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Theater with a Capital "T"

Listening to the excited whispering of industry people and fellow critics at the recent Los Angeles premiere of “Life Itself" at the Hollywood ArcLight, I realized how jaded I had become. As red carpets go, it was a modest affair.

Outside, tourists lingering around Hollywood sensed something was happening. A long line was forming for the Transformers movie that was opening later that evening. We walked right in.

Industry screenings don't normally include celebrities, particularly two Academy Award-nominated directors like Steve James and Werner Herzog. Herzog, the man Francois Truffaut called "the most important director alive" and Roger Ebert described as a man who "never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting," was the center of the greater film geek excitement.

I had almost forgotten: That is one of the exciting things about Los Angeles—celebrity sightings. Some people come to town or take off of work for the red carpets.

Yet movie red carpets aren't the only place you can see celebrities in Hollywood. Roger Ebert came to experience the low budget and lusty side of Hollywood when he wrote the script for "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," but you don't have to spend months slaving over a computer either (or doing stunt journalism that verges on harassment like a certain Ukrainian former journalist) to get close to celebrities or experience that side of Hollywood culture.

Hollywood is divided up geographically into Hollywood, West Hollywood (WeHo) and North Hollywood (NoHo). It's also culturally divided between film and theater. New York is a Theater town with a capital "T," but Los Angeles is a theater town with a small "t" because the movie industry is more prominent here. Some smaller productions cancel, even last-minute, when an actor gets a movie job. Yet with so many actors converging on Hollywood, Los Angeles County has a healthy theater community that spreads outside of Hollywood. Actors and directors for the theater are also, of course, movie literate.

For a time, I used to spend almost every weekend in Hollywood as a theater critic and I saw a few stars and a lot of flesh (male and female nudity). Los Angeles was the original site of "Naked Boys Singing," a male nudie musical, that is no longer playing here, but still attracting audiences in New York and, in 2007, the musical became a movie.

Scenes from the 1970 cult film Roger Ebert scripted, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (which we see flashes of during "Life Itself"), remind me of both bad theater and good schlock stage productions. In particular, I always recall a campy production of “Valley of the Dolls,” but other cult classic films were translated from silver screen to stage for laughs: "The Poseidon Adventure," "Eating Raoul," "Plan Nine from Outer Space" and, of course, "Rocky Horror Picture Show." One of my favorites was a telenovela version of "Star Wars," although "Star Wars Saga in 60 Minutes" is better, longer running and George Lucas-approved.

For the starstruck, on opening nights, the stars often come out. I sat next to Paul Reiser once at the Geffen Playhouse (Westwood) and saw Cindy Crawford just a few seats down. "Dancing with the Stars" professional dancers and SYTYCD judges and contestants (and a few "Glee" stars) often pop up at the Pantages Theatre openings. There was the time I spied Warren Beatty in the audience at a now defunct theater.

At the smaller theaters, the 99-seat equity waiver theaters, you can get closer to the stars. The seats aren't cushy and sometimes the leg-room is lacking. Actors on hiatus or searching for creative freedom or a chance to stretch beyond typecasting often turn to theater. That's when actors seriously want your attention to fill the theaters. The neighborhoods might not be as bright, shiny and crowded as the Hollywood that most tourists see—near the ArcLight, Disney's El Capitan and the Chinese Theatre.

Pre-Brangelina, I saw Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt in the audience supporting a David Schwimmer production. Will Farrell, Lisa Kudrow and Jennifer Coolidge used to perform at The Groundlings on Melrose.

French Stewart ("3rd Rock from the Sun") and Laurie Metcalf ("Roseanne") were part of the Cast Theater company and Stewart just finished up performing at the Pasadena Playhouse in a production, "Stoneface," that started as the Sacred Fools acting company's small theater. The play was written by Stewart's wife, Vanessa Claire French, and is about movie legend Buster Keaton.

Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett performed at the Pasadena Playhouse in "Fences" in 2011. Kate Mulgrew ("Orange Is the New Black") performed a one-woman show "Tea at Five" at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2005.

Not all actors are on the stage. Oscar-winner Tim Robbins is the artistic director of The Actors’ Gang in Culver City and is directing a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that opens on 24 July 2014. I bumped into George Takei at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City two years ago.

Back at the smaller theaters, what could be more intimate than a one-person show? During my more active theater going days, I saw Dan Butler ("Frasier"), Alec Mapa ("Ugly Betty") and John Leguizamo performing. I missed Nia Vardalos ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding"). Vardalos saw her show become a movie. You never know what might happen.

If you're interested in movies, so are the actors and directors in Hollywood and outlying areas of Los Angeles. Don't just go for the glamour, come and see the low-budget grunge. The kind of culture that Roger came to sample during his "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" days with Russ Meyer still exists, but you have to go beyond the red carpets and big box stores to see it.

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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