Spokes & Mirrors by Steven Leigh Morris

Size Doesn’t Matter. Arts Districts, and How Actors’ Equity Association Could Help

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This is the first installment of a two-part column.

[dropcap]LA[/dropcap] STAGE Alliance held six intimate community forums at six different locations across the region over the past two months. The aim was to recapitulate our refocused efforts of advocating for arts districts, to hear responses to that idea and to unearth concerns we may not have known about, in order to explore remedies we hadn’t before considered.

(Mandate redux: Let’s create a series of arts districts with rent subsidy for non-profit arts organizations and affordable live-work spaces for artists; in exchange for fiscal stability, the participating orgs commit to diversity and youth engagement as part of their programming. The civic takeaway: theaters that locals can actually get to, a spike for local businesses, lower crime, higher literacy and cognitive development among the area’s youth — all of which has been empirically proven. The arts takeaway: financial stability, a more immediate and relevant art form, a new and engaged generation of theater-goers.)

Each discussion was attended by a dozen to two dozen attendees, each forum had a completely different dynamic and had a slightly different personality and focus. To be more precise, though there was a connecting tissue through the six discussions, each emphasized different aspects and priorities for the stage community. Without fear of indulging in hyperbole, I can also say that some of the best minds in the city wandered into these forums, and added to their value.

I’ll get into the thickets of these discussions next week. For the moment, however, it’s relevant to weigh in on the current “facilitated discussions” (I didn’t come up with that term) between some representatives of the 99-seat theater movement and the stage actors’/managers’ union, Actors’ Equity Association — discussions born of a lawsuit filed by a number of union members against their union. The plaintiffs removed the union’s Executive Director as a named defendant and also refrained from serving the suit (though it remains filed), in exchange for these talks.

The talks are secret because there’s a legal action hanging in the balance. However, the union’s president, Kate Shindle, did make some public remarks attempting to explain both sides’ points-of-view. Among her arguments is that the large number of 99-seat theaters (where actors volunteer and receive token stipends) is preventing mid-size and larger theaters (where actors can ostensibly earn a living wage) from gaining a footing. Hence the union’s impulse to encourage the closure of as many of L.A.’s 99-seat theaters as possible, or at least to drive union actors from their ranks, by terminating the 99-Seat Plan.

“I think this is one of the things that guided the [Union’s National] Council — the idea that a mid-sized theater could open at this point, or even a smallish theater could open at this point, in Los Angeles when they had to compete with the 99-seat business model (which is much more cost-effective) is kind of preposterous.”

Actor Dakin Matthews shot back with a 16-point rebuttal to the entirety of Shindle’s remarks, the crux being that no actors make, or have ever made, their living doing stage work in Los Angeles — in theaters large or small. Hence, Matthews argues, the Council’s reasoning was detached from the local reality of theater here always being an avocation. Furthermore, Matthews says, the National Council indeed voted to end the 99-seat plan, overriding the will of 2/3 of local union members, from this wistful economic theory, derived from the other side of the continent and based on no evidence whatsoever.

But even Matthews’ argument only takes the football three-quarters the way down the field. Not only is there no evidence that small theaters squeeze out larger theaters’ fortunes, there’s historical evidence to the contrary. In the 1970s through the 1990s, when the economic climate was more temperate, L.A. saw a series of mid-size theaters emerge and thrive at the same time the 99-seat plan allowed a groundswell of smaller theaters across L.A. County: from Los Angeles Theatre Center (four venues) to East West Players in Little Tokyo, to the Colony Theatre in Burbank. And if those larger theaters have faced financial challenges, the place to look for blame (the economy) is the shifting ratio between earned income and contributed income. In short, for the past two decades, contributed income for many of Southern California mid-size theaters has shriveled. The smaller theaters have nothing to do with that stark reality.

Here’s a Hail Mary pass for the union discussions: Can we please stop with these artificial divides between larger theaters and smaller ones? Behemoths such as Center Theatre Group have terrific youth engagement programs, as does the comparatively tiny 24th STreet Theatre. Size doesn’t matter. It’s the purpose that matters. It’s the engagement with a community. (CTG is sponsoring a career-fair for college students April 2, at LATC, in partnership with LA STAGE Alliance, USC and UCLA. Representatives from L.A.’s smaller theaters will be there.) CTG has helped finance smaller companies, such as Burglars of Hamm. It’s hellishly difficult to create art in theaters, large and small. If the Hail Mary is caught, we’ll have bridge contracts that allow smaller theaters to transition to larger theaters if they want, in a way that’s fiscally sound. We’ll have the newly forged relationships between the larger theaters and the smaller ones — Pasadena Playhouse and Sacred Fools, CTG and Burglars of Hamm, for example — to grow deeper and more robust.

If Equity could help us advocate for arts districts that include theaters large and small, commercial and not, with a diversity of artistic expression and financial models — as well as ethnicity — the end result would be far more fruitful for our union actors and for our city than pointing a flame-thrower at a 99-seat theater scene that’s been steadily evolving for decades, and offers the possibility of artistic fulfillment along with a proprietary interest in that fulfillment.

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Next Week: A takeaway from the community forums.

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.