Attending a little theater can be a big adventure

All the world may be a stage, but the spotlight for a visitor to southern California is on Los Angeles, the center of a thriving artistic smorgasbord of little theaters. Anyone looking for an evening of culture and adventure can choose from among more than 100 theaters offering shows ranging from comedy to heavy drama. Prices are low, seats are readily available, and they often feature top-notch stage and film talent.

A phenomenon unique to Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, these tiny houses seat 99 or fewer. And they waive Equity union wages to showcase at bargain prices works by a variety of authors - from new playwrights to theatrical stalwarts such as Neil Simon, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Luigi Pirandello, and Bertolt Brecht.

These 99-Seat Plan Theatres, as they're called, can be found sandwiched between funky clothing stores and ethnic restaurants in West Hollywood and spreading to Beverly Hills, Burbank, Santa Monica, West and North Los Angeles, and Long Beach.

Some, located in old storefronts and seating as few as 25, may feature sets as bizarre as a men's room or as sublime as a twinkling starry sky at darkened scene changes.

Titles of the plays are often colorful: "P.S. Your Cat is Dead," "How Our Inlaws Ruined Our Wedding," "Unidentified Human Remains," "True Nature of Love," and "Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead."

The subject matter is just as eclectic as the titles, running the gamut from gangster melodramas and kinetic magic shows to musicals, poetry readings, and Shakespeare's "Hamlet" set at a cocktail party with music by Cole Porter.

What is it like to be part of the audience? Often you have to walk across the stage to get to your seat. And if you eat or drink during intermission, be careful not to throw your trash in the wastebasket - it probably is a prop.

If you sit in the first row (and sometimes there are only three rows), you have to steel yourself to keep from resting your feet on the stage. In some houses, the actors are so close, you can feel their breath.

The casts, professionals all, work for little or no pay for the opportunity to stretch their talent and practice their art at times when they are otherwise unemployed.

Years ago many actors were forced to work in community theaters under pseudonyms. The adage was, "Actors don't slave in garrets; they change their names and work for nothing." Then in 1969, the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble decided to demonstrate that experimental theater could appeal to the public and be fiscally solvent, while maintaining the highest artistic standards.

The actors' union, recognizing that houses of such limited capacity generally would not generate sufficient box office sales to be profitable, freed these theaters from union contracts and restrictions, enabling them to become the proving ground for playwrights and innovative programs. They also opened new opportunities for actors.

The hotbed of the little theater action is 1-1/2 square miles bordered by Hollywood, Highland, Santa Monica Boulevard, and Bronson Street, an area known as the Hollywood live theater district.

On Hollywood Boulevard, Theatre/Theatre has been the cutting edge for almost 25 years. Two of its popular productions - "Daddy's Dying ... Who's Got the Will?" and "Two Idiots in Hollywood" - evolved into movies.

Nearby, Stages has won critical acclaim for its unconventional plays starring top stars, as well as productions of French, South American, and Spanish plays. The organization has three theaters, one of which is for outdoor performances.

South of the Paramount Studios, the CAST (Coalition of Artists for Stage and Theatre) operates two theaters out of a black barnlike structure. Dedicated to the development of new American playwrights, the company has won awards for its many projects.

In the Melrose area, between La Cienega and Gower, travel east on Melrose past the "blue whale" and the "green whale," the two massive buildings of the Pacific Design Center, one in blue tile and one in green. Continue past the antique and nostalgia shops with off-beat names. Suddenly you enter an area of blinking neon lights, of body piercing and tattoo shops, and new wave clothing stores displaying sleek leather unisex costumes.

It is difficult to tear yourself away from the fun of people-watching - but more exciting entertainment awaits behind the russet stucco and brick facade of the Matrix Theatre, home of the Matrix Theatre Company.

Under the tutelage of producing artistic director Joseph Stern, the ensemble has been the recipient of more than 250 theater awards for performances of such classic playwrights as Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekhov, and Harold Pinter.

Further east, on Santa Monica Boulevard's "theater row" - amid film prop houses, processing and recording studios, and strip malls - sprawls the Complex, an assemblage of five theaters with 40 to 55 seats each. Converted from theater studios and a woodshop, the conglomerate rents out its Ruby, Dorie, Theatre Act 6470, Flight, and East theatres to independent acting companies.

On the west side is the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, the highly acclaimed center of what has been called "a revolution in the innovative." The award-winning company "has built a reputation for producing dangerous, magical, and experimental theater" from a constant stream of middle-European and modern American experimental and political works, says founder and artistic director Ron Sossi.

In 1972 it moved from a Hollywood storefront to its present location in West Los Angeles. Productions have ranged from Ibsen's "Peer Gynt," Brecht's "Baal," and the Polish "White Marriage" to the controversial "The Adolf Hitler Show," the award-winning "Chicago Conspiracy Trial," and "Tracers," a collaboration with Vietnam veterans.

All of which shows that Los Angeles is no longer just Tinseltown and the land of Disney, but has developed a serious theater scene to delight the adventurous.

Where to find little theaters in Los Angeles

Tickets for many of the productions at Los Angeles' little theaters are readily available on short notice, but advance reservations are recommended. Prices start at approximately $15. Tickets purchased by telephone with a credit card will be held at the box office. Be prepared to present identification and the card at the window.

Theaters with answering machines will return your call if you leave your name, phone number, and the number of reservations desired. Since some companies do not have their own theater, but rent space in available playhouses, be sure to verify the location of the theater when purchasing advance reservations.

This is a sampling of some of the most active theater companies:

Actors Studio, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 712-7089.

Cast Theatre, 804 N. El Centro; (323) 462-0265.

The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd.; (310) 393-3108.

Groundling Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave.; (323) 934-4747.

Knightsbridge Theatre, 1944 Riverside Dr.; (323) 667-0955.

Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue; (323) 852-1445.

Open Fist Theatre, 1625 N. La Brea; (323) 882-6912.

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda, West Los Angeles; (310) 477-2055.

STAGES, 1540 North McCadden Place; (323) 465-1010.

Theatre/Theatre, 6425 Hollywood Blvd., fourth floor; (310) 382-0710.

West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea; (323) 525-0022.

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