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Summer Approaches: Fringe, Smoot, Caesar, Work, Tony

By Paul Birchall
 
LETTER FROM THE FRINGE

It’s that time of the year when the Hollywood Fringe Festival is in full swing, and the L.A. theater community both expands and contracts; a veritable cornucopia of small plays are showcased within the mile or so area around the Sacred Fools and Complex theaters. This year, the Fringe Festival press material boasts that there are 350 shows going up during the three week between June 9th and June 21. You would have to clone yourself to see all the shows in that time-frame.

Some critics demur over the Fringe’s lack of curation – essentially any producer/presenter can come in, pay the festival fee, and put on a show – but I think that the egalitarian nature of the festival is actually its great strength.  Certainly in the first couple of weeks, before the critics and the Yelp reviewers weigh in, no one has any idea which show is going to be the Golden Ticket and which is going to be Just One More Showcase.  Anything is possible!  Some shows’ reputations are going to spread and the cream will rise to the top.

A strong recommendation already: Make sure you get to the Valhalla that is “Fringe Central,” the pop up bar and club that has opened up in the old Dragonfly club space for the festival period.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  I am not sure that L.A.’s intimate theaters needs a union at this time, but they definitely need a bar – and for the next three weeks, we have a centralized space to hang out, get buzzed, and talk theater.

The experience of stepping into Fringe Central is like coming into the club house for the Nerd Theater Kids – who are all of us, really, or you wouldn’t have read this far into my column in the first place.

Last Wednesday, Fringe Central’s Opening Night party was great fun, with hundreds of gaily caparisoned folks, mostly performers and producers of the various shows slated for presentation, but a number of fans and press folk, too, milling around and, really, being part of a community.

I chatted briefly with Fringe organizer Matt Quinn, who asked me to make sure that you knew about Pick of the Fringe, a sampling of scenes from about 7 Fringe shows that a panel of “experienced independent judges” have selected as being especially noteworthy.  I am not entirely sure how these shows can have been chosen so quickly, but the list includes Titus Sharkdronicus and Nothing Bad: A Werewolf Rock Musical, so I don’t think you can go wrong.

DO NOT WORK

HE WHO DOES NOT WORK DOES NOT EAT, translation from a Soviet poster

A few days ago, the Pro99 Facebook simmered with rage, following the rumor that “Do Not Work” instructions had been orchestrated by AEA (Equity), warning union stage actors against working in certain productions being cast as part of the Fringe.  If the rumors turned out to be true, it could potentially cast a chill on Fringe shows, which represent the epitome of the intimate theater scene so many of us work in.

The Facebook thread, now apparently removed, was filled with outrage at the thought that Equity might be working to encroach even on shows that clearly have no reason to exist other than to be pop-up productions playing to houses of 20 to 30 guests.

I was concerned by this rumor and kept an eye on the Facebook thread, where I was quite interested to discover a comment by current AEA President Kate Shindle, who weighed in on the issue. She noted, “there (are) a menu of options for LA fringe producers. Some are on contract and some are on code.  The distinction here is that codes are not available to producers on the DNW list. I’m told that letters have only been sent to the cast of a single show, because that producer is on our DNW. The rest of the fringe is proceeding with some shows on contract and some on code.”

Fringe publicist Stacy Jones told me that the show in question was a Fringe show entitled, Dames, Dicks, and Butterknives, which was being put on as part of the Fringe’s 1001 Minutes of New Musicals event, being put on by New Musicals Inc., which, in fact, has been on the “Do Not Work” list since January, for refusing to sign the union’s imposed new collective bargaining agreement for theaters of 99-seats or less.

Now, we can say what we must about the L.A. “Do Not Work” list, in particular how it vindictively consists of the folks who were active in Pro99 movement challenging the union’s policies and tactics, and how it is randomly wicked for the union to forbid its members from working at local, intimate companies like the Odyssey, Matrix, Skylight, and, yes, New Musicals Inc, but AEA is, at least, not trying to pull a fast one during the Fringe.

ET TU TRUMPUS?

Gregg Henry as Julius Caesar/Shakespeare in the Park, New York

President Trump’s son Donald Jr. tried to somehow connect the deadly shooting in Virginia, where a deeply disgruntled man shot a Republican Congressman, a lobbyist, and staffers who were all preparing for a charity baseball game, with the Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in which Gregg Henry’s Caesar resembled the U.S. President. The younger Trump overtly made the connection on Wednesday afternoon, when he retweeted a conservative political commentator Harlan Hill’s comments that “Events like today are exactly why we took issue with NY elites glorifying the assassination of the President.” In his retweet, Donald Trump Jr., added the word “This!” to his comment.

Lend me your ears. Let’s talk a moment about the chilling death of satire that the fracas around Oscar Eustis’s staging of Julius Caesar, and, yes, also about the earlier debacle concerning Kathy Griffin, who lost a number of gigs, possibly her career, following her appearing in a photo holding a fake severed Trump head. And when I heard about Eustis’s Julius Caesar, who claimed emphatically on NPR that his intention was not a parody but a tragedy, that there was no glee in his version of the Shakespearean assassination. Beauty is the eye . . .

However, theater and art are among the few ways that “average” folks have of speaking directly to power. Artists and writers have poked fun at their overlords since Aristophanes. William Hogarth in the 1660s depicted rulers as monstrous beasts – if he were alive today, he’d make Trump look so hideous, it would make Kathy Griffin’s jab seem like a summer kiss.

But, just in this year, we are seeing a attempt to silence satire and criticism that is chilling – I’d say unprecedented, but there is precedent, actually – in in countries that lose their rights of free speech. In any case, if you believe that Trump is Julius Caesar, well, I’m not so sure. I’m more in agreement with this article, instead.

THE TONY AWARDS, HO HUM

I really don’t have much to say about The Tonys this year, which were really much ado about nothing. I haven’t seen Dear Evan Hanson yet, but I was pleased that a new work won – and how could you not be delighted with former Los Angelino Ben Platt’s enthusiastic award speech? And, while they kept us on tinder hooks as to whether Bette Midler would perform – she didn’t, and the number with David Hyde Pierce was really a ho hummer – but she at least gave a whiz bang of an acceptance speech, telling the band to “shut that crap up” when they tried to interrupt her before she was finished.

But Kevin Spacey as host. I mean, really: In 2017, we’re getting Johnny Carson imitations on the Tonys? I’m in my 50s and I barely remember who Johnny Carson was. Probably one third of the award-winners in the audience, in their 20s and 30s, got the joke. Even worse was his imitation of Bill Clinton, which just felt mean. I noticed he didn’t try to imitate our current orange-headed leader – but perhaps Standards and Practices put the kibosh on the idea. One can imagine that in our present climate, if Fox and Friends went on about a Trump imitation on the Tonys, it would cause Netflix to cancel House of Cards.

I am frankly far more enthused by last week’s release of the Shubert Awards, a series of grants that the Shubert Foundation distributes to theaters across the country. This year, a large number of LA Theaters were the honored recipients of the Schubert largesse, including some bona fide surprises. Of course, you’d expect some of the grand winners to include the Center Theater Group ($200k), the Geffen ($110k), and Pasadena Playhouse ($30k). LA Stage Alliance was awarded $15k. But there were also awards to some of our beloved smaller companies, including Rogue Machine ($10k), Cornerstone ($60k), A Noise Within ($25k), and the Odyssey ($30k). Congratulations to all the award grantees, and try not to spend all that dough at an Opening Night Party!

GARY SMOOT

Gary Smoot

Stage Raw was sorry to hear about the passing of the great local and Seattle theater designer Gary Smoot, who died in Seattle last May. Amongst his many contributions to shows at L.A.’s Circle X, Smoot served as production designer for productions of Love Loves a Pornographer, The American Book of the Dead, and for his extremely memorable set design in Great Men of Science, No 21 and 22. He’d been a multi-award winner of many LA Weekly, Garland, and LADCC accolades, and, in addition to frequent gigs with New York theaters, was a long time company member of Seattle’s Annex Theatre.

In a note to Stage Raw, Smoot’s longtime collaborator Jillian Armenante, noted that “he was an amazing artist who affected communities in Seattle, Los Angeles, and NYC theater. He had an incredible ability to think outside the box and accomplish a great deal for very little. He was integral in forming the early aesthetic of Annex Theater (now in its 30 year in Seattle) and at Circle X, having designed many of their early successes. He literally won an Ovation Award with a $200 set budget!”

Paul Mullin, a playwright who Smoot frequently designed for, most memorably in the 2006 production of Louis Slotin Sonata, noted, “I will never be the same. I had plans for projects that only Gary could help me with. I am lost without him. But being lost as an artist is kind of the point I guess. It just happens to feel like shit at the moment.”

Smoot’s longtime partner Jamey Hood added, “He brought as much joy, wit, and magic to our relationship as he did to his design work. His uncontainable creative energy was attractive both on stage and off, but at the same time, he was consistently genuine, accessible, and authentic.”

The theater community’s invited to attend a special Memorial to honor Smoot, to be held Sunday, June 18 at 6 PM at Barnsdall Theater in the Barnsdall Art Park. RSVP here.

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