Observing Ovations on MLK Day, an LA Circus Festival

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Some good things about this year’s Ovation Awards:

1. The awards ceremony took place on Martin Luther King Day. If the proportion of African Americans who won awards had been tiny, this could have been embarrassing. But as it turned out, black-themed shows won both of the production awards for intimate theaters — The Women of Brewster Place in the small musicals category and The Ballad of Emmett Till in the small plays category.

Shirley Jo Finney, who is African American, won a directing award for Emmett Till, and her all-black ensemble won the ensemble acting award. L.Trey Wilson, an African American writer, won the original playwriting award for the all-black Something Happened. Two black actors won individual acting awards: Daniel Beaty as one of three winners in the competition for lead actor in a play, and David St. Louis as outstanding featured actor in a musical.

Michael Shepperd of the Celebration Theatre accepts a production award for THE WOMEN OF BREWSTER PLACE.

Note that none of these winning accomplishments from African American talent occurred under the auspices of black-specific theater companies. And only one of the productions mentioned above, The Women of Brewster Place, was from a company (Celebration Theatre) with a black artistic director (Michael Shepperd). Of course the LA area’s most prominent black artistic director, Sheldon Epps at Pasadena Playhouse, wasn’t able to produce at full speed last year because of the playhouse’s financial troubles.

Do the achievements of black artists at theaters that aren’t black-specific argue for a theatrical version of the integration that Dr. King espoused — as opposed to the more separatist approach that the late great August Wilson advocated? Wilson argued eloquently on behalf of black-specific theaters, although the fact is that most of his plays emerged through a network of white-run institutions. Is there still an important role to be played by black-specific theater companies, with black artistic directors and mostly black boards?

Does the comparative lack of Latino Americans and Asian Americans among this year’s winners say anything about a comparatively greater need for Latino-specific and Asian-specific theater companies?

And what about women? LA Stage Alliance (LASA) executive director Terence McFarland, in remarks at the awards ceremony that focused on the meaning of holding the event on the King holiday, observed that no women were nominated in the playwriting category. Could this mean that women’s voices are so insufficiently represented that more women-specific theater companies should be encouraged?

Rather than pontificate on the answers to all these questions, I’d rather read other people’s answers in the form of comments to this post or entirely new posts from readers, especially those who are from the demographic groups mentioned above.

2. On an entirely lighter note, holding the ceremony on MLK Day also insured that the westbound traffic to the ceremony at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza was lighter than it is during most Monday rush hours. (However, the severe pedestrian congestion in front of the ticket distribution tables on the Plaza’s courtyard seemed to consume more time than a traffic jam on the 101. I was grateful that no one shouted “Fire!” outside this particular theater.)

3. Sally Struthers. The “host” or emcee is often the source of much of the levity at awards shows. Although this year’s Ovations ceremony had no official host/wisecracker, Struthers came close to filling the vacuum, getting more laughs than anyone else on stage. It helped that she appeared twice.

Sally Struthers provides levity at the Ovation Awards ceremony.

First she accepted an Ovation for her performance in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s Cinderella — which she had performed in the same Kavli Theatre where the ceremony was taking place. Among other quips, she dryly noted that one of her reasons for taking the role was that “I only live 33 miles down the road” — a reflection on LA’s far-flung theater landscape that seemed to resonate among the many in the crowd who had driven at least that far to get to Thousand Oaks.

Later, Struthers presented an award, and her first comment was a tart little critique of the ceremony’s set, which focused on the same circular patterns that can also be seen on the LA Stage Alliance web site. She quipped that during her previous appearance, she had been “remiss. I wanted to thank Dunkin’ Donuts for the set design.”

4. Ah yes, the winners. Let’s consider only the winners of the five major awards. Four of these are awards for single productions — and this year, one of these was a tie, with two winners. All five scripts from these winning productions were either brand-new or new to the area: The Women of Brewster Place, The Ballad of Emmett Till, Four Places, Oedipus the King, Mama! and Equivocation. I liked all of them, but not unconditionally, and none of the winners were on my lists of the highlights of 2009 or 2010. This is good, in a way, because it means more shows are being honored in at least some manner. In most of these categories, I liked some of the Ovations runners-up as much I liked the winners.

The cast of THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL accepts an acting ensemble Ovation Award.

The single most prestigious award is for Best Season, and here the Fountain Theatre triumphed for its combination of The Ballad of Emmett Till, Opus and Shining City. This mix of shows was perfectly perched between rivals whose seasons seemed perhaps too safe (Cabrillo, Reprise, The Production Company) and the more ambitious offerings of the most-nominated company, Boston Court, whose season of all-new plays included two (God Save Gertrude and The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder) that were notably weaker than the other two (Oedipus el Rey and The Twentieth-Century Way). Also in the running were LATC, which revived two of its own originals and threw in a Donald Freed play that never quite took off, plus Troubadour Theater, which won the Best Season award last year and therefore probably didn’t have much of a chance this season.

Are revivals getting a fair shot at the Ovations? Perhaps one or two additional production awards for revivals should be added. Such companies as Reprise, A Noise Within, Antaeus and the Production Company probably suffer from the natural tendency to want to reward new voices and new ventures.

And now a few complaints about the 2009-10 Ovations, most of which I also wrote about last year, apparently to no avail:

To be eligible for the Ovations, a registered show must be seen and scored by at least 12 voters. I continue to believe this number is too low. Ditto for the numbers of shows that each voter is required to see — 25 for most voters (with at least 20 in sub-100-seat theaters), and a mere 10 for company artistic directors who double as voters. To put this into perspective, nearly 400 productions were in the running for Ovation Awards in 2009-10. So most voters needed to see only one out of 16 eligible shows, and some were allowed to see only one out of every 40.

This year LASA provided me with a chart of how many shows were seen by each of 250 voters, with no names attached. The busiest theatergoer among the Ovation voting ranks in the 2009-10 Ovation season saw 278 shows, including 191 in sub-100-seat theaters. The second busiest saw a total of 225 productions. These were the only voters who saw at least half the eligible shows.

Twelve additional voters saw at least 100 productions. Forty-seven voters saw between 50 and 99 shows. If it were up to me, I’d set 50 as the minimum number of shows voters must see — that’s about one per week. Although only 61 of the 250 voters in 2009-10 would have qualified under my proposed rule, that would still be a much larger voting body than those of any of the other theater awards programs in LA.

I would like to publicly salute those two voters who saw more than 200 productions, but LASA declines to reveal their identities. Apparently there has been some concern that people who have seen that many shows in previous years might not have been genuine peers. Working theater professionals wouldn’t have that much time to see other people’s shows — or so goes the theory. Even if that’s true, however, the mere act of seeing that many shows surely gives those voters the kind of well-informed perspective that many of the other voters lack — especially if they can demonstrate enough professional experience in their pasts.

Finally, I’d like to repeat my vain hope that some audience members at the Ovations ceremony (you know who you are) would stop screaming at the top of their lungs at every mention of their friends or their other favorites. The screams were so frequent that if an uninformed stranger happened to pass through one of the Kavli corridors, he or she might have imagined that a horror movie was being screened inside the theater. I can’t believe that actors, in particular, would want to abuse their voices in this fashion — and looking around the audience during some of the screaming attacks, I could see that many people were applauding but not screaming, most of the time. The screamers were in the minority, but they tried to sound as if they’re in the majority. Perhaps a gentle admonition from the management at the beginning of future ceremonies might help?

CIRCUSES CIRCUSES CIRCUSES: Life’s not a cabaret, old chum — it’s a circus. Or so it appears judging from the sudden confluence of three very different circuses in LA.

Circus INcognitus at the Kirk Douglas Theatre is an ideal way to introduce kids to the theater (it’s recommended for ages 6-12), while keeping the adults entertained, too. It’s a solo circus, except for one brief bit with a stagehand, but clown/juggler/acrobat Jamie Adkins keeps everyone on the edge of the seat. He encounters formidable obstacles in performing the simplest tasks — but he works through the difficulties in order to accomplish amazing feats. It’s hard not to see this as a pretty good lesson for an audience member of any age.

The other two circuses target audiences about 20 years older than that of Circus INcognitus, but in very different ways.

Traces, at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre, is a French-Canadian enterprise from the 7 Fingers troupe that counter-programs against its more famous frère, Cirque du Soleil, by presenting its performers not as human beings transformed into fantasy creatures but rather as the twentysomething habitués of the latest indie coffee joint or Hollywood hipster bar or  downtown loft. They’re dressed in street clothes, and they occasionally speak about themselves on a mobile microphone that dangles from the top of the stage, adopting tones and attitudes that you might see at a poetry jam or read on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. They also sing and play instruments. But then they go into their very impressive acts, and you can see they’ve probably spent a lot more time dangling from bars than hanging out in bars. There’s a lopsided sexual tension in the air, in part because only one of the seven performers is a woman, and at times the six men appear to preen for her benefit. Traces is right at home in the heart of the newly revived Hollywood nightlife district, and it’s great to see this venue again used for something besides selling shoes.

Cirque Berzerk, at Club Nokia in downtown LA, follows closer in the Cirque du Soleil footsteps. A young woman, alienated by corporate conformity, accepts an invitation to die and enters an underworld of circus acts. Cirque Berzerk is a home-grown group; I first wrote about it here. But I was a little disappointed that its 2011 show is too much like Berzerk’s 2009 show Beneath, which followed the same narrative, though individual acts differ. I also preferred the more genuine circus atmosphere of a big top in a park in 2009 to Club Nokia’s giant-sized nightclub ambience. I’m sure that this kind of commercial success might help Berzerk get on the map and provide more comfortable wages. Las Vegas is probably in the Berzerkers’ future. If they’re going that route, they should at least be careful to vary the content of their shows, as Cirque du Soleil has done.

Cirque du Soleil itself will open a permanent show at the Kodak in Hollywood later this year, so it’s probably just as well that these three smaller ventures had their inadvertent circus festival now, before the big frère returns.

Circus INcognitus, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Saturday at 11 am and 3 pm, Sunday at 3 pm. Closes Sunday. 213-628-2772. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.

Traces, Ricardo Montalbán Theatre, 1615 Vine St., Hollywood. Tues-Fri, 8 pm; Sat, 2 and 8 pm; Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Closes Feb. 20. 800-982-2787. www.tracesusa.com. www.BroadwayLA.org.

Cirque Berzerk, Club Nokia, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., LA. Wed. Jan. 19, 8 pm; Thurs, 8 pm; Fri-Sat, 8 and 11 pm; Sun, 8 pm. Closes Jan. 30. 800-745-3000.  www.cirqueberzerk.com, www.ticketmaster.com.


Ovation ceremony photos by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.


Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.