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Thoughts on The Death of the L.A. Stage Alliance

I have been physically out of the Los Angeles theater world for about a year and a half now, but my heart still lives there. As such, I have followed with interest the implosion of the L.A. Stage Alliance, after a last-straw debacle of an awards show at the end of last month caused many of its major members to pull out and the organization to finally fold on Monday, April 6.

For those who may not be aware, this organization has operated the Ovations Awards – sort of the Tonys for Los Angeles theatrical companies of various sizes. This year the necessarily online version of the awards turned into a farce in one telling moment. Jully Lee, a voting member of the organization, watched a photo of a different actress be displayed on the screen as her nomination was announced, and then heard her name mispronounced as well.

Another long-problematic issue also came to a head at the same time, as the nomination also followed the Alliance’s questionable but longer-standing policy of choosing only one of the theaters of any co-production to list along with the performance. The show Lee had been a part of was co-produced by two companies. The one she belonged to, the East-West Players, was not mentioned. The other company, The Fountain Theatre, was.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. East-West Players was founded in 1965 by 9 prominent Asian actors to offer mainstream theatrical opportunities, rather than the usual stereotypical ones, to Asian and Pacific Islander actors, directors and producers. With the current wave of Anti-Asian speech and violence, the lack of company mention, the “all Asian women look alike” implication of the photo, and the tone deaf mispronunciation of the name of an Asian performer was too much. The East-West Players withdrew from the organization, and quite quickly 46 others (a third of its membership, including the multiple-Tony-winning Center Theatre Group) did as well.

Interestingly, Deaf West Theater, the nation’s premiere company for deaf performers, pointed out as it withdrew membership that they had tried unsuccessfully to get the online awards to use ASL interpreters so their own members could fully participate. Apparently being insensitive toward minorities was not unique to the Alliance’s dealing with the AAPI community.

Still, it must be said that this whole embarrassing fracas was just the final nail in a coffin which had been under construction for some time.

I first came to know of the L.A. Stage Alliance when it was known as the Theater League Alliance. The executive director of the Pasadena Playhouse at the time, the late Lars Hansen, left his post at the Playhouse in 1999 to become the Alliance’s president. At the time I was interested in the varying reactions to his move. I received notes from some who were breathing a sigh of relief that his influence would no longer be felt at the Playhouse. Still, I also remember Lars’ excitement about what his new responsibilities could do to expand the presence of theater in the L.A. area.

Indeed, Hansen introduced ideas to the theaters involved, large and small, which have paid dividends, including online same-day half priced ticketing, and the advent of LA Stage Magazine. Still, his tenure was short and in the intervening years – as articles in the Los Angeles and New York Times have both pointed out – the L.A. Stage Alliance’s policies had put them on rather shaky ground even before the pandemic caused major upheaval in all live performance industries.

In some ways, this collapse is symbolic of a failure increasingly being acknowledged throughout the entertainment business, where the old hierarchies have been predominantly white and predominantly male: Without an increasing sensitivity regarding race, nationality, gender and identity, both audiences and participants may cease to be involved with the art form. The organizations representing these industries, and the industries themselves will either need to change, or will die.

Take, as example, the increasingly pointed work of an organization called Maestra in New York City, which is making the case for women as composers, orchestral musicians, musical directors, etc., in productions on and off Broadway. Or, of course, think about the years-long campaigns of Oscars So White which has caused huge changes in the eligible voting group, and greater diversity in the organization’s leadership. In the years leading up to the L.A. Stage’s Ovation Awards ceremony on March 30, that same kind of dialogue should have been central in that organization, but apparently it wasn’t.

Also, the Alliance was a financial burden for many of its members. It is not unusual for such organizations to support themselves with membership fees, but this one also expected theaters to pay a fee in order for a production to be considered for an Ovation Award: a pay to play deal. For big companies this was not necessarily a huge problem, though theater is rarely a major profit-making enterprise. For smaller companies – especially after the new Equity rules of the last few years stretched their limited funds more widely – it could be onerous.

As a lack of diversity and a lack of transparency, plus the financial issues, were refining members’ grievances, the pandemic hit. By June executive director Marco Gomez had furloughed the Alliance staff – hence the volunteers apparently left to run the awards ceremony. We all know how wise that decision was. It was Gomez who announced the cessation of the Alliance as an organization on Monday. Apparently the group’s press representative, Ken Werther, a good guy I’ve known for years, has now been left to answer questions Gomez should be dealing with. That alone says a lot.

Apparently smaller theaters had already begun to gather in an alternate organization to support each other through these tough times. And it is highly likely that some awards organization, whether using the Ovation name or not, will reappear. There is a strong and lively theatrical community in Los Angeles which will not disintegrate over all this. In the meantime, at least the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, of which I was a member until I left the L.A. area, is still an awards-giving entity. Out of the ashes of the L.A. Stage Alliance will come something which will be less tone-deaf, more inclusive, and hopefully able to fully celebrate the remarkable treasure that theater in the greater Los Angeles area has become.

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