Spokes & Mirrors by Steven Leigh Morris

By the Numbers, and LA Theater Takes to the Airwaves

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by Steven Leigh Morris

As part of its regional conference, The Dramatists Guild held a Town Hall event on Saturday night at the Veterans’ Memorial Building in Culver City. The discussion of how playwrights are supposed to move forward in the absence of the 99-Seat Plan (“The Future of New Play Production in Los Angeles”) was off-the-record. I was asked to present an “overview” of L.A. theater history, on the premise that we can’t comprehend where we’re going if we don’t grasp where we’ve been. For that account, see my Notes from Arden column in Stage Raw.

The other panelists were Lindsay Allbaugh (Center Theatre Group), Bronwyn Mauldin (L.A. County Arts Commission, Research and Evaluation Team), Jon Lawrence Rivera (Playwrights Arena), and New York-based playwright, Aurin Squire. The panel discussion was moderated by the Dramatists Guild Southern California rep, Joshua Gershick.

Mauldin unveiled some new statistics obtained through the National Center for Charitable Statistics. These reveal that there are 361 non-profit theaters in L.A. County, almost half (42%) of which reported an annual revenue of less than $500,000.

The data also show that, when averaged out, operating revenues in L.A. and New York theaters are on par (averaging slightly over $1m/organization), as are the ratios of in-kind contributions, earned income, and contributed income.

There’s a huge divide between New York and Los Angeles theaters, however, when it comes to sources of income. Foundation, board, government, and corporate giving are all considerably higher in New York: Respectively: 26% to 20% (foundation giving), 19% to 11% (board of trustees giving), 12% to 5% (government grants), and 7% to 4% (corporate giving).

This is consistent with other data, released in 2015 by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, showing that New York State’s annual per-capita spending ($2.02) is about 8 times that of California ($0.24).

Furthermore, as shown in a 2015 report distributed by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, which compared arts funding in 11 metropolitan areas, Los Angeles competed with Phoenix for being at the bottom of the barrel in classifications of arts figures per-capita: individual giving, government grants, spending, and attendance (though attendance in L.A. has been rising, according to the report).

New York City’s cultural budget is larger than that of every state in the U.S. – including the state of New York. Compounding the inequity, New York also has the largest state arts budget in the U.S.

How have L.A. theaters even been able to swim so deep in the barrel? There’s a dependence on individual giving that’s growing ever-more pronounced. According to Mauldin’s report, the dependence on individual giving in L.A. theaters, contrasted against those in New York, is 61% of a theater’s budget, contrasted against 35% in New York.

One audience member remarked that if he wants to get a startup website or a bio-tech project funded, he can go to Silicon Valley and raise a million dollars without a hitch, but go to a movie studio and ask to fund the presentation of a new play, you’d raise more passing a hat in the subway. He just couldn’t comprehend the apathy and even antipathy toward the theater in Los Angeles, even among local philanthropists and corporations, given our theater’s storied history and quite remarkable track record.

PSAs Under Way

LA STAGE Alliance intern Monica Beld, Quark, and Armin Shimerman, backstage at Antaeus Theatre Company. (Photo by Steven Leigh Morris.)

With funding from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and Ovation TV, LA STAGE Alliance has now filmed the first in a series of public service announcements advocating for the virtues of local theater, and aiming to familiarize the general public with our largely hidden subculture. These digital announcements will guide the public to a new LA STAGE Alliance website (with listings, reviews and arts journalism) slated to launch by January 2018 – a project funded by The Ahmanson Foundation.

All of these 30-second commercials are produced by Butcher Bird Studios. This first PSA was shot at Antaeus Theatre Company’s new Glendale digs, hosted by Armin Shimerman, who was filmed striding through the theater’s make-up room in costume and saying as much as he could about local theater, while rushing to get onstage as Richard III.

Alexandra Billings has committed to host a PSA in August.

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.