Dec 7, 2004

Mission Drift

I respect Larry Aldrich’s attempts to defend the LA Stage Alliance in today’s Times’ Counterpunch. Aldrich is not just a longtime publicist for Theatre LA/LA Stage Alliance, he’s chairman of its board of governors*, and as such he represents the kind of passionate advocate for local theatre we could use more of.

But in responding to Don Shirley’s diss of the Alliance’s recent Ovation Awards for giving a clutch of awards to Performance Riverside’s 1776, Aldrich makes some strained arguments, if I may say so. To wit:
While LA Stage Alliance, which sponsors the Ovation Awards, is named after the city of Los Angeles, its charter is clearly broader. LA Stage Alliance seeks to promote live theater in Los Angeles and its environs. It never intended to limit its jurisdiction to L.A. proper. Riverside, Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Bernardino and Orange counties are intended to be under its mantle.

Really? With all due respect to Aldrich, that’s news to me. How “clearly” has that charter really been stated? His next argument rings a little closer to home:
Factors such as Actors' Equity's rules, commuting distance and the tendency of outlying areas to pull from the pool of Los Angeles-based professional talent were considered.

Thoughts along this line did cross my mind: After all, the Rubicon in Ventura taps a lot of first-rate L.A. talent, as did Steve Glaudini at Performance Riverside; Nick DeGruccio, a past master from the Colony Theatre, directed the award-decked 1776. And I take seriously the idea that artists who want to devote themselves to theatre in this film-dominated region should be recognized and rewarded for their efforts to keep that going from a Southern California home base; the model I always dream of is London, where actors move freely between thriving theatre, film, and TV industries. That’s got to be a healthier life, and may account as much as any other factor for British actors’ famous facility: They just get a chance to act more. If actors based here can keep the film and TV gigs going, while at the same increasingly finding good theatre contracts nearby--or near enough via the freeways--how can I argue with that?

But the key to the theatre element of that equation is the thriving part. For better or worse, Los Angeles theatre and its audience are way out of proportion—there’s a lot more of the former than there is of the latter. It may be too much to expect LA Stage Alliance to singlehandedly turn that around—nobody wants to eliminate Actors Equity’s 99-Seat Plan, which means the quantity of openings isn’t going down any time soon—but Shirley’s point, and mine (in a post last month), is that the Ovations above all should be a platform to exalt the best and brightest work in this community, so that audiences and potential audiences can see that great work more clearly, in hopes that one day this theatre “community” is also a theatre industry.

Aldrich goes on to say things like “Los Angeles County is the focus of LA Stage Alliance, not its limitation,” and adds, “It's certainly no different than The Times' coverage of theater in New York, San Diego and Orange County.” Well, yes, Larry, it ought to be. Does anyone think the Times’ theatre coverage offers a great model for clarifying and holding up the best of local theatre? That question answers itself.

I want to make clear that I’m completely on board for the mission Aldrich finally sums up thus:
LA Stage Alliance… promotes live theater in a town that has historically belittled the art form. In a community where the film industry is king, LA Stage Alliance has helped to keep live theater affordable, culturally stimulating, appealing to alternative and mainstream audiences and, above all, vibrant and exciting. It has done this by reminding itself and the Southern California community that small, intimate theater is just as valid as Broadway tours.

I consider myself on the same side of these goals. But it’s because I care so much about the welfare of local theatre and its artists (not out of altruism, mind you, but so that they stay here and thrive and keep doing great stage work I can enjoy and cover) that I’m calling out their most powerful aggregated advocate for what I see as lamentable mission drift.

May the healthy debate, and the Equity contracts, continue.

*: This initially read "he's on board of the organization."

UPDATE: I've been challenged on my statement that Theatre LA/LA Stage Alliance's mission was never "clearly" defined as serving "greater Los Angeles." Well, the definition of the latter term may be open to debate, but on LA Stage Alliance's website, there's a banner head that says simply "To Promote, Represent, and Support the Performing Arts of Los Angeles." And the only mission statement I can find reads: "It is the mission of LA Stage Alliance to increase advocacy, awareness, and audience attendance on behalf of our 210 member Performing Arts Organization in Los Angeles County by uniting, representing, and promoting the Performing Arts Community of the greater Los Angeles area." [emphasis mine] Another page on the LASA website says, "Our 210 member organizations span from Ventura to La Mirada, with 99% of them in Los Angeles County." [emphasis mine]

To me it's a stretch to say this "clearly" spells out that LA Stage Alliance's charter includes "Riverside, Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Bernardino and Orange counties." But look, we can split hairs on county lines all day. Here's my point: The headline for Aldrich's piece (which admittedly he probably didn't write) was "Theater doesn't end at L.A.'s city limits, does it?" That seems bass-ackwards for an organization whose main job would seem to be to convince LA audiences, civic leaders, and the press that theatre begins within L.A.'s city limits.

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