Looking beyond the minimum-wage mess in LA theater*

Alarm bells are going off in the LA theater community about Actors' Equity's proposal to require most productions to pay Equity actors the minimum wage - soon.

Reading some of the dire predictions, it would be easy to surmise that this step would doom most of LA theater - or at least eliminate the use of Equity actors in most LA productions except those at a handful of larger theaters.

Could this be true?

EquityLogo_RGBcolor.jpgI asked Equity to give me the latest numbers - how many productions in Greater LA use the non-contractual 99-seat plan, which hardly ever comes close to paying minimum wage? And how many use Equity contracts, which usually pay something that's at least minimum wage (if not a living wage)?

Drumroll, please. Equity reports that from May 27, 2013 through May 25, 2014, 390 productions used the 99-seat Plan, which is available only in Los Angeles County. And 323 productions operated on Equity contracts in Greater LA - Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties.

So if an avid (albeit crazed) theatergoer had decided to see all 323 of the local stage productions that paid Equity actors at least the minimum wage during that year - but not any 99-seat plan shows - theoretically he or she could still have seen six productions a week for a year (not factoring in the usual problems of conflicting curtain times, traffic jams, etc.), plus one additional show during each of 11 weeks.

In other words, LA's theatrical landscape would still offer plenty of options for dedicated theatergoers, even without the 99-seat plan.

Back in 2011, according to Equity, there were 371 productions on the 99-seat plan but only 216 on contracts. So the number of Equity contracts in LA is growing much faster than the number of 99-seat shows. It's possible that if the new Equity rules go into effect, they will simply add fuel to a process that has already started. Perhaps it has something to do with the economic recovery?

Both sides in the current dispute could try to use these figures to their own advantage.

The Pro-99 camp will say that this proves that the 99-seat plan isn't inhibiting the simultaneous use of more and more Equity contracts - so why not let the plan continue? Or, at the very least, why not allow the smaller companies a slower entry into the world of minimum-wage theater, so those companies that want to move up have more time to consolidate their resources?

The pro-change camp will argue that the original purpose of paying mere peanuts to Equity actors was because there were so many actors who wanted to be on stage in LA and so few opportunities to work on Equity contracts. But now that the opportunities have expanded, why should any Equity actors have to keep munching on peanuts - while the non-acting personnel on the same 99-seat-plan productions have at least moved up to cashews?

Of course the quantity of productions and how much their creators are paid don't tell the whole story. Fierce proponents of small theater like to imagine themselves as the defenders of innovation, not poverty. They often suggest that 99-seat productions are inherently more adventurous, more artistically pure than those productions that must try to appeal to larger audiences. And it's certainly true that it's often easier to fix the problems within new scripts when the financial stakes are at their lowest point, in tiny theaters - and that higher pay scales sometimes result in smaller casts.

But I've seen plenty of exceptions to these rules of thumb. I go to theater at all levels in Greater LA -- more than 200 productions a year - and I can't say that any one level is consistently more accomplished or even more adventurous. I've seen exciting new plays and musicals with professional production standards at LA theaters of all sizes. I've also seen impenetrable train wrecks and meretricious trash at theaters of all sizes. Popular appeal is not necessarily synonymous with pandering. The stages of London and New York, where actors generally are paid better, are hardly devoid of creativity.

With the aesthetic results being more or less equal, and with Equity's attitude leaning toward take-it-or-leave-it (with the exceptions of "self-produced work" and, to a lesser extent, membership companies), I prefer an adoption of the minimum wage to no change whatsoever.

Over time, a minimum-wage standard would result in actors who are more devoted not only to particular productions but also to the stage as a lifetime adventure, as opposed to a showcase or a hobby. And there could be another hefty benefit. If many of the new productions would now have to take place in venues with more than 99 seats, the potentially larger audiences could conceivably lead to more attention from donors and from the general public.

A couple of weeks ago, I encountered two British tourists in LA who had actually taken the rare step of booking tickets to a show here before they left the UK. They couldn't remember the title, the venue or the subject. The tickets cost only $15, so the production must be the work of "amateurs," they had concluded. That assumption is unfair to plenty of hard-working 99-seat practitioners, but like it or not, that's how most outsiders view most of LA's 99-seat theaters.

Speaking of 99-seat plan public relations, the most quoted speaker on behalf of the status quo at a recent rally was Tim Robbins - a presumably wealthy movie star whose generally leftist principles suddenly turned Republican when confronted with the possibility of a required minimum wage in LA theater.

He spoke of how much money he has personally invested in his own 99-seat company, the Actors' Gang - three cheers for that. Not surprisingly, he didn't point out that the Gang is a mere shadow of its former self, at least as far as adult theatergoers in LA's general public can tell. The Gang gets a lot of its revenue from international tours and has a big presence in prisons and schools, but for two years in a row the Gang's primary mainstage offering in its Culver City home - where it pays $3000 a month (* corrected) for rent -- was "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which can usually be seen in at least a half-dozen other productions every year in Greater LA. So much for the notion that the 99-seat plan invariably results in more diverse, adventurous programming. (However, the Gang is currently workshopping Ellen McLaughlin's "Lysistrata," so maybe hope is on the horizon.)

By the way, a Channel 11 news report on the Equity controversy began with footage of Robbins at the rally, with a voiceover from the reporter saying "Actor Tim Robbins - standing up for the little guy." So now someone who speaks against minimum-wage enforcement is "standing up for the little guy," with "guy" apparently defined as an individual company instead of an individual actor. That line from the reporter sounds as if it might have been lifted from one of the Gang's touring productions, "1984."

Of course, the question arises - where will the extra money come from? Well, if the producers of 323 shows in May 2013-May 2014 in Greater LA could find enough money to pay actors on contracts, I suspect that at least some of the 99-seat theaters could eventually find more money, too.

Perhaps some former theater majors who now make big salaries as execs in Hollywood - after virtually starving a decade ago, when they were would-be actors -- might be more willing to contribute to a nonprofit that's serious about paying actors. That also might be true of foundations and public agencies. The currently popular crowd-funding sites, which of course didn't exist during most of the history of the 99-seat plan, might garner a few more dollars for theater.

Unfortunately, cultivating such support isn't easy. Equity is rushing the process, without enough transition time. The union should be a lot more specific about its announced plan "to help build infrastructure and increase funding" for small theaters that try to move up to contracts.

In a column last September, I discussed the possibility that there are some midsize (100-500 seat) venues that might become available to house productions from smaller companies, increasing the potential box-office revenue somewhat without seriously diluting the intimacy of the theatrical experience.

The producers at existing midsize theater companies might well dread the day when smaller companies start competing more seriously for funding, but they could perform a great service to the larger LA theater community by opening their hearts and minds to the idea of at least occasional venue-sharing with the more acclaimed 99-seat companies. Perhaps foundations and public agencies could help make that pathway smoother.

Generally speaking, a concentration of LA theater at fewer venues with higher profiles and more seating might attract more media attention and more attendance - including tourists.

If Equity enacts the new rules next month, we're in for a rough passage in LA theater. A few worthy companies will probably decide to close. But we can take some comfort from the fact that LA is the home of a perpetually revolving door of theatrical talent. The traffic on our stages often has a whiff of out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new. And the number of actors who burn out after about five years on LA's small stages would probably decrease if they're paid at least the minimum wage.

The long-term results might well be a theatrical arena that's not only better-known - but better in general, because the professionals who work at every performance of every production will no longer be singled out for discriminatory amateur-hour compensation.

On with the show...

"Enter Laughing."

In "Enter Laughing," which just closed in the 144-seat Lovelace Studio Theater at the Wallis, the fictional protagonist David Kolowitz is a young would-be actor (played by the wonderful Noah Weisberg) who starts paying an acting teacher for the chance to be in the teacher's little student productions. Although David seems to have very little talent, finally he's told that he'll no longer have to pay the previously required $5 a week. Jubilant at this news, he exclaims, "I get to act for nothing!"

The audience roared with laughter at this line, when I saw this jaunty and hilarious Joseph Stein/Stan Daniels musical, loosely based on Carl Reiner's memories, under the direction of Stuart Ross of "Forever Plaid" fame. Perhaps the thoughts of more than a few of us flashed to the current situation in LA. Sometimes the actors who so righteously defend every comma in LA's 99-seat plan sound a bit like David.

Fortunately, the actors in "Enter Laughing" itself, as opposed to the play within the play, didn't have to feel as if they were the butt of the joke. They worked on a contract. I wonder if some of them left performances exclaiming "I get to make people laugh out loud in an intimate theater for $600 a week" - compared to their colleagues in 99-seat theaters who would feel lucky to get $60 a week.

"Enter Laughing" is just one of the many Equity-contract productions I've enjoyed recently in LA, as I again verified that it's possible to see a lot of good theater here outside the 99-seat houses.

End of the Rainbow_1NC copy.jpgAnyone who missed Peter Quilter's "End of the Rainbow" two years ago, when it was at the Ahmanson Theatre, should venture to Long Beach's International City Theatre in Long Beach. Gigi Bermingham is tearing up the ICT stage with her portrait of Judy Garland's final months, helped enormously by Brent Schindele's musical direction and his performance as Judy's accompanist and friend.

Meanwhile, at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, the West Coast premiere of Catherine Bush's "The Road to Appomattox" gives us parallel stories of the final weeks of Robert E. Lee's retreat and a modern couple (with issues, of course) tracing Lee's tracks - and gradually learning to move beyond the past as Lee did. It's an intriguing premise, although it isn't as intriguing as the more ingenious set-up of Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man," which recently closed at Pasadena Playhouse and which is set just a few days after Lee's surrender.

I can't recommend the premiere of Nandita Shenoy's "Washer/Dryer," a New York-set domestic farce at East West Players. It's so insubstantial that it threatens to reinforce the opinions of those 99-seat plan adherents who maintain that contracts and larger capacities tend to water down the work.

The West Coast premiere of Conor McPherson's "The Night Alive" doesn't feel so alive at the beginning, but it eventually becomes a lot more exciting. By contrast, Arthur Miller's "The Price" at the Taper grows more and more tiresome.

The miscasting of one crucial role is a problem with both "The Threepenny Opera" at A Noise Within and Deaf West's "American Buffalo," which is in a larger-than-99-seat production at Cal State LA, closing Sunday. However, I enjoyed the interplay between Troy Kotsur and Paul Raci in "Buffalo" and the nearly immersive use of the entire theater space in "Threepenny."

Speaking of the creative use of non-stage space, let's nod to two productions in unorthodox rooms with fewer than 99 seats. Good People Theater Company has drafted a recital room inside Burbank's Hollywood Piano store for a very satisfying revival of the brilliant Maltby/Shire revue "Closer Than Ever." And Chalk Rep has taken over the modernist Neutra Institute Museum in Silver Lake for a modern-dress version of "Uncle Vanya" - although a more modernist adaptation of the text might have made for a more comfortable fit for the concept (and more comfortable chairs for the audience might have helped, too.)

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