Photos from the 2017 Stage Raw Theater Awards
All images are owned and copyrighted by Tim Norris
Co-host French Stewart offers a warning of what happens to recipients whose speeches go on too long.
By Gray Palmer
On a hot day in October, I visited Murray Mednick at his new house, just as Open Fist Theater Company was preparing its ambitious production of The Gary Plays, being directed by Guy Zimmerman, presented at Atwater Village Theater through June 2. (They’re doing material from six out of the eight plays.)
Mednick is perhaps L.A.’s most entrenched playwright, having resided in Southern California since 1975 and writing singularly poetical-spiritual works saturated in wry, Beckett-existential and sometimes morbid wit. Mednick was the driving force behind the Padua Playwrights Workshop, founded in 1978 and home to the likes of Sam Shepard and Maria Irene Fornes – a festival performed outdoors in the foothills of Claremont. It was at this festival the Mednick premiered is epic The Coyote Cycle.
Mednick’s first play The Box, a monologue, was directed at New York’s Theatre Genesis by Lee Kissman in 1965. Mednick had brought the pages to one of the Monday Night readings at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. Many plays quickly followed.
In April 1968, The Hawk moved from Theatre Genesis to the Actors’ Playhouse— and closed after 15 performances. In the Times, Clive Barnes wrote that “[it must signify] an awful lot that I could only dimly begin to understand…”
We can take that as a critic’s confession. Barnes was unable, in time for deadline, to articulate a message “fit-to-print” from the play. Other critics were “angry and bewildered.” This is a pattern that continues to the present. And the methods used to devise The Hawk were not so different from methods used much later for portions of The Coyote Cycle — as Mednick relates in the following interview.)
Did St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, where he discovered his vocation, have something like a secret door that connected poets and playwrights? Maybe. Aspects of Mednick’s theater can be thought of as something like animated calligrammes, Apollinaire’s delightful late inventions. And the Poetry Project started at St. Mark’s in 1966. Alice Notley said that for a long time she wrote for the poets in that room — Mednick was present.
In 1970, he received an Obie for his three-act play, The Deer Kill.
Prizes are all right if you get one, though it’s always good to bear in mind who gives them. Jack Kroll, John Lahr, and the wicked John Simon were on the awards committee that year. Mednick was recognized along with the playwrights Joe Orton, Paul Zindel, Megan Terry, and Vaclav Havel. (Genesis-based actor Lee Kissman also received a 1970 Obie — for his performance in Sam Shepard’s The Unseen Hand).
What happened in Mednick’s work between 1965 and 1970? A compass-setting, I think.
Mednick has said, “[We found that] you could use a certain kind of visual symbology… to great effect in a small space. We were really interested in discovering iconographic usages: what would have the resonance of an icon, a newly discovered icon, so that you could communicate directly to the audience’s subconscious?”
Spare visual presentation, and focus on the sequence of language.
We sat in his living-room; beyond a glass door was his bright swimming-pool — the light and composition was like a painting by David Hockney. Mednick spoke quietly.
STAGE RAW: At Theatre Genesis you worked with Ralph Cook.
MURRAY MEDNICK: I’d love to tell you about him. I’ve been thinking about him lately. For example, all [my] emphasis [on] text, and the text being the important way into a play — I learned that from Ralph… I was a poet on the Lower East Side. I was also a waiter — and other things. One of my friends at the time was an actor named Warren Finnerty, a very good actor. He was in Easy Rider — the guy at the gas station. He since has gone, of blessed memory. He took me over to Theatre Genesis one night and I saw a couple of plays there. That’s how I got into the theatre. I saw a play called The Inspector in Baggy Pants by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. That was Ralph’s idea — Ralph was very interested in poetry for the theater, in poets writing for the theater. And so, he got poets like me interested. He said to me, “Just write something for the stage and I’ll do it.” So. He really would do it. He had made a program on Monday nights of readings of new plays. And you’d get these good actors down there. It became a thing, these Genesis Monday night readings, so you’d get to hear your work read by good actors. That’s how I learned. Because I never went to school about theater — or anything like that. But I learned at Genesis. I learned about how it sounded, how things worked. But I was still a poet. And you start writing for the stage space and for live speech… That’s a thing in its own right. So, that by the time I got to Padua and started doing the Padua Festival here, I had enough background to be able to teach what I had learned — In other words, you see the stage and you hear the dialogue from the stage, which is very different than television or movie dialogue. And certain things can only be heard onstage. They can only be heard onstage. There’s a certain kind of thought that can only be heard through that medium… There’s another level, above, that’s invoked, or evoked, by the appearance of the stage as a medium, or vehicle, for a certain kind of experience… That’s a special kind of thought. It’s thought that has more than one resonation. This idea of levels of meaning is very important…
SR: What is theater poetry?
MM:: Yes. Well, first of all, it’s rhythmic. And one’s rhythms are of course one’s own. Like Beckett’s rhythms are a little different than Pinter’s. But they’re basically coming from the idea that the text is what’s important. That’s the unifying idea about poetry in the theater. The text comes first. Because all the actor’s choices should derive from the sound and the movement and the rhythm and the textual implications, you know, the meaning of the text. Usually what happens is actors make interpretive and performative choices before they learn the text, before they know the text, before they’ve heard the text. So, that’s a really important point… And then, poetry is, in a sense, it’s a valuation of language. So, you can have what we call prose, it can be in that category, as long as it’s carefully written and the writing is what’s important and foremost. Not prosaic, let’s say. Not necessarily realistic, even. That’s what happens so often in the business and in entertainment. People are talking naturalistically, and the acting is naturalistic, the behavior is naturalistic, and the writing is naturalistic. And if you have a very good ear, you can get away with it and call it “poetic.” But what makes it really poetic is that you’re not stuck with trying to be realistic with the language, with character and plot — trying to catch the way people talk — then discoveries can be made. The aim is not just to catch the way people talk. It’s what comes before, what comes after, where it’s going. There’s a kind of inner rhyming. And there’s rhyming in the text — unexpectedly. And then there’s the sheer enjoyment of language and wit.
SR: By “rhyme” you mean something other than the repetition of terminal sound — The rhyme of event?
MM: Yes. And the rhyming of theme. Of phrases and ideas.
SR: What about the rhyme of behavior?
MM: I tend to suppress behavior as much as possible in favor of the text. Because actors have come to depend too much on behavior. Because in television, behavior is the thing that carries the performance. Everything is according to, or dependent on, behavior. In a good actor, it’s ok, I mean one doesn’t mind that. But in the theater it’s not that important. Language, speaking, is what’s important. So, behavior tends to interfere. And I tend to discourage or minimize behavior when I direct.
SR: I know.
MM: You should know. But I like the movement to be crisp and choreographed.
SR: A picture that changes when the units of the play change.
MM: That’s right, and it has to be coherent and precise. But that’s me. Some people don’t get into that too much. To me that’s part of the poetry of the text, the corresponding movement, the transitions… They’re just hard to do. Takes lots of repetition.
SR: The transitions are where you get the most arresting visual experience.
MM: Yes. They are visual moments. And there shouldn’t be too much visual, besides that, going on. Except we’ve learned to use screens very well in my plays, just learned it almost by accident. But there’s a place when you have — the kind of language I use — there’s a natural place for imagery, if it’s intentional. I mean projections. . . And they work really well in my plays. I’m not sure why, exactly. It has to do with the kind of writing it is. The writing doesn’t demand a lot of visual aid. So, there’s room for, if someone’s really good at it, for corresponding projections that can be thematic and engaging. But indirectly. And that’s interesting… Because the emphasis in my work is on the sound, there’s room for an indirect, thematic progression of images… Of course, you don’t think about that when you’re writing… It’s very interesting to me technically, and that’s what gets me going, usually, to see if something will work. Like with the chorus idea, using the chorus as part of the text.
SR: What does a chorus mean?
MM: I was experimenting with what it means. The impulse came from wanting more voice, as the writer, to somehow be heard. So, it was kind of an inner chorus. So, that the text would be going along and at certain points you’d hear an interjection… An inner voice. And the voice is authorial, in some cases. It’s commentary. And that led to experimenting with the idea of the chorus in other ways.
SR: You wrote Tirade for Three, the first of The Gary Plays, without attribution of voices.
MM: Yeah, the first version… Because it was so voice-oriented, I thought at the time that it would be interesting, in rehearsal, for the actors to find which lines they wanted to say. I thought it didn’t matter, in a way. Because it was one whole, in a way, poetically. Except, when there was attribution, in the play, then they would step out of that mode and into a more usual dialogue format. More formal. But I thought when it was not in that format, it didn’t matter, because the voices would speak for themselves. In the end the entire thing would find its own metier, you know, its own fomat. And I think it can still be done that way. It would depend a lot on the director. That’s one way to go. Ultimately, I decided to attribute.
SR: You’re making gestures that indicate a horizontal axis and a vertical axis.
MM: That’s what should happen in a good play. Where both are going… It’s the actor who is the — this was what Artaud was trying to say — it’s the actor who does that transmutation. It goes through him. In doing so, as you know, being an actor, you can accomplish a certain freedom inside, that is hard to get anywhere else, in any other way… It’s a state of grace.
SR: Like grace in sports.
MM: When you’re hot. I agree. Except there’s a little more… It has mind… And the audience shares it, they can share in it, if the actors get there and the play is good… They share the tension — the intention — which becomes almost a physical force. Which is irreplaceable and live… That’s what makes it more interesting, for me, than movies.
SR: Watching TV or watching movies is an act of private consumption. But in the theater a group subjectivity may be formed.
MM: That’s right. There’s a unity. That’s a real unity. And that is part of the ritual — in that sense. Because there’s only one thing happening. There’s a focus of attention. We’re lucky to be in the theater for that reason.
Part 2 will be posted next week.
Part 3 – Interviewing Rudi
By Neal Weaver
Meanwhile, changes were afoot at Dance Magazine. The advertising manager, Bill Como, had been fretting for years over the fact that the limited scope that a magazine devoted solely to dance had to attract advertisers. He wanted a broader based, general entertainment magazine, and certainly I found the idea appealing. I made up long lists of story ideas, and we discussed the possibilities carefully before approaching Jean Gordon.
Rather to our surprise, she was quite open to the idea, and felt that the owner of the magazine, Rudolf Orthwine, would be also. He had wanted to launch an entertainment magazine years before, and had registered the name After Dark. Suddenly, we were launching a new magazine. The old Ballroom Dance Magazine was seeming more and more outdated in the age of rock, so it was decided to use it as a vehicle of change. It would be called Ballroom Dance Magazine, incorporating After Dark, the entertainment magazine. Over a period of a few months, the Ballroom title would be increasingly smaller, and After Dark increasingly larger, till finally the Ballroom part was dropped altogether.
I was concerned about the elderly editor of Ballroom, Helen Wicks Reed, who was a former ballroom dance teacher, and I didn’t want to put her out of a job, particularly as her husband was unemployed and Jean Gordon had taken him on as a replacement for our elderly mail-room guy, who had fallen ill. Jean Gordon loved to humiliate him by making him sweep the office or do other menial jobs when visitors were present. Helen probably could have stayed on in some capacity, but she was indignant at being superseded, and attempted to raise a rebellion among her dance teacher subscribers. She hadn’t realized that her correspondence with them would elicit replies that Jean Gordon would see before she did. She had signed her own death warrant. She was a nice lady, but she was regarded as dispensable.
At first it was not easy to persuade the Broadway press people that they should provide house seats for critics writing for Ballroom Dance Magazine. But our early issues coincided with the opening of Hair on Broadway, and it was the hot ticket in town. We gave it a lavish spread, with a review by me and lots of production photos. And that got us a considerable amount of attention. I made it onto the second night list of theatre critics, and was invited to more and more movie screenings as well. But what we really needed was some substantial stories that would get us taken seriously. I kept thinking that what we needed was an interview with Nureyev. His defection to the West while on tour in Paris with Russia’s Kirov Ballet had been an international event, his spectacular performances on the Bell Telephone Hour, and his appearances with major dance companies had raised him to the first rank of celebrities. If we could get an interview with him, it would really put us on the map. But how to accomplish it? I felt I had established a relationship of sorts with him, but I doubted it was enough to get me past the protective web that surrounded him.
Bill Como went from Advertising Manager to editor of After Dark, and I was only feature editor. And though we did rely to some extent on freelancers, for the first few months it was just Bill and me, and art director Neil Appelbaum putting together the whole magazine. I was writing theater and movie reviews, feature stories, photo captions, news stories, and so forth. So much, in fact, that I had to use several pseudonyms. My standard pen name was Ted Flagg (derived from the names of two characters in my play War Games), but I also got a kick out of signing myself James Mavor Morrell, which was the name of the pastor husband in George Bernard Shaw’s play Candida, which no one ever caught onto.
Bill agreed that an interview with Nureyev was just what we needed, but I didn’t know how to go about getting it. He notoriously refused interviews, and had given only one, with Clive Barnes of the New York Times. Bill put me in touch with Olga Maynard, who was a West Coast dance critic and the West Coast critic for Dance Magazine. She said that the way to get his attention in a crowd was to speak to him very quietly. Everybody yelled at him, and he ignored them. When she had spoken quietly, he gave her his attention, and when he learned who she was, he surprised her by producing a clipping of her review of his work from his wallet, and said he wanted to discuss it with her.
So I went to hang-out with the stage-door Johnnies outside the stage door in the bowels of the Met. (One of them, interestingly enough, was a minor porn-star.) When he came out everybody was yelling “Rudi, Rudi, Rudi!” As he passed me I said quietly, “Mr. Nureyev.” He stopped and said “Yes?” I don’t remember the details, but I assume I reminded him of who I was and asked him for an interview. I don’t recall if he agreed, or referred me to his manager, Chris Allen. But whatever happened, I was set up with an interview before the last Sunday matinee of his production of The Nutcracker.
On the Sunday in question, I went to the Met and was admitted without question. I was frankly terrified. I’d never done an interview with anybody, and now here I was, facing an interview with an international superstar. I think I had been told already by some one that I could interview him, but I was forbidden to use any quotes. I had also arranged to see his Nutcracker prior to the interview so I could talk about it. It was darker than most productions, with a rather Freudian scene in which Clara’s family turned into ominous looking bats. But it was still joyous, and beautiful to behold.
I was left on my own to find my way to his star dressing room. I knocked, and a voice said, “Come in.” I entered the room only to discover that he was seated on the floor, wearing nothing but a dance belt, and preparing to put on a pair of tights. And sitting across the room from him was the same cheek-bony young man I’d seen with him before. Great! Not only was I doing my first ever interview, but I’d have to do it with an intimidatingly handsome audience.
I was embarrassed by his near-nudity and turned discreetly away. My embarrassment seemed to embarrass him, and he began struggling with the tights as if he’d never seen a pair before. And he began babbling nervously about how he was getting fat—which was absurd. He didn’t have one extra ounce on him. He finally got into the tights and stood up, still not introducing the cheek-bony one. He looked around, then gestured toward a small tabouret on which there was a tangle of tights and ballet slippers, as if to say, “Sit down.” Then he looked confused and said, “Oh, that’s not a chair.” He took the things from the tabouret and flung them in the closet, and placed a chair for me, by the window and right by his dressing table. The sun was coming in the window so he tried to adjust the venetian blind. But on the window sill was a large vase of roses, and one of the roses caught in the blind. The vase was tipped over on my head, dousing me and leaving me with a lapful of roses.
He was totally mortified, as he tried to clean up the mess. I kept saying, “It’s okay. I’m wash-and-wear.” But inwardly I was rejoicing. After this he’d be totally eager to co-operate. He sat down and began applying his makeup. I apologized about taking up his time just before a performance, when he needed to prepare. He said never mind, that was not a problem. He was trembling so much he could barely do his makeup, and I realized that he was more afraid of me than I was of him. For, though he was quite erudite, about music, art, dance and literature, he was self-conscious about having little formal education, and intimidated by anyone he feared might be his intellectual superior.
I told him I had seen his Nutcracker, and enjoyed it very much. He said, “Who did you see?” Meaning, who did you see in my role? I mentioned the dancer who was sort of third in the pecking order. He said, “It’s a shame that you couldn’t at least have been (Anthony) Dowell.” (Later he and Dowell danced a tango together in the movie Valentino.)
I don’t remember a lot of the interview. But I do recall asking about a quote in the newspapers to the effect that he’d love to be in Hair. He said, “Yes, if I could sing, if I could dance. But they are all so talented.” That was about the only quote I wound up using.
I remembered the charming section of the ballet, danced by children, in 18th Century costumes, in a toy-theatre set. I said, “You must be very fond of children.” He looked alarmed, as if he thought I was accusing him of pedophilia. He said, “Why do you say that?” I said, “Because you give them such lovely things to do.” He still looked frightened. I said, “Relax, I’m on your side!” And I was, too, though that’s probably against journalistic protocol.
So the interview proceeded, but suddenly all my questions seemed beside the point. I felt I knew what his answers had to be—if he was a real artist, and that he certainly was, there was only one possible answer. I felt the need to get out of his hair and let him get ready for his performance. Just then, there was a knock at the door, and ballerina Maria Tallchief and her young daughter Elise walked in. She’d just flown in (from Cuba?) to see the last performance of his Nutcracker in NYC. He was clearly delighted to see them, and adored them both. But Elise didn’t seem to know who he was. She’d been very little when last he’d seen her. “Oh, Elise! You don’t remember me!” he said, seemingly crushed. I didn’t want to intrude on their reunion, so I quietly crept away. (Later, I would hear more about Rudi’s relations with Maria from Erik Bruhn.) Lydia Joel spoke contemptuously about his distress that the little girl didn’t remember him. “So childish!” she said. But I found it touching.
So now I had the interview, such as it was, and had to figure out how to write it up without using any quotes.
I did sneak in a couple of harmless quotes, but largely had to confine myself to giving my impressions of the man. I took on all the critics who’d found him arrogant and impossible to deal with, and tried to present his side: people who dealt with him sensitively got sensitive results. I said that, unlike many male dancers, he served his ballerinas loyally and self-effacingly because he wanted to, and not because he lacked the gumption to do anything else. And I said that as a dancer, he was exciting because he was so volatile that one felt he could blow the whole ballet convention out of the water if he wanted to. I guess my interview read rather like a love-letter to him, and in a sense it was. But it apparently rankled Clive Barnes, who was no longer the only one to interview Rudi. He commented on the fact, in print, rather grouchily.
I didn’t know how the piece landed with him (it was close to his ideal interview—full of pictures and few significant words). But it served to put After Dark on the map, and it proved to be an open sesame. I was soon invited to do an interview with Erik Bruhn.
Karen Eilbacher Shines a Light on LGBT Community in Fun Home
By Maureen Lee Lenker
“Everyone has more in common than we give ourselves credit for. We expect not to connect with people, but there’s always something if we’re open to it.”
This revelation is what actress Karen Eilbacher experienced as an audience member when she first saw Fun Home – perceiving a greater understanding and a connectivity between the collective members of the audience when she left the theater. It’s something that she now witnesses from the stage every night as a member of the cast of the musical’s national tour, now playing at the Ahmanson.
As individuals and as a nation, we could all use a little more soul-searching of the nature Eilbacher describes. The musical’s subtle advocating for understanding and connection are needed now more than ever in a country (and world) that is increasingly divided. Though, Eilbacher cautions against labeling the show more relevant simply because of political climate. “It just so happens that our world really, really needs a show like this,” she says.
Fun Home is a five-time Tony winning musical. Based on Alison Bechdel’s memoir as graphic novel, it tells the story of Bechdel’s discovery of her own sexual identity in the midst of probing her relationship with her father, a closeted gay man who committed suicide when Bechdel was in college. Eilbacher portrays Joan, an out and proud lesbian woman who becomes Alison’s first girlfriend. For Eilbacher, the role was an opportunity to examine her own life, as she is a member of the LGBT community who found art an integral part of her journey.
Over the course of three years of performing in a play called She Likes Girls, Eilbacher realized that she was gay. She describes starting the production process identifying as straight (“whatever that means,” she quips) and going on a three-year journey to the realization that, like the play’s title, “Woah, yeah, I like girls.” Memories of that experience fill her with a mixture of understanding and awe for the tale of Alison Bechdel’s own coming out in Fun Home and her character Joan’s role in it. In regards to Alison’s experience as portrayed onstage, Eilbacher says, “I look back at my coming out and I have a lot of empathy. I have a lot of heart for a young woman going through that, especially in such a heightened time where she’s going off to college.”
More than anything though, she’s humbled to portray Joan each night. “It’s an honor to play a role where I didn’t know what was becoming of me as I was growing up and coming out, and I always looked up to the woman who I portray inside the role of Joan,” she says. “To now be in a place where I’m playing a woman like Joan, who[m] I still look up to . . . it’s like I’m mothering to part of myself.”
While her friends all felt she was perfect for the role based on her personality, Eilbacher says, for her, maintaining access to Joan is about dismissing negative thoughts, saying “yes,” and keeping a solid internal base of strength and confidence. Still, though portraying Joan requires a fair amount of meditating and head clearing, Eilbacher is touched by the opportunity to recognize and pay tribute to the Joans in her life. “I had many Joans. I had many ‘ring of keys’ moments,” she says. “I guess I’ve always been surrounded by Joan, whether I knew it or not given what I knew about my own sexuality. And there’s been lots of championing for myself, finding little pieces of Joan inside myself to make it through darker times.”
Eilbacher saw Fun Home on Broadway long before she ever knew she would be touring the country with it, and it became a profound moment in her own life. She attended the show with her parents and was struck by how it depicted recent experiences in which they could place themselves.
“Seeing Fun Home was incredible because there was material to possibly help facilitate a reference,” she says. For her, it wasn’t merely about seeing LGBT stories on stage, so much as it was providing a platform to further her relationship with her parents and deepen their understanding. “I was younger then. It was closer to the time when I first came out, and it just doesn’t end right there [with coming out],” she explains. “I want to live my life intimately with them as I’m sure they want to live their life intimately with me.”
Lest you think this personal experience be all about her parents gaining deeper understanding and insight into her identity, Eilbacher says the show actually gave her significant perspective in its depiction of Alison’s parents’ own struggles and challenges. “They’re still growing up, they’re still learning,” she says. “Fun Home put some perspective in my life that it’s two-sided. They might be trying to figure out what’s the best way for them to love me now, just as I’m figuring out what’s the best way for me to love myself and love others now that I’m more honest and open.”
She hopes others will find the same empathy and understanding in the show. For some, it might not be an easy sell – dealing with issues of homosexuality, the trauma of growing up and letting go, and suicide, it might turn off certain subsets of the audience. Still, Eilbacher relishes the chance to challenge people to step outside their comfort zones. “I’ve watched people walk out, and I’m totally cool with that,” she says. “When you come to the theater, you have the right to react. And the person you’re going to have to face, whether you’re in your seat or you leave the theater, is yourself.”
For her though, the show’s potency and relevancy have been present since day one. “As human beings, we’re constantly trying to connect, first and foremost with ourselves, so that we can then connect with other people and so on and so forth, so I don’t think it shifts too much,” she says. To Eilbacher, the show is about our shared struggle to connect and express ourselves, not something exclusive to the LGBTQ community. Yes, this message is supremely relevant right now, but Eilbacher sees the show as something that consistently lives in the present moment (even in its moments of “flashback”). As she says, “Fun Home is a show for everyone because it’s [of] the moment right now.”
That present moment transcends time and space, making itself more relevant in our political climate and surpassing it with its deeper, more universal themes.
Fun Home is being performed at the Ahmanson Theatre through April 1. http://centertheatregroup.org
A panel ostensibly about gay theater resounds with universal themes
By Paul Birchall
Last Wednesday night, West Hollywood was all a-glitter, as an LA Fashion Week show was taking place in the Pacific Design Center courtyard. In front of the famous blue glass-walled skyscraper, models stomped behind splashing fountains and a gigantic neon screen flashed gorgeous blue-glowing images of butterflies, while a siren-voiced songstress warbled a haunting ditty. However, as it turns out, the real fireworks were across the street, in a humble meeting room at the West Hollywood Library, where a panel of locally and nationally renowned playwrights came together to discuss the history and the future of LGBT theater.
(Note: The West Hollywood Library is part of the Los Angeles County Library system, where the writer of this article is on staff.)
Hosted by playwright and TV writer Victor Bumbalo, the panel, entitled “Gay Theatre, Its History and Its Future,” boasted a who’s who of local theater queer royalty, from legendary godfather of gay theater Robert Patrick to figures such as Tom Jacobson, Mary Casey, and, of course, Michael Kearns. Also on the bill were impresario and writer Dee Jae Cox (LA Women’s Theater Project) and Macha Theater’s Odalys Nanin.
The younger generation was represented by Donald Jolly, author of Riot/Rebellion (about the Watts Riots) and Bonded (about the scandalous love affair between two male slaves in pre-Civil War Virginia).
Beginning with accounts of how they got started writing, the general theme was one of breaking boundaries in an undiscovered area. And although the mood of the panel was upbeat and amiable, their actual views, informed by the current political/social climate and its relationship to the arts, was pessimistic.
Patrick noted that what was once edgy and challenging has become increasingly mainstreamed. “It is much harder today to get noticed,” he lamented. “There are today more small gay theaters than anyone can imagine. Did you know that there’s a gay theater in Kankakee? I get offers to cover gay festivals every day – some of them earn ten prizes and still they’re just on a list of plays getting sit-down readings in a room in the afternoon.”
Interestingly, as the talk commenced, the LGBT aspect of the panel almost became secondary: What was important was that the panelists were all playwrights, and, as playwrights, their considerations, fears, and hopes were essentially the same as playwrights working in any genre – e.g., how do we get our plays performed, and how do we grow great theater?
Bumbalo sagely suggested that the trend these days is actually to avoid putting on full on productions of plays that might be too challenging for a mainstream audience. “Nowadays, the works are put into ‘development,’ with new plays being presented only for readings or for ‘development’ – it’s because they can get a grant [to develop] the new work, there’s no real plan to put the show on!”
There’s also been this rise of five- or 10-minute play festivals, Bumbalo continued. “If you have 25 plays, you have at least 25 sets of friends who will come and see each show. And you can tell the grant givers that you served 25 different playwrights, even though each play is only 10 minutes long.”
Cox confirmed some of these complaints, claiming, “One of the ways theater has changed is in its cost. The cost to produce a show is astronomical. Yes, you can do staged readings and development, but people simply don’t want to put money into a play.”
An equally grim impression was offered by Nanin, who, while discussing the phenomenon of gentrification, by which a theater moves into an area, boosting real estate values, before being shuttered because the theater company can’t afford the increasing rents, mused, “Small theaters are disappearing because so many of them are being demolished and turned into condos!” Nanin announced that her Macha Theater, the former Kings Row Theater, has been sold for condos. Nanin mentioned that she is currently petitioning to have the theater declared a historical landmark in an attempt to prevent this from happening.
The discussion turned to how LGBT playwrights can reach an audience. Kearns took the lead here, noting that his recent production of Queerwise, just completing a successful run at the Skylight, had utilized non-professional performers telling their own stories about the AIDS crisis and legacy. This, to him, suggests that LGBT theater is expanding into different niches. “Gay theater has burst open in so many hybrids,” he noted.
He also suggested taking a good strong look at the market — advice useful for any playwright, not just one laboring in the LGBT field. “What audiences are not being served? What isn’t being done? If you feel invisible, and you hear of a show and your story is being told, you will go and see it.”
Jacobson mentioned that productions of his ferocious Walking to Buchenwald and a trilogy he is writing about a neighborhood bathhouse of his youth will be expected in the seasons ahead. He noted that it isn’t ticket cash that will save a show. “What I’d suggest is not to entirely depend on the audience (to fund the show),” he explained. “Cornerstone Theater, for example, gets great grant funding and foundation funding — their shows are chosen to plan for that.”
Added Patrick, “One of the reasons Off-Off Broadway worked was because people put on the shows in places that made their money by other means — coffeehouses, bars — they weren’t dependent on the play for their living.
Mentioned, almost as an aside, was the local omnipresent 99-seat issue, with the discussion of how Equity’s decision to demand that small theaters pay its union actors minimum wage will affect the creative scene. Jacobson suggested that the LA scene might wind up echoing Chicago’s scene, where there’s an exciting fringe theater circuit, but made up mostly of non-Equity actors. “Once you turn to Equity, you have to stop performing. The truth is, you can do theater anywhere with non-union performers.”
In the end, though, much of the concern came down to money — how to make it and how to sustain the theater that puts on LGBT plays. Cackled Patrick, “Two companies I go to regularly sell booze!” to which almost all members of the panel nodded sagely.
Part 2: More Rudi
By Neal Weaver
For Part 1, read here.
I went to the Hurok office and picked up the Nureyev photo file, as requested. The pictures did not seem all that remarkable to me, but if that was what he wanted, so be it. And meanwhile, I’d arranged to get tickets to see the ballet Paradise Lost. I loved it, but the critics hated it, dismissing it as a frivolous piece of pop culture, but I didn’t think it was that at all.
The piece began with Nureyev’s character being born. Wearing only white tights, and draped with miniature Christmas lights, he seemed to slowly become conscious, shaking off the string of lights, and discovering his body, experimenting to see what it could do. I found it a charming interlude, revealing what I called Nureyev’s goofy side.
Then Fonteyn appeared, and he was immediately attracted. They had an erotic pas de deux, overtly sexual, and indicating a seduction. Then, he broke free and began looking for new adventures. Behind them the corps de ballet was playing the erotically charged denizens of the permissive society, rolling on the floor and changing partners frequently and promiscuously. He joined their erotic games for a while, as Fonteyn watched him from afar. Then the chorus changed its identity, becoming the inexorable force of primitive morality, not about to let him get away with his irresponsible dalliance. They picked up Fonteyn and lowered her into his arms.
Commitment shy, he struggled fiercely to break free, but she grasped him round his thighs. Desperate to escape, he raced across the full vast width of the Met stage, dragging her on her knees. (How she did that without wrecking her knees is a mystery.) The piece came to a rather shocking end with Nureyev leaping into the red mouth of a pair of lip-sticked lips on the wall of the set—finally consumed by the heedless hedonism of a voluptuous society. And Fonteyn was left alone, shattered and bereft. It seemed to me a sternly moral work, but the critics were not ready for that in the Swinging Sixties, and it was soon dropped from the repertoire.
I presented myself at the Met at the appointed time — before a Sunday matinee — but no word had been left to let me in. And Rudi had not yet arrived. I sat down on a bench to wait for him, and shortly he breezed in, imperiously, indicating to the doorman that I was indeed his guest, and signaling me to follow him to his dressing-room. He was wearing an intimidatingly stylish military great-coat of grey wool: sharply tailored at the waist and upper torso, but with skirts that flared out below the waist. It was the kind of garment that, even if you put it on over even the grungiest outfit, made you appear to be a figure of high style. He was also accompanied by a handsome, cheek-bony young man, who I assumed was his current boyfriend, or boy toy, or whatever.
He immediately got down to business, not bothering to introduce the young man. He took the file of photographs from me, thumbed through them quickly and angrily, and announced that the picture he wanted us to use was not there. He then, quick as a flash, took the pile of expensive photos and ripped them in half. This was serious business. These weren’t valueless photo copies; they were original photo prints by name photographers, with a lot of expensive retouching.
I was so furious that my intimidation vanished. When other people get angry, they may yell. I just get dangerously quiet. I said, “Mr. Nureyev, I borrowed those photos at your request, and I am responsible for them!”
He reacted like a dog that has been chastised for misbehavior. He couldn’t look at me, and retreated to his clothes closet, his tail between his legs. He knelt down and began furiously but pointlessly sorting through the shoes. In muffled tones, he said, “It’s all right. I will return the photos to Mr. Frankenstein myself.” The man in question was, I think, named Frankenheimer. Then Rudi gave me a copy of the souvenir program, with the photo he liked so much. I didn’t like it at all. But clearly he wanted to be presented as a serious artist, not as a pretty boy or a sex-symbol.
He said he would personally get me the photo in question, and call me when he got it. And I departed, with mixed feelings. I’d managed not to be too intimidated by him, but the photo he wanted me to use was far less appealing than the Zoe Dominick picture, and I was sure it wouldn’t sell nearly as well. On an impulse, I went straight to the office, which was deserted on a Sunday, and sat down at the typewriter, determined to make one last effort to persuade him to let us use the Dominick picture.
The letter I wrote him was spontaneous but carefully crafted. He was a man of enormous perceptions, alert to every nuance and subtlety, which made dealing with him rather Byzantine. And I wrote a letter to out-Byzantine him. I told him I could understand his fondness for the photo, and acknowledging that it did have a certain Beethoven-esque gravitas, but suggesting that it also made him look slightly simian. It was a long letter, full of compliments disguised as insults and veiled insults disguised as compliments. I signed it and dropped it in the mailbox before I could lose my nerve. And I was frankly fearful. If I made him really angry it would put the kibosh on the whole project. I knew he did not like people who gushed and fawned on him, and I thought he respected me for fighting back. But who knew?
At work on Monday, I discussed the situation with Lydia Joel, the editor of Dance Magazine. And she said, “He’s playing with you. Playing hard to get, and making you chase after him and do his bidding. He’s flirting with you!” I was skeptical. Why would a gorgeous man and an international star flirt with the likes of me? But now I think she was right. He was flirting. Maybe he flirted with everybody. Lydia also interpreted his calling the man at the Hurok office Frankenstein as evidence of his well-known (she said) anti-Semitism. I rather thought it was just evidence of his dislike for the Hurok office and everybody in it.
Meanwhile, I waited with trepidation for his response. And it came soon enough. When I returned to the office from lunch the next day, my young assistant Michael told me rather breathlessly that Nureyev’s manager had called and said to tell me that he had acquired the photograph I (he) wanted, and I could pick it up at the Met at my convenience. Michael was clearly spinning some fantasies about me and Mr. Nureyev. “Golly,” he said, “maybe he’ll grab you up and take you away with him.” I assured him that was highly unlikely, and besides I didn’t want to be grabbed up by anybody. But I was nurturing a few fantasies myself, of a sexual fling with the God of the Dance. It never happened, of course, and judging from what I’ve heard from those who did go to bed with him, it probably wouldn’t have been much fun. His casual sex encounters were apparently pretty impersonal and “Slam-bam, Thank you ma’am.” I’m sure it was different with someone like Erik, whom he really cared about.
In any event, I presented myself at the Met before the Sunday matinee, and was received by an entirely different Rudi. He was in a sunny mood, friendly and casual. He was wearing what I later learned was his usual warm-up out-fit: a russet-colored unitard with a tank top, probably made to order, and worn over a mustard colored tee-shirt. Always in fashion was he. He took me on a guided tour of the vast Met stage, stopping to flirt with the girls from the corps who were warming up in a dark corner. We chatted amiably about nothing in particular, and I took the opportunity to tell him how much I liked his autobiography. I’d made a point of never complimenting him on his dancing because I knew he hated gush. He murmured something about “the follies of youth” but he seemed pleased. But finally it was time to get down to business and he led me back to his dressing room.
“Now,” he said, “What about the money?”
My heart sank. The ever stingy Jean Gordon had told me I could only offer him a ridiculous amount: twenty dollars. I hurriedly explained that I knew it was a pitiful figure to offer someone of his talent and magnitude, but I’d only been authorized to pay him twenty dollars.
“Twenty dollars?” he said, incredulously. It was a good thing we were standing at the time, because at that moment I realized that I was considerably taller than he, and that tiny advantage was enough to get me through the moment. He began to play out a farce version of the events, in which I was cast as the big bad businessman out to fleece the poor, helpless little dancer. He wasn’t really angry, and he was having fun. I think he enjoyed the audacity of my offering twenty dollars to a man who commanded ten thousand or more for a single performance.
Then he relented and gave me the photo. The one I hated, but it was the best I could do.
I took the photo, and extended my hand. He looked at it as if it were a dead fish he was being offered, but then he broke into a broad grin and shook my hand. I felt that in some strange way I had been accepted.
I left in a glorious mood, feeling I’d come out of it all as well as possible, even if I didn’t like the picture. I had the curious feeling that I’d made a friend. And this was not to be my last encounter with Rudi.
Next week in Part 3, an interview by the author with Rudolf Nureyev.
By Paul Birchall
UPDATE: February 8, 2017. A source close to Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) confirmed that a “Cease and Desist” letter had been sent by the Union to “Equityworksla,” and added that “Equity had absolutely no involvement in this communication to Playwrights Arena.”
There has been one disturbing incident of a new bullying tactic by an anonymous party towards the entities that put on intimate shows in our community. It is directly related to the murky waters covering the reciprocal agreements among unions in the entertainment field. A complaint currently being adjudicated by the National Labor Relations Board is the right of one union (Actors’ Equity Association, or AEA) to place, summarily, members of other “reciprocal” unions, such as the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (SAF-AFTRA) on AEA’s “do not work” list.
Though AEA has been claiming that reciprocity is part of its agreements, AEA’s sister unions (including SAG-AFTRA) have been conspicuously quiet on this matter for almost two years, while private conversations with union reps suggest that they have no incentive or desire to enforce reciprocity.
Jon Lawrence Rivera of Playwrights Arena, received an oddly menacing letter, following the posting of ads for his company’s next round of auditions at the breakdown website Actors Access for his company’s next drama Hotel Play. The show, commissioned by both Playwright’s Arena and Center Theatre Group, is going to be an immersive production, by several playwrights, set within several rooms at the Radisson Midtown Hotel near USC.
A few days after the ad was posted, Rivera’s casting director Raul Clayton Staggs and Rivera received a letter from a mysterious address Equityworksla@yahoo.com, which, at the bottom of the letter and in small font, stated, “We are in no way authorized to represent AEA and this notification has not been approved or authorized by AEA. We are concerned, professional members of the L.A. Theatre community and we are in support of their efforts.”
However, the note then proceeded to list a series of seemingly regulatory rules: “Please be advised that a series of complaints have been filed with AEA and SAG-AFTRA against your theatre company (Playwrights Arena), your production of The Hotel Play and your casting director (Raul Clayton Staggs) because of the casting notice that appeared this week on Actors’ Access: While you have the right to produce a non-Union production, it is not OK for you to engage members of any of the other 4As (such as SAG-AFTRA) or other unions/guilds that have agreed to reciprocal arrangements with AEA and the other 4As.
“You are being be advised of the following:
“Your production is now on our radar and we will be keeping a careful watch. If we see any members of SAG-AFTRA, SDC, WGA, DGA, etc. accepting roles or work of any kind with this production without the actors receiving the benefit of a sanctioned agreement with AEA, we will file official complaints with their unions/guilds against those members. As many of us are members of those unions/guilds we can and will insist on disciplinary action to be taken against anyone who violates these rules.”
According to Rivera, this note came a few days after he received a phone call from an actual representative at AEA, who had called to see if the production would be signing on with AEA’s new Agreement. Rivera says he responded that he had no choice but to take the show non-union, since “the cost of 16 actors surpasses our budget.” Two days later, the note from “EquityworksLA” arrived.
The letter acknowledges that Playwrights’ Arena might have the right to not utilize AEA actors, but should also not employ actors from any of the other unions. (The number of AEA actors in the region is under 8,000, while an estimated count of SAG-AFTRA actors in the area is around 160,000. While there is in theory a reciprocity among all unions who have agreed to reciprocity, it is extremely unlikely that any SAG-AFTRA member would be expected to stay away from a non-union stage production, since they aren’t members of AEA. That’s the very question that the NLRB is now considering, i.e. whether such an AEA “policy” constitutes an unfair labor practice, essentially sidelining tens of thousands of local actors from performing on any stage that isn’t sanctioned by an AEA contract.
What, then, is the purpose of the letter? A request for more information was sent to the EquityworksLA address, but no response has been received. One theory is that “EquityworksLA” represents some individuals who are very close to AEA leadership, but may not be officers or officials within it, a group of self-appointed vigilantes following info on shows, on behalf of AEA.
When informed of the letter, Pro-99 Plaintiff Gary Grossman said “(The letter) is not from Equity and carries no teeth. There is no penalty or sanction that they can throw at you. Equity can say that SAG-AFTRA cannot participate in non-AEA shows, but that means nothing until SAG-AFTRA says that, and they haven’t.”
However, I do find the anonymous nature — dovetailing, as it does, with the more formal call from Equity — to be disturbing, trafficking as it does in nebulously legal “information.”
Our advice is to ignore such notices unless they are clearly from, and authorized by, any of the unions.
By Neal Weaver
During the years that I worked at The Actors Studio, I also had a money job, as a salesclerk at the Marboro Bookstore on 42nd Street (sold to Barnes and Noble in 1979 after 30 years in business). That also produced some interesting adventures, but not of the theatrical variety. I had been working at Marboro for a couple of years, and was feeling decidedly in a rut. I decided the time had come to quit, though I had no other immediate job possibilities. Finding another job proved harder than I expected, but eventually I spotted a want ad concerning a job in the circulation department at Dance Magazine.
I had a meeting with a go-getter guy Dick Toman, who was the circulation manager, and went to work for Dance Magazine and its sister publication Ballroom Dance Magazine, which was essentially a sort of house organ for ballroom dance teachers at the Fred Astaire and other studios. It was a painstaking job, but not a difficult one, and I enjoyed it. Though I had no notion then of the opportunities it would present, to meet and interview Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, then probably the biggest star in the world, Danish premier danseur Erik Bruhn, who was his lover, and a host of other stars and celebrities.
I guess I must have done the job well, because Dick soon left for a better-paying job, and I assumed his role, though I didn’t get his salary or title. Jean Gordon, the publisher of the two magazines, was notoriously tight-fisted when it came to salaries or credit.
In addition to putting out the two magazines, we also sold dance-oriented merchandise, and I was responsible for overseeing this. We published a Dance Magazine Calendar, with photos of dance stars on every page, books on dance technique, and some rather tacky dance-oriented Christmas cards. And there was a photo set featuring photos of famous dancers. I was eventually able to get some better designs for the Christmas cards, and I decided we should do a Rudolf Nureyev photo set. I had great fun tracking down the most interesting photos of Nureyev, and getting clearances to use them. And they sold quite well. But I heard rumors that Nureyev was furious because he thought (wrongly) we were minting money at this expense. He had on more than one occasion ripped up photos from our set when they were presented to him for autographing.
I then conceived a notion that we should do some personality posters—after all it was the 1960s, and posters were very big. We did posters of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Erik Bruhn, Pavlova, and of course, the big cheese, Nureyev. It was decided that though we hadn’t sought his permission to do the photo set, we would have to get it before issuing the poster.
I was frankly slightly terrified of having to deal directly with a super-star like Nureyev, so I procrastinated. Then, one morning I came to work decidedly determined. I called the Sol Hurok office hoping to get information as to how to reach him. Surprisingly they gave me his private phone number without any questions. He was staying at an apartment hotel called The Navarro on Central Park South. It was still early morning, but I thought it would be safe to call him because I thought there’d be some underling taking his calls. Instead, it was Nureyev himself who answered, sounding extremely groggy. Apparently I’d woken him up. Not a good beginning. Flustered, I explained about the personality poster, and conscious of his reported anger over the photo sets, I was quick to explain that we could not pay much by way of compensation for the use of his image. Unfortunately, this was lost on him, both due to his sleepiness and his precise but rather limited knowledge of English. He didn’t say no, but he clearly wanted to get off the phone and go back to sleep. He said, “Find me at the Met sometime.” He was dancing with Margot Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet for a New York season at the Metropolitan Opera House.
I knew the backstage at the Met had rather tight security, and didn’t know how I’d get in, much less find Rudi. I screwed my courage to the sticking point, and called him again. This time the call was answered by a very nice but unidentified man. (It was only later that I realized that he was the legendary dancer Erik Bruhn, who was Rudi’s lover at the time.) I explained my dilemma, and he understood at once. He gave me the telephone number of the Royal Ballet’s stage manager. She proved both nice and helpful, telling me that on a certain day, Nureyev would have a dress rehearsal for the Roland Petit pop ballet Paradise Lost, and I could talk to him afterward. She said I should be there around four p.m., and she would tell the stage doorman to admit me.
Full of trepidation, I arrived early, and was directed to a bench in the corridor which led from Rudi’s star dressing room to the stage. I sat there for a very long time, getting more and more nervous, but finally Rudi emerged from the stage, looking sweaty, exhausted, and rather ape-like in his exhaustion. I grabbed his attention as he walked by me, and hurriedly explained who I was and what I wanted. I had brought along a the despised photo set, because I’d hoped to use a wonderful photo by British photographer Zoe Dominick, of Rudi in practice clothes—wool-knit tights and a tee-shirt—and wearing a nice smile. I was convinced that photo would sell like hot cakes. But he didn’t agree. He took the photo and ripped it in half. Then he said he had to shower and change, and I should wait for him. And he padded off to his dressing room, at one end of the hall, where it intersected with another corridor going past the dressing-rooms.
Once again I was left alone in the corridor, but then I sensed movement and looked up, just in time to see Margot Fonteyn enter his dressing room. She was there for quite a while, and when she emerged, she was clearly fresh out of the shower. She was naked, but holding a towel to her front, and carrying an African violet which Rudi had apparently given her. She looked both ways, but did not think to look straight ahead to where I was. She gracefully raced to her dressing room next door, her bare back-side shining.
There was at that time much debate among the more gossipy balletomanes, as to whether Rudi and Margot were sleeping together. I can’t begin to settle that question, but it was clear to me that, whether or not they slept together, they certainly showered together.
Finally Rudi emerged from his dressing-room, now stylishly clad. He explained that he didn’t like any of the photos I’d showed him, so I should go to the Hurok Office and get his personal picture file. And when I had it, I should come back and we would talk further.
This was shaping up to be a fascinating but rather protracted adventure.
The year of despair; WSJ covers local theater’s battle with AEA; Theatre Asylum reboots; upcoming memorial for Gordon Davidson open to the public
2016: The Year of Despair
Well, AEA-members who labor in the trenches of Los Angeles intimate theater must now come to grips with the new reality of opportunities for work being constricted by their own union’s new Agreement, which replaces the 99-Seat Theater Plan. It is no wonder that many of these folks are now either deeply depressed or furious: With the court’s dismissal of the Plaintiffs’ case against Actors’ Equity Association, the only remaining attempt to preserve the city’s fecund 99-seat theater scene lies in the promise of an appeal, which Plaintiff Gary Grossman has said “remains on the table.”
California went Democratic hugely in the last election – but we are still forced to live under the assumed authoritarian control of a nation dictated by Donald Trump and his minions, who will offer this State no love in the years ahead. Meanwhile, this decision as to which actors will be allowed to perform on small LA stages was unilaterally made in New York, over the loud and pronounced opposition of the actual practitioners on the local scene. Thus, in both a large and small scale, we are finding ourselves in a uniquely powerless situation, at least politically, out here in the Big Orange. Our frustration and fury is palpable county-wide.
Wall Street Journal Reports Again on the L.A. Theater Scene
An article about AEA’s new Agreement in L.A. came out in the Wall Street Journal earlier this Tuesday, peppered with quotes from both defenders of the 99-Seat Plan — such as Veronica Brady (“You can go play Hamlet and have a day job working in television or doing voiceover”) and John Lacey (“You’re probably going to see a lot more one-person shows.”) — as well as AEA’s Executive Director Mary McColl, who defends the union’s actions, noting, amongst other things, that “At the end of the day, this is work… It’s not an unpaid internship.”
It’s probably best not to linger over the gaping hole in Ms. McColl’s argument – that if there are fewer productions and fewer roles for union actors, there will be less money and artistic validation for them – but the particularly intriguing aspect of the article are the comments, some of which are really quite disturbing to read and proof that opinions are indeed like sphincters: Everyone has at least one.
The Wall Street Journal is, of course, a periodical that leans right, but there is still some distress to be gleaned by the East Coast Shadenfreude of conservatives ridiculing liberals like Ed Asner for bucking their Union and elements such as the minimum wage. We have not heard much of this particular irony yet. And going over the comments is a little like when you have an ache on the roof of your mouth and you rub your tongue over it again and again just to make sure the pain is still there.
But at least some of the vitriol in the comments section, lauding the karmic revenge against Asner, Ed Harris and other “left-wing progressives who support minimum wage agendas” was answered succinctly by William Salyers:
“There’s an amazing amount of ignorance in many of these comments. There is no Big Money in these theaters. There are no ‘deep pockets’ hoarding cash. There are small venues doing mostly new and experimental work while desperately trying to keep afloat. There is nothing inconsistent about ‘commie’ Asner trying to help these organizations survive while arguing that actual laborers deserve minimum wage.”
Added Robert Camm with back-handed praise: “Even Ed Asner seems to understand the problem.”
But the attempts of Pro99 to differentiate between the support of unions and their fury at AEA got muddied in a comment by William Hobbs:
“Earlier this year, union members voted on eliminating the 99-seat-theater waiver, and roughly two thirds of about 3,000 votes opposed the union’s plan. The vote was advisory, and the union leaders chose to move forward with the change anyway. . . When you join a union, you have to keep in mind that your interests are secondary to the interests of the union bosses. Tough luck folks.”
And James Babin’s “curse on both your houses” comment offered a rare example of thoughtful moderation:
“This is an unfortunate example of the people most affected by a situation – the members – being adversely affected by uncompromising positions of leaders on both sides. One is the Review Committee who did not modernize the original agreement. Then Actors’ Equity Association dismissed members’ suggestions of a Tier System to allow companies more time to develop and better foster long-term job growth. Leadership disenfranchised their membership by promulgating a proposal rejected by a 2-1 margin. People like Mr. Asner and Mr. Harris were most likely responding to those types of concerns. Lastly, this contract offers no health insurance.
“Los Angeles intimate theatre is a thriving incubator with a track record of critically acclaimed productions. Many have gone on to other venues, creating jobs along the way. It needs to be treated with the same care as any other small business community.”
Quinn Reboots The Asylum
We can stand a little bit of pleasant news, and I was happy to hear that Matthew Quinn, former Artistic Director of the Asylum Theatre, is back and rebooting his former company, which will be re-launched as a production entity with Bertha Rodriguez’s “Combined Artform” shingle.
The two companies, melded together into Theatre Asylum/Combined Artform, will be headquartered a mere few doors down from the former Asylum Theater complex on Santa Monica Boulevard’s Theatre Row.
In their press release, the company notes, “Theater Asylum/Combined Artform is a venue management and live performance production company, specializing in working with artists and venues in live performances and festivals. We offer rental spaces and offer PR and production support. As producers, we develop our own works as well as co-produce and present top talent from the Hollywood Fringe Festival.”
I suspect that the new company, headquartered at 6448 Santa Monica Boulevard and contactable via its website at http://theaterasylum.com, will have its most active days during and after the Hollywood Fringe Festival, which Quinn helps produce. Quinn’s also known for providing venues for extensions of the more successful and innovative Fringe shows, will likely utilize the space and production skills for such a purpose again.
Quinn appears to position the new iteration of Asylum, which, as part of casting entity Studio C, will be part of an entertainment synergy that includes stage, screen, casting, and producing. If it just allows Quinn to continue the good work he has done with the Fringe, that is good enough for me.
“Having over 10 years of fringe experience combined in San Francisco and Los Angeles, I hope with Asylum Consulting to help new producers with their productions in the Hollywood Fringe and beyond,” optimistically noted Quinn in an e-mail to Stage Raw. “Having our office and solo venue on Theatre Row gives Theater Asylum a presence without a large theater complex to run. We no longer have to find shows to fill our space – but instead find the right space for the shows we want to produce!”
Davidson Memorial Set for January 9
A special memorial celebration honoring the late Center Theatre Group director and founding producer Gordon Davidson will be held at the Ahmanson Theatre downtown on Monday, January 9, right after we have managed to put dreadful 2016 to bed for once and for all. Davidson, known for his decades of leadership in the Los Angeles theater scene, ran the Ahmanson and Mark Taper for decades, passed away in October. He was a huge figure locally and nationally, as we reported at the time.
From our October article, I recalled a few of his career highlights, noting, “ the majority of Angelinos will remember him for his years of glittering prizes, in particular the early ‘90s, when, as Taper Artistic Director, he helped develop and oversaw early productions of Angels in America, Anna Devere Smith’s Twilight, and Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle.”
The memorial is open to the public, but an RSVP is required and may be made here. Center Theatre Group publicist Jason Martin noted, “I don’t have a list of participants but it will include the actors, playwrights, directors and staff who worked with Gordon over the years remembering him and the shows they created with him. The emphasis will be on the passion, love and laughter that Gordon invested in the theater and all of the shows.”
By Neal Weaver
I believe it was 1963. I had signed on at The Actors Studio in New York as the stage manager for the Playwright’s Unit, and later was accepted for membership in the Unit. In December, the Studio was abuzz with talk about the upcoming benefit for the Studio. It was to be held at the Studio and I think it was scheduled for New Year’s Eve. It was rumored that the entertainment would have a roster of big stars, including Judy Garland.
I was helping set up the auditorium for the party and wishing I could afford the $100 admission price for the benefit, when actor Fred Stewart appeared and asked me if I’d be interested in volunteering to run the hat-check concession. It was Fred’s way of recruiting unpaid workers to get the chores done, and at the same time give us underlings the chance to attend the party we couldn’t otherwise afford. So of course, I said yes.
The Studio was housed in an old church, and the sanctuary had become the auditorium and classroom, and was the site of the party. It had a low balcony which housed the light booth, and had wooden benches on three sides. This was to serve as the cloakroom, not open to the guests.
The stage-manager of the Acting and Directing Units was working the door, keeping the riffraff out, and I was at a table beside him checking hats, and placing them on the benches upstairs. It was a very starry crowd, though I don’t recall many names. I remember thinking that I must be almost the only person there who wasn’t a star or a VIP. I know Keir Dullea was there, and Jan Sterling, and Salvador Dali squiring a beautiful, sullen young Latino stud who was clearly playing hard to get.
When the entertainment finally got under way, the rumors proved true. The headliner was Judy Garland, alongside other talent including Shelley Winters, Josephine Premice and Carol Channing. Joan Sutherland had been supposed to appear and sing “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” but Rudolph Bing of the Metropolitan Opera felt that was inappropriate behavior for his star diva, and vetoed it. Judy had just gone through a messy divorce from Sid Luft: She was convinced he was trying to kidnap her children, so she had brought the kids along; in an odd bit of casting, Ava Gardner was there to serve as duenna and guard the youngsters. She looked absolutely ravishing in a white, slipper-satin, floor-length, strapless sheath that fit her like a glove.
Judy, however, looked like the wrath of God. She was gaunt, her legs like toothpicks in a black satin pants-suit. She was obviously not in great shape, either physically or emotionally. She had a pot belly, a double-chin, and a defensive manner, as if she expected someone to pop up and accuse her of being a bad mother, or a hopeless neurotic. Looking at her, I thought she could never again make herself presentable for a public performance, but of course she did, later. She always had the ability to pull herself together one more time, even if it required herculean cosmetic assistance. And so it was when she began to sing. She introduced Ava and the kids, and I think she did a musical number with her children. Then she sat down on a wooden kitchen stool, and the crowd of glittery stars sat down on the floor in a circle around her. I remember seeing Jan Sterling, in a white bouffant formal gown, plunking herself down on the Studio floor.
I had managed to escape my hat-checking duties during the show, and placed myself in the balcony directly above Judy. I was almost close enough to reach out and touch her — my seat was the best in the house. And when she began to sing, the voice and all the old magic were there. Her rickety appearance was forgotten, and the crowd adored her. (Nobody loves celebrities more than other celebrities.)
She invited requests for songs, and ran through much of her repertoire. When someone requested “Over the Rainbow,” the crowd cried, “No, no!”, thinking she must be tired of it. But that wasn’t the case. It was her star turn and she was determined to sing it. So after a couple of other songs, she cajoled the crowd into asking for it again, and she sang it. Gloriously, of course.
After her performance, there was a grand finale, with Garland, Premice, Winters, and Carol Channing singing “Hello, Dolly!” It was somehow not surprising that the one who forgot the lyrics was Channing, who’d arrived late after a performance.
Midway in the finale, Ava Gardner, seated with the Garland children in an improvised VIP pen at right stage, decided she’d had enough. She was more than a little drunk, and since that was the only way to get out, she mamboed her way through the other performers and headed for the front door.
I had come downstairs to watch the finale from the foyer, and as Ava sashayed by me I followed her to the front door, where there seemed to be an altercation taking place.
A personable young man, probably from New Jersey or one the outer boroughs, had parked his car in the street before attending a party of his own in the neighborhood. Now he wanted to go home, but one of our guests had double-parked, blocking him in. He didn’t know anything about the Actors Studio and he was furious. There were a few moments of argument, and then he recognized the gorgeous creature now standing beside him. “Aren’t you Ava Gardner?” he asked, incredulous. She gave him a dazzling smile and replied, “Um-hum.”
“Gosh, I think you’re wonderful!” he said.
“I think you’re pretty wonderful too, Honey,” she said, pushing him backward in a deep dip, and giving him a long and passionate kiss.
Afterward, he just stood there, wearing a dazed smile, as she boogied her way down the steps and into the night.
By this time guests had started to leave. But I still had chores to do. The Studio had made some sort of deal with the PR people for Arpege perfumes. They had sent over a stack of LP records called “Promise Her Anything,” as sung by a Latin crooner whose name I can’t recall. Attached to each album was a tiny, ribboned bottle of Arpege, with a card that read, “Promise Her Anything…But Give Her Arpege!” It was my job to hand these out to the departing guests. They invariably asked me if I was the singer on the album; I assured them I was not.
I noticed a very drunk young man wobbling toward me. It was Keir Dullea.
“Can I have one of those?” he asked.
I replied, “Yes, if you don’t ask me if I’m the Latin crooner?”
He said okay, and I gave him a record. Then he giggled and said, “Are you the Latin crooner?” I wanted to smack him. And I remembered Noel Coward’s famous crack, “Keir today, gone tomorrow.”
When we finally finished the after-party clean-up, I filled my pockets with leftover balloons, took a copy of “Promise Her Anything,” and wended my way downtown to my apartment on East Sixth Street. But I was too over-stimulated to sleep, and not ready to pack it in.
I decided to make a side-trip, despite the late hour, and visit a charming young man who lived a few doors down. It turned out he was still up, and he invited me in. Without much ado, we tumbled into bed, providing a satisfactory denouement to a spectacular evening.
(And I gave him my copy of the record.)
This is the second in a series of memoirs by Neal Weaver. Here’s the first.