The Next Chapter?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

There's a delicious moment in a lot of great dramas. It's not the climax but it's often just before or just after. It's that moment when the world comes into sharp focus for an instant and where you're not really sure how it's all going to turn out. All the possibilities are alive and what's at stake is crystal clear. In Shakespeare, it's the moment where you wonder if everyone's going to end up married or dead. In Chekhov, it's the moment where you think the family might actually make it to some kind of metaphorical Moscow.

LA's 99-seat theater community had one of those moments last night at the first annual 1st Annual Stage Raw Awards. Now, unpacking just the title of the awards will give you a window into the state of LA's small theater.

The Stage Raw Awards are what's become of the now defunct LA Weekly Awards. You remember a little over a year ago how the LA Weekly radically cut back on their theater coverage and there were rumblings that the awards could be on the chopping block as well? Well, from the Weekly's implosion came the online theater site: In many ways, Stage Raw is the Weekly in exile. Led by one of the heroes of our saga, Steven Leigh Morris, the critics decamped and out of obligation and passion took the awards show with them. If you had any question of how important this necessitated continuity is to the theater community, that vanished with the rousing standing ovation Mr. Morris received for his steadfast support of not only the community but also his critics.

Which leads us to the "1st Annual." As one of the first presenters Michael Shepperd joked, "Perhaps Annual is a tad premature." That was the undertone that led a poignancy to an evening that might otherwise have been little more than stock awards show navel gazing.

Given the actor's union kerfuffle that I chronicled last month, the night had the feel of an inevitable inflection point. The question hanging in the air was not so much "who's going to win?" but "will we all be here a year from now?"

Like a great historical drama, the night held cautionary glimpses of the past and hopeful hints of the future. Presenters took pains to recognize the actors in the audience who had the gumption, more than a quarter century ago, to sue their own union to fight for the right to work on LA's tiny stages. Then like a wartime coronation, Gary Grossman, who poignantly joked he's been cast as part of that "old-guard", presented the "Queen of the Angels Award" to one of the young rabble-rousers Rebecca Metz. Ms. Metz's acceptance embodied the paradox of finding one's strength in the midst of an existential crisis.

If LA's small theaters are to survive, regardless of the union's shenanigans, it will be because of the leadership that grows out of this moment. There is a tantalizing sense that through adversity, this community might finally be finding it's collective voice.

Even if theater's the farthest thing from your mind, you should care what comes next. LA's small theaters are a canary in our collective Los Angeles coal mine. How they navigate this battle between art and commerce will tell us something significant about the kind of city we live in.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.