Paul Birchall’s Got It Covered
From Paul Verdier to Dakin Matthews to A. Jeffrey Schoenberg to Stephen Sachs
(contributed by Steven Leigh Morris)
Yet another passing of another era was marked September 6, when actor-director-playwright-producer Paul Verdier died of complications from Parkinson’s Disease while under hospice care in West Hollywood.
L.A. theater veterans will remember the gravel-voiced tempestuous Frenchman as the artistic director of Stages, a tiny Hollywood theater (on North McCadden Place) that he established in 1982; it was a kind of antecedent to Frederique Michel and Charles Duncombe’s City Garage in Santa Monica, equally focused on international work. Verdier’s aesthetic, however, was more stark and minimalistic, focusing without diversion on the texts.
You may also remember that Verdier and his wife, Sonia Lloveras-Verdier, opened a restaurant-café adjoining their theater, aptly named Café des Artistes.
Eugene Ionesco visited Stages in 1982, and productions at the theater included Tales for People Under 3 Years of Age, which Verdier translated and adapted from Ionesco’s play; Verdier also translated and adapted Eduardo Pavlovsky’s Slowmotion, Marguerite Duras’s English Mint, Ariane Mnouchkine’s 1789; Edoardo Erba’s The Night of Picasso and Porco Selvatico; and he directed David Hirson’s La Bete
Each production was covered with slavish curiosity and obvious respect by L.A. Times theater writers, including Sylvie Drake and Dan Sullivan.
Actor Ayre Gross worked with Stages for years, and set up a Facebook Page at the time Verdier went into Hospice care. Gross wrote:
“He taught me how to work. He was extraordinarily demanding, and working with him was quite often exceptionally challenging, but almost always exquisitely rewarding. His work was international in scope. He had a laser sharp vision. I’m so grateful to have been among the group of theatre artists in Los Angeles he called upon to give substance to his dreams.”
Verdier is survived by a son, Abel.
Go Ahead, Ask!
In an attempt to grasp control back over the way they are perceived, Actor’s Equity Association has launched a promo campaign to improve its much-tarnished image. I suppose this was meant to dovetail with the Labor Day holiday, the national celebration of the many truly good things that the unions have done for workers. If you’re a Union and you can’t get good press on Labor Day, well, something is wrong.
In this new ad campaign, all members of AEA were urged to run out to the theater over the holiday weekend, whip out their Equity cards and then “ask if it’s Equity.”
In theory this was, and is a good thing – Union members supporting their Union, in public, is a fine thing to do. Of course, who the cardholder is supposed to ask is a little up in the air. If you ask some long-suffering box office clerk, you’re sure to get an eye-roll and a placement in a seat behind a pillar. If you ask the poor usher, who, more often or not is a volunteer, you will likely as not get a perplexed reaction. Maybe you’re supposed to whip out your card and show it to the dude sitting next to you. This might lead to a polite nod.
You can see what they’re thinking, of course — hoping that legions of actors whipping out their cards on Broadway and holding the fat cat producers’ feet to the fire. Mind you, the campaign will inevitably backfire if the union folks wave their cards at those national touring productions, which, with full permission of Equity, are trumpeting themselves as the “official” Broadway shows, while using Non-Equity actors for pennies on the Union dollar. Those producers will have every right to reply, “Hey! Your Union caved in and gave us absolute permission to do this!”
And how depressing if the same actors whip out the cards to wave at the producers of non-Union shows in L.A. The joke, of course, is that if you “ask if it’s Equity” to many of the small shows in L.A., the response will be “We wish we were – but they don’t want us!”
Dakin Matthews, an Equity actor of indisputable professional renown and whose career spans both Equity productions like The Audience on Broadway and 99-seat shows with The Antaeus Company, is perhaps the first union member to step up and take a pin to the bloated shallowness of the “ask if it’s Equity” campaign. In a letter posted to the Pro99 Facebook page, and already widely circulated on the Net, Matthews interprets the “Ask if it’s Equity” campaign as the cynical catch-up PR operation it is.
“’Equity’ is defined as being fair and impartial,” Matthews responds. He then goes on to summarize the ways that Equity has acted in a way that can only be described as “Inequitable.” His list includes the fact that the members of a the L.A. region voted overwhelmingly to table the Union’s plans for the 99 seat plan in L.A. County, and the National board ignored all that and voted in its own plan anyway; as well as how the Union didn’t allow even the slightest amount of dissent in discussion of the issue; how the Union used dues to pay for advocates against the Pro99 faction, and how “it even permits some of the (anti-99-supporters) to make misstatements of fact and law in their opinions (using Equity’s resources and facilities), thus tacitly endorsing views it knows to be in error and . . . even encouraging its own membership to be misinformed.”
Matthews concludes, “Unfortunately, it’s Equity, but it sure doesn’t feel like ‘equity’ to me.”
It is indeed daunting to consider the uphill struggle the local theater community has to face as far as this issue is concerned – and that doesn’t take into account other issues that every arts organization has to contend with, from the inability to fund art in a slumping economy, to the wearisome attempt to bolster L.A. as a theater town.
Dakin’s open letter may be found on the Pro-99 Facebook page.
We Come Before You Naked
On a related topic, I am fascinated — and more than a little appalled — by this story, which broke over on the Los Angeles Theater Network Facebook page a few days ago, about brilliant costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, who has caparisoned almost more local theater performers than there are stars in the heavens.
Whether it is simply due to the poor economy – always a possibility – or pressures of small theater companies battling AEA, many of the clients of Schoenberg’s parent costume company AJS have cut back their costume orders, with the result that the designer, winner of multiple Ovation, LAWWIEs, RAWWIES, and even a Backstage West Garland or two, has had to take to a crowdfunding source like Gofundme to make ends meet. Notes Schoenberg, on the Gofundme page, “To avoid collapse, many theater companies are doing smaller productions, with less costume design needed, and fewer plays. The rental business and costume design services of AJS costumes has slowed to a trickle.” Schoenberg concludes, “This downturn has been sudden, it has been unforeseen, it has been devastating.”
On a human level, we are all of course dismayed that such a an amazingly creative talent such as Mr. Schoenberg has felt compelled to turn to crowd-funding to make ends meet when, really, he has every right to deserve to make his art his living. However, it is also a terrifying object lesson on the business-busting trickle-down effects of the AEA conflict.
It isn’t just the actors and the theater producers who are going to be hurting when these new rules hit: All the surrounding businesses that support the theater are going to feel the pinch as well. It would be best for the outlying businesses that have been on the sidelines to start taking note of the tsunami of changes that might be ahead, and which might have an infelicitous effect on vendors, restaurants, coffee houses, and mom-and-pop stores round the corner from your local theater.
Schoenberg’s Gofundme page may be found here: http://www.gofundme.com/bn328dqq
The Bubbling Fountain
The invitations have gone out to the Fountain Theatre’s 25th anniversary celebration gala to be held at the Redbury Hotel in Hollywood.
Of course, it’s a fundraiser, so you may indeed get your own invite if you so desire. The party is being held as a tribute to Fountain Artistic Director Stephen Sachs, who, as one of the original founders, has been at the local treasure for its entire run.
Sachs is worthy of a veritable cornucopia of awards, if not just for founding the Fountain, than also for his contributions to local theater, which range from his drama Bakersfield Mist, which has gone from the Fountain to the West End, and then to being one of the regional standards, to worthy works such as his adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie (set in the segregated South), and then to his powerful collaborations with South African playwright Athol Fugard and with Arthur Miller (who, back in the day, personally allowed Sachs to stage his rarely performed After the Fall). The party will be hosted by Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who has been one of the driving forces behind the naming of the Theater District for the area we know as the Complex-Lounge-Blank theater corridor.
Any theater professional or company that can make a 25 year go of it in the Los Angeles environment which is, as we know, so notoriously unfriendly to intimate theater, is worth a great deal of honor and applause – particularly the Fountain, a company that has so many brilliant productions under its belt.
Head to www.fountaintheatre.com to learn more about the celebration.