On the occasion of our 50th Anniversary, past and present LADCC members share some of their most memorable moments in LA Theater.
When I was new as the Herald-Examiner entertainment editor, Hair opened in town. It was that season’s sensation—I was dying to review it. My very conservative publisher, George Hearst, sent word that his newspaper would not print a word about any play with a nude scene. HELP! Soon one of our photographers—call him Photogenic—told me Hearst had asked him to get the usual publicity shots, see if it really had a nude scene, and report back. He himself was ultra-conservative. I considered resigning in protest but didn’t. The next day I got a cackling call from Hair’s PR guy. Working from the light booth, Photogenic dropped to his knees to change rolls of film. “Down there in the dark HE MISSED THE SCENE. HE $%!&# MISSED IT.” Photo said, “Go ahead, Win, write your review.” Surely that was divine intervention.
Win is a New York Times bestselling author whose Dictionary of the American West is held in 728 libraries. Winner of the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement in writing literature of the West, he resides in Utah.
I came along during the period when the Showcase Code yielded to the 1972 Equity Waiver Rule, passage of which created a numerical explosion of new theaters all over the LA basin, like toadstools after rain. Some of them did lovely work, some of them were toilets. The LADCC was a strange, contentious group, some of whom looked like they only came out at night, at the center of which was a cabal of reviewers, led by Variety’s Bill Edwards, who got together to push their pets—mostly mediocre and worse performers—for awards and recognition at the annual LADCC banquet. The LA Times’ chief theater critic Dan Sullivan once called Edwards “an oaf,” which was a perfect description. But no one will ever know how much Edwards did to bring that rule into effect and thereby lead LA theater into its most vibrant period.
Lawrence is a former LA Times staff writer, where he was the first full-time comedy critic on an American daily newspaper. He has written widely on culture and the arts for such publications and internet sites as the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and CultureCrash.
My first review was of an adapted short story, long title, by Shaw, The Adventures of The Black Girl In Her Search for God at the Mark Taper. I wrote it for a weekly called The Canyon Crier, to find out if I could be a theatre critic as much as become one. My first review for the LA Times was a really good community production of Brigadoon. When I turned it in, Dan Sullivan, who’d assigned it, asked “Was it really that good?” I said yes. I don’t think he believed me. Dan urged me to join the LADCC, which I discovered was a handful of severely opinionated and argumentative people. What a surprise. I was its president twice. Over the 19 years we worked together, Dan and I took turns, with one of us threatening to resign from the group and the other saying no, no, you can’t. Neither of us did, until we each left town.
Sylvie Drake writes “on a fairly regular basis” for cultural weekly.com, and has also written recently for the Los Angeles Times and American Theatre.
“If it’s important, it will come to New York.” My newspaper’s lead drama critic Jack Viertel stared incredulously. I’d asked The New York Times cultural editor which critic he’d assigned to review the ten-week Olympic Arts Festival. Nothing like it had been attempted before. Los Angeles would host over 140 productions, performed by 146 theater companies: from West Germany, Pina Bausch; from France, Ariane Mnouchkine’s Kabuki Shakespeare; from Italy, legendary maestro Giorgio Strehler’s Tempest. I assured my mentor that the NYT editor had indeed said, “No one.” But I covered that phenomenal 1984 festival for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. And it made me a drama critic. Extraordinary theater compelled a higher level of criticism. When Viertel was lured from journalism by Gordon Davidson to become the Mark Taper Forum’s dramaturge, I inherited Jack’s role. Privileged, I asked to review a Harold Pinter premiere. In London! My new boss said, “If it’s important, it will come to L.A.”
For 20 years Richard was editor-in-chief of Written By, the WGA West’s monthly magazine. His play After the First Death won the Goshen Peace Prize and was produced in theaters across the world.
I was once president of your august body, in 1983-84. My memories are mainly quite vague about the activities of that time, except for one extremely vivid one where two critics had a passionate disagreement (I forget about what) during a meeting, and then, following the meeting, one of them tried to run the other one over with her car (I am not kidding). It was a fairly wild bunch. I do remember our hosting an annual event, possibly in an auditorium at the Roosevelt Hotel, but that’s about it….As I live in New York now I won’t be able to attend, but I’m hoping for a great event for those who do.
Jack is senior V.P. of Jujamcyn Theaters and the author of The Secret Life of the American Musical. He actually presided over the 1984 dinner at Variety Arts Center, about which Sylvie Drake wrote it was “emceed with verve and dispatch by Circle president Jack Viertel (Herald-Examiner), and masterminded by David Galligan (Drama-Logue).”
Los Angeles? They got theater out there?” said a NY Times pal when I jumped ship for the LA Times in the sixties. Nobody would ask that today. Once a road town, today’s LA has become what a travel agent would call a destination city, a place with its own theatrical history, neighborhoods, legends, accents, costumes. and weird tales. What a great story to cover, and I had a front row seat — at the Taper, at the LA Theatre Center, at South Coast Repertory, at all those ratty little theaters on Melrose, at the acting troupes that went on to glory (the Company Theater, the Actors’ Gang) and the high-minded ones that couldn’t make it work (the Inner City Cultural Center.) It’s all a blur now but I’ve got a closetful of scrapbooks that prove it happened. And still does, no question.
Dan has reviewed theater and music for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Minneapolis Tribune and other fine newspapers for many years. Today he writes letters to the editor and composes light verse.
I believe I was the first member of the LADCC who wrote exclusively for the Internet. I wasn’t sure they’d admit me—wasn’t sure that writing for the Internet counted. Next thing I knew I was joining meetings in the Special Collections Room of the Glendale Public Library (we were a special collection, I was told), debating the relative artistic merits of shows, and negotiating out the most equitable way we could vote on nominations from a field of shows too numerous for anyone to possibly see them all. Most memorable LADCC moment: when I had to tell the group we couldn’t get our liquor license in time, so might have to have a dry awards. Most memorable review: Once, I was invited back to see a show a second time, because they had incorporated a couple changes I’d suggested. I always enjoyed knowing that the people who created shows I loved knew how much I loved their work; but knowing that my input made a show better warmed my icy little critic’s heart.
Sharon still occasionally writes reviews for TalkinBroadway.com, but now spends most of her free time traveling, coping with middle age gracefully, and trying to teach lawyers math.
Being part of the LADCC for three years was an amazing way to meet other critics and delve deeply into the extraordinary theatre community of Los Angeles. Co-producing an LADCC awards show with Bob Verini, hosted by the Troubies, was a highlight for me, except the part where I found out fifteen minutes before opening that the caterer had the date wrong. But the show, and the food, went on!
As a Los Angeles theater critic, Amy reviewed for LA Weekly, Backstage, The Santa Monica Mirror, Stage Raw, and The Beverly Press. These days, Amy splits her time between Los Angeles and the Washington D.C. area, where she contributes reviews to Washington City Paper.
Several years back, I was attending an opening night performance at the Malibu Playhouse. I arrived at the last minute, and did not initially notice that the woman seated next to me was a former child superstar and celebrated sitcom luminary. It was Rose Marie, who died in December of 2017, following the release of a fabulous documentary film about her extraordinary life and career. Clearly not a shy person, she apparently noticed my note-taking during the first act, and gently elbowed me in the ribs, saying, “Well, what do ya think?” I then noticed the tiny trademark hair bow she was wearing (Baby Rose Marie, grown up). We had a fabulous chat at intermission, as she relayed great anecdotes about Dick Van Dyke and Doris Day, and chatted up a storm. Halfway through the second act, an actress fainted onstage, and the show was interrupted for a while. Bow-haired Rosie quipped to me: “I could get up and do a dance.” Before long, we were told the actress was OK, and the show went on. I have never forgotten that funny and extraordinary encounter.
Les has worked as a journalist and critic since the 1980s for Backstage, Frontiers, LA Stage, and others. He has interviewed countless numbers of celebrities and is the author of a bio-bibliography of Julie Andrews.
When the set died during press night for 9 to 5: The Musical at the Ahmanson, the show’s composer-lyricist jumped up to jolly us into a singalong and wipe away any critical grumpiness (and we can be grumpy). 9 to 5 went on to cop LADCC awards for musical score and for choreography; who can say how much of the show’s lingering good cheer was set in motion that night by Miss Dolly Parton herself? I further recall the show’s director, the estimable Joe Mantello, taking exception to something I’d written in Variety in a fairly blistering e-mail. I wrote back politely, highly aware (without saying so) that the man was probably exhausted and may have regretted how he expressed himself. Our resulting exchange of ideas ended most pleasantly—a reminder that everyone in theater is trying to do their best, and that we’re all fallible human beings.
Bob covers New England theater for Variety and New York Stage Review. His Play-a-Day capsule commentaries, posted daily on Facebook, also appear in ArtsinLA.com.
Greater Los Angeles is one of the world’s most dramatic metropolises, thanks to the astonishing diversity of the people, their communities, even the physical topography. It’s also a magnet for people who want to act, write and direct. We have the ingredients for a great theater. But the sheer distances within LA, the domination of the Hollywood industry and the preponderance of very small venues sometimes prevent Angelenos from noticing their theater scene—and that includes many of those who now run LA’s major news organizations. Being an LA theater critic has repeatedly yanked me off my sofa, away from screens, and into face-to-face contact with the many communities where theater happens. I’d like to see those communities themselves reflected more often in their productions. But whatever is on the stage, I’m grateful that I’m able to get out there and take another look at what’s happening.
LOVELL ESTELL III
I was truly excited to see Brian Dennehy’s performance in Death of a Salesman, back in 2000 at the Mark Taper Forum. There was a buzz in the crowd, and a good hour before the show, I pampered myself with three or four glasses of wine. And, predictably, ten minutes before curtain, I had to make a stop. So, after waiting in line for a few minutes, I sauntered over to the WC, and as soon as I settled in, Kirk Douglas parks himself in the stall next to me. Hell, I was kind of surprised, and then I said “Hello, Mr. Douglas,” to which he replied, “Hello, how are you? Well, our “conversation” went on for a while, touching on the upcoming show, etc., etc. And then we parted ways. “Enjoy the show,” was the last thing he said to me. We could have just as well been talking over a cup of coffee!
Soon after I joined the LADCC in 2014, I attended my first awards show at the Colony Theatre, driving to Burbank with two small balloon arrangements I’d agreed to contribute. When I placed them on the tables, I saw them as they were: pathetic, sparse and wan to the point of hostility. They ripped away the tissue-thin veil of illusion that guards the human spirit from despair. I stood alone as the nominees arrived, mortified that they had dressed so nicely for such balloons. Yet during the awards presentation the winners looked thrilled and moved—some to tears—to receive their plaques. That’s when I got it: the whole value of the LADCC, theater criticism, awards shows, even balloons. The opportunity to shine a light, however dim, on people’s work in the theater. It requires witnesses, this work, audiences to seek it out, experience it, find meaning in it, and fight for it. My urge to see and write about plays didn’t have to be a weird, shameful quirk that annoyed everybody. It could lead to something valuable, sometimes. That was the first time I felt like part of this community.
Padua Hills’ groundbreaking work by Mednick, Fornes, Steppling, O’Keefe, Martell. Bernard Jackson’s Inner City Cultural Center: an epic Ethiopian war play, Fernando Arrabal, & Fugard’s Arrests Under Immorality Act. The King’s Road Globe’s King John & George Coulouris as Lear. Los Angeles Actors Theater, doing Richard Wesley and Miguel Piñero later at LATC with Etta Jenks. Olympic Arts Festival, especially Teatro Piccolo de Milano and Ariane Mnouchkine. Everything ever staged by Peter Brook, most daringly The Ik, performed in the corridors of UCLA’s Melnitz Hall. Richard Wilson/Lucinda Childs: I Was Sitting on my Patio… Richard Foreman Inside the Ford. Joe Stern’s heyday at the Matrix. Ron Sossi’s Brechts at the Odyssey: Poor Woman of Szechuan, Caucasian Chalk Circle with Franklyn Seales, Baal. After the Fall with Harris Yulin and Julie Cobb. Reza Abdoh. David Schweizer’s Plato and Broadway. Antaeus Classics Fests at Dakin’s original sweltering location, particularly Tony Amendola’s best Strindberg I’ve heard, reading of The Father. All Fugard premieres at the Fountain. Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog. Actor Solidarity, when they can muster it.
I started reviewing the professional theatre scene in Los Angeles for a Southern California community theatre magazine in August, 1973, not realizing press got free tickets. I had season subscriptions for the LACLO, Ahmanson, Mark Taper and Huntington Hartford and reviewed their shows. I discovered Equity Waiver theaters on a memorable Sunday in February, 1974. I saw a matinee of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs at the MET Theatre, which was a 50-seat space on Poinsettia Place. The show was directed by co-founder Timothy Scott and starred co-founder James Gammon, Carol Vogel and Belinda Balaski. That evening at the Zephyr Theatre I saw The Onion Co.’s A View From the Bridge starring co-founders Ed Knight and Patricia Kane. Those companies are long gone as are Colony Studio Theatre Playhouse, The CAST, the Callboard, the Megaw, Theatre of Light, L.A. Actors Theatre and many more from the glorious 1970s & 1980s.
My Los Angeles theater experiences produce a kaleidoscope of memories. Newly arrived in town, I sat near Fred Astaire at the old Huntington Hartford, who was as delighted as I at seeing Myrna Loy in Barefoot in the Park, watched Katharine Hepburn acting from a wheelchair at the Ahmanson after fracturing her ankle, marveled at Julie Taymor’s stunning African animals in Lion King, danced in the aisles at Mamma Mia at the Shubert, and spent hundreds of hours in tiny, strip mall theaters all over the city putting on productions that made me laugh, weep, and everything in-between. The rich artistic environment that is LA theater inspires me every time I head out for a show.
One of my earliest encounters with Los Angeles theater remains among the most arresting: Circle X’s exquisite 2006 production of Eurydice at Inside the Ford. I had found myself at the theater almost by accident, drawn only by a suspicion that the sensibility of both the material and the company would speak to mine. The Los Angeles premiere flayed me. John Lang’s direction brought Sarah Ruhl’s poetic elegy for her father gorgeously to life; within minutes, I was openly weeping. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s tiled dream-logic set, Robbin E. Broad’s otherworldly sound design, and most of all the devastating performances of the ensemble, led by John Getz, Kelly Brady and Tim Wright—all was note-perfect. At the end I poured myself out of my chair and into my car, and from there began a long relationship with the works of Sarah Ruhl and Circle X. Since then I’ve watched as the company has tackled more and more ambitious plays, but none has affected me quite like that one. I still have the postcard.
FRANCES BAUM NICHOLSON
One’s most memorable moment in the theater isn’t always the production which remains the most inspirational, or most artistically creative, though I could name several banner moments. Sadly, sometimes it’s the one which was the hardest to get through. That would be Hal Prince’s production of A Doll’s Life, which premiered at the Ahmanson before heading east in 1982. It was awful, on many levels. I was 24 years old, sitting at a typewriter, trying to figure out how to say that the hallowed Hal Prince, hot on the heels of Sweeney Todd and Evita, had laid an egg. Hardest thing I ever wrote. I was never more grateful to read the reviews of others and realize I was not alone. The invective Prince used toward LA critics is now legend, as is the New York reputation of the show as one of the most notorious flops in Broadway history.
One of the best things about being in the LADCC is that I’m constantly exposed to the opinions of other LA critics, who put shows on my radar that I otherwise might not see. I remember a few years back, Margaret Gray recommended a show called Good Grief, a world premiere that had just opened at the Kirk Douglas. I don’t typically enjoy watching sad stories, so I was wary, but I trusted Margaret, and caught Good Grief in Culver. I was astounded—it was one of the best pieces of writing I’d ever seen, a beautiful, moving piece that plays with memory and time in elegant ways. I’ve held the play near and dear to my heart since, re-reading it and proclaiming its virtues to anyone who will listen. I’m quite thankful for Margaret’s recommendation, Ngozi Anwanyu’s nimble writing, and CTG’s stellar production.
One night at the theater doesn’t necessarily equal another. Some are filled with colorful music and energetic dance. Some offer powerful and insightful drama. And—rarely—some are true, transformative experiences. the theater is a blank page was one of those experiences. The immersive and innovative production, with an actor reading text from Virginia Woolf’s seminal novel To the Lighthouse, leads viewers—actually, participants—through the theater, from the balcony to backstage to center stage with visual art by Ann Hamilton and interactions with cloth and confetti and even cookies. It’s ruminative and contemplative and cathartic. When it’s over, it’s like awakening from a meditation. Like you’ve gone somewhere without leaving, and are rejuvenated. You feel rested and solid, and clearer somehow. While theater may be a blank page for directors and artists to project their dreams, it is also vibrant and alive and even spiritual.
It’s hard to believe that eight bars of silence in a musical top my list of unforgettable moments in LA theatre, but those eight bars were thrilling. It was 2002 and Deaf West’s Big River had just transferred to the Taper. I’d never seen deaf and hearing actors together on stage before and I spent the entire show transported by the exhilarating, passionate, and lyrical integration of disciplines. It was one of the most expressive performances I’d ever witnessed, and then came the reprise of “Waitin’ For The Light To Shine” in Act II. The combination of hearing actors singing full voice and deaf actors singing in American Sign Language was gloriously triumphant…and then the voices dropped out and everyone sang the next chorus in silence choreographed only with ASL. A collective gasp when through the audience and I thought my heart would burst out of my chest. Tears? You bet.
As a relatively new resident of Los Angeles, my theater memories here only go back about 8 years, but there are three moments that stand out so far. The first is seeing the initial production of Deaf West’s Spring Awakening in 2014. I was so moved and amazed by how many new layers this version had uncovered in a show I thought I knew inside and out, a show that was formative for me, that I went home and published my thoughts on my blog. A year later, thanks to that unofficial review, I found myself at Antaeus for their lovely production of Picnic, my first as an invited critic. Finally, I’ll never forget sitting outside on a June night last year, watching Tom Hanks entertain the crowd with improv, never breaking character, when Henry IV was paused for a medical emergency.