Size Matters

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

I’ve long touted L.A. as having more theatrical productions than just about anywhere else. But even I was astonished to hear that 79 L.A. companies use Equity contracts, which is what LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty reported a week ago in a “Critic’s Notebook.” It appeared on the front page of the Times Calendar section with the headline “Drop the curtain on L.A.’s bashers” and the subhead “Local theater is thriving, despite the myths out-of-towners insist on propagating.”

The article focused on McNulty’s rebuttal to a comment from former Pasadena Playhouse honcho Brian Colburn, who’s now the managing director of Seattle’s Intiman Theatre. Speaking in and about Seattle, Colburn had been quoted by the New York Times saying, “There’s probably as much theater here as in the city of Los Angeles, but the population is one-sixth the size.”

McNulty checked with Actors’ Equity and then reported that “roughly 79 theaters in Los Angeles” use Equity contracts.

And those 79 do not include big sit-down companies such as the musicals that play the Pantages, “the 40 or so” theaters that sometimes use an Equity member on Guest Artist or Special Appearance contracts — or the hordes of productions that use Equity’s 99-Seat Theater Plan. Equity estimates that about 1,000 99-Seat Plan shows go up each year.

By contrast, Seattle has only 15 Equity theaters — and another 16 that sometimes use Special Appearance or Guest Artist contracts. Although McNulty didn’t mention it, Seattle also lacks a 99-Seat Theater Plan, which allows Equity members to work for paltry fees in the smallest spaces. Equity generally considers that plan workable only in L.A., with its excessive supply of actors.

79-15! Imagine if the Lakers ever beat the Sonics by such a margin! The news of that many L.A. theaters with Equity contracts could certainly help stamp out the common misconception that L.A. theater has three big companies (CTG and the Pasadena and Geffen playhouses) plus a zillion sub-100-seat companies — and hardly anything in between.

Yet I immediately wondered how widely the “Los Angeles” boundaries were drawn in coming up with that total of 79. Equity promptly furnished me with a copy of the list — and with the sobering affirmation that the total numbers for “Los Angeles” actually include all of Southern California, not just L.A. Likewise, the numbers for Seattle include all of Washington.

This clarification weakens McNulty’s argument somewhat. The non-L.A. parts of Southern California include major theaters in Ventura, Orange and San Diego counties. San Diegans certainly don’t consider their city as part of L.A. In Washington, by contrast, it’s difficult to think offhand of any major theaters that are outside Seattle.

Not surprisingly, someone in Seattle noticed, too. Among the responders to McNulty’s article on the Times Culture Monster blog was Christopher Paul Comte, a Seattle Equity activist. After eliminating non-L.A. theaters in Southern California from the list, he figured that the more comparable number of L.A. theaters is 58, not 79 (and even this number is open to some debate, as I’ll explore in a future post). Then Comte factored in the square mileages and populations of the L.A. and Seattle metro areas and concluded that L.A. has fewer theaters PER SQUARE MILE and PER CAPITA than the relatively tiny Seattle.

All of Comte’s numbers-crunching, however, can’t seriously challenge McNulty’s main point — that L.A.’s theater is much, much larger than Seattle’s. When you also consider that Comte (and Colburn) ignore L.A.’s 99-seat theater scene — which is considered “professional” theater by many of its participants and observers, even if the pay stinks — the vast size advantage of L.A.’s theater over Seattle’s is multiplied by several times.

Then again, McNulty’s article didn’t say much about the 99-seat scene, either. He acknowledged it in only one sentence, when he wrote that before he arrived in L.A. from New York, his friends here told him that “the ‘real’ scene was happening at the under-the-radar smaller theaters, which may not be walkable like in Seattle but are so abundant that you never have to drive too far and, believe it or not, I get around by foot more than you might think from my home in West Hollywood.”

Near the end of McNulty’s article, he mentioned the plays he had seen recently and would be seeing soon. None was in a sub-100-seat house. However, McNulty wrote that he had rejected the idea of going to New York for Thanksgiving and had decided to stay in L.A. So I looked forward to seeing which L.A. show would be the subject of his next review.

And the winner was…A Streetcar Named Desire, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Yes, McNulty’s next review after his passionate defense of L.A. theater was of a show that’s playing in New York. He apparently flew there right after Thanksgiving.

Why would the Times care about this particular revival of a familiar play? It isn’t only because Cate Blanchett, a movie star, plays Blanche. It’s also because she — and it — are in New York. The location was apparently as important as the star, because if the Times really had considered this Australian-born production to be newsworthy regardless of the city, why not send McNulty to its U.S. premiere several weeks earlier in Washington D.C.?

In most of the arenas that the Times covers, the emphasis on local matters is growing. Local news has taken over most of the first half of the front section of the print version of the Times. This stems from the common belief that while readers can easily find national and international stories from many online sources and news aggregators, they must rely on the relatively few local news organizations to provide the local news, whether online or in print.

This strategy should apply to theater coverage in spades, because theater inherently takes place one performance at a time, under very local conditions. Wouldn’t most theatergoers be more interested in reading about productions they could see fairly easily, without traveling to the other side of the country?

Of course, McNulty isn’t the only Times theater critic. The Times sends several excellent free-lance reviewers to midsize and smaller shows, but their comments usually are buried deep inside the Friday section. Also, McNulty sees more plays than he reviews; occasionally he refers later to something that he saw and liked but didn’t review.

I salute McNulty for his column in praise of L.A. theater, even though his supporting arguments faltered. Still, whenever I see a front page theater review from New York (or, for that matter, last Sunday’s theater reviews from London by former Times critic Laurie Winer), I can usually think of a dozen worthy local shows that are newsworthy enough for front page coverage — and how that coverage might have benefited theater-interested Times readers a lot more than those reports from afar.

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.