For visitors and residents alike, the theater in L.A. (as in live stage performances) is one of the best kept secrets in the city. It’s little known that there are well over about 8,000 professional stage actors and 200 professional theater companies in the Los Angeles region (not counting comedy clubs). Many of those theaters were actually formed decades ago by those actors. Most of L.A.’s stage venues are “intimate” (99 seats or less), meaning that audiences get to see top-tier actors up-close and personal, in musicals, new plays and classics. Read on for an introduction to L.A.'s thriving theater scene.
Having absolutely nothing to do with L.A.’s intimate theater movement, there are a few reliable big theaters that host tours and re-interpretations of Broadway shows. They shows may not always be as sharp as they were on Broadway, but production values are nonetheless high at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown L.A., The Pantages in Hollywood and La Mirada Theatre located off the Golden State Freeway near the border of L.A. and Orange Counties.
Center Theatre Group, which is celebrating its 50-year anniversary, has two other theaters: The Mark Taper Forum, which mostly imports plays making the rounds of America’s regional theaters, and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, dedicated to more adventurous works.
L.A. is also an incubator of new musicals in some of its smaller venues. You’ll find such endeavors superbly performed at the LGBT-oriented Celebration Theatre (currently in Hollywood), as well as at Sacred Fools Theatre, located at a multi-theater complex that's also in Hollywood. “The Fools” have premiered works that transferred to larger theaters across town, such as The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood Village and The Pasadena Playhouse.
Recognized as the Official State Theater of California in 1937, The Pasadena Playhouse is one of the region’s most architecturally beautiful spaces, with its Spanish revival style dating back to 1924, and is a federal and state historical landmark.
For well-performed classics, stop by Antaeus Theatre Company in Glendale. The decades-old company features some of the best television and stage actors around, who are dedicated to staying on top of their craft. And if you’re in the Glendale/Pasadena area, you might want to take trip to Pasadena’s A Noise Within, whose founding members emerged from San Francisco’s A Contemporary Theatre, and which also has a long tradition of polished renditions of classics. If you’re on the Westside, another stalwart presenter of classics is Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice. PRT also presents some new plays in workshops.
Serving up a mix of classics, news plays and new-ish plays is The Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood, a tiny theater committed to meticulous artistry. They’ve done breathtaking productions of plays by Tennessee Williams, and adaptations of works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and premiered plays by Athol Fugard (Exits and Entrances) and their own artistic director Stephen Sachs (Bakersfield Mist)– a work that made its way to London’s West End with Kathleen Turner.
If you’re here for the summer, and in the mood for some jocular, accessible Shakespeare, head to Griffith Park for Independent Shakespeare Company’s outdoor Free Shakespeare Festival, featuring productions of Measure for Measure and Two Gentlemen of Verona. If you don’t bring your own, they’ll supply you a blanket and/or a picnic chair, but dress warmly. Those early evening breezes kick up in the park, as do the howls of coyotes that often punctuate their musical, zany interpretations of The Bard. Meanwhile, if you time it right, you might catch them premiering a new play in their intimate space in Atwater Village.
If you’re looking for solidly produced new plays with thought-provoking angles on the society and the culture, Rogue Machine in Hollywood is a required stop (plays by one of their favorite scribes, John Pollono (Small Engine Repair), transferred successfully to Off-Broadway. Top tier productions of new works can also be found at The Echo Theater Company (in Atwater Village), and The Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz.
For new plays that are already in the new-play pipeline across the country, there’s Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena – another small but new and technically masterful venue that stages plays that invite you to see things from unconventional angles.
The New American Theatre has been presenting mash-ups of beautifully presented classical plays plays (Macbeth: Revisited) in partnership with The Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles. Now a four-theater complex of small theaters, The Odyssey is one of the granddaddies of L.A.’s intimate theater scene, with an eclectic mix of presentations from European ensemble works to world premieres.
Meanwhile in the heart of Downtown L.A., Latino Theatre Company manages the Los Angeles Theatre Center for the City of Los Angeles. It’s also a four theater complex – the facility was remodeled from an old bank building, and Latino Theatre Company is the cornerstone tenant and excellent producer of new plays and new-ish plays.
L.A. has a series of excellent presenters, with varied sensibilities. In the heart of Beverly Hills, you’ll find the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts which, under new leadership, has been importing top-tier music, dance and theater programs in short runs.
Tucked snugly inside Walt Disney Concert Hall you’ll find REDCAT (a moniker for the Roy and Edna Disney Cal-Arts Theatre), which presents dance, performance, experimental music and visual arts, and routinely hosts New York’s The Wooster Group. Much of REDCAT’s efforts are devoted to developing new performance works.
Located at Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station (near the Metro Expo Line 26th Street/Bergamot Station) the Francophile theater, City Garage has made a spartan, arch performance style its calling card for decades. It presents classics, new plays, and U.S. premieres of mostly heady, ruminative works from the U.S., Britain, Poland, Germany and France - not entirely but often with a political bent.
City Garage’s intellectual cousin resides closer to Downtown L.A. in Westlake Village. The Son of Semele ensemble presents often cryptic, poetical, surreal and beautifully staged works.
This is just a sampling. There’s no shortage of theater to discover in the Los Angeles region, regardless of your taste and predilections. Enjoy!