By Steven Leigh Morris
But soon we must rise, O my heart, we must wander again
Into the war of the world and the strife of the throng;
Let us rise, O my heart, let us gather the dreams that remain,
We will conquer the sorrow of life with the sorrow of song.
– from “In the Forest” by Sarojini Naidu
I live in the forest of Idyllwild, in Riverside County where, in addition to the majesty of the Ponderosa pines and Incense cedars (the latter living up to half a century and soaring to heights of almost 200 feet), metaphors also live on every bend.
A forest fire is an obvious one.
The drought is also a metaphor. Years of thirst can fell the Ponderosa giants. The Ponderosa was imported here for its lumber. With lack of water, it suffers what arborists call “stress,” which diminishes the sap exuding from its bark, rendering it vulnerable to attack by beetles that eat it from the inside out. You can see evidence of such an attack when the top third of a Ponderosa is denuded, de-crowned, like King Lear. Pestilence. This is the shape of history, as well as the history of our local theater.
This doesn’t happen to the indigenous cedars which, being native to drought-stricken California, don’t succumb so easily to the stresses of thirst. More on the cedars later. And of enduring a drought.
So what have been the actual effects of the new Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) 99-seat collective bargaining Agreement on Los Angeles-area theater in 2017? The core of the Agreement is that union actors must now be paid the local minimum wage (currently $10-$10.50/hour) for rehearsals and performances, with the ostensible aim of driving up stage actor salaries to a living wage.
Yet there are so many so rules and so many exceptions to those rules that it’s hard to come up with a comprehensive outcome.
The biggest exception to the new rules (in a number of exceptions that collectively and at least temporarily alleviates the most devastating impacts of the new Agreement) is the union-sanctioned “membership companies.” There are dozens of them around town (Rogue Machine, Antaeus Company, Sacred Fools Theater, Pacific Resident Theater, Road Theatre Company, etc.). In such companies, the minimum wage requirement is waived. AEA has also waived the requirement that existed under the former 99-Seat Plan that these actors be paid any performance stipend at all – which is a peculiar stance for a labor union to take. So for those companies, at least, it’s been largely business as usual.
The process of such companies getting sanctioned as “membership companies” by AEA has proven to be somewhat arbitrary. Interact Theatre Company, the Odyssey Theatre’s Koan Unit, and New Musicals Inc. (NMI) – all troupes with resident ensembles going back decades – were denied “membership company” status by AEA for reasons yet to be explained.
Meanwhile, AEA claims that the new contract has been used 225 times and has resulted in an added $263,000 in payments to Los Angeles union actors in the first 18 months the Agreement has been binding.
To break that down, in a local membership of almost 8,000, about 150 actors used the new 99-Seat Agreement in 2017, with an average payout of $1,170 per actor, according to AEA’s own statement.
To further put this in context, let’s take The Fountain Theatre’s upcoming production of The Chosen, being presented under the new Agreement and slated for three previews in January, then a ten-week run (three performances per week) from Jan. 20 to March 25. For its 33 performances (including previews), assuming a time commitment of three hours per show at the $10.50 minimum wage, that gives each actor payment of $1,039.50, minus taxes. Add the same hourly rate for 125 hours of rehearsals ($1,312.50) and The Chosen should double AEA’s $1,170/actor average with a payout of $2,352 (for three months of employment) of taxable income for each of the show’s four actors, plus the stage manager.
Now, under the former 99-Seat Plan, the Fountain Theatre used to give each of its actors stipends of $25/performance, plus a rehearsal stipend of $150 to $400, depending on the requirements of the show. Under that Plan (which AEA eliminated in 2016 despite a 2/3 protest vote by the membership), for 33 performances, the Fountain would have paid out $825 to each of the performers plus an average $275 rehearsal stipend = $1,100 of tax-free income. So from this illustration, it’s fair to extrapolate that after taxes in 2017 about 150 union stage actors, or 2% of the LA membership, received an additional $500 (according to AEA’s averages) to $1,000 (calculated from The Fountain’s upcoming production of The Chosen) over what they would have received under the former Plan. And that increase was mainly derived from the rehearsal pay.
Is that pay hike enough for those actors to give up their day jobs? Hardly. Living wage? Oh, please. But where’s the harm, you may ask?
American Theatre Magazine asked that question last year, and The Fountain Theatre’s co-artistic director Stephen Sachs replied in stark terms: “What’s so upsetting to me is that it’s going to take work away from actors. Some theatres are going to be forced to close, others will have to change their programming and do shows with smaller casts. Instead of creating more opportunities for Equity members, it’s going to reduce them.”
Was Sachs just crying into his beer, because his theater was compelled by the union to shell out more for actors? The evidence suggests otherwise.
In 2016 (in preparation for the new Agreement) and again in 2017, Boston Court Performing Arts Center anticipated the financial consequences of the inevitable new rules, and went from a four-play season to three — a trial run. It also trimmed its 2017 season roster of actors by 50%: from 21 actors in four plays in 2015 (under the former Plan), to 19 actors in three plays in 2016 (anticipating the new Agreement), to 10 actors in three plays in 2017 (under the new Agreement). So in 2017, the same amount in salaries went to 10 fewer actors, while Boston Court has been financially curtailed from staging the kind of large-ensemble productions that were its artistic hallmark.
But The Fountain Theatre and Boston Court have among the largest annual budgets in LA County for 99-seat theaters – respectively $500,000 and $1,000,000 – and the latter includes a music series in a second venue. Though there’s plenty of artistic sting to go around, the new rules appear not to sting the larger budgeted theaters as sharply as they do the preponderance of 99-seat theaters in LA.
The union’s new minimum wage requirement has made it considerably more difficult for the “lower and middle-classes” of 99-seat theaters, whose average annual budgets hover around $200,000, to put on plays with AEA actors. Either these theaters must abide by the minimum wage mandate or they must confine their productions to a bundle of new restrictions: no more than 16 performances in a theater of no more than 50 seats, and a budget of no more than $20,000 for the show, which renders them workshops rather than full productions. This is fine for works in development, but less helpful to show the full attributes of new plays, musicals, classics, and immersive theater.
Under this exception, the minimum wage requirement for union actors is waived. Even with this exception, however, the union’s new rules and restrictions have actively impeded those theaters that are trying their best to create quality productions with our top-tier stage actors. The rules have also impeded those actors, in a field with about 10% employment on local stages, who have used such theaters as their playgrounds. None of this is healthy for our sector, which depends on the best conditions possible for a laboratory — as in any field of research and development.
AEA actors have certainly not benefited from the 99-seat theaters that have been denied the “membership company” carve-out, and also don’t qualify for any of the other exceptions in the new rules. In 2017, a swath of 16 such theaters formed a consortium called Independent Theatres of Los Angeles (ITLA), united by their refusal to sign the union’s new collective bargaining Agreement, and resulting in the wearisome outcome that these theaters are now on AEA’s “Do Not Work” list. These include heavy hitters such as Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, The Skylight, The Victory and The Matrix theatres, Padua Playwrights, Playwrights’ Arena, and Robey Theatre Company, among others. We received a report from a publicist that the majority of performers in one such production were AEA actors who more or less abandoned their union via Fi-Core – a situation that’s good for nobody.
Playwrights’ Arena has performed exclusively original plays by LA writers, and it operates on $90,000 a year – meaning that the theater has a hefty legacy, a cogent, consistent mission, and an extremely modest budget to implement that mission, even by our intimate theater standards. After years of struggle, the theater was rescued in 2017 by a local charter school willing to donate a largely abandoned church on its property to the theater. But that’s an anomaly. The average annual occupancy cost for most LA theaters runs between $80,000-$120,000 (depending on the neighborhood). So you can imagine how little that leaves companies with less than a $200,000 annual budget to put on a season of plays, even without the minimum wage requirement.
Let’s take a peek into the occupancy costs of The Skylight Theatre, in the Los Feliz district east of Hollywood. The Skylight is another of the veteran companies that couldn’t afford to sign Equity’s new Agreement. The Skylight’s annual budget is about $250,000. According to artistic director Gary Grossman, his current rent is $7,200/month, but the theater is also responsible for maintenance and utilities, which brings the monthly costs to $9,500 or $114,000 per year, just to keep the doors open. That leaves $136,000 to pay staff and put on a season of plays in the venue’s two spaces.
In 2020, Grossman’s lease is up for renewal and he anticipates a rent hike of $5,000/month, totaling $174,000 per year which, with the current budget, would leave about $75,000 to produce a season of plays in his two theaters.
2017 was a year of quiet exhaustion from two years (2015-2016) of thunderous and ultimately futile community rage (including a lawsuit) over the authoritarian and ideological way AEA gored LA’s 99-seat theaters – the plans to do so were in the works since 2012, according to leaked AEA documents. The cumulative pointlessness of causing such distress to theaters with so few resources, and for so little gain, seems weirdly aligned with the gratuitous cruelty in our larger political climate: Let’s blame poverty on the poor, then remove the scant privileges they enjoy, or simply goad them to leave. As though people and institutions with so little money therefore have little to offer. And that is perhaps the most hollow and foolish presumption of our times – globally and locally.
But as the poem says: “We will conquer the sorrow of life with the sorrow of song.”
Yes, plays are still being performed in Los Angeles, in abundance, despite the drought of funding, and the drought of public awareness that a theater sector in Los Angeles even exists. How do we forge some remedy for the sorrow of life, in order to ensure that our songs get heard?
Here’s what we’re up to at LA STAGE Alliance. Based on a series of community meetings in 2016, we heard a recurring theme that LA theater needs stronger identification with the general public, with the very neighborhoods where our theaters are situated. There are four million people in the city of Los Angeles. If 1/10 of one percent of those residents attended local theater, our audience development problems would be solved. Not to mention visitors. Who gets off a Plane at LAX from Stuttgart and says “Hey, we’re in LA. Let’s take in a play!”? Creating a greater public awareness of our sector doesn’t solve the problem of soaring rents, for artists and for theaters (there’s a longer-term program in the works for that – if we live so long), but it’s a first step towards making the sector more vital by giving LA theater a kind of narrative of its own.
My hope is that 2018 will mark the emergence of two new LA STAGE Alliance programs, in the works for two years, to create a greater public awareness and appreciation of our theaters.
In March, we hope to roll out a new theater-centric destination website, targeted for residents and visitors, that will include comprehensive listings, long-form and short-form journalism, and reviews. This project was funded by The Ahmanson Foundation.
In the meantime, we’ve been filming 30-second public service announcements (co-funded by the City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs and Ovation TV) about the artistic riches of local theater that reference the new website, and is scheduled to be distributed during the website’s launch. Hosts so far have included Alexandra Billings, Diarra Kilpatrick, Alfred Molina, Armin Shimerman, Jimmy Smits, and George Takei, with commitments to film from Rose Portillo and from the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti. Distribution for these PSAs has been secured on television outlets KCET, and Ovation TV, and we’ve been in discussion with TheaterMania and the L.A. Tourism Board for assistance getting these PSAs out into the world.
Rough cuts will be screened in their first public appearances at the 28th annual Ovation Awards on January 29th—a black-tie shindig at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel, in downtown. Kirsten Vangsness is this year’s host of the area’s largest peer-judged theater awards show, celebrating the best of who we are and what we do, in theaters large and small. Tim Dang is directing, taking us back to the theater’s original 1920s home of United Artists, modeled on the Spanish Baroque cathedral where Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were wed. We’ll have a full orchestra, and performances by Alexandra Billings, Melody Butiu, and Zakiya Young.
And all of this is happening in the midst of a drought for our theater. Which brings me back to the cedars, which thrive in adversity. I started really noticing them on my forest walks about two years ago. Their seeds emerge from their ripening pine cones, little urns that open in the fall and release their seeds on tiny wings, that spin to the ground like toy helicopters, hundreds of thousands of them, coating the forest floor.
I started collecting them, and I planted about a dozen of them. And they all sprouted. And now, after one year, they’re two feet tall. And I thought of Astrov in Uncle Vanya planting his forests and imagining what they will look like in a hundred years.
They are of this place. They are not imported, like the Ponderosa. Like Hamilton. They have emerged from the conditions of our land and sky. And if people say, but the Redwoods are taller and more glorious, I would reply that the cedars are glorious enough. They are what we have, bestowed by nature, and they are beautiful, bountiful, and enduring. They define our local forest, and by doing so, they define us, who live here.
I can’t write this without imagining the infinite possibilities of our local theater, which arose from the conditions of our local culture, and which learned how to thrive in adversity, and will continue to do so.