Midsize Matters

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LA STAGE WATCH is a series of articles by staff writer/blogger Don Shirley.

The title refers, of course, to L.A.’s midsize theaters.

With fewer than 500 seats, these theaters can offer an intimacy that audiences and critics like. But because most of them use more than 99 seats, Equity actors are paid on contracts — usually a much better deal than the token fees actors receive under Equity’s 99-seat plan.

Midsize theaters were all the rage 15 years ago. A 1994 conference at UCLA, attended by most of the movers and shakers of L.A. theater, was devoted to the subject. Many a smaller theater started thinking about moving up the scale from the 99-seat plan.

In the next few years, six companies made the leap: the Colony, East West, the Falcon, the alfresco Independent Shakespeare, International City and A Noise Within. All of them survive today, using contracts (although Independent Shakespeare continues to use the 99-Seat Plan for its indoor, off-season productions).

This year, Furious Theatre took the plunge, signing a contract even while continuing to produce in its sub-100-seat venue. Syzygy, Havok and David Elzer’s Marvelous Wonderettes/Crooning Crabcakes empire also use Equity contracts in their regular programming at sub-100-seat theaters, although they could have chosen the cheaper alternative of the 99-seat plan.

Several fairly recent or newly revived companies use Equity contracts but lack a previous 99-Seat Plan history — American Legion Theatre, Native Voices at the Autry, Getty Villa, Latino Theatre, Ebony Repertory and Weddington Street Productions, which is the in-house, for-profit company at El Portal Theatre.

And let’s not forget the two older institutions best known for their summertime shows, the Theatricum Botanicum and Shakespeare Festival/LA (now transforming into Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles). They’re longtime users of Equity contracts.

All this activity on the middle tier of L.A. theater often goes unmentioned when people talk about L.A. stages. At an organized roundtable following Mike Daisey’s performance of How Theater Failed America last spring at the Kirk Douglas, a couple of panelists blithely cited the vacuum that supposedly exists between the highest-profile theaters (Center Theatre Group, Pasadena Playhouse, Geffen Playhouse, and presumably the big musical theater companies) and the many sub-100-seaters at the bottom.  Following the formal panel discussion, during the now-the-audience-also-gets-to-pontificate segment, I raised the question (I’m paraphrasing here), “So what are L.A.’s midsize theaters — chopped liver?”

Last Friday, I mentioned the midsize theaters in my Size Matters post here at LA Stage Watch. In one of the subsequent reader comments, the respected small-theater actor Chet Grissom asked: “Who are these ‘in-between’ companies? How many are there? And are they indeed within the Los Angeles city limits? Or even County limits? And how much do they pay?”  I couldn’t tell whether he literally hadn’t heard of these theaters (all 18 companies mentioned so far are within Los Angeles County limits, but some are outside Los Angeles city limits) or if he was making a rhetorical comment about their relative invisibility.

Why are they so often lost in the shuffle? It isn’t surprising that the bigger theaters have larger marketing and publicity budgets — or that, duh, more people can fit into those theaters, which enhances the potential word of mouth.

Meanwhile, the sub-100-seaters share strength in sheer numbers. Because there are so many of them, community-wide initiatives often draw attention to them as a group. The Big Cheap Theater online community is primarily made up of people affiliated with them. The LA Weekly awards are restricted to sub-100-seat productions, and the Weekly sometimes appears to review shows that would be eligible for its awards before it reviews more prominent midsize productions. The LA Times, which once regularly allotted a little more space to most midsize theater reviews than to reviews of smaller productions, now  ignores those distinctions more often than not.

But although there isn’t much of a midsize identity or community, midsize theaters are hardly disappearing. Last week I heard about Equity’s list of 79 companies on real contracts in Southern California – not counting companies that use Guest Artist or Special Appearance contracts (or Pantages-style tours). There are more midsize theaters than I had imagined, I thought.

When I saw the list, I soon realized that some of these contracted groups actually use the 99-Seat Plan for their regular productions. But they use contracts for tours, for youth productions, or for a show that surpasses the 99-Seat Plan’s maximum number of performances. Some of these are among L.A.’s better known small companies: the Actors’ Gang, Deaf West, Ghost Road, the Hayworth, Ray Bradbury’s Pandemonium Theatre, Theatre 40.

Others on the list are one-production companies, or seemingly dormant companies that didn’t even turn up in Google searches. The name that intrigues me the most is Studio City-based SJ Viagara Falls LLC. Google it, and you’ll learn that it’s a company devoted to a touring production of Viagara Falls, a sex comedy (you think?) that opened in Indian Wells in 2006 with Harold Gould (!) in the cast but that apparently hasn’t booked any venues closer to L.A. Most recently, minus Gould, it was in Ontario — Canada, not California.

No, I’m not pretending that I’d rather see Viagara Falls instead of the plays done by the more accomplished 99-Seat Plan companies. Nor do I think that every small company should aim for the midsize grail. Last weekend, at Lodestone Theatre’s final production Grace Kim & the Spiders From Mars (and what a graceful exit/Christmas show it is!), I noticed these words in a program note from playwright/artistic co-director Philip Chung, explaining the decision of his company to disband after a decade, instead of becoming bigger: “It’s difficult to try to keep presenting edgy and daring work when you have to worry about raising enough funds to pay the mortgage, a full staff and all the other expenses that come with being a real institution.” I know that many of the hard-working and barely-paid or unpaid people at smaller theaters feel this way.

I also know that many of these people will burn out and drop out. And I reject the notion that the move to midsize invariably means that a theater becomes less interesting. International City Theatre had one of its most challenging yet successful seasons ever in 2009.

We need more truly active Equity-contract companies, but of course it costs more to pay the actors or to use midsize spaces instead of tiny storefronts. If you’re an actor who relishes the intimacy of the 99-seat Plan but can’t afford it, investigate midsize. And if you’re an audience member who wants a healthier theatrical ecology — one in which actors can more easily commit to stage jobs as well as TV commercials — these companies need your attendance and could certainly use your donations.

All together now… “Midsize matters.”

Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.