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VISITING CRITICS DINE ON RICH L.A. THEATER FARE

Times Theater Writer

Throw a party and you’re usually the last to know if everybody really had fun. What you hope for is that the doorbell works, the house is inviting, the weather cooperates and the caterers show up.

By those standards, the American Theatre Critics Assn.'s annual convention, held in Los Angeles last week, was a good party.

First, almost everybody came--about 70 critics (from as far away as Oregon, Washington, D.C., Florida and Alaska), which is record attendance for this 14-year-old national group.

Second, Los Angeles had its best foot forward, with so many strong shows in Equity Waiver theaters as well as mainstream houses that a few were quite unintentionally overlooked within the limits of a six-day conference that included both seminars and theater-going.

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The fare was varied as well as rich and ranged from Salome Jens in her one-woman “about Anne . . .” (at Stages) to the perennial “Tamara,” performed in a mansion, room to room. (How apt to see a play billed as a “living movie” in the film capital of the world.)

Third, the scheduled panel discussions covered a wide range of topics--from what it’s like for critics to have worked both sides of the theatrical fence (such as directing or working in a literary capacity for a theater), to such endemic film-capital concerns as what it’s like for theater and film to co-exist--and just exactly what is Equity Waiver.

Our friends from other cities discovered that Waiver (whereby the actors’ union “waives” its rules in theaters of 99 seats or less), though uniquely functional in a city where actors can support their theater habit by working in television and film, remains a hotly debated issue on the local front.

Like truth, it’s a matter of perception. Some see Waiver as a way to get free labor (most Waiver actors are professional but unpaid), others see it as the catalyst most instrumental in Los Angeles theater’s rise to prominence in the past 14 years. Whatever the point of view--and many emerged in the animated course of a seminar last Saturday--the complexity of the issue could at least be sensed if not adequately explored.

The point of these annual meetings of critics is, in fact, not so much to focus in depth on issues of primarily local interest, but to provide a sort of barometric report--first-hand information on the theatrical climate of a city--and to help establish lifelines between the national press and local theaters, including theater artists with whom these critics might not as easily have become acquainted. This helps both the critical and the theater communities.

Two other annual preoccupations of this body are more directly altruistic. They are the voting of the regional Tony award (which goes to any eligible theater outside of New York City) and the nationwide search for a new play to represent the most distinguished playwriting efforts each year to be found outside the Big Apple.

The American Theater Critics make their recommendation for the regional Tony directly to the Tony awards committee which can accept or reject it. So far, the committee has always accepted it.

The American Repertory Theatre of Boston is this year’s winner and, for the first time, the giving of this award is expected to be on the televised portion of the Tonys on Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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(West Coast winners have included the Mark Taper Forum, San Diego’s Old Globe, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre and the Oregon Shakespearean Festival.)

As for the playwriting award, it goes this year to August Wilson for his play “Fences” done at the Yale Repertory. Runners-up are Leonora Thuna for her play “Fugue” and Polish emigre Janusz Glowacki for his “Hunting Cockroaches” (as translated by Jadwiga Kosicka). The winning plays will be represented (as they have been in the past) by a chapter and partial reprint in the Best Plays yearbook, edited by Otis L. Guernsey Jr. Again, for the first time this year, the critics have attached a $1,000 prize to the winning selection. This will now be an annual award.

The best way to get to know your hometown is to introduce a stranger to it. You’d be amazed at what you find. For the planners of the conference there was this palpable element of rediscovery.

Aside from the variety of theatrical venues explored (not nearly enough of them, but the best one could do in six days), consider the peripheral drama of the new downtown skyline, visits to 20th Century Fox, to the Getty Museum and to the Malibu cliffhanger house of writer Jerome Lawrence where a panel discussed the pros and con of working in all media.

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Spicing up the debate at the Lawrence house were Lawrence himself, producer/director/actor John Houseman, playwright John Steppling, literary agent/director Michael Peretzian and actors Marie Windsor and Rene Auberjonois. (Herald Examiner theater critic Richard Stayton moderated.)

Perched on a deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean, they provided two hours of lively discussion about selling one’s play (read “soul”) expensively to the movies (read “the devil”) versus retaining one’s artistic integrity in the much more frugal halls of theater.

The mischievous Houseman playfully chided playwrights who take the money (from the movies) and don’t run (they complain instead), by reminding them that no one forces them to sell. “Everybody knows, " added the glowering television spokesman for Smith Barney, “how I make my money.”

In the final afternoon, the range of experience went from the very old (the restored Pasadena Playhouse, where costume designer Stephanie Schoelzel gave the most articulate account of the function of costume on stage) to the very new (still empty) Museum of Contemporary Art on Bunker Hill, seat of much future performance art. And what could be more theatrical than the rousing hands-on-walk-through Red Grooms exhibit at the Temporary Contemporary, as a culmination to the week’s events?

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A week’s visit has its limitations, but you’d be surprised how much one can pack into it.

“Other Places,” three powerful one-acts by Harold Pinter at the Odyssey II Theatre have added a 4 p.m. Sunday matinee to this, their final weekend (213) 826-1626.


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