LA Theatre Awards Promote 'Trying' Times

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

It's awards season in the theater world, so it's time for a Theatre Talk pop quiz:

All right, who can name at least one show that was nominated last week for a 2008 Tony award?

Okay, not bad. Next one's a little tougher:

Who can name one show that's been nominated recently for the Los Angeles equivalent of the Tony Award?

Hmmm…all right, then let's ask this: who can tell me the name of the award that is considered the LA equivalent of the Tony Award?

I see…yeah, there's the a problem.

The Tonys, like all awards and their pageants, are pretty silly—and more than a little arbitrary. But, if you love theater, the Tonys are an important thing. Sure, a Tony award on a actor or writer's shelf is not going to bring their quote to seven figures or even get them a better table at Spago, but it will ensure that they will get more work in professional theater. Also, for a small-budget or high-minded show, a Tony award or even a nomination can mean a few more weeks (or even months) of audiences. True, the Tonys are little more than marketing ploy, but hey, at least it's a marketing ploy that succeeds.

Compare that with the Los Angeles theater awards—have you remembered the name of it yet?

If you haven't, don't worry. There isn't one major LA theater award…there's more like four little ones—and as L.A. continues to build its reputation as a serious theater town, the fact that Angelenos don't have a awards system they can trust is becoming more of a problem. The Ovation award is generally considered the highest honor in LA theater, but there's also the Garland Award, presented by the people at Back Stage West. Plus, there's the LA Weekly Theater Awards and then, there's the oldest Los Angeles honor, the LA Drama Critics Circle Awards, which turned 39 this year.

I don't doubt that these organizations are well intentioned in wanting to honor the men and women who toil to put on theater in the shadow of L.A.'s more glamorous and remunerative film and television industries; but I fear they may working at cross purposes. Sure, Broadway has a million little awards each season, but the Tony Awards (like the Oscars) act as the Big Brass Ring. Both are televised and both give the nominees and their shows a real boost of publicity. In L.A., the awards are less about connecting audiences with good work and more about stroking egos and giving people a pat on the back. I'm all for both of these things, because as someone who sits in audiences that are sometimes less populous than the casts on stage, many of these egos and backs needs support.

trying.jpg Part of the reason I mention this is that one recent play did so well at three of these awards presentations that its producers are remounting it so more people can see it. The show is called Trying and it stars Alan Mandell—who won a hat trick of Best Actor awards for his performance an aging, aristocratic lawyer.

TryingGraphic.jpg My feeling is that this is what the LA theater awards should be doing: instead of just showering statuettes and plaques on long lists of nominees, they should be assisting the handful of truly excellent small shows—and let's be honest even in a good year, its only a small handful— get seen. Instead of fancy black tie events, what if all four awards pooled together and rented a theater in which five of the best, small, local productions could be remounted over a weekend as a sort of festival or College Bowl Championship Series of local theater?

Trying came back after eight months last weekend and played to near capacity audiences; I have a feeling that for most small theaters in LA, a full house means much more than an engraved piece of hardware.

The Ovation, Garland and LA Drama Critics Circle award wining production of Trying, written by Joanna McClelland Glass, runs through Sunday at the Colony Theatre in Burbank.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.