Imagine there's no 99-seat plan (apologies to John Lennon)

The minimum wage is generating maximum discussion. And now the buzz about it has spread beyond the president and Mayor Garcetti and workers in fast-food chains and hotels - into the world of LA theater.

Much of LA theater rests on the efforts of actors and other workers who are paid considerably less than the current minimum wage - let alone the higher minimums that appear to be waiting in the wings.

This is the freshest angle emphasized on the new website Re-Imagine LA Theatre, which attempts to kickstart a discussion of the steps necessary to construct a better-paying, more professional, higher-profile LA theater scene.

In the website's "legal addendum," several attorneys' legal opinions and current investigations are cited that raise questions about the vulnerability of LA theater in general and its widely used 99-Seat Theater Plan in particular to legal challenges for violation of minimum-wage laws.

Meanwhile, Actors' Equity has announced plans to survey its LA members and hold focus groups in order to learn about more members' thoughts about LA theater, as part of a "focused campaign to bring live theater to the forefront in Los Angeles."

Of course it's no secret that Equity's LA-specific 99-Seat Theater Plan allows union members in tiny theaters to be paid as little as $7 per performance - and nothing for rehearsals. Although many small productions pay more than that minimum, no actor ever presumes to make a living wage by appearing in 99-seat Plan productions.

It's likely that most 99-Seat Plan producers support the concept of the minimum wage - in fast-food franchises and hotels. But they haven't exactly rallied around the concept of a minimum wage at their theaters.

Behind the Plan and its 1972-88 predecessor (originally known as "Equity Waiver") was the assumption that LA is overstocked with skilled actors and that most of them would rather work on stage - even for no money (or, starting in 1988, for minimal money) - because at least they might be seen by TV/movie execs who might hire them for better-paying screen jobs.

Nowadays, this "showcase" aspect underlying the 99-Seat Plan is widely denied and denigrated by many of the actors and producers themselves. They swear that the play, not the potential pay, is the thing that drives them to do 99-seat theater. It's a calling, not a get-rich-quick scheme.

And it's true that as a showcase, 99-seat theater is hardly a guaranteed road to riches. Yes, a few of the actors in it probably get noticed by better-playing employers - but what's the percentage of regular 99-seat actors who get a big, lucrative break via 99-seat work? I imagine that it's a lot lower than the percentage of regular 99-seat actors who burn out after four or five years in the 99-seat trenches.

Actors often stop doing 99-seat theater not only because of the paltry pay, but also because 99-seat theater -- as astonishingly good as it sometimes gets -- seldom has enough seats or enough marketing resources to convince enough of the LA public that it's anything other than a showcase, or a hobby, or a workshop. And it's even more difficult to make that case to tourists or anyone else living outside LA. My impression is that most Angelenos and almost everyone outside LA who has ever heard about 99-seat theater still assume that it's primarily a showcase - no matter what the actors themselves believe.

Re-Imagine LA Theatre - a "call to action" signed initially by 46 LA theater practitioners -- delves into this quaqmire with useful information about the corresponding plans for the lowest tier of Equity-affiliated production in New York and San Francisco, pointing out that other alternatives exist. The website's authors delineate the differences in (non-showcase) goals among various users of the 99-Seat Plan - some artist-oriented groups are mainly trying to develop new work, but others are actively trying to reach wider audiences with more finished results. A "one-size-doesn't-fit-all" plan can't meet everyone's needs, according to Re-Imagine LA Theatre.

Essentially, a major overhaul - or a breakup - of the Plan is what's being proposed here.

And it soon becomes clear - although Re-Imagine LA Theatre isn't too explicit about spelling it out - that such an overhaul would result in the more ambitious, audience-oriented 99-seat companies gradually evolving into midsize companies.

Over the years, I have repeatedly (ad nauseam, anyone?) tried to draw more attention to the midsize theaters - those that have already clawed their way out of the 99-seat murk and now operate on more costly Equity contracts, as well as those that always have used contracts. Although even these existing midsize theaters, as a group, probably aren't in a position to pay any particular actor a real living wage, they represent a big step up in the professionalization of LA theater. For audiences, they generally offer most of the intimacy of 99-seat spaces without the risk that actors might suddenly desert the production for more lucrative work -- and without the potential guilt about exploiting cheap labor.

Unfortunately, most of these midsize companies haven't achieved enough public support that would allow them to hire larger casts with any regularity. And as a group, they barely register in public consciousness, finding themselves overshadowed not only by LA's relatively few bigger companies but also by the larger total of 99-seat companies as a group. LA Times critic Charles McNulty pays hardly any attention to the midsize theaters. The LA Weekly has traditionally emphasized the 99-seaters because its annual awards are limited to 99-seaters. Nor do the Ovation Awards acknowledge them as an individual category, lumping them in with the much bigger-budgeted "larger" theaters, while the 99-seaters receive special recognition as "intimate" theaters.

If, indeed, LA theater is "re-imagined" to the point that more 99-seat companies vow to grow beyond the 99-Seat Plan, what else will they need, beyond more recognition by the media?

Money. And space.

Obviously they will need well-connected development directors who will know how to beat the bushes for funding, private and public. Specifically, in LA, there is a perennial question of why more support for theater doesn't come from the film/TV industries - but of course the challenge is to find execs in those industries who, while fondly recalling the benefits of their own roots in the theater, will nevertheless refrain from expecting the theater to necessarily serve their own commercial purposes.

Of course midsize theaters could benefit from cooperative government officials. Certainly the LA County Arts Commission's hope to build a new 299-seat theater on the Ford Amphitheatre grounds would be a great way for the county government to abet the "re-imagining" effort.

But building new theaters is expensive. It often drains money away from producing theater. So any such evolution of LA theater would probably also require existing midsize facilities to be used more often, and more frequently shared.

I'm thinking about the three midsize venues at Los Angeles Theatre Center, which is now in the middle of the lively neighborhood that its original founders once envisioned. How about the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center on Washington Boulevard and Vision Theatre in Leimert Park (though some of Vision's 750 seats might have to be roped off to fit midsize contracts)? Why hasn't Barnsdall Art Park been used by any significant runs of local theater companies since Independent Shakespeare left?

Would the Colony in Burbank or International City Theatre in Long Beach be open to hosting productions from other companies? El Portal's midsize space in NoHo keeps fairly busy with seemingly commercial fare, but might it be able to serve as a space for nonprofit LA productions?

Center Theatre Group's Michael Ritchie once vowed to open the midsize Kirk Douglas Theatre to other LA groups, and he managed to do it more than once. But why is the CTG-commissioned musical satire "The Behavior of Broadus" currently delighting audiences at the little Sacred Fools Theater instead of the Douglas?

Whatever happened to Blank Theatre's plan to renovate an old Hollywood movie theater into a midsize legit theater? Remember how RADAR L.A. was able to transform the downtown Tower Theater into a midsize space during last year's festival? Shouldn't Broad Stage in Santa Monica and the Annenberg in Beverly Hills develop more relationships with local theater companies?

La Mirada Theatre, which usually has 1200 seats, has now produced two intimate midsize shows in which the smaller-than-usual audience is on the stage along with the actors. Could other larger venues adapt their stages for similar purposes, perhaps in conjunction with other LA companies?

I know I'm throwing all these possibilities into cyberspace without sufficiently investigating the prospects for any of them in particular. But in the spirit of Re-Imagine LA Theatre, let's start brainstorming - followed by some serious planning - and see where it takes us.

A 'LONG ROAD' BETWEEN 'TEMPEST'S. A KISS FOR 'KATE'?

Looking southeast from Los Angeles County, South Coast Repertory is currently demonstrating that it knows something about creating a new midsize space out of a found site. Last weekend and next weekend, Santa Ana's Civic Plaza - a few miles north of SCR's Costa Mesa campus -- has become the home of "The Long Road Today," or "El Largo Camino de Hoy," which can accommodate audiences of 300 at each performance.

The project is a free-of-charge alfresco adventure in which the audience is divided into four groups that rotate on foot to four sites within the complex, following aspects of a story about two Santa Ana families who are torn apart by a fatal traffic accident. Each of the four sets of scenes is narrated by a bilingual actor who personifies a character derived from loteria card imagery.

In the tradition of many a Cornerstone Theater production, Jose Cruz Gonzalez's "Long Road Today" script was constructed after many hours spent in story circles with Santa Ana residents. Despite all that research, the script is curiously sparse in specific stories about real Santa Anans, preferring to concentrate on lively music and dance and Sean Cawelti-designed puppets. One segment includes a number of historical photos from Santa Ana history, but they are devoid of any informative narration and therefore seem oddly irrelevant to the rest of the production.

The cast includes amateurs from the community as well as professionals - but performances aren't the problem. It's the script - and not only because it lacks details about real human beings, but also because it gets carried away by its own pageantry. Gonzalez and director Armando Molina apparently were either unwilling or unable to whittle away the excess.

Still, this project is a welcome move by SCR into a nearby neighborhood that usually isn't given much consideration at SCR's home base. And as a gesture that distinguishes SCR from its big rival to the northwest, it stands in stark contrast to Center Theatre Group's almost total disregard for LA (explored in my last column.)

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Edmund Lewis, Tom Nelis, Charlotte Graham, Joby Earle, Mike McShane and Dawn Didawick in "The Tempest" by William Shakespeare. Photo: Debora Robinson/SCR

Speaking of South Coast Rep, its production of "The Tempest" has attracted a lot of attention, primarily because of the magic introduced by co-director Teller into Shakespeare's script, a rowdy honky-tonk score by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, and a Caliban who is actually two actor/tumblers (Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee) who seem to be joined at the hip. Aaron Posner of "Stupid Fucking Bird" fame is the co-director. It closes this weekend.

A week after I saw it, I saw another but very different "Tempest" at A Noise Within in Pasadena, staged by Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. It lacks the SCR version's bells and whistles, but it takes much greater care to make Shakespeare's language fully accessible. Its female Prospero (Deborah Strang) is far more memorable than the male Prospero at SCR, and it has some evocative design elements that appear to be loosely inspired by Gauguin, as well as some haunting music and sound by Peter Bayne.

All things considered, I recommend SCR's version to seekers of magic and A Noise Within's to seekers of Shakespeare.

Also on the Shakespearean trail in Pasadena, Sheldon Epps' version of "Kiss Me, Kate," the backstage musical about a "Taming of the Shrew"-based musical, has just opened at Pasadena Playhouse. Epps has transformed the company in Cole Porter's 1948 original into an African-American company doing a black-oriented adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy. This is immediately evident in the very bluesy arrangements (the music director is Rahn Coleman) for "Another Opening, Another Show," which indeed kicks off the proceeding on a high note that isn't reached again until the opening of the second act, "Too Darn Hot" (the choreographer is Jeffrey Polk).

I guess that means I was a little disappointed in Wayne Brady as the leading man. His efforts, including his singing, are a little too effortful. But Merle Dandridge is an impossibly elegant and imposing figure in the title role, which makes us wince all the more when the story ends as it does -- no thanks to Shakespeare himself.

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