The 2017 STAGE RAW AWARDS: Smiling through the Sh*t-Storm

LA Stage Alliance Executive Director Steven Leigh Morris – photos by S.L. Fife

This past Monday evening, STAGE RAW held its Third Annual Awards ceremony at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in Downtown LA.   There were many memorable moments (of course) , but the one that stays with me involved the actress Kate Morgan Chadwick, who received the award for “Leading Female Performance” for her work in the Echo Theatre production of Bed by Sheila Callaghan.

Dressed in tee shirt and jeans — “how daringly casual,” I thought — Kate informed the audience that she was in a Whole Foods parking lot earlier that evening when the costume designer Michael Mullen convinced her to head over to LATC for the ceremony.  And now here she was giving an acceptance speech and then being led backstage by a lovely red-headed woman, just as all the other winners had been.  But suddenly Kate detached herself from her escort and began running wildly toward the audience. Then, just as suddenly, she stopped, smiled, turned around, and walked back upstage and off with her red-headed escort.

Yes! Now there’s an intimate theater actor!  Easily bored, refusing to conform, alive to the comic possibilities of the moment – that’s something I’ve really fallen in love with here, that fun, unpredictable element which I rarely found anymore in NYC theater, even downtown.  The pressure to get results is simply too oppressive to allow for that improvisatory quality which has characterized great American acting ever since Marlon Brando sank to his knees and screamed, “Stellaaaaaaa!”  That spirit of fun and pain is still alive in LA’s 99-seat theaters, but it is under siege now from the actors’ own union, now that it has succeeded in wiping out the waiver contract.  A theme that dominated this evening, devoted as it was to the 99-seat or under theater movement in LA.

The ceremonies started with a eulogy, as LA Stage Alliance head-honcho Steven Leigh Morris solemnly lamented the passing of “the Kid” on December 14, 2016.  (Which also happens to be the date on which the 99-seat Waiver contract expired – so draw your own conclusions.)

Then the co-hosts and presenters of the evening took the stage, the married duo of French and Vanessa Stewart.  They are the perfect hosts for an intimate theater event, as they embody that same antic spirit of fun and defiance and non-conformity that Kate Chadwick would later exhibit.  They play beautifully off each other, with French taking the role of head anarchist, lobbing verbal bombs at all the sacred cows of Hollywood and high art, while Vanessa is his sexy co-conspirator, at once appalled and delighted by his crudity, while adding her own more subtle comic riffs to the mix.  I had caught their co-hosting act once before, at the 2015 Ovation awards at the Ahmanson, but this was much better because there seemed to be fewer (if any) institutional restraints.

“2016 was a greasefire shit-show from beginning to end!” French started off.  “First the Stage Actors Union, which had always done okay by me, gets taken over by some assholes with Costco-sized egos who hold a referendum on the waiver contract, get defeated by a count of 2-1 by their own members, and then go ahead and kill our beloved 99-seat plan anyway.  Then Trump comes along and insert your own “dumb-fuck orange-menace” joke here.  And then this confederacy of dunces elects a Republican Congress and Senate, so there’s no checks and balances at all on the orange idiot’s stupidity and greed.  Yes, just like the founders intended, I’m sure!”

This awards show had been titled “A Wake and Sing,” and there was a somber undertone to all the evening’s festivities, as so many of the freedoms enjoyed under the 99-seat plan had been lost without having been replaced by any benefits.  Actors were not  making a better wage as a result of Equity’s actions; instead, most producers have opted for employing non-Union actors or doing only two-character plays.  In additon, the accessible healthcare and societal stability enjoyed under President Obama has been curtailed or destroyed.  But these harsh realities only made for a more defiant (if darker) brand of humorous song-and-dance, under the supervision of director Jaime Robledo (who directed French a few years ago in Stoneface at Sacred Fools).

It began with the darkest song of all, Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times (Come Again No More),” which was followed by Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” beautifully sung by the noticeably pregnant Claire Riflej, backed up the No Static Trio.  Then French and Vanessa let loose with an antic and irrepressible “Just a Gigolo,” with French belting out the lyrics while bouncing around like a kid on a trampoline, backed up by his chanteuse wife, as well as by musicians on saxophone and trumpet.  The singing concluded with Vanessa doing a lovely version of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here,” an anthem for the troopers in the audience, who had been through so much in this “shit-show” of a year.  It’s hard enough to make good theater under the best of conditions, but add in all the obstacles that 2016 had piled on the intimate theater crowd, and the odds seemed overwhelming.  And yet great theater was still being made – witness LATC’s Rules of Seconds, a great new play in a terrific production done in that very same space just a few weeks ago.

There were many genuinely touching moments too.  Steven Leigh Morris returned to the podium to let everyone know that longtime theater director Dan Bonnell was still in a coma but there was hope for his eventual recovery from a stroke, and that donations were needed to cover his hospital expenses. Jerry Charlson, the much-beloved publicist for intimate theaters who has been slowly recovering from a serious heart issue, was given the Queen of the Angels award.  And the husband-and-wife founders of the Victory Theatre Center, Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny, were given Lifetime Achievement Awards and made stirring speeches, calling theater “the greatest of the art forms,” because “its raw material is the human spirit.”

 

Many awards were given out, and I was glad to see the well-deserving actors, directors, designers and playwrights recognized for their remarkable work. Especially intimate theater stalwarts like Matthew Elkins, Jacqueline Wright, Rebecca Gray, Jeffrey Schoenberg, Sophie Bortolussi, Stacie Chaiken, Tony Amendola, Bo Foxworth, John Farmenesh-Bocca (who won two awards for his work on Tempest Redux for The New American Theater at the Odyssey Theatre) and Nancy Keystone, director of the production of the year, Ameryka. The shows receiving multi-awards included Ameryka (Critical Mass Performance Group), Bars and Measures (Theatre@Boston Court), Cloud 9 (Antaeus), Dutch Masters (Rogue Machine), Blueberry Toast (Echo Theatre Company) and The Day Shall Declare It (Wilderness), whose performance space at Santa Fe and Seventh St. has been bulldozed away. Musical of the year went to the Celebration Theater for The Boy From Oz, which was accepted by the always-entertaining Michael A. Shepperd, who kept telling the audience how drunk he was, something that we had already come to realize on our own, thank you very much.

The highlight of the awards ceremony came, without a doubt, when a “most promising actor” award was bestowed upon the greatest of all intimate theater performers, Alan Mandell.   It is an unwritten rule in any evening of Los Angeles theater awards that Alan Mandell has to get one, and this time it came complete with his own troupe of Beckett dancers, who blithely and lugubriously surrounded Alan as he ascended to the stage, while French opened up the honorary Beckett umbrella.  For some reason that escaped me, Alan was bedecked with 99 cent necklaces.  He rewarded the crowd by doing a soft-shoe routine and letting us know that his 90th birthday was fast approaching.  He vowed to fulfill the “promise” that Stage Raw had seen in him, and in general he cheered everyone up.   If Alan could hop, skip and jump at almost 90, then certainly we could all get through these difficult times, right?  But then again, Alan had all that Beckett money to fall back on, accrued from his brilliant turns in Endgame and Godot and all those other money-makers.  Where could the rest of us ever hope to find such a cash cow?

To see a full list of Award Recipients, visit StageRaw.com.

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