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Overheard at the Ovations
(Originally printed in the L.A. Times, 1996)

by Don Shirley

Playwright August Wilson sat in the front row of the Shubert Theatre on Monday, glimpsing L.A. theater as it's represented in the annual Ovation Awards ceremony. His impression?

"It's interesting that you don't have rigid hierarchies here—that it's all just theater," he said after the ceremony. Unlike the awards scene in New York, for example, where the Tonys can go only to Broadway shows, L.A.'s most prominent theater honors—the Ovations—can go to lavish productions like "Carousel" but also to shows in tiny theaters. "The Ellis Jump" in the 40-seat space at the Met Theatre won two awards, for example.

"Some of the best theater is done in small theaters," Wilson said.

Wilson received a special award and a warm tribute at the ceremony. A series of slides depicted scenes from Wilson's plays, then presenter Alfre Woodard compared him to Chekhov, Odets and O'Neill.

Still, Wilson's "Seven Guitars"—seen last winter at the Ahmanson Theatre before going to New York, where it was nominated for 8 Tonys—failed to snag a single Ovation nomination. Wilson didn't mention it in his remarks, but when asked about it later, he acknowledged that he noticed. "I thought it was odd, given the number of categories. But then it's not a constitutional right to get a nomination."

Wilson's speech also didn't mention his recent, controversial stance against "colorblind" casting, but one of the Ovation winners did. Richard Montoya, accepting an ensemble award for "Radio Mambo" as part of the Culture Clash trio, said that Wilson "dropped a bomb on the nation's theater presenters" and that he agreed with Wilson's view that "race somehow matters."

The three Latinos who make up Culture Clash "probably won't get cast in 'Last Summer in the Hamptons,'" Montoya said. He told producers that "we're eager to talk to you about your audiences and the color of their blue hair. We want to be your Hispanic Wendy Wassersteins. We won't steal anything—let us on your mainstage."

The pacing of the Ovation ceremony bogged down when Matrix Theatre actors (and TV stars) Sharon Lawrence and Jeffrey Tambor, who had been announced as presenters of a special award to Matrix producer Joe Stern, in fact were merely the introducers of a five-person crew of other Matrix actors, each of whom took several minutes to deliver a personal tribute to Stern.

"I got to watch my eulogy," Stern said later. "Talk about overkill. I was sinking into my seat."

Following his elaborate introduction, Stern accepted the award, at one point referring to having "completed this three-year partnership" with his Matrix company, which led some to ask later whether Stern was about to quit. But Stern told The Times that no, he wasn't quitting, and that he would have changed his verb if he had known how it sounded.

Stern joked that his hope to become the resident producer at the Westwood Playhouse (now the Geffen) didn't come true, and his failure to get the last credit for his B.A. prevented him from becoming a theater dean somewhere, so he's sticking with the Matrix. The only event that might make him quit would be a further restriction in the number of performances allowed under Actors' Equity's 99-Seat Theater Plan, he said.

William Freimuth, executive director of Theatre L.A., which sponsors the Ovations, told the crowd that the organization plans to open a central ticket booth for same-day discounted tickets that could be "up and running during the first half of next year." Further details will be revealed later, he said.

A few other quotes from Ovation night:

Jane Kaczmarek, accepting an award for featured actress for "Kindertransport": "My mother said it was like open heart surgery [to see the Holocaust -themed play]. Thank you for validating the pain I inflicted on my mother."

Quentin Drew, a Watts-based actor who was in Cornerstone Theatre's Watts-based "Central Ave_ Chalk Circle": "It's like a dream to" stand here and represent Watts in something positive." Referring to the "ember" lit by Cornerstone in his community, he said that theater would continue to develop in Watts because "the first flame is for you. The bonfire is for us."

Alec Mapa, accepting an acting award for "Porcelain," speaking as an Asian American actor: "Consider our talents not in terms of nontraditional casting but in terms of casting."

Steven M. Porter, accepting an award for featured actor in "The Imaginary Invalid": "I may be selling out, but I hope to turn this [award] into a lucrative career in Equity-waiver theater."

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