Beyond the Pantages and the Geffen, there’s a talented network of smaller theater companies producing not-to-be-missed performances.
Of the many misconceptions about Los Angeles, the one that’s the most asinine and egregiously untrue is that L.A. is “not much of a theater town.” Sure, New York has Broadway, and Chicago is a hotbed for the performing arts, but Los Angeles, with its behemoth film and television industry, somehow got the bum reputation of having a theater community of no importance.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s that same industry that draws busloads of talented actors, writers, directors and designers to Hollywood. If you look a little closer, you’ll find many of those artists latching onto a local theater company to hone their craft.
Because the city is home to such an abundance of diverse artists, it might be difficult for the theater-curious to figure out where to see the shows that speak to their tastes. Thankfully, there’s something for everyone. While you might be more familiar with the names of some of the larger playhouses, like the Pantages, the Pasadena Playhouse and the Geffen, there’s a whole network of smaller theater companies that deliver quality drama on a consistent basis.
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a lot of talented neighbors. And if you’re the kind of person who’s determined to get out and see more shows, here’s a starter guide to keep in mind. Just note: This list only scratches the surface.
Echo Theater Company
If you were to blindly pick a show at random, produced by any one small theater company in town, without knowing anything about it and hoping for the best, it would be a safe bet to go with the Echo Theater Company, now at residence in the Atwater Village Theater. Thanks to their cultivation system for finding emerging writers, they have one of the strongest track records in town for plays that garner critical success. Many of their world premiere plays are commissioned by the company to the strongest writers they can find, but they’ve also been home to the first L.A. productions by notable playwrights Adam Rapp, Rick Cleveland, David Lindsay-Abaire and Sarah Ruhl.
In 2003, they were the first company in L.A. to move their show, the Ovation Award-winning play “War Music” from their 99-seat arena to the Geffen Theater, an achievement they repeated in 2018 with “The Cake” starring Debra Jo Rupp. The Echo Theater Company is a regular presence at local theater awards ceremonies, recently earning “Best Production of 2018” for their play “Cry It Out.”
For those of you with more refined tastes, put down that cognac and your latest issue of The New Yorker and see what the folks at the Antaeus Theatre Company are up to. Located in the heart of downtown Glendale, Antaeus is best known for their deep well of talented actors who perform in various classics and contemporary pieces.
You’ll see works by the likes of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw and Chekov, but you’ll also see work from mid-century playwrights like Harold Pinter, Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller. It’s also not so rare that they showcase works by playwrights who are still alive, like Caryl Churchill and Martin McDonagh. It’s the perfect theater in town to catch up on all the plays you were supposed to have read in college, but never did, performed by an exceptionally strong acting company.
Antaeus Theatre Company / 110 E. Broadway, Glendale, CA 91205 / www.antaeus.org
The Actors’ Gang
Proving that small theaters in Los Angeles aren’t just for up-and-coming talent, The Actors’ Gang in Culver City is best known for operating under the leadership of their Academy Award-winning artistic director, Tim Robbins, who’s been leading this gang of misfits since co-founding it in 1981. Here, the close-knit company of actors has developed a unique, in-house style of performing appropriately dubbed, “The Style,” and take a Brechtian approach to audience engagement — when seeing an Actors’ Gang show, expect the fourth wall to be thoroughly smashed through.
Many of their productions are classics or original works developed by the company with a baked-in social or political message. Over the years, Hollywood heavyweights the likes of Jack Black, Helen Hunt and John C. Reilly have graced their stage. They make it easy for their patrons to see their shows, offering pay-what-you-can tickets every Thursday and free Shakespeare in the park over the summers.
In a valiant effort to curb California’s high recidivism rate, the Actors’ Gang runs the Prison Project, teaching theater classes to prison inmates and nurturing their social skills to help get them back on their feet upon release.
Founded in 1982 by one of the original co-founders of the Mattachine Society, Celebration Theater has moved around over the past few decades before landing at The Lex in Hollywood, where it’s hailed as the vanguard of LGBTQ small theater. Throughout the years, Celebration has given voice to emerging writers and performers from all factions of the queer community. They have also produced an extensive crop of LGBTQ-themed shows, from new works that have gone on to greater success like “Naked Boys Singing!” to already popular musicals like their award-winning production of “The Boy From Oz,” a beast of a show successfully packed into Celebration’s modest 55-seat theater.
Of course, every once in a while, they like to let their hair down and veer slightly outside their usual programming. This June, they’ll be putting up the Los Angeles small theater premiere of “The Producers.”
This year’s winner of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle’s award for sustained excellence in theater is the Sacred Fools Theater Company, which a couple of years ago moved into its newest home on Theater Row in a multi-venue building now called The Broadwater.
As a member of Sacred Fools Theater Company myself, I can say it’s hard to pin down exactly what kind of shows you’ll see at Sacred Fools; this past season alone featured an uplifting drama about two young African American couples in Civil Rights-era Tennessee back-to-back with an absurdly silly horror-comedy about plane wreck survivors on a mysterious island.
They’ve taken the “throw an idea at the wall and see what sticks” approach to their programming, and many of their productions have stuck. Sacred Fools was home to the premieres of the hit shows “Louis and Keely: Live at the Sahara,” “Stoneface” and “Absolutely Filthy.” All of which have gone on to other theaters around the country. They’ve also had a long history of finding the most exciting new plays. And if that’s not enough, there’s The Plunge, a new bar in the building where you can get a drink before the show, after the show, during the intermission and on dark nights.
If you’re the kind of person who hates waiting for Halloween to experience the horrors of a haunted house, then you might want to leave it to Zombie Joe’s Underground to scratch that itch. Zombie Joe’s distinguish themselves by devoting their theatrical mastery almost exclusively to the macabre and the ghastly. They cover all the usual bases, including monsters, — fever dream adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.P. Lovecraft’s Chthulu — perversion, — “Blood Alley Christmas” if “A Christmas Carol” isn’t your thing — and serial killers — “Possession: An American Serial Killer,” about perennial topic of fascination Ted Bundy.
If that weren’t enough, yes, they host their own annual haunted house for Halloween called Urban Death; full of graphic content, psychological triggers and plenty of nudity. Insider’s tip: If you don’t want to get fake blood on you, sit near the back row.
Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre / 4850 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood, CA 91601 / www.zombiejoes.com
Rogue Machine Theatre
Westsiders rejoice! Rogue Machine Theatre, one of Hollywood’s most engaging and critically lauded theater companies, recently moved into their new home at the Electric Lodge in Venice. Rogue Machine is known for its focus on new works by Los Angeles-based playwrights. And if their productions aren’t world premieres, though they usually are, then they’re probably premiering for the first time in the city.
Recent world-premiere productions include “Finks,” about an entertainer in the 1950s (played by French Stewart) caught in the crosshairs of the House Un-American Activities Committee; and “El Nino,” by resident playwright Justin Tanner, a mainstay of the local theater scene, who’s been serving jaw-dropping, original screwball comedies for decades.
With all the high-rises popping up around central Hollywood, it’s nice to know that all the new tenants will have a nearby gem to get their theater fill. Theater of NOTE, formerly known as New One-act Theatre Ensemble, has been running for 38 years and is Hollywood’s local establishment of rogues and mavericks putting on a diverse array of productions. Each production pulls their cast almost exclusively from within their own ranks, giving a platform for the artists who run the company.
Recent productions include the roller derby-themed play “For The Love Of (or, the roller derby play)” which was remounted this year as part of the Center Theatre Group’s Block Party, an annual festival that pulls three of the city’s best 99-seat productions onto the stage of the Kirk Douglas Theatre. With Theatre of Note, expect a lot of big ideas squeezed to fit into their mid-sized black box space.
Although not a theater company, the Hollywood Fringe Festival is an event so special it merits being included on this list. Taking place over three weeks in June, the Hollywood Fringe Festival is a confluence of hundreds of truly independent theater productions (which — full disclosure — I have participated in for several years, including this year). Gaggles of new comedies, dramas, immersive shows, musicals, solo shows, all playing back-to-back alongside each other like a theatrical all-you-can-eat buffet in the various venues throughout Hollywood.
It’s one big party celebrating the performing arts; pretty much the Burning Man for L.A. theater nerds. Each show is put together with DIY blood, sweat and tears, and if ever there was an exciting place to discover a new show, it’s at the Fringe.
But where to start?
Try perusing all the shows on the Fringe website to see what you might find interesting, or ask around for other people’s recommendations — with a festival this vast, these shows live or die by word of mouth.