A View of World from 9th Avenue - New YorkerUnless you are one of 7 Native Angelenos in my audience (i.e. from the Tongva tribe), odds are you’ve heard this from friends and family:

It’s such a long trip to go out to the West Coast, why don’t you come visit us here in the East?

As if the direction of travel changes the length of the trip. (Actually, it does: prevailing jet stream winds make it faster to travel from west to east.) Of course, the argument is not really about the length of the trip or even the geodesic associated with a space-time event horizon.

It’s all about perceived value.

We Californians are viewed as “on the fringe.”

East Coast people naturally assume traveling “way out there” moves one down some sort of implied value gradient. California, the birthplace of the film industry, the microchip revolution, and Sriracha hot sauce is, surprisingly, still considered by most on the East Coast as the hinterlands.

This transcontinental value structure also holds locally within Los Angeles County. As with any pecking order, there is no shortage of peckers. For example, anyone I’ve ever dated from the Westside views anything east of the 405 as Iowa (pronounced “Ohio” by those on the East Coast). For these Westsiders, there is no good reason to eat in a restaurant further east than Abbot Kinney. Sometimes I wonder if there is an actual logic to this attitude: finding parking on the Westside is such a crisis that, once found, you never want to move your car again. But then I realize these folks simply feel that most of Los Angeles County is “way out there.”

The local snobbery doesn’t end here, however. This is LA, after all. For when the people in central LA (“on the fringe” by Westside standards) want to feel superior, they simply look north to “the Valley”. Jokes about “the Valley” are so hackneyed that even people on the East Coast – who believe that Los Angeles and Orange Counties share the same political bent – feel like they can make them with impunity.

True story: multiple (non-theater-going) Hollywood industry people have advised me to avoid choosing theaters in the Valley as venues – because that’s not where “serious theater” is done.

For these Hollywood people, it is the Valley that is “on the fringe.”

So, sorry Antaeus, Colony Theater, Crown City Theater, Falcon Theater, Group Rep, Theater Banshee, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. If y’all want to be considered, y’know, “serious” by those not-in-the-know, you best consider moving your operations south, over the hill.

Perhaps OIMBY (only in my back yard) is the new NIMBY. But even if we concede the value of the Valley’s theater-scene (and let’s enthusiastically concede it), there’s still plenty of quality theater beyond those limits that require just a few extra minutes in that car where we are already passing the time. This is LA, after all. A few weeks back, for example, I received the following text message from a friend:

i know its a hike but u have to chick out the production of mister class.

Followed, a few moments later, by:

*master clasp

(Fortunately, I speak fluent autocorrect.)

By the time I got this text, Master Class was playing its last weekend in Long Beach’s International City Theatre. I knew the production had already received rave reviews pretty much across the board with special attention to Gigi Bermingham’s performance.

Here’s what struck me:

  1. My friend’s recommendation began with an apology about the show’s location.
  2. Despite the fantastic reviews, I hadn’t really considered seeing the show because it was, y’know, far away. That is, ICT Long Beach far away (i.e. about 50 minutes travel time). Not to be confused with Hollywood far away (i.e. about 45 minutes travel time).
  3. I easily obtained tickets for Saturday’s closing weekend show on the Friday of closing weekend. In other words, an awful lot of people weren’t cramming in to see this show of known high quality.

Would these bullet points come up if the show had been “in a better neighborhood” (i.e. a little less fringy)? I dunno. All I know is I was glad to have made the trip (the critics got it perfectly right this time).

Another example: the Sierra Madre Playhouse. This 99-seat proscenium theater is located an entire two miles east of Pasadena – a city that I’ve heard numerous Valley people describe as “all the way out there.” In other words, “on the fringe” (by Valley standards). Sure, it will take you a whole extra 5 minutes to get to Sierra Madre from Pasadena (making it “all the way out there and then some”), but this time can be reduced to 3 minutes if you don’t slow down to appreciate the majesty of Mt. Wilson as you pass it. Last year, the Sierra Madre Playhouse followed up its lauded A Woman in Mind with the LA Times Critic’s Choice Incident at Vichy and its currently running production, God’s Man in Texas, is worth checking out. Just make sure you sport the necessary pith helmet and machete to slash and hack your way off the road from Caltecha.

But even this fringy area (as seen by the Valley, which is a fringy area as seen by Hollywood, which is a fringy area as seen by the Westside, which is a fringy area as seen by the East Coast) can feel superior to an even fringier area located a thousandth of a billionth of a parsec to the east of it: Claremont. Ready to make the jump to hyperspace? I know a Wookie mechanic that’ll get us there, so strap yourself in!

Like some sort of weird closed Riemannian geometry, our travel to Claremont is “so far out there,” it brings us right back to the same Los Angeles County border that the Westside (to the west) and Long Beach (to the south) also touch. Here you’ll find the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater. If you like good food (outside of Abbot Kinney, of course!) and good theater (particularly musicals), it’s worth keeping enough anti-matter around for your warp drive to make the journey. For example, Neil Dale’s direction and Janet Renslow’s choreography of Miss Saigon produced the closest staging I’ve ever seen to film’s quick-cut, multiple-viewpoint storytelling.

So, at long last, have we reached the fringiest of areas, the very “bottom” of some imagined pecking order? Hardly! Why, we haven’t even left Los Angeles County! There’s plenty of places that all Angelenos (even those in the fringe areas) consider “out there”: the fringe theaters in the Inland Empire, Orange County, San Diego, and Ventura. And if you travel even further west of the 405, I’ve heard a rumor you’ll eventually get to a very fringy place called “Broadway.”

Wonder if it’s worth the trip?

Originally published May 8, 2013 in Bitter Lemons.