On famous actors and 99-seat theater*

blythe-danner-country-house-lamont.jpgBlythe Danner last year in "The Country House" at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo: Michael Lamont.

I've been a Blythe Danner fan for decades. But I don't understand why her words were chosen to receive the famous-actor spotlight in a full-page LA Times ad - which attacked Actors' Equity's controversial proposal to require at least minimum-wage payments to the union's members who work in LA County theaters with fewer than 100 seats.

Her quote begins with this testimonial: "99 seat theaters provided the lifeblood for many of us when we began in this business and are still not only relevant but crucial to the artistic life of our city and country."

Like many actors, Danner probably performed in a few small theaters as a young woman, probably in the East in the '60s. But those experiences don't necessarily have any relevance to the particular issues surrounding Equity's 99-Seat Theater Plan in LA County in 2015. Does anyone remember Danner performing under Equity's 99-seat plan?

I doubt it. I've been paying attention since before the plan went into effect in the late '80s, by which time she was a long-established star. And I can't recall any such performance by Danner. If Danner had worked in a play at a 99-seat theater in LA during this period, the LA Times surely would have reviewed it, so I ran her name through the online LA Times database since 1985, searching for any sign that Danner had dabbled in a 99-seat show. None of the 271 Times references to Danner since 1985 indicated that she had performed under the plan.

Her only LA theater credits listed in her Wikipedia bio are the title role in "Major Barbara" at the Mark Taper Forum in 1971 and a staged reading at the Ahmanson. Also, as I wrote in a 2014 LA Observed column, she was superb in the premiere of "The Country House" at the Geffen last year. Yet the Taper, Ahmanson and Geffen are not on the 99-seat plan.

So why is she being cited as an authority on the current brouhaha?

Danner shouldn't be chided for declining to participate in LA's 99-seat theater. Although she has previously lived in Santa Monica, more recent interviews indicate that nowadays she considers herself primarily a New Yorker. Why would she bother with plays in LA's 99-seat theaters when she can work on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in Williamstown, or even at the Taper and the Geffen? Like many actors, she also works frequently in movies and TV, which probably provide her with more income than she receives from any stage job.

I wouldn't pretend to speculate on how she might compare her artistic rewards in all of these various arenas, but I also wouldn't suggest that she would necessarily feel that the artistic rewards might be even greater in a 99-seat production in LA. Yet now, with no experience in that world, she has been thrust into the role of being a spokeswoman for LA small theater.

Actually, even considering the many famous actors who unambiguously reside in LA, only a tiny percentage of them ever perform under the 99-seat plan. If more of them worked under the plan, their names might attract a lot more customers - and revenue -- to these theaters.

Not that these companies should cater to the stars if they aren't right for the roles, but some of these stars are clearly capable of doing the job and adding a few extra audience members on the side because of their celebrity. For example, I'll guess that the presence of the great Laurie Metcalf (who was one of the signers of the LA Times ad) in Circle X's intriguing "Trevor" surely provides at least a few benefits at the box office.

But part of the reason why Metcalf's appearance is so noteworthy is because so few actors on her level of fame and experience participate in 99-seat theater. They might sign petitions for it, but they don't want to be subjected to its barely-compensated regimen. Only a minuscule proportion of the wealthiest actors can afford to completely ignore the size of the paycheck when deciding whether to take job offers.

metcalfe-TREVOR.jpgJimmi Simpson and Laurie Metcalf in "Trevor." Photo: Ryan Miller

Of course this overall dearth of accomplished celebs in the 99-seaters is good, on one level, for it makes more room for the gifted not-yet-famous actors. However, many of these talented but struggling performers truly can't afford to spend much time doing 99-seat theater. They would benefit, more than anyone, from a well-coordinated raise -- to at least the minimum-wage level.

Sometimes, the more affluent actors might better serve the 99-seat companies by donating money. It could be more helpful to be a benefactor than a box-office attraction. For example, from the "Trevor" program I learned that Courteney Cox of "Friends" and "Cougar Town" fame is a contributor to Circle X (her "Cougar Town" colleague Bob Clendenin was a co-founder of Circle X and is not only in the cast of "Trevor" but also is listed as a donor to the company at the highest level.)

I'm not asking this next question rhetorically -- I don't know the answer. But maybe someone out there might know: Does Blythe Danner regularly donate to any of LA's 99-seat companies?

[* Update: Since my column posted, former Antaeus Company artistic director Jeanie Hackett answered this question about whether Blythe Danner has contributed to 99-seat theater behind the scenes. Danner donated to Antaeus "when I ran it," she says, and Danner "hosted a benefit for us at her house as well. I don't think Antaeus is the only company she donated to. She also went to see small theater regularly -- and was a fan of many of the small companies around town. I know she sometimes makes 'anonymous' donations -- as many celebs do, since they are pursued relentlessly by the theater-needy. But she would often say to me that she thought that that small theater in L.A. rivaled that in NYC."]

Rather than expecting any labor union - in an era of minimum-wage activism on many fronts -- to endorse a plan that pays less than minimum wage (especially now that it has been pointed out that this has been happening for decades), 99-seat companies should begin raising the money that will be necessary for the day when paying the minimum wage is required - whether it's by Equity or by a court. And these developmental efforts should be aimed not only at the relatively few wealthy actors, of course, but also at foundations, corporations, government agencies and audience members in general.

As I mentioned in my last column, Equity should have been much more specific about the terms of the proposed transition to minimum-wage payment and the union's access to any financial resources that might facilitate that transition. Equity leaders maintain that the national council will decide all of this when it meets in late April. They also have indicated recently that the transition won't be as sudden as some have feared. More public attention to these matters would have been useful before the LA membership's current "advisory" referendum began.

Speaking of my last column, when I cited 323 productions in Greater LA (Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties) that operated on Equity contracts from May 27, 2013 through May 25, 2014 (the last year for which records were available), several readers asked how many of these contracted shows occurred in Los Angeles County -- where the 99-Seat Plan (not a contract) was used in 390 productions during the same period. I asked Equity, which reported that 221 of the 323 contracted productions were in Los Angeles County - and that these numbers do not include touring productions that played LA after being cast and contracted in New York or other cities.

I'm a theatergoer, not an actor, so I was primarily interested in finding out the number of opportunities to see professional theater within my normal driving distance - which includes Orange and Ventura counties as well as LA County - regardless of whether the shows were on the 99-seat plan or on contracts. But I'm glad to hear that 221 contract productions occurred in LA County during that one year, and, again, if the minimum wage requirement is enforced, I hope that the producers who already use contracts are open to doing whatever they can to welcome the 99-seat producers into their world. Co-productions, anyone?

Meanwhile, as we non-actors await Equity's decision, I notice that among the 99-seat theater supporters who signed the LA Times ad are Alec Baldwin and Al Pacino. Does this mean that we'll soon be able to see them doing "The Odd Couple" together on Hollywood's Theater Row or in deepest NoHo (Baldwin as Felix, Pacino as Oscar)? Or maybe they would prefer just to make a few big donations?


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