These Venues and Programmers Have Turned L.A. Into a World-Class Performing Arts Town

If you like to be surprised, there’s never been a better time to be in L.A.

How can you tell if the audience is enjoying the show? If you are Thor Steingraber, the director of the Soraya performing arts center, you do it by sitting in just about every seat in the house—picking up the acoustic experience and sight lines, listening for the sighs or laughs or dead spots from the crowd—and going to all the shows you put on in your hall at Cal State Northridge. During a four-night stand by a theater group, he’s there for each one. “I like to see my audience’s experiences from 8:01 until everyone leaves,” Steingraber says of looking for what he calls “the feel in the room. That’s the reward; that’s the payoff.”

Los Angeles has become well-known over the decades for superstar visual artists like Ed Ruscha and Laura Owens and for starchitects like Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne. Steingraber represents a way Los Angeles has been asserting itself more recently: as a formidable town for the performing arts.

While they’re not the only stages in town, the Soraya (formerly the Valley Performing Arts Center), the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills—all, at a decade old or less, relative toddlers—add significantly to what’s put on by the old lions here, UCLA and the Music Center. Sometimes the fare is familiar work by an established act; other times it’s startling—a theater work that combines opera singing with a mariachi orchestra, an improvised piece based on the wit of Dorothy Parker, an operatic reimagining of the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast, or a marathon 24-hour history of popular music, in drag, that makes Ziggy Stardust look understated. These venues also offer room for the local indie groups that have broken in recent years—the Calder Quartet, for example—creating art rooted in L.A.

“How many more seats are in Los Angeles in 2018 than 10 years ago, 20 years ago?” asks Steingraber, whose 1,700-seat hall does about 50 performances per season. “It’s a lot more—and then you multiply by the number of nights in the year. Way more people are going to way more work—and that’s counter to what all the other trends are telling us nationally. It’s huge—and I think it’s healthy.”

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A native Midwesterner who has lived in Philadelphia and Boston, Steingraber thinks he can do things in L.A. that he couldn’t do anywhere else: He’s made the Soraya an important spot for regional Mexican music while leaving room for, say, a tribute to Miles Davis’s electric years or, next season, the Martha Graham Dance Company teaming with the experimental chamber group wild Up for a new piece about women’s suffrage.

The city’s most influential arts programmers are simultaneously big-game hunters, flying from Edinburgh to Paris to Santiago in search of the best work, and truffle hounds, digging into the Southland dirt. Despite their influence, they and the programming staffs that support them remain mostly anonymous.

Perhaps the most subtly radical of the bookers is the dry, self-efacing Englishman Paul Crewes, who’s headed artistic direction at the Wallis for the past two years. Shaped as a young man by Britain’s punk-adjacent two tone movement, he spent a decade at Cornwall’s Kneehigh theater company and leans toward familiar fare—Shakespeare comedies, the story of Robin Hood, the Kennedys’ saga—chopped up into something fresh. This season, Crewes brought wild Up to perform pieces from the Velvet Underground and African American minimalist Julius Eastman, and he hosted an adventurous residency by Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project.

His ambition, he says, is to present a sort of “populist avant-garde.” But he’s also interested in making his venue, launched in 2013 in a former WPA post office, feel less siloed. To that end, he set up a bar—with a real bartender—that opens early and closes late and is for more than merely serving drinks at intermission. He wants to open a daytime coffee bar, too. “I like the idea of it being alive,” he says.

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Every programmer has a different temperament. The silver-haired Steingraber comes across as a coolly analytical problem solver, an engineer of the arts, while the style of UCLA’s Kristy Edmunds is both scholarly and protective; she has a touch of the priestess but likens her role to that of a curator surveying the history of painting. All of them, of course, are trying to bring the most vital work to their stages. But the challenge has grown more complicated over the years. For decades performing arts groups relied on subscriptions—season tickets that could cost in the thousands and were socially obligatory for the city’s wealthy.

That was certainly the model of the L.A. Philharmonic. “And then the world changed,” says Chad Smith, the Phil’s head programmer and chief operating officer. Audience habits became more spontaneous and unpredictable in the new millennium, and the Great Recession ate into subscriptions and ticket sales in general. Planning their seasons became more difficult for bookers but also upped the ante: L.A.’s major programmers aim to stir up chatter with the raddest, baddest work possible—like Taylor Mac: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which Edmunds brought to downtown’s Theatre at Ace Hotel earlier this year, and the Stanley Kubrick tributes that the L.A. Phil will be performing this fall.

It’s dangerous, though, to think of performance simply as sensation. “We also have a really crucial public mission, which is about the preservation of these art forms,” says Edmunds. She’s trying not only to find the most transcendent work for audiences but to keep art forms alive by supporting the people who practice them. Musicians, who once earned a sizable proportion of their living from recordings, are now in the same boat as folks who work in theater or dance (the latter of which has burgeoned here in recent years but remains, with no albums or printed script, what Edmunds calls “the most ephemeral of our art forms”). These groups and genres either find stages or they die.

Edmunds has done stints in New York, Australia, and Portland. She came to UCLA in 2011 on the heels of a long, groundbreaking run by David Sefton, who brought to town the Pina Bausch dance troupe, arcane European theater groups, and indie-rock extravaganza All Tomorrow’s Parties. She has carried on the tradition, with an author series that’s included The Underground Railroad writer Colson Whitehead and Far From the Tree writer Andrew Solomon, musicians from Stew and Heidi (of the Negro Problem) to Magnetic Fields to Eighth Blackbird, and a wide array of dance and theater.

At the same time, Edmunds has pushed UCLA to embrace the city’s changing cultural geography: For the longest time, the biggest players in the performing arts in L.A. were the university’s Royce Hall, which opened in the 1930s, and the Music Center, which first raised its curtains on Bunker Hill in 1964. That’s when downtown, no longer the city’s center, became at least the city’s performing arts nucleus for nearly half a century. But in a region where traffic haunts the lives of everyone, it’s futile to expect people to trek across time and space to see shows more than once in a while. So last year Edmunds shifted a full third of her programming to downtown’s Theatre at Ace Hotel, making it possible for people in northeast L.A. to catch a show without an insane commute.

Another impresario, Jane Deknatel, saw the city’s winds blowing in the opposite direction. One evening a few years ago, she and her husband left their Westside home for Disney Hall, looking forward to dinner downtown beforehand. “At quarter to 8, having been on the road for two hours, we gave up,” she recalls. “Giving up my L.A. Phil subscription broke my heart.” An Englishwoman who worked for years for CBS and HBO, Deknatel directs the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, which allows Westsiders to see Cécile McLorin Salvant or a Debussy quartet close to home in a part of town where it can take 40 minutes to go five miles.

The L.A. Opera, too, has broken out of downtown and the dowdy Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with productions all over L.A., including the refurbished Ford Amphitheatre. Which isn’t to say that downtown’s hold on the performing arts is weakening. Besides what’s presented at the Ace Hotel, an enormous amount of work rolls through the Music Center every year, and the addition of CalArts’ REDCAT 15 years ago in the Disney Hall complex opened a beachhead for experimentation.

Then there’s the L.A. Phil, probably the best-respected group of its kind in the country: With Disney Hall as its home base, the high-profile Gustavo Dudamel on the podium, legendary summer shows at the Hollywood Bowl, and a $125 million operating budget, it’s the envy of the world, mixing edgy and mainstream. Smith calls its mission “great works of art that use an orchestra,” whether film, dance, or music. Even the most acclaimed opera director in town, Yuval Sharon—he drew international attention for Invisible Cities and Hopscotch, which took place at Union Station and inside moving cars, respectively—now works with the Phil rather than the L.A. Opera. The Phil’s 2018-2019 centennial season will include more than 50 new commissions.

Raised in Pennsylvania and schooled in New England, Smith has helped program two of the Phil’s Minimalist Jukebox festivals—classical composers together with forms like noise rock, krautrock, and electronica. He’s also been involved with festivals dedicated to the indie-classical collision in Brooklyn, Reykjavík, and Mexico City, as well as a multi-genre marathon, Noon to Midnight, which included performances from small avant-garde groups, John Adams conducting new pieces, and the amplified sound of 1,000 crickets. “How do we make what goes on onstage reflect what goes on in the world?” Smith asks one morning when Grand Avenue seems to be under siege by several thousand school kids. Instead of building a haven in a heartless world, Smith’s Phil is hoping to knock down walls—without giving up the monthlong Brahms extravaganzas.

In 2020 Smith will begin a three-year stint as artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival. While he will remain the Phil’s COO, his taking the post underscores one of the dangers that the Soroya’s Steingraber points to when he says of bookers, “We’re all kind of performing arts gypsies,” vagabonds who live for culture and move on when they can make more noise elsewhere. The problem, he notes, is this: “If you look at the vast majority of L.A. performing arts organizations, they’re under new leadership; the field has been almost completely turned over.”

Steingraber just wrapped up his third season in the Valley; Crewes, his second at the Wallis. The Broad has had four leaders in four years, and while Smith is sticking around at the Phil, his boss, Deborah Borda, departed last year for the New York Philharmonic. Michael Ritchie, who arrived in 2005 from Williamstown and programs the Taper, Ahmanson, and Kirk Douglas Theatre, has become the local performance scene’s old-timer. The Californian way to frame this is to see the possibility that comes with having fresh faces at the helm, but when seasons need to be planned far in advance, it can be difficult for an institution to get back up to speed right after someone’s departure.

Maybe churn just comes with the territory. As with so much else in Los Angeles, there will always be things that make the arts here different than in other big cities. We will probably always curse the traffic gods when driving to the Westside from Mid City, or vice versa. Finding a bar within walking distance of the concert you just saw may remain a fantasy. And we will probably never have a theater scene like New York’s or London’s. But if you are the kind of person who likes to be surprised—and who cares about the way a few human bodies or 90 instruments or a dozen people pretending to be someone else can move and make noise together—there has never been a better time to be in Los Angeles.

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