Theater is Not Fast Food
Rogue Machine Theatre (RMT) is a collective of artists. People come and go. A few very dedicated people hold down the fort; some are paid and some are not. We produce under the 99-seat agreement. We have two flexible spaces. One seats sixty to ninety people, the other seats forty to fifty. Like most non-profits our earned/unearned income ratio is around fifty/fifty.
We seek to create art. This is our primary goal. We produce new plays and plays new to Los Angeles. We have produced eleven world premieres. Five have had or will have subsequent productions across the US. We also seek to develop a younger adult audience and have consciously and successfully done so. We have repeatedly said that we would like to grow and become a midsized contract house.
The 99-seat plan exists to serve actors. It was created by Equity at the request of actors who wanted to pursue their craft, who wanted to feed their souls. Writers can write almost anywhere and painters can paint but actors, directors, designers, choreographers—theater artists—need a theater and theater is not a fast food restaurant. It is not a business. It is a necessary art.
Everyone who works at Rogue Machine is there because they want to be there. They understand the value of theater comes from the communication engendered between artist and community—the questions asked. Zelda Fichandler, one of the founders of the regional theater movement, said: “...The thought that propelled us was the theater should stop serving the function of making money for which it has never been and never will be suited and start serving the revelation and shaping of the process of living, for which it is uniquely suited, for which it, indeed, exists.”
Those of us actively engaged in the business of trying to support the Art of Theater know how insurmountable the challenges are and know the challenges are similar wherever your theater is, whatever community you seek to serve.
There are several obstacles we face as we try to grow, many of which are interrelated and offer many different avenues.
Rent in Los Angeles is frightfully expensive. Theaters are by necessity forced to the fringe where there still may be affordable property, but Los Angeles is a driving town and no one wants to leave at 6:30 to make sure they get to the theater by 8. In the past few years, two new monolithic theaters have been built by arts patrons to better serve their specific communities—Santa Monica and Beverly Hills—and eliminate the drive to downtown. Both these houses are primarily touring venues.
RMT is located on Pico Boulevard south of Wilshire. We do not have a parking lot. Patrons coming to see work at our theater have to park on the street.
The roof leaks. When torrential rain comes, the theater floods. The landlord will only give us a year-to- year lease and tries to raise the rent every year. He doesn’t fix anything, and we don’t complain because what we have is what we can afford.
We’d love to have a new space, and if we are serious about becoming midsized there are strong reasons to move.
Where would the new space be? Can we find an affordable place that our current audience and the substantially larger audience we would have to win would commute to? How much would it cost to move and conform the space? How much more would it cost on a month-to-month basis?
The cheapest options will cost hundreds of thousands dollars to convert the space and more than double our monthly facility costs once we are in residence.
If we do find a place and do become a midsized contract house our budgets will at least double and the budgets we are preparing suggests our costs will more likely triple. We will have to find at least an additional 350,000 in both unearned and earned income.
We could attempt to go to contract and stay in our present location, but we would have to raise ticket prices and substantially increase our unearned income to earned income ratio. Would people come to a challenged neighborhood theater with no parking and pay seventy-five dollars? What would happen to the younger less affluent audience we have developed? Would/could the city and county triple their gifts? Could we convince “the industry” that a healthy theater is good for the community? If we reimagine theater in Los Angeles and say five theaters could grow, what kind of unearned support might be needed? If each theater got a million dollars, that would come to about 12% of Center Theatre Group’s annual expenditures. Is the money out there?
There are hundreds of small theaters in Los Angeles—which of these grow? Which die? What happens to the artists who probably started those theaters?
The 99-seat plan was created because actors went to Equity and asked for it to be created. It's important to understand that the vast majority of the theaters that operate under the 99-Seat Plan are run by Artists not "Producers" and "Executive Directors:" These are artists who have had to take on the role of administrators to handle the business side of the art so they can be creative, have control over their creativity, and have the opportunity to work with like-minded artists.
The LA environment is unique. There are more actors and would-be actors here than anywhere else in the world. The reason actors come here is to work in film and television. The value of the 99-seat plan is that it allows them to continue to hone their craft and express themselves as artists while guaranteeing them the ability to take lucrative work as it arises. This particular dynamic/need does not really exist elsewhere in the country. Actors are not under contract, and almost all of the ones I know couldn’t agree to being contracted because it is vital to them to be free when film work is offered.
Like any system, there are abuses, but they are infinitely less frequent than some entities are suggesting. The answer to eradicating abuse isn’t destroying a meaningful and functioning entity. Let’s look at the abuses and see what can be done, but let’s make sure the remedies we put in place cure the abuse and support what is right and thriving.
If we truly want Los Angeles theater to grow and provide more jobs that pay, let’s examine what that will take. Help from the unions is certainly part of it, but the idea that tightening restrictions is a panacea for what ails us demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of what the problems really are. We need community awareness. We need much more support from local funders. We need to produce the kind of theater that makes us a vital and necessary part of the community and we need to get the community out to see that what we do is vital. It’s a tall order.
One would think the idea that art has intrinsic value and artists deserve to be paid for their work is undeniable. It is something we all talk about. We all also know that current American thinking rejects this idea. In many other countries the arts are supported and seen as an important part of culture and heritage, but not here.
Theaters are not fast food restaurants and the artists are not minimum wage employees. They are artists trying to create art. We do it for love. We do it to feed our souls. We know we are not going to make our livings doing this work. Do actors make a living anywhere doing their art? Maybe on Broadway or on tour. Everyone depends on other employment—if we are lucky, in film and television.
The making of art is already financially constrained—further constraint is not a magic wand that will make money appear. It will make art disappear. Mediocrity will rule.
We come together as volunteers to create art because we wish to and because we must. Certainly we would like to be paid, but if we are to come together to reimagine how to get more of us paid then let’s acknowledge the real problems and look for real answers.