Ovations and upward mobility for LA theater

Michael-Arden-ovations.jpgMichael Arden, director of "Spring Awakening," at the Ovation Awards. Photo: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

LA theater has been embroiled in behind-the-scenes controversy for the past year. Many actors angrily challenged their own union over its decision to end the 99-Seat Theater Plan, which allows Equity members to work for only token fees in small LA theaters, at much less than the minimum wage.

Because of this brouhaha, I approached the Ovation Awards ceremony last Monday with extra curiosity. The event is designed to honor the year's best theatrical achievements, as judged by peers. Would the speakers turn up the flame on the Equity controversy? Would it become a pep rally for the pro-99 cause?

Steven Leigh Morris, an ardent defender of the pro-99 campaign in his previous role as a critic, had just been named the next executive director of LA Stage Alliance - the nonprofit organization that sponsors the Ovation Awards. Would he use his remarks at the ceremony to advocate for the pro-99 campaign? Would those of us who have declined to join the crusade feel like Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders supporters at a GOP fund-raiser? (That analogy is only somewhat exaggerated - the Wall Street Journal's famously right-wing editorial board recently joined the pro-99 choir).

I need not have worried. The evening was almost devoid of any direct references to the ongoing dispute. Morris, in his spoken remarks as well as in several published statements before the event, adopted an inclusive, unifying tone. The co-hosts, Vanessa Claire Stewart and French Stewart, closed the evening on this grace note:

Vanessa: "Sometimes it takes a hard year to bring a community together."

French, referring to the party that followed the ceremony: "So find a friend you disagree with and tip a glass."

ovation-awards.jpgLater, however, as I thought about the winners of the major awards, I wondered if the Ovation voters were somehow signaling their desire to move beyond the 99-seat fracas. They bestowed two of their four major production trophies on Deaf West Theatre's revival of "Spring Awakening." Its initial run at downtown's Inner-City Arts was named best musical in an intimate theater, while its subsequent run at the Wallis in Beverly Hills was named best musical in a larger theater. Voters also awarded the Wallis - LA County's newest midsize theater -- with the coveted "best season" prize.

Some eyebrows might rise over the double win for "Spring Awakening." Shouldn't the Ovations honor two entirely separate musical productions, thereby sharing the (mostly figurative) wealth? Yet the two "Spring Awakening"s were hardly identical. The Wallis production was better endowed, and the Wallis itself provided better sight lines. If I had to vote for only one, I would have voted for the Wallis rendition.

More to my point, by awarding such high marks to each of the two LA productions in which this particular "Spring" awakened, the Ovation voters (subconsciously, I suppose) endorsed the upward mobility of the production. The show moved from something that was one step away from being a workshop to something that was ready for Broadway - and then, after the Wallis run, it actually moved to Broadway.

No, I'm not suggesting that most 99-seat productions should have Broadway ambitions. It's easier for Deaf West to move to Broadway than it would be for any other small company in LA. After all, Deaf West had previously introduced its distinctive musical style to Broadway in the form of its "Big River" revival, which made a similar journey from a tiny LA space (the current Antaeus venue in NoHo) to a larger LA space (the Mark Taper Forum), before it hit Broadway.

But I am suggesting - and hoping - that more producers, writers and actors start thinking about larger venues within LA as their eventual destinations.

That might appear obvious, considering the scheduled demise of the 99-Seat Plan. But the plan might not disappear as thoroughly as some observers expect. Many of the potential effects of the end of the plan were seemingly mitigated when Equity agreed to allow "membership" companies to continue to use Equity members in their own Equity member-controlled productions - without Equity supervision. Audiences might not be able to discern much of a difference in these companies' productions after the plan itself vanishes (however, Equity has yet to announce a list of these "membership" companies).

No, the expiration of the plan isn't the most important reason why more of LA theater's best work should aim to take place on larger stages. The stronger case for expanded horizons is because LA theater needs a higher profile.

It's very difficult for particular 99-seat productions to get noticed beyond their immediate supporters. Small seating capacities and lack of advertising budgets often mean that fewer people see these shows, even in longer runs. The hordes of 99-seat companies make it difficult to stand out from the crowd - forget the idea of attracting many tourists. Established playwrights also usually shy away from 99-seat premieres of their plays. Like the actors, writers are paid more for premieres that take place in bigger theaters, which also have more promotional resources.

During the past year, plan proponents have cited some of the occasional cases of 99-seat productions moving on to greater glory. But these are rare, whether we're comparing them to the vast number of 99-seat productions that have taken place or to the proportion of shows that move on to greater fame after passing through early productions at, for example, Center Theatre Group or South Coast Repertory.

With only one exception, no play developed within the Waiver/99-Seat Plan system has eventually won a Pulitzer or a Tony - the awards that matter most when determining which plays receive further productions throughout America. (The one exception is "The Gin Game," which won the Pulitzer in 1978. It originated at the now-long-defunct American Theatre Arts in Hollywood, but its eventual prominence relied on a subsequent production at Louisville's Humana Festival).

Original musicals are even less likely than non-musical fare to launch from the 99-seat plan to more rewarding venues. Musical theater is more expensive to produce. Last Monday, when "The Behavior of Broadus" won this year's Ovations for best score and book of a new musical, its creators from the Burglars of Hamm used the opportunity to plead for a larger LA production of their prize-winning show.

Forget Broadway, they said - "some artists dream of bringing a show to a large theater right here in LA...To those who find these remarks tacky, clearly you don't know our work." (The context here is that Center Theatre Group commissioned "Broadus" but decided to present it only in partnership with the small Sacred Fools Theater, not at one of the three larger CTG venues).

Increasing the national profile of LA theater happens to be one of the primary concerns of Steven Leigh Morris himself, as he begins to run LA Stage Alliance. In an interview in the alliance's online publication, @ This Stage, Morris said he wants "to help get the LA stage scene on the map. In a way that, for some inexplicable reason, it hasn't been." He added that the talent, organizational skills and "the passion" are in place for this to happen, but that "there's just a missing link, and I'd like to find that link."

"Inexplicable"? "Missing link"? Here's one contributing factor to LA's absence from "the map" -- LA theater invests too much time and energy in maintaining a system of many easy-to-ignore theatrical boutiques, and not enough time and energy in creating institutions that can engage larger numbers of Angelenos, including more diverse audiences, as well as a bigger share of the national theatrical spotlight.

The pro-99 camp isn't solely responsible for this state of affairs. The 99-seat companies have seldom been given much of an incentive to move up the Equity scale. I've written about this elsewhere, over many years; in the Ovations spirit of amity, I'll avoid rehashing those details here.

Now Equity is trying to prod -- clumsily, at times -- some of LA's smaller companies to become more professional and more prominent, while still leaving open the self-producing option for membership companies. And now the pro-99 movement is suing Equity. Regardless of the merits or the results of this lawsuit, it's not going to invigorate LA theater.

Building theater companies and productions will accomplish more than lawsuits. We need more initiatives along the lines of LA County Arts Commission's hoped-for (but still not paid-for) 299-seat theater on the grounds of the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, which would offer smaller theater and dance companies a chance to perform with a much higher profile.

El gran error de la Colonia

I've often suggested that large and midsize companies should open up their resources - including their venues - more frequently to co-productions with smaller companies, especially now that the 99-Seat Plan is so wobbly. I still think it's a great idea. Unfortunately a current example of this phenomenon -- Colony Theatre's import of the Skylight Theatre's previously 99-seat production of "El Grande Circus de Coca-Cola" -- is miscast as this idea's poster child.

Let's find a few glimmers of good news here. How's this? I enjoy local references and settings, and "El Grande" at the Colony offers several inside-Burbank lines. Also, the announced lowest post-preview ticket price ($29) at the Colony is actually lower than the announced ticket price ($34) was at the Skylight.

Unfortunately "El Grande," which supposedly runs only 85 minutes (no intermission), feels as if it will never end. It would be funnier if it were ruthlessly condensed into about five minutes. Relentlessly superficial, it continues Low Moan Spectacular's Anglo's-eye parody of Latino showbiz stereotypes, which has been around since the early '70s. Low moans and dead silence are more common than laughs.

This version supposedly brings the players into the US, apparently without papers, but it's hardly a forum for a satirical reflection on the currently hot topic of immigration. It's merely an assortment of showbiz tropes that seem hopelessly dated - especially since the departure of "Sabado Gigante" from the airwaves in September. Also, considering that the Colony has never programmed anything else in its Burbank home that's remotely "Latino," "El Grande" is perhaps the worst conceivable way to tread into that territory. On the other hand...

'Bird' deserves to fly

If anyone at large or midsize theaters is currently searching for shows in small venues that might be candidates for upward mobility, look at the US premiere of "Man Covets Bird," at 24th Street Theatre.

24th Street is no stranger to the practicalities of transferring a production to larger quarters. Its last show "Walking the Tightrope" received a brief run at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre earlier this year. I was surprised when I was more moved by it at the Douglas than I was at 24th Street. But I was even more moved by "Man Covets Bird" than I was by either version of "Walking the Tightrope."

On the children-to-adults scale where 24th Street does most of its programming nowadays, "Man Covets Bird" is ever so slightly tilted more toward an adult perspective, especially when compared with "Walking the Tightrope." In Finegan Kruckemeyer's tale of a boy who grows into adulthood with a pet bird at his side, the magical realism of the storytelling is easily accessible to (somewhat mature) children as well as adults, but the narrative devotes more time to the character as a young, somewhat alienated adult than as a boy.

Debbie Devine's staging, which expanded a solo play into a duet, is perfectly polished despite its lyrical simplicity. It includes winsomely line-drawn video by Matthew G. Hill and exquisite original music and musical direction by Leeav Sofer, who plays the bird alongside Andrew Huber as the young man. In fact, I'm not sure if "Man Covets Bird" should be eligible as an original musical or as a play at next year's Ovation Awards. But it should certainly be a contender, particularly if it receives another staging in a larger space during the remaining nine months of eligibility for the next Ovations.

Laughs galore

Because so many of the gags misfire in "El Grande Circus de Coca-Cola," let me suggest two current shows with abundant and genuine belly laughs. Try Orson Bean's solo memoir/stand-up comedy and magic act "Safe at Home," at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice. Or the current Groundlings mainstage show on Melrose, "Stakeout." Or both.

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