Inside LA STAGE History: Equity Waiver vs. Olympic Fine Arts Festival, 1984

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[dropcap]The[/dropcap] 1984 Summer Olympic Games were awarded to Los Angeles in 1978. And, as stipulated by the Olympic Charter, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC) was mandated to create a correlating 10-week arts festival, taking place June 1–August 12, 1984. The original concept for the festival was to feature programs that were international in flavor, reflecting the character of the Games, which worked well for Los Angeles, where more than 80 languages and cultures coexist.

By 1982, the official Olympic Arts Festival Committee was in place, headed by Robert J. Fitzpatrick, President of California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). In early 1982, Festival organizers entered into consulting agreements in the performing arts with three primary co-producing organizations: the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum in theater; the Dance Gallery of the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company in dance; and radio station KUSC-FM in chamber music.

The overall budget for the Olympic Arts Festival was placed at around $10 million, providing funding for more than 400 performances by 146 theater, dance and music companies, representing every continent and 18 countries. But by early 1983, what was clearly missing from the budget, and from the Festival Committee’s programming plans, was any representation by LA’s vibrant professional Equity Waiver (99 seats or fewer) theaters.

Such local producers as Joseph Stern (Actors for Themselves), Ron Sossi (Odyssey Theatre Ensemble), Ted Schmitt (CAST Theatres) and Peg Yorkin (LA Public Theatre) confronted the Festival’s programming agenda. According to Schmitt, “Fitzpatrick just shrugged and told us to come up with a plan. The asshole actually shrugged.”

As reported by Los Angeles Times theater writer Sylvie Drake in May, 1983: “The unhappiness in the Los Angeles theater community at what is perceived as an uncaring attitude from the Olympic Arts Festival has intensified. Acting on directives from the Olympic Arts Organizing Committee, a group of 11 Equity Waiver and mid-size theaters drafted a proposal for a local theater festival to run as an adjunct of Olympic Arts. At an earlier meeting of the theaters and the Committee, Robert J. Fitzpatrick, director of the Olympic Arts Festival, has offered to commit $75,000 to a local theater festival, contingent on the group’s ability to formulate a sound plan for the project.”

In a recent interview, Joseph Stern recalled, “There was no way in hell a decent representation of the 99-seat theaters in town would be able to put on a theater festival for 75 grand. That wouldn’t pay for the light bulbs in the bathrooms. So, we got together and came up with an alternative plan that would really spotlight the quality of the work we were doing here in LA.”

Indeed. A committee of Equity Waiver producers drafted a proposal, budgeted at $665,620, to produce a “Best of L.A.” theater festival, reviving hit productions from the previous decade. Over the next month, they heard nothing from the Festival Committee. Finally, the local producers learned, by way of a newspaper item, that they had been turned down. They were livid, and Fitzpatrick was unavailable for comment.

Fitzpatrick did finally respond by letter, dated June 2, 1983, reiterating the committee’s commitment to fund the project for $75,000, with an additional $25,000 stipend to facilitate “a program of workshops and lectures with foreign artists.” Fitzpatrick also requested a financial plan from the participating LA theaters and set a September 1, 1983 deadline “for all necessary funds to be in place.”

Through most of the summer months of 1983, the Olympic Festival Committee and representatives of the LA theater community were engaged in a series of often heated discussions, proposals, and counter proposals. The theaters came down from their previous monetary request, now asking for $300,000. Fitzpatrick would not budge from his previously stated $100,000 total. At one point in the process, the members of the LA theater community stormed out of a June meeting with Fitzpatrick.

On June 30, LA Times’ Sylvie Drake reported, “…what chiefly appears to have provoked the walkout was attitude, rather than money. ‘There was a really strong patronizing tone coming from Fitzpatrick,’ said Ron Sossi, artistic director of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. ‘It’s a mentality that there’s no theater worth watching in this town,’ said Peg Yorkin of the L.A. Public Theatre. ‘Remember, there were no plans originally for us to participate in this festival. I would say that’s being discriminated against.’ ‘It was like ice in there,’ added Don Eitner of American Theatre Arts, one of the few who did not walk out on the talks but remained ‘to express my distress and embarrassment at the very poor communication between the committee and us.’ ”

Along with their distress over the Committee’s actions, members of the LA theaters, who felt strongly that all of the local theater community should be supportive of their efforts, became miffed that the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum offered no support, and in fact was completely passive. CTG/Taper responded that since it had already been appointed to be the consultant for the international portion of the official Olympic Arts Festival, it was taking a position of nonintervention in regard to the LA theaters’ efforts.

By mid-July, 1983, Fitzpatrick offered a financial compromise. While he was not budging from his original $100,000 total, his committee would offer “$50,000 worth of additional services,” as long as the LA theater festival would agree to fewer productions. As reported by Sylvie Drake on July 9, “ ‘I think the dollar amount is still a problem,’ said Joseph Stern of Actors for Themselves, ‘but we have some ideas we want to discuss with Olympic Arts. We’d like to make this thing work. ‘We’re basically agreed the effort is genuine,’ said Susan Loewenberg of L.A. Theatre Works. ‘We’re willing to negotiate.’ ”

By August, a five-member panel was put together to receive participation proposals from any LA-based theaters that wanted to participate in the festival. The panel included Susan Dietz (L.A. Stage Company), James Hanson (Ahmanson Theatre), David Selznick (President of the Louis B. Mayer Foundation),  the L.A. Public Theatre’s Yorkin, and Jack Viertel, theater critic for the Herald Examiner. Of 33 proposals received from L.A. producers, the panel chose nine productions that would appear in 1984. The productions would operate under a cultural services agreement, with a stipend of $12,500 each from the Olympic Arts Committee. They would use their own facilities and receive all ticket revenues.

The thousands of folks from all over the world who came to the Los Angeles-hosted XXIII Olympiad were treated to an Olympic Arts Festival that featured stellar productions from such acclaimed companies as London’s Royal Shakespeare Company, Paris’s Theatre du Soleil, Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, Montreal’s Theatre Sans Fil, the China Performing Arts Company, and Boston’s American Repertory Theatre, among the 19 troupes invited to take part. They were also able to see nine LA theater productions that did our community proud.

The Lineup

  • The premiere of Nina Shengold’s Homesteaders, directed by Sam Weisman, produced by Joseph Stern of Actors For Themselves at the Matrix Theater.
  • The four-character musical, Brain Hotel, featuring songs by various composers, directed by Tony Abatemarco, produced at Ted Schmitt’s CAST-at-the-Circle Theater.
  • A series of short plays with a sports theme, produced by the Ensemble Studio Theatre.
  • Olympic Trials, a whodunit set in L.A. during the 1932 Olympics, staged by the Groundlings.
  • The premiere of Sherlock’s Last Case, written and directed by Charles Marowitz, presented by Bill Bushnell at Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre.
  • Steven Berkoff’s Agamemnon, produced by Susan Albert Loewenberg of L.A. Theatre Works.
  • The West Coast premiere of David Mamet’s Edmond, staged by Ron Sossi at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.
  • A revival of Samson Raphaelson’s 1939 classic, Skylark, produced by Beverly Sanders, Sylvia Walden, and Dolores Mann, performed by Room For Theatre.
  • The West Coast premiere of Al Brown’s Back to Back, produced by Tom Ormeny and Maria Gobetti at the Victory Theatre.
Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.