On June 11, Bernadette Peters will play the last of three concerts at Pasadena Playhouse, officially concluding the theatre’s ambitious season-long Sondheim Celebration. That same night, producing artistic director Danny Feldman will be in New York on behalf of the theatre, accepting the Regional Theatre Tony Award. It’s an exciting time for the official State Theatre of California, which has gone through many ups and downs since its founding in 1917 by Gilmor Brown.
Brown initially brought together over 1,000 local citizens to purchase the land to build the theatre, which opened in 1925 and is still in use today. The first theatre in America to be funded entirely by and for its community, the Pasadena Playhouse has been home to world premiere plays and celebrities who got their start there. It’s also had periods of harrowing instability, having filed for bankruptcy in 1969 and 2010, and weathering a 16-year period of closure that ended in 1986.
“We’ve been on the struggle bus for like 100 years at the Pasadena Playhouse,” said producing artistic director Danny Feldman, who has been in his role since 2016, after serving in New York as LAByrinth Theater Company’s executive director. “We’re scrappy. We do these big, Broadway-quality musicals, but we do it with a very hard-working team that deeply cares about the work and gives a lot of themselves to it. It’s really a testament to all the human beings around me, not just me exclusively.”
Feldman hopes that the Tony will bring more visibility, not only to the Playhouse but to all L.A. theatre, especially as so many people fell out of the habit of theatregoing during the pandemic.
“We need people to come back and new people to come,” Feldman said. “And I think it comes down to a fundamental question of what kind of community do you want to be in? Great communities have great cultural institutions. There is great work being done, but it needs fuel, it needs volunteers, it needs ticket buyers, it needs subscribers and members, and it needs donors. The circle needs to get larger.”
Feldman spoke to me at length last week about widening that circle, both within and outside the theatre’s walls, and the unique gifts and challenges of making art in Los Angeles.
LINDA BUCHWALD: Congrats on the Regional Tony Award. You just concluded a big season with the Sondheim Celebration. What does it mean for you to get this honor during this season?
DANNY FELDMAN: This year was a very heavy lift for us. I think it’s the largest project in the theatre’s over 100-year history, and it’s very meaningful. The Sondheim Celebration, for me and the Playhouse, was really a defining moment, because we came out of the pandemic, like all of our American theatres, bruised and with a bit of cash in our pockets from relief funds, but with a fundamental question of, how do we come back? One of the many things we all talk about is, our system is broken and our structures are broken in the American theatre—and I’m in full agreement on that. One of the ideas I had was, can we hold an audience’s attention? Can we do a deeper dive? It really became this mission for me of having a continued conversation with a community, looking at one idea or theme, or in this case a person and their body of work, through a kaleidoscopic view, from high school kids to Bernadette Peters to big productions to Larry Owens and next generation talent to community groups performing choir concerts. It’s really a culmination of what we’re all about here at the Playhouse, what we’ve always been about in our long history, and putting it all together so everyone can have a sustained conversation.
We decided to use some of the resources which were intended by government sources, foundation sources, and individuals to help us come back. We planned for a very large deficit this year. We’re doing much better than we anticipated, actually, but the board was fully aligned. That’s what these resources are for. For long-term health of the organization, we needed to be more muscular and come back in a bigger way to help us grab attention and grow audience, and to show that we’re a thriving institution in the midst of really challenging times for everyone. A Little Night Music was the most ambitious project we’ve ever done—a Broadway-scale production in our LORT-B regional house. A 640-seat house having a 22-piece orchestra.
You don’t often see 22-piece orchestras even on Broadway these days.
It was seven pieces when they did it last on Broadway. The intention of the celebration was to honor the work of Stephen Sondheim and his collaborators, and that is how they wrote the show. No one can afford to do it that way anymore, but we thought, how do you create a once-in-a-lifetime experience? I don’t know in my lifetime if there will ever be a major revival of A Little Night Music with the full original orchestrations. The majority of our audience shared with us that this is the first time they’re even seeing the show. This is the role of our cultural institutions, to be in service of a community in that way.
Your next season was just announced, and it’s a great mix of new work and revivals. What excites you about next season?
Every single thing next season. California is one of the most diverse places on the planet and a leader in the country. We’re one of the largest economies. There’s a sense of adventure and scrappiness in California. Which is why you see a season that has everything from a world premiere play to a revitalized classic to a musical that’s one of my favorites from the ’90s. Adam Rapp’s play The Sound Inside is a rapturous play that has me at the edge of my seat. Inherit the Wind is something I’ve been working on for a long time to try to take that story, which is unfortunately so relevant today—not in a good way—and make audiences hear what they were saying. Kate Berlant’s show is just absolutely bonkers brilliant; anyone who knows her or has seen her knows this, and anyone who hasn’t seen her is in for treat. A world premiere play by Gloria Calderón Kellett, who is an L.A. writer, a television writer as well as a playwright. We’ve had a lot of conversations about the evolution of Latina plays and what stories are being told and not told in the American theatre, and how do we rectify that.
And then ending with Jelly’s Last Jam—to me, one of the great, great musicals that I don’t think as many people know as they should, and I don’t think people give the authors of that show the credit of how they evolved the American musical in a significant way. One of our main strands of programming here is honoring and connecting with the legacy of the American musical, one of the original American art forms. It’s very hard, particularly for regional theatres, to produce musicals because of the cost these days, and my fear is that it will become something that is dying in this country—that, with the exception of big Broadway revivals, we will see regional theatres not being able to do these shows that are so important to American culture. There’s some great shows that are just, I think, neglected, and so we will fight to raise the funds to be able to do these, just for this community to experience these extraordinary pieces of art.
The last time the regional Tony went to a Los Angeles theatre was the Mark Taper Forum 46 years ago. Why do you think L.A. theatres are not often recognized by the Tonys, and not recognized more broadly by the field?
I’m going to get in trouble. In L.A., we have three LORT theatres: CTG, Geffen, Pasadena Playhouse. And then we have East West Players, A Noise Within, and our 99-seat theatre scene. We don’t have that many LORT theatres, and the Tony typically goes to the larger-scale theatres. I grew up in L.A. and lived in New York for a couple of years, so I can say this: All through my childhood growing up, and particularly into college and then in New York, I heard phrases like “cultural wasteland” and “There is no culture in L.A.” I’m really not interested in having that conversation anymore, because those of us who are here know what we have, and we understand that we go head to head with any city, including New York, on our cultural experiences. We have the world’s best orchestra here—Dudamel just got poached to New York from L.A. We have an extraordinary dance scene here. Our modern museums rival anywhere in the world. I don’t think theatre yet has hit its place in the mindset of people; I think there’s an outdated view of Los Angeles from a cultural perspective.
My approach in life and in that conversation is, show, don’t talk about it—just do the work. I think our audiences and the people who come regularly to see artistic experiences in Los Angeles know already. We don’t need to prove that to them. We need more of them to come; we need to expand our audience, we need to ingrain it more in the culture of Los Angeles. We did Little Shop of Horrors, an extraordinary revival. They performed on James Corden, and millions and millions of people all over the country saw that performance and were really taken by it and moved by it. That is the work that happens, not just here at the Pasadena Playhouse—that’s L.A. theatre. I think hopefully we can demand that respect now, although we don’t need anyone’s approval, frankly. We’re doing just fine. I think last year I saw over 60 shows in Los Angeles, not counting my own. I know the landscape. I see all of it. It’s a challenging time here in L.A., particularly with our small intimate theatres, with the Equity waiver changing, but even in spite of that, there is some great work happening. I think with Snehal [Desai] taking over at Center Theatre Group, and the Geffen about to announce a new artistic director, it’s a new day in L.A. theatre. I’m happy to have the microphone at this moment, but I will pass the mic very soon to many others who are committed to working together to raise our profile in that way.
And we have great theatre artists here in L.A. We’ve had a lot of success hiring local. We’re not a closed gate here—we want to work with the top theatremakers in the country, so we do have artists from New York come sometimes—but the vast majority of those working on our shows in every capacity are local people and they are top-notch. They’re just as good as anybody I ever engage with in New York.
During the pandemic there was a lot more talk about how to make theatre more diverse and accessible. That’s something Pasadena Playhouse was already doing. What have you learned about making theatre accessible?
I can’t have that conversation in the Pasadena Playhouse without saying Sheldon Epps’s name. Sheldon was here for 20 years. He experienced deep racism when he got here and throughout his time. It was not the same welcome I received in the community that he received in the community. This is documented, in his book that he just wrote. Sheldon worked uphill for a long time to re-scramble the DNA of the Pasadena Playhouse, and by the time I walked in the conversation of, should we do Little Shop of Horrors and rethink the cast? was already in the bones and the DNA of the organization. I am grateful, our board is grateful, everyone is grateful that for 20 years Sheldon really did something that frankly people were not giving grants to at that time.
So we’re a theatre with a vision that theatre is for everyone. What does that mean today? You’re the State Theatre and you’re in the most diverse place in the country. How does that live, not on the surface, not for grants, not just by shows you pick, but how does that live every day in the organization? That’s the place where we’re at, that so many other theatres are at: How do we ingrain into the culture of the organization the values and the lens that we’re looking at the world? We’re practicing at that now of making that be every day, and a lot of that is examining microscopically all of the decisions, examining the audience, examining the shows, examining the work culture. Constantly looking at who we are serving and who we are not serving at the moment. It’s building on the shoulders of what came before me, but it’s aspirational in the sense that it’s an eternal thing. It has to be embedded in our cultural institutions. It has to become second nature, not a special project.
What are you most proud of in your time so far at Pasadena Playhouse?
That’s a really hard question. I think it’s the fact that when I walked in the door, things weren’t great here and there was a question of, could this place make it? That was not that long ago. I started late 2016. I never thought we would get to a level of stability and be in a place where we are thriving in so many different ways in that short period of time. We started building and rebuilding a fantastic team of people. This is not a story about me and what I have done. This is a story of the people I have gathered and what they have done, working in concert together. That’s from the leadership of our organization from the board, our senior leadership team on staff, our entire staff.
It’s also the fact that we always bet on artists. If you have a challenging thing and you’re trying to do something big, get the right people in the room. Those artists will win it every time with their creative thinking and resiliency. I am so proud of all the people in my time who have been here that have given so much of themselves. The most rewarding thing is on an opening night or any other night when an audience leaves and says, “That was great.” The energy and vibe that we are creating around town and here in our building is directly tied to the work on the stage, and that is deeply rewarding.
The Tony Award comes with a grant of $25,000. What do you hope to use it for?
To pay for orchestras. No, I’m kidding. We love that it comes with that grant. Thank you, City National Bank, and all of the people who make that happen. We use it like we use all of our funds: to help achieve our mission. We’re a growing organization in a time where there’s a lot of shrinkage happening, and we are also like every other theatre in America trying to balance and align the capacity of the organization and the historical problems of our organizations, of how we pay people, what we demand of them, and how that is being very much reexamined and realigned. The idea of not what it costs directly to put on a program, but the cost to run the organization—too many theatres have looked at that as a bad thing and have wanted to keep overhead as low as possible. That mentality is one of the factors that has led to the challenges we are seeing in workplaces and the unhappiness we are seeing in a lot of people. It’s directly linked to this idea that we have to spend as little as possible and demand more of our arts administrators who are working passionately. There’s an outcry now that this is out of alignment, and so there’s a question now of how we value the overhead parts of our budget, not just the show parts of our budget.
Now when I look at funds and grants like this that are unrestricted, that is what it’s for. We need more of that. We need more capacity building, so that our organizations have time to breathe and have time to examine what’s going on in them and think longer-term. We’ve never been a place at the Pasadena Playhouse where we’ve been able to really look at the next 100 years and the choices that we’re making now in the context of where we’re going next. I can’t tell you everything’s solved and we’re all good, but we’re seeing the glimpse of that, particularly after so many years of muddling through, creating great art but not being able to really sustain it and think of the long-term strategy. How can we create a sustainable American theatre in the future? We have not solved that problem. And none of us have the time to put our heads around that problem, because we’re trying to save and run our own institutions. I’m very humbled and lucky to be around such brilliant leaders in the American theatre at this moment. I think we have real challenges ahead of us, but the thing we have that we’ve never had is a leadership in the American theatre that is more diverse than ever, and is really attuned to working together and solving longer-term problems. I am thrilled about that. That is what will get us through to the future.
Linda Buchwald (she/her) is a theatre journalist based in Los Angeles who has written for TheaterMania, Playbill, TDF Stages, Kveller, and more. On Twitter: @PataphysicalSci.
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