by Steven Leigh Morris
A Modest Proposal
In May of this year, The Ahmanson Foundation approached LA STAGE Alliance and NPO Solutions with an idea to help address and redress the sundry forms of poverty that challenge the L.A. theater community.
According to a 2015 study presented by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, L.A.’s cultural institutions are experiencing a nearly 20% increase in audience against a backdrop of diminishing income and rising costs. In the past decade, we’ve seen some of our most entrenched theaters compelled to move or close, due to sudden and unanticipated hikes in occupancy costs. It is still too early to understand the full, nuanced impacts of the new union rules.
There is one underlying cause, and one overreaching remedy to the challenges we face.
The underlying is cause is poverty. Per capita investment in the arts in California is one-tenth of what it is in New York. Even in California, Los Angeles lags far behind San Diego and San Francisco. Our challenge has always been, and remains, to brand L.A. theater as something integral to the city’s civic life, which in many ways it is. From Cornerstone Theatre Company to the Actors’ Gang to Playwrights Arena to Latino Theatre Company, to Antaeus Company and Pacific Resident Theatre and Watts Village Theatre and REDCAT and the Wallis Center, and on, and on, and on. So we’re not making the case for a mirage, or a fib. As sociologist Irving Goffman once said, “Power is the ability to define the situation, and to make that definition stick.” This, we haven’t yet done. When the case for the vitality and relevance of local theater is made persuasively, the power and investment will follow, as it has in other cities.
But the more immediate remedy, a thesis we’re about to test, is that sustainability lies in collaboration rather than isolation. That means we’re going to have to learn to get along with each other in ways we haven’t yet imagined. How do we collaborate and not take advantage of, or patronize each other? Where do we find symbiosis? Where do we find mutual respect, despite differing administrative models and missions? Despite some being union, and some being non-union? Some being rich, and some being poor? How can we share resources, whether physical space, or marketing, or box office or back-end administration? How do we temper our egos and insecurities and ideologies in the larger interest of sustaining a sector? Can we all just get along?
For Phase I of this Sustainability Initiative, LA STAGE Alliance and NPO Solutions have invited 12 companies (11 theaters and one dance company) for a series of facilitated discussions and webinars with field-experts on the challenges being faced, as well as some proposals for symbiotic collaboration, perhaps between larger theaters and smaller theaters, or between smaller theaters, or between larger theaters.
We aren’t entering this program with any pre-determined outcomes. Our hope is that these outcomes will emerge from the discussions.
The 12 companies for Phase I (which will last through 2017) are: A Noise Within, Independent Shakespeare Company, Celebration Theatre, Playwrights Arena, Poor Dog Group, Watts Village Theatre, Latino Theatre Company, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, East West Players, Jacob Jonas Dance Company, City Garage, and Pasadena Playhouse.
They were selected, after considerable hand-wringing, not just for the quality of their work, but for the diversity of their administrative models, as well as their missions, and of the faces that grace their stages and staff and boards of directors.
At the close of Phase I, LA STAGE Alliance will draft a “white paper” to document findings and prepare the way for Phase II, which will engage other theaters and expand the discussion from diagnosis to possible treatments: specific plans for collaboration that make administrative, financial and emotional sense.
If any viable plans emerge, those will determine Phase III, which will be the implementation of those plans.