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Good Work Just May Be Universal

December 26, 1985|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

Distance can offer sobering perspectives, as 1985 demonstrated. "Have bag, will travel" was the slogan for this writer. The discovery? That good work is universal--whatever its cultural context.

February to June was spent in Denver, on leave from The Times, spearheading a program of new plays at the Denver Center Theatre Company, which meant working the other side of the fence.

It reaffirmed how thwarting and thrilling it is to create theater and renewed one's conviction that playwrights are the most unsung toilers in the world's most ephemeral of cottage industries.

November was spent in Europe, talking, listening, looking.

This included looking back at theater in Los Angeles. Even from as remote (and theatrically sophisticated) a spot as, say, Lithuania, the best of Los Angeles theater looked remarkably good. The Europeans have repertory and refinement; we have a passion for experiment and current events. One thing we learned from the Olympic Arts Festival last year is that we can learn from each other.

At home, it was a year of major change. Call it redistribution. After a dozen years of indiscriminate spread, Equity Waiver leveled off (down to 500 productions from a peak of 550 in 1983). The weeding out strengthened the soil. Shows that endured were tougher and ran longer. "In the Sweet Bye and Bye" (Back Alley), "Wrestlers" (Cast), "A Voyage to Arcturus" (Odyssey) were at least three pieces that transcended their imperfections to capture the heart or the imagination. (As usual, the theaters doing the brave work were the ones one could regularly count on to do it.)

Simultaneously, new larger-scale Equity theaters emerged (the Henry Fonda) or assumed new identities (the New Mayfair and the James A. Doolittle, formerly the Huntington Hartford).

Productions that came along to fill them also were scaled up: more self-assured ("Glengarry Glen Ross"), more challenging ("Endgame," "The Garden of Earthly Delights"). We had the unprecedented treat of Harold Pinter playing a far more humorous Deeley than one had suspected possible in his own "Old Times." Even the paralyzed Wilshire dusted itself off for a respectable engagement of "Aren't We All?" If one had to miss part of the year in Los Angeles, fall was not the time to do it.

Most welcome among the brave new theaters is the Los Angeles Theatre Center, which opened all four of its doors in September.

Its navigational problems may not be entirely over, but its programming is the most varied and iconoclastic in town. As the first Waiver theater to make the quantum leap to Equity status--from a modest two-stage spot on North Oxford Avenue to a major four-space $17-million complex--it is symbolic of the changing topography of the town, especially the new downtown where it now resides.

The major distinction of 1985 is a shift from statistical prowess (quantity) to a stronger affirmation of artistic vision (quality). Are we, perhaps, just beginning to see the salutary effect of the Olympic Arts Festival on the local scene?

At the Waiver level, a squabble between Actors' Equity and the Tiffany Theatre typified the union's unease with Waiver (whereby Equity "waives" its rules in theaters of 99 seats or less). In an unfortunate chain of events, Equity, which contested the Waiver status of the Tiffany's handsome new twin houses on the basis of a technicality, was taken to court by the owner and lost. But the union was reacting to something else.

It saw luxury as a misuse of the Waiver's intent--to give actors a chance to freely ply their trade. It would have liked to see the money spent on actor salaries. The Tiffany may feel vindicated, but there are no clear winners here. That theater has yet to house a show that will match in artistic value what it offers in material comfort.

On other Waiver fronts, Equity had better luck. Actor complaints about abuses last year had the virtue of prompting self-regulation by Waiver operators this year.

And the languishing business of playwrights' rights versus actors' rights surrounding new plays was finally settled by the Dramatists Guild and Equity with the creation of a Subsidiary Rights Trust Fund. Its finer points are still being nailed down, but the fund should take care of the complex payoffs set in motion when a new play, mounted in a Waiver situation, is picked up for commercial production.

As for Europe and Lithuania, they offered more than perspective. Long plays are in current favor in Europe (which may account for Robert Wilson's popularity there), but aside from the well-publicized Theatre du Soleil's nine-hour neo-Shakespearian epic on Prince Sihanouk and Peter Brook's demystified "Mahabharata" (also nine hours), we found two other compelling items.

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