(Charles McNulty’s article appeared in the L.A. Times, 4/5.)
“It’s a radical act to ask someone to go to the theater these days,” Pasadena Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman said over breakfast in a Beverly Hills eatery on a recent weekday morning.
These are tough times for artistic directors of nonprofit theaters, which are struggling to rebound after the pandemic. Venerable performing arts venues, bereft of purpose and patrons, are in danger of becoming ghost malls.
One local leader is proving that growth is still possible in a time of spiraling crisis. Against seemingly impossible odds, Feldman has revitalized Pasadena Playhouse, which is finally living up to its official designation as the state theater of California.
We were meeting to discuss his theater’s ongoing Sondheim Celebration, the six-month festival exploring the legacy of Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. But first he wanted to broach the elephant in the cultural room — our society’s shattered attention span.
“When I say turn off your phone, it sounds like I’m crazy,” Feldman said. “Turn off your phone? No one turns off their phones. They leave them on vibrate. I do it too. Theater asks us to focus together, to think about something collectively. I don’t think we have the capacity. I’ve lost the capacity, and I’ve been intentional about not losing it.”
So how do you plan a season in an age of distraction? One solution would be to scale back programming, say, with a menu of easily digestible 90-minute plays. Why overtax the stamina of theatergoers who are still getting back into the habit of leaving their homes for entertainment?
Feldman, however, decided to do the opposite. He came up with the largest, unwieldiest and financially nuttiest proposal in the history of Pasadena Playhouse.
“I started wondering: What if a regional theater didn’t just do five shows a year?” he recalled. “What if we asked our community to do something longer than one night together? What if we explored an idea, a theme, a person? That’s where the Sondheim festival idea came from.”
The notion of a retrospective, a staple of museum programming, is less common in the theater, where audiences have been trained to think of theater outings as one-night-stands — wham, bam, thank you Mamet. Feldman wondered if a deeper intimacy might enhance our interest. Would the prospect of exploring “a body of work through a kaleidoscopic view,” as he put it, reignite a passion for theater that has understandably faded through pandemic disuse?
The idea was to present not just a cross-section of an artist’s output but a range of interpretations and creative responses. Central to Feldman’s vision was the desire to introduce a younger generation to the genius of Sondheim and to open his oeuvre to communities that may have felt outside it.
But something unfunny happened on the way to the festival: Sondheim died. The maestro had given his approval for an even more ambitious plan, but after his death, the playhouse was limited to two main-stage productions.
Feldman decided to go with “Sunday in the Park With George,” which received a majestic revival that closed last month, and “A Little Night Music,” which has its official press opening April 30 in a production directed by the reliably inventive David Lee. These are multimillion-dollar stagings with full orchestras — a sound rarely heard outside of big-budget Broadway or philanthropically spoiled opera houses.