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A Monday night salon on Prop. 19

November 2, 2010 |  8:52 am


Two things were evident at the first-ever Axis Mundi, a new public salon presented Monday and Tuesday nights by the Actors Gang Theatre in Culver City. The first: Democracy is messy. The second: Public salons may be a lot like new restaurants -- skip opening night and let them work out the kinks.

The subject was Tuesday's ballot initiative Prop. 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010. Former Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden and anti-Prop. 19 campaigner Alexandra Datig countered the pro-Prop. 19 arguments of the rest of the panelists: writer Mark Haskell Smith (author of "Baked"), Cannabis Action Network founder Debby Goldsberry, local news anchor turned activist Bree Walker, Cornerstone Research Collective's Michael Backes, Sarah Diesel (one of Skunk Magazine's 100 Women in Weed) and comedian Tere Joyce, a SoCal liaison for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

That's a lot of people, and there were never enough mics. Although Joyce was nominally acting as moderator, she often jumped in on the pro-Prop. 19 side -- more than once shouting down the already outnumbered Datig -- throwing the panel into chaos.

There had been some structure to the evening. One set of panelists was to discuss a few points, then another set, then all were to sit on stage and take questions. That's more like a lecture than a salon, which traditionally would be more open to discussion. Yet there were moves to encourage just that salon-like engagement -- about 20 chairs were set up on the edges of the stage, and organizers ushered attendees into them first, rather than the tiered theater seats.

However, as things got started, three different people stood to introduce the event faced those mostly empty seats, with their backs to the panelists and the people who'd just been asked to join them on stage. Similarly, the table for the panelists faced the 99 theater seats and the dozen or so people scattered among them. For its first go-round, the venue was unable to shake the performers/audience format; perhaps someday the salon elements will be better integrated, fostering discussion.

What's more, by the Monday night before election day, a posse of activists is inclined toward pontification. There was a lot of speechifying, as if the room were packed full of undecided voters -- that's why I say vote yes on Prop. 19! -- while in reality, a handful of casually curious onlookers shifted in their seats.

The one most familiar with stump speeches -- and who didn't make any -- was Holden, who held his seat on the L.A. City Council from 1987 to 2002, when he was displaced by term limits. He arrived at 9 p.m., halfway through the event, wearing a bright yellow L.A. Lakers tee over his dress shirt. "I donated this facility to Culver City. It was in my district. After tonight," he joked, "maybe I'll take it back."

In the salon's best moments, Holden and Backes, both knowledgeable, respectful and humorous, sparred about the proposition. There were other short exchanges of genuine feeling and discussion, but mostly the event seesawed between histrionics and off-point disquisitions. In its worst moments, less-focused panelists got mired in statistics they seemed to not fully understand, hogged the mics and shrilly shouted each other down.

Democracy is messy. Opinions clash. And Tuesday, Californians will get their say about Prop. 19 at the polls.

And doubtless, Axis Mundi will continue and grow. Tuesday night, comedian Paul Provenza and photographer Dan Dion, co-authors of the book "Satiristas!" lead an all-comedian panel of political satire. Coming up, there will be a documentary screening followed by a discussion with the director, a teen poetry troupe and more. They can work out the kinks, now that they've gotten opening night out of the way.

 -- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo, from left: Tree Joyce, Alexandra Datig, Michael Backes, Sarah Diesel and Nate Holden. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg