says. “Most people envision (second stages) as a less-expensive space. (Actor-card shark) Ricky Jay, ‘A Picasso’ — we did them there, and it had nothing to do with money. It was about the space serving the play better.”

Notably, the Geffen moved the debut of Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show “Wishful Drinking” out of the Audrey and onto the mainstage last season. Recently, Cates gave a thumbs-up to taking Neil LaBute’s “Some Girl(s)” out of the 2008-09 mainstage season and staging it in the Audrey in February.

LaBute was impressed by Cates’ staging of the Jeffrey Hatcher play “A Picasso,” in which he placed theatergoers alongside the stage. Plenty of patrons were looking at other patrons while the action onstage was occurring.

“By splitting the audience, he took the safety net away,” says the playwright. “He crossed a barrier that touched you emotionally.” LaBute says “Some Girl(s)” will benefit from the same style of staging as the play is made up entirely of intimate, two-person scenes.

“I want the audience to feel like they stumbled into the wrong hotel room.”

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