LA Stage Alliance picks longtime theater critic Steven Leigh Morris as executive director
After more than 25 years of telling the world what he thinks of Los Angeles theater as a reviewer and essayist -- with the mandate to provoke that comes with that territory -- Steven Leigh Morris has taken a new job that calls for diplomacy and consensus-building: executive director of the LA Stage Alliance, a service organization that tries to represent the interests of the entire Los Angeles theater scene.
In a statement Tuesday announcing Morris’ hiring, Stage Alliance board Chairman Brian Kite said he was picked because he’s “a talented, inspiring and creative force” who has been “a true leader” in Los Angeles theater.
“As a community, he has praised us when our work soared and looked us in the eye when we missed the mark,” Kite said.
Morris takes charge of a nonprofit organization with recent annual budgets of just over $1 million. Its mission includes advocacy and marketing help for more than 250 members that pay annual dues from $300 to $1,800.
The Stage Alliance runs the annual Ovation Awards for theater excellence on the L.A. scene (the 2015 ceremony is Monday at the Ahmanson Theatre) and operates a website that includes an online theater magazine and a portal that advertises its members’ shows and expedites ticket purchases.
The theater alliance is seen as particularly important to smaller companies that don’t have large marketing budgets.
Morris acknowledged in an interview that he’s very different from his predecessor, Terence McFarland, who resigned last spring after 11 1/2 years to become associate executive director of the Valley Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge.
McFarland was not a well-known figure when he took the job soon after earning a master’s degree in theater and film from California Institute of the Arts. Morris arrives with a very long paper and pixel trail as former theater critic of the L.A. Weekly and more recently as founding editor of the L.A. theater website Stage Raw.
Under McFarland the Stage Alliance stayed neutral about a potentially epochal issue facing L.A.’s small theater scene, the decision by the stage actors’ union Actors’ Equity earlier this year to end a longstanding system that allowed its L.A. members to perform essentially as volunteers, donating their time for rehearsals and receiving a small stipend for performances.
The national union leadership has mandated that Equity members be paid the minimum wage for rehearsals and performances alike – going against an advisory vote in which L.A. rank and file members came out strongly against the plan.
The new system would go into effect next spring, when the minimum wage will rise to $10.50 an hour in Los Angeles County, although there would be certain exemptions, including one for companies run by union members. A group of affected actors recently filed a federal lawsuit that aims to stop the new system from taking effect.
Morris has firmly opposed to the minimum wage requirement and envisions a departure from LA Stage Alliance’s past neutrality.
“In my view an organization such as L.A. Stage Alliance should stand for something” on such an important issue for the theater scene, he said.
“I think the role is to offer as much support to keep as much art as possible in the city, and allow theaters to use the best actors who wish to be on those stages.”
On the other hand, Morris said, his new job requires him to take into account the need to represent “a large number of theaters that may have divergent views” on that and other issues. With that in mind, he said he will conduct a series of meetings “to get a clear understanding of what is needed” on the theater scene. A list of priorities “should come from [constituents], not just a fantasy in my head,” Morris said.
Recently Morris has written essays for the Stage Alliance website as well as for Stage Raw. He said he’ll end his “hands-on” involvement with Stage Raw, setting up new leadership in the coming two weeks so Stage Raw can continue.
As he takes on his new job, Morris doesn’t think he has hatchets to bury with theater artists or ensembles he may have outraged or at least annoyed as a critic.
“I don’t feel I’m the kind of critic who goes out of my way to pan people,” he said. “I always see what’s possible in a production that might not have hit the mark, and that’s what I emphasize. That perhaps might explain how I got this job. People saw me as an advocate for the community, and for an art form. I have enemies, but I’m not sure they’re in theater.”
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