Michael Van Duzer

Michael Van Duzer

Michael is an award-winning playwright and director. For over 25 years he has reviewed opera productions around the country for a variety of print and online outlets. During the past year he has added theater to his reviewing duties.

An Interview with Steven Leigh Morris, Newly Appointed Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance

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interview by MICHAEL VAN DUZER

[dropcap]Less[/dropcap] than 24 hours after the announcement that Steven Leigh Morris, the doyen of Los Angeles critics, had been named as the new Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, I had an opportunity to speak with him over the phone and ask a few questions about his thoughts on the position and his feelings about the current Los Angeles theatre scene.

Michael Van Duzer: Steven, you’ve had a very visible and influential role in LA theatre for many years. What attracted you to the Executive Director position? What does being a leader and an advocate for the community mean to you?

Steven Leigh Morris: I think that my role as a critic has always been that of an advocate… Because I see criticism as a form of advocacy for an art form. And that’s different from not being critical. I think, over 30 years, my enthusiasm for the LA theatre scene is not contrived, it’s authentic. I’ve seen work that is of top caliber. It is imaginative. It is passionate. And I have enjoyed doing whatever I can in the pages of the LA Weekly and on Stage Raw to get that word out as a form of advocacy.

Why LA STAGE Alliance? This is a very different type of organization with a different set of connections. I think, through that, I would look forward for different kinds of opportunities to serve the community. In short, to help get the LA stage scene on the map. In a way that, for some inexplicable reason, it hasn’t been. Not in the way other theatre cities are on the map. I point to Chicago and, certainly, New York.

I just think that we haven’t yet forged the right kinds of alliances in Los Angeles. Goodness knows the talent is there, the organizational skills are there, the passion is there. There’s just a missing link and I’d like to find that link and help make LA a destination for people who are curious about the arts beyond the theatre community itself. And I think I can do that through LA STAGE Alliance… I think this is a lovely opportunity to be able to carry that work forward.

Van Duzer: So it feels like a natural progression for you?

Morris: Exactly. It’s a progression and a new opportunity to continue the work that has mattered to me for three decades now.

Van Duzer: I know that you’re familiar with the history of the organization, so what plans do you have to move the Alliance forward? What, if you’ve even had time to think about them, are your goals for the organization? Obviously, you’ve just mentioned a major goal—to discover that “missing link.”

Morris: Well, there are micro goals and macro goals. In terms of the micro goals, I really need to talk to the theatre community directly about this very question and find out—or sort of diagnose what their needs are. Because I’m not going to propose possible solutions and programs based on some kind of fantasy. I really want to hear if I can get a consensus on what the problems are, and how the organization can help solve those problems.

One thing I have heard from the community is that you get these really vibrant, young theatres. They come out of UCLA, they come out of CalArts, they come out of SC and some of the Cal States and then form these really interesting theatre companies. And they hang in for about 10 years and, suddenly, the women want to have kids. And they want to get married. They don’t really want to give up their life in the theatre, but they’re unable to [continue], because nobody’s there to care for the children. So… why don’t we have some kind of child care program that the LA STAGE Alliance could help organize? Provide that kind of service to keep these talented people in our theatres. That would be one program that I would like to investigate.

That’s an example of what I call a micro program. In terms of other things, I’m really hesitant to say until I really talk to people. Go out into the city, meet people in various corners and hold roundtable panels—not even panels, just discussions, town hall meetings. Just to hear from the community what their needs are. From there, we can suggest policies that could address those needs.

In terms of macro policies, there are two things that I have a passion for. One is the future of audiences. This is evidence that has been cited over and over again… that, with audience growth, we’ll only be assured if we are successful in getting schoolchildren in the general population into our theatres. Once children have had that experience, at a fairly formative age, they do return. That’s been measured. And we have to find some kind of program to get these schoolchildren into our theatres of all sizes. And then tie that into those theatres having direct contact with those children, and working with them in encouraging them to return. The audience for the future is a terribly important issue.

The other one is a hot button issue right now, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about before it was a hot button issue. And that’s diversity. We can’t continue to have a Theatre that fails to represent onstage, in the audiences and in the coverage of the art form, the make-up of the people in the city. I would encourage larger programs which would try to address and redress the lack of diversity on our stages. In terms of tactics, Terrence McFarland, the former ED (Executive Director) has been very helpful with his offer to introduce me to some of the sister arts organizations in other cities. Perhaps we can fund some of these together, in partnership, so that they can have a national impact instead of just a local impact.

Those are some of the larger ideas I have. Other than that, I’m a little behind in my sleep. That’s the best I can do for this week.

[We share a commiserative laugh over this.]

Van Duzer: As a journalist, you’ve enjoyed a bit of a bully pulpit, which has allowed your thoughts to reach the theatre community in a fairly steady stream. And you’ve not been shy about expressing your opinions. At heart, you’re still a writer. Do you plan to find a way to continue this flow of communication in your new position?

Morris: You know, that’s a very good question.

Van Duzer: Obviously, you’re approaching the job from a different background than your predecessors.

Morris: Right. I would like to continue writing. And I would like to continue writing essays about how some of the productions fit into a larger cultural, or even political context. I don’t believe it’s necessary to voice my opinion on specific productions.

Van Duzer: Of course. But I was thinking more of your position-type papers.

Morris: Right. I’ve discussed this with some members of the Board already and I was very happy to hear an opinion expressed that the organization should not be shy about taking some principled stands. And I think that’s a very good sign. If that’s true, I’m looking forward to taking advantage of that.

Van Duzer: This question is somewhat general and would take hours to answer thoroughly, but I’ll ask it anyway. It’s an attempt to focus in on some of your immediate thoughts. What do you think about the overall health of the local theatrical landscape—both institutions and individuals?

Morris: Yeah, that is a complicated question. I think it’s challenged financially, and it’s not intrinsically challenged artistically. Those two overlap. A point of view that I expressed at least ten years ago and have gotten into some trouble for… I think the virtue of Los Angeles—the ability to do plays here, to do productions, is at its highest and best use as an incubator of new work in particular. And that doesn’t rule out kinds of productions at all. But it seems like you have some of the best actors in the city who can really get new works off the ground and out, not only into LA, but out around the country. And, as we’ve seen recently from the Fountain Theatre, even across the Atlantic.

Our ability to do this has been very much tied into the financial possibilities, which are becoming much more challenging for a number of reasons having to do with a combination of real estate prices, the lack of what I would call civic support for an art form, which exists more in other cities. And… I’m hesitant to say now, and I almost want to stay out of it, because my understanding is that Equity and the Review Committee are talking. All I can say is that I hope those talks are fruitful and can help build the legacy of what has been built over the last 30 years which, in many ways, works so well.

Van Duzer: I think you’ve already spoken to parts of this question, but I ask it in case it sparks specific feelings on the position itself. What do you anticipate will be your greatest challenges?

Morris: Probably, in the climate we are in, it will be funding the programs that I would like to implement. Finding the funding. That’s an easy question.

Van Duzer: And, finally, what are you most looking forward to upon taking the position?

Morris: I would like to hear, in the wind, that LA STAGE Alliance is an organization that truly serves the community in a way that the community feels is helpful to them. Whatever form that takes.

Van Duzer: And along with that would be, I imagine, a growth in membership?

Morris: I’d like to see everybody on board. But we have to give something back. We are a service organization and our responsibility is to provide service. And that is at the top of my agenda.