This year was a noisy and divisive one in local theater, punctuated with threats, real and imagined — from sources allegedly ranging from the IRS to the state's Labor & Workforce Development Agency to the stage actors and stage managers' union (Actors' Equity Association) — to disembowel L.A.'s long-standing 99-Seat Plan. This plan allows, under restricted conditions, union actors to perform in theaters of up to 99 seats while waiving their right to higher compensation.
In 2014, critiques of that waiver rolled in on the crest of the living-wage monsoon: Professional actors should be treated as professionals and not be permitted to work for tokens — even if they want to — because a system that pays professionals mere gas money degrades the profession. (Tried journalism lately?) Higher compensation was the year's rallying call.
Yet where would that money come from, if even our most savvy producers are operating at a loss? Because if there are no contracts for higher compensation to replace or improve upon the current terms of the 99-Seat Plan, then all we get is a void where before we at least had some activity. That's the conundrum providing the fuel for the very heated cauldron of debate. Furthermore, even the token-payment activity under the 99-Seat Plan, in our current high-rent environs, has been diminishing, noticeably and scarily, with nothing (yet) available to replace it.
A resolution of some sort to improve upon the plan is expected in January from Actors' Equity, which holds almost all of the playing cards on this issue.
This was not the best of years in other ways, too. "L.A.'s Theater," Center Theatre Group — an organization that can actually pay a living wage — has been doing a good job involving local communities in neighborhood projects but a less good job in hiring L.A. artists, choosing with irritating frequency to import productions in part or entirely from New York and Chicago.
CTG's year opened with Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, with much of its New York team in place — they tried to get the show's Broadway director, Nicholas Martin, but couldn't because of scheduling conflicts; it did, however, land Shalita Grant, Kristine Nielsen and Liesel Allen Yeager, all from the Broadway production. CTG's year closed with the Goodman Theatre's evocative Luna Gale, brought in almost entirely intact from the Windy City.
It's marvelous to see the finest work from other cities, and we look forward to CTG showing a similar commitment to the locally based artists who prove again and again their own caliber of distinction.
The very good work on L.A. stages this year was a reminder of why it's worth keeping the towel, rather than throwing it in. Local theater: How do I love thee? Let me count some ways, with no particular hierarchy:
Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posner's hip, smart, contemporary riff on Chekhov's The Seagull, directed with silky panache by Michael Michetti at Theater @ Boston Court.
Brooke Adams and Tony Shaloub's gently funny rendition of Beckett's Happy Days, staged by Andrei Belgrader, also at Theater @ Boston Court.
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Shirley Jo Finney's pristinely choreographed staging of Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brothers Size, at the Fountain Theatre.
Performing the Bard with endearingly sloppy jocularity in Griffith Park, Independent Shakespeare Company, with productions ranging from Romeo and Juliet to Much Ado About Nothing, continued to draw sellout audiences that actually reflected the ages and ethnicities of people who live in L.A. How rare is that?
"Not more Chekhov!" you wail, but Pacific Resident Theatre pulled off a very traditional rendition of The Cherry Orchard with just the right blend of whimsy and gravity. Artistic director Marilyn Fox and Scott Conte were particularly on target as Ranevskaya, the proprietress, and Lopahkin, the merchant who buys her out. Dana Jackson directed.
Add to the mix LATC's provocative and varied Encuentro 2014 Latino Theatre Festival; Ebony Rep's raw, moving Paul Robeson; Rajiv Joseph's early play Gruesome Playground Injuries, following a couple with a penchant for self-destruction, at Rogue Machine; a powerful Marjorie Prime at the Taper, investigating what makes us human rather than robots; an inspired Tartuffe at A Noise Within; Emilie Beck's Sovereign Body at Road Theatre Company, looking at the many reverberations of a stroke; McCraney's Choir Boy at the Geffen, about homophobia in a parochial high school, poignantly directed by Trip Cullman; and a performance piece about sexual awakening, Bronx Gothic, as hypnotically performed by Okwui Okpokwasili in a Showbox L.A. presentation at the Ebell Club in Highland Park.