Why the LA Times' new theater column needs a new name

daca-mented.jpgAlex Alpharoah in "WET: A DACAmented Journey." Photo by Youthana Yuos.

Oops. The first show that was discussed in "The 99-Seat Beat" - a new, weekly LA Times theater column -- was "Silent Sky," at Long Beach's International City Theatre. ICT is not a 99-seat theater. It offers 249 seats at each performance. The column didn't mention the actual seating capacity.

Three days later, the Times ran a correction: "An article in the Sept. 1 Calendar section with recommendations for small-theater productions implied International City Theatre is a 99-seat theater. It is not." The accurate seating capacity remained unknown to Times readers.

A week later, the final part of the second installment of "The 99-Seat Beat" was a brief discussion of "Incognito," at Ventura's Rubicon Theatre, which has 185 seats. Again, the larger capacity wasn't brought up - so again, as with International City Theatre, it would be easy to assume that the Rubicon has only 99 seats. So far, no correction has appeared.

In defining its turf, the first "99-Seat Beat" had initially mentioned "Hamilton," at the 2,703-seat Pantages -- but did so only to vow that this new column would be devoted to "the other side of the SoCal scene, the so-called 99-seat intimate theaters," as if "the SoCal scene" consists only of the Pantages and the 99-seaters.

The corrected online version of the first column, as well as the second column, tried to be a little more precise, using the phrase "99-seat theaters and other smaller venues" to describe the column's bailiwick. But "other smaller venues" remains ambiguous. Does it mean "smaller than the Pantages" or "smaller than the Mark Taper Forum" or the Geffen or what? It could even be interpreted to mean "smaller than 99 seats." Some of the venues mentioned in the column so far, apart from International City Theatre and the Rubicon, have capacities that are indeed smaller than 99 seats.

The confusion in the LA Times column isn't reflective only of its shrinking, multi-tasking staff. It's also reflective of the changing landscape of theater in Los Angeles County.

Until this year, the 99-seat mark in LA professional theater meant more than it means now. For decades, productions that occurred in venues with fewer than 100 seats were free of the obligation to use Actors' Equity contracts when their casts included Equity members. Instead, they operated under much less demanding agreements with the union, which didn't require any payment at all during the Equity-Waiver years (1972-1988) and required only token per-performance fees during the 99-Seat Plan years (1988-2016).

Now, after a recent change in Equity rules, many companies that operate with fewer than 100 seats are required to use Equity contracts that pay at least the minimum wage, for rehearsals as well as performances. But others, known as "membership companies" because they're supposedly self-produced by Equity members, don't have to pay anything at all.

One thing that hasn't changed, however, is that LA still has a level of "midsize" theaters that use Equity contracts in spaces with more than 99 but fewer than, say, 500 seats (although the contracts themselves have changed somewhat).

International City Theatre is one of the midsize companies that began at the 99-seat level but raised enough money and community support to advance to Equity contracts, in a midsize venue. Others in this group include A Noise Within, East West Players, and Los Angeles Theatre Center (formerly Los Angeles Actors' Theatre in its 99-seat days). Independent Shakespeare Company started in 99-seat theaters, long before it began offering free Shakespeare in Griffith Park to thousands.

These companies were justifiably proud of their ability to make that difficult ascent from the 99-seat world to bigger audiences and budgets, more professional standards and supposedly higher profiles. It's depressing that Craig Nakano, the current arts editor at the LA Times and the writer of the first "99-Seat Beat," doesn't seem to notice that these companies moved beyond the 99-seat realm years ago.

On the other hand, the 185-seat Rubicon never was a 99-seat company. It's in Ventura, and Equity didn't allow its 99-Seat Plan to spread beyond LA County. But there are also midsize companies in Los Angeles County that have almost always used Equity contracts - for example, Theatricum Botanicum, Garry Marshall Theatre (formerly the Falcon), the Shakespeare Center.

And of course there are other companies that never used the 99-seat plan but operate on Equity contracts in larger or upper-midsize venues, such as those run by Center Theatre Group (CTG), the Pasadena Playhouse, Geffen Playhouse, La Mirada Playhouse, Musical Theatre West, Ebony Repertory Theatre, Native Voices, the Getty Villa, and the relatively new Wallis Annenberg Center.

In other words, it was never accurate to boil down the non-Pantages or even the non-CTG LA theatrical community to "the 99-seat scene." But it's an especially inappropriate time to do it now, when new differences in the Equity requirements within the sub-100-seat arena have made that previously pivotal number "99" lose much of its point.

The LA Times should find a new name for its new column.

It appears on Fridays, and I'm glad that the Times has returned to its long tradition of including theater in its coverage every Friday, when many readers are making theater-going decisions for the weekend. But the new column would also benefit from a clarification of how it operates.

In the first installment, any hints about which shows Nakano had actually seen (if any) remained hidden. For example, how should a reader react to this unattributed yet oddly specific sentence about "Silent Sky": "Last weekend, the audience seemed particularly pleased by a supporting cast that includes Jennifer Parsons, an ICT and South Coast Rep veteran, and Leslie Stevens, who originated the role of Anne in 'La Cage aux Folles' on Broadway"? Who exactly was this "audience" who "seemed" to be "pleased" by two particular supporting actors? Nakano? A critic? Someone on Facebook?

Nakano twice cited Times reviews of earlier productions of two of the plays that were featured in his column - but he misquoted the 2010 Times review of "La Razón Blindada."

The second column, by regular Times free-lance reviewer Philip Brandes, did a much better job of using language that indicated whether the columnist had seen the production. Apparently the authorship of this column will rotate among regular Times free-lance reviewers. I can't yet decipher whether a mention in it will enhance or will eliminate a show's eligibility to receive a separate Times review.

By the way, the first-mentioned show in Brandes' column, "WET: A DACA-mented Journey," is one that should not be missed. Although Sunday had been its apparent closing date, it's now scheduled to return, on a different schedule, starting October 9. LA-based Alex Alpharaoh tells his own gripping story of being a "Dreamer" in the Obama era and now the Trump era, and he tells it very well, as staged by Kevin Comartin for Ensemble Studio Theatre, in Atwater. This production can only increase in topicality as he and we await the next turn in the DACA saga. I'm hoping to have an opportunity to see an updated version.

Finally, a nod to the above-mentioned Native Voices. The Autry Museum-based company, devoted to Native American talent and topics, has achieved a significant boost in its national reputation with the current production of its artistic director Randy Reinholz's "Off the Rails" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It's the first play by a Native writer that OSF has produced. And it's staged by OSF's artistic director, Bill Rauch, an LA favorite from his years as a co-founder and artistic director of Cornerstone Theater (another company, by the way, that often has used some Equity contracts in spaces that seat more than 99).

Native Voices first produced "Off the Rails" at the Autry in 2015. I liked it then, and I like the new version even more, at the OSF campus in Ashland, Oregon.

It remains an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" that's set in 1880s Nebraska, against the background of one of the infamous de-Indianizing boarding schools. It has a bitter side, considering its historical context, but it also features a rowdy set of scenes at the local saloon/whorehouse where the locals are planning their auditions for Buffalo Bill. It's almost a musical; for this production, Ed Littlefield, a Tlingit from Alaska, wrote original music and sound and Nick Spear added original music and lyrics, making up a rich sonic blend from various cultures. The design elements, especially Tom Ontiveros' projections of eloquent period photos, are memorably poignant.

I'd like to write more about "Off the Rails" when it returns to LA, as it certainly should. The Wallis would be a likely contender to present it, because the Wallis has imported previous OSF productions. But perhaps those who run other big LA theaters should go to Ashland and consider the possibilities. The final performance is on October 28.

photo-2017-off-the-rails-4.jpg"Off the Rails" ensemble in Oregon. Photo by Jenny Graham.

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