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Treasure Hunt 

Unearthing L.A.’s culture gems

Thursday, Dec 11 2003
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I was a recent immigrant from New York when I started to work on what became the L.A. Weekly. One of my jobs was to develop the arts and entertainment section, even before we’d settled on a name for our new newspaper. I’d known the city for less than a year, but I wanted to create a comprehensive directory of all the goings-on in town. Los Angeles is so fragmented that, as a newcomer, I had no real sense of place. By organizing the section into categories and neighborhoods, I hoped to pull the city together for our readers. Other mainstream publications covered only the major venues. Without a good source of information on what was happening in town, it was possible in those days to believe that L.A. deserved its reputation as a cultural wasteland.

Many of us at the Weekly were outsiders. Jay Levin and I were New York refugees, along with our first managing editor, Laurel Delp. Writers Ginger Varney and Michael Ventura had just arrived from Texas. But without really knowing the city from the inside, we still had the chutzpah to believe that we could fulfill our chosen mission, to provide a fresh point of view, to discover the undiscovered riches the city had to offer, to allow the unheard voices of Los Angeles to sing on our pages.

I approached my own contribution to this effort like a treasure hunt. Nothing was too obscure to escape my notice. Coming from New York, I assumed I’d find the most exciting and experimental artistic endeavors in the smallest and most remote venues, so I sought them out. During the summer and fall of 1978, I kept a growing file of art galleries, museums, clubs, concert halls, movie houses and theaters. I was astounded by the number of theaters there were in Los Angeles.

Where in the world could there possibly be more theatrical talent — more actors; directors; stage, costume and lighting designers? Granted, they were all here to work in the movies and television, but most of them were out of work most of the time. No wonder they were putting on so many plays.

Because I wanted our new L.A. Weekly to become an indispensable, trusted guide to the cultural life of the city, I assembled a team of experts in the fields of film, jazz, classical music, country & western, rock & roll, dance, contemporary art. And with so many theaters to cover, I recruited a team of critics to write short reviews of almost everything that hit the boards, so that our readers could be informed at a glance.

Coming from a city rich in the tradition of off- and off-off-Broadway, I assumed I would find that sort of exciting theatrical experimentation in L.A. as well. Through an arrangement with Actors Equity, plays produced in theaters seating fewer than 100 were exempt from paying actors the contractual Equity minimum. Theoretically, this meant that the 99-seat, “Equity-waiver” theaters were free to try all sorts of fascinating things without risking financial ruin.

But they didn’t. What they did, for the most part, was produce showcases, audition opportunities, low-budget productions of standard entertainments to which talent scouts, agents and casting directors were invited.

Still, we took on the challenge of reviewing everything, in the hope that we might find gems among the rubble and direct audiences to worthy efforts. Theater can’t flourish in a city where good work goes unappreciated or, worse, completely unnoticed, as it seemed to me it did in Los Angeles. Producing theater is almost always a thankless job. The cost and effort rarely are rewarded by profit and acclaim. But without responsible, informed reviews, producing theater is hopeless. A play can’t succeed without an audience, and there will be no audiences without reliable critics to let them know that there are plays worth seeing. So we took our jobs very seriously.‰16

And we did find good work — actors and directors and producers who used their downtime to try things they’d rarely get the chance to do on television or in the movies. In the Equity-waiver theaters we got to see stars and future stars such as Gregory Harrison, Danny Glover, Salome Jens, Jean Smart, Linda Purl, Bud Cort, a young Ed Harris. And we got to watch them from just a few rows back in an intimate space.

Occasionally, when a courageous producer or director dared to do something that might not sell tickets, the work was truly stunning. I think of Ron Sossi’s productions of Brecht’s Mother Courage and The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Odyssey Theater; Paul Verdier’s Ionesco festival at Stages; Susan Dietz’s production of Carol Churchill’s gender-bending Cloud Nine, Steven Berkoff’s The Greeks. And Tim Robbins’ the Actors’ Gang, which debuted with an astonishing version of Ubu the King at the Pilot Theater in 1982.

When Susan Dietz called to tell me that her production of Sean O’Casey’s play The Shadow of a Gunman, way off the beaten track in North Hollywood, had been sold out and extended for another six weeks, purely on the strength of having been chosen as “Pick of the Week” in the L.A. Weekly, I realized that we had a chance to make a difference. New York had its Obie Awards, celebrating the best of off-Broadway. It seemed to me that the Weekly should similarly recognize and draw attention to the best of the Equity-waiver season.

So, together with my loyal team of theater critics, I launched the first L.A. Weekly Theater Awards. Like many of the theaters whose work we honored, the Weekly was still a struggling upstart. But Milt Larsen liked the idea enough to make a generous deal for the use of his Variety Arts Center downtown, which was a great break for us. Thanks to Milt we had a stage, lights; we could project slides of the shows themselves and the categories of the awards. We were doing a little of what the smaller theaters were doing, presenting a show without much of a budget.

We spent a long night hashing through our list of nominees and winners. Each critic had his or her favorite productions and performances. If one of us got excited about a show, we encouraged the others to see it, too. I often went to see shows other critics on the team had loved or hated. There were many weeks when I saw six or seven plays.

Soon we were able to entice celebrities to participate. Michael Douglas, one of our founding directors, volunteered to present the awards in the early years. Later, Georgia Brown and Carol Channing were guest hosts.

The winners of our L.A. Weekly awards posted their certificates in the lobbies of their theaters and mentioned them in their programs. I was as proud as they were. The L.A. Weekly, which started as no more than an overly ambitious idea, was already becoming a Los Angeles institution.

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