Surprising Stats From Equity About LA Theaters. Lean Forward and Pay Attention to Counting New Beans.

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LA’s small-theater (excuse me, intimate-theater) scene is big, but maybe not quite as big as we thought. That was my conclusion from Actors’ Equity’s response to my recent query about how many productions operated under the 99-Seat Theater Plan in 2011, and how many productions in Greater LA operated on Equity contracts.

When people describe the 99-seat scene, we usually fall back on an assumption that there are at least 500 — perhaps a thousand — productions on the plan per year. That might have once been true, although it isn’t very well documented.

Whatever the past numbers were, in 2011 there were 371 productions registered under the 99-Seat Plan, Equity says. And there were 216 productions in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties (aka Greater LA) that worked on Equity contracts.

One of LA’s more intimate theaters

Only productions that take place in Los Angeles County are allowed to use the 99-Seat Theater Plan. The number of Equity members who are willing to work for the plan’s tiny fees diminishes once you cross the LA county line, moving farther away from easier access to Hollywood casting directors (whose notice of even an underpaid performance in LA might make it worth the effort in terms of future earnings). So, as in most of the United States, all productions in Orange and Ventura counties that use Equity members must use regular Equity contracts, which offer more money to the talent.

Perhaps because the 99-Seat Plan is unique to LA, a common perception of LA theater is that it has only a few productions at the top of the theatrical food chain — but hundreds more at the bottom, in sub-100-seat theaters. But these 2011 figures from Equity challenge that notion. A majority of the 587 Equity-related productions in Greater LA in 2011 was indeed on the 99-Seat Plan, but it was only a 58% majority, as opposed to the 90% proportion sometimes imagined in articles such as this one from last year.

For those who believe that Equity actors and stage managers should be paid more for their work that what they earn on the 99-seat plan, this is good news.

I’ve often tried to draw attention to the fact that LA’s midsize theater is healthier than generally advertised. These figures help back up that case.

On the other hand, partisans of the 99-Seat Plan should not despair that there were “only” 371 productions that used it last year. The quantity of these small productions can pass the point of diminishing returns. Once the number of shows on the plan rises beyond a certain point, it becomes much more difficult for any one production to stand out from the teeming masses. I would place that point at no higher than, well, 365 — the equivalent of one new production per day (or 366 in Leap Years like this year).

Of course there also are productions in small theaters that are sometimes recognized as professional by at least some observers but that don’t register for the 99-seat plan. Many of these are actor-produced solo shows or Hollywood Fringe Festival participants.

Such shows are more susceptible to the accusation of being nothing more than Hollywood showcases than any of the other types of shows commonly seen in LA theater. It’s irritating to think that this is still the stereotype of LA theater that exists in the minds of many, especially out-of-towners. But the next time you hear that stereotype casually invoked, you can casually point out that most of the 587 Equity-related productions in Greater LA last year cannot be described in those terms.

It’s especially important to consider these figures as Equity plans yet another round of consideration of proposed changes in the 99-Seat plan. LA STAGE Alliance recently announced a series of events at which producers who use the plan are invited to express their opinions of possible changes in the plan, and I hope that these figures might encourage some of these producers to open their minds to some of the suggestions.

Very few people would want to see the plan disappear, but if 42% of the productions that used Equity talent in LA last year managed to work with contracts instead of the plan, the idea that any changes in the plan would somehow doom LA theater sound hyperbolic and possibly paranoiac.

INTRINSIC VALUE OF A COUPLE OF LA THEATERS: How do you measure the intrinsic value of theater experiences on audiences? That was the subject of the first LA STAGE Talks program, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, on March 27. The event introduced the results of a major study of the subject. For a condensed account of what was said at the event, read this LA STAGE Times article.

Clayton Lord, editor of “Counting New Beans,” speaking at the Kirk Douglas Theatre; Photo by Katie Gould

The study also produced a book — Counting New Beans, intrinsic impact and the value of art, published by Theatre Bay Area, which commissioned the study. I’ve been browsing through the book at spare moments during the last couple weeks, and I recommend it to just about any producer, artistic director or theater marketer. It definitely makes a strong case for its central thesis — that yes, theaters should measure the intrinsic impact of their work on their audiences and pay some attention to it in an effort to reach those audiences more effectively and to garner more funding from private and public sources. It points out that while theaters tend to emphasize extrinsic results — how theater can raise SAT scores or help neighborhood businesses thrive — in their approaches to funders, the intrinsic results are probably more persuasive in the long run.

Many parts of the book make the additional case that theaters should change their ways to reach larger, younger audiences. One way to do that, mentioned obliquely at many places in the book, is to tackle material that is more specifically geared to local audiences and use more imaginative ways to engage the audience in these matters of immediate and direct concern. Readers of LA STAGE Watch may recognize this as one of my favorite themes. I have frequently nagged local theaters to be more local.

However, even for theaters that aren’t about to do anything with local content and for theaters that have largely older audiences, the book’s methodology could be useful. For example, one of the theater companies that participated in the study, extensively surveying the audiences who attended three of its productions, was Musical Theatre West in Long Beach. I won’t say that MTW’s audience is old, but listen to its artistic director Steven Glaudini in the book: “Let’s be honest, our subscriber base, if they’re not renewing, it’s because they’re dying or they can’t get to the theater. Whenever someone hasn’t renewed, we contact them, and it’s ‘Oh, I’ve lost a spouse and I have no way of getting there’.”

Tami Tappan and Steven Glaudini in the 2010 Musical Theatre West production of “1776”

This isn’t to say that Musical Theatre West doesn’t do some of the newer musicals, reaching toward a younger generation. It did Rent — but as a bonus, not as a regular part of the season, and 87% of the audience that saw it had never seen another MTW show. Also in the Glaudini interview, he speaks of his hopes to do Next to Normal, the Pulitzer-winning musical about a suicidal, heavily medicated woman and her family. Glaudini offers this account of how to do it, even though it’s “a depressing show — “get a performer who our audiences love. Sometimes, you know, it’s an easier pill to swallow” [pun intended?] “if they’ve seen Tami Tappan playing that role. Instead of bringing out stars, we’ve kind of created stars, and it helps out audiences when they know ‘Oh, Tami Tappan’s in this’.”

In MTW’s next season, which was announced since its participation in the study, there is no sign of Next to Normal. Instead, the season consists of 42nd Street, Oklahoma!, A Chorus Line and Sunset Boulevard. Perhaps we can look forward to another announcement of Next to Normal as a bonus attraction?

The book’s other interview of LA-based artistic directors is with Michael Michetti and Jessica Kubzansky of Theatre @ Boston Court, which also participated in the study. Kubzansky spoke at the Kirk Douglas event, but not Michetti. Boston Court, with only 99 seats and a mission to tackle challenging material, could hardly be less like Musical Theatre West, which is housed in the cavernous Carpenter Center.

As Michetti notes, “we are very careful not to pander.” However, “a couple years ago, we had a little bit of a creative crisis of faith because we were doing a number of shows that we were very proud of” — shows that were “significantly less linear, less literal, [that] challenged the audiences even more than our general fare, and we found that there was some audience resistance to that…So we’re continuing to try to straddle the line — certainly not selling out or pandering, staying very true to the kind of work we want to do, but finding the right balance of things that, while still challenging and inherently theatrical”¦are maybe a little more linear in terms of the storytelling or — “

“In some way a little more accessible,” Kubzansky finished Michetti’s sentence.

“We don’t want to challenge them so much that we challenge them out of the theater,” Michetti concluded.

Bil Schroeder, Michael Betts, Jessica Kubzansky, Terence McFarland, Alan Brown and Clayton Lord at the Kirk Douglas Theatre; Photo by Katie Gould

By the way, regulars at Boston Court know that its performances frequently begin with a curtain speech in which we are admonished not to sit back and relax but “to lean forward.” Elsewhere in a different interview from the same section of the book, Anne Bogart of SITI Company also mentions that “if an audience is leaning forward, then you’ve got them. If they’re leaning back, you don’t.”

However, in the introduction to those interviews, Rebecca Novick quotes Sojourn Theater artistic director Michael Rohd mocking yet another artistic director who had defined audience participation as “when people lean forward in their chairs.”

“You know what?” Rohd is quoted. “The rest of the art world — other disciplines — think we’re children when we talk like that.”

Novick says Rohd wants to move far beyond “leaning forward in your chairs” and “towards engaging in discussion before and after the work and even towards participating in the unfolding of the performance event.” Rohd’s Portland-based company specializes in working more actively with community members, as does LA’s Cornerstone Theater (whose founding artistic director Bill Rauch is also interviewed in the book, but primarily about his current job at Oregon Shakespeare Festival).

Anyway, my point about the book itself is that its methods have something to offer theater companies that are as disparate as Musical Theatre West, Theatre @ Boston Court and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

OK, LA producers and artistic directors and marketers, lean forward and learn how to measure the intrinsic impact of your work on your audiences.

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.