Forty-six Los Angeles theater companies left the Los Angeles Stage Alliance after the organization made multiple culturally insensitive errors and omissions during their March 30 ceremony. After promising internal changes, the Los Angeles Stage Alliance announced on April 5 that the 46-year old organization would cease operations.
During the ceremony, Asian American actress Jully Lee’s name was mispronounced during the voice-over announcement segment. And next to her name on the screen was the photo of her fellow Asian American castmate, Monica Hong.
The Ovation Awards are a yearly peer-judged awards ceremony for excellence in theater in Southern California hosted by the nonprofit organization LA Stage Alliance. Both individuals and organizations could apply for membership to the LA Stage Alliance, which boasted networking and professional development opportunities to individuals and award recognition eligibility and collaborations to organizations. According to Deadline, the LA Stage Alliance
“I think in the context right now of how Asian Americans are fighting our invisibility, it felt like a big slap in the face,” Lee told Spectrum News1.
According to the Los Angeles Times, multiple names were mispronounced throughout the ceremony. One of those nominees was Mike Millan, who also made a statement on Instagram distancing himself from the organization.
“I’ve never been nominated for anything before and to be erased like that last night only furthered how unimportant these awards are and how uninterested I am in associating myself with them in the future,” he wrote. “Y’all could pronounce all the white names really well but when it comes to BIPOC, it seems you’re not as interested in getting it right.”
He also mentioned that his name was misspelled when he was nominated, and when he asked the organization to fix it, he received no answer. Users even mentioned the mispronunciation in the comments of an Instagram post on Jan. 28 from the organization featuring his nomination.
Actor Rick Batalla also took to Instagram to show how the LA Stage Alliance also misspelled his name in his nomination.
“You’d think after 3 years of being nom’d in the same category you would know how to spell and pronounce it,” he captioned the image of his misspelled nomination. “Or do brown actors just not matter?”
The LA Stage Alliance apologized to Lee in an Instagram post. “There is no excuse for mispronouncing Ms. Lee’s first name nor for the error in the image used,” wrote Marco Gomez, chairman of the LA Stage Alliance. “We take full responsibility for the oversight and we deeply regret any harm this may have caused. We will continue [sic] take appropriate steps to correct this issue.”
They also posted a photo of Lee properly identifying her in a subsequent Instagram post.
But in both the apology and ceremony, the theater company East West Players, one of the producers of the play Lee starred in, was not mentioned. The LA Stage Alliance only recognized one theater company per production, so East West Players was not mentioned throughout the ceremony for their contributions as co-producers for productions of “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo” with the Fountain Theatre and “The Great Leap” with the Pasadena Playhouse.
“Co-production to us means that both theater companies produced the piece together and are equally involved,” wrote Snehal Desai, producing artistic director of East West Players, on Instagram.
Co-productions are a common practice in the theater industry. For one, companies can pool funds together. But it also allows them to receive visibility for that work as it opens in other theaters and regional markets.
According to East West Players’ statement, the LA Stage Alliance has failed to mention their company’s contribution to their nominated co-productions, naming their predominantly white co-production companies instead.
East West Players is the premier Asian American theater company and longest-running theater company of color in the United States. Founded in 1965, the company, “is committed to raising the visibility of the Asian American experience by presenting inventive world-class theatrical productions, developing artists of color, and providing impactful youth education programs.”
Los Angeles is home to a larger number of theater companies, many of which are dedicated to specific underrepresented communities in the city. In their statement, East West Players also mentioned frustrations over the fact that these other notable Los Angeles theater companies of color, like the Latino Theater Company and Native Voices at the Autry, were not nominated for awards.
At the end of the statement, East West Players announced that they were revoking their membership to the LA Stage Alliance due to these incidents and encouraged other companies to do the same.
As of initial publishing, 45 additional Los Angeles theater companies followed suit in solidarity. These organizations are Center Theatre Group, The Geffen Playhouse, The Pasadena Playhouse, The Los Angeles LGBT Center, The Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theater Center, Celebration Theatre, The Boston Court Pasadena, The Wallis, Playwrights Arena, A Noise Within, Circle X Theater Company, The Fountain Theatre, Antaeus Theatre Company, Coeurage Ensemble, 3-D Theatricals, Watts Village Theater Company, Coin and Ghost, Rogue Artists Ensemble, Rogue Machine, The Road Theatre, Ghost Road Company, Will Geer’s Theatrical Bontanicum, Inkwell Theater, 5-Star Theatricals, IAMA Theatre Company, Chalk Repertory Theatre, 2 Cents Theatre Group, Interact Theatre Company, Open Fist Theatre Company, Ammunition Theater Company, The Harold Clurman Lab Theater, Sacred Fools Theater Company, Moving Arts Theatre, Ophelia’s Jump, Chance Theater, Sierra Madre Playhouse, Odyssey Theater Ensemble, Echo Theater Company, Theatre of NOTE, Artists at Play, After Hours Theatre Company, Greenway Court Theatre, Theatre Dybbuk, Company of Angels and Actors Co-op.
Other organizations and individuals that are not members, but have been affiliated with the LA Stage Alliance as voters or nominees have also openly distanced themselves from the alliance. Organizations that were formerly a part of the Alliance, like Hero Theatre, Indy Shakes and The Vagrancy, also expressed solidarity and some requested their names be removed from the LA Stage Alliance’s website.
Another prominent Los Angeles theater company to revoke its membership is Deaf West Theatre. Deaf West Theatre produces shows in ASL and English and was one of the nominated companies at the Ovation Awards this year. According to their statement on social media, the company made a direct request for the LA Stage Alliance to caption the event or provide ASL interpreters. The ceremony featured neither of the requested accommodations.
The LA Stage Alliance released another statement in response to the ceremony of concrete steps the organization would take to “focus on undertaking a visible and transparent transformation so it can be held accountable to the community it serves.” They said they will create a task force to review and modify the alliance’s mission, an advisory board to review Ovation Award policies and procedures and additional partnerships and programs. At the end of the post, they wrote that “these are just initial steps.”
This controversy may serve as a local microcosm of national calls for changes in the entertainment industry at large. This comes after years of increased frustration with entertainment award ceremonies online and off for failing to recognize diverse artists and works of art. Despite COVID-19 regulations leaving most theaters shuttered for over a year, the industry has still joined in the national conversations about racial justice, equality and inclusion. During the historic rise of Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, a collective of BIPOC theater artists and workers under the name We See You White American Theatre published a list of demands for institutional change in the industry. Since this initial statement, the collective has issued an accountability report capturing the changes theatrical companies nationwide have promised in the wake of their demands. Some of the Los Angeles theater companies leaving the LA Stage Alliance are mentioned in that report for the statements and changes they have announced since the organization’s initial demands were published.
The number of theaters and organizations standing with East West Players continued to grow since their initial post, urging for increased respect and inclusivity in the industry and Los Angeles theater community.
The “initial steps” promised by the LA Stage Alliance, however, will not be taken. As of April 5, the LA Stage Alliance released a statement that their board of governors unanimously decided that the organization cease all operations, effective immediately.
“We’ve had many challenges like many other organizations and at this time we are unable to continue,” wrote the statement. “We wish the entire theatre community and stakeholders success.”
Updated April 5, 9:20 a.m. to include additional information about the LA Stage Alliance and the news of the organization’s disbanding, resulting in subsequent changes in tense.