Honoring Theater for Fun and Profit

Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

The fifth annual round of competitive Ovation Awards will be presented Monday in a star-studded ceremony at the Shubert Theatre in Century City, to be hosted by Nathan Lane. The peer-judged awards, for which 281 productions are competing this year, are sponsored by Theatre LA, the city’s largest association of theater companies and producers. Lawrence O’Connor and Alisa Fishbach are the organization’s board president and executive director, respectively.

O’Connor, 31, has a day job as general manager of the Shubert for the Shubert Organization. He’s also co-president of East West Players, the mid-sized downtown company, which he first came to appreciate while serving as an Ovation voter. As a volunteer at East West, he met his future wife, actress Sabrina Lu.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Nov. 22, 1998 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 22, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Producing credit--Contrary to information in last Sunday’s Calendar, Jeff Brown has produced the last three Ovations Awards ceremonies. Lawrence O’Connor and Alisa Fishbach, president and executive director of Theatre LA, respectively, co-produced the ceremonies in 1994 and 1995.

Fishbach, 34, first met O’Connor when the two participated in a Newport Beach community theater production as teenagers. They went their separate ways for a while, which for Fishbach included a stint as Theatre LA’s associate director in 1990-92. They were reunited when Fishbach joined the Shubert staff as theater operations manager, serving until Theatre LA hired her as executive director earlier this year. O’Connor and Fishbach jointly produced the previous two Ovation Awards shows at the Shubert.

Question: What’s the purpose of the Ovations, beyond the recognition of individual achievements?


Fishbach: To celebrate the community as a whole. The awards acknowledge that the community develops and presents extremely high-quality work that should be acknowledged at least one night a year.

O’Connor: Every industry toots its own horn, and our community hadn’t done it, on our own terms. This allows us to tell our story in our own words.

Q: Is it public relations?

O’Connor: That would mean we’re coming up with a pitchable story, and that’s not what it is. The awards are real, the voting process is real. Excellence is being honored. However, we also could do that in a private ceremony in one of our lobbies. The extra elements of the awards--the production quality, the actor presenters who have worked in the theater and gone on to success in TV and film--all of that allows us to do both: We honor the work, and also publicize the fact that we’re doing excellent work and that we’re a business to be reckoned with.

Q: Most people don’t think of L.A. theater as a business. Most of L.A. theater isn’t commercial theater.

O’Connor: That doesn’t mean it’s not an economic engine. The Center Theatre Group is nonprofit, but all of the people who work at the Music Center and at the downtown restaurants--who live off the people coming to the CTG theaters--don’t care if it’s commercial or nonprofit.

Fishbach: And the people who come to the theater don’t care, for that matter. Most of them probably don’t know if it’s for-profit or nonprofit.

O’Connor: There are hundreds of millions of dollars spent every year in this city in the theater or because of the theater.


Q: Not many people make a living solely from L.A. theater, though. Or at least the actors are always complaining about it.

O’Connor: Are they? I honestly don’t know that. That’s a question for Actors’ Equity.

Q: Is L.A. a “theater town,” whatever that means?

Fishbach: L.A. is a city that has a huge amount of theater going on every year. Whether that makes it a “theater town,” I don’t know.


O’Connor: In the world I come from, the way you measure that is by how many tickets you sell. And many years, L.A’s second only to New York [in the U.S.] in how many tickets are sold [in commercial theaters]. Is Seattle a theater town? We kick Seattle’s butt in terms of tickets sold. If you want to include the smaller theaters and nonprofits, we’d be right up there with New York as well. We don’t have the built-in tourist industry that New York theater has. But we have an amazing market that lives here.

Q: How will you ever get tourists to come here for theater?

O’Connor: We’re not going to try to get them here for that purpose.

Fishbach: Exactly. Our first task for visitors is to make sure they know it’s a viable and positive option while they’re here.


O’Connor: When people come here and go to see a show, they need to know it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll enjoy themselves. That’s part of what the Ovations are about. If a theater has won an Ovation, they have a way of saying they were judged by their peers as having a product that’s above the others.

Q: But most tourists have never heard of the Ovation Awards.

Fishbach: Not yet. But we’re five years into the competitive awards, and every year we’ve seen more attention paid. I’d love to know where the Tonys were five years in, or even the Academy Awards. The potential is enormous.

O’Connor: We’re also realistic. L.A. is always going to be a movie town and TV town. For a long time, members of this community fought against that, saying, “We’re different.” The new feeling is that we’re trying to use movies and TV as an advantage. Because of them, we have amazing talent here, many of them with theater roots.


Fishbach: I like to think that L.A. is an entertainment town. Whether that’s film, TV, theater, the Getty, the opera, whatever. The level of entertainment that’s available here--I’d put us up against any city.

O’Connor: But the advantage theater has for tourists is that when you come to see a show, you can see today’s or tomorrow’s stars live. That’s how we can possibly hook the tourist dollars.

Q: L.A. may be a great theater town for audiences--so much talent, so many intimate theaters, relatively low ticket prices--but most of those theaters don’t pay a living to the people who produce or work in them.

O’Connor: Theatre LA’s job is to focus on the former, not the latter. We represent theaters and producers, and their focus is mostly on getting people to the theater, making it an option for the people who live here and visit here. As soon as that becomes a tangible reality and really starts to snowball, I would guess the other aspects of the industry will follow. But even if the employment situation changes, Theatre LA doesn’t change. We’re not a collective bargaining arm. We would still do the same thing, which is to promote going to theater in L.A. And what we’ve found is that if one theater can use us to build an audience, it helps other theaters.


Q: Yet so many of those theaters are so far apart from each other.

Fishbach: The perception in the past was that we had to battle against geography: “We’re so spread out. We don’t have a Broadway.” That attitude is changing. We realize it’s a positive thing. I love the fact that I have a theater within walking distance of my house. I may venture out to see something else, but it’s fantastic that there is theater everywhere in this city and that it’s accessible to everybody, no matter where you live.

O’Connor: We like to think of a lot of our theaters as small neighborhood businesses. The way you get those customers coming back is to treat them well so they come back and use your store again. I’m glad that there isn’t another big theater next door to [the Shubert] with another musical. When you have three theaters on a street corner, people can choose only one that night. It’s not necessarily a good thing.

Q: Doesn’t encouraging neighborhood theaters work against the idea of a community? So many L.A. theater producers never see each other’s work.


Fishbach: The way the Ovations are structured, the voting process encourages people who are work

ing in theater to see more of each other’s work. It encourages us to gather as a community throughout the year, not just on one night.

Q: But with so many eligible shows, isn’t it difficult for an average voter to see enough shows? Aren’t there cases where an award is decided by only one or two voters, because they’re the only ones who saw all five of the nominees?

Fishbach: It’s a trade-off for keeping the purity of the voting. I’d much rather have that situation than having people vote when they haven’t seen all the nominated shows.


O’Connor: Theoretically it’s possible that a small handful can decide an award--only the computer knows for sure--but at least we know they’re making a knowledgeable choice, that it isn’t just a popularity contest.


OVATION AWARDS CEREMONY, Shubert Theatre, 2020 Avenue of the Stars, Century City. Date: Monday, 7:30 p.m. Prices: $15-$125. Phone: (800) 447-7400.