The old entertainment industry adage “the show must go on” might as well be the motto of L.A. Theatre Works, which has grown from a small theater group doing workshops with prison inmates to a vast company that produces an array of audio projects.
On March 25, LATW marked its 40-year anniversary with a gala at the Beverly Hills Hotel, which honored playwright and longtime LATW collaborator Geoffrey Cowan and featured appearances and performances by a stellar guest list, including Jane Fonda, Marsha Mason, Judith Light, Stacy Keach, and Edward Asner.
Such a glamorous event is light-years away from LATW’s humble beginnings. The company was “born out of the social action of the 1960s,” says Susan Loewenberg, its founder and producing director. She recalls her early days as a director, when she was encouraged by filmmaker Bob Greenwald to try working with prison inmates. “I found myself doing workshops while six months pregnant in the L.A. County Jail,” she recalls. “But it seemed to me that I was getting a lot more interesting things theatrically from inmates than in L.A.” Loewenberg notes that a core group began working with her more closely on the project, and they organized as Artists in Prison. Not long after, they incorporated as a nonprofit and sought grant money to expand their efforts. Loewenberg has many tales of negotiating with prisons to allow the public in to see the plays, and also receiving assistance from California Sen. John Tunney to get federal prisoners furloughed to perform at a different venue.
As Artists in Prison flourished, “we began to expand our horizons,” Loewenberg says. “We realized we wanted to be a professional theater company.” A name change was in order as the company established itself, and L.A. Theatre Works was born. Actor Richard Dreyfuss, one of the 34 founding members, suggested the idea of doing plays for radio, and LATW has never looked back. These days, a steady stream of actors record plays in front of a live audience, and an edited version is aired on radio, in addition to being produced as a program for streaming, for download, and as a physical retail package. The L.A. Theatre Works weekly show is broadcast on public radio and heard by more than eight million listeners every year, in more than 60 U.S. markets. The company’s national touring program, and its outreach into schools and libraries, continues the LATW mission to “present, preserve, and disseminate classic and contemporary plays.”
Loewenberg says LATW got into audio production in 1996, when the audio industry really began grow. She cites the late 1990s as a time of significant content creation. This is also the era when Michele Cobb (current president of the Audio Publishers Association and an audio consultant), who had a strong theater background and was in L.A. working as a producer, came on board as an intern. “I started out doing ticket sales; then they asked me to do other things,” she says. “I had an interest in the audio industry, and I helped them as they expanded from cassettes into CD and then downloads.”
The L.A. Theatre Works Audio Collection now comprises more than 500 recorded plays, the largest such library in the world. Approximately 400 of the recorded titles are sold in CD format, and roughly 350 of those also sell in digital formats. Distribution is handled in house, and digital downloads are available through major vendors including Audible, OverDrive, Audiobooks.com. Close to 120 titles are available as apps for both Apple and Android devices. Among the company’s perennial top sellers are The Crucible, The Grapes of Wrath, The War of the Worlds, and Death of a Salesman. Loewenberg says she is particularly pleased about LATW’s recently announced partnership with Bloomsbury’s Drama Online Library, which makes LATW recordings available as part of that database alongside theater lists of Methuen Drama and the Arden Shakespeare collection.
Cobb stayed at LATW for three years and, after working elsewhere in the audio industry, returned to LATW in 2013. Cobb now plays a key role in working with developers to create the company’s line of educational apps, a major endeavor for LATW’s march into the future.
A recent pilot program in the San Diego Public Schools was a success and is currently in testing in New York City schools. In the pilot, 11th grade students were provided with a Romeo and Juliet app and were inspired to create a companion iBook of activities for students in ninth grade. Another of the new apps, Relativity, features 11 science-based plays and syncs the text to the audio performance; it is available free of charge.
Cobb notes that as the company takes on such new endeavors, the list of audio recordings is a vital revenue stream. “L.A. Theatre Works relies on audio sales to help fund our educational efforts, including giveaways of CDs through the Alive & Aloud program, free digital subscriptions for emerging theater students and educators, and the development of enhanced apps,” she says.
For Loewenberg, the March gala provided an opportunity to look back and celebrate achievements, but it certainly did not signal any kind of resting point. She and LATW show no signs of slowing down as a broad range of apps aligned with Common Core, and potential deals with foreign publishers (notably in China) are on the horizon. “We have so many interesting projects on the way, and we’re still working with exciting young playwrights,” Loewenberg says. “We’re always looking for new ways to bring our programs to as many audiences as possible.”