LA Stage Alliance Disbands After Awards Ceremony Blunder

The organization that runs the annual competition honoring theater work in Los Angeles imploded after it misidentified an Asian-American actor.,

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Jully Lee, an actor and director, had a bad feeling about this year’s Ovation Awards, the annual competition honoring stage work in greater Los Angeles. She was a voter who had never been told when the ceremony would be, and she learned she was a nominee only when she was given 48 hours to submit a pretaped acceptance speech for use in the event that she won.

She watched anyway.

What she saw was not good. The awards ceremony, streamed online last week, showed a picture of a different Asian-American actress when announcing her category. And it mispronounced her name.

Lee laughed, reflecting a lifetime of trying to be a good sport. But her boyfriend grabbed a screenshot, and posted it on social media, and he was not the only one.

The reaction was swift, and furious, as long-simmering frustration over the functioning of the LA Stage Alliance, which administers the awards, combusted with the pain and anger of an Asian-American community devastated by a wave of anti-Asian violence.

Forty-six theaters resigned from the alliance — about a third of its members. And on Monday, the organization, which for nearly a half-century had been the main coalition for a sprawling theatrical ecosystem in the nation’s second largest city, announced that it was disbanding.

“It is with deep regret that the board of governors has unanimously decided to cease all operations,” the group said in a statement posted on social media.

The rapid implosion was precipitated, most recently, by East West Players, the Asian-American theater that co-produced “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo,” the play in which Lee performed. (In another slight, the Ovation Awards attributed the production only to the Fountain Theater, saying it would not credit co-producers.)

The morning after the ceremony, Snehal Desai, the producing artistic director for East West Players, announced that his theater was revoking its membership in the alliance, and urged others to do the same.

“I felt like I needed to make a strong statement, because we were paying to be part of this organization that was diminishing us,” Desai said. “And I did call on other theaters to join us, because I wanted more than statements of support. Statements don’t do anything.”

Many of the region’s theaters, which had been speaking up in support of diversity, equity and inclusion, first in response to the unrest over racial injustice last summer, and then again in response to hate crimes this spring, followed suit.

“This was an inexcusable, terrible, unfortunate act, but it was also emblematic of a bigger failure of the LA Stage Alliance in the past few years,” said Danny Feldman, the producing artistic director at Pasadena Playhouse, who said the organization’s inadequacy had become more clear during the pandemic. “They lost the confidence of the community, and this was the tipping point.”

The LA Stage Alliance was a nonprofit, dating back to 1975, that sought to support theater in Los Angeles. In addition to overseeing the Ovation Awards, it maintained onStage:LA, a website with listings and ticket discounts and published a digital arts magazine called @This Stage.

Last summer the organization furloughed its staff; emails to the executive director, Marco Gomez, were answered by a publicist, Ken Werther, who said the leadership was declining to make any further comments.

Lee, in an interview on Monday, said she was uncomfortable being seen as the face of the controversy, but also upset about the events that had transpired.

“I was trying to be brave, and trying not to make it a big deal,” she said. “But then, reading all the posts — all the anger and pain that was being expressed — I had to acknowledge that this is angering and painful and hurtful. And there have been so many attempts to try and get the LA Stage Alliance to be more inclusive, and they’ve largely been ignored.”

Deaf West Theater, the nation’s leading sign language theater, sought unsuccessfully to have this year’s Ovation ceremony interpreted for the deaf. “All of these oppressions go hand in hand,” said DJ Kurs, the theater’s artistic director. “We are all fighting the same fight, and we are fighting it together.”

Los Angeles has a robust theater community that is often overshadowed by the city’s film and television industries, and includes not only a handful of big-budget nonprofits, but also a large number of small organizations, many of which were facing financial stress even before the pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, 65 of the “intimate theaters” have been meeting collectively as Alternative Theaters of Los Angeles to compare notes and support one another.

Gary Grossman, an organizer of the group and the producing artistic director of Skylight Theater Company, called the collapse of the stage alliance “the right outcome.”

“They have not represented the community,” he said. “It needs to be rethought from the ground up.”

A variety of Los Angeles theater industry leaders interviewed Monday said the stage alliance was already in trouble financially before the latest conflagration, and its future had seemed uncertain throughout the pandemic.

And several described a number of grievances with the organization, citing insufficient diversity in its leadership and programming, an ineffective response to the pandemic, high membership dues that made it harder for some theaters to participate, and a “pay to play” system in which theaters were supposed to pay a fee for each production they wanted considered for an award.

“There’s been a fraught relationship from the perspective of most theater companies,” said Meghan Pressman, the managing director and chief executive at Center Theatre Group, which is the biggest of the Los Angeles nonprofits. Pressman said many theater administrators have already begun talking about what happens next.

“I do think the community can come together to craft what we need in an organization,” she said. “And I don’t know if these awards will continue, but I feel strongly that some awards should, because it’s an important way to celebrate the theater community.”

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