The Winners at the 50th Annual 'LA Drama Critics Circle' Awards Ceremony Held at the Pasadena Playhouse

The 50th Annual LA Drama Critics Circle Awards at the Pasadena Playhouse, Monday, April 8, 2019. (Photo by Better Lemons)

The LA Drama Critics Circle (LADCC) held their 50th Annual Awards ceremony at the landmark Pasadena Playhouse where Better Lemons was in attendance to live tweet the evening's festivities and entertainment, Monday, April 8, 2019.

Wenzel Jones presided over the festivities, and Christopher Raymond served as music director with musical performances by Kristin Towers Rowles, Constance Jewell Lopez, and Zachary Ford.

There were four recipients of the 2018 Production award: Cambodian Rock Band (South Coast Repertory), Come From Away (Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre), Cry It Out (Echo Theater Company), and Sell/Buy/Date (Geffen Playhouse / Los Angeles LGBT Center).

Better Lemons' Chief Operating Officer Stephen Box (Left,) Publisher Enci Box, and Playwright & Screenwriter Steven Vlasak at the 50th Annual LA Drama Critics Circle Awards at the Pasadena Playhouse, Monday, April 8, 2019.

The Antaeus Theatre Company received the most awards, with three of its productions winning a combined seven trophies. Celebration Theatre's Cabaret took home six awards, the most awards for a single production, including one for Revival. Tom Hanks received a lead actor award for his performance as Falstaff in The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles production of Henry IV in a competitive category. 17 awards were presented in other categories with 17 productions taking home the honors.

In its inaugural this year, the Theater Angel award was presented to Yvonne Bell in recognition of her "long career devoted to fostering theater in Los Angeles ... [and] successful fundraising campaigns" to help open several cultural institutions, such as The Museum of Contemporary Art and the California Science Center.

Eight previously announced special awards were presented, including the Margaret Harford Award for sustained excellence in theater to Sacred Fools Theater Company and the Ted Schmitt Award for the world premiere of an outstanding new play to Lauren Yee for Cambodian Rock Band.

The LADCC was established in 1969  “to foster and reward merit in the American Theater and encourage theater in Los Angeles,” the LADCC site quotes from an announcement in the L.A. Times of that year.

Here is the list of award recipients as announced during Better Lemons' live coverage on Twitter:

Featured photo by Enci Box - Theatre patrons in the courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse for the 50th Annual LA Drama Critics Circle Awards, Pasadena, California, Monday, April 8, 2019. Enci Box contributed to this story and photos.


You see it right there as you walk through the Chinese Theatre's Photo Gallery,  past Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh and Jack Nicholson and right across from glam Marilyn and Jane Russell, with their big money smiles.

Yes, it's the super-heroes of late 20th Century cinema, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, still reigning supreme in the early 21st Century.  (Well, at least Lucas is, and Spielberg has achieved legendary status.)  But seeing them here in their youth, they look very human, even ordinary.  They in fact look very much like many of the filmmakers whose work fills the slots in the Hollyshorts Festival, and whose dream it is to be the next Spielberg or Lucas.  That is, to make quality movies with their individual stamp on them that also do great box office.

Yes, that is the dream, but right now they'd be happy with an agent and a deal memo, or maybe just some positive feedback - anything to give some hope and feed the dream.  It's a very crowded field out there, much more so than in the days when Spielberg and Lucas were achieving their indie cred.  And while the need for "content" has never been greater, there are so many talented artists willing to do anything to get their shot, that it's harder than ever to make an impression, much less to employ their "individual stamp."

Ironically, since both men started out with independent-spirited movies like The Sugarland Express (Spielberg) and THX1138 (Lucas),  it is the blockbuster mentality engendered by their monster hits like Jaws, Indiana Jones and Star Wars that hold the movie industry transfixed and make it more difficult for individual sensibilities to be appreciated - at least until those sensibilities equate with dollars signs, as with Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton.

There was a short dystopian film in the Hollyshorts festival, REAL ARTISTS by Cameo Wood, that had a terrifying twist on this blockbuster obsession.

Based on a short story by renowned sci-fi author Ken Liu and taking place in the near future, it centers around aspiring animator Sophia Baker (Tiffany Hines, pictured here) who dreams of being able to work for Semaphore Animation Studios, famous for turning out one hugely successful film after another.  Her obsession is such that - like many fans today - she does her own "fan edit" of Semaphore's latest release.  To her amazement, this results in her being contacted by Semaphore and getting an interview with a top-level executive, played by Tamlyn Tomita, who offers Sophia a job there.  A dream come true, right?  But then the young animator discovers the "formula" behind the studio's success, and she has to make a decision.  What, after all, is her individual creativity worth?

Of course, most filmmakers don't have such stark decisions to make.  And they know that the best way to get their film noticed is to entice a well-known actor or two to take part.  Here is a round-up of several films in the festival that use actors with name recognition, with varying degrees of success.


(Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images)

INGENUE-ISH, Written by John Stamos and Caitlin McHugh, Directed by Stamos - If you were to imagine a 10 minute movie by the "Full-House" actor John Stamos about the trials and tribulations of a 30-something actress, you would probably come pretty close to describing this film.    Pretty girl-actress? Check.  (Caitlin McHugh, co-writer and John Stamos's real-life girlfriend.)   Bad life-decisions? Check.  (She wakes up in the bed of a stranger.) Actor crisis? Check.  (She has a big audition, and she hasn't begun looking over the script.)  The piece is tongue-in-cheek and full of charming moments, and the ending has just the right kind of arch humor about the entertainment industry.  But in-between there are too many gross/grotesque incidents involving dog poop, as well as an improbable fight between Caitlin McHugh and another actress who is competing with her for the role in question.  On the whole, it's enjoyable, but it tries too hard to be funny and there just isn't much to it.


HOT WINTER: A FILM BY DICK PIERRE by Jack Henry Robbins - Jack Henry Robbins is the son of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins (who executive-produced this short film).  The film is about a climate scientist and all-around genius who talks and acts like a porn star.  Stylistically, it certainly shows the influence of his father's political sense of humor in such films as 2015's The Brink, as well as various satirical shorts at Funny or Die.  This film was awarded BEST COMEDY at Hollyshorts, and I do remember laughing a lot while watching.  But after it was over - it melted away faster than an Arctic iceberg.  When something is really funny, it stays with me quite a while.

SUPER SEX by Matthew Modine and GETTING ED LAID by Deborah Pearl - It's one thing to have one film in a festival about trying to help get "Lou Grant" actor Ed Asner laid; it's something else when there are two, and they were created completely independently of each other.  Super Sex by actor Matthew Modine is about and adult brother and sister (Kevin Nealon and Elizabeth Perkins),who are trying to come up with a unique birthday gift for their dad.  Their pursuit of said gift leads them to Ruby Modine (Matthew's daughter), who does not play a choir girl, and that leads to the father played by Ed Asner.  In Getting Ed Laid, Ed Asner plays a retired 85 year old professor who is in Tokyo and orders a sexual companion, then suddenly worries about the effect that Viagra may have on his heart.  The escort shows up in the person of Jean Smart - quirky and sexy, but very aware that she is a woman of certain age (over 50) - and the two of them have a memorably amusing encounter.  Both films are funny and both have their flaws.  Modine's film is all set-up, with only a quick silly joke as a payoff.  Deborah Pearl's film has some unnecessary complications to its setup and overdoes it a bit with the payoff, but it has two great characters, terrific dialogue, and a bewitching sense of humor, where the perils and problems of aging are concerned.

MODERN HOUSES by Matthew Dixon - Calling all Lily Taylor fans - and I know you're out there!  You will definitely want to catch Lily in the role of a cutting-edge architect about to unveil the model for her most ambitious design for a high-profile critic.  But something just isn't right with it... She keeps making small changes, but will it be enough?  Perfectionism feeds on itself in this painful drama, which feels like a parable from the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Not always easy to watch, but essential viewing for fans of Lily Taylor and the pursuit of perfection.

THE SON, THE FATHER by Lukas Hassel - I wasn't familiar before this with the work of Lukas Hassel, who has guest-starred on several TV series and starred in the horror film The Black Room.  But judging from his work on this film, where he is a quadruple-threat - writing, directing, producing and playing the father of the main character - he is a talent to be reckoned with.  Hassel sums up his film this way: "The events on a young boy's birthday has consequences far into the future for himself and his family."  Well, yes, but it's Hassel's sense of the grotesque that really makes this film stand out, along with the horrifying character of the boy's mother.  There aren't many American movies that dare to depict a mother in such an irredeemable way, not to mention the pain we see her inflict.  And then there is a transitional cut, very bold and memorable, in which Hassel's father character changes drastically before our eyes.  This is a terrifying little film, and Lukas Hassel shows himself unafraid to take chances.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY, written by Casey Cannon and Angeliki Giannakopoulos, directed by Phedon Pappamichael - This powerful 15 minute film features James Brolin in a wonderfully-understated performance as a widower and retired accountant who suddenly starts tying up all the loose ends of his life and totalling up his accounts.  What's going on?  What is he planning to do?  Frances Fisher turns up in a brilliant cameo as a woman  Brolin meets in a bar, but the film plays its card as close to its metaphorical chest as Brolin does until the final revelation, which I found genuinely shocking and completely credible.  This film has been another festival darling, and it's not hard to see why.  A memorable performance by Brolin in a different kind of role.

11th HOUR by Jim Sheridan - This is an 11 minute film about 9/11, and it may be the best evocation of that dark day that I've seen.  It takes place in a Hell's Kitchen bar run by Salma Hayek's character and her Irish husband, a police bar where cops are used to coming after their shifts.  Now they've assembled here, but the atmosphere is tense, the need to lash out at someone is pervasive, as the losses they have suffered is too much to bear.  Guns are drawn from holsters, violence is in the air, as an older policeman counsels patience.  Then someone unexpected shows up, someone who cuts through all the tension and takes the focus away from revenge.  It's based on a true story, but what makes it stand out and then linger in the memory is the way that Jim Sheridan has framed the narrative, and the enormous shifts in tone that occur organically within such a tight timeline.   I was so glad to be able to see this on a large screen, where the larger-than-life events of that day needed that kind of scope for the tragic undertow to be conveyed.  I wish more people had that opportunity.

MY NEPHEW EMMETT by Kevin Wilson, Jr. - Just as Jim Sheridan was able to bring alive the events of 9/11 by looking at them from a different perspective, so Kevin Wilson is able to conjure up the events surrounding the killing of Emmett Till by making them personal.  This doesn't feel like history, this doesn't feel like "significant events" that happened almost 65 years ago.  Rather, Kevin Wilson takes us with him into the dust of that Mississippi summer, and the attempts of Emmett's preacher-uncle and aunt to protect him from the whites who don't understand Emmett's big city ways.  And just as Jim Sheridan was able to make Salma Hayek an integral part of his ensemble, so Wilson is able to ease Jasmine Guy into his mix as Emmett's aunt without distracting from the central drama.  But it is L.B. Williams as Emmett's uncle who really makes a claim on our attention, as he battles against forces of hate and malevolence that simply will not be reasoned with.  Kevin Wilson won the BEST DIRECTOR prize at Hollyshorts, and again it was well-deserved.  There is something so visceral about this short piercing film that you come away feeling the parched dust in your throat and a heaviness in your heart for our cycle of violence.


COMPANION, written by Matt Ferrucci and Nick Mouyiaris, produced by Ferrucci, Mouyiaris and Alain Uy - In addition to the film shorts, there were also several "proof of concept" episodes or fragments presented for TV series.  But this was the only one that seemed to me to have both their concept and their execution together, and the only one that I could see finding a place at a studio and in our hearts.  In the half-hour comedy series, Michael Marc Friedman would play Nick Foster, a "sober companion" who looks after wealthy clients with a history of abusing drugs, alcohol, whatever.  As the Companion team so eloquently puts it: "Basically he's a babysitter - except the babies are rich assholes who shoot dope and drink their millions away."

So far they've only shot the pilot episode, which was screened at the festival.  This has Nick trying to keep disgraced NBA superstar Jay "J Train" Tyrell (Ray Stoney) on the straight and narrow as he attempts to rehabilitate his badly-damaged image and get back into the league.  Not easy when Tyrell has five children with six baby mamas (it's complicated) and now apparently has a 6th child on the way with his wild new girlfriend.  The episode had a great flow and was consistently fun and suprising.  What made it work so well for me was the chemistry between the actors Friedman and Stoney.  Also, it wasn't written so that Tyrell was simply the fuck-up and Foster his keeper.  No, Foster needed something from Tyrell too, and this gave the show a nice balance, and a sense of unpredictability too.

It wasn't certainly the first show I've seen in a while about heterosexual men which explored the bonds of friendship and insecurity in an interesting way.  It feels contemporary, fluid and even sexy.  I can certainly see guys tuning in who watch sports on TV and spend hours listening to the anchors on ESPN.  It has that male vibe, but with a quick wit and a cool eye for all the lies that men tell each other, along with the lies we tell ourselves.

The plan is for Nick to have several different clients, so this would be an anthology series, but with some clients recurring (breakdowns do happen) and others being run into again by chance.  I have no idea how that aspect of it will work, but I'd take this series any day over Ballers.  What I've seen so far has the kind of magic coming off it that I associate with TV success.  We'll see how far they'll be able to take that.  Here's hoping they'll be given a decent shot.





 This Thursday June 1st, the curtain will rise on Program A of Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA's Second Annual One Act Festival at their 50-seat performance space at the Atwater Village Theatre, with Programs B & C still to follow.

Meanwhile, back in New York City, the 36th Annual one act Marathon of the original Ensemble Studio Theatre is already half-way through its three evenings, with Series C commencing on June 10.

Ensemble Studio Theater founder Curt Dempster

There's something apt in this timeline difference.  EST in NYC was founded in the late 1960s by Artistic Director Curt Dempster as a non-commercial theater laboratory.  Dempster was an intense man with an abundance of energy and intellectual discipline, as well as a deeply Protestant work ethic, who often seemed to keep his theater going through sheer strength of will.  A 2013 article in American Theatre Magazine detailed the crisis that EST went through when Dempster committed suicide in 2007, after the Board had voted to replace him as leader, following a series of financial setbacks.  It took a few years for new Artistic Director Billy Carden and new Executive Director Paul Slee to find their way back from the brink, but now EST in NYC is flourishing again, with some money and increased respect from its origination of the play Hand To God, which was moved to Broadway, and from a recent grant to renovate their headquarters in Hell's Kitchen on 52nd Street and 11th Ave.  It also helps that Dempster negotiated a contract with New York City that gave him this multi-floored space for the yearly rent of $1.

(NOTE: Absent from the American Theatre article was the role played by the super-casting agents Risa Bramon Garcia and Billy Hopkins in the acendance of EST.  After the duo - both EST members - hit the big-time with Desperately Seeking Susan, then being with EST could pay your bills as well as feed your soul.)

EST-LA has no such helpful rental arrangement.  The company moved from Hollywood around 2009 to a situation in Atwater Village where Circle X Theater, in partnership with EST-LA Artistic Director Gates McFadden, built two theater spaces from the ground up.  The area was desolate back then, and the cars of company members and visitors were frequently broken into.  Gradually, however, the area has improved, certainly in part to the presence of these theaters, which bring audience to the neighborhood.  A developer came in and revamped the crumbling houses across the street into lofts that now sell for upwards of $1 million.  Two smaller theater spaces have been added, extending out towards the street from the larger ones, and EST-LA now occupies one of those for a fairly hefty monthly price.  The larger spaces in the back are now way beyond the means of EST-LA.

Gates McFadden

The company was guided for its first five years in Atwater by Ms. McFadden, well-known to Star Trek fans as Dr. Beverly Crusher, which she played on Star Trek: The Next Generation and four subsequent movies.  Gates was, by all accounts, an excellent director, and productions under her leadership like House of the Rising Son, Belfast Blues and House of Gold received excellent notices.  She also poured a lot of her own money into the company, so that when she resigned in October 2014, the company had to find a way of surviving without her generosity and largesse.

(I should mention that there's no current relationship between the east and west coast branches of Ensemble Studio Theatre. "They share a DNA but are two completely separate non-profit entities" is how it was explained to me.   Certainly EST-NYC provides no support, material or otherwise, to its poor relation.)

Roderick Menzies in his daily attir

Liz Ross

EST-LA has been brought back from the brink by a collection of co-Artistic Directors: Roderick Menzies, Liz Ross, Keith Szarabajka and Carole Real (who resigned in late 2016), with operate with the assistance of Managing Artistic Director William Duffy and Producing Director Kevin Comartin. All have worked tirelessly to keep the company going.  Through judicious budgeting and by having the company's members both volunteer and raise money, they can only afford to do 2-3 full productions a year, including the one-act festival.  In addition, they maintain a packed schedule of company readings, workshop productions and community outreach events that extend throughout the Los Angeles area.

One major development from the Gates McFadden regime has been a closer linking of the acting company with the playwrights unit.  Productions are now selected almost exclusively from plays by unit members or EST-members (not always the same thing), as illustrated by their one act festival, in which all the plays are by playwrights unit members except for How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall? by EST-member Nicholas Ullett, which was written 30 years ago.  I recently met with Nick Ullett and three of the other playwrights - Tony Pasqualini, Mary Portser, and Karen Rizzo - along with Co-Artistic Director Keith Szarabajka at Mr Szarabajka's home.

Mary Portser, Tony Pasqualini, Karen Rizzo and Keith Szarabajka

As Keith explained in his familiar gravelly voice - he is one of the most in-demand actors around for audio books, video games and voiceovers - EST-LA's three evenings of plays each have a common (if somewhat loose) thread.  Series A has five short plays, each with a man and a woman in a room, and has been dubbed the "Rom-Com" evening.  Series B has three longer one acts and is called the "Political" evening.  Series C has four medium-length plays and is called the "Eclectic" evening.  Each series begins on a Thursday and runs for two weekends, Thursday-Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm - except for the last weekend of Series C, when there is also a 2 pm on Saturday July 15th.

Speaking with the playwrights about their plays, it soon became clear that there will be a large variety of tone within each particular grouping. For instance, Karen Rizzo's play, Darkest Place, is in Series A, but it hardly sounds like a "Rom-Com."  She describes it as drawing on her fascination with "memory and regret," as a man and a woman meet again 15 years after high school, only to find that time has changed them and their relationship to each other in some very unpredictable ways.  Tony Paqualini's play, Already Forgotten, is also in Series A and also has surprises that are not of the "rom-com" variety.  "It's about a Hollywood talent agent," Tony told me.  "He has quite literally forgotten where he came from, until he meets up again with his ex-wife, who brings it all back."  Mary Portser's play, So Lovely Here On Earth, is also in Series A and is about a young man with the job of interviewing people for a one-way flight to Mars.  An attractive young woman comes into his office, and he tries to find out why she would want to embark on what is essentially a suicide mission.

Nick Ullett and Mary Portser.  Photo Credit: Keith Szarabajka

And then there's Nick Ullett's three-person play in Series C about the concert violinist at Carnegie Hall, which will be directed by his wife, Jenny O'Hara.  Anyone who has caught their performances at the Fountain Theatre in the two-hander Bakersfield Mist know that fireworks can be expected when these two get together.  Considering that the play has been waiting 30 years for its premiere, it seems certain that this will be a highlight of the festival.

As it happens, all the writers I'm speaking with here are also veteran character actors with loads of stage, screen, TV, commercial and video game credits.  Yet all have become dedicated writers as well, in an arena where they are able to hone their own visions.  Tony Pasqualini - well-known as an actor from over 30 guest-starring TV appearances - elaborated on this point.

"I think EST-LA has become more of a writers/actors theater than it was before, when the director had a larger role.  We're trying to find the creative balance between the writer and actors," Tony said.

Keith added that the small budgets available for EST-LA productions has brought him back full-circle to his roots at Chicago's Organic Theatre in the 1970s, that became the launching pad for such heralded actors as Dennis Franz and Joe Mantegna and for the production of the 1978 play Bleacher Bums, written by the company's actors (including Szarabajka).

Will the 2017 version of EST-LA's One Act Festival be a similar launching pad for the actors and writers?

Come and see for yourself.  The six week festival all starts this Thursday June 1st and runs through July 16th.  Click here for ticket information:  Ensemble Studio Theatre LA One Act Festival 2017. 






It's happening, folks.  Whether you want it to or not - and why wouldn't you want it to? - SPRING is exploding all over Los Angeles, and not just any spring either.  The snowy plovers are back in LA (at Dockweiler Beach) for the first time in 70 years, the brodiaea filofilia is
blooming out in the desert for the first time in many years, and new plays are springing up everywhere.  Seriously, the Twisted Hipster has been haunting the aisles for longer than he cares to admit, but even he can't remember so many new theatrical voices of all sorts crying out to be heard.  Now if only the audiences out there would adjust their inner radio dials and get on that more dramatic frequency, then you would see a true celebration of the remarkable talent that this city of dreams has to offer. What follows are Hipster Tips for two shows that are in their final week and another that has a few weeks to go.

And folks - THE FRINGE IS COMING, so get ready to tighten your seat belts.  (And only a few more days to catch this lovely blue flower before it's gone, and who knows when we can see it again?)

Armond Edward Dorsey, William Salyers and Eamon Hunt


There's a sly game being played by the Lower Depth Ensemble in this deceptively nimble play by Carlyle Brown. And I'm not talking about the con game being perpetrated by Colonel Wiley Johnson and the slave Simon Cato on the greedy and proudly racist George Dewitt. What seems like a clever costume drama about racetrack shenanigans in Kentucky (where else?) in the mid-1800s reveals itself in the Second Act as a deeply subversive work about the ways in which Americans seem to learn nothing from history - instead celebrating our ignorance while trying to convince ourselves that we've made loads of progress. What a resonant message for our times, as the stupidest president in our stupidity-riddled history celebrates his ignorance in such predictably stupid ways.  And the excellent cast includes Deborah Puette! A good rule of thumb for Los Angeles theater is to go see any play that has Deborah Puette in it, as she is always so good.  Only one weekend, three performances to go! Click here for tickets.

PUNK ROCK at the Odyssey Theatre

Written three years before his celebrated adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Simon Stephens's Punk Rock is NOT about a punk rock band, is NOT about the punk rock movement in London or Liverpool or anywhere else, and is NOT even about fans of punk rock. Instead it introduces us to six fairly average-seeming teenage students at "a fee-paying school in Stockport, England." Why then is the play titled Punk Rock? According to Simon Stephens, "I only ever called my Punk Rock because Tom Stoppard called his worst-ever play Rock 'n Roll and in so doing denigrated the art form I love more than any other." But Stephens does explore the kind of destructive and rage-filled compulsions that lie at the heart of punk rock music, as when one young male asks another here: "Don't you ever feel like just destroying things?"And the other young man answers, "Oh yeah, all the time!" The cast under Lisa James's direction all bring these students to life in a way that brings to mind The Breakfast Club on the one hand and Lord of the Flies on the other. And no, try as you might, you won't be ready when the punk rock song finally comes. Also in its last weekend, last three shows.  Wow, this man can write. Click for tickets here.

Corryn Cummins and Amy Harmon            Photo Credit: Ed Krieger


Playwright Louisa Hill tries very daringly - and to a great degree, very successfully - to create a realistic mother-daughter play that also has the feel of a fable, a Grimm's fairy tale for our fractured times. Act I takes us back to the '60s - not the hip, drug-fueled '60s, but the dark ages before Roe v. Wade and the women's movement, when a young Catholic girl who got knocked up had to trust in the Church to have her best interests at heart (which it didn't), and when nice white people couldn't withstand the public shame of a teen pregnancy. In Act II we see the result of all this shame and the unwise faith in institutions: a daughter whose heart has been broken so many times and whose trust has been betrayed so often that she is unable to love, unwilling to hope - until finally, gradually, she finds her way back to her mother. While not a perfect play by any means, it is given a nearly flawless production under the supervision of director Tony Abatemarco, and you have 3 weekends left to catch it, so hurry! Click for tickets here.