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Playwrights in LA and the Whole 99-Seat Thing

I used to volunteer usher for The Black Dahlia Theatre. It was a thirty-five-seat storefront theatre on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, so it wasn’t a particularly demanding job, and given the size of the theatre, pretty much everyone including the ushers got house seats. The Dahlia produced new works by playwrights such as Adam Rapp, Rajiv Joseph, and Stephen Adly Guirgis. It felt like LA’s best-kept secret, this tiny tucked-away theatre producing massively exciting productions to perhaps some of the smallest houses I’d ever been a part of. As an Angelino with little connection to New York, I was introduced to plays I’d only otherwise have access to while sitting in the Sam French bookshop. These were the plays that compelled me to write plays.

Years later, I had my first professional production of Catch the Fish at The Elephant—a fifty-five-seat theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard and Lillian Way. The next year, we brought it to the New York Fringe (before there was such a thing as the Hollywood Fringe) and it won Most Outstanding Play. Without the opportunity to experiment in LA’s 99-seat theatres, to see my work in front of a live audience, to explore, experiment, and take risks, I don’t know if I’d be a playwright today. I know for sure, the play would have never won the Fringe or been published.

People sitting around a table
Kevin Daniels is all laughs as he gets into character for Love Fest, a new play written by Jon Caren, directed by Bill Savage, and co-starring Brandon Scott and Dean Chekvala. Photo by Macey J. Foronda, BuzzFeed.

This was ten years ago, and theatre in LA has drastically changed since then. There seem to be more playwrights living in Los Angeles than ever before. Of course, many are here to expand their careers into TV and film, but the by-product means new relationships emerging between local playwrights and local theatres. Coupled with a resurging interest in playwrights in Los Angeles, a buzz around “world premieres” and we have what some people consider a theatrical renaissance in LA.

The Black Dahlia is not the only theatre producing exciting, fresh voices (and it’s currently relocating to a beautiful new, state-of-the-art space with more than thirty-five seats). Many intimate Los Angeles theatre companies are embracing plays from within their own companies as well as the theatre community at large. IAMA, Rogue Machine, VS., Circle X, and The Fountain, to name a few are eager to take risks, and produce edgy, new works under the current 99-Seat Equity Waiver contract. Consequently, intimate theatre has become a cultural bright spot for a city otherwise known as a film town. That’s why it’s such an odd and ambitious time to change the landscape of intimate theatre for financial reasons. Circumstances are conspiring to work in favor of LA as a theatre town; an unbridled creative mecca with the talent to back it, and yet here we are voting to alter that.

Regardless of which side of the argument you fall on when it comes to being ‘Pro-99’ or not, the friction is exciting. It shows that LA theatre people give a damn. It shows the rest of the country that there is a community of theatre artists in Los Angeles who care about their artistic endeavors enough to want to preserve the option to keep doing it for free.

Regardless of which side of the argument you fall on when it comes to being “Pro-99” or not, I find the friction exciting. It shows that LA theatre people give a damn. It shows the rest of the country that there is a community of theatre artists in Los Angeles who care about their artistic endeavors enough to want to preserve the option to keep doing it for free. Where else in the world will you see people protesting not to get paid? It’s a beautiful thing. And while no one should be against an actor being paid minimum wage for their work, there is a practical awareness of the collateral damage for other theatre artists if this change does go into affect—in general and simply put, it means less plays produced and fewer new voices heard.

Some see that as a good thing. Their argument is “higher quality.” The counterargument is “less risk, less product.” All I know, as someone who has been a company member, an associate member, and a producer of theatre in LA, there is virtually no way to make money in intimate theatre by the very nature of what it is.

Five people laughing
Katie Lowes breaks the tension during rehearsals for Lady of the Lake, directed by Jamie Wollrab, and written by Christian Durso who co-starred with Lowes, Laura Holloway, and Aja Naomi King.  Photo by Macey J. Foronda, BuzzFeed.

Let’s Look at Some Numbers
Please forgive my generalizations, but here’s one way to look at the financial situation for intimate theatres in LA: limited to 99-seats or under, an average theatre in LA holds approximately fifty seats. Assuming every seat is full and tickets on average sell for $25, a four-week run of a play (Friday through Sunday) would gross $15,000. After rental, insurance, materials, marketing, publicity, and stipends, how much is left?

Intimate theatre was never about making money to begin with. It’s equivalent to an incubator for a start up in Silicon Valley. As John Flynn, artistic director of Rogue Machine says,

It is a laboratory for art and artist alike, and it should be, must be, the new paradigm—financial gain comes from what the laboratory creates—yes, the laboratory should be fair to those who invest in it, but if we ask the laboratory to pay for itself, if we restrict the work, we misunderstand the purpose of the laboratory.

How does a producer justify the financial loss of a play with six to eight actors, when they could produce another with a cast half the size? Why risk six productions a year instead of three? Simply put, there will be less opportunities, both for actors and for playwrights. And where will the money that Equity is calling for come from?

Ironically, new plays bring new fresh ideas that challenge, inspire, and provoke new audiences. So while we’re building audiences and cultivating new playwright relationships under the existing contract, what will happen to this current momentum?

While no one should be against an actor being paid minimum wage for their work, there is a practical awareness of the collateral damage for other theatre artists if this change does go into affect—in general and simply put, it means less plays produced and fewer new voices heard.

The Theatre as Playground Versus Business
While we all want to be paid for our work, we also do it for the sake of self-expression. This is why Equity has allowed the current contract to exist for so long. It acknowledges the artists’ need to work, not for profit, but for the sake of doing what their union members love to do, if they so chose to do it. And let’s face it—many actors are in LA to make their living in commercials, film, and TV. That is the added benefit of being in LA. So we’re about to truncate a purely creative outlet, where we strive to make art for art’s sake because…there should be more money in it?

But the real casualty would be cutting off an outlet for new plays in Los Angeles just as we’re finding a home for them. Can we wait until the demand for theatre is strong enough, that it becomes a staple of LA’s cultural offerings, before we limit their availability? The hope is, that as supply grows, so does demand, and eventually we can pay our actors, raise ticket prices, and generate enough excitement that minimum wage is offered and offset by larger houses, longer runs, and more donations without anyone objecting or questioning the need for it.

I asked several playwrights who have recently worked in LA to share their experiences and here’s what they have to say.

John Pollono, Rogue Machine, Small Engine Repair
It's where I found my voice. My wife. My best friends. My career. My purpose. My confidence. My roots. There’s a magic in Los Angeles…a gritty, hardscrabble, fierce quality that seems to grow talent in a way nowhere else does. The 99-seat Waiver productions offer the closest distance between inspiration and creation. Write it and you will find amazing talent to go on the journey with you. Grow with you. This nimbleness creates awesome, daring productions…the kind of shows that grow not only talent, but audiences and culture by showing the uninitiated that “this is what a play can be? I never knew!” We are on the verge of a real renaissance here. Would be an absolute fucking shame if it was crushed for political reasons. PS: I'm a dues-paying Equity actor and I want change, just not this change.

A man looking at the camera
John Pollono. Photo by IMDB. 

Nick Jones, Circle X, Trevor
Currently in LA, my play Trevor is being performed by actors who are working for basically nothing. This show wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The designers are making a pittance. If I'm being paid a cent, nobody’s told me. All the money is going into the production and if it went to pay salaries, the ticket prices would go up (they are currently $28). I want my actor friends to be paid for what they do, but I can tell you that Equity rules are definitely at odds with the free creation of art, presented at low prices. Nobody is making a profit in these 99-seat theatres. And that is the beauty of it. And that is why they are doing my play (which every major nonprofit theatre in the country passed on). They tell you that theatre is where the art is, but I can tell you that most big theatres are driven by fear (far more than TV and film, in my experience). My greatest fear is that these proposed Equity changes will give greater power to that bigger class of theatres, and further homogenize theatre in America, already so narrow in its scope. And why homogenize something that doesn’t make money in the first place? Tell me that.

Sheila Callahan, Boston Court, Everything You Touch
I’ve been working in LA theatre since the mid-90’s, when my play Kate Crackernuts went up at 24th St. Theatre directed by Jessica Kubzansky. Since then I’ve been involved with productions of my plays at Circle X, Sacred Fools, Son of Semele, Moving Arts, Boston Court, and others. I love working on plays in LA. The vibe is always relaxed and generous, and the productions have tremendous heart and adventure. While these theatres are small, the productions have been anything but. I don't know where I fall on this issue—I want actors to get paid! Theatre isn’t a hobby, it’s a vocation, and should be treated as such. But if 99-seat theatre is destroyed as a result, it seems like too large a casualty. I would advocate for an intermediary or elective measure.

Christian Durso, IAMA Theatre, Shiner
Los Angeles has been a wild west of sorts for intimate theatre. And the result has been a gem for new play creation at its smallest theatres which typically depend on grants, donations, and scrappy volunteers in order to stay alive—unlike regional theatres who have spent years cultivating a wealthy donor base. Even the most dedicated theatergoers in LA have a hard time seeing all the new plays in Los Angeles each year. It’s an endless theatre festival. And like most theatre festivals, the point isn’t profit. And Equity made sure that the point wouldn’t be profit by capping the seats at 99. Today, there still isn’t profit. As a producer, I’m giving up an unpaid afternoon today to drive a U-Haul to pick up lumber, carpets, and strip molding. Tomorrow, I’m going to spend my Saturday building the set in a friend’s garage gratis. Sunday, I’m going to load in and paint the theatre. Monday, I’m helping to hang lights. And so on. Next weekend we open a world premiere of a wonderful play starring some very talented actors helmed by a world-class director. And I'm telling you, my company will barely break even on this run.

The problem isn’t the business model. How can it be when so many people are working unpaid and there is no profit to show for it? The problem is the fundamental problem of making money in theatre.

a man looking at the camera
Christian Durso. Photo by Chirstian Durso. 

If Actors' Equity Association doesn't want their members involved in these sorts of enterprises, I think they are out of touch. If an individual member doesn't want to spend their time in 99-seat theatres, they don't have to. But there are so many members who enjoy doing 99-seat theatre for the stipends those cash strapped enterprises can offer.

Louise Munson, IAMA Theatre, Do Like The Kids Do
IAMA would be severely crippled if not defunct by the Equity changes. And we are much more than a theatre company; we are a family of artists that has championed new playwrights from the get-go. I have had the privilege and good fortune to begin my work as a playwright in LA, and I am only able to continue to develop and put my work up because of the 99-seat contract. Los Angeles theatre has a vital energy, and the most amazing actors in the world get to stretch themselves and play on stage while collaborating with new writers. Should we pay actors more? Absolutely. But this change would make the opportunities for new voices to put their work up with the actors that can bring it to life most fully extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Kemp Powers, Rogue Machine, One Night in Miami…
I consider myself a “child” of LA’s 99-seat theatre scene, and I’m not shy about saying that I owe my career as a playwright to this incredibly vibrant and close-knit community. The city has quietly become an incredible incubator for new plays by unproven new voices like me. I’m someone who always loved theatre and always enjoyed writing, but I likely never would have mustered up the nerve to write my own pieces for the stage if I hadn’t drawn inspiration from the works I’d seen by LA’s 99-seat and under companies; works that both sparked my curiosity and stoked my confidence by revealing stories that didn’t adhere to the known rules of theatre, in many cases by writers who weren't graduates of the famed programs that generated most new playwrights.

a man looking at the camera
Kemp Powers. Photo by IMDB. 

As a writer, if the 99-seat plan vanishes, it will become exponentially more difficult for me to develop new plays in the place I call home. Of course that’s a nuisance, but I’ll continue writing new works come hell or high water. The real tragedy is that other new, fresh voices won't be able to get the opportunities that were afforded to me and many other playwrights just like me. As proud as I am of the work I’ve done, I feel like there’s something so much better being written by some young playwright at this very moment. And when he or she is finished with this wonderful new work, I want there to be a 99-seat theatre around to take a chance that no one else will on a daring new piece. And I can't wait to see it.

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Peter Ellenstein hereWhy are some people always looking for oppressors. They exist in the world, and a few even exist in theatre, but not many, because there's almost no tangible gain. There is no money in small theatre. But there is the pursuit of art. What AEA is attempting to do is to get "professional" actors to give up Art and only pursue money. I believe that this puts them on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the argument (the selfish side), and definitely the wrong side of Art. AEA has a real fight on its hands with Non-Equity tours. Why don't they work on the things where there is something to gain, rather than so much to lose.

What about the self produced member code? Do not playwrights take advantage of that around the country? And could they not in LA?

Or is the issue not actors but rather access to production value?

Here is the real question, when it comes to playwrights using the 99 seat plan to develop new plays -

It is a wonderful development playground, but will the playwrights commit to the actors (and directors etc) who worked for free to develop the pieces? If the play goes on to a great (and/or paid) future life, will the playwrights agree to share some of those meager returns with the artists who helped birth it for free?

Playwrights often say that they can't because it inhibits the play from being picked up at bigger theaters and that is just business. And the royalties they get even then are too small to share.

I did hear one playwright recently say 'we have to always pay the other artists, so that they don't ever feel like we owe them anything... Otherwise it will always feel unbalanced...'

If the actors or directors get other jobs from having appeared in the play, do they promise to share with the playwright or producer? No. So why the other direction. Now if the producer moves the play, they must hire the actors or buy them out. But otherwise these are all theatre people coming together to make theatre. Hopefully it benefits all of their careers in some way.

Great article. I totally agree - and the same situation exists in NYC, except we don't even have the 99-seat code. I wish we did. I have run my small theater in the red for most of the 10 years I have been doing it. And Equity forces me to work with only non-union actors, or to work under the showcase code. I am totally willing to pay the actors, who deserve it, but incensed at the production not being able to go up again in the following whole year! It is demoralizing, and destructive, to use an antiquated showcase code and apply it to the development of new works - often the actors are also the writers, and therefore are hamstrung by Equity's efforts to "protect" them.

Great article, and I totally agree, having had work produced at the 99-seat Eclectic Company Theatre in North Hollywood, investing in the show rather than profiting from it, and absolutely cherishing the experience.