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NO ONE WINS WHEN IT’S THE INDUSTRY VS. THE THEATER

A recent column about a recent non-opening night has brought some rather pointed mail.

The show was Donald Freed’s “Alfred and Victoria: A Life” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Originally it was supposed to open on Oct. 30. Then actor Philip Baker Hall got a movie, so LATC put the opening back to Nov. 19.

Meanwhile, actress Dinah Manoff got a part on"Murder, She Wrote,” and guess what night they needed her? So LATC once more set back the opening, to Nov. 21.

This struck me as a rather poor way to run a railroad, so I fired off a column asking why local theater always had to take the short end of the stick when there was a booking conflict with The Industry.

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It’s still a good question, but a letter from Peter S. Fischer, the executive producer of “Murder, She Wrote,” makes a good case for the way his show handled the Manoff affair.

“We did not learn of Miss Manoff’s theatrical commitment until two days before shooting was to commence, at which point it was not possible to replace her with an actress of equal talent,” Fischer writes. “The lady’s agent had three weeks to advise us of the problem. Had the agency done so early enough, we would have released Miss Manoff from her commitment. They didn’t--and we didn’t.

“We hold all theater in high regard and we are not interested in ‘raiding’ legitimate theater with the lure of big dollars. Time and again we have released actors and directors for major opportunities in film or theater when we have been given timely notice. . . .”

Fischer adds that Manoff’s “Murder, She Wrote” salary was nowhere near the $20,000 I had estimated. “ No one has ever been paid that kind of money to appear in one of our hour episodes-- ever .”

Well, fair enough. I read Fischer’s letter over the phone to Manoff’s agent, Lori Rosson, who had previously told me that the show “had broken their top considerably for Dinah.” This time she conceded that her client’s salary was more like $10,000 than $20,000 (still light years away from the $100 a week that Manoff was making at LATC).

More important, Rosson acknowledged that she hadn’t, in fact, told the “Murder, She Wrote” people about Manoff’s theater commitment until the last minute. Reason: It didn’t seem, until the last minute, that there would be a conflict.

So “Murder, She Wrote” is off the hook as the villain of the piece, and I am on the hook for getting the story wrong. But in a funny way, Fischer’s letter confirms the basic problem I was writing about: the vast gap between The Industry and Los Angeles theater.

If it takes an agent to make a TV executive realize that his leading lady is currently performing in a major downtown theater (“Alfred and Victoria” had started previews at LATC on Oct. 21), then he’s not paying much attention to downtown theater.

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Granted, he’s not paid to do so. But it’s hard to imagine the situation coming up in New York or in London, where film-TV people take a certain pride in keeping up with the stage scene. In our town, Industry people think of theater as little theater--something that actors do between real jobs.

“Oh, I never go to the theater in L.A.,” a TV producer once told me, after recounting his wonderful week catching the hits in London. An actor in a production of “The Front Page” at the Huntington Hartford Theatre once actually sent me word, via a press agent, that he knew his hair was too long for a 1920s play--but he was up for a Western at Universal.

Agents tend to reinforce that attitude, even as they’re claiming that they love to have their clients do theater. It’s not unfair to speculate that the ultimate reason Manoff’s agent didn’t feel obliged to notify “Murder, She Wrote” of her client’s stage commitment was the realization that the commitment could easily be gotten out of. Which is exactly what happened.

What’s to be done? It might help if Industry people would admit to themselves that they do see local theater as a kind of poor relation. Practically speaking, actors and agents with stage commitments should spell them out when they sign for an Industry gig. And Industry executives should do what they can to make those commitments work--not just as a gesture of solidarity with the theater, but out of the practical knowledge that good actors, the kind they want for their shows, draw sustenance from live performance.

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On the theater front, actors and agents should be equally specific about their Industry commitments when they sign up to do a play, even in an Equity Waiver house. This leads us to a letter from director-playwright-critic Charles Marowitz, who suggests that “the real villain of the piece is Actors Equity.”

“Under existing Equity contracts,” Marowitz writes, “any actor having entered into a bona-fide contract can abrogate that contract with two week’s notice if a better (i.e., more lucrative) job comes up.

“In practice, this means rehearsals can proceed right up to dress-rehearsal or previews and, if Mammon beckons, the actor can blithely excuse himself and turn the whole project over to an under-rehearsed understudy--thereby destroying the entire chemistry of what has been accomplished. . . .

“Why should the actor’s right to employment be greater than the audience’s right to receive the entertainment it has contracted by purchasing a ticket? Why should the actor’s right to leap into greener pastures be placed above the director’s right to fulfill his artistic conception? Why is the actor’s survival more important than the art form or the public in which he plys his craft? . . .

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“In a society where most everyone is an acolyte to the bitch-goddess, the money argument tends to be unanswerable. ‘Listen, jerk, would you give up a contract in the thousands in order to honor an agreement for a few measly bucks in a stage production?’

“Until the answer to that derisory question is ‘I will fulfill the letter and the spirit of the agreement I made, no matter what the financial consequences,’ the Los Angeles theater will remain a kind of compost-heap from which performers stretch out their hands to pick ripe but malodorous plums from the branches above. . . .”

Actually, some Los Angeles theaters, notably the Mark Taper Forum, do make their actors pledge not to jump ship for an Industry job during the run of a play. That’s preferable, it seems to me, to eliminating the termination-clause from the general Equity contract. Until the day when directors surrender their right to fire actors, actors need to protect their right to walk. But it’s tacky to make a habit of it.

(Manoff, by the way, didn’t walk. She went back to “Alfred and Victoria,” which closes at LATC tonight.)

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Finally, J. Walcutt of Studio City, an actor, writes that it’s hypocritical of the Los Angeles Times to expect others to take local theater seriously when it doesn’t do so.

For example, the Times doesn’t review “Henry V” at the Shakespeare Society, because there aren’t any name actors in it. But when a bunch of “soap-opera stars” decide to do “Hamlet” at the very same address, they do get a review. “What merits attention in the theater, Mr. Sullivan? Quality or glitz?”

Quality, Mr. Walcutt. And there’s no reason to assume that people who act in soap operas can’t do Shakespeare. It’s the possibility of that crossover that could make theater in Los Angeles as vital as theater in London, once we get our priorities straightened out.


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