Theater is Not Fast Food

Los Angeles theater artists have been publishing a series of posts referencing a Call for Action. The following is a response. 

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.

 

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Thoughts from the curator

A series of posts about Los Angeles theatre, the values applied to our art and business choices, and how we collectively address the challenges and the need for change.

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thanks all for your responses - I know it seems as if I am defending the 99 seat plan and to a certain extent I am - but really I wrote this to hopefully focus us on the real problems facing LA Theatre so we could seek workable solutions - changing the Equity rules is not a solution and, in my opinion, will do more harm than good if not done with great wisdom. RMT wants to grow to midsize - wants to be a contract house - is taking baby steps to be so every year - but we are finding the real issues of doing so are unearned income support - the corporate/foundation/government infrastructure here has not been interested in supporting new (or small) theatre and will have to be educated or convinced we have value to the community - I believe we do - cost of real estate whether to purchase or rent is prohibitive and forces small arts organizations into the fringes - since this is a huge town and drive time is a major factor in everyone's lives this is a more severe problem than you might think - major media does not support us - this comes from the publishers not the critics - The Times coverage of theatre has shrunk just in the 7 years RMT has existed - and, in general, the town doesn't know that truly outstanding theatre exists here and may, in fact, be around the corner...

Agreed. This is a problem that either a series of very wealthy individuals or discovery dialogues and ultimate solution proposals and implementation can the cure. The latter being the more long-term and meaningful in effect. Address the on-going infractions of rules, certainly; but more restrictions are not the answer.

Also, very little discussion has been focused on the slow burning demise of our audiences. And the biggest reason for this is quality...or lack thereof. If we continue have so many theaters creating so much poor-quality theatre, then we will never be able to cultivate a rich, consistent, and GROWING theatre-going audience base. And as radical as it sounds, I believe that If we are going to bring up the overall "level" of theatre in Los Angeles, then we must figure out a way to limit participation and stop the proliferation of small theaters as well. There must be a culling process of some sort. I don't know what it is, and I can already here the "art-for-art's-sake" and "free-enterprise", "open market" hard-liners roar of displeasure, but I don't know how else to ensure that weary theatre-goers recover from their well-earned wariness. Otherwise, anyone with a bit of a bankroll can (and will) produce whatever they wish, and people will continue to question taking another chance with a local, heart-felt production who's ultimate only good quality is it's well-meaning intentions...again.

Perhaps this can be part of the discussion...and solution. Who knows?

Thoughts? Pitchforks? Noose?

My wife Mary Linda Phillips and I Bill Wiley have 240 years of union membership between us. My wife was one of the many Equity members who, after RSVPing wasnot permitted to participate in last week's meeting. I would have thought that for the 8million dollars in dues money spent on the new building they would have space to accommodate many more members to express themselves on matters affecting them- selves. I was unable to go because I fell in front of a NY bldg owned by a billionaire and the Traveler's Ins. Co. committed 3 major felonies to keep me from getting a fair settle-ment. I was permanently crippled in the fall. Zuckerman's RISKVP prevented me from protesting Traveler's perjury by intercepting my Special Delivery to him. This happened at a time when my work possibilities were the best they had ever been. Bill Wiley

John, I have great respect for you and Rogue Machine Theatre. What you have achieved in Los Angeles Theater these past seven seasons is nothing short of remarkable. You are the exception to the rule. In your HowlRound article, you asked a number of questions. I would like to respond to some of what you said in the spirit of open dialogue and respectful discussion.

You said, “The 99-seat plan was created by Equity at the request of actors who wanted to pursue their craft, who wanted to feed their souls.” Let’s be clear here. It was initiated by a small group of equity actors, who filed a lawsuit against their union. Many of the plaintiffs were (and still are) also small theater producers. You also said “theater is not a fast food restaurant. It is not a business. It is a necessary art.” Yes, Theater is first and foremost an art and should always strive for that but it also has to be a business. That is the yin and yang of it. They don’t exist separately.

Yes, I agree with you that one of the big issues with any Los Angeles Theater (large or small) is the current state of real estate and rents.
This is a very big issue.

You state, “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.” And that is one of the main advocating points to modifying (not eradicating) the 99-seat plan. A properly tiered system would help ease these types of transitions and not keep the current gap between 99-seat and midsize that is currently so large, daunting and unreachable. Wouldn’t it be great that when Rogue Machine is ready to grow that reasonable steps would be needed instead of giant leaps?

You further state, “If we reimagine theater in Los Angeles and say five theaters could grow, what kind of unearned support might be needed?” The same kind of support that is needed now. Unearned support will always be needed at all levels. Los Angeles Theater will always need to look to any and all sources for additional funding.

You say, “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?” Is it really good that there are so many small theaters in Los Angeles? Not all of them do quality work and very few are at the artistic level of Rogue Machine. Small theaters have been dying and others being born in Los Angeles for years. If some small theaters die, their good theater artists will still work and some will find homes at other Theaters. They will. This community has always been great at recognizing quality, embracing talent and giving them opportunities. The cream rises to the top.

You also say, “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. This particular dynamic/need does not really exist elsewhere in the country.” I’m pretty sure New York has a similar dynamic. They also have a very large, highly talented acting pool. They do plenty of movie and TV work out of New York these days too. Hollywood in the last two decades has lost its’ lock on TV-Film work exclusivity. Actors are not just in New York for “Broadway”. How come New York doesn’t have a similar code-plan? Again, updating the plan could address these issues and still allow our actors this freedom for more lucrative work.

You said, “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.” I’m not sure who is suggesting
destroying the functioning entity. Not me. Not re-imagine LA. And I’m all for
remedies to eradicate abuses and still support what is working.

You said, “If we truly want Los Angeles theater to grow and provide more jobs that pay, let’s examine what that will take. The idea that tightening
restrictions is a panacea for what ails us demonstrates a profound lack of
understanding of what the problems really are.” Why is considering any
changes to the plan deemed as tightening restrictions? That seems pretty
paranoiac. You further said, “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.” Yes and all of that is paramount today under the current plan too. That will never change. It is one of the great missions of any Theater culture.

You said, “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.” I refuse to buy into this mentality. It is a cop out. Yes, in America being an artist is an uphill battle and making a living is difficult.
We in Los Angeles Theater have made it even harder keeping the 99-seat
plan in place as is. “Volunteer” theater rules the day in Los Angeles. The idea that one can’t make a living in Theater is defeatist. Yes, as artists we seek all outlets for making a living. Wouldn’t it be great, as Los Angeles theater artists, if we could rely on our theater a little more though?

You said, “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.” Again you assume change equates to constraint. It doesn’t have to. Mediocrity already rules with so many small theaters and the fact that anyone can come along and produce a play under the plan. I disagree here. I advocate changes to help filter out mediocrity and further help excellence thrive. Assuming that any changes will make the art “disappear” is reactionary.

John you say that “Theaters are not fast food restaurants and the artists are not minimum wage employees” but we have hundreds of little theatres spread out all over the vast landscape of Los Angeles. This seems pretty analogous to the fast food restaurant world to me. The reason I support the re-Imagine campaign and these dialogues is that after Thirty years here I know we should have a better system in place. The AEA 99-seat plan
sets the Los Angeles bar way too low. Most of our small-theater artists are
treated worse than minimum wage employees. Enough already. Why are theater artists in Los Angeles respected and treated worse here than in any other major US Theater city? When created, the 99-seat plan never had an eye to the future and after Twenty Five years it is time it is updated sensibly and carefully with realistic vision and in terms that are fair for all, actors and small theater producers. I believe the best of Los Angeles small theater can and should be preserved and that if smartly amended it will make our theater city even better for all of us.

Nice thoughts, but I disagree. There's nothing wrong with trying to develop new economic models for producing theatre. That, along with more robust development efforts in each non-profit could change the L.A. community.

SHS, I am confused by your unsubstantiated disagreement. I think that John is appealing to the community to come together and seek solutions (whether they are new economic models, or some other actions), so there is nothing to disagree with. John eloquently posed the facts of today's reality, which my theatre and venue share to a T. Secondly, what do you mean specifically by "robust development efforts"? Any clues would help. We have a non-profit and would love to know what specifically that entails nowadays.

We have a choice to compromise our wallets or our art. Many theaters try to sit on the fence and wind up compromising both. I am perplexed by the state of our dying art and personally have little hope for the future. What little there is comes from new works in small theaters. So many theaters claim to be seeking younger and more diverse audiences in order to get funded and their actions are clearly in conflict with their claims. What are the values of the communities our theaters are in? The richer houses seem to know who they're serving. When I was a kid I thought the theater was a venue for our better ideas- the ideas we don't promote in our plight for security and consumption. As an adult I've learned to know better, but I can't quite kill my hope and can't quite realize it either. Well written, John. I appreciate your work.

I utterly agree with almost everything you have said in this article, and much of what you say is also true for NYC. For instance, you say "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:". The same is true in NYC - except we don't have a 99-seat plan. Our Off-Off Broadway producers are usually like me, actor/writers producing their own work. We are not in it to make a profit. The notion is nearly preposterous. We have resigned ourselves to not making money.The one part I disagree with is this- "This particular dynamic/need does not really exist elsewhere in the country." Except for the need to drive to the show (substitute take mass transit to the show) this is the same situation we are dealing with in NYC, and we don't have a 99-seat plan. Our artists here are in the same situation as yours WITHOUT a 99-seat plan. We are hamstrung by the showcase code. We have to post casting notices that say "non-union" because we cannot afford to run a show only charging $18 a ticket, and with only the number of shows that AEA would allow, there is no chance to recoup expenses. So we have to leave our amazing Equity actors out of the picture altogether. I have worked for nearly 10 years with actor/writers who are producing their own work, and it is made incredibly difficult by the Equity restrictions, and by the lack of funding, and now by the prohibitive rents we pay not only for theater space but for our own apartments. I have to close my theater next summer when my lease runs out because I can't even break even. I'm losing money, despite my best efforts to bring in revenue. And that's a shame, because the quality of the work we are doing here is top notch and gets better every year. But our actors are working for free, and so are the writers, and the directors are working for a pittance, or for free. Something's gotta give. There's got to be some changes in the Equity codes that allows actor/writers a way to produce themselves, and have the choice of using Equity actors, or for Equity actor/writers to produce their own plays.

I'm all for art and theatre and feeding your soul. As a member of AEA from other area of the U.S., I am angry that this 99 seat plan exists. A union by definition is "organized association of workers formed to protect and further their rights and interests." Furthermore, a union should protect a living wage, though AEA hasn't been able to offer a living wage in over half a century. The point is that actors who want to be paid should be union and those who want to work on their craft should take classes. If you want to practice acting as a hobby, which is what the 99 seat plan promotes, leave the union. The fact that L.A. boasts more people aspiring to be actors than any other town is an excuse for this behavior. I'd like to see New York try this plan and see how far that goes. Why do you suppose the large LORT houses get most of their talent from NYC? How do we in L.A. begin to gain more respect as a theatre town? For one, remove the hobby plan. I yearn for the day that someone contacts the labor board and makes them aware of the egregiousness that is the 99 seat plan. You want to suffer for your art? Prove it. Create your own union or school and let the professionals be AEA.

Dear LA Transplant! I hear your woe. Yes, actors have to get paid, they have to earn a living. Yes, yes, and again - yes! But let's face it - 99-seat plan is not an issue, so why make an elephant out of a fly, and miss the real elephant in the room? The problem that we are facing is the lack of a Federal, State, County and City funding as well as stimulus packages for private funding. This is what we need to deal with - then issues of actors being paid, along with everyone else being paid, and venue costs covered can be addressed. As John stated, most producers in LA are artists themselves, it's not like they are profiteering. In fact, most of them are putting their own money and losing it! That's me speaking from my own experience. There is nothing to profiteer from, the only people who get paid and paid well are the LANDLORDS (remember that scene from the movie "The Producers"? Nothing changed!) . And this is the argument to take to the elected officials. We are the voices in those elections. We need to make sure it is being heard and actions are taken to solve this major glitch. Come to L.A. Theatre Network meetings! More to talk about there. Welcome to LA! https://www.facebook.com/gr...¬if_t=like