Spokes & Mirrors by Steven Leigh Morris

Potholes on the Bike Path.
Our Theater’s Latest Challenge: The Labor Union

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She said that the first gallery that was in any way interesting was the Ferus Gallery, established at 736 North La Cienega Blvd. in 1957 by curator Walter Hopps, artist Edward Kienholz, and poet Bob Alexander. “It changed, little by little, into what became recognized as ‘the California style.’ I got to know these people because they were the only people I felt close to with my background.”

Shortly after, as the local theater scene became increasingly transformed by a novel abundance of theaters –- a sprinkling of mid-size and larger theaters, but mostly theaters of up to 99-seats established under Equity’s Waiver and then 99-Seat plans — Rosenthal was developing her own improvisational theater company, called Instant Theater, which evolved into the Rachel Rosenthal Company, and later TOHUBOHU – experimental improvisation largely framed by Rosenthal’s ecology and animal rights activism.

Her company traveled to New York’s The Lincoln Center, the Kaaitheater in Brussels, The Internationals Summer Theater Festival in Hamburg, The Performance Space in Sydney, and the Festival de Théâtre des Amériques, Théâtre Centaur, Montréal. She won an Obie in 1989, and the L.A. Weekly’s Career Achievement Award in 1997. Her image was enshrined by photographer Annie Liebovitz, and artist Robert Rauschenberg honored her in a series of prints, Tribute 21.

Among cultural shifts that troubled her, she explained in 2009: “Art is now dependent on a group of people who are not artists yet are determining what kind of art is seen.”

Liebowitz_Rosenthal (1)
Rachel Rosenthal, by Annie Liebovitz

This is the logical extension of a concern she expressed in 1997: “People today are so economically motivated. They want to recoup their money, they want to make a profit . . . I am continually battling presenters who are afraid to put on my company because it’s not Stomp – my company can’t possibly bring in the kinds of audiences that Stomp does. We’re dangling from that tree. That’s why I’m thinking more and more that if there were a way to go back to the Renaissance, to the high patron . . . I have a patron now, not a big patron, but a patron who allows me to keep my doors open. Without her. I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”

The point being that if an artist with the lineage, connections, privileges, talent and respect of Rachel Rosenthal finds it such a struggle to raise financing in Los Angeles beyond some modest philanthropy, in order to create work that she and much of the world believe has value, the major impediment to creating an arts culture of varied expressions and purposes isn’t too many artists – as suggested by Actors Equity’s Western Regional Director Gail Gabler when she recently complained on KCRW’s Which Way L.A.? that the over-abundance of small theater companies in Los Angeles was “squeezing out the larger theaters” — but the dearth of funding to support the worthiest of our companies.

Do we have to drag out once again the tattered scroll of arts funding in California, currently in 46th place among the 50 states? A $2 million boost to the California Arts Council in 2013 to 18.5 cents each for almost 40 million Californians lifted California past Kansas and Georgia, which placed 47th and 48th, respectively, in the rankings. And that’s in a nation where, compared to ten other developed nations, funding for the arts is a shadow of a shadow. An Arts Council of Great Britain study showed that public funding of the arts in the U.S. (at the bottom of the 10 nations listed) is at 0.13% of all public funding, contrasted against Finland at 2.1%. That’s a lot of arts funding not in our pipelines.

And this is why AEA’s argument that cash-strapped 99-seat theaters are responsible for impoverishing the larger theaters is so crassly inverted, as though tiny Sacred Fools Theater Company and Pacific Resident Theatre are diverting the trickles of grant money that do exist from behemoths like Center Theatre Group and South Coast Rep.

The Birth of Actors’ Equity Association

“Today, as a national industry, the theater is a ghost of its former self.”

In order to understand what seem like the inexplicable attitudes, motives and the recent actions of Actors’ Equity Association to kill its own baby, L.A.’s unique 99-Seat Plan, we need to cycle back 150 years ago to theater in the wake of the Civil War, when the American theater of the next half century would be dominated by actor/managers — performers who assembled companies around their own talents and toured the nation, not unlike L.A.’s Rachel Rosenthal and Jack Stehlin (New American Theatre) a century and a half later. Their fortunes rose and fell with their talent and their ability to entice audiences. In fact, L.A. theater under the 99-Seat Plan has as much in common with late 19th century American theater as it does with the commedia troupes of post-Renaissance Italy.

Because these early American companies depended on touring, they eventually grew beholden to a consortium of six bookers and owners known as the Theatrical Syndicate, who controlled the venues and what performed inside them, while offering the thespians increasingly abusive contracts. These contracts rendered the actors indentured servants, with unpaid rehearsals, poverty wages, exorbitant overtime demands and half-pay on holidays. In the dawn of the 20th century, New York City became particularly toxic to traveling theaters when three brothers named Shubert trampled the Syndicate into submission. This, however, was not good news for the actors. The Shubert monopoly merely compounded the abuse of actors, leading to such rage at the inequities and indignities, a fledgling labor union called Actors Equity Association started to gain traction. At the time of its formation in 1913, Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor had already chartered a union for vaudeville performers, the White Rats Actors’ Union, and was reluctant to add AEA to its fold. But when AEA’s membership grew from 1,000 to 2,500, and the union continued petitioning the AFL, the United Managers’ Protective Association (a loose confederation of theater owners, managers and bookers) grew increasingly wary. Eventually, the AFL slid AEA under its wing, and their actors’ strike of 1919 shuttered Broadway with noticeable public support. The rest, as they say, is history.

AEA strike
Marie Dressler, founding President of Chorus Equity, center, and actress Ethyl Barrymore, at far right in hat on the picket line of the 1919 strike.

Robert Simonson wrote about the birth of AEA in the March, 2013 edition of American Theatre Magazine, quoting leading turn-of-the-century actress Minnie Maddern Fiske in a letter published in the Washington Post circa 1913, arguing against actors joining a union: “Acting is not manual labor,” she wrote. “And the pay of actors cannot be scaled as the pay of manual labor is scaled… The whole idea of linking a profession that, wholly apart from its economic conditions, is, after all, an interpretative art, is intolerable.”

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw (www.stageraw.com). Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.